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The government’s call for an end to their offensive could prompt the two main rebel groups to end a boycott of AU-sponsored peace talks in Abuja, aimed at bringing an end to the conflict that has raged since February 2003, when rebels of the Darfur region rose up against the capital Khartoum, accusing the Arab government there of marginalising their region.

Chief AU mediator Sam Ibok says the union is taking steps to verify the ceasefire information from Khartoum in order for peace talks to resume.

“The government of Sudan has given an undertaking that it has agreed to stop the current military attack (in Darfur) and we have indicated to them that we shall try to verify that information so that we can resume the talks in the full session,” Ibok says.

Sudanese government spokesman Ibrahim Mohammed says “In the meeting, we assured them that we contacted Khartoum, we do agree to stop the military action (which) means going back to former position, that is withdrawing the troops.”

At the same time, the rebels should stop their attacks “because our duty and responsibility as a government is to defend all our people,” he added.

Both rebel groups – the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) – walked out of the latest bid on Monday to resolve the Darfur conflict, accusing Khartoum of repeated ceasefire violations.

Talks between Sudan’s government and another rebel group from the strife-wracked western Darfur region are working on a draft ceasefire agreement, says an official from Chad who is mediating the talks.

At least 70,000 people have been killed and, according to UN figures released Wednesday, nearly 1.7-million people have now been displaced in the two-year conflict in Sudan’s western region. Some 650 million more been affected.

Despite persistent fighting however, relief agencies have managed to reach nearly 80 per cent of those affected, says Radhia Achouri, a spokesperson for UN envoy Jan Pronk.

Some 60 per cent of those affected now have access to primary health care and 52 per cent have access to secondary health care, Ms Achouri added.

Relief staff deployed in the region now total 6,653, with 788 of them expatriate staff.

Humanitarian agencies report that pro-governmment Arab militias entered some sections of Kalma, a camp for displaced persons outside Nyala, Monday evening and “began randomly shooting in the air before looting personal belongings and livestock,” the UN says.

The settlement hosts some 80,000 people, all of them from non-Arab minority groups suspected of supporting the rebels.

Doctors at Vienna’s elite Rudolfiner clinic on the weekend said tests over the weekend proved beyond a doubt that dioxin poisoning caused a mystery illness that’s left Mr Yushchenko disfigured and in pain since September.

“They’ve spent many days and nights with me and I am very happy to be alive in this world today,” he said.

“I thank these people for this.”

With the doctors unable to say whether it was the result of a deliberate act, Mr Yushchenko has called for an investigation to determine how he was poisoned.

But he wants it be conducted after the December 26th presidential runoff election to avoid influencing the results.

“I don’t want this factor to influence the election in some way – either as a plus or a minus,” he said before returning to Kiev.

“This question will require a great deal of time and serious investigation. Let us do it after the election — today is not the moment.”

Following the discovery of the dioxin, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general’s office said it had reopened the criminal investigation that it closed last month due to a lack of evidence.

While high concentrations of dioxin remain in his blood, doctors said Mr Yushchenko’s organs have not been damaged and he is fit for the campaign trail.

“He has almost made a complete recovery,” hospital director Dr Michael Zimpfer told The Associated Press. “His liver is fine, his pancreas is fine, but he still has residual pain.”

Mr Yushchenko’s face remains bloated and pocked, though he says he is now in good physical shape.

He no longer needs the catheter in his spine that had administered medication to treat intense back pain, but still is taking painkillers.

Doctors said that if the dose of dioxin had been greater, the 50-year-old could have been killed.

A newly developed test found Mr Yushchenko’s blood contained more than 1,000 times the normal amount of dioxin.

Dioxin is a byproduct of industrial processes such as waste incineration and chemical and pesticide manufacturing.

The massive quantities of it found in Yushchenko’s system caused chloracne, a type of adult acne caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

The condition is treatable, but can take two to three years to heal.

Yushchenko’s party claims the findings show his opponents wanted to assassinate or disable him rather than take the risk he would defeat Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich in the presidential election.

It’s a charge by Mr Yanukovich’s supporters.

The Kremlin-backed Mr Yanukovich was declared the winner before the Supreme Court annulled the vote on fraud allegations.

At a brief news conference before he was discharged from the Vienna clinic,
Mr Yushchenko compared his country’s upheaval over the election to the collapse of the Communism.

“We haven’t seen anything like that for the past 100 years,” he said.

“I think it would be appropriate to compare this to the fall of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

After central Kiev was brought to a virtual halt for more than two weeks, he predicted “the regime that was in place for 14 years in Ukraine is now living its last days.”

The most recent opinion poll has put the opposition leader 10 percentage points ahead of Mr Yanukovich.

His enthusiasm comes despite hardliners saying they would not do so.

“There has been progress in the negotiations with Palestinian factions about ending the militarisation of the intifada,” said Mr Abbas, in Qatar as part of a tour of the Gulf states.

“Intensive discussions are under way with the (Hamas) movement and others with a view to reaching an agreement to calm down the situation,” he said.

Mr Abbas is the front-runner to succeed the late Yasser Arafat in January 9 elections for Palestinian Authority president.

“I am hopeful about (the position of) the Palestinian factions which had agreed to a 53-day truce when I was prime minister (last year), and I hope we will reach an agreement before, or perhaps after, the elections,” he added.

However Mr Abbas’ comments come as spokesmen for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip rejected his argument that using weapons since the second intifada began four years ago was a mistake.

“Such declarations run counter to the consensus among our people over the legitimacy of the resistance,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

“The problem is the Israeli occupation and not the resistance.”

Mohammed al-Hindi, a leader of Hamas’ smaller rival Islamic Jihad, said: “the Palestinians need weapons of resistance against the Israeli occupation.”

In a newspaper interview earlier this week, Mr Abbas said the use of weapons is harmful and “must stop”.

It was his strongest condemnation yet of the armed factions’ tactics since assuming the interim leader role after Mr Arafat’s death a month ago.

While he concedes he has received no guarantees from the armed groups that they would agree to a truce, he said a committee is speaking with them every day, and their demands are under consideration.

His willingness to upset the militants has won him praise from Israel and the United States.

Mr Powell, on perhaps his last official trip abroad, was in the Netherlands which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, to smooth the way for a February visit to Europe by US President George W. Bush.

But his earlier stops in Sofia and Brussels have produced only mixed success in the attempt to heal festering wounds in transatlantic relations caused by the US-led invasion in Iraq.

President Bush is to meet with NATO and EU leaders in Brussels on February 22 and Mr Powell told a group of Dutch students shortly after his arrival that the president hoped to mend the breaches caused by Iraq.

“We’re trying to get over that disagreement by coming together… and I hope that will be the result of my conferences here with the EU troika today,” he said.

“I hope we’ll get over this so that we can get on with the task of helping the Iraqi people and not continue to argue about what happened last year,” Mr Powell told the students.

President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq sparked massive criticism in Europe, and drove a huge wedge between EU governments who backed the war — spearheaded by Britain — and an anti-war bloc headed by France and Germany.

In Brussels on Wednesday, Mr Powell said the United States was ready to move on and challenged Europeans to respond positively to US overtures which he said would be critical to confronting new global threats like terrorism.

“Whatever our differences about the past, about Iraq, we are now looking forward,” he said. “We are reaching out to Europe and we hope that Europe will reach out to us.”

Victory in Iraq, including successful elections for a transitional parliament set for January 30, is in everyone’s interests, even those European nations that vehemently opposed the war, he said.

Though Powell was forced to acknowledge Washington’s continuing frustration with some European NATO allies, including France and Germany, over Iraq, he is bringing that and a laundry list of other issues to The Hague for his meetings with senior EU officials.

Particularly important, Powell said are joint efforts to promote democracy and human rights throughout the broader Middle East and North Africa, an ambitious US project that encourages reforms from Pakistan to Mauritania.

Cooperation on Ukraine, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Balkans was high on the agenda in his talks with Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The United States is especially keen to see the European Union enforce and perhaps toughen its recent deal with Iran under which Tehran agreed to suspend it uranium enrichment activities that Washington believes are an attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

The EU agreement is “a step forward, it’s good,” Mr Powell told the Dutch students. “But it’s only a suspension. When you suspend something, you can unsuspend. We would rather see it terminated or brought under total control.

“We’re working with the European Union; it’s better we think for the European Union to have the lead with respect to this kind of discussion,” he said, noting the US stance on Iran was less flexible than that of the EU.

In addition, Mr Powell was renewing the US case against the lifting of a 15-year-old arms embargo on China, a move spearheaded by France and Germany that appears to be gaining momentum inside the 25-member bloc.

He is expected to remind his interlocutors that Washington is a firm supporter of Turkey’s entry into the European Union and carefully suggested that Ankara be given an early date to begin accession talks when EU leaders meet at a summit next week.

Mr Powell said this week that Turkey has done a “very good job” of meeting European concerns over its suitability for EU membership and noted that he would respond “very positively” if the summit agreed.

Trade and economic issues, including EU concerns about the weakened dollar, will be touched on tangentially in the talks, US officials said.

Bertie Lloyd Calliope has been sentenced to six weeks in prison for bringing a can of beer and a cask of wine into the Napranum Restricted Area, where strict rules apply to the use of alcohol.

Magistrate Tom Braes at the Weipa court sentenced Mr Calliope to four weeks detention after he was found in possession a can of medium strength beer in June.

A six week gaol term was also handed down for Mr Calliope possessing a cask of wine the following day.

The sentences will be served concurrently.

Mr Calliope has been in breach of the community’s alcohol restrictions on several previous occasions.

In September last year, he was fined $400 for an offence and again in January he was fined the amount of $1,000.

The Tharpuntoo legal service says it will appeal the prison sentence after deeming it to be an excessive penalty.

Alcohol Management Plans have been introduced in 17 indigenous Queensland communities following the findings of the 2001 Cape York Justice Study conducted by Justice Tony Fitzgerald.

The 2001 study revealed a disproportionate level of alcohol-related crime and health problems in far north Queensland’s indigenous communities.

“There is overwhelming evidence that harmful levels of alcohol consumption by Aboriginal people in the Cape York region are the chief precursor to violence, crime injury and ill-health in these populations,” the report stated.

To address excessive alcohol consumption and related problems, the state government, in consultation with communities and the Liquor Licensing Division, began introducing management plans to restrict access to alcohol.

Aurukun was the first to adopt new controls in December 2002, with Napranum joining up in June 2003.

Each community determines its own level of restrictions.

In Napranum, a Restricted Area was established prohibiting alcohol from the entire Napranum Aboriginal Council area, except for the Napranum Tavern and the Peninsula Development Road.

The tavern can only sell ‘mid’ and ‘low’ strength beer in the lounge and beer garden areas, plus pre-mixed spirit drinks in the lounge.

No take-away sales are permitted.

The restrictions apply to anyone within the Restricted Area, be they a resident, visitor or tourist passing through.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced it was launching protests outside stores in New York and Milan after lobbying Benetton for more than a year to stop using Australian merino wool in its production of high-end jumpers, suits and other apparel.

Australia’s wool industry has been branded by PETA as ‘one of the most violent industries” for the use of a technique called ‘mulesing’, in which loose skin is cut away underneath the tail of sheep to prevent blowfly strike.

“Mulesing is entirely unique to Australia,” PETA’s campaign coordinator Matt Prescott said according to the Herald Sun daily.

“There are wool growers in Australia that don’t use mulesing. It’s a practice that could be phased out today,” he added.

In October, the major US retailer Abercrombie & Fitch succumbed to pressure from PETA and agreed to boycott Australian wool.

The loss prompted Australian woolgrowers on November 8 to agree to completely phase-out mulesing by 2010.

With 5,000 stores worldwide, Benetton reported net revenue of €1.241 million ($AUD 2.183 million) in the nine months to September 2004 and each year the group produces 110 million garments.

The prospect of losing such a major business interest would be a huge blow to Australian woolgrowers.

The wool group, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), commenced legal proceedings to challenge PETA’s activities bringing a case against the animal rights group in Sydney’s Federal Court earlier this month.

The AWI has alleged that PETA is in breach of the boycott provision of the Trade Practices Act through its exertion of pressure on clothing retailers to stop using Australian wool.

However, PETA iss pre-empting that action with the launch of a graphic campaign outside Benetton’s New York store, located on the corner of 5th and 49th Avenues in busy downtown Manhattan.

According to the report by the Herald Sun, massive panels with pictures of ‘mutilated Australian lambs’ will be set up between noon and 1pm to catch the attention of lunchtime crowds.

The screens will carry the tagline ‘Benetton is Baaad to Sheep’.

Pedestrians and customers will also be asked to view a video entitled ‘United Cruelty of Benetton’ and to agree to boycott Benetton outlets.

PETA is also preparing a similar boycott this week outside Benetton’s head store in Milan.

The Weekend Australian newspaper said officials from Tokyo and Canberra had discussed joint military exercises in Australia as Japan moved to revise its pacifist constitution.

The newspaper said the talks had not reached ministerial level and Defence Minister Robert Hill said no formal proposal had been received from Tokyo.

The Weekend Australian said some veterans viewed the prospect of Japanese troops training in Australian as an insult to the memory of comrades subjected to atrocities as prisoners of war during World War II.

“I can’t forget and I can’t forgive because what the Japanese did to us was brutal and totally unnecessary,” former POW Perce Curvey told the newspaper.

Former government minister Tom Uren, also an ex-POW, said he bore no grudge against Japan but did not feel Australia should encourage its military resurgence.

“It seems to me a very foolish decision for us to start having joint military activities with Japanese on our soil,” he told Sky News.

“Where else in Asia would Japan have joint manoeuvres with anyone else, there’s sensitivity everywhere where Japanese militarism’s involved.”

Mr Uren said the issue remained relevant because of Tokyo’s refusal to acknowledge war crimes during World War II and the presence of ultra-nationalists in Japan hoping to re-establish the nation as a major military power.

“There is a large element within Japan that wants to return to the position before the last war,” he said.

The Weekend Australian said China, Australia’s fastest growing trade partner, would also take a dim view of joint exercises with Japan.

China Friday expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with new Japanese defence guidelines which point to Beijing as a potential threat.

Managing editor Jim Kelly wrote that Time chose President Bush “for sticking to his guns and for reshaping the rule of politics to fit his ten-gallon-hat leadership style and for persuading a majority of voters” in this year’s presidential election of his suitability to lead the nation for a second four year term.

Son of former US president George Bush Snr, who also received the honour of Time’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 1990, George W Bush pushed aside a field that included filmmakers Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, the members of the US September 11 commission, and even God – in recognition of the rising prominence of religious values in America.

The award recognises the person or persons who most affected the news and people’s lives, for good or for ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse, according to the Time’s managing editor.

George W Bush was previously named Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ in 2000, the year he first won the US presidency

From controversial beginnings in 2000, when a tight contest with Democratic Senator Al Gore saw the nation become embroiled in a debate over vote counting which reached the US Supreme Court, to the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and his subsequent ‘war on terror’, President Bush has often drawn fire from critics.

Something the US leader was prepared to acknowledge in his interview with Time.

“My presidency is one that has drawn some fire, whether it be at home or around the world. Unfortunately, if you’re doing big things, most of the time you’re never going to be around to see them (to fruition), whether it be cultural change or spreading democracy in parts of the world where people just don’t believe it can happen,” Mr Bush said.

Abroad, George W Bush has carved out an uncompromising foreign policy punctuated by the launch of offensives in Afghanistan in late 2001 and Iraq last year, where he showed himself willing to engage in pre-emptive military action despite international opposition.

His election victory last month, though, contrasts with a drop in popularity which has taken a battering as the violence in Iraq continues unabated, now claiming 1,300 American lives and many more Iraqis.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq also raised doubts about the purpose of America’s presence there.

At home, the president has hammered out a conservative agenda, bringing in sweeping tax cuts and education reforms, and clashing with Democrats over the environment and judicial appointments.

But it is also the president’s style of leadership that has gained attention, purveying an image of being ‘average’.

In a speech to Yale students in 2001 he memorably made light of his academic record saying: “To the ‘C’ students I say: You, too, can be president of the United States.”

As the president looks ahead to his second inauguration ceremony next month, he has also done some reflecting on the past four years.

In his own assessment of his first administration President Bush said: “I would suspect at this point, if I had to think of themes, one would be the effect of freedom on the world. Maybe at home, how to achieve results-oriented government, or compassionate conservative agenda.”

On Sunday the Queensland opposition issued a 24-hour deadline for the Premier, Peter Beattie, to sack Ms Clark or have the matter referred to the state’s Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC).

Acting opposition leader Jeff Seeney said Monday would provide the first opportunity to refer the matter to the CMC, and that the matter would be followed up then.

The furore has centred on claims Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner and Carpentaria Land Council chief executive Brad Foster had airfares paid for by the minister’s department on a trip to accompany her on meetings with Palm Island residents on December 17th.

Mr Yanner failed to travel on from Townsville to the island, however, Mr Foster completed the journey.

Pressure began to mount after Mr Yanner reportedly alleged that Ms Clark’s senior adviser, Bruce Picard, told Mr Yanner and Mr Foster to say publicly they were required to reimburse the airfares, although they would not have to pay them, according to the Weekend Australian newspaper.

The government is continuing to stand by its position that Mr Yanner and Mr Foster were told the $1775 air tickets would be reimbursed.

The premier has resisted calls from the opposition and the police union to sack Ms Clark.

Speaking to the Nine network, Mr Beattie said the matter was “a storm in a tea cup.”

“The facts of life are that I made it clear when I found out they were going to Palm Island that taxpayers wouldn’t be footing the bill,” Mr Beattie said.

“She’s (Ms Clark) going to pay the airfares herself if they won’t,” the Premier added.

Mr Beattie said he had initially looked into the planning of the trip to Palm Island because he did not agree with Ms Clark’s decision to take Mr Yanner.

“He made a lot of inflammatory remarks that set back black and white relations for a decade and I didn’t think they were very helpful,” Mr Beattie said.

His comment referring to statements made by Mr Yanner calling for physical attacks against police officers following the November 19 death in custody of an Aboriginal man.

The opposition says the scandal surrounding Ms Clark has a ‘compelling similarity’ to the so-called ‘Winegate affair’ of March this year, when a bottle of wine was taken on a government flight to the Lockhart River Aboriginal Community, which operates under an alcohol restriction plan.

“We are talking about the same minister, the same public servants and the same sort of cover-up, and there are enough accusations and enough concerns raised now to ensure the CMC must investigate.

The CMC is already conducting the high profile investigation looking into the circumstances surrounding the Aboriginal death in custody on Palm Island last month which sparked violent rioting targeting police and government buildings.

Mr Sharon, who has been bereft of a parliamentary majority for the last six months, was given a major boost this week when the central committee of his own Likud party finally approved his plans to bring the main opposition Labour faction into government.

After suffering the embarrassment of a defeat in a similar ballot in August, victory by a resounding vote of 1,410 to 857 was particularly sweet for Mr Sharon.

A source close to the Prime Minister said he had already phoned Labour leader Shimon Peres to start talks on joining the government.

The source added that Mr Sharon was also to invite the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to join the government.

While Shas, opposed to the withdrawal from Gaza, is likely to stay outside the government, the five deputies of the UTJ are expected to come on board.

The 81-year-old Peres, keen to taste power for possibly one last time, reiterated that he would welcome the opportunity to enter a new coalition in order to ensure the implementation of the so-called disengagement plan.

“We support Ariel Sharon’s proposition to forge a new coalition”, he told public radio.

“We hope that this decision represents a step forward in the peace process and we will act to support the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank,” added the former premier and Nobel peace prize winner.

Mr Sharon had warned that he would have no option but to call new elections if he was not given room to bring about a new coalition.

After losing three coalition partners in little more than six months, he can now rely on the support of only 40 of the 120 members of the parliament.

The top-selling newspaper Yediot Aharonot daily said Mr Sharon’s threats to call new elections, rather than a genuine change of heart among Likud hardliners, was the main reason for his victory.

“The great majority of these (hardliners) still oppose the evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the unilateral disengagement plan,” it said.

Mr Sharon, who has traditionally been seen as the ultimate champion of the settlers, has vowed to see through the uprooting of the 8,000 Jewish residents of Gaza next year come what may.

By leaving Gaza and four small Jewish enclaves in the northern West Bank, he is hoping to alleviate pressure for a more comprehensive withdrawal from the West Bank, where the vast majority of the 245,000 settlers live.

The Palestinians are deeply suspicious of Sharon’s intentions, fearing he will use the Gaza pullout to block progress on the wider peace process.

Negotiations minister Saeb Erakat said the vote was an “internal matter” but expressed hope a new government would help revive the peace process.

“We hope the formation of a new Israeli government will lead to the reviving of a meaningful peace process,” Mr Erakat said.

Mr Sharon had initially said the pullout would be implemented on a unilateral basis.

However, with the emergence of a more moderate Palestinian leadership since Yasser Arafat’s death last month, Mr Sharon has indicated a willingness to coordinate the process.

Meanwhile, there was no end to the violence in the region.

A seven-year-old Palestinian girl was killed and three other Palestinians wounded by Israeli forces in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis shortly after a Hamas mortar attack on a nearby Jewish settlement, Palestinian medical sources said.

The mortar attack wounded at least four Israelis, medical sources said. Two of them, one a young child, were said to be in critical condition.

An Israeli military source said soldiers had “returned fire towards the source of the mortar shell attack”, adding that reports of the girl’s death were being investigated.

In Brussels, the European Commission announced that it will deploy more than 260 observers to monitor next month’s Palestinian presidential poll to elect a successor to Arafat.

Bassam al-Salhi, a candidate in the January 9 vote, was arrested by Israeli authorities after allegedly assaulting a border policeman at a checkpoint near Jerusalem after being refused permission to enter the holy city.