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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Peace and quiet mark Iraq polls

Posted by Annie bimala

Polling station in Basra on Saturday
The security services were out in force, but all was quiet

There was none of the same election fever of 2005, when voters emerged proudly from polling stations with purple-ink stained thumbs.

And turnout appears to have been on the low side, except in Sunni areas where many were voting for the first time.

But Saturday's provincial elections were memorable for another reason - how peacefully they passed off.

Iraqis I have spoken to say it was one of the quietest days they can remember since the US-led invasion of 2003.

There was just one reported incident in Baghdad, an accidental shooting. Two years ago, attacks were running at more than 100 a day.


Remembering those days of endless gunfire and explosions, it felt strangely quiet on Saturday.

The atmosphere was almost festive - families looking relaxed and happy as they walked to the polling stations because of the ban on vehicles.

children play soccer close to a blast wall plastered with election posters in central Baghdad on Saturday
Iraqi children enjoyed the empty streets
Those empty streets made perfect open-ended football grounds for groups of young boys, using bollards and barriers set up by the security forces as goal posts.

With an election pass for our vehicle, we could drive between different polling stations - but often had to dodge youngsters charging into the road chasing a ball.

Things were not so active, though, at the polling stations I visited. At one in west Baghdad, officials told us it had been much less busy than during the last elections in December 2005.

It all looked well organised. Classrooms had been cleared of their furniture to make way for voting booths.

Large, well-printed posters explained each stage of the voting process.

Nonetheless, some voters still had trouble finding their preferred party and candidate on the giant coloured ballot sheets for Baghdad.

In the capital, 150 parties and nearly 2,500 candidates were in the running for 57 provincial council seats.

The queues of voters were a little thin, but despite that, Iraq's new army and police were out in force.

Back seat

They say this is the largest security operation they have yet mounted, with even the tiny Iraqi air force apparently involved to provide video surveillance.

Across the country 500,000 soldiers and police were reportedly deployed, virtually the entire force.

There were a few American patrols out in Baghdad during the day, but they were taking a back seat this time.

And it looked like every Iraqi unit had been called out. At one polling station, we found a unit of Iraqi special forces - with noticeably better equipment than regular army soldiers - were in charge of security, searching everyone going in.

The fact Saturday's vote passed off so smoothly will be seen as a further sign of the progress Iraq's security forces have made.

But the calm may also be simply because those insurgents and other groups still fighting had decided not to strike.

Eight candidates were killed in the run-up to the vote and, although the violence has fallen dramatically, Iraq is still a dangerous place.

Saturday was a promising sign that the country is on the road to stability, but it is not there yet.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oil rises as Opec output reduced

Posted by Annie bimala

Oil worker in Bahrain
Opec agreed last month to cut output by 2.2m barrels a day

Oil prices have risen as hopes that the oil cartel Opec is complying with its production cuts outweigh new gloomy economic news.

US light crude added $2.80 to $46.47 a barrel. London Brent rose $2.98 to $48.37 a barrel.

Oil consultant Petrologistics estimated Opec production would fall by 1.55m barrels per day in January.

In December, the cartel agreed to cut output by 2.2m barrels a day as prices fell by more than $100 since July.

"I think this [Friday's rise] represents anticipation that the Opec production cuts are really happening after the Petrologistics estimates on January OPEC production," said energy analyst Tim Evans at Citi Futures Perspective.

"It seems that some of the strength [in oil prices] has come as part of a wider commodities rally," said Peter Beutel, president of Cameron Hanover.

Forecasts for cold weather in the US Midwest and the Northeast also supported heating oil prices, as the region is one of the biggest heating oil markets.

Oil prices were as low as $35 a barrel last week.

Global prices have fallen sharply since last summer as demand has weakened as a result of the economic slowdown.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sex smell lures 'vampire' to doom

Posted by Annie bimala

Lamprey mouth
The sea lamprey's mouth has garnered it the nickname "vampire fish"

A synthetic "chemical sex smell" could help rid North America's Great Lakes of a devastating pest, scientists say.

US researchers deployed a laboratory version of a male sea lamprey pheromone to trick ovulating females into swimming upstream into traps.

The sea lamprey, sometimes dubbed the "vampire fish", has parasitised native species of the Great Lakes since its accidental introduction in the 1800s.

The work is reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Great Lakes on the US-Canada border support recreational fishing worth billions of dollars a year, which the lampreys would wreck but for a control programme costing about $20m annually.

This is thought to be the first time that pheromones have been shown to be the basis of a possible way of controlling animal pests other than insects.

"There's been extensive study of pheromones in animals and even in humans," said lead researcher Weiming Li from Michigan State University in East Lansing, US.

"But most researchers have presumed that as animals get more complex, their behaviour is regulated in a more complex way, not by just one pheromone," he told BBC News.

Professor Li's team released the synthetic version of a lamprey hormone from a trap placed in a stream where lampreys come to breed.

Females scenting it would swim vigorously upstream until they found the source, some becoming trapped in the process.

Death wish

The sea lamprey's natural life cycle takes it from birth in a stream to adulthood in the ocean, where it gains its vampirical appellation.

Circular jaws lock on to another, larger fish, and a sharp tongue carves through its scales.

From then on the lamprey feeds on the blood and body fluids of its temporary host, often killing it in the process.

Eventually, the satiated lampreys - both males and females - find a suitable stream to swim up, breed and die.

The female lampreys were lured into traps on the stream

Unlike salmon, which seek out the stream they were born in, lampreys appear willing to take any stream indicating a suitable breeding place; and perhaps pheromones play a role in identifying streams worth selecting.

In their native Atlantic Ocean, their numbers are controlled by predation; but in the Great Lakes they have no predators.

They first appeared in the 1800s after completion of the Erie Canal linking the lakes to New York.

Colonisation was completed a century later when other canals provided unfettered access to the upper lakes.

What followed was decimation of native fish.

"It was one of the worst things to hit the Great Lakes in the history of European settlement," said Marc Gaden from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), the body responsible for controlling the lamprey problem.

"Before it, we had a thriving fishery largely dependent on native fish such as the lake trout... but by 1940 they had colonised thousands of streams and fishermen were beginning to see the devastation."

Getting fresh

Many fish can survive only in fresh water or only in the oceans - or, like salmon, have a set migration between the two - but the lamprey appears to have thrived on its move from the saline Atlantic to the fresh environs of the five lakes.

Each individual devours a total weight of up to 20kg of trout or other host fish during its parasitic lifetime.

The GLFC has established a complex set of control measures, including dusting the streams with pesticides specific to the lamprey, building barriers to block their upstream migration, and releasing sterile males to reduce breeding.

"Why we're so enthusiastic about the pheromone work is that we see it as another tool in the arsenal," said Dr Gaden.

"We see it as away of tricking these spawning lampreys, and then you can do things to manipulate their behaviour in ways that would work against them - for example you could lure them into streams without suitable spawning habitat, or just into traps."

Professor Li's team is now planning a larger experiment, using the pheromone to trap female lampreys in 20 streams feeding into the lakes, which will take three years to complete.

Friday, January 9, 2009

14 dead, 22 missing after quake in Costa Rica

Posted by Annie bimala

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (CNN) -- Fourteen people have died and another 22 are missing after a 6.1-magnitude earthquake Thursday in north central Costa Rica, officials said Friday.

iReporter Leonardo Diaz photographed the damage in Plaza Mayor Shopping Center in San Jose.

iReporter Leonardo Diaz photographed the damage in Plaza Mayor Shopping Center in San Jose.

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More than 1,200 people were stranded, without a way to get out of towns or homes, Red Cross official Milton Chaverri told CNN. Another 1,000 people were living in shelters, he said.

There was no update on the number of injured immediately available Friday, but officials put the number at 300 on Thursday.

"Many people were injured, many buildings were damaged and landslides blocked roads in the area," the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The dead included three young girls, officials said Friday.

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez was scheduled to tour the affected area Friday. On Thursday, he appealed for calm.

The remote area near Alajuela, where theearthquake hit strongest, is difficult to reach, and officials said they were having to rely on helicopters for medical evacuations and to airlift supplies.

Randall Picado, a government rescue official, said many residents were without water and other necessities.

About 400 volunteers and Red Cross personnel were giving aid in 15 communities, Chaverri said.

The earthquake was felt throughout Costa Rica and in southern and central Nicaragua, the U.S. Geological Survey reported on its Web site.

Aftershocks continued to be felt Friday in San Jose, the capital, and other cities throughout the nation, Chaverri said. Are you there? Send photos, video

The Geological Survey placed the earthquake's epicenter at 20 miles (32 kilometers) north-northwest of San Jose at a depth of 2.9 miles (4.7 kilometers).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Israel bombs Hamas sites, split on ground invasion

Posted by Annie bimala

An explosion from an Israeli strike in the northern Gaza Strip is seen from the AP – An explosion from an Israeli strike in the northern Gaza Strip is seen from the Israel side of the border …

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli warplanes, gunboats and artillery units bombarded more than 40 Hamas targets Saturday, including weapons storage facilities, training centers and leaders' homes as Israel's offensive against Gaza's Islamic militant rulers entered a second week.

There were tentative signs that the current phase of fighting may be nearing an end. Most of the airstrikes targeted empty buildings and abandoned sites, suggesting Israel may be running out of targets.

In another indication the campaign was entering a new phase, Israeli artillery units attacked Gaza for the first time, military officials said. The shelling was directed at open areas, but was seen as a possible signal that a ground invasion could be nearing.

Israeli defense officials said some 10,000 troops, including tank, artillery and special operations units, were massed on the Gaza border and prepared to invade. They said top commanders are split over whether to send in ground forces, in part because such an operation could lead to heavy casualties but also because they believe Hamas already has been dealt a heavy blow. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were classified discussions.

At the same time, international cease-fire efforts were also gaining momentum. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is visiting the region next week to try to end the violence, and President George W. Bush and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon both spoke in favor of an internationally monitored truce.

But Hamas, in its first reaction to the proposal on Saturday, reacted coolly to the idea of international monitors.

Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 in response to intensifying rocket fire by Hamas militants in Gaza. The operation has killed more than 430 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. counts. Four Israelis have also been killed, and rocket attacks on southern Israel persist.

The Israeli army would not say when the operation might end, repeating its position that it would continue as long as necessary. But officials confirmed that the number of airstrikes is down, from more than 100 a day in the first days to 60 or so a day now.

The Israeli offensive has sparked large protests around the world over the past few days. Tens of thousands rallied Saturday in about a dozen European countries against the Israeli action. Some hurled shoes at iron gates near the British prime minister's residence in London, in an echo of the Iraq journalist who angrily threw his shoes at President George W. Bush while he was visiting Iraq last month.

Tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs demonstrated in the northern town of Sakhnin, by far the biggest protest in Israel so far. Marchers held Palestinian flags and a smattering of green Hamas flags. But there were no reports of violence.

In the latest attacks, the Israeli army struck the homes of two Hamas operatives, saying the buildings were used to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas outposts, training camps and rocket launching sites also were targeted, it said.

The army also struck the American International School, the most prestigious educational institution in Gaza. The school is not connected to the U.S. government, but it teaches an American curriculum in English.

The airstrike demolished the school's main building and killed a night watchman. Two other Palestinians were killed in a separate airstrike, while four others, including a mid-level militant commander, died of wounds sustained earlier, Gaza health officials said.

Early Saturday, it dropped leaflets in downtown Gaza City ordering people off the streets.

Palestinian militants fired at least 10 rockets into southern Israel, lightly wounding one person, police said. One rocket scored a direct hit on a house in the southern city of Ashkelon and another struck a bomb shelter there, leaving its above-ground entrance scarred by shrapnel.

The Israeli airstrikes have badly damaged Gaza's infrastructure, knocking out power and water in many areas and raising concerns of a looming humanitarian disaster.

Israel briefly opened its border Friday to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee the besieged area. The evacuees told of crippling shortages of water, electricity and medicine.

Maxwell Gaylard, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians Territories, estimated that a quarter of the Palestinians killed were civilians and a "significant number" of the dead were women and children. He said some 2,000 people have been wounded in the past week.

"There is a critical emergency right now in the Gaza Strip," he said.

Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has increased its shipments of goods into Gaza. It says it has confined its attacks to militants while trying to prevent civilian casualties.

While ground troops remained poised to enter Gaza, Israel also has left the door open to a diplomatic solution, saying it would accept a cease-fire if it is enforced by international monitors.

This latest round of violence erupted after the expiration of a six-month cease-fire that was repeatedly marred by sporadic rocket attacks on Israel.

Israel's call for international monitors appeared to be gaining steam.

At the United Nations, Ban urged world leaders to intensify efforts to achieve an immediate cease-fire that includes monitors to enforce the truce and possibly protect Palestinian civilians.

In Washington, Bush on Friday branded the rocket fire an "act of terror" and outlined his own condition for a cease-fire in Gaza, saying no peace deal would be acceptable without monitoring to halt the flow of smuggled weapons to terrorist groups.

"The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

The spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, Taher Nunu, said the group would not allow Israel or the international community to impose any arrangement, though he left the door open to a negotiated solution.

"Anyone who thinks that the change in the Palestinian arena can be achieved through jet fighters' bombs and tanks and without dialogue is mistaken," he said.

With time running out on the Bush presidency, the crisis in Gaza is likely to carry over to President-elect Barack Obama. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued telephone diplomacy to arrange a truce, but said she had no plans to make an emergency visit to the region.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delayed a planned trip to the United Nations so he could meet with Sarkozy and a high-level EU delegation on Monday. He now plans on speaking at the U.N. on Tuesday, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.

At the U.N., Abbas is expected to urge the Security Council to adopt an Arab draft resolution that would condemn Israel and demand a halt to its bombing campaign in Gaza.

Abbas, whose forces in Gaza were ousted by Hamas in June 2007, still claims authority over the area.

The council is expected to discuss the draft resolution on Monday. But the United States said the draft is "unacceptable" and "unbalanced" because it makes no mention of halting Hamas rocket attacks.


Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.