Rice to testify after Bush U-turn

The Bush Administration bowed to mounting pressure to allow Ms Rice to stand, but said it was only doing so on condition that it would not set a precedent.

In addition, President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have agreed to a single joint private session with all 10 commissioners.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the commission had unanimously agreed to the administration’s conditions for the testimony.

Previously officials had insisted that Ms Rice could meet the commission in private for unsworn conversations but not face a full hearing.

President Bush and Ms Rice had said that her appearance would contravene the constitutional separation of powers.

The 9/11 commission is examining the circumstances surrounding the September 2001 attacks that left about 3,000 people dead.

The about-face was revealed in letter to the commission from White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez.

“The president recognises the truly unique and extraordinary circumstances underlying the commission’s responsibility to prepare a detailed report on the facts and circumstances of the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001,” Mr Gonzalez wrote to the commission chairman, Republican Thomas Kean, and vice chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton.

Mr Bush came under increasing pressure with counter-terrorism tzar Richard Clarke’s allegations the administration ignored the urgency of an al-Qaeda threat before September 11 and then focused on Iraq as a likely culprit afterward.

The allegations from Mr Clarke, who served four US presidents, challenged Mr Bush’s image as a strong leader on homeland security and the US war on terrorism, which the President has been showcasing in his re-election campaign.

Bush slams Latham’s Iraq plan

President Bush said such a move would be disastrous, hurting those who want freedom in Iraq, and encourage more violent attacks.

The comments came after a visit by Prime Minister John Howard to the White House where the two leaders discussed the imminent handover of power in Iraq on July 1st.

“It would say that the Australian government doesn’t see the hope of a free and democratic society (in Iraq) leading to a peaceful world,” Mr Bush told reporters.

“It would embolden the enemy who believe that they can shake our will,” he added.

In his meeting with the US President, Mr Howard informed him that the Howard government remained committed to keeping Australia’s 850 troops in Iraq as long as they were needed.

“It is the worst time imaginable for allies to be showing any weakness in relation to the pursuit of our goals in Iraq,” Mr Howard said.

Mr Latham has issued a statement saying he stood by his promise, and that he had been opposed to the Australian deployment in the first place.

While in Washington, Prime Minister Howard received an assurance from Mr Bush that the two Australian nationals being held by the US military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “are not only being treated fairly, but their cases (will be) brought to finality.”

David Hicks, 28, and Mamdouh Habib, 48, have been in detention for more than two years following their capture by US forces during the war on terror in Afghanistan.

A military investigation into the treatment of the two Australian detainees began earlier this week after complaints from their lawyers prompted a request from Canberra.

President Bush has departed for Europe buoyed by the Australian PM’s support ahead of what are expected to be tough talks to win the backing of French and German leaders.

Putin romps Russian election

The non-governmental Public Opinion Foundation conducted the poll of 120,000 people in 1,200 voting stations.

Polling closed at 0500 AEDT. Five hours earlier, turnout passed the 50 percent level required to validate the poll.

Mr Putin, a former KGB spy, has returned significantly more votes than the 52.5 percent he won in 2000 after succeeding the tumultuous era of his ailing mentor Boris Yeltsin.

This time around Mr Putin obliterated the opposition even while refusing to campaign or debate with his five candidates.

The exit poll showed that the Communist Party challenger Nikolai Kharitonov trailed in second place with just 12.6 percent.

It was a significant drop on the 29.4 percent the Communists won in their last challenge to Mr Putin and underlined the Soviet-era party’s waning influence in modern Russia.

Mr Putin won despite having made just two direct addresses to voters during the month-long official campaign – a 30-minute speech on the first day of campaigning and a call for Russians to perform their civic duty two days before the poll.

“It is useless to engage in pre-election tricks for a person in my position,” the 51-year-old said in televised comments after voting with his wife Lyudmila in southwestern Moscow. “I think I should have made (my positions) clear during the past four years.”

Russian voters had been offered incentives to cast their ballots, from vouchers for free haircuts for pensioners to cinema tickets for young people, Reuters news agency reported.

However, not all Russians appear to have been moved by the gestures.

“I definitely will not vote in these elections,” one woman told Reuters. “Everything was decided for us a long time ago.”

Mr Putin’s rival candidates have complained during the campaign about their lack of access to state media.

And in a jarring reminder of mounting Western concerns about the state of democracy in Russia, Washington rained on Mr Putin’s parade by expressing concern about how the campaign was being staged.

“Russians have to understand that to have full democracy of the kind the international community will recognize, you’ve got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has,” said US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Opposition denies Iraq troop divide

The Government says the plan is at odds with other Labor positions on the issue, including Mr Rudd’s appeal last year to provide trainers for Iraq’s new police and military.

But Mr Rudd says that training could have been provided within a year and without increasing the overall size of Australia’s contingent in Iraq.

And he has rejected suggestions the Labor leader’s promise to withdraw the troops by December was made without consulting his senior colleagues.

He says he had already made several statements about the importance of establishing an interim Iraqi government as an important step in developing an exit strategy for Australian troops.

Mr Rudd also says Mr Latham’s statement is fully supported by Labor’s national-security subcommittee.

But the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, says Labor does not know what its policy on Iraq is.

“The policy chaos that we are getting from the Labor Party here might be amusing for the parliament, but it is not amusing for the national interest. Because this gets to the heart of the credibility of the leader of the Opposition and the capacity of somebody in that position to become the prime minister of this country and be responsible for the security of this nation.”

The prime minister, John Howard, says he will move a motion in parliament today calling for no timeframe to be set for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

“This is not the time to cut and run. This is the time to stand firm with out allies and our friends. This is not a time for capricious policy-making on the run which is plainly against the interests of the people of Iraq. It’s against the interests of Australia. It gives comfort and encouragement to terrorists and is a thoroughly bad policy all around.”

ETA, al-Qaeda linked to attack

A statement attributed to Osama bin Laden’s terror group has been sent to the London-based newspaper Al-Quda Al-Arabi to claim responsibility for the bombings and a suicide attack on a Masonic lodge in Istanbul two days earlier.

The claim has not been independently verified, but it came just as Spanish officials said they have found seven detonators and a tape in Arabic in a van that may be linked to the blasts which have killed 190 people.

Spanish Interior Minister Angel Acebes said the van was found near Madrid and that the tape contained recordings of verses from the Koran.

Mr Acebes said the authorities are not ruling out any lines of investigation into the bomb blasts on four packed commuter trains that killed 190 people and injured 1,247 others.

“The conclusion of this morning that pointed to the terrorist organisation [ETA] right now is still the main line of investigation,” he said.

“But I have given the security forces instructions not to rule out anything.”

Earlier, Mr Acebes had said there was “no doubt” the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for the attacks.

He said the Koranic verses were those “usually used to teach the Koran” and he left open the possibility that the tape might have been planted to mislead authorities.

The van had been stolen from the southern town of Alcala de Henares, which was the point of origin for the four trains targeted in the bomb attacks, Mr Acebes said.

Officials had earlier brushed aside suggestions that Muslim militants angry at Spain’s support for the US-led war in Iraq could have planted the bombs.

The blasts – which come three days before Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s Government faces national elections – triggered fears in world financial markets that al-Qaeda was responsible.

US intelligence agencies said it is too early to say who was responsible but that they see the hallmarks of both ETA and al-Qaeda.

The radical Basque party, Batasuna, accused by the Government of being an integral part of ETA, said it “absolutely rejected” the attack and was convinced ETA was not responsible.

ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) has killed about 850 people since 1968 in its fight for a separate Basque homeland in north-western Spain and south-western France, and has been branded a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

If the Basque group was responsible for the bombings, it would be its deadliest attack, far exceeding the 21 people it killed in a supermarket blast in Barcelona in 1987.

Some experts on ETA said the bombings did not fit the group’s usual profile for attacks. ETA has frequently warned of its attacks in advance.

In October, two audio tapes purportedly from bin Laden said the al-Qaeda had the “right to respond at any suitable time and place” against countries backing Washington over Iraq.

Saudi forces hunt for gunmen

Swedish national Magnus Johansson, 50, was married to an Australian woman, named by Swedish media as Sherree, and had lived in Australia for several years.

Most recently, he was working as an executive chef in Saudi Arabian hotels.

“It comes as a shock,” said friend and former colleague Volker Koepke, describing Mr Johansson as a calm, collected and remarkable chef.

In Saudi Arabia, forces set up checkpoints across the whole country after three gunmen, using hostages as temporary cover, escaped Saudi commandos who stormed a building in the eastern oil city of Khobar to end a long siege.

The leader of the militants, Nimr al-Baqmi, was wounded and captured during the rescue of the hostages on Sunday. All hostages were believed freed or dead.

The Khobar assault was the second in less than a month on the Saudi oil industry, a lifeline of the world economy.

An internet statement purporting to come from al-Qaeda said Osama bin Laden’s network carried out the operation.

It vowed to rid the birthplace of Islam of “infidels”. An audio tape apparently from top Saudi al-Qaeda leader Abdulaziz al-Muqrin vowed that this year would be “bloody and miserable” for Saudi Arabia.

Two days ago Muqrin issued plans for urban guerrilla warfare designed to topple the royal family.

The siege began on Saturday when gunmen opened fire on the Al-Khobar Petroleum Centre building, housing offices of major Western oil firms, before storming into compounds containing oil services offices and employees’ homes.

The body of a Briton was dragged through the streets behind a car, witnesses said, in an echo of the attack on a petrochemical site in the Red Sea town of Yanbu earlier this month in which an American suffered the same fate.

The gunmen then fled to the upmarket Oasis housing compound, taking some 50 foreigners hostage, and a 25-hour siege began.

On Sunday, commandos dropped from helicopters to storm the building. The Saudi Interior Ministry said 41 foreigners, many traumatised and injured, were rescued and 201 other residents who had been trapped in the compound were evacuated.

A Saudi diplomat said nine hostages were killed before the forces entered the building.

The Interior Ministry, giving the figure of 22 dead, did not make clear how many were killed during the siege and rescue and how many in Saturday’s shooting attacks on various Khobar buildings.

The ministry listed the dead as an American, a Briton, an Italian, a South African, a Swede, eight Indians, two Sri Lankans, three Filipinos, an Egyptian boy and three Saudis. It said 25 people were injured.

UN chief regrets Rwanda genocide

The 1994 genocide occurred while he was the head of UN peacekeeping.

“The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow,” he told a memorial conference ahead of the 10th anniversary of the slaughter next month.

“If the international community had acted promptly and with determination, it could have stopped most of the killing. But the political will was not there, and nor were the troops,” Mr Annan said.

The massacre of 800,000 people, along with the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Hercegovina, had a lasting impact on his decision-making as secretary general of the world body, he said.

“I believed at the time I was doing my best. But I realised after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support,” he said.

The mass killing, which has remained one of the darkest moments in UN history, began in the tiny African nation after then president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down while preparing to land.

His death unleashed the rage of ethnic Hutu extremists, who killed both Hutu moderates and their Tutsi rivals. Between 800,000 and one million people were killed between April and July 1994.

A 1999 report laid blame on Mr Annan as well as the United States and other Security Council nations for failing to take the steps needed to stop the killing.

The council declined to send extra troops for General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, who was head of the small UN peacekeeping force on the ground when the massacre took place.

And Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham told the memorial conference that one decade later, the United Nations had still not reached a consensus on how to stop such slaughters from occurring again.

Five Guantanamo Bay Brits released

The alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters were flown to RAF Northolt air base, northwest of London, in the early hours of Wednesday morning (AEDST).

It is thought they were taken to a high security police station in west London for questioning.

The UK repatriations came as the US Marine lawyer for Australian terrorist suspect David Hicks held meetings in Canberra to prepare his client’s defence case.

Hicks, 28, formerly of Adelaide, is scheduled to face one of the first military tribunals following the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Major Michael Mori has previously denounced the Australian Government for allowing the 28-year-old to be tried by the US instead of Australia.

However, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the US did “a good thing” in holding the five Britons as “enemy combatants”, although their release now was appropriate.

He said: “Our government made a considered judgement that it was appropriate to transfer these individuals to the government of the United Kingdom.

“The people who have analysed these individuals, and interrogated them and looked at them and processed them and considered this have come to the conclusion that this was the appropriate thing to do on the part of the United States.”

Asked why it took two years to reach that conclusion, Mr Rumsfeld said, “the goal was to keep these people off a battlefield and to keep them away from killing other people.”

“That’s a good thing, that’s not a bad thing,” he said.

He said another goal was to find out what they knew about the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

“So they were interrogated for a couple of years,” he said.

“Then at some point you say, we think we’ve gotten what we need out of this crowd of five people, and let’s move them along. We don’t want to keep everybody out at Guantanamo.”

The five Britons were flown to London after the British Government agreed to ensure that they not pose a security threat to the United States or its allies.

Britain announced on February 19 that, after months of negotiations with Washington, four British nationals would remain in Guantanamo Bay and five would be repatriated.

It left open the option of arresting them immediately upon their arrival, probably under the Terrorism Act 2000 which would let police grill them for up to 14 days without charges.

The four Britons still held in Cuba are suspected of links with the al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001.

Of the four UK Home Secretary David Blunkett said evidence collected on them was “best used in the United States, not in Britain”.

9/11 ‘could have been prevented’

“My feeling is a whole number of circumstances, had they been different, might have prevented 9/11,” Thomas Kean, chairman of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, told CBS television.

In a preliminary report, the commission said insufficient attention was paid to early warning signs about the danger al-Qaeda posed to the United States and faulted both the Clinton and Bush administrations for failing to take aggressive action against bin Laden.

Mr Kean’s comments came shortly before US Secretary of State Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeline Albright, gave their first public testimony at the inquiry.

Both defended the action taken by their administrations against bin Laden, but admitted measures had fallen short in the lead-up to 11 September 2001.

Mr Powell said that President George W Bush ordered moves to “destroy” al-Qaeda as soon as it took office because the previous administration under Bill Clinton had failed to eliminate the threat from Osama bin Laden’s group.

But Dr Albright insisted there was not enough evidence to support a case for war against al-Qaeda while Clinton held office.

“We did everything we could, everything we could think of, based on the knowledge we had, to protect our people and disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda,” Dr Albright told the commission.

President Bush is already facing criticism from a former White House anti-terrorism adviser.

He said on Tuesday that he would’ve acted quicker against al-Qaeda if he had information before September the 11th, 2001, that a terror attack against New York City was imminent.

He has agreed to speak to the commission members in private.

UK footballers jailed in rape probe

Keith Gillespie, Paul Dickov and Frank Sinclair of the Leicester City football team each face a charge of “sexual aggression with penetration, which would mean rape”, according to a British official.

They were remanded in custody yesterday by an investigating judge, Cartagena court officials said.

The three also face charges of forced entry.

A group of men are accused of barging into a room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in the upmarket La Manga sports resort and attacking the women, leaving them with multiple injuries.

A number of other Leicester City players who were also arrested over the allegations arrived back in the UK last night after being released by the Spanish court.

Among them were club captain Matt Elliott, Frenchman Lilian Nalis and James Scowcroft.

All three have been released, with Scowcroft ordered to pay 20,000 euros ($A32,586) bail and attend a Spanish consulate twice a month.

A further two players, Nikos Dabizas and Danny Coyne, were “provisionally released” following a hearing on Thursday, and a ninth player, Steffen Freund, was released earlier without charge.

Leicester City manager Micky Adams refused to speak to waiting reporters at Luton Airport last night as his players were ushered by police into a waiting minibus.

The struggling Premiership club had flown its players to Spain for a warm weather break as they prepared to battle against possible relegation from the Barclaycard Premiership.

The incident has thrown the club into crisis with the prospect of having to play crucial matches without some key players and has further mired the reputation of English football in sleaze and scandal.

It is believed the players were remanded after they took part in an identification process involving the alleged victims.

Gillespie, Dickov and Sinclair could be jailed for up to 12 years if convicted of the alleged offences.