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(AFP) - UN agencies have stepped up calls for donors to deliver on their pledges for Pakistan to prevent what UN chief Ban Ki-moon called a “slow-motion tsunami” from wreaking further catastrophe.
Torrential monsoon rains unleashed the worst floods for 80 years, affecting 20 million people and an area the size of England in Pakistan’s worst natural disaster that has already created economic, political and humanitarian chaos.

The floods have left nearly 1,500 people dead in the nuclear-armed country of 167 million -- a top US foreign policy priority on the frontline of the US-led war on Al-Qaeda and locked in battles with homegrown Taliban.
Its weak, democratically elected government has faced an outpouring of public fury over sluggish relief efforts and there are growing fears that losses of up to 43 billion dollars could bring economic oblivion.
The United Nations now says that 55 percent of its 460-million-dollar appeal for emergency funds for the next three months has been received.
On Friday UN chief Ban said member states have pledged more than 200 million dollars in response to a fresh appeal for emergency aid.

“The generosity of countries and individuals will make a real difference in the daily lives of millions of people,” Ban added. “We must keep it up. Pakistan is facing weeks, months and years of need.”
Eight million flood survivors in desperate need of food, shelter and clean drinking water require humanitarian assistance to survive, as concerns grow over potential cholera, typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks. Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that UN agencies were ramping up their aid effort but that the full picture was only beginning to emerge.
“It’s a disaster that came very slowly, it’s not an earthquake that hits suddenly that we can immediately see the victims. But we are now seeing the magnitude of this catastrophe.”

The UN World Food Programme said it urgently needs helicopters to get food to millions of flood victims who remain cut off by the high waters, although weather forecasters say the monsoon systems are easing off.
The agency warned that the floods have killed or are threatening millions of livestock, and launched an urgent appeal for animal feed.

No anniversary celebrations for Lockerbie bomber

(AFP) - Britain warned Libya not to celebrate the first anniversary of the freeing of the Lockerbie bomber from a Scottish prison, as the White House slammed his release one year ago as “wrong”.
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet Al Megrahi was thought to have only three months to live due to terminal prostate cancer when he was released on compassionate grounds and returned home to a hero’s welcome in Libya.
But he has defied his prognosis, to the shock of mainly American relatives of the 270 people who died when Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, four days before Christmas in 1988.
No celebrations took place in Libya to mark the freedom of Megrahi on Friday, a year after he flew home to Tripoli.
A youth rally is planned in the capital to mark the national youth day, celebrated on August 20 each year, but “no reference will be made to Megrahi”, organisers said.
The British Foreign Office had earlier issued a strongly worded statement urging Libya not to hold celebrations honouring the only man “convicted for the worst act of terrorism in British history”.
“Any celebration of Megrahi’s release will be tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive to the victims’ families,” a spokeswoman said. She added: “We have made our concerns clear to the Libyan government.”
Richard Northern, Britain’s ambassador to Tripoli, pre-warned senior Libyan government officials that any public events honouring Megrahi could damage warming ties between the two countries, The Guardian newspaper reported.
But the release continues to arouse strong feelings in the United States, with President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, saying the decision to free Megrahi was “unfortunate, inappropriate and wrong.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added that Washington “continues to categorically disagree with the decision” to release him.
Their remarks came as four US senators called on Friday for a new investigation into whether business considerations played a role in the decision to let Megrahi return to his homeland.

Iranian nuclear plant not a major risk

(AFP) - Iran’s first nuclear plant, scheduled to go online this weekend, is not a major proliferation risk, despite international concerns about the nature of Tehran’s atomic programme, experts said.
The Russian-built plant in the southern port city of Bushehr is set to be launched on Saturday, following more than three decades of delay. But it will be months yet before it actually starts generating electricity.
Western countries -- and the US in particular -- are convinced that Iran is seeking to build an atomic bomb under the guise of a peaceful civilian nuclear programme, a charge which Tehran vehemently denies.
And some observers have expressed concern that nuclear fuel from Bushehr could be diverted and used to build a weapon.
But non-proliferation experts disagree, arguing that Iran’s other nuclear activities, notably its extensive uranium enrichment programme which it has built up in defiance of four rounds of UN sanctions, were of greater and more immediate concern.
“Bushehr is not a proliferation risk as long as it is run to produce power for electricity generation,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert in non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“It would be a risk if Iran operated it differently, i.e. for short periods at low-burn up in order to produce weapons-usable plutonium -- but in this case the IAEA would know,” the expert said, referring to the UN atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.
IAEA inspectors, already monitoring all of Iran’s declared nuclear activities, will be on the ground in Bushehr to oversee the introduction of the fuel into the reactor core. And the plant is also under full agency safeguards, meaning inspectors will always be keeping a close eye on Bushehr during the start-up phase and when it is finally up and running.
They will also ensure that all of the spent fuel is returned to Russia as agreed.
The international community would therefore know “if Iran tried to divert the spent fuel to reprocess the plutonium or to divert the fresh fuel to re-enrich it to higher levels,” Fitzpatrick said.
The expert argued that inflammatory statements about Bushehr could divert attention “from the real proliferation risks posed by the enrichment facilities and the research reactor at Arak, which, unlike Bushehr, is ideally suited for plutonium production”.
And he concluded: “Condemning the start-up of Bushehr sends the wrong signal to the Iranian people because it wrongly implies the West is against any nuclear technology in Iran.
“Nuclear power is fine. It’s the sensitive nuclear technologies that can easily be used for weapons that are the problem,” Fitzpatrick said.

Israel, Palestinians to resume direct talks

(AFP) - Israel and the Palestinians will resume direct peace talks here in early September with the aim of reaching a deal within a year to create an independent Palestinian state, US officials announced.
In the first direct talks in 20 months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas will meet face-to-face in Washington on September 2 with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The peace talks will come after Netanyahu and Abbas meet separately the day before with US President Barack Obama, who has made Arab-Israeli peace a priority for his administration, Clinton told reporters.
Obama will also meet separately September 1 with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Arab mediators whose states have signed peace treaties with Israel and who, Clinton said, play a “critical role.”

Backed by a diplomatic quartet of world powers, the parties will “relaunch direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues, which we believe can be completed within one year,” Clinton announced at the State Department.
She was referring to security for Israel, borders of a future Palestinian state, the future of Palestinian refugees, and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
Clinton said that the “continued leadership and commitment to peace” of both Mubarak and King Abdullah “will be essential to our success”.

Clinton said she and Obama, as well as Netanyahu and Abbas, shared “the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.”
A top Palestinian official in Ramallah said Palestine Liberation Organisation voted Saturday to accept the US invitation to peace talks, which Netanyahu had already welcomed.
The White House said it was “very hopeful” about the talks, while in London, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague called them a “courageous step” towards peace in the region.
“Urgent progress must now be made. We call on all parties to refrain from any activity that could undermine negotiations,” Hague added in a statement.

The diplomatic Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- reiterated past statements calling for an end to the Israeli occupation, which began in 1967.
The reference is important for the Palestinians, who want the borders of their future state along the boundaries that existed before Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in 1967.
Clinton said the new round of negotiations “should take place without preconditions and be characterised by good faith and a commitment to their success, which will bring a better future to all of the people of the region.”
The point appeared designed to appease the Israelis, who reject Palestinian calls for a complete freeze of Jewish settlements.

News in brief

Wyclef Jean accepts ruling

(AFP) - International Hip-Hop star Wycleff Jean accepted a ruling by Haiti’s electoral council late on Friday to exclude him from the November presidential election.
“Though I disagree with the ruling, I respectfully accept the committee’s final decision, and I urge my supporters to do the same,” Jean said in a statement released after the ruling was announced.

Manmohan and Sonia pay tribute to Rajiv

(Economic Times) - President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders paid tribute to former Prime Minsiter Rajiv Gandhi on his 66th birth anniversary at his memorial Veer Bhumi on Friday. Vice President Hamid Ansari was amongst the others who paid homage to Gandhi.
The day is being observed as ‘Sadbhavana Diwas’ (Harmony Day), which will be followed by “social unity” fortnight being observed from Aug 20 till Sep 3.

Ex-military ruler for Nigerian presidency

(AFP) Nigerian ex-military ruler Ibrahim Babangida will run for president in upcoming elections, nearly two decades after he controversially overturned a ballot viewed as fair, a statement said.
“Given my wealth of experience and decades of leadership study, plus the urgent need to confront the challenges of our national lives, I believe the time is ripe for me to serve our people as a civilian president,” he said in the statement.
Babangida becomes the second Muslim from the country’s north to seek the ruling party’s nomination for the election, which could occur as early as January, though a date has not yet been set.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party is expected to hold a primary ahead of the elections.

Two more dead in anti-India protests

(CNN) -- Anti-India protests and clashes rocked Indian-administered Kashmir, leaving two people dead and several others wounded, authorities said.
The region has been in the throes of violent protests since June 11. At least 62 people have been killed -- mostly teenagers and young adults -- and scores have been wounded.
The protests are part of a so-called “Quit Kashmir” campaign launched by separatist groups against Indian rule in Kashmir. In the northern Kashmir city of Sopore, Indian security forces opened fire on protesters, killing an 18-year old man and wounding one other person.
Residents claim the shooting was unprovoked, but a spokesman for the Indian paramilitary central reserve police force (CRPF) said mobs threw stones at officers, and one officer fired in self defence.
The young man, Mudasir Ahmad, was initially critically injured in the shooting but succumbed to his injuries in the hospital early Friday. Authorities promptly issued a curfew in Sopore, but it was defied by thousands of residents, who joined Ahmad’s funeral march chanting “We want freedom!”
Police have registered a case against the paramilitary unit that opened fire, according to a senior police officer.

Strikes continue in South Africa

(Christian science monitor) An ongoing national South Africa strike by government workers was calmer on Friday, after violent protests flared earlier in the week. Many schools remain closed and some hospitals are turning patients away.

Soldiers and the South African Police Service (SAPS) on Friday increased their visibility in Johannesburg’s main trouble areas following violent labor protests that left dozens of people injured and property worth thousands of dollars reportedly destroyed.

The ruling African National Congress and labor unions have condemned the violence, which comes amid a national public workers strike that has shut down schools and seen patients turned away from hospitals across the country.
Today there were peaceful strike marches across Johannesburg’s Main Street and Commissioner Street, leading to the Library Gardens, where government workers later converged. The demonstrators were escorted by both police and members of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Service to ensure peace prevailed.
The huge march blocked traffic for more than two hours.
Gauteng Provincial Police spokesman Brigadier Govindsamy Mariemuthoo told the Monitor the heavy police presence was aimed at dealing with and deterring rowdy elements.

Pakistan floods a ‘slow-motion tsunami’: Ban Ki-moon

UN Secretary-General urges countries to send more money, quicker as monsoon rains worsen flooding

UN Secretary General (SG), Ban Ki-moon, has appealed for swifter aid to provide immediate relief in food, shelter and clean water for the millions affected by the worst monsoon rains on record.
“Make no mistake, this is a global disaster,” Ban told a hurriedly convened session of the UN general assembly. “Pakistan is facing a slow-motion tsunami. Its destructive powers will accumulate and grow with time,” he warned.

Weather forecasts have said there could be four more weeks of rain, which will add to the flood problems.
The UN has appealed for $ 460 m (£ 295 m) in aid and donors have so far given about half that figure. But the SG said all of the money was needed immediately to help victims over the next three months.
The US has pledged an extra $ 60 m in help, bringing America’s total aid to $ 150 m.
In a video message, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to the American public to donate generously to a newly established “Pakistan Relief Fund”.

“The enormity of this crisis is hard to fathom, the rain continues to fall and the extent of the devastation is still difficult to gauge,” said Clinton. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones, those who have been displaced from their homes and those left without food and water.”
The US special representative for Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said “many billions” would be needed to respond to the flooding. Speaking at the Asia Society in New York, he called on other countries such as China, to step up to the plate and said: “The water has affected everyone, It’s an equal opportunity disaster, and military operations have effectively faded away.”

The British government yesterday pledged to double its emergency payments, raising its pledge to £ 64.3 m.
Director of Policy to International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell who has recently visited Pakistan to inspect the effect British aid has had so far, told the UN general assembly in New York that the international community had to do more. He told the UN it was “deeply depressing” that the international community was “only now waking up to the true scale of this disaster”.

He said: “I’ve come to New York directly from Pakistan, where I saw the dire need for more help. I saw the sheer and shocking magnitude of this catastrophe. It is clear that unless more aid is delivered now, many more people will die from disease and malnutrition. The UK is already helping more than three million people in flood-affected areas.” This doubling of our aid should now provide water and sanitation to 500,000 people; shelter to 170,000 people; help meet the nutritional needs of 380,000 people and provide enough health services to cover a population of 2.4 million people.”
He emphasised funding would only be allocated to NGOs and UN agencies which could prove they were helping people get back on their feet. (Guardian)

Judge asks hospitals to paralyse man

A Saudi judge has asked several hospitals whether they would punitively damage a man’s spinal cord, after he was convicted of attacking another man with a cleaver and paralysing him, local newspapers reported today.
Saudi Arabia enforces strict Sharia law, and occasionally metes out punishments based on the ancient code of an ‘eye for an eye’.
Abdul-Aziz al-Mutairi, 22, was left paralysed after a fight more than two years ago, and asked a judge to impose an equivalent punishment on his attacker, under Sharia law, reports said.
The newspaper Okaz said the judge in northwestern Tabuk province, identified as Saoud bin Suleiman al-Youssef, asked at least two hospitals for a medical opinion on whether surgeons could render the attacker’s spinal cord non functional.
The attacker, who was not identified, has spent seven months in jail. The reports cited the letter of response from one of the hospitals and the victim.
Two of the hospitals involved and the court were closed for the Saudi weekend beginning today, and could not be reached for comment.
Okaz reported that a leading hospital in Riyadh – King Faisal Specialist Hospital – said that it would not do the operation. The article quoted a letter from the hospital saying, “inflicting such harm is not possible”, apparently refusing on ethical grounds.
The story was also reported by Saudi English-language paper Arab News, though neither paper carried any response from a second hospital that reportedly received the request, King Khaled Hospital in Tabuk province.
Sharia law in Saudi Arabia allows defendants to ask for a similar punishment to harm inflicted on them. Cutting off the hands of thieves, for example, is common.
Under the law, the victim can receive blood money to settle the case.
Human Rights groups say trials in Saudi Arabia fall far below international standards. They usually take place behind closed doors, and without adequate legal representation.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has been trying to clamp down on extremist ideology, including unauthorised clerics issuing odd religious decrees. (Guardian.co.uk)

Mosque near Ground Zero

Obama under fire

Republicans are ratcheting up attacks on proposals to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, ahead of November’s midterm elections, after Barack Obama endorsed the plan.
But even as some prominent Republicans compare the building of the mosque with Japanese attacks on the US, others are warning the tactic could backfire. A leading Democrat has called for an inquiry into those behind opposition to the mosque, suggesting it is being covertly funded.
The assault on the plans for the Islamic centre two blocks from Ground Zero, is becoming an issue in Congressional races far from the World Trade Centre site.
Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, caused outrage suggesting Islam as a whole was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and drawing parallels with World War II. “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbour,” he said. “There is no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Centre.”
Gingrich has also claimed that the imam behind the proposed community centre, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a “radical Islamist”, even though the US State Department flew Rauf to Saudi Arabia this week to promote America, by telling audiences “what it’s like to practise Islam under our regime of religious freedom and equality”.
A common theme of the Republican attacks is Saudi Arabia’s ban on non-Muslims from Mecca. “Ground Zero is hallowed ground to Americans,’’ Elliott Maynard, a Republican candidate for Congress in West Virginia, said. “Do you think the Muslims would allow a Jewish temple or Christian church to be built in Mecca?’’
Republicans have attacked Obama for endorsing the mosque, including Senator John Cornyn, who said the president’s comments show he is “disconnected from the mainstream of America”, and predicted that the controversy will be an important issue in the midterm elections
US president, Barack Obama, has defended controversial plans to build a mosque near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, saying to oppose them would be un-American.
Prominent Republicans have led protests against the construction of an Islamic cultural centre and mosque two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Centre. The proposed building would not be visible from Ground Zero.
Obama acknowledged that “sensitivities” surrounded the 9/11 site, which he described as “hallowed ground”, but he said Muslims had the same right to practise their religion “as anyone else”.
In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan, he said: “As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as everyone else in this country.
“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.
“This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.”
The White House has not previously taken a stand on the mosque. Its press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has described the issue as a local matter
The president’s support for the mosque was welcomed by New York City’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who described Obama’s speech as a “clarion defence of the freedom of religion”.
But some relatives of the victims of the 9/11 attacks were quick to condemn the president.
“Barack Obama has abandoned America at the place where America’s heart was broken nine years ago, and where her true values were on display for all to see,” said Debra Burlingame, a spokeswoman for some victims’ families and the sister of one of the pilots killed in the attacks.

Green leafy veg ‘may cut diabetes risk’

A diet rich in green leafy vegetables may reduce the risk of developing diabetes, UK research says.
In an analysis of six studies into fruit and vegetable intake, only food including spinach and cabbage was found to have a significant positive effect.
A portion and a half a day was found to cut type 2 diabetes risk by 14%, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reports.
But experts urged people to continue to aim for five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
“This study suggests that green leafy vegetables seem to be particularly important in terms of preventing diabetes,” said Professor Melanie Davies, University of Leicester
The researchers from Leicester University reviewed data from the studies of 220,000 adults in total.
They found that eating more fruit and vegetables in general was not strongly linked with a smaller chance of developing type 2 diabetes, but “there was a general trend in that direction”.
Yet, when it came to green leafy vegetables, which the researchers said also includes broccoli and cauliflower, the risk reduction was significant.
The team calculated that a daily dose of 106g reduced the risk of diabetes by 14% - a UK “portion” is classed as 80g.
It is not clear why green leafy vegetables may have a protective effect, but one reason may be they are high in antioxidants, such as vitamin C, and another theory is that they contain high levels of magnesium.
Study leader Professor Melanie Davies, Professor of Diabetic Medicine at the University of Leicester, said the message to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day remains an important one.
But she added: “People like very specific health messages.
“We know that intake of fruit and vegetables is important, but this study suggests that green leafy vegetables seem to be particularly important in terms of preventing diabetes.” Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK said: “We already know that the health benefits of eating vegetables are far-reaching, but this is the first time that there has been a suggested link, specifically between green leafy vegetables and a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”
But he warned the evidence was limited, and it was too early to isolate green leafy vegetables and present them alone as a method to cut the chances of developing the condition.
“We would be concerned if focusing on certain foods detracted from the advice to eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, which has benefits in terms of reducing heart disease, stroke, some cancers and obesity as well as type 2 diabetes.”
The team are now planning a study in people at high risk of developing the condition, to see if increasing their intake of vegetables such as spinach and kale can help to reduce their chances of being diagnosed with diabetes.

From Shock‘n’Awe to quiet exit

US troops pull out of Iraq

It began with shock and awe, and ended with a silent trickle across the border in the dead of night. As the 4th Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division arrived at their staging post in the sands of Kuwait, Sergeant Donald Wilms got out of his battle truck and high-fived friends in his platoon. A few hours earlier, they had rumbled across the dusty border, becoming the last US combat unit to leave Iraq.
For the men and women of the Division, seven years and five months of war in Iraq is now over. As soon as they had crossed the border, after a three-day drive along the spine of central Iraq, US commanders announced that the overall American combat mission in the country was also complete – 12 days earlier than the official end of operations, and with doubts about the continuing US role in Iraq lingering.
The soldiers had driven for about 18 hours south from Baghdad, along Route Tampa – the road the US army and marines had used to get to Baghdad in 2003. Now they were using it to leave.
They had moved mostly at night, to lessen the risk of roadside bombs and ambushes along the main highway south – a vast, flat thoroughfare that had been built by Saddam, literally to move armies. As central Iraq convulsed in violence from 2005-08, the highway had become almost a ‘No-Go’ zone for civilians.
Just before the final drive over the border, Lt Col Mike Lawrence stood bathed in the glow of a lamp tower, readying his remaining charges in the crunching gravel of a staging yard 100 miles north of the border. His young battalion was preparing for one last push, out of a war that had consumed many of them for the past six years, and left a disoriented nation grasping for its bearings.
Lawrence had a keen sense of history in the making. As the engines of the 60 to 80 armoured fighting vehicles in the yard, known as Strykers, rumbled to life, one by one, he announced: “This is going to put the finishing touches on seven years here. What has been achieved is going to echo throughout the region, prosperity, peace, truth and freedom: the works.”
His inner court stood silently. They had just finished a pre-departure rundown of the risks on the road ahead. There was a 10-man bomb-making team active between their staging point, the giant Camp Adder base on the outskirts of Nasireyah, and Basra in Iraq’s deep south. If they made it that far, the 40-mile run to Kuwait would be a doddle.
This drive south was huge in symbolism for the US military, which claims it will no longer play an interventionist role in Iraq.
From September 1, the US military plans to implement “Operation New Dawn”, a period when it wants to change the relationship between the US and Iraq from that of master and servant to partnership of civilian, democratic equals.
As the soldiers shut down their Strykers and rolled into their quarters in the sprawling tents of Camp Virginia base, near the American-run Ali al-Salem airfield on the outskirts of Kuwait City, a further 56,000 US forces remained on Iraqi soil. At least 6,000 of them will leave Iraq before September 1, with the rest phased out gradually between September 1 and December 31, 2011.
It is almost certain that there will be further American combat deaths in Iraq, despite today’s announcement. US forces will continue to patrol with Iraqi counterparts in some of the country’s most restive areas, including Mosul, Diyyala and Kirkuk.