Cyclone Gonu kills 28

Oman has began clearing up after it was lashed by Cyclone Gonu, which killed up to 28 people and seriously damaged the Gulf state's infrastructure.

Oman state television reported 25 people dead.

Twenty-six people were also reported missing.

Gonu also killed three people in Iran, where tens of thousands of people hunkered down in shelters.

Officials said more than 40,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas in southern provinces to higher ground.

A police spokesman, who had earlier given a toll of 20 dead, said that half of those killed had drowned in flooding caused by torrential rain and that police and army helicopters were searching for the missing.

Cyclone Gonu hit Iran and the south-western tip of Pakistan after battering Oman yesterday.

Damage

The fiercest storm to hit the region for 30 years left a trail of destruction along the east coast of a country unaccustomed to such violent weather.

The cyclone initially packed winds of 260km/h an hour.

The storm had raised fears about oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz, through which about one quarter of the world's crude supplies pass.

But United Arab Emirates Oil Minister Mohammed al-Hameli, who is also president of OPEC, said the storm had not affected shipping through the straits.

The clean up

In the capital Muscat, heavy-duty ploughs, dumper trucks and diggers began the mammoth task of clearing roads of the thick mud and debris deposited at the height of the storm yesterday.

The popular Al Qurm commercial district, with its upmarket shops and cafes, was particularly badly hit.

State TV reported that the government had ordered food shops to reopen as soon as possible and that work was under way to restore power to remote areas.


Blair blasts media

With just a fortnight of his premiership left, Mr Blair delivered a valedictory warning that the pursuit of controversy above accurate news is undermining politicians’ “capacity to take the right decisions”.

He said the “unravelling of standards” towards “sensation above all else” was a result of increasing diversity and competition in the media following the advent of the internet and rolling news.

The prime minister did acknowledge that he was “complicit” in the problem for placing an “inordinate” emphasis on spin in the early days of New Labour.

However, his comments were immediately condemned as hypocritical by political opponents – who also warned against tightening regulation on the press.

Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster said: “It’s easy to blame the press for a loss of trust in politicians. A fairer analysis would point to his own culture of spin.”

In the speech to journalists in central London, Mr Blair said: “I do believe this relationship between public life and media is now damaged in a manner that requires repair.”

Pressure for scoops

Mr Blair claimed there was less balance in journalism now than 10 years ago.

He said the traditional media was taking on an increasingly “shrill tenor” because reporters were under pressure to bring in exclusives and expose wrongdoing rather than provide facts.

Fear of being scooped is also driving the press pack to operate like a “feral beast”, he insisted.

“The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack,” Blair said. “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations apart.”

‘Blogs not helping’

Mr Blair said he used to think the internet would allow more direct and better communication between politicians and the public.

However, the emergence of aggressive blogs and websites had proved him wrong.

The PM insisted he had tried to encourage openness through measures such as on-the-record lobby briefings, monthly press conferences and the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Blair said people in public life – from politics to the military, business and sport – found a “vast aspect” of their job now was coping with the “constant hyperactivity” of the media.

Mr Blair suggested there would have to be a review of regulation soon because the nature of the media had changed drastically.

He said reforming the system is not a matter for him, but “the importance of accuracy will not diminish, while the freedom to comment remains”.

Mr Foster said Mr Blair had been the “prime cause” of declining trust in politicians over the past decade.

“Hints at the need for increased regulation of the press are deeply worrying,” he added.

“Politicians may not like what is sometimes written about them, but a free press is the best safeguard for accountability and against corruption and hypocrisy,” he said.


US-Iran tension escalates

The US has expressed "grave concern" after Iran ramped up its nuclear capability amid reports it could have 8,000 centrifuges enriching uranium within months.

The significant rise in Iran's nuclear capability is likely to fuel fears that Tehran seeks nuclear weapons, diplomats close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in Vienna.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has been telling political leaders in private conversations that Iran shows no sign of slowing down in its uranium enrichment, a process that can be used to make nuclear fuel but also atomic weapons, one diplomat said.

"It's a source of grave concern to the international system that they persist in this behaviour in defiance of the will of the international community, the Security Council, the IAEA Board of Governors," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

'Iran can't persist'

He said the international community had to make it "clear to Iran that it can't persist in this behaviour, that they have to change course, and that failure to change course is only going to result in greater isolation" and more punitive sanctions.

The US is stepping up moves with its allies for a third set of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, which again failed to obey a Security Council deadline to suspend uranium enrichment.

The sanctions over the past half year target Iran's ballistics and nuclear industries.

Washington accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, but Iran insists its nuclear drive is entirely peaceful and it just wants to generate energy for a growing population.

The Bush administration says it wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question but has not ruled out a military intervention and has placed sizeable naval forces in the Gulf.


Bush asks Russia to stay calm

President George W Bush has urged Russia not to "hyperventilate" over US plans for a missile defence shield.

He spoke as leaders of the world's wealthy nations struggled to reach a deal on combating climate change.

Bush made his call for calm ahead of a key meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin that is set to dominate the first full day of the Group of Eight summit.

US-Russia relations have hit a new post-Cold War low because of the US proposal to put a missile defence shield in central Europe.

The shield is "not something we should hyperventilate about," Mr Bush said after talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the sidelines of the summit.

Russia believes it is the sole target of the system and Mr Putin has threatened to aim Russian missiles at European targets if its deployment goes ahead.

Mr Bush said he was "looking forward" to meeting Mr Putin despite the dispute, which he reaffirmed was not a threat to Russia.

"I will explain to him once again that a missile defence shield is aimed at a rogue regime that may try to hold Russia and or Europe hostage."

He added: "It is important for Russia and the Russians to understand that I believe the Cold War ended, that Russia is not an enemy of the United States, that there's a lot of areas where we can work together, for example on Iran, areas of proliferation. There's a lot of constructive work we can do."

Climate change

Mr Bush also said the United States was ready to play a leading role in any new international initiative on climate change but insisted that China and India must be part of any deal.

"The US will be actively involved, if not taking the lead, in a post-Kyoto framework, a post-Kyoto deal," Mr Bush said, referring to the UN-backed treaty on cutting emissions that expires in 2012.

Mr Bush said, however, that any global accord would have to include major developing nations which were quickly joining the ranks of the world's top polluters.

"Our role is a bridge between people in Europe and others like India and China. If we want them at the table it is important that we give them the opportunity to set an international goal," he said.

"By 2008 the world's emitters of greenhouse gases should come together. Nothing is going to happen in terms of substantial reduction unless China and India participate."

Facing international pressure because of his rejection of long-term targets to cut emissions, Mr Bush hit back at suggestions that Washington was doing nothing to tackle climate change. He said US greenhouse gas emissions had declined in the last year despite the fact that the US economy had grown.

Protests

While the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States embarked on discussions, German police called in reinforcements to keep demonstrators away from the summit.

Protesters made a new bid Thursday to seal off the summit venue, gathering at the barbed wire security fence around Heiligendamm and also at two key roads which they blocked on Wednesday.

More than 140 people were arrested on Wednesday and eight police were injured in clashes which saw police fire water cannon in a bid to clear the roads and keep demonstrators away from the barriers.


'Hamas plotting coup'

It says Hamas is propelling the Palestinian territories towards civil war as battles rage on in the Gaza Strip.

Factional fighting claimed yet another life on Tuesday, bringing the death toll since Monday to 16 in Gaza.

The death occurred where gunmen fired on government offices, forcing ministers to interrupt a cabinet meeting.

The latest deaths bring to 22 the number of people killed in the lawless territory since a new bout of internecine bloodshed between Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah erupted on Thursday.

Witnesses said gunmen on the rooftop of an adjacent building fired on government offices Monday as Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas chaired the weekly cabinet meeting, forcing the ministers to flee the premises but without causing casualties.

"The prime minister interrupted the meeting and left the premises with the rest of the ministers," an official at Mr Haniya's office told reporters, accusing fighters from rival Fatah of being behind the attack.

Early Tuesday three mortar shells exploded near the offices of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who is also the Fatah leader, but there were no victims, security sources said.

A few minutes later a mortar shell damaged the home of Mr Haniya in Shati refugee camp near Gaza City, the premier's office said. Again there were no casualties.

Elsewhere, Jamal Abu al-Jadian, a head for northern Gaza of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, loosely affiliated to Fatah, was also killed late Monday, security officials said.

He fought a gun battle with Hamas fighters near his home before taking shelter in a nearby house in Beit Lahiya, witnesses said. Abu al-Jadian's refuge was attacked and his body was riddled with 40 bullets, a medic said.

Several of his family members were wounded, including his brother, who died of his injuries late Monday.

Before dawn, a bullet-riddled body of a Fatah member was found on a Gaza City street, his legs tied, in what a spokesman for Fatah said was an "execution" by Hamas men.

Fragile truce

The gun battles and shootings were the latest breach of the newest truce agreed by the two rivals with Egyptian mediators, who for months have been trying to calm increasingly violent tensions between the two sides.

In a grim warning that the violence could spiral further, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said his movement "has decided to punish all the murderers and criminals" after having given the latest ceasefire a chance.

"Killing them is the only dissuasive response," he said.

More than 160 people have been killed since the first major bout of violence erupted in December.

The factional fighting in one of the world's most densely populated areas, along with renewed Israeli attacks in response to militant rockets, has threatened to sink international efforts to jumpstart the dormant Middle East peace process.

The violence has rattled the unity government that the two parties formed in March with the hope that it would halt the bloodshed and pave the way for an end to a crippling Western aid boycott.

Gaza militants on Monday launched a fresh volley of rockets into Israel, without causing injury, nearly a month after the Jewish state resumed deadly air and ground operations on the territory in response to the fire.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday vowed to keep hitting Gaza, a day after militants carried out the first cross-border raid into Israeli territory in nearly a year, which left one militant dead.

Israeli strikes have killed 16 civilians and 39 militants since being resumed on May 16 following a sharp increase in rocket fire.


Iran detains Finnish men

The men work for a mobile phone company in Dubai.

The three had apparently drifted into Iranian-controlled waters accidentally while on an angling trip from the United Arab Emirates, said Esa Hurtig, charge d’affaires at the Finnish embassy in Abu Dhabi.

Mobile telecoms equipment firm Nokia Siemens Networks says the three men worked for it in the trade and tourism hub of Dubai.

“There are three Finnish citizens who were fishing and strayed into an off-limits area near Abu Musa island. This is a sensitive area and it happens,” Mr Hurtig said.

“They were detained by the Iranians. We are trying to resolve this issue. I think this will be resolved.” The three were detained on Saturday.

Earlier this year, Iran released a German and a Frenchman who had been held for more than a year after being picked up near Abu Musa while on a fishing trip from Dubai.

The pair had been convicted of illegally entering Iranian waters.

“We have been talking to the government of Finland, who have been reaching out to their Iranian counterparts,” Nokia Siemens Networks spokesman Barry French said.

The United Arab Emirates and Iran have full diplomatic ties and strong trade links, but are embroiled in a three-decade dispute over three strategic islands in the Gulf, through which a third of the world’s sea-borne crude oil passes.

“Iranian authorities have told us that they are in good condition, but we have not been able to contact them directly,” Finish Foreign Ministry official Pasi Tuominen said.

Finnish ambassador to Iran, Heikki Puurunen, said the embassy was seeking a meeting with Iranian officials today. So far, he said, contacts with Iranian officials had been only by telephone because of a national holiday on Monday and yesterday.

“We don’t know where they are (being held),” he said.

Two Swedish men, convicted and accused of espionage after being arrested in 2006 taking photographs of “sensitive military sites” on another Iranian island in the Gulf, were freed in April in what Tehran said was an “act of clemency”.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards also detained 15 British military personnel aboard two small boats in the northern Gulf in March, triggering a diplomatic storm.

Britain denied the sailors had strayed into Iranian waters.

They were freed after 13 days.

The UAE released 12 Iranian sailors last month detained in an area north of Abu Musa, one of the three disputed islands which the UAE claims and Iran controls.


TV will air Diana photos

Channel 4 plans to show the documentary Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel tomorrow.

Royal officials said in a statement that they had written to Channel 4 asking them on behalf of the princes not to broadcast pictures taken after the crash in a Paris underpass on the night of August 31, 1997.

VIDEO: Princes protest

"The princes reluctantly feel that they have been left no choice but to make it clear publicly that they believe the broadcast of these photographs to be wholly inappropriate, deeply distressing to them and to the relatives of the others who died that night, and a gross disrespect to their mother's memory," said a statement by Clarence House, Prince Charles' official residence.

Officials said their private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, had asked for a response from Channel 4 by Monday morning but had not received one.

As a result, they had made their views public.

'Acute distress'

They also took the unusual step of publishing Lowther-Pinkerton's letter to Channel 4.

In it, he wrote: "If it were your or my mother dying in that tunnel, would we want the scene broadcast to the nation? Indeed, would the nation so want it".

He asked for a shot of an ambulance inside which a paramedic was "clearly" administering emergency treatment to an unseen Diana to be pulled from the program, saying it would cause the princes "acute distress".

In response to the Clarence House statement, Channel 4 said it had "weighed the princes' concerns against the legitimate public interest" in discovering what happened in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

"Channel 4 acknowledges the concerns expressed by the Princes William and Harry about the documentary," said Channel 4 boss Julian Bellamy.

"We would like to make clear that it was not our intention in commissioning this program to cause them distress and we do not believe it is in any way disrespectful to the memory of Princess Diana."

The photos and interviews provided "the most detailed and credible eyewitness account yet delivered" of the crash, he added, while underlining that no images of the victims of the crash are shown.

The program was made by ITN Factual, whose parent company ITN defended it as a "sober" presentation of the events surrounding Diana's death.

Meanwhile, Paris-based photographers Fabrice Chassery and David Ker said they were "categorically opposed" to the broadcast.

They said in a statement they had been repeatedly contacted by Channel Four and had refused them permission to use any of the photos they had taken at the crash site.

They claimed that one photo of an unconscious Diana being treated by a doctor was "illegally taken" from a prosecution file after Dodi Fayed's father Mohammed began legal proceedings against those who took pictures of Diana and his son after the crash, although did not say by whom.

But they said that because legal proceedings were still ongoing, they faced "great difficulty in preventing the totally illegal circulation" of the photos.

News agency AFP contacted Channel Four with the photographers' claims but there was no immediate response.


'War on terror' setback

The US government's "war on terror" has suffered a new legal setback after judges ruled an alleged Al-Qaeda sleeper agent could not be held without charge.

The federal appeals court in the Virginia state capital Richmond ordered the release from military detention of Qatari national Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, 41.

Marri does not have to be set free. He can be tried on criminal charges in a civilian court, or be deported, the panel of three judges ruled in a split two-one decision.

"But the government cannot subject al-Marri to indefinite military detention," the majority opinion said.

"For in the United States, the military cannot seize and imprison civilians — let alone imprison them indefinitely."

Sleeper agent

In a statement, the Justice Department said it was "disappointed" at the ruling and said it would ask the Richmond court's full appeals panel of 13 judges to reconsider.

Citing "unrebutted evidence," it said Marri had trained at a "terrorist training camp" run by Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and met alleged 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed in the summer of 2001.

Marri then entered the United States "to serve as an Al-Qaeda sleeper agent and to explore methods of disrupting the US financial system," it said.

President George W. Bush "intends to use all available tools at his disposal to protect Americans from further Al-Qaeda attack, including the capture and detention of Al-Qaeda agents who enter our borders," the department added.

"We accordingly intend to seek further review of today's decision."

Enemy combatant

Marri arrived in the US on September 10, 2001 — the day before the airborne attacks on New York and Washington — along with his wife and five children.

He had a visa to study in Peoria, in the midwestern state of Illinois, where he had already studied.

Marri was arrested three months later under suspicion of credit-card fraud. But in June 2003, Mr Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" and ordered his transfer to a military prison in South Carolina.

It was the latest reversal on the legal front of Mr Bush's "war on terror," after military judges at the Guantanamo Bay naval detention camp on Cuba dismissed all charges in two high-profile cases.

'Huge victory'

"This is a huge victory," said Jonathan Hafetz, litigation director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Project and the lead counsel for Marri.

"The court soundly and rightly rejected the administration's attempt to treat the globe as a battlefield that is exempt from rule of law," he said.

On June 4, the military judges at Guantanamo separately dismissed charges against Omar Ahmed Khadr, a young Al-Qaeda fighter from Canada, and Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni who says he was bin Laden's driver.

The judges said they lacked jurisdiction because the detainees had not been classified as "unlawful enemy combatants" as stipulated by a 2006 law that established the military commissions, only as "enemy combatants."

The Pentagon is appealing those decisions, which lawyers said threatened to derail the government's prosecution of "high-value" Guantanamo detainees like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed.

Marri's brother was arrested in Pakistan and is also being held at Guantanamo. But Marri is the only "enemy combatant" still in detention without charge in the United States itself.

Two other "war on terror" detainees were also held on US soil. One, Yasser Hamdi, was returned to his native Saudi Arabia after the Supreme Court, in 2004, ordered the government to present him before a judge.

The other, Jose Padilla, is now on trial on terrorism charges in Miami.


White House loses in rulings

Yesterday's surprise rulings on Omar Ahmed Khadr and Salim Ahmed Hamdan threaten to torpedo Washington's pursuit of terrorism suspects.

The judges found the two men had no jurisdiction to proceed with military commission trials as neither Khadr nor Hamdan had been classified as an "unlawful enemy combatant", as required by a recent US law.

But White House spokesman Tony Fratto says the White House doesn't agree with the rulings.

He says the tribunals remain appropriate for dealing with foreign terrorism suspects held in Guantanamo Bay.

The cases

In one case Canadian man Omar Khadr was accused of killing a US soldier in Afghanistan with a grenade.

But the judge handling his case, Colonel Peter Brownback, dismissed murder and other charges levied against him.

Charges were also dropped against Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni accused of being Osama Bin Laden's driver and bodyguard.

He was just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan, and was accused of killing a US soldier during a battle at a suspected al-Qaeda base in 2002.

‘In legal limbo’

However lawyers say both Khadr and Hamdan will remain in legal limbo at this base in south-east Cuba along with nearly 400 other detainees rounded up or handed over to US forces since the September 11 attacks of 2001.

"If nothing else," the rulings "highlight that the judges operate independently," said Major Beth Kubala, spokeswoman for Guantanamo Bay's Office of Military Commissions.

Prosecutors were granted a 72-hour delay to the Khadr and Hamdan rulings while they consider their options for appeal.

Appeals court still to be created

However, the appeals court envisioned in the Military Commissions Act (MCA), rushed through Congress in September following the Supreme Court ruling on Hamdan, has yet to be created.

Human Rights Watch has called for terrorist suspects to be tried in US civilian courts, and for the elimination of the military commissions.

Crucial rulings

So-called combatant status review tribunals (CSRTs) have conferred the description of "enemy combatant" on hundreds of suspects held without charge at Guantanamo.

But in a pivotal point for the judges at yesterday's tribunals, none of the suspects still at the camp has been labelled "unlawful" by a CSRT, so legally they could be viewed as fighting for a legitimate state.

One time-consuming option for the government would be to convene a new round of CSRT tribunals for the Guantanamo detainees, to officially label them "unlawful" and press ahead with prosecutions.

The rulings came as President George W Bush prepared to kicked off a European tour that will take him to the Group of Eight summit in Germany tomorrow.


Dumb act is over: Hilton

In her first interview since she was dramatically sent back to prison last Friday for probation violation in a drink-driving case, Hilton said her imprisonment has served as a life-changing wake-up call.

Her comments were made to veteran television journalist Barbara Walters in a phone-call from the hospital facility of the Los Angeles jail where the heiress to the Hilton hotel empire is being held.

"I'm not the same person I was," Walters quoted Hilton as saying on her ABC television program 'The View' on Monday.

"I used to act dumb. It was an act. I am 26-years-old, and that act is no longer cute. It is not who I am, nor do I want to be that person for the young girls who looked up to me."

Under medication

Walters said Hilton – who was reported to be under heavy medication amid concerns for her mental health – sounded "tired but totally aware of what she was saying."

Hilton has said she will not appeal the decision to send her back to prison to serve her 45-day term.

She was controversially released after spending only three days behind bars last week, sparking a public outcry and prompting Los Angeles judge Michael Sauer to order her back to jail.

Hilton, who was dragged sobbing and wailing from court on Friday, suggested she intends to give up her lifestyle of endless VIP parties, red carpets and pursuing the limelight upon her release.

"I know now that I can make a difference, that I have the power to do that. I have been thinking that I want to do different things when I am out of here," she said. "I have become much more spiritual. God has given me this new chance."

Charity work

Hilton's said her new-found spirituality had led her to believe that her jail stint was meant to be.

"I feel that the purpose of my life is to be where I am," Hilton told Walters. "My spirit or soul did not like the way I was being seen and that is why I was sent to jail. God has released me."

Hilton said she was considering pursuing work to raise awareness about breast cancer or multiple sclerosis.

Walters also said Hilton had mentioned trying to persuade toy companies to manufacture a Paris Hilton playhouse which could be donated to sick children.

Hilton meanwhile described her first days behind bars as a "horrible experience," revealing that she had not eaten or slept at all. "I was severely depressed and felt as if I was in a cage," she said.

The primped and pampered celebutante also revealed that her beauty regimen had suffered since her incarceration, saying her skin was dehydrated because of a ban on moisturizer.

"It doesn't matter," Hilton said, "I'm not that superficial girl. I haven't looked in the mirror since I got here."

Sheriff criticised

Meanwhile, Los Angeles sheriff Lee Baca, who has been under fire since his decision to transfer Hilton to home detention last week was to meet civil rights activist Al Sharpton on Monday amid allegations she had received preferential treatment.

Mr Sharpton said Hilton was given the star treatment because she is white and rich, and questioned whether a rapper would have been allowed to go home early.

Mr Sharpton said he would meet with Sheriff Baca to ensure that all inmates are treated the same.