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Rudd promises help for oil spill clean-up

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has vowed to provide maximum federal help to clean up a massive oil spill in Queensland, describing it as a potential environmental tragedy.

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Beaches on Moreton Island, Bribie Island and southern parts of the Sunshine Coast have been declared disaster zones after around 100,000 litres of oil spilled from a cargo ship caught in cyclonic winds on Wednesday.

“We will work very closely with the Queensland government and authorities on a maximum pitch-in by the commonwealth to assist the state authorities in dealing with this potential environmental tragedy,” Mr Rudd told Fairfax Radio Network on Friday.

Cargo ship detained pending probe

Cargo ship Pacific Adventurer has been detained by maritime authorities pending investigation.

Earlier this morning, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh announced the reason why the ship was out in cyclonic seas would be the subject of a full investigation.

“If there is any grounds for prosecution of this ship and its owners we will not hesitate to take that action.

“We will also be pursuing them for compensation as this is going to be a very big clean-up cost and I want those ship owners to be paying for it.”

Bligh defends speed of oil slick response

The Queensland opposition, local wildlife carers and environmental groups have accused the government of a slow and inadequate response.

But Ms Bligh, whose own department has now taken over the response, told reporters in Brisbane the recovery operation was working.

“It requires a clean-up exercise that is planned with military precision,” she said.

“We are not putting people and heavy equipment onto fragile, eroded beaches until they\’ve been assessed.

“To go and take all of the sand off one day and then have to take more off the next day when more oil comes on will seriously deteriorate these beaches.

“Everything that can be done in managing this incident without endangering the people who are doing the recovery work and without further deteriorating already-eroded beaches is being done.”

Ms Bligh said those involved in the cleanup could do without “sniping” from Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg.

“The last thing you need is politicians sniping from the sidelines – this is a serious incident,” she said.

The premier said the captain and shipping company would be pursued for compensation and the cleanup costs. “And if there\’s any grounds for prosecution we won\’t hesitate,” she said.

Scientists must raise climate alarm: Lord Stern

The economic impact of global warming has been grossly underestimated and scientists must warn that inaction will spell disaster, top economist and climate change expert Nicholas Stern said.

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Stern told 2,000 climate scientists meeting here that they had failed to clearly tell humanity what it faces if global temperatures reach the upper range of forecasts made by the UN\’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).

“There has been lots of scientific information on 2.0 and 3.0 degrees Celsius), but you have to tell people loudly and clearly just how difficult 4.0 or 5.0 would be,” he said.

The IPCC\’s 2007 report for policymakers predicted an increase by 2100 of 1.1 to 6.4 C (2.0 to 11.5 F) compared to a century earlier.

New findings show that these projections were vastly understated, scientists here said.

“Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories – or even worse – are being realised,” the three-day conference, organised by top universities worldwide and the Danish government, concluded on Thursday in a closing statement.

Stern, whose 2006 Stern Review has become the benchmark for calculating the economic cost of tackling climate change, conceded that his report had also fallen short in assessing the potential consequences of global warming.

Greenhouse gas emissions are growing faster, and the planet\’s capacity to absorb them is weaker, than was understood only a few years ago.

“The costs of delay are very deep,” he told the conference in Copenhagen, which will host critical United Nations climate talks in December.

“Climate change is not like a WTO negotiation where, if it falls apart, you can pick it up five years later and be more or less in the same position. If you wait, you will be in a significantly worse position.”

Even smaller increases in temperatures, the IPCC has said, could unleash a devastating maelstrom of violent storms, drought, expanding disease and hunger over the coming decades.

A “five degree world” – well within the range of IPCC predictions – would cause an almost unimaginable level of disruption and suffering.

The last time Earth was four or five degree hotter than it is now, some 30 million years ago, alligator-like creatures navigated swampy primeval forests at the North Pole. “Sea levels, in the long run, would rise by 50 metres.

You would have to redraw the map of Europe,” and every other continent, said John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

“The carrying capacity of the planet would fall to one billion people or less,” Schellnhuber told the conference.

“This is not a \’black swan\’,” said Stern, invoking a term used by philosophers to describe an event beyond the realm of normal expectation. “This is not a small probability of a rather unattractive outcome.

This is a big probability of a very bad outcome.” Faced with this unacceptable scenario, decision makers and the people they govern should be willing to buy some insurance, he said.

“Would you pay one-to-two per cent of GDP for this kind of risk reduction, thinking about the cost of inaction? I think people will understand,” he said.

Katherine Richardson, head of the Danish government\’s Commission on Climate Change Policy and a co-organiser of the meeting, agreed that scientists had not done a perfect job in getting the message out.

“Most of us have been trained as scientists to not get our hands dirty by talking to politicians.

But we now realise that what we are dealing with is so complicated and urgent that we have to help to make sure the results are understood,” she told AFP.

Climate change to ‘disperse’ cane toads

Climate change will aid the spread of noxious pests such as cane toads, with an expert predicting their toxic march could reach as far Perth and other parts of WA’s coast.

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After years of trying to hold back the westward path of the pests, authorities captured the first toad that hopped across the NT/WA border earlier this month.

Associate Professor Grant Wardell-Johnson, from Curtin University of Technology, said their arrival should act as a warning on all introduced species.

“While the initial colonisation wave seems very scary, cane toads are only one of many species on the move,” he said on Friday.

“Climate models predict that as the weather heats up, cane toads will go in search of suitable habitats further and further afield.

“It’s inevitable that eventually we will see them in Perth and in the south-west.”

Since being introduced to Queensland in the 1930s, cane toads have spread across northern Australia.

They have already ravaged the world heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, killing everything that eats them, from crocodiles to quolls, as they moved north to Darwin.

But cane toads will not be the only pests to take advantage of a warmer Australia, said Prof Wardell-Johnson.

“More worrying is the march of other species across landscapes as a result of climate change,” he said.

“While cane toads do cause damage to local ecosystems, their environmental impact seems to be exaggerated and is far outweighed by the damage caused by other more serious threats such as Phytophthora, cats and foxes.”

He said other introduced species would react to global warming, with disastrous impacts on native wildlife and flora.

“Many species that are currently ‘sleepers’ will become much more serious pests as the effects of climate change are felt,” he said.

“Like cane toads, these species will take to the road looking for more suitable habitats and will leave a trail of destruction as they go.”

The first toad to hop into WA was a 10cm male, which authorities captured near the Great Northern Highway.

His arrival came despite the millions of dollars spent by commonwealth, state and territory governments in an effort to stop the toads’ western migration.

Prof Wardell-Johnson called on governments to strengthen quarantine services.

“This is the best way to approach the issue because once a species is established eradication is almost never an option and the costs of management skyrocket quickly,” he said.

“But the real answer lies in bringing carbon emissions under limits that will enable human society to continue to live comfortably.”

If climate change continued unabated, the professor said cane toads and other introduced species would fare better than people.

Poms ramping up demand for Aussie homes

Loan Market Group says it has seen significant growth in the number of home loan inquiries from Britons who have recently migrated to Australia, as well as from people in the UK.

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“UK expats have really been sold on the Australian lifestyle – the sunshine, the beaches and large homes with swimming pools,” Loan Market Group executive director John Kolenda said.

Beach-front locations popular

“Even though Australia is doing it tough in the economic downturn, we are still much better off than they are in the UK.”

Cashed-up professional UK migrants are keen to live near the beach, especially on Queensland\’s Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast.

“They predominantly come out to Australia for a stress-free life and that includes making the mortgage as small as possible, so they usually have a decent deposit,” Mr Kolenda said.

At the same time, there had also been boom in inquiries from expatriate Australians.

Demand growing due to grants

They are looking to either buy a home to live in when they return to Australia or are seeking investment properties to take advantage of low interest rates and a downturn in real estate prices.

And if they are first home buyers they can access the boosted federal government grant – which up until June has been doubled to $14,000 for established homes and trebled to $21,000 for new properties.

They are typically looking for properties priced between $400,000 and $600,000, but some expat buyers are looking for homes priced between $1 million and $2 million, Mr Kolenda said.

Loan Market is creating a website dedicated to people considering migrating to Australia and expatriate Australians

looking to buy a property back home.

Costco to create 200 jobs in Melbourne

Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths will have have a new kid on the block to go up against later this year with cut-price international grocery warehouse Costco set to open in Melbourne.

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Costco will open its first Australian outlet at Melbourne\’s central Docklands precinct in July, offering everything from greenhouses to diamond rings and fresh strawberries to toilet paper, at discount prices to both wholesale and retail customers.

The store will create 225 new full-time and part-time jobs which Victorian Industry and Trade Minister Martin Pakula said was a “statement of confidence” in Victoria\’s economy.

Sydney store in the pipeline

The US-based Costco also planned to open a store in Sydney, and was looking “all over” the city for a suitable site, Costco Australian manager Patrick Noone told reporters at Docklands today.

The $60 million Melbourne store will be Australia\’s first, joining a stable of 535 Costco outlets across the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

Following the inroads made by no-frills grocery chain Aldi in Australia, Costco warehouses will offer wholesale prices to small and medium enterprises and also allow retail consumers to buy goods at wholesale prices, for an annual $60 membership fee.

Commenting on the new central Melbourne Costco site, Mr Noone said he hoped people would travel “a long way” to shop there.

“We think they will take to it like ducks to water,” he said.

Competition good for consumers

Australian Retailers Association executive director Richard Evans said consumers would take some time to come around to the Costco way of shopping, but the wholesaler was a welcome addition to the retailing mix.

“Australian consumers are very set in the their ways, it\’s very difficult to get them to change their style of shopping,” Mr Evans said.

“Retailing is very competitive but the more competition, the better it is for consumers.”

Stranglehold \’ending\’

Last year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ran an inquiry into the competitiveness of grocery prices in Australia, amid public concern over a perceived stranglehold on the market between Coles and Woolworths.

In its July 2008 report, it found price competition between Coles and Woolworths was limited by high barriers to entry for new competitors combined with limited incentive for Coles and Woolworths to compete aggressively.

But it found Aldi had been a “vigorous price competitor”, forcing Coles and Woolworths to lower prices on many products.

Docklands retail and restaurant owners, still reeling from the closure of the heat-buckled Southern Star Observation Wheel, welcomed the announcement, saying it would attract people and bring good flow-on business.

Major job losses of 2009

More than 8,000 jobs cuts have been announced this year already.

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Below are some of the major losses:

March 13 – 400 workers at a Hans Continental Smallgoods meat processing plant in Blacktown to lose their jobs when the plant closes down next month after failing to attract a new buyer.

March 11 – West Australian meat exporter Harvey Beef cuts 120 full-time and 40 contract positions from its plant south of Perth.

March 6 – Bank of Queensland announces 150 job cuts, primarily at the head office in Brisbane.

March 3 – Aviation company Boeing says it will cut up to 90 jobs, mainly from its Brisbane operations.

March 2 – Miner Anglo Coal Australia lays off 650 staff and contractors – 60 voluntary and 120 other redundancies among company staff, and a reduction of 470 contractor positions.

March 2 – Car parts maker Robert Bosch axes up to 170 jobs in Melbourne, blaming the cuts on the global financial crisis.

February 26 – Property developer Lend Lease cuts 1,700 jobs – 20 per cent (about 340) of which will come from Australia, the remainder from offshore.

February 25 – Clothing manufacturer Pacific Brands cuts 1,850 jobs in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, and moves production of its iconic Australian brands including Bonds and King Gee to China.

February 25 – The receivers of Drivetrain Systems International lay off 229 workers at the firm\’s gearbox factory in Albury, NSW. Another 167 workers are guaranteed contract work for two months, which will then only continue if a buyer is found.

February 17 – The world\’s largest nickel producer, Russia\’s Norilsk Nickel, cuts about 330 jobs as it suspends its two nickel operations in Western Australia – Black Swan and Lake Johnston.

February 9 – PMP Printing cuts 76 jobs in South Australia and Queensland due to a downturn in demand for heat set printing.

January 29 – Whitegoods manufacturer Electrolux cuts 40 jobs in Australia as part of a global restructure in response to the economic downturn.

January 29 – Australia\’s biggest luxury boat builder Riviera cuts 117 staff on the Gold Coast. In 2008 the company cut more than 300 staff from its Coomera headquarters in response to the downturn.

January 21 – Mining giant BHP Billiton announces big cuts to its global workforce, with a heavy impact in Western Australia and Queensland.

– In WA, 1,450 jobs go when BHP closes the Ravensthorpe nickel mine, while another 300 workers are laid off as production is reduced at the Mount Keith nickel mine near Kalgoorlie.

– In Queensland, more than 1,000 positions are to be phased out from BHP\’s metallurgical coal operations across the state, while as many as 400 jobs are cut from the Yabulu nickel plant near Townsville.

January 21 – David Jones sheds 150 head office staff as the retailer is hit by the slowing economy.

January 19 – Contractor Thiess cuts up to 40 jobs from the Burton Downs coal mine, west of Mackay.

January 13 – Mining giant Xstrata lays off 150 workers at its Handlebar Hill lead and zinc mine near Mt Isa. In December 2008, the company shed 230 workers at its Oaky Creek No 1 coal mine at Tieri, in central Queensland.

UN fears war crimes in Sri Lanka conflict

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said both sides could be guilty of war crimes in the Sri Lanka conflict and more than 2,800 civilians could have been killed since late January.

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“Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE (Tamil Tiger rebels) may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Pillay said.

“We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate. The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Casualties in ‘no fire’ zones

She said credible sources had told the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) more than 2,800 civilians might have been killed, including hundreds of children, and more than 7,000 injured since January 20.

The Sri Lankan defence ministry says troops are on the verge of defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who have been fighting for a separate homeland since 1972.

Many of the casualties were inside areas designated as safe “no-fire” zones by the government, the OHCHR said.

Civilians still trapped

The UN estimates 150,000 to 180,000 civilians remain trapped in an ever-shrinking area of territory in the northern Vanni region. Sri Lanka officially estimates 70,000 civilians are still in the war zone along with about 500 Tiger fighters.

“The current level of civilian casualties is truly shocking, and there are legitimate fears that the loss of life may reach catastrophic levels if the fighting continues in this way,” the high commissioner said.

“The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes,” she added.

The government bars most journalists and aid workers from the north of the island, meaning the claims cannot be confirmed.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a swift halt to the conflict to avoid further civilian casualties after the International Red Cross said in January that “hundreds” had been killed.

Switzerland pledges to lessen bank secrecy

Switzerland, Luxembourg and Austria said they would relax their bank secrecy laws amid growing international pressure to stamp out tax havens, prompting tiny Monaco to say it would follow suit.

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Their announcements followed similar moves Thursday by Belgium, Liechtenstein and Andorra — the latter two on an OECD list of uncooperative tax havens — and came ahead of a Group of 20 meeting on Saturday where the issue is a hot topic.

Radical action sought

International pressure to clamp down on tax havens has been growing as the global financial crisis bites ever deeper, sparking calls for radical action to curb abuses blamed for the debacle, among them tax evasion.

The Swiss government said Friday it would accept standards laid down by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to allow the exchange of information with other countries.

This, however, would be done “case by case” and on the basis of “concrete and justified” requests, it said in a statement, joining the other two countries in stating firm limits to the steps it will take.

Clients still protected

Switzerland was “maintaining banking secrecy and resolutely refused all automatic transmission of information,” the government said.

“The private sphere of clients is still protected from unjustified watching from abroad,” it said, but added: “Banking secrecy does not protect tax crimes.”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed Switzerland\’s decision as “the beginning of the end of tax havens.” It was “a very real step on the road towards the exchange of tax information between all countries,” he said.

Luxembourg, Austria to act against fraud suspects

Luxembourg also said it would relax its strict banking secrecy laws and cooperate with foreign tax authorities in cases where fraud was suspected.

“Luxembourg is in favour of exchanging information on demand but only in precise cases and with clear proof” of suspicion of fraud, Treasury and Budget Minister Luc Frieden said.

Luxembourg would “align with OECD standards” but “banking secrecy is not incompatible with OECD rules,” he said. “Luxembourg would therefore maintain its banking secrecy as an instrument for protecting private life.”

Austria insisted Friday that it would lift bank secrecy but only where there was “justified suspicion” of wrongdoing.

“Austria will agree to supply information if the suspicions are justified and can be backed up,” said Finance Minister Josef Proell.

But “we will not change our legislation and there is no question of direct or systematic access (to) bank accounts,” he added.

Austrian finance ministry spokesman Harald Waiglein told AFP that all countries had to change — including the United States and Britain.

Monaco to follow

Later on Friday, the tiny principality of Monaco announced that it would follow the other countries\’ lead.

“After the announcement this Friday of the significant evolution concerning the European Union member countries and third countries with bilateral conventions, Monaco is ready to cooperate in the fight against tax fraud in line with international standards,” a government statement said.

Monaco will not lag in the “general movement towards transparency,” it said, without spelling out what measures it planned to take.

In the Channel Island of Jersey, protestors on Friday demonstrated outside international banks, accusing them of contributing to the world financial crisis through opaque banking practices.

‘Sanctions mechanism’ sought

France and Germany have been leading the charge to clamp down on tax havens, calling for an international “sanctions mechanism,” with the issue high on the agenda for Saturday\’s meeting of G20 finance ministers in Horsham, England.

A full G20 summit follows on April 2, with European governments largely pressing for tighter regulation to prevent a recurrence of a global financial crisis which has drawn comparisons with the 1930s Great Depression.

G20 ministers deny rift over fighting credit crisis

Britain and France\’s finance ministers played down talk of a transatlantic rift on fighting the credit crisis, as they and colleagues to prepare for next month\’s vital G20 summit.

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Ministers from the Group of 20 industrialised and emerging market countries hold talks officially starting Saturday ahead of a summit of world leaders including new US President Barack Obama in London on April 2.

Focus on support

“I don\’t actually think that the divisions between the European countries and the US are anything like what has been described over the last few days,” the meeting\’s host, British finance minister Alistair Darling, told BBC radio.

“I think on both sides of the Atlantic — and also, for that matter, in other parts of the world — there is a commitment to ensure that we support people, support businesses and our economies.”

All the politicians come together face to face for the first time for dinner at the luxury hotel outside London where the event is being held.

While the United States, the world\’s biggest economy, wants a coordinated international stimulus, most of Europe is suspicious of such a move and favours tightening regulation of financial markets and institutions.

In a boost for the United States, Japan and China — the world\’s second and third largest economic powerhouses — also embraced stimulus Friday.

Recovery plans at odds

Senior US officials including Obama\’s top economic adviser Larry Summers have recently said leading nations must try to jumpstart a global recovery by pumping more money into their economies.

But that has not been welcomed in Europe, where many leaders do not want more spending amid big budget deficits.

France and Germany have agreed to join forces to urge tighter regulation instead of more spending. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday: “We do not think much of the idea of a new package of measures” to underpin the economy.

Bank secrecy targeted

There was some good news for France and Germany on regulation Friday as Switzerland, Luxembourg and Austria said they would relax their sensitive bank secrecy laws, the day after similar moves by Belgium, Liechtenstein and Andorra. Monaco also intimated it would follow suit.

Berlin and Paris have been leading the charge to clamp down on tax havens.

East in favour of stimulus

China and Japan, meanwhile, embraced further spending to fight the economic fire Friday.

Japan\’s premier Taro Aso ordered a new stimulus package worth a reported200 billion dollars, while China\’s Wen Jiabao said Beijing had “adequate ammunition which means that at any time we can introduce new stimulus policies.”

Japan\’s Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano told the Financial Times newspaper in an interview published Friday that reviving the world economy, not regulation, must be the G20\’s priority.

“We all agree (on the need for better regulation), but I personally feel: are these actions necessary at a time of crisis?” he said.

“What we ask at this moment is to save the life of the world economy – not to comment about its beard.”

World Bank head Robert Zoellick, who is also attending the meeting, warned that “2009 is shaping up to be a very dangerous year” for the global economy.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, arriving for the talks, said she was “very optimistic” about the meeting, stressing it was a question of finding “the best compromise between our different positions.”

G20 ministers discuss credit crisis

Finance ministers from the world\’s biggest economies are trying to find common ground ahead of the vital G20 summit in April but already the talk is of splits.

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The world\’s richest countries — the United States, Japan and China – plus wealthy European nations and emerging powers like South Korea will bid to lay the foundations for a plan to pull the global economy out of its tailspin.

But the build-up to the meeting at a luxury hotel near Horsham, south of London, has been marred by clashes between the United States and Europe on whether this is best done through new stimulus measures or tougher regulation.

Fears for G20 summit

Failure to come up with a clear commitment to action will dampen hopes that the much-heralded G20 summit, to be hosted by current G20 president Britain in London, can fulfil its promise and further hit already volatile stock markets.

On the eve of the finance ministers\’ meeting, Britain\’s finance minister Alistair Darling tried to play down talk of splits between the US – whose positive view of stimulus is shared by Japan and China — and Europe.

Transatlantic rift downplayed

“I don\’t actually think that the divisions between the European countries and the US are anything like what has been described over the last few days,” Darling, the event\’s host, told BBC radio.

“I think on both sides of the Atlantic — and also, for that matter, in other parts of the world — there is a commitment to ensure that we support people, support businesses and our economies.”

But recent exchanges suggest there are real differences.

Stimulus or regulation?

In recent days, senior US officials including Obama\’s top economic adviser Larry Summers have said leading nations must try to jumpstart a global recovery by pumping more money into their economies.

That has not been welcomed in Europe, where many leaders do not want more spending because of already big budget deficits.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed Thursday to join forces at the summit to urge tighter regulation to avert future crises instead of more spending, in a rare show of unity.

And the chairman of eurozone finance ministers Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg added this week that US calls for more cash to be injected into the world economy “do not suit us”.

Obama said this week he was “optimistic” about the prospects for agreement, adding: “Everybody understands that we\’re in this together.”

Current situation ‘dangerous’

Whether or not they reach agreement, finance ministers at the meeting will find it hard to forget that many of their countries are facing their worst recessions for decades amid shrinking consumer demand.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who has provided some of the most sobering analyses of the current situation, arrived Friday after warning that 2009 was turning into a “very dangerous year” for the economy.

Earlier this week, Zoellick said the current crisis was the worst since the 1930s. He added that any new stimulus plans would be “like a sugar high unless you fix the banking system.”

Banking regulation begins

Those in favour of tighter regulation received a boost Friday when Switzerland, Luxembourg and Austria said they would relax their sensitive bank secrecy laws amid growing international pressure to stamp out tax havens.

Their announcements followed similar moves Thursday by Belgium, Liechtenstein and Andorra.

France and Germany have been leading the charge to clamp down on tax havens amid claims a lack of transparency helped fuel the crisis and the issue is likely to remain on the agenda at Saturday\’s meeting.

The meeting is also likely to touch on trade protectionism and increasing funding for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail out struggling countries.