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Guests leapt desperately to their deaths from upper-floor windows as a fire tore through a hotel in northern Iraq killing 30 people, 14 of them foreigners, police and medics said on Friday.

Citizens of Australia, Britain, Canada and several Asian and South American countries were among those killed in Thursday night’s blaze in Sulaimaniyah, which raged for seven hours before being brought under control, officials said. A preliminary report prepared by the city’s hospital said people from 12 nations had died and a medical official said the bodies of the foreigners were identified by colleagues from the respective companies they worked for.
Visiting telecommunications engineers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Cambodia, were among the victims, according to hospital officials and the chairman of the telecoms company.
“The number killed is 30, among whom there are 14 foreigners,” said Rikot Hama Rasheed, the director of Sulaimaniyah hospital, following the fire, which rose rapidly from the second floor of the six-level Soma hotel.
“The regional government will contact the embassies of the foreigners who were killed,” said Rasheed, listing Iraq, Ecuador, Venezuela, Lebanon, South Africa and Bangladesh as among the victims’ nationalities.
He said 22 survivors were receiving treatment at the hospital. Witnesses told AFP at least three of those who died did so after leaping from the hotel’s windows in a desperate bid to save themselves as flames and smoke engulfed their rooms.
Mirwan Saeed, 30, who was visiting friends in the hotel, broke both his legs after making his way to the roof and jumping towards a nearby lower building to save his life.
“We were in the hotel when the smoke started coming in,” he told AFP from his hospital bed. “I had no choice but to jump.”
Colonel Araz Bakr, chief of Sulaimaniyah rescue services, confirmed the death toll and said 42 people were injured, including seven firefighters. He said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke. A city council official said an electrical fault caused the blaze, which also damaged several adjacent buildings.
“Women and children are among the victims of the incident which happened in the Soma Hotel,” said the official, Razgar Ahmed.
Sulaimaniyah, 270 kilometres (170 miles) north of Baghdad is the capital of one of three northern provinces that make up Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. It is popular with tourists and business has flourished in recent years as it is peaceful, unlike much of Iraq which remains wracked by violence seven years after a US-led invasion toppled now executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
The victims from the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Cambodia worked for telecoms operator Asiacell, one of three major mobile communications companies in Iraq. (AFP)
“We lost four engineers from our company, one of them a lady from the Philippines, and three of them men from Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Iraq,” said Faruk Mula Mustafa, chairman of Asiacell.
Two other Iraqi employees were injured in the fire, he said.
A US embassy spokesman in Baghdad said two American citizens received medical treatment after the fire, but none were killed. (AFP)


Iran blames West, Israel for suicide bombings

Iran blamed the West and Israel on Saturday for twin suicide bombings which killed at least 27 people, despite condemnation of the attack by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States.
“This blind terrorist act was carried out by the mercenaries of the world arrogance (the Western powers),” state television’s website quoted Deputy Interior Minister Ali Abdollahi as saying.
“The agents of this crime were trained and equipped beyond our borders and then came into Iran,” Abdollahi said.
“Those who planned this crime and equipped those who carried it out should know that they are responsible for this incident,” he added.
Sunni militant group Jundallah claimed it carried out Thursday’s bombings which targeted members of the elite Revolutionary Guards at a mosque in the restive southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan.
Tehran has long charged that Washington has provided support to the group as part of efforts to destabilise the Islamic regime by fomenting unrest among ethnic minorities in sensitive border areas. But on Friday US President Barack Obama condemned the “outrageous terrorist attacks,” while UN chief Ban Ki-moon blasted a “senseless act of terrorism” and European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton condemned “these cowardly terrorist attacks.” (AFP)


Arrests over World Cup betting

Police in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand arrested more than 5,000 people in a coordinated swoop against illegal football betting during the World Cup, Interpol said Friday.
The international police agency, which helped coordinate the month-long operation, said officers had raided more than 800 illegal gambling dens that had handled more than 155 million dollars (119 million euros) in bets.
“The results we have seen are impressive,” said Interpol executive director for police services Jean-Michel Louboutin, in a statement released by the agency’s headquarters in Lyon, central France.
“As well as having clear connections to organised crime, illegal soccer gambling is also linked with corruption, money laundering and prostitution,” he said, declaring a blow had been struck against underworld gangs.
The operation ran between June 11 and July 11, during a time when hundreds of millions of fans around the globe were glued to their television screens, following the action from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Many supporters were also tempted to gamble on the results, sometimes legally and sometimes with unlicensed and often crooked bookmakers.
In the operation, police seized 10 million dollars in cash along with other alleged criminal assets such as cars, bank cards, computers and mobile phones, Louboutin said in his statement.
“The information gathered will now be reviewed and analysed to determine the potential involvement of other individuals or gangs across the region and beyond,” he warned.
“The experience and expertise developed in each of these types of operations provides an even stronger base from which police can work,” he said, praising the close cooperation between the Asian police forces.
The World Cup operation was dubbed SOGA III, following two previous but smaller series of raids.
In all, these operations have led to nearly 7,000 arrests, the seizure of more than 26 million dollars in cash and the closure of illegal gambling dens which handled more than two billion dollars’ worth of bets, Interpol said. Friday’s announcement came a week after Hong Kong, one of the Chinese territories which took part in the SOGA III operation, announced that it had smashed a huge illegal football gambling syndicate.
Officers arrested 93 people from Hong Kong and the mainland in a joint operation, broadcaster RTHK said. A large amount of betting slips were seized, including seven billion yuan (1.03 billion dollars) from the mainland. (AFP)


Vatican to fast-track priest sex abuse cases

(AFP) - The Vatican moved Thursday to fast-track “urgent” priest sex abuse cases - with some to be handled by the pope himself - but drew criticism for sidestepping the issue of turning abusers in to the courts.
Announcing new rules in a bid to fend off accusations of complacency, the Roman Catholic Church said it would accelerate internal investigations and extended by a decade the statute of limitations in abuse cases.
The new steps provide for referring “the most grave cases to the Roman pontiff with regard to dismissal from the clerical state,” or defrocking a priest, in a codification of an already existing channel of punishment.
And for the first time, a priest may be defrocked through an “extra-judicial decree” - effectively without a hearing.
But the rules notably do not deal with handing abusers over to civil criminal authorities, a key demand of advocacy groups.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said they “exclusively concern the Church” and compliance with civil law was already contained in guidelines published in April at the height of the abuse scandals sweeping the Church.
The new rules contain “more rapid procedures to deal with the most urgent and serious situations more effectively,” the Vatican said in a statement.
“Critics will say (the Vatican is) rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Vatican expert John Allen of the US-based National Catholic Reporter.
“Their point of view is that the system is basically working and they are just tweaking it,” Allen told AFP.
One of the most outspoken victims’ support groups, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was quick to slam the new rules, issuing a statement saying they could be “summed up in three words: missing the boat.”


Da Vinci’s light touch on Mona Lisa

French scientists have shone new light on the painting technique that allowed Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci to give the Mona Lisa such an extraordinary delicate charm.
Working with an X-ray scanner, scholars at the Louvre were able to detect each layer of glaze, paint and pigment in seven of Leonardo’s masterpieces, and reconstruct his painstaking shading technique, known as “sfumato”.
“Minute observations, optical measurements and reconstitutions have already described the ‘sfumato’, but new analysis can confirm the procedure of this technique,” said a statement from the state CNRS research institute.
One of the reasons why the Mona Lisa remains renowned to this day as a great portrait is the lifelike shadows and tones that give her enigmatically smiling face a sense of depth and reality.
According to the scientists who were able to study the layers of work that went into the paintings without damaging them by extracting actual samples, the shadows were built up by dozens of translucent layers of glaze.
Each layer was only one of two micrometres thick, but each contained a carefully dosed amount of pigmentation.
This was a new technique in the Renaissance, and part of the reason Leonardo and his contemporaries were able to make what had been the once flat images of the Middle Ages appear to leap from their frames into photo-like reality.
“The results obtained in this study help to understand Da Vinci’s search towards making his art look alive,” the statement said.
In addition to the Mona Lisa, the scientists studied Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks, Saint John the Baptist, Annunciation, Bacchus, Belle Ferronniere, Saint Anne and the Virgin and the Child.
In each case they were able to probe the 500-year-old masterworks without even taking them down from the walls of the famous Louvre Gallery in Paris, by beaming an X-ray fluorescence spectroscope at the canvas.
The research was carried out by Laurence de Viguerie, Philippe Walter, Eric Laval, Bruno Mottin and Armando Sole of the French national museums service, and published in the scholarly review Angewandte Chemie International Edition. (AFP)

Argentina legalises gay marriage

Argentina on Thursday became the first nation in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage, turning aside protests from the Roman Catholic Church to give gay couples the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.
The Argentine Senate approved the measure in a hard-fought 33-27 vote, with three abstentions. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has indicated that she will sign it into law quickly.
The 4:05 a.m. vote came after an exhaustive debate that dragged on for more than 14 hours. Hundreds of supporters of the law, waiting outside Congress in freezing temperatures, erupted in cheers and tears of joy when news of the vote reached them.(Los Angeles Times)


Amnesty slams French face veil ban

Amnesty International condemned a vote by French lawmakers to ban the wearing of face-covering veils in public, saying on Tuesday it violated the rights to freedom of expression and religion.
The London-based human rights group had written to all French parliamentarians urging them to reject the bill, which now goes to the Senate in September.
“A complete ban on the covering of the face would violate the rights to freedom of expression and religion of those women who wear the burka or the niqab as an expression of their identity or beliefs,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty’s expert on discrimination in Europe.(AFP)







Mexican drug cartel’s newest weapon: Cold War-era grenades made in U.S.

Grenades made in the United States and sent to Central America during the Cold War have resurfaced as terrifying new weapons in almost weekly attacks by Mexican drug cartels.

Sent a generation ago to battle communist revolutionaries in the jungles of Central America, US grenades are being diverted from dusty old armouries and sold to criminal mafias, who are using them to destabilise the Mexican government and terrorize civilians, according to US and Mexican law enforcement officials.

The redeployment of US-made grenades by Mexican drug lords underscores the increasingly intertwined nature of the conflict, as President Felipe Calderón sends his soldiers out to confront gangs armed with a deadly combination of brand-new military-style assault rifles purchased in the United States and munitions left over from the Cold War.

Grenades have killed a relatively small number of the 25,000 people who have died since Calderón launched his US -backed offensive against the cartels. But the grenades pack a far greater psychological punch than the ubiquitous AK-47s and AR-15 rifles - they can overwhelm and intimidate outgunned soldiers and police while reminding ordinary Mexicans that the country is literally at war.
There have been more than 72 grenade attacks in Mexico in the last year, including spectacular assaults on police convoys and public officials. Mexican forces have seized more than 5,800 live grenades since 2007, a small fraction of a vast armoury maintained by the drug cartels, officials said.

According to the Mexican attorney general’s office, there have been 101 grenade attacks against government buildings in the past 3 1/2 years, information now made public for the first time.
To fight back, US experts in grenades and other explosives are now working side by side with Mexican counterparts. On Thursday, assailants detonated a car bomb in downtown Ciudad Juarez, killing two federal police officers and an emergency medical technician and wounding seven. (The Washington Post)
The majority of grenades have been traced back to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, according to investigations by agents at the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and their Mexican counterparts. ATF has also found that almost 90 percent of the grenades confiscated and traced in Mexico are more than 20 years old.

The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sent 300,000 hand grenades to friendly regimes in Central America to fight leftist insurgents in the civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s, according to declassified military data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Federation of American Scientists.

Not all grenades found in Mexico are American-made. Many are of Asian or Soviet and Eastern European manufacture, ATF officials said, probably given to leftist insurgents by Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.
One of the most common hand grenades found in Mexico is the M67, the workhorse explosive manufactured in the United States for American soldiers and for sale or transfer to foreign militaries. Some 266,000 M67 grenades went to El Salvador alone between 1980 and 1993, during the civil war there.
Now selling for $100 to $500 apiece on the black market, grenades have exploded in practically every region of Mexico in recent years. (The Washington Post)

Mandela under pressure to make appearances

As South Africa hosted the continent’s first football World Cup, the former president was beseiged with requests for audiences from world leaders and celebrities.
His family repeatedly stressed his age and frailty when asked if he would appear in public and even issued a sharp rebuke to the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, when he suggested Mandela present the tournament trophy to the victorious Spanish team.
As he celebrates his 92nd birthday this weekend, the Nelson Mandela Foundation has appealed to the hundreds of thousands of his followers around the world to grant him his wish for a quiet celebration away from the public gaze.
While concerts, exhibitions and sporting events will take place documenting his greatest moments, he will drink tea and eat birthday cake at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, with his large family.
The foundation is yet to confirm whether President Jacob Zuma will be allowed to proceed with a planned visit today.
Verne Harris, of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, said that despite a sprightly appearance when he is in public, the 91-year-old recognises that he is “ebbing away”.
“He has been signalling for a long time now but in the last six months very determinedly that he wanted to step away from public life,” he said.
“He loves to be remembered for what he has done and he loves to see people but in very tightly controlled, small segments of time.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation receives endless requests from businesses seeking to “Disney-fy” the Mandela brand and selling everything from Viagra to fridge magnets. They are constantly turning down invitations for him to speak or open public buildings.
During the World Cup and the run up to his birthday, it sought to quell the appetite for a new glimpse of the world’s most famous man, with an Intimate Moments exhibition showing him at home and off guard, and the occasional personalised statement. (Telegraph.co.uk)


Human Rights activists slam Syrian President

During a decade in power, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not delivered on promises of greater freedoms or rights for his people, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
Assad “has not delivered on his promises to increase public freedoms and improve his government?s human rights record during a decade in power,” HRW said in a report on the eve of the anniversary of his accession.
“Whether President al-Assad wanted to be a reformer but was hampered by an entrenched old guard or has been just another Arab ruler unwilling to listen to criticism, the outcome for Syria’s people is the same: no freedom, no rights,” HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement. (AFP)


Shebab threatens more attacks

Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab Thursday vowed further attacks after two deadly bombings in Uganda, as Kampala said it would send more troops to boost the African Union force in Mogadishu.
Sunday’s bomb attacks on entertainment spots in Kampala where crowds were watching the World Cup final killed at least 73 people and underscored the risk posed by the Somali rebel movement to the entire region.
“What happened in Kampala is just the beginning,” elusive Shebab leader Mohamed Abdi Godane said in an audio message broadcast on several Mogadishu radio stations.
The Shebab - fighting Somalia’s Western-backed transitional government - said the blasts were in retaliation for the presence of more than 3,000 Ugandan troops in the embattled African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
“We are telling all Muslims and particularly the people of Mogadishu that those martyred in AMISOM shelling will be avenged,” he added.
Godane said the Kampala attacks were carried out by a unit named the Saleh Nabhan Brigade after a Kenyan-born Al-Qaeda operative allegedly behind 2002 anti-Israeli attacks in Mombasa and killed in a suspected US air raid last year.
Uganda could provide 2,000 more soldiers for the African Union force, an army spokesman said Thursday, following a decision this month by a regional body to bring AMISOM to its full strength of 8,100.
“We are capable of providing the required force if other countries fail to do so,” spokesman Felix Kulayigye told AFP. “I should say, however, that I think it is appropriate that other countries contribute.”
The United States welcomed Uganda’s decision and pledged to boost its own aid to the force, the main obstacle preventing the Shebab from seizing full control of Mogadishu.
“We have reviewed, since Sunday, the support that we’re providing to AMISOM. We are going to beef that up,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
He also said 63 FBI agents assisting in the probe of Sunday’s attacks had arrived in the region.
The Kampala attacks, the deadliest in the region since the 1998 bombings against the US embassies in Nairobi and Dares Salaam, spoiled the continent’s World Cup party and drew global condemnation. (AFP)

Pakistan reviews
ban on bin Laden film

Pakistan was Friday reviewing a decision to ban an Indian Bollywood comedy poking fun at Osama bin Laden, which censors said was a threat to security and offensive to Muslims.
Pakistani censors banned “Tere bin Laden” (Without you, Laden) shortly before it was due to open at cinemas nationwide this month.
The film is a spoof about a Pakistani reporter who wants to migrate to the United States and hopes that an interview with a bin Laden look-alike can get him the visa he has long been denied.
Pakistani pop singer Ali Zafar plays the starring role, but the board of censors said the film could incite revenge attacks in a country already suffering Islamist militant bombings weekly if not daily.
Censors said the film ridiculed Pakistani society, was offensive to Muslims, portrays bin Laden as a “coward and ridiculous”, contained vulgar language and could fan hostility among “fanatic and fundamentalist elements” in Pakistan.
The nuclear-armed country has struggled to contain Islamist violence.
Bombs and attacks blamed on Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants have killed more than 3,500 people since government troops besieged a radical mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.
But the film’s promoters appealed the ban as a violation of freedom of expression, forcing government officials to review the decision.
“I’m astonished they did this,” said promoter Nadeem Mandviwala.
“There are many TV programmes in Pakistan criticising the president, prime minister and everybody else in a comic way. Our society has become tolerant.”
Government officials on Friday attended a private screening of the film in order to decide whether to uphold the ban or release it for public consumption, said Abdul Sattar Khokhar, acting chairman of the Central Board of Film Censors.
A decision was expected later Friday, he said.
“This movie is anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan and there is a security threat,” Khokhar told AFP, in comments indicating that the ban was likely to be upheld.
Pakistan has a relatively free media, but authorities in May briefly shut down YouTube and Facebook over blasphemous content on the Internet. Internet links to material considered offensive are still blocked.
The “Tere bin Laden” controversy comes after a number of Gulf States banned a hard-hitting Bollywood film that claims to tell the true story behind violence in the Muslim-majority region. (AFP)


US hands over last Iraq jail

The U.S. military handed over its last prison in Iraq on Thursday, ending an ignominious chapter of the 2003 U.S. invasion that saw thousands detained without charge and triggered outrage after disclosures of abuse.
At a ceremony in a hangar at Camp Cropper detention centre near Baghdad airport, U.S. military officials gave their Iraqi counterparts a giant, symbolic key and said they were confident no prisoner maltreatment would occur under Iraqi supervision.
They also acknowledged some past mistakes.
“To be perfectly frank we have learned from our experiences here,” the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Major General Stephen Lanza, told reporters before the handover ceremony.
“We have learned from our experiences here in terms of detainee operations and from our inability to be prepared for what we encountered,” he said.
Nearly 90,000 people have been rounded up by U.S. forces in the last seven years as suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents or members of Shi’ite militia.
Never charged, they were held for months or years in prisons like Cropper, or Camp Bucca, a sprawling compound in the southern desert near Kuwait that was closed down last year.
Disclosures in 2004 that U.S. jailers had abused and sexually humiliated Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad’s outskirts outraged many Iraqis and may have contributed to a growing insurgency at the time. (Reuters)

Several journalists, including a Reuters photographer and cameraman, have spent months in U.S. military detention without ever being told what they were suspected of.
The U.S. military lost the right to detain Iraqis under a bilateral security agreement signed in 2008 that paves the way for a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Camp Cropper will remain open for at least two years under Iraqi control but will be renamed Camp Al Karkh.
Torture and abuse are commonplace throughout the general Iraqi detention service, where prisons are overcrowded and confessions are the basis of convictions rather than evidence.
But Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michael said she was comfortable with her ministry’s ability to monitor prisoner treatment at Cropper and other former U.S. prisons.
The transfer of control meant an end to a system of military justice under which soldiers detained people for security reasons alone rather than for crimes, she said.
“Now there is some rule of law,” Michael told Reuters at the handover ceremony, speaking in English.
“This is something that is very great for us, very historical for us, that we are changing the rule of all these facilities from American or foreign countries to Iraqi.”
The U.S. military will not be out of the prison business entirely in Iraq.
At the request of the Iraqi authorities, U.S. wardens will continue to guard around 200 of Cropper’s 1,500 detainees, including al Qaeda militants and henchmen of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Obviously there are former regime elements in this population, there are al Qaeda in this population, there are very dangerous detainees that have been identified in this population,” said Major General Jerry Cannon, deputy U.S. commander of detainee operations in Iraq.
Neither Cannon nor Iraqi Justice Minister Dara Nur Addin provided an explanation for why the 200 had been singled out.
Eight of the 200 are former officials of Saddam’s government who have been sentenced to death. Other Saddam confidants, including former Foreign Minister Tareq Aziz, have already been handed over to Iraqi prison authorities.
“Those who stayed with the U.S. forces might be handed over to us. Maybe they want to see the formation of a new government, maybe they will be handed over within days,” Addin said at the handover ceremony. “The issue is not clear yet.” (Reuters)


Iranian scientist was CIA asset inside Iran

The Iranian scientist who spent 14 months in the United States in mysterious circumstances had been a CIA informant inside Iran for years, The New York Times reported Friday.
“Shahram Amiri described to American intelligence officers details of how a university in Tehran became the covert headquarters for the country’s nuclear efforts,” the report said citing unnamed US officials.
“While still in Iran, he was also one of the sources for a much-disputed National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s suspected weapons programme, published in 2007,” it further cited the officials as saying.
Indeed it was “for several years” that “Amiri provided what one official described as ‘significant, original’ information about secret aspects of his country’s nuclear programme,” the US officials were quoted as saying.(AFP)

SKorea, US to stage naval drills

South Korea and the United States will stage a series of naval exercises this year to deter North Korea following the sinking of one of Seoul’s warships, the defence ministry said Friday.
The ministry also announced that a separate anti-proliferation naval drill would be held off South Korea in October, as part of Seoul’s military response.
The South and its US ally, citing findings of a multinational investigation, accuse the North of torpedoing the Cheonan warship in March and killing 46 sailors.
The North angrily denies involvement and says a UN Security Council statement on July 9 - which condemned the attack without specifying the culprit - proves its point.
Seoul and Washington are going ahead with war games this month to deter Pyongyang. But the defence ministry says the venue has been switched from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan (East Sea) following complaints from China.
In addition, a ministry spokesman told AFP, “there will be a series of joint naval drills around the peninsula, probably 10, with US forces this year”.
Some would be part of regular annual joint exercises and others were newly scheduled, he said, adding that none have so far been planned near the disputed Yellow Sea border with the North.
The ministry said it would host a Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) exercise on October 13-14 off the southern port city of Busan.
The United States, Australia, Japan and Singapore will also be among those taking part.
The PSI, launched in 2003 by then-US President George W. Bush, aims to halt the shipping by sea or air of weapons of mass destruction.
The North, which has been accused of exporting missiles and nuclear know-how as well as conventional weapons, has described the South’s involvement in the drill as a declaration of war. (AFP)