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UK schools closed as govt staff go on strike
London, March 28
Up to 1.5 million local government workers went on strike across Britain today closing thousands of schools and disrupting travel in a growing row over pensions. Eleven labour unions combined to stage the 24-hour protest which they said would be the biggest strike since 1926.

Saran to woo US Congress members on
N-deal

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, on a visit to Washington this week, will focus his energy on trying to sell the idea of U.S.-India civilian nuclear partnership to skeptical members of the U.S. Congress.

23 killed in Pak clashes 
Islamabad, March 28
At least 23 persons were killed and several injured when supporters of two religious leaders fought gun battles in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, an official said today.



EARLIER STORIES
THE TRIBUNE SPECIALS
50 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE

TERCENTENARY CELEBRATIONS
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi , Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (centre) and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika smile during the opening of the Arab summit in Khartoum, Sudan, on Tuesday
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi (left), Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (centre) and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika smile during the opening of the Arab summit in Khartoum, Sudan, on Tuesday. — Reuters

US shuts Consulate in Peshawar
Peshawar, Macrh 28
The US Consulate in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar has temporarily shut down after receiving a telephone threat, officials said today. “The US Consulate in Peshawar has closed today because of information about a specific and credible threat,” US Embassy spokeswoman Nida Emmons told AFP in Islamabad. “The Consulate in Peshawar is working with the Pakistani authorities to coordinate increased security measures,” the official added.

Afghan convert released
Kabul, March 28
An Afghan Christian convert who faced a possible death sentence for denying Islam has been freed after a chorus of Western pleas that his religious freedom be respected, the Afghan Justice Minister today said.

Pill against HIV infection soon: US scientists
Atlanta, March 28
Twentyfive years after the first AIDS cases jolted the world, US scientists think they soon may have a pill that could prevent HIV, the virus that causes the global killer.

Reyat pleads not guilty to perjury charges
Toronto, Macrh 28
Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only man convicted in the Air-India bombing case, has pleaded not guilty to perjury charges arising out of his testimony during the trial.
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UK schools closed as govt staff go on strike
Kate Holton

London, March 28
Up to 1.5 million local government workers went on strike across Britain today closing thousands of schools and disrupting travel in a growing row over pensions. Eleven labour unions combined to stage the 24-hour protest which they said would be the biggest strike since 1926.

They intend to make it the first in a series of demonstrations against a plan to force some public sector employees to work longer, or face a reduced pension if they retire at 60. The British action coincided with a huge labour protest in France over a new job law. French airports were expected to be affected but the Eurostar line from London to Paris was running.

In Liverpool, commuters faced disruption as the Mersey river tunnels shut and ferries stopped running. All buses and trains were cancelled in Northern Ireland and in London 70 per cent of schools failed to open. The Tower of London was also closed and the river Thames anti-flood barrier reduced to emergency staffing levels. One airport, the regional Leeds Bradford, suffered minimal delays.

At issue is the government’s decision to scrap the so-called 85-year rule, which states that members of the Local Government Pension Scheme can retire at 60 on a full pension if their age and years of service add up to 85 or more.

The unions argue that other, better paid, public sector workers are still allowed to retire at 60 and that the law targets those in lower paid, more menial jobs.

The change is due to come into effect in October this year.

Britain’s state and private pensions system is creaking from the rising cost of an ageing workforce. On one measure, the country is facing a 57 billion pound shortfall in retirement savings which is around five percent of GDP.

A commission created in 2004 to look at the problem has proposed raising the age at which people take a state pension from 65 now to at least 67 by 2050.

Employees in the local government scheme include carers, charity workers, refuse collectors and people who work in call centres, environmental services and housing associations.

Mr Brian Strutton, national secretary of the GMB union, said his workers just wanted to see fairness in the system. A spokeswoman for Unison, the country’s biggest union, said they had seen solid support across the country. — Reuters 

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Saran to woo US Congress members on N-deal
Ashish Kumar Sen writes from Washington

Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, on a visit to Washington this week, will focus his energy on trying to sell the idea of U.S.-India civilian nuclear partnership to skeptical members of the U.S. Congress.

Besides meeting senior members of the Congress, Mr. Saran will meet Under Secretary R. Nicholas Burns, the Bush administration's key negotiator on the nuclear agreement. U.S. and Indian officials hope Mr. Saran's interactions will provide the much-needed impetus to the Bush administration's efforts that have so far received a lukewarm reception from lawmakers.

The Financial Times reported on Monday that diplomats and analysts briefed on the outcome of discussions last week at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in Vienna said "concerns raised by a number of countries, including China, would also complicate the Bush administration's parallel initiative to have Congress pass legislation that would allow the U.S. to sell nuclear technology and material to India."

The Times noted: "U.S. efforts to get India accepted as a full partner of the international nuclear community have received a setback following a difficult meeting of the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG)."

Diplomatic and congressional sources are confident that the deal will meet with little opposition in the Senate. It is in the House of Representatives, however, that they worry problems will arise.

One of the highlights of Mr. Saran's visit will be a talk at the conservative Heritage Foundation, located a stone's throw away from the U.S. Capitol which houses the Senate and House of Representatives. Incidentally, Mr. Burns explained the benefits of the nuclear deal at the same venue soon after Mr. Bush successfully concluded the agreement in New Delhi earlier this month.

A recent entrant in the power game of lobbying members of Congress, some members of the Indian-American community have decided to mobilize support for the deal. Community leaders met senior Indian Embassy officials in Washington over the weekend to "outline a strategy" to promote the deal among lawmakers. This would mean shelling out a sizeable amount of money in the form of political donations to lawmakers, many of whom are up for re-election this year.

Opponents of the deal also have been active. As members of Congress returned from a recess on Monday, Congressman Edward Markey, a Democratic critic of the agreement, continued where he left off. "The administration bill proposes to give the White House a blank check to cut any deal it wants with India and makes it virtually impossible for Congress to address the very serious nonproliferation concerns this deal creates," said Mr. Markey, who has introduced a resolution in Congress opposing the deal.

Mr. Markey, who is co-chair of the Bipartisan Nonproliferation Task Force and a senior Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, had asked the Congressional Research Service, the research wing of the Library of Congress, to prepare reports analyzing the Bush administration's proposed legislation to exempt India from U.S. nuclear nonproliferation law.

"These reports show that the Administration bill really goes far beyond the objective of allowing nuclear cooperation with India despite India's failure to accept full-scope international safeguards over its nuclear program," Mr. Markey said

He expressed concern that the administration "is looking to snooker Congress into signing an agreement now, promising that details will follow later."

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23 killed in Pak clashes 

Islamabad, March 28
At least 23 persons were killed and several injured when supporters of two religious leaders fought gun battles in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, an official said today.

The clashes between followers of Mufti Munir Shakir and Pir Saifur Rehman started yesterday and continued until early this morning in Khyber Agency, about 12 km from Peshawar, said Shah Zaman, media adviser for the tribal region.

The gunbattle erupted when supporters of Shakir attacked the house of a follower of Rehman, Mr Zaman told the local Geo TV.

Supporters of Rehman retaliated and killed five of the attackers, leading to more clashes between the two groups. The clashes left at least 23 persons dead.

Mr Zaman said paramilitary force 'Frontier Constabulary' has been deployed there to maintain law and order. But reports reaching here suggested that the situation was still very tense and the authorities had blocked all roads to the area.

Rehman is said to be an Afghan refugee and Geo TV reported that 13 of those died were Afghan nationals. Thousands of Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan's tribal region, bordering Afghanistan.

Mr Zaman said the two religious groups had established radio stations which were engaged in propaganda against each other. —PTI 

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US shuts Consulate in Peshawar

Peshawar, Macrh 28
The US Consulate in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar has temporarily shut down after receiving a telephone threat, officials said today. “The US Consulate in Peshawar has closed today because of information about a specific and credible threat,” US Embassy spokeswoman Nida Emmons told AFP in Islamabad. “The Consulate in Peshawar is working with the Pakistani authorities to coordinate increased security measures,” the official added.

A Pakistani security official said the Consulate closed after an official at the mission received a threatening telephone call.

“We are trying to trace the unidentified caller,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Peshawar police chief Said Wazir told AFP that “adequate” security measures were in place at the US Consulate. — AFP

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Afghan convert released

Kabul, March 28
An Afghan Christian convert who faced a possible death sentence for denying Islam has been freed after a chorus of Western pleas that his religious freedom be respected, the Afghan Justice Minister today said.

Abdur Rahman (40) was jailed this month for abandoning his faith. Judicial officials said he could face trial under the Islamic Shariat Law that stipulates death as punishment for apostasy.

''I can confirm that he was released,'' said Justice Minister Sarwar Danish. ''He is not in detention. I do not know if he is with his family or where, but he has been acquitted.'' Mr Danish said he could not comment on the legal grounds for Rahman's release.

Earlier, a senior judicial official said Rahman had been moved from Kabul's main prison to a hospital but was still in the custody of judicial authorities and would undergo psychiatric tests.

Afghanistan's Western-backed government has been seeking a face-saving way out of the crisis, satisfying Western pleas for the man's freedom while appeasing conservative clerics at home who have been demanding Rahman be punished under the Islamic law.

A US embassy spokesman welcomed the release and said arrangements regarding Rahman's welfare were being handled privately.

Rahman became a Christian while working for an aid group helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan 15 years ago. He later lived in Germany before returning to Afghanistan.

He was detained after his relatives told authorities he had converted to Christianity following a dispute involving two daughters, officials said. — Reuters 

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Pill against HIV infection soon: US scientists

Atlanta, March 28
Twentyfive years after the first AIDS cases jolted the world, US scientists think they soon may have a pill that could prevent HIV, the virus that causes the global killer.

“This is the first thing I’ve seen at this point that I think really could have a prevention impact,” said Thomas Folks, head of the HIV research lab at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If it works, it could be distributed quickly and could blunt the epidemic.”

Two drugs already used to treat HIV infection have shown such promise at preventing it in monkeys that officials last week said they would expand early human tests around the world.

The drugs are tenofovir (viread) and emtricitabine, or FTC (emtriva), sold in combination as truvada by Gilead Sciences Inc, a California company best known for inventing Tamiflu, a drug showing promise against bird flu.

If larger tests show the drugs to be as effective on humans, they could be given to people at the highest risk of HIV.

Matthew Bell, a 32-year-old hotel manager in San Francisco who has volunteered for a safety study on one of the drugs, said he would welcome taking a drug as an added precaution to practising safe sex. “As much as I want to make the right choices all of the time, that’s not the reality of it,” he said of practising safe sex. — AP

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Reyat pleads not guilty to perjury charges

Toronto, Macrh 28
Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only man convicted in the Air-India bombing case, has pleaded not guilty to perjury charges arising out of his testimony during the trial.

Reyat, who was sentenced to five years in jail after he entered into a plea bargain, is accused of lying more than 24 times while he testified in the case.

While acquitting two other accused in the case, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Ian Josephson had called Reyat an “unmitigated liar.”

Reyat will be back in B.C. Supreme Court on May 1 for more preliminary hearing matters, media reports said.

Outside court, Reyat’s new lawyer Ian Donaldson said it was common for trial judges across Canada to doubt witness testimony. The Air India bombing in 1985 left 329 people dead. — PTI

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