UN launches record Syria aid appeal

The United Nations has launched a record $5.

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2-billion aid appeal for Syria as government forces seek to capitalise on recent victories over the rebels, sending reinforcements to battlefields Homs and Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the UN scrambled to find replacement troops for its peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights after heavy fighting between regime forces and rebels near its headquarters on Thursday prompted Austria to announce it was pulling out.

The world body said a total of $3.8 billion was needed to help Syrian refugees who have spilled across the country’s borders to escape fighting at home.

The figure for operations inside Syria was $1.4 billion.

“If the fighting doesn’t stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is not prepared,” UN refugee agency head Antonio Guterres told reporters.

“It is not only a matter of generosity but also of enlightened self-interest.”

More than 94,000 people have been killed and some 1.6 million Syrians fled the country since the civil war began in March 2011 after President Bashar al-Assad’s cracked down on protests gainst his regime.

The number of refugees is expected to reach at least 3.45 million by the end of this year, according to the UN appeal.

Within the country, 6.8 million people are forecast to need aid this year, the majority of them having been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting.

Government forces were trying on Friday to mop up final pockets of rebel resistance north of Qusayr, the central town near the border with Lebanon that they retook on Wednesday bolstered by fighters from Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah.

At the United Nations, Russia agreed to a Security Council statement demanding that its ally Syria allow humanitarian access to Qusayr.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army was bombarding another rebel bastion to the north of Qusayr to which hundreds of wounded and civilians had fled.

“Four rebels were killed on Thursday night trying to evacuate the wounded” in eastern Bweida, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said the army was “leaving no way out for rebels, civilians or the wounded” in its campaign to control the whole Qusayr region.

The Observatory also reported that Assad’s forces were sending reinforcements to Aleppo province in northern Syria, where large swathes of territory have been in rebel hands for months.

The army’s preparations for a new offensive in the north came a day after a brief rebel seizure of the Quneitra crossing on the armistice line separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan.

That violence prompted Austria to announce to it was withdrawing its 377 troops from the 1,000-strong UN Disengagement Observer Force.

UNDOF peacekeepers from the Philippines and India were wounded by mortar shrapnel in fighting for the strategic crossing, according to UN diplomats.

Manila said it too was considering pulling out its 341-strong contingent.

UN leaders held emergency talks late on Thursday to replace the Austrian troops who make up more than a third of UNDOF, which has monitored a ceasefire between Israel and Syria since 1974.

President Vladimir Putin proposed that Russian peacekeepers replace the departing Austrian troops ahead of a meeting of the UN Security Council on the UNDOF crisis on Friday.

However, UN spokesman Martin Nesirsky said this was not possible because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

“We appreciate the consideration that Russia has given to provide troops on the Golan. However, the disengagement agreement and its protocol between Syria and Israel does not allow for the participation of permanent members of the security council in UNDOF,” Nesirky told reporters.

Any deployment of Russian troops would be deeply unpopular with the Syrian rebels who have been angered by Moscow’s steadfast support for its ally Damascus.

In neighbouring Lebanon, the army warned that a plot was being hatched to embroil Lebanon in the Syrian conflict, as fresh clashes linked to Syria in the northern port of Tripoli killed one person.

And two journalists working for a French radio channel have gone missing in Syria, with no word from them in 24 hours, their employer Europe 1 said.

French President Francois Hollande called on Friday for Didier Francois, a seasoned reporter in trouble spots, and photographer Edouard Elias “to be freed immediately.”

And an Austrian man with dual Syrian citizenship arrested by Syrian intelligence in December while distributing aid, has been freed and is on his way back to Austria, his family said.


Tallest ever dog enters record book

A Great Dane who towers 2.

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2 metres (7 feet 4 inches) on his hind legs is named the tallest dog ever recorded in the latest Guinness Book of World Records launched on Thursday.

The giant canine from Michigan in the United States eats an entire 14-kilogram (30-pound) bag of food every day and weighs in at 70.3 kilograms, the 57th edition of the global records book says.

Measuring 1.12 metres (44 inches) from paw to withers — the point between the shoulder blades at which the official height of a four-legged mammal is judged — he is officially the tallest dog ever recorded, the volume claims.

‘Guinness World Records 2013’ says the humongous hound breaks the record of Giant George, another Great Dane who is one inch shorter.

“The most common thing people ask is: ‘Is that a dog or a horse?'” says the three-year-old’s owner Denise.

“We had to get a van to be able to transport him, oh, and if he steps on your foot he leaves bruises!”

The book — the latest edition of the world’s best-selling copyrighted series — also names Oklahoma Sam, a four-year-old American Mammoth Jackstock, as the tallest living donkey on the planet.

Measuring 1.55 metres (5 feet 1 inch) from hoof to withers, she dwarfs the average common donkey (80 centimetres, 2 feet 8 inches) and the average for her own larger breed (1.22 metres, 4 feet).

The four-year-old record-breaker lives in Watsonville, California, where she shares her one acre of land with a macaw, duck, goose and four cats.

The new book, which claims to reveal “the latest and greatest records in the universe”, recognises the world’s shortest woman as 18-year-old Joyti Amge from the central Indian city of Nagpur.

The book bestows the title of the world’s oldest gymnast to 86-year-old Johanna Quaas, born on November 20, 1925 and a regular competitor in the amateur Landes-Seniorenspiele competition in Saxony, Germany.

“I do think I could be seen as a role model,” Quaas said.

“Especially for older people, like myself, it’s important that they start easy and they build up the foundation and they build up the physique.”

Wouter van den Bosch, creator of the Guinness World Records heaviest rideable bicycle at 750 kilograms (1650 pounds) said: “Once I got this tyre, I started thinking about what I could make with it.

“I was already planning on making something I could move myself, so I went and saw some pictures of the old Penny Farthing, and well, the idea was born.”

The Guinness Book of World Records, first published in 1955, has sold more than 120 million copies to date in 22 languages and in over 100 countries.


Vic man exposed lover to HIV risk: court

A judge has questioned the remorse of an HIV carrier who exposed his partner to the disease during unprotected sex, labelling his deceit among the worst in current society.

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Adam Randall, 37, never told his partner he was HIV positive during their brief relationship in which they had both protected and unprotected sex.

Randall’s lawyer Peta Murphy said her client was remorseful and urged Victorian County Court Judge Michael McInerney to consider the “human” side of a sad love story.

She said the couple had shared a “real connection”, calling the breakdown of their relationship a mutual tragedy.

“It was a supportive and caring relationship that was destroyed,” Ms Murphy said on Wednesday.

“Mr Randall lost the possibility of a long-term relationship.

“That’s a tragic loss for both of them.”

But Judge McInerney said their relationship was built on a lie and said remorse was questionable given the blatant nature of the deceit.

“I accept it was a loving relationship and there was mutual attraction between them, but one has to say it was predicated on a fraud,” he said.

“One questions remorse.

“There could hardly be a more egregious omission in current society could there?

“We’re dealing with a disease that can kill people.”

Randall has pleaded guilty to one count of reckless conduct endangering a person.

Randall met his partner, whose identity is protected, on a dating website in early 2012.

Under the HIV status on his website profile, Randall wrote “Negative” and “Ask me”.

But he had not revealed his ailment when they slept together.

Randall’s partner did not contract the disease.

The Department of Health sent Randall, who had worked as a male escort, a letter after he was diagnosed with HIV in 2004 informing he must always have protected sex and fully inform his partners.

Randall will be sentenced in October after a psychiatric report is completed.


North Korea rejects South’s Kaesong deadline

North Korea has rejected South Korea’s proposal for talks on restarting operations at a joint industrial zone and challenged Seoul to withdraw all remaining staff from the area.

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South Korea on Thursday had given the North 24 hours to agree to formal negotiations on the future of the Kaesong complex, warning of “significant measures” if Pyongyang declined.

The Unification Ministry said it would announce its next step at 0900 GMT, with Yonhap news agency reporting that it would call on the 175 South Koreans still in Kaesong to leave immediately.

Dismissing what it called the South’s “fraudulent” ultimatum, the North’s top military body issued a statement insisting that any decisive move on Kaesong would come from its side.

“If the South Korean puppet regime keeps aggravating the situation, it will be (North Korea), not South Korea, that will be forced to take the final decisive and crucial measure first,” the National Defence Commission (NDC) said.

Insisting that South Korean government officials were responsible for the standoff over Kaesong, the NDC said resorting to “ultimatum-like announcements… would only advance their final destruction”.

The NDC statement challenged Seoul to go ahead with any pullout, saying it would take all “humanitarian measures” to ensure the safety of any South Koreans who opted to leave.

Established in 2004, Kaesong lies 10 kilometers (six miles) inside North Korea and houses 123 South Korean firms.

The last remaining example of inter-Korean cooperation, it is a crucial hard currency source for the impoverished North, through taxes and revenues and from its cut of worker wages.

The project was born out of the “Sunshine Policy” of inter-Korean conciliation initiated in the late 1990s by then South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung.

It operates as a collaborative economic development zone that hosts South Korean companies attracted by its source of cheap, educated, skilled labour, with turnover in 2012 reported at $469.5 million.

The Korean peninsula was already engulfed in a cycle of escalating tensions — triggered by the North’s nuclear test in February — when Pyongyang decided on April 3 to block all South Korean access to Kaesong.

Pyongyang pulled out its entire workforce six days later and suspended operations, angered by the South’s mention of a “military” contingency plan to protect its staff at the site.

The South Korean firms that usually operate at the complex have vowed to remain and fight to defend their investment whatever steps the government in Seoul tries to take.

“We’ve decided to protect Kaesong Industrial Complex no matter what difficulties we may face,” a spokesman for the South Korean companies, Ok Sung-Seok, told journalists.

Even given the soaring tensions, the North’s decision to suspend operations at Kaesong was unexpected, as neither side has allowed previous crises to significantly affect the complex.

Permanent closure would wipe out the last remaining point of contact and cooperation between North and South, which remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War was concluded with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.

Kaesong “is now on the verge of collapse”, Friday’s NDC statement said. “This is entirely attributable to the reckless war hysteria of the South Korean puppet regime.”

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye chaired a meeting Friday afternoon with top security and foreign affairs officials to discuss the impasse over Kaesong.

Park, who was elected last year on a campaign promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, has pushed the need for dialogue over Kaesong several times in recent weeks.


China doubles loans to Africa to $20 billion

China’s President Hu Jintao said Beijing would offer $US20 billion ($A19.

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21 billion) in new loans to Africa, underscoring the Asian powerhouse’s growing links with the resource-rich continent.

The pledge, made at a Beijing forum on China-Africa cooperation, is double the amount Beijing agreed to lend to Africa at the last forum in 2009.

Hu said the loans would focus on supporting infrastructure, manufacturing and the development of small businesses in Africa, although he did not specify what time period they would cover.

“China and Africa’s destinies are closely linked, Chinese and African friendship is deeply rooted in the hearts of the people on both sides,” he said, delivering an opening address to an audience of African leaders.

“China sincerely supports African countries as they pursue their own development paths, and will sincerely assist African countries in strengthening their ability to develop independently.”

Hu also promised training and scholarships for African professionals and students, assistance with healthcare and customs and financial support for the African Union.

Beijing’s involvement in Africa dates back 60 years, when Chinese workers arrived to lay railway tracks and roads.

But there has been a surge in investment in the past 15 years as Beijing has sought to tap into Africa’s natural resources, and China became the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009.

Trade between the Asian powerhouse and the continent hit a record $166.3 billion last year, from less than $20 billion a decade earlier and up 83 percent on 2009, according to government data.

Africa’s rich natural resources are its main export to China, which needs minerals to fuel its massive economic growth, while the continent’s major imports are mechanical or electrical products.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, speaking at Thursday’s forum in Beijing, said cooperation with China was “creating opportunities for African countries to diversify their economies, create jobs and improve healthcare and education”.

South African President Jacob Zuma thanked China for treating African countries as “equals”, but he cautioned against allowing an unequal trade relationship to persist in which Africa mainly supplied raw materials.

“This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term,” he told the China-Africa Cooperation Forum.

“Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies.

“We are particularly pleased that, in our relationship with China, we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain.”

Once seen as strictly interested in extracting raw resources and investing in infrastructure, China has interests on the continent that are increasingly shifting to investing in institutions and governments, experts say.

Its aggressive move into the continent has at times caused friction with locals, however, with some complaining that Chinese companies import their own workers, flout labour laws and mistreat local employees.

Zambia’s current president tapped into anti-Chinese sentiment to win office in 2011, one year after two Chinese managers shot at 11 local workers protesting over poor pay and work conditions.

In Namibia earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi acknowledged that problems existed.

“I am not saying every Chinese company here behaves in a perfect way. If not, I hope Namibia tells us and we do our best to solve it,” he said. “We told our companies to adhere to laws here.”