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‘No contact’ with Taliban over office Afghan authorities have said negotiations with the Taliban can only take place after they stop their attacks, reject Al Qaeda, and accept the Afghan constitution, which guarantees civil rights. The country and its international backers have increasingly looked for a political solution to the 10-year insurgency as NATO-led International Security Assistance Force combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014. But despite the ongoing debate about the location and conditions for a Taliban office to push forward peace talks, finding a genuine Taliban representative to engage with has proved difficult. “There hasn’t been formal contact,” an official in the High Peace Council said on condition of anonymity. “We have been trying for several years for contacts. There have been efforts made, but we haven’t reached a tangible result. “If we are going to have an office we want to engage with genuine Taliban representatives.” One Western diplomat said he understood the US and Germany had agreed with the Taliban on the opening of an office in Qatar before Afghanistan voiced its opposition at having been left out of the talks. Afghan authorities have not ruled out Doha, the Qatari capital, as a possible location for a Taliban address, despite recalling their ambassador over the perceived snub. President Hamid Karzai convened a top level meeting on December 15 involving members of the High Peace Council to discuss how to move forward with the peace process, which was derailed by the September assassination of council chief Burhanuddin Rabbani. The meeting put forward Saudi Arabia or Turkey as the preferred location to open a Taliban office abroad. Afghan authorities also say Pakistan, where many members of the insurgent group are based, must be involved in any talks. “If Pakistan are not on board the people of Afghanistan will not be able to reach peace,” the High Peace Council official said. Relations between the United States and Pakistan have severely deteriorated this year. On November 26, US air strikes near the Afghan border killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, leading Islamabad to halt supply routes for NATO forces. The Taliban issued a statement ahead of the 32nd anniversary of the Soviet occupation on Tuesday vowing to continue fighting US-led forces until the country is “liberated from the occupation” once again. “The current invaders are bound to be destined with the same fate that the former ones befell,” the statement said. The Russian occupation lasted nine years and claimed more than one million lives before Soviet troops withdrew.

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Tour de France: Results after stage 12 Cadel Evan maintains third place overall. Here are the stage and overall results after stage 12, a 211-km mountainous trek from Cugnaux. Stage 12 Results: 1 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 6:01:15 2 Jelle Vanendert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:00:07 3 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 0:00:10 4 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:30 5 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 6 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 7 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD 0:00:35 8 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:00:43 9 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 0:00:50 10 Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar GC After Stage 12: 1 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 51:54:44 2 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 0:01:49 3 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:02:06 4 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 0:02:17 5 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:03:16 6 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD 0:03:22 7 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:04:00 8 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:04:11 9 Thomas Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo 0:04:35 10 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:04:57

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Syrian forces kill scores in Homs blitz Syrian forces killed at least 68 civilians as they blitzed the city of Homs and a village in Idlib province, monitors said, as the US expressed support for a humanitarian ceasefire proposed by the Red Cross. In the most significant incident, at least 33 people were killed in the village of Abdita in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Another 31 were killed in Homs province, including 21 people who died in “intensive shelling” that targeted Homs city’s Baba Amr neighbourhood, with the Khaldiyeh and Karm al-Zaytoun districts also blasted. And despite a plea by activists to allow women and children to flee Homs’ besieged Baba Amr neighbourhood, more troops were sent to the outskirts of the restive city, with activists expressing fear they were preparing to storm it. Homs-based activist Hadi Abdullah of the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution told AFP “large reinforcements were heading to Homs.” “We counted at least 150 shells crashing in Baba Amr within two hours this morning. We gave up counting afterwards,” he said. Omar Shaker, another activist, told AFP the neighbourhood had “no electricity, nor fuel,” and that “snipers have hit water tanks,” rendering the situation “bad beyond imagination.” Human Rights Watch emergency director Peter Bouckaert told AFP the watchdog had confirmed the use of Russian-made 240 mm mortars in Homs, which has been under assault for 18 days. “We have little doubt that those extremely powerful mortars are being fired by the regime forces into civilian neighborhoods of Homs. We are talking about a 250-pound mortar round that can only be fired from a heavy specialised armoured vehicle and it requires a nine person crew to operate,” he said. AFP was not able to verify the death toll nor the reports of shelling, as foreign reporters are given only limited access within the country. Security forces also opened fire to disperse a sit-in by 2,500 students at the University of Aleppo, the northern city that until recently been spared anti-regime demonstrations. And secular groups demonstrated outside parliament against an article in the draft constitution that would require the president to be a Muslim. The International Committee of the Red Cross called for a daily truce of two hours in Syria so it can deliver vital aid to afflicted areas, after saying a day earlier it was in talks with both sides to halt the violence. The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, welcomed the call but voiced doubts that the “criminal” regime would commit. And the UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, called on Syria to allow aid groups unimpeded access to the country. “This is a major human rights crisis that is now moving into significant humanitarian consequences,” Amos said. In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said “we support calls for cease-fires to allow for the provision of humanitarian supplies to Syrians who desperately need it.” “Reprehensible actions taken by the Assad regime have led us to a situation where basic supplies, humanitarian supplies are very scarce.” And although top US military officer, General Martin Dempsey, has said it was “premature” to arm Syria’s opposition, top Republican Senator John McCain called again for the outgunned rebels to be supplied with weapons. But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “from our perspective, we don’t believe that it makes sense to contribute now to the further militarisation of Syria. “What we don’t want to see is the spiral of violence increase. That said, if we can’t get Assad to yield to the pressure that we are all bringing to bear, we may have to consider additional measures,” she said. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syria was increasingly under pressure. A Friends of Syria meeting in Tunis on Friday will “demonstrate that Assad’s regime is increasingly isolated and that the brave Syrian people need our support and solidarity,” she said. The meeting “will send a clear message to Russia, China and others who are still unsure about how to handle the increasing violence but are up until now, unfortunately, making the wrong choices,” she added. Russia announced that it will not take part in the meeting because it was being convened “for the purpose of supporting one side against another in an internal conflict,” the foreign ministry said. China, meanwhile, refused to commit to attend the meeting. The Friends of Syria group will meet for the first time after being created in response to a joint veto by China and Russia of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the bloody crackdown. It is backed by members of the European Union as well as some Arab nations and the United States. “China has received the relevant invitation,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “The Chinese side is currently researching the function, mechanism and other aspects of the meeting.” In other developments, several hundred people demonstrated in the Gaza Strip calling for the downfall of Assad, whom they called a butcher and a criminal.

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Gaddafi found ‘in drain with golden gun’ Muammar Gaddafi, the “king of kings of Africa” who for eight months refused to surrender, was captured in a sewage pipe waving a golden gun near his hometown Sirte, Libyan fighters said. “Gaddafi was in a jeep when rebels opened fire on it. He got out and tried to flee, taking shelter in a sewage pipe,” National Transitional Council (NTC) field commander Mohammed Leith told news agency AFP. NTC fighters “opened fire again and he came out carrying a Kalashnikov (assault rifle) in one hand and a pistol in the other.” Gaddafi “looked left and right and asked what was happening. Rebels opened fire again, wounding his leg and shoulder. He died after that,” according to Leith. But according to interim prime minister Mahmud Jibril, Gaddafi was shot in the head “in crossfire” between his supporters and new regime fighters after his capture. “When he was found, he was in good health, carrying a gun,” Jibril told a press conference in Tripoli. Gaddafi was transferred from the pipe to a pickup truck, at which point he was shot in the right hand. “When the vehicle started moving, it was caught in crossfire between Gaddafi fighters and the revolutionaries, and he was shot in the head,” according to Jibril. “He was alive up to last moment, until he arrived at hospital” in the town of Misrata. Outside the hospital in Sirte, the Mediterranean city where Gaddafi diehards for weeks put up a last stand against a revolt which broke out in mid-February, a young fighter proudly brandished what he said was the strongman’s golden gun. Mohammed Shaban, who said he took part in Gaddafi’s capture, said the 69-year-old who ruled Libya for four decades had been cornered in the sewage pipe. “His blood is on my shirt. I’ll never wash it,” he said. A fugitive since the NTC forces with NATO air support swept into Tripoli at the end of August, Gaddafi’s whereabouts had remained a mystery. A wounded Gaddafi was seen alive and standing as he was being manhandled by Libya’s new regime fighters before the announcement of his death, in a videotape aired on Arab satellite channels. Bloodied in the head, face and shoulders, NTC fighters circled Gaddafi, who was hailed as the country’s “king of kings” by African tribal chiefs in 2009, as he apparently tried to cry out. One fighter appeared to hold a gun to his head but it was unclear if he fired before Gaddafi was hauled onto the front of a vehicle, amid chaotic scenes in the video broadcast on Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera television channels. “We announce to the world that Gaddafi has died in the custody of the revolution,” NTC spokesman Abdel Hafez Ghoga announced earlier. In France, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said French warplanes fired a warning shot to stop a convoy of up to 80 vehicles carrying Gaddafi before he was captured. The convoy of several dozen vehicles “was stopped from progressing as it sought to flee Sirte but was not destroyed by the French intervention,” Longuet told journalists. Libyan fighters then intervened, destroying the vehicles, from which “they took out Colonel Gaddafi,” he added. The minister said a French Mirage-2000 was “informed by the integrated general staff (of NATO) of the need for an intervention to prevent this column from advancing. “A French warning shot was fired to prevent the column from proceeding and it divided,” he said, after which some of the vehicles were confronted by the NTC fighters. “In these clashes, vehicles were destroyed, people were wounded and killed and it was among them that… Gaddafi was a part,” he said.

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Somali famine ‘an injustice’ With famine now declared in parts of Somalia, the search is on for more aid. Some is arriving, but militant activity means it’s being delayed, and there are fears the world is reacting too slowly. The future for thousands of malnourished children is bleak, with mothers fleeing famine-declared southern Somali villages – only to end up in an already over-crowded refugee camp. The situation is desperate. African famine: how you can help It’s bone dry; crops have failed for three consecutive years, and the presence of militant Islamists is hampering the all-too-minimal aid efforts. The confronting images of malnutrition are an eerie reminder of a humanitarian crisis of yester-year. The events of 1984 in Ethiopia’s famine – it’s all appearing to happen again in huge numbers. World Vision fears the situation will significantly worsen in the long term unless African nations are permitted to deal under World Trade Organisation guidelines “Those in Africa who only have their crops to sell are blocked, are locked out – that’s immoral it’s an injustice”, says the Reverend Tim Costello, World Vision CEO. Even then, it won’t be easy. HELP FROM OVERSEAS On a smaller scale African refugees in Australia are beginning to mobilise their own aid efforts. Refugee Hanadi Sahmed regularly sends small amounts of money and second-hand clothes to her parents, six sisters and two brothers in Sudan. While she works two jobs supporting her own children, Hanadi is like many African refugees wrestling feelings of intense guilt, leaving loved ones in impoverished and sometimes dangerous situations. “Someone has been struggling with disease and you not be able to help it really make you feel sad”, Sahmed says. Welfare groups like Melbourne’s Spectrum Immigration support service are even creating group counselling for the increasing problem. But in Africa, the snaking hospital queues grow ever longer, the infants even hungrier, and the situation more helpless.

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