Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Girl, 14, on fast track to PKU


A 14-year-old female student from Jiangsu province is poised to step from the textbooks into the history books after she was tipped to enroll at one of China's top universities, thanks to a pilot program aimed at improving the country's university entrance system.

Hong Xinge, from Tianyi High School in Wuxi, is believed to be the youngest of 90 students nationwide to receive nominations from their headmasters to attend Peking University.

She submitted her application on Wednesday.

The next step for the prodigy will be an interview at the world-renowned institution.

The 90 students selected to take part in the pilot program come from 10 provinces around China, as well as the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing.

Students who do well in the interview will stand a much better chance of getting into the university because they will not need to score as high as others in the university entrance exam.

The reform of the university entrance process being piloted by Peking University offers a backdoor into the university for exceptional students who might not necessarily do well in the entrance exam. The reform is aimed at ensuring quality students are not overlooked simply because of their performance in the national university entrance exam.

A teacher surnamed Zhou, who helped Hong with her application, said: "Hong Xinge has not only high grades, but also a good personality."

She is extremely good at teaching herself, Zhou added.

Schoolmaster Shen Maode told Yangtze Evening News on Tuesday that Hong scored well in international proficiency tests. She earned a 7.5 in the IELTS test, a 106 on the TOEFL test and got a maximum score in her United States SATs.

Hong excels at Chinese and English and, at her tender age, is already working on her first novel. Classmates pointed out that she is an all-rounder, having won awards for long-distance running and Latin dancing, the paper said.

Hong told the paper she hopes to study finance at Peking University and eventually start her own business.

Zhou said: "She is an excellent student and may not have a problem entering Peking University even without this recommendation." The experiment at Peking University gives qualified high school headmasters the chance to recommend exceptional students. On Nov 16, the university released a list of 39 high school headmasters nationwide authorized to take part.

While some education analysts hailed the pilot project as reform that might greatly improve the university entrance system, some have said it might lead to fewer opportunities for students from less respected high schools that have not been invited to take part.

A survey conducted by leading Chinese web portal sina.com showed 10,046 out of 14,227 people surveyed were against the new idea. Most said the recommendations were unfair on other students.

Xue Yong, a Peking University alumni who is now an assistant professor at Suffolk University, told Qianjiang Evening News the experiment could be dangerous if it is abused.

But Qu Jun, former deputy director of Shanghai municipal education commission and now a legislator, said the experiment represents much needed change to the existing university entrance system, which has been criticized for years.

"We have been talking about reform for years," he said. "We won't know if it works or not if we never start."

Tang Shengchang, headmaster of Shanghai High School, said the pilot program may lead to additional reforms.

He urged the public to be patient and wait to see whether the idea works.

"It will take time for us to recognize students who are creative and talented in certain subjects but who may not be able to enter top schools because of the harsh entrance examination," Tang said.

Dobbs: I'm Latinos' greatest friend


Perhaps thinking of a future political career, former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs softened his harsh anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric during an interview Tuesday, telling the viewers of the Spanish-speaking network Telemundo that “I am one of your greatest friends.”

“I want to engage in a meaningful and constructive dialogue and work with those who will work toward real solutions,” said Dobbs, who once falsely accused illegal immigrants of carrying leprosy into the United States.

“I think we need to honestly come together. … and make some real progress toward an understanding a compromise for those who are in this country illegally,” he said. “What isn't working is a penalty to those who are in this country illegally for whom we can both be building a bridge to the future in which there is legalization and at the same time constructing an environment in which everyone is clear and unequivocal about the need for border security and a regulated flow of immigration.”

POLITICO reported Tuesday that Dobbs is mulling a run for the White House in 2012, and Dobbs confirmed on former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson’s show Monday that he might run.

Later in the interview, Dobbs made an impassioned plea to the Hispanic community, urging them to reconsider their previous views on him.

“Whatever you have thought of me in the past,” he said, “I can tell you right now that I am one of your greatest friends, and I mean for us to work together.”

“I hope that will begin with Maria and me and Telemundo and other media organizations and others in this national debate that we should turn into a solution rather than a continuing debate and factional contest,” Dobbs added.

Divers probe Mayan ruins submerged in Guatemala lake


GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – Scuba divers are exploring the depths of a volcanic lake in Guatemala to find clues about an ancient sacred island where Mayan pilgrims flocked to worship before it was submerged by rising waters.

Samabaj, the first underwater archaeological ruins excavated in Guatemala, were discovered accidentally 12 years ago by a diver exploring picturesque Lake Atitlan, ringed by Mayan villages and popular with foreign tourists.

"No one believed me, even when I told them all about it. They just said 'he's mad'," said Roberto Samayoa, a businessman and recreational diver who grew up near the lake where his grandmother told him legends of a sunken church.

Samayoa dived for years at the lake, often stumbling across pieces of pottery from the Mayan pre-classic period. In 1996, he found the site, with parts of buildings and huge ceremonial stones, known as stelae, clearly visible.

He named it Samabaj, after himself, but only in the past year have professional archeologists taken an interest, mapping the 4,300-square-foot (400-square-meter) area with sonar technology and excavating structures on a raised part of the lake bed.

Researchers believe this area, 50 feet below the lake's surface, was once an island until a catastrophic event, like a volcanic eruption or landslide, raised water levels.

The rising lake drowned the buildings around 250 A.D., before the height of the Mayan empire, and ceramics found intact there suggest the inhabitants left in a hurry.

"We have found six ceremonial monuments and four altars and without doubt there are more, which means this was an extremely important place from a spiritual point of view," lead archaeologist Sonia Medrano told Reuters in an interview.

The Maya built soaring pyramids and elaborate palaces in Central America and southern Mexico before mysteriously abandoning their cities around 900 A.D.

Medrano, whose work is funded by the U.S.-based Reinhart Foundation, says the island has ruins of small houses for about 150 people and is crammed with religious paraphernalia, leading researchers to believe Samabaj was a pilgrimage destination.

Worshippers probably flocked there from the surrounding area, hiring boats from the shore to row them out to the island for prayer and contemplation, Medrano said.

Excavating in the murky, green water is challenging, with artifacts hard to see and buried under thousands of years of sediment.

The exact location of the site is a closely guarded secret, since the archaeologists want to protect it from looters who fish in the ruins for artifacts to be sold, sometimes for thousands of dollars, on the black market.

Cambodia's Duch trial nears end




Cambodia's Khmer Rouge war crimes court has begun the final arguments in its first trial, bringing the regime's prison chief closer to justice for the "Killing Fields" atrocities 30 years ago.

Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, has apologised for his role in the horrors of the hardline communist regime, in which he oversaw the murders of around 15,000 men, women and children.

Up to two million people died during the brutal rule of Pol Pot between 1975-79, wiping out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, overwork and execution.

Civil lawyers representing the victims argued on Monday that Duch had failed to acknowledge the full extent of his guilt.

"Your honours must objectively, we say, review the evidence to determine whether or not what has been accepted by the accused amounts to full disclosure and the full truth," lawyer Karim Khan told judges.

"In large and important material particulars, even today, the accused has sought to evade or minimise his role and the awful reality that was S-21 [prison] and the regime that operated there and the fate and suffering that befell so many civil parties that we all represent."

The prosecution is scheduled to begin presenting its arguments on Tuesday and proceedings are due to conclude on Friday.

Pleading for forgiveness

Since his trial began in February, Duch, 67, has repeatedly asked for forgiveness for the deaths at S-21 prison, a former high school also called Tuol Sleng.

He is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder, and faces a maximum term of life in prison by the tribunal, which does not have the power to impose the death penalty.

A verdict is expected early next year.

Hundreds of Cambodians attended the specially built courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Monday, watching Duch, who sat behind a huge bulletproof screen to prevent possible revenge attacks.

This week's proceedings will be broadcast live by all Cambodian television stations, court officials said.

Tuol Sleng prison was at the heart of the Khmer Rouge security apparatus and inmates were taken from there during Duch's tenure for execution at nearby Choeung Ek, an orchard now known as the "Killing Fields".

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the worst horrors of the 20th century.

Rising to power as a tragic spin-off from the US conflict in Vietnam, the movement emptied Cambodia's cities to take society back to a rural "Year Zero," purging city dwellers and intellectuals.

The Khmer Rouge was ousted by Vietnamese-backed forces after a reign of terror lasting almost four years, but continued to fight a civil war until 1998. Pol Pot died in the same year.

Duch has been detained since 1999, when he was found working as a Christian aid worker in the jungle, and was formally arrested by the tribunal in July 2007.

The court has faced controversy over allegations of interference by the government and claims that Cambodian staff paid bribes for their positions at the court.

The joint trial of four other more senior Khmer Rouge leaders is expected to start in 2011.

The court is also investigating whether to open more cases against five other former Khmer Rouge cadres after a dispute between the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors over whether to pursue more suspects.

People smuggling trade flourishing


People smuggling networks taking asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia are flourishing despite Jakarta's pledges to combat the trade.

Al Jazeera's Step Vaessen gained rare access to a network of smugglers who revealed some of their closely-guarded methods.

These include using secret compartments taking asylum seekers to Australian waters and then issuing distress calls in the hope of being picked up by rescue boats and taken to Australian detention centres.

The Indonesian government says it is looking at laws to curb people-smuggling as none currently exist, while in Australia critics argue that the government should do more.

Pamela Curr, the campaign co-ordinator of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, said that Australia needs to put in place legislation to resolve the issue of asylum-seekers.

"The problem is that Australia has to take responsibility. We have to resettle people, we can't just warehouse them up in Indonesia," she told Al Jazeera.

"They're not refrigerators or cars ... because there's no market for them we cant just lock them away. They're human beings and they need a place to call home."

Curr said Australia should consider the cases of those already heading to its shores and accept them if they are proved to be refugees.

Australia, which accepted 35 people for resettlement last year, has an agreement with Indonesia to stop boats carrying asylum seekers.

Pakistan launches Khyber offensive




Pakistan's military has launched a major offensive in the northwest Khyber agency, imposing a 24-hour curfew and a shoot-to-kill policy.

The operation, called "You will like us", is taking place in the Barra Area, where security forces say 18 Taliban fighters have been killed in fighting so far.

Kamal Hyder, Al Jazeera's correspondent in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said security officials had arrested six people and at least two hideouts and three Taliban strongholds had been destroyed in the operation.

Authorities have claimed that Taliban fighters who escaped from an army operation in South Waziristan may have sought sanctuary in Barra.

Pakistani officials say the spate of recent bloody attacks in Peshawar and surrounding areas, which have killed more than 150 people, were likely to have been co-ordinated from Barra.

Bajaur curfew

Officials on Tuesday also imposed a curfew in Bajaur district, north of Khyber, after deadly clashes with the Taliban.

Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew after clashes in Khar, the main town of Bajaur district on the Afghan border, where US officials say al-Qaeda is plotting attacks on the West.

"The crossfire continued for three hours. Six militants were killed in retaliatory fire," Adalat Khan, a local government official, told the AFP news agency.

"Two civilians were also killed and four, including two women, wounded when a mortar shell landed inside a house," Khan said.

Taliban fighters have recently stepped up attacks on security forces and government installations in Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven semi-autonomous tribal districts.

The violence has surged since Pakistan launched a major offensive in the Taliban bastion of South Waziristan on October 17.

Officials say the aim is to distract the army's attention from South Waziristan.

The continued unrest comes despite a six-month operation in Bajaur, which the army declared a success in February.

Unborn children for sale in S Korea


The illegal sale of children makes up more than half of all the cases of human trafficking around the world, according to recent estimates.

Traditionally it has involved the exploitation of children in poorer nations, but an Al Jazeera investigation has found that it is also happening in developed countries, such as South Korea.

For four months, Al Jazeera surfed community boards on popular Korean internet sites, and found an underground trade where pregnant women can sell their unborn children.

The few cases that have surfaced have alarmed the government so much that it is believed to have formed a special task force to bring human-trafficking laws up to date, Al Jazeera's Steve Chao says.

One of the challenges is how to give authorities the power to better police the murky world of the internet.

Twenty years ago the United Nations adopted the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The CRC or UNCRC, sets out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of children.

As of December 2008, 193 signatories had ratified it, including every member of the UN except the US and Somalia.

The treaty restricts the involvement of children in military conflicts and prohibits the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

The UNCRC has been used as a blueprint for child protection legislation around the world.

However, the treaty's promise to protect children has not always been kept.

Onus on government

Lisa Laumann, from the Save the Children charity, says it is up to both the government and the community to protect children.

"Intergovernmental organisations like the United Nations provide the framework around which governments can come together to agree on what good practice is and how governments should behave legally on behalf of their citizens," she told Al Jazeera.

"But it's up to the governments themselves to draft that legislation, develop the systems and institutions that guarantee those rights.

"There also has to be an effort made to help communities, families and children themselves, to understand what rights mean for them and how they can support them."

Shooting the messenger


In the past, members of the media were considered to be neutral in time of war. They were much like paramedics in the sense that their main concern was not victory, but saving lives.

Two months ago Fadel Shana'a, a well-known cameraman with the Reuters news agency, was on a routine assignment east of the Gaza Strip to investigate reports that some villagers had been injured in an Israeli attack.

On his way back from the village, he stopped his jeep to get some more video footage of the area. He was spotted by the Israeli military and shelled.

Shana'a's jeep was clearly marked with the words 'Press' and 'TV'. Nevertheless, Israeli shell fire struck the jeep, tearing it apart. Fadel and three others died instantly.

Shana'a's case is but one of many in recent years which has indicated that journalists reporting from conflict zones are no longer regarded as impartial by the combatants. As a result, increasing numbers of journalists have joined the casualty lists.

The deliberate targeting of the press in war zones can probably be dated back to the Balkan conflict of the 1990's.

When the shocking atrocities committed by the Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Croats were filmed or reported, the media fell under suspicion, and was accused of supporting one faction against another.

'Embedding'

A significant change occurred during the second invasion of Iraq in 2003 when, under the guise of protecting journalists, the military took the media firmly under its wing.

This was called 'embedding' and meant that the journalist went where the military wanted them to go and saw what the military wanted them to see, in the hope that they would report what the military wanted them to report. In short, this was the military's effort to protect themselves.

Terry Lloyd was a veteran reporter with Britain's ITN organisation and during the invasion he and his crew were one of the few independent, unembedded crews to operate inside Iraq.

Caught in crossfire, Terry, his recordist and translator were killed by a deliberate but mistaken US onslaught.

In 2006, while covering an attack on the revered al-Askari mosque in Samarra, Al Arabiya journalist Atwar Bhajat was abducted and later shot dead.

Before joining Al Arabiya TV, Atwar worked for Al Jazeera, and was not that station's first loss.

In April 2003, Sami al-Hajj, a Sudanese cameraman working for Al Jazeera, was seized by Pakistani forces on the Afghan border.

He was held on suspicion of being involved in terrorism, and handed over to US forces who imprisoned him in their Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba.

In May 2008, after almost seven years, he was released without charge.

His lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, said: "...The folk[s] in Guantanamo honestly believe that Sami is a terrorist. They are crazy. He's no more a terrorist than my granny."

Intimidation

Elsewhere in the world, intimidation is a bigger threat to journalists than abduction.

In Zimbabwe, after 28 years as president, Robert Mugabe, is clinging to power. Massive inflation, starvation and chaos has seen a third of the population flee abroad.

The country's only real opposition voice in the media comes from outside. The Zimbabwean is a newspaper edited in England and printed in South Africa.

There is also, for two hours a night, S W Radio Africa, which is intensely critical of the government, but broadcasts from London - 10,800km away.

Across the border in Johannesburg, exiled journalists watch the accelerating destruction of their country, helpless spectators on the sidelines.

"A number of journalists were being abducted, so it wasn't safe for me, especially as they [Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation] knew where I was staying and were constantly visiting my place, so I saw I was in danger and had to move out of the country," Trust Matsilele says.

In Sri Lanka intimidation and threats to media workers have lead to the creation of a safe house for journalists to use as both a sanctuary and a work base.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the island's civil war since 1983, and the Tamil Tigers' exploitation of the suicide bomb made it the weapon of choice for extremists worldwide.

There is no pretence of a free press here. The government considers any criticism of it as Tamil propaganda, bordering on treason. But dare attack the Tamils and you might never write again.

Both sides in this war consider journalists to be their enemies and as Sanath Balasooriya, the president of the Free Media group, says: "The government thinks if we write the truth, they will lose public support for this war."

Gaza

Perhaps the most dangerous place for cameramen and reporters worldwide is the tiny, densely populated Palestinian territory of Gaza.

Palestinians there are virtual prisoners, locked within their own borders, dependent on Israel for basic essentials such as food, water, medicine, fuel and power.

The daily explosions, gunfire and missile attacks from Israeli incursions and Palestinian resistance have long been part of the Gaza routine.

Palestinians know the value of propaganda pictures, as do the Israelis.

Five years ago, Saira Shah and James Miller came to film the children of Gaza. They came under fire themselves and took refuge in a house nearby.

That night, knowing they were surrounded by Israeli soldiers, Saira and James decided to leave - cautiously.

Carrying a white flag and a torch, they identified themselves loudly as "British journalists". The response from Israeli snipers was several shots, one of which hit James in the neck and killed him.

Saira said: "I don't know whether James was killed because he was a journalist or in spite of being a journalist. I know he was killed and he shouldn't have been killed."

Targeted

For news agency cameramen like Fadel Shana'a and Mahmoud Al Agaramey, days when they become the targets are unexceptional. They survive it one day and then go back again the next.

Both men became legends in Gaza. Two years ago, Fadel was on his way to film the aftermath of an explosion in a village, when his jeep took a direct hit from a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter. The words 'TV' and 'PRESS' were painted in red on his vehicle, but they did not protect him. He was critically wounded but survived.

Having had several narrow escapes, Mahmoud's luck almost ran out in Jebaliah. He was filming children goading an Israeli tank crew. Without warning, they fired a shell that narrowly missed the children, but the blast from the explosion flattened Mahmoud, and he was unconscious for six hours.

The Erez Crossing at Beit Hanoun marks the border with Israel. For half a mile into Gaza all buildings, homes, offices and factories have been demolished. It is no man's land.

Al Jazeera wanted to film there, but first we thought it wise to check with the Israeli military who were observing us from their watchtowers. There was no mistaking their answer: "Leave now or you will be shelled." We left.

A few minutes later they shelled anyway, and hit another target - three students who had detoured through no man's land on their way home.

Shana'a, passed us, already on his way to the hospital to film the aftermath of the shelling. But it was too late by the time we got there.

Such deaths are common place in Gaza. Cameramen like Shana'a record every one of them and the mass mourning that follows.

Two months on and Shana'a himself became the latest victim of the campaign against journalists.

Journalists and cameramen like Shana'a and Al Agaramey risk their lives daily to bring us the news. The tragedy is that those who have so much to hide do what they can to prevent it and they shoot the messenger.

Shana'a was a messenger, and as he put it: "I can't give up journalism. Only two things can stop me - if I die, or lose my legs."

Two executed for China milk scandal




Authorities in China have executed two people for their involvement in last year's tainted milk powder scandal, state media has reported.

Zhang Yujun, a middleman, was accused of "endangering public safety" while Geng Jinping was charged with producing and selling toxic food, the Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday.

The agency did not say where the executions had been carried out.

The two were among 21 middlemen and former executives from the now bankrupt Sanlu dairy group who were tried and sentenced in January over their involvement in the case.

According to Xinhua, Zhang produced more than 770 tonnes of melamine-laced protein powder while Geng sold more than 900 tonnes of tainted milk.

The 19 others convicted over the scandal were sentenced to varying jail terms.

Last year more than 300,000 people became sick and at least six children died after consuming milk contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine.

The scandal led to recalls of hundreds of products in China and around the world.

Warnings delayed

During the trial earlier this year it emerged that Sanlu dairy officials had become aware of the melamine problem in early August 2008, but the first public warnings were not issued until mid-September as China strove to put on a perfect face for the Beijing Olympics.

Tian Wenhau, Sanlu's former general manager, received a sentence of life in jail for her role in the case.

At the time, many families of children poisoned by tainted milk expressed anger that she had not also been sentenced to death.

Tian's appeal against her sentenced was rejected in March, Xinhua reported on Tuesday.

Kidney stones

Melamine is believed to have been added to disguise milk that had been watered-down in order to increase profits for producers.

The chemical's high nitrogen content allows protein levels to appear higher when it is added to milk or animal feed.

It is commonly used in making plastics, fertilisers and concrete but can cause kidney stones and kidney failure if ingested by humans.

In early January Sanlu and more than 20 other dairy firms sent a text message to millions of mobile phone users across China asking forgiveness over the scandal.

"We are deeply sorry for the harm caused to the children and the society," the text message said.

"We sincerely apologise for that and we beg your forgiveness."

Khmer Rouge jailer tells of remorse




In a final appeal to his war crimes tribunal, the Khmer Rouge's top jailer has apologised for his role in the torture and murder of thousands of Cambodians.

Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was head of the S-21 prison where almost 16,000 people were tortured to death during the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule over Cambodia in the 1970s.

Addressing the court in closing arguments on Wednesday, Duch said that he wanted to share the sorrow of the Cambodian people.

"To the survivors I stand by my acknowledgement to all crimes," Duch told the court on the outskirts of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

"As for the families of victims, my wish is that you kindly leave your door open for me to make my apologies."

Prosecutors have demanded that Duch, 67, be sentenced to 40 years in jail.

But his defence team have said he was only following orders, and that had he not done so he and family would have been in danger.

"In order to express my most excruciating remorse I have fully and sincerely cooperated with the court whenever it is needed of me," Duch told the court.

Prosecutors have said that Duch's apologies and expressions of sorrow for his actions do not amount to a full guilty plea.

"We submit... that the sentence to be submitted by this trial chamber should be 40 years in prison," prosecutor Bill Smith told judges.

Justice

"In imposing this penalty, you are not taking away the accused's humanity but you are giving it back to the victims of S-21," he said.

An estimated two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge's rule [AFP]
"Let's recall that unlike the prisoners at S-21 he is being met with open and even-handed justice."

Duch, a former maths teacher, has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and premeditated murder.

The case is the first formal trial to delve into the horrors of Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge regime, blamed for the deaths of up to two million people.

Closing arguments in the trial are expected to wrap up later this week, but a verdict is not likely until early 2010.

The maximum sentence available to judges is life in prison.

Duch has been detained since 1999, when an investigative journalist found him working as a Christian aid worker in the jungle.

He was formally arrested by the tribunal in July 2007.

Four other senior Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody awaiting trial.

US rejects landmine ban treaty




The US administration has rejected a global treaty, supported by more than 150 countries, banning the use of landmines.

The state department explained the decision on Tuesday, saying a policy review had found the US could not meet its "national defence needs" without landmines.

"This administration undertook a policy review and we decided that our landmine policy remains in effect," Ian Kelly, the state department spokesman, said.

"We determined that we would not be able to meet our national defence needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we signed this convention," he said.

The US decision comes just days before a review conference on the 10-year-old Mine Ban Treaty, credited with reducing landmine casualties around the world, is due to get under way in Cartegena, Colombia.

The treaty plans to end the production, use, stockpiling and trade in landmines.

Besides the US, countries holding out on the agreement include China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Russia.

'Lost opportunity'

Patrick Leahy, a US senator and a leading advocate for the treaty, called the decision "a default of US leadership" and criticised the state department's policy review as "cursory and half-hearted".

"It is a lost opportunity for the United States to show leadership instead of joining with China and Russia and impeding progress"

Patrick Leahy,
US senator

"It is a lost opportunity for the United States to show leadership instead of joining with China and Russia and impeding progress," Leahy said in a statement.

Landmines are known to have caused 5,197 casualties last year, a third of them children, according to the Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Kelly said the US would still attend the conference next Sunday, which is expected to draw more than 1,000 delegates from more than 100 countries, including ministers and heads of state.

"As a global provider of security, we have an interest in the discussions there," he said.

"But we will be there as an observer, obviously, because we haven't signed the convention, nor do we plan to sign the convention."

US observers

Anti-landmine campaigners welcomed the development as it will be the first time the US will send observers to a gathering of states that have accepted the treaty.

"The very fact that they are showing up we take as a positive sign of movement on this issue within the [Barack] Obama administration," Steve Goose, director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, said, referring to the US president.

"We hope they're not coming empty-handed."

To some extent the US already abides by the provisions of the treaty.

Goose noted that America has not used anti-personnel mines since the 1991 Gulf War, has not exported any since 1992 and has not produced them since 1997.

'Hezbollah suppliers' charged in US


Prosecutors in the US have charged four men with supporting Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia group, by providing guns, stolen passports and fake money.

Indictments from a Philadelphia court released on Tuesday accused the men of "conspiring to provide material support to Hezbollah", a group on the US state department's list of terrorist groups that has close links to Iran and Syria.

The men - including Hassan Hodroj and Dib Hani Harb of Beirut, and Moussa Ali Hamdan from New York - face 15 to 30 years in prison if convicted.

It was the second set of such charges to be brought in the Pennsylvanian city in two days.

Prosecutors accused Hodroj and Harb of attempting to transfer about 1,200 Colt M-4 machine guns to the Syrian port of Latakia last June.

Sting operation

The men were to receive $1,800 per weapon with the help of a facilitator, who was actually an undercover federal agent.

Hodroj, Harb and Hamden are also charged with trying to transfer fake and stolen money, and cash generated via the sale of counterfeit passports, to Hezbollah.

The indictment said that Harb had told the undercover agent that some of the money had been gained from robberies undertaken by Hezbollah supporters.

It also said Harb claimed that "Iran manufactured high-quality counterfeit US currency for the benefit of Hezbollah".

Court documents said Hodroj was a member of Hezbollah's political council.

The men are not being held in custody and are believed to be abroad, Patricia Hartman, a spokesperson for Philadelphia attorney Michael L Levy, said.

Another six men were charged with forming a criminal smuggling ring to traffic suspected stolen goods, including 400 games consoles, 1,500 cellphones, thousands of pairs of counterfeit shoes and three vehicles beginning in late 2007.

The six men include Americans and a Venezuelan.

On Monday, five Lebanese men were charged with trafficking similar goods, including anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns to Syria and other ports.

Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980s in resistance to Israel's invasion of Lebanon and currently controls large parts of southern Lebanon and is a political party.

Peru police hold 'fat gang' killers




Police in Peru say they have broken up a gang that allegedly killed dozens of people and sold fat from the corpses to buyers in Europe who used it to make cosmetics.

Three of the people arrested confessed to killing five people, Colonel Jorge Mejia, who heads Peru's anti-kidnapping police, said on Thursday.

He said that the gang, which operated in the remote Peruvian jungle, might have been involved in dozens more incidents.

He said that one of the suspects claimed other gangs were also involved in such killings.

The gang allegedly cut off their victims' heads, arms and legs, removed the organs, then suspended the torsos from hooks above candles that warmed the flesh as fat dripped into tubs below.

Police dubbed the gang the "Pishtacos" after a Peruvian myth about men who killed to extract human fat.

Experts sceptical

Mejia said two of the suspects were arrested carrying bottles of liquid human fat and told police it was worth about $15,000 per litre.

The fat was sold to intermediaries in Peru's capital, Lima, and police suspect it was then sold to cosmetic companies in Europe, Mejia said.

He could not confirm any sales.

The group apparently stored the fat in used soda and water bottles, which police showed reporters.

Angel Toldeo, a police commander, said: "We have people detained who have declared and stated how they murdered people with the aim being to extract their fat in rudimentary labs and sell it."

Dr Lisa Donofrio, a dermatology professor at Yale University in the US, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that a small market may exist for "human fat extracts" to keep skin supple.

But she said that scientifically such treatments are "pure baloney".

The AP also quoted Adam Katz, a professor of plastic surgery at the University of Virginia medical school, as saying: "I can't see why there would be a black market for fat."

Mejia said police received a tip four months ago that human fat from the jungle was being sold in Lima.

Police infiltrated the gang in August, he said, and later obtained some amber fluid, which a police lab confirmed as human fat.

India presses for closer US ties




The Indian prime minister has called for stronger economic ties with the US.

Manmohan Singh opened his four-day US visit on Monday by meeting business leaders in Washington DC, saying they were crucial to building ties between the two countries.

"A strategic relationship that is not underpinned by a strong economic relationship is unlikely to prosper," he said on the eve of talks with Barack Obama, the US president.

Singh urged the business leaders to "stay engaged as we transform India from a low-income country into a vibrant market of over a billion people with steadily growing purchasing power".

"We need massive investment in energy, transport and urban infrastructure to be able to support a high rate of economic growth," Singh told the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-India Business Council luncheon.

Singh said he and Obama would sign accords on energy security, clean energy and climate change to deepen co-operation underpinned by strong economic ties.

India and the US have been at sharp odds on climate change ahead of next month's climate summit in Copenhagen, with each country seeking further commitments by the other.

Commenting on the state visit, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said India's location in a very important region of the world "demonstrates the importance that that relationship has in the world".

The US sees India as crucial to the US-led fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a counterweight to China's influence in the region and as key to efforts to settle world trade and climate change deals.

But some in New Delhi feel that Obama has given priority to some of India's rivals, particularly in funding the Pakistan's military in its fight against Taliban loyalists in the country's northwest.

State-backed 'terror'

Speaking to The Washington Post and Newsweek ahead of his arrival, Singh said it was important for US forces to remain in Afghanistan and called on Obama to press Pakistan to rein in what it called a "state policy" of terror.

"We have been the victims of Pakistan-aided, abetted and inspired terrorism for nearly 25 years. We would like the United States to use all its influence with Pakistan to desist from that path," he said in the interview.

"Pakistan has nothing to fear from India. It's a tragedy that Pakistan has come to the point of using terror as an instrument of state policy."

While Pakistan has acknowledged that armed groups have operated from its soil, it denies they are acting on behalf of the state.

Singh said he hoped Obama would complete an accord championed by George Bush, the former US president, to end India's decades-long pariah status on civilian nuclear energy markets.

Both houses of the US congress have approved resolutions welcoming Singh and calling for greater co-operation with India.

The unanimity symbolised a change from just a few years ago, when some legislators fought the nuclear deal because of India's refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ocean depths reveal wealth of life


From a translucent giant octopus to a fish bearing barbed fangs, a team of international scientists say they have discovered hundreds of new species living in total darkness at least 5km beneath the surface of the world's oceans.

Nearly 17,650 species of animal, including corals, crabs and starfish, were identified living in the depths untouched by sunlight, a marine survey found.

The findings, made public on Monday, were the result of nearly 10 years of research by more than 2,000 scientists from 80 countries taking part in the first global census of marine life.

Robert Carney, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University, who co-leads the study of the ocean depths as part of the wider international Census of Marine Life (COML) said, "The diversity of life in the deep sea is much, much greater than we believed.

"The abyss is not the dark hole anymore," he said.

The researchers discovered 5,600 new marine species on top of the 230,000 animals already known to live in the world's oceans and they hope to add several thousand more when the final census is released in London on October 4, 2010.

Scientists predict that there could be more than one million species which remain undiscovered.

Search continues

Odd Aksel Bergstad, an oceanographer based at the University of Bergin in Norway, told Al Jazeera: "There is a huge number left to discover especially in the vast muddy areas of the deep sea floor."

"The reality is that the deep sea is a frontier that hasn't been studied very much, but with modern technology and still after 10 years we've only scratched the surface of this huge environment," he said.

Among the creatures identified in the deep sea areas were luminous jellyfish and gelatinous creatures known as finned octopods, or "dumbos," because they flap earlike fins and look like the cartoon elephant.

"Most of the organisms in the deep sea depend on the steady rain and transport of material from the sunlit upper layers and this comes in many forms from small organic particles and dead animals," Bergstad said.

"But one of the main problems for all these deep sea creatures is the scarcity of food, the darkness and the huge volumes they have to cope with. However, these animals are uniquely adapted."

Oil-eating worm

Experts also found a tubeworm at a depth of 990m on the seafloor in one part of the Gulf of Mexico.

After using a robotic arm to lift the tubeworm from a hole on the seabed, oil gushed out and they discovered it was consuming chemicals from the decomposing oil.

Carney said that oil companies focused mostly on geological surveys to find deposits but that the presence of tubewarms could also be a marker.

"You certainly have a source or methane or liquid petroleum nearby if you find these tubeworms," he said.

Another trip to the seafloor of Antarctica recorded the Osedax, a whalebone-eating worm.

Although the ocean depths are permanently black, many animals create their own light with luminous markings to help spot or attract prey or a mate. Scientists also said many have working eyes.

A few creatures that normally live in the sunlit zone visit the abyss, such as the southern elephant seal which was registered at a depth of 2,388m.

Gaddafi to mediate in football row




Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, has accepted an Arab League request to calm tension between Egypt and Algeria sparked by their football World Cup play-off matches, Libyan state media has reported.

Egypt and Algeria have accused each other of failing to protect their citizens and property from attacks by rival football fans.

Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general, called Gaddafi on Monday and asked him to intervene in his role as chairman of the African Union and drawing on "the high, distinguished position that the leader enjoys," Libya's JANA news agency reported on Tuesday.

"The Leader of the Revolution, Chairman of the African Union, will work to repair the situation that relations between the two brotherly countries Egypt and Algeria were subjected to..." it said.

Libya has borders with both Algeria and Egypt.

Bitter division

The troubles began when the Algerian team bus was attacked with stones before a group-stage match on November 14, injuring three players.

Egypt won the game 2-0, forcing the play-off in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. In the days after the first game, mobs in Algeria ransacked the offices of Egyptian companies.

After the second match in Khartoum, Egyptian newspapers unleashed stirring headlines about Egyptian fans being attacked by machete-wielding crowds.

Sudanese police said there were only a handful of injuries.

"Barbaric attacks on Egyptian fans in Khartoum," read one headline in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

"Algerians chase Egyptian fans with knives and machetes," said another.

Cairo withdrew its ambassador to Algiers last week and Algeria has demanded an explanation from Cairo.

Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, said on Saturday that Egypt would not allow its citizens abroad to be humiliated.

Ibrahim Youssri, a former Egyptian ambassador to Algeria, told Al Jazeera that the introduction of Gaddafi as a mediator would "give the leaders a chance to save face".

"But I do not think it will happen in a short time, maybe in a few weeks.

"But things are calming down. People in the two countries are very sad about this. The Egyptian and Algerian intellectuals wrote and spoke against all of these developments which have not reason or logic at all."

Jordanian king disbands parliament




King Abdullah of Jordan has dissolved parliament and ordered a general election to be held two years ahead of schedule.

The decision on Tuesday to send home the country's 110 parliamentarians followed reports in the media accusing politicians of incompetently handling legislation and, in some cases, corruption.

The royal decree instructed the civil service to organise a snap election that will replace the two-year old parliament, which dominated by independent and tribal MPs loyal to the king.

Within 30 minutes of the dissolution being announced, websites were awash with postings applauding the decision.

One popular website, Ammon, carried more than 200 messages.

"The best news I heard in two years - our political life was in a coma and this measure was necessary," a man calling himself Irbidaoui wrote.

Dozens of readers said the royal decree was the "best gift for Eid" - the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice which starts on Thursday in Jordan.

Time for change?

Jordanian media have reported increasing political wrangling between pro-government MPs and the Islamist and leftist opposition over an electoral law and constituency boundaries.

But it is not clear now if any changes can be made before the early election.

Only six of the 22 candidates fielded by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) were victorious in the last general election on November 20, 2007, a tally sharply down on the 17 seats it won in the previous polls in 2003.

After that vote, the IAF - the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood - claimed there had been widespread vote-buying in some constituencies despite pledges of transparency from the government.

Even in their traditional stronghold of Zarqa, an impoverished city east of the capital Amman, the Islamists failed to win a single seat.

The IAF withdrew all of its candidates from municipal polls in July 2007, complaining that there were insufficient safeguards against electoral fraud.

It is the second time the king has dissolved parliament early since he acceded to the throne in 1999.

Somali woman stoned to death


A Somali woman has been stoned to death for committing what a judge has said was adultery.

The 20-year-old divorcee was executed on Tuesday after confessing to having had sex with a 29-year-old unmarried man.

Sheikh Ibrahim Abdirahman, the judge for a court created by the rebel group al-Shabab, says the woman was killed in front of a crowd of some 200 people near the town of Wajid.


The woman, who gave birth to a stillborn child, was buried up to her waist before the stoning took place. Her boyfriend was given 100 lashes for having the affair.

The woman's death is the second recorded stoning for adultery carried out by al-Shabab fighters, who are confronting the government and control large parts of Somalia.

Sharia interpretation

Al-Shabab are proponents of stoning as a punishment under their interpretation of sharia (Islamic law).

Mohamed Abdullahi, an East Africa analyst, told Al Jazeera that Islamic law can only be conducted where there is proper jurisdiction in place - not in a lawless failed state like Somalia today.

"The position of the majority of Somalis is that these courts should not be held at all," he said.

"What they are doing is atrocious and un-Islamic, as they don't have at the moment the right investigative judicial setup necessary for such a verdict, in which capital punishment can be brought forward.

"You must have a legal system, a witness system, peace and this is the view of the Somali ulema (legal scholars), the muftis (Islamic law interpreters), that no such verdicts can be conducted in Somalia at the moment."

One man was stoned to death for adultery last week.

His pregnant girlfriend is due to be given the same punishment in the next few months after she gives birth.

In November 2008, a 13-year-old rape victim was stoned to death after being accused of adultery, according to Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group.

Islam in the Land of the Rising Sun


In a series of special programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslims from around the world as they embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.

The road to Hajj in the Land of the Rising Sun begins with the little known fact that there are ethnic Japanese Muslims.

Everyday the call to prayer is made in different corners of the predominantly Buddhist country - unobtrusively within the confines of its 50 or so mosques and approximately 100 musollas or communal prayer rooms.

Twenty-six-year-old Kubo-san prays at a small musolla in the agricultural district of Saitama, about two hours outside the capital, Tokyo.

Built 15 years ago by Bangladeshi workers, Kubo is the only ethnic Japanese in the congregation.

"I was born into a very ordinary Japanese family," he says. "We did not have a strong sense of religion."

Kubo's upbringing mirrors that of many Japanese - their attitudes and philosophy towards life shaped by the ancient religion of Shinto.

An ancient polytheistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of nature and is unique to Japan.

While divination and shamanism is used to gain insights into the unknown, there are no formal scriptures or texts, nor a legacy of priesthood that structures the religion.

After the Second World War, Shinto suffered a huge setback when the emperor was forced to denounce his status as a 'living god'.

While many historians would claim that the Japanese people lost their faith after this, recent surveys suggest that at least 85 per cent still profess their belief in both Shintoism and Buddhism.

'Special meaning'

"The first I knew about Islam was in my school days," Kubo says.

"The schools in Japan usually teach history. I knew about Islam in such history classes. Although I knew only a little bit, it shook my soul strongly."

His interest in Islam developed as he read more about it, but it was only when he began to meet expatriate Muslims in Japan that he considered converting.

Now, he is preparing to go on Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, for the first time.

"We Muslims pray five times a day towards Mecca. And pray 'peace be upon Prophet Muhammad'. He was born in this town and started Islam in Mecca. So for Muslims, it has a special meaning to go to Mecca. I feel honoured that I have this opportunity to go there."

'First step'

But just five years ago, Kubo's pilgrimage would not have been possible.

Reda Kenawy is Egyptian but he moved to Japan when he was in his twenties. He worked for a travel agency and decided to branch out to form his own agency specialising in organising Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.

Japan's small Muslim community is tightly-knit
"All my staff said I was crazy when I wanted to plan the Hajj trip," Kenawy says. "In terms of business aspects, there must be a demand in the market to cover the costs. It would not work if there are no Muslims going."

"So I told them someone has to start, someone has to take the first step, then others could take it from there."

But, it was an uphill task, particularly when dealing with the Saudi Arabian authorities.

Kenawy says they told him: "We've never heard of Japanese Muslims and we've never heard of Hajj trips organised from Japan."

"So I told them there were Muslims in Japan and I was there as a Japanese. I have the Japanese nationality and I was representing Japan and wanted to bring Japanese pilgrims for Hajj.

"They said I couldn't and that my passport was forged and I looked Egyptian."

'Honour and happiness'

Kenawy persisted in his quest to take Muslim pilgrims from Japan to Mecca and five years on, his travel agency is one of only two registered companies that have been sanctioned by the Saudi government to organise Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.

The number of pilgrims using Kenawy's agency has grown year on year, but for him the most encouraging development is the increase in ethnic Japanese Muslims.

"Right now, we have 90 per cent foreigners and 10 per cent [ethnic Japanese]. My dream is to have the opposite - to have 90 per cent Japanese or maybe 99 per cent original Japanese and only one per cent foreigners."

Abdullah Taki is a 36-year-old former body-piercer who converted to Islam in 2006. He made his Hajj pilgrimage in 2007.

"For me, the meaning of visiting the Kaabah is not to see a building but to visit God's home, to meet God," he says.

"At first, when we reached the country by airplane, we entered Madina before entering the city of Mecca. Although I could not see the area because I was in the airplane, when I heard the announcement that we [were there], I shed tears unconsciously.

"I felt an indescribable sense of honour and happiness. I was very deeply touched."

Camaraderie

Like Kubo, Taki's contact with Muslims in Japan started mainly with the expatriate community.

Every Friday, Muslims from Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Japan pray together in Tokyo's Cami Mosque, which is modeled on Turkey's beautiful Blue Mosque.

Kubo learnt about Islam from
Muslim expatriates in Japan
There are no official records of the number of ethnic Japanese Muslims but some estimates put it at 10,000 - about a tenth of the country's total Muslim population.

The community of Japanese Muslims is so small that when they meet new faces for the first time, a sense of camaraderie is immediately established.

Higouch-san is 73 years old and has been a Muslim for more than 45 years. Mahmuda Saito is 63 and converted more than 30 years ago. Both know how difficult it can be to practice Islam in Japan.

When Higouch and Saito became Muslims there were only two mosques in the whole of Japan.

"It was very difficult. We Japanese have our own culture and traditions so it is quite difficult to carry out five prayers a day and fasting for a month," Higouch says.

'Planting seeds'

Saito is preparing to go on Hajj for the first time. As for many other Japanese Muslims, this involves a lot of self-study.

"It is not a normal holiday so I try to start from the preparation of my heart," she says.

"To learn how to prepare my mind to carry out the Hajj rituals, I read the books regarding the Hajj everyday at home. I would like to absorb the knowledge of the Hajj as much possible before the trip.

"It could be my last Hajj ... [so] I visit this holy city to try to feel the life of the Prophet and his companions of a long time ago."

Kenawy will be leaving Japan with 120 pilgrims - seven of whom are ethnic Japanese and going on Hajj for the first time and he is hopeful that this number will continue to grow.

"Like when you plant a seed and watch it grow, it can easily die or grow to be a big tree with many branches which cover everything. But it's not a tree yet. It's very easy to be broken now," he says.

"But with all the people's support, I think 10 or 20 years from now, maybe I'm not here, I can see there will be an organisation like a ministry for Hajis like in Singapore or Indonesia."