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JK Rowling 'alarmed' at PM on Leveson

Written By doni donian on Sabtu, 01 Desember 2012 | 14.00

novelist JK Rowling says she is 'alarmed' at PM David Cameron's response to the Leveson report. Source: AAP

BEST-SELLING novelist JK Rowling says she is "alarmed and dismayed" at British Prime Minister David Cameron's response to the Leveson report.

The Harry Potter author, who gave evidence about press intrusion into her family's privacy to the inquiry by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, argued that without statutory underpinning the recommendations would fail.

She described how she had been left feeling "duped and angry" by Mr Cameron's hesitance to "cross the Rubicon" and introduce a press law.

"I thought long and hard about the possible consequences to my family of giving evidence and finally decided to do so because I have made every possible attempt to protect my children's privacy under the present system, and failed," Rowling said.

"If I, who can afford the very best lawyers, cannot guarantee the privacy of those dearest to me, what hope did the Dowlers, the McCanns and the Watsons ever have of protecting their own children and their own good names?" Rowling asked, referring to those who have come under media scrutiny in Britain.

"Without statutory underpinning Leveson's recommendations will not work," she added.

"We will be left with yet another voluntary system from which the press can walk away.

"If the prime minister did not wish to change the regulatory system even to the moderate, balanced and proportionate extent proposed by Lord Leveson, I am at a loss to understand why so much public money has been spent and why so many people have been asked to re-live extremely painful episodes on the stand in front of millions."

Giving evidence in November last year, Rowling told the inquiry that journalists had driven her out of her home and targeted her five-year-old daughter at school.

The 47-year-old - whose characters in the Harry Potter series include an unscrupulous tabloid journalist called Rita Skeeter - was particularly critical of newspapers that published details about her homes that would allow people to find where she lived.

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Pageant picks Brazil's best posterior

Fifteen curvy young ladies are competing in the grand finale of Brazil's annual Miss Bumbum pageant. Source: AAP

ALL eyes are on Brazil's annual Miss Bumbum pageant in Sao Paulo to select the nation's sexiest female rear end.

Fifteen curvy young ladies are competing in the grand finale being held in a Sao Paulo hotel late on Friday after surviving an online eliminatory round that drew representatives of the country's 26 states and the federal district Brasilia.

The popular contest is lifting spirits in this huge metropolis wracked by a murder spree that has claimed more than 300 lives in the past month.

The winner is to collect 5000 reais ($A2400), while second place will receive 3000 reais and third place 2000 reais.

The contestants worked hard to prepare for the final, including taking surfing and jungle training courses to tighten their buns.

The pageant sparked some jealous online comments.

Said Juliana Danyelle Stuart: "They are cute, but I think that I have a better booty than some of the contestants. Next year I will take part."

Last year, model Rosana Ferreira won the title.

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Hugh Jackman to get Hollywood star

Australian actor Hugh Jackman is set to be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Source: AAP

HUGH Jackman has been a bona fide Hollywood star for years and in a fortnight he will have one to prove it.

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced on Friday the Australian actor will be honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"Fans from around the world have been consistently asking when this star will be dedicated," Walk of Fame producer Ana Martinez said.

"We are happy to say that now is the time. Hugh is one of the world's most popular actors and we are excited that he is joining our Walk of Fame family."

The 44-year-old is a Tony Award winner and a big tip to score an Oscar nomination for his performance opposite Russell Crowe in the new adaptation of the stage musical Les Miserables. However, Jackman already has some Hollywood Boulevard real estate.

In 2009, about 20 metres away from where his star will be laid, Jackman got stuck into wet concrete outside the famed Grauman's Chinese Theatre, leaving hand and footprints alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby.

Jackman has built up a huge following for his role as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise, including the spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Jackman has just wrapped the shooting for another chapter, The Wolverine, in Sydney.

The star ceremony will take place on December 13.

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UN recognises Palestinian state

Written By doni donian on Jumat, 30 November 2012 | 14.00

The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to recognise Palestine as a non-member state. Source: AAP

THE United Nations has voted overwhelmingly to recognise a Palestinian state, in a sharp rebuke for Israel and the United States.

In an extraordinary line-up of international support, more than two-thirds of the world body's 193 member states approved the resolution upgrading the Palestinians' status from an observer to a non-member observer state on Thursday. It passed 138-9, with 41 abstentions.

The vote was a victory decades in the making for the Palestinians after years of occupation and war. It was a sharp rebuke for Israel and the United States.

The vote grants Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an overwhelming international endorsement for his key position: establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

A Palestinian flag was quickly unfurled on the floor of the General Assembly, behind the Palestinian delegation, after an electronic screen lit up with the final vote.

Real independence, however, remains an elusive dream until the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis, who warned that the General Assembly action will only delay a lasting solution. Israel still controls the West Bank, east Jerusalem and access to Gaza, and it accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the campaign to upgrade their UN status.

And the Palestinians still face enormous limitations: they don't control their borders, airspace or trade, they have separate and competing governments in Gaza and the West Bank, and they have no unified army or police.

The UN action could help Abbas restore some of his standing, which has been eroded by years of stalemate in peace efforts. His rival, the Hamas militant group, deeply entrenched in Gaza, has seen its popularity rise after it responded with a barrage of rocket fire to an Israeli offensive earlier this month on targets linked to the militants.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, jubilant Palestinians crowded into the main square, waving Palestinian flags and chanting "God is great!" Hundreds had watched the vote on outdoor screens and televisions, and they hugged, honked their horns and set off fireworks as the final vote was cast.

The tally came after a speech by Abbas in which he called the moment a "last chance" to save the two-state solution.

"The General Assembly is being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine," the Palestinian leader declared.

The United States and Israel immediately criticised the vote.

"Today's unfortunate and counterproductive resolution places further obstacles in the path of peace," UN ambassador Susan Rice said.

"Today's grand pronouncements will soon fade and the Palestinian people will wake up tomorrow and find that little about their lives has changed save that the prospects of a durable peace have only receded."

Calling the vote "meaningless", Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abbas of spreading "mendacious propaganda" against Israel in a speech he rejected as "defamatory and venomous".

"The resolution in the UN today won't change anything on the ground," Netanyahu said.

"It won't advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, but rather, put it further off."

With most UN members sympathetic to the Palestinians, there had been no doubt the resolution would be approved. A state of Palestine has already been recognised by 132 countries, and the Palestinians have 80 embassies and 40 representative offices across the world, according to the Palestinian foreign ministry.

Still, the Palestinians lobbied hard for Western support, winning over key European countries including France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland, as well as Japan and New Zealand. Australia, Germany, Britain were among the many Western nations that abstained.

Joining the United States and Israel in voting "no" were Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama.

In a departure from its previous opposition, Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel, said it wouldn't interfere with the UN bid for statehood, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations on Thursday.

With its newly enhanced status, the Palestinians can now gain access to UN agencies and international bodies, most significantly the International Criminal Court, which could become a springboard for going after Israel for alleged war crimes or its ongoing settlement building on war-won land.

However, in the run-up to the UN vote, Abbas signalled that he wants recognition to give him leverage in future talks with Israel, and not as a tool for confronting or delegitimising Israel, as Israeli leaders have claimed.

Speaking stridently at times Thursday, Abbas accused the Israelis of "colonial occupation" that institutionalises racism and charged that the Jewish state is continuing to perpetuate "war crimes".

Still, he said the Palestinians did not come to terminate "what remains of the negotiations process", but to try "to breathe new life into the negotiations" and achieve an independent state.

"We will act responsibly and positively in our next steps," he said.

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NASA finds ice near Mercury's poles

Scientists have concluded there are deposits of ice and other organic material on Mercury's surface. Source: AAP

SCIENTISTS believe they have found ice inside craters near Mercury's poles, a discovery they say could reveal more about the "building blocks" for life on other planets.

Though the small planet is closest to the sun, Mercury rotates nearly upright, meaning some areas on its poles never see sunlight.

Using evidence of reflectivity, surface temperatures and the presence of excess hydrogen gathered by NASA's Messenger spacecraft, the scientists have concluded there are deposits of ice and other organic material accumulated in dark areas of Mercury's surface.

Further study of the material could explain more about how life began on Earth, the scientists said at a NASA news conference broadcast online on Thursday.

The discovery comes after a wait of eight years since Messenger's 2004 launch.

"Messenger has revealed a very important chapter in the story of how water, ice and other volatile materials have been delivered to the inner planets, including Mercury," said Sean Solomon, a Columbia University scientist who is principal investigator of the Messenger mission.

"It's extraordinary that this chapter is so well-preserved on the planet closest to the sun."

The scientists published their research in three papers released on Thursday in the journal Science Express.

The scientists suspect the ice and organic material accumulated in the shadowed areas of craters after comets and asteroids delivered the material to Mercury's surface.

Despite the presence of ice, scientists don't expect to find water in liquid form - only as a solid or gas.

Still, James Green, director of NASA's planetary science division, said the finding "bodes well" for a continued search for water elsewhere in the solar system.

"No one is saying there is life on Mercury," Solomon said. "Mercury is becoming an object of astrobiological interest where it wasn't one before."

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Halle Berry, Aubry reach 'amicable' deal

Actress Halle Berry and her ex-partner reached a deal in the custody dispute over their daughter. Source: AAP

LAWYERS for actress Halle Berry and her former partner, Gabriel Aubry, have come to an agreement in family court in Los Angeles after fighting over custody of their four-year-old daughter Nahla.

TMZ reports that Berry's lawyer, Blair Berk, held up a handwritten sign in the hallway outside the Los Angeles County courtroom that read: "From all counsel, the parties have reached an amicable agreement. There will be no further statements regarding this matter."

The deal on Thursday comes a week after Aubry was arrested in Berry's driveway after a fist fight with Berry's current fiance, Olivier Martinez, on Thanksgiving Day.

Aubry was arrested after the fight, which left him with a black eye, a broken rib and other injuries.

Martinez accused Aubry of battery, but Aubry turned around and filed a restraining order against Martinez, claiming he started the fight.

Berry also filed a restraining order against Aubry. A judge granted Berry a temporary order requiring Aubry to stay 100 yards (metres) away from Berry, Martinez and Nahla, but the order expired on Tuesday.

Aubry and Berry have been embroiled in a bitter custody dispute over their daughter since their relationship ended in 2010. They currently have a shared custody agreement and Berry recently lost a request to move to Paris with Nahla.

According to CNN, a judge said that Berry could not take her daughter to Paris unless Aubry went with them.

In a statement published by CNN, Aubry said: "While he was attacking me physically, Mr Martinez said to me in an aggressive and threatening voice, 'You cost us $3 million. When you see the judge, you're going to tell him you're going to Paris or I'm going to kill you. You're going to Paris, you're going to get your 20 grand a month in child support. From now on you're going to do drop-offs on the street.'"

TMZ reports that neither Berry nor Martinez were in court on Thursday, but Aubry did sit in on the negotiations wearing sunglasses to hide his bruises from the fight.

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Lottery fever grips US as numbers revealed

Written By doni donian on Kamis, 29 November 2012 | 14.00

Lottery fever has gripped the United States for a Powerball jackpot estimated at $US580 million. Source: AAP

LOTTERY fever has gripped the United States as numbers were drawn for a Powerball jackpot estimated at $US580 million ($A555.74 million), with potential lucky winners yet to come forward.

Powerball's website crashed shortly after the winning numbers - 5, 23, 16, 22, 29, with Powerball 6 - were announced, as did that of the Multi-State Lottery Association, which oversees Powerball.

The fever in the minutes up to the drawing was such that 160,000 tickets per minute were being sold, media reports said.

The jackpot was the second highest in the nation's history.

Nobody has won the semi-weekly grand prize for Powerball - available in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands - since October 6, swelling the kitty for whoever holds the winning six-number combination.

Winning numbers, selected every Wednesday and Saturday, are made up of five out of 59 white balls plus one out of 35 red "Powerballs" from which the game gets its name.

The odds of winning stood at one in 175.2 million - compared to the one in a million chance of being struck by lightning in a given year.

"I'm buying this lottery ticket so I can put my pencil down and walk out of my office and live my dreams," quipped a 40-something woman named Szami earlier as she bought a batch of tickets for herself and friends at a Washington corner store, declining to give her family name.

"It's phenomenal. There's a lot of excitement in the air," added Kimberly Chopin of the Louisiana state lottery, which had sold $US2.5 million in tickets by mid-afternoon Wednesday - compared with $US1.1 million a week earlier.

The biggest jackpot in US lottery history - $US640 million - was claimed by MegaMillions players in Kansas, Illinois and Maryland who all held tickets bearing the same winning number.

Lottery winnings in the United States, unlike those in Europe, are subject to taxation. Winners typically get a choice between an annuity spread over many years or a reduced amount paid out in a lump sum.

Besides the jackpot, players can win as much as $US1 million if they hold tickets with most but not all of the drawn numbers, but Chuck Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, told CNN Money many people are unaware of such secondary prizes, which end up going unclaimed.

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BP employees in court over Gulf oil spill

Two BP supervisors have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges over a deadly oil rig blast. Source: AAP

TWO BP rig supervisors and a former BP executive have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges stemming from the deadly Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the company's response to the massive 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

BP well site leaders Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, along with former BP vice-president of exploration for the Gulf David Rainey, remained free on bond on Wednesday following their arraignments in federal court.

Kaluza and Vidrine are charged with manslaughter in the deaths of 11 rig workers. They are accused of disregarding abnormally high pressure readings that should have been glaring indications of trouble just before the blowout of BP's Macondo well.

Rainey was charged separately with concealing information from congress about the amount of oil that was leaking from the well. Millions of gallons of crude oil spewed from BP's well for months.

Kaluza professed his innocence on his way into court, making his first public comments since the April 2010 explosion that killed his co-workers.

"I think about the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon every day," Kaluza told reporters. "But I did not cause this tragedy. I am innocent and I put my trust, reputation and future in the hands of the judge and the jury."

Kaluza and Vidrine's lawyers both accused the Justice Department of using their clients as scapegoats. They noted that other government investigations have spread out the blame for the disaster and concluded it was the product of a complex series of mistakes, made both onshore and on the rig.

"Bob and Don did their jobs," said Shaun Clarke, one of Kaluza's lawyers. "They did them correctly and they did them in accordance with their training."

Robert Habans, one of Vidrine's lawyers, said his client diligently followed instructions he received from engineers and others onshore.

"He's not the architect or the engineer. He didn't design the well, and he didn't make the critical decisions in this case," Habans said.

The case against Kaluza and Vidrine centres on their roles in supervising "negative testing", which is designed to assess whether a cement barrier is effectively preventing oil or gas from flowing up the well. The indictment says they had "multiple indications" from the negative testing that the well wasn't secure.

Yet they allegedly failed to alert onshore engineers about the problems during the testing, accepted a "nonsensical explanation" for abnormal pressure readings and eventually decided to stop investigating.

Habans, however, said court records related to civil litigation over the spill indicate Vidrine did discuss the test results with an onshore engineer less than an hour before the blast. A Justice Department lawyer questioned a BP expert about the phone conversation between Vidrine and the engineer, Mark Hafle.

"It's almost inconceivable to me that the government in the indictment makes a contrary allegation," Habans said.

But the indictment appears to fault Kaluza and Vidrine for failing to phone engineers on shore earlier that day while the tests were being performed.

Lawyers for Rainey declined to comment. A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined to comment.

A trial for Kaluza and Vidrine is scheduled to start on February 4, while Rainey has a January 28 trial date. Both dates could be postponed given the complexity of the cases.

BP announced earlier this month that it will plead guilty to manslaughter, obstruction of congress and other charges and pay a record $US4.5 billion ($A4.31 billion) in penalties to resolve a Justice Department probe of the disaster.

Lawyers for BP and the Justice Department are scheduled to meet on December 11 with a federal judge to discuss a date for the company to plead guilty.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by Transocean Ltd but operated on behalf of BP, was drilling in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010, when it was rocked by an explosion. The bodies of 11 workers were never recovered.

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We're learning how to be free, says Morsi

PRESIDENT Mohamed Morsi has vowed in an interview to surrender his new special powers when a new constitution is in place, and pleaded for patience as Egypt learns to be free.

Morsi dismissed criticism of his power grab and said protests on the streets of Cairo were a positive sign that Egypt was on the path to democracy after overthrowing dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

"The world stage is very difficult. It's not easy to be on the world stage," admitted Morsi, who won a cliffhanger election in June, speaking briefly in English at the start of his interview with Time magazine, which was published on Wednesday.

"My chief responsibility is to maintain the national ship to go through this transitional period. This is not easy. Egyptians are determined to (move) forward within the path of freedom and democracy," he said.

Morsi's remarks amounted to a plea to the international community for patience after his decision to grant himself sweeping powers until the new constitution is ratified in a referendum.

Egypt's highest appeal court is on strike over Morsi's decree putting his decisions beyond judicial scrutiny, and protesters have flocked back to Cairo's Tahrir Square, epicentre of the protests that toppled Mubarak in February 2011.

Tens of thousands protested in the square on Tuesday, in the largest opposition rally since Morsi's election in June.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the formerly banned opposition movement through which Morsi rose to power, and its Islamist allies have called their own protest in Tahrir for Saturday.

"I'm not worried. I'm concerned," said Morsi. "We're learning. We're learning how to be free. We haven't seen this before. We're learning how to debate. How to differ. How to be majority and minority."

The president referred to a two-month process of drafting and vetting the new constitution before it went to the people in a referendum.

But the interview was overtaken by events as it was announced that the panel considering the constitution was going to rush out the draft on Wednesday in a bid to quell the mounting protests.

The state news agency MENA reported that the panel would vote on the draft on Thursday morning. It will then be put to a referendum.

In his Time interview, Morsi, a 61-year-old former engineering professor who earned his PhD in California, indicated that he would give up his special powers once the constitution was ratified.

"If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week will stop," he said, wiping his hands to stress his point. "I hope, when we have a constitution, what I have issued will stop immediately."

Asked about warnings from critics that he wants to become a new pharaoh, Morsi repeated "New pharaoh?" disbelievingly before letting out a big laugh. "Can I be?" he asked incredulously. "I've been suffering, personally!"

"I am keen and I will always be keen on transfer of power," he said. "I'm an elected president."

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Japan suspends reconstruction projects

Written By doni donian on Rabu, 28 November 2012 | 14.00

JAPAN'S government has suspended 35 projects included in a budget for reconstruction after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that were not directly related to the disasters.

The decision followed criticism that as much as a fourth of the Y11.7 trillion ($A137.12 billion) budget had been earmarked for unrelated projects, including subsidies for a contact lens factory in another region and research whaling.

The 35 projects put on hold during a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda involved spending of Y16.8 billion.

No specific reason was given for each project, though Noda and other officials have vowed to cut spending not directly for reconstruction. Many of the projects were included on the pretext they might aid Japan's economic revival.

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Thai PM survives no-confidence vote

THAILAND'S Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has survived a no-confidence vote in parliament.

Wednesday's vote came after a censure debate, and four days after a demonstration by thousands of anti-government protesters.

The opposition is outnumbered in parliament, however, and MPs voted 308 to 159 to keep Yingluck in power. One deputy premier and other two ministers also comfortably survived no-confidence votes.

Among the issues brought up against Yingluck and other ministers were alleged irregularities in the government's rice-pledging scheme, flood management budget, canal-dredging projects and the procurement of combat systems on two navy frigates.

Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung was also accused of serving the interests of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in self-imposed exile following a corruption conviction.

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Big disconnect as US fiscal cliff looms

REPUBLICANS' newfound willingness to consider tax increases to avert the "fiscal cliff" comes with a significant caveat: larger cuts to benefit programs than Democrats seem willing to consider.

The disconnect on benefit programs, coupled with an impasse between Republicans and the White House over raising tax rates on upper-bracket earners, paints a bleak picture as the clock ticks towards a year-end fiscal debacle of automatic tax increases and harsh cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs.

Democrats emboldened by President Obama's re-election are moving in the opposite direction from Republicans, refusing to look at cuts that were on the bargaining table just last year.

These include any changes to social security, even though Obama was willing back then to consider cuts in future benefits through lower cost-of-living increases.

"I haven't seen any suggestions on what they're going to do on spending," a frustrated Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican) said on Tuesday.

"There's a certain cockiness that I've seen that is really astounding to me since we're basically in the same position we were before."

Obama's most powerful ally on Capitol Hill, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (Democrat) said his party is willing to tackle spending on entitlement programs if Republicans agree to raise income tax rates on the wealthiest Americans.

This is a non-starter with Republicans who still control the House of Representatives.

"We hope that they can agree to the tax revenue that we're talking about - and that is rate increases," Reid said on Tuesday.

Obama has just met a group of small business owners, who urged him to reach an agreement, and plans to meet more than a dozen corporate leaders on Wednesday.

On Friday, he will visit a Pennsylvania toy factory to put his case on tax rates.

Private White House negotiations with top aides to Republican house speaker John Boehner show no evidence of headway.

Republicans say it's Obama and his Democratic allies who are holding back, and they point to a balance of power in official Washington that is little changed by the president's re-election. Republicans still control the house, and Democrats control the Senate.

With new leverage from Obama's election victory and a playing field for negotiations that is more favourable to them than it was during talks last year, Democrats are taking a harder line, ruling out any moves on social security and all but dismissing ideas like raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65.

Obama's opening position calls for $1.6 trillion in higher taxes over the coming decade, balanced by just $340 billion in cuts to rapidly growing health care programs, generally taken from health care providers instead of beneficiaries.

That balance would have to change for Republicans to sign any agreement.

Given the crunch of time and the complexity of issues such as tax reform and wringing savings from programs like Medicare, negotiators are working on a two-track process: an initial "down payment" of deficit cuts next month, coupled with work next year on overhauling the tax code and curbing entitlement programs.

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Bangladesh hunts owner after factory fire

Written By doni donian on Selasa, 27 November 2012 | 14.00

Garment workers in Bangladesh staged mass protests calling for an end to "deathtrap" conditions. Source: AAP

BANGLADESH police say they have launched a manhunt for a fugitive factory boss after 110 garment workers burned to death following claims by survivors that they were ordered not to flee the inferno.

Ahead of the first mass burials on Tuesday, Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman said Delwar Hossain would be interrogated about alleged violations of building rules after inspectors found the nine-storey factory only had permission for three floors.

"We shall also quiz him (Hossain) about allegations from survivors that his managers did not allow the workers to leave the factory when the fire broke out," Rahman told AFP.

"As the smoke spread, the managers even told the workers that it was a fire drill, nothing to be afraid of."

Police have opened a murder investigation as a result of criminal negligence at Hossain's Tazreen Fashion plant, Rahman added.

"We have launched a search for him and the managers, but so far we have not been able to trace them."

The search was launched after protests on Monday by thousands of garment workers who blocked roads and held marches in Ashulia industrial area, where the plant is based, demanding justice and an end to death-trap working conditions.

Two government inquiries and the police investigation are trying to establish the exact cause of the fire, which broke out late on Saturday.

Bangladesh was observing a day of mourning on Tuesday with the green and red national flag flown at half mast alongside black flags on top of government offices and the country's 4500 garment factories.

The government also announced a public holiday on Tuesday for the country's three million garment workers.

Firefighters battled for several hours to contain the blaze, which broke out on the ground floor of the plant, 30 kilometres north of the capital Dhaka.

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Counterfeit crackdown seizes 132 websites

US and European authorities say they have seized 132 websites in a transatlantic law enforcement crackdown on online sellers of counterfeit merchandise.

The seizure was the latest in a string of efforts by US officials to shut down online forgers, but the first joint effort with EU officials.

Monday's announcement was the result of a joint probe by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with authorities from Britain, Belgium, Denmark, France, Romania and the European Police Office (EUROPOL), according to a statement released in Washington.

ICE Director John Morton said the sites were selling a wide range of illegally copied products including Nike apparel, Ergo Baby carriers and Hermes luxury goods, "all of it fake, all of its substandard quality."

"These websites were stealing from legitimate websites and copyright holders and the people who make these products," Morton told a conference call.

Morton said the operation coincided with "Cyber Monday," a major online shopping day following the Thanksgiving Day holiday in the United States.

"This operation is a great example of the tremendous cooperation between ICE and our international partners," said Morton.

"It's a huge problem not only for US industry, but for legitimate industries in Europe and Asia and elsewhere. Just think of all the jobs that are lost, think of all the tax revenues that are lost."

Among the brands being counterfeited were McAfee, Symantec, Armani, Guess, Burberry, Chanel, Gucci, Lacoste, Dior, Tommy Hilfiger, Versace, YSL and Michael Kors, officials said.

Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, said in the statement that the counterfeiting "is not a harmless and victimless crime. It can cause serious health and safety risks and it undermines our economy."

In addition to the domain name seizures, officials said they were seeking to seize $175,000 in PayPal accounts utilised by the infringing websites in the latest operation.

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Yasser Arafat's remains exhumed

Iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's remains will be exhumed to test if he was poisoned. Source: AAP

OFFICIALS say the remains of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have been exhumed from his grave so international forensic experts can search for additional clues to his death.

The Palestinian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to disclose the news.

The detection earlier this year of a lethal radioactive substance on clothing said to be Arafat's sparked a new investigation into his death.

Arafat died in November 2004 in a French military hospital, a month after suddenly falling ill. Palestinian officials claim he was poisoned by Israel, but have not presented evidence. Israel has denied such allegations.

The remains were taken from the massive mausoleum in the West Bank city of Ramallah where Arafat was buried and moved to a nearby mosque so Palestinian doctors could take samples from his bones, the officials said. Under Islam, only Muslims can handle a Muslim's remains.

The samples will be handed over to French, Swiss and Russian experts who have flown in for the exhumation and who will examine them in their home countries, the officials said.

Earlier, samples were also taken from Arafat's bedroom, office and personal belongings, they said.

While the immediate cause of Arafat's death was a stroke, the underlying source of an illness he suffered in his final weeks has never been clear, leading to persistent speculation in the Arab world that Israel poisoned him.

The exhumation might not resolve the mystery. Polonium-210 decomposes rapidly, and some experts say it is not clear whether any remaining samples will be sufficient for testing.

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Sir Elton dedicates show to Chinese artist

Written By doni donian on Senin, 26 November 2012 | 14.00

Sir Elton John (pic) caused a stir by dedicating his Beijing show to Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei. Source: AAP

POP icon Elton John publicly dedicated his only concert in Beijing to Chinese artist and political critic Ai Weiwei, sending a murmur of shock through audience members accustomed to tight censorship of Western pop shows.

Minutes into a more than two-hour show on Sunday night, John told the audience that the performance was dedicated to Ai's spirit and talent. Several audience members say the crowd rumbled in recognition of how Ai remains a touchy subject for the Chinese government.

Online media sites are reporting on John's two-performance tour in China, but not the remark.

The Chinese government further tightened already heavy scrutiny of live performances after singer Bjork shouted "Tibet, Tibet" at the close of a song titled "Declare Independence" at a Shanghai performance in 2008.

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Russia slams support of Syria rebels

RUSSIAN Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev slammed as "unacceptable" the recognition and support by France and other states of the Syrian opposition battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Britain and France have joined Turkey and Arabian Peninsula states in recognising a newly formed opposition bloc as the sole representative of the Syrian people. Paris has also suggested arming the opposition fighters.

"From the point of view of international law, this is absolutely unacceptable," Medvedev told Agence France-Presse and Le Figaro newspaper in an interview ahead of a working visit to Paris starting Monday.

"I remind you that in line with the principles of international law, no state can take measures aimed at the forced change of a government in another state."

"A desire to change the political regime of another state by recognising a political force as the sole carrier of sovereignty seems to me to be not completely civilised," he added.

France was the first Western state to recognise the newly-formed Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and was swiftly joined by Britain, Italy and the European Union.

Paris has also raised the idea of excluding defensive weapons for the rebels from the current blanket EU embargo on Syria. The United States has been more circumspect, saying it is not ready to recognise the oppposition and has appeared wary of arming them.

Medvedev described France's stance as "very controversial".

"Let the Syrian people decide the personal fate of Assad and his regime. It is preferable if they (the opposition forces) came to power legally and not because of deliveries of arms from other countries," he said.

The Syrian National Coalition is a bloc of opposition groups led by moderate cleric Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib formed after talks in Qatar this month as part of a Western-backed push to make the opposition a more cohesive force.

Russia has been repeatedly criticised throughout the Syrian conflict, which according to activists has claimed at least 40,000 lives, for failing to condemn the violence committed by the Assad regime.

But Medvedev - who was serving as president when the conflict began before giving way in May to his mentor Vladimir Putin - insisted that Moscow had not taken sides.

"Russia does not support the Assad regime or the opposition. We have a neutral position."

"We condemn the actions of the government for the level of violence in the country and the actions carried out by the opposition, as they are also spilling blood.

"The result is a civil war."

Russia has come under particular attack for not cutting its military cooperation with the Assad regime.

Medvedev said Russian agreements with Turkey were in place before the conflict and there were legal obligations attached.

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Medvedev hints at Kremlin return

Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev says he's open to the possibility of becoming president again. Source: AAP

RUSSIAN Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has not ruled out a return to the Kremlin after his 2008-12 single term as head of state but says he's happy working under his mentor Vladimir Putin.

"If I have sufficient strength and health, if our people trust me in the future with such a position, then of course I do not rule such a turn of events," Medvedev said in an interview with AFP and Le Figaro when asked if he had the ambition for another Kremlin term.

Medvedev, who on Monday embarks on a working visit to France, served as president after Putin stepped aside following the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution after his 2000-08 stint.

But Putin, 60, stayed on as a powerful prime minister and Medvedev, 47, never fully emerged from the shadow of his fellow St Petersburg native, an impression strongly reinforced when Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012.

Medvedev, who in turn was then appointed prime minister in May, failed to bring about lasting change through a much-trumpeted modernisation program in his one term as president.

But in his interview with AFP, he revealed he had not lost his political ambition.

"This (returning to the presidency) depends on a whole range of factors," he said.

"Never say never, especially as I swam in that river once and this is a river that you can swim in twice."

Russia will only go to the polls to vote for a president again in March 2018 and in the next half decade society is expected to see major change as the middle class grows and internet use explodes. Putin has also not ruled out standing again.

This year's tightly choreographed job swap was criticised for being played out far from the public, and frustration over the return of Putin to the Kremlin fuelled the opposition protests that rocked Russia in the past year.

Some of Medvedev's supporters - who saw him as a possible champion of a refreshed, innovative and more pro-Western Russia - were hugely disappointed by his apparent surrender of the Kremlin back to Putin.

But Medvedev played up the tight links between the two men, saying he would find it impossible to work under anyone else.

"I would hardly have become prime minister under another president, I cannot imagine it at all," he said.

"If there is someone you can work with comfortably as prime minister after being president it is just one person, Vladimir Putin."

Medvedev has distanced himself from Putin on some issues, notably the case of feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, two of whom have been sent to prison camps for performing a song against the Russian strongman in a church.

Reaffirming his belief that they should be released, Medvedev said: "I think they have already tasted what prison is ... so further punishment in the form of prison is not necessary. This is my personal position."

On the case of Russia's best-known prisoner, former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Medvedev said court decisions had to be respected but noted that the convict had never made a bid for clemency from the Kremlin.

Medvedev admitted that his modernisation drive had so far fallen short but expressed hope there was still time to put his ideas into place.

"It's true that for the moment modernisation has not turned into a national idea and there has been no kind of radical progress reached," he said.

"We need to modernise the economy but can you do this in two to three years? Of course not."

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Catalans vote in pro-independence fervour

Written By doni donian on Minggu, 25 November 2012 | 14.00

Catalans will vote in a snap election that could lead to a redrawing of the map of Spain. Source: AAP

WHIPPED up in a pro-independence fervour, millions of Catalans vote on Sunday in a snap election that could lead to a redrawing of the map of Spain.

Artur Mas, president of the northeastern region, is promising a referendum on self-determination if the vote goes his way.

Even as Catalan independence flags flutter from balconies in the region's capital Barcelona, however, analysts say a breakup of recession-torn Spain remains a distant prospect.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's right-leaning government is determined to thwart any referendum, saying it flies in the face of common sense, and vowing to wield the national constitution if necessary.

But the vote may drive a wedge into the eurozone's fourth largest economy as it fights the deepest economic crisis since the return of democracy after the death in 1975 of General Francisco Franco.

The secessionist movement could also be hard to stop.

At Mas' last campaign rally on Friday 18,000 people crammed into a Barcelona stadium, chanting "Independence!" in unison and brandishing a sea of Catalan and European Union flags.

"We are not vassals of the Spanish state," the 56-year-old, bespectacled Catalan leader declared to delighted supporters.

It is a cause that stirs strong emotions in Catalonia, which traces its history back more than a millennium.

The region was welded to Spain at the nation's symbolic birth when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, which included Catalonia, married in 1469.

Now the region of 7.5 million people accounts for more than one-fifth of Spain's economic output, a quarter of its exports, and one of the world's greatest football teams, Barcelona FC.

But Catalonia also has 44 billion euros ($A55.04 billion) worth of debt, equal to one-fifth of its output, and was forced to go cap in hand to Madrid this year for more than five billion euros to help make the payments.

A growing sentiment that Spain is the cause of Catalonia's financial troubles is at the heart of the national split.

Mas accuses Madrid of raising far more in Catalan taxes than it returns and estimates the gap at 16 billion euros a year, a figure Madrid disputes.

Emboldened by huge protests in Barcelona demanding independence on Catalonia's national day, September 11, Mas demanded greater taxing powers from Rajoy.

When he did not get the concessions he was seeking, he called the snap election.

The resentment over finances has fanned the flames of independence in Catalonia, a region proud of its language and culture that has been forced to slash spending on schools, universities and hospitals.

The Catalan leader is widely suspected of using the secessionist cause as leverage for votes in an election he called two years early, and to squeeze more cash out of Madrid.

Mas' nationalist coalition, Convergence and Union, has traditionally been a force of moderation and the regional boss has carefully skirted use of the word 'independence'.

Latest polls show Mas' alliance heading for a win but falling short of the absolute majority he is seeking.

Nevertheless, pro-referendum parties are widely expected to enjoy a majority in the new parliament.

If there was a referendum on "self-determination," Catalans would vote in favour by 46 per cent to 42 per cent, according to a survey in leading daily El Pais.

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Manus refugee facility faces power threat

Manus Island landowners have threatened to shut down power after the arrival of asylum seekers. Source: AAP

LANDOWNERS on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island have threatened to shut down electricity to parts of the province, less than a week after Australia's first batch of asylum seekers arrived.

The 19 Sri Lankan and Iranian asylum seekers, including four children, were flown to Manus on Wednesday.

They are currently being housed in "G camp" within the temporary tent facility on Lombrum naval base, the same site as the Howard-era detention facility.

Now known as "Newtown" to locals and the G4S security guards running the site, the facility will house up to 600 asylum seekers in the coming months.

Local MP Ronnie Knight says landowner groups on Saturday threatened to shut down power to parts of the province over demands for compensation from Australia to use the site.

"I had to break the news to them that they were not going to get what they want," Mr Knight said.

"They did not take it well. I told them I would do my best to see they get something.

"(If they cut the power) the people of Manus will rise up and chase them out."

The facility itself is powered by four large generators and is not expected to be affected by loss of power to Manus proper.

The Australian and PNG governments have sent a joint task force to Manus to assess what infrastructure projects need assistance, while the Australian High Commission has said it cannot hand out money to landowner groups.

A group involved in blockading Manus airport on November 12 gave the PNG government a two-week deadline to meet with them.

That deadline ends on Tuesday.

The PNG government has sent 64 mobile riot-squad police to Manus, a move Mr Knight said should keep the landowners from following through on their most recent threat.

The landowners, who represent as many as five different clans around Lombrum, were angered after it was announced controversial security firm G4S was given contracts to run the site.

Since Australia announced in August it planned to send asylum seekers to the island the groups have separately made demands for compensation totalling $45 million, security contracts for running the site as well as building contracts.

"I want development and funds so I can start my business," said John Lou, who leads the Lombrum clan living just outside the base.

He says he will not resort to aggressive action such as blockading goods and services to the facility, but he is considering legal action.

"The PNG government didn't give us a chance to get in on this project," he said.

It is unclear when the next batch of asylum seekers are due to arrive on Manus.

The Australian government announced in August that it would process asylum seekers on offshore facilities in Nauru and Manus Island.

Nauru eventually will have space for 1500 people.

AAP and PNG'S The Post Courier were denied access to the site on Friday by G4S and PNG Immigration, who told reporters they were following orders from Canberra.

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Australian man charged with fraud in PNG

AN Australian man has been arrested and charged with fraud by Papua New Guinea's anti corruption taskforce.

Leonard Patrick Capon, 68, was arrested and charged after allegedly misappropriating 1,485,085 million kina ($A668,400) paid in 2010 to his company, Rural Development Services Ltd, for a mini-hydro power project in Hela province in PNG's Highlands.

Authorities allege that project was never delivered and the funds were allegedly diverted to expenses unrelated to the purposes of the payment.

Task Force Sweep Chairman Sam Koim told PNG's The National newspaper that Mr Capon was arrested and charged with misappropriation and released on K10,000 ($A4635) bail.

Task Force Sweep recently revealed it had registered 174 complaints about corruption, with just some of the cases involving amounts totalling 2.162 billion kina ($A1 billion).

Of the 174 complaints, 52 cases have been investigated.

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