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’42 die in fire’ in Thailand refugee camp

The toll from a blaze that swept through a camp in northern Thailand has risen to 42, a Thai official said, after hundreds of temporary homes for refugees from Myanmar were reduced to ashes.

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Dozens of people were injured in the fire, which broke out on Friday at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son province, with women, children and the elderly believed to make up the majority of the victims.

Rescue workers were on the scene at the remote mountainous camp area, Mae Hong Son provincial governor Narumol Paravat told AFP by telephone.

“The latest death toll we can confirm through military walkie-talkies is 42,” she said, adding the toll was likely to rise further as rescue workers search the area.

Authorities believe the fire was sparked by an unattended cooking flame.

A local district official said hot weather, combined with strong winds caused the fire to spread quickly among the thatched bamboo shelters.

Police on Saturday said around 400 temporary homes had been incinerated, while the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Bureau said a school, clinic and two food warehouses had also been destroyed.

The Thai government pledged an investigation into the fire at the camp, which houses roughly 3,700 refugees.

Ten camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border house a total of about 130,000 people, who first began arriving in the 1980s.

Many of the refugees have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Families often live cheek-by-jowl in simple bamboo-and-thatch dwellings.

Many of the camp residents have been registered with the UN as refugees, and an ongoing resettlement programme has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries.

After a new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta in Myanmar two years ago, Thailand announced it wanted to shut the border camps, raising concern among their residents.

But so far the displaced residents have been allowed to stay and the Thai government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe.

Many of the refugees are from Myanmar’s eastern Karen state, where a major rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU) signed a ceasefire deal with the new regime last year after decades of civil war.

Vast numbers of people fled the former Myanmar junta’s counter-insurgency campaign, which rights groups say deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.

Years of war have left the Karen region littered with landmines while development has been held back, leaving dilapidated infrastructure and threadbare education and health services.

Hundreds of homes were destroyed at a different border camp in February last year by a fire that the authorities also blamed on cooking.

Pakistan remembers Benazir Bhutto’s murder

Vast crowds have gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of the assassination of former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto and to witness her son launch his political career.

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More than 200,000 people were at the Bhutto mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in the southern province of Sindh to pay their respects and to hear Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of Benazir and President Asif Ali Zardari, make his first major public speech.

Bhutto, twice elected prime minister, was killed in a gun and suicide attack after an election rally in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan’s army, on December 27, 2007.

No one has ever been convicted of her murder. Security was tight around a huge stage, adorned with the tricolour of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), where Oxford-educated Bilawal will speak. Police said more than 15,000 officers had been deployed, as well as about 500 government paramilitary forces.

The Bhutto family has been a force in Pakistani politics for almost all of the country’s 65-year history.

Benazir’s father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who founded the PPP, led the country from 1971 until he was ousted in a military coup in 1977.

He was hanged in 1979 after being convicted of authorising the murder of a political opponent.

Bilawal was 19 when his mother was killed, and his spokesman Aijaz Durrani said Thursday’s anniversary would mark a new chapter in Pakistan’s political history.

“A new Bhutto is emerging today in the shape of Bilawal who has (the) vision of his mother and grandfather,” he told AFP. As head of state, President Zardari is barred from leading the PPP election campaign. He is also hugely unpopular, tainted by years of corruption allegations.

A general election is due early in 2013 and though 24-year-old Bilawal is too young to stand, political analyst Hasan Askari said he could be the new figurehead for the PPP campaign.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said the country should “shun prejudices and maintain unity” to pay homage to Benazir.

“Let us resolve to defeat the forces of extremism and terrorism and work for the progress and prosperity of the country,” he said in a statement. Bilawal, in May, accused former military ruler Pervez Musharraf of “murdering” his mother by deliberately sabotaging her security.

A UN report in 2010 also said the murder could have been prevented and accused Musharraf’s government of failing to protect Bhutto.

The Musharraf regime blamed the assassination on Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who denied any involvement and was killed in a US drone attack in August 2009. There has been a surge in terror attacks in Pakistan in recent weeks.

Brigadier Saad Khan warned the Taliban may continue their campaign with an attack on events marking the anniversary. AFP lhh

Comment: French intervention won’t fix the mess in Mali

By Binoy Kampmark, RMIT University

The French government has announced it will triple its troop deployment to the conflict-plagued state of Mali.

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On Monday, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gerard Araud, explained that France had received UN Security Council approval to intervene. An aerial campaign on Thursday commenced at the request of Mali’s government, targeting al Qaeda-linked rebels marching on the capital, Bamako.

Echoes of Libya

The fear from France and its allies is that Islamist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, shortened to Aqim, poses a grave threat, through its efforts to create what would amount to a Taliban-style regime in Mali.

The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn has pointed out that this action resembles the “protective” intervention by the French against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi two years ago. For this reason, the implications of UN Resolution 2085, which charts the legal boundaries of military assistance designed to restore Mali’s government, are dangerously unclear.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sees the move as limited and controlled. He said the intervention was only taking place to restore “Mali’s constitutional order and territorial integrity”.

Afghanistan in Africa

The political and cultural activities of the seemingly eclectic mishmash of Islamic groups in Mali have been vicious. Music has been banned in some areas, something seemingly unthinkable in the country, which has produced such world-renowned acts as Salif Keita. Islamists have also engaged in that all too familiar pattern of destroying Sufi shrines such as those in Timbuktu. There is little doubt that Mali is fast becoming another Afghan experiment in militant Islamist nation building (or sheer deconstruction).

The clay-mosques in Timbuktu have been attacked. EPA/Ulrike Koltermann

Look for fundamentalists, and you will find them. The born-again Salafist Iyad Ag Ghaly, leader of the Islamist movement Ansar-ud-Deen, exemplifies this. Long gone is the man who used to smoke and keep company with the musicians from Tinariwen. As the director of the Festival in the Desert Manny Ansar explains, “He believes in what he’s doing. And that’s what frightens me”.

The musicians have gone underground. Last year, on August 22, the city of Gao received a governing decree banning all Western music.

Andy Morgan, writing for The Guardian, noted one striking example of this in the Malian desert town of Kidal in October last year. Seven militia men sporting AK47s were on the search of a local musician. He was not found, but the message to his sister was unmistakable:

If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.

The other side of the experiment is less the matter of Allah and more the issue of money and basic greed. Power and finance come before the establishment of caliphates for some of the vying groups. That side of the equation is neglected in the Western security debate.

The intervention, however, is not premised on cultural salvation but political order. If Mali falls to Islamism, a haven will be established though it’s bound to be confused and bloody. And what will come of that is anybody’s guess. The US support for the French is premised on the simple basis that Islamic “terrorists” are involved, plain and simple. “We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven,” US State Department Official Victoria Nuland explained.

An intractable problem

Mali, to put it bluntly, is in a mess. Such messes, when they take place in former colonial bastions – notably those with strong historical ties to powers such as France – invite more than a spectator’s interest. That interest tends to come in the form of guns and material when the “natives” misbehave.

With their current resources, a conquest of Mali from either Aqim or ethnic separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is highly unlikely. Neither group is friendly with each other, with Ansar-ud-Deen keen to muscle past the nationalist MNLA with the help of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao).

So, we are back to the usual debates about international intervention – to curb an untested, unclear threat, with motives that are themselves historical, ill-directed and disingenuous.

We can dismiss the altruistic motive from the start, despite the icing of UN legalism. The Mali conflict, fought by its various players, is based on a bloody challenge for control, and no side, at this point, looks likely to gain ascendancy.

Binoy Kampmark does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Comment: Too much, too young for Italy’s Five-Star Movement?

By Duncan McDonnell

“Paris is worth a mass”, replied my friend, citing Henry IV’s probably apocryphal comment on his conversion to Catholicism in order to break the religious impasse in sixteenth-century France.

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She was explaining her decision, despite reservations, to support Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (M5S) in Italy’s election two weeks ago. The point, she stressed, was that voting for the M5S was worth it in order to mark “a complete break with the mainstream parties”. Sending that message was the important thing.

Almost nine million Italians voted for the Five-Star Movement. More than anyone – pundits, mainstream politicians and probably even Grillo himself – expected.

To put it into context: we still talk about the performance of Silvio Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, in the 1994 general election. Forza Italia got 21% of the vote that time. The M5S took 25.6% in 2013. It is the best new party result in a general election in Western Europe, excluding “repackaged” or merged parties, or the first rounds of democratic elections when all parties are new.

The M5S is now Italy’s largest party in terms of vote share. Only the fact that the two main parties were in centre-left and centre-right alliances prevented it claiming the majority seat bonus (awarded to the largest coalition) in the chamber.

This instead went to the centre-left which, although frittering away a seemingly unassailable lead during the campaign, still finished 0.3% ahead of Berlusconi’s centre-right.

But in the senate (which uses a different electoral system), there is a logjam since the centre-left lacks the numbers to govern. So the M5S now finds itself under pressure from many in Italy’s media and elites to strike an accord with the centre-left so a government can be formed.

Party vote shares in the Chamber of Deputies. Parties in a coalition are the same colour. Data based on that provided by the Ministero dell’Interno. It does not include the ‘Italians abroad’ and Valle D’Aosta constituencies. Duncan McDonnell

For this, and many other reasons, the M5S is between a rock and a hard place. It is a victim, to some extent, of its own success.

First, it suddenly has to contend with 163 new MPs, not one of whom has served even a day on a town council. That’s a big ask of a movement which was only founded in late 2009 and eschews the normal structures of political parties. Imposing discipline both inside and outside parliament will be extremely difficult.

To take just one example: the M5S prohibits its representatives from speaking, unauthorised, to the media. Good luck with that when the new faces find themselves running a gauntlet of tempting microphones and cameras every day in Rome.

Second, the movement in its parliamentary votes will have to balance the diversity of ideologies among both its new representatives and its supporters. If you read the M5S programme and listen to Grillo’s speeches, you find something for everyone – from environmental protection, to universal unemployment benefit, to the ending of monopolies, to reform of the political system and the state. The Movement claims to be “beyond left and right”, but there are clear differences in this respect among its activists and voters.

In a survey conducted with the think-tank Demos of almost 2000 Grillo and M5S Facebook fans last August, we asked respondents to position themselves on a political spectrum ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being furthest left and 10 furthest right.

The average score for respondents was 3.88, indicating they are generally left of centre. However, it is also clear both from our study and post-election analyses that the M5S is fishing among discontented citizens of right, left and centre. These range from former voters of the northern regionalist Lega Nord to ex-Berlusconi supporters in the South to left-wingers in the “red zones” of central Italy and elsewhere. Convincing all these to come on board in a campaign is one thing. Keeping them there while voting in parliament on the bread-and-butter issues that divide right and left is quite another.

All the above is exacerbated by the calls now for the M5S to support a centre-left administration in order to prevent the country undergoing a second general election or the installation of another technocratic executive (a solution which would extend the suspension of party government in place since November 2011).

However, this would be a bitter and damaging pill to swallow for a movement, whose principal unifying message to supporters and voters – like my friend – is its rejection of the mainstream political class in its entirety.

The irony of course is that, had the M5S not taken quite so many votes from those mainstream parties, it would now be focused solely on settling into a parliamentary opposition role and acclimatizing to institutional life. Instead, it is having to justify its refusal to help provide the country with a governing majority. Sudden and enormous success brings sudden and enormous challenges.

Or, to put it another way: sometimes, a little bit less really can be more.

Duncan McDonnell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Vietnam escapees sorry, Qld court hears

Father-of-two Tuan Quoc Vu feared he would be detained indefinitely by police for taking part in a protest in Vietnam.

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But to his wife’s relief he was released after 40 days behind bars.

Fearing he’d again be arrested, he decided to board a boat destined for Australia with other asylum seekers.

Earlier this year he arrived in Darwin and was transferred to the Scherger Detention Centre near the Cape York township of Weipa.

Fearing his application for asylum in Australia would be rejected, he and a group of other Vietnamese men decided to escape from the centre on May 23.

They scaled a fence and then, with the aid of helpers, drove to Weipa Airport where six of the men flew 800km southeast to Cairns.

Tipped off by a travel agent, police arrested six of the men at a popular backpackers in Cairns less than 13 hours after they escaped.

A seventh escapee was arrested at Weipa Airport.

On Tuesday six of the men pleaded guilty to one charge under the Immigration Act in the Cairns Magistrates Court.

A seventh escapee, Van Doan Dinh, was due to appear in court but it was revealed that he has again managed to flee from detention centre authorities.

The Immigration Department says Dinh escaped over the weekend, this time from Sydney’s Fairfield Hospital where he was being treated for a medical condition.

A warrant for his arrest was issued on Tuesday.

During Tuesday’s court appearance defence lawyer Kellie Walker told the court the men had fled Vietnam because they feared for their safety.

At least two of the men said they were worried they would be arrested for taking part in student protests.

Thanh Minh Le, a 32-year-old builder, said he had been persecuted because he was Catholic.

Anh Dang, a 23-year-old lumberjack, said he came to Australia because he feared he was going to be arrested by police for cutting down a tree he didn’t have permission to fell.

Dang told Ms Walker he escaped from Scherger because he had heard that applications for asylum by Vietnamese nationals were being rejected.

All of the men, except for Dang, said they didn’t want to return to Vietnam.

During sentencing Magistrate Anthony Gett acknowledged the reasons why the men had fled Vietnam and said the men were genuinely remorseful for escaping from Scherger.

However, he described their plan to escape as sophisticated.

“It is clear that there has been a level of planning in your escape,” he said.

The magistrate said most of the men knew few details about the escape plan, other than to climb the fence at Scherger during the early hours of May 23.

He released the men on 18-month good behaviour orders but they will remain at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney.

No second-tier tears for Seebohm at worlds

Emily Seebohm’s Olympic tears were replaced by smiles at the world championships as this time she savoured taking 100m backstroke silver behind American Missy Franklin.

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In a repeat of the result in London last year, Seebohm finished second behind the rising 18-year-old in the latest duel between the world’s premier female backstrokers in Barcelona.

It was Australia’s fifth medal, and fourth silver, after three days of racing in Spain.

Seebohm was shattered at finishing second in London, feeling she’d lost the gold after breaking the Olympic record in the heats but failing to reproduce that form in the final.

But it was a vastly-different attitude from Seebohm after clocking 59.09 seconds to finish behind Franklin (58.42) and ahead of Japan’s Aya Yerawaka (59.23) in Tuesday’s final.

The 21-year-old took three months off after the Olympics and said knowing she wasn’t in peak condition coming into worlds allowed her to race free of pressure and enjoy the experience.

“I think what I achieved last year wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be,” Seebohm said.

“But seeing as I haven’t been in the shape that I was last year, I didn’t really expect too much (in Barcelona).

“That helped me and made me feel happy to be out there and I enjoyed every minute of it.

“Being up there on the podium and getting a silver medal is incredible and I wish that was a little bit more important last year and that I enjoyed it a little bit more.”

Seebohm said taking a break helped her rediscover herself but it hasn’t affected her desire to get back to chasing Franklin in the build-up to Rio 2016.

“We work really hard to get in the shape that we are pre-Olympics and we don’t really have a lot of big breaks,” Seebohm said.

“After Olympics we just kind of let loose and go a bit crazy.

“I’m not in the shape I was but this is just motivation to keep me going and to keep getting stronger and get in that position that I want.”

Seebohm collected the only medal for Australia on Tuesday, following a three-medal haul on Monday.

That performance included a gold to Christian Sprenger in the 100m breaststroke final and he returned to the pool to progress to the final of the 50m event.

His swim of 27.10 was the fourth-fastest in the semi-finals, while South African Cameron van der Burgh underlined his favouritism for Wednesday’s final with an impressive 26.81.

“I’m still a little bit tired from everything last night, all the emotion and excitement,” Sprenger said.

“But (in the final) I will give it all I can and leave nothing behind.”

Ashley Delaney (53.55) was sixth in the men’s 100m butterfly final while Cameron McEvoy (1:46.63) and Thomas Fraser-Holmes (1:47.11) were seventh and eighth respectively in the men’s 200m freestyle, won by France’s Olympic champion Yannick Agnel (1:44.20).

“Tonight was just not acceptable in my books and it’s not where I wanted to be,” national 200m champion Fraser-Holmes said.

Australian Kylie Palmer (1:56.53) qualified sixth fastest for Wednesday night’s 200m freestyle final but Olympic bronze medallist Bronte Barratt (1:57.18) missed out.

Grant Irvine (1:56.95) failed to reach the men’s 200m butterfly final.

The swim of the night belonged to American teenager Katie Ledecky, who demolished the world record in the non-Olympic women’s 1500m freestyle final.

The 16-year-old clocked 15 minutes and 36.53 seconds to shave more than six seconds off the previous record, set by American Katie Ziegler in 2007.

Gonski, NDIS unaffordable: Hockey

“The problem is that in the one breath the Prime Minister says she hasn’t got enough revenue coming in, and in the other breath, she says she wants to spend more money, much more money, in areas like disability care and education and so on,” he said.

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“But the problem is that this expenditure is not sustainable over the longer term if the government has falling revenue.”

Mr Hockey said the opposition was committed to the NDIS, but the Coalition would live within its means in government.

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey told reporters in Sydney that superannuation and capital gains tax will be the areas hardest hit when the government tries to counter its $12 billion deficit, but refused to speculate on the Coalition’s strategies, such as the Coalition’s generous paid parental leave scheme policy.

“We are not in the business of ruling things in or out because we don’t know what we are going to inherit,” he said.

“Our signature policies are getting rid of the carbon tax … mining tax and having a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme, they are there and we will deliver on them,” he said.

Mr Hockey said the issue was the federal government was not telling the truth about the state of the country’s financial books.

“We are being extremely wise in not revealing our policies in detail now because what the government is doing is changing the numbers every day,” he said.

Elsewhere in South Australia Opposition Leader Tony Abbot said Labor is making “yet more excuses for yet more failure”.

Mr Abbott argued revenue had actually risen seven by per cent in 2012/13.

“Every day we have the government saying there is a revenue problem, and every day they are announcing multi-billion spending programs.Is it any wonder that this government has a problem?”

Ms Gillard told a conference on Monday that revenue in 2012/13 would be $12 billion less than forecast because of the continued strength of the Australian dollar.

“The persistent high dollar, as well as squeezing exporting jobs, also squeezes the profits of exporting firms. With lower profits for these companies comes lower company tax going to government,” she told the Per Capita forum in Canberra.

She said the government wouldn’t cut the budget to the bone in response, but warned that every “reasonable” option was now on the table, “even options previously taken off the table”.

As Finance Minister Penny Wong told ABC radio Australia was facing “a new economic reality”, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott accused Labor of just making excuses.

But Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the erosion of the budget bottom line should be seen in the context of declining business activity and a slowing economy.

“The major parties should avoid plans for tax increases or spending cuts that would worsen the outlook for this already slowing economy,” he said in a statement.

TD Securities head of Asia Pacific research Annette Beacher has upgraded her forecast for the 2012/13 budget deficit.

It’s now seen closer to $25 billion – or 1.7 per cent of GDP – compared to an earlier prediction for a $10-$15 billion shortfall.

“Clearly revenues rely too heavily on corporate taxation and not enough on personal taxation, a legacy of the prior Howard-Costello government,” she said in a note to clients.

“This structure needs to change.”

However, even a $25 billion deficit would be a marked improvement on the $43.7 billion deficit posted in 2011/12 and the $47.7 billion deficit in 2010/11.

But the IMF said while Australia’s fiscal position was now weaker than expected, it was not a concern because of the country’s low level of debt.

IMF director for Asia and the Pacific Anoop Singh said with debt levels at just 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), Australia was one of very few countries with triple-A sovereign debt ratings from the three major credit ratings agencies.

“The next budget will lay out the government’s plan to achieve a strong fiscal position … essentially the government has remained keen to return the budget to surplus, and this is a praiseworthy objective that we have supported,” he told a news conference in

Singapore.

As well, the IMF’s Regional Economic Outlook for Asia and the Pacific, released on Monday, said the Australian economy should return to trend growth in 2014, despite the damage being caused by a high Australian dollar.

Strauss-Khan sex probe to continue

Lawyers for the disgraced politician said they would appeal the court’s decision.

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“Mr Strauss-Kahn’s defence is certain that he will ultimately be cleared of the absurd charges of pimping that have been made against him,” they said in a statement.

The setback for Strauss-Kahn came a week after he agreed a financial settlement with a New York hotel maid who had accused him of sexual assault in a case that forced him to resign from his IMF job and wrecked his chances of becoming French president.

Details of the settlement were not disclosed, but legal experts said Strauss-Kahn would have been required to pay Nafissatou Diallo several million dollars over her allegation he had jumped on her naked and forced her to perform oral sex.

Strauss-Kahn admitted a sexual encounter took place in the Sofitel hotel in May 2011 but insisted it was consensual.

A criminal investigation into the incident collapsed after Diallo changed her version of events, prompting the prosecution to conclude there was little chance of a conviction.

French prosecutors however are convinced they have a case against Strauss-Kahn for “aggravated pimping in an organised gang”.

The case, known as the “Carlton affair” in France, centres around allegations that business leaders and police officials in Lille operated a vice ring supplying girls for sex parties, some of which are said to have taken place at the Carlton Hotel in the northern city.

Among Strauss-Kahn’s fellow accused is Jean-Christophe Lagarde, a police commissioner, and Rene Kojfer, the former public relations officer at the Carlton.

Lawyers for Lagarde and Kojfer have claimed their clients have been caught up in a political witch-hunt against Strauss-Kahn, arguing that there would have been no probe but for his involvement.

“This procedural combat changes nothing as we maintain our argument that legally these offences are not established and that in the end this case will collapse,” said Lagarde’s lawyer after Wednesday’s decision.

The Carlton case is one of a series of investigations that were launched in the aftermath of Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York.

French writer Tristane Banon accused him of trying to rape her in 2003. Investigators concluded that while there was evidence of sexual assault, the alleged attack had occurred too long ago to be prosecuted.

Strauss-Kahn was also investigated over an allegation that he had taken part in the gang rape of a Belgian prostitute. That was dropped when she recanted and said she had consented to sex.

Prior to his six-minute encounter with Diallo in New York, DSK, as he is known in France, had looked certain to secure the Socialist Party’s nomination as their candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

As it was, Strauss-Kahn’s fall from grace cleared the way for party insider Francois Hollande to claim the nomination. He went on to comfortably defeat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.

Strauss-Kahn meanwhile was left to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. His third wife, Anne Sinclair, stood by him in the immediate aftermath of his New York arrest but left him this year.

Sinclair, a wealthy heiress and former newsreader on French TV, was reported by Le Monde to have provided her former partner with some of the money he needed to pay off Diallo.

Pope Francis: ‘Who am I to judge’ gays?

Pope Francis has reached out to gays, declaring that it’s not his place to judge them – while also condemning the Vatican’s reported gay lobby as a “serious problem”.

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The remarks to journalists as he flew back to Rome from a high-profile trip to Brazil appeared to be more conciliatory towards homosexuals than his predecessor Benedict XVI.

Watch: Pope reaches out

0:00 Share “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” the Pope asked.

“The problem is not having this orientation, it is lobbying. That’s the most serious problem.”

The Pope admitted in June that there is a “gay lobby” in the Vatican’s secretive administration, the Roman Curia, according to a Latin American Catholic website.

It followed earlier Italian media reports claiming that a secret report by cardinals investigating Vatican leaks included allegations of corruption and blackmail attempts against gay clergymen, and on the other hand, favouritism based on gay relationships.

The Pope also fielded questions about Battista Ricca, appointed by the pontiff to a key position at the troubled Vatican bank. He is embroiled in allegations that he had gay relationships with male prostitutes.

The Pope said he had ordered a “brief investigation but we found nothing on him”.

“I have not seen anyone at the Vatican who is registered as gay on his identity card,” he said, adding, however: “We acknowledge that there are (gays).”

“The catechism of the Catholic Church says clearly that we must not marginalise these people, who should be integrated in the society.”

Gays and lesbians should be “treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity, without discrimination”, he said.

Gay rights and liberal Catholic groups in the US gave the Pope’s remarks a qualified welcome.

Prominent gay rights group the Human Rights Campaign, said that while his “words do not reflect a shift in Church policy, they represent a significant change in tone”.

largely symbolic, is a big step in the right way.”

US election: Obama and Romney prepare for face-off

The first US election debate will give Mitt Romney a chance to break a change in polling patterns and convince voters he has what it takes to become president.

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SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston asked Jonathan Bradley of the US Studies Centre who will likely benefit most from the first US election debate.

The first debate focuses on domestic policy. What are the key areas we’re likely to see Barack Obama and Mitt Romney go head-to-head on?

It sounds like there is going to be a lot of talk about the economy.

The moderator of the debate, Jim Lehrer, who is a journalist from PBS, recently announced what the topics will be, and three of the six slots allocated during the debate will be about the state of the economy. The remainder is going to be about health care, the role of government and governing.

Will Romney as challenger be on the attack?

Romney is going to say that Barack Obama has failed because [Obama] thinks the government needs to be too involved in the economy. Romney believes what needs to be done is [for the government] to take its hands off and let businesses creates jobs

Who will the candidates be looking to persuade?

What they’re going to hope is that they’re going to sway the five to six per cent of voters that haven’t made up their mind yet. They’ll be looking to make a break one way or the other. The problem is that that might not happen, because the people who tune in have already made up their minds. That’s a problem for Mitt Romney, because he is slightly behind in the polls. What he really needs is a circuit breaker.

How important are these debates over the course of the election? Can a stand-out performance re-set the playing field?

Pundits like to talk about the outsize influence debates can have an election. They often cite famous examples such as the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy contest, where TV viewers thought Kennedy was the victor, while radio listeners thought Nixon sounded better.

The truth is that the effect of the debates is usually more modest. You might see a polling shift of a few points around debate time, but not much more than that. [One] race where the debates might have made a difference is the 2000 one, where Al Gore seemed condescending and standoffish. In close contests like that one — and possibly this year’s — the debates can make a difference.

The reason the debates are more important for the challenger is that it’s one of the few moments in which he stands on equal footing with the president. Even while campaigning, the president has the trappings of the office to elevate his stature.

Having never been president, the challenger has to convince voters that he’s a suitable alternative. In the debates, both candidates are the same — two people on stage together, neither more important than the other, each trying to persuade the nation to vote him. It elevates the challenger enormously.

Traditionally the challenger has come out on top in first election debates. Who is your pick to win the night?

They’re both really strong debaters and they’re both going to be really practiced. If all goes to plan, they’ll fight each other to a draw. Mitt Romney is not good when he is caught off-guard. If Obama manages to catch him unaware that could really be a sticking point.

Got a question about the US election debate? You can watch a live stream of the event, and join the live chat with SBS reporter Rhiannon Elston and US political blogger Jonathan Bradley here on the SBS World News Australia website on Thursday, October 4 at 11am AEST. Click here for more details.