Few details as Israel eases Gaza blockade

JERUSALEM: Israel has agreed to loosen its land blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, hoping to quell growing international criticism following its deadly raid on an aid convoy.The office of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a statement yesterday that said the security cabinet had approved a plan to ease the three-year-old blockade. However it released few details about the changes, and it was not clear whether any firm decisions had been made, despite two days of cabinet meetings.The only item singled out in the statement was a plan to allow in desperately needed construction materials for civilian projects, but only under international supervision.Israel has barely allowed the entry of materials such as cement and steel, arguing that Hamas militants could use them to build weapons and fortifications. That policy has prevented Gaza from rebuilding after Israel’s fierce war in the territory last year.There was no mention in the statement of any change in other damaging aspects of the blockade, such as bans on exports or allowing in raw materials used in industrial production.The naval blockade will remain. The statement said Israel would ”continue existing security procedures to prevent the inflow of weapons and war materiel”. Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that if the naval closure is lifted, Hamas would turn Gaza into an ”Iranian port”.Israel has been scrambling to find ways to ease the blockade since its raid on a blockade-busting flotilla on May 31 turned deadly. The deaths of nine Turkish activists on board one of the ships drew international attention to the blockade and provoked much anger against Israel worldwide.The 15-member security cabinet said it expected the international community ”to work towards the immediate release of Gilad Shalit”, the Israeli soldier snatched by Gaza-based militants in June 2006.Israel first imposed the blockade after the corporal’s capture, but it was tightened significantly – with Egypt’s co-operation – after Hamas forcibly took over the Palestinian enclave a year later.However, the blockade failed to stem the flow of weapons to Gaza or weaken Hamas. A network of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border became a conduit for weapons and for commercial goods sold at black-market prices. Gazans sank deeper into poverty, turning their anger against Israel and not their Hamas rulers.The partial lifting of the siege did not satisfy Hamas. ”We want a real lifting of the siege, not window-dressing,” said a Hamas MP, Salah Bardawil.In the West Bank, the rival pro-Western Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas also rejected the Israeli decision. Its chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the siege ”is collective punishment and it must be lifted”.Amid the heavy international criticism that followed the Israeli naval raid, Egypt opened its land border crossing with Gaza. But most Gazans remained confined to the crowded territory because Egyptian officials say they have let in only about 10,000 people with special travel permits, such as students and people with foreign passports.Associated Press, Agence France-Presse
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Sorrowful BP boss hints others were also at fault for spill

WASHINGTON: The chief executive of BP says he is ”personally devastated” by the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, but that it is too early to decide what caused the mishap or to nominate with certainty when the leak will be plugged.In prepared remarks that were to be delivered overnight to a House of Representatives’ energy and commerce subcommittee in Washington, Tony Hayward said he understood the animosity that Americans feel towards him and his company.The explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig ”never should have happened and I am deeply sorry that they did”, he said.”My sadness has only grown as the disaster continues.”None of us yet knows why [the accident] happened. But, whatever the cause, we at BP will do what we can to make certain that an incident like this does not happen again.”BP confirmed on Wednesday that it will set aside $US20 billion ($23 billion) over four years to compensate those hit by the disaster, a coup for President Barack Obama, who has been trying to assure Americans he will force the company to pay ”every last dime” of the clean-up.The amount has not been capped, nor have the rights of individuals or states to sue BP, meaning the cost to the oil giant can be expected to escalate.The company is also providing $US100 million immediately for workers affected by a six-month moratorium imposed by the government on new deepwater exploration in the gulf .Mr Obama welcomed the payout. ”What this is about is accountability … At the end of the day, it’s what every American wants and expects,” he said.Mr Hayward’s appearance before the committee is his first since the April 20 explosion that killed 11 workers and sank the Deepwater Horizon. Earlier this week, executives from other oil companies appeared before Congress and sought to distance themselves from BP.But Mr Hayward’s statement, while agreeing that BP was the responsible party in the matter, hinted that others could be drawn into a legal fight.”This is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures. A number of companies are involved, including BP, and it is simply too early to understand the cause.”Mr Hayward was less confident of success in attempts to cap the leak, saying BP could not ”guarantee the outcome of these operations”.”But we are working around the clock with the best experts from government and industry.”Two relief wells being drilled to take over from the crippled well were not expected to be completed before August, but represented ”the ultimate solution to stopping the flow of oil and gas”.BP expects to be able to siphon about 90 per cent of the oil flow into tankers by mid-July, as much as 80,000 barrels a day.However, some observers feared the operation could further weaken the structure of the well, which has been damaged by attempts to staunch the leak.Mr Hayward was sure to face condemnation from the House subcommittee.Responding to his planned testimony, committee member Bart Stupak, a Democrat, said: ”It’s not going to ring true with me or the American public … He’s just going to say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen again’. It’s not good enough.”
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Weight of the nation a big issue

In Japan, being thin isn’t just the price you pay for fashion or social acceptance. It’s the law.So before the fat police could throw her in pudgy purgatory, Miki Yabe, 39, a manager at a major transportation corporation, went on a crash diet. In the week before her company’s annual health check-up, Yabe ate 21 consecutive meals of vegetable soup and hit the gym for 30 minutes a day of running and swimming.”It’s scary,” said Yabe, who is 160 centimetres tall and weighs 60 kilograms. ”I gained two kilos this year.”In Japan, already the slimmest industrialised nation, people are fighting fat to ward off dreaded metabolic syndrome and comply with a government-imposed waistline standard.Metabolic syndrome, known here simply as ”metabo”, is a combination of health risks, including stomach flab, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, that can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.Concerned about rising rates of both in a greying nation, Japanese legislators last year set a maximum waistline size for anyone age 40 and older: 85 centimetres for men and 90 centimetres for women.The experience of the Japanese offers lessons in how complicated it is to legislate good health.Though Japan’s ”metabo law” aims to save money by heading off health risks related to obesity, there is no consensus that it will.Doctors and health experts have said the waistline limits conflict with the International Diabetes Federation’s recommended guidelines for Japan. Meanwhile, ordinary residents have been buying fitness equipment, joining gyms and popping herbal pills in an effort to lose weight, even though some doctors warn they are already too thin to begin with.The number of ”food calories which the Japanese intake is decreasing from 10 years ago”, said Yoichi Ogushi, professor of medicine at Tokai University and one of the leading critics of the law. ”So there is no obesity problem as in the USA. To the contrary, there is a problem of leanness in young females.”Under Japan’s healthcare coverage, companies administer check-ups to employees once a year. Those who fail to meet the waistline requirement must undergo counselling.If companies do not reduce the number of overweight employees by 10 per cent by 2012 and 25 per cent by 2015, they could be required to pay more money into a healthcare program for the elderly. An estimated 56 million Japanese will have their waists measured this year.Healthcare costs in Japan are projected to double by 2020 and represent 11.5 per cent of gross domestic product. That’s why some health experts support the metabo law.Though the health exams for metabolic syndrome factor in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight and smoking, waist size is the most critical element in the law – and perhaps the most humiliating.On the day of her exam, Yabe arrived at the clinic at 8.30am. The tests lasted an hour. The result: her waist was 84 centimetres – safely under the limit. She had shed 2.95 kilograms thanks to her diet and exercise.A week later, however, Yabe was back to eating pasta and other favourite foods. ”I want to keep healthy now, but I don’t know,” she said. ”Maybe in December I will have many bonenkai [year-end parties]. And next summer I will drink beer, almost every day.”
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How justice works in pirates’ favour

Of the 15-strong gang who held me prisoner in a cave in Somalia, a tough, skinny lad named Fraisal is the one I remember best. He always made sure I had enough tea and cigarettes, could cook a half-edible goat stew on the campfire, and, when not issuing death threats, would tell me tales of how he came to choose piracy as a career.Regaled in a mixture of pidgin English and charades, it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for his story. Orphaned when his parents had been killed in Somalia’s civil war, he’d tried and failed to smuggle himself to Europe, before being ”adopted” by the gang’s Fagin-like leader, who had kidnapped me on the orders of a local warlord.Yet the gun that was at Fraisal’s side could not disguise a certain childish naivety. On one occasion, he asked if I had an email address, so that we might stay in touch after I was released. On another, he mentioned a sister studying at college in Liverpool, and suggested I drop by to say hello.Since my release in early January 2009, I have not heard from Fraisal again. Despite his plan to try to board a people smugglers’ boat once more, and his pledge to ”come and say hello” if he ever joined his sister in England, there has been neither an email nor, thank God, a knock at my door.A few others in his line of work, however, look set to achieve his dream of making it to Europe – courtesy not of the people smugglers’ boats, but of the multinational anti-piracy force charged with tackling them.That is the extraordinary story that has unfolded in recent weeks in Room 35 of the maximum security court building in Rotterdam, where five Somali pirates, dressed in borrowed clothes and looking variously confused, bored and cheerful, have sat in front of a judge, lawyers and a contingent of armed policemen.It is fair to say they are not the most formidable buccaneers of their time; they were arrested by a Danish warship after a crewman on the freighter they tried to hijack set their skiff ablaze with a well-aimed petrol bomb.They are, however, assured a place in pirate folklore. After being picked up they were taken to the Netherlands, where they are the first pirates to stand trial in Europe in living memory. The Netherlands, which brought the case because the warship, the Samanyolu, was registered in the Dutch Antilles, hopes it will show that the West is serious about the Somali piracy problem. It is prosecuting the men for attempted ”sea robbery”, under laws first drafted in the 17th century. But the problem is that, 300 years on, the official message that piracy is a mug’s game is somewhat less clear than it used to be.After all, back in the days of sail, when pirates were last a serious threat to maritime commerce, official thinking was quite literally of the ”hanging’s too good for ’em” school. At the old Admiralty court in London, for example, pirates would drop from a rope that was cut deliberately too short to break their necks. After slowly asphyxiating – and doing a grisly leg-thrash known as the marshal’s dance – their bodies would be taken to a gibbet, and displayed as decaying, maggot-riddled warnings to others.By contrast, when the Rotterdam case finished yesterday, the worst they received was five years in a comfortable Dutch prison, where each will have a private cell complete with television, lavatory and shower. Prosecutors asked for a seven-year sentence, but the judge said he took into account the difficult conditions in Somalia that led the men to piracy. Once they are freed, moreover, they will be able to apply to stay in the Netherlands – the very chance that my old acquaintance Fraisal used to dream of.Small wonder, then, that those in the dock in Rotterdam have begun to think that things haven’t worked out quite so badly after all. ”When I first spoke to my client, he said being here was like heaven,” Willem-Jan Ausma, a lawyer who represents Farah Ahmed Yusuf, 27, said. ”For the first time in his life he didn’t feel he was in danger, and he was in a modern prison with the first modern lavatory and shower that he’d ever had.”The case is just one illustration of the difficulties the West is having in posing any real deterrent to Somalia’s pirate armadas, which continue to terrorise shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Since the problem first began escalating in 2008, an international fleet of warships has been patrolling the waters off Somalia, policing a ”safe transit corridor” and advising ships on how to take evasive measures.Yet the chance to share in a multimillion-dollar ransom ensures there is a never-ending influx of desperate people willing to join the pirates’ ranks. Attempted hijackings went up to 217 last year, nearly double the 111 recorded in 2008, and while a smaller proportion of them were successful – roughly one in four last year, compared with one in three the year before – an estimated 200 sailors still languish as hostages. On Friday, the Eastern European crew of the British-flagged Asian Glory were freed after six months in captivity following the payment of a ransom.As I sat in the public gallery of the court in Rotterdam recently, I wondered whether I was that impartial an observer. The face of one defendant bore a passing resemblance to one of my own captors, and when I heard about the crew fending them off with a petrol bomb, I almost muttered a cheer.All the same, listening to the pirates’ defence, it was clear how little most of them felt that they had to lose. Like many other men from the dirt-poor fishing communities that dot the Somali coast, they turned to piracy after rumours swept their villages about the multimillion-dollar ransoms that could be gained. While their testimony has at times seemed exaggerated – one claimed that Somalis ate their children through hunger – all five claim to have been simply ordinary family men looking to put food on the table. ”I would not have done this if I hadn’t had so much trouble of my own,” said Abdirasaq Abdullahi Hirsi. ”Before I was arrested, 18 people depended on me. They now have no home or food or family to fall back on.”For all their concerns about their extended families, none now seem keen to return home. Instead, all five have asked to remain in the Netherlands, and to bring their families to join them upon release from jail.The court told them that they are here to ”answer for their crimes” rather than seek asylum. Mr Ausma points out that the Netherlands, like Britain, deems Somalia too dangerous to repatriate people to. ”When it is not possible to send them back to their own country, the judge will just have to set them free, like thousands of other Somalis who are here already,” he said.Lenient though their treatment may be, however, the ”Rotterdam Five” have at least seen the inside of a courtroom. The vast majority of pirates being apprehended by the international naval force never even get close, thanks to the controversial ”catch and release” policy, under which only those caught directly in the act of hijacking are generally taken into custody. Others simply have their weapons confiscated and are told to go on their way.The justification is that prosecutions in foreign courts are too time-consuming and expensive, and that it is more practical simply to disrupt the pirates’ activities. But critics in the shipping industry, which has paid out nearly $200 million ($232 million) in ransoms in the past two years, have likened it to catching an armed robber on the way to a bank and letting him off with a caution.Until recently, one alternative had been to take the pirates to Kenya, which undertook to try suspects arrested by Britain and other nations. Eight pirates detained by a Royal Navy vessel were recently jailed there for 20 years, and most diplomats agree that an African prison is likely to be more of a deterrent than a Dutch one. But in April, the Kenyan government announced it would not be accepting any more, amid concerns about overloading the system and the fallout of becoming the ”Pirate Guantanamo Bay”.Which means that people like my old friend Fraisal will no doubt continue to find piracy an attractive career option, offering as it does fairly reasonable odds in the lottery of life. If they don’t get a share in a multimillion-dollar ransom, the worst they risk is a slap on the wrist from a foreign navy. Or – if they are really lucky – the chance to start a new life in Europe.As I left the court, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Rotterdam Five might prove to be the luckiest pirates on the high seas – and whether, one of these days, I might get that knock on the door from Fraisal.Telegraph, London, and AAP
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Accused tried to kill girls with car, police say

A MAN has admitted he tried to kill two schoolgirls with the car he was driving so police would stop pursuing him after a violent rampage through western Sydney, a court was told.Charlie McGee, 24, has been charged with four counts of attempted murder and 23 other offences after a series of crimes across five suburbs and eight locations over an hour on Wednesday afternoon. Ten people were assaulted or threatened, police said.The attack began with the alleged bashing of a man with a hammer at Lalor Park at 2pm and ended after the pursuit in Doonside in which Mr McGee allegedly ran into the two girls aged 14 and seven.Police documents tendered to Blacktown Local Court yesterday said he admitted he did so deliberately, aiming to kill the girls so the chase would be called off.The pursuit continued and Mr Gee was arrested a short time later. The girls suffered only minor injuries.While reluctant to discuss pursuit policy yesterday, Superintendent Mark Wright, from Blacktown police said the decision to continue the chase was in the community’s best interest.”We have to ask if police didn’t intervene at that point, bearing in mind the history and circumstances leading up to it, who is to say this individual was not going to drive through that school zone and target individuals?” Superintendent Wright said.”That posed a greater risk and that’s the balance that police have to decide at a split second.”The Minister for Police, Michael Daley, said pursuits were necessary to send a message ”that criminals will not evade arrest by putting the foot on the accelerator pedal”.The Greens MP Sylvia Hale said the harsher penalties now available under a recently introduced law encouraged people to try harder to evade police. ”It was more good luck than good management that no one was killed,” she said.Police allege Mr McGee had admitted that if he had been armed with a gun ”he would have killed multiple persons during his rampage”.Mr McGee is also accused of stealing a ute and trying to violently take four other vehicles.He is also alleged to have pulled over and asked a 65-year-old man to look under the ute for any damage. When he bent over, Mr McGee allegedly hit him with the ute. He suffered minor injuries.The ute was dumped at the McDonald’s restaurant in Woodcroft, where Mr McGee allegedly stole a Toyota Paseo from a TAFE student, Jonxha Fejzullahu.”I was afraid for my life …” Ms Fejzullahu said. ”It could have been a lot worse. I could have died … I’m very lucky.”A psychiatrist told the court Mr McGee had shown ”psychotic symptoms” and was a risk to himself and others. Mr McGee did not apply for bail and is due in court again on August 13.
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