DRC constitution voting ends

Voting officials estimated the turnout was high in a referendum across the vast central African country, which has been emerging since 2003 from its last devastating conflict, and is due to hold elections by the end of next of June.

The Independent Electoral Commission extended voting for a second day into Monday because of long queues at some of the 35,000 polling stations.

They reported few irregularities, as did some 5,000 domestic and 280 foreign observers.

No results were available late Monday due to the lack of “significant statistics”, electoral commission head Apollinaire Malu Malu told reporters.

“The integrity of the electoral process requires us to disappoint you this evening. It would be hazardous to put forward figures before the arrival of significant statistics,” he said without revealing when the first results would be announced.

The constitution paves the way for elections for a president, who will have a once-renewable five-year term, and a bicameral parliament, also for five years.

Most observers expect a “yes” vote at the national level, which has been encouraged by President Joseph Kabila, former rebels who fought his army in 1998-2003 but are now part of an interim government, and most politicians.

But the capital of Kinshasa, where the opposition is strongest, could reject the charter.

United Nations-supported Radio Okapi said results posted during counting at polling booths suggested the “yes” vote nationwide was outstripping the “no” by 72 percent to 16 percent.

“A ‘no’ in Kinshasa would be sad because it would give force to the divide between the capital, where people tend to overestimate their political clout, and the rest of the country, particularly in the east, which bore the brunt of the war and wants to be done with the transition at any price,” one local observer said.

The vote was the first of real significance since independence in 1960 for a nation rich in precious minerals and other natural resources which has endured a long, thieving dictatorship, two recent wars embroiling regional armies, and considerable foreign interference.

On Sunday, turnout was highest in eight provinces, according to the electoral commission, which declared itself “satisfied overall” with the vote on a text that would change the political system and also divide the country into smaller administrative districts.

In Kasai Occidental and Kasia Oriental, two central provinces where there is support for veteran opposition politician Etienne Tshisekedi, people appeared initially to have followed his boycott call, observers indicated.

Turnout was also low in Kinshasa, but people who said they had hesitated before rushed to cast their votes on Monday.

Without giving figures, the electoral commission put rough overall turnout at more than 60 percent.

The final outcome, in a country that stretches more than 1,300 kilometres from the capital in the west to the volatile eastern borders, is not expected for several days.

Lesbian couple ties knot in UK

The pair signed official partnership documents before a registrar and two witnesses in a private ceremony at the Belfast City Hall, to a recording of Dolly Parton’s 1872 hit, ‘Touch Your Woman.’

Ms Close, 32, grew up in a Catholic family north of Belfast.

She met her partner, Ms Sickles, a 27-year-old American, in New York four years ago.

They became engaged in a ceremony in New York in October, but chose to register their partnership in Britain to make it easier for Ms Close to eventually immigrate to the United States.

“For us, this is about making a choice to have our civil rights… acknowledged and respected and protected as any human being,” Ms Close and Ms Sickles said before stepping inside the hall.

“We feel very privileged and blessed to be here doing this. We look forward to having a wonderful day,” Ms Sickles said.

Afterwards, the couple brushed past a group of about 40 protesters on their way to a waiting ribboned Hackney taxi, saying they were “delighted” and hoped there would be “many more.”

Two other couples then followed Ms Sickles and Ms Close ‘down the aisle’.

But the UK’s first civil partnership was held in Brighton on December 5, just hours after the Civil Partnership Act became law.

A 15-day waiting period was waived to allow Christopher Cramp to formally recognise his relationship with Matthew Roche, suffering inoperable lung cancer, at his hospice bedside.

Mr Roche died the next day.

Scotland is due to hold its first ceremonies on December 20, with England and Wales following a day later.

At least 1,200 ceremonies have reportedly been scheduled across Britain, according to figures from councils compiled by BBC’s online news.

The long-awaited union of popstar Elton John with his partner David Furnish is set to be among the first wave of the British ceremonies.

Campaigners say the new civil partnership institution will end inequalities suffered by same-sex couples.

While not technically constituting a marriage, where the signing of a legal partnership must take place publicly and are not permitted in a church, civil partnerships offer gay couples similar rights regarding tax, inheritance and social welfare provisions.

Opponents, though, argue that the move goes too far.

“While the word marriage is not used in the ceremony, we do believe it is deemed and received by those taking part to be one thing only – marriage,” Free Presbyterian Reverend David McIlveen told BBC television from the protest picket line outside Belfast City Hall.

“Homosexuality in the Bible is described as an abomination. You cannot place something that is unnatural on the same level as something that is natural,” the Protestant minister added.

Britain now joins Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain in recognising some form of gay union by law.

London attack: student charged

Adel Yahya, a British national from the Tottenham area of north London, is due to appear before Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, central London, on Friday morning.

Yahya was arrested Tuesday at London’s Gatwick airport after arriving there on a plane from the Ethiopian capital, police said, adding that they believed he had been out of Britain since June.

He was the 43rd person arrested in connection with the failed attempt on July 21 to murder passengers on three London Underground trains and a double-decker bus.

The alleged plot came just two weeks after four presumed Islamic militant suicide bombers blew themselves up using explosives in rucksacks, killing 52 passengers on three subway trains and a bus on July 7.

The July 7 attacks, which coincided with a summit involving leaders of the Group of Eight richest nations in Scotland and a day after London secured the 2012 Olympic Games, were the worst terrorist attacks on British soil.

The trial of five other men accused of conspiring to murder passengers on July 21 has been provisionally set for September 2006.

They have been named as Muktar Said Ibrahim, 27, from Stoke Newington, north London; Ramzi Mohamed, 23, of North Kensington, west London; Yassin Omar, 24, of New Southgate, north London; and Manfo Kwaku Asiedu, 24, of Finsbury Park, north London.

A fifth man, Hussein Osman, 27, was extradited from Italy in September.

At their last appearance at England’s Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, central London, judge Alexander Butterfield indicated their trial could last up to two months.

None of the men, who have been held in custody since August, has yet entered pleas.

The charge against Yahya was that he conspired with Osman, Said, Asiedu and Omar “to cause by an explosive substance, explosions of a nature likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property.”

Four of the five set for trial in September have been charged with attempted murder directed at London public transport passengers, while the fifth is accused along with the others of conspiracy to murder.

Ten other people face lesser charges in connection with the July 21 case, including allegations that they failed to disclose information about suspects or their whereabouts. Their trials are due early in 2007.

Leftist victory in Bolivia

“We have won,” he told thousands of cheering supporters.

His right wing rival, ex-president Jorge Quiroga, conceded defeat.

Leftist Mr Morales, 46, highlighted that he will become the first indigenous president of South America’s poorest nation.

“The new history of Bolivia has started,” he said in his Cochabamba stronghold amid shouts of “Evo president!”

Two separate exit polls showed Mr Morales getting 51 percent of the vote, and a 20-point lead over rival Jorge Quiroga.

Before the election polls had given him about 35 percent of the vote.

“We already have 50 percent plus one,”
said Mr Morales in a reference to the
majority needed to win outright in the first round.

Even if official results show he failed to hit that mark, the leftist leader of the coca farmers movement still looks certain to become president.

If the election goes to a second round, the newly elected Congress will pick in January between the two top vote-getters.

Exit polls show Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party would
control enough congressional seats to defeat his rival.

Radical change

Mr Morales has promised a radical shake up of the country.

The leftist lawmaker has headed popular protests that played a key role in the collapse of two governments since 2002. His campaign was marked by anti-US slogans.

On voting day, he reiterated his pledge to increase state control over Bolivia’s natural gas resources and to protect coca plantations.

Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine but also a medicinal plant popular with indigenous people.

Mr Morales insists he opposes cocaine trafficking but defends the right to
grow the coca leaf. He said under his administration, “there will be zero cocaine, zero narco-trafficking but not zero coca.”

Speaking after he cast his ballot in Villa Tunari, Mr Morales said his government would cooperate closely with other “anti-imperialists,” and reiterated his admiration for Cuba’s communist President Fidel Castro.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, also a virulently anti-US leader, hailed the election, saying in a television address that Bolivia “is writing a new page in its history.”

Israel threatens retaliation

Although there were no Israeli fatalities in the firing of the so-called Qassam missiles, five soldiers were slightly wounded and the country’s sixth largest city also came under attack.

The main Palestinian militant groups have been observing a ceasefire since the start of the year while Israel had largely held off arrest operations in the West Bank except against members of the small Islamic Jihad movement.

The unofficial deal however appears to be unravelling fast, with Israel voicing fears of an explosion in Palestinian violence ahead of legislative elections in five weeks’ time.

Five soldiers wounded

It was not immediately clear which Palestinian factions were behind the latest rocket attacks into southern Israel, launched from northern Gaza.

One of the Qassams, which take their name from the armed wing of the Islamist movement Hamas, lightly wounded the five Israeli soldiers when it landed on their base near the border.

That attack came just hours after another of the missiles exploded near an industrial zone in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, which lies around 10 kilometres north of Gaza.

The rocket landed next to a fence around a major electricity station which supplies a large part of southern Israel.

It is the third time in less than a week that a Qassam has landed on the outskirts of Ashkelon.

Three more Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israeli desert territory late Thursday causing no injuries or damage, an Israeli military source said.

Finance Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted as saying by Israeli public radio on Thursday night that “Israel will retaliate severely to Qassam rocket fire, by a land military offensive if needed.”

Transport Minister Meir Sheetrit, a close ally of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the population of Gaza must be taught a lesson.

“There is no justification for the continued fire on us. We must respond with severity,” Mr Sheetrit told the Ynet website.

“We must force the concentrated Palestinian population that resides near the border to leave their homes and move out. If we can’t sleep in peace, they won’t be able to sleep peacefully either.”

Mr Sharon has previously pledged that he would not allow Ashkelon to become a “frontline” city in the conflict with the Palestinians and respond with an iron fist to attacks now that Israel has left Gaza.

Deputy defence minister Zeev Boim confirmed that the idea of severing electricity supplies had been discussed recently. All of Gaza’s electricity is supplied by Israel.

Tough measures

Israel has so far responded to the rocket attacks by firing artillery into uninhabited areas and launching air strikes on remote rocket launch sites but chief spokesman Avi Pazner said the response would now be much harsher.

“We will take much tougher measures than in the past to stop this action,” he said. “Terrorist groups must understand they cannot bomb Israel with impunity.”

The government has so far rejected any idea of re-invading Gaza but calls for such action are growing.

Ehud Yatom, a former head of the internal security service Shin Beth and now an MP for the right-wing Likud Party, said it was time to send troops back in.

“The state of Israel should order the IDF (army) to hit the terror infrastructure in a combined aerial and ground operation to bring back security to Israeli citizens,” Mr Yatom said.

While Israeli troops have all withdrawn from Gaza, they continue to operate in the West Bank, including the largest city of Nablus where three militants were killed on Thursday.

The local military leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of the ruling Fatah faction, were shot dead as they tried to break out of a building besieged by Israeli troops.

A Palestinian was also killed in an explosion in northern Gaza. The
Palestinian interior ministry said it was investigating whether the 21-year-old was a victim of Israeli fire or if he had been killed when a device that he had been handling exploded.

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.