UK’s third party vows to reduce deficit

Britain’s perennial third party, the Liberal Democrats, promised to tackle the country’s crippling deficit and overhaul foreign policy if they achieve the near impossible and win next month’s national election.


The party, which has 63 House of Commons seats, announced its platform on Wednesday with a vow to make sharp cuts to spending, break up major banks and build a less “subservient” relationship with the United States.

Nick Clegg, the party’s 43-year-old leader, says he hopes to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2015, would oppose military action on Iran’s disputed nuclear program and authorise a judge-led inquiry into allegations Britain colluded in the torture overseas of suspected extremists.

His party usually commands about 20 per cent of British votes, and currently trails both Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party and the main opposition Conservative Party in opinion polls.

Clegg’s economic spokesman Vince Cable said Britain’s STG167 billion ($A276.6 billion) deficit is “the elephant in the room” ahead of the May 6 election, pledging the party would quickly reduce government borrowing.

“The two old parties, they are conspiring to airbrush the recession out of this election,” Clegg said, launching the party’s platform in London’s financial district.

Britain has emerged from an 18-month recession – in which about 1.3 million people were laid off – but the nation’s debt burden has risen dramatically after government programs to bail out imperiled banks and stimulate the economy.

Latest polls ahead of the election show Brown’s Labour Party closing in on David Cameron’s Conservatives.

A Populus poll for the Times newspaper put the Conservatives on 36 per cent – a drop of 3 percentage points – to Labour’s 33 per cent. The Liberal Democrats had 21 per cent. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

A ComRes poll for the Independent newspaper and ITV television put Cameron’s party at 36 per cent, down 1 percentage point, Labour up 1 percentage point to 31 and Clegg’s party on 19 per cent.

The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Both polls indicated Brown’s party would hold the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament, a break with recent polls that show Cameron is likely to either win a small majority, or have the largest hung Parliament grouping.

Other surveys show a lead for Cameron of 10 percentage points.

Clegg’s party will likely play a pivotal role if both major parties are denied an outright majority – but he declined to say if the Liberal Democrats would offer support to one of their larger rivals in a coalition or voting pact.

“By definition, it would be new territory and politicians would need to talk to each other,” Clegg said.

Italian aid workers freed in Afghanistan

Afghan authorities released three Italian medical workers who had been detained for a week, clearing them of allegations they were part of a Taliban plot to kill a provincial governor, Italian and Afghan officials said.


The Afghan intelligence service said the three Italians as well as five Afghans, who were all employees of the Italian aid group Emergency, were freed on Sunday because they were no longer believed to be part of the plot. A sixth Afghan employee remained in custody.

The nine Emergency employees were taken into custody on April 10 after Afghan and British forces found explosives and handguns in an Emergency hospital in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.

Officials in Helmand suspected that Emergency employees were bribed by Taliban insurgents to smuggle weapons into the hospital in preparation for an assassination attempt on the provincial governor. Emergency strongly denied the accusation.

The Afghan intelligence service said the employee still in custody had been pressured into conspiring with militants.

“This plan was made by the enemies of peace and stability from outside Afghanistan’s borders, who pressured one of the Afghan employees of Emergency,” the Afghan intelligence service said in a statement.

In Milan, Italy, the founder of Emergency, Gino Strada, alleged that the detentions were an attempt to discredit Emergency, since both civilians and Taliban receive treatment at the hospital.

“Someone tried to discredit Emergency and failed,” Strada told a news conference, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

He said he hoped an investigation would shed light on the incident to determine who was responsible.

In Kabul, the three Italians met with reporters in a lounge at the Italian Embassy late Sunday. They smiled and laughed with each other, looking tired and relieved.

Marco Garatti, a surgeon with the group, said that they were well treated while in custody.

“Well, you know we were in jail … of course to be in isolation is quite hard,” Garatti said.

“But again, I would say that we were treated with extreme care, with extreme humanity.”

“We are happy to be released and to be released with a clean, clear name,” Garatti said.

He did not comment on the circumstances of their arrest or the allegations against them.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy requested that the Italians be released immediately after seven days had passed and no charges were filed.

The Afghans agreed on the understanding that if the Afghans come up with new charges, or flesh out the previous accusations, the Italian justice system would handle the case, he said.

Mental health focus urged pre-hospital reform

While the media focus on which states will work with Prime Minister Rudd on his plans to reform health funding, a consortium of health groups is urging the states not to sign up without significant new measures.


Victorian Premier John Brumby and the only Liberal leader, WA’s Colin Barnett, look very unlikely to be won over, and it’s not entirely clear what NSW will do.

But a band of and of organisations and experts say it must include significant measures for preventative, mental and indigenous health.

Led by Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry, the spokespeople have joined forces to urge the federal government to do better on its health reform package.

And they’re warning state leaders not to sign up unless more focus is given on keeping people out of hospitals, rather than looking after them when they get there.

The groups relate to mental and indigenous health, preventative healthcare, chronic diseases, the Cancer Council and the National Heart Foundation among others.

“Unless we see reforms in these areas, we will not reduce Australia’s dependence on hospital-based case,” Professor McGorry said in a statement on Thursday.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s plan lacked “real structural health reform”, with Prof McGorry calling for a co-ordinated mental health approach, with real investment and national programs.

‘More needed’ for mental health

The Public Health Association’s Mike Daube said the government’s preventative health plan was a step in the right direction, but more had to be done.

Just 2 per cent of health spending goes towards prevention, despite estimates that show up to 670,000 hospitals admissions each year are preventable.

Prof Daube would like to see the government impose a big tobacco tax increase – as part of a three-pronged attack on smoking, drinking and obesity.

Meanwhile, mental health experts believe the government has forgotten their cause.

“Mental health is responsible for the largest burden of disability in the Australian community and the third largest burden of disease after heart disease and all cancers,” said mental health campaigner John Mendoza.

“Yet we have seen or heard nothing on how the government plans to address a mental health system in crisis.”

Although Mr Rudd has already delivered his final 95-page offer to the states and territories, he’s promised more to come for mental health, dental care and preventative, including focuses on smoking and drinking.

His big health overhaul is due to face its biggest test when state leaders sit down for the COAG meeting in Canberra on Monday.

Ex Kyrgyz leader flees rally as shots fired

Automatic gunfire broke out on Thursday at a rally where the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan was speaking to supporters.


Kurmanbek Bakiyev was quickly hustled into a car and driven away from the scene, and there were no apparent injuries in the crowd.

The gunfire crackled out seconds after Bakiyev began speaking to the crowd of about 5,000 in Osh, the largest city in the southern region that is Bakiyev’s support base.

The Interfax news agency reported that at least some of the shots were fired by Bakiyev’s guards, who were shooting into the air, while CNN reported that the ousted President himself was shot at.

One of Bakiyev’s brothers, Kanybek, told The Associated Press that the president was uninjured and was returning to his home in the village of Teyit, about a two-hour drive from the rally site.

Bakiyev reportedly shouted “Don’t run, don’t run!” as the crowd panicked and fled the square. Witnesses said the president then took refuge in a theatre, and a few minutes later was seen climbing into his SUV and driving away.

Keeping up appearances

After fleeing the capital last week, Bakiyev in recent days has made a series of public appearances, clearly testing how much support he has to try to resist the interim authorities who have taken control in the capital.

It was unclear who fired the shots or if they were aimed into the air or at rally participants.

Bakiyev was driven out of the capital on April 7 after a protest rally boiled over into gunfire and protesters then stormed government buildings. At least 83 people died in the violence.

Bakiyev has said he would be willing to resign if security guarantees were given to him and close relatives. The interim authorities have offered him such guarantees but have refused them for family members.

They also say Bakiyev would have to leave the country or face prosecution. His opponents blame him both for last week’s violence and for alleged widespread corruption.

Bakiyev has shown no signs of willingness to leave Kyrgyzstan, and no country has stepped forward publicly with offers of shelter.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has held phone talks with Bakiyev for the first time since he was deposed from power.

Russia has expressed concern over the events in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, warning the country is on the brink of civil war.

Thai troops block Bangkok CBD

Hundreds of Thai troops armed with assault rifles are blocking Bangkok’s main business district from thousands of anti-government protesters.


The government earlier declared Silom Road, a thoroughfare studded with banks and office buildings, off limits to the protesters who have camped in the capital’s main shopping district nearby for weeks.

Soldiers also patrolled the city’s most famous bar strip, Patpong Road, and an entertainment area for Japanese tourists, which are just off Silom Road.

Some took positions atop buildings after searching for possible snipers.

As Thailand’s traditional New Year holiday ended, protest leaders had called for a mass rally at Silom on Tuesday in their bid to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

That has raised concerns of more clashes after savage fighting a week ago killed 25 people.

Main shopping area ‘unsafe’

The military declared the city’s main shopping boulevard unsafe on Sunday because of large crowds of anti-government protesters, and soldiers were sent to nearby high-rises to watch for any violence.

The warning by army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd was another blow for Thailand’s vital tourism sector, which accounts for six per cent of the economy and has steeply declined since the protests began on March 12.

Sansern said military checkpoints were being set up at entry points to the capital and within Bangkok to try to prevent more “Red Shirt” protesters from reaching the main rally site.

The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006.

Meanwhile, the rival, establishment-backed “Yellow Shirt” protest movement vowed on Sunday to take action unless the government “strictly and efficiently enforces the law” to deal with the crisis.

The yellow-shirted protesters led months of anti-Thaksin rallies that led to the coup and their 2008 demonstrations shut Bangkok’s airports for a week to protest a Thaksin-allied government.

They retreated after Abhisit’s arrival but many fear their return if he is forced out.

Report shines light on rape as war weapon

A new report has shown the real extent of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo -with details published on 4000 rapes in the war-wracked east of the central African country.


The report found that more than half of the rapes committed in the east of the DRC, largely ruled by militias and rebel movements, were by gangs of “armed men,” Oxfam International said.

The inquiry by the charity, carried out in the Sud-Kivu province town of Bukavu, “shows that 60 per cent of the rape victims questioned were raped by gangs of armed men and that more than half of the aggressions took place inside the homes.”

Rape as a weapone of war is nothing new – nor is it new in the DRC – but the authors of the report, carried out over four years, point to evidence to suggest a dramatic rise in rape committed by civilians.

56 per cent of attacks carried out by armed men in homes

It revealed that 56 per cent of the attacks were perpetrated by armed men inside family homes, nearly 16 per cent in fields and nearly 15 per cent in the forest, citing statements by 4311 women questioned at Panzi hospital which specialises in treating victims of rape.

Carried out for Oxfam by The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the report spoke of “the stigmatisation that the women are victims of in their families after having been raped and the difficulties they encounter in accessing medical care.”

“Fewer than one per cent of the rape victims went to Panzi hospital with their husbands and nine per cent of them were abandoned by their partner,” Oxfam said.

Margot Wallstrom, special representative of the United Nations secretary general for sexual violence in combat zones, has been in the DR Congo since Monday and was to visit Nord- and Sud-Kivu provinces in the east of the country.

The two regions are highly unstable due to the presence of several armed groups who have been committing all kinds of atrocities, especially sexual violence, for more than a decade.

Oxfam International recommended that the Congolese government “reform the security sector and the judiciary system to guarantee total intolerance of rapes, whether they are committed by civilians, militiamen or soldiers.”

No single reason for luger’s death: report

The international luge federation blamed the death of Georgian racer Nodar Kumaritashvili on “driving errors,” saying Monday that “no single reason” caused his death in a training run at the Vancouver Olympics.


“Nodar did commit driving errors starting in curve 15-16, which as an accumulation ended in the impact that resulted in him leaving the track and subsequently hitting a post,” the report says.

During training in February, only hours before the opening ceremony, Kumaritashvili was flung from the ice at the Whistler Sliding Center and struck a steel pole after losing control of his sled on the final curve.

“After an in-depth analysis we concluded that there was no single reason, but a complex series of interrelated events which led to this tragedy,” FIL secretary general Svein Romstad said in a statement.

FIL cited Kumaritashvili’s tactical errors in preliminary findings within 24 hours of the February 12 fatality. The track reopened on a shorter, slower and safer course.

The $110 million track was built for the Olympics two years ago.

In Monday’s report, FIL defended Kumaritashvili’s credentials to compete at the Olympics.

“The documentation honours the sporting career of Nodar Kumaritashvili and demonstrates the qualification process of the Georgian luger to participate,” FIL said. “He earned the right to participate.”

The IOC has a policy of “universality” that helps fund many athletes from smaller countries and encourages governing bodies to find entries for them.

The Georgian was ranked 44th out of 65 sliders in the season-long World Cup standings.

“The FIL believes its current qualification system is correct and stringent enough,” the report says. “It does not foresee making any recommendations to the IOC for changes.”

The document, written by Romstad and fellow American official Claire DelNegro, was requested by the International Olympic Committee.

The report will be sent to the British Columbia coroner’s service. The Canadian authority is expected to publish its examination of how Kumaritashvili died next month. It could decide to hold a formal inquest hearing.

The debate will continue at the FIL Congress scheduled for June in Sochi, Russia – site of the 2014 Winter Games – which will soon build its own sliding track.

Sochi organisers have been told to keep well below the world-record 155 kph speeds reached in Whistler.

“The FIL is determined to do what it can to avoid a tragedy like this from occurring again,” the report says.

Ash brings peace to airport locals

The biggest shutdown of European air travel since World War Two is set to continue for several days, as a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland continues to highlight a continent’s reliance on air travel.


“The knock-on effect of the volcanic ash plume over Northern Europe is likely to disrupt European airspace for several days,” the Netherlands-based Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (Canso) said in a statement on Friday.

Europe’s three biggest airports in London, Paris and Frankfurt are closed ,forcing millions of travellers onto overcrowded trains, boats and taxis.

“This entire situation has a significant impact on the airspace system and will stretch air navigation service providers’ resources around the world, but particularly in Europe.

“Traffic will have to be reorganised and rerouted and flights replanned, all on a dynamic and quite unpredictable basis.”

But others – especially those who live in the vicinity of airports – were quite pleased at the disruption.

“It’s a historic moment,” data manager Peter Smith told the Guardian newspaper from his local beer garden.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to sit here and have a quiet drink outside in the afternoon.” A colleague added that it was normally “not a very pleasant place to be. The beer usually shakes. But today it’s actually quite relaxing.”

“I love it”, said another.

Economic costs

The International Air Transport Association says the fallout from the volcano’s eruption is costing airlines more than $200m day, with the Scandinavian airline SAS warning it will have to temporarily lay off up to two-and-a-half thousand employees in Norway if flights remain grounded on Monday.

The economic problems being uncovered by such the importance of air travel to the modern economy are being highlighted around the world – the BBC reports that Kenya’s flower industry is being stung with losses of $1.5m and $2m a day.

A cloud of ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland spread further across Europe on Friday, grounding thousands of flights in the continent’s biggest air travel shutdown since World War II.

Rescue efforts push on

Rescuers were Thursday still heading to Qinghai province, China, as witnesses have of the devastation wrought by the earthquake which has near flattened the town of Jiegu.


Around 10,000 people have been injured, while over 600 were killed. Many remain trapped.

“The situation is really bad here. The damage is huge,” said Pierre Deve, a Frenchman working for a Chinese non-governmental organisation in Jiegu near the epicentre of Wednesday’s quake.

“Around 70 to 80 percent of the town has collapsed. Only a few buildings are still up,” he told AFP by phone, adding that fires had broken out in some areas.

Locals in the overwhelmingly Tibetan region were alerted to trouble by an early-morning tremor, followed a couple of hours later by the 6.9 magnitude quake.

Many ‘stop searching’

Chaos ensued as people frantically searched for loved ones buried in debris, but then a curious calm set in, said Deve.

“What might be surprising is that a lot of people, due to a lack of experience maybe, stopped searching for survivors after a couple of hours. They just kind of gave up,” he said.

“You could see lots of wounded people walking around. The bodies were usually left at people’s homes. There were bodies everywhere in the rubble.”

Pu Wu, an ethnic Tibetan witness to the disaster who works for another NGO, told AFP that more rescue personnel and equipment were badly needed in Jiegu.

“Lots of people here are immersed in the pain of losing their relatives. The water is polluted, we need drinking water and food. People can’t find a place to buy a bottle of water or instant noodles,” he said.

Chen Xinmei, who works for an educational organisation affiliated with some of the region’s schools, said parts of Jiegu were “unrecognisable” due to the damage.

“Homes built with earth or bricks have basically all collapsed,” she said, adding that many concrete and steel structures had either fallen or suffered heavy damage.

Bodies lie unclaimed

She visited some schools that collapsed in the quake and saw up to 10 bodies of children that had not been claimed by parents, apparently because they were mangled beyond recognition.

Deve said that except for those still looking frantically for loved ones in the town, most residents had abandoned it for camps set up by the Chinese government’s relief operation outside of town.

“There was a big movement of the population today from the city to the horse festival ground on the outskirts of town,” he said.

The largest of the government tent camps was set up at the festival grounds, where Tibetans stage horse races and other traditional equestrian games.

Witnesses said the situation was calm on Thursday and there was no sign of public unrest as China poured police, soldiers and emergency personnel into the area to launch rescue operations.

“What is clear is that (local residents’) moods are not great. Of course some are crying over lost loved ones. This is normal,” Chen said.

“Parents know this is an act of god so there have been no unusual actions when they have gone to claim the bodies of students.”

Pu Wu added: “The government is working hard to organise rescue work, but obviously more rescuers and equipment are needed.”

Former IOC president Samaranch dies

The Quiron Hospital in Barcelona said Samaranch died after being admitted with heart problems.


Samaranch headed the IOC from 1980 to 2001. He retired as the second-longest serving president in the history of the IOC. He was succeeded by current president Jacques Rogge.

Samaranch was a reserved but shrewd dealmaker whose 21-year term was marked by the unprecedented growth of the Olympics and the Salt Lake City corruption scandal.

The former Spanish diplomat was considered one of the defining presidents of the IOC for building the committee into a powerful global body and firmly establishing the Olympics as a world force.

The Samaranch era spanned political boycotts, the end of amateurism, the explosion of commercialization, a boom in the popularity of the games, the scourge of doping, and the Salt Lake crisis.

Ten IOC members resigned or were expelled for accepting improper inducements from the Salt Lake bid committee. Samaranch then pushed through a series of reforms to clean up the IOC, including a ban on member visits to bid cities.

When Samaranch came to power in 1980, the IOC was virtually bankrupt and the Olympics were battered by boycotts, terrorism and financial troubles.

Samaranch’s leagcy

When he left, the IOC’s coffers were bulging from billions of dollars in commercial revenues, the boycott era was over, and the games were entrenched as the world’s favorite sports festival.

Even in retirement, Samaranch remained active in Olympic circles and tried to help Madrid secure the 2012 and 2016 Games. Madrid finished third behind winner London and Paris for the 2012 Olympics, and second to Rio de Janeiro for 2016.

Despite his advancing age and medical troubles, Samaranch continued to travel to IOC meetings around the world. He looked increasingly frail in recent months. Attending the IOC session at the Winter Games in Vancouver in February, he walked with the aid of a female assistant.