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Nepal’s peace process at crossroads: UN chief
KATHMANDU (AFP) - Nepal’s peace process is at a crossroads, the head of the UN has warned, just two weeks before the planned closure of a UN peace mission in the country.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the lack of progress in the peace process that began when Nepal’s bloody civil war ended more than four years ago was a “growing concern”.
“Nepal’s peace process is at a crossroads,” Ban said in a report to the UN Security Council published in New York.

“The prolonged political deadlock that has hampered progress has become a growing concern for Nepalis and the international community alike as key timelines and deadlines approach in the coming months.”
Ban said much had been achieved since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2006, ending a decade-long war between Maoist rebels and the state that killed at least 16,000 people.

But he said key tasks had yet to be completed, including the drafting of a new national constitution and the integration of thousands of Maoist former fighters into the state security forces.
His comments came as the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) prepares to close on January 15 after officials complained it had been unfairly dragged into the political battles that have prevented the formation of a new government.

Nepal has been without a fully functioning government for six months after the prime minister resigned in June under pressure from the opposition Maoist party.
Ban blamed the stalemate on deepening rifts among and within Nepal’s rival parties.
“They have in the past made major compromises, and they must soon do the same. None of them can afford to put the entire process and the fruits of their hard work at serious risk,” he said.
UNMIN was set up in 2007 with a mandate to monitor the Nepal army and its rival, the Maoist People’s Liberation Army, and their weapons.

It is not yet clear who will fulfil that role when UNMIN leaves. This week, the Maoist party formally requested a six-month extension of UNMIN’s mandate, saying the body was needed until the peace process could be completed.
Karin Landgren, Ban’s representative in Nepal, is due to present the report’s findings to the Security Council in early January.

Rice noodles prompt latest China food scare

BEIJING (AFP) - Large amounts of rice noodles made with rotten grain and potentially carcinogenic additives are being sold in south China, state press said, in the country’s latest food safety scare.
Up to 50 factories in south China’s Dongguan city near Hong Kong are producing about 500,000 kilogrammes (1.1 million pounds) of tainted rice noodles a day using stale and mouldy grain, the Beijing Youth Daily said.
The cost-conscious producers were bleaching the rotting rice and using additives including sulphur dioxide and other substances that could cause cancer to stretch one pound (half a kilogramme) of grain into three pounds of noodles, it said.
The poor-quality rice had often been reserved for animal feed before food prices began rising dramatically in China in the latter half of 2010, the paper said, citing wholesalers.
Rice noodles, often fried and served with bits of meat and vegetables, are a favourite in south China.
In recent weeks, a series of tainted food
incidents have been reported in the state media as China gears up for New Year and Lunar New Year celebrations -- a time when food and alcohol purchases traditionally increase.
Tainted red wine, bleached mushrooms, fake tofu and dyed oranges have all surfaced on store shelves -- spooking consumers still wary about food quality after a deadly scandal erupted two years ago over contaminated milk powder.
US State Dept calls for democratic Myanmar
WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US has called on Myanmar to free prisoners and engage in dialogue to promote democracy, as the country prepared to mark its independence on January 4.
The State Department congratulated Myanmar, also known as Burma, on its 63rd independence anniversary but hoped for “the day when Burma’s citizens will succeed in their peaceful efforts to exercise freely their universal human rights.”
“We are unwavering in our support for an independent, peaceful, prosperous and democratic Burma,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
“The US remains prepared to improve bilateral relations, but looks to the Burmese government to meet the aspirations of its diverse peoples by freeing all political prisoners and engaging in an inclusive and meaningful dialogue with all its citizens in pursuit of genuine national reconciliation.”
The junta in November freed the leader of the democratic opposition, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest after her party won elections but was not allowed to take power.
But her release came only after the junta held new elections, which were widely denounced by Western nations and by opposition groups as a sham.
Human rights groups say that Myanmar is still holding more than 2,100 political prisoners who are less prominent than Suu Kyi.
President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009 launched a dialogue with the regime aimed at ending Myanmar’s isolation. US officials have voiced disappointment at the results but said engagement is the best way forward.
Obama honours CIA operatives
HONOLULU, Hawaii (AFP) - President Barack Obama honored Thursday seven Americans killed in an attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan, saying senior Al Qaeda leaders were now “under more pressure than ever before”.
The CIA operatives were killed a year ago by a Jordanian informant who gained access to one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s major field bases and set off explosives rigged to his body.
“As we mark the first anniversary of their sacrifice at Khost, this is the work to which we recommit ourselves today,” Obama said in a statement.
“We will ensure that our dedicated intelligence professionals have the training and tools they need to meet the missions we ask of them.”
The December 30, 2009 attack on the CIA base in Khost, near the lawless border with Pakistan, was a devastating blow for the spy agency and the second deadliest single assault in CIA history.
“Today, Al Qaeda’s senior leadership is under more pressure than ever before and is hunkered down in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Obama insisted.
“We are relentlessly pursuing our mission to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat that terrorist organisation.”
The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Al Balawi, was seen by CIA operatives as a valuable contact -- after offering information on Al-Qaeda leadership -- and they had invited him onto the base of the compound without patting him down.
As Balawi was about to undergo a search near a building entrance, he set off his explosive with CIA agents standing nearby.
Balawi was tied to Taliban insurgents battling US-led forces in Afghanistan and had been plotting to attack his CIA handlers, it later emerged.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said after a review released in October that no single individual or group could be assigned blame for the incident, although the internal task force probing the incident concluded the “assailant was not fully vetted and that sufficient security precautions were not taken”.
Hong Kongers want corruption-free and fair society
HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kongers want their society to be fair and corruption-free society more than they want it to be prosperous, a survey has shown.
Twenty-seven percent of people questioned by researchers from the University of Hong Kong said they wanted things to be fair, while 23 percent wished for a corruption-free city and 22 percent for a prosperous society.
“If people have to choose between having a prosperous, bribery-free, fair, free or welfare society, most people would opt for fairness,” said Robert Chung, director of the university’s Public Opinion Programme.
Hong Kong’s wealth gap has risen significantly over the past decade, making the glitzy financial hub one of the most inequitable places in Asia, according to the latest United Nations figures.
A growing income gap has seen the number of people living in poverty climb 8.6 percent in recent years, from 1.16 million in 2005 to 1.26 million in mid-2010 or about one in every six people, according to Oxfam Hong Kong.
“In the past decade, Hong Kong has made a lot of economic progress, but not all managed to share that wealth,” political scientist Ma Ngok said.
“Some Hong Kongers are realising economic prosperity does not translate into better lives for them, as large businesses are usually the main beneficiaries,” he added.
The poll surveyed more than a thousand Hong Kongers between December 17 and 22.
South Sudan recording stars sing ‘independence’
JUBA, Sudan (AFP) - Let us go, we can make it, Mary Boyoi sings softly in a flute-like voice as she sways to the rhythm, sharing a dream that south Sudan will choose independence in next month’s referendum.
Boyoi, a rising pop artiste, is one of several singers who are literally using their voices to get out the independence vote in the oil-rich but poverty-ridden region in a poll that looks set to divide Africa’s largest country.
As rapper and producer Lam Tungwar puts it, “artistes are an advantage because a lot of people are listening to them more than to the politicians.”
More than three million people are registered to vote in the January 9 referendum, a key element in the 2005 peace accord that ended two decades of civil war between the largely Christian south and Muslim north.
That war left more than two million people dead and millions more displaced, and made a lasting impression on Boyoi, who lost her father to the conflict in 1988.
“I have a message that my father told me when I was a little kid... When we grew up, we saw that unity was not attractive and that is why we say ‘let us go.’
“I am maybe very ashamed to say that I really like my brothers and sisters in north Sudan; I have so many friends (there), but really I see for us it is better to separate.”
Another song, by Peter Garang, is entitled “No to Unity, Yes to Separation” and is on the playlists of local radio stations around the region.
But independence is only one thing these artistes dream of in a charged political atmosphere where some fear a vote for separation could lead to renewed conflict with the north.
They want peace as well.
And that message is particularly poignant from hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal: at the age of seven, after his mother died, he was recruited as a child soldier by the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army.