The family of young Sydney man Tom Ricketson, who was killed in a nightclub fire in Cambodia, say they will remember him as a “warm and wonderful human being”.
The 32-year-old careworker died in Cambodia’s northwestern tourist hub of Siem Reap overnight.
The blaze broke out at the Hip Hop Club at around 2am as the result of an electrical fault, according to local police.
Mr Ricketson and four Cambodians – three women and a man – died from smoke inhalation, provincial police chief Sort Nady added.
In an emotional statement, the Ricketson family said they would be eternally grateful for knowing Tom, who worked with intellectually handicapped and physically handicapped children in Sydney.
“Our son and brother Tom Ricketson was a warm and wonderful human being who has been taken from us far too soon,” they said on Wednesday.
“Our family now have to walk through life without him at our side but he will be forever in our hearts.”
They said Tom had “fallen in the love” with the Cambodian people during 10 days he spent with impoverished families living in a tip in the capital Phnom Penh.
He had decided to devote the following year to raising funds to provide housing for 20 poor families.
“Our family will now work to ensure that this becomes a reality,” they said.
Tom’s uncle, James Ricketson, had spent time travelling with him in Cambodia.
He confirmed the tragedy on social media, where friends and family have been posting their own tributes.
Mr Ricketson described Tom as a “special spirit” whose “shyness hid a gold mine of generosity”.
“Tom was a sweet, gentle, kind, loving and generous young man,” he added.
An investigation has been launched into the fire, which occurred in the province that is home to Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples.
Paceman Peter Siddle expects his latest match-winning feat to be rewarded by Test selectors.
Siddle took five wickets on Wednesday to bowl Victoria to a crushing innings-and-46-run Sheffield Shield win against a fragile South Australia.
His devastating 5-31 on a placid Adelaide Oval pitch is a timely reminder to selectors who name Australia’s first Test squad on Monday.
Siddle is feeling pressure to retain his Test spot after a lean calendar year returning 51 wickets at an average of 53.70.
But Wednesday’s match-defining spell is compelling evidence for Test selectors to pick him.
“I hope so,” Siddle said. “It’s all I could do.
“I wanted to come out there and bowl well for the team and stand up for the team.”
Siddle claimed five of the initial six dismissals as SA crashed to a pitiful 130 all out in 40.3 overs.
And in the process, Siddle dashed the Test call-up hopes of SA opener Phil Hughes.
Siddle bowled Hughes for 11, after also dismissing the left-hander for seven in the first dig.
“I felt alright out there, had good rhythm, but it’s just nice to get the result,” Siddle said.
His heroics left SA captain Johan Botha in no doubt that Siddle should be an automatic first Test selection.
“Peter Siddle … world-class bowler,” Botha said.
“He’s not far away from 200 Test wickets … with Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris, that is a really top-three seam attack.”
Botha’s Redbacks were red-faced after collapsing in the second innings for a second consecutive game.
They fell apart after Victoria posted a whopping first innings of 7(dec)-607 – the visitors only called a halt an hour into the final day.
The Victorians declared when 176 runs in front with Siddle saying the visitors were mindful of SA’s similar last-day batting effort against NSW last game when skittled for 161.
Botha said other states would continue to view the Redbacks as weak until they produced better performances late in matches.
“It’s a tough result to get bowled out in 40 overs when they have just made 600 on the same wicket,” Botha said.
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Longer working hours, stress, endless emails, and a sedentary lifestyle are all contributing to poorer physical and mental health in workers, researchers say.
The solution? Leave work on time.
Public-health researchers have warned that regularly staying back at work can have serious long term effects.
“Long working hours combined with work intensity are a known risk factor for poor health, especially cardiovascular disease, generally poor physical health, and fatigue,” Head of Public Health at the University of Adelaide, Professor Dino Pisaniello, said.
Professor Pisaniello said the modern work environment often doesn’t always lend itself to supporting good health.
Population studies have revealed that people who worked 10 hours or more a day, or 50 hours a week, were most at risk.
“Studies also show that one in five Australian working men has a 40 per cent increased cardiovascular disease risk. Up to 40 per cent of workers report that they work at very high speed for most of the time, work to tight deadlines for most of the time, and have too much work for one person to do,” he said.
“Around one quarter of Australian workers also report that work frequently interferes with their ability to engage in activities outside work, which means they suffer from a poor work-life balance.”
Professor Pisaniello said this lifestyle generally affected workers in their late 30s and 40s, who had greater financial pressures.
鈥淧eople who feel that they have to support their families, they have a mortgage to pay, they want to make sure they got financial security at an early stage. Particularly the cost of living these days, they just need to work longer hours to make ends meet.鈥?/p>
The warnings come as part of ‘Go Home on Time Day’, held on Wednesday 19 November. Launched in 2009, the Australia Institute’s annual initiative aimed to promote the importance of work-life balance.
鈥淢any Australians continue to struggle with the idea of saying no to last-minute meetings at the end of a working day, or turning their smartphone to silent when they get home, and numerous studies have shown that workers are more productive if they take scheduled breaks and annual leave,鈥?nbsp;Executive Director Dr Richard Denniss said.
According to the 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index, 14 per cent of Australians work 鈥渧ery long hours鈥?鈥?much more than the OECD average of nine per cent. Australia is also ranked fourth among 34 OECD countries for long hours worked.
Overall, men spend more hours in paid work: in Australia 21 per cent of men work very long hours, compared with 6 per cent for women.
Spending more time with family, on hobbies, physical activity, lowering stress levels are just some of the benefits of leaving work on time, Professor Pisaniello said.
鈥淎n organisation where those psychosocial factors are taken into account, generally speaking, there are better outcomes, better productivity, less exposure to hazards. Those kinds of things are really important from a workplace perspective,鈥?he said.
Workers should try and negotiate greater workplace flexibility with their managers and build a culture where work-life balance was encouraged.
Still, he conceded that not all managers or organisations would be receptive to that idea.
鈥淪ome managers may not be particularly receptive to that idea of changing rosters or flexibility. But there is legislation that does enable that to happen. Managers need to be aware that can and should happen.鈥?/p>
He added that flexibility wasn鈥檛 just valuable for workers, but boosted productivity and benefited companies in the long run.
鈥淲e work to live, rather than live to work. Giving people flexibility also does create the opportunity for creative people to think outside the square. I think that鈥檚 the kind of culture that some organisations are trying to generate anyway.
“In general, our recommendation is that workers take the opportunity to go home on time as much as possible to help reduce work stress and to achieve more life balance. This has the potential to make them healthier and ultimately more productive workers over the longer term,” he said.
Wednesday 19 November is ‘Go Home On Time Day’.
Do you leave work on time? How do you achieve work-life balance? Comment below or tweet @SBSNews
Senior Victorian MP Theo Theophanous has lashed out at police who charged him with rape on Monday, accusing them of ignoring vital evidence that proves his innocence.
Mr Theophanous, 60, also claimed his alleged victim could have an ulterior motive for accusing him, adding the woman had maintained a friendship with himself and his family for years after the alleged offence.
The long-serving member of the Victorian Upper House resigned from the ministry on Christmas Eve after being charged by police with the rape of a woman who now lives in Greece.
But the married father-of-four has ruled out resigning from the Victorian parliament, where he has sat since 1988.
“I do not intend to resign as a member of parliament as I am completely innocent of any wrongdoing,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Mr Theophanous stood aside from cabinet on October 13, after Victoria Police launched an investigation into an alleged rape of a woman at Parliament House in 1998.
He had held the portfolios of industry and trade, major projects and information and communications technology, which have been shared among other ministers pending the outcome of the investigation.
Mr Theophanous vehemently denied the charge that he raped the woman some 10 years ago.
“I categorically deny this allegation or that I acted in any way unlawfully,” Mr Theophanous said.
In a stinging attack on the police handling of the investigation, Mr Theophanous said officers had ignored evidence, hadn\’t allowed him to respond to the specific allegations and had failed to give him a “fair go”.
“We are particularly aggrieved that the police have charged me at a time when the investigation is, in our opinion, incomplete,” he said.
Mr Theophanous said he provided an initial statement to police when first interviewed.
He said police had agreed, with himself and his lawyers, to allow him to respond to the allegations before any charges were laid.
But he had received no such opportunity, despite his lawyers sending three letters to the police seeking a follow up interview, he said.
“It did not include any responses from me through a second interview as well as critical evidence from Greece,” he said.
Mr Theophanous said police so far had not sought a response from him to the specific allegations made by the woman.
“I and my family are devastated at being charged in such circumstances.
“It is easy for a desperate woman with nothing to lose and much to gain to make a false allegation from another country in such a vicious and public way.”
Supporting her husband, Rita Theophanous said the alleged victim\’s claim was motivated by money.
“She knows she is after money and so do the people who are putting her up to this,” she said.
Premier John Brumby accepted Theophanous\’ resignation from the ministry on Monday.
A special meeting of the parliamentary Labor Party is scheduled for next Monday to select a front bench replacement for Mr Theophanous.
Victorian Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said the charge against Mr Theophanous was hugely damaging to the state government.
“What a bombshell announcement on Christmas Eve – a senior minister in the Victorian government charged with rape,” Mr Baillieu told reporters.
“These are grave and serious charges and this is hugely damaging to the Victorian government and (premier) John Brumby must now explain the details of this announcement to all Victorians.”
Pope Benedict XVI has urged an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East during his midnight mass Christmas homily ahead of a planned trip to the region.
“Let us pray that peace will be established there, that hatred and violence will cease,” he said in his homily, referring in particular to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Jerusalem\’s Latin patriarch said on Monday that the pope would visit the Holy Land in May on his first trip to the region as pontiff.
“With joy we would like to announce to you the desire of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to visit the Holy Land as a pilgrim next May,” Fuad Twal, the Catholic leader in the Holy Land, told reporters.
Pope\’s first trip to region
It was the first official confirmation of Benedict\’s widely mooted first trip to the region since being elected pope in 2005.
“The supreme pontiff wishes to pray with us and for us, and to acquire a first-hand knowledge of the hard conditions of our region,” Twal said in his Christmas message.
“We are confident in the Lord that this pontifical pilgrimage and pastoral visit will be a blessing for all of us as well as a substantial contribution to better understanding among the various nations of the region, lifting the barriers and helping solve the problems, removing distress and consolidating good relations among people, religions and denominations,” Twal said.
He did not give specific dates. “We are studying the program with the local authorities,” he said. Last week the Italian newspaper Il Foglio said the pope would travel to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 8 to 15.
The head of the Catholic Church in his Christmas homily also spoke of the plight of children “who are denied the love of their parents.”
Praying for street children
“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.
“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised in the depths of their soul.”
Late on Wednesday Benedict inaugurated this year\’s Christmas creche, appearing at his window in the Vatican apartments to light a candle and greet the crowd in St Peter\’s Square.
The nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ erected in the famous piazza features figures dating from 1842.
Benedict\’s predecessor John Paul II paid homage to Italy\’s longstanding artistic tradition of manger scenes with the first of an annual series set up in St Peter\’s Square in 1982.
The inauguration of this year\’s creche was followed by a prayer vigil for peace led by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican\’s “foreign minister”.
At midday on Thursday the pope is to deliver his traditional address titled Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) to be translated in 64 languages.
When the deadly waters of the Asian tsunami smashed into this fishing village in Indonesia\’s Aceh province four years ago, not one house was left standing.
Now there are too many of them.
Recovery has been uneven in the dozen countries hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, which killed more than 220,000 people. While some communities have rebounded and flourished on a multi-billion dollar outpouring of aid, others have languished.
In Lam Tutui, 54-year-old villager Keuchik Baharuddin recalled how he heard the monkeys in the trees screaming wildly before the tsunami hit, killing his wife and all five of his children.
“I saw our village had been levelled to the ground,” he said.
One of only 75 people from the village of 545 to survive, Baharuddin has rebuilt a semblance of his old life in a gleaming new village, marrying a tsunami widow who has just given birth to a baby son.
Aceh worst hit region
So many houses have been built with aid that survivors are now making money on the side by renting them to tenants while other houses sit empty, he said.
In Aceh, which along with nearby Nias island was the region worst hit by the disaster, with at least 168,000 killed, reconstruction has been a qualified success.
Authorities have spent around $US6.7 billion ($A9.84 billion) of the roughly $US7.2 billion ($A10.57 billion) in aid pledged by donors, building nearly 125,000 houses and infrastructure from schools to roads and bridges, according to Indonesia\’s Aceh-Nias reconstruction agency (BRR).
The BRR, which is set to wind up its mandate overseeing the local and international aid effort next April, has been praised for getting the job done with little of the corruption that routinely infects Indonesian government projects.
Fragile peace between rivals
The recovery has also been aided by peace forged between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government in the wake of the tsunami\’s devastation, ending a three-decade civil war that claimed 15,000 lives.
Concerns now are that as reconstruction ends – and the sugar-rush of foreign money dries up – Aceh will return to misery, and possible instability.
Unemployment, currently around 10 per cent, is expected to rise and the economy to slow as the BRR wraps up its work, said Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM fighter allowed into politics as part of the peace deal.
“I never dreamed that we would be able to remove all Acehnese from hell and bring them to heaven. I just wanted to try to remove them from hell,” he said.
There are also fears unemployment among ex-fighters, currently estimated at around 20 per cent, could lead to a rise in violent crime or clashes during elections in April.
Adding to potential woes is the fact that while aid has transformed the tsunami-hit coast, those living in inland areas devastated by the civil war have been left out, BRR head Kunturo Mangkusubroto said.
“The rural economy on the coastline that was hit by the tsunami is back, I can say that with full confidence. The rural economy in the hinterland that was affected by the conflict is not back,” he said.
Questions raised over funds
While the tsunami helped end a war in Aceh, the fog of Sri Lanka\’s dragging war with Tamil separatists has hampered efforts to rebuild devastated parts of the nation. Around 31,000 people died in the tsunami in Sri Lanka and around 10,000 still live in temporary camps.
The state auditor general in 2005 said only 13.5 per cent of the $US1.16 billion ($A1.7 billion) committed to assist victims had been spent. There have been no government audits released since then.
Waste and bureaucratic bungling was underscored in October when the government destroyed more than five tonnes of rice and lentils donated by the World Food Program for tsunami victims, as it rotted before distribution.
Mismanagement has also tainted the much smaller aid effort in Malaysia, which lost 68 people in the disaster and where government auditors have found mishandling of aid money that ended up in shoddy houses or fishing boats unsuitable for local waters.
In Thailand, where 5,400 people were killed – half of them foreign holidaymakers – tourism has bounced back, only to be buffeted by ongoing political turmoil.
The recent closure of airports in the southern province of Phuket and the capital Bangkok by anti-government protesters has led to a dip in arrivals, said Yiamsuriya Palusuk, the governor of Phangnga province, one of five Thai provinces hit by the tsunami.
US police say at least six people are dead after an armed man dressed as Santa Claus went on a gun rampage at a Christmas Eve party.
The gunman, Bruce Pardo, 45, arrived at the home of his ex-wife\’s parents, in Covina, California, just before midnight on Wednesday, local time.
Local media reports suggest he was let into the house by revellers who thought he had been hired as a children\’s entertainer.
But once inside, he produced a handgun from beneath his costume, opening fire and spraying the 30 or so partygoers inside with bullets.
After terrified bystanders fled the scene, Pardo apparently torched the house with a home-made incendiary device before removing the Santa suit and making his getaway.
Gunman found dead
He was found dead at his home in Sylmar, Los Angeles, a few hours later. Police say he died as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Six bodies have been pulled from the wreckage of the burnt-out house in Covina.
Two girls, aged 16 and eight, are being treated in hospital for gunshot wounds, and a 13-year-old was also injured.
Local media reports suggest Mr Pardo\’s estranged wife is among those still missing.
Detectives believe the pair\’s relationship may have been the catalyst for the deadly attack.
“He was going through some type of marital problems, and we believe that this residence is a relative\’s residence,” Lieutenant Pat Buchanan said.
Police \’shocked\’ by attack
“He knocked on the door, went in and opened fire on about 30 guests.”
Buchanan told CBS2 television the shooting was “extremely unusual and very shocking”.
“It\’s just not something we see here at any time of the year — especially during Christmas,” he said.
Police were searching Pardo\’s home Thursday for clues to his bloody rampage.
“Maybe there\’s some (sign of) planning, maybe letters or anything that will give us more clues about the state of his mind,” Detective Antonio Zavala told the New York Times.
Washington urged the two sides to avoid escalating tensions and said it was touch with both countries.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summoned his military chiefs to review New Delhi\’s “defence preparedness” while his foreign ministry advised Indians not to travel to Pakistan, saying it was unsafe for them to be in the country.
The developments sent ties plummeting to their lowest point since late 2001, when Kashmiri militants staged a brazen attack on the Indian parliament – an attack New Delhi blamed on the Pakistan-based extremist group Lashkar-e-Toiba.
India has blamed the same group for the Mumbai attacks and has repeatedly said Islamabad is not doing enough to rein in militant groups, a claim that Pakistan rejects.
‘Minimum security measures’
The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours – which have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir – have said they do not want war this time but warn they would act if provoked.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani reiterated on Friday that Pakistan was a “peace-loving” nation, telling reporters in the eastern city of Lahore that while Islamabad had no “aggressive designs”, it would respond if provoked, the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported.
In Islamabad, senior defence and security officials said troops were being moved from the north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, hotbeds of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity, to the eastern border near India.
“We do not want to create any war hysteria but we have to take minimum security measures to ward off any threat,” a defence ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He added that leave for “operational” armed forces personnel had been cancelled “as a defensive measure”.
A top security official, who also asked not to be named, explained that a “limited number of troops have been pulled out from snowbound areas on the western border where they were not engaged in any operation”.
Pakistan\’s army and air force have recently scaled back their operations against Taliban-linked militants in both the Swat valley and the Bajaur tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Both operations were launched in mid-2008.
Any major shift of Pakistani troops out of the tribal areas would likely spark concern in Washington and other Western capitals, as it could open the door to more cross-border militant attacks on foreign forces in Afghanistan.
“We continue to urge both sides to cooperate on the Mumbai investigation as well as counterterrorism in general,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told AFP.
“We also do not want either side to take any unnecessary steps that raise tensions in an already tense situation.”
Another senior Pakistani security official told AFP the new deployments on the Indian border were not in “significant numbers but only in areas opposite the points where India is believed to have brought forward its troops”.
The defence ministry official said authorities had noticed the movement of Indian troops toward the border near Lahore, and that they believed India had also cancelled military leave.
Impact of Mumbai attacks
Pakistan\’s chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas declined to comment.
New Delhi has said its slow-moving peace process with Pakistan is now on hold in the wake of the Mumbai attacks last month, in which 172 people including nine of the gunmen were killed.
Islamabad has said it is willing to cooperate with India in investigating the carnage, but says New Delhi has offered no proof that Pakistani nationals were involved – a claim dismissed by
Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
“We have ample evidence… to prove that elements based in Pakistan carried out the Mumbai attacks,” Mukherjee said.
“Pakistan should not divert attention from the real issue of taking action against terrorists by raising war hysteria,” he told reporters in New Delhi.
Singh was meanwhile meeting the chiefs of India\’s army, air force and navy to discuss the current security situation, an official in his office said.
The Indian foreign ministry meanwhile advised its nationals to stay away from Pakistan. Spokesman Vishnu Prakash said such travel would be “unsafe”.
Two girls, one aged five and the other 12, were killed on Friday when their house in northern Gaza was hit by a rocket which witnesses said was apparently fired by Palestinian militants targeting southern Israel.
Four other family members were wounded.
The casualties came amid mounting speculation that the Israeli military will soon launch an operation in the Gaza Strip, which most media said would probably be limited in scope and not a full-scale invasion.
“Army preparing for combined ground, air operation in Gaza,” declared the front-page headline in Israel\’s Haaretz newspaper.
Israel issues firm warning
Violence in and around the Palestinian enclave has flared since a six-month ceasefire ended on December 19, and escalated dramatically on Wednesday when militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar rounds after Israel launched deadly air strikes over the coastal strip.
On Friday, 13 rockets and mortar shells hit southern Israel, causing no casualties but damaging a house that was unoccupied at the time.
Israel had responded to earlier rocket attacks by tightening the blockade it has imposed since the Islamist Hamas violently seized power in Gaza in June 2007.
But officials said dozens of truckloads of supplies were delivered to Gaza on Friday after Israel decided to temporarily allow humanitarian aid into the impoverished territory.
At the same time, the Israeli government issued dire warnings to Gaza militants, saying it will strike back hard if attacks continue.
“I will not hesitate to use Israel\’s strength to strike at Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television on Thursday, adding ominously that “tens of thousands of children and innocents” will be at risk “as a result of Hamas\’s actions”.
Since the Egyptian-mediated truce ended last week, Israel has threatened to launch a major offensive on Gaza, and senior leaders have called for the toppling of Hamas.
The Islamist movement — which is sworn to destruction of the Jewsish state — has warned in turn that it would retaliate by resuming suicide bombings inside Israel. The last such attack claimed by Hamas was in January 2005.
Ongoing pressure to address Hamas
Popular pressure for a military operation has mounted in Israel.
“The systematic shelling of civilians in Israel\’s communities is a war crime and a crime against humanity. The state of Israel has to protect its citizens,” the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to replace Olmert as prime minister after the February 10 election, has vowed to topple Hamas if her Kadima party wins.
Under former prime minister Ariel Sharon, the centrist party orchestrated the pullout of Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, but Israel retains control of the borders and the airspace.
Meanwhile, Iran\’s Red Crescent is sending 2,000 tonnes of food, medicine and appliances as well as 12 doctors and relief workers to Gaza in defiance of Israel\’s blockade, the Iranian state broadcaster said on Friday.
Tehran is a staunch supporter of Hamas but rejects allegations it is supplying arms to the movement, saying it provides only moral backing.
Guinea paid its final respects to late dictator Lansana Conte as the military junta that seized control in the wake of his death launched an attempt to allay international intervention.
High profile mourners
Supporters and even critics of the veteran strongman, who also took power in a coup and ruled for 24 years, were among thousands taking part in funeral ceremonies in Conakry.
Among the mourners were the presidents of Guinea\’s neighbours, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Liberia\’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast and Joao Bernardo Vieira of Guinea-Bissau.
The top officials of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, Jean Ping and Mohammed Ibn Chambas, were also present along with civil and military officials, and Conte\’s wives and children.
Despite frequently denouncing Conte for “pillaging” the country, trade union leaders were among those paying respect with messages of condolence to his family.
But Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, the junta head who now styles himself president, could not be seen as the white coffin, draped with Guinea\’s red, yellow and green flag and escorted by men of the presidential guard, arrived at the parliament building.
Following speeches of tribute the coffin was borne to the national stadium for another ceremony for ordinary Guineans in front of a capacity crowd of more than 30,000.
It was to be taken later to a mosque and then to Conte\’s village of Lansanaya, around 120 kilometers (75 miles) north-west of Conakry, for burial.
Junta courts international acceptance
Beset by calls from abroad to return the country to civilian rule and stage elections, Camara has invited foreign envoys to meet with him on Saturday “to reassure the international community.”
The military junta, in a statement read on national radio, said it would first hold an “informational meeting” with “representatives of civil society, political parties, religious faiths and unions.”
A second meeting would take place at noon for representatives of the United Nations, European Union and African Union and the Group of Eight leading industralised countries.
International calls for democracy
The coup has met with widespread international criticism, particularly of Camara\’s decision to rule out elections for at least two years.
In a new statement Friday, former colonial power France urged Guinea to organise free elections within six months “so that the people of Guinea can freely express its will.”
Foreign ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said the French ambassador to Conakry would attend Saturday\’s meeting in France\’s capacity as current president of the European Union.
The United States has also demanded an immediate return to civilian rule in the country of 10 million people.
‘Yesterday, you were in power, today it\’s our turn’
Camara on Thursday won the allegiance of Conte\’s prime minister Ahmed Tidiane Souare, who addressed him as “Mr President” and told the coup leader that he and his ministers were ready to serve the junta.
Camara, who has already appointed a military-dominated governing council in place of the civilian government, told Souare that he could help him run the country but left no doubt who was now in charge.
“Yesterday, you were in power, today it\’s our turn,” he said.
Camara assured Souare of his safety and told the prime minister that military rule was only temporary.
The United States said that massive Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip were the fault of Islamist Hamas “thugs,” as rival world powers urged both sides to halt escalating violence.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a statement that the US “holds Hamas responsible,” whereas the European Union, Russia and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon distanced themselves from blaming either side.
US sides with Israel
As global reaction began to polarise, Israel\’s strongest ally accused Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, of bringing destruction upon itself by breaking a six-month ceasefire which expired on December 19.
“These people are nothing but thugs, and so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at George W. Bush\’s Texas ranch.
“If Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, then Israel would not have a need for strikes in Gaza,” Johndroe said. “What we\’ve got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel.
“The United States holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire; we want the ceasefire restored. We\’re concerned about the humanitarian situation and want all parties concerned to work to make sure the people of Gaza get the humanitarian assistance they need,” said Johndroe.
The State Department amended Rice\’s initial statement about holding Hamas responsible to say “we” rather than the United States, adding that “the United States calls on all concerned to protect innocent lives and to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.”
At least 225 Palestinians have been killed, according to the head of Gaza emergency services. Another three people were reported killed later, taking the toll to at least 228.
In the Middle East, the Arab League singled out Israel for blame, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference accused it of a “war crime” for not protecting the lives of civilians.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair deplored the “tragic of loss of life,” and urged a “new strategy for Gaza, which brings that territory back under the legitimate rule of the Palestinian Authority in a manner which ends their suffering and fully protects the security of Israel.”
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he “strongly condemns the irresponsible provocations which led to this situation as well as the disproportionate use of force.”
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana meanwhile said the Israeli strikes were “inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians and will only worsen the humanitarian crisis as well as complicate the search for a peaceful solution.”
The EU also called for all crossing points out of Gaza to be reopened and deliveries of aid and fuel to resume, along with free access for international humanitarian groups, journalists and diplomats, which Israel has blocked.
While Ban expressed his alarm at the “bloodshed,” Hamas said Saturday it had retaliated with more rockets which Israeli medics said killed at least one person in the southern town of Netivot.
Demonstrations condemning Israel\’s strikes on Hamas targets took place from Istanbul to Paris and in the Moroccan capital, Rabat.
Russia\’s foreign ministry called on Israel “to halt immediately the large-scale acts of force against the Gaza Strip” while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Hamas to “immediately and definitively end its unacceptable rocket attacks against Israel,” according to Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Gaza, adding he understood “the Israel government\’s sense of obligation to its population.”
Arab League calls extraordinary summit
The Arab League will hold an extraordinary summit in Doha on January 2 to discuss the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence, diplomats said. Arab foreign ministers will meet on Wednesday, ahead of the summit.
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi called for “urgent action” during a telephone conversation with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, state news agency TAP reported.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government said it would take part in the Arab League meeting and condemned the Israeli strikes for leaving behind “many victims –innocent people and children.”
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a statement that “Egypt condemns the Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip and blames Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded.”
He ordered the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza to be opened for wounded Palestinians to be evacuated “so they can receive the necessary treatment in Egyptian hospitals.”
In Amman the royal palace said King Abdullah of Jordan had been in touch with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and with Mubarak to “launch an Arab and international initiative aimed at ending the Israeli aggression.”
From Turkey, a Muslim country that has been an ally of Israel in the region, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Israeli military operation was a mark of “disrespect” for Ankara\’s efforts to negotiate peace for Israel with its longtime foe Syria.
Syria in turn condemned “the barbaric Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza,” the foreign ministry said.
Two Al-Qaeda prisoners who broke out of a police jail in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi were arrested hours after their accomplice was killed by Iraqi police snipers, police said.
The arrest of the two men brought to an end a dramatic series of events that began early on Friday when the three local Al-Qaeda leaders escaped from cells in Forsan police station triggering a deadly firefight that killed 13 militants and policemen.
The man shot dead on Saturday by Iraqi forces was Imad Ahmed Farhan, nicknamed “Imad the Killer” because police say the Qaeda operative had confessed to murdering at least 100 people and setting over 100 roadside bombs.
Extensive manhunt ends in arrests
Farhan\’s accomplices, Abdel Aleem and Lazeem, were arrested in the central Ramadi district of Andaluz early on Sunday following a desperate manhunt that lasted nearly two days, Ramadi police major Alaa al-Jassam, told AFP.
“They are now being held in a police station in Ramadi,” said Jassam.
Farhan\’s two accomplices were found hiding in water tanks in a private home, Udai Mohammed Daud, an intelligence police captain, told AFP.
“They were arrested on the second floor of a home, hiding in water tanks,” said Daud, adding they had taken the suspects without firing a shot after receiving a tip.
‘Imad the Killer’ repeatedly shot by snipers
Farhan, 32, was killed by sniper fire around midday Saturday after a fierce gun battle in which he had taken a family hostage in a home on Street 20 in the centre of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, police said.
Police had been carrying out a massive manhunt since Friday and found Farhan holed up in a home in central Ramadi. They were alerted to his whereabouts when one of the hostages was able to get word to a neighbour.
“The female hostage got to the back of the house and was able to tell her neighbour that they were hostages and that a terrorist was there,” Colonel Salah Arar, commander of the southern sector of Ramadi police, told AFP.
“We took a police unit and a sniper squad with us and we identified the room in the house where he was,” Arar said.
“One of our snipers shot him but only wounded him. Then as he tried to move across the roof from one house to another, one of our snipers shot him five or six times.”
Pictures of a man alleged to be Farhan showed a body riddled with bullet holes.
Police raided the home of Farhan\’s sister on Friday and confiscated his passport and his national identity document in case he tried to flee abroad, Ramadi police captain Mohammed Daud said.
Dramatic prison break
The daring and apparently well-planned breakout from the station began at around 2 am Friday when a prisoner called out that he was sick and a policeman went to a communal cell to check.
When the officer entered the cell holding 40 men, 13 of them Al-Qaeda members, they grabbed him and cut his throat with a makeshift knife. They then seized his gun and went to the police chief\’s office and slit his throat.
The Al-Qaeda prisoners then dashed into the courtyard where they shot a lieutenant and made it to the armoury before the gun battle erupted.
The prisoners and police battled for two hours before the officers managed to regain control of the complex. One prisoner was recaptured after suffering gunshot wounds.
The predominantly Sunni Arab city of 540,000 was a key Al-Qaeda stronghold in the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein\’s regime by US-led forces in 2003.
Iraq\’s biggest province became the theatre of a brutal war focused on the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, while a string of towns along the Euphrates valley became insurgent strongholds and later safe havens for Al-Qaeda.
Farhan himself has been captured twice by US forces and following his release he took charge of Al-Qaeda financing in Ramadi. He later fled to Syria.
When he returned in 2007, he was arrested by Iraqi police but US forces demanded his transfer to Camp Bucca because of his criminal record.
He was then handed to Iraqi police four months ago and was set to go on trial.
“I interrogated him personally, and he admitted to me that he had killed more than 60 brothers of the south (Shiite) on the road between Ramadi and the Jordan border and had planted more than 100 roadside bombs that killed dozens,” Arar said.
Guinea\’s new military leader promised to renegotiate mining contracts and crack down on corruption as he met with local people, keen to consolidate his bloodless coup.
Guinea, the world\’s top bauxite exporter, will renegotiate all mining contracts and freeze gold extraction until further notice, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara said.
“We have blocked the mining sector,” he told around 1,000 representatives of civil society at the junta\’s base in Conakry. “There will be a renegotiation of contracts.”
“In gold mining areas, the decision has already been taken: no more extraction until further notice,” he added.
Strategic local forum
The representatives of political parties, trade unions, religious faiths and civil associations had been summoned to the open-air meeting at the Alfa Yaya Diallo camp near Conakry\’s international airport.
Those present included the speaker of parliament, Aboubacar Sompare, who under the constitution should have succeeded as acting head of state following the death late Monday of President Lansana Conte.
Sompare had contested the legitimacy of the coup leaders who seized power within hours of Conte\’s death, but was undermined on Thursday when prime minister Tidiane Souare and his government pledged loyalty to Camara.
Camara pledged to root out corruption in the mineral-rich country, warning that “anyone who has misappropriated state assets for his benefit, if caught, will be judged and punished before the people.”
Calls for support and change
The coup leader said that under Conte\’s 1984-2008 rule, Guinea had suffered a “great embezzlement” of public funds. However, he absolved Conte personally of corruption, describing him as “honest” and called for a minute\’s silence in memory of the late dictator.
But he said “there are ministers who surrounded the head of state who looted the country, who constructed buildings, and had bank accounts everywhere.
“At a time when the president was tired, all the people who surrounded him filled their pockets,” he added.
Announcing an action plan to clean up the government, Camara lambasted “the irresponsibility and notorious incapacity” of the parliament and the corruption of the government he toppled this week.
Trade union leader Rabiatou Serah Diallo, a fierce opponent of Conte\’s regime, welcomed the speech, particularly Camara\’s promise to punish those guilty of corruption. “The fight against impunity must become a reality in Guinea,” she said.
Almost all Guinea\’s trade unions and opposition parties have refrained from condemning the coup.
During his speech, the captain was flanked by Lieutenant-Colonel Sekouba Konate, the third highest-ranking member of the military junta who later Saturday was named its defence minister.
The junta, in a statement read on national radio, was supposed to hold another “informational meeting” with the diplomatic community later Saturday but postponed it to next Tuesday because the public meeting called for 1000 GMT had overrun.
Mixed international response
The coup has been largely condemned abroad and the African Union said it would continue to oppose it as unconstitutional.
However the junta on Friday was backed by regional heavyweight Senegal, whose President Abdoulaye Wade said Camara was an honest young man who had taken power to fill a dangerous vacuum.
The military leadership said Saturday it was lifting a curfew on the capital Conakry after a military source said soldiers had used the measure to extort money or property from civilians.
Soldiers who sought to profit from the country\’s political uncertainty and “violate” the curfew would be “severely sanctioned,” according to the announcement on state radio.
More than a third of the world\’s bauxite reserves are located in Guinea, making it the second-largest producer internationally after Australia and the world\’s biggest exporter.
It also has large reserves of gold, diamonds, iron and nickel, while uranium deposits were found at various sites in 2007.
Despite its vast natural resources, the West African nation ranks 160th out of 177 in the UN\’s development scale.