Canada launches seal cull

Canadian authorities have increased the number of harp seals that can be culled to close to one million between 2003 and 2005. This year as many as 350,000 could be killed.

Animal rights groups say the cull is the largest since the 1960’s.

Canadian authorities contend that the seal population is a growing threat to cod stocks in the Atlantic, and that it can withstand humane culling.

Atlantic harp seal numbers have grown from 1.8 million in 1970 to 5.2 million, according to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

If hunters take their full quota of 975,000 seal pups over three years, the population in 2006 will be about 4.7 million harp seals, which DFO deems a reasonable figure.

“Seals are a valuable natural resource that, when harvested sustainably, provide valuable income to about 12,000 Canadian sealers and their families,” said Canadian fisheries minister Robert Thibault when he announced the new culling limits last year.

Greenpeace, which led a major campaign against seal hunting in the 1970’s, is no longer opposing the hunting of adult seals because the species is not threatened.

However the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and allies Sea Shepherd argue the cull is inhumane.

The government has insisted that new guidelines to ensure most seals are shot and not clubbed to death mean the hunt is more humane. The DFO has also established stricter requirements to show that the animals are dead before the hunters begin removing their white pelts.

In past years, IFAW activists have reported seeing hunters skin live seals, drag live seals across the ice with hooks, and leave seals with gunshot wounds to die slowly on the ice, in defiance of regulations.

Fallujah ceasefire extended

And police are being deployed in the central Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Najaf following an agreement for the pullout of armed militiamen from the streets.

“An agreement has been reached between the coalition and the office of Sadr,” said Najaf police chief Ali al-Yaseri, referring to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Under the terms of the agreement, coalition troops will not enter the city, which will be under Iraqi security control, said Mr Yaseri.

The city had been under the control of Sadr’s banned Mehdi Army militia.

But a coalition spokesman said he is not aware of the deal, adding that the situation in Najaf is under control.

The ceasefire in Fallujah has dramatically reduced the fighting, but there has been fighting between Iraqi guerrillas and US Marines overnight.

And US forces have suffered more losses, with three marines killed during an attack in western Iraq.

Another six were reported killed in Baghdad and Samarra over the past three days, taking the US death toll to 62 since April 4.

Also, a US Apache attack helicopter was shot down, killing two crew members.

“The ceasefire was extended by 24 hours last night, so it is supposed to last until Monday evening,” said Alaa Makki, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party which is involved in the mediation efforts.

“It had initially been due to last until today morning, but the two sides agreed to 24 hours [more],” he said.

Many of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents have fled, and fighters are the main group out on the streets.

Hospital officials said hundreds of Iraqis have died in the past week in Fallujah, where the local soccer pitch has been turned into a makeshift cemetery.

Mr Makki said more than 600 Iraqis have been killed and 1,250 wounded since the start of hostilities.

The ceasefire came into force after coalition forces suspended its offensive and waved the white flag.

An Iraqi delegation, led by members of the Iraqi Governing Council, has held meetings to mediate an end to the bloodshed.

Hundreds killed as insurgency mounts

Coalition forces have pressed on with offensives to crush a two-pronged rebellion in the west and south of the country that has claimed hundreds of lives over the past week, with one US commander comparing the fighting to Vietnam.

Here are the main military developments on Thursday:

Fallujah:Ten Iraqi insurgents and two US soldiers were killed as marines met ferocious resistance. As the day drew to a close, sniper fire and mortars were being fired around the main marine compound in the industrial area on the eastern edge of town.

Baghdad:Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr’s militia, the Mehdi Army, vowed to resume combat against US-led occupation forces, after US tanks and gunships destroyed the group’s main headquarters in the capital. Some 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the capital, a US patrol was attacked and armed insurgents could be seen dancing around two blazing military vehicles.

Samarra:Fighting broke out between US troops and unknown gunmen. Protestors fired rocket-propelled grenades at the headquarters of the US army and Iraqi paramilitary forces in the city, triggering retaliatory fire. Earlier, mosques urged people to show solidarity with the residents of Fallujah.

Karbala:The United States sent 120 troops to help Bulgarian troops in Karbala deal with the escalating conflict, after Sadr’s militia issued an ultimatum to occupation forces to quit the holy city. The Polish army said its troops were meeting with moderate Shiite clerics to try to ease tensions, adding that patrols had been suspended within the town for the soldiers’ protection.

Kut:The US commander of ground troops in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, said his troops will retake the central Iraqi city “imminently”.
1,300 Ukrainian soldiers evacuated their base in the city under US protection on Wednesday, leaving it a militia stronghold.

Najaf: The inner part of the holy city remains under control of the Mehdi Army, including police stations and government buildings. Hospital officials said 10 Iraqis were killed and 20 wounded in clashes there on Wednesday.

Samawa:Japanese troops in the southern Iraqi town have temporarily halted humanitarian operations amid reports they have come under attack for the first time.

The intense fighting has come at an unwelcome time for the US military, exactly a year after coalition soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, marking the unofficial end of the Iraq war.

A total of 637 US troops have been killed in Iraq, including 447 in hostile action. Since President George W Bush’s declared an end to major combat operations on May 1, 506 troops have been killed, 339 of them in hostile action.

Rice defends White House on 9/11

She also defended President George W Bush’s counter-terrorism strategy while admitting the country could have been better prepared.

In almost three hours of intense, nationally televised questioning, Ms Rice said that “structural” and legal problems prevented agencies from working together to counter terrorism before the 2001 attacks that left about 3,000 dead.

But she insisted that President Bush had understood the al-Qaeda threat as soon as he took office and that it took priority over Iraq.

Her long-awaited testimony in front of the commission sought to defuse politically damaging statements from former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, ahead of November’s Presidential elections.

“For more than 20 years, the terrorist threat gathered, and America’s response across several administrations of both parties was insufficient,” Ms Rice said.

The commission’s leaders have already said they believe the attacks could have been prevented, but Ms Rice insisted the United States was “blind” to the impending disaster.

“There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.”

The hearing’s business-like tone was punctured by sharp questions from commission members, which at points drew applause from the overflow audience.

The most contentious exchanges involved a classified memo sent to President Bush about a month before the attacks that may have warned that al-Qaeda was planning to hijack US airliners.

“It had a discussion of whether or not they might use hijacking to try and free a prisoner who was being held in the United States,” she said.

“But I can also tell you that there was nothing in this memo that suggested that an attack was coming on New York or Washington DC. There was nothing in this memo as to time, place, how or where.”

The White House, which initially opposed an inquiry into the attacks, has refused to release that memo as well as other documents dating to President Bill Clinton’s administration.

Families of the September 11 victims were among the audience, and some said they were disappointed that Rice did not offer an apology for the government’s failure to prevent the attacks.

Hamas threatens Israel’s Sharon

Abdel Aziz Rantissi, who has been named as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s successor in the occupied territories, also sought to allay fears that United States targets could be attacked.

In a statement issued after Yassin’s death in an Israeli military strike, Hamas’ military wing hinted the US could be targeted, as Israel must have “obtained the green light from the terrorist American administration”.

But Rantissi said: “If they are worried, then they are stupid because we have said it many times that we will target only our enemy, the (Israeli) occupiers.”

Rantissi has been receiving condolences at a football stadium in Gaza in the wake of the death of the movement’s spiritual leader and founder.

He said: “As long as we are under aggression and occupation we are not ready to speak about a ceasefire.”

The Islamic movement’s Damascus-based political chief, Khaled Meshaal, also said he would like to see Yassin’s assassination avenged by targeting Sharon.

“I hope that the mujahedin (holy warriors) will be able to respond to this odious crime by targeting the top rank Zionist leaders,” he told a Hamas-linked website.

“Yes, Sharon is one of them, but it is up to the military leadership on the ground to decide on its application. I hope that they are successful.”

And Hamas’ armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, promised an “unprecedented” response to the assassination of the wheel chair-bound cleric.

Despite the barrage of international condemnation that followed Monday’s assassination, Israel pledged to pursue the same policy and wipe out the whole leadership of Hamas.

Israel has been on high alert, with extra security forces deployed around the Palestinian territories and in Israeli cities, for fear of suicide attacks in retaliation for Yassin’s killing.

Meanwhile the UN’s Human Rights Commission, meeting in Geneva, adopted a resolution Wednesday condemning Israel for killing Yassin.

Thirty-one countries in the assembly voted in favour of the resolution brought by Pakistan and other Muslim states, while Australia and the US rejected it. Eighteen countries, including the EU states, abstained.

Anniversary of Rwanda genocide

Rwandans are still grief-torn and angry over the failure by the international community to stop the killing.

Only a handful of international leaders have travelled to capital Kigali to attend a memorial service.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has repeatedly criticised the outside world for failing to intervene to stop the 100-day slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, despite warnings that Hutu extremists were planning the massacres.

Human rights groups say it will be impossible to ensure such genocides never happen again while powerful nations remain apathetic about impoverished countries in turmoil.

“The risk of genocide remains frighteningly real,” said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“The world must be better equipped to prevent genocide and act decisively to stop it when prevention fails.”

The trauma of the genocide continues for many Rwandans, most of whom eke out a subsistence living as peasant farmers.

Many women were infected with AIDS during mass rapes, and hundreds of thousands of children were left orphaned.

Skulls and bones are still being unearthed in latrines or ditches.

“After they’ve been cleaned, we’ll take them to a memorial site,” said worker Faustin Ngango as workers cleaned bones in plastic bowls full of soapy water.

“The memorial will teach future generations what took place and made sure that genocide never happens again in this country.”

The US, Belgium, France and Britain were singled out for blame at a conference in Kigali earlier this week. Mr Annan, who headed the UN peacekeeping unit during the genocide, also received criticism.

“I would like to say very clearly here that I consider that this is a disgrace that he had the Nobel peace prize,” said Belgian senator Alain Destexhe.

France has rejected the criticism, saying the allegations are groundless and scandalous.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Guy Verhfstadt is attending the memorial ceremony, along with US ambassador at large for war crimes, Pierre-Richard Prosper, and a number of African leaders.

Hamas leader killed

A senior Hamas leader said: “War is open” with Israel.

“They know it’s opened, there will be no revenge, it’s an open war,” said Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi.

Reprisal attacks are expected to follow.

According to an anonymous called to a Middle Eastern television station, militant group the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is planning a retaliatory strike on Israel “in the coming hours” (AEDT 1830).

Sheikh Yassin was killed while leaving a mosque in his wheelchair, after three rockets fired by an Israeli helicopter hit nearby.

The Israeli army has confirmed the killing.

A number of others were also killed in the attacks, including Yassin’s two bodyguards.

Thousands of angry and tearful Palestinians have taken to the streets, calling for revenge attacks against Israel.

The Hamas leadership, announcing Yassin’s death over mosque loudspeakers, said: “Sharon has opened the gates of hell, and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly personally supervised the attack.

A report on Israeli radio said Mr Sharon had given the go-ahead to Yassin’s elimination, and supervised the operation.

Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades, has issued a statement vowing “immediate reprisals, like an earthquake that will hit everywhere to destroy the Zionist presence.”

Yassin, who was in his late sixties, was wheelchair-bound and partially blind.

A witness to the attack described what he saw after the first explosion.

“I looked to see where Sheikh Yassin was,” he said.

“He was lying on the ground and his chair was destroyed. People there darted left and right. Then another two missiles landed.”

His body was taken to Gaza City’s Shifa hospital.

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack.

“This is a crazy and very dangerous act,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie.

“It opens the door wide to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation and he was controlling Hamas, and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act.”

But Israel’s deputy defense minister Zeev Boim said that Yassin had deserved to meet his fate after overseeing hundreds of attacks by the movement.

“Sheikh Yassin deserved to die for all the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas,” Mr Boim said, speaking on Israeli radio.

He hinted that more attacks on Palestinian militant leaders are possible, saying that “no terrorist leader will be immune”.

Israel’s security cabinet last Tuesday decided to step up military operations against Hamas and its leadership following the twin suicide attack in the port of Ashdod.

Israel has sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip, barring Palestinians from entering the Jewish state.

Iraq peace rallies across Australia

There have been peace rallies across Australia Saturday as part of a global day of action to mark the anniversary of the start of United States-led military action in Iraq.

About two thousand people gathered to protest in Melbourne.

They were addressed by Terry Hicks, the father of terrorist suspect David Hicks who was detained without charge by the US during its campaign in Afghanistan.

Mr Hicks says David has been held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for far too long.

“The meaning of that is that David, if he had done anything wrong, should have been charged or released two years ago.”

In Sydney thousands of people have gathered to mark the global day of action against Iraq’s occupation

Brandishing placards and banners, they chanted slogans against the US-led occupation of Iraq.

The rally, which at one point swelled to about six thousand people, included a large contingent of Muslims as well as other protesters dressed as George W. Bush and Prime Minister John Howard.

The former Australian intelligence expert turned federal political candidate, Andrew Wilkie, told protesters Iraq will continue to be unstable until all foreign troops are withdrawn.

Mr Wilkie, who is standing as a Greens candidate against the Prime Minister in the seat of Bennelong, says for every reported soldier’s death in Iraq, dozens of civilian deaths go unreported.

And he says it is not just Al Qaeda terrorists causing the violence, even though this is what the Australian and US governments would have people believe.

“Instead it is a complex combination of jihadists coming in, as they did come into Afghanistan during the 1980s when the Soviets occupied that land. But there is also a guerilla war against an army of occupation and we’re on the cusp of a genuine civil war, caused directly by the invasion.”

And around 1,000 anti-war protesters have gathered in Brisbane to demand an urgent withdrawal of troops
from Iraq.

Among the speakers at the rally was the federal Labor president Dr Carmen Lawrence, who warned Australia was paying a price for its involvement in the war.

But the Federal Defence Minister Robert Hill has defended Australia’s involvement in Iraq.

Senator Hill says he has never doubted the government’s decision to join the war in Iraq.

He says the war has made the world a safer place and given the Iraqi people the prospect of a better future.

Troops killed as Iraqi chaos deepens

The US military is struggling to contain the insurgency, with violence spreading to numerous towns in Shia and Sunni areas.

The man wanted for inciting the violence, firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has gone into hiding in the holy city of Najaf, where he remains surrounded by thousands of his supporters.

The Pentagon said Iraqi insurgents have launched a major assault on its forces in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, killing as many as 12 marines.

A Pentagon spokesman said dozens of insurgents took part in the Ramadi attack and there were significant casualties among them.
Ramadi lies in the “Sunni triangle” – a hotbed of anti-coalition activity.

More than 20 people were reported killed in a US air strike on Fallujah, another centre of Sunni resistance west of Baghdad.

Foreign troops have fought pitched battles with followers of Moqtada al-Sadr – his followers have vowed to persist with the uprising that has claimed more than 130 lives in three days.

The bloody clashes with Shiites are a new front for US-led forces already fighting an insurgency in Sunni areas and trying to pacify Iraq.

The US has set June 30 for a handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

Qays al-Khazali, one of Mr Sadr’s aides, has compared the uprising to a 1991 Shiite rebellion eventually crushed by Saddam Hussein. He said it will go on until the cleric’s demands are met.

He said: “The uprising will continue and we will not negotiate unless they fulfil our demands, which are a withdrawal from populated areas and the release of prisoners.”

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, in London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said thousands more troops might be needed to maintain order.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that if commanders on the ground request additional forces, they will be sent.

“They will decide what they need and they will get what they want,” he said.

Amid the increasing insecurity, Iran has warned its nationals not to travel to neighbouring Iraq, even for brief pilgrimages to Shia Muslim holy sites, Iranian state media reported.

The unrest was triggered by the closure of Mr Sadr’s al-Hawza newspaper a week ago on the grounds that it was inciting violence.

A statement by the cleric, quoted by Reuters news agency, said: “This insurrection shows that the Iraqi people are not satisfied with the occupation and they will not accept oppression.”

High death rate among Korean war veterans

The study covered most of the 17-and-a-half-thousand Australian men who returned home after serving in the War, between 1950 and 1953.

It found at least 17,700 were dead, representing a mortality rate 21 per cent higher than expected in the general male population.

Gerry Harrison, president of a Korean War veterans’ group in South Australia, says he agrees with the study’s suggestion that part of the reason is exposure to excessive quantities of pesticides, solvents and other chemicals.

“We were faced with a lot of chemical sprays in Korea, which was never considered by the Australian government. When we took over positions from previous units, we found that a lot of the living areas were contaminated by lice, fleas, you name it, it was there.

“We had to use a lot of chemicals to kill them off. Sometimes, we even used to have to resort to using flame throwers.”

Mr Harrison says another reason for the veterans’ high mortality rates was combat stress — a factor only recognised after Australian troops returned from the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In the 1950s, that was called war neurosis, shell shock, battle fatigue. You know, it had a lot of different names. It didn’t have “post-traumatic stress” as a name. It was only since the studies done by the Vietnam veterans that it’s been recognised as a prime concern for a lot of guys, being mentally stressed.”

The federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Dana Vale, says the study found increased mortality among the Korean veterans from cancer — and circulatory, respiratory and digestive diseases.

Ms Vale says the high mortality rate is despite the veterans’ access to comprehensive medical treatment.

The mortality rate study follows one which found a higher-than-average cancer rate among Australian Korean War veterans.

Ms Vale says the government will respond appropriately on completion of one more study — covering the general health of surviving veterans.