Thorpe nervous but relieved about comeback

Ian Thorpe admits he’s more nervous than ever ahead of his first competitive swim in five years but relieved to be getting it out of the way at the FINA World Cup in Singapore on Friday.

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The five-time Olympic gold medallist will return to competition for the first time since the 2006 Commonwealth Games trials at the two-day short course meet, as he targets a place on the Australian Olympic team for next year’s London Games.

Thorpe will compete in the 100m individual medley on Friday and the 100m butterfly on Saturday, opting not to compete in his pet freestyle events.

The 29-year-old fronted a packed media conference at the usually low-key Singapore event on Thursday and admitted although he did not have high expectations, he was anxious about his return to the pool.

“I’m more nervous than I usually am,” Thorpe said.

“I’m excited as well. I was equally as excited as I was nervous but, as it’s drawn a bit closer, I’ve got a bit more nervous.

“I’m hoping once I have a few swims, that will sort of dissipate.

“… It feels like this day has been coming forever.”

While Thorpe admitted failure was “the most likely outcome” in his comeback, he indicated his preparations were well on track and said there were days he felt like “the best swimmer in the world”.

However he said he had no expectations or specific goals for his first meet in five years.

“I have neither a time nor a place (as a goal),” Thorpe said.

“I’d be lying if I said that ‘I think I’ll be able to do this or that’. I really don’t know.

“There’s an area that I’ll fall into. It’s not going to be extraordinary. It’s not going to be horrible. It’s something in the middle.

“… I have to remind myself I’m the guy who hasn’t swum for five years. I forget that from time to time and I think some other people do too.

“… It’s not going to be easy but it becomes an important step of what I’m going to next year.”

Thorpe finalised his preparation’s for Friday’s swim with a light 90-minute session at the Singapore Sports School on Thursday morning.

A large media contingent watched on as Thorpe trained and spoke with his Swiss coach Gennadi Touretski and Australian head coach Leigh Nugent.

Strong trade surplus for Australia

A buoyant mining sector and robust investment flow from Asia helped Australia post another strong monthly trade surplus.

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The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) said on Tuesday that the trade surplus narrowed in September to $2.564 billion in September compared with $2.953 billion in August.

Economists’ forecasts had centred on a surplus of $3 billion for September.

During September, exports were down three per cent in seasonally and inflation-adjusted terms and imports declined one per cent, the ABS said.

Deutsche Bank senior economist Phil O’Donaghoe said the trade data revealed a positive trend that was likely to continue into the coming months.

“We were looking for a $2.5 billion surplus for this month (September), so we weren’t surprised by the headline,” he said.

“I expect that the details will show that, at least for the month of September, the mining boom mark two was still in place.

“The big question now is: how long is it going to last?”

CommSec chief economist Craig James said the trade surplus was still healthy, even though the headline figure was much lower than he had expected.

“The big picture story is that Australia is still paying its way in the world and the dollars are coming into the country,” he said.

Mr James said the income generated from the surplus was largely being saved rather than spent.

This meant that price pressures were likely be contained, adding to the case for interest rates to be cut.

But if this trend were to reverse, the central bank would likely reconsider cutting interest rates further, Mr James said.

“For now, in these current very cautious times, it’s very much a godsend for Australia that we’re recording very healthy surpluses and to that we can thank the strong growth in Asia, particularly China.”

The Reserve Bank of Australia cut the cash rate by 25 basis points to 4.5 per cent on Tuesday last week.

RBC fixed income and currency strategist Michael Turner said the narrower than expected surplus suggested a sizeable detraction from net exports.

The fall in total exports was driven mainly by a 24 per cent drop in gold exports, he said.

The trade data implied that net exports may detract significantly from third quarter gross domestic product (GDP) figures, Mr Turner said.

The ABS releases September quarter national accounts data, which includes GDP figures, on December 7.

“Today’s trade data adds to evidence of a patchy and generally slow recovery in coal production, which in turn is resulting in some volatile but generally softer quarterly GDP,” Mr Turner said.

Iran worked on ‘developing nuclear weapons’: IAEA

The UN atomic watchdog on Tuesday said it had credible information Iran was working on developing nuclear weapons, its toughest-talking assessment yet which Tehran rejected as baseless.

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The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had “serious concerns” based on “credible” information indicating that the Islamic republic “has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

The United States said the report showed that Iran had lied and said it would seek to ratchet up pressure and may seek new sanctions, but analysts said the report would not be enough to get China and Russia on board for such a move.

Although some of the activities listed in 12 dense pages of intelligence “have civilian as well as military applications,” the keenly-awaited report said that “others are specific to nuclear weapons.”

Iran’s envoy to the Vienna-based IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the Iranian news agency Fars that the report was “a repetition of old claims which were proven baseless by Iran in a precise 117-page response.”

Using input from more than 10 foreign intelligence agencies plus its own information, the IAEA report listed in considerable detail Iranian work in 12 areas that practically covered every area needed for a weapon.

The picture is “pretty comprehensive when you want to develop a nuclear weapon. It has the core itself, it has a delivery system, it has the acquisition of the material,” a senior official familiar with the IAEA probe said.

These included computer modelling of a nuclear warhead; testing explosives in a large metal chamber at the sprawling Parchin military base near Tehran; and studying how to arm a Shahab 3 medium-range missile with an atomic warhead.

“If you put all of this information together it paints a picture that pretty clearly shows that they had nuclear weapons in mind,” nonproliferation analyst Peter Crail from the Washington-based Arms Control Association told AFP.

“Iran is on very shaky ground trying to defend a lot of these activities.”

The IAEA, whose board could decide to report Tehran to the UN Security Council again next week, called on Iran “to engage substantively with the agency without delay for the purpose of providing clarifications.”

US Senator John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the report made it clear that Iran “has not been truthful” and that the international community had to “increase pressure” on Tehran.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, speaking in Armenia before the report was released, said there was “no serious proof that Iran is going to create a nuclear warhead.”

“We have repeatedly stated that we are not going to create nuclear weapons,” Salehi said. “Our position has always been that we will never use our nuclear programme for purposes other than peaceful ones.”

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country “does not need an atomic bomb” and would instead “act thoughtfully” to confront US threats against it, according to state media.

However he warned: “If America wants to confront the Iranian nation, it will certainly regret the Iranian nation’s response.”

The hawkish foreign minister of Iran’s arch-foe Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, said before the release of the report that only “crippling sanctions” would be able to thwart Iran, the Maariv newspaper reported.

Russia meanwhile expressed anger over the publication of the report, saying it risked damaging the chance of a renewal of nuclear talks, saying it was “gravely disappointed and bewildered.”

Earlier Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in Berlin, said that Israeli threats were “extremely dangerous rhetoric” that could result in a “catastrophe” for the Middle East.

Germany’s foreign ministry called for “greater political and diplomatic pressure” on Iran, while French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said sanctions should be toughened but “everything must be done” to avoid a military conflict.

UN envoy warns of missing Libyan weapons

Some weapons depots in Libya have still not been secured properly, and ‘much has already gone missing’ from unguarded sites, the top UN envoy in Libya says.

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Preventing more weapons from being smuggled out of country will be difficult, considering the nature of the vast desert nation’s borders, the envoy, Ian Martin, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“That has to be a priority now, to secure what still remains in Libya,” he said. “Over time, the international community can assist Libya and its neighbours with that, but I am afraid there is not a quick and easy solution to that problem.”

During the chaos of Libya’s eight-month civil war, human rights groups and reporters came across a number of weapons depots that were left unguarded and were looted after Muammar Gaddafi’s fighters fled.

Martin said the unsecured weapons remain a “very, very serious cause for concern”. He said they include shoulder-held missiles, mines and ammunition.

“It’s clear that much has already gone missing from unsecured locations and that there are still locations which have not been properly secured,” he said.

Martin noted progress concerning chemical weapons and nuclear material. Last week, Libyan officials said they discovered two new sites with chemical weapons that had not been declared by the Gaddafi regime when it vowed several years ago to stop pursuing non-conventional weapons. Officials also said they found about 7000 drums of raw uranium.

“That, too, has been secured,” Martin said of the latest discoveries, noting that the main issue is now how to dispose of them.

Flood victims scold Thai prime minister

Frustrated flood victims have berated Thailand’s under-pressure prime minister during a visit to inundated areas of Bangkok, one-fifth of which is now under water.

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Thai authorities have advised more than one million people to evacuate but many have chosen to stay despite risks including electrocution, disease and lack of food and drinking water, complicating relief efforts.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, facing the first major test of her fledgling leadership, on Thursday visited flood victims in hard-hit Don Mueang district in northern Bangkok where she was rebuked by disgruntled residents.

“I don’t know if you’ve come here to help or make the situation worse,” shouted a woman who missed out on an aid package because supplies ran out.

During a boat tour of areas submerged by polluted floodwaters an elderly man told Yingluck: “You’re here just for fun, not really to help, so don’t come back.”

The sister of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been under intense pressure since taking office less than three months ago and has shown signs of emotional strain.

“I have a heavy heart seeing people suffer, while I have to co-ordinate with many people in my work, so it’s stressful,” she told reporters at the government’s flood relief centre later in the day.

“Anyway I will work to the best of my ability and please be assured that all officials will comply.”

While the centre of the capital remains dry, some northern and western parts have been submerged in dirty water that is waist-deep or higher in places.

“In terms of area about 20 per cent of the capital is under floodwater but nobody knows the exact population affected,” said a spokesman for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Jate Sopitpongstorn.

“There are 11,000 evacuees living in temporary shelters across the city.”

Nationwide, 437 people have been killed in the disaster, although so far there have been no official reports of deaths in Bangkok.

The authorities have issued an evacuation order for eight Bangkok districts out of a total of 50 in the capital and for certain areas in four others.

The 12 districts have a combined official population of 1.7 million people – far more than government shelters can accommodate.

Worst-hit residents have complained that their homes are being sacrificed to save downtown Bangkok’s shopping malls, luxury hotels and the houses of the wealthy elite, triggering protests and the destruction of some dykes.

The authorities are attempting to drain the floods through waterways in the east and west of the sprawling metropolis, which is home to 12 million people.

Officials have vowed to do their utmost to protect the centre of Bangkok from inundation, but have been criticised for giving confusing information about the threat level for inner parts of the capital.

The floods – caused by three months of unusually heavy rains and failure to release enough water from dams in the early part of the monsoon – have damaged the homes and livelihoods of millions of people around the country.

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.