Assad sets price of weapons handover

President Bashar al-Assad says Syria will give up its chemical weapons, but has demanded the US drop threats of military action.

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“When we see that the United States truly desires stability in our region and stops threatening and seeking to invade, as well as stops arms supplies to terrorists then we can believe that we can follow through with the necessary processes,” Assad said in an interview on Russian television.

Washington should dispense with the “politics of threats”, he warned.

Assad also signalled that he was ready to start the disarmament process by filing documents to the UN as the first step towards joining an international convention outlawing the possession and use of chemical weapons.

Despite Assad’s demand, US President Barack Obama said he was hopeful US-Russia talks due to start in Geneva could produce a workable weapons transfer plan that will avert the need for military action.

Assad had earlier rejected suggestions the threat of airstrikes had forced his hand.

“Syria is handing over chemical weapons under international control because of Russia,” he said. “US threats have not affected the decision.”

Backed by a large team of experts, US Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva.

“I am hopeful that the discussions that Secretary Kerry has with Foreign Minister Lavrov as well as some of the other players in this can yield a concrete result and I know that he is going to be working very hard over the next several days over the possibilities there,” Obama said.

Washington wants to see if Assad is serious about putting his chemical weapons stockpile under international control, amid allegations the regime used sarin gas in an attack near Damascus last month.

Norway’s Breivik studying in cell

Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a rampage in 2011, has been allowed to study certain political science subjects in his cell.

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Last month, the University of Oslo rejected an application by Breivik to enrol in a political science course, arguing that he was not academically equipped to pursue a degree.

However, the extremist subsequently applied for permission to take individual subjects within the course, and this has now been granted by the university.

“Norwegian law recognises that all detainees have the right to work and study,” said Karl Gustav Knutsen, warden of Skien Prison in southeast Norway, where Breivik is being held under high-security conditions.

Breivik, who describes himself as a “militant nationalist” combating a multicultural society and a “Muslim takeover” of Europe, set off a bomb in Oslo’s government district on July 22, 2011, before opening fire on participants at a Labour Youth camp on the island of Utoeya.

“Breivik does not deserve to be able to study anything,” Ingrid Nymoen, a survivor of the Utoeya shooting, remarked on Twitter.

The extremist will only be allowed to study in his cell, without access to the internet.

“He won’t be able to leave jail and go to campus to study,” said Ole Petter Ottersen, the university’s rector.

According to his lawyer Vibeke Hein Baera, Breivik hoped to study political theory, international politics and public administration, but he has decided to focus on just two of these subjects, which will give him academic credits if he passes the exams.

Breivik has said repeatedly that he hopes to continue his ideological struggle from behind bars.

Sydney blazes burn into the night

Dozens of residents who survived the 1000-hectare blaze that tore through bushland west of Sydney say they never received an emergency phone alert as the fire bore down on their suburbs.

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Locals packed into a Winmalee school hall on Thursday night for a meeting with Blue Mountains City Council, National Parks and Wildlife Service, NSW Police and Rural Fire Service (RFS) representatives.

High temperatures and strong winds had fanned flames around Winmalee earlier this week, plunging the region into emergency.

Locals were warned to evacuate or prepare for impact and firefighters were still water bombing the burning bushland on Thursday.

But a show of hands at the community forum revealed about a third of those present never received an emergency text alert on Tuesday.

An RFS official told the crowd the problem would be investigated and may have been due to individual phone service providers.

“Getting this information out is really important,” he said.

“I don’t issue emergency alerts lightly.”

Leeanne Connor was one local who did receive the text, but said it came too late for her to evacuate.

The Hawkesbury Heights mum told AAP of her frantic efforts to gather her belongings, her dog and an elderly neighbour before heading to the local primary school for her children.

“I’d been getting texts from my friends saying `the fire’s broken containment, you’ve got to get out of there’,” she said.

By the time she received the official text, though, a roadblock was in place on her street.

Her only option then was to shelter there while her three young children spent the night with family.

“I just wanted to be with my kids,” she told AAP.

One woman at Thursday’s forum took the microphone simply to thank the firies who saved her home.

She recalled her terror as the flames spread to her street.

“(But the firefighters) kept us in the loop, knocking on doors, helping out,” she said.

“It was unbelievable.”

Other residents voiced concerns that hazard reduction burns may have been to blame, and should have been carried out earlier in the year.

AAP understands investigations into what sparked the blaze may be complete as early as Friday.

Miserable-looking fish wins ugly award

The blobfish, a denizen of the Pacific that looks like a bald, grumpy old man, has been named the world’s ugliest animal, organisers of the offbeat competition say.

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More than 3000 people contributed to an online poll aimed at raising awareness of unsightly species that play an important role in the ecological web.

The blobfish, a squidgy pink creature capable of enduring otherwise crushing pressures at great depth, is becoming a casualty of deep-sea trawling.

It was a clear winner, snatching 795 votes, said Coralie Young of the British Science Association, which announced the results at an annual festival in Newcastle, northeastern England.

Runner-up was the kakapo, a rare flightless owl-like parrot that lives in New Zealand, and third was the axolotl, a Mexican amphibian also called the “walking fish.”

Other candidates were the proboscis monkey, which has red genitals, a big nose and a pot belly, and the Titicaca water frog, which also goes under the less-than-scientific moniker of “scrotum frog.”

A total of 88,000 people visited the website where the polling took place, reflecting wide interest in the issue, Young said.

“It’s a light-hearted way to make people think about conservation.”

The blobfish’s reward is to be enshrined as the official mascot of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (南宁桑拿网,uglyanimalsoc.com), a loose association of stand-up comedians who humorously champion endangered but visually unappealing species.

“The Ugly Animal Preservation Society is dedicated to raising the profile of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically challenged children,” it says on its website.

“The panda gets too much attention.”

Western jihadists ‘killed in Somalia’

Two Western jihadist fighters and two locals have been killed by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia in Somalia, witnesses say.

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The four were part of a group that splintered from al-Shabaab this year, citing the increasingly radical nature of the organisation, which has become affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The two foreigners are believed to be Omar Hammami, known as al-Amriki because of his ties to the United States, and Osama al-Britani, a British citizen of Pakistani origin. Hammami grew up in Alabama.

They were killed after a fierce gun battle outside the town of Bardhere in the Gedo region.

The US State Department this year offered a 5-million-dollar reward for the capture of al-Amriki, who was known for posting jihadist rap videos on YouTube.

Ahmed Abdi Godane, the hardliner now heading al-Shabaab, and is said to be taking the group in the direction of global jihad as the militia appears to be increasingly on the back foot inside Somalia.

“Godane gave the orders to kill these men,” said an al-Shabaab member in southern Somalia.

The two foreigners and their local allies were affiliated with Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a Somali Islamist who led the split from al-Shabaab this year.

Aweys is now being held by the central government, which is seeking ways to reconcile the different communities in the country after more than 20 years of civil war.

Meanwhile, a roadside bomb exploded in the Juba region, killing seven people. The target was apparently Ahemd Madobe, an interim regional leader.

Madobe, whose condition was unknown, was returning in a convoy from a meeting with representatives of the federal government.