N.Korea to Re-Open Embassy in Australia

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 4:50 am (UTC-5)
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Australia says North Korea is planning to re-open its embassy in the nation's capital, five years after closing it for financial reasons.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Wednesday said he welcomes the move. He told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it would allow Australia to express its “very deep concerns” about what he called North Korea's “catastrophic” rights abuses.

Carr did not comment on why the reclusive state made the decision to re-open its embassy in Canberra.

The two countries have had diplomatic relations since 1974, although ties have often been strained. Australia imposed sanctions against North Korea following its steps to develop nuclear weapons.

Australia has been critical of human rights violations in the communist state. On Wednesday, Carr described what he called a “gulag and a network of concentration camps” in North Korea that is estimated to hold 200,000 prisoners in poor conditions.

Observers have looked for signs that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took power last year following the death of his father, is willing to implement political or economic reforms in the largely isolated country.

In a New Year speech, Mr. Kim promised “great creations and changes” in 2013, saying the building of an economic giant is an important task for his country in the new year.

Suicide Blast Reported at Afghan Intelligence Service HQ

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 4:30 am (UTC-5)
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Afghan officials say suicide attackers have caused an explosion at the headquarters of the national intelligence service in Kabul.

Officials told reporters that a car loaded with explosives pulled up outside the gate of the National Directorate of Security and detonated, causing a sizable blast that sent a plume of smoke into the air. Witnesses said they heard a volley of gunshots afterward.

It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties in the attack, which took place about noon local time.

The blast comes just days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai returned from a trip to Washington, where he held talks on Afghan security with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Fire Brigade: Helicopter Crashes in Central London

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 4:00 am (UTC-5)
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London's fire brigade says it is attending to a helicopter crash near the Thames river in the central part of the city.

News reports say the aircraft crashed into a crane before hurtling to the ground, sending plumes of smoke into the sky. The helicopter is believed to have hit two cars, jamming traffic in the southern part of the city during the morning rush hour.

Reports say the crash happened near Vauxhall Station, one of the main junctions for rail traffic entering the city. It is not clear whether there are any casualties.

Somali Rebels Declare ‘Death Sentence’ for French Hostage

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 3:45 am (UTC-5)
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Somalia's Islamist rebel group al-Shabab says it has decided to kill a French hostage, days after France carried out an unsuccessful rescue operation and presumed the man dead.

In a statement Wednesday, the militants said they reached a unanimous decision to execute Denis Allex. He has been held since being kidnapped from a Mogadishu hotel in July 2009 and was last seen in a videotape in October.

Allex was part of a team helping to train Somali government troops to fight al-Shabab.

France tried to free Allex in a raid late Friday that left two French soldiers and 17 rebels dead.

The militants said after the raid that Allex was still alive, but they have not shown any proof.

Blast Rocks Afghan Capital

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 3:40 am (UTC-5)
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Reports from Afghanistan say a large explosion has rocked the capital, Kabul, near government buildings including the headquarters of the national intelligence service.

Witnesses said Wednesday's blast was followed by the sound of gunshots, and a plume of smoke was reported rising into the sky. It was not immediately clear whether there were any casualties.

The blast comes just days after Afghan President Hamid Karzai returned from a trip to Washington, where he held talks on Afghan security with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Report: Freedoms in Libya, Egypt Improving

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 3:20 am (UTC-5)
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A new report by the pro-democracy watchdog group Freedom House says political rights and civil liberties have improved in Libya and in Egypt, but declined in Russia, Nigeria and 25 other countries.

The annual report to be issued in Washington later Wednesday says that despite the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya actually gained in its freedom rankings over the past year.

In Russia, however, Freedom House said that since the re-election of Vladimir Putin as president, the government has moved to stifle free expression and public protest.

In all, the report says, Freedom House ranked 90 countries as “free,” a gain of three over the previous year. But it says 27 nations showed significant declines in freedom of assembly, expression and the media.

The group says this is the seventh year in a row that world freedom has shown more decline than gain.

Suicide Bombings Kill 12 in Northern Iraq

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 3:05 am (UTC-5)
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Suicide bombers have detonated cars packed with explosives in northern Iraq, killing 10 people in Kirkuk and two others in the town of Tuz Khurmatu.

In Kirkuk, officials say the blast Wednesday happened outside the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. More than 100 people were wounded.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, which come amid heightened ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq.

US in ‘Intense Deliberations’ over Expanding N.Korean Sanctions

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 2:30 am (UTC-5)
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A senior U.S. diplomat says Washington is pushing hard for tough international sanctions against North Korea following its successful long-range rocket launch last month.

Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters in Seoul that he anticipates formal steps by the United Nations Security Council in the immediate future.

“We are in the midst of really rather intense deliberations in New York in the Security Council led by our Ambassador Rice. We are in very close consultation with the South Korean government about those deliberations. I think we have their understanding about the way forward and I think you will see more developments in the days ahead.”

Campbell, the top American envoy to Asia, also warned North Korea against taking any more “provocative” steps, amid speculation that Pyongyang is preparing to conduct a nuclear test.

“We are very clear in our position that provocative steps are to be discouraged. We are closely working with the key players, including South Korea, at the U.N. with respect to our diplomacy after the missile test late last year.”

Recent satellite images show increased activity at a North Korea nuclear test site, raising fears it may follow up its December rocket launch with a nuclear test, as it did in 2006 and 2009.

The Security Council condemned the rocket launch as a violation of existing sanctions barring North Korea from conducting ballistic missile tests.

But the U.S. and its allies have not yet been able to succeed in tightening the international sanctions, in part because of opposition from Pyongyang's main ally, China.

Cambell's trip does not include a visit to China and he did not discuss Beijing's involvement in the discussions. But, he later met with South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye to discuss a range of issues, including regional security.

Mrs. Park, who has taken a cautious-but-tough approach to North Korea, says she has accepted an invitation by President Barack Obama to visit Washington, saying she looks forward to building up a good relationship of mutual trust with the White House.

US House Passes Aid Package for Hurricane Sandy

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 2:25 am (UTC-5)
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The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a measure providing $51 billion in relief and recovery aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, one of the worst storms ever to hit the U.S. northeast.

House members voted 241 to 180 late Tuesday to provide the disaster relief, which will go in part to repair transit systems, highways and housing in the states of New York and New Jersey.

Passage of the bill came about two weeks after House Speaker John Boehner sparked a public uproar by putting off a vote on a similar measure already approved by the U.S. Senate. Critics said Boehner's move would further delay aid to storm victims who have been waiting for assistance since Sandy made landfall on the East Coast October 29.

The new legislation must now go to the Senate, where it is expected to be passed and sent on to President Barack Obama.

After publicly criticizing the delay in early January, the Democratic governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, and the Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, issued a joint statement Tuesday praising passage of the bill. They said the tradition of providing support for Americans in times of crisis lives on.

Critics of the bill had argued that Congress should pass more spending cuts in other areas to offset the cost of the aid.

Hurricane Sandy was the costliest natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Japan Grounds All 787 Jets After Forced Landing

Posted January 16th, 2013 at 1:20 am (UTC-5)
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Japan's two largest airlines have grounded all their Boeing 787 planes after one of the trouble-plagued new jets made a forced landing when smoke appeared in the cabin.

Several passengers suffered minor injuries when the All Nippon Airways flight made an emergency landing in Takamatsu, on Shikoku island in western Japan, during a flight to Tokyo Wednesday.

Japan's largest air carrier, ANA, and Japan Airlines subsequently grounded all their 787 “Dreamliner” jets for safety checks. The two airlines operate 24 of the wide-bodied aircraft on international and domestic routes.

The U.S.-based Boeing Company has sold or has commitments to build more than 800 of the twin-jet, long-range planes for airlines around the world.

A series of recent problems with 787 flights has prompted U.S. air safety investigators to launch a top-priority safety review of the 787.

Previous incidents involved brake and battery problems and a fuel leak aboard three separate 787s.

In the latest instance, ANA said a cockpit message showed battery problems. Some of the 129 passengers on board reported a strange burning smell in the cabin.

ANA Senior Executive Vice President Osamu Shinobe bowed deeply as he apologized at a news conference in Tokyo following the emergency landing.

“We are extremely sorry for causing grief to the passengers, their families and those involved. We are sorry.”

ANA says its planes could be in the air as soon as Thursday once safety checks are complete.

The 787 is the first major passenger aircraft built mostly from composite materials rather than metal. Boeing says it consumes 20 percent less fuel than other planes of similar size.

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