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Monday, July 13, 2009

Children risk their lives in Gaza's blockade-busting tunnels

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AFP) — Anwar, 15, can't read or write, but says he's good at tunnel work. He needs a new job as Israeli planes bombed his workplace, one of hundreds of smuggling tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt.

His rough voice and tough looks belie his young age, but his small, wiry body is what makes him a perfect candidate for the job.

And, like thousands of other children in the impoverished and war-shattered Gaza Strip, his family badly needs the money. The job is comparatively lucrative, with children getting up to 30 dollars for a 12-hour shift.

"I have six brothers. I'm the breadwinner for the family," says Anwar.

He says he doesn't mind not getting an education.

"School is useless."

Asked about the Israeli offensive that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and devastated Gaza, Anwar shrugs. "The worst thing about the war is that I spent all my savings from working the tunnels."

Warplanes heavily bombed the Rafah border area during the 22-day war that ended on January 18, and again on several occasions since, targeting the tunnels that defy Israel's crippling blockade of the overcrowded coastal strip.

"We bring in anything you can imagine. Food, shoes, toys, refrigerators, ovens. Even cars -- they take them apart, cut them in half and put them together again in Gaza," says Anwar.

Israel says Hamas, Gaza's Islamist rulers, also uses tunnels to bring in the rockets and mortars they fire at Israel.

Anwar insists the tunnel in which he worked brought in only commercial goods. "Never weapons, the government has special tunnels for that."

He says he doesn't worry about the Israeli air strikes. "The Jews are our enemy. I'm not scared of them."

-- 'He's just a kid' --

Tunnel operators say Egypt too is increasingly cracking down on the underground smuggling, pumping sewage or gas, or throwing explosives into the tunnels.

"Three people died in the tunnels around here this week," said one man who would only identify himself as Mohammed, standing by a 10-metre-deep (about 30 feet) shaft at the entrance of his tunnel.

Tents or brick shacks cover the entrances of dozens more tunnels around his stake. A watchtower overlooking this "tunnel city" marks the Egyptian border, about 200 metres (yards) away.

"The tunnel was destroyed five times from the Egyptian side," says Mohammed, as workers inside the tunnel pile earth and rubble onto a trolley attached to a generator-run electric pulley.

He denies employing child labour, though the vast majority of the tunnels owners do employ youngsters.

A recent study by the Palestinian Centre for Democracy and Conflict Resolution (PCDCR) showed that more than half the 16,000 people working in the tunnels are under 18, as were 30 of the 115 people killed in the tunnels since Israel imposed the blockade two years ago.

The Hamas government says the tunnels are legal until the blockade is lifted and the Rafah municipality charges a 10,000 shekel (2,500 dollar/1,800 euro) fee to open one.

But what is illegal under Palestinian law is to employ children under the age of 16, says Iyad Abu Hujaier of the PCDCR.

Tunnel work is both dangerous and exhausting.

"I was in the middle of the tunnel. Egypt put some gas in. Three workers died, 18 were treated for suffocation," says 14-year-old Osama.

"I decided not to go again, but my father died so I was forced to go back for about one month," says Osama, who is spending much of the summer school holiday at a youth centre financed by the UN children's agency UNICEF.

His 15-year-old friend Mohammed is adamant: "I won't go back to the tunnels, it's horrible in there."

Hujaier says most of the children who work in the tunnels use Tramadol -- also known as Tramal -- a painkiller said to produce a mild high and to relieve anxiety.

For the families, he says there is no alternative to the child labour, they desperately need the money.

"When we tell parents 'he's just a kid and needs to enjoy his childhood' they look at us like we come from the moon, they make us feel like we're not being realistic."

As long as the Israeli blockade remains, "this crisis will continue, the tunnels will continue and children will continue working in the tunnels," says Hujaier.

Anwar is also convinced the tunnels are here to stay. "When I grow up I want to be a professional tunnel digger, because you make a lot of money."

Palestinian children rally against siege on Gaza-Egypt borders

GAZA, July 13 (Xinhua) -- Islamic Hamas movement Monday sent children participating in its summer camps to demonstrate in front of Rafah crossing point in southern Gaza Strip, calling on Egypt to open the border terminal.

Seven of the children were dressed in white as one of the cheerleaders spilled red paint on their cloths, trying to highlight the suffering of Palestinians injured in Israel's January offensive in Gaza and their lack of access to medical centers abroad.

Nearly 700 children joined the demonstration which took place on the Hamas-controlled side of Rafah crossing.

"We came here to call for an end to the siege and to our children's starvation who are dying," said Hamada Mattar, one of the organizers of Hamas' religious summer camps program.

Israel and Egypt have been maintaining the closure of their border with the Gaza Strip since Hamas routed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' forces and seized the territory in June 2007.

Yehia Jum'a, 10, said he came to the rally "to appeal for (Egyptian) President Hosni Mubarak to open Rafah crossing to allow aid and humanitarian convoys in."

Egypt opens Rafah crossing on its own will occasionally to allow movement of patients and stranded humanitarian cases, but Hamas demands to keep the terminal open round the clock.

A U.S.-brokered protocol said the crossing can not work permanently without the presence of pro-Abbas forces and monitors from the European Union.

The brides wore black: Hamas widows re-marry on Gaza beach

One hundred Gaza widows have been remarried in a mass ceremony on the beaches of Gaza following the loss of their husbands during the 22-day war with Israel this past January.

The women - all veiled and wearing long black dresses and gloves - were married to a second husband in a large wedding organized by the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas.

The women were widowed after their husbands, Hamas fighters, were killed in the war between Israel and Hamas in January.

All of the men and women participating in the wedding were 25-years-old or younger and loyal to Hamas.

Many of the grooms, each given $2,800 by Hamas as a gift for marrying a widow, are taking on another wife.

The majority of the men at the mass wedding were the brothers-in-law of the widows, marrying their brother's widowed wife.

Twenty of the marriages took place outside the bereaved families.

The women, many of them mothers, were accompanied by daughters in white dresses, sons in black suits, relatives and friends.

A second Hamas mass wedding, held in the At-Tuffah neighborhood of Gaza City on Saturday, included 13 couples, among them Hamas members recently released from Israeli jails.

The wedding was put together by three neighborhood mosques and funded by the At-Tayseer charitable society.

Another two mass weddings are said to have been held in the Palestinian enclave over the past two weeks.

"We have weddings like this all the time," Um Ashraf Sayem, whose son is a Hamas official in Gaza, told The Media Line. "Sometimes it's for people who can't pay money for a wedding party. Different associations organize a group wedding for them and help them to buy furniture."

A Hamas mass wedding held in July 2009 in a Nablus sports stadium is thought to have been the largest Palestinian mass wedding ever held, with 452 couples tying the knot.

Palestinian mass weddings have been held all over the Middle East.

A 32-couple wedding is set to be held shortly in the Radwan neighborhood and a mass wedding for blind couples, the first of its kind in the Middle East, is expected before the end of the month.

UK cuts some arms sales to Israel after Gaza war

JERUSALEM, July 13 (Reuters) - Britain has scrapped the sale of some military components to Israel as part of an export review prompted by the war in the Gaza Strip, officials said on Monday.

Of 182 arms-export licenses, five were revoked, an Israeli official said. All involved equipment for the Saar 4.5 class Corvette, a naval vessel that took part in the December-January offensive in which more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed.

The British embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed the revocation of a "small number" of export licenses but said this did not constitute an embargo on Israel. "There are no security agreements between the UK and Israel," an embassy spokeswoman said. "UK policy remains to assess all export licences to Israel against the consolidated E.U. and national arms export licensing criteria."

She noted that Britain had also revoked some export licenses to Russia and Georgia following their border war last year.

Israel has weathered international censure over the civilian toll of the Gaza war, arguing that Palestinians provoked the violence by firing rockets across the border. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the 22 days of fighting.

Israel's Defence Ministry had no immediate comment on the British decision. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman brushed it off.

"Israel has known many cases of embargo in the past," he said. "We always knew how to get by, and there is no need to get excited about this."

British Foreign Minister David Miliband announced the review in April after some legislators pressed for an arms embargo on both Israel and the Hamas Islamists ruling Gaza.

British exports of sensitive products that are for military use or that can have both civilian or military applications need a licence. Britain says it will not grant a licence if there is a clear risk of exports being used either for internal repression or for external aggression.

Israel FM queries Abbas authority

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has questioned the authority of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in an escalating Israeli-Palestinian war of words.

Mr Lieberman said Mr Abbas "was not exactly legitimate" and was therefore in no position to make demands on the Israeli leadership.

A day earlier Mr Abbas had called him a bad choice as Israeli foreign minister.

The two sides have been unable to agree terms for restarting peace talks since the Israel government came into office.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in power since 1 April, on Sunday urged Mr Abbas to restart peace talks immediately.

"There is no reason Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and I should not meet, anywhere in this country, to advance the political process," Mr Netanyahu told the weekly meeting of his cabinet.

Mr Abbas has refused to meet Mr Netanyahu and on Sunday reiterated his stance in a radio interview that, for negotiations on the key issues to resume, there must be "a complete halt" to Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

Separately in the Egyptian weekly, October, he said that Mr Netanyahu had backed himself into a corner on the Palestinian track, and he would face fierce opposition from Mr Lieberman if he tried to emerge from it.

Mr Abbas said things would be better if the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, had been reappointed instead of the current incumbent.


The outspoken Mr Lieberman said he took such comments from Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as a "blessing".

"As Abu Mazen's authority or legitimacy deteriorates or declines, he raises his demands and toughens his position.

"Abu Mazen isn't exactly legitimate, hence neither is his new demand, or suggestion, to replace Lieberman with Tzipi Livni," he said in an interview on Israel radio.

"I see such advice as a blessing. His demand to cease settlement construction is nothing more than an expression of his distress and incompetence."

He said that with Gaza under control of the Hamas militant group, Mr Abbas represented "at best, half of the nation".

Mr Lieberman also rejected a call by outgoing EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana for the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state if Israel and the Palestinians fail to reach a peace agreement by a certain deadline.

"With all due respect to Solana, he's about to retire ... and we should not overstate the importance of his statement," Mr Lieberman said.

On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu insisted the Palestinians "must finally abandon" the right of return for Palestinian refugees since 1948, which if realised would facilitate the arrival of millions of displaced Arabs to areas that currently have an Israeli Jewish majority.

He reiterated demands for Palestinians to explicitly recognise Israel as a Jewish state, calling this "the key to peace."

The Palestinians say it is tantamount to legitimising their own displacement in past wars with Israel.

They have also rejected any potential deal between Israel and its main backer, the US, to allow limited Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank.

"There are no middle-ground solutions for the settlement issue: either settlement activity stops or it doesn't," negotiator Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967. Israel wants to be able to keep building within existing communities there, although all such work is illegal under international law.

"If settlement continues, Israel will be allowed to build 1,000 units here and 2,000 units there, which will lead Arabs and Palestinians to believe the US administration is incapable of swaying Israel to halt its settlement activities," Mr Erekat said.

Obama chooses Ala doctor as next surgeon general

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama turned to the Deep South for the next surgeon general, a rural Alabama family physician who made headlines with fierce determination to rebuild her nonprofit medical clinic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

An administration official said Obama will announce the nomination of Dr. Regina Benjamin later Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the official announcement.

The surgeon general is the people's health advocate, a bully pulpit position that can be tremendously effective with a forceful personality.

Benjamin has that reputation.

A decade ago, the New York Times called her "angel in a white coat," a country doctor who made house calls along the impoverished Gulf Coast, paid whatever her patients could scrounge.

From those early days she has emerged as a national leader in the call to improve health disparities, pushed by the need in her own fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Ala., and its diverse patient mix — where immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos make up a growing part of the population.

Her nonprofit clinic was rebuilt by volunteers after being destroyed by Katrina, only to burn down months later. Benjamin later told of her patients' desperation that she rebuild again, recalling one woman who handed her an envelope with a $7 donation to help.

"If she can find $7, I can figure out the rest," Benjamin said last fall as she received a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," money she dedicated to finishing that job.

Benjamin became the first black woman and the youngest doctor elected to the American Medical Association's board. She also received the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the distinguished service medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice.

Her nomination for surgeon general requires Senate confirmation.

Chinese police kill two Uighur men as ethnic unrest flares

Chinese police today shot dead two Uighur men and wounded a third in the first official report of the use of firearms to quell unrest in the western, mainly Muslim region where a riot last week left 184 people dead.

Frightened residents of Urumqi ran into their homes and shops, slamming the doors, as police waved their guns and shouted. Reinforcements were rushed into the city, backed by armoured personnel carriers.

Officials said that officers opened fire after they were attacked as they tried to prevent three men from assaulting another with knives and rods.

"Police shot and killed two suspected lawbreakers and injured one suspected lawbreaker using legal means," said a statement released by the government of the capital of China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang.

State radio said that the two men who died were members of the ethnic Uighur minority. A third Uighur was wounded.

The official Xinhua news agency said that an initial investigation found the three people attacking a fourth person with clubs and knives at 2.55pm near the People's Hospital in the heart of the city, in an area where Uighurs make up the majority of residents. “Police on patrol fired warning shots before shooting at the three suspects."

The city had recovered some semblance of normality over the weekend as more businesses began to open and restaurants started to raise their shutters and serve diners. Traffic jams clogged the streets again and buses resumed almost normal services.

It was the first time that the government had revealed the use of firearms to try to end the violence that erupted on July 5 when angry Uighurs rampaged through the city attacking Han Chinese in a riot that left 184 people dead and 1,600 injured – including 74 described as being on the verge of death. Han Chinese accounted for 137 of the dead, with Uighurs making up 46 of the total. The last victim was a member of ethnic Hui Muslim minority.

Most of the injured in ordinary hospital wards had sustained knife wounds or head injuries after they were bludgeoned with bricks or staves. No access was possible to the intensive care units where those with more serious injuries such as burns and possibly bullet wounds were being treated.

However, one Uighur woman in the People’s Hospital described to The Times last week how she was hit in the ankle and her six-year-old daughter was grazed on the head as they left work on July 5 only to find themselves surrounded by a mob of stone-throwing Uighurs. She described how police opened fire and she and her child were wounded in the crossfire.

The initial riot was followed by more unrest when vigilante mobs of angry Han Chinese carrying metal pipes, wooden staves and even knives took to the streets last Tuesday and Wednesday baying for the blood of Uighurs. It was not known how many people may have been killed or injured in ensuing confrontations.

Tens of thousands of paramilitary police have poured into the city to restore order and, in many cases, to keep the two ethnic groups apart to prevent further reprisals.

PM defends Afghanistan strategy

Gordon Brown has insisted Britain has the resources "to do the job" in Afghanistan, amid claims troops serving there are under-equipped.

The prime minister told MPs there had been an increase in helicopter capacity since 2006 and UK forces were the best equipped they had been in 40 years.

Tory leader David Cameron attacked the "scandal" of helicopter shortages.

UK forces in Afghanistan will also hold a memorial service later for eight men who died in a single 24-hour period.

Tributes will be paid at Camp Bastion, a day after it emerged that three of those killed on Friday were just 18.

'Very difficult'

Five of those who died on Friday were members of the County Down-based 2nd Battalion The Rifles. They were: Cpl Jonathan Horne, and Riflemen Joseph Murphy, Daniel Simpson, William Aldridge and James Backhouse.

The sixth was Cpl Lee Scott, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment.

In the same 24 hours - the bloodiest since the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001 - Rifleman Daniel Hume, of 4th Battalion The Rifles, and Pte John Brackpool, 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, also died.

In a Commons statement Mr Brown told MPs: "It has been a very difficult summer and it is not over yet but if we are to deny Helmand to the Taliban in the long term, if we are to defeat this vicious insurgency... then we must persist in operations in Afghanistan."

But he added: "I am confident that we are right to be in Afghanistan, that we have the strongest possible plan and we have the resources to do the job."


The Tories have accused the government of the "ultimate dereliction of duty" in under-equipping the armed forces.

At a press conference, Mr Cameron repeated his warning that the government must ensure UK troops in Afghanistan have the right equipment

He added: "It's a scandal in particular that they still lack enough helicopters to move around in Afghanistan."

Mr Cameron also said other Nato countries should fulfil their commitments, arguing that the government needed to "really hold their feet to the fire" and "beg, borrow or frankly steal the helicopters that are necessary".

But the prime minister's spokesman insisted that helicopter capability had almost doubled in two years.

He added: "There is a major operation under way at the moment - Operation Panther's Claw - which is taking the fight to the Taliban and, as a consequence of that, of course we are seeing casualties and of course every single casualty is a matter of great regret.

"But the prime minister's view is that we are pursuing the right strategy in Afghanistan."

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said the government was planning to invest £6bn on helicopters over the coming years.

But he added: "The changes in the way in which the operations are being conducted leads to more ground operations and these cannot be conducted from helicopters."

A poll carried out for the BBC and the Guardian suggests public opinion is split over the UK's mission in Afghanistan, despite ministers' claims it is key to preventing terror attacks at home.

Of 1,000 people questioned, 47% said they opposed the British operation, while 46% said they supported it.

However, backing for the campaign appears to have increased since 2006, when only 31% of people gave their support.

The spokesman for the task force in Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, said: "The soldiers are very grateful for that support. It gives us a buoyant and a reassuring feeling."

'Classic mistakes'

During Mr Ainsworth's first Commons questions in his new post, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said the public did not understand "why we're not doing everything we can to reduce the risks to our forces".

Mr Fox added: "If we cannot move our forces by air, they are more vulnerable on the ground."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown said "no helicopter could have saved the casualties of the last few days" and instead problems began earlier in the conflict.

"We made the two classic mistakes of over-ambitious targets and under-resources to achieve them," he said.

"We will need more troops now to recover the tactical and strategic opportunities we lost from lack of troops and over-ambitious targets earlier."

Gordon Brown has said the government had increased defence spending by more than £1bn in the past year.

He said new equipment had already been provided and more, including Merlin helicopters and Ridgeback armoured vehicles, would arrive in the coming months.

Speaking to the British Forces Broadcasting Service, Mr Brown insisted the mission in Afghanistan was crucial to the UK's domestic security.

UK troops have spent recent weeks on an offensive which is designed to increase security ahead of Afghan elections planned for next month.

But the surge has brought a big increase in casualties, with 15 servicemen killed in the first 10 days of the month.

It means 184 service personnel have now died in Afghanistan since 2001, more than the 179 who were killed during the war in Iraq.

The deaths of the three 18-year-olds matches the number previously killed at that age during almost eight years of conflict in Afghanistan.

Obama picks Regina Benjamin as surgeon general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has selected Dr. Regina Benjamin, an Alabama family physician, as the U.S. surgeon general, an administration official said on Monday.

Obama was to announce Benjamin as the top authority on U.S. medical matters at a Rose Garden ceremony at 11:40 a.m. EDT/1540 GMT, the official said on condition of anonymity.

A biography of her by the MacArthur Foundation said Benjamin is a "rural family physician forging an inspiring model of compassionate and effective medical care in one of the most underserved regions of the United States."

It said that in 1990, she founded the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic to serve the Gulf Coast fishing community of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a village of approximately 2,500 people devastated twice in the past decade by Hurricanes Georges, in 1998, and Katrina, in 2005.

Senate political shift will influence nomination

WASHINGTON — Four years after members of the Senate Judiciary Committee last convened to consider a Supreme Court nomination, a strikingly different group of senators gathered Monday to evaluate Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The changes on the powerful panel reflect a generational shift in the Senate and a political shift in the nation. Both will influence not only the fate of Sotomayor's nomination but the shape of the judiciary for years to come.

That's because the Judiciary Committee has the power to speed up — or bottle up — a president's picks for more than 850 lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

None is more significant than the one the panel members began considering this week.

"After the decision to go to war, the second biggest decision you can make as a senator is a Supreme Court justice," says Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del. "Sotomayor is going to be on the court long after most of us are gone — and I mean gone-gone. It's the one thing you do that you know is going to have long-term implications."

When Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito were up for confirmation in 2005, the Judiciary Committee was dominated by Republicans and freighted with seniority: Five of its members had been involved in the confirmations of almost every sitting member of the Supreme Court.

The committee that will hear from Sotomayor this week is the most lopsidedly Democratic since the one that considered Justice Thurgood Marshall's confirmation in 1967. Five of its members have never been through a Supreme Court confirmation hearing — unless you count a 1991 Saturday Night Live skit that featured newly-minted Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who was pretending to be a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Of the committee's 19 members, 13 hold law degrees; two have MBAs; one is a farmer; one is a doctor and one is a former mayor. Two are women.

Ten were in the Senate in 1998, when Sotomayor came up for confirmation to the job she currently holds, on the New York-based 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals: seven voted for her and three against.

Two familiar faces from past confirmation battles will be absent when Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., bangs the gavel to start the proceedings. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who gained a reputation for his tenacity and loquacity during 31 years on the committee, left the Senate in January to become vice president. And liberal icon Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., battling brain cancer, relinquished the seat he held for 45 years on Judiciary Committee to devote his energies to the effort to overhaul the nation's health insurance system.

Sen. Arlen Specter, who chaired the Roberts and Alito hearings as a Republican, now will have a seat at the far end of the Democratic side of the dais, just ahead of Franken. The veteran Pennsylvania lawmaker switched parties earlier this year.

One thing has not changed. "The committee has always been one of the most partisan on Capitol Hill," observes Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican whose 31-year tenure makes him the panel's longest serving member. Both parties pick their fiercest partisans for the panel, says Hatch, who enjoys the resulting debates. "They're all very, very good people — all very tough, smart people. You get the best cross currents."

Swine flu resembles feared 1918 flu, study finds

WASHINGTON - The new H1N1 influenza virus bears a disturbing resemblance to the virus strain that caused the 1918 flu pandemic, with a greater ability to infect the lungs than common seasonal flu viruses, researchers reported on Monday.

Tests in several animals confirmed other studies that have shown the new swine flu strain can spread beyond the upper respiratory tract to go deep into the lungs — making it more likely to cause pneumonia, the international team said.

In addition, they found that people who survived the 1918 pandemic seem to have extra immune protection against the virus, again confirming the work of other researchers.

"When we conducted the experiments in ferrets and monkeys, the seasonal virus did not replicate in the lungs," said Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin, who led the study.

The H1N1 virus replicates significantly better in the lungs."

The new swine flu virus has caused the first pandemic of the 21st century, infecting more than a million people, according to estimates, and killing at least 500. The World Health Organization says it is causing mostly moderate disease but Kawaoka said that does not mean it is like seasonal flu.

"There is a misunderstanding about this virus," he said in a statement. "There is clear evidence the virus is different than seasonal influenza."

Writing in the journal Nature, Kawaoka and colleagues noted that the ability to infect the lungs is a characteristic of other pandemic viruses, especially the 1918 virus, which is estimated to have killed between 40 million and 100 million people.

Old protection They tested the virus in blood samples taken from nursing home residents and workers in 1999 in California, Wisconsin, the Netherlands and Japan.

People born before 1920 had a strong antibody response to the new H1N1 virus, meaning their body "remembered" it from infection early in life. This finding supports a study published in Nature in August that also found people who survived the 1918 pandemic still had immune protection against that virus.

Flu viruses change constantly, which is why people can be re-infected and why the vaccine must be changed regularly. Current seasonal strains of H1N1 are distant cousins of both the 1918 pandemic strain and the new H1N1 strain.

"Our findings are a reminder that swine-origin influenza viruses have not yet garnered a place in history, but may still do so, as the pandemic caused by these viruses has the potential to produce a significant impact on human health and the global economy," the researchers wrote.

Other tests showed the virus could be controlled by the antiviral drugs Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline, and Tamiflu, made by Roche AG, the researchers said.

The World Health Organization said on Monday that vaccine makers should start making immunizations against H1N1 and that healthcare workers should be first in line to get them.

Companies working on an H1N1 vaccine include Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis AG, Baxter International Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Solvay and nasal spray maker MedImmune, now part of AstraZeneca.

For Obama, healthcare failure is not option

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For President Barack Obama, failure on healthcare is not an option. With the economy struggling and his poll numbers dipping, the president who made "change" his campaign mantra cannot afford to come up empty on his top legislative priority -- a long-sought overhaul of the costly and complex U.S. healthcare system.

The gathering debate in the Democratic-controlled Congress will be the biggest test yet of Obama's ability to work with lawmakers and deliver on promises. Failure would spark new doubts about a president still seeking a signature accomplishment.

"The guy made big promises and said, 'Yes, we can,' but the question still is, 'Can he?'" Democratic consultant Doug Schoen said. "Failure begats failure, and failure here would raise questions about his ability to lead on a lot of issues."

He takes his effort to win public backing for his plan to a town hall meeting in Warren, Michigan, on Tuesday, a state where closed factories and the highest unemployment rate in the country have left many without private health insurance and struggling to pay healthcare bills.

Analysts said the dire consequences for Obama and his fellow Democrats of not passing a healthcare measure make it very likely a bill will be passed in some form, even as the political battle heats up over its cost and scope.

Obama and his administration have jacked up expectations with optimistic proclamations "the stars are aligned" for reform, and congressional leaders have been working for months to fashion a proposal.

"The Democratic leadership and the president cannot end all this fervor without having some sort of healthcare reform bill," said Bob Blendon, a health policy and political analysis professor at Harvard University.

"The bill could be more modest than some of the things being discussed but there has to be a bill because the Democratic Party would pay a huge price if there isn't. They learned that lesson in 1994," Blendon said.

That year's collapse of the healthcare reform effort, led by then-first lady Hillary Clinton, is still fresh in the minds of many Democrats, who lost control in both chambers of Congress later that year in a Newt Gingrich-led Republican landslide.

All 435 members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the 100 senators are up for re-election next year.


"The last time they failed on healthcare they got Gingrich," said Len Nichols, director of the Health Policy program at the New America Foundation.

"This time if they fail they might get Limbaugh," he said in a reference to influential conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, a harsh Obama critic. "So they are highly motivated."

Obama wants lawmakers to curb costs and expand health insurance coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured Americans. In a shift of strategy from the Clinton effort, however, he left it to Congress to put the bill together.

But keeping Democrats happy while attracting Republicans has proven a difficult balancing act. Congressional leaders have struggled to trim costs and find ways to cover its estimated price tag of at least $1 trillion.

Republicans object to plans for a government-run healthcare option that would compete with private insurers, fearing its impact on the insurance industry and the employer-based insurance model used by most Americans.

Obama aides have signaled they would be willing to reduce or change the public plan to win support from at least a few Republicans, drawing criticism from liberal Democrats.

A group of fiscally conservative Democrats, meanwhile, objected to the House bill on Thursday because it did not have enough cost savings. They said it should be revamped before they can support it, creating the latest in a series of challenges.

"There are going to be some tough negotiations in the days and weeks to come but I'm confident that we're going to get it done," Obama said while traveling in Italy on Friday.

The healthcare debate comes at a critical juncture for Obama, who faces growing criticism that his economic prescriptions are failing.

He managed early victories in Congress on a $787 billion economic stimulus package, a financial rescue package and bailouts for endangered firms and industries, but his approval ratings have slipped in recent polls as unemployment rises and the economy continues to stumble.

The latest Gallup poll put Obama's approval rating at a still-high 57 percent, down from 64 percent in early June. In other polls, it ranges from the mid-50s to mid-60s.

"The Obama administration is desperate for accomplishments on the big issues," said Schoen, the White House pollster under former President Bill Clinton.

"The reason he is trying to do as much as he can as quickly as he can is he knows his approval rating is a depreciating asset. As soon as that goes below 50 percent he is in trouble."

Clamor grows over CIA secrets

Democrats renew their calls for some kind of investigation and criticize former Vice President Dick Cheney. Reporting from Washington -- Democratic lawmakers criticized former Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday for allegedly ordering that a CIA counter-terrorism program be kept secret from congressional leaders, with two senators questioning the legality of such concealment.

A top Democrat called for an investigation.

Republicans were far more circumspect, but some acknowledged the White House should have briefed Congress.

Exactly what the secret intelligence program was remained a mystery, but sources said the CIA had opened an internal inquiry.

It is unclear how wide an investigation lawmakers would like to see, but the latest controversy could fuel demands for an examination of the CIA's relationship with Congress during the Bush administration.

Congressional Democrats -- in particular, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco -- have accused the CIA of misleading Capitol Hill about key elements of its now-canceled harsh interrogation program, which included the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Republicans, who have attacked Democrats for criticizing the CIA, are likely to be dead set against any such inquiry.

Also Sunday, GOP lawmakers criticized Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. for reportedly considering the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into accusations that the CIA exceeded Bush administration rules when using harsh interrogation techniques.

Democrats expressed support for Holder, but some continued to advocate their own alternatives to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by the Bush administration.

But Democrats were united in condemning Cheney for allegedly ordering the CIA not to reveal details of the still-secret intelligence program. A Cheney spokeswoman declined to comment.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta canceled the program June 23, shortly after learning of it, and he immediately called special sessions with lawmakers to discuss the initiative.

Sources have refused to provide any details about what the program involved or what it was meant to achieve, but have said it was on a continuum between foreign intelligence collection and covert action. It was put in place in after the Sept. 11 attacks, but never became fully operational.

"A lot of people thought they were Jason Bourne and came up with ideas," a former senior CIA officer said, referring to the fictional super-spy and government assassin. "There were programs that were kind of wild that were considered in 2001, but to my knowledge, within six months . . . people kind of gave up on those ideas."

Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the intelligence committee, said Panetta told congressional leaders that Cheney ordered the agency to withhold details of the program from Capitol Hill. She called that a "big problem."

"I think that if the intelligence committees had been briefed, they could have watched the program, they could have asked for regular reports on the program, they could have made judgments about the program as it went along," Feinstein said. "That was not the case, because we were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again."

She called the failure to brief Congress "outside the law."

Although the law requires that congressional committees be "kept fully and currently informed" on intelligence activities, there is some latitude for highly sensitive programs and routine ones.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told ABC's "This Week" that Congress should investigate whether Cheney or others ordered that the program not be disclosed to lawmakers.

Congressional leaders can protect the existence of secret programs, Durbin said. Not disclosing the program, he added, violated the Constitution's checks and balances.

"To have a massive program that is concealed from leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate; it could be illegal," Durbin said.

Responding to Durbin, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, said lawmakers must not "jump to any conclusions" and must remember that Cheney had a responsibility to protect national security. Appearing on CNN, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said failing to notify top congressional leaders was inappropriate. But he accused Democrats of undermining the CIA through constant criticism.
"We have to have an extraordinarily robust and strong CIA," Gregg said.

"This national attempt by some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to basically undermine the capacity to protect and develop intelligence is, I think, going to harm us in the long run," he added.

Republicans also argued that a decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogators risked undermining American security by unnecessarily weakening the intelligence community.

"This is high-risk stuff," Sen. John Cornyn (R- Texas) told Fox News. "Because if we chill the ability or the willingness of our intelligence operatives and others to get information that's necessary to protect America, there could be disastrous consequences." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former GOP presidential nominee who has been highly critical of the Bush administration's interrogation practices, agreed that a special prosecutor should not be appointed. "We all know that bad things were done. We all know that the operatives who did it, most likely, were under orders to do so," McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "For us to continue this and harm our image throughout the world, I agree with the president of the United States: It's time to move forward and not go back." President Obama has said he would not seek to punish CIA interrogators but would leave it up to the attorney general to decide whether to prosecute those who developed the policies. Among Democrats speaking Sunday, Durbin voiced the most unequivocal support for a special prosecutor. "We don't want the attorney general to be afraid to ask questions when it comes to violations of the law," he said. "Those who followed the law, followed their directions [and] did it appropriately . . . shouldn't be prosecuted. But those who went beyond it, those who broke the law, need to be held accountable. No one is above the law." Other Democrats continued to advocate different kinds of investigations. Feinstein favored the intelligence committee's review of the interrogation of the so-called high-value detainees once held by the CIA. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the judiciary committee, said a special prosecutor could make it difficult to establish an independent panel to investigate allegations of wrongdoing during the Bush administration. An independent commission would work only if some witnesses were given immunity, which could hamper a special prosecutor's investigation, Leahy said. He added that he would not interfere if Holder were to appoint a prosecutor, but he worried that such an investigation would target only low-level interrogators and ignore senior policymakers. "I just don't want to see an instance where, if the higher-ups gave the order to break the law, that the ones who get punished are the people basically on the front line, the lower-level troops," Leahy said. Some human rights groups praised Holder for considering appointing a prosecutor. Jameel Jaffer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said publicly available evidence showed that the Bush administration violated domestic and international law by authorizing torture. "It is time to finally confront the gross human rights abuses of the last administration," Jaffer said in a statement. "Initiating a criminal investigation is a crucial step toward restoring the moral authority of the United States abroad and restoring the rule of law at home."

Greg Miller of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Democrats push for probe into Bush policies


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has been reluctant to probe Bush-era torture and anti-terrorism policies, but his Democratic allies aren't likely to let the matters rest.

"I've always preferred my idea of a commission of inquiry to look at all these issues," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Sunday.

Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., head of the intelligence committee, suggested that the George W. Bush administration broke the law by concealing a CIA counterterrorism program from Congress.

The Wall Street Journal, anonymously citing former intelligence officials, reported Monday the secret program was a plan to kill or capture al-Qaida operatives.

The Journal's sources said the plan, which was halted by CIA Director Leon Panetta, was an attempt to carry out a presidential finding authorized in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

The Journal said the agency spent money on planning and maybe some training, but it never became fully operational. The plan was highly classified and the CIA has refused to comment on it.

The assertion that Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the program kept secret from Congress came amid word that Attorney General Eric Holder is contemplating opening a criminal probe of possible CIA torture.

A move to appoint a criminal prosecutor is certain to stir partisan bickering that could prove a distraction to Obama's efforts to push ambitious health care and energy reform.

Obama has resisted an effort by congressional Democrats to establish a "truth commission," saying the nation should be "looking forward and not backwards."

Regarding the 8-year-old counterterrorism program, Feinstein said the Bush administration's failure to notify Congress "is a big problem, because the law is very clear."

Congress should investigate the secrecy because "it could be illegal," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.

According to Feinstein, Panetta told Congress late last month that "he had just learned about the program, described it to us, indicated that he had canceled it and ... did tell us that he was told that the vice president had ordered that the program not be briefed to the Congress."

"We were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again," said Feinstein.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he agreed with Feinstein that the CIA should keep Congress informed. But Cornyn said the new assertion "looks to me suspiciously like an attempt to provide political cover" to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. Pelosi has accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding, or simulated drowning, which many people, including Obama, consider torture.

"This continued attack on the CIA and our intelligence gathering organizations is undermining the morale and capacity of those organizations to gather intelligence," said Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

Reports about the counterterrorism program, Cheney's role in directing its existence be kept from Congress and the attorney general's consideration of a special prosecutor came on the eve of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

A Justice Department official told The Associated Press that Holder will decide in the next few weeks whether to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the Bush administration's harsh interrogation practices. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on a pending matter.

In response to the report, Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller said Saturday that Holder planned to "follow the facts and the law" and noted that Holder has said that "it would be unfair to prosecute any official who acted in good faith based on legal guidance from the Justice Department."

Feinstein and Cornyn spoke on "Fox News Sunday." Durbin appeared on ABC's "This Week." Gregg spoke on CNN's "State of the Union." Leahy spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Pakistan's displaced begin return

The first of some two million Pakistanis displaced by the Swat valley conflict have begun to return home.

But the government's repatriation effort had a shaky start as some of the 200 families due to return on Monday sought last-minute reassurances.

Some said they were concerned about receiving promised financial aid, while others cited security fears.

The army reopened roads into the troubled district after an offensive to drive out Taliban militants there.

See a map of the region

The government has said its priority is to return those living in temporary camps.

The UN has stressed that the return of those displaced must be voluntary.

'Really uncertain'

Some 200 families housed in camps in the Nowshera district were set to return on Monday at the start of the repatriation effort.

By the middle of the day, some reports said that fewer than 50 families had left although it was thought that more left later.

The BBC's David Loyn in Islamabad said that in one camp, there was a blockade of displaced people protesting that they had not received the identification cards they needed to secure food and cash to help them rebuild their homes.

Other people said they were wary of returning home until the security situation was clear.

Government officials expect people to move in larger numbers in the coming days, especially as the word goes out that the trip is safe, our correspondent says.

On Tuesday, 800 families are due to be sent back to Swat, officials say.

Some witnesses in the area told the BBC that people were keen to return home because of the extreme heat they had to endure in the temporary camps, but they also spoke of their concerns.

"I'm going back home voluntarily and nobody forced me to leave," 50-year-old Shireenzada told the AFP news agency.

"But I'm really uncertain and don't know if peace has actually returned to my area."

Felipe Camargo, of the UN High Commission for Refugees, said some areas were now "considered clear and safe" for return - but said it was vital that displaced people were informed about the situation there.

"We have signed an agreement with the government... of North West Frontier Province to ensure that the willingness of the voluntary return is maintained and that people are well informed about what the conditions are in the areas of return," he told the BBC.

He said the US and World Food Programme would provide food aid to the returning families.

Fighting subsided

The first batch of returnees are from the Landakai-Barikot sector of the main road leading into the city of Mingora. This was one of the districts worst affected by fighting between the military and the Taliban.

Reports from that district say there has been no fighting for nearly three weeks despite frequent curfews and house searches by the army.

The return is being overseen by the substantial military presence established in the Swat, Malakand and Buner regions after Taliban militants were dislodged.

The information minister for North West Frontier Province told the BBC's Urdu service that the displaced could carry their tents with them in case they returned home to find their homes damaged.

"The police and army contingents have been deployed on all important points along the way to provide security to convoys," Mian Iftikhar Hussain said.

Once people have been moved from the camps, the army will begin returning people who have been living in schools and other places since they fled the fighting.

Much of the infrastructure in the Swat region was severely damaged in the months of fighting.

Power and water supplies have been shattered and the reconstruction is expected to take many months.

A resident of the town of Sultanwas, in Buner province, told the Associated Press that if the government failed to provide for people's needs, "no-one will stand against militant extremism in the future".

"In this war we lost and gave everything, saw our village destroyed," said Muhamed Shereen.

"So now the people of Sultanwas look to the government and the whole country and world to come forward and help us."

The BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan, who recently visited Swat's main town, Mingora, said the town was largely intact, with markets and residential areas still standing.

But the security situation remains uncertain and supplies are critically low, he says.

Did you leave the Swat valley due to the earlier fighting? Are you planning to return soon? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below.