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.

Turnbull rejects NBN petition

Incoming communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is facing a social media backlash after he seemingly brushed aside a snowballing online campaign to save Labor’s national broadband network (NBN).

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An internet petition set up by a Liberal-voting student six days ago had more than 200,000 online signatures by 4pm (AEST) on Thursday, making it the largest ever online petition in Australia.

The NBN petition on Change.org calls on the incoming coalition government to scrap plans to create a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) network in place of Labor’s existing fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) approach.

When asked on Twitter to reconsider policy in light of the petition, Mr Turnbull replied: “Wasn’t there an election recently at which nbn policy was a key issue?”

Mr Turnbull’s stirred a hornet’s nest of response, with hundreds of people flooding his Facebook page with comments and thousands appealing to him through Twitter.

“Wasn’t the NBN preceded and overshadowed by ‘stop the boats’ and ‘axe the tax’ at that recent election?” one Twitter user wrote.

“I would actually go as far as to say that your NBN policy was what saved Labor from annihilation,” said another.

The previous largest online petition called on advertisers to boycott controversial broadcaster Alan Jones in 2012.

Coincidentally, Mr Turnbull commented on that campaign, saying Mr Jones was getting a taste of his own medicine.

Labor’s FTTH network connects every home and business with optical fibre cables, which provides download speeds up to 1000 megabits a second (Mbps), upload speeds of 400Mbps and aimed to be completed by 2021.

The coalition’s FTTN policy, which will rely on existing copper lines, will provide most homes with download speeds of 50Mbps and upload speeds of 5Mbps by 2019.

The capital cost of the NBN under the coalition’s plan is $29.5 billion, against Labor’s $44.1 billion.

Niqab laws barely used, review finds

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

New laws requiring people in New South Wales to uncover their face for police identification have reportedly caused anxiety among some Muslim women.

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However, a review by the state’s Ombudsman has found the leglisation has been little used.

The Ombudsman’s report, tabled to the New South Wales parliament, found police used the power less than 10 times in the first year it was introduced.

The findings have some civil liberty groups wondering if the law is needed at all.

New South Wales law changed two years ago after a woman was accused of falsely claiming a police officer tried to remove her niqab at a traffic stop.

The Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act was expanded to include a provision which authorises police to require that a person uncover their face when being identified.

The New South Wales Ombudsman has conducted a review of the law and says it was used infrequently and uncontroversially.

However, Ombudsman Bruce Barbour says the laws have enhanced the identification process.

“We do believe the law is beneficial and we think that it’s an improvement. It certainly clarifies the circumstances when a person can be asked or required to remove face coverings. And I think what it also does is it balances that with protections and safeguards in the legislation.”

Of the eight documented instances between 2011 and 2012, seven of them involved a woman wearing a niqab.

The review found some women were concerned about male police officers misunderstanding their request for further privacy as a challenge to the officer’s authority.

Some women said they avoided driving out of their suburb in case they encountered male officers who weren’t used to interacting with women wearing a niqab.

Mr Barbour says indications that the new laws are causing anxiety for some Muslim women often relates to privacy.

“I think if there is any anxiety that arises it is just in circumstances where it is a male officer involved and also there is little opportunity to provide privacy.”

Under the current law the onus is on an individual to request a female police officer.

However, even if a female officer is requested, there is no obligation for the police officer to follow through with the request.

This 64-year-old Muslim woman works in Lakemba in Sydney.

She doesn’t wear a face covering, but says many women in the community are concerned about the extent of police powers.

“They were very anxious, they didn’t like it. Because It would prevent them from driving or going out like doing whatever they want freely. I think with the mention of a few rules to help them in situations where in front of another officer, female office or in a private room. So that will make them maybe a little bit more at ease. But its still the extent and implementation of this recommendation we don’t know how far it is going to go. It depends on the situation and on the officer of the time. So it’s still not helping a lot.”

The review has recommended that, where requested and practicable, a female officer be made available to look at the face of any woman.

The United Muslim Women Association in New South Wales says this is important, because for many Muslim women the process of revealing their face to a male stranger is invasive.

The Association’s Executive Officer Maha Abdo says privacy should be an important consideration.

“I think for most women that practice, wearing the burqa, the niqab, it is a spiritual act. It is something that they hold very, very dearly. In the that fact that it’s very similar to sort of wearing clothes. And a lot of people don’t like to undress in front of others.”

The New South Wales Police Force submitted to the review that any new safeguard could be used to deliberately delay police operations.

Ombudsman Bruce Barbour says the recommendations are practical and have acknowledged that there needs to be a balance between police duties and religious beliefs.

Some other groups say the motivation for introducing the law in the first place was purely political.

President of the New South Wales Council of Civil Liberties Cameron Murphy says the law creates an unnecessary divide in Australian communities.

“Well I think it’s very difficult to see how a law has been beneficial when the law isn’t being used. I mean what’s been demonstrated in the past periods since the law’s been enacted is that it’s not necessary. And the only thing the law has served to do is create a rift between the Islamic Australians and the rest of the community.”

But Maha Abdo says people in the Islamic community are generally supportive of the law, because it clarifies police roles.

“I’d like to have less laws and more social interaction and awareness but unfortunately it’s not happening. So this particular law or legislation when it came in I don’t see it at all as a tool of division. Rather I see it as a tool of recognising that these are the issues that we need to work with.”

A significant problem the review did identify was a lack of awareness about the police powers in the wider community.

Ombudsman Bruce Barbour says knowledge of the legislation is important if it is to continue to run smoothy.

“We’ve certainly recommended as part of this review that there be ongoing education, community consultation and engagement. To make sure that everybody knows as well as possible what the circumstances are of the law how it can be used, what the potential penalties are.”

Syria asks UN to join chemical arms treaty

A UN spokesman confirmed that Syria had sent accession documents to the world body, which is guarantor of the 1993 convention banning the production and stockpiling of the arms.

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Syria’s UN envoy said joining the convention was the end of a “chapter” in the Syria crisis.

   

“In the past few hours we have received a document from the government of Syria,” said UN spokesman Farhan Haq, adding that it was “an accession document.”

   

Syria had been one of seven UN members that have refused to join the 1993 convention.

   

But President Bashar al-Assad’s government announced it would sign up as part of a Russian plan to put his country’s chemical arsenal under international control.

   

The United States and other western nations accuse Assad’s government of launching a sarin gas attack on August 21 near Damascus in which hundreds died and Washington has threatened a punitive military strike.

   

The UN spokesman said it could take a few days to complete the accession process.

   

Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari said his government now considered itself a full member of the convention.

   

“With this, the chapter of the so-called chemical weapons should be ended,” Jaafari told reporters.

   

“The chemical weapons in Syria are a mere deterrence against the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” he added.

   

Jaafari said he expected a UN report on the August 21 attack — which his government blames on opposition rebels — to be handed to UN leader Ban Ki-moon early next week.

   

“We have nothing to hide,” the ambassador said, while adding that Syria does not want “any partial report, any politicized report, any manipulated report.”

   

Under the 1993 convention, Syria will have to destroy any chemical arms it possesses.

Sizzling Snedeker takes early control

The fast-talking American fired a flawless eight-under-par 63 despite tricky, gusting conditions at Conway Farms Golf Club to seize control of the third of the PGA Tour’s four lucrative FedEx Cup playoff events.

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Helped by a 40-foot putt which he sank from the back fringe of the green at the par-three 17th, his eighth hole of the day, Snedeker reeled off seven consecutive birdies from the 13th to rocket to the top of the leaderboard.

Compatriot Zach Johnson opened with a seven-birdie 64 and world number one Tiger Woods shot a 66 to end the day level with fellow American Steve Stricker and South African Charl Schwartzel but Snedeker commanded the spotlight.

“It was one of those days where everything seemed to go right in the middle of the round,” Snedeker, the reigning FedExCup champion, told reporters after totalling only 22 putts in an eight-birdie display.

“Got off to kind of a slow start and made a great birdie from off the green on 13 that got everything moving in the right direction. To roll off seven birdies in a row kind of came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Woods, seeking his sixth PGA Tour victory this season, was not in the best of moods after failing to birdie any of the three par-fives.

“I’m not exactly real happy,” said the 14-times major winner, who mixed seven birdies with two bogeys. “I certainly wasted a lot of shots out there today. I missed three short ones (putts) and played the par-fives stupendously.

“One of those days. I played well, and I just didn’t get much out of that round.”

Seventy players have qualified for the elite BMW Championship, the penultimate playoff event.

Of the 30 who advance to next week’s season-ending Tour Championship, any of the top five would automatically clinch FedExCup honours and a staggering $10 million bonus with victory in Atlanta.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

Armstrong returns Sydney Olympic medal to officials

“The International Olympic Committee and the USOC had previously requested that the medal be returned.

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The USOC has made arrangements to return the medal to the IOC.”

The confirmation came shortly after Armstrong had tweeted: “The 2000 Bronze is back in possession of @usolympics and will be in Switzerland asap.”

The American lost his seven Tour de France titles last year and in January admitted to years of performance-enhancing substance use in the most spectacular drugs case in recent years.

Following his public confession, the IOC ordered the return of the bronze medal he won in the time-trial at the Sydney 2000 Games and declared the race results void.

Thomas Bach, who was elected president of the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday, had said the previous day the organisation was still seeking the medal.

“We will continue to work with the United States Olympic Committee to get this medal back as requested in our decision,” Bach, previously an IOC vice president and head of its juridical commission, told an IOC session in Buenos Aires.

“This (the IOC’s January) decision has been communicated to Mr Armstrong and the USOC. This decision has not been appealed neither by Mr Armstrong, nor by the USOC and what we are lacking, sadly, is getting back the medal. Legally the case for the IOC is closed.”

The once-revered athlete is battling to hang on to what remains of his reputation and his earnings and is fighting several lawsuits, including one from the U.S. Justice Department.

In February, the Justice Department said it was joining a fraud suit filed in 2010 by Floyd Landis, a former Armstrong team mate. Landis filed the suit under a federal law that allows whistle-blowers to report fraud in exchange for a reward.

The U.S. Postal Service paid $40 million from 1998 to 2004 to have Armstrong and his team mates from Tailwind Sports wear its logo during record-breaking wins. At least $17.9 million of these fees went to Armstrong, according to the government.

(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)