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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. 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. 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. 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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Japan slides back into recession The economy shrank by a much worse-than-expected annualised 3. 7 percent in the first three months of the year, marking the second consecutive quarter of contraction, which economists define as a technical recession. In the aftermath of the disasters, output saw its biggest ever fall and spending plunged while consumer and business confidence took a tumble. Consumers have held off spending on non-essentials such as entertainment and travel. Many analysts see the downturn getting worse in April-June, as nationwide supply chain problems in the wake of the quake continue to disrupt production and the threat of power supply disruption prevails. The fall in annualised GDP was much more severe than the 2.0 percent drop forecast in a Dow Jones Newswires poll of analysts and was the first successive contraction since the 2008 financial crisis. “The Japanese economy is expected to remain weak for the time-being,” Economy Minister Kauro Yosano told reporters, adding that a third straight contraction in April-June was likely. However, he stressed that Japan’s plight would be temporary given the difference between the impact of the earthquake and that of the global financial crisis which sapped overseas demand. “The situation is totally different from the time in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. The Japanese economy is seen to be strong enough to show resilience,” he said. “The reason for the GDP’s fall is clear and it is not due to sluggish overseas demand. The decline is seen to be temporary.” Private consumption, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the economy, was down 0.6 percent as Japan adopted a mentality of self-restraint in the aftermath of the disasters. Data earlier this week showed consumer sentiment plunging by its steepest measure on record in April. The January-March contraction was the worst slippage since a record 18.3 percent tumble in January March 2009. Gross domestic product fell 0.9 percent on a quarter-to-quarter basis, government data showed. The 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a devastating tsunami has left nearly 25,000 dead or missing, and with a subsequent emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant it plunged Japan into its worst post-war crisis. Many of Japan’s biggest companies saw profits tumble in the quarter and have been unable to offer forecasts due to the scale of March 11’s impact on production and sales. Many component manufacturers are based in the worst-hit regions of Japan, their facilities damaged by the earthquake or inundated by the giant wave that followed. Power shortages also threaten the economy, and while initial fears of a supply-demand imbalance going into the summer months have eased slightly, the situation is seen to remain volatile, analysts warn. Before Japan was hit by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami, some analysts had predicted that the nation’s economy would return to growth in the first quarter on the back of rising overseas demand. Having gone into recession, analysts say however that GDP should start to grow again in the third quarter as initial earthquake-related disruption is overcome and reconstruction spending starts to boost the official figures. “The point to watch in coming quarters is how well production can recover,” said Daiju Aoki, economist at investment bank UBS. He added there is no need for being overly pessimistic about the future of the Japanese economy. “It is unlikely that (the economy) will stay mired in recession.”

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Israel opposes withdrawal to 1967 borders In a statement issued after the speech, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called on Washington to confirm it would adhere to “assurances” given to Israel by former president George W. Bush in 2004. “Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centres in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) beyond those lines,” the statement said. Obama’s address, which came shortly before Netanyahu is to fly to Washington for talks at the White House, included a call for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be based on the 1967 borders. “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” Obama said. “The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.” But Netanyahu, who will meet with Obama on Friday and address a joint session of Congress next week, rejected the US leader’s call, and urged Washington to endorse a 2004 letter authored by Bush. The letter acknowledged “new realities on the ground,” and said a “full and complete return” to the 1967 borders would be “unrealistic.” “Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of US commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress,” Netanyahu’s statement said.

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20 Iraqi pilgrims killed Bursts of gunfire and explosions rocked the Iraqi capital as hundreds of thousands of Shiites headed to the mausoleum of Imam Musa Kadhim, whose death 12 centuries ago is marked by major Shiite pilgrimage every year. Security forces kept the event under control and by the standards of Baghdad’s recent descent into sectarian bloodshed, which sees around 50 people killed each day, the death toll was low. Nevertheless, health and interior ministry officials said that 20 pilgrims were killed when suspected Sunni extremists fired into crowds, while a defence ministry officer put the toll at 18 dead and 200 wounded. Police and insurgents were also among the casualties. “We have reports of 10 Iraqi forces wounded. Three people were detained for conducting attacks, one of whom died of wounds received after engaging Iraqi forces,” a spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq said. Armed Shiites from the Mehdi Army militia, followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, could be seen escorting sections of the crowd, fuelling fears that violence surrounding the march could stir Iraq’s sectarian conflict. “The overall security arrangement was good, but the Mehdi Army made us feel safe and gave good protection,” said pilgrim Ali Taban from Baghdad. The attacks were a reminder of last year’s gruesome tragedy when at least 965 Shiites were killed in a stampede on a bridge triggered by a mortar attack and rumours of a suicide bomber in the midst of pilgrims. “The terrorists tried to repeat the disaster of the Al-Aima bridge but were prevented by the alterness of our security forces, in cooperation with our citizens,” said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in a statment to media. He praised the army and police for keeping the death toll down and said this was a sign of their “growing capability”. Extremists blamed Mr Maliki blamed the ambushes on “takfiris” or Sunni extremists, but some Sunni leaders claimed Shiites had provoked the attacks and government security forces had stood by as militiamen attacked Sunni homes and mosques. “We demand that the government stand up to these saboteurs and those who are trying to destabilise the country,” said a statement from the Islamic Party, the main Sunni group in Iraq’s coalition government. Despite the threat of attacks, men, women and children, many of them dressed in traditional Shiite black outfits and carrying green, orange and yellow flags and Korans, gathered at the tomb of Imam Musa Kadhim. Iraqi and US security forces were on a high alert to protect pilgrims, many of whom have walked barefoot from across Iraq over the past week to Baghdad, which is gripped by a bloody Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict. Troops and volunteers offered food and water to the pilgrims as they arrived and made their way to the shrine. Pilgrims inside the mausoleum kissed the tomb, while outside volunteers sprinkled rose water on them, and others prepared rice and meat to be served as lunch to the devotees. “It was a shattering experience for us when so many people died on the bridge last year,” said Haider Sadek, a Shiite from Baghdad. “But the unity shown then by the Adhamiyah people with those with Kadhimiyah helped heal wounds,” he said, referring to two districts – one Sunni and one Shiite — linked by the Al-Aima bridge, the scene of last year’s stampede. Kareem Risan walked from the southern city of Amara to take part in this year’s pilgrimage. “It took us seven days. We risked our lives and braved all possible danger to reach here,” he said. Just north of the capital, in and around the strife torn town of Baquba, eight people including two policemen were shot dead by unknown gunmen.

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Ethiopia: thousands trapped With nearly 900 people in southern, eastern and northern Ethiopia already reported dead or missing from flooding in the past two weeks, officials warned the toll was likely to climb as poor weather hampered relief operations. Unable to land in many areas because of the floods, elite troops hung by ropes and ladders from helicopters over the devastated Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s state searching for survivors and bodies. “We have two helicopters flying at low altitude, and airborne troops are descending on ropes to look,” said Tegaye Mununhe, chief police inspector for the state’s Southern Omo region, adding that aid packages were being dropped. He said the teams would either try to pluck those stranded from rooftops or trees in 14 inundated villages or radio their location to rescue crews in 15 small boats, manned by divers, swimmers and medical personnel. “We are dropping food, fresh water and blankets to those who remain stranded,” Mr Tegaye told AFP from Jinka, about 780 kilometres southwest of Addis Ababa, adding the risk of water-borne disease was rising. Banks burst on Sunday At least 364 people were drowned and up to 20,000 stranded in the region when the Omo River and several tributaries swelled by heavy seasonal rains in the Ethiopian highlands burst their banks on Sunday. Overwhelmed by the crisis, regional authorities desperately sought outside help as UN agencies and private aid organizations pledged to assist. “We are trying to do everything we can, but the magnitude of the disaster is not something we can tackle by ourselves,” said Governor Shiferaw Shegute. The flooding in the south came after rivers burst their banks in the east, where 256 people were killed last week and some 250 are still missing, and in the north, where at least six people have died. A total of 876 people have either been killed or are unaccounted for with tens of thousands left homeless, according to official tallies.

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Unemployed paid to leave town It’s trialling a program which would see people willing to make the move paid up to A$5,000 in re-location costs. Prime Minister John Howard says it makes sense to offer unemployed people incentives to move to find a job. “Everywhere I go in the country, when I talk to employers, all they are talking about is getting enough workers,” Mr Howard told reporters in Adelaide. “This is the product of prosperity, it’s not the despair of depression – in a sense it’s an interesting challenge to have.” Mr Howard told the ABC that parts of Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia all have jobs that need filling. “I do think people who are genuinely looking work and can’t get it, particularly those who don’t have such strong family ties, should consider taking up these incentives.” Pilot plan The federal government is expected within months to pilot the plan targeting areas in NSW with higher than average unemployment. Under the reported plan, the commonwealth would pay single unemployed people to relocate to areas suffering chronic skills shortages, such as Darwin and Western Australia. Residents in regions suffering from higher than average unemployment, such as the NSW north coast, the Shoalhaven on the NSW south coast and Sydney’s outer suburbs will be targeted. “It won’t be compulsory but I do think people who are genuinely looking for work but can’t get it, particularly those who don’t have such strong family ties, they should consider taking up these incentives,” Mr Howard said. “The principle is a very simple one: that in any economy that is booming, and our economy is booming at the present time … there will be a shortage of labour in the areas of intense economic activity, there will still be some pockets of unemployment. “And if we can persuade with incentives and assistance some hundreds of people to go from areas of high unemployment to areas of demand … the principle makes a great deal of sense.” Welcome step: Beazley Labor leader Kim Beazley says the incentive is a welcome step, but says the government needs to do more to ease Australia’s shortage of skilled workers. “We really have to do something serious about skills at the national level in this country,” Mr Beazley told reporters in Adelaide. “The government goes around with little bits and pieces of action here and there, when what we need is a wholesale set of plans to make us a more skilled people.” Incentive “interesting”: Iemma Meanwhile NSW Premier Morris Iemma has cautiously welcomed the incentive, saying “it’s an interesting proposal”. “On the surface, it’s an interesting proposal, as long as it’s voluntary,” Mr Iemma said. “But there are a whole range of other issues that need to be worked through before I would commit to giving it any more than saying that it’s an interesting proposal.” The premier said his government’s payroll tax concession already helped create jobs in areas of high unemployment.

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US airport evacuated The two containers of liquid in the female passenger’s carry-on bag tested positive for an explosive, prompting the evacuation at the Huntington Tri-state Airport, the US Transportation Security Administration said in a statement. West Virginia state police then checked the carry-on luggage with bomb-sniffing dogs and also detected a suspicious substance. A hundred people were evacuated from the terminal to another airport building, Tri-state Airport Director Larry Salyers told CNN television. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was questioning the woman, who was from Jackson, Michigan, but had lived in the Huntington, area of West Virginia, the airport director said. “The lady is in custody,” Mr Salyers said, adding that the woman was born in 1978. The incident comes a week after British police disrupted an alleged plot to bomb US-bound airliners leaving Britain. The suspected bombers planned to use liquid explosives, authorities said. The case prompted the US government to ban passengers from carrying liquids and gels on commercial aircraft. Flights out of the West Virginia airport resumed on Thursday afternoon, the TSA said in a statement. Sydney scare Meanwhile, a passenger onboard a plane at the centre of a bomb scare in Australia has said he feared the aircraft would explode. Mark Singleton was one of 102 passengers evacuated from the Pacific Blue 737 from Fiji to Sydney on Thursday night amid a bomb hoax. After being kept in the dark by airline staff about what was happening, Mr Singleton said he concluded a bomb threat was likely when the plane was surrounded by emergency crews. He has told how he thought the plane would explode while passengers were cooped up in a bus, where they waited for 45 minutes on the Sydney Airport tarmac after being evacuated from the plane. “That’s probably the only time when I felt a little bit scared,” Mr Singleton told the Nine Network. “We were sitting on a bus facing this plane maybe a 100 metres back and people were using their mobile phones against orders. No one was telling them not to and I thought if the bomb’s going to be detonated now will be the time.” The drama unfolded after an anonymous caller warned there was a suspicious package onboard the plane, which landed at Sydney Airport from Fiji about 5.45pm (AEST). NSW Bomb Squad officers scoured the aircraft but declared the bomb scare a hoax about 7.45pm. Mr Singleton said the response to the scare was chaotic and could have been better organised. He said passengers were given “erroneous excuses” about why the plane was delayed on the tarmac when it was clearly surrounded by emergency crews. Mr Singleton said passengers, who had to wait on the plane for about an hour before being herded on to the bus, were only made aware of the bomb scare later by friends and the media. UK airports ‘back to normal’ Amid the latest incidents in the US and Australia, flights were virtually back to normal at major British airports, a week after police thwarted an alleged plot to blow up US-bound planes. British Airways, which has scratched more than 1,900 flights over the past week, said it was cancelling only 19 short-haul flights from Heathrow airport on Thursday. “We should be back to a full service by Friday,” a BA spokesman said. Police have kept 23 young British Muslims in custody after a judge agreed that more time was needed to question them. Under British law, terrorism suspects can be detained by police without charge for a maximum of 28 days, subject to court approval. The alleged apparently involved suicide bombers smuggling liquid explosive disguised as drinks onto US airliners, then detonating them with electronic devices mid-air. Three arrests in Pakistan, including one involving a British man, Rashid Rauf, whose brother is among the 23 being held by London police, has prompted speculation that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network was involved.

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Annan holds talks in Jerusalem “We need to deal with the lifting of the embargo — sea, land and air — which for the Lebanese is a humiliation,” Mr Annan said before wrapping up his two-day visit to Lebanon in which he viewed the destruction created by the month long conflict. “And of course the (Lebanese) government needs measures to assure, ensure that the entrances (to) the country — sea, land and air — are secure,” he added at the UN headquarters in the southern port of Naqura. But Israel says it will only lift the blockade when UN warships take its place. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni telling reports at a press conference in Denmark, “The naval blockade is to prevent rearmament of Hezbollah.” Fragile truce Mr Annan’s visit aims to strengthen the fragile truce between the country and Hezbollah. He has already met with Defence Minister Amir Peretz, who said that Israeli forces will remain in southern Lebanon until the UN peacekeeping forces take their place. Israel forces “will remain for several weeks, no longer than that,” Mr Peretz told reporters after the meeting. Mr Annan said that he expected extra soldiers will soon be deployed to fulfil the UN truce resolution’s aim of an eventual 15,000 personnel in Lebanon. “We should be able to double relatively quickly the 2,500 men we have on the ground and move up to 5,000” so that the Israelis can move back to the international border, he said. Mr Annan also met with the Israeli families of the three soldiers captured by militants in Lebanon and Gaza, two of whom were taken by Hezbollah in July sparking the conflict. Hezbollah has said it will release their captives if Israel takes part in a prisoner exchange, so far it has publicly refused that deal, insisting on an unconditional release but local media have reported that talks over a potential exchange are under way. Islamic Jihad chief dies The head of the armed wing of the hardline Palestinian faction Islamic Jihad in the West Bank has died from injuries sustained in an Israeli army operation earlier this month, the group said. Hossam Jaradat, 40, was injured on August 23 after Israeli commandos opened fire on him during an operation in a refugee camp in the northern West Bank of Jenin. He had been in critical condition in a Nablus hospital since. Deployment Meanwhile, Italy’s first contingent of at least 800 troops, out of an eventual 3,000 pledged by the government, has set sail on what Rome called a “long and risky” mission. The Italian flotilla, made up of an aircraft carrier, three landing craft and a patrol ship, left from Brindisi and Taranto in southeast Italy and is due Friday at the Lebanese port of Tyre, which came under heavy attack during the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Italy aims to deploy 2,450 ground troops in two phases over four months. It will be the largest single contribution to the international force which Italy will command from March next year. France, which has troops in the existing UN forces has promised to send an additional battalion of about 900 soldiers, armed with tanks and heavy artillery, before the middle of September, with a second battalion to follow. Nepal is the latest country to pledge help, saying it will send 850 troops to the UN mission. While the Turkish government said it wanted to recall parliament early, and meet on September the fifth, to approve its troop contribution. The UN is hoping that Muslim nations will also send troops as peacekeepers to balance the numbers already pledged by European countries. A donors’ conference will be held in Sweden on Thursday, which aims to raise about 500 million dollars for Lebanon’s immediate humanitarian and reconstruction needs.

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