Last Man on Manus Island

REPORTER: Olivia Rousset

I’m flying to remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

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Along with Nauru, it’s one of the two processing centres set up for asylum seekers under the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution.

Deliberately placed far from human rights workers, lawyers and the media, for a long time it was almost impossible for an outsider to visit here.

PNG GUIDE: This is the gate, be aware of that gun pointing at you on the right. Good morning. SBS.

PNG OFFICER: OK, we’ll have to direct you down to the commander officer and we go down there and you will see him and talk to him. I will come with you.

Since September 2001, asylum seekers have been brought to the Lombrum Naval Base, where they’re guarded by the PNG military at Australia’s request. But now there is only one person left here, a 25-year-old Palestinian refugee from Kuwait – Aladdin Sisalem.

REPORTER: Hello, Aladdin. Olivia, nice to meet you.

Aladdin has been here for 15 months, he’s been alone for the past seven. I am his second visitor in that time.

ALADDIN SISALEM: All that I can do now is remember things. Remember that some people were with me here and just to forget that I am living here alone.

Aladdin’s solitary confinement has cost the Australian taxpayer about $5 million dollars so far. The detention centre can house around 1,000 asylum seekers. It has gym, a mess area, a children’s playground, and even a makeshift mosque. But most of Aladdin’s day is spent in his room, plotting his escape on the computer.

ALADDIN SISALEM: The Internet is the only window I can look out from this detention centre. So I spend all my day inside the room. Finding research for information, trying to find help outside, that’s all that I can do here.

When Aladdin first arrived, there were about 150 people here.

ALADDIN SISALEM: They are in Auckland now. This is in Auckland as well, New Zealand.

Of all the asylum seekers brought to Manus, Aladdin was the only one to have actually made it to Australia. But he was also the only one left behind when his friends departed.

ALADDIN SISALEM: This is when the first group of New Zealand was going.

REPORTER: How did you feel when they left? Did you think that you would go soon?

ALADDIN SISALEM: I just felt happy for them. I just wished that some day I would leave like them.

The guards are discouraged from talking to the sole inmate here so his only company is a stray cat – Honey.

ALADDIN SISALEM: Hi, Honey. Give me your hand.

Aladdin’s prolonged incarceration has had a heavy impact on his state of mind. He used to take five different pills daily, until the psychiatrist and the doctor left along with the rest of the asylum seekers.

ALADDIN SISALEM: I told them don’t stop this medicine because they tried to stop it.

Now a guard gives him just one anti-anxiety tablet each afternoon. Even so, he’s still plagued by thoughts of suicide.

ALADDIN SISALEM: I don’t see the government planning for any end for my situation. Only just to maybe they want me to end it myself. And I can’t. I don’t have the courage to do that. And I won’t do it. And I need my rights to live. And I want to live. I don’t want to be forgotten here until I make my own decision. I don’t want that. I can’t do it.

ERIC VADARLIS, ALADDIN’S LAWYER: There is no doubt in my mind that Aladdin is really stuck between a hard place and a rock. He’s not in a place of his own choosing, he came here because he believes that Australia was a free country, you know, signatory to the convention on refugees, obligated to give refuse to those people seeking asylum and unfortunately he was wrong because we’re a hard-arsed country here.

Eric Vadarlis is a prominent Melbourne solicitor who’s taken on Aladdin’s cause. He says that in 27 years of practising law, he’s never seen a case like this.

ERIC VADARLIS: He is a classic refugee. He’s a classic person for whom the convention was created back in 1947. Classic. And yet, he comes here, he’s stateless, he’s a Palestinian, he’s got no travel documents, he really can’t be anywhere. I mean, he can’t go to Mars, and yet they put him on Manus Island.

How Aladdin ended up on Manus Island is an extraordinary story. He was born in Kuwait but as the son of a Palestinian refugee he didn’t have automatic right to residency. Unable to work legally and harassed by the police, he left three years ago after getting a tourist visa to Indonesia. When he arrived in Jakarta he applied for asylum with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR. But after a year of living on the streets and no progress with his application, he set off for Papua New Guinea.

ALADDIN SISALEM: I come with the ship from Java, Indonesia…

Aladdin got a ship to Indonesian West Papua and travelled through dense jungle to the border with PNG.

ALADDIN SISALEM: This is the closest point between Indonesia and PNG and I arrive at about here.

After trekking for two weeks through the rainforest with no food, he arrived in Kiunga, Papua New Guinea. When he requested asylum he was told to walk back through the jungle to West Papua. Aladdin refused to go. He was jailed for illegal entry and says he was beaten in prison.

ALADDIN SISALEM: I spent seven months in Port Moresby trying with the immigration department…

When he was told that PNG doesn’t take asylum seekers from terrorist countries, he finally decided to try his luck in Australia.

ALADDIN SISALEM: So I flew from Port Moresby to Daru Island, this one here, Daru Island, PNG, Daru island. You see the border, it is close. And this is Saibai Island, Australia’s Saibai Island. It’s not far from the PNG border.

A fisherman took Aladdin to Australia’s Saiwai Island in the Torres Strait. At this critical moment he says he approached local immigration officers and asked for asylum. He was then flown to Thursday Island where officials in Canberra interviewed him by telephone. Aladdin thought his 2-year journey was finally over.

ALADDIN SISALEM: And in the morning they come, the immigration officers, the same ones they come and took me to the airport. I said “What’s happening? Where we going?” They said “We’re going to Manus Island.” I said “Why?” They said “It’s Australian centre, immigration centre. We’ll put you there and process your case.”

Aladdin waited here in the detention centre for nearly two months to hear about the processing of his case. But no-one approached him about it.

ALADDIN SISALEM: I see them come and talk to the other asylum seekers, told them about their situation but nobody tell me about my case. So I feel confused. And they told me – the immigration officer said to me – the same one who interviewed me for my asylum claim – he said to me “We don’t have an asylum application for you.” Now I start to understand the situation. I start to find it’s getting serious.

As a signatory to the UN refugee convention, Australia is obliged to grant asylum to anyone who lands in the migration zone, if they ask for it, and are found to be a refugee. Since arriving on Manus, Aladdin has been granted refugee status by the UNHCR. So what about Australia’s obligation to him, given that he sought asylum in Australian territory? The Government says he didn’t ask for the right form.

ALADDIN SISALEM: I didn’t want Australia to ask for tourist visa. I mean, I didn’t risk my life to enter some remote Australian remote island because I want – I am economy migrant or something like this. I needed help. I went there and first thing I asked, I asked for asylum. I was interviewed. I mean, if Australian immigration does not consider me as an asylum seeker why they ask me about the harms I suffered in Kuwait and the persecution? Why they ask me about that, if they don’t want to process my application for asylum?

REPORTER: Minister, can you tell me what someone’s required to do once they land within the Australian migration zone to ensure that a visa application for asylum is under way?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION: Well, look, if someone wants some advice on how to make an asylum claim they should get it from the Immigration Department.

REPORTER: But if someone – if a refugee, say, lands within the migration zone of Australia, what do they need to do?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: As I say, if someone wants some advice on the legal requirements for making a claim, they can get that from the Immigration Department.

REPORTER: But if there’s someone who has –

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: You’ve asked me that twice and I’ve given the same answer twice. I know why you’ve asked me that twice and I’m going to give you the same answer every time.

ERIC VARDARLIS: There’s no special way for a person to claim asylum. I mean logic helps because this guy landed on Saibai Island, in northern most part of Australia on his own and he’s a Palestinian and he sought asylum. I mean he says “I sought asylum” they said “No, you didn’t because you didn’t fill out the form.”

When Aladdin did submit a written claim for asylum he received this letter from the Department of Immigration.

DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION, LETTER: Dear Mr Sisalem, Australia does not have an obligation to extend protection to a person who is outside Australia. You are currently in Papua New Guinea and have applied for asylum there. Papua New Guinea is a signatory to the UN convention relating to the status of refugees.

ERIC VADARLIS: When this hit my desk the first time around I looked at it and I thought somebody must have ticked the wrong box for this man to be in the position he’s in today. I thought it was a simple misunderstanding that it would be sorted out fairly quickly.

Eric Vadarlis will be representing Aladdin in a Federal Court case next month, attempting to prove Aladdin is Australia’s responsibility.

ERIC VADARLIS: I think we need to go back a step and work out how Aladdin got there. Aladdin didn’t get there because he bought a ticket to Manus Island. He was taken there by the Australian Government, specifically taken and dumped there. Now whose problem is he? So, you know, is the Australian Government into the slave trade? Do they pick people up and just take them off to Manus Island and drop them there and say they are someone else’s problem?

In fact this is precisely what the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs claims.

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, you’ve asked me this a couple of times, I’ve indicated to you Mr Sisalem is not the responsibility of the Australian Government.

REPORTER: It just doesn’t seem very clear that the PNG Government says that as far as they’re concerned the detention centre is Australian property, it’s virtually Australia. You’ve got a guy who entered the migration zone here and was flown by Australian authorities to Manus Island detention centre where he’s being looked after by people who are paid by the Australian Government, how can he not be Australia’s responsibility?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, as I’ve indicated to you he’s not the Australian Government’s responsibility. I understand that’s agreed. I’m not privy…

With Aladdin’s court case pending, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone refuses to discuss his case in detail. While Aladdin sits alone, the locals enjoy a Sunday soccer match just outside the fence of the detention centre. As no-one can visit him, they know nothing about him.

GIRL (Translation): We’ve heard that he’s married to a Papua New Guinean woman so he comes out, he walks around…

In fact, Aladdin hasn’t left the centre since early February when he was taken out for a couple of hours escorted by guards. He no longer wants to go outside, he’s afraid that Australia is pressuring PNG to give him asylum and based on prior experiences, he’s terrified he’ll be killed.

ERIC VADARLIS: I think Aladdin is very scared at the moment. He really doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s all a bit beyond him. And frankly I don’t blame him. He’s been imprisoned by the PNG system, so really he wouldn’t have very much faith in the process and I don’t blame him.

Aladdin says the manager of the camp knows he’s in danger.

ALADDIN SISALEM: He told me, he agreed with me that if I left PNG authorities my body would be in the jungle and he said “That’s why I don’t want you out of here.” But he’s still pushing me to get out.

The Papua New Guinean Foreign Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu wants to close the gates when the lease comes up at the end of this year.

SIR RABBIE NAMALIU, PNG FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, our feeling is that the detention centre has probably served its purpose. There’s only one soul left at the centre, and if that is going to be the case, we feel there is no point in continuing with the centre.

For the time being, Australia is happy to keep the camp open with Aladdin as its sole occupant, at a cost of $23,000 a day.

ALADDIN SISALEM: There is not any reason to keep me on my own here, OK. What between them and Australia and the PNG government, this is their own business, their own work. Myself, I need my right for freedom and safety.

ERIC VADARLIS: The way things look he’s going to be there forever, in a sort of Gilligan Island’s scenario. We’re just going to sit out and wait. So there’s a human being involved and he ought to be processed in accordance with the law and promptly.

REPORTER: There’s someone who for seven months has been alone and has only had two visitors in that time and is slowly going mad from that experience. Do you feel sorry for him as a genuine refugee who’s tried for two years to get asylum in Indonesia, then Papua New Guinea and then Australia and has found himself sort of in this detention centre all on his own not knowing what’s going on?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: With respect, I might have some different information from that which you have and no, I cannot say that I have any sorry for Mr Sisalem’s position.

REPORTER: You don’t feel sorry for a stateless refugee?

SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: You’ve just asked me a question and I’ve answered it.

Aladdin is allowed only two phone calls each month. He’s calling his family in Kuwait where they live as refugees.

ALADDIN SISALEM (Translation): The whole world is talking about it, but it’s no use.

His father hasn’t left the house in 15 years and recently had a stroke brought about by the stress of Aladdin’s perilous journey.

ALADDIN SISALEM (Translation): Look after my father, all right? Look after my father.

REPORTER: Do they worry about you?

ALADDIN SISALEM: They just feel helpless. They feel helpless. They have their own problems to worry about. They have a lot. So actually, I am the one who worries about them.

REPORTER: What do they say to you?

ALADDIN SISALEM: Don’t give up.

Springboks guilty over armband protest

Rugby’s governing body has found the Springboks guilty of bringing the game into disrepute with an armband protest against a ban given to Bakkies Botha.

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Charges were laid after the side wore white armbands bearing the word ‘justice’ during their third Test defeat by the British and Irish Lions last month.

The armbands were worn as a symbol of solidarity with lock Botha, who the South Africans felt had been unfairly banned for dangerously charging into a ruck during the second Test of the series.

The International Rugby Board (IRB)’s independent disciplinary committee fines of STG10,000 ($A19,700) on the South African Rugby Union (SARU), STG1,000 ($A1,970) on Springbok skipper John Smit and STG200 ($A400) on each of the other players.

The committee said the sanctions would have been much more severe but for legal technicalities, and the IRB could yet seek tougher measures by appealing against the ruling of its disciplinary committee.

No apology

SARU acknowledged the guilty verdict but held off a response until it had reviewed the findings.

“We note the outcome of the International Rugby Board’s Disciplinary Committee hearing into the charges brought against the South African Rugby Union, Springbok players and management,” said SARU president Oregan Hoskins.

“We are reviewing the full findings of the committee and will respond once that review is concluded.”

The IRB committee was made up of two judges, Sir John Hansen of New Zealand and Guillermo Tragant of Argentina, and former Australian captain John Eales.

In its ruling, the committee said that the action of the Springboks “brought the game into disrepute, criticised the judicial process and was misconduct”.

The committee also noted the absence of any apology from SARU, the team’s management or the players themselves.

World Cup ban

It emphasised that “the playing arena is no place for protest” and that the wearing of the armbands “showed a serious lack of respect and consideration for their opponents”.

SARU was found to have failed to make any attempt to prevent the protest, approved of it and effectively consented to conduct which was prejudicial to the best interests of the IRB and of the game.

In a statement the IRB added that: “The Independent Committee was unanimous in its view that, had it not been for the legal technicalities… both SARU and the Springbok players and

management would have faced much more serious sanctions”.

It said those sanctions could have faced “a more severe fine in the case of SARU and the suspension of the Springbok players and management from the Rugby World Cup 2011 (such sanction to have been suspended in the absence of further acts of misconduct before then).”

The IRB said it was “extremely disappointed” at the level of sanctions imposed and would consider an appeal in the hope of securing tougher punishment to act as a deterrent against any repeat of the Springboks’ action by players around the world.

Troops patrol Peru quake town

Rescue crews were now focusing on aid efforts for tens of thousands of people left destitute by the massive earthquake.

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President Alan Garcia has threatened to impose a curfew to stop looting by angry mobs, with 200,000 people said to have been affected by Wednesday's magnitude-8 quake which left 500 dead and 1,600 injured.

"I have ordered to use the harshest measures and if needed to impose a curfew," Mr Garcia told reporters in Pisco, the town, 240 kilometres southeast of Lima, hit hardest by the quake.

More than 1,000 troops and police armed with assault rifles were patrolling the streets of the town which was 70 percent destroyed in the quake.

At least 500 dead

Police on Sunday released the latest official death toll in Pisco. The tally is likely to increase the overall toll in Peru's southern Pacific Coast, previously estimated at 500.

National police colonel Roger Torres told news agency AFP at least 308 people were confirmed dead in Pisco, including 160 worshippers who were crushed when the town's San Clemente church collapsed. Mr Torres believed a further 150 were still buried in rubble elswehere in the town.

Amid mounting reports of looting and assaults, President Garcia on Saturday ordered more troops to the quake-stricken southern area and promised that authorities would keep the peace "whatever the cost."

Many thousands were left homeless by the quake and on Sunday faced a fifth night sleeping in the streets in the chilly southern hemisphere winter.

Emergency workers meanwhile abandoned rescue efforts as hopes for finding any more survivors faded. "The possibility of finding someone alive is nearly nil," Jorge Molina, search and rescue operations chief for the local firefighters, told AFP.

Efforts would now focus on recovering the dead in the rubble and helping secure the distribution of aid, officials said.

Angry mobs

Desperate mobs have been looting trucks carrying food and water, and some people tried to break into the air force base where relief efforts have been centralized.

Close to the provincial capital of Ica, another mob tried to raid a convoy of trucks carrying emergency supplies.

In nearby Chincha, a group of people tried to break into a hospital believing it held emergency food supplies.

Spanish fire-fighters searching the rubble of the Pisco church with trained sniffer dogs also had to stop their work late Saturday when gunfire broke out around them.

Aid workers are also worried of the risk of an outbreak of disease in the town.

Health Minister Carlos Vallejos said some 1,500 doctors and nurses were struggling to prevent the spread of epidemic diseases among earthquake victims.

"The problem is not only that there are still unfound bodies, the problem is water," and how human waste is being disposed of, he said.

Fears over disease

There were fears of an outbreak of infectious diseases in the quake-stricken areas such as diarrhea and cholera, while a choking dust from the rubble of the town was causing respiratory problems.

Medical officials said Saturday that symptoms of respiratory infections have begun to emerge as a floating dust cloaks the town, and warned the situation could deteriorate into an epidemic if residents fail to take precautions.

A field hospital has been set up by 22 US doctors in the grounds of the Pisco football stadium.

Among aid from other countries, the French embassy in Lima said fire-fighters from France had arrived in Peru to help.

Aftershocks are also continuing to keep people on edge. Peru's geophysical institute reported more than 400 tremors following the quake, which was the most devastating to hit the country since 1970.

McKenzie causes stir to avoid wooden spoon

Both sides are chasing their first win but only the Wallabies could feel particularly aggrieved at their precarious situation, having strode confidently into the tournament under new coach Ewen McKenzie.

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After three rounds, the Wallabies sit bottom of the table behind the underdog Pumas and their coach’s pledge to win by playing “the Australian way” have been made to look foolish by two losses to New Zealand and a record hiding by South Africa on home soil.

With alarm bells ringing Down Under and rugby writers moaning of fans turning away from the game, McKenzie has not gone back to the drawing board so much as to rip it off the wall and hurl it out of the window.

Out-of-sorts scrumhalf Will Genia, the Wallabies’ “only world XV player” in the words of local pundit Greg Growden, has been dropped to the bench and Ben Mowen, a backrower with only six tests under his belt, has been awarded the captaincy.

The stunning gambit has been branded Australian rugby’s ‘line in the sand’ moment, a move to shock an underperforming side out of its torpor and head off a potentially cataclysmic defeat against highly physical opponents desperate to post their first win in the tournament.

McKenzie, who raised eyebrows by suggesting he would need to “dumb down” the game plan after the painful 38-12 loss to the Springboks in Brisbane, shrugged it all off as tinkering.

“There are little areas of the game where we can tweak things. We’ve made some minor adjustments,” he said this week.

“If you change big things, you actually don’t know what makes the biggest influence.

“So with small changes – which is what we’ve been doing for the last few weeks – we’ll get there.”

HENRY HELP

Beset by a shocking run of injuries, Australia under former coach Robbie Deans hung tight to defeat Argentina twice last year and finished a creditable second behind the champion All Blacks.

No matter the gap in class between the sides, a repeat of last week’s effort against South Africa would almost certainly see the Wallabies crumble to defeat against the Pumas, who will look to exploit the hosts’ brittle pack in the scrum.

After being humiliated 73-13 by the Springboks in Soweto, Argentina regained their pride with a narrow loss in the return match at Mendoza and surprised the All Blacks last week in Hamilton with an early try before being reeled in.

Head coach Santiago Phelan has shaken up his backline, recalling scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli and centres Felipe Contepomi and Gonzalo Tiesi among four changes in the hope of bringing more firepower to Subiaco Oval.

But the forwards, who were combative against New Zealand’s formidable pack, are untouched barring a promotion to the starting side for hooker Agustin Creevy.

Led by captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Argentina have also had some insights in how to beat the Wallabies from former World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry, whose New Zealand teams dominated Australia for the better part of a decade.

“He added a lot of confidence and knowledge in the way to attack,” Contepomi said of Henry, who has worked with Argentina as a coaching consultant.

“He knows the Wallabies much better than we do, and it’s great to have his inside knowledge… He can add to our rugby culture.”

Australia team: 15-Israel Folau, 14-James O’Connor, 13-Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12-Christian Leali’ifano, 11-Nick Cummins, 10-Quade Cooper, 9-Nic White, 8-Ben Mowen (captain), 7-Michael Hooper, 6-Scott Fardy, 5-Kane Douglas, 4-Rob Simmons, 3-Ben Alexander, 2-Stephen Moore, 1-James Slipper

Replacements: 16-Saia Fainga’a, 17-Scott Sio, 18-Sekope Kepu, 19-Sitaleki Timani, 20-Ben McCalman, 21-Will Genia, 22-Matt Toomua, 23-Tevita Kuridrani

Argentina: 15-Juan Martin Hernandez, 14-Horacio Agulla, 13-Gonzalo Tiesi, 12-Felipe Contepomi, 11-Juan Imhoff, 10-Nicolas Sanchez, 9-Tomas Cubelli; 8-Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 7-Pablo Matera, 6-Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (captain), 5-Julio Farias Cabello, 4-Manuel Carizza, 3-Juan Figallo, 2-Agustin Creevy, 1-Marcos Ayerza

Replacements: 16-Eusebio Guinazu, 17-Nahuel Lobo, 18-Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19-Mariano Galarza, 20-Benjamin Macome, 21-Martín Landajo, 22-Santiago Fernandez, 23-Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino

Referee: George Clancy

(Editing by …)

O’Connor edges closer to new rugby deal

The playing future of James O’Connor could be sorted as early as next week as the star Wallaby edges closer to a reunion with the Western Force.

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O’Connor has been left in limbo at Super Rugby level since being dumped by the Melbourne Rebels in July.

The 23-year-old is keen to continue his international career with the Wallabies, but he needs to earn a deal with the Force if that is to happen.

Just in case his former club don’t come to the party with an offer, O’Connor’s manager has been seeking out other options.

A code switch to the NRL could be on the cards, along with a playing stint in Europe.

But O’Connor remains hopeful that won’t be necessary, expressing his desire to achieve greater heights with the Wallabies.

“I’m very happy in rugby at the moment,” O’Connor said ahead of Saturday night’s Test against Argentina in Perth.

“I’ve got a lot I want to achieve in this game with this group.

“I don’t think we’ve reached anywhere near our peak.”

The Wallabies have a week off after taking on Argentina, and O’Connor hopes to get everything sorted during that period.

“That’s when I can take some time out to evaluate where I’m at,” he said.

“If all things are going well, it could be done in that week – possibly.

“I love Perth. It’s an amazing city. I spent four years here and I’ve come back every year as well for holidays and to catch up with mates.

“But it’s in my manager’s hands.”

For the moment, O’Connor is desperate to help the Wallabies snap their four-game losing run.

Australia were thumped 38-12 by the Springboks in Brisbane last week, and O’Connor said the team’s recent lean trot had left the players hurting and hungry to atone.

“A Test match loss is a lot heavier than a Super Rugby loss,” O’Connor said.

“You’re never ready for it. It’s not something you enjoy at all. It’s very frustrating.

“You just want to get out there as soon as possible and start working on how to fix it.”

Lotus search for Raikkonen F1 successor

Lotus team principal Eric Boullier on Thursday revealed he has opened talks with several drivers as he searches for a successor to Kimi Raikkonen.

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Raikkonen has confirmed he will return to Ferrari on a two-year contract from next season and Boullier is keen to move quickly to line up the Finn’s replacement.

Boullier believes Lotus are an attractive option for ambitious drivers, with Felipe Massa – ousted from Ferrari in favour of Raikkonen – Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg and Paul Di Resta at Force India among the reported contenders.

“We are currently in discussion with a few people and will make a decision shortly,” Boullier said.

“We are in the privileged position of being the most desirable team on the grid with a seat available.

“So we are therefore in no rush to announce anyone without establishing what will be the best for our team and the future.”

Following a two-year sabbatical in rallying after leaving Ferrari at the end of 2009, Raikkonen returned to Formula One with Lotus at the start of last season.

The 2007 world champion helped the team back onto the top step of the podium, initially in Abu Dhabi last season and Australia at the start of this year’s campaign.

Boullier paid tribute to the Finn but made it clear he was confident Lotus can still thrive without him.

“Two years ago, when we decided to sign him, quite a few people thought we were crazy,” he said.

“We’ve been working with an amazing racer, who scored points for the team 27 times in a row and won two races.

“But we’ve had (Michael) Schumacher, (Fernando) Alonso, Raikkonen. New champions will join the list here soon I’m sure.”

US, Russia in crucial Syria talks after Putin appeal

In talks reminiscent of Cold War-era summits, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet in Geneva to pore over Moscow’s plans to neutralise Syria’s chemical arsenal.

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Russia’s shock announcement this week of a plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons up-ended US plans for military action in response to an alleged chemical attack last month by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

   

President Barack Obama backed away from a threat to launch airstrikes against the regime, but the United States and main backer France have warned that military action is not off the table.

   

Revealing details of the proposal for the first time Thursday, Russian daily Kommersant said Moscow had given Washington a four-step plan for the weapons handover.

   

Quoting a Russian diplomatic source, Kommersant said the plan would see Damascus join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), declare the locations of its chemical arms, allow OPCW inspectors access and finally arrange for destruction of the arsenal.

   

Syria’s opposition has denounced the plan as a delaying tactic, warning it will only lead to more deaths in a conflict that has already killed more than 110,000 people since March 2011.

   

The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Selim Idriss, said in a video posted on YouTube that the rebels categorically rejected the Russian plan.

   

Idriss told world powers they should not “be satisfied only by removing the chemical weapon, which is the tool of a crime, but judge the author of the crime before the International Criminal Court.”

   

Ahead of the talks in Geneva, Putin took the unusual step of penning a commentary in the New York Times warning that unilateral US military action could unleash chaos.

   

Appealing directly to US voters and policy-makers over Obama’s head, Putin wrote: “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.

   

“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance,” Putin said.

   

Drawing on a passage in Obama’s Tuesday night address that said the United States has an “exceptional” role to play, Putin said it was wrong for any power to presume a unique leadership role.

   

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” he wrote.

   

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

   

Putin welcomed Washington’s willingness to engage with the Moscow initiative, but warned that carrying out strikes without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow wields a veto, would destroy the credibility of the world body.

   

“No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage,” he said, referring to the United Nations’ failed inter-war predecessor.

   

Russia is a traditional ally of Assad, and Moscow, backed by China, has blocked any attempt to sanction his regime through the United Nations.

   

Envoys from the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — held inconclusive talks on Syria at the United Nations on Wednesday.

   

The talks in Geneva were expected to last two to three days and also focus on revitalising efforts to call a peace conference aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.

   

As well as Lavrov, Kerry was due to meet UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to discuss UN-backed efforts to bring the Assad regime to the table with the opposition rebels.

   

Western officials have claimed the sudden renewal of diplomatic efforts on Syria was the result of the military threats, but have questioned whether Assad can be trusted to hand over chemical weapons.

   

Washington alleges that some 1,400 people died in the chemical attack on August 21 and was rallying support for a military response when the Russian proposal emerged.

   

Obama had been struggling to win domestic support for unilateral action and in an address to the American people on Tuesday postponed, but did not withdraw, the threat of military action.

   

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Thursday that a much-awaited report by UN inspectors into the attack will “probably” be published on Monday.

   

“It will say that there was a chemical massacre,” Fabius told French radio Thursday.

   

In his commentary, Putin again accused Syrian rebels of being behind the attack.

   

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria,” Putin wrote.

   

“But there is every reason to believe it was not used by the Syrian Army but by opposition forces to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons,” he said.

Stepanek, Monaco to open Davis Cup semi

Radek Stepanek of holders Czech Republic will take on Argentina’s Juan Monaco in the opening rubber of the Davis Cup semi-finals starting in Prague on Friday.

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Stepanek, the world No.61 and second-ranked Czech, will face Argentina’s 30th-ranked Monaco at Prague’s O2 Arena.

After that rubber, fifth-ranked Tomas Berdych will face world No.93 Leonardo Mayer on the superfast acrylic hardcourt, on which the Czechs won last year’s final against Spain.

“We have played lots of games against each other. He plays great tennis from the baseline,” the 34-year-old Stepanek told reporters after the draw on Thursday.

“I’ll try to use the surface; to take advantage of it.”

On Saturday, the Czech Republic’s Jiri Vesely and Lukas Rosol are due to face Argentina’s Horacio Zeballos and Carlos Berlocq in the doubles rubber.

But the Czechs are likely to change their pairing and rely on Berdych and Stepanek, who have so far only lost one of 13 Davis Cup doubles rubbers together since teaming up in 2007.

The winner of the tie will take on Canada or Serbia in the November 15-17 finals.

The two teams last clashed in 2012 when the Czechs beat Argentina 3-2 in the semi-finals in Buenos Aires, before lifting the trophy after a 3-2 final win against Spain. Argentina, who have played three finals in the past seven years, are seeking their first Davis Cup.

Argentine captain Martin Jaite has shunned world No.45 Berlocq for the singles, while his Czech counterpart is likely to rest out-of-form 46th-ranked Rosol.

Berdych said he was not surprised by the choice as Mayer is good on hard surfaces.

“He has a great serve; he tries to play aggressively,” said Berdych.

“But I’ll focus on myself. I need to win three sets and that’s it.”

Argentina are missing their top star Juan Martin del Potro, who is taking a break from the competition this year, as well as an injured David Nalbandian, who has won both Davis Cup doubles so far this year with Zeballos.

Mikkelsen leads Rally Aust after 2 stages

Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway won the first special stage and was second in the other on Thursday to lead Rally Australia after the opening day.

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Mikkelsen had an overall time of two minutes, 45.3 seconds after the two 1.6km special stages. Kris Meeke of Northern Ireland, who led qualifying earlier in the day, was second in 2:46.2 and Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland was third in 2:46.7.

Sebastien Ogier of France, Mikkelsen’s Volkswagen Motorsport teammate who leads the World Rally Championship standings by 75 points and could clinch the 2013 title with a win this weekend, won the second stage and sits fourth overall in 2:46.8 – 1.5 seconds behind.

Mikkelsen, who leads a WRC event for the first time, clipped a barrier with the left-hand front corner of his car on the second loop of the course.

“The stage was OK but I think the organisers sprayed water on the road after the first pass and suddenly it was super slippery,” Mikkelsen said. “I think we’re OK; no damage.”

Ogier said he looked forward to Friday’s first full day on the gravel roads in the forests outside Coffs Harbour.

“I just tried to keep out of trouble here, but it was tricky because we decided to start with the hard (compound) tyres,” Ogier said. “Not the best in the slippery stuff – we didn’t expect more water on the stage. Tomorrow is the real start of the rally.”

Mikko Hirvonen is fifth overall, with Thierry Neuville, who is closest to Ogier in the standings, sixth.

Coffs Harbour resident Nathan Quinn ended the day 10th on his debut in a Mini.

“I’m learning a lot pretty quickly. Now I can’t wait to get out on the wide roads tomorrow,” Quinn said.

Seventh overall is Mads Ostberg of Norway (Qatar M-Sport), ahead of Russian Evgeny Novikov (Qatar M-Sport) and Khalid Al-Qassimi, United Arab Emirates (Citroen).

The 22-stage, 354km Rally Australia, 10th of 13 stops on the world championship, ends on Sunday.

Ferrari say Raikkonen not an anti-Alonso choice

“At Ferrari, everyone knows the interests of the team come first and only then those of the individual.

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Fernando is a key asset for this team and he will be for a long time.

“I’m sure he is the first to be happy with a choice made to strengthen the group, because he is too intelligent not to realise that a stronger team can only be an advantage,” added the Italian.

Double world champion Alonso had made clear before the appointment that he would be happy to continue with under-performing Brazilian Felipe Massa as his team mate.

In comments on Wednesday, after the announcement from Maranello, the Spaniard paid tribute to the departing Massa and welcomed his new “travelling companion” without mentioning the Finn by name.

Domenicali said the driver combination of Alonso and Raikkonen was the best Ferrari could have and both would start on equal terms.

The Italian also addressed concerns about Raikkonen’s ability to work as a team player and in helping to develop and improve the car technically.

“Everyone has their own ways and you can’t expect a Finn to start telling jokes in Italian or playing the clown,” he said. “Honestly, I think the combination of Fernando’s expressive and passionate Latin character and the cool style, to call it that, of someone like Kimi, seems to appeal to many.

“As for the technical side of things, not only do we know full well how much Kimi can contribute at an important time like this…but we also have first hand information from James Allison, as to how much the Finn has also progressed in this area over the past two years.”

Allison was with Raikkonen at Lotus, where he was technical director, before starting work with Ferrari this month.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Alison Wildey)

No rest for Nadal as Spain pick him for Davis Cup singles

There had been doubt over world number two Nadal’s participation in the three-day tie in Madrid after his recent exertions in New York where he beat top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Monday’s U.

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S. Open final.

Nadal arrived in the Spanish capital early on Wednesday and after training at the “Magic Box” venue the 27-year-old was named in the team for Thursday’s draw by captain Alex Corretja.

“When I have been asked and have been free of injury I have always turned out to try to help the team win points and secure victories,” Nadal told a news conference.

“I have been playing at the maximum intensity for practically a whole month and obviously that has a draining effect,” he added.

“But I am ready for tomorrow and it’s just going to require another little bit of effort. I hope to be competitive even though I have spent very few hours on the court.”

Stakhovsky caused a huge upset at Wimbledon this year when he defeated seven-times champion Roger Federer in the second round but Nadal should have little trouble against the world number 92, especially as the tie is on his favoured clay.

Nadal has won 20 of his 21 Davis Cup singles matches, including a perfect 16 out of 16 on clay.

Spain number two Fernando Verdasco will play Ukraine number one Alexandr Dolgopolov in the opening singles, with the doubles to come on Saturday and the reverse singles on Sunday in the first meeting between the two nations.

Spain are in the playoffs after losing away to Milos Raonic’s Canada in the first round in February when Nadal, who had just returned from a seven-month injury layoff, did not feature. They had last fallen in the first round in 2006 when a team also missing Nadal was beaten 4-1 by Belarus on indoor carpet in Minsk.

In other World Group playoff ties Poland’s hopes of joining the elite for the first time have been dealt a huge blow after Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz was ruled out with a back injury for the home tie against Australia in Warsaw.

Andy Murray will lead Britain’s attempt to return to the World Group and will face 16-year-old Croatian Borna Coric in the opening singles rubber in Umag.

(Reporting by Iain Rogers, editing by Martyn Herman)

Czech Stepanek faces Argentine Monaco in Davis Cup opener

World number five Tomas Berdych will then take on Argentine Leonardo Mayer in the second of the opening day’s matches in Prague as the Czechs play in front of a home crowd for the first time this season.

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Czech talisman Stepanek won the decisive match of the 2012 final against Spain to earn his country the Cup for the first time as an independent nation in Prague last November.

The 34-year-old, who had neck surgery in January, comes into the competition off the back of winning the men’s doubles title with Leander Paes at Flushing Meadows last weekend.

“Physically, I have no problem,” news website idnes.cz quoted Stepanek as saying. “Three days (of matches) have never been a problem. It won’t be a problem now.”

Argentina, runners-up to Spain in 2011, were beaten by the Czechs in Buenos Aires at the same stage last year and head into the semis without world number seven Juan Martin Del Potro.

For the second singles rubber, Argentine captain Martin Jaite has surprisingly turned to the lowest ranked player on the team, world number 93 Mayer.

“I had four good players and I believe that Leo will play great,” Jaite was reported as saying by news agency CTK.

For Saturday’s doubles match, Czechs Lukas Rosol and Jiri Vesely are pencilled in to face Carlos Berlocq and Horacio Zeballos.

However, the Czechs are likely to turn instead to Stepanek and Berdych, who played all key matches in last year’s title run.

“We are ready to play the role of favourites but nothing easy is expected,” Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil said.

The winners of the Prague tie will face either Canada or Serbia in the November 15-17 final.

The Czechs lifted the Cup last year for the first time since Czechoslovakia won in 1980.

Argentina have yet to win the Davis Cup despite four appearances in the final.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Alison Wildey)

Former athletes struggling with addiction and illness

More than 1,200 retired footballers, rugby union and league players, jockeys and cricketers were polled by the Professional Players Federation, an umbrella body of players’ unions who interviewed a wide range of former sports professionals aged from 22 to 95.

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Simon Taylor, the PPF general secretary, told Reuters some female jockeys may have been polled but 99 percent of the respondents were men.

The results showed that while 79 per cent said they were content with their lives, 32 per cent said they did not feel in control in the first two years after leaving sport.

Almost a quarter of them – 24 per cent – said they had suffered from physical and mental health issues or financial and addiction problems as they attempted to embark on second careers once their professional sporting days were over.

Many footballers have publicly struggled with their demons with former Manchester United and Northern Ireland great George Best the most notable example. Former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne’s problems have also been well documented over the last few years.

Some 16 per cent said they experienced depression or “feelings of despair”, 17 per cent had anxiety or stress issues and 16 per cent suffered a loss of self-esteem once they retired.

Brendan Batson, the PPF chairman said in a release accompanying the survey: “This important study emphasises the challenges professional sportspeople face in retirement and it is crucial we help them adjust to life out of the spotlight.”

Angus Porter, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, which initiated the study, added: “It is important that we continue to provide support, particularly in the crucial two year period after they stop playing.”

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The most recent example of a former sportsman struggling to cope is Kenny Sansom, the ex-Arsenal defender who played 86 times for England and took part in two World Cups. His alcoholism was so bad he admitted to sleeping on park benches.

“When you come to the end of your career you obviously have more time on your hands and you drink three or four times a week, then it becomes every day, and at one stage I was drinking eight or nine bottles of wine a day, ” he told Sky Sports News on Thursday.

“I was drinking to forget problems and I didn’t mind sleeping rough because I’d get miserably drunk and then just fall asleep somewhere on a park bench,” he added.

The PPF was organising a one-day conference in Birmingham to help former professionals cope with the trials of life as they embark on a second career.

The research found that almost half retained a link to their sport in some capacity, and the average salary among those surveyed was between 30,000 pounds ($47,400) and 40,000 pounds, above the average national wage of 26,000 pounds.

(Reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Alan Baldwin)