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London students take to the streets

Thousands of students marched through London Wednesday against cuts in university funding as a massive police operation prevented a repeat of the violence at similar protests a year ago.

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Organisers said 10,000 people joined the march through the heart of London’s financial district in protest against a tripling in higher education fees by the coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron.

About 4,000 police were deployed, Scotland Yard said, adding that it did not dispute the number of protesters given by the organisers despite earlier giving a lower figure.

Police made 24 arrests, mainly for public order offences but the rally remained largely peaceful despite a few sticks and bottles being lobbed at lines of riot police.

The only real moment of tension came when officers forcibly cleared a group of demonstrators who briefly pitched tents in London’s historic Trafalgar Square, leaving one protester with a bloody head injury.

Police had warned ahead of the rally that they had authorised the use of rubber bullets in case of “extreme circumstances”, but besides deploying riot and mounted police they did not take any major steps.

“It went extremely well. We’re very happy with the turnout, which is good given the amount of intimidation there was before,” Michael Chessum, of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, told AFP.

“We wanted to send out a clear statement to the government that this is a sustainable movement, it isn’t over, and I think that is what we have done pretty successfully today.”

The heavy police presence was in response to the violence that marred a series of four student protests last year against the tuition fees hike, which the government says is needed as part of austerity measures.

At the first rally on November 10, 2010, protesters smashed up the offices of Cameron’s Conservative party, while a month later they attacked a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

Riot police in fluorescent jackets lined the route of Wednesday’s protest from the University of London to the City of London financial district, blocking off all side roads, while police helicopters buzzed overhead.

They handed out booklets to protesters advising them what to do if there is disorder, for example to stand aside and let officers work, demonstrators said.

They also stopped the demonstrators joining a protest camp at St Paul’s Cathedral, where anti-capitalism activists inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement have been camping out since mid-October.

A group of protesters had earlier broken off from the main rally to set up around 25 tents in historic Trafalgar Square at the foot of Nelson’s Column, which commemorates one of Britain’s greatest naval victories.

Police later moved in, hauling protesters out of the green and blue tents which officers then folded up.

“This is what democracy looks like,” screamed one protester with a trickle of blood running down his forehead, as police led him away in handcuffs.

Another protester, Glyn Jukes, told AFP the demonstrators were allied to the “Occupy London Stock Exchange” movement in St Paul’s.

“We’ve chosen this very public place at the centre of London to serve as a beacon for the general strike on the 30th to help communicate with people,” Jukes said.

British trade unions are planning a major walkout over pension reforms on November 30, which the student movement says it will join.

Fears of violence had also been raised after London was rocked by riots and looting for four nights in August, which the government blamed on criminality, but which many analysts linked to high levels of deprivation in some areas.

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Factbox: Why Papandreou wanted a referendum

Panicked by riots in the street? Hoping to quell political opposition? Or did he simply want to throw in the towel?

Greeks are debating Prime Minister George Papandreou’s apparently suicidal decision to call for a referendum on an EU bailout deal, which plunged the euro into a new crisis and enraged his European partners.

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“It’s tough to find a rational explanation” for his actions, said Thanassis Diamontopoulos, political scientist at Athens University. “Psychoanalysis” would be the only way to understand it, added the expert.

“Fearing his government would fall, he perhaps wanted — in a totally irresponsible fashion — to play all his chips at once.

“Either he would bring down the political system, even the eurozone. Or he would appear as a master poker player, on line with his father and grandfather”, two charismatic former prime ministers, said Diamontopoulos.

The “fatigue and physical and mental pressure” Papandreou has been under probably also played a role, the expert said, as the prime minister has been trying to fight debts and deficits sometimes against his own socialist political DNA since he swept to a landslide election win in 2009.

Certainly the 59-year-old marathon runner has harmed his reputation for negotiation and keeping a cool head in a crisis by picking apart a hard-won deal clinched only days earlier in late-night Brussels talks.

Political expert George Sefertzis, thought to be close to the Papandreou dynasty, said he believed there were two main reasons for the shock announcement.

One motivation was purely psychological: he panicked, said the expert. The other was more political: he wanted to “win the mandate” required to put his country back on its feet, despite the fierce austerity demanded by its creditors.

“Being called a ‘traitor’ to his country during demonstrations last Friday that forced the cancellation of national day parades played a major role,” said Sefertzis.

Born in the United States to an American mother, Papandreou was in exile until 1974 and once said he was “Greek by choice and not by necessity,” he recalled.

He said that Papandreou really had “no choice” but to call the popular vote, in a bid to “stand up to the danger in a situation that had become uncontrollable”, as the main opposition party, New Democracy, continued to fiercely oppose any type of governing pact.

“Last Friday, the far-left and the far-right were together in the street to attack the government. That could really lead to chaos in a country in which the administration is no longer working and people are demonstrating every few days.

Another analyst, Michalis Spourdalakis, a political scientist at Athens law school, agreed that the anger in the country eventually pushed Papandreou over the edge.

“Anger is everywhere,” he said. “Papandreou got caught up in it.”

In an interview in June, Papandreou, whose democratic idea of a referendum was praised by several left parties throughout Europe, gave a small insight into the psychological pressure he is under, with the weight of his country and the entire eurozone on his shoulders.

“We are in a singular state of war, one that demands a titanic effort and nerves of steel,” he told the To Vima daily.

“I would not wish my worst enemy to face what I’m going through,” he said

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Gold Coast Utd boss ‘doesn’t hate football’

Gold Coast United owner Clive Palmer has warned Football Federation Australia that it would commit a major blunder if it kicks his club out of the A-League.

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Palmer told SBS’s The World Game program that he would take FFA to court if the governing body revoked the club’s licence for the next A-League competition.

”We will injunct them in the Supreme Court and we will fight them in court to a standstill,” Palmer said.

”I have been involved in major business transactions in my life and unfortunately in 68 litigations and our record is 68 to zero.

”So if they want to come on that turf and get off the football ground I would be more than happy to accommodate them.”

Gold Coast’s A-League licence expires in two years.

Palmer sparked a huge controversy last week when he stood down coach Miron Bleiberg after he commented adversely on the club’s decision to appoint 17-year-old debutant Mitch Cooper as captain.

Palmer followed this up with a stinging attack on the game and its governance that sparked a strong response from FFA.

Palmer said his comments to a Sunday paper were taken out of context.

”What I was saying was not that I don’t like the actual game but I don’t like the game how it was set up in Australia because we can do a hell of a lot more,” he said.

”When we compare football with rugby league we see the chief executive of the NRL earning less than a million dollars, we’ve seen the five top executives at FFA paid over $5 million.

”We’ve seen the situation of the FFA being insolvent and they had to get $8 million from the Australian government.

”That’s a matter of great concern.

”We are not in crisis. We’ve paid all our creditors, we have a lot of money, I have a lot of money and we see our club as highly successful.

”But someone has to point out the fact that owners are losing an average of $4 million per club which is very disconcerting.

”And there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

”The FFA has run out of finding new owners every year to replace owners who are leaving their clubs.

”That can’t be sustained and we need to have something done about it.”

FFA chief executive Ben Buckley, who also was on the show, said Palmer’s comments at the weekend had angered him and his organisation would evaluate Gold Coast’s status in the competition in the next few weeks.

”A lot of people are calling for things to be done like the termination of the licence and so on but the real issue is making sure that the season finishes,” he said.

”It’s been a wonderful season, we’ve had a resurgence in crowds, record television audiences and memberships and I don’t accept that the A-league is in trouble.

”Where has it gone wrong (on the Gold Coast)? There will be some commentary on that in the next six to eight weeks.

”What we say to every new club is ‘what is your strategy around these criteria?’ and I must say the Gold Coast’s one was well put together.

”But there is a difference between strategy on paper and execution.

”This is where we have been collectively let down.”

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Britain welcomes Chinese Premier

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured Britain on Sunday and sought to strengthen trade links, as Bejing freed dissident activist Hu Jia.

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Wen arrived in the central English city of Birmingham on Saturday on the second leg of an European mini-tour, while news emerged that Hu, one of China’s most prominent prisoners of conscience, was to be released.

On his first full day in Britain on Sunday, Wen launched the first new MG car to be made in 15 years, the MG6 model, hailing it as a potent symbol of friendship between London and Beijing.

The new MG6 will be assembled at the MG car plant in Longbridge, Birmingham, which is now owned by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC), China’s largest automaker.

“The successful cooperation of the production of the MG6 and other MG vehicles is a symbol of the friendship between China and the UK,” said Wen, speaking at Longbridge.

“The model can be summed up as designed in the UK, manufactured in China and assembled in the UK, thereby making the most of China’s capital and markets, as well as the UK’s technology and managerial expertise.”

Outside the factory gates, several dozen protesters were gathered to demonstrate against the visit, including supporters of the Falungong spiritual movement, banned in China, and Free Tibet campaigners.

“Cameron and Wen. Human rights before trade,” read the placards of some of the protesters.

The British government’s trade minister Stephen Green also attended the MG6 launch and described SAIC as a “pioneer for Chinese investors in the UK”.

The Chinese premier later held separate meetings with former British leaders Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and vowed that support to Britain and Europe would be “in concrete actions,” according to China’s state run news agency Xinhua.

Wen was keen to deepen China’s “exchanges and cooperation with Britain and Europe”, adding it was in the “fundamental interests” of both parties and vital for world peace and stability, reported the news provider.

Wen will hold talks with current British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday and attend a UK-China summit — at which Beijing is expected to unveil huge investment deals.

Meanwhile, Chinese dissident Hu returned home Sunday after completing a jail term for subversion — but seemed likely to be muzzled anew.

The human rights activist’s release after more than three years in prison comes after Ai emerged last Thursday from nearly three months in police custody amid a government crackdown on dissent.

Hu is widely expected to be hit with the same strict curbs as those applied to Ai and a range of other activists and rights lawyers, who have apparently been ordered to keep quiet in exchange for their freedom.

Hu returned to his home on Sunday morning, his wife and fellow activist Zeng Jinyan said on Twitter.

Britain’s Foreign Office has yet to give an official reaction to Hu’s release.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the news — but her spokesman stressed the bloc’s demands for Beijing to treat Hu fairly and accord him “full rights” after his release.

And Germany said it will press human rights issues at its first joint cabinet meeting with China later this week, including the conditions of Ai’s release, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

London has been among international critics, with Foreign Secretary William Hague repeatedly speaking out against Ai’s detention.

Earlier on Sunday, Wen indulged his interest in Shakespeare with a visit to the bard’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was treated to performances of extracts from the play “Hamlet”.

The premier, who began his trip in Hungary, will leave Britain on Monday for Germany, where he will stress his support for eurozone economies that have been rocked by a debt crisis, with Greece on the brink of a second bailout.

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PM pledges flood relief payments

The federal government has activated additional disaster assistance for flood victims in Queensland and northern NSW, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced.

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“Unfortunately these scenes are only too familiar to us after the events of last summer,” she told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

“We’re seeing Australians again in need and in trouble.”

Barnaby Joyce: St.George flood update (mp3)

The Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payments will give flood victims $1000 per adult and $400 per child and are available through Centrelink.

In Queensland, flood victims in shires of Balonne, Barcaldine, Blackall Tambo, Maranoa, Murweh and Paroo are eligible.

In NSW, people affected by floods in Moree, Narrabri and Gwydir can also receive payments.

View Queensland, NSW floods 2012 in a larger map

People should phone the Department of Human Services on 180 22 66 to find out if they are eligible.

The federal government has activated additional disaster assistance for flood victims in Queensland and northern NSW.

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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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