Nov 26, 2012

Catalan election weakens bid for independence from Spain

Separatists in Spain's Catalonia won regional elections on Sunday but failed to get the resounding mandate they need to push convincingly for a referendum on independence.

Catalan President Artur Mas, who has implemented unpopular spending cuts in an economic crisis, had called an early election to test support for his new drive for independence for Catalonia, a wealthy region in northeastern Spain. Voters handed almost two thirds of the 135-seat local parliament to four different Catalan separatist parties that all want to hold a referendum on secession from Spain.

But they punished the main separatist group, Mas's Convergence and Union alliance, or CiU, cutting back its seats to 50 from 62. That will make it difficult for Mas to lead a united drive to hold a referendum in defiance of the constitution and the central government in Madrid.

"Mas clearly made a mistake. He promoted a separatist agenda and the people have told him they want other people to carry out his agenda," said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Madrid office.

The result will come as a relief for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is battling a deep recession and 25 percent unemployment while he struggles to cut high borrowing costs by convincing investors of Spain's fiscal and political stability.

Mas, surrounded by supporters chanting "independence, independence", said he would still try to carry out the referendum but added that, "it is more complex, but there is no need to give up on the process."

Resurgent Catalan separatism had become a major headache for Rajoy, threatening to provoke a constitutional crisis over the legality of a referendum just as he is trying to concentrate on a possible international bailout for troubled Spain. Frustration over the Spanish tax system, under which Catalonia shares some of its tax revenue with the rest of the country, has revived a long-dormant secessionist spirit in Catalonia. Catalans believe if they could invest more of their taxes at home their economy would prosper.

Mas had tried to ride the separatist wave after hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the streets in September, demanding independence for their region, which has its own language and sees itself as distinct from the rest of Spain. In a speech to supporters on Sunday night, Mas recognised that he had lost ground and though CiU is still the largest group in Catalan's parliament, he said would need the support of another party to govern and to continue pushing through tough economic measures.

"We've fallen well short of the majority we had. We've been ruling for two years under very tough circumstances," he said.

Traditional separatists the Republican Left, or ERC, won the second biggest presence in the Catalan parliament, with 21 seats. The Socialists took 20 seats. And Rajoy's centre-right People's Party won 19.

Three other parties, including two that want a referendum on independence, split the remaining 25 seats. ECFR's Torreblanca said the Catalan elections were similar to those around Europe in that economic woes have benefited marginal political groups, while larger, traditional parties have lost ground.

Mas's bet on separatism may have helped out the big winner of Sunday's election, the Republican Left, which more than doubled its seats in the Catalan parliament to 21 from 10. "He talked about it so much that he ended up helping the only party that has always been for independence, which is the Republican Left," said political analyst Ismael Crespo at the Ortega y Gasset research institute.

A legal referendum would require a change to the constitution, and Spain's main parties in the national parliament, the Socialists and Rajoy's People's Party, have shown no appetite for that. Mas's CiU had traditionally been a pro-business moderate nationalist party that fought for more autonomy and self-governance for Catalonia without breaking away from Spain. Mas broke with that tradition in September when he made a big bet on a referendum.

Catalonia, with 7.5 million people, is more populous than Denmark. Its economy is almost as big as Portugal's and it generates one fifth of Spanish gross domestic product.

After a decade of overspending during Spain's real estate boom, Catalonia and most of the country's other regions are struggling to pay state workers and meet debt payments. Unemployment has soared and spending on hospitals and schools has been cut.

Nov 23, 2012

Phone Sevices Ban To Prevent Attacks

Karachi: Cellphone and wireless services in the federal and two provincial capitals including Karachi were switched off till midnight on Friday over security fears.

A minister said the cities could be targeted by terrorists.

The ban came as security measures for the Muharram processions reached a peak.

A complete ban on motorcycles was imposed in Hyderabad, the second-most populated city in the southern Sindh province.

Interior Minister Rahman Malek after consulting the provincial government ordered the closure of mobile phone services in Karachi and Quetta, the capital of Balochistan and one of the highly sectarian sensitive city.

The services of cell and wireless phone were suspended from 12 Friday noon till midnight.

In Islamabad, the suspension of mobile and wireless phones came into effect at 3pm.

Ban on riding on motorcycle would continue till the end of Muharram processions.

Addressing a press conference Malek said that Karachi and Quetta were put on high alert in view of intelligence reports that suggest higher chances of terrorist attacks. The minister said there were some reports that terror could also strike Islamabad.

There were reports that in Quetta the cell phone service might be banned for the 9th and 10 of Moharram, falling on Saturday and Sunday.

Besides, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was also considering suspending the cell phone services in six of its districts which were considered to be vulnerable to sectarian attacks.

Meanwhile, some four suspects were rounded up from Ancholi town, the Shiite area. The Shiite mourners nabbed two suspects and handed them over to the paramilitary rangers. Soon after the incident the Shiite scouts also rounded two other suspects.

Fearing terrorist attacks, the provincial government already announced closure of the schools and its offices on Friday.

Meanwhile, this year saw violent sectarian clashes in the country as it witnessed a new phase in the long history of sectarian feud, the Dawn said Friday.

With attacks on religious places and processions, 2012 could be a “particularly bloody one” in terms of sectarian conflict.

The rising level of sectarian tension should have prompted security agencies to pro actively crack down on violent elements in the society, the newspaper said.

“The writing was on the wall about what was to come in the first 10 days of the month. But given that these groups were not identified and targeted earlier, the only option left over the next handful of days is to focus even harder on prevention.”

Although extraordinary measures are in place, from public holidays to cellphone service bans for the next three days, the culmination of the Muharram mourning, some of which would be highly inconvenient for the citizens, daily said.

Halle Berry’s Ex, Canadian Gabriel Aubry, Arrested After Fight With Her FiancĂ©

It was a great Thanksgiving at Halle Berry’s house. Good food, fun companionship, and a bloody, angry fight between two better-than-average-looking guys in the driveway.

When Halle’s ex and baby daddy Gabriel Aubry dropped by to hand over daughter Nahla, Halle’s current love biscuit, Olivier Martinez, should probably have stayed quiet. In the house. But he made a different choice.

TMZ reports that, “We’re told Gabriel was still in the motor court (a rich person’s word for a giant driveway) when Olivier walked up to him and said, ‘We have to move on.’ According to witnesses, Gabriel then pushed Olivier and threw a punch at his face, but Olivier blocked it and the punch struck him in the shoulder instead. We’re told Gabriel then pushed Olivier to the ground, and Olivier cold-cocked him in the face, and a struggle ensued, ending with Olivier pinning Gabriel to the ground.” (Fun fact: Gabriel is 6’2.” Oliver is 5’8.”)

See what I’m saying? It’s like at your house when your uncle drags up that time your dad said something about something. And just like what happens when your relatives get into it, the injuries piled on.

Gabriel, a Canadian model, got a broken rib and facial contusions, while Olivier, a French actor, possibly broke his hand and injured his neck. They both ended up in the same emergency room; Gabriel is now charged with misdemeanor battery and has had an order of protection issued against him.

Gabriel recently won a court battle to keep his 4-year-old daughter in the U.S. Halle wanted to move the little girl to France, ostensibly to keep her away from the paparazzi, but the judge would not allow it. Gabriel reportedly receives $20,000 a month from Halle. And $20,000 also just happens to be the amount set for his bail.

Fun side note: Onlookers who were present during the fight are not entirely sure what was yelled after “We have to move on” as the two combatants switched to French. That’s how Halle knows she’s picked some high-class guys: They may be violent and all-around awful, but they can call each other names in French.

Walmart Workers Strike On 'Black Friday'

Walmart workers are using the "Black Friday" to send a message.

OUR Walmart - a coalition of current and former Walmart staff seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions - has staged months of protests outside stores and targeted Black Friday for action across the country.

In Chicago, four busloads of protesters, including some Walmart workers, showed up at a store on the city’s South Side for a 7 a.m. protest. The crowd chanted “Walmart, Walmart you’re no good, treat your workers like you should!” though their activities did not appear to deter shoppers.

Rosetta Brown, who has been with the company for 15 years and works at the Sam’s Club store in Cicero, Illinois, took part in the protest and lamented how employees are treated now versus in the days of company founder Sam Walton.

“Sam Walton was a good man ... Walmart passed away with him,” she said.


Elsewhere, the U.S. shopping frenzy kicked off at a more civilized hour, with shoppers welcoming decisions by retailers such as Target Corp and Toys R Us Inc to move their openings to Thursday night.

They also seemed to show little concern that the U.S. economy could be pushed over a “fiscal cliff,” if a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect in January. Some economists fear that could lead to another recession.

Yet the National Retail Federation expects sales during the holiday season to grow 4.1% this year.

The stakes are high for U.S. retailers, who can earn more than one-third of their annual sales and 40 to 50% of their profits during the holiday season, which generally starts with Black Friday.

“I think spending is better for the economy. I think you should spend. If you save all your money that will only make it worse,” said Saiful Islam, 21, a New York accounting student who stood in line at Best Buy to purchase a variety of gadgets. “The line is bad, but the deals are good.”

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of shoppers were planning to spend the same amount of money as last year or were unsure about plans, while 21% intended to spend less, and 11% planned to spend more.

“I definitely have more money this year,” said Amy Balser, 26, at the head of the line outside the Best Buy store in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. “I definitely don’t think (the economy) has bounced back anywhere near as much as it needs to, but I see some improvement,” she said.

While younger people like Balser generally said they felt comfortable spending money, those who are retired or close to it seemed to be more cautious.

Retired stockbroker Jack Connoly, 65, stood idly while his wife Mary tried on clothes at a Macy’s in New York.

“Oh, we’re spending less this year, whatever Mary says. Look at the stock market. If they don’t do a deal on the debt by the end of December it’s bye bye stock portfolio. We’re being cautious,” he said.


Across the country, store lines were long - in the hundreds or more in many places - though the move toward earlier opening hours appeared to have helped. By sunrise on Friday, it was commonplace, even at large stores in the major cities, to find many more staffers than shoppers.

While the shift was denounced by store employees and traditionalists because it pulled people away from families on the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, many shoppers welcomed the chance to shop before midnight or in the early morning hours.

“I think it’s better earlier. People are crazier later at midnight,” said Renee Ruhl, 52, a hotel worker, at a Target store in Orlando, Fla., where she was already heading to her car with an air hockey game in her shopping cart 2-1/2 hours before the chain opened last year.

Others were not as happy with an earlier Black Friday. A petition asking Target to “save Thanksgiving” had 371,606 supporters as of Thursday afternoon..


The National Retail Federation said 147 million people would shop Friday through Sunday, when deals are at their most eye-catching - down from 152 million the same weekend last year.

Walmart’s U.S. discount stores, which have been open on Thanksgiving since 1988, offered some “Black Friday” deals at 8 p.m. on Thursday and special deals on certain electronics, like Apple Inc iPads, at 10 p.m.

The earlier hours lured people who had not braved the crowds before on Black Friday, said Jason Buechel, a senior executive in the retail practice of consultancy Accenture, in observing mall activity.

At Macy’s in Herald Square in Manhattan, the line at the Estee Lauder counter was four deep shortly after its midnight opening. The cosmetics department’s “morning specials“ included free high-definition headphones with any fragrance purchase of $75 US or more, and a set of six eye shadows for $10.

But for some people, cheap wasn’t cheap enough - like the Macy’s shopper who bought Calvin Klein shoes at 50% off but was not satisfied.

“I was hoping for deeper discounts,” said Melissa Glascow, 35, a Brooklyn, New York, waitress who added she was saving her money for online discounts.

At the Target on Elston Avenue on Chicago’s Northwest side - known as one of the highest-volume stores in the chain - the $25 Dirt Devil vacuum that normally goes for $39.99 was sold out, though there were still several large televisions available.

At 2 a.m. CST (0800 GMT), Mall of America was poised to beat the record number of shoppers - 217,000 - that came on the same day last year, according to mall spokesman Dan Jasper.

The day is also a test for retailers shifting strategies, like J. C. Penney Co Inc, which has been suffering from plunging sales as it moves away from coupons toward lower pricing and specialized boutiques within stores.

Amina Kebbeh, 18, of the Bronx, New York, was on line for the 6 a.m. EDT (1100 GMT) opening of Penney’s Manhattan store. Others stood with her, though the line was relatively tame.

“If they remove the coupons, no one is eager to come,” she said.

Some shoppers also faulted the chain’s decision not to open in the wee hours, like Christian Alcantara, 18, who visited the store in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York, and suggested it cost the retailer money.

“They should open earlier. I’ve been everywhere else and I’ve already shopped,” he said.

Mexican President Wants To Change His Country's Name

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has one non-urgent item pending on his agenda in the dying days of his presidency - he wants to change his country's name.

Calderon sent a bill to Congress on Thursday to change the constitution to tweak his nation's official name from Estados Unidos Mexicanos, or United States of Mexico, to plain old Mexico - as the country is already known the world over.

Mexico was given its name of Estados Unidos Mexicanos in the 19th century, when the country's post-revolutionary founders harked to the United States of America as an example of democracy and freedom to follow.

"The name of our country no longer needs to emulate that of other nations," Calderon said. "Forgive me for the expression, but Mexico's name is Mexico."

The country's name is derived from the nomadic Mexica tribe that in 1325 settled present-day Mexico City, which later grew into the imperial Aztec capital before succumbing to Spanish conquerors two centuries later.

Calderon staked his presidency on the much larger issue of fighting the country's drug cartels, and about 60,000 people have died in drug violence during his term. The bloodshed hurt his National Action Party's candidate in a presidential election in July.

He hands Mexico's reins to president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party on Dec. 1."

Colombia FARC Rebels Free 4 Chinese Captives Held Since 2011

Colombia's FARC rebels freed three captive Chinese oil workers and their translator after holding them in jungle camps for more than a year, the Defense Ministry said on Thursday, an apparent goodwill gesture as the rebels seek to negotiate a peace accord to end five decades of war.

The captives, who worked for a contractor hired by UK-based Emerald Energy, were taken hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in mid-2011 as they were driving in southern Colombia, the government said. The captives were handed over to the Red Cross late on Wednesday.

The release is the second act this week that could be seen as an olive branch to the government as the warring sides hammer out a five-point peace plan that may bring an end to a conflict that has left tens of thousands dead and millions displaced since it began in 1964.

At the start of talks in Cuba on Monday, the FARC called a unilateral ceasefire for two months.

The release was a result of collaboration between the Red Cross and the Chinese government, Vice Defense Minister Jorge Enrique Bedoya told reporters.

"The government provided all the help possible so that this (liberation) could develop without any problems. We are very happy that these Chinese citizens can return to their homes," Bedoya said.

A decade-long government offensive against the FARC has pushed the rebels deep into inhospitable jungle territory, helping foreign and local oil companies explore territory that was once off-limits.

But the Marxist group has stepped up attacks against oil installations over the last year or so, bombing pipelines, kidnapping workers, and making it difficult for companies to maintain output levels.

'Farc Hypocrisy'

The FARC pledged in February that it would no longer take hostages for ransom, one of the group's main sources of income along with drug trafficking and extortion, according to police sources.

After the FARC this year released a group of military and police officials it had held for more than a decade, rebel leaders repeatedly said the group was not holding any more captives.

FARC negotiators in Cuba reiterated that they hold no hostages.

"This again demonstrates the double standard and hypocrisy of the FARC, which announced that it held no more captives," Bedoya said. "This liberation shows that they do."

Jordi Raich, head of the Colombian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said he could not confirm the government's claim that the FARC was responsible for the kidnapping. He said it was not in his ambit to investigate.

"We received (the hostages) from a group of people dressed in civilian clothes and without weapons," he told reporters.

"It's excellent news for the families after so much time of waiting and uncertainty."

French journalist Romeo Langlois was freed by the FARC in May after a month in captivity. He was the highest profile hostage since French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt was freed in a military rescue mission in 2008.

At the start of peace talks this week, the FARC ordered a unilateral ceasefire for two months and said it would call off attacks on military and economic targets, but police say it has failed to keep that vow.

The FARC was responsible for attacks in southwestern Cauca province and the destruction of two electricity towers in western Antioquia, police said, throwing into doubt rebel leader Ivan Marquez's call for the truce.

The ceasefire may have been aimed more at grabbing headlines at the start of talks than a sincere effort toward peace, some observers say. Poor communication in the jungles may also have made it impossible to reach the rank and file membership.

Others believe the FARC is fractured and the order may have been ignored.

Still, the ceasefire may provide some breathing space for oil and mining companies, many of which pay considerable sums for security to protect workers and installations.

The war costs Latin America's fourth-largest economy 1 to 2 percentage points of gross domestic product every year, according to the government, and makes large tracts of arable land unsafe due to combat or landmines.

Israel Pulls Back From Gaza, Invasion Force Intact

Israel began withdrawing the army on Thursday that had been poised to invade the Gaza Strip to go after Hamas, with both sides declaring they had won their eight-day battle.

Dust-covered tanks and armoured bulldozers were winched onto transporters and driven out of the same groves of straggly eucalyptus where they camped in January 2009 before going in.

That conflict cost more than 1,400 lives, all but 13 Palestinian, while this time, some 160 Palestinians were killed in eight days of fighting, against six Israelis.

Hamas nevertheless declared it had come out on top.

"From the lion's den, we declare victory," said Abu Ubaida, spokesman of Hamas' armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades. Israel's "security hallucination" had been exposed.

Islamist militants launched more than 700 rockets from Gaza by the end of October, Israel said, to explain its decision to set off the latest conflict by killing Hamas's top military commander with a precision strike from an F16 fighter jet.

Psychologically and in propaganda terms, the long-range rockets Hamas fired all the way towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the past eight days were a game-changer, celebrated by Gazans who were also relieved the invasion never came.

But 84 percent of Gaza's rockets were knocked out of the sky by Israel's new Iron Dome interceptor defence, neutralising Hamas' main weapon.

The Israeli army says Islamist fighters fired 1,500 rockets at Israel, both home made and smuggled from Iran, scoring two lethal hits. The same number of Israeli strikes killed 30 senior militiamen and blew up rockets, launchers and arms dumps.

The ceasefire agreement, Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak said, was "a paper bridge for the defeated so that they can explain to their public how they can even show their faces after what they were hit with for a week".

The truce, arranged by Egypt, "could last nine months. It could last nine weeks. And when it no longer continues we will know what to do," Barak said.

Tanks, self-propelled artillery, armoured personnel carriers and Humvees were lined up in some of the same fields they used four years ago, when they did invade, Israel's blue and white flag flying from their radio masts.

They will be pulled out in the next day so farmers can get back to work.

At Kerem Shalom, on the border with Egypt and Gaza, trucks carrying international food aid were rolling again on Thursday into a terminal where freight is re-loaded onto Palestinian trucks for 1.2 million people in Gaza who depend on it.

Empty buses were coming down Route 232, which runs parallel to the Gaza Strip from north to south, to pick up soldiers no doubt relieved to know they would not have to go in.

In 2009, after a week of aerial bombing and long-range shelling, this country road with kibbutz farms on either side was the launch point for some 30,000 troops and armour that cut the Gaza Strip in two.

Israel is a small country and the frontline is only 70 km (40 miles) from Tel Aviv. The army could be back in place in little more than half a day if needed.

The truce will test the intense distrust between Israel and the Islamist movement that runs Gaza, but both sides had a clear interest in not prolonging the conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to cease fire just hours after a bomb exploded on a Tel Aviv bus, prompting opposition charges of weakness but winning international credit he may seek to draw on in Israel's standoff with Iran, whose disputed nuclear program he considers an existential threat.

"I don't hanker to go back in to Gaza. I'm persuaded that Hamas has no hankering to repeat what happened to it over the last week, and ditto Islamic Jihad," Barak told Israel radio.

Hamas had managed to fire one tonne of high explosive into Israel's built-up areas, he said. Israel hit Gaza targets with around 1,000 tonnes.

Nov 19, 2012

Rivals Dispute Leadership Of France's Conservatives

The result of a tightly fought two-way contest to choose the next leader of France's conservatives remained unclear early on Monday, with both sides claiming they had won.

Jean-Francois Cope, a disciple of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, announced his victory to reporters close to midnight, only for former prime minister Francois Fillon to say 20 minutes later that he was in the lead. Cope supporters said he was some 1,000 votes ahead, while Fillon said he had a lead of more than 200 votes.

The confusion followed several hours during which both camps claimed there had been irregularities in the voting process. Fillon said he was waiting for the official results of the contest from the internal voting commission, adding that "the credibility of the right and the centre" was at stake.

"We don't have the right to proclaim results before those whose responsibility it is have even done so," Fillon said.

Announcing his victory, Cope said he wanted to work hand in hand with Fillon to present a united opposition to President Francois Hollande's Socialists. Cope said the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party had clearly shown its will to fight Hollande's policies, which he said were "dangerous for our country" on an economic, social and fiscal level, with reforms that would divide France.

The contest to lead the party, six months after Sarkozy lost power to the Socialists, is key to determining whether the UMP will hold to the centre or move to the right in a quest to regain power in 2017.

Israeli Air Strike Kills 11 Civilians In Gaza

An Israeli missile killed at least 11 Palestinian civilians including four children in Gaza on Sunday, medical officials said, apparently an attack on a top militant that brought a three-storey home crashing down.

International pressure for a ceasefire seemed certain to mount in response to the deadliest single incident in five days of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip.

Egypt has taken the lead in trying to broker a ceasefire and Israeli media said a delegation from Israel had been to Cairo for talks on ending the fighting, although a government spokesman declined to comment on the matter. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi met Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal and Islamic Jihad's head Ramadan Shallah as part of the mediation efforts, but a presidency statement did not say if they were conclusive.

Izzat Risheq, a close aide to Meshaal, wrote in a Facebook message that Hamas would agree to a ceasefire only after Israel "stops its aggression, ends its policy of targeted assassinations and lifts the blockade of Gaza."

Listing Israel's terms for ceasing fire, Moshe Yaalon, a deputy to the prime minister, wrote on Twitter: "If there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel's citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack."

Gaza health officials said 72 Palestinians, 21 of them children and several women have been killed in Gaza since Israel's offensive began. Hundreds have been wounded.

Israel gave off signs of a possible ground invasion of the Hamas-run enclave as the next stage in its offensive, billed as a bid to stop Palestinian rocket fire into the Jewish state. It also spelt out its conditions for a truce.

U.S. President Barack Obama said that while Israel had a right to defend itself against the salvoes, it would be "preferable" to avoid a military thrust into the Gaza Strip, a narrow, densely populated coastal territory. Such an assault would risk high casualties and an international outcry.

A spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry said 11 people, all of them civilians, were killed when an Israeli missile flattened the home of the Dalu family. Medics said four women and four children were among the dead.

Israel's chief military spokesman said Yihia Abayah, a senior commander of rocket operations in the Gaza Strip, had been the target. The spokesman, Yoav Mordechai, told Israel's Channel 2 television he did not know whether Abayah was killed, "but the outcome was that there were civilian casualties." He made no direct mention of the destroyed dwelling.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier that he had assured world leaders that Israel was doing its utmost to avoid causing civilian casualties in the military showdown with Hamas. "The massacre of the Dalu family will not pass without punishment," Hamas's armed wing said in a statement.


In other air raids on Sunday, two Gaza City media buildings were hit, witnesses said. Eight journalists were wounded and facilities belonging to Hamas's Al-Aqsa TV as well as Britain's Sky News were damaged.

An employee of the Beirut-based al Quds television station lost his leg in the attack, local medics said.

The Israeli military said the strike targeted a rooftop "transmission antenna used by Hamas to carry out terror activity," and that journalists in the building had effectively been used as human shields by Gaza's rulers.

For their part, Gaza militants launched dozens of rockets into Israel and targeted its commercial capital, Tel Aviv, for a fourth day, once in the morning and another after dark. Israel's "Iron Dome" missile shield shot down all three rockets, but falling debris from the daytime interception hit a car, which caught fire. Its driver was not hurt.

In scenes recalling Israel's 2008-2009 winter invasion of Gaza, tanks, artillery and infantry massed in field encampments along the sandy, fenced-off border. Military convoys moved on roads in the area newly closed to civilian traffic.

Netanyahu said Israel was ready to widen its offensive. "We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organisations and the Israel Defence Forces are prepared for a significant expansion of the operation," he said at a cabinet meeting, giving no further details.

The Israeli military said 544 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel since Wednesday, killing three civilians and wounding dozens. Some 302 were intercepted and 99 failed to reach Israel and landed inside the Gaza Strip, it added.

Israel's declared goal is to deplete Gaza arsenals and force the Islamist Hamas to stop rocket fire that has bedevilled Israeli border towns for years and is now displaying greater range, putting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the crosshairs. Israel withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2005 and two years later Hamas took control of the impoverished enclave, which the Israelis have kept under blockade.

Obama Cautions

At a news conference during a visit to the Thai capital Bangkok, Obama said Israel has "every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory."

He added: "If this can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza that is preferable. That's not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it's also preferable for Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."

Obama said he had been in regular contact with Egyptian and Turkish leaders--to secure their mediation in bringing about a halt to rocket barrages by Hamas and other Islamist militants. "We're going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours," he added.

Diplomatic efforts continued on Sunday when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met Israeli officials and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. "It is absolutely necessary that we move urgently towards a ceasefire, and that's where France can be useful," Fabius told French television, adding that war must be avoided.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be in Egypt on Monday for talks with Mursi, the foreign ministry in Cairo said. U.N. diplomats earlier said Ban was expected in Israel and Egypt this week to push for an end to the fighting.

Israel's operation has so far drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called its right to self-defence, but there was also a growing number of appeals from them to seek an end to the hostilities.

Nov 5, 2012

Storm Victims Face Housing Crisis As Cold Snap Hits

A housing crisis loomed in New York City as victims of superstorm Sandy struggled without heat in near-freezing temperatures on Sunday and nearly 1 million people in neighbouring New Jersey remained without power.

Fuel shortages and power outages lingered nearly a week after one of the worst storms in U.S. history flooded homes in coastal neighbourhoods, leaving many without heat and in need of shelter. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said 30,000 to 40,000 people in New York City alone would need shelter.

"We don't have a lot of empty housing in this city. It's a problem to find housing. We're not going to let anybody go sleeping in the street," Bloomberg said. "But it's a challenge and we're working on this as fast as we can."

Temperatures dipped to 39 Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) on Sunday morning in New York City, the lowest in days. Freezing temperatures were expected overnight. An early-season "Nor'easter" storm was expected to hit the battered New England coast this week with strong winds and heavy rain.

"The power is back, but we have no heat," said Adeline Camacho, a volunteer who was giving soup and sandwiches to needy residents of the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Sunday. "A lot of people haven't been able to bathe or stay warm. Last night was cold and this night is going to be much worse."

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said federal agencies are looking for apartments and hotel rooms for people displaced by Sandy. "Housing is really the number one concern," Napolitano said at a news conference with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Overnight, at least two more bodies were found in New Jersey--one dead of hypothermia--as the overall North American death toll from Sandy climbed to at least 113. "People are in homes that are uninhabitable," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference.

Concerns are also growing that voters displaced by Sandy won't get to polling stations on Election Day on Tuesday. Scores of voting centers were rendered useless by the record surge of seawater in New York and New Jersey.

Struggling In

Staten Island

Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean before turning north and hammering the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on Monday with 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds.

The two new deaths in New Jersey--where the storm came ashore last Monday night--included a 71-year-old man who suffered from hypothermia and a 55-year-old man who died from smoke inhalation in a house fire, police said on Sunday. That raised New Jersey's death toll to 24 while the New York City death count was 40.

In the hard-hit borough of Staten Island, Marie Mandia's house had a yellow sticker on it, meaning the city restricted its use. The storm surge broke through her windows and flooded her basement and main floor, the retired teacher said.

"I'm not staying here. There's no protection," said Mandia, 60, who stood outside by a pile of her ruined things--a washer, drier, television and furniture. "Here's my life. Everybody's looking at it."

Similar scenes of destruction were to be seen in the Rockaways, a strip of land along the Atlantic in Queens. Street after street, people were digging out from under feet of sand and cleaning up from the deluge of water that ripped apart fences, turned over cars and left homes flooded.

Volunteers made their way there to help, even as life appeared to be back to normal in Times Square, where the neon lights were bright and Broadway theaters were up and running. "It's like the city, the officials, have forgotten us. Only our neighbours and strangers, volunteers, have been here," Gregory Piechocki said. "We don't need food or water. We need a warm place to sleep and some sign that we aren't forgotten."

Sunday was to have been marathon day in New York, an occasion that normally draws more than 40,000 runners from around the world. But Bloomberg abruptly called off the race on Friday, bowing to criticism that it would divert resources from flood-ravaged neighbourhoods.

Without a race, hundreds of runners set off on informal runs to deliver food and clothes to people in need. More than 1,000 people crowded onto two Staten Island Ferry boats early on Sunday, headed to the stricken borough with relief supplies.

Ruth Silverberg, 59, recently took a cruise in the Bahamas. She returned to her Staten Island home Sunday for the first time since the storm and found more than 4 feet (1.2 meters) of water in her basement. "Things were just floating. I thought it would take me two weeks to clear it out," she said.

Instead, a group of 15 marathon runners formed an assembly line and cleared the basement of its contents in two hours. "I'm awed," Silverberg said, her voice breaking.

Power Crisis

Fuel supplies continued to rumble toward disaster zones and electricity was slowly returning to darkened neighbourhoods where many families have been without power for six days.

In New Jersey, where residents were waiting for hours in line at gas stations, Christie tried to ease the fuel crunch by reassuring people that refineries and pipelines were back online and gas was being delivered. "We do not have a fuel shortage," he said at a news conference.

The New York Harbor energy network was returning to normal on Sunday with mainline power restored, but there were growing concerns about heating oil supplies with cold weather forecast.

Power restorations over the weekend relit the skyline in Lower Manhattan for the first time in nearly a week and allowed 80 percent of the New York City subway service to resume. But Bloomberg said it would be a "very, very long time" before power would return to certain New York neighbourhoods along the coast.

Most schools were due to reopen on Monday, though some were still being used as shelters. Walt Whitman High School in central Long Island was housing about 100 people and expecting more to arrive as temperatures fall.

Some 1.9 million homes and business still lacked power across the Northeast on Sunday, down from 2.5 million the day before. "All these numbers are nice, but they mean nothing until the power is on in your house," Cuomo said.

One of those still without power was 70-year-old Ramon Rodriguez, who lives in the Brooklyn seafront neighbourhood of Red Hook. "I feel like I've spent my whole Social Security check on batteries and candles," Rodriguez said as he waited in line at the 99 Cent Dreams store. His search for ice to keep his freezer cold came up short. But, he added, "At least it's cold enough to leave food outside the windowsill."

At the building where he lives, garbage bags were piled high and the intercom that is typically used for security was not working, so the front door was unlocked.

Election Faces

Real Problems

President Barack Obama, neck-and-neck in opinion polls with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, ordered emergency response officials to cut through government "red tape" and work without delay to help affected areas return to normal.

With the post-storm chaos overshadowing the final days of campaigning, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 68 percent of those surveyed approved of how Obama handled Sandy, while 15 percent disapproved.

New Jersey has said it will allow people displaced by the storm to vote by email. In New York City, some 143,000 voters will be reassigned to different polling sites.

Bloomberg said the Board of Elections has "real problems," and warned that it would be critical to make sure poll workers were informed of the changes. "Unfortunately, there is a history of not communicating changes to their poll workers," Bloomberg said, adding the board has proven to be "dysfunctional" in recent years.

Netanyahu Sceptical Of Abbas Hint Of No Return For Refugees

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced scepticism on Sunday over an apparent concession from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a major sticking point in any future peace negotiations.

Comments by Abbas on Thursday that he had no permanent claim on the town of Safed, from which he was driven during a 1948 war, were widely seen as hinting he was dropping a demand for a right of return of Palestinian refugees to homes now in Israel.

"I watched President Abbas's interview at the weekend, and I heard that since then he has already managed to recant," Netanyahu told his cabinet, urging Abbas to return to direct peace negotiations, suspended since 2010, to clarify his positions.

Abbas's remarks, to Israeli Channel 2 TV, were also interpreted by some commentators as an attempt to soften his defiance of Israel and the United States over his plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians to a non-member state. Touching on the refugee question--one of the most emotional issues for Palestinians in their dispute with Israel--Abbas said: "I visited Safed before, once. But I want to see Safed. It's my right to see it, but not live there."

But on Saturday, Abbas appeared to pull back from his comments, telling Egypt's al-Hayat television in Arabic: "Speaking about Safed was a personal position and it did not mean conceding the right of return."

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is considering whether to challenge Netanyahu in a Jan. 22 election, said that in his own peace talks with Abbas, the Palestinian side had made clear it had no intention of changing the demographic character of the Jewish state through a mass return of refugees. At those U.S.-backed negotiations held between 2006 and 2009, which failed to clinch a land-for-peace deal, the possibility that Israel would allow a few thousand refugees to return on humanitarian grounds was raised, Olmert added, in a wrtten statement.

Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who oversaw talks with Abbas under Olmert's stewardship, accused Netanyahu of failing to "embrace" what she saw as a possible peace overture on Abbas' part. She accused Netanyahu's government of making Israel "a country where peace has become a dirty word."

Abbas has been refusing to resume peace talks with Israel unless it halts settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, construction that Palestinians say will deny them a viable state. He has, however, promised to return to negotiations immediately after the U.N. status upgrade vote.

Libya Militias Battle On Streets Of Tripoli

Rival Libyan militias fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades at each other in Tripoli on Sunday and set fire to a former intelligence building in one of the worst breakdowns in security in the capital since Muammar Gaddafi's fall.

At least five people were wounded and a stray bullet entered a hospital in the heart of the city, where residents rushed to arm themselves, saying calls to police had gone unheeded. After more than 12 hours, the army moved in.

The violence underscored the challenge faced by Libya's first freely-elected government, approved just last week, to rein in militias which gained power during the conflict that ended Gaddafi's 42-year rule a year ago and hold together a country riven with clan, regional and sectarian divisions.

By early afternoon, a building belonging to the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a body set up last year to try to regulate armed groups, was in flames and being looted by members of a rival militia faction, witnesses said. A sports shop that helps fund one of the militia groups was also looted.

The fight erupted just after midnight after a dispute over the detention of a member of one of the armed groups, residents in the southern district of Sidi Khalifa said. Both militias are affiliated to the SSC, an umbrella group for various armed groups that refused to join the official police or army, saying they were still run by Gaddafi loyalists.

Civilians blocked the street where the fighting raged to prevent cars entering the battleground where the sound of gunfire rang out. Many civilians went home to get their own arms. "We called the police early in the morning to help us stop the shooting, but no one came," resident Khaled Mohamed told Reuters.

A stray bullet caused panic at the nearby Tripoli Central Hospital, sending doctors and nurses running for cover. Dr. Khaled Ben Nour said five casualties had been brought in. "We have real patients with real needs. These rogue militias need to leave us in peace so we can do our jobs," Ben Nour said.

Some fighters said the clash was over the detention of the militia member while others said the SSC headquarters--a former intelligence building--had been occupied by a militia called Support Unit No. 8 led by Mohamed al-Warfali. A group of rival militias--also belonging to the SCC--fired at the building from a former post office.

French Left Hits Back At Catholic Church Over Same-sex Marriage

France's governing Socialist Party hit back hard at the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday for campaigning against its plan to legalise same-sex marriage, heralding a bruising debate over the issue.

Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois spoke against the proposed law on Saturday and encouraged Catholics to write to their elected officials and take to the streets in protest against the reform due to be voted on by mid-2013.

Opinion polls show that backing for the plan, a campaign promise by President Francois Hollande, has slipped several points since leaders of France's main religions began speaking out against it and now stands at just under 60 percent. The government is due to present the draft text of the law to the cabinet on Wednesday.

"I'm shocked by this attitude which I think is a kind of return to a fundamentalism that I find problematic," Jean-Marie Le Guen, Socialist senator from Paris, said of Vingt-Trois's speech to bishops in the pilgrimage town of Lourdes.

Party spokesman David Assouline said it was not the Church's role "to oppose the will of the legislature, especially concerning civil marriage in a secular republic."

In his Lourdes speech, Vingt-Trois, who is head of the bishops' conference, said legalising same-sex marriage would profoundly affect the equilibrium of French society and harm children who would grow up without a father and a mother. "It will not be 'marriage for all'," he said, citing the slogan of campaign for gay matrimony, "it will be the marriage of a few imposed on all."

If the law passes, France--a traditionally Catholic society where churchgoers are now a single-digit minority--would become the 12th country in the world to allow same-sex marriage. Erwann Binet, the Socialist Party's expert on the issue, said he hoped "the Catholics don't try to impose their vision of the family on the society."

He told the Le Parisien newspaper France now had many different types of families, including homosexuals who are bringing up children. "We parliamentarians should assure that all these forms of family can have the same rights," he said.

He also said that gay couples should have the right to adopt children or to resort to medically assisted procreation, both of which are only allowed to heterosexuals now.

In Islamist-led Egypt, Coptic Christians Name New Pope

Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church chose a new pope, Tawadros II, in a sumptuous service on Sunday and Christians hope he will lead them through an Islamist-dominated landscape and protect what is the Middle East's biggest Christian community.

Christians, who make up about a tenth of Egypt's 83 million population, worry about political gains made by Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. Radical Islamists have been blamed for attacks on churches several times since, but Copts have long complained of discrimination in Muslim-majority Egypt.

In a ritual steeped in tradition and filled with prayer, chants and incense at Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo, the names of three papal candidates chosen in an earlier vote were placed in a wax-sealed bowl before a blindfolded boy picked out one name. Copts, who trace their church's origins to before the birth of Islam in the 7th century, believe this long-established selection process ensured worldly influences did not determine the successor to Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades until his death in March at the age of 88.

"Pope Tawadros II is the 118th (leader of the church), blessed congratulations to you," said the interim Pope Bakhomious, who was dressed in gold-embroidered robes.

As he held the name aloft, the congregation in the packed cathedral applauded. The formal ceremony to install Bishop Tawadros, 60, as pope will take place on Nov. 18, a priest said.

Pope Shenouda was criticised by some Christians for being too close to Mubarak. Church analysts say he was partly prompted to take a strong advocacy role in Mubarak's era because many Christians withdrew from public life, complaining of discrimination, leaving the pope their main defender.

"Pope Tawadros faces different rules of the political game," said Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani. "Copts are now encouraged, and even encouraged by the church, to get out and participate in the political arena."

The new pope, bishop of a region in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, was shown on television praying at Pope Shenouda's tomb in a desert monastery in Wadi el-Natrun surrounded by priests. Bearded, bespectacled and in black priestly robes, Tawadros thanked God, praised his predecessor and said: "I carry love to all our brothers in Egypt," in comments broadcast on television.

Church experts said Tawadros, trained as a pharmacist before becoming a priest, had strong communication skills and called for peaceful co-existence in Egyptian society.

China Wraps Up Key Meet With Expulsion Of Bo Xilai

Chinese leaders ended a key closed-door conclave on Sunday with a decision to formally expel disgraced politician Bo Xilai from the Communist Party, in a meeting which also promoted two senior military men and approved the party constitution's amendment.

The secretive four-day meeting of 365 senior party officials ratified an earlier decision to expel Bo, former Chongqing party boss, as well as Liu Zhijun, one-time railway minister, sacked last year for "serious disciplinary violations", state news agency Xinhua said. Bo and Liu can now be expected to face criminal charges and a trial.

The party plenum comes just days before the opening of a congress in Beijing on Nov. 8 that will usher in a generational leadership change, which has been overshadowed by a scandal with Bo, who had once been a contender for top office himself. The government accused Bo in September of corruption and of bending the law to hush up his wife's murder of a British businessman. While she has since been jailed, Bo has yet to be formally charged.

Liu was fired early last year over corruption charges. His reputation was further marred after a train crash in China a few months later killed 40 people. Although the accident happened after Liu's dismissal, the government said he was primarily responsible as safety standards at the rail ministry had slipped under his watch.

Xinhua provided no other details of either case, in a report full of turgid Communist terminology designed to curtain-raise the congress, at which President Hu Jintao will hand over his party duties to anointed successor Xi Jinping.

Another announcement from the plenum was the appointments of two new chairmen to the party's powerful Central Military Commission that oversees the People's Liberation Army and China's rapid defence modernisation efforts. Former air force commander Xu Qiliang and Fan Changlong, the head of the important Jinan military region which oversees large parts of eastern China, will join that body, Xinhua said. Sources had told Reuters that Xu had been tipped to do so.

The plenum also approved an amendment to the party charter, Xinhua said. It did not identify the change, but there has been speculation the party may strip out mention of the ideology of late paramount leader Mao Zedong, known as "Mao Zedong Thought". The plenum communique did not mention Mao, marking at least the third time the party has subtly dropped references to Mao since October, a move that was seen by some as sending a signal about the party's intent on reform.

In the past five years the party has "withstood the trials of numerous difficulties and risks", but has managed to maintain stable and relatively fast economic growth and rising living standards, the statement said.


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