Friday, October 16, 2009

Autumn scenes

It's that time of year again, the Earth's northern hemisphere is tipping away from the warmth of the Sun. Days in the north are getting cooler and shorter, leaves are changing, animals migrating and many harvests are underway. The wet summer in New England this year should make 2009 a banner year for brightly-colored fall foliage in the area. Collected here are a group of photographs of recent Autumn scenes around the northern hemisphere.

(32 photos total)


On September 30th, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added 76 new items to its "List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity", for safeguarding and preservation. The "Intangible" list is a companion to UNESCO's World Heritage list, which focuses on physical sites worldwide. Submitted jointly by member states Argentina and Uruguay, the "symbolic universe" of tango was among the traditions added to the list. Tango is a deep-rooted tradition of dance, poetry and song, tied closely to the Rio de la Plata region of the two countries, and remains popular in competition, for pleasure, and for health - doctors worldwide are experimenting with tango as dance therapy to treat problems ranging from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease to phobias and marital breakdowns. (29 photos total)

The Berlin Reunion

The Berlin Reunion
Earlier this week, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Berlin, Germany to watch a several-day performance by France's Royal de Luxe street theatre company titled "The Berlin Reunion". Part of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Reunion show featured two massive marionettes, the Big Giant, a deep-sea diver, and his niece, the Little Giantess. The storyline of the performance has the two separated by a wall, thrown up by "land and sea monsters". The Big Giant has just returned from a long and difficult - but successful - expedition to destroy the wall, and now the two are walking the streets of Berlin, seeking each other after many years apart. I'll let the photos below tell the rest of the story.

(35 photos total)

China Celebrates 60Years

China celebrates 60 years
China formally kicked off its mass celebrations of 60 years of communist rule with a 60-gun salute that rung out across Beijing's historic Tiananmen Square earlier today. Hundreds of thousands of participants marched past Tiananmen Square in costume or uniform, with floats and dancers mingling with soldiers and military hardware. Collected here are photographs of the once-in-a-decade National Day parade in Beijing, and of others commemorating the anniversary elsewhere.

(39 photos total)

Terrorists storm Lahore; 26 reported dead

Lahore: Lahore was on Thursday morning once again attacked by terrorists when heavily armed gunmen along with some suicide bombers launched coordinated attacks at three major establishments of the security forces killing at least 24 people and injuring many others.

Officials say groups of heavily armed gunmen stormed Manawan Police Training School, Federal Investigation Agency Building and Elite Force Headquarters at Bedian Road in Lahore killing many and taking some hostages shortly after 0900 hrs Pakistan time on Thursday.

Police said that five attackers barged in the FIA building, which is involved in counter-terrorism investigations, opening fire indiscriminately.

Two gunmen held two people hostage inside the FIA building and engaged in gunbattle with police. Lahore Police Commissioner Khusro Pervez said the building was cleared off the attackers after almost two hours of gunfight.

Pervez added that seven persons, including three FIA personnel and an attacker, had been killed and three others injured in the incident. He added that one of the terrorist had a suicide jacket.

In pics: Lahore under attack
Civil Lines Superintendent of Police Haider Ismail said a suicide jacket and grenades were recovered from the spot.

"Operation is complete and search still on. We request media to stay away from building as we don't know whether terrorists have planted anything inside the building. There are five causalities. We don't know how many are terrorists and how many are employees as yet. We've recovered a suicide jacket and grenades from one of the dead bodies. At least one dead body is that of a terrorist. We are yet to identify the remaining bodies. The building has been evacuated and all employees safe," Haider Ismail said.

The police also claimed to have arrested one of the FIA attackers.

Terrorists who attacked Elite Force Headquarters and training centres at Bedian Road and Manawan lobbed several grenades and fire at with policemen and Pakistan Rangers who had surrounded the facilities.

Reports said several police recruits had been taken hostage at the Manawan centre but the facility was cleared off after a heavy exchange of fire between the terrorists and security forces.

Personnel belonging to the police, Pakistani Army and Rangers have been taken up positions around the complex to flush out the terrorists and rescue the hostages at the Elite Force training centre at Bedian Road near the airport.

Reports in a section of Pakistani media claimed that there are three women among the group of terrorists and added that several people have been taken hostage at the FIA building.

A suicide car bomber also set off his explosives outside a police station in the northwestern Pakistani town of Kohat killing 10 people, including two school children.

Terrorist organisation Tehreek-e-Taliban has claimed responsibility for the coordinated Lahore attacks.

The FIA building was attacked in March last year, too, when a suicide bomber in a car exploded a bomb killing 21 people.

This is the fifth major attack in the country in the last 15 day

India fumes as China issues loose-sheet visas to J&K residents |

NEW DELHI: India has served a demarche to China against a practice that has opened a new diplomatic front between the two countries. For almost a

year now, Indian nationals from Jammu and Kashmir are being issued Chinese visas on loose sheets of paper, and not stamped on their passports.

MEA spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said India had "conveyed our well-justified concern" to the Chinese government in this regard. "It is our considered view and position that there should be no discrimination against visa applicants of Indian nationality on the grounds of domicile or ethnicity," he added.

The implication of visas being stamped on loose sheets rather than the passport itself is a political signal that China does not recognize the nationality of the person concerned. In the case of J&K and Arunachal Pradesh, it's questioning that they are part of India. In many ways, said analysts, this is probably another way of Chinese pushing of the border issue.

The practice apparently came to light recently, after a couple of students who were denied travel permission approached the media. In fact, chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah highlighted the problem at the highest levels of the government, after which it was taken up by the home and foreign ministries.

The home ministry also informed all states and Union Territories to stop travel by people with stapled visas.
While the Chinese embassy here was quoted as saying the visa was a valid document, officials said this would seriously complicate matters between India and China. The two countries are only now emerging from a period of virulent reporting on Chinese border intrusions, which needed a prime ministerial intervention to calm things down. "This comes at a very bad time," said an official.

What is also clear is that India's immigration checks are well below par. Quite apart from the fact that it took several months for the visa mischief to be detected, Indian immigration officials should also be held responsible for letting in thousands of semi-skilled Chinese workers on business visas -- an issue that is currently a diplomatic thorn between India and China.

Chinese embassy officials were quoted as saying the documents were valid and it was the fault of the Indian immigration officials. "What we have issued is a correct and valid document. It is the problem of your immigration officers at Indira Gandhi International Airport (Delhi). This practice of issuing visas on separate paper has been there for years now," a Chinese embassy official said. Asked how many such visas they issue every year, the Chinese embassy official put the number at less than 100.

Defence minister A K Antony said, "Whether it is Jammu and Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh, all are integral parts of India. For us, every inch of India is one. There are channels of dealing with our neighbours whenever any issue arises and we always use them to raise our point of view."

Saifuddin Soz, J&K Congress president, was quoted as saying he had travelled to China three times, and every time, his visa was stamped on his passport. The directive to the embassy has clearly come from Beijing, which makes it a bigger diplomatic problem.

Many Kashmiri students travel to China for higher studies, particularly in medicine.

'India vulnerable to more Mumbai-like attacks

India remains vulnerable to a Mumbai-style militant attack because neighbouring Pakistan is struggling to rein in the Islamist groups blamed for last year's deadly assault, Home Minister P Chidambaram said on Thursday.

As India prepares for the first anniversary of the Mumbai raids that killed 166 people and foreign intelligence reports warn of possible new plots, Chidambaram warned any new attack would be met with a "swift and decisive" response.

Two plush hotels and a Jewish centre were among the targets attacked by 10 gunmen last November. India blamed Pakistani nationals and tensions rose between the two nuclear-powered nations.

"My assessment of the vulnerability is that it has remained the same since 26/11," Chidambaram said in a rare interview, referring to the raids on November 26. "It has not diminished nor has it enhanced."

With India spending millions on new security measures, from commando hubs in cities to navy patrols and better intelligence gathering, the Home Minister added that India had learnt its lesson.

"Our capacity to deal with it (the terrorist threat) has increased significantly."

Preventing new attacks is key to regional stability.

Former finance minister Chidambaram was appointed to India's top security post after criticism that the Congress party-led Government failed to prevent the gunmen from rampaging for nearly three days through India's financial hub.

Commando units finally killed all but one of the attackers, who was subsequently arrested by the authorities.

Despite pressure for military action against Pakistan last November, the Indians responded with a diplomatic offensive.

A second attack would severely test its self-restraint.

"If there is another terror threat or a terror attack of the kind we saw in 26/11, India's response will be swift and decisive," Chidambaram said.

Can Pakistan Really Act?

New Delhi has criticised Islamabad for not acting fully against the alleged masterminds of the Mumbai attacks. Indians see the hand of Pakistani intelligence and military, hostile to any rapprochement with old foe India, behind the raids.

India wants Pakistan to jail Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Toiba militant group blamed for the attacks, before it resumes a peace process broken off last year.

In the last year Saeed has been arrested, freed and most recently put under virtual house arrest, after international pressure on the Islamabad government.

"Even if they wish to take action against the masterminds of 26/11, they (the Pakistan government ) perhaps do not have the capacity to take action," Chidambaram said.

"That incapacity could encourage some wild elements, some rogue elements, to become adventurous," he added.

"I'm sure they're planning (more attacks), but to what extent there is overt state support I cannot say ... my guess is that state support is not there to the degree it was there in 2008."

Foreign intelligence reports led one senior Australian politician, Victorian state Premier John Brumby, to cancel an official trip to Mumbai. In September, a television report in Israel said Jerusalem had "pinpoint" intelligence about Pakistani militants attacking India in the weeks ahead.

Chidambaram played down the reports, repeating that risk levels remained the same. "There is nothing markedly different to what we gather every day," the minister said, referring to intelligence reports.

On Thursday, militants launched a string of attacks in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab - which borders India - and in the troubled northwest, killing at least 31 people after a week of violence in which more than 100 people died.

"What happened today is a matter of great concern," he said.

Before Mumbai in 2008, India was hit by bombings in markets and mosques across many cities that left hundreds dead.

"I worry about it every day. I think our intelligence is better. I think we've been able to prevent a large number of potential attacks, and maybe been lucky too," Chidambaram stated.

Taliban declares war against Pakistan, attacks cities

Pakistan witnessed a string of attacks on Thursday. The latest one is a suicide attack in Peshawar city, where a car bomb exploded next to a police station in Kohat.

Around 10 people including three police officers and a student were reportedly killed in the blast.

Earlier, in the day Tehrik-e-Taliban struck Lahore in three coordinated attacks killing at least 31 people and injuring many others.

The first target was the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore where four gunmen forced their way into the building on Thursday morning. In the 45 minutes long battle, terrorists fired and threw grenades in the corridors.

Six FIA officials, four policemen and two terrorists were killed in the attack.

The second attack was aimed at Munawan Police Training Centre in Lahore. A team of gunmen reportedly stormed the complex throwing grenades and firing from automatic rifles.Nine policemen and four terrorists were killed in the attack. While one of the gunmen was killed by police, the other three blew themselves up, officials said.

The third target was the Elite Police Training School at Bedian Road in Lahore. This attack lasted for several hours. Police said eight terrorists scaled the wall of the facility near the airport and took a family hostage.

While one policeman died in the attack, five of the attackers were also killed. It is still not clear what happened to the remaining three gunmen.

Reports in a section of Pakistani media also claimed that there were three women among the group of terrorists.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

U.S. states suffer "unbelievable" revenue shortages

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. economy may be creeping toward recovery after the worst slowdown since the Great Depression, but many states see no end in sight to their diving tax revenues.

Tax revenues used to pay teachers and fuel police cars continue to trail even the most pessimistic expectations, despite the cash from the economic stimulus plan pouring into state coffers.

"It's crazy. It's really just unbelievable," said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, and called the states' revenue situations "close to unprecedented."

Most states had been pessimistic in forecasting their tax revenues for the 2010 fiscal year, Pattison said. So far, collections have fallen below even those low targets.

Lower tax revenues could lead to higher taxes or another sharp reduction in services if receipts do not show signs of improvement before year-end, as every state but Vermont is required by law to balance their budgets.

That could mean fewer teachers, early prisoner releases and fewer highway repairs as residents battle soaring unemployment.

States are coming off a terrible first quarter, which for most states began on July 1.

Among the worst cases is Indiana where revenue collections were 8 percent below forecast, or $254 million lower than expected, leading state budget officials to speculate revenue could fall $1 billion by the end of the fiscal year.

Iowa cut its fiscal 2010 revenue estimate by 8.4 percent this week. That prompted Governor Chet Cutler on Thursday to order spending reductions of 10 percent across the board.

"The fact is clear. Iowa has not spent too much; rather our revenue has fallen off by significant amounts as the result of the national economic recession," Culver said in a statement.

Last week, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said his state's September tax collections were 10 percent less than forecast.

"It is likely that more spending cuts will be necessary in this fiscal year to ensure a balanced state budget," Barbour said.

In California, general fund revenues for the first three months of the fiscal year were $1.1 billion below estimates in its budget, State Controller John Chiang said on Friday.

"While there are encouraging signs that California's economy is preparing for a comeback, the recession continues to drag state revenues down," he said in a statement.

But Oregon, which collected about $10 million below estimates for personal and corporate revenues for those two months, is seeing some hopeful signs. Continue...

U.N. plane crash in Haiti kills 11

Eleven U.N. peacekeepers died on Friday when their surveillance plane crashed into a mountainside in Haiti during a routine patrol, U.N. officials said.

A U.N. rescue team confirmed there were no survivors among the 11 crew and military personnel on the plane, a Casa-212, when it went down near the town of Fonds-Verrettes, near the border with the Dominican Republic.

The dead were Uruguayans and Jordanians, U.N. spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci said.

The cause of the crash was unknown.

"The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti announces with sadness that a MINUSTAH plane, carrying 11 passengers, including the crew, crashed southeast of the commune of Ganthier," the United Nations said in a statement.

"The Casa 212 aircraft was making a reconnaissance flight at the time of the accident before hitting a mountainside."

The U.N. peacekeeping force has been in Haiti since 2004. It consists of some 9,000 troops and police.

Local officials said the plane went down in a remote area near the village of Pays-Pourri in the district of Ganthier, a farming region area east of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

"It's in a very inaccessible area, about six hours on foot from Ganthier," Ralph Lapointe, the mayor of Ganthier, told Reuters by telephone.

"It happened shortly before noon. I saw several U.N. helicopters flying toward the area," he said. "It seems that they have already recovered the bodies."

(Reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Cooney)

Blast in Pakistan's Peshawar kills 49

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - A suspected suicide car-bomber killed 49 people on Friday in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in an attack that the government said underscored the need for an all-out offensive against the Pakistani Taliban.

There was no claim of responsibility but Interior Minister Rehman Malik said "all roads are leading to South Waziristan," referring to the headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban in the northwest.

"One thing is clear, these hired assassins called Taliban are to be dealt with more severely," Malik told reporters in Islamabad.

"We think we have no other option except to carry out an operation in South Waziristan," he added, while declining to say when that might happen.

The suspected car-bomber set off his explosives as he was passing a bus, police said. The blast hurled the bus onto its side on a road in a commercial neighborhood of the northwestern city. Several cars were destroyed.

"The bus was making a turn when the blast occurred and it threw the bus into the air," a witness told Duniya Television.

An official at Peshawar's main hospital said 49 people had been killed including seven children. About 100 people were wounded.

The bomb dented trade at Pakistan's main stock market, which has gained about 66 percent this year after losing 58.3 percent in 2008, although it ended 0.28 percent up at 9,768.63.


Islamist militants who have set off numerous bombs in towns and cities including Peshawar over the past couple of years, most aimed at the security forces and government and foreign targets.

Early this year, the militants pushed to within 100 km (60 miles) of Islamabad, raising fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability. An exasperated U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the government appeared to be "abdicating" to the militants.
Read More

India signals new anti-Maoist offensive

NEW DELHI — India looks set for a major offensive against Maoist rebels, whose growing influence and increasingly brazen attacks have been branded a national security failure, officials and sources said Friday.
"A new anti Maoist plan has been approved by the cabinet. States hit by this insurgency are instructed to follow the new plan and get their act together," senior home ministry official Kashmir Singh told AFP on Friday.
The cabinet met Thursday just hours before left-wing guerrillas gunned down 17 policemen in western India, the latest in a series of assaults in an increasingly lethal insurgency.
At least 150 Maoists attacked the policemen in a forest village in Maharashtra state, near the border with Chhattisgarh state where the rebels have their stronghold.
Security sources cited by the media said the new strategy was for a large-scale, coordinated offensive involving seven states worst affected by Maoist violence, with support from federal security services.
"Over 35,000 police are on standby. This time we have to flush them all out," a senior police officer in Chhattisgarh said.
The officer refused to disclose precise details of the planned operation, saying only that it involved many "surprise factors".
Just last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rebuked regional police chiefs for failing to stem the insurgency, which he described as the greatest threat to India's internal security.
The Maoist movement started as a peasant uprising in 1967 and has since spread to 20 of India's 29 states.
Maoist-linked violence has already claimed more than 600 lives this year and a series of recent incidents has raised concerns that the insurgency may be moving in alarming new directions.
Just last week, suspected Maoist fighters killed 16 villagers in eastern India in an attack apparently motivated by profit rather than ideology.
Witnesses and police officials said the rebels had been paid as hired guns by a party to a local land dispute.
And there was shock a few days later when Maoists in eastern India beheaded a policeman -- an act seen as a deliberately provocative aping of tactics employed by Islamist extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Maoists to lay down their arms or face the consequences.
"Violence is simply unacceptable in a democracy and republic. As long as (they) do not abjure violence, the security forces will confront them," he said.
The appeal was swiftly rejected by senior Maoist leader, Koteshwar Rao.
"We will not lay down arms. We know the government is trying to bring in the army and air force on us. We are prepared to deal with it," Rao was quoted as saying by The Indian Express newspaper.
The Maoists say they are fighting for the rights of the rural poor, but officials accuse them of using intimidation and extortion to collect money and to control impoverished villagers.
Little is known about the movement's shadowy leadership or its strength. It is said to number between 10,000 and 20,000 followers.
In June, the government slapped a formal ban on the rebels, officially designating them terrorists, and last month began a graphic newspaper advertising campaign to counter the propaganda of the Maoist insurgents.
The government printed photographs of the bodies of people killed by the extremists in national newspapers with the tagline: "These are innocent people -- victims of Naxal (Maoist) violence."
Federal and state authorities have been struggling to come up with a strategy to battle the guerrillas and some experts believe brute force is the wrong choice.
They point instead to the need to improve living conditions in India's impoverished hinterland which has proved fertile soil for Maoist recruitment.
"If Indians killing Indians is the new plan then I must say the government is making a big blunder. Violence is not the right way to end Maoist insurgency," said a professor who has been studying the Maoist movement for over two decades at the Delhi University.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dust storm in Australia

A huge outback dust storm - 500 km (310 mi) wide by 1,000 km (620 mi) long - swept across eastern Australia and blanketed Sydney on Wednesday, September 23rd, disrupting flights and ground transportation and forcing people indoors for shelter from the hazardous air, gale-force winds, and in some places hailstorms. Those few who ventured outside, especially at dawn, were greeted by a Martian sky, familiar landmarks blotted out by the heavy red dust blowing by. Collected here are a few photos of the worst dust storm Sydney has seen in 70 years, three of which you can click to see a before/after fade effect.
(26 photos total)

Remembering Apollo 11

40 years ago, three human beings - with the help of many thousands of others - left our planet on a successful journey to our Moon, setting foot on another world for the first time. Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the July 16, 1969 launch of Apollo 11, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. aboard. The entire trip lasted only 8 days, the time spent on the surface was less than one day, the entire time spent walking on the moon, a mere 2 1/2 hours - but they were surely historic hours. Scientific experiments were deployed (at least one still in use today), samples were collected, and photographs were taken to document the entire journey. Collected here are 40 images from that journey four decades ago, when, in the words of astronaut Buzz Aldrin: "In this one moment, the world came together in peace for all mankind".

View FrOm Lunar Terrain

Iran Nuclear Talks Begin in Geneva

GENEVA -- As world powers began a key meeting with Iran Thursday aimed at reining in the country's nuclear-fuel program, all eyes are on whether Tehran will agree to discuss limitations on a program it insists is for civilian use.

The meeting at a villa on Lake Geneva in Switzerland marks the first time the U.S. has taken part in such talks as a full participant, and comes just days after the revelation that Iran has been developing a second uranium-enrichment plant in secret, further cementing the belief in Western capitals that Iran wants the technology to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. Under-secretary of State William Burns sat alongside EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana at the opening of the talks in Geneva.
The morning session of the meeting consisted of a restatement of positions by both sides, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the talks. The diplomat said the Europeans present re-proposed their offer for staged talks, while stressing that the revelation of a new secret site had made a solution to the diplomatic impasse urgent.

Iran reiterated the broad range of issues it wants to discuss, touching on the nuclear question only toward the end. "The key session will be this afternoon," the diplomat said.

The United Nations Security Council members and Germany -- known as the P5+1-- believe the exposure of the second enrichment site has given them new leverage to persuade Iran to agree to a "freeze-for-freeze" proposal. Under the proposal, Iran would stop expanding its fuel program in exchange for a halt to new U.N. sanctions. That temporary pause would set the stage for more wide-ranging talks, offering Iran trade and economic benefits in exchange for a permanent solution, such as suspension of its nuclear fuel program.

The U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. and Germany also hope to get Iranian assurances Thursday that it will open itself up fully and quickly to international inspectors, particularly at the newly exposed site at Qom.

Thursday's meeting is a key test of whether Iran is willing to engage on these issues, or whether the P5+1 will have to move away from diplomacy toward sanctions, diplomats familiar with the talks said.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday in comments to television that Iran was "on the wrong side of the law" in maintaining that it had had no obligation to tell the agency about the site at Qom until it was ready to introduce nuclear material there. Mr. ElBaradei's comments were taken as significant, given his relatively soft approach to pressuring Iran in the past.

While Thursday's meeting isn't expected to address the issue of new sanctions, European members of the P5+1 are pushing for quick action if Iran fails to persuade the group that it is willing to engage to find a solution to concerns over its fuel program. The facilities Iran is developing can enrich uranium to weapons grade or to be used in civilian power plants.

U.S., Iran Make Offers on Nuclear Talks
IAEA Awaits Word on Iran Inspections
Speaking to Echo Moskvy radio in Moscow Thursday morning, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: "I am not a fanatic supporter of sanctions against people. Sometimes, yes, they are useful, but we are not yet talking about sanctions. In Geneva, we won't be talking about sanctions."

At the same time, Mr. Kouchner said he wasn't overly concerned by the hard line his Russian opposite, Sergei Lavrov, has taken against further U.N. sanctions. He said it wouldn't be the first time Mr. Lavrov had opposed sanctions only to be overruled by President Dmitry Medvedev. He also noted that the Security Council, where Russia and China have a veto, has already passed three resolutions against Iran that include sanctions.

In recent months, Europe -- and France in particular -- has traded roles with the U.S., taking a tougher and more vocal approach to pressuring Iran while the U.S. has used more cautious language. However, European leaders have signed on to the U.S. timetable requiring Iran to show it is willing to engage seriously on the nuclear issue by the end of the year.

"If Iran does not respond to the demands of the International Atomic Energy
Agency by December, the international community must decide on sanctions," French Defense Minister Herve Morin told Le Figaro newspaper in an interview Thursday.

Thursday's meeting is at the level of political directors, rather than foreign ministers. The EU's foreign policy representative, Javier Solana, who has acted as point man for the P5+1 in negotiations with Iran, opened the talks, which are expected to last all day.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that the U.S. would be open to a one-on-one meeting with Iran during the talks, marking the administration's effort to engage Iran. Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have been going on since 2003, but have achieved little in the face of Iran's tough line maintaining its right to develop the technology and insistence to date that its program is for civilian use only.

Under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, countries do have the right to enrich uranium. However, the confirmation in 2003 that Tehran had been developing uranium-enrichment technologies in secret for as long as 18 years triggered deep mistrust in Western capitals over the purpose of the program.

Talks have gained urgency over the past year amid rising concerns that Iran already has enough nuclear material for a bomb, if it chooses to enrich the material further.

Russia and the EU have offered repeatedly to provide Iran with fuel for civilian reactors, something Iran indicated this week it may be open to.

Vietnam fights floods after typhoon, toll hits 40

Government reports said torrential rains from Typhoon Ketsana, which swept into Vietnam late on Tuesday, killed 40 people and left 10 missing from floods and landslides in nine coastal and central highland provinces.

Ketsana hit the Philippines at the weekend, killing 246 people, leaving another 42 missing, and causing damages totaling more than $100 million, officials said.

Weather reports said that by late on Wednesday rivers in Vietnam's Quang Nam province could reach a level last seen in 1964.

The typhoon spared most of Daklak, Vietnam's top coffee-growing province, and officials were still assessing coffee and rubber trees in Gia Lai, the third-largest coffee grower, state-run Vietnam Television said.

Floodwaters had submerging some old houses in Quang Nam's Hoi An city, a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage site, where people had to move around by boat.

"We have had storms or flooding in the past, but this time we have both of them," Le Xuan Toan, a 45-year-old Hoi An resident, told Reuters while sitting on the roof of his submerged house.

Foreign tourists who took shelter in state buildings in Hoi An when the typhoon made landfall returned to hotels on Wednesday and some helped clean up the streets.


Floods from the typhoon damaged or destroyed 294,000 homes in central Vietnam. Around 357,000 people in 10 provinces were evacuated.

Sea waves threw several ships onshore in the port city of Danang, a Reuters witness said.

The region hit by Ketsana lies far north of Vietnam's Mekong Delta rice basket. The rain dumped on the Central Highlands coffee belt could delay the start of the next coffee harvest by up to 10 days but exports would not be affected, traders said.

Ketsana had weakened to a tropical storm after moving into Laos and Cambodia on Tuesday night, weather forecasters said.

Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai urged the authorities to quickly resume power supplies to the typhoon-hit region, including Quang Ngai province, where Vietnam's first oil refinery, Dung Quat, was due to reopen on Wednesday after an outage halted the plant's test runs last month.

The 140,000 barrel per day plant will resume operations later on Wednesday as scheduled after repairs, a Petrovietnam official said, adding the typhoon had not damaged the facility.

The storm has become a focus of marathon climate talks in Bangkok this week, with developing nations and green groups saying it is an example of the type of climate disaster poor nations could face in a warmer world.

"Ketsana is clearly a manifestation of the consequences of global inaction in addressing the immediate impacts of creeping climate change," chief Philippine climate negotiator Heherson Alvarez told reporters.

He said rich nations must act urgently "to moderate these storms and spare the whole world from the impoverishing and devastating impacts of climate change."

Residents in Manila have been scathing in their criticism of the government's disaster response in the crowded city of 15 million where sewers are notoriously blocked by rubbish.

Ketsana dumped more than a month's worth of average rainfall on Manila and surrounding areas, forcing 375,000 out of their homes and destroying more than 180,000 tonnes of paddy rice.

Philippine lawmakers were set to pass a supplementary budget for 2009 of about 10 billion pesos ($211 million) for relief, recovery and rehabilitation efforts, Defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro said.

A new storm forming in the Pacific Ocean was likely to enter Philippine waters on Thursday and make landfall later on the northern island of Luzon, forecasters said.

Distracted driving blamed for 5,800 U.S. deaths

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Wednesday called distracted driving a serious epidemic with more than 5,800 annual U.S. traffic deaths tied to motorists who failed to keep their eyes on the road.

LaHood opened a two-day conference exploring research on cellphone use and text messaging while driving as well as other topics that can divert the attention of motorists.

"To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society and it seems to be getting worse every year," LaHood said, adding that it was an "extraordinarily serious epidemic."

Figures released at the conference by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed more than 5,800 distracted driving deaths and 515,000 injuries last year.

The fatality figures released by the government on distraction did not break down crashes by specific driver behavior. Broadly, safety officials identified cellphone use, texting, eating, talking to passengers and manipulating radio or vehicle controls as distractions.

The proportion of deadly accidents tied to distracted driving climbed from 11 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008, according to the figures culled from police reports. By comparison, drunken driving accounted for roughly 30 percent of all fatalities.

Drivers under 20 years old were involved in 16 percent of distracted-driver fatal crashes. Those ages 20 to 29 accounted for another 12 percent.

The figures were significant but may not show the full problem since identifying distraction as a cause of crashes, especially in fatal accidents, can be difficult, transportation officials and safety experts acknowledged.

"We're all trying to look at this as carefully as possible," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "There are some questions we need to answer."

For instance, Lund's group, which is funded by insurance companies and analyzes vehicle safety performance and other trends, said there is little overall information specifically on cellphone use and crashes -- a major target of states and federal officials.

There are also general safety contradictions as overall U.S. highway fatalities have declined. Police reports on crashes, an indicator of serious accidents, and auto-related property claims have also gone down.

"We're just uncertain how big the problem is," Lund said.

A separate survey released Wednesday by the Transportation Department showed 6 percent of drivers, or 812,000 people at any one time, used hand-held cellphones while driving in 2007. One percent used other hand-held devices to send text messages or read.

Auto manufacturers, the wireless industry, lawmakers and other groups support state and local efforts to ban texting while driving, but outlawing cellphone use behind the wheel has less support. Congress is also considering legislation to ban texting while driving.

Super rich are $300 billion lighter

he recession has taken its toll on the nation's super rich, whose collective net worth fell for only the fifth time in 28 years, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The collective worth of the 400 richest people fell by $300 billion, or 19%, to $1.27 trillion, according to the survey released by Forbes magazine.

As a result, the price of admission to appear on the list this year dropped to $950 million from $1.3 billion in the 2008 list.

The losses were driven by turmoil in the capital markets and plunging real estate values, according to the magazine. but fraud and divorce also took a toll.

The number of members who experienced year-over-year declines was more than double the number in 2008, with 314 of this year's list members declining in wealth compared to 126 last year.

Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500)'s Bill Gates, with assets worth $50 billion, topped the list of richest Americans. That's despite a $7 billion hit. Investor Warren Buffett came in second, with assets totaling $40 billion, after a $10 billion loss this year.

Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500) founder Lawrence Ellison was the only top ten member to avoid major losses. Ellison, who was third overall, saw his net worth remain unchanged at $27 billion.

Among the 32 members who were booted off the list this year was disgraced financier R. Allen Stanford, who is accused of operating a Ponzi scheme.

ndonesia quake death toll 100-200: disaster agency

A powerful earthquake, which struck near the city of Padang on Indonesia's Sumatra island on Wednesday, has killed between 100 and 200 people, but thousands remain buried in rubble, officials said on Thursday morning.

Priyadi Kardono, spokesman for the national disaster agency, gave the death toll of 100-200 in the city of 900,000. About 500 houses had caved in, according to officials in the area.

By Thursday morning there were still "thousands of people trapped in the rubble of buildings," said Rustam Pakaya, the head of the health ministry's disaster center in Jakarta.

The 7.6 magnitude quake hit Padang, West Sumatra, on Wednesday afternoon. With communications to the area cut, officials have struggled to get details of casualties and damage.

The death toll was likely to rise as many buildings had collapsed, Vice President Jusuf Kalla told a late night news conference in Jakarta.

"The big buildings are down. The concrete buildings are all down, the hospitals, the main markets, down and burned. A lot of people died in there. A lot of places are burning," Australian businesswoman Jane Liddon told Australian radio from Padang.

"Most of the damage is in the town center in the big buildings. The little houses, the people's houses, there are a few damaged, but nothing dramatic. It's not all a rubble heap in terms of smaller buildings."

Australia's international Aid Minister Bob McMullan said he feared the death toll would be "large" and offered emergency assistance if it was required.

"We are, of course, ready to assist. They are very close friends and neighbors. They know that we are here and available to help. They just have to ask," he said.


TV footage showed piles of debris and smashed houses after the earthquake, which caused widespread panic. The main hospital had collapsed, roads were cut off by landslides and Metro Television said the roof of Padang airport had caved in.

The disaster is the latest in a spate of natural and man-made calamities to hit Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of 226 million people.

Welfare Minister Aburizal Bakrie said on Wednesday that damage could be on a par with that caused by a 2006 quake in the central Java city of Yogyakarta that killed 5,000 people and damaged 150,000 homes.

"Hundreds of houses have been damaged along the road. There are some fires, bridges are cut and there is extreme panic here," said a Reuters witness in the city. Broken water pipes, he said, had triggered flooding.

His mobile phone was then cut off and officials said power had been severed in the city.

The quake was felt around the region, with some high-rise buildings in Singapore, 440 km (275 miles) to the northeast, evacuating staff. Office buildings also shook in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Sumatra is home to some of the country's largest oil fields as well as its oldest liquefied natural gas terminal, although there were no immediate reports of damage. Padang, capital of Indonesia's West Sumatra province, sits on one of the world's most active fault lines along the "Ring of Fire" where the Indo-Australia plate grinds against the Eurasia plate to create regular tremors and sometimes quakes.

Geologists have long warned that Padang may one day be destroyed by a huge earthquake because of its location.

A 9.15 magnitude quake, with its epicenter roughly 600 km (373 miles) northwest of Padang, caused the 2004 tsunami which killed 232,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh province, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and other countries across the Indian Ocean.

The depth of Wednesday's earthquake was 85 km (53 miles), the United States Geological Survey said. It revised down the magnitude of the quake from 7.9 to 7.6.