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‘Greece approves austerity budget plan’

The Greek cabinet approved a 2012-2015 austerity budget plan as well as laws for its implementation, a key condition for further EU-IMF help to tame a massive public debt, government sources said.

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The government had committed to another round of stiff budget cuts and tax hikes in return for fresh EU-IMF cash and a new debt rescue deal.

The austerity measures will add up to more than 28 billion euros by 2015 and include a major privatisation programme to raise 50 billion euros — a provision bitterly opposed by the unions who plan a 48-hour general strike in protest.

The government won the confidence motion by 155 votes to 143 but Prime Minister George Papandreou now faces a fraught challenge to overcome dissent within his Socialist party over the debt-cutting onslaught.

Papandreou attends an EU summit Thursday and Friday in Brussels where the Greek debt crisis is very high on the agenda.

His eurozone peers will be very anxious to know if he can get the latest steps through parliament after the close confidence vote.

Eurozone ministers have insisted on the latest measures before they would release the next tranche of debt funding worth 12 billion euros ($17 billion), part of a 110-billion-euro rescue package agreed with the European Union and International Monetary Fund last year.

The money will be used to cover debt repayments coming due next month and give Greece and its partners time to work on the next step — a new rescue plan to keep Greece solvent for long enough so that it can grow its way back to fiscal balance.

The Greek finance minister will meet officials from the EU, IMF and European Central Bank in Athens Thursday to review the implementation of the new measures, the ministry said.

Parliament’s vote on the legislation promises to be dramatic, with the financial markets watching the outcome closely given fears that a Greek default could hit other weaker eurozone members or even sink the euro entirely.

In Washington, US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke warned that the Greek debt crisis could threaten the stability of the global financial system, not just the eurozone.

“If there were a failure to resolve that situation, it would pose threats to the European financial systems, the global financial system and to European political unity,” he told a press conference.

Bernanke stressed that the Fed is not part of the negotiations to resolve the crisis, but has been “kept well-informed,” citing a conference call over the weekend with the G7 (Group of Seven) rich countries on the issue.

During the Greek parliamentary debate leading up to the confidence vote in the early hours, Papandreou called for support “to avoid bankruptcy and keep Greece in the euro core.”

The most immediate concerns are over Ireland and Portugal, bailed out by the EU and IMF like Greece, while Spain, or even Italy and Belgium, are considered potentially at risk of being dragged down should Athens go bust.

“We have a unique opportunity (to change the country)…. If we falter, if we lose heart and squander it… history will judge us very harshly,” Papandreou said early Wednesday.

The union in the electricity operator PPC, which opposes the sale of a 17-percent stake in the company under the privatisation plan, on Monday temporarily cut power at the infrastructure ministry.

It also began hour-long electricity cuts around the country, intending to escalate them when the reforms are being debated.

“In the end, the decision on this matter will be decisive for the future of aid payments to Greece, not (the) vote of confidence,” analysts at Germany’s Commerzbank commented.

“(Socialist) members who were afraid of an early election… will not necessarily vote in favour of the government’s fiscal policy,” they wrote.

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IMF calls Australia to seize mining boom

The International Monetary Fund said Friday that Australia needs to take advantage of the ongoing mining boom to enact tax reforms and build a rainy-day fiscal cushion.

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Calling Australia’s economic performance in recent years “enviable”, the IMF said in its annual report that there were few serious weaknesses in the economy.

Australia “was one of the few advanced economies to avoid a recession in recent years, reflecting its strong position at the onset of the crisis and a supportive macro policy response,” the IMF said.

“The good performance can also be attributed to a healthy banking system, a flexible exchange rate, and robust demand for commodities from Asia, especially China.”

But, it underlined, while the economic outlook is “favorable”, the economy does face real risks: a stall in the global economy or faltering Asian growth could hit income from commodity exports.

Moreover, it added, partly due to the disastrous cyclones and flooding in Queensland and Western Australia, the government had a wider-than-expected budget shortfall in 2010-2011 of 3.5 percent of GDP.

“Directors stressed that over the medium term, the government should grasp the opportunity provided by the mining boom to strengthen fiscal buffers further, recommending that a budget surplus of at least one percent of GDP be targeted for the period beyond 2013/14.”

“A reduction in government debt and buildup of public funds would give fiscal policy the flexibility needed to respond to larger shocks and deal with the long-term pressures from aging and rising health care costs.”

It also urged reform to taxes such the state stamp duties on house sales — which it says discourage worker mobility — and reduction of the effective marginal income tax rates, while the economy is strong and government income buoyant.

It said that Australia could supplant the lost income from such reforms with more dependence on consumption and land taxes, and broadening the proposed minerals resource rent tax to cover more than coal and iron.

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Spain set to swing right, stalked by debt threat

Spain’s Conservative leader Mariano Rajoy is set for a crushing win in Sunday’s general election, but will come under instant pressure to convince investors that he can strengthen its public finances.

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Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party are expected to beat Socialist Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba by a wide margin when voters punish the Socialists for their economic woes, with unemployment at more than 21.5 percent.

His promises of further tough spending cuts have not stopped him opening a wide lead in the polls, but financial markets have raised the stakes by pushing up rates on government bonds to euro-era records ahead of the vote.

Rajoy has avoided scaring voters with details of his austerity plans but analysts say the rise in debt costs will force him to flesh them out quickly, to reassure its lenders that Spain will not need to be bailed out.

“We must make cuts everywhere” except in pensions, said Rajoy, 56, in an interview published Thursday in El Pais newspaper. “Spain needs to send a message that it takes the issue of the public deficit seriously.”

The cost for Spain to borrow money crept up to dangerous levels in the days before the election. Similar pressures have already prompted changes of government in Italy and Greece.

On Thursday Spain’s Treasury had to pay a rate of 6.975 percent on its 10-year bonds — near the levels that prompted Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek help from the EU and International Monetary Fund.

Its key debt risk premium hit a euro-era record of 4.99 percentage points.

The latest polls suggested the PP could win an absolute majority in parliament, strengthening Rajoy’s hand for reforms if he officially takes over as prime minister on December 20.

“If the government emerging from the election achieves an absolute majority, we consider it highly probable that as early as next week it will announce a package of key reforms aimed at regaining credibility over the economy,” analysts from Bankinter bank said in a note.

They expected reforms to labour laws, taxes and the financial sector.

Measures brought in by the current Socialist government have already cut public sector salaries by five percent, frozen pensions and raised the retirement age, prompting street protests.

In the latest of these, thousands of doctors, teachers and students marched in Madrid and Barcelona in several demonstrations against cuts to education and healthcare budgets by PP-led regional governments.

After seven years of Socialist rule, Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the industrialised world at more than 21.5 percent, with nearly five million people jobless, and many voters disillusioned.

“The situation in Spain is bad, awful,” said Alberto Jaray, 38, who sells sweets on a Madrid street.

“And these elections are a farce. The two main parties are both liars. They are only interested in the banks, the big companies.”

Analysts said the new government’s imperative in the weeks after Sunday’s election will be to send a strong message that it has a grip on the public finances to prevent jitters over Greece and Italy spreading to Spain.

“If the markets think the new government is not going to act with the necessary determination, they will raise the risk premium further,” said Daniel Pingarron, analyst at trading house IG Markets.

“They will force the new government to take the austerity measures more seriously.”

Other voters seemed resigned to more austerity.

“The Popular Party is going to win and what’s more it will have to take very drastic economic measures,” said Federico Cres, 43, an airline worker in Madrid.

“The current government took them late. It should have taken them much sooner.”

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Irish PM attacks Vatican over sex abuse failures

The Irish Prime Minister has attacked the Vatican over its failure to tackle clerical child sex abuse.

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Enda Kenny accused the Catholic Church of “dysfunction, disconnection and elitism” after failing to handle child abuse allegations against 19 clerics in southern Ireland.

Kenny was speaking after a report last week criticised the church in its handling of the crisis where it attempted to cover up the sex abuse of children.

Catholic Kenny said he did not find it easy to be so critical of the church but said the Cloyne report findings were of a “different order”.

“Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago,” he told the Dail, the lower house of parliament.

“And in doing so, the Cloyne report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, the narcissism, that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.

“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation’,” he added.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi declined to comment on Kenny’s remarks.

The Cloyne report was one of a series of that have rocked predominately Catholic Ireland, detailing horrific sex abuse of children and attempts by church leaders to cover them up.

The two-year probe into the handling of complaints made in the largely rural diocese of Cloyne between 1996 and 2009 found the authorities’ response to have been “inadequate and inappropriate”, and said this had compounded the victims’ pain.

Kenny said that far from listening to the evidence with compassion and humility, the Vatican’s reaction was “calculated” and “withering”.

He blasted the influence of the church, saying that “clericalism has rendered some of Ireland’s brightest, most privileged and powerful men, either unwilling or unable to address the horrors cited” in landmark recent abuse reports.

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At-a-glance: Super Tuesday

Published in collaboration with The Conversation, a website that features commentary, research and analysis from Australian universities and the CSIRO.

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Super Tuesday is billed as the most important day for any US presidential nomination contest, and this year it’s more fascinating than ever. Fewer states are voting than usual and the Republican party is divided over which brand of conservatism it wants to take to the presidential election later this year.

As Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul face off across ten states, we asked US political expert Dr John Hart to explain how Super Tuesday works, and what today’s result might mean in the long run.

What is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday is the name given to the earliest date on the primary calendar when most US states have an opportunity to schedule their primary or caucus [where voters elect delegates who pledge support to candidates].

It’s called “Super” Tuesday because in the past large numbers of states have tried to have their primary and caucuses as early as possible so they can have some influence over the outcome.

The thing about this year though, is that there are fewer states involved. There are only 10 compared to 24 in 2008. It’s a not-so-super Tuesday this year.

This is due to changes in the Republican party rules about how states should conduct their primary, and also because of the budgetary situation in a lot of states where they can no longer afford to run a separate state primary for the presidential election and another primary later on in the year for all the other state offices.

States such as California, which went on Super Tuesday in 2008, have now pushed their primary back to the first week of June so they can combine their presidential primary with the primary for state political offices and hence save a hell of a lot of money. This is of course because California is broke at the moment.

How do primaries work?

A primary is an election in which anybody who is on the electoral roll and has signified that they wish to vote in either the Democratic Party primary or the Republican Party primary can vote.

They vote for delegates to the national party convention, who have pledged to support one candidate or another. So in the Republican party if you were voting in Massachusetts and you wanted to see Mitt Romney as the party’s nominee, you would go into the primary and vote for a delegate who had pledged to support him.

Is Super Tuesday as important this year as it has been in the past?

Super Tuesday has been important in the past because so many states have held their primaries then. Somewhere near half the total number of delegates to the convention have usually been chosen by that point. So in effect the front-loading of the primary schedule, which sees so many states going as early as possible has really closed off the nomination contest. In previous years you’ve more or less known who the candidate for the parties are going to be by Super Tuesday.

This year, no matter how well Mitt Romney does in the big primaries, he’s not going to end up with an overwhelming lead in delegate support whereby the media could turn round and say he’s got the nomination wrapped up.

Is there a possibility for a brokered convention this year?

I think it’s very unlikely that any other Republican but Mitt Romney will be in the lead in terms of delegate votes at the convention. But it’s very possible that Romney might not have an absolute majority of delegate votes, which is going to be 1,144 on the first ballot.

The rules in the party are that if there’s no candidate with the majority of votes in the first ballot, you hold another one, and another one, and another one until such time as there is a majority. But the delegates are freed from their pledges to support a particular candidate after the first ballot.

So Romney could go to the convention ahead in terms of delegate votes but with Santorum, Paul and Gingrich actually having between them a majority of delegate votes, and not being willing to release their delegates to Romney. That would lead to a brokered convention with more than one ballot. It’s impossible to predict what would happen after that. There hasn’t been a party convention that has gone to more than one ballot in nearly 60 years.

Which states will be most important this year?

The key one state is Ohio, for two reasons. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are running neck-and-neck in that state, and it’s a state with a sizeable number of delegates. 66 delegates are up for stake in Ohio today.

Romney initially had a lead, then Santorum built up some momentum in the state over the past three weeks and had a lead. But that lead seems to have been whittling away in the last few days.

But because of the particular way in which the vote of the public in the primary relates to the vote for delegates on a district basis in Ohio, Romney could win some districts, Santorum could win others.

It’s very likely that it’s going to be a fairly even spilt in Ohio. Although one candidate might win in the popular vote, it’s not going to make much difference in the delegate vote, and that’s what really counts.

The other state to watch is Georgia, where Newt Gingrich is ahead. It’s his own home state where he’s likely to win and I think that will revive his flagging candidacy and deprive Romney of a win in yet another southern state, which is important to the Republican Party. If Gingrich doesn’t win in Georgia he’s more or less finished. Super Tuesday should see him out of the race.

Virginia is an interesting one because only two candidates are on the ballot. It’s only Romney and Ron Paul. A lot of Republicans have been wanting to see a straight contest between two conservatives, because in a sense what this nomination race has been about is “anybody but Mitt Romney”. In Virginia this will actually happen today – a straight race between Romney and one other conservative, Ron Paul.

Both Gingrich and Santorum failed to raise enough signatures to get their name on the ballot in Virginia, which is a sad comment on their organisational capacity.

What is at the heart of the contest this year?

The nomination contest this year has been a fight for the soul of Republican Party between various different forms of conservatism. That schism in the party is not likely to be resolved by today’s contest.

If Romney cleaned up in every single contest with more than 50% of the vote in each state, you might say, “Okay, it’s beginning to look like it’s all over.” But so far Mitt Romney hasn’t won a single contest with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The key thing to remember is that there’s the politics of it all, which you read about in the paper every day, but also this is contest where the rules of the game affect the outcome.

The rules of the game in a presidential nomination contest are very media unfriendly, which is why a lot of commentators try to ignore or oversimplify them. But the rules play a big role here and can explain a lot. You’ve got to be a real political junkie to get involved in that kind of technical detail about how the system operates, but it’s a fact that the way the system operates will partly explain the outcomes of today’s primaries.

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Lagarde poised to win IMF job

France’s Christine Lagarde is poised to be named head of the International Monetary Fund when the global crisis lender’s board meets on Tuesday.

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Lagarde, who would be the first woman to lead the lending organisation, is the leading contender to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned last month after being charged with sexually assaulting a New York City hotel maid.

Despite grumbling from emerging economies over Europe’s 65-year lock on the executive director job, there was little doubt that the key IMF power, the United States, would support Lagarde, making it near-impossible for Mexican challenger Agustin Carstens to win the position.

Choosing Lagarde would ease European concerns that the Fund’s crucial bailouts of Greece, Portugal and Ireland could be disrupted by the unexpected departure of Strauss-Kahn, who resigned on May 18 to fight the sexual assault charges.

The French finance minister picked up an endorsement from China Monday, confirmation that efforts to construct an emerging economy bloc to end Europe’s lock on the job had failed.

Speaking in London, China’s central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan said Beijing had already expressed “quite full support” for Lagarde’s candidacy, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

Since the race began in late May, 55-year-old Lagarde has been the strong favourite over Carstens, despite his own strong resume for the job.

Australia has formally endorsed Carstens, who is Mexico’s central bank chief, to replace Strauss-Kahn.

Few expected Washington to break the tacit pact, dating to the founding of the Fund and sister institution the World Bank, that an American would run the Bank while a European headed the Fund.

On Monday US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner remained coy, while he praised what he called “an open, contested process” with “two excellent candidates”.

The 187-nation Fund, which plays a crucial but often controversial role aiding countries in financial straits, was left reeling after Strauss-Kahn resigned in the middle of tense negotiations over Greece’s massive bailout and tensions over other struggling European economies.

With their crisis festering, Europe’s powers aggressively put forward Lagarde.

Though not an economist, she has gained wide respect as France’s point-woman during its leadership of the G20 as well as in Europe debt talks.

Despite her strong suit, Lagarde toured the world to convince the emerging economic powers like China and India that she would not be too biased to take tough stances on Europe’s bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

“I am not here to represent the interest of any given region of the world, but rather the entire membership,” she told the IMF board last week.

Europe’s push frightened off at least two other potential non-European candidates, who declined to stand, saying Lagarde had the job sewn up.

Carstens, 53, meanwhile struggled through the process, at first only getting an endorsement from a bloc of Latin American countries that notably did not include regional power Brazil or Argentina.

Late last week, he picked up surprise endorsements from Australia and Canada, which usually line up with Europe and Washington.

Carstens’ previous positions, including a stint in the number-three position as IMF deputy managing director, “equip him very well to understand and address, on a collaborative and inclusive basis with IMF member countries, the challenges faced by the global economy,” the two countries’ finance ministers said in a joint statement released on Saturday Australian-time.

But Carstens himself said he was a long shot for the job, acknowledging that underlying the IMF board’s stated goal of deciding “by consensus” was the hard fact that Europe’s IMF quota gives it 32 per cent of the voting power while Washington has 17 per cent.

Carstens’ endorsements from Australia and Canada by comparison would add just 4.5 per cent of the vote to whatever other support he could garner.

The IMF’s 24-member executive board is meeting in Washington DC on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST) to agree on a new managing director.

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Left makes gains in Colombian polling

The elections marked the end of a campaign season marked by strong violence, with some 41 candidates murdered this year leading up to the vote, according to an observer group’s tally.

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An upsurge in leftist guerrilla attacks in October attacks had left 23 soldiers dead, as guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) mounting attacks on security forces.

They were the first elections since the 2010 victory of center-right President Juan Manuel Santos who took the reins from the hard-right Alvaro Uribe, whose politics appeared rebuked by the electorate after he personally campaigned for a number of losing candidates.

Colombians elected governors in 32 departments and more than 1,000 mayors, as well as representatives to their state assemblies and municipal councils.

The regional elections are considered to hold the greatest personal risk for candidates, who come under pressure from guerrillas or paramilitary groups vying for control over local governments.

Notably in what was thought to be Uribe’s safe territories — like the northwestern department of Antiquia where he was governor before his 2002-2010 — the candidates he backed for governor lost, as well as his pick for Medellin mayor.

In the capital Bogota, Gustavo Petro, who once belonged to the nationalist leftist rebel movement M-19, swept to victory.

The win was important, political analyst Fernando Girado told AFP, as it “marks not only the first time a former guerrilla had been elected to a position of such power in Colombia, but because as senator he directly confronted Uribe.”

The legacy of Uribe’s rightist government, said observers, was seriously tainted by a number of corruption scandals, among them charges of eavesdropping on opponents and illegal surveillance of judges, politicians and journalists.

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Berlusconi ‘wants to leave Italy’

A foul-mouthed Silvio Berlusconi has been caught saying he wants to leave Italy, according to a leaked phone conversation published by Italian media as part of a probe into a blackmail plot against the prime minister.

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“I’m so transparent, so clean in everything I do. There’s nothing I could be reproached for. I don’t do anything that could be seen as a crime. People can say I f*** but that’s all they can

say,” Berlusconi was quoted as saying.

“I couldn’t give a f***. In a few months I’m going to go away and mind my own f***ing business. I’m leaving this s*** country that makes me feel like puking,” he said, according to the report by Italian news agency ANSA.

The report said the conversation occurred on July 13 between Berlusconi and online newspaper editor Valter Lavitola, who is wanted in the context of an inquiry for blackmail against Berlusconi that led to two arrests on Thursday.

Lavitola is accused of being the intermediary in blackmail payments from Berlusconi to Giampaolo Tarantini, a businessman who said he paid women to attend some raunchy parties hosted by the prime minister and have sex with him.

Tarantini and his wife Angela Devenuto were arrested earlier on Thursday.

Police “have arrested Giampaolo Tarantini, 34, and his wife Angela Devenuto, 32, for extorting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi”, a police statement said.

Tarantini in 2009 claimed to have paid about 30 women, including a prostitute, Patrizia D’Addario, to entertain the prime minister at his homes.

He had said the women attended 18 of Berlusconi’s parties in Rome and Sardinia in 2009 and 2010 and provided sexual favours “if the need arose”.

Tarantini, who works in the medical industry, is a suspect in several investigations for corruption and has already been convicted.

According to prosecutors quoted by Panorama, a magazine owned by Berlusconi’s family, Tarantini extorted monthly sums in exchange for telling investigators that Berlusconi did not know the women were paid.

The money, including an initial payment of 500,000 euros ($A676,000), was also intended to persuade Tarantini to opt for a fast-track trial in order to avoid a lengthier process that could have brought to light “embarrassing” details.

“I presented them as my friends and I did not mention the fact that sometimes I paid them,” Tarantini said in one of his earlier interviews.

Having sex with prostitutes is not a crime in Italy but Berlusconi likes to defend a macho image and insists he has never had to pay for sex.

In a book about her two nights with Berlusconi in 2009, D’Addario said: “Berlusconi knew I was an escort. And I wasn’t the only one.”

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Afghan war violence up 40 per cent: UN

Violent incidents in the Afghan war have increased by nearly 40 percent over last year, according to UN figures released Wednesday.

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The figures showed total security incidents averaging 2,108 a month in the first eight months of 2011, up 39 percent on the same period in 2010.

Two thirds of the activity was focused on the southern and southeastern regions, particularly the Taliban birthplace of Kandahar and its surrounds.

A report to the UN Security Council shows that despite US-led efforts to protect ordinary people, the number of civilians killed over the summer rose five percent compared to the same period in 2010.

From June to August, the UN’s mission in Afghanistan documented 971 civilian deaths, with three quarters attributed to insurgent violence and 12 percent blamed on NATO’s US-led forces. The rest could not be attributed.

Recent multi-pronged attacks in Kabul and high-profile political assassinations over the summer have fed perceptions that after 10 years at war, the West’s war effort is losing a grip on the Taliban’s bid to return to power.

The average number of suicide attacks each month was unchanged, but complex suicide attacks made up a greater proportion of the violence, with three such attacks each month in 2011, a 50 percent rise on the same period in 2010.

“In the context of overall intensified fighting” the report said the rise in violent attacks was mostly due to the use of Taliban bombs and suicide attacks.

Air strikes were the leading cause of civilian deaths by pro-government forces, but the number of those killed through ground combat and armed clashes increased 84 percent on the same time period in 2010.

The deaths of ordinary people in NATO’s counterinsurgency campaign has long-been a thorny issue for the alliance, with President Hamid Karzai making public rebukes over controversial strikes.

The relentless rise in the scale of killing comes as gradual withdrawals of foreign troops begin with the removal of some of the 33,000 US “surge” troops sent in to turn around the war that began in 2001 with a US-led invasion.

The UN in June reported that civilian deaths in the first half of the year were up 15 percent, putting 2011 on track to be the deadliest in the long war.

Some 130,000 people have been displaced from January 1 until the end of July, the latest report said, an increase of two-thirds on a year before.

However, in brighter news for government efforts to eradicate opium crops that generate funds for much of the Taliban’s efforts, the UN and Ministry of Counter Narcotics reported a 65 percent increase in poppy eradication in 2010.

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Lady Gaga fans swamp Amazon for new album

Fans of Lady Gaga swamped Amazon.

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com’s music service to get digitized copies of the pop provocateur’s new album for just 99 cents.

Within hours of putting out word that “Born This Way” was available for 99 cents for one day only at Amazon’s Cloud Drive music service, the online retail giant was struggling to catch up with demand.

“We’re currently experiencing very high volume,” Amazon said in a message fired off at its official “MP3” account at microblogging service Twitter.

“If you order today, you will get the full @ladygaga album for $.99,” the message promised while its music downloads hit delays at the company’s overwhelmed computers. “Thanks for your patience.”

Making the hot release available at less than a tenth of the album’s price at Apple online shop iTunes was intended to harden Cloud Drive’s position in the market ahead of the expected debut of a similar music service by Apple.

Amazon launched Cloud Drive in late March as a service allowing people to store music on the company’s computers and then listen to tunes on any Internet linked gadgets.

Sluggish or delayed downloads at Cloud Drive frustrated some Lady Gaga fans.

“Reminds me why I usually use iTunes,” Twitter user Martin Dittman said in a terse reply to the AmazonMP3 tweet.

Other feedback was more adoring, with Twitter user “filmfanatic24” marveling at being able to get the album at such a low price and telling Amazon “I love you for it.”

Lady Gaga unveiled her second full-length album this week, three years after taking the music world by storm.

True to her social media-friendly form, the 25-year-old has released “Born this Way” in unconventional style by posting some songs on online social game Farmville ahead of Monday’s launch, as well as other singles already issued.

The title track was released in February, shortly before Gaga — real name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta — caused a sensation by turning up inside a giant translucent egg at the music industry’s annual Grammys awards show.

She also raised eyebrows this weekend when, during a television performance of the song on Saturday Night Live, she simulated giving birth as the finale to the song, surrounded by her writhing dancers.

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Deadly clashes continue in Cairo

US secretary of State Hillary Clinton has slammed Egypt’s ‘shocking’ treatment of women as Egyptian security forces clashed with protesters for a fourth straight day and the death toll rose to 12.

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Two people were killed in dawn fighting in Cairo’s administrative heart as security forces swooped to remove the protesters, health ministry sources said.

The clashes quickly subsided before several hundred people turned out in Tahrir Square — the epicentre of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak — for the funeral of a protester killed in the violence.

But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power in February denied it had given orders to use force against protesters and said a plot had been uncovered to burn down parliament.

SCAF General Adel Emara, interrupting a live news conference, said he had “received a call now to say that a plot was uncovered today to burn parliament and there are now large crowds in Tahrir Square ready to implement the plan.”

AFP reporters in Tahrir said there were no signs of tension there or on the square’s outskirts, where a historic building containing national archives was destroyed and protesters were trying to save any surviving documents.

Emara said the army “does not use force against protesters” but qualified those in Tahrir as “people seeking to destroy the state… not the honourable people of the January 25 revolution.”

But Emara did admit troops had beaten a veiled woman after having ripped her clothes to reveal her bra, sparking nationwide outrage.

In the picture and YouTube footage of the incident, the woman is sprawled on the ground, helmeted troops towering over her. One is seen kicking her, and later she appears unconscious, her stomach bared and her bra showing.

“Yes, this happened. But you have to look at the circumstances around (the incident),” Emara told reporters.

“We are investigating it, we have nothing to hide,” he said.

The comments came as rights groups and dissidents slammed retired army general Abdelmoneim Kato — an adviser to the military — for saying some in Tahrir were “street kids who deserve to be thrown into Hitler’s incinerators.”

Presidential hopeful and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said such statements showed “a deranged and criminal state of mind.”

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information denounced Kato’s comments, saying they “incite hatred and justify violence against citizens.”

Footage on social media networks of military police beating protesters, sometimes leaving them motionless on the ground, has caused nationwide outrage.

A group of newly elected parliamentarians on Monday announced a sit-in outside the Cairo Supreme Court, demanding an immediate end to the violence against protesters and an investigation.

By Monday afternoon, protesters and police hurled rocks and stones at each other over a wall erected by the army in a large boulevard off Tahrir Square.

The violence drew international criticism.

CLINTON BLASTS ‘SHOCKING’ TREATMENT OF WOMEN

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday denounced Egypt’s treatment of women as “shocking” and a “disgrace” to the state after troops were shown ripping off a female protester’s clothes.

In unusually strong remarks, Clinton accused Egyptian authorities of failing the country’s women since the revolution that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak, both by excluding them from power and humiliating them in the streets.

“Recent events in Egypt have been particularly shocking. Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago,” Clinton said.

“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people,” Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University about the role of women.

In images widely seen over YouTube, helmeted troops were seen beating a veiled woman after having ripped her clothes off to reveal her bra and stomach.

‘EXCESSIVE VIOLENCE’

UN leader Ban Ki-moon accused Egyptian security forces of using “excessive” violence against protesters.

Ban is “very concerned by the resurgence of violence,” said his spokesman Martin Nesirky.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged “Egyptian security forces to respect and protect the universal rights of all Egyptians.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the violence in Cairo was “inconsistent with the democratic process in which Egypt is now engaged.”

And rights watchdog Amnesty International urged arms suppliers to halt transfers to Egyptian forces.

“It can no longer be considered acceptable to supply the Egyptian army with the types of weaponry, munitions and other equipment that are being used to help carry out the brutal acts we have seen used against protesters,” said Amnesty’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

A health ministry source said two people were killed on Monday, bringing the death toll from four days of fighting to 12.

In the early morning raid on Tahrir and its outskirts, demonstrators held their ground and several dozens milled about the square, brandishing banners denouncing the SCAF, AFP correspondents said.

One man held up a bloodied white shirt, which had reportedly been worn by the person killed at dawn.

Security forces built another cement wall on a street adjacent to Tahrir near the Institute of Egypt, the historic building housing priceless archives, many of which were destroyed in the latest violence when it was burned.

The institute for the advancement of scientific research was founded in 1798 during Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt, and contained more than 200,000 precious documents.

The French foreign ministry demanded a thorough investigation into the blaze of what was considered Egypt’s richest library, describing it as “a tragedy for world cultural heritage.”

The street battles that erupted on Friday raged outside the parliament building and the headquarters of the government.

The violence overshadowed the count in the first post-revolution vote that shows Islamists in the lead.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party said it won 39 percent of votes in party lists, while the Al-Nur party — which represents the hardline brand of Salafi Islam — claimed more than 30 percent.

The military, which took power when Mubarak was ousted, has decided on a complex electoral system in which voters cast ballots for party lists, that will make up two thirds of the lower house of parliament, and for individual candidates for the remaining third.

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NSW government defends debate choke

The NSW government has defended its decision to choke off debate in the state’s upper house, accusing filibustering Green and Labor MPs of an abuse of parliament and wasting taxpayers’ money.

南宁桑拿

The government invoked a provision that has not been used in more than a century to guillotine the debate on its public sector wage reforms, which began on Wednesday and has dragged on into the weekend.

On resumption of debate on Saturday morning, the government exercised standing order 99, which has not been used since 1906, to end the filibuster and force the bill into the committee stage.

The upper house will now debate amendments to the government’s industrial relations changes, which controversially strips the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) of its power to set public

sector wages.

Nationals MP and Roads Minister Duncan Gay said debate on the bill had dragged on for 29 hours – an abuse of parliament and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“This is an extraordinary abuse of the parliamentary process,” Mr Gay said in a statement.

“The Greens and the opposition have cost the taxpayers of NSW more than $300,000 by forcing it to sit into the early hours of the

morning.

“The government was willing to give everyone reasonable time to speak, but would not allow the house to descend into farce which is

exactly what has happened.”

Outraged Labor and Greens MPs yelled abuse across the chamber when the government signalled its intention to use its power to gag

the debate.

It won a division in the house by 20 votes to 17.

In a brief debate that followed the vote, Labor and Greens MPs lined up to condemn the government for shutting down the debate.

Labor MP Amanda Fazio accused government MPs in the house of “throwing out over a century of tradition in this house”.

“They are now so spineless and so lacking in courage … that they do not want to have full and open scrutiny and a full debate,” she said.

The marathon filibuster saw debate stretch late into the night on Thursday and Friday.

Greens MP David Shoebridge on Thursday spoke for five hours and 58 minutes to smash the previous record for the longest continuous

speech in the upper house, set in 1991.

Labor and the Greens have been calling on the government to adjourn the debate until the next sitting day, on June 14, to allow public debate on a bill which will impact on more than 300,000 workers.

The government is now seeking a vote to restrict debate in the committee stage, with Finance Minister Greg Pearce saying Labor had handed him 152 amendments.

The bill is expected to eventually be passed by the upper house, with the support of cross bench MPs from the Shooters Party and

Christian Democrats.

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Five more dead found on Costa Concordia

The captain of wrecked Italian cruise liner the Costa Concordia has denied he abandoned ship despite audio evidence, as rescue divers found another five bodies, bringing the death toll to 11.

南宁桑拿

A dramatic coastguard recording of ship-to-shore communications as the disaster unfolded showed that captain Francesco Schettino ignored an order to return to the vessel after it hit rocks and pitched on to its side on Friday.

But Schettino, who was questioned by Italian prosecutors, denied he had left the Costa Concordia and said he had saved many lives as the boat was going down near the picturesque Tuscan island of Giglio.

“The captain defended his role on the direction of the ship after the collision, which in the captain’s opinion saved hundreds if not thousands of lives,” his lawyer Bruno Leporatti said. “The captain specified that he did not abandon ship.”

According to investigators, the flooded engine rooms would have made it impossible for Schettino to navigate the 114,500 tonne ship, which drifted closer to the tiny port on Giglio before capsizing.

Schettino, 52, is accused by prosecutors of multiple manslaughter and abandoning ship before all the passengers were rescued.

He is in custody awaiting trial but his lawyers said he will be released from prison and put under house arrest.

“Get back on board now, for f***’s sake… You must tell us how many people, children, women and passengers are there,” an increasingly strident port official tells Schettino, according to the Livorno port authority recording.

“What are you doing? Are you abandoning the rescue?” the official asks.

A judge is due to rule at 1900 GMT on a prosection request to deny bail to Schettino, who was arrested along with his first officer, Ciro Ambrosio, on Saturday.

The grilling of Schettino came as the bodies of another five people were discovered after the Italian navy used explosives to blow seven holes in the upturned hull of the Costa Concordia, bringing the death toll to 11.

About two dozen people are still missing.

“The five victims are a woman and four men, who could be passengers but we are not sure, they are between 50 and 60 years old,” said coastguard spokesman Filippo Marini. He said the victims had been wearing life jackets when found.

Earlier, officials had said that 12 Germans, six Italians, four French, two Americans, one Hungarian, one Indian and one Peruvian were still unaccounted for. There were also reports of a missing five-year-old Italian girl.

The dead identified so far include two French passengers, an Italian and a Spaniard and one Peruvian crew member.

About 4,200 people were on board when the ship went down shortly after it had left a port near Rome at the start of a seven-day Mediterranean cruise, and survivors have spoken of scenes of chaos, confusion and panic on board.

The Italian press reported Tuesday that as the vessel began to keel over, the crew initiated the evacuation procedure themselves — 15 minutes before Schettino eventually gave the command.

But in his meeting with prosecutors, “the captain explained his behaviour, his decision, his choices during that phase of emergency”, the lawyer Leporatti told reporters outside the court in the provincial capital Grossetto.

“There is no need for him to be in detention,” he added.

Asked what caused the disaster, Leporatti replied: “He found a rock along his route.”

Schettino has been widely criticised after reports emerged that he ordered an unauthorised sail-by close to the island, which was not on the cruise’s itinerary, to please a local crew member.

“It was bravado, Schettino was showing off, clowning around, it was incredibly stupid. I would sentence him not once but 10 times,” said a former captain who worked with the ship’s owner, Costa Crociere.

Costa Crociere, Europe’s largest cruise operator, said Monday that the accident occurred as a result of an “inexplicable” error by the captain and distanced themselves from the actions of their employee.

A group of more than 70 Italian passengers have joined a class action suit against the owner, consumer rights association Codacons said Tuesday.

Mario Palombo, a former captain of the doomed Costa Concordia with whom Schettino served as first mate for four years, told investigators that he was “too high-spirited and a dare devil”.

As fears rose of an environmental disaster if the ship’s fuel tanks rupture and leak, Marini said crews had laid down absorbent booms after noticing “an iridescence” in the water off Giglio, a marine sanctuary and popular holiday spot.

Forecasts say a storm is expected to lash the rocky island on Thursday, prompting concerns that the semi-submerged ship could sink entirely.

Local officials are calling for strict curbs in the future on shipping routes in an area of outstanding natural beauty and the government is expected to declare a state of emergency there later this week.

Dutch salvage company Smit began assessing the site on Tuesday and plans to begin pumping out the fuel from the Concordia’s tanks this week, although it said the operation would take at least three weeks.

Officials said the giant ship itself could then be taken off Giglio in an unprecedented operation using massive floats.

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