Aug 27, 2012

Fighters Bulldoze Sufi Mosque In Libyan City

Attackers bulldozed a mosque containing Sufi Muslim graves in the centre of Tripoli in broad daylight on Saturday, in what appeared to be Libya's most blatant sectarian attack since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

Government officials condemned the demolition of the large Sha'ab mosque and blamed an armed group who, they said, considered its graves and shrines to Sufi figures un-Islamic.

It was the second razing of a Sufi site in two days. Ultra-conservative Islamists wrecked Sufi shrines with bombs and another bulldozer and set fire to a mosque library in the city of Zlitan in the early hours of Friday, an official said.

Libya's rulers have struggled to control armed groups who are competing for power in the north African country a year after Gaddafi's fall. The president of Libya's newly elected National Congress, Mohamed al-Magariaf, called the prime minister to an emergency meeting on Sunday.

"What is truly regrettable and suspicious is that some of those who took part in these destruction activities are supposed to be of the security forces and from the revolutionaries," Magariaf told reporters on Saturday night. He did not elaborate on how security forces took part.

A Reuters reporter saw the bulldozer level the Sha'ab mosque as police surrounded the site and prevented people from approaching and did not stop the demolition. Inside the mosque, empty graves lay gaping in the rubble.

"A large number of armed militias carrying medium and heavy weapons arrived at the al-Sha'ab mosque with the intention to destroy the mosque because of their belief graves are anti-Islamic," said a government official who declined to be named.

He told Reuters that authorities tried to stop them but, after a small clash, decided to seal off the area while the demolition took place to prevent any violence spreading. "The SSC (Libya's Supreme Security Council) joins the condemnation," said council spokesman Abdel Moneim al-Hurr.

A man who appeared to be overseeing the demolition told Reuters the interior ministry had authorised the operation after discovering people had been worshipping the graves and practicing "black magic". The ministry was not available for comment.

One of Libya's highest-profile cultural clashes since the toppling of Gaddafi has been between followers of the mystical Sufi tradition and ultra-conservative Salafis, who say Islam should return to the simple ways followed by its prophet. Salafis have formed a number of armed brigades in Libya. They reject as idolatrous many Sufi devotions--which include dancing and the building of shrines to venerated figures.

Assad's Forces Accused Of Massacre Near Damascus

Syrian opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's army of massacring hundreds of people in a town close to the capital that government forces recaptured from rebels.

About 320 bodies, including women and children, were found in houses and basements in the town of Daraya, southwest of Damascus, according to activists who said on Sunday most had been killed "execution-style" by troops.

Activists uploaded several videos to the Internet showing rows of bloodied bodies wrapped in sheets. Most of the dead appeared to be young men of fighting age, but at least one video showed several children who appeared to have been shot in the head. The body of one toddler was soaked in blood.

Due to restrictions on non-state media in Syria, it was impossible to verify the accounts independently.

Clashes are raging across Syria as the 17-month-old rebellion grows increasingly bloody, particularly in the northern city of Aleppo, where the army and rebels appear stuck in a war of attrition. Fighting in Aleppo on Sunday was the heaviest in the past week, according to Reuters journalists on the ground.

Fighter jets dropped bombs and fired missiles on rebel-held districts in the south of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, as residents fled in panic. Reuters journalists there heard heavy explosions as clouds of black smoke rose a mile into the air.

Rebels say they control at least half the city of 2.5 million, but their hold is fragile as long as Assad's forces can unleash their air power against fighters who are comparatively lightly armed.

The uprising, which began as peaceful protests, has become a brutal civil war. United Nations investigators have accused both sides of war crimes but laid more blame on government troops and pro-government militia than on the rebels.

The killings in Daraya, a working class Sunni Muslim town that sustained three days of bombardment before being overrun by the army on Friday, raised the daily death toll to 440 people on Saturday, one of the highest since the uprising began, an activist network called the Local Coordination Committees said. The official state news agency said: "Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town."

Aug 26, 2012

Obama Leads Tributes To Armstrong, First Man On Moon

US President Barack Obama has led tributes to astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, who died on Saturday at the age of 82.

Mr Obama said on his Twitter feed: "Neil Armstrong was a hero not just of his time, but of all time."

Hundreds of millions watched Armstrong land on the Moon on 20 July 1969 and describe it as: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

The line became one of the most famous quotes of the 20th Century.

Armstrong's family confirmed his death in a statement on Saturday, saying he had died from complications after surgery to relieve four blocked coronary arteries.

The family statement praised him as a "reluctant American hero" and urged his fans to honour his example of "service, accomplishment and modesty".

"The next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink," the family said.

Mr Obama thanked Armstrong for showing the world "the power of one small step".

Last November he received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest US civilian award.

Many of Armstrong's colleagues and friends paid tribute to him as a modest, private man who never sought the limelight.

Michael Collins, a pilot on the Apollo 11 Moon mission, said: "He was the best, and I will miss him terribly."

Armstrong famously refused most public appearances and interviews.

In a rare interview with Australian TV this year, he reflected on a moment during his three hours on the Moon when he stopped to commemorate US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had died in action.

"It was special and memorable, but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do," he said.

More than 500 million TV viewers around the world watched its touchdown on the lunar surface.

Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin collected samples, conducted experiments and took photographs during their moonwalk.

Mr Aldrin told the BBC he would remember his colleague as a "very capable commander and leader of a world achievement".

"We're missing a great spokesman and leader in the space programme," he said.

Apollo 11 was Armstrong's last space mission. In 1971, he left the US space agency Nasa to teach aerospace engineering.

Born in 1930 and raised in Ohio, Armstrong took his first flight aged six with his father and formed a lifelong passion for flying.

He flew Navy fighter jets during the Korean War in the 1950s, and joined the US space programme in 1962.

Correspondents say Armstrong remained modest and never allowed himself to be caught up in the glamour of space exploration.

"I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer," he said in February 2000 in a rare public appearance.

Nasa chief Charles Bolden paid tribute to him as "one of America's great explorers".

"As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind's first small step on a world beyond our own."

Aug 25, 2012

Gambia Executes Nine

Amnesty International says it has received "credible reports" that Gambia executed nine death row prisoners on Thursday.

"More persons are under threat of imminent executions in the coming days," Amnesty International said.

President Yahya Jammeh had vowed to kill all 47 death row inmates by next month, in a national speech to mark the Muslim festival of Eid.

The last official execution in Gambia took place in 1985.

The African Union called on Mr Jammeh to renounce his plans after he made the announcement on Sunday.

But according to Amnesty International, nine people, including one woman, were removed from their prison cells and executed on Thursday night.

Three of those reportedly executed had been sentenced for treason, the group said in a statement.

"The decision of the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to execute nine prisoners after more than a quarter of a century without execution would be a giant leap backwards," said Paule Rigaud, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Africa region.

She added that many of the death row inmates were political prisoners or have faced unfair trials.
'Determined man'

A Gambian security source told AFP news agency that all 47 death row prisoners had been "transferred to one place".

Referring to President Jammeh, the source said: "The man is determined to execute the prisoners and he will do so."

The death penalty was abolished when former President Dawda Jawara was in power but reinstated in 1995 shortly after Mr Jammeh seized power in a military coup.

"By the middle of next month, all the death sentences would have been carried out to the letter; there is no way my government will allow 99% of the population to be held to ransom by criminals," President Jammeh said in an speech on Sunday, which was broadcast on national television the next day.

In response, Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi, who is the current chair of the African Union, sent his foreign minister to Gambia.

"After having learned of the imminent execution of a number of prisoners sentenced to death, President Yayi, who is very concerned, wished that President Yahya Jammeh not carry out such a decision," Beninois Foreign Minister Nassirou Bako Arifari told BBC Afrique.

Mr Jammeh's human rights record has often been criticised by international organisations, with particular concerns over press freedom.

Last year, after winning a fourth term in office in widely criticised polls he said that his critics could "go to hell" because he feared "only Allah".

The tiny West African state is a popular tourist destination.

Source: BBC News  

Tropical Storm Isaac Makes Landfall In Haiti

Gale-force winds and driving rain are lashing the coast of Haiti after Tropical Storm Isaac made landfall.

The US National Hurricane Centre says the heavy rainfall is a "major threat" and may cause floods and mudslides.

Aid groups warn that some 400,000 Haitians still living in makeshift camps after the deadly earthquake of 2010 are extremely vulnerable.

Storm warnings are also in place for neighbouring Dominican Republic, as well as Cuba and parts of Florida.

The United States National Hurricane Centre (NHC) predicts that the storm will move near or over Cuba later on Saturday and approach the Florida Keys on Sunday.

It said Isaac had displayed "some increase in forward speed" as it ripped across Haiti.

The storm could pose a potential threat to Florida during the US Republican National Convention.

Although Isaac did not become a hurricane as it hit Hispaniola - the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic - the near-hurricane strength winds and rain have the potential to cause great destruction, especially in Haiti.

Apple Awarded $1bn In Damages From Samsung In US Court

A US court has ordered Samsung to pay Apple $1.05bn (£665m) in damages for infringing intellectual property.

The jury decided several Samsung devices had infringed iPhone-maker Apple's software and design patents, but rejected counter-claims by Samsung.

Apple will now seek import bans on several of its rival's products. Samsung has said it will appeal.

Correspondents say the ruling is one of the most significant in a global battle over patents and intellectual property.

In recent weeks, a court in South Korea ruled that both technology firms had copied each other, while a British court threw out claims by the US company that Samsung had infringed its copyright.

But the year-long US case has involved some of the biggest damages claims, and is likely to shape the way patent licences are handled in the future.

Samsung promised to appeal against the decision describing it as "a loss for the American consumer".

"It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices," the South Korean firm said.

The statement added that it was "unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners".

Apple, however, said it applauded the court "for finding Samsung's behaviour wilful and for sending a loud and clear message that stealing isn't right".

Apple said it intended to seek sales injunctions at a follow-up hearing on 20 September

The two firms account for more than half of global smartphone and tablet computer sales.

The nine-person jury at the federal court in San Jose, California had to consider 700 questions about each side's claim that its rival had infringed its intellectual property.

It deliberated for less than three days before coming to a unanimous decision, rejecting all of Samsung's claims and upholding five of Apple's allegations, including:

    Some of Samsung's handsets, including its Galaxy S 4G model, infringed Apple's design patents for the look of its iPhone including the system it uses to display text and icons
    All the disputed Samsung devices had copied Apple's "bounce-back response", which makes lists jump back as if yanked by a rubber band
    Several Samsung devices incorporated Apple's facility allowing users to zoom into text with a tap of a finger

Apple had wanted $2.5bn in damages. Samsung had sought $519m.

Michael Gartenburg, research director at Gartner, told the BBC it could be a good thing for consumers in the long run because it would force Apple's competitors to innovate.

"Anyone who was even thinking about borrowing a technology or design from Apple will think twice about it now," he said.

Other analysts point out that Apple could be the overall loser because the court case has helped boost Samsung's profile.

Also, the South Korean firm has already brought out a new generation of products that should avoid the patent issues.

However, Christopher Marlett of investment bank MDB Capital Group said there was a "social cost" for Samsung.

"As a company, you don't want to be known as someone who steals from someone else," he said.

Apple remains one of the South Korean company's biggest customers buying computer chips and, reportedly, screens.

Fatal Blast At Venezuela Refinery

A gas explosion at Venezuela's biggest oil refinery has killed at least 19 people, starting a fire and causing extensive damage, officials say.

At least 53 people were also injured in the blast at the Amuay plant in Falcon State in the north-west of the country, officials announced.

State Governor Stella Lugo said nearby houses had been damaged by the blast. The fire is said to be under control.

The refinery, one of the biggest in the world, produces 645,000 barrels a day.

Ms Lugo said there was no risk of further explosions.

Among the dead is a boy of 10. The army was sent in to help ferry the injured to hospital.

Analysts say refineries in Venezuela, South America's biggest oil producer, have suffered from a long list of problems including power failures and accidents.

It was not immediately how the explosion might affect oil shipments from Venezuela.

"We are deploying our whole fire service team, all our health team, the whole contingency plan on the orders of [President Hugo] Chavez to first of all care for the people affected by this emergency," Governor Lugo said on state TV.

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said supplies of fuel had been cut off to the part of the refinery still burning.

Troops secured the area and were helping oil workers inspect the damage, as they looked for the cause of the leak.

Mr Ramirez said the blast had occurred at 01:11 (05:41 GMT) on Saturday.

"The gas cloud exploded, igniting at least two storage tanks and other facilities at the refinery," the energy minister told state TV.

"It was a significant explosion, there is appreciable damage to infrastructure and to houses opposite the refinery."

Venezuelan Vice-President Elias Jaua said on his Twitter account that military air ambulances had been dispatched to help evacuate the injured.

He added that the defence minister was travelling to the refinery along with Ms Ramirez and other officials.

Amuay, on the Paraguana Peninsula, is part of the Paraguana Refinery Complex, which also includes the adjacent Cardon refinery.

It is one of the biggest refinery complexes in the world with an overall capacity of 955,000 barrels per day, Reuters news agency notes.

Source: BBC News  

Mexican Police Shoot American Embassy Staff In Botched Chase

Two U.S. Embassy employees were shot at and wounded by Mexican police on Friday after they were caught up in a police chase on the outskirts of the capital, Mexico's Navy said.

Police fired on a vehicle in which the embassy employees were traveling, which carried diplomatic plates, after the driver veered out of the way when he saw the officers' weapons.

"At that moment those in the ... (police) vehicle opened fire on the diplomatic vehicle," the Navy said in a statement. "Moments later, three other vehicles joined the chase and fired shots at the U.S. Embassy vehicle."

Two employees were taken to a hospital for treatment, and their injuries were not life-threatening, it said. The U.S. government said the two employees were in stable condition.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Mexican government security official said federal police had thought the vehicle belonged to a group of suspected kidnappers they were pursuing, and had opened fire on it. "This was all because of a mix-up," the official said. The Navy said the officers involved were being questioned.

"We are working with Mexican authorities to investigate an incident this morning in which two employees of our embassy in Mexico City came under attack by unknown assailants," said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. "They are receiving appropriate medical care and are in stable condition."

The incident took place on a highway on the southern outskirts of Mexico City close to the city of Cuernavaca, which has been ravaged by criminal gangs during the government's conflict with drug cartels. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico was still looking into the incident and could not yet provide further details.

Roadside shootings have been a feature of the violence linked to drug gangs that has overshadowed President Felipe Calderon's six years in office. Gangs have been known to set up fake military checkpoints to ambush rival groups.

Last year, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were shot by hitmen on a major Mexican highway. One of the agents died.

IAEA Gets No Deal With Iran On Bomb Research Suspicions

The U.N. nuclear watchdog and Iran failed on Friday to strike a deal aimed at allaying concerns about suspected nuclear weapons research by Tehran, a setback in efforts to resolve the stand-off diplomatically before any Israeli or U.S. military action.

A flurry of bellicose rhetoric from some Israeli politicians this month has fanned speculation that Israel might hit Iran's nuclear sites before the U.S. presidential election in November. Tensions rose another notch on the eve of Friday's talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when diplomatic sources said Iran had installed many more uranium enrichment centrifuges at its Fordow underground site.

While the new machines are not yet operating, the move reaffirmed Iranian defiance of international demands on it to suspend enrichment and may strengthen the Israeli belief that toughened sanctions and concerted diplomacy are failing to make the Islamic Republic change course.

"The discussions today were intensive but important differences remain between Iran and the U.N. that prevented agreement," Herman Nackaerts, the IAEA's chief inspector, told journalists after about seven hours of talks with an Iranian delegation in Vienna. "At the moment we have no plans for another meeting."

Little headway appeared to have been made on the IAEA's most urgent request--access for its inspectors to the Parchin military site where the agency believes Iran has done explosives tests relevant for developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran's ambassador to the Vienna-based IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said that "undoubtedly some progress" was made but that differences remained.

"Because it is a very complex issue ... issues related to national security of a member state are something very delicate," the veteran Iranian diplomat said. "But I have to say that we are moving forward ... and we are going to continue this process so that we at the end of the day will have a framework agreed by both sides."

Soltanieh had said before the talks began: "Both sides are trying to bridge the gap."

The diplomatic sources who revealed the expansion of centrifuge capacity at Fordow also said satellite imagery indicated Iran had used a brightly coloured tent-like structure to cover a building at Parchin, increasing concern about a possible removal of evidence of illicit past nuclear work there.

Israel signalled its patience with diplomacy was fading. "Only yesterday we received additional proof that Iran is continuing accelerated progress towards achieving nuclear weapons and is totally ignoring international demands," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before the talks ended.

But in Washington, an official of President Barack Obama 's administration said the new centrifuges, while concerning, would not significantly change the amount of time Iran would need to "break out" of its treaty obligations and construct a nuclear device. "This work ... does not build confidence in their intent and it further demonstrates their failure to fulfill their obligations," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But, it is also not a game-changer."

Asked about the outcome of the Vienna meeting, a Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA said: "As dismal as expected."

Iran, Israel's arch-enemy and the world's No. 5 oil exporter, insists it wants nuclear energy for more electricity to serve a rapidly growing population, not nuclear weapons, and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked.

Nackaerts, the IAEA's global chief of inspections, said before the meeting that the broader goal was a deal on greater, overall inspector access to answer the U.N. watchdog's questions about possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme. It was the first meeting between the two sides since discussions in early June petered out inconclusively, dashing previous hopes that an accord might be on the cards.

Friday's talks were separate from Tehran's negotiations with six world powers that have made little progress since resuming in April after a 15-month hiatus, but the focus on suspicions about Iran's nuclear ambitions means they are still closely linked. Washington has said there is still time for diplomatic pressure to work in pressing Iran to curb its enrichment programme, which is the immediate priority of the six powers--the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany.

Refined uranium can fuel nuclear power plants or nuclear bombs, depending on the level of enrichment. Iran says it seeks only civilian nuclear energy. But its refusal to limit and open up its atomic activity to unfettered IAEA inspections that could determine whether it is purely peaceful, or not, has led to harsher punitive sanctions and louder talk about possible military action.

Aug 24, 2012

Anders Behring Breivik: Norway Court Finds Him Sane

A Norwegian court has found that mass killer Anders Behring Breivik is sane and sentenced him to 21 years in jail.

Breivik admitted killing 77 people and wounding more than 240 others when he bombed central Oslo and then opened fire at an island youth camp last year.

He insisted he was sane and refused to plead guilty, seeking to justify his attacks by saying they were necessary to stop the "Islamisation" of Norway.

Prosecutors had called for him to be considered insane.

The five judges were unanimous in ruling that Breivik was sane.

He was convicted of terrorism and premeditated murder, and given the maximum sentence of 21 years' imprisonment.

However, that can be prolonged at a later date if he is deemed to remain a danger to society.

Source: BBC News 

Hot-air Balloon Crashes In Slovenia, Four Killed

A hot-air balloon carrying tourists, including children, plunged to the ground in flames on Thursday just outside the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, killing four people and injuring 28, the police said.

The balloon was ablaze when firemen arrived at the scene of the crash, firefighters' chief Tomaz Kucic told the official STA news agency.

"We were landing but I think the speed was too high. We hit the ground, bounced off once, and hit it again. We held on but five of us fell out," a survivor, Tomaz Simec, told the Slovenian television Kanal A. "After that, I no longer remember."

Police recovered the four bodies of those killed, charred beyond recognition, STA reported. Six children were among the injured, according to Slovenian news website 24ur.

Most of the 32 people on board--30 passengers, a pilot and a co-pilot--were Slovenian nationals, with three Italians and one Briton, a police spokeswoman told Reuters television. All 32 were accounted for.

A short video on the 24ur website showed a police helicopter hovering above a cornfield at Ig, a suburb just outside Ljubljana where the balloon hit the ground at 8 a.m. The area was cordoned off by police, who combed it for hours with dogs in search of the victims.

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear. STA said the balloon had requested permission to land about 15 minutes before it crashed.

"We do not know what caused the accident and the investigation is still ongoing," the police spokeswoman said.

Balloon rides are a popular tourist activity in Slovenia. Rides can last up to several hours and typically leave early morning or late afternoon, according to the website of the country's tourist board.

Former UK Fugitive Handed Ten Years For Theft On Grand Scale

Businessman Asil Nadir was jailed for 10 years on Thursday for stealing millions from his British business empire to fund a luxury lifestyle, ending a 22-year fight to convict a man once seen as a darling of the UK corporate world.

The 71-year-old Turkish Cypriot was convicted of stealing 29 million pounds ($45.83 million) from Polly Peck, an ailing textiles company which he transformed into one of the most successful British firms of the 1980s.

The company collapsed in 1990 when British officials began a fraud investigation. Nadir was arrested but after being released on bail fled the country in a private plane to live in northern Cyprus, where he was beyond the reach of British law. It was one of Britain's biggest corporate failures and was an embarrassment for the Conservative Party, which accepted big donations from Nadir in the 1980s and is currently in power.

Driven by a "burning sense of injustice", Nadir returned to London in 2010 to clear his name after 17 years on the run. But his gamble failed when a jury at the Old Bailey court found him guilty of 10 out of 13 charges of theft.

"The company's money was not your money. You knew that. You nonetheless helped yourself to it. You committed theft on a grand scale," judge Tim Holroyde told Nadir, according to the Press Association.

A flamboyant figure, Nadir wore double-breasted suits with matching silk ties and handkerchiefs during the seven-month trial. He would arrive at court in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar with his wife Nur, 28, and two burly security guards.

"My husband is innocent," his wife said outside court, her voice cracking with emotion. "We will continue with our efforts to rectify the wrongs."

Nadir admitted taking money from Polly Peck, but said he always balanced the books by paying money into other parts of the business.

In his heyday, Nadir was regarded as having the Midas touch. Polly Peck was the top performing stock on the London Stock Exchange during the 1980s after he struck deal after deal, including the takeover of the Del Monte fruit company.

Nadir used his vast wealth to buy the lifestyle of an English gentleman, with two country estates, racehorses and a garage packed with Range Rovers and Rolls Royces. Eager to be accepted by the British establishment, he donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservatives, the centre-right party led by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

However, his patronage proved embarrassing after the Serious Fraud Office began the Poll Peck investigation. Conservative minister Michael Mates, a friend of Nadir, resigned in 1993 when it emerged he had given the tycoon a watch engraved with the words "Don't let the bastards grind you down".

Opposition Labour lawmaker Simon Danczuk said on Wednesday that the Conservatives should repay the money. A Conservative spokesman said the donations were received in good faith more than 22 years ago from what was then a leading British company.

The Serious Fraud Office said it suspected Nadir stole 150 million pounds from Polly Peck, although only 13 specimen charges totalling 29 million pounds were brought before the court. Nadir must serve half of the 10-year term before being considered for parole.

After being sentenced, Nadir turned to wife, smiled and said goodbye.

Red Cross Fears Sierra Leone Cholera Crisis, Appeals For Funds

Sierra Leone's worst recorded outbreak of cholera risks sparking a wider health crisis unless its causes can be tackled more aggressively, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Thursday.

The IFRC, which launched an emergency appeal for $1.14 million earlier this month, said the number of cholera cases was continuing to rise and that the number of fatal cases now topped 200.

The water-born bacteria is a regular blight in West Africa where toilet facilities are poor and whose urban slums face flooding every year with the rainy season. Neighbouring Guinea has also seen around 100 deaths so far this year.

Early rains together with increasing overcrowding in cities such as the Sierra Leonian capital Freetown have pushed the number of reported cases close to 12,000 this year, well past the previous record of 10,000 in 1994. "The disease has the potential to cause a serious humanitarian crisis," Amanda McClelland, IFRC Emergency Health Coordinator, said in a statement. "It is an urgent to step up our efforts as the situation is deteriorating quickly ... We need more funds to deliver the most effective response."

Money spent on tackling the roots of the outbreak so far has been spent on health promotion activities and on helping affected families prepare oral rehydration solutions and build suitable toilets. But the IFRC said the level of aid coverage was still "very low".

It said 217 deaths and 11,992 cases had been reported across 10 districts of the country, half of them among the one-million-strong population of Freetown.

While cholera is generally not fatal, it can kill in just a few hours when diarrhoea and vomiting cause dehydration, especially among the elderly. A cholera outbreak in Haiti that followed its 2010 earthquake killed more than 7,000 people. The death toll in Sierra Leone is likely to rise further in coming weeks towards the late-September peak of the rainy season. The outbreak is accelerating in Guinea, where around 50 have died of cholera since the start of July.

Aug 23, 2012

Keanu Reeves Going Digital With Side By Side

Keanu Reeves' latest film, "Side By Side," has no car chases, explosions or slow-motion bullets like those in "The Matrix". But for fans of cinema, it has something even more valuable--an inside look at digital technology's impact on traditional film.

The 98-minute documentary is co-produced by Reeves, who also acts as interviewer, and directed by Chris Kenneally and it features a who's who of Hollywood heavyweights discussing their views on making movies through film or digital means. Filmmakers interviewed include James Cameron, David Fincher, David Lynch, George Lucas, Danny Boyle, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh.

"Side By Side" opened in Los Angeles on Aug. 17, hits New York Aug. 31 and plays around the United States in weeks to come. It is available nationwide in the U.S. on video-on-demand Wednesday. Reeves recently spoke to Reuters about the movie.

Q: Where did the idea for "Side by Side" come from?

A: "A couple of years ago I was working on this film, "Henry's Crime," which I also produced, and I was talking with Chris Kenneally about all the new digital technology and all the changes in the industry. We were sitting in the post-production suite trying to match the photochemical image with the digital image, side by side, and it just hit me--film is going away, and we should document this whole evolution. So Chris and I gradually put a team together to make the documentary."

Q: The film features interviews with some 70 top filmmakers, directors of photography and other experts. How did you pull all that together?

A: "It wasn't easy and it took almost a year to film everyone. We began at the 2010 Camera Image festival in Poland and got a bunch of (cinematographers) there, including all these greats I'd worked with, such as Vittorio Storaro, Michael Chapman and Michael Balhaus. That was our start, and then word-of-mouth spread, and I began contacting some of the directors I'd worked with over the past 25 years. So that history together obviously helped get some of the big names on board and we just started building momentum. We ended up getting nearly 150 people and then we had to cut it down for the final movie."

Q: Did anyone turn you down?

A: "We got nearly everyone we wanted, although of course some people were unavailable or didn't want to be interviewed, for whatever reason."

Q: Who was the hardest person to get hold of?

A: "Chris Nolan, because his schedule on 'The Dark Knight Rises' was so crazy. It took a long time to set that one up.

Q: Nolan's always been an outspoken champion of film as opposed to digital. Is it true you appealed to his anti-digital sentiments by writing him an old-fashioned letter?

A: "Yes, I actually wrote to him on an old-fashioned typewriter. I think he got a kick out of that and we finally shot him in his trailer on the Batman set in LA."

Q: You also managed to get "Matrix" directors, the Wachowskis. That was quite a coup as they haven't done an interview in over a decade.

A: "Well, we've stayed friends since 'The Matrix' films and they were lovely. I felt honoured that they wanted to be a part of this. And I think they add so much to this documentary and may surprise a lot of people with their views. Although they pioneered so many digital techniques in the 'Matrix' films, they have this big love for film and the look of film.

Q: Any other highlights?

A: "Talking to George Lucas was pretty special. The sheer impact that he's had on digital cinema is just so amazing, and I learned so much. I mean, I wasn't familiar with his development of the EditDroid (editing system) which then turned into the Avid but we all know about ILM (Lucas' special effects company) and THX (his movie audio company) and his work with digital cameras. He's a true maverick and pioneer of where we are today. He's done it all.

Q: Having made the documentary, how do you feel about the future of physical film? Is it dead?

A: "I think it is. Even Chris Nolan admits that film, if not dead, is now on life support, and it's just going to become more and more difficult to even get film. Personally I'm a big film fan and it's sad to see it go but the future is digital."

Q: You're also behind the camera again directing your first big feature, a kung fu adventure titled "Man of Tai Chi," and shooting it in China. Did you go digital?

A: (Laughs) "We did. I developed this project for five years and we're shooting on location in Beijing and Hong Kong. I'm having a great time directing and I definitely plan to do it again."

LL Cool J Fought And Detained Burglar At His House, Police Say

Grammy-winning rapper and TV actor LL Cool J fought a burglar in the kitchen of his Los Angeles house early on Wednesday and held him there until officers arrived to take the man into custody, police said.

The 58-year-old prowler, whom LL Cool J caught in his house shortly before 1 a.m., appears to have been homeless, said Los Angeles police spokesman Richard French. "There was a brief physical confrontation between the two," he said.

Afterward, LL Cool J called police and the prowler, whose name has not been released, was taken into custody and transported to a local hospital, French said. He will be charged with burglary, French said. The extent of the man's injuries were not immediately clear.

"LL Cool J, and his family, are safe and thank everyone for their thoughts and concern," his spokesman, Rhett Usry, said in a statement.

"As a father, husband and citizen, he is committed to keeping his family safe and is cooperating with authorities on this private matter," Usry said.

LL Cool J was born James Todd Smith on Long Island, New York, and he adopted the name LL Cool J to stand for Ladies Love Cool James. The 44-year-old entertainer's rap career dates back to his critically acclaimed 1985 album "Radio".

In the 1990s, he won a pair of Grammy awards for best rap solo, taking one trophy for the track "Hey Lover" and the other for "Mama Said Knock You Out." Since 2009, LL Cool J has starred in the television drama "NCIS: Los Angeles," playing special agent Sam Hanna in the show about a criminal investigative unit of the U.S. Navy.

Thousands Being Moved From China's Three Gorges Dam, Again

China relocated 1.3 million people during the 17 years it took to complete the Three Gorges dam. Even after finishing the $59 billion project last month, the threat of landslides along the dam's banks will force tens of thousands to move again.

It's a reminder of the social and environmental challenges that have dogged the world's largest hydroelectric project. While there has been little protest among residents who will be relocated a second time, the environmental fallout over other big investments in China has become a hot-button issue ahead of a leadership transition this year.

In some cases, protests have forced the scrapping of multi-billion dollar projects. The most recent was on July 28, when Chinese officials cancelled an industrial waste pipeline after anti-pollution demonstrators occupied a government office in the eastern city of Qidong, destroying computers and overturning cars.

"If the government says you have to move, you move," said Shuai Linxiang, a 57-year-old woman among 20,000 people to be relocated from Huangtupo, where they were resettled in 1998. "We can't oppose them."

The Three Gorges dam was completed in July when its final turbine joined the national grid and the facility reached its full capacity of 22.5 gigawatts, more than enough to power Pakistan or Switzerland. As the dam was being built on the Yangtze River, in central Hubei province, authorities moved 1.3 million people who lived in what became its 1,045 sq km (405 sq mile) reservoir, an area greater in size than Singapore.

Reuters was recently given a rare tour of the 181-metre (600-ft) tall dam and reservoir. In a sign of how sensitive the fresh relocations are, plainclothes security men and people who identified themselves as officials from the "news department" followed Reuters reporters around the area for three days, hindering interviews by intimidating locals with their presence.

Since word of the new resettlement has filtered out, Shuai and her neighbours have become known in China as "Three Gorges' immigrants, once again". They were moved to Huangtupo in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the reservoir began to consume their original town.

Besides 20,000 people in Huangtupo, another 100,000 may be moved in the next three to five years because of geological risks, Liu Yuan, an official with the Ministry of Land and Resources in Beijing said in April, according to state-run China National Radio. The number of "geological hazards" had risen 70 percent since water levels in the reservoir reached a maximum of 175 metres (574 ft), he said, without elaborating, although he was believed to be referring to landslides. Liu could not be reached for comment.

Landslides in Huangtupo had been exacerbated by changes in water levels in the reservoir, said Fan Xiao, a geologist for a government-linked institute in southwestern Sichuan province, who studied conditions there in 2006. Dam officials lower water levels by as much as 30 metres during the summer in anticipation of floods, and raise them in winter. The change softens the slopes along its banks, Fan said.

"It's like a person who's standing in place, if you push and pull him, he'll definitely not be as stable as before," he said.

For hundreds of thousands who live on the banks, landslides can wipe out homes. The government has not given recent statistics of deaths from landslides but at least 48 people were killed in 2007 across the area, according to state media.

Three Gorges officials defend the facility and say it has brought development to an otherwise poor region. Wang Hai, deputy head of the operations department at the complex, said the dam did not increase the risk of landslides, which he said were not unusual along reservoir banks.

"The stability of the reservoir banks is not worse than before," he told Reuters in an interview.

Besides forced resettlement, the dam has been criticised for its polluted waters. Hundreds of factories, mines and waste dumps were submerged over the years and additional urban growth along the reservoir has caused waste water discharge to double between 2000 and 2005, according to International Rivers, a California-based NGO that aims to protect rivers. An island of waste was floating in the dam's brown waters when Reuters visited.

"After the Three Gorges dam was built, the deterioration of the water quality is very obvious and it is irreversible," said Ai Nanshan, a professor of environmental sciences at Sichuan University. "The water flow has slowed down, so its ability to purify itself has deteriorated."

The dam has accelerated development along the reservoir by 50 to 100 years, said Chen Lei, another official in the Three Gorges operations department. "If not for the Three Gorges project, their (residents') lives would be confined as before, deep in the mountains, a relatively backward state of poverty," he said.

Authorities are building a new town nearby called Shennongxi to house residents of Huangtupo. Shuai was among the first to move to one of the many seven-storey apartment blocks painted in cream, pink and grey colours that stand amid scorched red earth. If you don't move, we won't care about you, she said a local official told her last year.

For income, Shuai sells groceries from her apartment. She was given 5,000 yuan ($790) as a "reward" for being among the first to move, according to a June 2011 government document she showed Reuters; 200 yuan per person in her family and 1,000 yuan in "moving fees".

Officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the forced relocation and compensation given to residents. The local government will offer a new apartment and cash as compensation for resettlement, it said in a December 2009 document explaining the scheme, without providing details of the amounts. It will only compensate residents according to the floor area of their previous apartments, but will not pay extra if the apartment in Shennongxi is bigger than their previous homes.

Residents who "reject the relocation or delay relocating" or "make unreasonable demands for compensation again" after being compensated will receive a warning, the local government said.

Shuai reckons 30 households have moved to Shennongxi. Her grandson, who attends school in the town, lives away from his entire family because there's virtually no transport. "By moving here, we have no way to survive," she said.

In Huangtupo, many residents await the order to resettle. "The (first) time when we moved, our home, our land, our fruit trees, they were all finished, they were all drowned by the water," said Li Huanggui, 94, sitting in her home in the only apartment block left standing amid demolished buildings.

A shop owner, surnamed Qing, has been told she has to move in the second half of the year. She relocated the first time in 2000 when water from the reservoir flooded her home.

Asked if she thought the government would compensate her this time, she scoffed. "The more we move, the poorer we get," she said.

South African Farmhand Jailed For Life For Terre'blanche Murder

A South African court sentenced a black farmhand to life in prison on Wednesday for the axe murder of Eugene Terre'blanche, a white supremacist prominent during the dying years of apartheid.

Chris Mahlangu killed Terre'blanche over a pay dispute in April 2011 at the white farmer's home in Ventersdorp, about 125 km (80 miles) west of Johannesburg. Judge John Horn said the attack was not racially motivated.

Many South Africans see Terre'blanche as a relic from a bygone era and his murder did little to stir racial tension. Yet the case has served as a reminder of the bitter historical divisions in a country now dubbed the "Rainbow Nation" and ruled by the African National Congress, the party that helped end apartheid in 1994.

Terre'blanche, a burly man known for his thick white beard and fiery rhetoric, led the hardline supremacist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, known by its Afrikaans acronym AWB. Its members adopted military uniforms and flags with a symbol reminiscent of the Nazi swastika, and called for an all-white homeland in post-apartheid South Africa.

A small group of his armed supporters attempted a coup in the black-run "homeland" of Bophuthatswana shortly before the first all-race elections in April 1994 but retreated after meeting resistance from security forces. Graphic images of three AWB men being shot dead on a road by a Bophuthatswana policeman at point-blank range marked the end of any AWB pretensions to be a serious military force.

A second man, who was a minor at the time of Terre'blanche's murder, was found guilty of housebreaking in Ventersdorp and given a suspended sentence. Prosecutors said Mahlangu and his co-accused broke into Terre'blanche's home, where they found the 71-year-old asleep and hacked him to death with an axe.

Syrian Army Batters Parts Of Damascus, 47 Killed

The Syrian army shelled southern Damascus on Wednesday and helicopters fired rockets and machineguns during an assault meant to shore up President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the capital 17 months into an uprising, opposition activists said.

The army has this week used tanks and helicopter gunships in an offensive around Damascus that coincided with the departure of U.N. military observers, their mission to stop the bloodshed and nudge Syria towards a peaceful transition a failure.

The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people have been killed in what has become a civil war after the state's violent response to peaceful street protests triggered an armed rebellion in the pivotal Arab country.

Anti-Assad activists said at least 47 people had been killed in Damascus in what they called the heaviest bombardment this month. "The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of shelling," said a woman in Kfar Souseh, one of several districts hit in the military offensive to root out rebel fighters.

The United Nations said some of the weapons being used by government forces appeared to have been supplied by Iran, in violation of a U.N. resolution which banned such exports. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will raise the Syria crisis with Iran at a summit of non-aligned developing nations in Tehran next week, a U.N. spokesman said.

As the army continued to shell southern Damascus, activists said at least 22 people had been killed in Kfar Souseh and 25 in the nearby district of Nahr Eisha.

One of the dead was named as Mohammad Saeed al Odeh, a journalist employed at a state-run newspaper who was sympathetic to the anti-Assad revolt. Activists said he had been executed in Nahr Eisha.

"There are 22 tanks in Kfar Souseh now and behind each one there are at least 30 soldiers. They are raiding houses and executing men," an opposition activist in Kfar Souseh, who gave his name only as Bassam, told Reuters by Skype.

More than 250 people, including 171 civilians, were killed across Syria on Tuesday, mostly around Damascus, Aleppo and the southern city of Deraa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition monitoring group.

Activists in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya said Assad's forces had killed 86 people there since Monday, half of them by execution. It was not possible to verify that report.

There was no immediate government account of the latest fighting. But state television broadcast footage of weapons it said had been seized from rebels in Mouadamiya, one of the first districts to join the uprising.

The conflict, which pits a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against a ruling system dominated by Assad's Alawite minority, threatens to destabilise neighbours including Lebanon, where Sunni-Alawite violence flared for a third day.

The death toll from the fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli rose to at least 10 with more than 100 wounded, medical sources said, in what residents said were some of the fiercest clashes there since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. The Syria conflict has revived old tensions in Tripoli between pro-Assad Alawites in the hilltop district of Jebel Mohsen and their Sunni neighbours in Bab al-Tabbaneh below.

In Syria, Assad's forces have lost swathes of territory in recent months, but have fought back hard in Damascus and in Aleppo, the country's biggest city and commercial hub until it became a theatre for urban warfare. Reuters journalists in Aleppo on Wednesday heard gunfire and shells exploding every minute.

Rebels trying to advance in Saif al-Dawla, a front-line Aleppo district, encountered mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire. At one point, their escape route was cut off by gunfire as tank shells exploded nearby. Much of the area was destroyed.

State television said government forces were pursuing "the remnants of armed terrorist gangs".

While the situation at the frontline remained difficult, just 400 metres (400 yards) behind it, women and children were walking down the streets casually--some carrying groceries--and just 1 km back streets were bustling with normal life. Children carried groceries from shops doing brisk business and couples held hands as smoke from the fighting rose into the sky behind them.

Away from the main cities, government forces fought rebels for control of a military base and airfield near the eastern town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, according to a local Iraqi official and a Syrian rebel commander. The rebel commander, known as Abu Khalid, said his forces now controlled Albu Kamal, straddling a supply route from Iraq where many Sunni tribes sympathise with their Syrian kin.

But rebels were on the back foot near the border with Turkey after Syrian soldiers backed by helicopters attacked a village to try to cut off a supply line, opposition sources said. At least three people were killed and 10 wounded when army helicopters bombarded Qastoun, a village in Hama province, 24 kms (15 miles) east of the Turkish border, and rebels fought loyalist troops, the Hama Revolutionary Council said.

Aug 22, 2012

Six Bodies Found Hanging In Mexico

Three of the men were found hanged from a highway bridge in Tecpan de Galeana Tuesday, 75 miles northwest of the Pacific resort town of Acapulco, deputy prosecutor for Guerrero state Fernando Monreal Leyva said.

Another three men were found a day earlier hanged in the nearby town of Rodesia, "with their hands tied and signs of torture," Mr Leyva told AFP.

This method of murder - hanging victims from highway bridges for motorists to see - has been one of the fear tactics used by Mexico's feuding drug cartels in recent months, though until now, it had mostly been seen in the north.

In the neighboring state of Michoacan, soldiers patrolling on a rural road on Monday discovered a mass grave containing the remains of six to nine people, a military official who requested anonymity said.

The bodies were found in an abandoned camp that criminals had apparently used to torture, kill and incinerate their rivals.

The victims appear to have been shopkeepers who were extorted and then murdered, the military official said.

Michoacan is home to the La Familia and Knights Templar drug cartels.

In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas, Mexican soldiers killed 12 heavily armed civilians in separate shootouts on Monday, according to a statement from the state attorney general's office and the public security agency.

More than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence across Mexico since 2006, when the military was ordered to take the lead in a crackdown against the country's powerful drug cartels.

Source: The Telegraph

Ethiopians Mourn Strongman Ruler Meles

Thousands of Ethiopians descended on the centre of the capital Addis Ababa on Tuesday to mourn Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, their firm-handed ruler of more than two decades, whose body was flown home after his death in a Brussels hospital at 57.

Supporters mourned him as the saviour of a long-suffering nation and Washington praised its ally, but opponents hailed the death of an autocrat one group described as a "genocidal tyrant". Traffic was congested from the airport to his residence, where his body was to be put on display.

Meles, whose death ended months of rumour that he was gravely ill, had seized power 21 years ago from a military junta that had become notorious around the world for policies that contributed to mass starvation.

A former guerrilla leader turned economic reformer, he had presided in recent years over some of the fastest growth rates in Africa. But Ethiopia still remains one of the poorest countries on earth, and his opponents say his suppression of dissent held the country back.

In recent years he had become a close ally of the United States in fighting Islamic militants in East Africa, especially in neighbouring Somalia, which he twice invaded. The White House mourned his "untimely loss".

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament and the ruling party will meet to choose a successor but no date has been set.

Secretive to the end, Meles left it to officials of the European Union to disclose that he was being treated in the Belgian capital when he succumbed to an unspecified illness. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said only that he had been ailing for a year and died after being rushed to intensive care.

Since taking power in 1991 from Mengistu Haile Mariam's military junta, Meles became one of the central political figures on the continent. Along with Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda's Paul Kagame, he formed part of a generation of ex-guerrillas that came to power in the 1980s and 1990s after horrific ethnic civil wars, and brought economic improvements and relative peace that they said justified ruling with a firm hand.

"The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons," the African Union, which is headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said in a statement.

Rights groups criticised him for cracking down hard on dissent but the West generally turned a blind eye to the repression, reluctant to pick a fight with a partner in the fight against al Qaeda-linked groups in Africa. U.S. President Barack Obama offered condolences, praising Meles's commitment to the poor and calling it an "untimely loss" for Ethiopia; British Prime Minister David Cameron described Meles as an "inspirational spokesman for Africa".

An EU source said he had been a patient at the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels.

His deputy Hailemariam said they had spoken only recently. "He was recovering well, even taking part in light sporting activities. We were often in touch while he was recovering and we were optimistic that he would go on towards a full recovery," he said. "Meles was one of a kind. It is very difficult to replace a man of his stature."

In Brussels, a cortege accompanied by police outriders left a hotel next to the hospital, and took his casket to a private Belgian airstrip. Belgian military officials and police were there as it was loaded onto an Ethiopian Airlines jet.

Hours later in Addis Ababa, the coffin was carried out of the aircraft, draped in the green, gold and red national flag. On the tarmac, a sister of Meles wept. "My brother loved this country. He deserved better," she said, a black scarf covering her tearful eyes.

Outside the airport's terminal, thousands of well-wishers huddled in the rain to pay their respects. Some carried placards reading: "Meles, your legacy will never die."

Meles presided over a seven-year run of double-digit economic growth, advocating a mixture of heavy state spending and private investment. He was widely applauded for ploughing money into infrastructure but criticised by some for selling off swathes of land to foreigners. Many Ethiopians complain that his close business ties with China did not translate into more jobs.

International rights groups criticised Meles's handling of dissent. He rounded up numerous opposition leaders after a disputed 2005 election, and several opponents and journalists have been arrested under a 2009 anti-terrorism law.

Romanian Court: Reinstate President, Referendum Invalid

Romania's Constitutional Court on Tuesday struck down a referendum to impeach President Traian Basescu, foiling a drive by the leftist government to oust its chief political opponent months before a parliamentary election.

The government said it would accept the decision, but the acting president said Basescu was now an "illegitimate" leader. Several hundred people gathered in two main Bucharest squares in the afternoon, one crowd supporting the president and the other protesting against him. Both remained peaceful.

Two decades after the fall of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the battle pitting Basescu against Prime Minister Victor Ponta has raised rule-of-law issues and could flare again in coming months as one of the European Union's poorest states faces tough austerity demands from international lenders.

The court, as expected, ruled that the July 29 referendum called by the government to remove Basescu, a right-wing political veteran, was invalid because turnout fell short of the required 50 percent of the 18.3 million electorate. "We stated that the referendum quorum condition was not met," Chief Judge Augustin Zegrean told reporters. He said Basescu, suspended by parliament before the referendum which was needed to confirm the impeachment, could now return to power.

The crisis has crippled policymaking, pushed the leu to record lows last month and angered the EU, which accused Ponta of undermining democracy and intimidating judges in a country long criticised for graft and a weak judicial system. It shed light on weaknesses in Romania's institutions, a wider problem in ex-communist EU member states as shown in Hungary earlier this year where Prime Minister Viktor Orban clashed with the EU over constitutional changes.

Basescu is expected to return to office within days, pending rubber-stamping of the court decision by parliament on Friday. H is term expires in 2014.

The European Commission said in a statement that the legal procedure to reinstate Basescu should be respected and that it would monitor the situation very closely. "I want to send a signal of stability to Romanians: The court decision will be respected and implemented," Ponta told a news conference.

In the referendum, 88 percent of those who voted supported Basescu's impeachment but turnout was only 46 percent. Basescu had called for a boycott. The court inspected revised voter lists after the government said they would show that the turnout had in fact reached 50 percent after the removal of voters who had died or moved abroad.

Acting President Crin Antonescu, a co-leader of the USL, made clear there would be no peace between Ponta, who became Europe's youngest prime minister in May at 39, and Basescu, 60, a former oil tanker captain who has been president since 2004.

"We do respect the court decision and Traian Basescu will again become a president. But he returns as an illegitimate president," Antonescu said. "The court refused to see that at least 2 million Romanians shouldn't have been taken into account for the referendum quorum."

There was no comment from Basescu, who as president has the power to appoint prime ministers and heads of security services, and to veto legislation temporarily. Tension is likely to persist until parliamentary elections in November, which Ponta's USL coalition is expected to win, but the Balkan state also needs to focus on austerity policies to keep a 5 billion euro IMF stand-by agreement on track.

"Continuing political tension and forthcoming elections are not conducive to coherent policymaking, especially regarding adherence to the tight targets of the EU/IMF bailout agreement," said Otilia Simkova, an analyst at Eurasia group.

Ukraine prosecutor Urges Court To Uphold Tymoshenko’s Guilt

Ukrainian state prosecutors urged a high court on Tuesday to reject the appeal of jailed ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko against her conviction for abuse of office, a case Western leaders have condemned as politically motivated.

Judges later withdrew to consider their decision which opposition figures and defence lawyers, anxious for a quick ruling, expected to be announced only in mid-September. Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors argued that Tymoshenko's guilt had been clearly established at her trial last year. The abuse of office conviction relates to a gas deal which Tymoshenko, 51, brokered with Russia in 2009 when she was prime minister. The government of President Viktor Yanukovich says the agreement was reckless and saddled the former Soviet republic with an enormous price for strategic supplies of gas which is now taking a toll on the heavily-stressed economy.

Tymoshenko, who is receiving treatment for back trouble in a state-run clinic in the city of Kharkiv and was not present at the appeal hearing, denies betraying the national interest. She says she is the victim of a vendetta by Yanukovich, who narrowly beat her for the presidency in February 2010.

Her prosecution, which has damaged Ukraine's relations with the European Union and the United States, will be a major issue in legislative elections on Oct. 28 when Yanukovich's Party of the Regions will seek to keep its control of parliament.

When the appeal hearing resumed on Tuesday, state prosecutor Oksana Drogobytskaya said Tymoshenko was guilty of a crime which had had serious consequences. "During the investigation the intentional nature of her actions had been established. Everything points to the fact that the actions of Tymoshenko were criminal," she said. "The (gas) contract continues to inflict massive damage on Ukraine."

Drogobytskaya said Tymoshenko had heaped personal abuse on the judge at her trial last year and she accused defence lawyers of trying to turn the appeal hearing into a "talk show".

Tymoshenko's lawyers last week argued in court that negotiating the gas agreement with Russia had been a political act which did not amount to criminal action. Western governments have called for Tymoshenko's release.

Aug 21, 2012

Capriles: Abusive Chavez Set For Venezuela Vote Shock

President Hugo Chavez's abuse of state resources for his re-election campaign and lack of personal contact with Venezuelans will cost him dearly at the Oct. 7 vote, his opposition rival says.

In an interview on his campaign bus, Henrique Capriles contrasted Chavez's reliance on TV appearances with his own tireless crisscrossing of the country and said the president's use of public funds made it a David versus Goliath election clash.

The 40-year-old state governor, picked by Venezuela's opposition parties as their best hope for ending Chavez's nearly 14-year rule in South America's biggest oil exporter, said the socialist leader's support was ebbing away. "I don't expect a photo finish. We're going to have a resounding victory," he told Reuters, hurtling between rallies in small towns around Lake Valencia, a region of sweltering agricultural plains rolling to jungle-clad mountains.

"I've never lost an election," the confident Capriles added, referring to his successful campaigns over the last 15 years to become Venezuela's youngest legislator, a mayor and then governor of Miranda state.

Opinion polls are hugely controversial in Venezuela and have given widely varying results throughout this campaign. But most of the best-known surveys give Chavez a solid double-digit lead, although one puts Capriles roughly level. A couple of lesser-known pollsters give Capriles the lead.

The opposition believes many Venezuelans, intimidated by Chavez's authoritarian style and past reprisals in the job market against those who have voted against him, may be hiding their true intentions.

Sweating profusely and gulping water after a grueling walking tour of Guigue, a shabby settlement of bustling streets and small Chinese-run stores, Capriles said he had visited more than 150 towns and villages since the official campaign began. "Physical presence beats posters," said Capriles, who hopes his youth and vigor will convey a message of change. "The government's candidate is only seen on billboards. I've been to more towns since July 1 than he probably has in 10 years."

The 58-year-old Chavez has looked more energetic in recent weeks than at any time in the past year, during which he underwent two rounds of surgery and lengthy periods of treatment in Cuba for an undisclosed form of pelvic cancer. The president says he is completely cured and has returned both to his old jokey, talkative self, as well as a whirlwind schedule of near-daily TV appearances.

He has attended more than a dozen big rallies around the country, but he normally arrives riding on top of an open-top truck before speaking from a stage, unlike Capriles who plunges into homes and crowds wherever he goes. Polls show most Venezuelans believe Chavez has overcome his illness, though doctors say that no one can declare themselves cancer-free until several years after the last recurrence.

China’s Gu Kailai Receives Suspended Death Sentence

China sentenced the wife of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai to death on Monday but suspended her execution, setting the stage for a possible final purge of Bo himself in a scandal that has shaken Beijing ahead of a leadership transition.

The sentence means Gu Kailai is likely to face life in jail for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood last year. It also brings a curtain down on China's most sensational trial in three decades, yet opens a new and more politically dangerous act for the ruling Communist Party--how to deal with Bo, an ambitious and well-connected provincial leader whose downfall exposed rifts in the party.

"I feel the verdict is just and fully reflects the court's special respect for the law, its special respect for reality and, in particular, its special respect for life," Gu said of the sentence in official television footage of the hearing.

Gu, 53, wore a white shirt and black suit and stood expressionless, hands folded in front of her, as she spoke, pausing at one point to find the right words. At her trial on Aug. 9, Gu admitted to poisoning Heywood last November, and alleged that a business dispute between them led him to threaten her son, Bo Guagua, according to official accounts published by state media.

A court official, Tang Yigan, said the court had concluded that Heywood used threatening words against Bo Guagua, but had never acted on them. The court also found Gu's actions reflected a "psychological impairment" but did not elaborate.

Gu could still face execution if she commits a new offence over the next two years. Almost invariably in China, however, such suspended sentences are commuted to long prison terms.

The court, in the eastern city of Hefei, also said Zhang Xiaojun, an aide to the Bo family, was sentenced to nine years in jail for acting as an accomplice to the poisoning of Heywood. "With both of the defendants declining to appeal, this marks the end of things," Zhang's lawyer, Li Renting, told Reuters.

Four policemen were also convicted on Monday of having sought to protect Gu from investigation, receiving jail sentences of between five and 11 years--a development that could prove damaging for Bo because it establishes formally that there was an attempted cover-up. Police sources in Chongqing, the southwestern municipality ruled by Bo until he was ousted as its party chief in March, have said that Bo tried to shut down the investigation into his wife after being told she was a suspect early this year.

Some Chinese political experts doubt the party will look to prosecute Bo, and note that his name was not cited at either the trial of his wife or the four policemen. But He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, said he believed Bo would still face a court once the party had decided how to handle him.

"I think there's a range of options, such as economic crimes, concealing a crime, or obstructing justice that could all be used against him," He said. "I don't think that we can say that Bo Xilai has been cut free from this."

A source close to Bo's family told Reuters that China's leadership had yet to make a final decision on how to deal with him, and the lack of any mention of him in the trial left room for negotiation over his fate. Bo has only been accused of unspecified violations of party discipline that possibly include corruption, abuse of power and other misdeeds. These could lead to his expulsion from the party but criminal charges could see him locked away, making it much less likely that he could ever be politically rehabilitated.

Obama warns Assad US Could Act If He Deploys Chemical Arms

U.S. forces could move against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, President Barack Obama warned, notably if he deploys his chemical weapons against rebels trying to overthrow him.

In some of his strongest language yet on Syria, on a day when U.N. observers pulled out after a fruitless bid for peace and Assad's forces mounted new attacks, the U.S. leader said Assad faced "enormous consequences" if he crossed a "red line" of even moving unconventional weapons in a threatening manner.

Seeking re-election in November, Obama noted that he had refrained "at this point" from ordering U.S. military engagement in Syria. But when he was asked at a White House news conference whether he might deploy forces, for example to secure Syrian chemical and biological weapons, he said his view could change.

"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised," Obama said. "That would change my calculus."

Faced with a complex and explosive conflict at the heart of the Middle East, and with resolute support for Assad from Iran and from Russia and China at the United Nations, Washington and its Western allies have shown little appetite for more than hands-off help for the rebels, in contrast to their attacks on Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year. Obama's comments, however, raised the prospect of some change, under certain conditions.

Syria last month acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries intervened. The threat drew strong warnings from Washington and its allies, although it is not clear how the Syrian armed forces might use such weapons in urban warfare.

"We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," Obama told the impromptu news conference on Monday. He acknowledged he was not "absolutely confident" the stockpile was secure.

Calling again for Assad to step aside to allow a democratic transition but conceding that prospects for a "soft landing" to the conflict were dim, Obama said the weapons worried not only Washington but also its allies in the region, including Israel.

Aug 17, 2012

Hollywood Release: Robot & Frank [Watch Trailer]

An aging thief with a fading memory finds his love for larceny reinvigorated after receiving a companion robot from his concerned son in this tender sci-fi comedy drama starring Academy Award nominee Frank Langella. Frank (Langella) is a former criminal living out his twilight years in quiet solitude. Though frequent trips to the local library keep Frank physically active and mentally stimulated, there's little question that his memory isn't what it used to be, and lately his grown children have begun to express concern over the fact that their father lives alone. Bestowed a caretaker robot capable of offering engaging interaction and tending to basic household chores, Frank at first resents his new android sidekick. But in time Frank lets his guard down, and begins to actually enjoy the companionship of his new domestic partner. Later, when the future of the local library is threatened, Frank falls back into his old ways, and discovers that his robot helper also doubles as a competent criminal sidekick.

Hollywood Release: ParaNorman [Watch Trailer]

ParaNorman is a 3D stop-motion animated adventure horror film produced by Laika, distributed by Focus Features and was released on August 17, 2012. The voice cast includes Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Jeff Garlin, John Goodman, Bernard Hill, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Elaine Stritch and Tucker Albrizzi. It is the first stop-motion movie to use a 3D color printer to create character faces.

The small New England town of Blithe Hollow comes under siege by the undead. Only a misunderstood local boy, Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has the ability to speak with the dead, is able to prevent the destruction of his town by a centuries-old witch's curse. He'll also have to take on ghosts, witches, zombies, and (worst of all) moronic grown-ups. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits.

Hollywood Release: Chicken With Plums [Watch Trailer]

Chicken with Plums (French: Poulet aux prunes) is a 2011 French drama film directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It is based on the graphic novel of the same name. The film premiered in competition at the 68th Venice International Film Festival on 3 September 2011. It was released in France on 26 October through Le Pacte.

As a young man violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) met Irâne (Golshifteh Farahani) and felt she was the one and only[clarification needed] for him. Unfortunately her father pursued different plans and forced her into a wedding with an army officer. The dismayed musician could only carry on because his mentor gave him a special violin and advised him to sublimate his affliction. Consequently he became a renowned artist and eventually married another woman. Nonetheless in his mind he is still with Irâne. When his lack of affection for his family leads to serious dispute between him and his wife she destroys his beloved violin. It strikes him he is no longer up to make music as he did before and therefore he is longing for death. After he has in vain tried to take his life in many ways, he decides to simply lie down until death will have him. But before that happens he is awash in visions of the past and the film lets the spectator accompany him on this bizarre and strangely beautiful journey.

Hollywood Release: The Expendables 2 [Watch Trailer]

The Expendables 2 is a 2012 American ensemble action film directed by Simon West and written by Richard Wenk and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Ken Kaufman, David Agosto and Wenk. It is a sequel to the 2010 action film The Expendables, and stars Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film follows The Expendables, a mercenary group, as they seek revenge against Jean Vilain (Van Damme), a rival mercenary who murders one of their own, and threatens the world with a deadly weapon.

Principal photography took place over 14 weeks beginning in September 2011 on an estimated $100 million budget, with filming occurring in Bulgaria, Hong Kong and New Orleans. The film is due to be released across Europe on August 16, 2012, followed by a North American release on August 17. A tie-in downloadable video game was released on July 31, 2012, that served as a prequel to the events of the film.


After taking a seemingly simple job for Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), the Expendables find their plans going awry and one of their own is brutally murdered by rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). The Expendables set out into hostile territory – with their new members Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and Maggie (Yu Nan) – to put a stop to a deadly weapon and gain their revenge against the people who killed their brother-in-arms.

Hollywood Release: Cosmopolis [Watch Trailer]

Billionaire Eric Packer (Pattinson) rides slowly across Manhattan in his limousine that he uses as his office while on his way to his preferred barber, even though there are traffic jams. The traffic jams are caused by a visit of the president of the United States and by the funeral of Eric's favourite musician, whose music he plays in one of his two private elevators.

He has recently married. In the car and elsewhere, he has meetings with his wife, who does not want sex with him, to save energy that she needs for her work. Instead, he has sex with other women. In his car, while having a meeting, he has his doctor carry out his daily medical checkup; Eric worries about the doctor's finding that he has an asymmetrical prostate. After devastating currency speculation, he kills his bodyguard and follows a path of further self-destruction, including visiting his potential murderer and deliberately shooting himself in the hand.

Aug 16, 2012

Hollywood Release: Out of the Clear Blue Sky

Filmmaker Danielle Gardner tells the remarkable story of prominent Wall Street bond trading company Cantor Fitzgerald, which suffered more losses of lives than any other business in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and has struggled to rebuild from the ground up ever since. Intimate interviews with Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick, other surviving employees, and the family members of their colleagues who perished on that fateful day offer an intensely personal look at the effects of the tragedy that sent shockwaves around the entire world.

Hollywood Release: Painted Skin: The Resurrection [Watch Trailer]

An ancient fox spirit embarks on a diabolical quest to become human after escaping an icy prison, and becomes bound to a disfigured princess who seeks the love of a noble guard as her kingdom crumbles in this lavish supernatural epic. Confined to a frozen cell for centuries, malevolent fox spirit Xiaowei (Xun Zhou) regains her freedom and seeks to preserve her beauty by seducing men and consuming their hearts. Should a man offer her his heart willingly, Xiaowei will become mortal, breaking free of the underworld and experiencing living among the living. Meanwhile, as a dark cloud falls over her kingdom, Princess Jing (Wei Zhao) flees, hiding her deep facial scars under a mask of pure gold while seeking the love of her former protector, who remains haunted by his failure to save her years prior. When destiny brings Xiaowei and Princess Jing together, the battle for the princess' heart begins.


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