Congolese warlord sentenced to 14 years for using child soldiers

BBC NEWS (UK), JEUNE AFRIQUE (France)

Worldcrunch

THE HAGUE – Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail on Tuesday by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for recruting and using child soldiers, some younger than 15, from 2002 to 2003.

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The sentence is the first to be handed out by the ICC since it started working a decade ago.

Fifty-one year-old Lubanga was convicted of war crimes in March for his role in the civil war in Ituri, a northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where ethnic conflict has killed an estimated 60,000 people since 1999. The BBC reports that Lubanga showed no emotion as he was sentenced.

Prosecution had requested a harsher sentence of 30 years in prison. ICC Judge Adrian Fulford praised the former militia leader for his cooperation and conduct during the trial, turning instead to criticize former prosecutor Luis Moreno Occampo, Jeune Afrique reports. Fulford said Occampo did not give evidence to support erroneous claims and allowed his staff to mislead the press, according to the BBC.

Lubanga was the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, an ethnic Hema milita, and of its military wing. The sentence was seen by human rights activists as a victory for international justice.

Lubanga’s #ICC sentence will send signal to those around the world who are tempted to use child soldiers, says @HRW. trib.al/RAN7Y8

— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) July 9, 2012

But Lubanga was arrested in Kinshasa in March 2005, and the years of prison he has served up until now will be deducted from his sentence, prompting some Twitter users to criticize the decision.

14 years for Lubanga. shame, shame, shame. and with the time he already spent in custody…shame shame shame shame…

— ilaria allegrozzi (@ilariaallegrozz) July 10, 2012

That’s IT? 14 yrs!?”@africanewsfeed: #DR Congo’s #Lubanga jailed 14 years bit.ly/Ng8Mnn”

— Gando Stenge (@GandoStenge) July 10, 2012

Others referenced the criticism that the ICC focuses too much on crimes in Africa and not in the rest of the world.

That the ICC has an Africa problem doesn’t mean Lubanga doesn’t deserve what he’ll get tomorrow. The children he abused deserve justice.

— Laura Seay (@texasinafrica) July 9, 2012

Lubanga, who had pleaded not guilty, has 30 days to appeal the decision. Unrest continues in the DRC as rebel forces led by General Bosco Ntaganda – an ally of Lubanga who is also wanted for war crimes by the ICC – advance towards the country’s main eastern city of Goma.

Thousands of immigrants detained in Libyan desert

By Luc Mathieu

LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch

SABHA – They are prisoners of the desert, trapped by the Libyan Sahara.

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More than 1,300 illegal immigrants are detained here, some 100 kilometers outside the city of Sabha, along the road between the sand dunes to the south and the border with Niger. They have no shelter, not even makeshift tents, forced to sleep on the sandy, pebble-studded ground. Only the lucky few among them have a blanket to protect them from the gusts of scorching wind. The others curl up so they can shield their faces in their keffiyehs or T-shirts. It is early evening, and the temperature in this southern Libyan desert known for its scorpions and vipers is 35°C.

“It’s a nightmare,” says Sebastian, a 36-year-old plumber from Benin. “I have no idea what’s going to happen to me – if I’m going to die here or if they are going to let me go. I have no money, no passport, no phone. It’s as if I no longer existed.”

Sebastian was one of the first to be interned at this camp created a month ago by the Libyan army. Gradually he was joined by hundreds of others from Chad, Niger, Ethiopia, Mali, Pakistan, Syria and the Bengal region of India and Bangladesh. All were arrested as they crossed over clandestinely from Niger, Chad or Sudan.

They’ve been surviving since in this prison without bars, guarded by about a dozen soldiers. Meals consist of one or two plates of rice a day. “The thirst is the worst,” says Suleiman, a 19-year-old Chadian. “There’s barely a liter of water a day. And it’s not good – it’s full of dust and sand.” Some 40 of the detainees are sick with diarrhea or wounds that haven’t been tended to. A Sudanese adolescent has a dislocated shoulder, the result of falling off the pick-up truck that brought him across the border. Behind him is a Beninese with an eye so red and swollen he can no longer open it. “It hurts more and more. The sand and dust have become encrusted in the eyelid,” he says.

“We’re overwhelmed, I don’t know what to do anymore,” admits Massa Senoussi Taher, who is responsible for the camp. “The government isn’t helping us; they haven’t even sent anybody out here. Only the Red Cross has come out. It’s up to us to go to the surrounding villages to get food and water. At most, we can still hold out for another week or two.”

A police chief’s dilemma

In Sabha, the capital of the Fezzan region, police chief Sanoussi Saleh says that he too is at a loss as to what to do. “I’ve contacted the government, the UN, and some NGOs but nobody has gotten back to me. We’re in deadlock –we can’t manage so many illegal immigrants.” Two other camps were opened in recent weeks between Sabha and the border with Niger. Altogether, according to local authorities, more than 2,400 immigrants have been interned in southern Libya.

“I have never seen so many illegal immigrants –and I’ve been a soldier in this region for 15 years. Every week, we arrest more and more of them. And we don’t kid ourselves: thousands more are getting through without being stopped by us. It’s almost as if they are being pushed by somebody,” says Massa Senoussi Taher.

Without being able to furnish proof, several local leaders state that this influx of immigrants is down to ex-officials of the Gaddafi regime who escaped to Niger and Chad. “They’re trying to destabilize the new Libyan state,” Sanoussi Saleh says.

But at the camp along the Sabha road, the Libyan revolution isn’t something the prisoners cite. “Gaddafi’s death played no role in my decision to come to Libya,” Sebastian explains. “A relative of mine who’s lived in Sabha for 20 years advised me to come. He said I’d find work here, no problem, and I headed here without hesitation.”

In the southern part of Libya, the revolution mainly impacted the way borders are guarded. Since Gaddafi’s death, the Toubou people –Libyans of African origin–have assumed responsibility. “It’s normal –we’re the ones who liberated the region, with our vehicles and our arms. We’ve always lived around here; we know the terrain better than a GPS. And we know the trails used by the people bringing immigrants across,” says Barka Wardougou, who heads the military council in Murzuk, a Toubou stronghold.

But the Toubous already feel marginalized by Arab tribes and the new powers-that-be. “The government doesn’t put enough means at our disposal. Our men are exhausted. There are only 300 of them, and they have to spend five days in a row in the desert. We need 1,200 more men, more vehicles, and better means of communication. We’re talking about a budget of $50 million,” says Jomodé Elie Getty, who is responsible for external relations for the Toubous.

Toubou leaders also criticize the nomination of Abdul Wahab Hassain Qaid as commander of border security in the southern part of the country. Brother of Abou Yahya al-Libi, the No. 2 of al Qaeda who was killed in Pakistan in early June by an American drone, he is said to have received 170 million dinars ($120 million) and a fleet of four-wheel drive vehicles from Qatar. “Why nominate an Islamist?” asks Barka Wardougou. “Wasn’t there anybody else?”

Colonel Saleh, the police chief, admits that he’s “worn-down psychologically.” Night has fallen. He looks out at the prisoners sleeping in the sand around camp fires. “It’s not right to inflict this on them. If nobody does anything, they’ll die here. I’m at the point where I ask myself if it wouldn’t be better if I just let them go.”

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo – EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

What’s wrong with Chinese education?

Pack mentality in China’s classrooms? (Helga’s Lobster Stew)

By Zhang Ming*

CAIXIN/Worldcrunch

BEIJING – I once gave a lecture to some high school teachers.

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After the lecture, there was time set aside for questions – there were none.I asked these teachers: “Don’t you normally give your own students any chance to ask questions?” After a long moment of silence, one teacher asked me: “Could you please give us an analysis as to why we cannot raise any questions?”In fact, it’s not the first time I’ve encountered such an embarrassing silence in my classes. Even with a lot of encouragement, attempts to inspire them, and offers to invite them to dinner, my students are sometimes still unable to come up with a single question.Our education system has long been based around an approach of standard answers. Whatever the subject is, the teacher would always break down each lesson’s content into standard answers, one by one. Even problem-solving follows a standard procedure and the composition of an essay respects a certain routine.The teachers give lectures following standardized answers in their teaching and the students learn in accordance with the standard answer. If the students strictly stick to this rule, they’ll achieve high scores in their exams. On the contrary, if they don’t follow this rule, they won’t be able to have good results which will prevent them from reaching the ultimate goal of getting into a top university. In such an education model, for both the teacher and the pupil, nothing is to be challenged or questioned. The teacher only has to teach in accordance with the reference book, to instill into the students the standard answer — and that’s all. Naturally, students have no need to ask unless it’s actually because they didn’t understand what the teacher meant. As long as the teaching is in line with the curriculum, the teacher makes no mistake. The teacher is able to clearly explain the points, and everything is fine.Day after day, a child who was originally full of innocence and curiosity becomes void of questions. Everything that is taught to him becomes taken for granted and justified. No other teacher in the world can ever be more confident than the ones in the Chinese education model, because they believe they have in hand the truth. What they teach the students is the truth and this truth comes from the text book.And why do they readily believe in this? Because the Chinese education system forces teachers to believe in the standardized teaching material unconditionally, or risk losing their job. Only by sticking to this rule are the students able to get high scores, and the parents hence become the accomplices of this teaching mode. Whoever dares to change the way they teach will be mercilessly denounced by parents. Education should stimulate the imagination and creativity. Yet the Chinese way of teaching suffocates the questioning ability of both teacher and student. If you can’t question anything, how can you create? Instead, if you study well and are excellent in exams and capable of reciting a lot of knowledge, the Chinese education system will cultivate you, alas, into a walking bookcase. You can’t expect great things from such a person when he or she steps out into society.*Zhang Ming is a blogger at Caixin media and professor of political science of the Chinese People’s University

Read the original article in Chinese. Photo – Helga’s Lobster Stew

Karzai claims Taliban breakthrough

The Afghan president is appealing for Pakistan’s help in negotiating a peace deal with Taliban militants ahead of a summit that will also include the leader of Iran.

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The meetings in Islamabad come at a time when momentum for peace talks with the Taliban seems to be growing, even as all parties to a stuttering process marked by intense mistrust say that success in ending the 10-year war in Afghanistan is far from certain.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Thursday that talks among the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban had taken place in the past month.

If true, it would mark a significant development because until now the Taliban had said they would only negotiate with the Americans, contending that Karzai was a puppet leader and that their movement was the legitimate ruler in Afghanistan.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid denied Karzai’s comments that negotiations have already taken place. “The Taliban did not talk with the Kabul government anywhere,” he said in a statement.

Pakistan is regarded as a key player in any peace process because its historical ties with the Taliban and other insurgents mean Islamabad could help bring them to the table or be a spoiler.

The Taliban leadership is widely believed to be based in Pakistan, and under some influence of the country’s security establishment.

Iran, which also neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also important to the future stability of Afghanistan. In the past, it supported campaigns against the Taliban, a radical Sunni Muslim group opposed to the Shi’ites who make up a majority of Iran’s population. But some reports have suggested Tehran – Washington’s

archenemy – also has supported the Taliban against US troops.

The US launched the war in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, but has been unable to defeat the Taliban, which once sheltered Osama bin Laden. Washington wants to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and try to ensure the country remains moderately stable.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been badly strained, but the meeting between Karzai and President Asif Ali Zardari suggested that ties are improving. An Afghan statement said the leaders had agreed to restart a joint peace commission that was shelved after the assassination last year of Afghanistan’s envoy to Taliban peace talks in Kabul.

Afghan officials had accused Pakistan of playing a role in the killing – allegations it denied.

In a statement, Zardari said Karzai had stated at the meeting on Thursday that Pakistan’s support “was critical to the success of the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process” and that both countries should cooperate for peace.

Earlier, Ismail Qasemyar, the international relations adviser to the Afghan-government appointed council for talks with the Taliban, said Karzai would ask Zardari to “put positive and constructive pressure” on the Taliban.

During his three-day trip, President Karzai is also scheduled to meet Pakistani clerics and politicians who are close to the Afghan Taliban in a bid to get their support for peace.

They include Maulana Samiul Haq, who is known as the spiritual father of the Taliban because he runs an Islamic seminary in northwestern Pakistan that has taught many of the group’s leaders.

“This is a time when the Taliban are defeating Western forces in Afghanistan,” Haq told The Associated Press. “A forceful stance by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran will bring peace and stability in this region by pushing out the foreign forces.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Islamabad in the late afternoon and met separately with Zardari. The two men discussed a proposed pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Iran to Pakistan, according to a statement from Zardari.

The US opposes the initiative. It wants to isolate Tehran because of its nuclear program, and is threatening sanctions against Islamabad if the project goes ahead. Pakistan says it needs the gas to meet chronic energy shortages.

On Friday, all three leaders will meet for talks likely to focus on the Afghan war.

Afghan recounts US soldier’s rampage

An Afghan man has recounted the terrifying scene in his home as a lone US soldier moved stealthily through it during a shooting rampage, then crouched down and shot his father in the thigh as he stepped out of the bedroom.

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The soldier, now in US custody, is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in their homes in the middle of the night between early Sunday and then burning some of their corpses. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said nine of those killed were children and three were women.

“He was walking around taking up positions in the house – in two or three places like he was searching,” said 26-year-old witness Mohammad Zahir, who watched the gunman while hiding in another room.

“He was on his knees when he shot my father” in the thigh, he told The Associated Press.

His father was wounded but survived.

Even before the shootings, anti-Americanism was already boiling in Afghanistan over US troops burning Muslim holy books, including Korans, last month on an American base. The burnings came to light soon after a video purporting to show four Marines urinating on Taliban corpses was posted on the internet in January.

Now, another wave of anti-foreigner hatred could threaten the entire future of the US-led coalition’s mission in Afghanistan. The recent events have not only infuriated Afghanistan’s people and leaders, but have also raised doubts among US political figures that the long and costly war is worth the sacrifice in lives and money.

Zahir recounted the harrowing scene in his family home when the soldier came in before dawn.

“I heard a gunshot. When I came out of my room, somebody entered our house. He was in a NATO forces uniform. I didn’t see his face because it was dark,” he said.

Zahir said he quickly went into another room in the house, where animals are penned.

“After that, I saw him moving to different areas of the house – like he was searching,” he said.

His father, unarmed, then took a few steps out of his bedroom door, Zahir recalled.

“He was not holding anything – not even a cup of tea,” Zahir said. Then he fired.

“My mother was pulling my father into the room. I put a cloth on his wound,” he said.

After the gunman left, Zahir said he heard gunshots near the house again. He stayed in hiding for a few minutes to make sure he was gone.

The shooting rampage unfolded in two villages near a US base in southern Kandahar province. An enraged Karzai called it “an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians” that cannot be forgiven. He demanded an explanation from Washington.

The Taliban vowed revenge. It also claimed responsibility for several attacks last month that the group said were retaliation for the Americans burning Korans.

The al Qaeda-linked militant group said in a statement on their website that “sick-minded American savages” committed the “blood-soaked and inhumane crime” in a rural region that is the cradle of the Taliban and where coalition forces have fought for control for years.

US-led forces in Afghanistan have stepped up security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks. The US Embassy has also warned American citizens in Afghanistan about the possibility of reprisals.

As standard practice, the coalition increased security following the shootings out of concern about retaliatory attacks, said German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, a coalition spokesman.

The suspect in the shootings, who is in US military custody, is a staff sergeant who has been in the military for 11 years. He is married with two children. He served three tours in Iraq and began his first deployment to Afghanistan in December, according to a senior US official.

He is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington and was assigned to support a special operations unit of either Green Berets or Navy SEALs engaged in a village stability operation, said a US official. Special operations troops pair with local residents chosen by village elders to become essentially a sanctioned, armed

neighbourhood watch.

Two US defence officials said an investigation has been started by the Army Criminal Investigation Division, but that it was too soon to say when any charges might be filed.

The Afghan Defence Ministry said the gunman left the base in Panjwai district and walked about one-and-a-half kilometres to Balandi village. Villagers described how they cowered in fear about 3am as gunshots rang out and the soldier roamed from house to house, firing on those inside. They said he entered three homes in all and set fire to some of the bodies after he killed them.

Eleven of the 12 civilians killed in Balandi were from the same family. The remaining victim was a neighbour.

From Balandi, the gunman walked roughly one-and-a-half kilometres to the village of Alkozai, which was only about 500 metres from the American military base. There the gunman killed four people in one house and then moved to Zahir’s house, where he shot his father in the leg.

US officials said initial reports indicated that the soldier returned to his base after the shootings and turned himself in.

More bodies from Concordia found

Three executives from Europe’s biggest cruise ship operator have been named in a probe into the firm’s Costa Concordia tragedy, as eight more bodies – including a child’s – were found in the wreck.

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The managers at Costa Crociere received formal notifications they were under investigation along with four officers from the liner, joining captain Francesco Schettino and first officer Ciro Ambrosio as suspects.

“We have received seven formal notifications – four for officers on board, three for company employees on land,” Costa Crociere’s press office told AFP.

Italian news agency ANSA reported that the three Costa Crociere executives were the company’s vice president Manfred Ursprunger, the head of the company’s crisis unit Roberto Ferrarini and fleet superintendent Paolo Parodi.

Italian media reports said the seven face charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and failing to communicate with maritime authorities.

The giant luxury ship hit rocks off the Italian island of Giglio and keeled over with 4,229 passengers and crew from 60 countries on board on the night of January 13. Thirty-two people are believed to have died in the tragedy.

According to leaked transcripts of his questioning by investigators, Schettino said Costa Crociere was aware of the scale of the disaster early on, but the company has indicated that he had deliberately misled executives.

Schettino — dubbed “Captain Coward” by the tabloid press for his quick exit from the ship — called Ferrarini several times as the tragedy unfolded.

Schettino and Ambrosio are being investigated on charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship before all passengers were evacuated.

“We have full confidence in the work of prosecutors. We have offered complete cooperation and we are certain that the professionalism and capacity of the company will be confirmed,” Costa Crociere said in a statement.

Italian consumer group Codacons, which is a plaintiff in the inquiry and is suing for damages, has called for Costa Crociere’s chief executive Pier Luigi Foschi and for all the ship’s officers to be put under investigation.

“We are satisfied with the decision taken by the prosecutors. Now we can finally clarify the responsibility of the officers and employees who were on board the ship when it sank,” Codacons said in a statement.

It said Foschi should now be put under investigation “for his responsibility for selecting employees and officers on the Costa Concordia.”

EIGHT MORE BODIES FOUND

Meanwhile, divers found eight badly decomposed bodies in the submerged part of the giant liner, including that of five-year-old Dayana Arlotti.

All eight were found on deck four of the ship close to the lifeboats, some of which failed to deploy during the chaotic night-time evacuation.

The location of the bodies were found thanks to testimony from survivors who remembered their last moments before leaving the sinking ship.

Salvage workers began pumping 2,400 tonnes of fuel from the ship’s tanks on February 12, in an operation expected to take a month that is seen as crucial to avert an environmental disaster in the pristine marine sanctuary.

Dozens of survivors have launched lawsuits against Costa Crociere and its US parent company Carnival Corp in France, Germany and the United States.

In a lawsuit in Carnival’s home state of Florida, 39 survivors are seeking more than half a billion dollars in damages.

Costa Crociere has offered uninjured passengers 11,000 euros ($AU13,713) each plus expenses incurred as compensation.

Stars begin arriving for Oscars

Best Actor nominees George Clooney and Jean Dujardin have hit the Academy Award red carpet, among the first group of A-listers in California.

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Stars including Clooney, Jessica Chastain and the star of The Artist, Berenice Bejo, greeted fans, signed autographs and posed for photographers ahead of the event.

Bejo, nominated for supporting actress for her role in the film, was accompanied on the red carpet by her husband – the film’s director Michel Hazanavicius.

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Dujardin hopes to become the first Frenchman to win best actor and his The Artist is favoured to become the only silent movie to take the best-picture prize since the first Oscar ceremony 83 years ago.

Christopher Plummer is in line to become the oldest acting winner ever at 82. Meryl Streep might join the acting three-peat club with a third Academy Award.

Along with Streep, Hollywood’s big night has plenty of returning stars, too, with past Oscar winners and nominees such as Clooney, Brad Pitt, Glenn Close, Michelle Williams and Nick Nolte in the running again.

The show also has a returning favourite as ringmaster: After an eight-year absence, Billy Crystal is back for his ninth time as host.

Because of a change in voting rules, the Oscars feature nine best-picture nominees for the first time, instead of the 10 they had the past two years.

Competing against The Artist for the top honour are Clooney’s family drama The Descendants; the Deep South tale The Help, featuring best-actress nominee Viola Davis and supporting-actress favourite Octavia Spencer; and the Paris adventure Hugo, from director Martin Scorsese.

Also in the line-up: the romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris, from writer-director Woody Allen; Pitt’s baseball tale Moneyball and his family saga The Tree of Life; the World War I epic War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg; and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock’s September 11 story Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Hugo leads with 11 nominations, with The Artist right behind with 10.

Two hostages lived final days in squalor

Details have emerged about the squalid conditions two hostages endured during their final days of life under the watchful eye of their alleged al-Qaeda-linked captors.

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The bodies of Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara were found on Thursday during a joint British-Nigerian rescue operation, which has ignited a diplomatic dispute with Italy.

At the house in Sokoto where the bodies were discovered, the water supply came from dipping a plastic bucket into a simple underground tank. Sokoto is the major city of Nigeria’s dusty northwest.

Blood pooled under a toilet and a smashed sink in a tiny bathroom, the site where McManus and Lamolinara died at the hands of their captors, according to those living around the compound.

On Friday, Italy demanded an explanation for why it had learnt about the raid only after British special forces began their assault with Nigeria’s military.

The rescue attempt began on Thursday morning in Sokoto’s Mabera neighborhood, a sprawling maze of sandy roads and single-storey

cement homes surrounding the city of 500,000 people. Residents said a seemingly unending barrage of gunfire followed, as did an attack led by a military armoured personnel carrier.

Once inside in the compound, soldiers found the two men had been killed. Details of how and when they died remained unclear on Friday, said Steve Field, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron. But Field said “early indications were that both men were murdered by their captors before they could be rescued”.

The operation grew out of co-operation between Nigeria’s security forces and British military and intelligence officers who had been in the country for several months, officials familiar with the details of the operation said. In recent weeks, a contingent of special forces soldiers – drawn from Britain’s elite Special Boat Service – arrived in Nigeria to assist, officials said.

That preparation apparently went on without the knowledge of Italy, whose president, Giorgio Napolitano, demanded an explanation on Friday from British officials for this “inexplicable” failure.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague defended his country’s decision, saying there was no time to confer and that Italy was

informed only once the rescue mission was already under way.

Hague held talks with his Italian counterpart on Friday over the failed rescue, while Britain’s ambassador to Italy also met officials in Rome.

After the meeting, Hague and Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi issued a joint statement in which they “agreed on the urgency of sharing full information to facilitate the reconstruction and understanding of these events”.

The rescue effort ends months of uncertainty about what happened to McManus and Lamolinara. McManus was working for the construction company B.Stabilini when he was kidnapped on May 12 by gunmen who stormed his apartment in the city of Birnin-Kebbi, about 180 kilometres from Sokoto. Lamolinara was also abducted. A German colleague escaped by scaling a wall, but a Nigerian engineer was shot and wounded.

A video released later showed the kidnappers claiming they belonged to al-Qaeda and threatening to kill McManus and Lamolinara if their demands were not met.

Britain’s Foreign Office has said the two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect in Nigeria blamed for more than 300 killings this year alone.

‘Assad fits war criminal status’: Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Syrian President Bashar Assad fits the definition of a war criminal for the violence he has unleashed on his people.

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Testifying before two Senate committees, Clinton was pressed about the months of strife in Syria that a UN official said on Tuesday had killed more than 7500 people and which several lawmakers described as a civil war.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has urged that the United States arm the rebels challenging Assad and suggested that the international community might consider the Syrian president a war criminal.

“I think that based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category,” Clinton told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

She stopped short of calling for the international community to make that designation or to level charges, saying such a step “limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power.”

Graham said he hoped the world community could persuade Assad to leave eventually.

“I just don’t know how to define ‘eventually’ right now,” Clinton said.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the administration’s opposition to arming the rebels.

“Now is not the time to further militarise the situation in Syria,” Carney told reporters.

“We are working with our allies through the Friends of Syria to isolate and pressure Assad and to try to get him to realise that his days are numbered and to cease the brutality that he’s been waging against his own people.”

Clinton’s testimony was to committees considering the proposed budget for next year for the State Department and foreign operations.

Leonardo mural may have been discovered

The latest findings on Monday still leave much mystery in the hunt for the Battle of Anghiari, a wall mural painted by Leonardo in Florence’s storied Palazzo Vecchio, and possibly hidden behind a fresco done by Giorgio Vasari decades later.

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The hunt for the unfinished mural has captivated art historians for centuries, and took on fresh impetus in the last years with the employment of state-of-the-art scientific tools.

Some believe Leonardo’s mural, which he began in 1505 to commemorate the 15th-century victory by Florence over Milan at the medieval Tuscan town of Anghiari, may be hidden behind a newer wall, which was frescoed over decades later by Giorgio Vasari. Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari was unfinished when Leonardo left Florence in 1506.

Maurizio Seracini, an Italian engineer from the University of San Diego, told reporters that the fragments of colour retrieved by the probe in the palace’s Hall of the 1500s are consistent with pigments used by Leonardo. He said an analysis showed that the red, black and beige paint found is consistent with the organic paint Leonardo used on his frescoes.

But the paint could also have been used by Leonardo’s contemporaries in Florence, which is awash in Renaissance art. Seracini called the results “encouraging” but preliminary.

To find samples of pigment of the wall behind a space previously discovered under the Vasari, work, experts slipped probes through areas where paint on the outer wall’s fresco was either cracked or flaked off, noted Cristina Acidini, the head of Florence’s cultural heritage and museums.

For one sample, a probe was slipped into a spot near a downward thrusting sword in Vasari’s work. For another sample, the probe

went through a point near the head of a horse, with its eye open wide as if startled.

Seracini was inspired by the words “Cerca, trova” (“seek and you shall find”) that were painted on a tiny flag in Vasari’s painting depicting a different battle. Those who think Leonardo’s work might be hidden behind the later wall painting contend it is unlikely that Vasari, famed for his biographies of Renaissance artists, would have destroyed any masterpiece by Leonardo.

“We have found these very special black pigments, and there are some traces of red,” Seracini told reporters. The red is a kind of lacquer “used for oil painting. And this element matches Leonardo’s plan to paint his Battle of Anghiari with an oil technique,” Seracini said.

The hunt for the missing Leonardo mural is being led by the National Geographic Society and the University of California in partnership with the city of Florence. Experts from Florence’s world renowned art restoration institute, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, also were involved.

“These data are very encouraging,” said Seracini, a National Geographic Fellow. “Although we are still in the preliminary stages of the research, and there is still a lot of work to be done to solve this mystery, the evidence does suggest that we are searching in the right place,” said a National Geographic statement quoting Seracini.

Seracini and his colleagues note that some black material found behind Vasari’s wall shows a chemical composition similar to that found in brown glazes in two Leonardo works, Mona Lisa and St John the Baptist.

Flakes of red material that were found appear to be organic pigments, the researchers said. A study of high-definition endoscopic images “suggests” that a beige material spotted on the original wall was applied by a paint brush, the researchers aid.

Previously, using radar and X-rays, Seracini and his team found a cavity behind Vasari’s fresco that they think could indicate a space between two walls.

Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi said one plan aims to remove some parts of the Vasari fresco that were restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, to look behind them. “We are sure that the Battle of Angiari is behind” Vasari’s work, he said.

Nuclear waste dump plans pass Senate

The Northern Territory government and various local clan groups are opposed to the plan to build a medium-level nuclear waste dump on the aboriginal land north of Tennant Creek.

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The Bill was backed by the Opposition but opposed by the Greens and Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, the ABC reports.

Watch: SBS reported from the Muckaty area last year

Anti-nuclear activist Nat Wasley told the Green Left Weekly she welcomed Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s amendment that international waste cannot be stored at the facility but said the rest of the legislation ‘Is neither new nor good. It builds on the mistakes of the Howard era and lacks credibility and consent. There are still many hurdles for the government before a dump is up and running, and this proposal will be challenged every step of the way.’

‘This is the beginning of the campaign to stop Muckaty, not the end’, the ABC reported Senator Ludlam as saying

A dispute over who owns the land in question continues to complicate affairs – a Federal court case is yet to decide if the indigenous group who signed the deal to put Muckaty station in the running to hold the waste are the true owners.

Resources Minister Martin Ferguson’s reitereated the an earlier pledge not to proceeed until the court case is decided, Fairfax reported.

‘In relation to litigation in the Federal Court concerning the nominated land, the Government will not act on this site until this matter is resolved by the Court’, he said.

Muckaty station is 120km from the nearest town of considerable population, Tennant Creek, and was first named as a possible location in 2007.

After South Australia rejected earlier plans, Muckaty is the only site nominated under the current proceedings.

Higher petrol prices hit Obama campaign

With prices pushing $US4 a gallon and threatening to go even higher, Obama sought on Thursday to confront rising public anxiety and strike back at his GOP critics.

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“Only in politics do people root for bad news, do they greet bad news so enthusiastically,” Obama said of Republicans. “You pay more; they’re licking their chops.”

Obama said dismissively that all the Republicans can talk about is more drilling – “a bumper sticker … a strategy to get politicians through an election” – when the nation’s energy challenges demand much more. In a speech in Miami, he promoted the expansion of domestic oil and gas exploration, but also the development of new forms of energy.

For all the political claims, economists say there’s not much a president of either party can do about petrol prices. Certainly not in the short term. But it’s clear that people are concerned – a new Associated Press-GfK poll says seven in 10 find the issue deeply important – so it’s sure to be a political issue through the summer.

“Right now, we’re experiencing yet another painful reminder of why developing new energy is so critical to our future,” the president said. At an average of $US3.58 a gallon, prices are already up 25 US cents since January 1, and experts say they could reach a record $US4.25 a gallon by Memorial Day.

Those higher prices could hurt consumer spending and unravel some of the recent improvements in the economy. And they could also be a daily reminder to voters to question Obama’s contention that he’s making the nation – and them – more secure.

While motorists are already starting to complain, many economists see the $US4-a-gallon mark as a breaking point above which the economy starts to suffer real pain. Analysts estimate that every one-cent increase is roughly a $US1.4 billon ($A1.31 billion) drain on the economy.

Obama’s Republican challengers aren’t letting it all slide by.

They have stepped up their attacks on his energy policies, including his rejection last month of a pipeline to carry oil from Canada to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. And they’re full of promises.

“I’ve developed a program for American energy so no future president will ever bow to a Saudi king again, and so every American can look forward to $2.50-a-gallon gasoline,” former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich said in the Wednesday night GOP debate in Mesa, Arizona. He calls his strategy “Drill Here, Drill Now.”

At the same event, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania – who has warned of $US5-a-gallon petrol – asserted that “we have a lot of troubles around the world, as you see the Middle East in flames and what’s going on in this country with gas prices and the economy.”

And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney suggested that even more troubling than rising petrol prices was Iranian President Mahmoud “Ahmadinejad with nuclear weapons.”

In his speech at the University of Miami, Obama sought to draw a contrast with his GOP challengers and made a pointed reference to what he suggested was Republican glee at rising gas prices.

“And you can bet that since it’s an election year, they’re already dusting off their three-point plans for $2 gas,” Obama said. “I’ll save you the suspense. Step one is drill, step two is drill, and step three is keep drilling. … We’ve heard the same thing for 30 years. Well, the American people aren’t stupid.”

Addressing the rising public anxiety, Obama said, “There are no quick fixes to this problem, and you know we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices.” Anyone suggesting otherwise was not being honest, he said.

Still, Obama said he had ordered his administration to search for every possible area to help consumers in the coming months. He said his administration’s “all-of-the-above strategy,” one that includes oil, gas, wind and solar power, is the “only real solution” to the nation’s energy challenges.

Though Obama’s approval rating on the economy has climbed, his negative rating on handling petrol prices is stagnant. Just 39 per cent approve of what he’s doing there, and 58 per cent disapprove, according to the new AP-GFK survey.

Reprisal fears stalk Syria after massacres

Syrian activists say pro-government gunmen have killed at least 16 people, including some children, in a rebel stronghold recaptured by the government, fuelling concerns the government is carrying out reprisals in territory it has taken back.

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State media in Damascus on Monday confirmed the latest killings in Homs but blamed “armed terrorists,” as they frequently call those behind the year-long uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

At the United Nations, the US and Russia clashed after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to the divided Security Council to speak with one voice and help Syria “pull back from the brink of a deeper catastrophe.”

Washington and Moscow both called for an end to the bloody conflict – but on different terms, leaving prospects for UN action in doubt.

The reports of killings in the battered city of Homs added to concerns that the thousands of deaths caused by the fighting would be compounded by reprisals against opposition supporters in recaptured towns and neighbourhoods.

Fresh from stamping out rebel centres of resistance in Homs, government forces are pressing on with new offensives in other parts of central and northern Syria.

The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, called for “immediate” Arab and international military intervention, including setting up safe corridors for humanitarian aid and a no-fly zone to protect civilians.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 people were killed Sunday night in Homs, while the Local Coordination Committees said 45 were killed. Both groups said children were among the dead.

They accused “shabiha”, gunmen akin to a militia that basically do the government’s bidding and who have played a major role in trying to crush the year-old uprising, of carrying out the killing.

Homs is the Syrian city hardest hit by violence since the uprising began in March last year. Several Homs neighbourhoods, including Karm el-Zeytoun, where Sunday’s deaths occurred, were controlled by rebels and retaken by government forces earlier this month.

The Observatory said after the killings, many people fled Karm el-Zeytoun and other nearby neighbourhoods, fearing pro-government gunmen might carry out more reprisals.

DISTURBING IMAGES POSTED ONLINE

Pictures posted online by activists showed the bodies of five children who were disfigured after being apparently hit with sharp objects. At least six dead adults were shown covered with sheets.

An amateur video posted online showed men wrapping the bodies of the dead with white cloth, in accordance with Muslim tradition, before burial.

“This is what they do to us, the Sunnis. The Sunnis are being wiped out. They are the ones who are dying at the hands of Iran and

the Shi’ites,” shouted a man in the background. Shi’ite Iran is one of the Assad regime’s few remaining allies. The authenticity of the videos could not be independently confirmed.

Another video aired on state-run Syrian TV showed bodies in three different places in Karm el-Zeytoun.

The first was of a family killed inside their home, showing a dead man on what appeared to be a couch with children next to him.

The other was of three handcuffed men on a street, while the third was in a building under construction, where five bodies were lying on the ground.

It was not clear if the family shown on state TV was the same one that activists posted in their picture. The TV did not say when the killing occurred or how many people died.

The Syrian government accused armed groups in Homs of kidnapping people, then killing and disfiguring them in order to bring international condemnation onto the regime.

Assad’s government attributes the uprising to armed groups and terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy.

Activists put the blame for the killing on the government. The Observatory called on the United Nations to investigate the deaths.

UN SPLIT ON ACTION

All this is adding pressure on UN Security Council members, who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence. A peacemaking mission by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan faltered, with both government and opposition rejecting talks.

A private meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was likely to focus on the two countries’ serious differences over how to address the violence.

The two clashed at the UN ahead of the meeting.

Clinton rejected any equivalence between rebel actions and the “premeditated murders” carried by Assad’s “military machine.”

Lavrov said Syrian authorities “bear a huge share of responsibility,” but he insisted opposition fighters and extremists, including al-Qaeda, are also committing violent acts.

Annan, speaking Monday in Turkey, urged the world to send a clear message to Damascus in the face of “grave and appalling reports of atrocities”.

Also on Monday, the Syrian news agency reported that an “armed terrorist group” blew up a pipeline that transports diesel fuel from the central province of Homs to the nearby region of Hama.

There have been several fires and explosions cutting oil and gas pipelines since the uprising began. Damascus blames them on armed groups, but the opposition says they are caused by government shelling.