2 million pilgrims converge in Mecca
Mecca: 2 million Muslims from some 100 nations on Thursday stood shoulder-to-shoulder and prayed while circling the Ka'bah in the start of this year's Hajj - an annual pilgrimage performed uninterrupted for centuries.
Every year, during the new moon of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-Hijjah, millions of Muslims from all over the world descend upon Mecca. Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad, founder of the Islamic faith.
For 14 centuries, countless millions of Muslims, men and women from the four corners of the earth, have made the pilgrimage to Makkah, the birthplace of Islam. In carrying out this obligation, they fulfill one of the five "pillars" of Islam, or central religious duties of the believer.
Muslims trace the recorded origins of the divinely prescribed pilgrimage to the Prophet Abraham, or Ibrahim, as he is called in Arabic. According to the Qur'an, it was Abraham who, together with Ishmael (Isma'il), built the Ka'bah, "the House of God".
Ka'bah- a stone building believed to be the world's first sanctuary dedicated to the worship of one God. A symbol of unity, the Kaaba is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. All over the world, Muslims orient themselves in the direction of the Ka'bah every time they bow to pray.
Hajj activities, climax on the ninth day of Dhul-Hijjah. On that day, the pilgrims travel to the site of Mount Arafat, where Mohammad preached his last sermon 14 centuries ago. A day later, on the high holiday known as Eid al-Adha, Muslims worldwide gather for communal prayers, and begin their sacred feast.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world, with men and women strictly segregated in nearly every aspect of life. But to the relief of Indonesian women visiting Saudi Arabia, the Hajj is one event where the usually strict Saudi segregation by sex doesn't apply. Indonesia most populous Muslim country has nearly 180 million believers.
"Islam looks equally to both the males and the females, and hajj is a great manifestation of that equality," said Indonesian Islamic scholar Ahmad Ibn Saifuddin. "People come in the same simple dress for both men and women, and there is no difference between rich and poor and women and men in the sight of God."
The Saudi government expects about 2.5 million Muslims to visit Mecca. Pilgrims also generally visit sites in the cities of Mina and Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried.
This year Saudi Arabia is putting up 10,830 fire-resistant tents for some half-a-million pilgrims in the first phase of a huge project that will eventually ensure all pilgrims have such tents. The tents,being erected in Mena which is about 11 km from Mecca, have been fitted with 42,000 water sprinklers to avert a repeat of last year's fire.
Saudi Arabia says it plans eventually to provide the fire-resistant tents to all the two million pilgrims who perform hajj every year. However, the first phase being implemented this year will only cover 25 per cent of the total camping area around Mena.
Fanned by high winds, a fire swept through a desert tent camp at Mena below Mount Arafat last year killing 343 people mainly from Pakistan and India. Saudi officials said it was caused by a pilgrim trying to cook a meal on a gas stove in his tent. It spread quickly engulfing over 70,000 tents.
The head of the Pakistani delegation in Mecca said around 95-thousand Pakistanis have arrived for the annual pilgrimage this year.
Libya, under sanctions by the UN Security Council since 1992 cannot fly its pilgrims to Mecca, has transported 10,000 or so pilgrims by ship.
A total of about 3,500 Iraqis made the trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, this year far less than the anticipated 22,000 pilgrims because of US pressure on the UN-Iraq sanctions (666) committee.
Cairns Group worried by Japanese downturn
Sydney: The 15-members Cairns Group of farm leaders, called for Japan to consider "New Deal" agricultural measures that will facilitate a quick recovery from the financial-industrial crisis on Friday.
Chairman of the Cairns Group, Australia's Tim Fischer has warned Japan against turning its back on the world. "Is turning inward the correct way forward, particularly in the area of agriculture? The answer to that is no," he said.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister, Tim Fischer responded to warnings that Japan's economy is close to collapse saying if the situation deteriorates rapidly Australia and the rest of the Pacific Rim will be affected. Only last week the Japanese Government unveiled a $180 billion to jump start the country's economy but was considered insufficient.
"We will get through this difficult 12-18 month period if China the US, including California, can remain steady," Mr Fischer said.
The Cairns Group was an Australian initiative set up in 1986. Major agricultural exporting countries represented include Brazil, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa and Australia.
Japan's sagging economy received unwelcome news Friday, as US ratings agency Moody's lowered its outlook on the country's sovereign debt rating to negative from stable. But Yasushi Okada, chief economist at Credit Suisse First Boston Securities (Japan) Ltd, said: ``Any doubt about Japan's paying ability is nonsense, given Japan is the world's largest creditor with net external credit of more than $750 billion and is running a massive current account surplus.''
Moody's Investors Service on Friday changed its outlook for both country ceilings and domestic currency rating for Japan's government to negative from stable. Moody's cited the inability of Japanese leaders to hammer out policies to get the world's second-largest economy out of a seven-year economic downturn and the country's worsening fiscal situation.
Moody's said continued weakness in domestic economic activity and emerging deflationary pressures will likely further aggravate long-standing structural weakness in the financial sectorThe Japanese yen hit a six-year low against the US dollar in morning trade in Tokyo, falling to its worst level since April 1992. The ratings warning came just a day after Japan's central bank issued a business sentiment report that showed conditions worsening across the Japanse economy.
Japan's woes have pushed the Australian dollar to a new two-and-a-half month low overnight. Assessing yesterday's Tankan report on business sentiment from the Bank of Japan, Australia's Westpac Bank says the risk of ongoing weakness in the Japanese yen leaves the Australian dollar vulnerable to further falls as well.
Australia's government leaders and officials are still digesting the latest economic data out of Japan, amid the dire warnings from one of the most successful Japanese trading companies. An Australian Treasury representative in Japan said that the problems are a little deeper than previously realised.
Norio Ohga, the head of Sony Corporation said in Tokyo Thursday that the Japanese economy is on the verge of collapsing and blasted Japan's politicians for acting like U.S. President Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression.
``The Japanese economy is on the verge of collapsing,'' he said. ``If the economic situation continues to decline, we will face a long spiral of deflation. This will no doubt have a damaging effect on the world economy.''
Drawing a comparison between Hoover, who presided over the start of the Great Depression in 1929, and current Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, ``Hoover was saying things too similar to what Hashimoto has been saying recently,'' he said.
Waves of selling drove stocks sharply lower throughout the Pacific Rim on Thursday following the release of a Bank of Japan survey that indicated that corporate confidence in the Japanese economy had sunk to a dramatic low.
Wednesday, the start of a new business year brought Japan Inc no relief from its economic gloom as confidence was hit by news that a big Japanese non-bank financial firm was seeking special liquidation. The news of difficulties at Daiichi Corp., a non-bank affiliate of the Daiichi Real Estate group, rekindled concerns over Japan's banking and construction sectors, which face both huge bad loans and a poor economy.
In Japan, real estate prices increased at a rate of around 20 percent per annum in the 1990's, while the actual economy grew at a fraction of that rate. Eventually, the banks held huge loans on their books secured only by over- priced property
As a result of this crisis gripping Japan's financial system, the Bank of Japan significantly increased its purchases of government debt and commercial bills.
The fall was the largest drop since the beginning of 1998. The Bank of Japan's (BOJ) "tankan" survey released before the market opened showed plunging confidence at Japanese companies large and small, manufacturers and non-manufacturers alike in late March compared with the previous survey in December.
Meanwhile, the head of the International Monetary Fund has said the ailing economies of Asia cannot get back on their feet without a recovery in Japan.
The latest official Japanese trade figures on March 19 show a contraction in the amount of trade between Japan and the rest of East and South East Asia. Despite a reduction in the price of goods from Asian countries whose currencies have fallen in value in relation to the yen, the overall volume of Japanese imports from Asia fell by nearly eight per cent in the year to February.
Asia's troubled currencies suffered further falls against the US dollar Friday in what dealers describe as a reaction to the continuing weakness of the Japanese yen.
The Malaysian ringgit, the Singapore dollar, the Thai baht, the Indonesian
rupiah, the Philippine peso, the South Korean won and the Taiwan dollar
all dropped slightly against the U-S dollar. The AFP newsagency quotes
dealers as saying that the yen's plunge against the dollar has pulled down
the other Asian currencies.
Indonesia's poorest face food shortages
Jakarta: Millions of Indonesia's poorest people face acute food shortages due to an ongoing drought and a deepening economic crisis, a United Nations team said Wednesday.
The UN warning on hunger comes as representatives of donor countries and other international agencies met in Washington to discuss aid to lessen the social impact of the crisis.
The UN group said 1.5 million families, or 7.5 million people living in 15 provinces "risk experiencing food insecurity until early next year."
It said those worst affected are in the bottom third of 8 million rural families who, Indonesian government officials say, normally live under "chronic marginal circumstances," which includes those who normally eat less than two meals a day.
"We are concerned over the food security situation of the poorest in the country and hope to help them through emergency food assistance for a limited period of time," said Ravi Rajan, who represents the United Nations Development Programme in Indonesia.
Team leader Uwe Kracht said the situation could not be described as a "famine." Nevertheless "many pockets of the population are facing acute food supply inadequacy," he said.
Indonesia, with 200 million people, is the world's fourth most populous nation. Although it has large cities, many people are poor rural dwellers, dependent on traditional farm production, mainly rice growing. Although the report stops short of declaring the existence of famine in parts of the archipelago, it concludes that 15 provinces face the prospect of shortages.
As a result of drought and crop failures blamed on El Nino, Indonesia will have to import about 500,000 tonnes of rice a month over the next six months to make up for an anticipated shortfall in the domestic harvest.
Officials are confident they have enough food stocks to last up to six months, but the situation could become acute from September on if drought persists, particularly in eastern Indonesia.
Officials from 21 countries and 17 multilateral organisations began meeting in Washington yesterday under the aegis of the World Bank to examine ways of assisting Indonesia to finance imports of rice, soya beans and medicines. Dennis de Tray, World Bank director for Indonesia, said in Washington that Indonesia's need for vital imports in the next 12 months was "clear and large" and could cost up to $US3 billion ($4.4 billion).
The World Bank meeting will put together a framework for donor countries to determine what level of assistance they can provide to Indonesia.
The team, from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Programme, said lack of water as well as scant funds for fertilizers and good quality seed mean Indonesia's rice harvest will be down this year and that costly rice imports will reach record levels. The team did not provide specific figures, but said the production of some other crops would help cushion the rice shortfall.
The IMF last month suspended payment of a $3 billion tranche to Jakarta, citing unhappiness with the Government's commitment to reform.Indonesia complained the reforms went too far and that their implementation under an agreed timetable was causing too much pain and contributing to social unrest.
Australian economist Ross Gittins, argued that the US is sacrificing Indonesia to appease the anti-IMF lobby in Congress in order to get approval for the latest funding contribution by the US to the IMF.But The Thai newspaper The Nation observed: "Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall represents a political and ideological victory for the US over socialism, the collapse of the economies in Asia marks another more subtle triumph of US financial imperialism over the rest of this region."
However following international pressure the IMF has agreed to give Indonesia considerably more flexibility in implementing plans to phase out politically sensitive subsidies on key commodities, including fuel. Fuel price increases due to take effect yesterday had been postponed indefinitely, senior government officials said.
In a speech on Tuesday, President Suharto admitted policy failures by the Government had contributed to the economic crisis. "We need introspection and to review various policies and sectoral strategies we have followed so far, which directly or indirectly caused the monetary crisis, he said.
At least 20 Indonesian students in the central Java city of Yogyakarta
have reportedly been injured and taken to hospital after tear-gas was fired
by police and troops to break up a campus protest.The AFP newsagency says
clashes broke out when security forces entered the campus to prevent the
students marching outside.
Rwanda mourns genocide victims
Kigali: Rwanda on Wednesday began a week of mourning to commemorate the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people admits new allegations of French involvement in the massacre.
The genocide started on April 6, 1994, hours after the president's plane was shot out of the sky close to Kigali airport. The missiles which brought down a French plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi came from French armouries, Le Figaro newspaper said on Tuesday.
Flags will fly at half-mast, state radio will broadcast classical music, songs and features related to the genocide. To stimulate debate, a series of lectures are to be conducted in major towns, while film of the murders and massacre scenes will also be screened.
The vice-president and defence minister, General Paul Kagame, on Thursday will oversee the reburial of more than 5,000 Tutsis massacred at Karubamba church, in Eastern Kibungo province in early April 1994.
The week of mourning culminates in a ceremony next Tuesday at Bisesero Hills in Rwanda's western Kibuye province. More than 150,000 people were slaughtered in Kibuye by Hutu militiamen and the presidential guard of the government at the time. Many of Rwanda's genocide victims were buried by their killers in hastily dug mass graves after the slaughter and the government frequently exhumes the bodies and buries them in more appropriate and dignified circumstances.&
On March 27 in his fleeting visit to Rwanda, US President Clinton not leaving Kigali airport because of security said,"It is important that the world know that these killings were not spontaneous or accidental".
US President Clinton, on the third leg of his African tour, in Rwanda meeting survivors of the 1994 genocide said,"It is important that the world hear what your President just said -- they were most certainly no the result of ancient tribal struggles. Indeed, these people had lived together for centuries."
Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira died when at least one of two ground-to-air missiles hit their executive jet as it came to land in Kigali, Rwanda on April 6, 1994.
Le Figaro said the missiles, Russian-made SAM-16s, were captured by French troops from Iraq during the Gulf War. The paper, whose earlier disclosures about Rwanda's 1994 genocide have sparked an increasingly explosive parliamentary investigation, said its information came from two retired French officers involved in the Rwandan events.
Le Figaro did not publish their names but said they were prepared to testify before the commission delving into France's possible role in the deaths of about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Rwanda's then Hutu-dominated government allied to Paris.
The daily published what it said was a hand-written note from a Rwandan army officer listing the serial numbers of the missiles. Three French air crew on the ill-fated plane were also killed. Le Figaro wrote on Monday that they were secretly working for the French government.
Le Figaro earlier this year published documents showing France continued to arm the former Hutu-dominated army for at least a month after the start of the genocide.
The French government has previously denied that it cooperated with the former Rwandan government after the start of the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus
Extremist Hutu militiamen, members of the former government and army started the attempt to exterminate both the country's Tutsi minority -- about 15 percent of Rwanda's seven million population -- and all politically moderate ethnic Hutus.
France sent troops to Rwanda at the height of the genocide, saying it wanted to save the lives of threatened Tutsis. Critics have since charged Paris aimed to slow the advance of the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and save the French-allied Kigali government.
Then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur defended his stance in an interview published on Tuesday by Le Monde newspaper saying: ``France was the only country which took the initiative to avoid the most dramatic consequences of the genocide...my government's action was positive.''
Balladur recalled French troops went with U.N. Security Council clearance and backed by several African states. ``We were the only major power which did all it could to save as many lives as possible.
``The real question is whether the genocide was due to ancient rivalries...or manipulated by great powers seeking political influence.''
The killings ended in July when Kagame's rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) drove the interim government from power. By then more than two million Hutus had fled into neighbouring Tanzania and the former Zaire.
Most have since returned and the government based on the RPF army now faces a rebellion centred in the northwest by Hutu rebels.
UN experts finish Iraq inspections
Baghdad: Arms experts completed the first round of searches of presidential palaces Thursday night after returning to inspect a site that serves as the seat of the Iraqi government.
Jayantha Dhanapala, U.N. Undersecretary-General for disarmament, said, `The experts ... were able to fulfill their mandated task''. Iraq opened the eight presidential sites on the condition that diplomats would safeguard the dignity of the palaces and Iraq's national sovereignty.
This condition was included in a February 23 accord that Iraq signed with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ending a five-month standoff that was edging toward war. The UNSCOM inspectors say they have completed their mapping with visits, accompanied by diplomats, to the last two Palaces in the capital Bagdad.
The diplomats were to leave Baghdad on Saturday after finalizing a report that will be submitted to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York, Dhanapala said.
The inspections began March 26 in Baghdad with searches of the Radwaniyah palace, continued in the north and south and ended a week later, again in the capital, at the Republican Palace and the Sijood Palace.
On Thursday, 71 U.N. inspectors and their diplomatic escorts spent a second straight day at the Republican Palace, a Baghdad compound containing Iraq's most powerful offices.
Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to Washington, said the experts and the diplomats saw ``a range of offices for high-level officials as well as other functionaries'' at the Republican Palace.
Dhanapala said UNSCOM and Iraqi officials were able to work well together
during the weeklong palace searches. ``We have been impressed by the spirit
of mutual cooperation and the accommodation and the willingness to settle
small issues,'' he said.
Libya's letter to Lockerbie victims' kin
United Nations : Libya's UN mission has told families of victims of Pan Am 103 that the United States and Britain are all that stand in the way of determining who blew up the plane over Scotland nine years ago.
In letters to the victims' families, the Libyans cited last month's Security Council debate, in which Arab and African nations urged the council to accep Moammar Qadhafi's offer to try two Libyan suspects in a neutral country.
Washington and London insist they be tried either in the United States or Scotland, as required under a 1992 council resolution that imposed an arms and aviation embargo on Libya to force Gadhafi to hand over the suspects.
``You must have noted that the overwhelming majority called on the U.S. and U.K. to accept a solution to the problem by holding the trial in a neutral country,'' the Libyans said in the letter. ``The families of the victims are not only victims of the Pan Am tragedy,'' the letter said. ``They are also victims of the politicians in the U.S. and the U.K. and their aims.''&n
Libya claimed the Americans and British were more interested in maintaining sanctions against Libya than in determining who was responsible for the bombing, which killed 270 people.
The letter repeated Libya's claims that it had nothing to do with the bombing. ``Justice is what you want,'' the Libyan letter said. ``Justice is what we want.''&
Libya cited comments made by British physician Jim Swire, who told reporters during the March 20 debate that U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson had been ``extremely economical with the truth'' when he said the suspects could receive a fair trial in Scotland or the United States.
Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed in the bombing, has urged the British government to ``consider the possibility of compromise'' and accept the Libyan offer. But some of the American families, however, have insisted that the United States and Britain stand firm in demanding that Libya surrender the suspects for trial before an American or Scottish court.
The International Court of Justice on Wednesday has given Libya and the US until December 30 to file "counter-memorials" regarding the Lockerbie dispute. The "counter-memorials" will respond to Libya's original statement of facts pertaining to the case.
At the end of February, the ICJ had ruled that it does have jurisdiction to deal the case .Libya argues that it is authorized to try the suspects under the 1971 Montreal Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation. It has also offered to have the suspects tried in a third country or at The Hague.
The court said that after the written proceedings are filed, it will
set a date for hearings on the dispute, after which a final decision will