Explainer: What is RNA?

By Merlin Crossley

Our genetic material is encoded in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).


DNA is famous. But you may also have also heard of RNA (ribonucleic acid). So, what is RNA, and what is it good for?

Quite a lot really. In fact, it is possible that early life used RNA as its genetic material and also used folded RNAs as chemical tools to survive. This is called the RNA world hypothesis.

RNA is similar to DNA in lots of ways. It is a long chain of sugars linked together by phosphate groups. There is a cyclic base attached to each sugar and the bases can pair with matching partners to make a double helix.

This resembles DNA but the helix is a bit contorted and often RNAs are folded into complex structures stabilised by short helices interspersed with long single-stranded loops.

The really important difference is that RNA has an extra oxygen molecule. This makes RNA less stable than DNA.

Ribose, on the left, has one extra oxygen molecule compared to deoxyribose, right. Wikimedia Commons

You might think that being unstable is a bad thing, but there are advantages. Organisms that need to change rapidly tend to use RNA as their genetic material. Viruses, such as influenza and HIV, choose RNA rather than the more stable alternative of DNA so they can change and keep one step ahead of the immune system of their hosts.

Many factors contribute to the high mutation rates in RNA viruses, including the instability of RNA and the poor proof reading activity in the enzymes that replicate RNA.

Messenger service

Like DNA, RNA is a long chain of sugars. Sponk

As well as serving as genetic material, RNA has another critical function in virtually all organisms: it acts as a messenger; a short-lived intermediate communicating the information contained in our genes to the rest of the cell.

Many genes need to be turned on in bursts. Think of a football fan shouting out at a key point in a game – we don’t want the message to last forever.

Genes do last a lifetime, so how do we provide short-lived messages?

We make RNA copies of our DNA genes. The messages, or mRNAs, reflect the sequence of bases in our DNA and travel out of the nucleus (where our DNA is stored) into the cytoplasm where they are translated into proteins. The proteins go on to do jobs in the cell and the unstable mRNAs simply decay or are degraded.

So RNA can act as a messenger in the process of ensuring genes are translated into proteins – the tools of the cell, things such as haemoglobin to carry oxygen round the body.

But how does this mysterious translation occur? Does it rely on chemical tools such as proteins?

It certainly does, but it seems that the proteins are not the key players. It is a remarkable fact that the really important players in triggering the chemical reactions to produce protein chains from the mRNA code are not other proteins, but specially folded RNA molecules – RNA enzymes or ribozymes.

The machinery for reading a protein from a messenger RNA is contained in a complex RNA enzyme and the functional parts are RNA molecules called ribosomal RNAs or rRNAs.

RNA enzymes or ribozymes trigger the mRNA translation process.

Securing information

How come RNA can trigger chemical reactions but DNA doesn’t seem to? It is partly the extra oxygen and partly the special ability RNA has to fold up into complex shapes to form tools that can do things, whereas the double helix is regular and stable. The DNA double helix holds information securely but doesn’t do much else.

In 1989 Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for demonstrating that RNAs could catalyze chemical reactions.

You might wonder how a chain of sugars and bases such as mRNA can even serve as a template for forming a protein chain. The answer is complicated but it involves some clever adaptors. Amazingly, those adaptors are also made of RNA, they’re called transfer RNAs or tRNAs. They use their cyclic bases to pair to their mirror images in the mRNA and line up the right amino acids to make the protein, while the rRNA triggers the reaction to do the joining.

Structure of a transfer RNA (tRNA) molecule Image from shutterstock.com

The finding that absolutely essential functions such as encoding information, having a short-lived messenger to express it, and converting it into a set of functional protein tools, all involve RNA has led people to hypothesise that early life was made up of RNA.

In the beginning RNA possibly did the lot. But then gradually DNA took over as a more stable genetic material and proteins took over as more stable chemical tools. And RNA was gradually forgotten by some researchers, at least until recently.

Future of RNA

In 1998, American biologists Andy Fire and Craig Mello discovered RNA inhibition – how RNA can switch off genes.

We now know that a new class of small inhibitory RNAs (siRNAs which are about 20 residues long), fine tune the output from messenger RNAs. As mentioned RNA can form double strands – this allows siRNAs to bind messenger RNAs and interfere with their function.

These interfering RNAs are essentially “digital” inhibitors that are base for base mirror images of the messenger RNA. So it possible to make artificial inhibitors now. Thus a new industry has been born as researchers strive to turn genes off for experimental purposes and medical researchers investigate whether this can be used for therapies, such as turning off viruses or other harmful genes.

There has also been another interesting discovery – researchers have found that although only a small part of our genome encodes protein, around 2%, a much larger proportion is still copied into RNA.

The function of many of these long non-protein coding RNAs, called lncRNAs, is still being investigated but it seems that some act to catalyse chemical reactions and that others are involved in turning genes on or off either by binding messenger RNAs or by binding directly to the DNA genes they match.

If the world began with RNA then it is not really surprising that echoes of that RNA world remain and that RNAs are still involved in key life processes and are fundamentally important in gene regulation.

New classes of RNA molecules will continue to be discovered and it is seems likely that further insights into fundamental biology will emerge from this fertile ground in the future.

Merlin Crossley receives funding from the University of New South Wales, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

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Life on South Asia’s shifting river islands

Imagine going to sleep at the end of the day, with every possibility your home could be washed away overnight.


It’s an everyday reality for the millions of people who reside on the sandbars of South Asia’s Bay of Bengal delta.

Known as char-dwellers, seasonal flooding and riverbank erosions mean these people play a lottery with nature – at any time homes and assets can be washed away.

Their lives are documented in a new book, Dancing with the River, by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt of the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and Gopa Samanta from the University of Burdwan.

In their groundbreaking book, the authors explore the world of chars—the part land, part water, low lying sandy masses that exist within the riverbeds in the flood plains of lower Bengal.

In West Bengal, chars are used by the poorest and ‘most wretched of the earth’, including homeless Bihari and Bangladeshi Hindu migrants, the authors point out.

Often ideal for agricultural purposes, the chars are formed through rivers washing sandy, silty material down mountains and into the sea – much of which is stored temporarily in the form of river islands.

For the purpose of their research, Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta examined 11 chars across the former region of Bengal.

“In Bangladesh people have accepted the existence of chars,” says Lahiri-Dutt.

In India, however, those who lived on them were viewed as illegal citizens.

“There is no government record of the property existing,” says Lahiri-Dutt, “so chars are not legally owned.”

Abrupt falls in market prices for agricultural products, physical isolation, and illness are other realities. Additionally, boundaries are in constant flux, and the remoteness and lack of accessibility mean a total lack of health care, sanitation, water and electricity supplies.

On the upside, the book’s authors argue that some inhabitants might feel more secure living on chars than among hostile neighbours.

Several make plans for a long-term stay, others, fully aware of their vulnerability, use them as a temporary place of residence while making plans to live in mainland areas.

Lahiri-Dutt does not, by any means, perceive char-dwellers as victims, preferring to focus on their resilience, rather than calling on governments to lend support.

“The fact that poor people live on the most marginal of environments is well known,” she says.

“But, we live with risk every day. We live with worries and tension.

The day-by-day approach to life by char-dwellers offered “a profound experiential view of living with a highly changeable and non-benign nature,” Lahiri-Dutt emphasises.

Adaptation was the key to their survival.

“What is not well known is how poor people deal with the vulnerabilities and the risks that arise from living in these sorts of marginal environments,” says Lahiri-Dutt.

“Char-dwellers don’t plan for six months, or six years, they plan for today.”

While the thought of one’s home being washed away over night was not a happy one, the idea of everything being temporary and contingent was not necessarily bad either.

“We are hardwired to believe that permanent is good,” says Lahiri-Dutt.

Dancing with the River is published by Yale University Press.

This article is from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific

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Dead ducks removed from Chinese River

The ducks, which were found in around 50 plastic woven bags, were fished out of a section of the Nanhe River by authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, the official Xinhua news agency said.


The animals were then buried in plastic bags three meters underground, but the report did not specify how the ducks had died.

The report has come after Shanghai officials said a cleanup was close to ending after an embarrassing pollution case which saw 16,000 dead pigs floating down the city’s main river.

“The city’s water territory has already basically finished the work of fishing out the floating dead pigs,” a Shanghai government statement released late on Sunday said.

China’s commercial hub recovered 98 pigs on Sunday from the Huangpu river and 93 on Saturday, the authorities said, the first time the daily toll had fallen below a hundred in days.

The total number Shanghai had removed from the river, which supplies 22 percent of the city’s drinking water, had reached 10,924 as of Sunday afternoon.

In addition, Jiaxing in neighbouring Zhejiang province, whose farmers are accused by Shanghai of dumping the dead pigs into the river upstream, had found 5,528 carcasses, state radio said last week.

Mystery remains over the exact origin of the dead hogs. Jiaxing has insisted it was not the sole source, while Shanghai said its farms have not reported an epidemic which would kill pigs in such large numbers.

The images of dead pigs in China’s commercial hub have proved a huge embarrassment for the city, which is seeking to grow as an international financial centre.

The scandal has highlighted China’s troubles with food safety, adding the country’s most popular meat to a growing list of food items rocked by controversy.

Animals that die from disease can end up in China’s food supply chain if improperly disposed of, despite laws against the practice.

Samples of the dead pigs have tested positive for porcine circovirus, a common swine disease that does not affect humans.

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NKorea on agenda as Kerry hits Japan

He was due to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida later in Tokyo, which has deployed Patriot missiles around the capital in anticipation of a missile launch by the North.


Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said he expected the top US and Japanese diplomats to send a strong signal urging North Korea to listen to the international community.

“It is important that we coordinate internationally and firmly tell North Korea that it must give up its nuclear and missile programmes,” Onodera told reporters, adding he hoped Kishida and Kerry would issue a “strong message”.

Kerry’s visit follows an intense day of diplomacy Saturday in Beijing, where he warned Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping that the stakes were high as China’s erratic ally North Korea threatens a missile launch.

China is Pyongyang’s sole major ally and backer, and is widely seen as the only country with leverage to influence its actions — although it is also reluctant to risk destabilising the regime.

“The importance of the visit yesterday really cannot be overstated,” Kerry told US embassy staff in Beijing on Sunday ahead of his departure for Tokyo.

“This is a critical time needless to say, being able to speak directly to my Chinese counterpart and try to focus on some very critical issues is of major importance.”

State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who is in charge of Beijing’s foreign policy, said China was committed to “advancing the denuclearisation process on the Korean peninsula” and “will work with other relevant parties including the United States to play a constructive role”.

Kerry said China and the United States “must together take steps in order to achieve the goal of a denuclearised Korean peninsula” and were “committed to taking actions”.

But neither side gave details of any specific measures, and the top US diplomat said there would be “very focused continued high-level discussions about the ways to fill in any blanks”.

Kerry told reporters he wanted to ensure that Saturday’s pledges were “not just rhetoric, but that it is real policy”.

He predicted he would be making “many trips” to Beijing, hailing what he called “an extremely positive and constructive day… beyond what I anticipated in many regards”.

The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey is to visit Beijing this month along “with other members of the intel community”, he added.

The secretary of state previously held talks in South Korea with President Park Geun-Hye, where he offered public support for her plans to initiate some trust-building with the North.

The region has been engulfed by threats of nuclear war by Pyongyang in response to UN sanctions imposed over its recent rocket and nuclear tests, and Kerry stressed that China, which has backed Pyongyang since the 1950-53 Korean War, holds a unique sway over it and leader Kim Jong-Un.

China is estimated to provide as much as 90 percent of its neighbour’s energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods and 45 percent of its food, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

But analysts say it is wary of pushing too hard for fear of a regime collapse sending waves of hungry refugees flooding into China and ultimately leading to a reunified Korea allied with the United States.

“Mr President, this is obviously a critical time with some very challenging issues,” Kerry told Xi earlier in the Great Hall of the People.

As well as “issues on the Korean peninsula”, he cited Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Syria and the Middle East, and the world’s economic woes.

Strains in the relationship between the United States and China, the world’s top two economies, have been simmering on an array of diplomatic fronts including Syria and Iran, as well as trade.

Xi did not mention Korea at the start of his talks with Kerry, but said the China-US relationship was “at a new historical stage and has got off to a good start” since his ascension as head of state last month.

But in a commentary issued minutes later, China’s official Xinhua news agency said America’s strategic “pivot to Asia” could breed mistrust, and Washington should “help seek reasonable and workable solutions to regional issues”.

Kerry again warned that any missile launch by the North in the coming days would be seen as “provocative”.

But he raised the possibility that “if the threat disappears” and North Korea denuclearises, Washington could stand down its forces as it would no longer have “the same imperative… to have that kind of robust, forward-leaning posture”.

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Victoria quake didn’t do much damage, ‘but next one might’

By Tim Rawling, University of Melbourne

Just before 9pm last night (AEST) a magnitude-5.


4 earthquake (initially measured as magnitude-5.3) rocked Victoria. The quake did minimal damage to property and no injuries have been reported, but it reminded us that the bit of the earth’s crust we live on isn’t as stable and quiet as we might often think.

The quake’s epicentre was located 10km southwest of Moe and occurred roughly 10km below the surface. It was the equal-largest earthquake to have occurred in Victoria since the magnitude-5.7 earthquake that occurred near Mount Hotham in 1966.

(Another magnitude-5.4 earthquake struck Wonnangatta in eastern Victoria in 1982).

Last night’s quake was centred roughly 10km southwest of Moe. Google Maps

The public perception of earthquake hazards in Australia tends to be based largely on personal experience.

Many of us will have experienced small earthquakes or tremors but for the most part these are located far from built up areas and tend not to produce much more than a flurry of Facebook and Twitter updates, and perhaps the occasional website crash.

Many of you might remember the magnitude-5.6 Newcastle earthquake in 1989 which killed 13 people, left more than 100 injured and caused an estimated US$1.1 billion worth of damage. But unless you were directly affected by the tragedy of that event you probably don’t consider such an event likely to occur in Australia again.

Indeed, it’s easy to forget we live on a very dynamic continental plate. The Australian Plate (see image below) is actually one of the fastest moving on the planet, charging northwards at a rate of 7cm/year. Consequently, our continent is relatively highly stressed and more prone to earthquakes than we might expect.

Moe is nowhere near the edge of the Australian Plate, which is drifting north at a rate of 7cm per year. Mike Sandiford

One look at a map, or a drive along the coast, reveals evidence of large seismic events in our geological past. Not far from the recent Moe earthquake, the tilting of beach deposits at Warratah Bay suggests multiple, large earthquake rupture events have occurred in the region’s very recent geological past.

Further north, the development of a fault scarp – a cliff-like embankment – on the Cadell Fault has changed the course of the Murray River near Echuca several times in the past 100,000 years. These events must have been huge, on the order of magnitude 7 or greater.

More recently (geologically speaking), activity on an unnamed fault off the coast of South Australia near Beachport in 1897 caused a significant magnitude-6.5 earthquake. That earthquake is recorded as having rung church bells as far away as Bendigo.

Last night’s quake could have been felt more than 250km away from the epicentre. Geoscience Australia

Last night’s earthquake was what is known as an intraplate earthquake – that is, it occurred away from an active tectonic plate boundary.

Active plate boundary earthquakes, such as the Tōhoku-Oki earthquake of March 2011 (which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster) and the April 2012 earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh are well known to be devastating but intraplate earthquakes can also be very damaging.

The magnitude-6.3 earthquake that hit Christchurch in February 2011 was about 150km east of the tectonic plate boundary, and was part of a sequence of shallow intraplate earthquakes. And yet this earthquake killed roughly 180 people and caused tens of billions of dollars damage.

The epicentre of the Christchurch event was characterised by a pattern of high-amplitude, high-frequency and short-duration “strong motion”. Strong motion implies that monitoring seismometers were overwhelmed in the event.

This pattern of “strong motion” is typical of that observed in relatively shallow intraplate Australian earthquakes and hints at what we could expect, should a quake of similar size occur here. With a similar magnitude event occurring, on average, once every five to ten years across Australia, that’s not an impossibility.

Seismograph of last night’s quake, taken between 8.53pm to 8.56pm (AEST), from Toolangi, Victoria. Geoscience Australia

This potential is the driver behind Australian research attempting to better understand stress in the earth’s crust, and the resulting earthquake hazard. Scientists working on the current monitoring networks run by Geoscience Australia, Environmental Systems and Services (ES&S) and AuScope are seeking to improve instrumentation to more accurately locate seismic events and better understand the forces that resulted in those events. Further research is also needed into how continental earthquakes behave and how they are triggered on the Australian Plate.

Public and institutional perception of “low risk” is one of the reasons researchers are seeking an improved understanding of Australia’s crustal stability. Our lack of a collective experience of damaging earthquakes in Australia has meant that government and local authority planning – related to earthquake risk – is very poor compared with neighbouring regions of “higher risk” (such as New Zealand).

New hazard data and maps are currently being developed by a number of research groups (such as the Victorian Earthquake Hazard Map at the University of Melbourne, funded by the Natural Disaster Resilience Grant) to underpin the establishment of new planning codes and disaster management strategies that specifically consider seismic hazard.

Nascent energy technologies – such as geothermal energy, geological carbon storage and unconventional gas – provide further research directions in terms of crustal stability.

These developing technologies typically involve injecting or removing fluids from the earths crust. So a detailed understanding of the natural background seismicity of prospective regions is critical to mitigating against anthropogenically triggered seismicity. It also reduces the potential for naturally occurring events to negatively impact public opinion on these important projects.

In the meantime, last night’s earthquake will probably serve to remind many of us that the earth beneath our feet isn’t as stable as we might think.

Tim Rawling receives funding from the Natural Disaster Resilience Grants Scheme. He is affiliated with the Australian Geophysical Observing System.

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Aid mechanism for Palestinians

The European Union has offered to create a system, the quartet — the United States, EU, Russia and the United Nations — said in a statement after a day long meeting at the UN headquarters in New York.

The quartet “expressed its willingness to endorse a temporary international mechanism that is limited in scope and duration, operates with full transparency and accountability, and ensures direct delivery of any assistance to the Palestinian people.”

It called on donors and international organisations to consider taking part and pressed Israel to take steps to improve the humanitarian situation of the Palestinians.

Hamas’ responsibilities

It also reiterated that the Hamas-led government must fulfil its responsibilities regarding “basic human needs, including health services, as well as proper fiscal management and provision of services.”

“Everybody understands that something must be done,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a break in the meeting.

The United States and EU have frozen direct aid to the Hamas-led government because of the militant group’s support of violence against Israel.

Hamas is on US and EU terrorist blacklists. But with 160,000 Palestinian government workers clamoring for their salaries and fears mounting of increasing chaos in the territories, a source close to the quartet negotiations said the US was softening.

The money-starved Palestinian Authority may cease to function if government employees continue to go without salaries for much longer, the World Bank warned in a report released on Monday.

Guns outlawed

Meanwhile the Palestinian Hamas-led government and the former ruling Fatah faction have outlawed the carrying of arms, issuing a joint statement announcing the unprecedented measure.

“Anyone who carries arms will be considered outside the law,” Fatah spokesman Ahmed Hilles told a joint press conference with Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The statement followed an emergency meeting in Gaza City aimed at ending a spate of armed clashes between Fatah and Hamas militants.

A total of 14 Palestinians were injured in armed factional fighting on
Tuesday, the day bafter similar Fatah-Hamas clashes left three people dead in the southern Gaza Strip.

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Bittersweet day in Tasmania

The miners emerged just before daybreak after more than 320 hours trapped almost one kilometre underground.

NanNing Sauna

Smiling and waving as the town’s church bell rang out for the first time since the end of World War II, Mr Russell and Mr Webb walked unaided into the arms of their cheering families.

“You can’t kill me, son,” a jubilant Mr Webb shouted.

The pair, who won the hearts of fellow Australians with their wit and courage throughout the two-week ordeal, handed out business cards marked “The Great Escape” after one of the most remarkable mine rescues in history.

“To all who have helped and supported us and our families, we cannot wait to shake your hand and shout you a Sustagen,” the cards read, referring to the protein drink which helped keep them alive.

The crowd cheered, clapped and wept as the bearded men waved from their ambulances as they rolled slowly through a citizen’s guard of honour as they were taken to hospital in Launceston for a medical assessment.

Clean bill of health

Mr Webb discharged himself after a few hours of check-ups, while Mr Russell remained in hospital a bit longer and enjoyed a hearty breakfast.

“There wasn’t any need to keep (Webb) in hospital and we said ‘Look, stay here and let things settle down a bit longer’. But he obviously wants to get home — as you would after two weeks,” Dr Ayre said.

The two miners were saved by a steel “cherry-picker” cage in which they had been working at the time. Mr Knight, who was driving the vehicle holding the cage, was crushed to death.

Although the cage had no roof, a massive rock fell on top of it, protecting them from being crushed or smothered by smaller rocks.

For five days it was feared that they were dead. Alone in the dark they survived on one muesli bar, drinking water dripping down the rocks.

But five days later contact was established and food and water was fed to them through a narrow pipe as rescuers began the painstaking process of tunnelling.

Working around the clock and drilling through some 16 metres of hard rock, rescuers finally broke through to the men.

“I can see your light,” screamed a rescuer as he broke through the earth separating them from freedom on Tuesday morning.

Mr Russell and Mr Webb shouted back: “I can see your light too.”

After they were brought to the surface the crowd erupted with joy and tributes began pouring in.

“I just want to say how relieved and elated the whole country is and what a huge tribute this is, the way everybody has pulled together,” Prime Minister John Howard said.

“It has been a wonderful demonstration of Australian mateship. And to those two men, I just want to say to them we are — all of us, 20 million of us — delighted to still have them with us,” Mr Howard said.

Bittersweet day

But it was a day of high emotions in the town of Beaconsfield as the funeral of Mr Knight got underway nearby in Launceston.

A group of about 100 motorcyclists, led by someone riding Mr Knight’s own Harley-Davidson, accompanied his hearse as it went from a local church to the cemetery.

Friends, family and mine colleagues told the service at St John’s Anglican Church that Mr Knight, 44, was an easy-going, calm man whose personal motto was “she’ll be right, sport”.

About 700 mourners filled the cathedral and spilled over to an adjoining building, and included Todd Russell, Beaconsfield mine manager Matthew Gill and Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon.

“There’s not many things in life that take us through so many emotions at the same time,” God’s Squad motorcycle group spokesman Graham Mulligan said of the fatal rock fall, and the successful rescue.

“This whole ordeal has taken us from horror to shock, grief, sadness, joy and happiness – and then back to sadness again.”

Mr Knight’s daughter Lauren read out a letter she had written for her father’s birthday three years ago.

“You’re a wonderful, caring, understanding and forgiving father, a long-standing friend, my solid rock and inspiration,” she read.

After the 40 minute service, Mr Knight’s coffin was carried by friends and workmates from the church to a waiting hearse.

As the hearse departed 100 motorcycles started their engines with a deafening roar to form a guard of honour, lead by Mr Knight’s Harley-Davidson.

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Palestinian civil war fear

The unrest, the worst since Hamas trounced the former ruling Fatah in January’s election, broke out near the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis following a series of tit-for-tat kidnappings, police and witnesses said.

Two followers of Fatah and one Hamas activist, all in their 20s, were killed in the violence in the village of Abasan, according to hospital officials.

A local security official was injured and in a serious condition in hospital. The sources said at least one anti-tank rocket was fired.

Relations between the two groups have been strained for weeks, with about 30 people already injured in inter-faction clashes last month.
Despite ending Fatah’s longstanding grip on power, Hamas does not control the security services which are the responsibility of Palestinian Authority president and de facto Fatah leader Mahmud Abbas.

The overall leader of Hamas, the Damascus-based Khaled Meshaal, last month accused Abbas and Fatah of plotting against the movement which is under massive pressure after the West cut aid payments to the Palestinian Authority.

But in a bid to calm troubled waters, Mr Haniya said it was vital that followers of both factions exercise “self-restraint” and “preserve Palestinian blood” in the aftermath of the deadly violence.
“A civil war will never be allowed to be happen. We will fulfill our responsibilities in order to put an end to the tensions,” Mr Haniya told reporters before meeting with deputies in his office.

“The situation in Khan Yunis is now calm and I hope that it will remain that way. We are in contact with all the factions to ensure that these tensions dissipate.”
Witnesses said the clashes in Abasan erupted after Hamas members attempted on Sunday to seize Salman Abu Mutlak, head of security in the Gaza Strip.

A Fatah spokesman laid the full blame for the violence at the door of Hamas, saying two vehicles containing members of the security services and Fatah members had been attacked by Hamas gunmen.

“They opened fire with automatic weapons and with an anti-tank rocket,” Tawfiq Abu Khussa said.
“We hold Hamas fully responsible for these incidents which are part of a campaign of provocation against Fatah which is being led by Said Siam,” he added.

Hamas interior minister Siam last month announced the formation of a new volunteer security unit, a move which was swiftly vetoed by Abbas.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri however said the incident began after members of the preventive security force kidnapped three members of Hamas’s armed wing. They were later released after mediation between local faction leaders.

The latest clashes broke out during a visit to Hamas’s Gaza stronghold by Abbas which was aimed at defusing some of the tensions and seeking a common approach to steer the Palestinians out of their deep financial crisis.

Ministers from the Hamas-led government and aides to Abbas held a meeting on Sunday (local time) to discuss the situation but failed to reach agreement on how to address the crisis which has left government employees – including members of the security services – unpaid for the last two months.

“The participants did not agree on any of the points and so there will not be a follow-up meeting tonight between Mr Haniya and Abbas,” a source in Abbas’s office said, asking not to be named.

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Darfur: Aust troops may go

The former defence minister, speaking from New York, said Australia wanted to be involved in resolving the humanitarian crisis in Darfur that has led to more than 200,000 people killed and an estimated 2.5 million displaced.

“It’s going to be very challenging, very difficult but it is a major humanitarian issue and I think it is something the international community has got to engage in,” Mr Hill told The Australian newspaper.

“We have demonstrated that we want to be party to a multilateral solution. If the UN decided to (send) … a UN force, then it will no doubt make requests to member states for support and that would then be considered by Australia.”

Deadline passes

The senior US official negotiating a peace plan for Sudan’s Darfur region says he will continue talks on Wednesday, indicating that Tuesday’s deadline for an agreement would slip.

The government of Sudan has accepted an 85-page draft settlement but three Darfur rebel factions refuse to sign, saying they are unhappy with the proposals on security, power-sharing and wealth-sharing.

US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and Britain’s International Development Secretary Hilary Benn held back-to-back meetings with the sides and observers said their involvement could jolt the rebels into accepting the peace plan.

Mediators say the rebels insist some of their demands, such as a vice president’s post and a regional government, be met in full although months of negotiations have shown compromises with Khartoum are necessary.

Mr Zoellick declined to say how long the talks might now last, noting his role was to try to bridge gaps between the sides. There was no immediate confirmation of the apparent changed deadline from the African Union (AU).

The 2300 GMT deadline, already put back by 48 hours, had been expected to slip as AU Chairman Denis Sassou Nguesso, the president of Congo Republic, and commission head Alpha Oumar Konare, were due to arrive in Abuja on Wednesday.

Observers say failure to get a deal would be disastrous. The rebels took up arms in early 2003 in ethnically mixed Darfur, an arid region the size of France, over what they saw as neglect by the Arab-dominated central government.

The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people while a campaign of arson, looting and rape has driven more than two million from their homes into refugee camps in Darfur and neighbouring Chad.

Sudan unstable

Meanwhile Sudan has topped a list of the world’s most unstable countries, while the positions of Iraq and Afghanistan also worsened.

Sudan was the most troubled country on the 2006 Failed States Index compiled by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace.

Five other African countries, Haiti and the three key fronts in the US “war on terror” filling out the top 10.

Democratic Republic of the Congo was second, followed by Ivory Coast, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Chad, Somalia, Haiti, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Asia’s Pakistan, North Korea, Burma, Bangladesh and Nepal were also in the top 20.

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Iran threatens Israel attack

The defiant statements were issued shortly before world powers met in Paris to discuss the next steps after Tehran rejected a United Nations call to halt uranium enrichment.

Senior officials from the UN Security Council’s permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – plus Germany discussed how to curb an Iranian program that western nations say conceals a drive for atomic warheads.

According to a French official who spoke after the meeting all the envoys agree Iran’s nuclear program “is not compatible with the demands of the international community”.

Senior political directors “all showed their concern over the development of this program”, said French foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei.

He added that they agreed to pursue discussions on the issue at the foreign minister level in New York on Monday with the aim of reaching a “firm” decision.

Iran’s nuclear activities go against International Atomic Energy Agency demands, as underlined in an IAEA report to the UN Security Council last Friday, Mr Mattei said.

Enrichment ‘not on agenda’

Iran denies the charge or concealing weapons development and refuses to back down from what it calls its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

Driving home that message, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, said his country had now succeeded in purifying uranium to 4.8 per cent, at the top end of the three to five per cent range for fuel used in nuclear power plants.

“Enrichment above five per cent is not on Iran’s agenda,” Mr Aghazadeh told the students’ ISNA news agency.

Iran has previously said it had enriched to more than four per cent, far below the 80 per cent level needed for bomb-making.

It has used a test cascade of 164 centrifuges to enrich uranium so far and is building two similar cascades. It says it will start installing 3,000 centrifuges later this year, enough to yield material for one bomb within a year.

The United States and Israel have vowed to deny Iran nuclear weapons. Washington has not excluded war if diplomacy fails, while Tehran has sworn to retaliate if attacked.

“We have announced that wherever America does something evil, the first place that we target will be Israel,” ISNA quoted a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Rear Admiral Mohammad-Ebrahim Dehqani.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the Jewish state to be “wiped off the map”.

Iran’s deputy oil minister said there was “some possibility” of a US attack on his country over its nuclear program.

“I am worried. Everybody is worried,” Mohammad Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian said in New Delhi after talks on a proposed A$9 billion pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan.

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