Arab leaders offering asylum to Assad: US

Arab leaders are privately telling the United States that they have offered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asylum in a bid to get him to step down, a top US diplomat has told legislators.

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“Some Arab leaders already have begun to offer Assad safe-haven in an effort to encourage him to leave peaceably and quickly,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

“Almost all the Arab leaders say the same thing: Assad’s rule is coming to an end. Change in Syria is now inevitable,” Feltman told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday in a hearing on Assad’s bloody crackdown on dissent.

While some talk of a “palace coup” in Damascus, Feltman said, “I think that’s very unlikely.”

Syria’s lethal response to protests that erupted in mid-March has left more than 3500 people dead, according to the United Nations, and fed increasing international anger at the regime in Damascus.

A human rights group said on Wednesday that security forces killed 12 civilians in Syria, which just last week signed up to an Arab League peace plan that called for an end to violence.

Under the plan, Damascus would also release those detained for protesting, and withdraw all Syrian forces from towns and cities. It says it has already released more than 500.

But since signing the Arab roadmap Syrian forces have killed another 60 people up to Tuesday, according to the United Nations.

Feltman pleaded with the opposition “to continue to reject violence. To do otherwise would, frankly, make the regime’s job of brutal repression easier” while crippling domestic and international support for the protests.

“It will play into the regime’s hands, divide the opposition, and undermine international consensus against the regime,” said the diplomat, who worried about some protesters “taking up arms in self-defence” against the crackdown.

This is “potentially disastrous” to foes of the regime, which has pursued “a deliberate and bloody strategy” of trying to provoke dissenters to shift from peaceful demonstrations to violent uprisings.

“It is stoking the fears of Syria’s minority communities with blatant propaganda about foreign conspiracies and domestic terrorism while cynically claiming that the regime is their only protection from the cycle of violence and sectarianism,” he said.

His comments came as Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, in a letter to the UN Security Council, charged that Washington “encourages armed groups to continue their criminal activities against the people and state”.

He referred to US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s advice to Syrians on Friday against surrendering in response to the Damascus government’s offer of an amnesty for those who give up their weapons.

Feltman also said that US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, abruptly withdrawn last month because of security threats, will head back to his post in “days to weeks”.

The US State Department had said in late October that Ford aimed to return to Syria by the Thanksgiving holiday, which falls on November 24 this year.

Ford had assumed a high profile in Syria, travelling to the focal points of protests against the Assad regime to show US support for democratic change.

Asked about Syria’s ties to traditional ally Iran, Feltman said the Islamic republic was providing “expertise” and “technical assistance to do bad things” like monitor opposition use of the internet.

But “at the same time, Iran is embarrassed” and aware that Assad “might not survive and they have got to start positioning themselves for the day after Bashar”, he said.

“Iran is actually in a very interesting bind right now: They’re trying to save him without losing what shreds of credibility they still have in the Arab world” while criticising the crackdown, said Feltman.

“Syria is basically Iran’s only friend. Iran is Syria’s best friend, in fact it’s one of Syria’s few remaining friends,” he said.

But “the high probability is that a government that comes in with the consent of the Syrian people will not be an asset of Iran”, said Feltman.

Greek PM Papandreou ‘to step down’

There are reports that Greek Prime minister George Papandreou has struck a deal with ministers to step down and hand power to a negotiated coalition government, if they help him win a vote of confidence.

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Earlier, Greece has backed away from a controversial referendum on a bailout, as world leaders including Prime Minister Julia Gillard met in France to chart a way forward.

Ms Gillard has attended the first sessions of the G20 in the resort city of Cannes, amid tension over Greece’s sovereign debt crisis.

As the Group of 20 leaders met in the Palace Festival – usually home to the international film festival for which Cannes is best known – Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou met with his Socialist cabinet in Athens.

Mr Papandreou said later he would support the vote on the European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout not going ahead, after facing opposition to the vote from at least four cabinet ministers.

He has offered to hold talks with the opposition to seek a consensus on the deal.

Greek state television reported Mr Papandreou had ruled out resigning.

“The referendum was never an end in itself,” Mr Papandreou said.

“I’m glad that all this discussion has at least brought a lot of people back to their senses.”

European leaders agreed last Thursday on 100 billion euros ($A133 billion) in new bailout loans for Greece to accompany a 50 per cent debt writeoff on the debt owed to its private creditors.

The broader plan will also push European banks to strengthen their finances against losses on Greek bonds and strengthen the bailout fund to backstop other governments.

But European leaders were due to suspend putting any money into the fund until after the referendum.

The Greek and eurozone uncertainty has sent shockwaves through world markets.

The European Central Bank provided a shot in the arm by cutting interest rates by 25 points to 1.25 per cent and saying its policy of buying eurozone government bonds would continue.

Australia, China and the United States have all used the G20 summit to seek European assurances that the debt crisis will be properly dealt with.

Ms Gillard was greeted by a fanfare by the Republican guard, as she was officially met by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the opening of the summit.

Australia has pledged to double its support to the IMF, and Ms Gillard used a leaders session to argue for the dropping of trade barriers.

Ms Gillard met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to discuss the Anzac centenary commemorations, and informally chatted with US President Barack Obama.

Mr Papandreou told caucus members in a 45-minute speech, partly televised by the BBC and translated into English, that the three options were to go to an early national election, carry on with the referendum or achieve a “consensus” with other political parties.

He said he believed a consensus approach was the best way forward.

The Greek parliament will meet on Friday to vote on confidence in the Papandreou government.

Mr Papandreou urged his colleagues to get behind the agreement reached on October 27 and the vote of confidence.

“It will be a guarantee of how we move on and how we negotiate with other political forces,” he said.

He said Greece had a “bright and positive future”.

Skills shortages coming: survey

Health, education and engineering firms are expected to be hardest hit by the looming skills shortages in the Australian workforce over the next decade, a survey says.

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The Clarius Skills Index, which measures the supply and demand for skilled labour across 20 job categories, eased slightly to 99.7 index points in the September quarter, down from 100 in the previous quarter.

A ranking below 100 indicates skilled supply outnumbers demand.

Clarius Group chief executive Kym Quick said although the overall index fell in the quarter, it was not because of more skilled workers entering the workforce.

“The index does provide false comfort, as the skills gap are only closing as a result of the weak economy and not as a result of any real measures to address the problem of structural shortages,” Ms Quick said in a statement.

“Negative sentiment is playing the biggest role in the demand for skills at present.”

The survey found skills gaps in seven of the 20 occupations surveyed, with numerous other industries expected to be affected should the economic growth pick up and hiring intentions rise.

“Health, education and engineering employers will find it toughest to replace highly skilled, retiring staff as baby boomers enter their final years of employment, despite efforts by many organisations to retain them,” the report said.

The report also noted the aging demographic of the workforce – the percentage of the labour force aged between 55-56 had increased to 13.8 per cent, compared with 8.3 per cent in 1998.

“These workers will reach retirement age in 10 to 15 years, and with a growing economy, Australian employers need to either convince them to stay longer in the labour market or plan to replace them with younger qualified workers,” Ms Quick said.

KPMG Econtech conducted the research on behalf of Clarius Group.

Liberia’s Sirleaf poised for re-election

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is poised to win a second term in a run-off marked by low turnout after a deadly shooting that her rival says was an assassination bid against him.

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Amnesty International called for an investigation into the shooting in which the opposition says up to eight of its supporters were killed on Monday, casting the shadow of Liberia’s bloody past over the west African country’s second post-war polls.

Sirleaf’s challenger Winston Tubman, who cried foul after trailing the Nobel Peace laureate in last month’s first round, has accused his rival of using her security forces to try to assassinate him during the opposition rally.

US President Barack Obama dismissed Tubman’s fraud concerns as baseless and scolded him over his boycott call.

Whether heeding Tubman’s call or fearful of a repeat of Monday’s deadly incident, voters turned out in small numbers for an election that looked certain to return the 73-year-old Sirleaf to office.

No lines remained as polls closed on Tuesday night. The electoral commission said no incidents were reported during the day and counting began immediately.

“I have come to vote, but I am not happy for what happened yesterday,” said Rita Queegbay, 39, at a polling station in a Monrovia suburb earlier in the day.

“After all we are all Liberian and no-one should be happy seeing other Liberians being killed.”

UN peacekeepers kept a strong presence around the city during the vote, and a UN helicopter circled overhead.

Tubman said he had unconfirmed reports that at least eight of his supporters were shot dead after clashes broke out with riot police on Monday who sought to prevent his rally from turning into a march.

AFP journalists saw two bodies with gunshot wounds to the head.

Tubman said police had warned him not to embark on the unauthorised march, but before protesters could return to the party compound, they were sprayed with tear gas, which continued even as the crowd moved back.

Police have said the Congress for Democratic Change supporters were armed and had fired the first shot, which Tubman denies.

“I was getting out of the car, a young man pushed me back and … a bullet that we believe was aimed at me by a sniper hit him instead of me, and he died,” Tubman told international journalists in an interview at his home.

“I am of the belief that they (police) were acting under orders, and those orders indicated they were ordered to eliminate me.”

Tubman, a Harvard-trained former diplomat whose running mate is 2005 runner-up and former football star George Weah, was confident of victory before the October 11 first round.

However he finished more than 10 percentage points behind Sirleaf, and claimed the ballot was riddled with irregularities, despite the vote being given a clean bill of health from hundreds of local and foreign poll monitors.

Tubman’s boycott earned him little sympathy abroad, and in a statement issued after the election-eve violence, Obama said important gains by Liberia “must not be set back by individuals who seek to disrupt the political process”.

Sirleaf’s fellow Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee turned out to vote, saying the election was a “defining moment” for her country’s fragile democracy.

“Liberians lived in fear for so many years and today people … have defied fear and intimidation and stepped out to vote,” she said.

MF investors want administrators out

The battle by nervous investors to recover their money from failed broker MF Global has turned confrontational when one trader called for a vote to remove administrators Deloitte.

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Futures trader and adviser Brent Penfold has emailed clients, accusing Deloitte of excessive fee gouging, including a $1.1 million monthly fee or $55,000 a day.

The vote to remove Deloitte, if it goes ahead, is expected to take place at a creditors’ meeting in Sydney. “Between now and then I’ll be talking to a number of alternative people prepared to do administration … mid-level firms,” Mr Penfold told AAP.

He said he had been warned by one broker that Deloitte might pool clients’ funds and eat into them to ensure it was paid.. Mr Penfold said the funds should be segregated.

He compared MF Global’s collapse to the bankruptcy of Australian broker Sonray last year, which incurred administration costs by Ferrier Hodgson of about $400,000.

“I’m outraged at these ridiculous fees for trying to wind up a small local business, they only have a Sydney office and it’s all done electronically,” Mr Penfold told AAP.

“Segregated futures accounts belong to clients. “Clients’ deposits can’t be used by creditors to be paid.”

Mr Penfold is the second financial adviser to publicly attack Deloitte’s handling of MF Global Australia.

Option 1 director Warren Lum complained last week about his clients not being able to access their money after futures accounts were frozen while they held open positions that could lose value in the market. However, the ASX has suspended MF Global’s trading participation.

Deloitte partner and joint administrator Chris Campbell said while he sympathised with worried clients, the ASX had been closing out positions since MF went into administration.

He said Deloitte could not hand back futures traders their money if it meant other creditors holding different accounts missed out.

He described the process as extraordinarily complicated because money was held in Australian and offshore accounts, and overseas brokers, administrators and regulators also had to be dealt with to get back the funds.

“All we can do is wait for the ASX to finish that process. “In the wash-up of closing transactions, we will convert that to cash and distribute it to clients, hopefully as long as they’re in the money,” Mr Campbell said.

“Now if there’s not enough money of course they will only get a pro-rata share, so we can’t give some to some creditors now to the detriment of other creditors in the future.”

He said Deloitte had not dipped into clients’ funds nor did he rule it out – but denied the administrators were being paid too much at an estimated $1.1 million for the first month. MF Global’s operations were about six times the size of Sonray’s, Mr Campbell said and he did not expect the costs to stay that high for a full year.

He said the process was not as straightforward as Mr Penfold had said and he was trying to contact him to explain that before the creditors’ meeting.

MF Global’s New York parent filed for bankruptcy protection after revealing a $US198 million ($A191.35 million) loss last month.

The collapse is linked to revelations that chief executive Jon Corzine had gambled and lost on $US6.3 billion ($A6.09 billion) in European bonds.

Victorian govt moves on pokie reform

The coalition promised to introduce a voluntary scheme before winning power last year.

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On Friday it released a discussion paper canvassing topics such as whether limits would be set at gaming venues or through a telephone line or website and whether gamblers

will be able to increase or decrease them.

Gaming Minister Michael O’Brien said responses to the discussion paper would inform the state government’s decision on a preferred pre-commitment model to be implemented in Victoria.

“Pre-commitment helps gamblers to retain control of their gambling and empowers them to set their limit before they start gambling, while providing real-time information during play,” he said in a statement.

As part of a deal with independent MP Andrew Wilkie to form a minority government, federal Labor is moving to introduce a mandatory pre-commitment scheme by May 2012, which is fiercely opposed by the registered clubs movement.

Mr O’Brien said the Victorian government remained opposed to a national compulsory pre-commitment scheme.

“The coalition government does not believe that players should be forced to sign up for a pre-commitment card in order to play a gaming machine,” he said.

“While problem gamblers who do not want to modify their behaviour will be the first to sign up for a compulsory card and set a high limit, such a system will deter the vast majority of

casual, responsible players.”

The Victorian government wants to introduce its scheme by 2015-16 at the latest, which is after the next state election.

Submissions on the discussion paper, which is available on the Department of Justice website, close on December 2.

After considering the submissions, the government will announce its preferred model and seek public comment in 2012.

Aussie market soars on Italy news

Australian shares gained more than one per cent as markets focused on Italy and stronger commodity prices prompted local investors to buy mining stocks.

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At 1615 AEDT, the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index was up 52.3 points, or 1.22 per cent, at 4,346.1, while the broader All Ordinaries index was up 49.4 points, or 1.14 per cent, at 4,406.2.

The December share price index futures contract was 60 points higher at 4,340, with 30,477 contracts traded.

The materials sector led local gains after Wall Street and stronger metals prices provided a boost to the market. Wall Street rose after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he would resign once a new budget was passed. Italy has become a key focus for investors this week, with Berlusconi seen as an obstacle to sweeping economic reforms needed to help Italy cut its debt load and avoid sinking into a debt crisis.

IG Markets analyst Stan Shamu said the Australian market had opened strongly, due to the positive lead from Wall Street overnight.

“Reports suggest Silvio Berlusconi is on his way out and markets seem to have taken kindly to that news,” Mr Shamu said.

The general theme of risk taking had continued, with the materials sector rising 1.7 per cent.

BHP Billiton shares were up up 58 cents, or 1.5 per cent, at $38.33, Rio Tinto had added 98 cents to $70.75. Fortescue Metals was eight cents higher, or 1.6 per cent, at $5.10. An Aboriginal corporation has been denied the opportunity to speak at Fortescue Metals Group’s annual general meeting.

Myer shares were among the best performers as the consumer discretionary sector posted solid gains.

Myer shares were up 15 cents, or 6.4 per cent, at $2.48 after it reiterated its guidance for flat sales for the full financial year.

Other retailers were also higher, with David Jones up 15 cents at $3.29 and Harvey Norman was seven cents higher at $2.19. In other news, resources and media company Seven Group Holdings expects its first half profit to be higher than for the same period last year.

Its shares were up 20 cents, or 2.64 per cent, at $7.78.

National turnover at 1650 AEDT was 1.84 billion securities worth $4.62 billion, with 657 stocks up, 397 down and 359 steady. AAP krc/shd 09-11-11 1651

Anzac archive photos discovered

The more than 500 portraits will be linked to online records already available through the National Archives of Australia.

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The crisp black and white images show young men in uniform, hair done and beards shaven, ready for battle.

Veterans Affairs Minister Warren Snowdon told his own story of using the archives to discover information about relatives who volunteered for war.

“I had grand uncles at Gallipoli … I wasn’t aware of it until this year,” he told reporters at the archives in Canberra on Friday.

The archives were important for anyone who wanted to make a connection with a family member who died in battle and was buried in a foreign land.

“I think it’s very emotional,” Mr Snowdon said.

The photos were discovered by archives staff member Courtney Page-Allen at London’s Imperial War Museum and form part of a collection of 16,000 WWI images.

One of the records pieced together tells the story of Lieutenant William Allen.

He joined the army in August 1914 and fought with 4th Light Horse Regiment at Gallipoli before being killed in action in February 1917 at Holly Ridge in France.

Included in the collection is a letter from Allen’s mother written to the Army Records Office in the wake of her son’s death.

“I was his widowed mother and he was my only child,” Mrs Allen writes.

“My late husband his father died when he was an infant, three weeks old.”

It is just one tragic story from a war filled with them.

Some of the portraits and accompanying stories are available at 南宁桑拿,dva.gov广西桑拿网, and further information can be found at 南宁桑拿,mappingouranzacs.naa.gov广西桑拿网,

Saudi arraigned over blast on US ship

The main suspect in the USS Cole bombing has been formally arraigned at Guantanamo in the first such case since US President Barack Obama reversed course and ordered controversial military trials to resume.

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Saudi-born Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, 46, who was appearing in court for the first time since his 2002 arrest, faces the death penalty if convicted of planning and preparing the October 2000 attack on the US Navy destroyer in Yemen’s port of Aden.

Militants riding an explosives-laden skiff blew a 10 metre by 10 metre hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and wounding 40 more.

Nashiri, who has not been seen publicly since his 2002 capture in the Gulf and subsequent incarceration at secret CIA prisons, appeared wearing prison clothes with short hair and a stubble.

But he was neither handcuffed nor in ankle chains, and he appeared relaxed, smiling on several occasions in answering questions put to him by the judge, Colonel James Pohl.

Speaking in Arabic with the aid of an interpreter, Nashiri said he had chosen to wear the prison dress, that his lawyers were “doing the right job”, and that he would attend all the sessions.

The Pentagon believes Nashiri bought the small boat and explosives used in the Cole attack.

He is also accused of involvement in an attempted attack against another American warship in Aden, the USS The Sullivans, in January 2000.

US military prosecutors also accuse Nashiri of planning an attack on French civilian oil tanker MV Limburg in the Gulf of Aden in 2002 that left one Bulgarian crew member dead and caused an oil spill of 90,000 barrels.

His trial will begin no earlier than November 2012, but it could be delayed beyond that if the defence requests it, said Pohl. Nashiri’s lawyers refused to say how he would plead.

Nashiri, who is believed to have met several times with late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is accused of murder, acts of terrorism, conspiracy to commit terrorism and attacks against civilians.

He is being held along with five men accused of orchestrating the September 11, 2001 attacks, and could be the first terror suspect sentenced to death by a military court.

A congressional investigation found that Nashiri was water-boarded while in custody, and that handlers loaded a gun and turned on a power drill near his head.

Obama has denounced waterboarding – a type of simulated or near-drowning – as torture, and Nashiri’s defence team said on Tuesday the United States had lost “all moral authority” to try their client.

“By torturing Mr Nashiri, the United States has lost all moral authority to try Mr Nashiri,” his civilian lawyer Richard Kammen told reporters.

“This is a big part of the case – what happened and how he was treated is important to a death penalty case, should we get to a death penalty case.”

Mark Martins, the military commission’s chief prosecutor for the case, said on Tuesday that “no statement obtained as a result of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” would be admitted into evidence.

During the four-hour hearing, the judge ruled in favour of a defence motion protesting the monitoring of mail between Nashiri and his lawyers.

“The defence is asking to protect the detainee-attorney privilege… to protect confidentiality especially in a death penalty case,” said another defence lawyer, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Reyes.

A military prosecutor, Lieutenant Commander Andrea Lockhart, admitted that Nashiri’s mail had been “scanned” to protect national security. A prison official, testifying as a witness, said Nashiri’s legal mail bin had been seized on orders of the prison’s commander.

In another first, Wednesday’s arraignment was being broadcast to locations in the United States to allow relatives of Cole victims and representatives from rights organisations to watch the proceedings. Journalists could also watch a feed set up at the US Army’s Fort Meade in Maryland.

The broadcasts were subject to a 40-second delay imposed by military censors, who have a kill switch at their disposal to stop the feed, if necessary, in order to protect classified information.

Three trials have taken place at Guantanamo since Obama took office in January 2009, but those proceedings began under Bush.

In one of his first moves as president, Obama froze proceedings at the Guantanamo military tribunal as part of his ill-fated promise to close the US naval base in southeastern Cuba within a year of entering the White House.

Uncapped trio in Wallabies squad

Queensland Reds backs Tapuai and Lucas and NSW Waratahs loose forward Dennis join Western Force prop Pek Cowan as the only members of the 26-man touring party to come from outside the squad used at the recent Rugby World Cup.

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Nine World Cup players were unavailable for the tour, which features a clash with the Barbarains at Twickenham on November 26 and a Test against Wales at Millennium Stadium on December 3.

Kurtley Beale (hamstring), Drew Mitchell (hamstring), Pat McCabe (shoulder), Quade Cooper (knee), Wycliff Palu (hamstring), Rocky Elsom (hamstring), Dan Vickerman (shoulder), Sekope Kepu (eye) and Luke Burgess (French rugby) were all unavailable.

Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said the new trio had the chance to make their mark.

“It’s a great opportunity for the three of them to take the next step in their careers,” he said.

Cowan was a member of the victorious Australian Tri Nations squad, playing the most recent of his four Tests off the bench during the 39-20 win over South Africa in Sydney in July.

“While this is a relatively brief visit by current standards, both fixtures promise to be exceedingly demanding,” Deans said.

“We’ve just seen at the Rugby World Cup how much and how quickly playing resources can be taxed.”

Wallabies squad: Ben Alexander, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Pekahou Cowan, Dave Dennis, Anthony Faingaa, Will Genia, Scott Higginbotham, Matt Hodgson, Rob Horne, James Horwill (capt), Digby Ioane, Ben Lucas, Salesi Ma’afu, Ben McCalman, Stephen Moore, James O’Connor, Nick Phipps, David Pocock, Tatafu Polota Nau, Radike Samo, Nathan Sharpe, Rob Simmons, James Slipper, Ben Tapuai, Lachie Turner.