Saddam lashes out

The day was marked by theatrical outbursts from Saddam and several of his co-accused and by testimony from witnesses alleging they were tortured under the Saddam regime.

The hearing ended with the case being adjourned until January 24 because of the end of year holidays and the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

The defendants, facing charges of crimes against humanity, risk the death penalty if convicted.

“The White House are liars. They said Iraq had chemical weapons. They lied again when they said I had not been beaten,” Saddam told the court.

The White House dismissed his allegations as “preposterous,” and US officials suggested the former dictator was “grandstanding” to deflect attention away from the case.

The co-accused are charged with murdering more than 140 Shiites during a violent crackdown sparked by an assassination bid against Saddam in the town of Dujail in July 1982

Saddam’s half-brother and co-defendant, Barzan Ibrahim Hassan al-Tikriti, the former head of the feared secret police, also accused his jailers of torturing him.

“They asked me questions and when I asked to be able to explain things they demanded that I reply by yes or no and slapped me across the face while I had handcuffs on,” he said.

Allegations against Saddam

“Complainant” witnesses called by the judge and testifying anonymously from behind a screen told of torture under Saddam’s regime.

Three witnesses, testifying anonymously from behind a curtain, said security forces carried out widespread torture in Dujail following the 1982 assassination attempt.

“They had plastic pipes melted onto their bodies,” said one witness.

When a prisoner was returned from interrogation “he couldn’t sit down, he had to kneel, the skin on his back had peeled,” he added.

Later when the detainees were transferred to Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, “they would take men into the hallway and make them crawl on the ground and then would hit them with hoses,” he told the court.

Blair’s Iraq visit

Meanwhile Prime Minister Tony Blair was upbeat about the prospect of starting a British troop withdrawal from Iraq as he made a surprise Christmas visit to visit British forces in the field.

However he refused to set an artificial timetable, saying the beginning of any pullout would depend on the ability of Iraqi armed forces and police to carry their weight.

Despite tight security, the prime minister chose not to wear a bullet proof vest or protective helmet while on the ground at a large army base in the southern city of Basra.

He said he was pleased to hear that they have a high regard for Iraqi forces.

“This is a very hopeful sign because obviously the whole purpose is to build up the capability of the armed forces and the police so we can then draw down our own forces,” Mr Blair told journalists.

“This is the whole purpose of the strategy. Political process can only be buttressed by a strong security aspect to it.”

Mr Blair also held round-table talks with General George Casey, the top US military commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as well as senior British diplomatic and military figures, his spokesman said.

US winning in Iraq: Bush

In a fresh address to the nation, Mr Bush sought to allay the doubts of some that “the war is lost and not worth another dime or another day”.

He predicted that US training of Iraq’s fledging security forces would pay off, as would fighting corruption.

“…As these achievements come, it should require fewer American troops to accomplish our mission,” said Mr Bush.

“Tonight, I ask all of you listening to carefully consider the stakes of this war, to realise how far we have come and the good we are doing, and to have patience in this difficult, noble, and necessary cause,” he said.

He acknowledged a series of mistakes, starting with the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction at the core of his case for war, but said it is wrong to question whether the conflict is worth it.

Nearly three years after Mr Bush announced the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, around 2,150 US troops have been killed in mainly insurgent attacks, Mr Bush’s popularity has plummeted, about half of Americans believe the war was a mistake and the cost has run in the billions of dollars.

The latest address comes after four major speeches in which the leader acknowledged setbacks and surprises in the war, and took responsibility for ordering the invasion on the basis of inaccurate intelligence.

The speeches were part of a White House strategy to address complaints the president lacked a solid strategy for the war and has failed to recognise the spiralling violence.

Cheney visits Iraq

Meanwhile, US Vice-President Dick Cheney has made a surprise visit to Iraq, his first since the invasion.

Mr Cheney spoke to US troops, hinting at troop reductions to bring numbers back to 138,000 from the 150,000 that have been deployed there in the run up to last week’s momentous parliamentary elections.

“I think you will see changes in our deployment patterns probably within the next year,” Mr Cheney said.

“I’m encouraged by the tremendous results of the election,” he said, describing the poll which will deliver Iraq’s first full-term parliament since April 2003 as a “major milestone.”

“The new Iraq will become a democratic model for the Middle East.”

“I think when we look back 10 years hence, we’ll see that the year ’05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq,” the vice president added.

Elections boost future hopes

Iraq’s fallen Sunni elite, who largely boycotted a vote for a transitional assembly in Januaryhas turned out in force to help determine the make-up of the country’s political representation for the next four years.

US officials are hoping that support shown for the December 15 poll will encourage Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders to cooperate on the final drafting of a new constitution.

“The good news is that the Sunnis have now demonstrated that they are determined to be a part of the political process,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News Sunday.

“When you talk to Iraqis, they recognise that they need to sustain the momentum out of this election. They need to sustain momentum for the expectations of the Iraqi people,” Ms Rice said, in a warning that Iraq’s leadership should attempt to avoid getting bogged down in drawn-out haggling.

“They need to sustain it because of the insurgency and the terrorists, and they need to get a strong message that the political system is moving forward.”

No US withdrawal timetable

Her comments were made as her predecessor, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the BBC that the US helped fuel the insurgency by failing to gain ground early on in Iraq against looters.

“The plan was after just a couple of months, we would be able to leave. I didn’t share that view,” Mr Powell said.

“I think we lost a lot of time by not imposing our will throughout the country quickly.”

A timetable for withdrawing US troops from Iraq is firmly off President Bush’s agenda, as the US leader refuses to bow to opposition Democrat calls for an exit strategy.

Renewed post-election violence across Iraq has seen at least 17 people killed.

Eleven security force personnel died in a string of bombing and gunfire attacks in and around Baghdad.

In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, gunmen killed the uncle and nephew of a local Kurdish leader.

A woman was killed after a blast outside a Shi’ite mosque in the capital.

Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi, tipped as a possible premier, has called for an end to sectarian bloodshed and for a commitment to building a government of national unity.

Lawsuit lodged: CIA flights

The International Federation for Human Rights and the League of Human Rights, both based in Paris, said in a joint statement they wanted light shed on at least two instances in which planes believed to be used by the CIA set down at French airports.

“Big fears can be expressed over the transport of CIA prisoners on these flights,” they said.

“The FIDH and the LDH consequently ask that all necessary investigations be made as soon as possible by legal authorities,” they said.

French responsibility

The statement said the rights groups “intend to underline the responsibility of French authorities, have the incidents investigated and to prosecute those responsible.”

A lawyer for the international federation, Patrick Baudouin, told AFP the lawsuit had been lodged at a court in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, which is responsible for one of the airports named in the documents, Le Bourget, just outside the capital.

The other alleged CIA flight was believed to have set down at the Guipavas airport outside the western city of Brest.

Le Figaro newspaper reported earlier this month that a twin-engined Learjet coming from Keflavik, Iceland, landed at the Brest airport on March 31, 2002
and then took off for Turkey.

On July 20, 2005, another suspect flight landed at Le Bourget airport from the Norwegian capital Oslo.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste Blazy subsequently confirmed that two “civilian flight plans” related to those planes had been notified, but said French authorities had no information about the flights.

Media reports that the CIA used European airports as transit points for transporting detainees deemed terrorist suspects has proved a major international issue.

Some prisoners were allegedly sent to either secret CIA prisons in eastern Europe or possibly to countries with a history of practicing torture, according to the reports.

US response

US Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, on a recent trip to Europe, refused to confirm or deny the existence of the CIA flights or the presence of prisoners on board.

She instead insisted that the United States was using “every lawful means” to wage its “war on terror” and said US President George W Bush did not sanction the use of torture against suspects in US custody or those handed over to third countries.

European governments have appeared reluctant to make an issue of the reports, but public opinion and media scrutiny have put pressure on them to launch investigations, several of which have now been started.

DRC votes on constitution

As the first polling stations closed there were no reports of irregularities from the 280 international and 5,000 local observers, although radio reported a woman was trampled to death as a crowd rushed a polling station and a baby suffocated on its mother’s back during a crush in a queue.

“All we can say this evening is that the participation rate is satisfactory overall,” said Flavien Misoni, director of voting operations at the Independent Electoral Commission.

“It is very substantial in eight provinces,” he said, indicating a turnout of above 60 percent.

The proposed constitution provides for a president elected by universal suffrage for a once-renewable five-year term, with a bicameral parliament whose members will also have five-year mandates.

The country formerly known as Zaire, has yet to recover from a regional war waged from August 1998 to December 2002 which embroiled the armies of several other African nations and left about three million people dead.

Voting goes well

But in three provinces voters stayed away from the polls, Mr Misoni said.

“In Kinshasa and Western Kasai (in the centre) turnout is average, while in Eastern Kasai it is low,” he said.

“You have to treat that with care. Operations have not finished and we are waiting for the consolidated figures, which we will not have until (Monday) after all polling stations are shut.”

“The operation is going well,” electoral commission head Apollinaire Malu Malu said earlier.

“Here and there we have had some problems getting under way, some pushing and shoving, but what is important is that people have responded massively to this hugely important referendum.

“That is the biggest news: people want elections. They are ready and they are showing it.”

About 35,000 polling stations of the 40,000 that were planned opened throughout the vast country. Authorities said “logistical difficulties” and “security problems” in conflict areas meant some could not open on time.

Asked about the low turnout in the capital Kinshasa and in Mbuji-Mayi in Eastern Kasai, stronghold of the forces calling for a boycott of the vote, Mr Malu Malu said it was too early to draw conclusions because of transport and electoral list problems and churchgoing practices.

“There was an intimidation attempt at one station in Mbuji-Mayi.

Anti-social elements tried to dissuade electors from voting but it didn’t work,” he said.

Series of polls

Since June, the electoral commission has registered more than 24.5 million voters in a nation almost the size of western Europe whose infrastructure has collapsed from decades of neglect and war.

The referendum is only the first in a series of polls designed to cap a period of political transition which began in 2003 and is due culminate on June 30 next year.

President Joseph Kabila and most parties to the transitional administration, which includes former rebels, have urged a “yes” vote, as has former colonial power Belgium, which warned against the “collective suicide” of rejection.

However, a number of small but vociferous political opposition parties have formed a de facto coalition of “no” campaigners.

Political analysts warn that a “no” vote could be a catastrophic setback on the path to democracy in the mineral-rich country, which has seen no free elections since independence in 1960.

Russia to regulate NGOs

However the Russian government has defended the move saying it is necessary for national security.

A total of 376 deputies in the State Duma voted for the amended bill, while 10 in the chamber, which is heavily dominated by supporters of President Vladimir Putin, voted against.

The proposed law, which must still be passed in a third reading before going to the upper house, seeks to prevent NGOs from doubling as fronts for subversive foreign political causes, for foreign intelligence agencies, and for money laundering, the government says.

Critics in Russia and abroad fear the law will be used to clamp down on the country’s buoyant NGOs, one of the last independent sectors in Russia, where the media, parliament and big business are seen as increasingly under Kremlin control.

The 74 pages of amendments sought to water down an earlier version that was passed on November 23, provoking a storm of protest from NGOs, the United States and the European Parliament.

Supporters say the proposed measures are similar to laws in the US and other Western countries designed to monitor the flow and use of funds sent from abroad to groups registered as charities, human rights organisations and pro-democracy advocates.

“It’s clear that this law was indispensable,” Sergei Popov, from the pro-Putin United Russia party, said. “The goal is to have financial controls. Any civilised state would do the same thing.”

Opponents accuse the Kremlin of trying to neuter one of the country’s last independent sectors in order to prevent the development of a pro-Western, pro-democracy movement as in Ukraine and Georgia, where popular revolutions in the last two years ousted entrenched leaders after rigged elections.

NY strike costing millions

The city’s nearly 34,000 subway and bus workers stayed out despite a court order fining their union the huge sum for each day of the stoppage.

It is the first strike on the United States’ biggest transportation system in 25 years.

Judge Theodore Jones who imposed the massive fine on the unions, has ordered their leaders to appear before him on Thursday.

Judge Jones said jail was a serious possibility if they did not order the end of the stoppage.

The White House urged the parties to “resolve their differences so that the people in New York can get to where they need to go.

“We’re prohibited from intervening in transit strikes,” spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged, but he said the federal government could offer help in mediating talks.

“We urge the parties to come together and resolve their differences,” he said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who again joined the throngs hiking across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, said there could be no negotiations until the strike ended.

Strike shameful

Mayor Bloomberg said the transport workers were “shamefully” ignoring a state law banning such action.

More court hearings were scheduled for Wednesday. But the city streets quickly choked with cars, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s emergency order that any vehicle entering Manhattan must have at least four people in it.

More than 400 subway stations were locked up as the daily commuter army jostled to share cab rides or crowd onto Long Island Rail Road and Metro North trains, two of the rare lines not on strike.

“It’s not pleasant, but that’s life in a big city,” said Michael Padden, a federal public defender who endured a two-hour commute by regional rail and on foot to get to the courthouse in Brooklyn.

“Once in a while, something like that happens. All this luxury mustn’t be taken for granted. You have to adapt. We’ve had 9/11, the blackout, we’ve been through much worse.”

Pressure on unions

As well as the million-dollar-a-day fine, New York city officials have threatened to deduct three days of pay for each day a worker is on strike.

The move increased the pressure on the union, but labor leaders showed little sign of giving in.

In final negotiations late Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation
Authority improved its wage offer and dropped a demand to increase the retirement age from 55, but insisted that workers contribute more toward their pensions, the New York Times said.

The newspaper said the proposal would save the MTA less than 20 million dollars over the next three years.

“What they’d be saving on pensions is a pittance,” said TWU leader Roger Toussaint.

He told ABC television that the standoff could be “resolved in hours if there’s a will.”

In a separate interview with a local TV station, he said that “were it not for the pension piece, we would not be out on strike.

“All it (the MTA) needs to do is take its pension proposal off the table.”

Resourceful New Yorkers walked and used everything from bikes to skates and skateboards to make their commutes into and around Manhattan.

Still, for some not accustomed to the strenuous cold-weather workout, the trip was tough going.

“I’m extremely tired. I’m not much of a biker,” said Colleen, 25, who declined to give her last name as she made the long trip from Brooklyn to her job at a children’s book association in Manhattan for a second time.

“I actually learned to bike pretty much in the last couple of days, so I’ve fallen off my bike I don’t know how many times!” she said.

Economic impact

With city authorities fearing New York will lose US$1.6 billion in
Christmas business if the strike lasts one week, the economic impact could be huge.

“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, given the level of retail activity before Christmas,” Art Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies, a global investment bank and securities firm said.

Estimates on how much the city stands to lose as a result of the strike varied.

Mr Hogan put the figure at US$100 million a day while New York City comptroller William Thompson Jr projected around US$400 million a day in losses.

Mr Thompson said if the strike continued through next week, he expected the city to lose less, as it would be a vacation period for many.

Michael Burke, a manager at Balthazar restaurant in Soho, said the biggest problem was ensuring employees made it to work.

“A lot of employees, especially kitchen employees, are from the Bronx and Queens, so we use a shuttle van all day long,” Burke said. “We have to be creative.”

He said he had noticed a 20-percent drop in business and hoped the strike would end soon as the restaurant could not recover the lost money.

Retail stores were also feeling the pinch as Christmas week for many accounts for 20 percent of holiday sales.

Many companies, however, had braced for the strike by leasing buses to drive employees to work, organizing car pools or encouraging people to work out of their homes. Some were also allowing employees to head home early.

The New York stock exchange registered only a slight drop as the strike was taking place amid a slow holiday period.

German hostage in Iraq freed

He said Ms Osthoff, 43, was at the German embassy in Baghdad and that her drver who was kidnapped with her was also expected to be released.

“The kidnappers have announced that they would also release her driver. We are very happy about this outcome,” the minister said.

“After all the weeks of waiting and uncertainty we share the joy of her family and friends whole-heartedly.”

The archaeologist’s brother Robert Osthoff earlier told German n-tv television station: “My sister is free”.

Mr Osthoff said that ironically his mother and sister Anja, who had launched an emotional plea for the hostage’s release, “are not available today” and had therefore not yet been told the news.

Converted to Islam

Susanne Osthoff, 43, a convert to Islam who has lived in Iraq for 10 years, was seized with her driver on November 25 in the Nineveh region of northwest Iraq.

Mr Steinmeier expressed his gratitude to those who had worked for her release, including the German embassy in Baghdad and a crisis team in the foreign ministry, and thanked the public for their solidarity with the hostage.

Ms Osthoff hails from the southern German state of Bavaria and the mayor of her hometown of Glonn, Martin Esterl, said that the inhabitants were overjoyed to hear of her release.

“It is a great relief for all of us. We will be delighted to welcome her back in person, but this will of course take some time because first she will need a lot of rest.”

The president of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, Nadeem Elyas, also welcomed Osthoff’s safe release.

“May God protect our country, the German people and all of the world from such criminal acts in future,” he said.

Ms Osthoff was the first German national to be kidnapped in Iraq and her plight posed the first serious crisis for Chancellor Angela Merkel, who took office in late November.

Mrs Merkel had appealed to the kidnappers to release her, but said Berlin would not be blackmailed.

Her predecessor, former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, also urged the kidnappers to free her, pointing out that Ms Osthoff had worked hard to help Iraqis.

“I appeal to you to act humanely and show mercy. She has made Iraq her home,” he said.

Mr Schroeder’s government refused to send troops to Iraq, but Germany has been helping to train Iraqi policemen, though not on German soil.

According to German press reports, the kidnappers set an ultimatum of a few days for Germany to stop training Iraqi police officers as the price for Ms Osthoff’s release shortly after she was seized.

Since she disappeared, however, the only word from the kidnappers had been a video released to a German TV station purportedly showing her and her driver blindfolded and surrounded by armed men.

Public support

As the hostage saga continued, public support in Germany for Ms Osthoff’s plight grew.

About 300 Germans had held a candle light vigil for the hostage in central Berlin on Wednesday following a public appeal for support from her sister, who told national television: “Do not forget her, support her”.

The plea came as ZDF public television reported that the German government managed to establish contact with “intermediaries” who would negotiate with Ms Osthoff’s kidnappers.

There was no official confirmation of the report, but the German weekly magazine Focus reported in an advance extract of its Monday edition that the government believed she was still alive.

Citing sources in the foreign ministry crisis unit, Focus said she was seized by a group calling itself the Army of the Mujahedin, which initially thought she was a spy working for a Western government, but later realised she was not.

Ms Osthoff was married to an Arab and speaks fluent Arabic, according to her family.

They said repeatedly that she had tried to help Iraqis in need and also to preserve their country’s heritage.

“My sister has a very big heart. She did not want to get involved politically. She only wanted to help,” Robert Osthoff said.

Travel warnings for Sydney

The New South Wales tourism industry has been urged to “pull together” in response to the warnings.

The British warning mentions recent “sporadic outbreaks of racially motivated violence in Cronulla, Maroubra, Brighton-le-Sands” and “areas of south-west Sydney”.

Britons are advised to “monitor the situation and exercise caution”.

NSW Tourism Council president Ron Rosalky said it is likely there may be some financial losses incurred as a result of the warnings.

But he urged the industry to work together and realise it’s not the end of the world.

New South Wales Tourism Minister Sandra Nori said she is not surprised or alarmed by international travel warnings about race violence in Sydney.

“I can’t speak for those governments but it’s not unusual for governments to issue travel warnings for all sorts of situations,” Ms Nori said.

“My understanding is these are not at the higher end (of warnings) – they are not saying don’t travel to Australia or Sydney … but keep away from trouble spots.

“You have got to see these travel warnings in context and look at all the overwhelming information about Sydney and what a great, positive place it is, that will be what sways (travellers).”

Ms Nori said the government is working on a tourism package promoting Sydney, due to be released shortly.

State opposition tourism spokeswoman Katrina Hodgkinson said the NSW government should be doing more to restore Sydney’s reputation as a tourist-friendly destination.

“For travel warnings to be issued sends a terrible message to visitors,” Ms Hodgkinson said.

The head of a major US tourism company meanwhile said the racial violence has not scared off American travellers to Australia over the holiday period.

Ian Swain, of Swain Tours, said he has not had a single cancellation.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma said tourist bookings to Sydney have remained steady.

Sydney “is a great city to come to, it is a great city to live in, and the message over summer will be that those 800 police will be out in force,” he said.

Iran outburst slammed

“The European Council condemns unreservedly President Ahmadinejad’s call for the eradication of Israel and his denial of the Holocaust,” the council said during a summit in Brussels.

“The comments are wholly unacceptable and have no place in a civilised political debate,” the European Council said.

President Ahmadinejad unleashed a wave of condemnation from world leaders this week after he described the Holocaust as a myth and called for the state of Israel to be moved far from the Middle East.

European leaders also warned in a draft statement that Mr Ahmadinejad’s statement regarding the Holocaust could be grounds for sanctions against Iran.

The EU leaders urged Iran to “join the international consensus on the need of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” and “support the search for peace between Israel and its neighbors and to end the support for groups which advocate or engage in acts of terrorism”.

Nuclear warning

Amid a long-running standoff with Tehran over its nuclear program, EU leaders also warned that time was running out for a diplomatic solution.

“The European Council is gravely concerned at Iran’s failure to build confidence that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful,” EU leaders said at the summit, which focused primarily on the bloc’s budget.

The statement comes ahead of a EU-Iran meeting next Wednesday in Vienna, but European and Western diplomats say there is little hope of progress in getting Tehran to abandon nuclear fuel work that raises concerns over nuclear weapons.

‘Destructive’ response

In an escalation of tensions, Iran’s defence minister on Thursday warned that any Israeli attack against it would provoke a “destructive” response.

Iran’s defences are strong enough to thwart any strike, state-run TV quoted the minister, General Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, as saying.

But were Israel to try, “the answer of the Iranian armed forces to any attack would be quick, sharp and destructive,” Mr Najjar added.

Israeli officials and politicians have openly discussed the possibility of an attack on Iran, either alone or with other countries, aimed at crippling Iran’s nuclear development capabilities.

Israel, which is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, together with the United States accuses Iran of working to build an atomic bomb, but Tehran denies having such plans.

Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, tried to temper talk of a pre-emptive strike, telling The Associated Press that “Israel has no intention of attacking Iran, but Israel will know how to defend itself if anyone threatens its existence.”

Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi came to his president’s defence, saying Mr Ahmadinejad’s comments on Israel and the authenticity of the Holocaust had been misunderstood.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final word on all matters, has also stood by his president.

Race to avoid toxic spill

The toxic spill, caused by an explosion at a chemicals factory in China on November 13, is snaking its way down the Amur river.

Officials said the sandbag dam, one of two built hastily to prevent the possible flow of benzene-contaminated water from the Amur river into Khabarovsk, a city of 600,000 in Russia’s Far East region, would be completed during the night before the poison reached the city.

Two Russian military Mi-26 helicopters were flying non-stop to ferry sandbags to the site of the dam on the Kazakevich channel, one of many small branches of the Amur river west of Khabarovsk, to complete the last few meters of the 300-meter levy across the waterway.

A spokesman for the Russian emergency situations ministry, quoted by Interfax, said there were around 3,000 Chinese labourers, using 200 heavy construction trucks, working on the project in cooperation with the Russians.

Local officials are confident the dam will be completed before the first traces of
the spill could reach Khabarovsk.

Analyses of the water in the Amur river west of the city were being taken
Constantly.

According to officials sixty three tests had been conducted at various points on the river since Monday and no traces of toxic benzene had yet been detected.

The Amur river, which runs along the Russia-Chinese border before veering
exclusively into Russian territory, splits into numerous smaller branches above
Khabarovsk.

Experts say the effect on the city will depend on which of these channels it enters and how strongly it is concentrated.

Benzene is a known carcinogen used as an industrial solvent and as a component of gasoline.

More than 100 tons of the chemical were dumped into the Songhua river, a Chinese tributary of the Amur, following the blast at the plant outside Harbin.

While most Russian experts forecast negligible effects from the spill on the population of Khabarovsk, nearly all have described it as a major ecological disaster which will have consequences on the environment along the Songhua and Amur rivers for years to come.

In the weeks that it has floated down the river, the spill has stretched in length to more than 190 kilometres and is expected to take a week for it to pass through Khabarovsk, experts said.

More than a month of advance warning however has allowed local residents and
authorities in Russia to preposition huge stocks of potable water in the event
that the city has to shut down public water treatment facilities.