Iran demands halt to US attacks in Iraq

TEHRAN (AFP) - A senior member of Iran’s negotiating team with the United States on Iraqi security demanded a halt to US attacks in Iraq before any new round of talks with Washington, the Fars news agency reported on Saturday.

“If US savage attacks against the Iraqi people are stopped, we will examine the US request for a fourth round of talks,” the unnamed official said, quoted by Fars.

Iran and the United States held three rounds of talks on Iraq last year despite mounting tensions over Tehran’s nuclear programme. The talks have been stalled amid controversy over Iran’s role in its conflict-torn neighbour.

Tehran, which strongly opposes the US military presence in Iraq, has been repeatedly accused by Washington of arming and training Shiite militia groups in its neighbour.

Iran, whose ties with Washington have been severed since 1980, strongly denies the allegations.
An Iranian delegation travelled to Baghdad in March expecting a new round of talks which never took place. Iran said the United States cancelled the talks at the last minute, but US officials said a date was never set.

“The Iraqi government and the United States have officially invited Iran for the fourth round,” the Iranian official said.
“Under the current circumstances and given the US widespread attacks against Iraqi people in different cities, Iran does not feel these negotiations are necessary.”

In early April, the United States said it had informed the Iraqi government it was prepared to resume the long-delayed talks with Iran.

US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi held face-to-face talks in May and July 2007, in the highest level public contact between the two sides for 27 years.
Officials from the two countries also met at the experts’ level last August.


US rocket attack damages Baghdad Hospital

BAGHDAD (AFP) – A US rocket damaged a hospital in the Iraqi capital’s violent Shiite stronghold of Sadr City on Saturday, wounding 28 people as American forces claimed to have killed 14 militants in the district. The US military said it used a rocket system in an attack on militants in Sadr City that witnesses earlier reported was an air strike.
An AFP reporter at the scene said the district’s main Al-Sadr hospital was badly damaged and a fleet of ambulances was destroyed.

Just outside the hospital, a shack which appeared to have been the target was reduced to a pile of rubble.
The military said it destroyed a “criminal element command and control centre” by munitions from a “rocket system” at approximately 10 a.m. (0700 GMT).

“Intelligence reports indicate the command and control centre was used by criminal elements to plan and coordinate attacks against Iraqi security and coalition forces and innocent Iraqi citizens,” it said.

Hospital staff said at least 28 people wounded in the strike were brought inside for treatment at the complex which had its windows shattered and medical and electrical equipment damaged.

Medical staff and other hospital workers were livid.
“They (the Americans) will say it was a weapons cache” that was hit, said the head of the Baghdad health department, Dr. Ali Bistan, who arrived to assess the damage.

“But in fact they want to destroy the infrastructure of the country.”
He charged that the attack was aimed at preventing doctors and medicines from reaching the hospital which is in an area that has seen increased clashes between American troops and militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The hospital corridors were littered with glass shards, twisted metal and hanging electrical wiring. Partitions in wards had collapsed.

Huge concrete blocks placed to form a blast wall against explosions had toppled onto parked vehicles including up to 17 ambulances, disabling emergency response teams.


18 prisoners stabbed to death in Honduran prison

TEGUCIGALPA (AFP) – Eighteen prisoners were found chopped and stabbed to death early Saturday at Honduras’ National Penitentiary, authorities said, hours after the inmates had been transferred to the prison.

“In the first hours of the morning, while making checks, it was found that there were a total of 18 people who had died,” Security Minister Spokesman Wilman Torres said on the America radio station.

“Obviously we have to find out who was behind their deaths,” he said.
The 18 were a part of a group of 57 prisoners transferred to the National Penitentiary from the San Pedro Sula prison, the move coming after nine prisoners were killed there in gang violence a week ago.


Brown faces tough questions after British vote drubbing

LONDON (AFP) – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s leadership was thrown into question Saturday after his ruling Labour Party suffered a local election rout capped by the Conservatives’ victory in the London Mayor’s race.

As eccentric lawmaker Boris Johnson took the plaudits for ousting maverick left-winger Ken Livingstone in the capital, senior Labour figures were assessing the wreckage from a disastrous election performance.

The loss of more than 300 council seats across England and Wales came in Brown’s first test at the ballot box since he took over from Tony Blair in June.

The British media called it a ‘May Day Massacre’ for Labour and said Brown faced an uphill battle to stave off the opposition Conservatives ahead of general elections which must take place by mid-2010.

The Prime Minister will start his fightback with a series of TV interviews Sunday and was expected to outline a new legislative programme next week.

One Labour backbencher warned him to improve fast or face “really hard talking” and even senior government figures such as Home Secretary Jacqui Smith admitted voters had given Labour a “kick in the backside.”

Brown himself conceded Friday that Labour had performed badly, but blamed concerns about the global credit crunch for the centre-left party’s defeat.

“We have lessons to learn from that and then we will move forward,” he said.
The loss in London epitomised the scale of the defeat for the government, which has faced criticism of its economic record, botched tax reforms and public anger at rising fuel, food and energy costs.

Johnson, with his mop of blond hair and flowery language, was considered a joke candidate at the start of the campaign, but he secured a six-percentage-point victory over Livingstone who until recently seemed set to comfortably win a third term.

Johnson, 43, was a journalist for the Daily Telegraph newspaper and edited right-wing magazine The Spectator alongside his duties as a Member of Parliament but he came to wider public attention when presenting a satirical TV game show.

He has displayed a tendency for gaffes, for example in 2004 when he accused the city of Liverpool of wallowing in “victim status” after hostage Ken Bigley was killed in Iraq.

But his campaign for mayor surprised many, focusing on claims of cronyism surrounding Livingstone, vowing to tackle crime and seizing on disaffection with the government.

After a ceremony Saturday to accept office at London’s City Hall, he pledged to “lead the fightback” against violent crime, pointing out that a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death in the capital just hours earlier.

He found time for several of his trademark comments, joking that as he did not officially take up office until Sunday it gave the outgoing administration time to cover its tracks.


Engine fault ‘caused Sudan crash’

Engine failure has been blamed for a plane crash in which South Sudan’s defence minister was killed along with at least 22 other people.
“Two engines failed and there was nothing the pilot could do,” said Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan.

Mr Kiir announced three days of mourning in southern Sudan.
Defence Minister Dominic Dim Deng had been flying with a military delegation to the regional capital, Juba. A presidential adviser was also killed.

The UN, which sent a helicopter to the site of the crash, said the plane was a Beechcraft 1900 operated by South Sudan Air Connection that had been travelling from Wau to Juba.
Officials said an investigation into the crash would be opened.

Philip Yona Jambi, South Sudan’s rural development minister, said that the pilot asked permission to make a crash landing in Rumbek after reporting engine trouble.
“Unfortunately they couldn’t make it to Rumbek - the plane just blew up and all passengers died,” he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa.

He said passengers on board included Mr Deng and his wife, senior presidential adviser Justin Yak and his wife, and other senior military officials.
The BBC’s Amber Henshaw in Sudan says the incident will bring back memories of the death of South Sudan’s first leader, John Garang, who was killed in a helicopter crash three years ago.

His widow called his death an assassination, despite an official probe that blamed pilot error.
Mr Garang died shortly after a 2005 peace deal which ended decades of civil war between the ethnic African south and the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

Mr Jambi said that the news had shocked many southern Sudanese.
“People are very worried and those who have heard about it will suspect foul play because John Garang died in a crash and they still don’t believe the results of the investigation,” he said. (BBC)


Osprey hybrid copter-plane passes Iraq test successfully

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US military’s long-gestating V-22 Osprey, built to fly both like a helicopter and an airplane, performed well in Iraq its first official field deployment, the Marine Corps announced Friday.

“I am proud of the aircraft performance. It is very satisfying to see how well it performed,” Lieutenant Colonel Paul Rock, commanding officer of the first squadron of Ospreys deployed in Iraq, said in a Pentagon press conference.

Rock said the Marine squadron of Ospreys, deployed in Al-Assad, al-Anbar province, undertook 2,500 transport and evacuation missions over the seven month deployment between September 2007 and April 2008.

The hybrid transport, which can take-off and land vertically like a helicopter, then tilt horizontally its two wingtip turboprop rotors to propel it as a long-distance airplane, was developed with the aim of replacing the marines’ Vietnam War-era Ch-46 transport helicopters.

But its development, dating back to 1981, was marred by delays, cost overruns and then safety concerns for its revolutionary technology.

The worries were heightened by two in-flight accidents in 2000 that killed more than 20 soldiers.
The V-22 Osprey is produced by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing, and 59 are now in operation, 30 with the marines.
It can carry 24 soldiers into the field, its tilt-rotor engines allowing it to land where there is little room but also carrying it to high altitudes where it is safe from ground attack.

Other than Iraq, the V-22s, which cost 70 million dollars a piece, would be useful in the US fight in Afghanistan, said Lieutenant General George Trautman, vice-commandant for marine aviation.
“It would be a very effective airplane in that environment,” Trautman said.


Hospital damaged in US air strike

 BAGHDAD (AFP) - A hospital in the Iraqi capital’s Sadr City, a Shiite militia stronghold, was damaged in a US air strike on Saturday, wounding around 20 people, medics and witnesses said.

A medic at the Al-Sadr hospital which was hit said women and children were among the 20 wounded in the strike, which a security official said took place at around 10:00 am (0700 GMT)."

Witnesses said the target of the strike, in which US forces dropped several missiles, was a small house adjacent to Al-Sadr hospital and used as a rest area by Shiite pilgrims.

The impact of the strike damaged more than a dozen ambulances belonging to the hospital, one of the three main medical facilities in the district, and also shattered windows of the building, an AFP reporter at the scene said.


Malaysia to give food stockpile priority over projects

 KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia’s prime minister said Saturday his government would delay non-essential projects and use funds to secure the country’s food supply amid spiralling global food prices.

The government announced on Frieday that it would spend 2.49 billion ringgit (778 million dollars) this year to boost food production as worldwide costs soar for staple items such as rice.

The money is part of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s 4.0-billion-ringgit pledge last week to increase food production and tackle price hikes.

“The government has... decided to create a buffer stock not only for rice but also other essential goods needed by the people regardless whether they are poor, rich, from the urban or rural areas,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency Bernama.

“So we have to reallocate, and when there is reallocation there will be certain (less important) projects which may not get their allocations, probably reduced or delayed,” he said.
Abdullah said the country’s food supply was not at a critical stage, Bernama reported, but did say something needed to be done quickly.

“It will be difficult later. But the fact is that we have to take these measures. We cannot wait for (the food shortage) to happen first, then there will be chaos,” he said.

Malaysia produces some 1.6 million tonnes of rice, which roughly meets 70 percent of domestic consumption. The balance is usually imported from neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam.

A mixture of soaring prices and controls on food items hit Malaysian consumers hard earlier this year with severe shortages of sugar, flour and cooking oil which were stripped bare from supermarket shelves as panic-buying hit, triggering a huge public outcry.

The government was forced to flood the market with thousands of tonnes of cooking oil and flour to end the crisis.
The World Bank says global food prices have nearly doubled in the last three years, sparking riots last month in Egypt and Haiti amid restrictions on food exports from Brazil, Vietnam, India and Egypt.

Rising use of biofuels, trade restrictions, increased demand from Asia to serve changing diets, poor harvests and increasing transport costs have all been blamed for the price rises.