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US moves to overturn ban on cluster bombs
Cluster bombs are widely deemed inherently indiscriminate weapons, but the US aims to torpedo international ban
The US is leading an effort to water down an international ban on cluster bombs. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits cluster munitions, requires the destruction of stockpiles within eight years, and has been signed by 111 countries, while the US has steadfastly refused to sign it. In a proposal that meant to neuter the convention, Washington now is pushing to permit the use of cluster bombs as long as they were manufactured after 1980 and had a failure rate of less than one per cent.
The Convention began to take effect in June 2010, just after a US cluster bomb killed 35 women and children in Yemen, with the Pentagon stubbornly refusing to admit to the wrongdoing despite damning evidence compiled by Amnesty International, which was later corroborated by classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
Cluster bombs are highly imprecise weapons that work by dispersing hundreds of smaller submunitions, often referred to as bomblets or grenades. Often, the bomblets do not initially explode, only to explode later with civilians about.
Cluster bombs were used in the initial phases of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the Obama administration is currently leading the cause to keep them legal.


Mexico helicopter crash kills Interior Secretary Blake Mora

Mexico’s Secretary of the Interior, Francisco Blake Mora, has died in a helicopter crash near Mexico City. The helicopter was flying to Cuernavaca in neighbouring Morelos state for a prosecutors’ meeting when it went down. All eight people on board were killed. President Felipe Calderon said weather conditions were probably to blame.
Blake Mora, 45, was appointed to the post last year and was a key figure in the war against drug cartels. The helicopter had initially been reported missing. Some Mexican media reports said there was heavy cloud at the time.
“Unfortunately the interior secretary, his [assistants] and the helicopter crew were found dead,” government spokeswoman Alejandra Sota said. Deputy Interior Secretary Felipe Zamora Castro and the interior ministry’s chief press officer Jose Alfredo Garcia Medina were also killed in the crash along with other government officials and the air force crew, Sota said. She said a search for the helicopter began when it was discovered it had strayed from its planned course.
Mexican television showed wreckage from the helicopter strewn across a hillside.
Sota said the craft went down in the Xochimilco area, just south of Mexico City.
“The cloudy conditions at the time certainly make you think about the probability of an accident,” President Calderon said in a televised address. He said a thorough investigation of the accident was being launched and cancelled a trip to Hawaii for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum.
The interior secretary is Mexico’s senior cabinet position and the top official after the president, with responsibility for domestic affairs and security. Blake was Calderon’s fourth interior secretary. One of his predecessors, Juan Camilo Mourino, was killed in a plane crash in Mexico City three years ago.
Blake began his political career in the north-western border city of Tijuana in the mid-1990s, later serving as interior secretary for Baja California state. He also served as a federal congressman from Calderon’s National Action Party. He earned a reputation as being a hardliner in Mexico’s struggle with drug cartels.
Blake Mora frequently travelled to cities badly affected by the cartels, such as Veracruz and Ciudad Juarez, to help co-ordinate the government’s response. More than 40,000 people are reported to have died from drug-related violence since President Calderon sent in the army to help combat the cartels in 2006.


Gunshots reported a few blocks from White House

CNN: Shots were reported fired Friday night between the White House and the Washington Monument, setting off a flurry of law enforcement activity, a US Park Police spokesman said.
The incident was reported shortly after 9.00 p.m., according to Sgt. David Schlosser, spokesman for the Park Police. Responding officers found an abandoned vehicle in the vicinity of the reported incident and were searching it “trying to figure out what happened.”
Schlosser noted that ‘no evidence’ has been recovered to indicate shots were actually fired. “I think, obviously, the thing that makes it of interest is simply the location, you know, a bit like real estate,” Schlosser told reporters. “The fact that this occurred outside the White House area. At this point, we don’t think that there’s any link to the White House.”
A Secret Service official who asked not to be identified reported that gunshots rang out as two cars sped on the National Mall. Agents stationed on 16th Street heard the shots, then saw the cars heading west on Constitution Avenue, the official said. At least one witness saw that someone had “jumped out of the vehicle and ran,” but no one was captured, the official said.
An AK-47-style rifle was recovered in or near the abandoned vehicle, the official said.
In a brief appearance before reporters, Schlosser said he was not aware of any gun having been found.


Mood grim over Mars probe fault
BBC: Russian space scientists are growing increasingly gloomy about the prospects of saving the country’s $170m (£107m) mission to a Moon of Mars. The Phobos-Grunt probe launched successfully on Wednesday but then failed to fire an engine to put it on the correct course to the Red Planet. The probe is stuck in Earth orbit and engineers may have only days to fix the fault before the batteries run out.
The project is Russia’s most ambitious space venture in recent years. The setback extended a year-long streak of bad luck for the Russian space programme. Mishaps have included the failure of three satellite navigation craft in December 2010 and the loss of an unmanned space station re-supply ship in August this year. Officials said that attempts to communicate with Phobos-Grunt (‘grunt’ means ‘earth’ in Russian) had so far come to nothing.
“The scariest thing in this field is when you get no signal back from the craft,” an unnamed source told the RIA Novosti news agency after Thursday’s second failed attempt to establish contact with the craft.
“I think we have lost the Phobos-Grunt,” Vladimir Uvarov, a former senior space official at the Russian Defence Ministry, told the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
“It looks like a serious flaw. The past experience shows that efforts to make the engines work will likely fail.”
Another official told the Gazeta.ru website: “The chances of it being revived and sent on its way to Mars are extremely small.” If the problem is simply a software issue and engineers can upload new commands, engineers have a chance of rescuing the mission. However, if the fault is rooted in a hardware malfunction, Phobos-Grunt could be doomed.
The recovery efforts are complicated by the fact that the Russian space agency Roscosmos only has a few hours a day to reach the probe due to Russia’s limited earth-to-space communications network. The European Space Agency has now joined the country’s long-distance efforts to rescue the dying craft by enlisting its stations in French Guiana and Australia. One glimmer of hope comes from the observation that the spacecraft is falling back to Earth slightly slower than first suspected.


Western black rhino declared extinct
CNN: Africa’s western black rhino is now officially extinct according the latest review of animals and plants by the world’s largest conservation network. The subspecies of the black rhino - which is classified as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species - was last seen in western Africa in 2006.
The IUCN warns that other rhinos could follow saying Africa’s northern white rhino is “teetering on the brink of extinction” while Asia’s Javan rhino is ‘making its last stand’ due to continued poaching and lack of conservation.
“In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented,” Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN species survival commission said in a statement.
“These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve performance, preventing other rhinos from fading into extinction,” Stuart added.
The IUCN points to conservation efforts which have paid off for the southern white rhino subspecies which have seen populations rise from less than 100 at the end of the 19th Century to an estimated wild population of 20,000 today. Another success can be seen with the Przewalski’s Horse which was listed as ‘extinct in the wild’ in 1996 but now, thanks to a captive breeding programme, has an estimated population of 300.
The latest update to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reviews more than 60,000 species, concluding that 25% of mammals on the list are at risk of extinction.
Many plants are also under threat, say the IUCN. Populations of Chinese fir, a conifer which was once widespread throughout China and Vietnam, is being threatened by the expansion of intensive agriculture according to the IUCN. A type of yew tree (taxus contorta) found in Asia which is used to produce Taxol (a chemotherapy drug) has been reclassified from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, as has the Coco de Mer - a palm tree found in the Seychelles islands - which is at risk from fires and illegal harvesting of its kernels.
Recent studies of 79 tropical plants in the Indian Ocean archipelago revealed that more than three quarters of them were at risk of extinction. In the oceans, the IUCN reports that five out of eight tuna species are now ‘threatened’ or ‘near threatened’, while 26 recently-discovered amphibians have been added to the Red List including the ‘blessed poison frog’ (classified as vulnerable) while the ‘summers’ poison frog’ is endangered.
“This update offers both good and bad news on the status of many species around the world,” Jane Smart, director of IUCN’s global species program said in a statement.
“We have the knowledge that conservation works if executed in a timely manner, yet, without strong political will in combination with targeted efforts and resources, the wonders of nature and the services it provides can be lost forever.”


India’s Supreme Court ‘shocked’ by Pakistanis in jail

AFP: India’s Supreme Court expressed shock on Friday that more than 250 Pakistanis were being held in Indian jails without ever having faced trial, with at least one behind bars since 1965.
The court, hearing a public interest case filed by a member of the public, ordered the central government to file a comprehensive report explaining the detentions. “It’s shocking that over 254 Pakistani nationals are languishing in jails without a trial,” said Supreme Court judge R.N. Lodha.
The inmates are being held in Jammu and Kashmir, with many thought to be people arrested after unwittingly crossing the disputed border in the area, the court heard. Four are women. It is thought that there may be inmates held without trial in other states too.
The prime ministers of India and Pakistan said Thursday they expected to open a ‘new chapter’ in their fractious relationship after talks at a regional summit in the Maldives.