Toxic disaster \’could get worse\’

The massive oil spill smothering southeast Queensland\’s coastline is threatening an unprecedented environmental disaster for the region and could deteriorate further, experts say.

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Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) said on Friday the situation was worsening by the day, even though an army of workers from state and federal agencies were involved in the clean-up, using everything from heavy machinery to rakes.

Yet as authorities focused on the damage to Moreton and Bribie islands and Sunshine Coast beaches – now declared disaster zones – more oil spilt into Brisbane River. The 500m slick was contained.

Leak \’bigger than expected\’

Swire Shipping, the company that owns the Pacific Adventurer, says the hole in the hull of the cargo ship, where the fuel is stored, is bigger than earlier estimations.

“The damage suffered as a result of Cyclone Hamish is greater than initially understood, and it is likely that substantially more oil has spilled than the earlier estimate of 42.5 cubic metres (42.5 tonnes),” Swire Shipping said in a statement.

Authorities say up to 100 tonnes of oil may have leaked from the Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship battered by cyclonic seas off Moreton Island on Wednesday.

“(The spill) was much worse than I had anticipated and it is still possibly getting worse in some areas,” MSQ general manager Captain John Watkinson told reporters in Brisbane.

Ship detained by authorities

Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) CEO Graham Peachey late on Friday said it had detained the Pacific Adventurer.

“We have detained the ship, we (AMSA) have powers of detention, and it\’s not going anywhere until we release it,” Mr Peachey told reporters in Canberra.

“We will be talking to the skipper and anyone involved in it and will be doing our own investigations, we have powers under our own act to do that and that is under way.”

Under the legislation the ship\’s owners face the possibility of up to $2 million in fines and the skipper could have to pay up to $200,000.

\’Worst disaster in QLD\’s history\’

They may also be liable for up to $250 million for environmental damage to the shoreline.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh on Friday declared the Moreton and Bribie islands and parts of the Sunshine Coast disaster zones and said those responsible would feel the full force of the law.

“It may well be the worst environmental disaster Queensland has ever seen,” Ms Bligh said.

The reason why the ship was out in cyclonic seas and how the disaster unfolded would be fully investigated, Ms Bligh said.

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

\’Inadequate response\’

“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.”

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

inadequate response.

Liberal National Party leader Lawrence Springborg said Labor had failed to have an appropriate emergency plan in place to deal with an environmental disaster.

“The LNP was briefed yesterday morning and told everything was under control, only to find out last night that we have a disaster on our hands,” Mr Springborg said.

Deputy Premier Paul Lucas said the response had been adequate, but the government was not told the truth about the full extent of the spill.

“When someone (the ship) has lied to you about the level of leakage of oil, then it is a very difficult situation to be in,” Mr Lucas told reporters.

\’Throw the book at them\’

“This is in interstate trade in Australian waters, not Queensland waters.

“If these people have done the wrong thing in relation to misleading us, I want the book thrown at them.”

The master and crew remain on board the ship, which is berthed at Hamilton, after unloading 19 containers of the bomb-making fertiliser ammonium nitrate.

About 620 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in 31 containers had fallen overboard on Wednesday, which damaged the ship\’s hull.

An independent auditor is investigating how much oil has escaped the ship\’s damaged hull.

So far only about 13 animals were known to be affected by the oil, but the Environmental Protection Agency was expecting the number to rise.

Aid hostages freed in Darfur

Three foreign aid workers, who had been taken hostage in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, were freed after two days in captivity, medical charity Doctors Without Borders said.

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“I can confirm that we received the assurance from the Sudanese authorities that they have been released,” a spokeswoman for the group (MSF) Susan Sandars told AFP by telephone from Nairobi.

But a Brussels-based spokesman for the Belgian branch of MSF, for whom the Italian doctor, Canadian nurse and French administrator were working, was more cautious, saying he could not confirm their release.

Yet to be seen

“For the moment, MSF is not confirming the release,” Koen Baetens told AFP. “We have been informed by the Sudanese authorities. But we have not seen, not heard or had any direct contact with our colleagues.”

A short ministry statement carried by the Italian ANSA news agency earlier announced the news but gave no immediate details of the circumstances of the release of the trio, kidnapped at gunpoint on Wednesday in Saraf Umra in NorthDarfur.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini hailed their release as vindication for the low-profile response to the abductions taken by the authorities.

“Once again the decision to maintain a media silence and tight coordination between different institutions have made possible this expected and significant outcome,” he said.

No ransom paid

Italian MSF sources insisted that no ransom was paid for the hostages\’ release and that the kidnappers had made no political demands either.

North Darfur Governor Osman Mohammed Yusef Kabir said on Thursday that the kidnappers had demanded a ransom.

The French foreign ministry said it had been notified of the hostages\’ release but was waiting for the trio to rejoin their colleagues before being in a position to officially confirm it.

MSF spokesman Koen Baetens said earlier that the three hostages remained in good health despite their ordeal.

Sudanese national still held

But he added that a fourth hostage — a Sudanese national who had previously reported as having been freed — was still in captivity.

“The information that two (Sudanese staff) were freed is not correct,” Baetens said. “One Sudanese national who was kidnapped was not released, so we are talking about four staff.”

The identity of the kidnappers remained unclear although the Sudanese foreign ministry blamed “bandits” for the abduction.

Relief efforts stunted

The seizure of the aid workers dealt a fresh blow to relief efforts in

Darfur where an estimated 2.7 million people have fled their homes during six years of conflict between ethnic minority rebels and the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

Last week, the government expelled 13 foreign relief agencies after the International Criminal Court ordered President Omar al-Beshir\’s arrest for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, a move the United Nations warned would have a severe impact on aid distribution.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon again urged Khartoum to rescind the expulsion order and said he was “deeply concerned” by the abductions.

Increased fear for foreigners

Since the issue of the warrant — the court\’s first against a sitting head of state — the United Nations and United States have warned of security problems in Sudan and threats to foreign targets.

The kidnapping has shaken aid groups working in Darfur, one of the continent\’s remotest regions.

Thirty workers with MSF left Darfur for Khartoum, a spokeswoman said on Friday, adding that the rest of the group\’s 35 workers had stayed behind to support their captive colleagues.

MSF\’s Dutch and French chapters were among the 13 groups ordered out of Darfur by the Sudanese government.

The UN says 300,000 people have died since the conflict erupted there in 2003. Khartoum puts the figure at 10,000.

G20 to take \’whatever action necessary\’ on slowdown

G20 finance ministers vowed Saturday to take “whatever action is necessary” on the world economic slowdown, after talks preparing for a key summit on fighting the crisis next month.

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They played down signs of division between the United States and Europe on how best to boost the global economy, insisting the road to the key summit of world leaders in London on April 2 was smooth.

“We\’re prepared to take whatever action is necessary to ensure growth is restored and we\’re committed to do that for however long it takes,” said British finance minister Alistair Darling, who hosted the talks.

“I believe that this does provide a very clear sense of direction.”

The politicians managed to reach agreement on the need for an “urgent” and substantial funding boost for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), although a communique issued afterwards did not put a figure on how much.

They also agreed to tougher regulation of the financial system.

But the meeting failed to reach consensus on a new stimulus package, despite controversial calls from the US, the world\’s largest economy, for coordinated international pump-priming in recent days.

Nevertheless, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner insisted there was unprecedented unity among the G20 on the economy, insisting: “The world is with us” when asked about stimulus.

“We are seeing the world move together at a speed and on a scale without precedent in modern times,” he said.

“We have a very broad basis consensus globally now on the need to act aggressively to restore growth.”

New agreed measures

Other measures agreed included regulatory oversight of all credit agencies, blamed for being too slow to alert investors to high-risk instruments, as well as a need for “sufficient supervision and regulation of hedge funds”.

The G20 also stated its key priority was restoring bank lending to help ease the effects of the crisis.

In addition, it pledged to “fight all forms of protectionism and maintain open trade” and stressed commitment to helping developing economies.

Politicians from the United States, China and Japan plus wealthy European nations and emerging powers had held a day of talks to pave the way for the April 2 London G20 summit on tackling the downturn.

The run-up to Saturday\’s meeting was marked by splits between the US and Europe, particularly on whether to launch a new economic stimulus plan or concentrate on tightening market regulation to fight recession.

But politicians both at the meeting and beyond played down talk of splits, insisting that clear agreements at the London meeting in around three weeks\’ time were on the cards.

US President Barack Obama, who will attend the London summit in April, denied there were divisions on how to tackle the financial crisis, deriding such a notion as a “phony” sotry drummed up by the media.

“I don\’t know where this notion has emerged that somehow there are sides developing with respect to the G20,” Obama told reporters after meeting Brazil\’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the White House.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who will host the G20 summit, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also talked up the prospect of agreement.

“I\’m very positive, I\’m very optimistic that we will be able to… come to an agreement together with the United States, with emerging economies such as China and India,” said Merkel after meeting Brown Saturday.

Brown highlights US support

Brown, meanwhile, highlighted US support for changes in regulations for hedge funds and other “shadow banking” operations.

Highly speculative and lightly regulated hedge funds have been blamed for fuelling instability in financial markets.

Countries like Germany and France are opposed to US calls for new stimulus, instead favouring tougher regulation to tackle the crisis.

The United States, the eurozone, Japan and Britain are all in recession as the global economy struggles to recover from the worldwide credit crunch that erupted in late 2007.

Extra funding for the IMF will protect its ability to go to the rescue of countries worst hit by the credit crunch, such as Pakistan and Hungary recently.

Agreement on IMF funding came after the United States suggested this week that its lending capacity should be trebled to 750 billion dollars (580 billion euros). European leaders want to double the figure to 500 billion dollars.

Qld oil spill ‘could have been worse’

The oil spill off the Queensland coast would have been even worse if a second unseaworthy vessel had been allowed to leave a NSW port with its cargo of fertiliser, the maritime union says.

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Tens of thousands of litres of oil spilled from the cyclone-struck cargo ship Pacific Adventurer has washed up on the shores of Moreton and Bribie islands and parts of the Sunshine Coast.

The oil leaked after the ship’s hull was damaged when containers carrying toxic ammonium nitrate were washed overboard on Wednesday morning (AEST) during cyclone Hamish.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) says the Hong Kong-registered vessel was one of two ships that loaded ammonium nitrate fertiliser in the NSW Hunter region port of Newcastle.

The union says the oil spill could have been worse if the other ship, the Migah Tiga, had been allowed to leave Newcastle.

The Panamanian-registered cargo ship was deemed unseaworthy by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) last week.

“Had the vessel sailed, we could well have had double the disaster,” the MUA’s national secretary Paddy Crumlin said.

Mr Crumlin said the oil spill showed tighter government regulation and highly trained Australian crews were needed.

Meanwhile, Bribie Island and Sunshine Coast beaches look set to be cleared of spilled oil by Saturday in what has been billed as the state’s worst environmental disaster, but Moreton Island is proving more difficult.

A Saturday briefing heard it is proving difficult to get the personnel onto the island, where the biggest cleanup is underway.

It is now believed 50 litres of oil has been lost into the Brisbane River after the ship berthed at Hamilton on Friday morning.

But officials say the leak has been contained and there has been no further spill on Saturday morning.

The ship is undergoing repairs at Hamilton Wharf, in Brisbane’s north.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) CEO Graham Peachey said the ship had been detained and would be investigated.

Madagascar president denies rival power grab

The army said it would not intervene in the tussle but chief of staff Colonel Andre Andriarijaona said his forces could end up supporting the opposition “if it would restore calm” to the Indian Ocean island.

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The opposition\’s leader Andry Rajoelina, addressing thousands of supporters in his first public appearance since March 3, called on Ravalomanana to “humbly leave power in the next four hours” as his side promised fresh elections.

Rajoelina later told AFP he was in command of the country\’s army.

“The army no longer takes its orders from the president of the republic,” he said. “It is I who commands the army today. They receive orders from Andry Rajoelina, and not only in Antananarivo, but throughout Madagascar.”

The opposition leader said President Marc Ravalomanana was a spent force.

“Ravalomanana always underestimated the power of a united people,” he said. “We asked him gently to resign, we waited for a peaceful transition.”

He said the president “no longer is in charge of the country,” as he had lost the support of the people and had flouted the constitution.

“We will take over the running of the country. We will appoint our ministers,” he added.

Another of the opposition\’s leaders, Roindefo Zafitsimivalo Monja, said “the president of the republic, the National Assembly and the Senate, and the government are removed from their duties.”

“We commit to organising presidential, parliamentary and district elections, in not more than 24 months,” said Monja, the opposition\’s nominee for the post of prime minister.

As the four-hour deadline expired, the embattled president remained rooted in his official residence and defied calls to quit.

Ravalomanana said he was still in power, stressing that the opposition “lacks the power given by the people in democratic elections.

“This movement is … a street protest which uses terror and repression to survive,” he said. “Self-proclamation gives no legal power.”

About 1,000 supporters of the embattled president set up barricades around a park surrounding the presidential palace, some 12 kilometres (eight miles) from the capital Antananarivo, armed with batons but clearly nervous.

“We are here to protect the president. Nobody makes concessions to mercenaries anywhere in the world. Why are we negotiating with Rajoelina, who is a mercenary?” a supporter told AFP.

Power grab

The power grab by the opposition, which has accused Ravalomanana of running a dictatorship, came after the president acknowledged making mistakes during the crisis.

Monja, who spoke to reporters from the prime minister\’s office after the opposition took control of the building, was accompanied by other opposition ministerial nominees and around 30 soldiers.

The president of the assembly Jacques Sylla told the crowd: “There is only one solution: the resignation of President Ravalomanana.”

In Brussels the European Commission, the EU\’s executive, said it was seriously concerned by the developments, while the UN envoy to Madagascar, Tiebile Drame, urged the two sides to find a compromise.

Rajoelina, an ex-DJ and former mayor of the capital who set up a parallel administration last month as part of his strategy to destabilise the government, had been under UN protection since evading arrest last week.

On Thursday followers of both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina took to the streets to press their campaigns following weeks of mounting tension which began in January after Rajoelina called anti-government protests.

Casualties mount

More than 100 people have been killed in the unrest since the start of the year.

Last month, the presidential guard opened fire on opposition protesters marching on one of Ravalomanana\’s offices, killing 28 and wounding some 200.

The carnage drew international condemnation and caused deep dismay among the security establishment on the vast Indian Ocean island.

Rajoelina had demanded Ravalomanana\’s resignation and the formation of a full transitional government but the president vowed to continue in power until the end of his term in 2011.

Sound Relief raises $5m for bushfire and flood victims

A spokeswoman for promoter Michael Gudinski on Sunday said the 80,000 who braved the torrential rain to attend the show at the Melbourne Cricket Ground made history as being the single-biggest paying audience ever at an Australian concert event.

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All the money raised at the MCG will go to helping those who survived the devastating February 7 bushfires while the money raised at the Sydney Cricket Ground concert will be split 50-50 between the bushfire victims and those hit by the floods in Queensland.

“The twin Sound Relief charity concerts managed to surpass all the hype and anticipation to deliver a day and evening overflowing with unforgettable moments,” the spokeswoman said.

One of the highlights of Saturday\’s event was a surprise appearance from London of princes William and Harry expressing their thoughts on the devastation caused by the Victorian bushfires.

A minute\’s silence was observed at both venues in memory of Victorian and Queensland communities devastated by the recent natural disasters.

And pop princess Kylie Minogue, who flew in for the gig, wowed the crowd with an a cappella rendition of Peter Allen\’s unofficial anthem I Still Call Australia Home.

In Sydney, the day started with British group Coldplay opening the show with a set that included a guest appearance from John Farnham performing his hit You\’re The Voice.

In Melbourne, local rockers Jet opened the day and before they flew to Sydney to play there along with Wolfmother, who also performed at both concerts.

Classic Aussie bands

Several classic Australian bands reformed especially for the occasion, including Icehouse, Hunters & Collectors, Split Enz and Midnight Oil complete with frontman federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

Mr Garrett said the decision for the Oils to reform and play at the concert in aid of Victoria\’s bushfire victims happened quickly.

The band was “delighted and thrilled” to participate and there had been no need to convince any of his parliamentary colleagues, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, that he should appear, he said.

“We didn\’t have to convince the prime minister or anyone else about us playing,” he later told reporters at a press conference.

“Naturally, I consulted with my colleagues because I\’ve got responsibilities … but I think everybody recognises that it was just a really extraordinary situation and occasion that had come about.”

While the Oils\’ US Forces number didn\’t get an airing, Blue Sky Mine was dedicated to those affected by fires.

And the band didn\’t shy away from Beds Are Burning, which garnered the greatest response as crowds waved their mobile phones across the hallowed turf.

Still need for overseas workers, says Joyce

Abattoirs was one example where employers were struggling to fill vacancies with local labour, he said.

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The government has announced that the skilled migration program intake will be cut by nearly 20,000 – from 133,500 to 115,000 – this financial year, as it cuts occupations from its critical skills list.

Bricklayers, plumbers, welders, carpenters and metal fitters are amongst the occupations taken off the list as demand for skilled labour falls in the building and construction sectors.

Senator Joyce, in cautiously welcoming the announcement, said the government still needed to be careful about cutting worker immigration, especially for the meat-processing sector where operators struggled to maintain full production.

“If we take away 30 per cent of the production line, you end up closing the whole production line down,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Government intake \’should go further\’

Meanwhile, the oppostion has called on the government to further reduce the migrant intake as the economy slows.

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull says the government has “finally recognised” the gravity of the threat migration poses to jobs in Australia.

“They should be prepared to reduce the immigration intake in light of the economic circumstances,” he told ABC Radio, when asked whether the government should go further than the latest announcement.

“We\’re disappointed they have failed to do so in recent months.”

Frontbench colleague Nick Minchin said the government had been “mugged by reality” on immigration.

“At least the government is going in the right direction,” he told ABC Television, adding that the immigration intake was still 13,000 higher than the level reached by the previous Howard government.

Small Business Minister Craig Emerson refused to speculate about further adjustments to the intake. “We\’ve got a weather eye on this,” he said.

Outspoken Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey questioned whether the cuts would result in more Australian jobs.

“But in times of unemployment I\’m quite committed to giving Australians first chance,” he said.

Govt says it has oil spill under control

But there\’s a long way to go.

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While a precise figure is yet to be established, Deputy Premier Paul Lucas says it\’s now estimated 250 tonnes of oil leaked from the ruptured tanks of the Pacific Adventurer on Wednesday.

That\’s around 250,000 litres.

The cargo ship also lost 31 containers – or 620 tonnes – of ammonium nitrate overboard during cyclone Hamish on Wednesday.

The oil cleanup of once pristine beaches continues on Sunday with hundreds of people and machines mopping up on Moreton Island, Bribie Island and parts of the Sunshine Coast.

Mr Lucas said that so far more than 50 per cent of affected coastline was now oil-free.

“The battle is far from over but the tide has very much turned in our direction,” Mr Lucas said.

“Moreton Island is a far more difficult task logistically than Bribie and the Sunshine Coast because on the Sunshine Coast you have beaches next to major infrastructure.”

He said he expected all beaches except those on Moreton Island to be clear of oil in the next couple of days.

The slick has been removed from about 95 per cent of Bribie Island and 85 per cent of affected Sunshine Coast beaches and 25 per cent of Moreton Island beaches since the cleanup started on Thursday.

Mr Lucas said it was now known there were two holes in the ship\’s hull.

“It appears from the diver\’s inspection that there is not one hole but two,” Mr Lucas said.

“The first hole was above the waterline and that was about 10 to 15 centimetres. The second hole was one metre long and 300 millimetres wide so it was a very big hole under the ship.”

Cleanup time defended

Premier Anna Bligh has defended the time it took to start the cleanup.

“I can understand people think it\’s a good idea to get out there from day one and start cleaning up,” Ms Bligh told ABC TV on Sunday.

“But the reality is we still have oil coming onto the beach. You don\’t take it off the beach until you know it\’s all there otherwise we are stripping layer of sand that has already be eroded by

cyclonic activities.”

Booms remain around the Pacific Adventurer at Hamilton to contain the oil around the ship after a second leak last week while the cargo ship was docked at Hamilton wharf.

Tourism Queensland is meeting with a number of groups on Sunday to discuss a recovery plan for the industry once the cleanup is finished.

Tourism Minister Desley Boyle\’s office says the meeting will include Tourism Queensland, the Department of Tourism, Regional Development and Industry.

A number of interest groups have been invited including Sunshine Coast Tourism, Brisbane Marketing, and tourism operators who have been directly affected by the spill.

A spokesman says the group will analyse where the greatest impact has been and begin putting together a response plan.

Pakistan moots concessions to head off crisis

Hugely unpopular Zardari came under pressure at home and abroad to find a way out of his standoff with Sharif following multiple broken promises to reinstate judges sacked by ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

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Following intervention from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a flurry of meetings, the presidency said the government would appeal a court ruling that barred Sharif from office and look at the matter of the judges.

“The issue of judiciary and restoration of judges would be resolved in accordance with the principles laid down in the charter of democracy,” his office said in a statement.

That document, signed by Sharif and Zardari\’s widow, the former premier Benazir Bhutto assassinated in 2006 – before the judges were fired – pledged to restore democracy, avoid confrontation and take the military out of politics.

When pressed for details about when an appeal would be made or how the judiciary issue could be resolved, a spokesman for Zardari declined to answer.

Lawyers, gearing up for a mass protest march on the capital Islamabad rejected the announcement. Political opponents called for action not words and analysts poured cold water on the prospects for securing a meaningful deal.

The government has imposed the worst crackdown of its time in power on activists planning to march on Islamabad to demand the judges\’ reinstatement. Protests have been banned and more than 1,000 activists detained.

The turmoil could not come at a worse time for the nuclear-armed Muslim nation, which is a central front in US President Barack Obama\’s fight against Islamist militancy and facing a wave of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked violence.

A spokesman for Sharif said he would wait to see how the announcement on the judges would play out, but welcomed the appeal to the Supreme Court on the disqualification from office of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz.

“We will see how these things happen, how judges will be restored… It is not yet clear,” the spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, told AFP.

One of the main lawyer leaders, Munir Malik, rejected the concessions.

“When they cannot stand by their written pledges, how can we accept this? Until the judiciary is restored, our struggle will continue and long march will not be called off,” Malik told AFP.

Information Minister resigns

Zardari was dealt a further blow Saturday with the resignation of Information Minister Sherry Rehman, considered one of his confidantes.

Pakistan\’s daily The News reported that Rehman resigned “in protest” after she failed to convince Zardari to lift a ban on private Geo television.

The flagship private television channel said its cable transmission had been blocked on Zardari\’s orders because of its coverage of the protests, but the government flatly denied any responsibility.

Meanwhile, more than 1,500 lawyers and workers from Nawaz Sharif\’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) defied a ban on protests in Multan, a city in the politically vital Punjab heartland, shouting “death to Zardari” but were prevented from leaving the city by barricades.

Police also stopped one of Pakistan\’s most respected lawyers, Ali Ahmed Kurd, the president of the Supreme Court bar association, from boarding a flight to the Punjab capital Lahore, where he intended to join the protests.

Analysts unconvinced

Political analysts were unconvinced Saturday a deal could be reached.

“These are vague statements and will not help defuse the situation,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP, commenting on the presidency\’s announcement.

“There are no details about how they are going to restore judges. Will they restore it to the level that it was before the November 3 emergency rule or will they make fresh appointments?” he asked.

Musharraf removed independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and some 60 other judges in 2007, fearing that he would be declared ineligible to contest a presidential election while in military uniform.

The move triggered a countrywide protest, spearheaded by lawyers, which ultimately forced Musharraf to quit in August 2008.

Bin Laden says Gaza offensive was a \’holocaust\’

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called Israel\’s offensive in the Gaza Strip a “holocaust” and lashed out at Arab governments that he said failed to stop the bloodshed, in an audio recording broadcast on Saturday.

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Bin Laden, whose message was released in excerpts on Al-Jazeera TV, called Arab leaders hypocrites and accused them of sacrificing the Palestinians in Gaza and collaborating with Israel. The three-week offensive, which ended on January 18, killed about 1,300 Palestinians, according to Palestinian human rights groups.

“It was clear that some of the Arab leaders have collaborated with the Crusader-Zionist alliance against our people, those whom America calls the moderate leaders,” said bin Laden. “We must disown ourselves from all those” governments.

He did not mention any governments by name in the brief excerpts, but Egypt, in particular, drew criticism during the offensive for not opening its border with Gaza to more aid shipments and humanitarian cases.

Both Israel and Egypt have closed their borders with Gaza since the Islamic militant group Hamas violently seized control of the Palestinian territory in June 2007. The closure deepened economic hardship in the already impoverished strip, home to 1.4 million

Palestinians.

It was bin Laden\’s second audio message on the Gaza offensive since January, when he urged Muslims to launch a jihad against Israel. It was not possible to verify the message\’s authenticity. A spokesman for Al-Jazeera refused to say how the network obtained the recording.

Bin Laden again urged Muslims to fight Israel.

“The Gaza holocaust, amid this prolonged embargo, is an important historic event and a catastrophe that shows the necessity of distinguishing Muslims from hypocrites,” he said. “It is not right that our situation after Gaza will be as it used to be before. There should be serious work and preparation for jihad to fulfill righteousness and defeat evil.”

Bin Laden called on faithful Muslims to support militants in Iraq and said that country should be used as a departure point for attacks on Israel. He suggested fighters use a route from Iraq through Jordan and into the West Bank.

He said supporting fighters in Iraq is a “rare and precious chance” for ultimately taking control of Jerusalem. After taking control of Iraq, he said, fighters should then head to neighbouring

Jordan.

“Jordan … is the best and widest front, and from Jordan the second launching will be toward the West Bank and the borders will be forcibly opened,” he said.