Syria, US recall envoys in new spat

The latest diplomatic crisis between Damascus and Washington came as 16 people were reportedly killed in new violence, including eight civilians in the central protest hub city of Homs and soldiers in clashes with army deserters.

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“Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, will leave Washington for Damascus to hold consultations with Syrian leaders,” Al-Ikhbariya television reported on Monday.

Earlier a US embassy official in Damascus said that ambassador Robert Ford, an open critic of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on political dissent, has left Syria indefinitely for security reasons.

The US State Department said Ford was pulled out due to “credible threats” against his safety.

“Ambassador Robert Ford is on leave indefinitely. Washington decided to give him the leave out of concerns about his personal safety,” the embassy official said.

Ford has come in for heavy criticism by regime supporters in Damascus who have accused him of helping incite violence in the country, where according to UN estimates more than 3000 people have been killed since mid-March.

The ambassador has also angered the regime by visiting protest hubs outside the capital in a show of solidarity with pro-democracy demonstrators.

State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Ford was brought back to Washington because of “credible threats against his personal safety in Syria”.

And State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said commentary about Ford in official Syrian newspapers led to the decision to pull him out.

The media are “going after him personally, spreading lies about what he is up to. And the concern is that this could lead to further violence,” she said.

Nuland said Ford would return to Damascus “after his consultations are completed” in Washington, stressing, however, that Syria had international obligations to ensure the ambassador’s safety.

Meanwhile the US embassy will “continue to do its work as normal” in Ford’s absence, said Nuland.

Assad’s supporters late last month tried to attack Ford and embassy staff as they visited a Syrian opposition leader in Damascus.

At the time the State Department said pro-regime demonstrators seriously damaged US vehicles and pelted the visitors with tomatoes but did not hurt Ford or his staff.

Following the incident, the United States summoned the Syrian ambassador, and, according to Nuland, he was “read the riot act”.

Washington has repeatedly urged the UN Security Council and the international community to step up pressure on Syria over its bloody response to opposition to the government in Damascus.

On Monday, Syrian forces in Homs raked several neighbourhoods with heavy artillery fire.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said eight people were killed in Homs while another civilian died when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by troops in the northwestern province of Idlib hit his car.

The Britain-based group also reported the death of two army defectors in Idlib province and said five others were killed in clashes with suspected deserters elsewhere in the province.

The report comes as an Arab League delegation is due to visit Damascus on Wednesday in a new attempt to defuse the tension and prod talks between Assad’s regime and the opposition.

Egyptian expats can vote, court says

An administrative court has ruled that millions of Egyptians living abroad, deprived of the vote under Hosni Mubarak, will have the right to cast their ballots in the next parliamentary poll.

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“Egyptian expatriates have the right to vote in the upcoming parliamentary election, under a ruling by the administrative court,” the state-run MENA news agency reported on Tuesday.

“The Higher Electoral Commission will be responsible for taking all the necessary measures to enable Egyptians living abroad to practice this constitutional right, according to the court,” MENA said.

Egyptians will begin voting on November 28 in the first parliamentary elections since a popular uprising ended president Mubarak’s 30-year-rule in February.

An estimated eight million Egyptians live abroad, many of them in other Arab countries, out of a total population of 80 million.

Several political parties and politicians have repeatedly demanded Egyptians in the diaspora be allowed to take part in the vote, a move supported by Egypt’s new military rulers.

The court’s decision, which could require an amendment of the electoral law, can be appealed.

The verdict came in response to a complaint by the union of expatriates, who said Egyptians should be allowed to vote at Egyptian embassies.

The foreign ministry said it would abide by any final decision.

Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the fall of Mubarak’s regime will be held in 12 stages, including run-offs, over a period of four months.

Elections for members of the lower house and upper house, the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, will be divided into three stages each, with a run-off for every stage.

Voting kicks off for the People’s Assembly on November 28 while the Shura Council elections are to be held from January 29.

Gunmen abduct aid workers in Somalia

Gunmen have kidnapped an American, a Dane and a Somali working for the Danish Demining Group in central Somalia, the latest abductions by armed gangs in the war-torn nation.

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“Three staff members from the Danish Demining Group (DDG) have been kidnapped,” said Klaus Ljoerring Pedersen, the group’s regional chief.

“One is a Somali man, two are international staff members, an American woman and a Danish man,” Pederson said, adding that investigations were ongoing.

The three were abducted on Tuesday in Galkayo, where the group has been present since 2007.

Local security officer Ali Mohamed said the aid workers were kidnapped from near the airport at Galkayo.

DDG clears landmines and other unexploded ordnance in the area to open up the use of land, and also provides mine risk education to reduce injuries.

Galkayo, which straddles the border between Puntland and the self-proclaimed separate region of Galmudug in central Somalia, saw heavy fighting last month between rival political or clan groups.

“We have sent security forces to block all routes to stop them,” Galmadug deputy security minister Ahmed Mahmud told reporters.

However, he added that the gunmen were reported to be heading east towards the anarchic Hobyo district, a region notorious for pirate gangs.

“We remain concerned about the individual’s safety and well-being and are working with contacts in Kenya and Somalia to ascertain more information,” a US State Department official said in Washington.

Somalia is one of the world’s most dangerous regions for aid workers, several of whom have been kidnapped in the past by ransom-seeking militia groups.

It is also home to a number of pirate gangs who earn a living by seizing boats, but who have recently been accused of capturing hostages on land as well.

A lack of effective central government since Somalia plunged into civil war two decades ago has allowed a flourishing of militias, Islamist insurgencies and pirate gangs ruling mini-fiefdoms.

Both Galmudug and Puntland signed a nation-building roadmap last month with the weak Western-backed government in Mogadishu and oppose the Islamist Shebab insurgents who control Somali regions further south.

Four European women have been abducted in recent weeks from Kenya by gunmen who later fled to Somalia.

Kenya sent troops and tanks into southern Somalia last week to fight al-Shabab, whom it blames for the spate of kidnappings of foreigners, but the rebels have denied being behind the seizures.

The hardline insurgents have vowed to retaliate against the attacks, and Kenyan police say they suspect two grenade attacks on Monday in Nairobi could be linked to Shebab operatives.

Two Spanish aid workers were seized in Kenya’s eastern Dadaab camp earlier this month and are believed to have been taken across the border into Somalia.

A British tourist was kidnapped from Kenya’s coastal areas last month, followed shortly afterward by a Frenchwoman, who later died in captivity.

Europe bids to ease Italy debt worries

Europe has rushed to ease worries Italy could become the next Greece, needing a bailout, as negotiators battled to complete a deal with banks on a big debt write-off for Athens.

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As Germany readied for a parliamentary vote on an overall response to the eurozone debt crisis ahead of Wednesday’s second emergency EU summit, the EU mulled a plan for its bailout fund to buy Italian government bonds.

With Italian bond yields still hovering near the six percent levels that triggered large-scale intervention by the European Central Bank in August, a top EU official said it might be “time to put the plan to Italy”.

Europe wants Rome to deliver “measures to show there is no risk of Italy becoming another Greece one day”, another senior source said on condition of anonymity.

Eurozone aid comes with strings attached and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government spent Monday scrambling to agree on new budget cuts and reforms before the second summit in four days.

“No one has anything to fear” over Italy’s debt, Berlusconi said in a statement, adding that there was no need for a lecture from the country’s partners.

“No one is in a position to teach lessons to their partners,” he said, despite the focus on Italy’s 1.9 trillion euros ($A2.56 trillion) debt mountain.

The plan to use the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the rescue fund set up after the May 2010 first Greek debt bailout, is seen as necessary to assuage markets, another official said.

But it “will lead to a certain amount of European surveillance of Italy’s budget,” he said.

A “program-lite” for Italy, another official described it as, in reference to the technical term used for EU bailouts.

Trying to hold the line on borrowing rates, the European Central Bank (ECB) revealed a 4.5-billion-euro splurge last week on eurozone bonds, without saying which ones it bought.

The ECB is the guardian of the eurozone as a whole and, despite some reluctance, it has now bought a total 169.5 billion euros in eurozone government bonds since early last year in an effort to ease debt tensions.

Wednesday’s summit is the self-appointed deadline for Europe to agree and ratify – in advance, in the case of the German parliament – a strategy for fighting contagion on financial markets amid mounting signs the bloc is falling back into recessionary times.

Its leaders also have to face critics, led by US President Barack Obama, at a G20 summit in Cannes, France, on November 3 and 4, and Italy – the eurozone’s third biggest economy – lies at the core of global concern.

Obama has warned that the nearly two-year euro debt crisis is “scaring” a world seeing growing protests from Athens to Wall Street.

The big sticking-point they need to resolve on Wednesday is how to ramp up the EFSF’s firepower, via a combination of fancy financial footwork.

It is underpinned by 440 billion euros of eurozone government guarantees – nearly half supplied by Germany – but a huge amount has already been committed to bailouts of Ireland and Portugal, even before a second Greek bailout was agreed on in July with a big debt write-off of 21 per cent.

Leaders are looking to use some of the remaining firepower to insure bond buyers against potential future losses, thereby attracting buyers and maintaining interest rates at manageable levels.

They also want to entice the likes of China, as well as private investors the world over, to contribute top-up funding.

Fundamental to wide-ranging talks with international finance houses, negotiators were “relatively close” to a deal to write-off about half of all privately held Greek debt, the EU said.

But the bank lobby, the Institute of International Finance, said there were limits to what could be considered a voluntary write-off, warning against actions leading to a default that would “isolate the Greek economy from international capital markets for many years”.

Greece’s total debts are about 350 billion euros, not all of which would be covered by the so-called debt ‘haircut’.

The EU asked banks to take a 60-per cent cut but banks held to a 40-per cent offer, sources said – with the EU optimistic of a deal “somewhere in the middle”.

However, leaders have also yet to endorse finance ministers’ conclusions that banks will need a near-110-billion-euro recapitalisation to enable them to cope with the fallout from any Greek debt restructuring.

Killer whales migrate to exfoliate

A new study for the first time shows that some killer whales wander nearly 10,000 kilometres from Antarctica’s Southern Ocean into tropical waters – but not to feed or breed.

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Rather, these fearsome predators at the apex of the marine food chain traverse the sea at top speed, slowing as they reach warmer climes to exfoliate, the study speculates.

They are driven, in other words, by the urge or need to make their skin all shiny and new.

Despite our intense fascination with seal-chomping orcas, next to nothing was known about their long-haul movements, or whether they migrate at all.

To find out more, John Durban and Robert Pitman of the US National Marine Fisheries Service fitted a dozen so-called “type B” killer whales off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula with satellite transmitters.

In January 2009, the scientists used bolt-shooting crossbows to attached tags to the five-tonne mammals’ dorsal fins from a distance of five to 15 metres.

‘Type B’ orcas inhabit the inshore waters of Antarctica near pack ice, the better to feed on seals and penguins. Type A killer whales prefer open water and a diet of minke whales, and the smaller, fish-eating type C is most common in the eastern Antarctic.

Half the satellite tags stopped working after three weeks, but the remaining six revealed a remarkable and unexpected wanderlust over the following two years.

“Our tagged whales followed the most direct path to the nearest warm waters north of the subtropical convergence, with a gradual slowing of swim speed in progressively warmer water,” the authors note.

The whales made a beeline, cruising at up to 10 km/hr, across the southwest Atlantic east of the Falkland Islands to the subtropical waters off the coasts of Uruguay and southern Brazil.

The study, published in the British Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters, provides the first direct evidence of long-distance migration by killer whales.

But why they do it remains something of a mystery.

The speed and duration of the voyages, undertaken individually, did not leave enough time for prolonged foraging, and would have been too demanding for a new-born calf.

“Remarkably, one whale returned to Antarctica after completing a 9,400 kilometre trip in just 42 days,” the study said.

The varied departure dates, between early February and late April, also suggested these expeditions were not annual migrations for feeding or breeding.

Which is where skin comes into the picture.

Durban and Pitman suspect that killer whales move into warmer waters in order to shed a layer, along with an encrustation of single-celled algae called diatoms, without freezing to death.

Orcas are the smallest cetaceans, a group including whales and dolphins, which live for extended periods in subzero Antarctic waters. Replacing and repairing outer skin in waters where the surface temperature is minus 1.9 degree Celsius, may be dangerous, even lethal.

Surface temperatures at the killer whales’ tropical destinations, by contrast, were a balmy 20.9 to 24.2 C.

“We hypothesise that these migrations were thermally motivated,” the authors conclude.

Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the most widely distributed cetacean and perhaps mammal species in the world.

Hunt for survivors after Turkey quake

Rescuers scrambled to find survivors of an earthquake that killed at least 272 people in Turkey as residents readied to spend a second night outside in the freezing cold.

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People living in the eastern Van province issued cries for help on Twitter, giving out the addresses of collapsed buildings and the number of people trapped under the debris.

Hundreds of rescuers worked around the clock in the town of Ercis, which bore the brunt of the quake, and surrounding villages, as scores of ambulances and medical supplies were rushed to the area.

View Turkey earthquake in a larger map

The confirmed death toll from the 7.2 magnitude earthquake, which struck around lunchtime on Sunday in Van province, stood at 272, according to Interior Minister Idris Naim Sener. An earlier estimate put the toll at 264.

Some 1300 people were injured, according to Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.

“We couldn’t understand what was going on – all of a sudden there was dust everywhere, our eyes were full of dust, and we were thrown against the walls and furniture. It lasted 20 seconds,” said Ercis resident Yunus Ozmen.

“We spent the night outside in the street and made a fire to keep warm,” said the 23-year-old as he recounted the moment when disaster struck, forcing many out of doors to spend the night in freezing temperatures.

His neighbour, Abdul Hadi Isik, said his aunt and her children were buried under the rubble. “There is no hope left.”

A 16-year-old girl, Hilal, was pulled smiling from the wreckage of her house, and two children were plucked alive from a collapsed building in Ercis, but it was an otherwise grim day for rescuers combing through the rubble.

Some 169 people were killed in Ercis, while 95 died in Van city centre, the Anatolia news agency quoted Sener as saying. A total of 970 buildings collapsed as a result of the quake and aftershocks, including a dormitory in Ercis under which many students were believed to be buried.

About 1200 rescue officials are working in the town of Ercis, according to the local crisis centre.

Residents readied to spend a second night outside in the freezing cold, with nighttime temperatures expected to dip to two degrees Celsius and snow forecast for Wednesday.

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The town’s football pitch had been transformed into a sea of tents set up by the Red Crescent, a field hospital was erected in its stadium and some 1500 units of blood have been sent to the region.

Some 2400 search and rescue teams from 45 cities and more than 200 ambulances have rushed to the region, according to the government.

The military said six battalions were also involved in search and rescue efforts.

Six helicopters, including four helicopter ambulances, as well as C-130 military cargo planes were dispatched to the area carrying tents, food and medicine.

By midday Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay said that rescuers had managed to get access to all the quake-hit zones in Van province, including remote villages.

“There is a decrease in the number of injured people who are being brought here,” said Niyazi Celik, the doctor in charge of the field hospital in Ercis.

“We can expect the death toll to increase but it would not exceed a few dozen more,” Celik said.

Atalay said 29 villages and 40 per cent of Ercis town were without power.

Many of Ercis’s residents fled the town while police and soldiers kept watch around crumbled buildings to prevent looting.

The Turkish Red Crescent sent some 7500 tents, more than 22,000 blankets, almost 4000 heaters and 1000 body bags to the region. A mobile bakery and 21 mobile kitchens were also sent to Van.

Butt’s lawyer claims lack of evidence

Salman Butt’s lawyer has dismissed the case against the former Pakistan Test captain, saying “there simply isn’t enough evidence to find him guilty” in the spot-fixing trial in a London court.

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Butt and fast bowler Mohammad Asif face charges of conspiracy to cheat, and conspiracy to obtain and accept corrupt payments, following a Lord’s Test in August last year when they allegedly conspired with agent Mazhar Majeed, teenage paceman Mohammad Amir and other people unknown to bowl pre-planned no-balls.

Butt and Asif deny the charges.

In his closing at Southwark Crown Court, Butt’s lawyer Ali Bajwa told the court that no reliable evidence that links Butt to the no-balls in question had been presented.

“Salman Butt’s life has been torn apart to the point of analysing his bank records, his every move and even anything his mother does or planned,” Bajwa said.

“If I worked backward from any of your lives (the jury) I could find or twist things about what you have or might not have done.

“When you came into this court room for the first time you all took an oath to say you will give a verdict according to the evidence and nothing but the evidence. In the case of Salman Butt there simply isn’t enough evidence to find him guilty.”

Earlier, prosecutor Aftab Jafferjee opened day 14 of the trial with a three-and-a-half hour outline of the evidence.

“Shorn of cricketing terminology about mid-on and mid-off, shorn of jargon of attacking shots and defensive shots, this is a case of corruption through the vehicle of a sport,” Jafferjee said.

“You the jury do understand deceit, greed and corrupt practice by some on the inside who are lucky enough, through talent, who have the opportunity to exploit it.

“The sad truth in this case is that there are decent things to be said of everybody – perhaps not Majeed. But none of this could have happened without these four people involved. Butt, Asif and Amir were involved. And all for what? Money. More money.”

Bajwa is expected to complete his closing on Tuesday, making way for Asif’s lawyer to begin.

Security and transport are London hurdles

Australian athletes celebrating after competing at the London 2012 Olympics will face the biggest security risks, especially if they use public transport to get around the city.

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That is the view of Australian Olympic Committee media director Mike Tancred after attending a three-day briefing from the London Organising Committee on next July’s Games.

Tancred said security and transport were the biggest hurdles facing Olympic officials, as shown by this year’s London riots.

“Security is the number one issue,” he said after the briefing for about 500 Olympic experts.

“There will be 120,000 police on the beat in London on any given day during the Games.

“But during the London riots they were slow off the mark. They were caught by surprise.

“You can’t have a repeat of that when you have to protect the venues and spectators.”

Tancred said the real threat will be outside the venues and on public transport like the underground.

“Security for the athletes on the tube will be an issue,” he said.

“Especially when the athletes have finished competing and they are on down time and out celebrating, which they are entitled to do.”

Tancred also said transport in general would be a major challenge for Olympic organisers.

“London is a tough transport city on any given day but moving spectators around this town during the Olympics will be a major problem,” he said.

“The organisers are telling us that the rail link from Kings Cross/St Pancras to (the Olympic Park at) Stratford will take seven minutes but how long will it take to get on and get off? That is the question.”

Otherwise Tancred was impressed with Olympic preparations, praising the athletes’ village and competition venues.

“I never thought I’d see venues like the Watercube and Bird’s Nest main stadium that were Beijing’s iconic venues at the 2008 Games,” he said.

“But London’s pool is sensational, especially inside where it is cool and crisp visually, and the architecture at the main stadium looks great.”

Australian International Olympic Committee member and press commission chief Kevan Gosper told the briefing that it will be hard to beat a Games in London from the visual perspective.

“The backdrop of London will be stunning, when you consider that sports like archery will be held at Lord’s and the tennis Wimbledon,” he said.

The London Olympics will run from July 27 to August 12, with athletes competing in 26 sports chasing 302 gold medals.

Tancred said Australia hoped to finish in the top five on the London medal table after finishing sixth on the gold medal count at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Magnussen focus on record, not rivals

The swimming world is chasing James Magnussen but the 100m freestyle world champion is not worried about what’s behind him.

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Instead the 20 year-old is putting all focus towards his ultimate goal – breaking a world record some thought may never be lowered again – and he wants to do it in typically “spectacular” fashion.

“I’m as hungry now as I ever have been,” Magnussen said on Wednesday ahead of his return to competitive racing this weekend.

“Instead of looking behind me at who’s chasing I’m looking ahead to that world record.

“That’s what all my preparations are based around at the moment.

“I know the rest of the world is chasing me.

“It’s a position that I’m not really used to, being the favourite, but the way I see it as long as I’m aiming towards something higher and always moving forwards, there’s no reason they should be catching me.”

Magnussen will return to the blocks on Saturday at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre (SOPAC) club carnival meet.

It will be his first racing since July’s world titles in Shanghai, where his stunning meet included a 47.49-second lead out swim in Australia’s victorious 4x100m freestyle relay team and winning the 100m individual title in 47.63sec.

Magnussen declared in China that Brazilian Cesar Cielo’s world record of 46.91, set in a polyurethane suit at the farcical 2009 world titles in Rome, was now looking “human” after many deemed it near impossible to beat in the post-supersuit era.

And the likeable Port Macquarie swimmer, who concedes he doesn’t mind the limelight, wants to shock the world by breaking the mark while claiming Olympic gold in London.

“I don’t think I’d need to break the world record to win in London but I think it would be pretty spectacular if I could and something that a lot people never thought would happen,” Magnussen said.

“I’m going for a bit of shock factor there.”

While Magnussen is an undoubted favourite for London gold, he got a reminder that his rivals are gunning for him when Cielo clocked an impressive 47.84sec Pan American Games in Mexico last week.

But Magnussen, coming off a gruelling block of training, believes he’s now better equipped to handle the pressure of favouritism after his experiences in Shanghai.

“It (worlds) was a real rollercoaster of emotions,” Magnussen said.

“… But being able to pull through that and being able to get myself together before that final has put me in good stead for the Olympics.”

Magnussen will also compete in the 200m freestyle at this weekend’s club meet, while he will continue his build-up towards next year’s Olympic trials at the Queensland titles in December.

BP results a ‘turning point’: CEO

British oil giant BP’s third-quarter profits have more than doubled thanks to higher oil prices, with the chief executive saying the results marked a turnaround from the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

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BP also announced that it now aims to dispose of $US45 billion ($A43.08 billion) in assets, up from the $US30 billion it originally set to raise money to pay for damage from the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20 last year.

Eleven rig workers were killed in the explosion and fire.

For the three months ending September 30, BP had a net profit of $US4.9 billion, compared with $US1.8 billion a year earlier.

Revenue rose 31 per cent to $US97.6 billion. Brent crude averaged $US112 a barrel in the third quarter, up from $US77 per barrel a year earlier.

Investors welcomed the figure and bid BP shares up 2.2 per cent to 447.9 pence in early trading on the London Stock Exchange on Tuesday.

“We have now reached a definite turning point,” Chief Executive Bob Dudley said in a statement accompanying the earnings report.

“Our operations are regaining momentum and we are facing the future with great confidence.”

Tony Shepard, analyst at Charles Stanley & Co, said BP “may have turned the corner”.

“The key event will be the Department of Justice ruling on the criminal and civil investigation which is unlikely before 2012,” Shepard said.

“This outcome will determine the issue of negligence and the level of potential fines for BP.”

Replacement cost profit, a measure watched by analysts, was $US5.1 billion compared with $US1.9 billion a year earlier.

On an underlying basis, excluding non-operating items and accounting effects, replacement cost profit was down four per cent to $US5.3 billion because production was down 12 per cent and maintenance costs rose.

For the first nine months of the year, BP reported a replacement cost profit of $US15.9 billion, compared with a loss of $US9.5 billion a year ago when the company absorbed $US40 billion in charges because of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

BP said it was facing more than 600 lawsuits from the incident, and expected the total to rise.

The company’s potential liabilities “cannot be fully estimated at this time,” BP said.

BP recently settled claims and counterclaims with its partners in the well, Anadarko Petroleum Co and MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC, a subsidiary of Mitsui.

Still to be resolved are lawsuits involving Transocean Ltd, operator of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, and Halliburton Co, which was responsible for cementing the well. They are scheduled to go to trial in New Orleans in February.