Romney seals Republican nomination

Mitt Romney clinched his Republican party’s White House nomination by winning its Texas primary, vowing to get America ‘back on the path to prosperity’ by defeating Barack Obama in November.

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But the milestone was clouded by a rehashed controversy over claims by billionaire tycoon Donald Trump, a high-profile Romney supporter, questioning President Obama’s birthplace.

“#1144. Thank You. Whatever challenges lie ahead, we will settle for nothing less than getting America back on the path to prosperity,” Romney tweeted, referring to the number of delegates required to win his party’s nomination.

The former Massachusetts governor, the only candidate who actively campaigned in Texas, won 71 percent of the vote, according to Fox News, CNN and NBC television.

US congressman from Texas Ron Paul won 10 percent in his home state, Catholic conservative Rick Santorum 7 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 5 percent, according to CNN.

In Texas 155 delegates were at stake — which added to Romney’s tally of 1,064 should take him well over the 1,144 nomination threshold, according to the website RealClearPolitics.

But while Romney celebrate the achievement, the campaign was risked veering off message thanks to interventions by flamboyant real estate tycoon Trump, who endorsed the candidate in February.

Trump — with whom Romney was attending a fundraiser in Las Vegas as the Texas results came in, spent much of Tuesday insisting there were still lingering doubts about whether Obama was really a natural born US citizen.

“Nothing has changed my mind,” he told CNBC about the so-called “birther” issue, adding: “There are some major questions here and the press doesn’t want to cover it.”

That provided an opening for Obama’s campaign to slam Romney for lacking “moral leadership” over his appearance with Trump.

“If Mitt Romney lacks the backbone to stand up to a charlatan like Donald Trump because he’s so concerned about lining his campaign’s pockets, what does that say about the kind of president he would be?” said Obama’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter.

Romney’s campaign was forced into awkward damage control hours before the two men appear together, with spokeswoman Andrea Saul saying Romney “has said repeatedly that he believes President Obama was born in the United States.

“The Democrats can talk about Donald Trump all they want — Mitt Romney is going to talk about jobs and how we can get our economy moving again.”

Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus hailed Romney’s Texas win, saying it paves the way for the party’s August convention in Tampa, Florida, where Romney will be formally nominated and reveal his running mate.

“Gov. Romney will offer America the new direction we so desperately need. We cannot afford four more years of President Obama’s big government agenda, deficit spending, and attacks on American free enterprise.

In nominating a multimillionaire former businessman, the Republican Party is in familiar territory, but in one key respect Romney is making history, as the nation’s first-ever Mormon nominee of a major political party.

The Republican base has long been dominated by evangelical Christians, and Romney’s faith has occasionally come under scrutiny by some religious leaders.

But Romney is counting on Americans seeing him as the pragmatic problem solver with the business credentials to turn the economy around better than Obama has.

Romney, 65, pivoted toward Obama in his campaign speeches and events more than a month ago, when it became clear his long march toward the nomination at the party convention in August would not be stopped.

But it was a brutal primary season. Rivals like Gingrich and Santorum humbled Romney by stealing some victories, rallying voters to their more conservative agenda and highlighting his flipflops on key issues such as abortion.

Polls show a steadily tightening White House race, with Republicans coalescing behind Romney in the weeks since Gingrich and Santorum dropped out.

Poll aggregates show Obama narrowly ahead. The latest RealClearPolitics average shows the president with a two-point lead, 45.6 to 43.6 percent.


UK scientists ‘find evidence of Syrian chemical attack’

British military scientists have found forensic evidence that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict in Syria, the Times newspaper is reporting.

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A soil sample thought to have been taken from an area close to Damascus and smuggled back to Britain has provided proof that “some kind of chemical weapon” had been fired, it quoted defence sources as saying.

The tests were carried out at the Ministry of Defence’s chemical and biological research establishment at Porton Down, it added in the front-page story.

Diplomats at the United Nations said on Thursday that Western Nations have “hard evidence” that chemical weapons have been used at least once in the Syrian war, without giving details.

The British team were unable to discern whether the weapons had been fired by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime or by the rebels fighting him, nor could they say if there had been widespread use, The Times said.

It cited an unnamed source as saying: “There have been some reports that it was just a strong riot-control agent but this is not the case — it’s something else, although it can’t definitively be said to be sarin nerve agent.”

The Ministry of Defence had no comment when contacted by AFP, although the Foreign Office said it was deeply concerned about the possible use of chemical weapons.

“We are deeply concerned about multiple reports alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” a spokesman said.

“We have shared our concerns with the UN secretary general and fully support his decision to investigate.

“The use of chemical weapons would be a horrific crime. Those who order the use of chemical weapons, and those who participate in their use, will be brought to account.”

Assad’s government has asked the United Nations to investigate its claims that opposition rebels fired a chemical weapon shell in Aleppo province on March 19.

In response, the UN assembled a team of international experts, led by Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, in the region.

But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem wrote to UN chief Ban Ki-moon this week saying the government could not accept an inquiry that extended to claims against its own forces.


Emirates A380 forced back to Sydney

The pilot of the Dubai-bound Airbus plane carrying 380 passengers made the decision to turn back shortly after take-off on Sunday night.

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“Emirates flight EK413 from Sydney to Dubai on November 11 turned back shortly after take-off due to an engine fault,” the carrier said in a statement.

“Emirates apologises for any inconvenience caused to its customers. However, the safety of our passengers and crew is of the highest priority and will not be compromised.”

Fairfax journalist Matt Campbell was on the plane and told the Sydney Morning Herald the aircraft was still climbing.

“It seemed about half an hour into the flight when I saw a bright orange flash, heard a loud bang and there was a big thump through the cabin,” he said.

“The flight attendants were rushing about through the cabin and then eventually the PA came on and the captain said there was an engine problem with engine number three and that engine had now been shut down.”

An Emirates spokesman told AFP the carrier was still working on what caused the scare but admitted passengers may have “seen a flash and heard noise”.

“There were no flames or smoke,” he added, despite some passengers telling local media they saw fire.

“The pilot made a decision to turn back as a precaution.”

Another passenger told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph the Emirates flight attendants “panicked more than the passengers”.

“Everyone was running left and right (with) no one knowing what’s happened.” Amal Aburawi, a doctor, told the tabloid, and said non-English speaking passengers were not properly informed about what was happening.

She said usually Arabic announcements followed the English but “this time no one mentioned anything in Arabic and there (were) many Arabic passengers, many of them old ladies.”

Qantas, which recently sealed a major partnership with Emirates, had an engine explode on one of its A380s over Indonesia in November 2010.

The accident, during a flight from Singapore to Sydney, led the Australian carrier to temporarily ground its entire A380 superjumbo fleet.

Subsequent investigations pinpointed a manufacturing defect which caused fatigue cracking in an oil pipe, resulting in a fire and potentially catastrophic engine failure.


Indigenous mentoring program goes global

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Australian Indigenous Mentoring Excellence – or AIME – has unveiled its “Mentors 4 Life” program in Adelaide.

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A traditional welcome for academics, business leaders and more than 500 students set the scene for AIME’s chief executive, Jack Manning-Bancroft, to explain the motivation driving his mentorship program.

“You have these uni students there for the right reasons, not because they wanted to go and help Aboriginal people because they felt sorry for them – they wanted to go learn from people like you guys, they wanted to learn how to be better people and then the students who are there actually want to step up. So we cut the bullshit, we weren’t going to pander to the students and we aren’t going to pander to you guys – if you guys want to step up a have a good life we’ll walk every step of the way with you.”

The initiative has had a meteoric rise.

It started out nine years ago with 25 students; today it’s mentoring for more than 2,000 – and now it’s going global.

“So today we’re launching our mentors for life program around Australia which is sharing our mentoring model with individuals, the general public and businesses around the world, and that’s going to help us fund the program back here in Australia with the kids as well so nine years on we’re now standing there, a hundred staff and now we can see if we can try and grow this thing around the world and have some fun in the process.”

It’s this aspiration to go international that’s caught the eye of one of the world’s best-known entrepreneurs – Sir Richard Branson.

“And it seems, from the little I know about it, it seems like a great idea. I think we all benefit from mentors and I think this is a tremendous program.”

The head of the Virgin group of companies explained how hard work, vision and persistence saw him build a global empire despite being a high school drop-out.

“I think the people who are going to achieve their dreams and their goals are the people who take the knocks, get knocked down, pick themselves up, try again, get knocked down, pick themselves up, try again, learn from every knock and then ultimately they’ll break through. Lack of financial resources is definitely a big issue. I didn’t have any money when I started, and I had to kind of conjure resources out of thin air and we came very, very close to failure on a number of occasions.”

It’s inspired 15 year old indigenous students Kevin Benbolt and Damon Wanganeen.

“I thought he was a pretty intelligent guy, I didn’t think that, since he was a billionaire, I didn’t think he was not good in school – I thought he would like finish year 12 or something, because he’s that rich. Yeah. So what has this inspired you to consider? To not give in – follow your dreams – and go as high as you want like him, yeah.”

University of South Australia Vice Chancellor David Lloyd hopes the AIME initiative can foster a sense of social responsibility in senior students as they mentor younger students to achieve their life goals.

“It helps connect directly with Indigenous Australians to break down the cultural divides that do exist still today in 21st century Australia. This for us is a leap forward in terms of our commitment to reconciliation and I believe it has the ability to make a profound difference in terms of both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants in the scheme.”

For students Kevin Benbolt and Damon Wanganeen, those life goals might now be a little bit bigger.

“I hope to play AFL but if I don’t make it I’ll do like an engineer, because I’m good with that. Yeah, same.”


Russia urged to end arms transfer

Human rights organisation, Amnesty International has called on the Russian government to cease the transfer of arms to Syria, in a bid to end the country’s escalating violence.

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The organisation says Russia must comply with UN Security Council recommendations to bring Syria’s crimes against humanity to account.

“Amnesty International is baffled at Russia’s persistent shielding of the Syrian government from international accountability at the UN Security Council,” said Michael Hayworth, a Crisis Response Campaigner for Amnesty International Australia.

Both the Chinese and Russian governments have already blocked two resolutions calling for tougher action against Syria at the UN Security Council.

“Russia has a special relationship with the Syrian authorities. In fact, Russia is allegedly still sending arms into Syria. This is very concerning given the current crisis that we see.”

Amnesty has published a damning report of the Syrian government’s human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary arrests, systematic pattern of torture, the targeting of medical workers, and the wanton destruction of property.

The organisation recently embarked on a research mission to examine country’s human rights abuses, despite being banned by the Syrian government. The research team visited 23 towns in northern Syria, interviewing 200 Syrians for first-person accounts of the crisis.

One mother told Amnesty that her three sons were taken by soldiers in March, only to be found shot dead, with their bodies set on fire underneath a pile of motorcycles outside their family home.

In spite of substantial evidence by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the UN Committee against Torture, Amnesty says little is being done to end the violence.

“If nothing happens, then we’re going to continue to see the horrific things being documented in our report,” said Mr Hayworth.

“This is absolutely unacceptable, and it’s why there’s no other option but for the international community to come together, introduce accountability, increase the UN Supervisory Mission and ensure that the flow of arms is stopped to the Syrian government.”


Bangladesh clothing factories close amid unrest

Hundreds of factories which form the hub of Bangladesh’s garment industry are to close indefinitely after worker unrest sparked by the death of more than 1,100 colleagues, employees announced Monday.

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As the search for bodies from last month’s collapse of a factory complex wrapped up, the textile industry’s main trade body said all operations at the nearby Ashulia industrial zone on the outskirts of Dhaka were being suspended until further notice.

Shahidullah Azim, of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the decision was made “to ensure the security of our factories”.

Local police chief Badrul Alam told AFP workers in 80 percent of the factories had walked out earlier in the day to demand an increase in salaries as well as the execution of the owner of the collapsed Rana Plaza complex in the town of Savar.

Most of Bangladesh’s top garment factories are based at Ashulia and there has been “virtually no work” there since the April 24 Rana Plaza tragedy, Azim said.

Tensions in Ashulia had been further inflamed by the discovery of a dead female garment worker on Sunday. Police said they suspect that the death was a suicide sparked by a “love affair”.

Ashulia is home to around 500 factories which make clothing for a string of major Western retailers including Walmart, H&M, Tesco and Carrefour.

News of the indefinite closure represents yet another body blow to the industry, which has pleaded with Western retailers not to pull out of Bangladesh and promised to come up with a credible safety framework.

Fashion giants H&M and Inditex said Monday they were among the companies that would sign an agreement drafted by global unions to improve safety in the Bangladeshi textile factories it uses.

The collapse of the nine-storey Rana Plaza, which housed five separate garment factories, was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladeshi history and the latest in a long line of deadly tragedies to blight the textile industry.

A fire at a garment factory in Dhaka last November killed 111 workers and a blaze at another plant killed eight people last week.

Bangladesh’s army announced Monday that it was wrapping up its search for bodies at Savar, saying it now believed a total of 1,127 people were killed.

The army general in charge of the marathon recovery effort said that he was now handing over operational control to civilian administrators and expected his troops to be back in their barracks by Tuesday afternoon.

“The army’s recovery operation is almost over,” Brigadier General Siddiqul Alam told AFP.

“We don’t think there are any more bodies in the rubble.”

Many of the three million employed in the industry earn a basic 40 dollars a month, a wage condemned as “slave labour” by Pope Francis.

Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi micro-loan pioneer who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, on Monday urged manufacturers and Western retailers to ensure that garment workers are paid a living wage.

“We don’t want to make Bangladesh a country of slaves. We want to make it a country of modern women. We want to make sure that they get rightful salaries from the world,” he said in Dhaka.

Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel maker and the $20 billion industry accounted for up to 80 percent of annual exports last year.

Some activists have said that wages are kept low as trade unions have been hamstrung by government restrictions.

However the Bangladeshi government on Monday approved changes in the labour laws that would make it easier for trade unions to organise themselves.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s cabinet “approved some amendments to the labour laws that removed the barriers”, cabinet secretary Musharraf Hossain Bhuiyan told AFP.

The government’s chief factory inspector Habibul Islam also told AFP his department filed cases against 161 garment factories in the Dhaka region and 16 in the city of Chittagong after they failed to ensure safety measures.

“We first issued notices against them to fix their safety related problems at their plants. Then we filed cases against them under the country’s labour laws after they failed to respond to the our notices,” Islam said.

The factory owners face a maximum three months in jail if they’re found guilty, he said.

Many of the criminal notices predate the Rana Plaza disaster and previous government crackdowns have resulted in few actual prosecutions.


Comment: Good asylum policy based on evidence, not emotion

By Andrew Markus, Monash University

Many of us want to believe that there is a just and moral solution to the asylum seekers issue.

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For two decades arguments based on a variety of interpretations of what justice and morality may involve have been presented again and again.

And since prime minister Kevin Rudd announced plans to process and resettle boat arrivals in Papua New Guinea and deny them asylum in Australia, the same arguments are in evidence.

This process of repetition points to entrenched positions and absence of dialogue.

There are, however, a number of issues and costs which reasonable assessments need to confront, especially on the side of the debate that calls for “compassion” without recognising the need for government to formulate policy based on evidence and to balance competing needs.

The scale of population displacement

During 2012, worldwide conflict and persecution forced an average of 23,000 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection. At the end of 2012 there were 45.2 million forcibly displaced persons. This included 10.5 million refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with a marginal decline of refugee populations in the Asia and Pacific region.

Developing countries hosted over 80% of the world’s refugees, with 1.6 million in Pakistan and 862,000 in Iran.

Australia’s contribution

According to the UNHCR, Australia makes little contribution in hosting refugees and asylum seekers. The UNHCR indicates that at the end of 2012 Australia protected 30,083 refugees and 20,010 asylum seekers, a total of 50,093 persons.

The way these statistics are presented is, however, open to question. In contrast to countries which provide temporary protection, Australian governments – whether Coalition or Labor – have chosen to make their major contribution through resettlement.

Between 2001 and 2009, Australia, acting in co-operation with the UNHCR, resettled 109,000 refugees: 13.5% of the world total over these years. The Howard government worked closely with the UNHCR on resettlement, and between 2003 and 2008 it provided visa grants to 18,527 refugees from Sudan.

In overall numbers of resettled refugees Australia does not rank 50 or 100 among the nations. On a per capita basis, it ranks close to first, which is not to say that it cannot do better. But Australia does maintain a world-class resettlement program, providing short-term accommodation, assistance through Centrelink and Medibank, and access to the Adult Migration English Program.

Push and pull factors

The argument is often presented that Australian policies do not determine the flow of asylum seekers – rather, population flows are determined by push factors. There is, however, much evidence which points to the interplay of push and pull factors, with overseas perception of Australian policy being a significant determinant.

Between 1999-2000 and 2001-02, arrivals of asylum seekers by boat averaged close to 3,500 a year. Following the introduction of Howard government’s policies, there was an average of 40 boat arrivals per year for six years. Following changes under Kevin Rudd, 668 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2008-09, then 4579, 5174, and 7379 over the next three financial years.

In 2012-13, close to 25,000 arrived, far exceeding projections based on appraisal of push factors. Budget projections for 2012-13 had provided for 5,400 arrivals.

Financial cost

What are the current costs of managing arrivals by boat? There is no easy answer as costs are carried by more than one department and governments have not provided a one-line total. But a parliamentary research paper indicates an increase in the core budget allocation from A$111.5 million in 2008-2009 to $1.05 billion in 2011-12. This included an increase in community and detention services from $35.2 million to $709.4 million and a rise in departmental costs from $59.2 million to $233.3 million.

This, however, is not the full amount. The 2009-10 budget allocated $654 million to combat people smuggling, while the 2010-11 budget provided for $1.2 billion to “bolster Australia’s border security”. Offshore asylum seeker management is estimated to reach $2.867 billion in 2013-14.

It has been argued that costs would be dramatically reduced with fewer asylum seekers in detention. But some costs cannot be cut – including the very substantial cost of air and sea patrols and administration. There is also a reasonable assumption that the flow of asylum seekers by boat would increase with relatively favourable reception policies.

Long-term costs also need to be to be included. Australia carefully selects immigrants to maximise integration. Asylum seekers have made wonderful contributions to Australian life, but many arrive without skills and English language ability, and traumatised by their experiences.

Public opinion

What weight should be accorded to domestic concerns about boat arrivals – and potential impact on social cohesion? The record of polling over more than a decade demonstrates that only a small minority (generally in the range of 20-25%) support the right of boat arrivals to be eligible for permanent residence.

Lest such findings be dismissed as a function of bigotry or a reflection of frenzied media, three Scanlon Foundation surveys between 2010 and 2012 found between 70%-75% of those polled were in support of Australia’s humanitarian program, specified as entailing overseas selection of refugees for resettlement.

Most recently, Newspoll found that 59% of respondents considered that either Labor or the Coalition was best to handle asylum seekers arriving in Australia. Just 12% indicated “someone else”, while the remainder were either uncommitted or opted for no one.

Competing needs and balance

It is often stated that there is no queue for asylum seekers – hence it is reasonable for individuals to take the initiative to save themselves and their families by trying to reach Australia. Would we, placed in similar circumstances, not do the same? The answer may well be a resounding yes, without such answer being compelling.

The unfortunate reality is that there is no queue in many fields of life. Typically demand far exceeds supply. Governments decide where to put queues and how to allocate scarce resources – for urgent domestic needs, such as public housing, child protection, education, medical care and infrastructure.

There are also desperate needs to contribute to the alleviation of international poverty. While globally there are 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR mandate, there are over one billion people living in extreme poverty. Every day an estimated 22,000 children under the age of five die from preventable conditions. Some 67 million children do not have the opportunity to attend primary school.

Australia’s foreign aid program is designed to deliver (by 2015-16) vaccination to 10 million children, increased access to safe water to 8.5 million and increased access to basic sanitation to 5 million. In the 2012 budget, $375 million was removed from the planned foreign aid allocation to fund domestic asylum needs.

There is one stark statistic to be considered in the context of balance. The current Australian budget allocation for dealing with asylum seekers and people smuggling may come close to the total UNHCR budget for dealing with global refugee needs.

There are stories that we like to tell ourselves – such as the way in which compassion could have saved the Jews of Europe from Hitler, or the applicability of Fraser government policies to the circumstances of today.

And then there is recognition of the magnitude and complexity of problems.

Andrew Markus has received external grants to research public opinion on immigration and asylum issues.


US troops arrive in Turkey to man Patriot missiles

US troops have begun arriving in Turkey to man Patriot missile batteries against threats from neighbouring Syria, where the 21-month conflict between the regime and rebels has escalated.

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Syrian air and ground forces were pounding insurgents dug in outside Damascus in a ferocious offensive a day after a car bomb in the north of the city killed at least 11 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The arrival of the US personnel specialised in the six Patriot systems to be deployed on the Turkey-Syria border under a NATO agreement has highlighted fears that Syria’s civil war could suck in other nations in the region.

Cross-border fire has already erupted several times in recent months from combatants in Syria into Turkey, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The United States last month also expressed concerns that there were signs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be preparing to use chemical agents in missiles or aerial bombs as a last-ditch measure against insurgents.

The US military’s European Command (EUCOM) said on Friday that the troops being sent to Turkey’s Incirlik air base would swell to 400 within days to support the two US Patriot batteries being supplied by America.

Germany and the Netherlands will supply the four other Patriot batteries under the NATO agreement struck at Turkey’s request and described as purely defensive.

“The forces will augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities and contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the Alliance’s border,” the EUCOM said.

Syria’s chief ally Iran, however, has called the Patriot deployment “provocative,” seeing it as a blunting of its own offensive capabilities.

Ankara has responded by telling Tehran to use its clout with Assad to resolve the civil war in his country.

That conflict has worsened in the past six months as Assad has ordered warplanes and heavy artillery to blast rebels who hold great swathes of Syria’s countryside, especially in the north.

The United Nations this week said 60,000 people have died since the rebellion began in March 2011. Its figures showed average daily fatalities have multiplied since mid-2012, correlating with the increased use of regime air power.

On Friday, fighter-bombers hit Duma, northeast of Damascus, and artillery was shelling the southwestern Daraya neighbourhood which the rebels have held for weeks, the Observatory said.

Troop reinforcements were being sent to Daraya, the British-based group added.

The offensive was being waged a day after a car bombing in the Damascus district of Massaken Barzeh, mostly inhabited by members of Assad’s Alawite minority, killed at least 11 people, the watchdog said.

They were among at least 191 people killed on Thursday, including 99 civilians, it said, adding that fighting in Damascus and its outskirts accounted for 87 deaths.

Nationwide on Friday at least 115 people died, among them 66 civilians, according to the Observatory.

It also said rebels killed a relative of political security chief Rustom Ghazali, a key regime figure, wounded another and kidnapped a third in the southern province of Daraa.

State television also reported the attack, without identifying the victims.

A pro-regime journalist working for Dunya TV was also shot dead in Aleppo while reporting there, the channel announced.

People demonstrated across Syria in solidarity with the central city of Homs, where conditions are dire in areas besieged by regime forces.

Meanwhile, Damascus slammed as “biased” a UN report released on December 20 that called the conflict “overtly sectarian in nature.”

The foreign ministry accused the UN of a “lack of professionalism” in producing its report, and said any sectarian dimensions to the conflict were because of foreign support for “armed groups,” state news agency SANA said.


Bird flu threat revealed after terror concerns

It’s one of the most troubled scientific gestations on record.

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Nine months after it was first presented at a conference, research showing that just five mutations lead to a deadly H5N1 bird flu which transmits through the air between mammals has finally been published. Estimates published with it show that nature might well produce this virus too – and reveal the science we now need to head off that threat.

The research, by Ron Fouchier and colleagues at Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, was presented at a meeting and reported by New Scientist last September. But its publication – and that of similar work by Yoshi Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – was delayed by concerns that other labs would recreate airborne H5N1 with bioterrorist intent, or that insufficient containment might allow the virus to escape. In March, an advisory committee of the US agency which funded the work voted that these risks were outweighed by the benefits of publishing.

The main benefit was that it alerts us to some of the warning signs that might suggest one of the vast number of H5N1 viruses circulating in birds could become a pandemic. Now that both studies have been published, it is clear why they felt this would be a good idea.

Each lab did different things to H5N1 to make it transmissible. All but one of the five mutations that did the trick were different. Yet all did remarkably similar things to the virus. “Now we know what changes in the behaviour of the virus can make it transmissible, we can watch for any mutations with those effects – not just our particular ones,” says Fouchier.

For one thing, you need to change the HA surface protein so it binds a cell-surface sugar in mammals’ noses, instead of the one it binds in birds. You also need a mutation in the RNA-replicating polymerase enzyme that adapts it to mammals’ cooler bodies.

In both studies, further exposure of these viruses to ferrets, the best experimental mammal, induced further changes. Both viruses got rid of a sugar on the tip of HA. And both turned up a further, novel mutation. Kawaoka’s stabilises the virus while attacking the cell. Fouchier’s is at a spot in the HA protein where, he thinks, it may have similar effects.

BEYOND THE LAB

Can this happen in nature? In a companion paper, Derek Smith and Colin Russell at the University of Cambridge, and colleagues, say all these mutations are already seen in bird flu – although two of the three sugar-binding mutations were in H2 or H3 viruses, not H5N1.

The polymerase adaptation, meanwhile, occurs in nearly 30 per cent of H5N1 sequenced so far. The sugar loss occurs in more than half of sequences. Both stabilising mutations have been seen in Chinese H5N1.

Russell’s team calculate that in many sequenced viruses containing some of the required mutations, only three to four single nucleotides in the viral DNA must mutate to get the rest they need to go airborne.

We don’t know how fast the mutations accumulate. Using a mathematical model, however, Russell’s team found that a virus that needs only three more mutations could well emerge within the five-day course of a single mammalian infection.

And it could be happening already. The virus you sneeze out is a cloud of slightly different mutants. The sequences on record for H5N1 are mostly “consensus” – an average. The rest of the nucleotide changes required for H5N1 to go rogue might already be hiding within this consensus.

“We need to get those samples out of the freezer again and do some deep sequencing to see what minority mutations are there, and how often they appear,” says Smith. We also need to establish just how deadly the transmissible viruses really are. For now, such research is blocked under a moratorium on work that boosts H5N1 virulence or transmission.

Journal references: The Fouchier paper Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1213362; the Russell paper Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1222526


Fidel Castro asks N Korea to avoid war

“If war breaks out there, the peoples of both parts of the peninsula will be terribly sacrificed, without benefit to all or either of them,” he said in a column published in Cuban state media.

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“Now that (North Korea) has demonstrated its technical and scientific achievements, we remind her of her duties to the countries which have been her great friends, and it would be unjust to forget that such a war would particularly affect more than 70 per cent of the population of the planet.”

Castro, 86, reminded the US of its duty to avoid a clash, amid mounting tensions this year between North and South Korea.

“If a conflict of that nature should break out there, the government of Barack Obama in his second mandate would be buried in a deluge of images which would present him as the most sinister character in the history of the United States,” he said.

“The duty of avoiding war is also his and that of the people of the United States.”

Cuba is one of the last remaining allies of the communist government in Pyongyang.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was always friendly with Cuba, as Cuba has always been and will continue to be with her,” Castro wrote.

“I had the honour of meeting Kim Il-sung, a historic figure, notably courageous and revolutionary.”

Kim Il-sung was the founder of North Korea and grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the new leader of the reclusive Pyongyang regime.

Tension ratcheted up this week on the peninsula, as North Korea has threatened nuclear strikes and moved missiles, with the South and the US positioning missile defences in response.

VIDEO: North Korea warns embassies over safety

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