Labor’s terror u-turn puzzles PM

The Prime Minister says Labor’s turnabout on laws letting the Government ban suspected terrorist organisations shows just how politically expedient the party really is.

Labor has been blocking the legislation in the Senate for two years but says it will now vote for the laws.

Mr Howard says, while he congratulates the Opposition on the decision, he is a little puzzled by it.

“What’s happened is Labor said it would never accept the situation where the executive government could proscribe an organisation without explicit parliamentary authority through legislation — that was their position — and they said it was wrong in principle that that power be given to the Attorney-General of the day. They’ve now accepted it.”

The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, says the legislation will give the Government the power to ban a group without recalling parliament.

“Labor has agreed that we shouldn’t be held hostage to a decision by a court or an administrative appeals tribunal in order to be able to proceed quickly to proscribe a terrorist organisation.”

But the Opposition’s spokesman on homeland security, Robert McClelland, says he feels amendments to the bill now give parliament ultimate say on the bans.

Mr McClelland says the Government must now consult with the leader of the Opposition and state and territory leaders before deciding on a group.

“There’s also built into the process a mechanism for judicial review where any individual affected or organisation affected can apply to the Federal Court of Australia for review of the decision to proscribe an organisation. So, in effect, these safeguards are far more extensive than any comparable jurisdiction in the world.”

Sudanese peace accords signed

Three protocols were signed on Wednesday by Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army on power-sharing and the administration of three disputed regions.

It comes after two years of intense political negotiations in Kenya and leaves only technical and military aspects of a ceasefire standing in the way of a comprehensive peace accord.

Kenyan chief mediator Lazarus Sumbeiywo said both sides had pledged to deliver this by late June or mid July.

The Kenyan talks, however, did not cover the western region of Darfur, where a separate conflict that began in February 2003 has created what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation and about a million displaced.

Nevertheless, the signing which took place at a lakeside hotel near the western Kenyan town of Naivasha, prompted a cacophony of cheers from hundreds of Sudanese refugees.

“This indeed is a momentous occasion in the history of our country,” declared SPLA leader John Garang.

“We have reached the crest of the last hill in our ascent to the heights of peace… there are no other hills. I believe what remains is flat ground,” he said.

“Things will never and can never be the same in Sudan.”

His negotiating counterpart, Sudanese vice president Ali Osman Taha, said: “This is a day for Sudan, for peace, development and stability.

“It’s our duty in Sudan to put these words into action with the same degree of determination to make peace.”

The latest phase of Sudan’s long-running civil war reignited in 1983 when the south, where most observe traditional religions and Christianity, took up arms to end domination and marginalisation by the wealthier, Islamic and Arab north.

Together with recurrent famine and disease, Africa’s longest conflict has claimed at least 1.5 million lives and displaced more than four million people, mostly in the impoverished south.

Since July 2002, when the two sides struck a deal granting the south the right to a referendum after a six-year transition period, other deals have been reached on a 50-50 split of the country’s wealth – particularly revenues from oil – and on how to manage government and SPLA armies during the interim period.

The two sides have agreed to form a government of national unity with a decentralised system of government with significant devolution of power to the states.

Keelty vows to stay on

Mr Keelty has refused to comment on reports that he was close to quitting over political pressure exerted after he publicly expressed the view that involvement in the Iraq war had raised Australia’s profile as a terrorist target.

Mr Keelty, attending a meeting in Sydney of senior federal and state officials to discuss security issues, would not elaborate on the spat with the government, saying he wants to put this week behind him.

He says he remains committed to dealing with the issue of terrorism and has confidence in his fellow police commissioners.

“I think the real issue is do you have before you a group of commissioners who are professional? And I think you have, people who will be committed to being apolitical, which is important for commissioners, and people who will tell the truth.

“And I have every confidence in everyone that’s in this room that we will be doing that.”

The federal Opposition leader, Mark Latham, says Government criticism of Mick Keelty over his remarks on the terrorist threat to Australia have hurt national security.

The Australian newspaper reports the Prime Minister’s Office pressured Mr Keelty to back off his comments, and Mr Latham says that is no good.

He says the police have got to do their job without fear or favour, and political interference weakens Australia’s national security.

John Howard is not saying whether his office pressured Mr Keelty to issue a clarification of his remarks.

Mr Howard says Mr Keelty’s subsequent statement, in which he said his comments had been taken out of context, speaks for itself.

But when it was suggested people had a right to know if a political office pressured a law officer’s office, Mr Howard was quick to say nothing improper happened.

Mr Keelty’s view on Iraq has been widely supported by other security professionals including other police chiefs, terrorism experts and a senior officer of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Veterans’ pension increase announced

Prime minister John Howard has announced Cabinet has approved an increase in veterans funding of $267 million over five years.

Mr Howard says the government consulted extensively with veterans before announcing the package.

Last month, the Liberal party room rejected a draft veterans package and forced Cabinet to reconsider the deal.

Mr Howard says the right decision has been made now.

“We did take some proposals to the party room. It wanted the Cabinet to have another look at it. I don’t feel any sense of concern about that.

“Every so often, the party room is quite capable of greater wisdom than the Cabinet. The party room was right. The Cabinet did have another look. And this was the result.”

The new measures include exempting veterans’ disability pensions from means-tested income-support payments.

Pensions for totally and permanently disabled veterans will be indexed to inflation or male average weekly earnings, whichever is higher.

War widows will be given rent assistance, and funeral benefits will be almost doubled to 1,000 dollars.

Veterans’ disability benefits will be extended to groups such as veterans of the Berlin airlift.

During the airlift in 1963, when Russia blocked land access to west Berlin, Western Bloc countries flew food and other supplies into the city

There will be a one-off payment to prisoners of war from the Korean War or their widows.

Compensation will also be given to veterans who may have suffered during the British atomic testing in Australia in the 1950s.

There has been mixed reaction to the announcement.

The Returned and Services League says the package advances the veterans’ cause well, but there are still issues that need addressing.

But the RSL’s national president, Major General Bill Crews, says benefits should be extended to certain other veterans, including Commonwealth and Allied soldiers.

“We’d also like to have seen the $25,000 grant to ex-prisoners of war extended to those who were prisoners in Europe.

“We’d also liked to have seen an extension of benefits to those veterans who were from Commonwealth and Allied countries but who have now become Australian citizens.

UK dismisses Iraq rift claims

While UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday the interim Iraqi government, due to take over the reins on June 30, would have the power to veto military operations, the US said its troops would reserve the right to defend themselves.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “The final political control (over foreign troops) remains with the Iraqi government. That’s what the transfer of sovereignty means.”

But US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a news conference in Washington: “Ultimately… US forces remain under US command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves.”

The apparent difference between the allies could complicate efforts to secure UN Security Council endorsement of the handover plan.

This comes as permanent council members France, Russia and China indicated they wanted changes to the draft resolution, tabled by the UK and US on Monday outlining Iraq’s return to sovereignty.

Mr Prescott said on Wednesday the Iraqi leadership would be in charge of dealing with terrorists, but British and American troops would have the right to defend themselves if they were to come under attack from insurgents.

He said any confusion over the positions of the US and Britain show that negotiation and interpretation is already underway.

The exact position of troops in post-June 30 Iraq is potentially the key issue in the negotiations.

A leading member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council said he wants the resolution “clarified” to make clear that multi-national troops are in the country only at the invitation of Baghdad.

Adnan Pachachi, who is being tipped as a possible leader of the caretaker authority, said operations must be conducted in consultation with the interim government.

The issue comes as diplomats from the 15 UN Security Council nations meet in New York for informal discussions on a resolution to underpin the restoration of sovereignty in Iraq.

Spanish troops may be pulled from Iraq

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapotero has vowed to put the fight against terrorism at the top of his agenda, after his Socialists party’s shock election win just days after the Madrid train bombings.

“The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster,” he said.

His comments come as details emerge about the arrests of three Moroccans in connection with Thursday’s attacks, considered Spain’s worst-ever act of terrorism.

An indictment shows that one of the three had ties with an alleged al-Qaeda cell leader charged in connection with the September 11 attacks in New York.

The indictment, dated September 17 2003, and written by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, names Jamal Zougam, who was arrested on Saturday, as a follower of Imad Yarkas who was jailed for allegedly helping to plan September 11.

Zougam’s alleged terrorist links strengthen the suspicion that al-Qaeda was involved in the train bombings that killed 200 and injured 1,500 people.

Spain’s new government is to take over the investigation.

The defeated conservative Popular Party, headed by former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, had initially blamed Basque separatist group ETA for the attacks.

Mr Zapatero’s victory speech was preceded by a minute’s silence for the train victims.

His party won 43 percent of the ballots, compared with 38 percent for the Popular Party.

The change in government is, at least in part, being attributed to voter outrage at the PP’s jump to blame ETA, as well as a perception that the government’s support for the US-led war in Iraq may have led to the bombings.

In addition to the three Moroccans, Spanish police have also detained two Spaniards of Indian origin for questioning.

The five were arrested after a mobile phone and prepaid phone card were found in an explosives-filled gym bag on one of the bombed trains.

Of the 1,500 injured, 252 remain in hospital, 19 of whom are critical, and another 150 in a serious condition.

Blast kills nine in Russia

The device went off shortly after midday, and local police say more people would have been killed had a truck not driven by as the explosion occurred, absorbing much of the force.

Authorities initially said the blast was most likely caused by faulty gas canisters exploding, but dismissed this theory after Federal Security Service agents inspected the site.

A criminal inquiry for acts of terrorism and murder has now been opened.

“We have dismissed the possibility that this was caused by gas canisters,” said a local police spokesman.

“Our main hypothesis now is that it was an act of terrorism.”

The device was planted near railway tracks running behind the clothes and household goods open-air market, the city’s largest and one of the most profitable enterprises in the region.

The railway line links the city with Moscow, around 800 kilometres away.

Television footage broadcast on Russian television showed scenes of wreckage with bloodied bodies covered by aluminium sheets and debris from trading stalls scattered across a wide area.

“There was a very powerful explosion and a great ball of yellow fire went up many metres into the air,” said one witness.

A woman reportedly went into premature labour due to the shock of the blast.

Police say they suspect the blast may be linked to a struggle for control over the market by rival criminal gangs, rather than the possibility it could be linked to the ongoing Chechnya conflict.

Many of the traders at the affected section of the market are illegal migrants from southeast Asia, who reportedly are forced to pay bribes to the market managers to keep their place.

Britain, US at odds over Iraq

Britain says the interim Iraqi government will have final control over foreign troops, but Washington has said its forces would remain under US command.

The apparent difference between the allies could complicate their efforts to secure Security Council endorsement for the handover plan, particularly after permanent members France, Russia and China signalled they wanted changes to the draft resolution.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “The final political control (over foreign troops) remains with the Iraqi government. That’s what the transfer of sovereignty means.”

But US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a news conference in Washington: “Ultimately… US forces remain under US command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves.”

The discord comes a day after Britain and the US tabled a draft resolution to the Security Council, which outlines Iraq’s return to sovereignty.

In Iraq, members of the interim Governing Council reacted coolly to the draft. Governing Council president Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar said it “fell short of our expectations”.

He said the two main concerns were that the interim government must have the power to ask foreign troops to leave Iraq and that it exercise full control over reconstruction funds.

He also demanded control of revenue from oil sales, which Washington proposes should be subject to international audit.

Iraqi interim defence minister Ali Allawi said he expected foreign troops to remain in the country for “months rather than years” as the multi-national force will eventually be replaced by Iraqi forces.

France, which along with Russia and China opposed the war in Iraq, and several other countries want an expiry date set for US-led forces, but with a right to renew the deployment if Iraqis agreed.

The Russian government also voiced reservations about the draft proposal.

A minimum of nine votes on the 15-member Security Council are needed for the resolution to pass.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon says it will replace its top commander in Iraq when the interim government takes office.

General George Casey, vice chief of staff of the army, was likely to be named successor to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, sources said.

Aristide quits African exile

The former Haitian president is understood to have left for the Caribbean island nation in the early hours of the morning.

A delegation of African-American and Jamaican officials arrived on a chartered jet to escort Mr Aristide, but were delayed while CAR President Francois Bozize decided whether or not to allow him to leave.

That was surprising since both the US and France had denied Mr Aristide’s claim he was being held prisoner in CAR, where he was flown on a US-chartered aircraft when he fled Haiti on February 29 amid a rebellion and US and French pressure to resign.

Mr Aristide said he believed President Bozize had to consult with the three countries that had organised his temporary asylum – the United States, France and Gabon.

The deposed leader was also accompanied on the plane by his wife Mildred and a personal aide.

Jamaican Foreign Minister Sharon Hay Webster arrived in CAR on Sunday and met the ousted president.

She said she had come to “get him out of this situation,” adding that Jamaica, as president of the community of Caribbean states, Caricom, was intervening for purely humanitarian reasons.

She said Caricom was seeking a solution that would enable Mr Aristide to leave Bangui and go somewhere where he could see his two daughters, now in the United States.

The return of Mr Aristide to the Caribbean has provoked unease in Washington, which fears it could rekindle violence in Haiti, where the US, as the head of a 2,600-strong multinational force, is spearheading a process of political transition.

Jamaica lies less than 200 kilometres to the west of Haiti.

Jamaican President Percival Patterson last week said that Mr Aristide’s visit, which reports said would last for up to 10 weeks, should not be regarded as the granting of political asylum.

David’s renewed lustre

The painstaking process of removing grime and sulphate deposits using distilled water and cellulose took almost a year, with the initial expert restorer walking off the job over a dispute over the cleaning methods that should be used.

However some pale yellow streaks and violet-tinged mould stains on the lower back remain.

Florence’s museums chief Antonio Paolucci said the restoration was a “minimalist intervention” with “harmless, very light substances”.

“David is still itself, only what has changed is his luminosity,” said restorer Cinzia Parnigoni, who applied ‘mud packs’ of cellulose pulp and clay to soak away the dirt.

Renaissance expert Agnese Parronchi, who was originally to undertake the work, had wanted to brush away the dirt in a kind of ‘dry’ cleaning, fearing water could harm the surface.

But gallery director Franca Falletti insisted that brushing alone would not be enough to restore David and give him the glow of eternal youth that Michelangelo had intended.

David will now be examined and dusted eight times a year.

The 4.1-metre tall depiction of the young Biblical hero who fought Goliath was first unveiled in Florence on September 8, 1504, and has since weathered much abuse.

In 1527, the statue was damaged during a riot in Piazza Signoria.

More than a century after David was removed to the gallery in 1873, an Italian painter smashed the second toe of the left foot with a hammer.

Now, experts are concerned that the statue’s ankles may not be strong enough to support 5,572 kilograms of dead weight.

A team of engineers will examine ways to stabilise the statue for the future.