Sunday, January 2, 2011

Pakistan's main government coalition partner quits

KARACHI (Reuters) – Pakistan's Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest party in the ruling coalition, will leave the governing alliance and sit in opposition at the federal level, the party said on Sunday.
The MQM said the decision was taken because of government fuel prices policy and means the U.S.-backed government of President Asif Ali Zardari may now collapse because it will lose its majority in the National Assembly.
"It has been decided. We will sit on the opposition benches in the National Assembly and the Senate," MQM spokesman Wasay Jalil said.
The MQM, which is the dominant political force in the country's financial capital Karachi, last week withdrew its two ministers from the federal cabinet because of what it said was the government's failure to improve security.
Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said his government would not collapse despite the MQM move, one that comes while the government tries to improve the fragile economy and contain a Taliban insurgency, problems that have kept investors away.
However, analysts said forming a new coalition would likely be a protracted, delicate process and it was more likely that early elections would be called.
An MQM statement said the decision to break with the coalition was taken because of the government's fuel price policies.
"Right at the start of the new year the government has raised the prices of petrol and kerosene oil which is unbearable for the people who are already under pressure from the already high prices," it said.
"In such a situation, the MQM considers it unfair with the people of Pakistan to sit in the government. Therefore we have decided to sit on the opposition benches in the Senate and the National Assembly.
(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Michael Georgy)

Record floods swamp Australia's northeast

GLADSTONE, Australia (Reuters) – Large parts of Australia's coastal northeast disappeared under floodwaters on Sunday in a spreading disaster that has brought some of the highest floods on record and forced thousands from their homes.
Queensland State Treasurer Andrew Fraser described the floods as a "disaster of biblical proportions" and said the ultimate cost would exceed A$1 billion (1.02 billion).
As forecasters predicted months of more rain, hundreds of residents in the town of Rockhampton, 600 km (370 miles) north of the Queensland state capital Brisbane, fled homes amid rising waters which are expected to reach over 30 feet deep in coming days.
Local Mayor Brad Carter said the town was "like an island." Across the state, the floods have affected around 200,000 people and inundated thousands of properties.
"You can look down a street for a kilometer and see nothing but water," Carter told Reuters by telephone from Rockhampton, a town of 77,000 people. "You see people in boats moving their material in and out of houses."
One person was confirmed dead in the floods on Sunday, while an intense search was under way for a second missing.
Floodwaters were receding in some areas, leaving a mammoth cleanup job, but other areas were still collecting runoff from the Christmas deluge brought by the La Nina weather pattern.
"It is the Fitzroy River flowing through down to Rockhampton that is still rising and expected to get quite near to record levels," Gordon Banks, a senior forecaster in Brisbane with Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, told Reuters.
"Those floods in the south of Queensland are hitting records. We have not seen water that high in recorded history here."
Across the state, thousands have been forced to camp out with friends or in makeshift emergency shelters over the New Year period in a disaster which has hit coal mining and agriculture particularly hard.
Mayor Carter said Rockhampton's airport was closed, road and rail links to the town were mostly cut off, water was lapping at the floorboards of some homes and police had sent reinforcements to prevent any looting.
Rockhampton sits near the mouth of the giant Fitzroy River system, one of Australia's largest, carrying the water from last week's rains down to the coast. Officials said its level had reached 8.85 meters on Sunday.
"I am at the side of the river bank at the moment. It is flowing extremely fast," council official Tony Cullen told Reuters.
Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said flood waters in the town could reach nine meters (30 feet) on Monday and peak at 9.4 meters on Wednesday, a level similar to floods that hit in 1991 and 1954.
Although the rain has largely eased off, flood warnings remain current for many rivers in the state, some communities are expected to be isolated for up to two weeks and eventually further rain is expected.
Police said on Sunday 22 communities were still flooded or isolated. Where floodwaters have started to recede, there are fears of disease and accidents, in what one senior emergency official said would be "a heartbreaking return to homes."
Bureau of Meteorology hydrologist Jeff Perkins said floodwaters would also flow on down to western New South Wales. Normally the tropical wet season would only be beginning around now, meaning more headaches to come for farmers, miners and the general community.
"We have got a couple of months more and a good chance of further rainfall," Perkins told Reuters.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

Iran says shot down two spy planes in Gulf: report

TEHRAN (Reuters) – Iran has shot down two unmanned western reconnaissance drone aircraft in the Gulf, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency on Sunday.
"Many spy planes and ultra-modern aircrafts of our enemies have been shot down (by our forces) ... We have also shot down two spy planes in the Persian Gulf," said commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the elite forces' aerospace unit.
"But it is the first time we are announcing it."
He did not say when the aircraft had been shot down, but described them as "western drone reconnaissance" aircraft.
Iran is at odds with major powers over its nuclear activities, which the United States and its allies suspect are intended to enable Iran to produce nuclear bombs. Iran denies the allegations and says it wants only to generate electricity.
The United States and Israel, Iran's main foes, do not rule out military action if diplomacy fails to end the nuclear row.
Hajizadeh said the enemies -- a term used by Iranian authorities for the United States and its allies -- had been using the drones mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"But there has been cases of violations of our airspace by their drones," the commander said.
Iran has dismissed reports of possible U.S. or Israeli plans to strike Iran, but says it would respond by attacking U.S. interests and Israel if any such assault was made.
Analysts say Tehran could retaliate by launching hit-and-run strikes in the Gulf and by closing the Strait of Hormuz. About 40 percent of all traded oil leaves the Gulf region through the strategic waterway.
"All their military bases are completely within Iran's missile range ... We have full control of our enemies and notice any changes taking place on our shores," Hajizadeh said.
Iran often launches military drills in the country to display its military capabilities amid persistent speculation about a possible U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Alongside the regular army, Iran has a Revolutionary Guards force viewed as guardians of the Islamic ruling system. The Guards have a separate command and their own air, sea and land units, but often work with the regular military.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Matthew Jones)