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We won’t kill Aust fighters in Iraq: ASIS

Australia’s shadowy overseas spy agency has rejected claims the government’s new anti-terrorism laws could give it the power to assassinate Australian Islamic State fighters.

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The government’s bill seeks to improve co-operation between the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Australian Defence Force as part of efforts to crack down on foreign fighters.

The proposed measures have led to reports that ASIS could help the ADF locate and kill Australian jihadists on the battlefield in Iraq.

But the organisation says the new powers “will not enable ASIS to kill Australians or others”.

“The amendments will not change the role of ASIS in a way that may facilitate targeted killings,” it said in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry.

ASIS said the bill did not expand its functions or remove a ban on it planning or undertaking activities that involve violence.

“ASIS can and already does provide such assistance and co-operation to the defence force,” it said.

But it said it needed to act more “nimbly” in providing intelligence to the ADF and its international partners, saying recent terror threats have shown agencies will have little time to respond.

Among the changes are powers which would allow the prime minister, attorney-general, defence minister or foreign minister to give oral authorisation for emergency ASIS activities.

But if none is available at the time, the head of ASIS, the Australian Signals Directorate or the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation, would be able to step in.

The emergency authorisations would expire after 48 hours but would help ASIS to quickly respond to threats, the agency said.

“The proposed changes would position ASIS well to provide timely assistance to the ADF, minimise loss of life and to assist other to respond to the threat,” it said.

Under current laws the agency has to seek ministerial approval in writing before launching an operation.

Without changes ASIS could be forced to act illegally “even to protect life”, the agency said.

The committee is due to report back on November 20.

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Morkel ready to take new ball for South Africa

The 30-year-old helped account for two more Australian wickets with fine catches as South Africa dismissed their hosts for a paltry 154 before squaring the series with a three-wicket victory at the WACA on Sunday.

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Morkel bowled brilliantly after being handed the new ball in preference to Dale Steyn in a strike partnership with Vernon Philander — an experiment undertaken with one eye firmly on the Feb. 14-March 29 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

“The most important thing about this tour is that we are working towards the World Cup,” Morkel told reporters in Perth.

“We are trying different things, on the day a guy like Dale or Vernon might have the flu or some illness and I will need to be able to step up, it’s a role that I enjoy doing as well.

“I got the opportunity to go with the new ball today and I’m happy that I bowled well.”

After a disappointing display last Friday in the opening clash of the five-match series, Morkel felt South Africa’s bowlers had needed a bit of time to get back into their usual rhythm.

“The bowling unit had a bit of a break before this series, and although we had nets, the lack of time in the middle and finding rhythm probably showed on Friday,” Morkel added.

“The wicket was a little bit quicker today which helped us when we found our strides and rhythm. We bowled well in partnerships and with good intensity …”

The series continues in Canberra on Wednesday before concluding with matches in Melbourne and Sydney and Morkel said the Proteas would need to continue to strike in the first few overs against Australia’s powerful and deep batting.

“They are high quality attacking players and if you aren’t on the money they will make you pay,” he said.

“Luckily for us today we got the ball in the right areas and got the early wickets, that’s the most important thing in any one-day game.” 

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Peter Rutherford)

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Competition regulator wants NBN broken up

The competition regulator wants the National Broadband Network to be split into three parts before it’s privatised.

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The former Labor government, which created NBN Co, had planned to sell the optical fibre network within five years of its completion.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission agrees the NBN should be privatised, on the proviso it is split up beforehand.

“Let me make a suggestion on separation timing,” the competition regulator’s chairman Rod Sims told an NBN conference on Monday.

“It should be done prior to any privatisation of NBN Co.

“After that time, it is highly unlikely that separation will ever occur.”

Mr Sims suggested it would be in Australia’s long-term interests to create three separate entities that could be sold to provide future infrastructure-based competition.

“I will always prefer competition between infrastructure providers rather than entrench a monopoly,” he said.

The Howard government declined to split up Telstra before privatising the first third of the telco in 1997.

Telstra is now a $71 billion listed company with a monopoly over Australia’s copper wire telephone network, after being fully privatised in 2006.

When it came to NBN Co, Mr Sims said the government should avoid restricting competition in a bid to maximise the proceeds from the sale.

“There is too much at stake for that,” he said.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard vowed in 2010 to refrain from selling the NBN to Telstra or its chief rival Optus.

Both major parties support an eventual privatisation of the NBN after completion, but Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has previously said this would be many years away.

The federal government is required to maintain ownership of the NBN until it is built and fully operational, under existing laws.

NBN Co doesn’t anticipate the network being completed until at least the end of 2020.

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Britain to deport radical cleric

The Home Office won an appeal against a court ruling preventing Qatada’s deportation to Jordan, where he has been convicted on terrorism charges.

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Home Secretary Jacqui Smith welcomed the ruling by Britain’s Law Lords — a small group of members of the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords — and said she would move immediately to deport him.

“I’m delighted with the Lords’ decision today… My top priority is to protect public safety and ensure national security and I have signed Abu Qatada’s deportation order which will be served on him today,” she said.

“I am keen to deport this dangerous individual as soon as I can.” Qatada’s lawyer, Gareth Peirce, condemned the decision as a “backwards step” in Britain’s willingness to confront torture and her client would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

“This judgment will pour a dose of cold water on our belief that we have indeed advanced in our willingness to confront the ugly issue of the use of torture,” she said.

In Amman, an official said Qatada faced retrial on return to Jordan. Qatada is wanted there for funding a terrorist network known as Reform and Challenge (Al Islah Wal Tahhadi) that was dismantled in 1999.

“By law, he will be put on trial again once he arrives in Jordan because he was sentenced in absentia in 1998 and 2000 for 15 years of hard labour for terrorist activities,” the official told AFP.

Jordan’s Minister of Justice Ayman Odeh said: “If he is deported, he will get a fair trial in line with Jordanian legislation.” Rights group Amnesty International voiced concern that the ruling could be taken as a green light to deport people to countries where they could face mistreatment.

“It would be deeply worrying if the Law Lords’ decision were taken by the UK government as a green light to push ahead with deporting people to countries where they will be at risk of abuses such as torture and unfair trials,” said Amnesty’s Nicola Duckworth.

A Memorandum of Understanding between London and Amman, which Britain says provides assurance against Qatada’s mistreatment in Jordan, was worthless, she argued.

“Diplomatic assurances are completely unenforceable and as such cannot be relied upon. No-one should be deported to face a risk of torture, whatever they might be alleged or suspected to have done,” she added.

The 48-year-old — whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman — has been convicted of terrorism charges in Jordan but Britain was unable to deport him due to a court ruling in May which found that he could face mistreatment there. Qatada — who was labelled Bin Laden’s “right-hand man” by leading Spanish anti-terror judge Baltasar Garzon — gained refugee status in Britain in 1994 and has been in and out of prison since.

He was released most recently in June on a strict form of bail, but in December he was ordered back behind bars after breaching his bail terms.

The British government says firebrand Qatada had “long-established” links to extremists across the world, including Al-Qaeda and armed Islamist groups in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.

Others said to have sought his advice include “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man convicted in connection with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Qatada was also said to be a “spiritual leader” to the Al-Tawhid movement, whose head Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was seen as Al-Qaeda’s representative in Iraq and responsible for attacks in Europe and Iraq until his death in June 2006.

Lord David Hope, one of the five Law Lords who ruled unanimously against Qatada, said ordinary people might question why Qatada had been able to resist deportation for so long. “Why hesitate, people may ask. Surely, the sooner they are got rid of, the better?

On their own heads be it if their extremist views expose them to the risk of ill-treatment when they get home,” he said, while insisting that Qatada was entitled to the protection of the law.

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18 rescued after chopper ditches

A helicopter carrying 18 people to an oil rig crashed into the North Sea but British coastguards rescued everyone onboard from the rough seas.

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The Super Puma helicopter carrying 16 passengers and two crew went down just before it reached the platform about 125 miles (200 kilometres) east of Aberdeen, sparking a major rescue operation.

“All 18 people who were travelling on board a Super Puma Bond helicopter on a routine crew change trip have been recovered … (they) are safe and undergoing medical checks,” said a spokesman for Britain\’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The alarm was raised by people on the oil platform who saw the helicopter go down. The coastguard immediately sent out two helicopters, and two Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft were also deployed.

A number of vessels joined the search, and they were guided to the helicopter in the darkness by flares and lifejacket lights, where they found all 18 urvivors huddled in two liferafts.

Three people were winched up by a helicopter but this had to be stopped because of worsening weather, so the remaining 15 were taken by sea to the oil rig, where all 18 underwent medical checks. No serious injuries were reported.

Police said a helicopter carrying three people “who are described as walking wounded” landed in Aberdeen late Wednesday.

“The remaining 15 are being transferred by vessel and are expected to arrive at Aberdeen Harbour around 5:00 am (0500 GMT) on Thursday,” a spokesman said.

James Lyne, a spokesman for the RAF base at Kinloss on the northeastern Scottish coast, could not explain why the helicopter went down but said an investigation was underway.

He said all those on board would have been wearing immersion suits that would have protected them from the cold of the sea for some time, adding: “They all managed to get out safely. It is a very good result.”

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Netanyahu tipped for Israeli PM role

Hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is in pole position to become Israel\’s next prime minister after his attempt to form a government was backed by an ultra-nationalist faction.

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Support from Avigdor Lieberman\’s Yisrael Beitenu party means Netanyahu, a former premier popularly known as Bibi, can count on the support of 65 of the 120 members of parliament.

“We have two proposals. The first: we recommend Bibi Netanyahu, but (second) only as part of a wider government,” Lieberman told President Shimon Peres.

Peres was meeting with parliamentary factions on Thursday, before deciding who will be tasked with forming a governing coalition.

“We are not talking of a government with a restricted majority,” said Lieberman, a Soviet immigrant whose party displaced Labour as the third largest parliamentary faction in last week\’s elections.

“To govern the country, we need a government with the three largest parties, Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu.

Power-sharing deal

“Those that want to join (the coalition) can do so later,” he added.

Peres held talks with Likud and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni\’s governing Kadima party on Wednesday and was holding talks with the other 10 factions on Thursday.

“Netanyahu will be prime minister, but it will be a Bibi-Livni government,” said Lieberman.

“Bibi must get used to the idea it will be a broad government,” he told Peres.

Kadima had suggested a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu similar to the one Israel had in 1984 after another close ballot, when the two top parties each held the post of prime minister for two years.

But Lieberman said that “Livni must give up the idea of a rotation as such a solution would cause instability.”

Factional horse-trading

Netanyahu has also rejected the rotating premiership option and made it clear he favours a broad coalition including Kadima, rather than an alliance with parties to the right of his own.

Kadima won 28 seats in the February 10 election, just one more than Likud, but has far fewer potential coalition allies than its right-wing rival.

Both Kadima and Likud have been courting other factions in a bid to obtain the majority support needed to form a government coalition.

Right-wing parties made dramatic gains overall in the election, which was held in the wake of Israel\’s deadly 22-day offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and was dominated by security concerns.

Under Israeli law, the task of forming a government does not automatically go to the party that garnered the most votes but to the one most likely to be able to form a majority coalition.

Peres was to announce his decision on Sunday or Monday, his spokeswoman Ayelet Frish said.

Peace talks stalled

The Kadima delegation on Wednesday pressed the president, who is himself drawn from Livni\’s centrist faction, to give the party the first go at attempting to forge a governing coalition, but Likud insisted that Netanyahu was better placed to lead a new government.

The overall shift to the right in the election has raised concern over the future of already hobbled peace talks with the Palestinians.

The talks have remained stalled as Livni and Netanyahu bid separately to form a workable governing coalition.

The person tasked by Peres to form a government will have 28 days to put together a coalition. If necessary Peres can extend the deadline by 14 days.

The election was called after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation in September after being questioned by police over a series of graft scandals. He has stayed on as acting premier.

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Accused acquitted in Politkovskaya trial

A Moscow jury on acquitted all the accused in the trial over the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya after three months of hearings that failed to shed light on the crime.

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None of the four accused had been charged with pulling the trigger or being the mastermind of the 2006 killing of the investigative reporter who was highly critical of Russia\’s strongman and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“They have neither found the person who ordered the killing, the organisers nor the people who committed the crime,” the Politkovskaya family\’s lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko, complained after the verdicts were announced.

State prosecutor Yulia Safina said the prosecution planned to go to the court of appeal to “complain about the infringements that took place in the course of the court\’s examination of the case.”

Accused rejoice

Relatives of the accused cried of “Bravo, well done!” and “Thank you!” as the verdicts were read out. By contrast, Politkovskaya\’s son and daughter listened to the verdicts in silence.

The defendants hugged each other inside the courtroom cage where they had followed proceedings before being released immediately, an AFP correspondent said.

“Justice has been done,” said defence lawyer Murad Mussayev. “The jury showed their principles and there has been an honest verdict.”

The acquitted were Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, who had been accused of driving the killer to the scene of the murder of the Kremlin critic.

A third defendant acquitted was Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, a former police investigator, who had been charged with providing logistical assistance for the murder.

Also acquitted was Pavel Ryaguzov, a former agent of the FSB security service who was not directly accused of being part of the murder but of extortion in another aspect of the case.

‘Incomplete enquiry’

International press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders, RSF) said the trial had been marked by “incoherence and opacity” from the outset.

“This decision is the consequence of an incomplete enquiry that was handed over prematurely to the courts. It is impossible to know who ordered this crime and why. Everything is still to do,” it said in a statement.

Her family criticised the verdicts, saying they believed that all four men were implicated in the crime.

“I think that all four of them are linked to the murder of my mother in one way or another,” her son Ilya Politkovsky told a news conference alongside his sister Vera.

“Their degree of culpability needed to be proved in court. The prosecution was not able to do this.”

Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006 in an apparent contract killing after returning from a shopping trip to a Moscow store.

She had been critical of the actions of then-president Putin in war-torn Chechnya, making numerous trips to the ravaged republic to uncover human rights abuses.

The journalist had written dozens of articles and a book called “Putin\’s Russia” accusing the Russian strongman of using the Chechen conflict to strangle democracy in the country.

During the hearings the defence team pointed out that the suspects\’ DNA had not been found on the weapon and that phone calls made by the accused at the time did not prove their presence at the murder scene.

Second journalist attacked

Politkovksaya\’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper was one of the few media outlets to voice criticism of the Kremlin. Her death was not the only time the publication has seen one of its journalists attacked.

Last month a young journalist working as an intern on the paper, Anastasia Baburova, was gunned down in central Moscow as she emerged from a news conference with a prominent rights lawyer.

“I want to say that nothing has been closed (with the verdict) and the main investigation still lies ahead,” the newspaper\’s chief editor Dmitry Muratov said, according to the Interfax news agency.

Putin had described Politkovskaya\’s murder as an “unacceptable crime that cannot go unpunished” but also commented that her “ability to influence political life in Russia was extremely insignificant.”

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Liberal divisions grow as Turnbull sacks Bernardi

Divisions within the Liberal Party have widened after Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull sacked a junior conservative over “disparaging” remarks about a leading moderate.

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Compounding what has been a torrid week for the opposition, former minister Tony Abbott had to be pulled into line after appearing to contradict the party position on a rise in the aged pension.

Mr Turnbull confirmed late last night South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi had been stripped of his job as shadow parliamentary secretary because of “disparaging” remarks about a colleague, widely interpreted as being Chris Pyne.

“As leader of the opposition I will not tolerate members of the shadow executive disparaging their colleagues in such a personal and gratuitous fashion,” Mr Turnbull said.

Opposition attempts to take on the government have been starved of oxygen this week because of internal tensions, as well as frenzied speculation over whether Peter Costello was given first dibs on the shadow treasurer job.

Friction between Liberal conservatives and moderates has been growing since a frontbench reshuffle on Monday, when Julie Bishop caved to carping about her skills in the treasury portfolio and quit the key post.

Mr Turnbull elevated Joe Hockey to treasury and Mr Pyne to the crucial role of managing opposition tactics in the House of Representatives.

Mr Abbott and former Howard minister Peter Dutton, both from conservative ranks, were reported to have their eye on the job given Mr Pyne.

There was also disquiet over perceived attempts by Mr Turnbull to displace Alan Stockdale as Liberal Party federal president and install former Howard ally, Shane Stone.

Tensions spilled over when Senator Bernardi questioned the commitment of an unnamed MP to the Liberal Party.

“Around 14 years ago, I was invited by the aforementioned parliamentarian to play golf at the Royal Adelaide Golf Club where he was a member,” Senator Bernardi wrote in a widely circulated email newsletter.

“In response to my question of why he joined the Liberal Party the MP blithely responded: `I live in a Liberal seat so I had to be a member of the Liberal Party to get into parliament. If I lived in a Labor seat I would have joined the Labor Party\’.”

Mr Pyne said it was “utterly preposterous” to suggest he had ever considered joining a party other than the Liberals. “Anyone who knows me, or my history, knows I possess a lifelong loyalty to the Liberal Party,” he said.

Senator Bernardi accepted Mr Turnbull\’s decision but warned the opposition leader had set a new benchmark for behaviour by frontbenchers.

“I\’ve lost my shadow parliamentary secretary responsibilities as a result of me referring to a personal anecdote that had a key impact on my political life and career and involvement,” he told AAP.

“I\’ve gone to great pains … not to identify the individual concerned. “He\’s set a very high benchmark and I would expect it to be lived up to by all.”

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WWI French battleship found

A French battleship torpedoed by a German submarine during World War I has been found by chance by a Dutch team working on a pipeline in the depths of the Mediterranean, it was announced today.

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The Danton went down on March 19, 1917, with almost one-third of its 1,000-strong crew as it made its way to the Greek island of Corfu from the French military harbour of Toulon.

More than 90 years later it was discovered in unlikely fashion by a team of Dutch geoscientists as they examined the sea bed to prepare for the construction of a gas pipeline between Algeria and Italy.

The Danton was found resting upright some 1,000 metres below the surface, south of the Italian Mediterranean island of Sardinia. It was discovered at the start of 2008, but the announcement could not be made until now because the ship had to be identified first by experts.

“It is a spectacular discovery because of the good condition of the wreck,” Rob Luijnenburg from Fugro, the Dutch firm that made the discovery, told AFP by phone from Milan, where the find was announced.

The 19,000 tonne, 150-metre-long gun turrets on the vessel remain intact, along with the grim remains of 296 naval personnel.

Luijnenburg said it was “highly unlikely” the wreck could be brought to the surface. “It is too deep. No divers can reach that depth, only robots. I don\’t think it is feasible.”

As for retrieving the human remains, “the French authorities will have to decide about that,” he said.

The vessel, which first took to the water in 1910, formed part of the French Mediterranean fleet during World War I.

The remainder of the 1,000 crew are believed to have been saved by patrol boats that had been accompanying the battleship.

The planned pipeline had to be shifted some 100 metres to bypass the historic find, said Luijnenburg.

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Obama team urges Polish patience on shield

The United States urged Poland to be patient over a missile defence deal it inked with Washington while President Barack Obama\’s team reviews the controversial multi-billion dollar shield.

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“What I told the defense minister today is that they have to give us a little more time to review these things,” US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a NATO meeting in Krakow, southern Poland.

Gates said no final decision on the shield, which has enraged Russia, has yet been made.

“Between the economic crisis, Afghanistan and Iraq the administration has not yet reviewed where it is on a whole range of issues including relationships with our allies, the missile defense program, the relationship with the Russians.”

Former president George W Bush launched plans to extend the US missile shield into Europe, basing 10 interceptors in Poland linked to a radar in the Czech Republic to counter any threat from “rogue states,” primarily Iran.

But Obama\’s administration has begun a review of the project\’s costs and technical feasibility, a move which has eased fears in Russia that the shield was aimed at it.

Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich said talks with Washington on implementing the deal, and in particular the stationing of US Patriot missiles in Poland, were ongoing.

“We must be patient and wait until the new administration in Washington will end the ongoing review and we will receive a clearer and forward looking position,” Klich said after talks with Gates. “I reminded him (Gates) that the agreements that were signed last year should be implemented,” Klich told AFP after the meeting.

Klich however said talks at deputy ministerial level on technical aspects of the controversial US plan — the benefits Poland stood to gain from the deal — “are on track.”

The minister told AFP there was no delay “on the topic of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) supplemental agreement; we are speaking about implementation deals on the (missile) base agreement and the topic of locating American Patriot missiles in Poland.” Earlier Thursday Gates reiterated the Obama administration\’s position on the missile shield.

“We are concerned about the Iranian missile threat and as long as that threat exists we will continue to pursue missile defense, as long as we know it will work and as long as it is cost effective. “But we will pursue it not only with our NATO allies but also with the Russians.”

The August 14, 2008 missile defence deal inked by Washington and Warsaw sparked outrage in Moscow which threatened to aim its own missiles at the planned US installations in Europe.

Washington had wanted the Polish and Czech installations up and running by 2011-2013, to complete its system already in place in the United States, Greenland and Britain.

Washington insists the shield — endorsed by NATO at it\’s February 2008 summit — is in no way aimed at Russia. The United States warns that Iran could develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads by 2015-2017.

Quoted by the Czech CTK agency in Washington earlier this month, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg suggested the Czech radar facility was likely to be delayed for three years while the Obama review was conducted.

“Czechs will fully understand it if the US administration puts off the construction of the radar base by three years. We will not be basically opposed to this,” Schwarzenberg said.

Missile defence is expected to figure high on the agenda of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a planned visit to Poland in the next few months, his first in seven years.

In late January, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said he was confident Russia would freeze a move to deploy missiles in the Kaliningrad region, on Warsaw\’s doorstep, in retaliation for the US deployment in Poland.

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RBA boss flags more rate cuts

The central bank chief, facing his six-monthly grilling in front of the House of Representatives economics committee on Friday, Mr Stevens has backed the federal government\’s stimulus packages, saying the economy would be weaker without them.

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The federal government introduced a $10.4 billion fiscal stimulus package in October that included cash handouts to low-income families and pensioners.

Last week, it won parliamentary approval for a new $42 billion fiscal stimulus package which includes more than $12 billion in cash handouts to taxpayers.

“2009 and, to some extent, 2010 would have seen a lower pace of aggregate demand in Australia, absent those measures,” Mr Stevens said.

Even if households saved their handouts, the economy would benefit later.

“That helps them be in a position to expand spending, even if that\’s some way down the track.”

The governor does expect difficult times ahead, saying it was unrealistic to expect anything other than weak conditions in the near-term. But the economy would not be as badly hit as some other advanced economies.

A big drop in interest rates, the fiscal stimulus and a lower exchange rate would support demand, “increasingly so as the year goes on”.

“Australia will come through this episode not unscathed, but will be placed to benefit from this,” Mr Stevens said.

Housing affordability had improved on the back of the bank\’s aggressive 400 basis point cut in the cash rate to a historically-low level of 3.25 per cent. That would have quite a “powerful impact” on the economy.

“If there is a need to use more interest rate stimulus then we can,” he said.

But Mr Stevens was reluctant to give a target figure and would not comment on whether financial markets were correct in pricing an eventual low of 2.0 to 2.25 per cent.

“It is not my present expectation we\’re going to find ourselves at nothing,” Mr Stevens said.

He noted that Australia\’s cash rate was still one of the highest among major economies even at 3.25 per cent with the US\’s target range at zero to 0.25 per cent and Japan\’s benchmark rate at 0.1 per cent.

The effects of interest rate cuts in Australia were only beginning to impact.

“The board is, of course, continually assessing whether the stance of policy is the right one to foster a durable expansion, consistent with the inflation target,” he said.

A recovery in the housing sector would begin later this year as the impact of lower interest rates started to flow through the economy. Households in a reasonable financial situation may start to borrow.

“We have seen quite a tangible pick-up in approvals in housing, particularly for owner occupiers.”

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Debate flares over Obama housing plan

President Obama\’s top housing official says his $US275 billion mortgage plan will start working ‘very, very quickly,’ after Republicans mounted attacks on the initiative.

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A day after Obama unveiled the new strategy in Arizona, one of the states worst-hit by the housing crisis which helped trigger the recession, debate flared over whether it would work and help turn around the economy.

“We believe we can get help into the hands of millions of families that need it very, very quickly,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told CNN.

Sheila Bair, who heads the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, also said the sweeping plan, which aims to lower monthly payments to help at-risk homeowners avoid foreclosures, could make a difference as early as next month.

“I believe you\’ll start seeing a real impact in March, with meaningful, long term, sustainable modifications,” Bair told ABC.

The visibility of top Obama officials on television and the detail offered when the plan was rolled out was significant.

Markets reacted poorly last week, when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled his bid to rescue the debt-laden finance industry, with analysts complaining the administration offered only general concepts and not details.

Republicans raise ‘unanswered questions’

Even so, Republicans and other critics marshalled arguments against the housing plan, most of which can be put into practice without congressional approval, and which forms one aspect of Obama\’s huge government intervention in the economy.

Senator Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee complained the plan “appears to help those who least need it, and doesn\’t help those that do.”

“The biggest outrage is that the President\’s plan actually will use taxpayer money to pay people to do what they are already supposed to do – pay their mortgage,” he said in a statement.

“It also uses taxpayer money to pay banks to do what they should already be doing — modifying mortgages.”

The administration contends that its plan will help up to nine million homeowners, and partly targets those who are not yet on the cusp of losing their homes but could easily fall into trouble.

A $75 billion portion of the program contains incentives to lenders to lower payments by at-risk homeowners to 31 percent of their income.

The two top Republicans in the House of Representatives, minority leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, sent Obama a letter with a list of “unanswered questions.”

They raised concerns about whether the plan will reward banks for taking wild gambles with risky mortgages and expressed concerns people who falsified their incomes to qualify for big loans would also benefit from a taxpayer bailout.

Asked on NBC what she would say to homeowners who had played by the rules, obtained loans they could afford and always made payments, Bair suggested the economic consequences of inaction were simply too grave.

“There are moral hazard issues here,” she said.

“I think we need to understand that it is our collective economic interest to get these loans restructured where we can to keep them out of the housing market and reduce that downward pressure on home prices.”

Plan aims to stabilise housing market

On top of the 75 billion dollars in incentives to lenders, the government will put up an additional 200 billion dollars to bolster efforts by federal lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to offer affordable mortgages and bring stability to the housing market.

The hope is that mortgage holders in good standing will be able to refinance their loans at lower interest rates now available.

Previously, such lenders had been unable to take this step because plunging house prices had left them with little equity in their homes.

The National Association of Realtors praised the move, saying it would “keep mortgage rates low for all buyers and could lead to even lower rates.”

The president is also set to back legislation aimed at allowing bankruptcy judges to change the terms of mortgages and lower monthly payments – a proposal that could face Republican opposition in Congress.

Obama warned when he unveiled the plan on Wednesday that without concerted action, the housing crisis could make economic recovery impossible.

“All of us are paying a price for this home mortgage crisis and all of us will pay an even steeper price if we allow this crisis to continue to deepen,” he said.

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Google Earth to map CO2 emissions

A team of US scientists led by Purdue University unveiled an interactive Google Earth map showing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels across the United States.

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The high-resolution map, available at purdue.edu/eas/carbon/vulcan/GEarth/, shows carbon dioxide emissions in metric tons in residential and commercial areas by state, county or per capita.

Called “Vulcan” after the Roman god of fire, the project, which took three years to complete, quantifies carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline.

It breaks down emissions by the sectors responsible including aircraft, commercial, electricity production, industrial, residential and transport.

“This will bring emissions information into everyone\’s living room as a recognizable, accessible online experience,” said Kevin Gurney, the project leader and an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue.

“We hope to eventually turn it into an interactive space where the public will feed information into the system to create an even finer picture of emissions down to the street and individual building level,” he added.

The United States accounts for some 25 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists have identified as the most important human-produced gas contributing to global climate change.

Simon Ilyushchenko, an engineer at Internet search giant Google who worked on the project, said “integrating the data with Google Earth was a way to advance public understanding of fossil fuel energy usage.

“Dynamic maps of the data, broken down by the different sources of emissions, easily show where people burn more gasoline from driving or where they use more fuel for heating and cooling homes and businesses,” he said.

Vulcan integrates carbon dioxide emissions data from the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Energy.

The current data is from 2002, but the scientists said they plan to incorporate more recent data.

Besides Purdue, the project also involved researchers from Colorado State University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It was funded by NASA, the US Department of Energy, the Purdue Showalter Trust and Indianapolis-based Knauf Insulation.

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