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US weathers calls for torture probes at UN rights meeting

GENEVA (AFP) - The US weathered a barrage of calls to probe torture allegations and shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, in its first examination by the UN’s top human rights assembly.
European countries joined appeals for a halt to the death penalty, and there was trenchant criticism of Washington’s recent record during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the detention and interrogation of terror suspects.
While senior US officials welcomed the “constructive dialogue,” rights campaigners denounced a “shaky first step” as Washington put up a robust defence before the 47-member Human Rights Council.
“Let there be no doubt, the US does not and will not torture,” State Department legal adviser Harold Koh told the council.
“This administration began by turning the page and unequivocally ensuring the humane treatment of all individuals in US custody in armed conflict,” he insisted.
Cuban ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez called on the US to “halt war crimes and the killing of civilians,” while Venezuela recommended that Washington put those responsible for torture on trial.
China and Russia acknowledged progress in health and education, as well as attempts to tackle what the Russian ambassador called the “more odious” human rights violations during conflicts.
But they both urged the swift closure of terror detention centres, while Russia recommended “a careful investigation of the facts in the use of torture especially in Guantanamo and Bagram” air force base in Afghanistan.
In Washington, a senior Republican lawmaker responded forcefully to the criticism. The US should quit the rights body “dominated by rogue regimes”, said Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“So long as the inmates are allowed to run the asylum, the Human Rights Council will continue to stand in the way of justice, not promote it,” she said.
“The US should walk out of this rogues’ gallery and seek to build alternative forums that will actually focus on abuses and deny membership to abusers.”
Ros-Lehtinen is set to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee when a new US Congress convenes in January.
The half-day public debate came just two weeks after whistleblowing website WikiLeaks published 400,000 classified US documents on the Iraq war, reviving concern about a lack of accountability for abuse.
Koh said hundreds of military cases had led to punishments being handed out, including more than 100 court martials with convictions.
A US special prosecutor is still investigating whether civilian officials who gave orders under the previous administration might be liable for prosecution, he told journalists.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that former US president George W Bush wrote in his new memoir that he personally gave the go-ahead for CIA officers to waterboard self-confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Mosque attacks kill 65

AKHURWALL, Pakistan (AFP) - A suicide bomber killed at least 61 people when he blew apart a packed mosque, and four others died in a second attack nearby in Pakistan’s militant radical-infested northwest.
The country’s deadliest attack in two months, on the front line of the US-led war on Al Qaeda, saw the mosque reduced to blood-spattered rubble strewn with body parts as a huge explosion ripped through Friday prayers.
The blast was followed hours later by a grenade assault on a second mosque in the same area, which killed at least four people.
Dozens were critically wounded and officials fear the toll from both attacks could rise.
The first explosion turned worship into a bloodbath in Akhurwall village, part of the semi-tribal northwest area of Darra Adam Khel, about 140 kilometres west of the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
Eleven children were among the dead, said a local official.
Only one wall was left standing and the concrete roof collapsed, leaving bloodstains, human
remains and hair scattered in the debris.
Houses near the mosque were also damaged, including that of Wali Mohammad, the leader of a pro-government militia that had clashed repeatedly with local Taliban militants until reportedly cutting a deal earlier this year.
Although the Taliban denied responsibility, a local elder blamed the group, suggesting it could have been acting to punish Mohammad’s militia.
Witnesses said the bomber walked into the mosque and shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greater) before a deafening explosion.
Dilawar Gul, 30, said he was collecting donations from worshippers when he heard the suicide bomber shout.
“Then I heard a huge blast which flung me to part of the mosque where the roof didn’t collapse, and I survived.”
Local administration official Gul Jamal Khan said 61 people had been killed and 104 wounded.
Local elder Sohbat Khan Afridi blamed the Taliban, saying Mohammad, who formed his tribal militia in 2007 to fight the militants, has a house close to the mosque, although he is understood to live in Lahore.

Elephant racket uncovered

NEW DELHI: Police in north-east India have discovered an elephant smuggling ring which is suspected of selling scores of animals in India and Nepal.
Police in Assam said five traders were arrested and some animals due to be taken out of the state were rescued.
The sale and purchase of elephants is illegal in India but police say the trade is flourishing.
An adult elephant fetches nearly 1m to 1.5m rupees ($22,572 to $33,841) while a calf is sold for half that amount.
The rates have sharply increased over the last few years.
Assam police spokesman PK Dutta said they recently arrested a man from the state’s border areas and his confessions led to more arrests and the rescue of the elephants.
“Some of these illegal traders even have the audacity to print calling cards saying they deal in elephants,” Dutta said.
“We have arrested a few of them and we are trying to catch some more because we now know all those involved in this illegal trade.”
Dutta said a wildlife protection society, Green Heart Nature, helped the police in busting the racket.
“We investigated this illegal trade. When we sighted some of these traders, we tipped off the police and they responded speedily,” said Bablu Dey of the Green Heart Nature, based in western Assam’s Kokrajhar district.
Dutta is the police superintendent of Kokrajhar, through which the elephants were smuggled into - BBC News

19 die in shopping mall fire

BEIJING (AFP) - Fire ripped through a shopping mall in northeast China, killing 19 people, state media said yesterday, as police detained the general manager of the complex for questioning.
Twenty-seven others were injured in the massive blaze in the city of Jilin, which broke out on Friday morning, Xinhua news agency reported. One person was still missing.
Of those hurt, 24 were still in hospital but none of them suffered serious injuries, Xinhua quoted city government spokesman Liu Qizhi as saying.
The flames were extinguished 10 hours after the fire erupted, but thick smoke complicated the firefighters’ task of searching for survivors and victims, the report said, citing local officials.
Authorities said they were still investigating the cause of the blaze, which was concentrated on the fourth floor of the mall, which mainly housed furniture stores.
Dozens of shops were already open when the fire began at about 9:15 am, the report said.

Afghan withdrawal would hurt India: McCain

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Senator John McCain appealed to President Barack Obama to stay engaged in Afghanistan, warning that a hasty troop withdrawal would jeopardise warming ties with India.
The senior Republican senator from Arizona pledged support for India across the US political divide in an address delivered just as Obama flew off for a trip meant to breathe new life into the relationship.
But McCain, whose Republican Party made strong gains in congressional elections Tuesday, warned Obama against pulling out of Afghanistan “before positive conditions can be shaped and sustained on the ground”.
The consequences would
“certainly be terrible for us, but they will even be worse for India, which will have a terrorist safe haven on its periphery,” McCain said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I can think of few more immediate ways to damage the US-India relationship -- and to convince India that the United States is both a declining power and an unreliable partner -- than for us to pull out of Afghanistan before achieving our goals,” McCain said.
Obama has tripled US forces in Afghanistan since defeating McCain for the White House, pledging to root out the Taliban whose extremist regime was ousted by US-led forces following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

MSNBC suspends TV host

WASHINGTON: The US broadcasting network MSNBC has suspended prime-time host Keith Olbermann for making political contributions.
The Politico news website said he had contributed to the campaigns of three Democratic candidates.
MSNBC president Phil Griffin said Olbermann had been suspended without pay.
During coverage of the US mid-term elections, Olbermann was one of the network’s key presenters.
“Mindful of NBC News policy and standards, I have suspended him indefinitely without pay,” Griffin said, according to a statement quoted by the Huffington Post.
With Rachel Maddow, Olbermann has been one of the most prominent hosts on the network, which analysts say has come to be seen as liberal-aligned.
The BBC says that while America’s 24-hour news channels are increasingly politicised and polarised, it appears there is a limit.
The suspension comes just a couple of weeks after America’s national radio network, NPR, sacked one of its commentators for saying that he became nervous when flying with passengers wearing what he called “Muslim garb”.
– BBC News

Washington Post profit soars

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The Washington Post bucked the industry trend and reported a modest gain in print advertising revenue in the third quarter.
The Washington Post Co. said print advertising revenue rose three percent at its flagship newspaper in the quarter to $72 million but is down four percent over the first nine months of the year compared with a year ago.
The Post Co, which owns the Kaplan higher education business and television operations in addition to The Washington Post, said net profit more than tripled in the quarter to 60.9 million dollars.