Syria army engaged in crucial battle: Assad

The Syrian army is engaged in a “crucial and heroic battle,” President Bashar al-Assad said in a speech published by official media agency SANA on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the army.


“The army is engaged in a crucial and heroic battle… on which the destiny of the nation and its people rests. The enemy is among us today, using agents to destabilise the country, the security of its citizens… and continues to exhaust our economic and scientific resources,” he said.

“They (the enemy) wanted to deprive the people of their national decision… but they were astonished to see these proud people, who confronted their plans and defeated them,” said Assad.

“You men of the country… you have demonstrated, in dealing with the war waged against our country by the terrorist gangs, that you possess an iron will and a keen awareness.”

“Our military remains the backbone of the motherland,” Assad said.

Damascus does not recognise the popular revolt that erupted in March 2011, describing opposition activists and rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) alike as “armed terrorist groups” financed by foreign powers and sent to sow chaos.

Assad’s speech comes as clashes escalate in a number of areas including Aleppo, where the FSA on Tuesday announced that it had captured three police stations in the heart of the country’s commercial capital.

A Damascus security source said the offensive, which the army launched on Saturday to recapture rebel-held areas, looked likely to last for “several weeks.”

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What to do with Ground Zero?

In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, their building was shut down, smothered in debris and dust.


Today, from their 17th floor lounge-room window, you can look straight down into the heart of Ground Zero, the desolate hole in the ground barren for many years but more recently a construction zone as new buildings rise up to replace those that fell.

For New Yorkers, 9-11 has never really gone away and remains an emotional touch paper for many. It’s also an easy button to press for politicians looking to establish apparent patriotic credentials.

So it comes as no surprise that a plan to build “a mosque at Ground Zero” has become a flashpoint and one of the hottest national topics in the middle of this American summer.

Critics claim such a building on such a site (“on hallowed ground”, according to several descriptions) is an insult to those who died in 2001.

“I don’t want to be lectured by them about religious liberty at a time when there is not a single church or single synagogue in Saudi Arabia,” claimed Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, maybe forgetting one of the key differences between the United States and Saudi Arabia is religious freedom.

“Where does the funding come from for a $100-million mosque?” asked inquisitive Rick Lazio, a Republican candidate for New York State Governor (probably the same place as most other new constructions).

Crackpots have populated Internet posts (some suggesting this is part of an Obama plan to introduce Sharia law to the US) but most have missed some key points.

Importantly, visions of minarets, golden domes and stars and crescents overlooking the World Trade Center Site are not part of the plan.

In fact, this “Ground Zero Mosque” is not actually a mosque but a cultural centre based on the YMCA (this prompted one witty critic to suggest outrage should be directed at the construction of a swimming poll on the site, which was possibly more inappropriate).

The original building, actually located several blocks north of Ground Zero, and nearby another existing mosque, is the former site of a discount clothing retailer damaged by landing gear from one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers nine years ago.

Ironically, the group planning the centre claims to want to foster “inter faith understanding”.

That idea is not working out too well at first look but the issue has brought to the forefront just where Islam in a post-9/11 world fit.

It also shows how New York, especially Manhattan, is a complex city of many, many, layers.

There are many critics from outside New York (including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin) but NY Governor David Patterson offered to find an alternative location for the proposed centre as compromise.

Manhattan borough President Scott Stringer supports the construction of the centre while New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made an impassioned speech on religious freedoms.

“We would betray our values – and play into our enemies’ hands – if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else,” Bloomberg said.

Last weekend, President Obama too claimed the issue was not about 9/11 but the US Constitution.

“As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country,” Obama said at a dinner celebrating Ramadan (triggering more radical Christian outrage).

“That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan in accordance with local laws and ordinances.”

It was, however, a Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat, who made a somewhat overlooked but important point.

“I recently got back from Afghanistan and, you know, we’re sending young majors in Army, Marines, Special Forces people, into villages to try to find common ground with Muslims to try to put aside the obvious differences that might superficially appear,” he said.

“And if we can’t do that here in the United States, then we’re going to have a very difficult time over there.”

‘Don’t cry for me’, says defiant Armstrong

In his first public appearance since announcing he would no longer fight doping charges brought by USADA, Armstrong finished second in a 36-mile mountain bike race in Aspen, Colorado, five minutes behind a 16-year-old rider, Keegan Swirbul.


Wearing sunglasses and black and gold riding gear adorned with sponsors’ logos, Armstrong appeared unfussed by the media throng that had travelled to the mountain resort amid concerns his legacy has been irrevocably tarnished.

“Nobody needs to cry for me. I’m going to be great,” Armstrong told reporters.

“I have five great kids and a wonderful lady in my life. My foundation is unaffected by all the noise out there.

“I think people understand that we’ve got a lot of stuff to do going forward. That’s what I’m focused on and I think people are supportive of that. It’s great to be out here,” he said.

Despite giving up the fight against the charges, Armstrong has maintained his innocence and railed against what he says is an unfair witch-hunt.

The Texas-born cyclist, who famously beat cancer and whose foundation Livestrong has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the fight against the disease, has retained major sponsors and enjoyed the backing of many key cycling figures.

Others, including WADA chief John Fahey, say his failure to contest his charges can only mean he is a drug cheat who has defrauded the cycling tour, his rivals and millions of sports fans for over a decade.

The Armstrong case has yet to rest, with cycling’s global governing body, the International Cycling Union, demanding USADA hand over its evidence. The Court of Arbitration for Sport could ultimately have a final say on his guilt or innocence.

The retired Armstrong said he was no longer concerned about racing.

“It’s more about staying fit and coming out here and enjoying one of the most beautiful parts of the world, on a beautiful day, on a very hard course,” said the 40-year-old.

“Some may say you’re a little sick to spend your free time doing stuff like this. I had a good time.”

Armstrong remained the ‘seven-time Tour champ’ to teenager Swirbul. “I’m so psyched right now,” he said. “I wanted to win this race so bad.”

Donations to his foundation on Friday were up more than 20 times their daily average, Livestrong staff said, and Armstrong received positive crowd support in Colorado.

“The people like the people who are standing around here or on the course, they voiced their opinion in the last 48 hours and are going to support us,” Armstrong said, adding that the future of cycling was in good shape.

“It’s cool to get your butt kicked by a 16-year-old when you know he has a bright future,” he said.

“There are a lot of good young guys. Cycling is going to be fine.”

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Concern as Aussie cannabis gains potency

Cannabis in Australia has become more potent over the years and contains high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), according to a study of samples confiscated from recreational users and growers.


The drug has an average THC content of just under 15 per cent, according to the study by University of New South Wales (UNSW) and University of Sydney researchers.

There is widespread international concern that cannabis containing high levels of THC could be associated with increased mental health risks, says study leader Dr Wendy Swift of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW.

There is a strong lobby in the Netherlands to classify cannabis with 15 per cent or higher THC as a hard drug.

Dr Swift’s team examined the content of 206 cannabis samples confiscated under the NSW cautioning scheme for recreational users found with 15g or less. They also examined 26 samples seized from large indoor and outdoor cultivation sites.

Both sets of samples had similar potency, according to the study, which is published in the international science journal PLOS ONE.

More than 40 per cent of the samples seized on the street and more than half seized from cultivation sites contained more than 15 per cent THC.

More than 85 per cent overall contained less than 0.1 per cent cannabidiol (CBD).

CBD does not get users high and is thought to counteract some of the negative effects of THC.

Dr Swift says the study is the first to demonstrate that, on average, cannabis in Australia is as powerful as samples measured in other countries.

“It also shows levels of CBD, which may ameliorate some of the harmful effects of THC, are extremely low.

“These results suggest the profile of cannabis currently used in Australia may make some users vulnerable to mental health problems.”

More research is needed, however, to understand the full relevance of potency.

“We need to know more about the factors that affect how people respond to the drug,” Dr Swift said.

“It is important that we have a national routine monitoring system to assess trends in the profile of cannabis and to better understand its relationship with health outcomes.”

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Syrian regime ‘ready to talk’

The Syrian regime is ready to talk with all parties, including armed rebels, who want dialogue to end the conflict, Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said on Monday at talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.


“We are ready for dialogue with all who want dialogue, including those who are carrying arms,” Muallem said at the Moscow talks with Lavrov, in an apparent reference to the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We still believe in a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem,” said Muallem, pointing to the creation of a government coalition that would negotiate with both the “external and internal opposition.”

Lavrov said alongside Muallem that there was no alternative to a political solution to the two-year conflict agreed through talks.

“There is no acceptable alternative to a political solution achieved through agreeing positions of the government and the opposition,” said Lavrov.

“We are for Syria to be independent, united, and for all Syrian citizens, regardless of their religion, to live freely in peace and democracy.

“The Syrian people should decide their fate without external intervention,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov added that the situation in Syria was “at the crossroads” but expressed optimism that a negotiated solution could be found.

“There are those who have embarked on a course of further bloodshed that risks the collapse of the state and society,” Lavrov said.

“But there are also sensible forces who are increasingly aware of the necessity to begin the talks as soon as possible to reach a political settlement.

“The number of supporters of such a realistic line is growing,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov had said last week there were positive signs from both sides of a new willingness to talk but called on the regime of Assad to turn oft-stated words about its readiness for dialogue into deeds.

The fighting — which according to the United Nations has claimed 70,000 lives since the conflict began in March 2011 — has further intensified in the last days as both sides press for the military advantage.

Russia has also been working on agreeing a trip to Moscow, possibly in early March, by the head of the Syrian opposition National Coalition Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.

However the rebels have now pulled out of talks with foreign powers in protest at the international community’s inability to halt the bloodshed.

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Armstrong ‘humbled, ashamed’ by doping scandal

Fallen American cyclist Lance Armstrong said in an interview that he was “humbled” and “ashamed” by the years he spent lying about using performance-enhancing drugs.


“I feel ashamed. Yeah, this is ugly stuff,” Armstrong told talkshow host Oprah Winfrey, adding that the “most humbling moment” was when he was asked to step down as chairman of his Livestrong cancer charity. “It hurt like hell.”

In part two of his interview with Oprah Winfrey, Lance Armstrong talks about the impact his years of lying about doping has had on his family, sponsors and fellow cancer survivors.

Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner before those victories were stripped from him after a mountain of evidence unveiled his cheating, confessed to doping in part one of the interview on Thursday.

Winfrey, chosen by Armstrong to conduct the exclusive interview, ensured a double ratings boost for her OWN cable channel by breaking the video into two parts, but the broadcast failed to win much sympathy for the fallen icon.

Clips showed Armstrong would in the second part talk about his future, how his family had to face the truth about his conduct, his reaction when sponsors dropped him and the most humbling moment of his epic fall from grace.

“I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people,” Armstrong said in part one of the interview, which was watched by an estimated 3.2 million television viewers in the United States.

Part one of the face to face confession — which was also streamed on — failed to win sympathy for Armstrong who previously withdrew from his role with Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded.

The patients he inspired with his rise from testicular cancer survivor to Tour de France winner from 1999-2005, meanwhile, are dealing with the admission that the cyclist’s fairy-tale story was built upon “one big lie”.

“They have every right to feel betrayed and it’s my fault,” he said, but offering few specifics on people involved in his doping program and apologizing in a matter-of-fact manner that his critics said showed no sign of remorse or regret at anything more than being caught.

“We were given a calculated public relations exercise with clearly rehearsed answers,” Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said.

World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey told Fox News Australia that Armstrong’s confession was a “controlled public relations” stunt that only confirmed the details a US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) probe had revealed.

Armstrong denied forcing teammates into doping, denied having paid off the International Cycling Union (UCI) to cover up a positive drug test and spoke supportively of Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor banned for life from cycling for doping links.

Such comments gave little hope that Armstrong would become the ultimate whistleblower and reveal details of others who might have aided his doping.

“If he is sincere in his desire to correct his past mistakes, he will testify under oath about the full extent of his doping activities,” USADA chief Travis Tygart said.

Such a revelation might be the only way Armstrong can see a reduction in a life ban on sports that fall under WADA jurisdiction, including triathlon, which Armstrong turned to after cycling only to be banned after USADA’s doping investigation was made public.

“You can’t dope as he did over the years without help,” Prudhomme said. “We (the Tour de France) have long said that a rider shouldn’t be the only one to pay the price.”

Armstrong has not admitted doping beyond the 2005 Tour, potentially opening a door to having his ban trimmed to eight years to provide reinstatement in 2013. But that would likely require major revelations and Armstrong’s credibility as a witness would be far from strong given his years of lies.

The steep financial price that Armstrong has paid since being banned last years is likely to worsen further with his doping admission. He could be forced to return prize money and bonuses obtained from his victories.

He also faces a lawsuit from compatriot Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title after a positive doping test, and whose decision to speak out four years later ultimately triggered Armstrong’s downfall.

Landis claims Armstrong defrauded the American government when his cycling team took $30 million in sponsorship money from the US Postal Service because the team’s success was built upon cheating with performance-enhancing drugs.

Landis was a member of the US Postal squad with Armstrong from 2002 through 2004.

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Port not ill-disciplined: coach Hinkley

Port Adelaide don’t have a discipline problem despite losing a third player in three weeks to AFL suspension, coach Ken Hinkley says.


And Hinkley says he won’t carpet the latest player to be banned, backman Tom Jonas, who was suspended for three games for a bump on St Kilda’s Dylan Roberton last weekend.

Jonas follows Kane Cornes and Justin Westhoff in being suspended.

Cornes last week was outed one match for a behind-play blow on Hawthorn’s Sam Mitchell, while Westhoff was banned the week prior for striking Essendon’s Cale Hooker.

But Hinkley said he was only troubled by the Westhoff incident.

“The Westy (Westhoff) one was the disappointing one and I make no bones about that,” Hinkley told reporters on Thursday.

Jonas crossed a fine line between being aggressive and playing outside the laws, he said.

“Everyone knows the rules and the risks involved with the bump so we’re very mindful of that,” Hinkley said.

“But you have also got to be, as a coach, able to say he’s playing an aggressive style of football that you want him to play.

“At times, if you do go a little bit close to the edge, it (suspension) is probably going to happen.

“And we don’t want to have people suspended … we want everyone available to play. But it’s a contact game and there is going to be occasions where you can’t control some of it.

“It was a collision that was almost unavoidable to … I don’t think you can stop that – you have got to promote your players to play hard footy.”

Hinkley dismissed a suggestion that the three suspensions were evidence of discipline problems at Port, who host Brisbane on Sunday.

“I would have thought the opposite for us – certainly as a team, we totally understand what is expected of each other and they don’t want to let each other down,” he said.

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Supporters of ‘Kony 2012’ answer critics

The director of the viral video, ‘Kony 2012’ has defended a social media campaign which has sparked debate across the world.


The video is also backed by a Ugandan minister who negotiated with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Director Jason Russell agreed on Friday with skeptics who have called the film oversimplified, saying it was deliberately made that way.

The 30-minute YouTube film called “Kony 2012,” which by Friday had been viewed on YouTube more than 58 million times, aims to wake up the world to atrocities committed by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, including kidnapping children and forcing them to fight.

Filmmaker Jason Russell’s nonprofit group, Invisible Children, tapped 12 influential policy makers and 20 celebrities with popular Twitter accounts, including Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie, to spread the video. Since then, the company owned by powerful producer Harvey Weinstein has contacted Russell to buy the film.

The phenomenal success of the video, including the savvy media campaign with tweets about Kony, has been hailed for inspiring young people to activism, but has suffered some criticism including that it oversimplified a long-standing human rights crisis.

Russell, who narrates the video with a personal story that juxtaposes shots of his young son in San Diego, California with the hopelessness of Ugandan children, told Reuters on Friday the video was only meant as a kick-starter to a complicated issue.

“It definitely oversimplifies the issue. This video is not the answer, it’s just the gateway into the conversation. And we made it quick and oversimplified on purpose,” he said. “We are proud that it is simple. We like that. And we want you to keep investigating, we want you to read the history.”


Ugandan minister Betty Bigombe, who twice tried to negotiate peace deals with Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, said the US group that made the video should be doing more to help in Uganda.

“Invisible Children has brought it into bedrooms, into sitting rooms and places, but we would like to see them do something tangible, on the ground, in Uganda,” Bigombe, Uganda’s minister for water resources, told AFP on the sidelines of a UN meeting.

“It has increased awareness in the world, with youth, with everybody.”

The hashtag “#stopkony,” about the fugitive LRA head has surged on Twitter since the release of the 30-minute video by Invisible Children, a California-based advocacy group. The video has been viewed by over 40 million people in just three days.

“I remember when I came to the US and the media said, ‘Well these kind of topics does not appeal to our kind of audience,'” Bigombe said.

As state minister for northern Uganda in the 1990s, Bigombe tried to negotiate a peace deal with Kony following the failure of army efforts to defeat the rebel group. She launched a new attempt in 2004-05. The LRA backed out of each effort.

The US presidency and a string of celebrities have backed the Invisible Children. But the group has been criticized for using funds raised — some 70 percent or more by some accounts — for salaries, travel expenses and filmmaking.

UN political affairs chief B. Lynn Pascoe said he had been “extraordinarily impressed” by the video campaign.

“One of our biggest problems with the LRA and dealing with the LRA has been getting attention to it so I think it has been very good,” Pascoe told a press conference.


Mixed reactions in Uganda include criticism that the attention has come too late, that much of the armed conflict in the area has subsided and the film leaves out that the Ugandan military is often accused of committing the same atrocities as Kony’s fighters. In addition, Kony is believed to have long since fled Uganda and now only commands a few hundred followers.

“Kony has been indicted, that’s what we are saying. It doesn’t matter if he has three fighters, 300 or 3,000. That’s not the issue,” Russell said. The group’s aim is to get Kony to surrender and be brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague where Kony is under indictment.

“He needs to face justice and we want to give him the choice to surrender,” Russell said.

Invisible Children also has faced questions about its governance in light of financial statements showing a large proportion of funds were used for travel and film production rather than charity work. The non-profit group published its financial statements this week amid rising scrutiny.

“They hear the word charity and they don’t understand why all of our money isn’t going to Central Africa,” Russell said. “We have found that putting money towards our media and our movie, changes lives. And in that life change, it has tangible results into a movement … that movement does galvanize the mission.”

Others have said the problem needed to be solved within Uganda rather than a viral campaign watched by viewers who may not understand the situation on the ground.

To that criticism, Russell said: “We don’t think Americans should be the world police, that is not what we are advocating. We want to continue to put pressure on the policy makers, on the (U.S.) President to keep really hyper-focused on this issue.”

The video begins with the slogan, “Nothing Is More Powerful Than An Idea” and references the strength of social media sites like Facebook that can help spur immediate action. The campaign has urged supporters of the movement to “blanket every street, every city” on April 20.

The success of the video has shocked the non-profit group even though they prepared for its launch on Tuesday with a five-day lead in campaign beforehand, said Russell.

Initially, he aimed for 500,000 YouTube viewers. Now, plans include a global dance party and other fundraising events.

“We were not prepared for this type of response because it has been a whirlwind,” he said. “To us, it is the world waking up … it is a global revolution.”

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Assange gets Aboriginal passport

His father, John Shipton, accepted the document at a Darlington celebration today.


He says his son’s been jilted by the Australian government, and the passport ceremony – which follows Ecuador’s decision to grant Mr Assange diplomatic asylum – is a show of solidarity.

Indigenous Social Justice Association president Ray Jackson says the Australian government hasn’t given Mr Assange sufficient aid.

The passport will be sent to Mr Assange in London in the next few days.

John Shipton, Assange’s biological father, said he spoke frequently with the 41-year-old who won asylum from Ecuador to escape extradition from Britain to Sweden, where he faces sexual assault allegations.

“He’s in a small room… and in that he has a treadmill and a sunlamp,” he told AFP in Sydney’s Redfern where he had accepted an Aboriginal Nations passport, for use when travelling within Australia, on behalf of his son.

“But he faces his future with equanimity. He says he may have to spend 12 months in this situation. I think that he’s prepared himself for his long meditation.”

Shipton, 68, said his son was still pressing ahead with his plans to run for the Australian Senate in the national election due next year, and had asked his father to write the constitution for his yet-to-be founded political party.

Sydney-based Shipton said he felt Australians were “genuinely concerned and moved” by the plight of Assange and the work of WikiLeaks, which has published hundreds of thousands of documents online, including confidential United States State Department emails.

He said he had spoken to Assange about the Aboriginal Nationals passport — used for travel through Aboriginal lands in the country.

“This occasion is a further opportunity to generate support for Julian’s situation,” he said.

“The irony is it’s a great help to bring to notice to people that the situation is well, very questionable, morally very questionable.

“The (Australian) foreign minister could do a little more. Although he says he has done a lot, he won’t speak to me.”

Shipton, who said he had always kept in touch with Assange’s mother but had little contact with his son from when he was three until his twenties, spoke of his pride in Assange, a former computer hacker.

“I am astounded, absolutely astounded. And each day more impressed,” he said.

“He seems as though he handles himself at those rarefied atmospheres really quite well.

“It must have taken a great deal of suffering to have learned so quickly how to move amongst those people… and not display fear when the whole American empire wishes to crush you.”

But Shipton won’t be watching a new movie about Assange’s earlier life called “Underground: The Julian Assange Story” which is set to screen on Australian television early next month. He doesn’t have a television.

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Trio ejected after Aussie cyclist’s family abused

Three spectators were thrown out of the Olympic Velodrome, London police said Friday, after a stream of verbal abuse was directed at the family of Australian cyclist Kaarle McCulloch.


The incident took place Thursday during the track cycling team sprint events. One of the ejected trio was arrested.

McCulloch, who has not commented on the matter, “shared a tear with her parents”, said a source close to the cyclist.

McCulloch and Anna Meares had been targeting a gold medal but had to settle for the bronze instead.

Cycling Australia confirmed that an incident took place and the police were involved.

The 24-year-old track star’s mother Karen McCulloch and her partner Ken Bates also declined to comment, regarding the incident as “an aberration”.

Witnesses said other spectators were appalled by the abuse and alerted security and the police.

“Three spectators were ejected — one of whom was arrested — for abusive behaviour at the Velodrome,” said a London 2012 spokeswoman.

“We won’t tolerate abusive behaviour in our venues.”

London’s Metropolitan Police said their officers helped staff eject three people from the Velodrome, “following a minor altercation with other spectators”.

The trio were two men aged 33 and 27 plus a 37-year-old woman. The police did not reveal their nationality.

The 33-year-old man was subsequently arrested under section five of the Public Order Act, which deals with words and conduct likely to cause fear of harassment, alarm or distress.

He was issued with a fixed penalty notice, meaning he must pay the stated amount or request a court hearing within a given time.

McCulloch has vowed to push on to the 2016 Games, believing she and Meares can take gold in Rio de Janiero.

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