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The families of Late Irenuma & Late Nwodi cordially invites you to the Marriage Ceremony of their Children Jane Irenuma & Daniel Nwodi

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Mercy the Drama Queen and the sister Grace.


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Insight: In Greek crisis, HIV gains ground - By Reuters


‘Contagion’ is the label financial markets use for the economic spread of the Greek crisis. For hundreds of people in an increasingly chaotic society, the word has a deadlier meaning.

Take the mother of four introduced to Reuters by her social worker at the bright offices of an Athens non-governmental organization called Kentro Zois, or The Center for Life. A Ukrainian, she said she immigrated to Greece 12 years ago and married a Greek man.

Bleached blonde hair tightly pulled back in a bun, the 34-year old spoke on condition of anonymity. When her two-year-old daughter was wheezy last October, she brought the child to a state-run hospital. The doctors could not explain the baby’s persistent fever. One suggested an HIV test. The diagnosis for both mother and child was positive. “I was devastated,” she said.

She isn’t the only one to be shocked. In 2009, the year the baby was born, Greece had detected not a single case of a mother transmitting the AIDS virus to her child, according to the Hellenic Center for Diseases Control and Prevention, a public health agency funded by the Health Ministry. The mother’s infection was apparently missed by a nationwide screening program for pregnant women.

“How was it possible for an HIV-positive child to be born in Greece? That is my question,” asked the woman’s social worker, Anna Kavouri, head of social services at The Center for Life, which helps people living with HIV/AIDS. Kavouri is working with the woman to try to find out what happened and what options she may have for legal redress.

The health ministry did not respond to phone calls seeking comment, and Reuters was unable to verify all the elements of the woman’s story. But others in the Greek capital say the country’s social safety net is fraying, nowhere more so than in the health system. Spending by Greeks on health is falling 36 percent this year, according to the National School of Public Health. Including both the government and private individuals, the country spent around 25 billion euros, or roughly 10 percent of GDP, on both public and private health in 2010; in 2011 that will be 16 billion. Just 10 billion or so is government spending on the public health sector.

The effect of that is most visible on the edges of society. Heroin use and prostitution are up. Drug addicts and illegal immigrants with HIV say clean needles, heroin substitutes and antiretroviral treatments are harder to come by. The pace of HIV infection is surging.

The latest available United Nations figures, from 2009, show that 11,000 people, or 0.1 percent of the Greek population, had HIV/AIDS, a third the rate in the United States. But that may be changing. In the first five months of 2010, Greece had 255 new HIV cases. Over the same period this year, there were 384 new cases – an increase of more than 50 percent. The Hellenic Center predicts the rate of increase will rise to 60 percent by the end of 2011. By comparison in the United States, cases are increasing by around 7 percent annually.

The problem in Greece has been aggravated by increased drug use. Historically, only about a quarter of people newly infected with HIV in Greece were injecting drug users. But 174 drug users have tested positive to mid October this year. The Hellenic Center says that will be around 200 by the end of the year. Nikos Dedes, an adviser to the HIV Committee at the World Health Organization (WHO), says that while most HIV in Greece is still transmitted through unprotected homosexual sex, the risks through heterosexual sex are rising.

“The HIV situation in Greece is like a dry forest in summer which has just been hit with a gust of wind,” says Dedes, who is also head of Positive Voice, a Greek NGO set up to combat the spread of HIV. “It could go up in flames any minute.

HOLES IN THE SYSTEM

The Ukrainian mother said she is not an injecting drug user and believes she got HIV through an operation several years ago, though this was impossible to verify.

People in any society can have HIV and not know it – the United Nations believes around 250,000 in the United States do. That’s why many countries, including Greece, routinely screen pregnant women. But the mother said she was not offered an HIV test when she was pregnant with her youngest.

“It didn’t even occur to me that I would need one,” said the mother, dressed in black sweatpants and a camel-colored leather jacket. When and how she became infected is not clear, but doctors say she probably passed the virus to her daughter through breastfeeding. Women with HIV are told not to breastfeed as it significantly increases the chance of passing on the virus.

The baby has a twin, a boy, who along with the rest of the family has tested negative for HIV. Unlike his sister, he did not take to breastfeeding.

The mother has separated from her Greek husband in the last year, and now lives with her children in a government-run shelter.

MORE SEEK TESTS

As the economic crisis worsens, society is becoming gloomier. Greeks are swallowing 35 percent more anti-depressants than they did five years ago, according to the National School of Public Health. The health ministry says suicides are up 40 percent so far this year. And if the lines of people at the Hellenic Center’s mobile HIV testing vans around Athens’ poor quarters are anything to go by, more and more Greeks are also worried about AIDS.

Wearing a stethoscope and long white gown, doctor Evaggelos Liapis conducts tests every night between 6 and 10 pm on the corner of Omonoia Square, which bustles with sesame breadstick vendors, businessmen and drug users hunting for cash. Six months ago, Liapis said, all four vans operating around the city would receive on average two people per night. That’s now gone up to 40 tests a night.

“There are no clean syringes around here and we have an increase in poverty and prostitution, especially amongst the drug users,” Liapis said as a heavily tattooed Greek man in his twenties sat down in the van for a blood test.

The WHO recommends that 200 clean syringes are provided per drug user per year, to limit HIV infection. Greece has been providing three, the Hellenic Center says.

Adding to the risk is the fact that when times are tough, drug users are more likely to inject heroin rather than snorting or smoking it, because they get a bigger hit for their money by using a needle, according to French researchers. “Between 2007 and 2008, whilst gross salary growth rates were falling significantly, the proportion of injecting drug users rose by 1.70 percent,” wrote Christian Ben Lakhdar, of the Catholic University of Lille, and Tanja Bastianic, of the French Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Yannis, a 34-year old Greek addict, is among them. He said he used to inject heroin, then cleaned up at a state-run rehab center just outside of Athens. But earlier this year he says he became HIV-positive from sharing needles.

“Now they want me on a detox program to prove my commitment to giving up drugs. Otherwise it can get difficult to get my (HIV) drugs, even though I am Greek and have social security,” he said by telephone in Athens.

On paper, all Greeks who make social security contributions should be granted HIV treatment, but Yannis says doctors are becoming choosy over who gets them. And the treatment is expensive.

CAN’T PAY FOR DRUGS

Budget cuts have complicated Athens’ relationship with pharmaceutical companies. Athens has imposed some of the most draconian price cuts for medicines of any European country, and some companies have been forced to accept Greek government bonds instead of cash for outstanding debts.

So far, there are no signs that this has disrupted supplies of HIV medicine. But the cuts could have a huge impact on the health system. “It is proven that the more money spent on health, the lower the fatality (rate). Cuts in health will affect lives,” said epidemiologist Georgios Nikolopoulos, who tracks HIV rates at the Hellenic Center.

Currently, antiretroviral drugs cost Greece at least 1,000 euros per patient a month. For the state to pay for all those people would cost just over 130 million euros a year. According to Christianna Rizopoulos, who collects data at the Hellenic Center’s HIV office, there is talk among health professionals that the government plans to cut its contribution for drugs to 600 euros per treatment per month, so patients would have to foot almost half the bill. The health ministry did not answer calls seeking comment.

“We are very worried,” said Rizopoulos. “With the economic crisis, there is no way of knowing what will happen next.”

“MAKES NO SENSE”

Josephine, a 50-year old HIV-positive illegal immigrant from Mozambique who also visits the Center for Life, is among those on the edge.

She has been in Athens since 2005, applied for asylum four years ago and says she is still waiting to learn if her status will be approved. She has a limp caused by severe arthritis, which HIV aggravates.

For the past six months, she said, she has received zero antiretroviral medicine because she cannot find work to pay social security contributions.

“This is also due to the economy in Greece now. I used to get plenty of work before,” she said, her small black braids tucked under a red and white scarf. Last year she didn’t work at all. Since April this year, she has found sporadic cleaning jobs, but hasn’t paid her rent for seven months.

And Greece’s preventative programs are under heavy pressure. In September the health ministry ordered that the seven mobile clinics that provide heroin replacement treatment around the rundown areas of town be moved to 32 state-run hospitals across Athens.

The move was welcomed by some health professionals, who said it would help improve the distribution of staff and treatment. Others said it was unrealistic.

Staff for the Greek Organization Against Drugs, OKANA, which provides the bulk of drug replacement treatment and reintegration programs, joined an anti-austerity protest on Syntagma Square last month. They said the cuts will make it harder to reach drug-users.

“Countries like Spain have the centers right where the problem is, here we have the opposite,” said Emi Koutsopoulou, an OKANA psychiatrist. “We now have rehab and methadone points in really posh hospitals in wealthy suburbs. This makes no sense. A drug user is not going to go out there.”


Ex-president of Israel Moshe Katsav loses rape appeal


ISRAEL’S Supreme Court last night ordered former president Moshe Katsav to spend seven years in prison after rejecting the disgraced politician’s appeal of a rape conviction and other sex crimes.

The unanimous decision of the three-judge panel capped a long and sordid chapter in Israeli politics that captured the country’s attention for more than five years and ended with Katsav becoming the highest-ranking Israeli official ever sentenced to prison. He is to start serving his sentence on December 7.

The ruling was seen as a major triumph for women’s rights – and, specifically, rape victims’ rights – and for a legal system willing to take on some of the country’s most influential figures.

Katsav, who has proclaimed his innocence throughout the affair, sat stone-faced throughout last night’s ruling, smiling wryly as it became clear his appeal was being rejected. He left the court grim-faced, surrounded by supporters, and made no comment to reporters.

Katsav, 65, was convicted last December of raping a former employee when he was a cabinet minister and of sexually harassing two other women during his term as president from 2000 to 2007. He received a seven-year prison sentence in March, but was allowed to stay out of jail pending his appeal.

The court had not been expected to overturn the conviction, though experts had said there was a chance the sentence would be revised. Reading their opinions, the judges said Katsav’s testimony had not been credible and accused him of exploiting his status as a high public official.

The former president “fell from the loftiest heights to the deepest depths,” judge Salim Joubran told the hushed court.

France and Germany explore smaller euro zone - By Reuters


German and French officials have discussed plans for a radical overhaul of the European Union that would involve setting up a more integrated and potentially smaller euro zone, EU sources say.

"France and Germany have had intense consultations on this issue over the last months, at all levels," a senior EU official in Brussels told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

"We need to move very cautiously, but the truth is that we need to establish exactly the list of those who don't want to be part of the club and those who simply cannot be part," the official said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave some flavor of his thinking during an address to students in the eastern French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday, when he said a two-speed Europe -- the euro zone moving ahead more rapidly than all 27 countries in the EU -- was the only model for the future.

The discussions among senior policymakers in Paris, Berlin and Brussels raised the possibility of one or more countries leaving the euro zone while the remaining core pushes on toward deeper economic integration, including on tax and fiscal policy.

The change has been discussed on an "intellectual" level but had not moved to operational or technical discussions, the EU official said. A French finance ministry spokesman denied there was any project in the works to reduce the currency bloc's membership.

"There have been no conversations between French and German authorities at any level on decreasing the size of the euro zone," the spokesman said.

A radical overhaul of the European Union would be opposed by many members.

"This will unravel everything our forebears have painstakingly built up and repudiate all that they stood for in the past sixty years," one EU diplomat told Reuters."This will redraw the map geopolitically and give rise to new tensions. It could truly be the end of Europe as we know it."

In Berlin, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned about the economic costs of any splits in the euro zone. Germany's gross domestic product could contract and its economy would shed one million jobs, he said in a speech.

Barroso said any push toward deeper economic policy integration should not come at the price of creating new divisions among EU members.

"There cannot be peace and prosperity in the North or in the West of Europe, if there is no peace and prosperity in the South or in the East," he said.

To an extent the taboo on a country leaving the 17-member currency bloc was already broken at the G20 summit in Cannes last week, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Sarkozy both effectively said that Greece might have to drop out if the euro zone's long-term stability was to be maintained.

But the latest discussions among European officials point to a more fundamental re-evaluation of the 12-year-old currency project -- including which countries and what policies are needed to keep it strong and stable -- before Europe's debt crisis manages to break it apart.

In large part the aim is to reshape the currency bloc along the lines it was originally intended; strong, economically integrated countries sharing a currency, before nations such as Greece managed to get in.

"In doing this exercise, we will be very serious on the criteria that will be used as a benchmark to integrate and share our economic policies," the senior EU official said.

One senior German government official said it was a case of pruning the euro zone to make it stronger.

"You'll still call it the euro, but it will be fewer countries," he said, without identifying those that would have to drop out.

"We won't be able to speak with one voice and make the tough decisions in the euro zone as it is today. You can't have one country, one vote," he said, referring to rules that have made decision-making complex and slow, exacerbating the crisis.

Speaking in Berlin, Merkel reiterated a call for changes to be made to the EU treaty -- the laws which govern the European Union -- saying the situation was now so unpleasant that a rapid breakthrough was needed.

From Germany's point of view, altering the EU treaty would be an opportunity to reinforce euro zone integration and could potentially open a window to make the mooted changes to its make-up.

EU officials have told Reuters treaty change will be formally discussed at a summit in Brussels on December 9, with an 'intergovernmental conference', the process required to make alterations, potentially being convened in the new year, although multiple obstacles remain before such a step is taken.

ACCELERATION

While the two-speed Europe referred to by Sarkozy is already reality in many respects -- and a frustration for the likes of Poland, which hopes to join the euro zone -- the officials interviewed by Reuters spoke of a more formal process to create a two-tier structure and allow the smaller group to push on.

"This is something that has been in the air for some time, at least in high-level talks," said one EU diplomat. "The difference now is that some countries are moving forward very quickly ... The risk of a split, of a two-speed Europe, has never been so real."

In Sarkozy's vision, the euro zone would rapidly deepen its integration, including in sensitive areas such as corporate and personal taxation, while the remainder of the EU would be left as a "confederation", possibly expanding from 27 to 35 in the coming decade, with enlargement to the Balkans and beyond.

Within the euro zone, the critical need would be for core countries to coordinate their economic policies quickly so that defenses could be erected against the sovereign debt crisis.

"Intellectually speaking, I can see it happening in two movements: some technical arrangements in the next weeks to strengthen the euro zone governance, and some more fundamental changes in the coming months," the senior EU official said.

But he cautioned: "Practically speaking, we all know that the crisis may deepen and that the picture can change radically from one day to another."

France and Germany see themselves as the backbone of the euro zone and frequently promote initiatives that other euro zone countries reject. The idea of a core, pared-down euro zone is likely to be strongly opposed by the Netherlands and possibly Austria, although both would be potential members.

"This sort of thinking is not the direction we want to go in. We want to keep the euro zone as it is," said a non Franco-German euro zone diplomat.

Britain, which is adamantly outside the euro zone, is also opposed to any moves that would create a two-speed Europe, or institutionalize a process even if it is already under way.

"We must move together. The greatest danger we face is division," Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said during a visit to Brussels on Wednesday.

Jackson Estate Calls on MSNBC to Cancel Scheduled Airing of Dr. Conrad Murray Documentary - By Fox


Michael Jackson's family is asking MSNBC not to air a tell-all documentary called "Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship" that it made with the cooperation of Dr. Conrad Murray during his involuntary manslaughter trial.

In a letter from Jackson Estate Executors John Branca and John McClain to CEOs of Comcast and NBCU and the Presidents of MSNBC and NBC West Coast Business Operations, the network is criticized for giving Murray a platform to air his views when he declined to testify on his own behalf at trial.

The executors "demand that you exercise proper judgment and refrain from airing this program." They also want to know if Murray or his reps were paid for access, and criticize the network for "moral loopholes aimed at excusing a reprehensible program stemming from Michael Jackson's tragic death that not only will be aired, but which is being heavily promoted on 'The Today Show' in order to boost ratings at a struggling network."

Dr. Conrad Murray, convicted ofinvoluntary manslaughter in Michael Jackson's death, calls Jackson an "addict" in an interview with "The Today Show" that will air later this week to promote the documentary. NBC News reporter Savannah Guthrie conducts the interview with Dr. Murray. In it she asks if he was right in leaving Jackson alone after administering propofol to the ailing pop singer.

"Had I known what I know today in retrospect, that Mr. Jackson was an addict, and he had shared that information with me, addicts may behave in a way that is unreasonable, and you may consider it," Murray said.

Murray's attorneys said Jackson was addicted to the painkiller Demerol. Jackson's family has denied that Jackson was addicted to the drug. The autopsy did not reveal the drug in Jackson's system.

Murray is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 29, and could get up to four years in prison.

FULL TEXT OF LETTER

No sooner was Conrad Murray led away in handcuffs after his conviction on manslaughter charges in the death of Michael Jackson then we discovered your MSNBC network inexplicably will show him in primetime (sic) Friday night as if he is worthy of celebrity.

The mere title of your "documentary," "Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship," is bewildering. Since when was Dr. Murray ever Michael Jackson's friend? Since when does any doctor - let alone any friend - act in such an irresponsible manner in the care and treatment of another human being? MSNBC excerpts released thus far suggest Dr. Murray, who refused to tell his story under penalty of perjury in a court of law, apparently has no qualms about smearing the reputation of his "friend." In fact, MSNBC seems ready to let him say what he wants with no fear of cross examination. According to his one-sided spin, Dr. Murray says: "He asked me, 'Please Dr. Conrad... I need some milk so I can sleep. If I don't get any sleep today, I cannot perform, I cannot do anything.'" Thus, MSNBC gives Conrad Murray a platform to shift the blame post-conviction to Michael Jackson, even though a jury considered the evidence and rejected this very argument. We have read news accounts that Dr. Murray has had cameras following him since 2009 as if he is his own reality show. We have also seen October Films claiming that Dr. Murray received a nominal $1 for "an exclusive look at the last two years of Murray's life" while leaving open the question of whether payments were made to his representatives. As the executors of the estate of the victim of Dr. Murray's crime, we would like to know how much money in total was paid for this privileged "access?" Was it really only $1, or was it more?

It doesn't matter to us if it was a production company, Comcast, NBC Universal or MSNBC that paid for "access" to Dr. Murray because all are morally culpable. It is equally irrelevant whether any or all interviews took place before the jury convicted him. These are moral loopholes aimed at excusing a reprehensible program stemming from Michael Jackson's tragic death that not only will be aired, but which is being heavily promoted on The Today Show in order to boost ratings at a struggling network.

Dr. Murray's victim, Michael Jackson, was a loving father, an incredible talent and someone who had much left to give the world. Dr. Murray is a convicted felon who a judge felt compelled to have placed in handcuffs and jailed immediately after the jury delivered its verdict. He is not someone NBC Universal should be giving a platform to on a prime-time pedestal. We demand that you exercise proper judgment and refrain from airing this program.

How NAF is tackling post-service housing challenge - By Tribune


THE right of all citizens to housing is unmistakably part of the international human rights law. Indeed, this right is embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and major international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow, also emphasised the importance of shelter as an essential psychological need of man. In a world where there are over seven billion people and yet more than a billion continue to live in inadequate housing conditions, the impe-rative of renewed attention to the realisation of housing rights takes on added urgency.

Under international human rights law, governments have legal responsibilities to take steps by all appropriate means to ensure the full and progressive realisation of the human right to adequate housing. Such domestic measures include, although not limited to, legislative action.

In Nigeria, a National Housing Policy was introduced in February 1991 with the goal of ensuring that every Nigerian owned or had access to decent housing at affordable cost. Since then, efforts have been put in place by various agencies (government and non-governmental) to make the housing policy a reality. Agencies such as the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria and the Federal Housing Authority were created to provide accessible funds and houses for Nigerians. A Ministry of Housing and Urban Development was also created and charged with the responsibility of ensuring adequate and sustainable housing policy delivery and maintenance of a conducive living environment that meets the needs and aspirations of all Nigerians. Corporate organisations have also ventured into building and provision of affordable houses for their personnel in order to ensure the availability of affordable houses.

For instance, the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Navy, Nigerian Air Force, the Nigerian Customs, Nigerian Civil Defence Corps and the Federal Road Safety Corps, among several others have all made efforts towards building affordable post-service houses for their personnel.

While most of these agencies have recorded some degree of success in this regard, that of the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) had not been satisfactory. The service had established a Nigerian Air Force Foundation (NAFF) in June 2006, with a core mandate to provide post-service housing for its personnel while rendering other services like insurance, micro credit loan scheme and other investment opportunities. Unfortunately, the foundation did not live up to its billing thereby necessitating a restructuring and repositioning in order to meet the yearnings and aspirations of many Nigerian Air Force personnel. Consequently, NAF, under the able leadership of Air Marshal Mohammed Dikko Umar, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), de-established the foundation and replaced it with the Nigerian Air Force Holdings Limited (NAFHL).

It must be stated that Air Marshal Umar strongly believes that living in one’s own personal habitat is not a luxury, a privilege or purely the good fortune of those who can afford a decent home. Rather, the requisite imperative of housing is to ensure one’s personal security as well as one’s privacy, health, safety and many other attributes of a shared humanity. The CAS, therefore, does not only recognise adequate and affordable housing as a basic need but a fundamental right of all NAF personnel.

Indeed, recently while on a courtesy call on the Honourable Minister of Housing and Urban Development, Air Marshal Umar stated that, “We in the NAF are committed towards improving living and working conditions of our personnel in or out of service so that they can have adequate shelter that is healthy, safe, secure, accessible and affordable and that includes basic services, facilities and amenities.”

Today, the NAFHL is a company guaranteed by shares comprising four subsidiaries some of which include the NAF Post-Service Housing Development Limited (NAFPHD) and NAF Properties Limited (NAFPROP), amongst others. The subsidiaries are headed by managing directors who are answerable to a group managing director at the helm of affairs of the parent company, NAFHL. NAFPHD is currently the company primarily responsible for the provision of post-service housing for NAF personnel while NAFPROP is tasked with managing NAF properties and other assets nationwide, while making efforts in acquiring new ones.

To match words with action with regards to providing post-service housing for NAF personnel, the Force has acquired a 110-hectare of land at Lugbe 1 Extension in Abuja. NAFPHD has since commenced initial designs and proposals for the development of the land in earnest. Plans are in top gear to construct units of one and two bedroom terrace blocks of four and six affordable in order to cater for the non-commissioned officers. The plan also includes a portion of the land to be dedicated for construction of houses for NAF officers. The possibility of selling only serviced plots to interested personnel and civilians alike is also being considered. This will enable NAFPHD to raise more funds at the on-set of the project. Buyers of serviced plots will however build their houses based on the design and specification of NAFPHD.

When completed, the housing scheme at Lugbe will accommodate between 800 and 1000 housing units that are fully self-supporting with a shopping plaza, a mini-market, primary and secondary schools, playground and places of worship, among other facilities that an estate of that size would require.

The NAF is also reviewing its post-service housing project situated at Kuje. The Kuje housing estate, named Unity Estate, is located on a 9.8 hectare of land allocated to the NAF by the Federal Ministry of Housing and Urban Environment for the construction of mass housing. The estate was initially planned for 200 housing units of two housing types of two and three-bedrooms in four phases of 50 housing units each. At present, 27 units of the first phase have been completed but not yet allocated because of incomplete infrastructure. Indeed, some subscribers had complained about the size of the rooms and cost of the houses which were thought to be high. Clearly the Unity Housing Project will require re-modification and a more pragmatic approach if the NAF expects to deliver houses to its subscribers. Already, a redesign of the units has been undertaken in addition to the review of the materials used for construction with the objective of achieving more functional and larger rooms in each of the housing types as well as lowering the cost of construction.

The NAF Port Harcourt Project, named Foundation Estate, was planned to be a 750-housing unit estate and to be constructed in collaboration with the Rivers State Government. While the NAF was to develop 500 units of houses for personnel, the Rivers State Government which was to provide infrastructure would develop 250 units based on the design provided by the former NAFF.

Unfortunately, only 27 blocks of flats are currently at various stages of construction owing to inadequate cash flow and other related problems. The project has since been put on hold until the designs and bills of quantities (BOQ) have been reviewed in order to explore ways of reducing the cost of delivery of the houses.

Reviewing these projects became necessary so as to ensure that only quality and affordable houses are provided for NAF personnel both serving and retired. To ease the mode of payment for the houses, NAFPHD is working out modalities that would assist NAF personnel to access loans from the National Housing Fund (NHF) under the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN) or Federal Government Staff Housing Loans Board (FGSHB). Indeed only recently, the management team of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria visited the NAF to discuss the possibility of NAFPHD accessing Estate Development Loan (EDL) and NAF personnel accessing individual loans at very low interest rates.

For NAF personnel and indeed the generality of Nigerians, surely owning a house satisfies the need for subsistence by offering shelter. Indeed, the provision of adequate and affordable housing by the present NAF regime is a catalyst for development and remains one of the primary requirements towards sustainable livelihood. It must also be noted that adequate shelter forms the foundation of basic needs in addition to food, health, education and gainful employment. This is what Air Marshal Umar hopes to achieve in the long run.

Zimbabwe should not be clear to sell Marange gems: MP


The Kimberley Process diamond watchdog should not have cleared Zimbabwe to sell gems from its controversial Marange fields because the mining conditions remain murky, a Zimbabwean lawmaker said Wednesday.

"I think it was absolutely wrong to allow the Marange diamonds to be sold," Edward Cross, a member of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC party, told AFP.

"I have evidence that the value and volumes of Marange diamonds are being underestimated and are being used to subvert the democratic process in Zimbabwe."

His comments came the day after the Kimberley Process (KP), established to prevent trade in so-called "blood diamonds", authorised the resumption of diamond sales from two sites in Marange.

The deal came after negotiations involving the World Diamond Council, Zimbabwe, the European Union, South Africa and the United States and "will remain under constant review", said the Council, which monitors KP compliance.

It resolves a deadlock that had threatened to derail the KP, with India and China supporting a resumption of Marange sales over bitter opposition from Western nations, rights groups and the industry.

The Marange fields, one of Africa's biggest diamond finds in decades, have been the site of gross human rights violations, according to rights groups.

President Robert Mugabe's army cleared small-scale miners from the area in late 2008 in an operation that Human Rights Watch says killed more than 200 people.

Cross last month tabled a motion in parliament to push for the nationalisation of the Marange fields, arguing they have not been properly regulated.

"The reason for my motion in parliament was basically to have Zimbabweans control the diamond revenues. Right now what is happening is illegal in Marange," he said.

Rights groups accuse Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, which shares power with the MDC in a tense coalition government, of funneling profits from Marange diamonds to senior military officials and party leaders.

Shell reports production back after repairs to pipeline


Anglo-Dutch oil group Shell said on Wednesday it had resumed exports of crude from its Nigeria's Forcados terminal after repairs to a damaged supply pipeline.

Shell's Nigerian joint venture said "the force majeure which had been declared on Forcados loadings, following completion of repairs on the Trans Forcados Pipeline," was lifted on Tuesday.

Force majeure, a legal term releasing a company from contractual obligations owing to circumstances beyond its control, was declared on Forcados loadings on October 10 as a result of production shutdown due to a sabotage leak on the Trans Forcados Pipeline.

Pipeline damage and associated spills are common in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta region as a result of oil theft to feed the lucrative black market. Militants claiming to be fighting for a fairer distribution of oil revenue have also regularly blown up pipelines, though such attacks have reduced since a 2009 amnesty deal.

Shell also reported on Wednesday that there had been 10 additional oil bunkering incidents in the eastern Niger Delta since it shut down production from Imo River in August, leading to an output loss of 25,000 barrels per day.

Theft of crude is commonly referred to as "bunkering" in Nigeria.

"An overfly showed unknown persons had drilled holes and installed valves to transfer crude to waiting barges and trucks, in the process, polluting farm lands and water bodies," Shell said.

"This is why we call for concerted efforts to help stop this criminal activity which not only puts the lives of the perpetrators and the public at risk but causes severe environmental impact and impacts the communities in the area," senior Shell official Tony Attah was quoted as saying.

Shell, one of Nigeria's major oil operators, has seen frequent shut-ins in recent years.

Environmental campaigners say oil firms such as Shell have not done enough to prevent such incidents.

A UN report in August said decades of oil pollution in the Ogoniland area of the Niger Delta, located in Rivers state, may require the world's largest ever cleanup.

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer, accounting for more than two million barrels of crude per day.

Egypt constitution to allow expats to vote: report


Egypt's justice ministry has agreed to a constitutional amendment to allow millions of Egyptians living abroad to vote in parliamentary elections, a government newspaper reported on Wednesday.

Under the new amendment, Egyptian expatriates can cast their ballots in the next general poll at their country's diplomatic missions, without a judicial supervision, Al-Ahram newspaper said.

Egyptians will begin voting on November 28 in the first elections since a popular uprising ended president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-rule in February.

According to a constitutional declaration issued by Egypt's military rulers, polls and referendums are held under full judicial supervision.

An estimated eight million Egyptians live abroad, many of them in other Arab countries, out of a total population of 80 million.

An administrative court on last month ruled that Egyptian expatriates, deprived of the vote under Mubarak, will have the right to cast their ballots in the poll.

Several political parties and politicians have repeatedly demanded that Egyptians in the diaspora be allowed to take part in the vote.

South Africa hyenas recaptured after chewing to freedom


Two hyenas escaped from a South African wildlife park Wednesday by chewing through an electric fence during a power outage, but were recaptured within half an hour, the park said.

"The power went off... and the hyenas -- who will chew through wire and even iron bars -- managed to escape," said Earl Smith, general manager of the Lion Park, located just outside Johannesburg.

"The hyenas always try to escape if there is a long power failure. The lions don't try to escape," he told the Sapa news agency.

He said park employees tracked the hyenas and recaptured them near one of the main roads leading into Johannesburg.

He described the animals as "shy and timid" and said there was never any risk to the public during their foray into freedom.

Niger capital's 'green lung' facing suffocation


Once lush and abundant, the "green belt" surrounding Niger's capital of Niamey, created 50 years ago to try and halt the advance of the Sahara desert, is dying a slow death.

A rural exodus has taken its toll on Niger's greenest project, as populations left destitute by low crop yields move to the capital and cut down its trees to make ends meet.

"I have cut down dozens of these trees here," said Ali Moumouni, who lives in the downtrodden northern Niamey neighbourhood of Ouallam. "I sell the wood to survive."

A few metres (yards) away, men equipped with axes are clearing an area where they can build huts, under the watchful eye of their families. They have abandoned the countryside for the capital to try and earn some money.

"We have had a poor harvest this year so we have come to set up home here," explained Adamou Foumo, speaking in the local language, Djerma.

Land-locked Niger, one of the world's hottest and poorest nations, is already largely desert with a subsistence-based economy. The capital is located in a small fertile region in the south, where much of the country's 16 million population lives.

Niger's green belt took nearly 30 years to grow. Tree planting started in 1965, five years after the country proclaimed independence from France, and ended in 1993.

Funding for the 4.5 million-euro (6.2 million-dollar) project came mainly from abroad, said Niger's environment ministry.

"The idea was to make a wall of trees around the city to keep out the dust and stop the desert from advancing," a former project advisor who did not give his name told AFP.

"And the job was done. A green wall 25 kilometres (15 miles) long and one kilometre wide crosses Niger from east to west." Man-made green belts are increasingly a subject of discussion in Africa amid concerns over desertification.

African leaders are pushing for the planting of a massive green belt, nicknamed the "Great Green Wall of Africa", which would cut right across the continent from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, covering 7,775 kilometres (4,831 miles).

The African great wall has the same aim as the Niamey green belt -- to hold back the mighty Sahara by planting drought-adapted species that would slow soil erosion and help rain water filter into the ground, effectively curbing the Sahara's spread south.

It would also aim to produce richer soil for local communities who rely on the land for agriculture and grazing.

But a lack of funding means the project has not yet gotten off the ground.

And while Niger's "green lung" did once breathe more freely, it is now in severe decline.

Almost half of its original 2,000-hectare (nearly 5,000-acre) surface area has disappeared.

"Things started to go wrong for the green belt when hundreds of rural people fled to the capital to escape the severe famine of 1984," remembered Hama Moussa, an ex-watchman at the belt site.

New neighbourhoods have started to spring up close to the area with names like "Iraq", "Kuwait" and "Little Paris" where hundreds of families live in straw huts or other makeshift shelter.

In 2008, some 2,000 squatters had their homes razed by bulldozers sent in by the authorities but nothing further was done.

"To survive, people just cut down the trees to make roofs and sell the rest in town," said Niamey resident Salifou Gourouza indignantly.

"With such excessive deforestation, the 'green belt' may disappear altogether," warned Abdoulaye Maizama, an official with the water and forests department.

A 2004 law that threatens anywhere from three months to two years' imprisonment for offenders has done little to discourage residents.

But it is not just Niamey's new arrivals -- petrol stations, car parks, fancy houses and mosques for Niger's predominantly Muslim population have all infiltrated the green belt.

There are other factors too, according to the private press which regularly accuses local authorities of selling plots of land in the green belt to rich businessmen, knowing that any building there is theoretically outlawed.

The belt has also become a sort of open-air wasteland, said Niamey's fire service, where blazes -- deliberate or accidental -- regularly ravage the zone.

Nevertheless Niger's government is trying to show it has not forgotten its green belt. On August 3 -- the anniversary of Niger's independence -- as every year, thousands of new trees were planted.

Kenya: We will destroy weapons flown into Somalia


NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A military spokesman says fighter aircraft will destroy weapons Kenya says were flown into Somalia on two planes and delivered to Islamist militants.

Kenya's military on Tuesday said it had reliable information that two aircraft landed in the Somali town of Baidoa with weapons on board intended for al-Shabab militants.

Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir said on Wednesday that Kenyan military planes would target and attack those weapons so they cannot be used.

Chirchir has warned that the Kenyan military will attack 10 Somali towns where it believes al-Shabab has a presence and advised civilians to stay away from al-Shabab camps.

Kenyan forces moved into Somalia in mid-October to attack insurgents.

Flood gate in Thai capital focus of fear, rivalry


Authorities in the Thai capital repaired a damaged flood gate on Wednesday that has become the focus of anger, fear and rivalry between arms of government battling the country's worst floods in decades.

The central government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the ousted populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is at odds with the city government dominated by the main opposition and former ruling Democrat party.

The floods that have killed 427 people since July are the first big test for Yingluck, who came to power in a July election that many Thais hoped would heal divisions that last year brought violent clashes in Southeast Asia's second biggest economy.

Inner Bangkok, protected by a network of dikes and sandbag walls, survived peak tides on the weekend and remains mostly dry.

But huge amounts of water are bottled up to the north, west and east of the city, and new areas are being flooded daily as the water tries to find its way out to sea to the south.

Anger is seething in flooded communities on the wrong side of inner Bangkok's flood barricades.

Residents of the northeastern Bangkok suburb of Sam Wa took matters into their own hands this week and hacked away at the side of a canal flood gate, aiming to let the water flow out of their area toward the city center.

Yingluck ordered the gate opened in the face of the residents' demands. The Bangkok government objected on the grounds that the flow could endanger the city center.

But the city had to comply with Yingluck's order to open the gate by a meter (three feet) leading to fear among inner city folk that the disaster they thought they had dodged was again looming.

On Wednesday, city officials and workers went to the Sam Wa flood gate to repair the damage and limit the amount of water flowing through.

"We are here doing the repair work and the police are protecting us," said city administration spokesman Jate Sopitpongstorn.

"They have to accept it," he said of the neighborhood's residents, adding there was no sign of protests.

"COMPLICATED SYSTEM"

The city says the nearby Bang Chan industrial estate has been put in danger by the flow through the gate and Jate said it was not yet known if it would be safe.

The floods began in July, at the beginning of a particularly heavy rainy season.

Economic growth has been hit and investor confidence shaken as the water swamped industrial estates in the central Chao Phraya river basin, disrupting global supply lines for auto and computer parts.

Water is also approaching central Bangkok from the northern Don Muang district, where the city's domestic airport has already been flooded and where one resident said the water had risen 5 cm (two inches) in his house on Wednesday.

City deputy governor Theerachon Manomaipaiboon said workers were building a wall of giant sandbags to try to stop the flow toward the city center from the north.

But the flood was difficult to predict as it made its way through an ancient and often partly built over network of canals and tunnels.

"We are using the big bags to block the water but we have a very complicated system. Water in one area can appear 20 km (12 miles) away," Theerachon told Reuters.

Bangkok's 12 million people account for 41 percent of Thailand's gross domestic product and neither the central government nor the city administration wants to be seen responsible for an inner city deluge.

Both sides will claim victory if the center can be saved.

But misery in outlying areas, especially north and west Bangkok, and provinces to the north will take the gloss off any victory in the inner city, especially given a perception those areas have been sacrificed to save the well-to-do city-center.

To the north of Bangkok, Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya provinces have been largely inundated for weeks, along with seven industrial estates that have sprung up over the last two decades on what used to be the central plain's rice fields.

Thailand is the second-largest exporter of computer hard drives and global prices are rising because of a flood-related shortage of major components used in personal computers.

Thailand is also Southeast Asia's main auto-parts maker and Japan's Honda Motor Co said car production could be difficult in the second half of its business year ending in March. Its Ayutthaya plant has suspended work indefinitely.

"The 'Motown' of Asia has become 'Waterworld' overnight," the Nation newspaper said in an editorial, referring to Thailand's position in the motor industry.

Possible new "fission" found at Japan's wrecked nuclear plant

The operator of tsunami-hit nuclear power plant in Japan said on Wednesday it had found substances in a reactor which could be a result of nuclear fission, a possible setback in efforts to bring the plant to a safe, cold shutdown this year.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in March and has released radiation into the atmosphere ever since.

Tokyo Electric Power said that it discovered xenon, a substance produced as a byproduct of fission from the No 2 reactor, and had poured in a mixture of water and boric acid, an agent that helps prevent nuclear reactions, as a precaution.

"It can be assumed that isolated criticality took place for a short period of time judging from the presence of xenon," Tepco spokesman Junichi Matsumoto told reporters.

Criticality is a state when controlled nuclear reactions take place and nuclear power plants harness the resulting heat to produce electricity.

The amount of detected xenon was small and the nuclear fuel in the No 2 reactor is unlikely to have melted down again, Tepco said. The fuel in the No 2 reactor, along with two other reactors, had melted down early in the crisis after the tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling system triggering the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years ago.

Analysts said there was minimal risk of further radiation.

Kazuhiko Kudo, a professor of nuclear engineering at Kyushu University, suggested two possibilities.

"Some of the lumps of fuel that melted off early in the accident may have caused the nuclear fission. I would not rule it out completely but this possibility is highly unlikely as many elements, like temperature and the amount water, have to be at a right balance for fission to occur."

The other possibility, Kudo said, was tiny radioactive elements produced by the nuclear reaction early in the crisis colliding and moving neutrons inside the reactor, in turn causing the neutrons to collide and split uranium, causing tiny nuclear fissions.

"The initiating amount in this case is so small that any nuclear fissions would not leave a significant impact," Kudo said.

Tepco said temperature and pressure at the No 2 reactor remained stable.

Through various cooling efforts the utility has succeeded in bringing down the temperatures at the three damaged reactors from levels considered dangerous and hopes to declare a cold shutdown -- when temperatures are stable below boiling point -- this year.

Tepco said in October that the amount of radiation being emitted from the complex had halved from a month earlier, in the latest sign that efforts to bring the facility under control are progressing.

U.S. army extends curfew in South Korea

The U.S. army on Wednesday extended a curfew for military personnel in South Korea by two months, a day after a court sentenced an American soldier to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a local teenage girl.

"I firmly believe that military discipline is the foundation of mission-ready, well-trained and effective organizations," U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. James Thurman said in a statement.

"We must maintain mission readiness and the strength of the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance."

The United States has about 28,000 troops in South Korea in the allies' defense against North Korea, which was accused of mounting two attacks against its southern neighbor last year that killed 50 people. The South has about 650,000 active force soldiers.

On Tuesday, South Korea's Uijeongbu District Court said in a sentence that the severity of the crime committed against the rape victim allowed for the full term as laid out in the sentencing guideline.

The new curfew will be in place until January 6.

A 30-day curfew was initiated last month, days after allegations of two rape cases involving U.S. soldiers surfaced. Up until July last year, a similar curfew had been in place for nine years.

In 2002, the deaths of two schools girls hit by a U.S. military vehicle conducting exercises and the subsequent acquittal of U.S. soldiers involved in a U.S. court martial led to a massive public outcry and an outpouring of anti-American sentiment in South Korea.

Israel test-fires ballistic missile: Israel Radio


Israel test-fired a ballistic missile on Wednesday, Israel Radio said, amid a heightened public debate over the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear program.

"Israel today carried out the test-firing of a rocket propulsion system from the Palmachim base (in central Israel)," a Defense Ministry statement said.

"This had been planned by the defense establishment a long time ago and has been carried out as scheduled."

A Defense Ministry official declined to comment on the type of rocket tested. But Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent, who is regularly briefed by top officers on defense matters, said a ballistic missile was launched.

Israel, considered to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, successfully test-fired a two-stage, long-range ballistic missile in 2008.

It is widely believed to have Jericho missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, civilian "Shavit" rockets used to launch satellites and the Arrow missile interceptor.

The launch coincided with mounting speculation in Israel that its leaders could be preparing a military attack on Iran to curb a nuclear program they say is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful.

The public debate was sparked at the weekend when a newspaper commentator suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak may have decided, without seeking wider cabinet approval, to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

In a policy speech opening parliament's winter session on Monday, Netanyahu again voiced his view that a nuclear Iran would pose a serious threat to Israel and to the world.

But he stopped short of making any direct threat of Israeli military action. Israel has said repeatedly that all options are on the table in trying to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Italian finance chiefs to meet as crisis mounts


Italy's top financial officials will meet later on Wednesday as escalating market turmoil threatens to push the euro zone's third largest economy into a debt crisis that could threaten the whole currency bloc.

Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, Bank of Italy Governor Ignazio Visco, Treasury head Vittorio Grilli and the heads of insurance regulator ISVAP and markets watchdog Consob are due to meet at 3 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT), the Treasury said in a statement.

The meeting of the Financial Stability Safeguard Committee comes as yields on Italian government bonds have climbed past 6 percent and the risk premiums over German bonds have reached record levels.

Yields on 10-year Italian BTP bonds opened slightly lower on Wednesday, hovering around 6.1 percent while the spread over benchmark German Bunds was around 426 basis points, down from the euro-era highs of more than 450 points a day earlier.

Greece's surprise decision to call a referendum on austerity measures demanded by the European Union has thrown markets into turmoil and worsened fears about the stability of other heavily indebted economies like Italy.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, under mounting pressure to resign, has pledged to press ahead with new economic reforms and is expected to meet ministers ahead of a meeting with leaders of the Group of 20 economic powers in Cannes on Thursday.

Too big to bail out if its borrowing costs get out of control, Italy has a mix of sluggish growth, a divided and ineffective government and a public debt equivalent to 120 percent of gross domestic product that poses a growing threat to the survival of the euro.

In a sign of growing alarm, President Giorgio Napolitano issued a highly unusual statement late on Tuesday, calling on Berlusconi to pass reforms without delay and indicating he was looking at how much support there was for reform outside the ranks of the current center-right government.

His statement followed a separate declaration from Italy's main business and banking federations, calling on Berlusconi to act immediately or "draw the consequences."

13 dead, millions without power after rare storm


Devastation from a rare and deadly October snowstorm lingered in the Northeast where 1.6 million homes were still without power on Monday, schools were closed and downed trees and powerlines snarled traffic.

The storm that raged from West Virginia to Maine from Saturday until late Sunday was blamed for at least 13 deaths, most on slippery roads.

Halloween fun was postponed. Ghoul and goblin decorations were blanketed with record snowfall for October in many places, such as 32 inches measured in the western Massachusetts town of Peru, according to the National Weather Service.

Theo Brinkerhoff, 4, who planned to dress as a ghost on Monday but was forced to wear a heavy sweater and snow boots under his costume to keep warm, refused to believe it was the bewitching autumn holiday.

"It's not Halloween, because it's still winter," he said while visiting grandparents in Amherst, Massachusetts, a town still mostly in the dark.

Many roads were still barricaded to steer traffic away from downed trees and power lines. Utility officials said the storm caused more tree damage than most winter storms because leaves had not yet fallen so trees caught far more snow than usual.

"It was like wet cement that just adhered to trees, branches, leaves and power lines," said David Graves, spokesman for utility National Grid.

"That's what really caused the damage, the weight of that snow," he said.

In New York, three days after authorities confiscated their generators, hundreds of anti-Wall Street protesters struggled to stay warm and dry after the snow storm. Some got tips on how to deal with the cold weather from homeless people.

"They have the most amazing knowledge base for dealing with cold weather," protester Justin Stone-Diaz said. "So honestly, we're getting it from people with experience."

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have camped in a New York park for six weeks to protest against economic inequality.

DAYS BEFORE POWER BACK

It will likely be days before power is restored to all residents in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and other states hit hard by the storm.

Despite a sunny Monday, several New Jersey Transit train lines going into New York City remained suspended.

Connecticut was particularly hard hit and Governor Dannel Malloy said 100 state roads were closed and about 200 more partially closed. He called the power outages in his state the worst in history. As residents escaped homes without heat and electricity, hotels in central Connecticut were sold out.

Snow days, usually not tapped until at least after Thanksgiving, were declared by scores of public schools that remained shut throughout the Northeast on Monday.

While children were delighted with the surprise long weekend, their parents were advised that because of downed wires, Halloween trick-or-treat routines should be adjusted so children were home by dark and an adult accompanied them.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the city asked parents, schools and neighbors to postpone Halloween celebrations until Thursday, when the weather was expected to be warmer and downed trees and power lines would likely be cleared.

The New Hampshire communities of Manchester and Nashua asked parents to put off trick or treating and reschedule the annual candy collection until Sunday, November 6.

The outages include roughly 750,000 customers still without power on Monday in Connecticut; about 46,000 in Massachusetts; more than 390,000 in New Jersey; 350,000 in Pennsylvania; nearly 60,000 in New York; and about 14,000 in Maine.

Cain denounces "witch hunt," denies sex harassment


Republican Herman Cain denounced sexual harassment accusations from the 1990s as a "witch hunt" on Monday and broke into a gospel song to deflect what has become the toughest challenge of his presidential campaign.

Cain acknowledged he was accused of sexual harassment while heading the National Restaurant Association but declared that an internal investigation had cleared him of the allegations.

Politico's website reported on Sunday that two women employees had complained of sexually suggestive comments and gestures by Cain at the association.

The report, which came as Cain is riding high in the polls, could damage his surprisingly strong bid to be the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.

"This bull's-eye on my back has gotten bigger," Cain told reporters at the National Press Club. "We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is really what it is."

Some experts said the allegations are trouble for Cain.

"The sexual harassment allegations will amount to the first in a drip, drip, drip of negative information about him," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Cain appeared totally at ease in addressing the controversy and even broke into a gospel song, singing a tune based on the hymn, "Amazing Grace," to demonstrate his Christian faith.

"I would be delighted to clear the air," he said. "Number One in all of my over 40 years of business experience, running businesses and corporations, I have never sexually harassed anyone."

"Number Two, while at the restaurant association, I was accused of sexual harassment, falsely accused I might add."

Cain said when the allegations arose, he rescued himself and the firm's general counselor and human resources official conducted an investigation that concluded the charges "had no basis."

Politico reported the women complained to colleagues and senior restaurant association officials that inappropriate behavior by Cain made them angry and uncomfortable. The women ultimately left the trade group after signing agreements that gave them payouts and barred them from talking about their departures, the report said.

As for the charges of a financial settlement, Cain said he was unaware of a settlement and if there had been one, "I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything."

The former pizza executive tried to stay on message and move past the controversy. He spoke at length about his 9-9-9 tax plan and sought to clear the air over question marks conservatives have about whether he truly opposes abortion.

Cain, 65, has been an unlikely frontrunner, competing with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the lead in polls of Republican voters with two months until primary elections start to choose the party's 2012 presidential nominee.

In a separate development, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Sunday that Cain aides have funded his campaign with tens of thousands of dollars from a tax-exempt group, in what would be illegal donations.

Cain said he was not familiar with that report.

"UNCONVENTIONAL CANDIDATE"

The allegations could be critical in Iowa, where evangelical conservatives are a dominant voice and where Cain holds a narrow lead in the polls before the state's January 3 caucuses, the country's first 2012 nominating contest.

"The people have propelled my candidacy," Cain said of Republican skepticism of his candidacy. "The party may resist and I'm not saying that they are. I'm not the party favorite by some members of the party. I understand that."

Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary for Republican President George W. Bush, said Cain can move past the controversy.

"I think he needs to address it once and let the press overreact. Unless his alleged behavior was more serious than the story suggests, he should be able to deal with this, especially in a year in which everyone is focused on the economy," Fleischer said.

Cain also caused controversy with a Web advertisement last week that showed his chief of staff smoking. "Yes, I am an unconventional candidate," Cain said at the American Enterprise think tank. "Herman is going to stay Herman."

Republicans have struggled to find a frontrunner with conservatives seeking an alternative to the more moderate Romney. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry and now Cain have all tried to fill that role.

Howard Hyten from Austin, Texas said the issue is "not newsworthy for a presidential election."

"God, we used to debate policies at least a little bit," he said. "Today, it's 100 percent horse race."

Analysis: Dollar's many woes complicate Japan intervention


When it comes to weakening the yen, currency speculators are the least of Japan's problems.

That's because when policymakers intervene to limit yen strength, as they did Monday, they square off against a formidable array of forces, including U.S. monetary policy, Chinese reserve managers and global investors from Texas to Tokyo united by one desire: to sell the U.S. dollar.

Investors and market analysts say that explains why prior efforts to weaken the yen against the dollar have failed and why the chances of success this time around are equally slim.

Japan intervened for the third time this year after the yen hit a record high of 75.31 per dollar, spending an estimated $65 billion and at one point pushing it some 5 percent lower.

More may be on the way, particularly after data last week showed speculators had doubled their bets in favor of the yen in the week to October 25, the highest since around the last time policymakers intervened in August.

Few expect much bang for the buck, though. Japan's move failed to push the dollar above 80 yen, and analysts at Credit Suisse forecast the dollar would soon return to 75-76 yen.

"This is not necessarily about independent yen strength or speculative forces driving it up, though I appreciate there's an element of that," said Simon Derrick, a strategist at BNY Mellon in London.

"Rather this is about broad-based dollar weakness. We are in the midst of a 10-year dollar downtrend and there are no signs the forces that have driven that are about to change."

Japan is an export-oriented economy and a strong yen makes products more expensive abroad -- the last thing needed for an already weak economy that was ravaged in March by a major earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear disaster.

But Derrick notes that not even the severity of that disaster and the blow it dealt Japan's economy interrupted the dollar's steady decline against the yen.

In fact, the yen soared to what was then a record high against the dollar after the earthquake, prompting official intervention a few days later.

And the pattern is much the same elsewhere.

"We've had something close to an existential crisis in the euro zone. We had the UK central bank print more money," he said. "But as with the yen, both currencies are doing well against the dollar. That tells you a lot about the problems facing the dollar."

UP AGAINST THE FED

Though up broadly on Monday, the dollar has shed nearly 4 percent against six major currencies so far this year and is down more than 30 percent since the start of 2001.

One impediment has been loose monetary policy. The Federal Reserve recently pledged to hold interest rates at zero until at least 2013 and the debate about more easing has heated up.

Several policymakers have talked about adding to the $2.3 trillion the Fed has already poured into the financial system by resuming purchases of mortgage-backed bonds.

While U.S. economic data has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, economists say growth remains well below the pace needed to make a real dent in a 9.1 percent jobless rate.

"The Fed hasn't changed its stance, and that's really the problem," said Stephen Jen, president of London-based hedge fund SLJ Macro. "It's more likely than not that we will see QE3 eventually, so (Japan) may have done this preemptively, knowing the Fed is probably gearing up to take action again."

Some also fear the euro zone is on the verge of recession, and with most countries being forced to tighten their fiscal belts to rein in large deficits, markets expect the European Central Bank to cut interest rates by year end.

As a result, Japanese investors may be content to park their money in Japanese government debt for safe keeping.

That matters, Jen said, because Japanese investors play a large role in driving the yen exchange rate. With interest rates at or near zero for more than a decade, retail investors typically seek higher returns abroad when risk appetite is high. But when opportunities fade, that money comes home.

"The dollar is such an international currency that its trajectory is not dictated by American investors but that's not so with the yen," he said. "As soon as Japanese investors have second thoughts about investments overseas, you have pressure in the dollar-yen exchange rate."

U.S. DEFICIT BACK IN FOCUS

There may be other reasons to avoid the dollar in the months ahead, especially if there is a breakdown in the politically tense negotiations about how to shave $1.5 trillion from the U.S. budget deficit over the next decade.

If a November 23 deadline comes and goes, that would trigger automatic cuts and, some fear, prompt another ratings agency to cut the United States top AAA rating.

If that happens, Derrick said China and other large holders of dollars could increase efforts to diversify their massive foreign exchange reserves, keeping pressure on the dollar and complicating Japanese efforts to weaken the yen.

Japan could declare a level beyond which it would not let the dollar fall. That's worked for Switzerland, which struggled for much of the year to contain massive franc appreciation against the euro as the euro zone debt crisis deepened.

But that probably wouldn't win Japan any friends at this week's summit of Group of 20 leaders in France.

Credit Suisse called such a policy for the world's fourth largest exporter and third largest economy, "politically unacceptable globally," adding it could prompt other export-led Asian countries to follow suit, "something both the U.S. and Europe are loath to see."

"So this looks like a one-off unilateral intervention," said Mark McCormick, a strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman. "Historical precedent suggests it will be ineffective."

Chain store sales seen up again in October


October sales reports this week will show steady spending by U.S. consumers, as improving finances for many shoppers helped overcome a barrage of scary headlines about the economy.

October can be a slow month, falling in the lull between the back to school season and the start to year-end holiday shopping. But it does give retailers a read into shoppers' mindset and intentions ahead of the Christmas blitz.

A tally issued by Thomson Reuters on Monday found that Wall Street analysts expect the 23 retailers in its index -- including Costco Wholesale Corp and Macy's Inc -- to report a 4.7 percent increase in October sales at stores open at least a year, or same-store sales, well above the 1.6 percent increase in October 2010.

Most of the chains will report monthly sales on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

"The consumer is out there spending," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. "Consumers are financially healthier now than they've been in years."

Shoppers have paid down enough personal debt since the recession ended that those with jobs feel comfortable spending more and are doing just that, said Johnson, who last week forecast the best holiday season since 2004.

But they are not spending with the reckless abandon of a few years ago and insist on deals if they are to spend.

"As has been the case for the past year, there will be a focus on value. Shoppers will be lured to specific promotions, especially for mid-tier retailers," said Paul Lejuez, a Nomura analyst.

Department stores should continue to show solid gains, particularly Macy's Inc and Kohl's Corp, which got boosts last month from their exclusive Karl Lagerfeld and J.Lo clothing lines, respectively.

At the high end, Nordstrom Inc and Saks Inc are also expected to report strong October sales, helped by luxury's continued recovery.

Costco is expected to log the biggest gain in the survey, with higher gas prices contributing to a 8.7 percent jump. The last in class is expected to be Gap Inc, hurt by a 6.3 percent drop at its struggling North American flagship chain and an even steeper overall drop abroad.

For a graphic linking sales and retailer stocks, please see: link.reuters.com/syk74s

Weather may also have dented sales.

TJX Cos Inc, which operates the Marshalls and T.J. Maxx chains, said last week that warm weather in the Northeast early in the month hurt sales of cold clothing. TJX nonetheless stood by its forecast of a 2 percent to 3 percent same-store sales rise for October at those chains.

And while the record snowfall in the mid-Atlantic states and New England hit on the last reporting day of the month, Lejuez said it reduced odds of retailers beating Wall Street's estimates.

The monthly tally gives only a glimpse of shopping at U.S. chains. The combined U.S. sales of the 23 chains are barely larger than those of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Others not in the survey are Home Depot Inc, Kroger Co and Best Buy Co. TJX, Costco and Gap's monthly numbers include international sales.

Still, it is clear U.S. consumer spending has perked up in recent months.

"Job retention is holding up better and shoppers are learning to budget in higher gas prices," said Global Hunter Strategies analyst Richard Hastings, who is expecting big sales gains this holiday season.

Facing state takeover, Harrisburg officials talk


With the threat of a state-appointed receiver deciding how Harrisburg must deal with more than $300 million in debt, the city council and mayor did something on Monday they have not done in a long time: agree.

The city, Pennsylvania's capital, filed for bankruptcy on October 12 in a desperate bid to resolve its debt crisis, setting up a showdown with the state over control of the city.

The crisis centers on the struggles of the city of about 50,000 to pay roughly $300 million in debt incurred from an expensive revamp of its incinerator.

Under the guidelines established by a new law, Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson and seven city council members unanimously agreed on Monday night to return to the state's original Act 47 plan as a guide for a consent agreement that could avoid a looming state takeover.

That plan recommended sale or lease of the city's parking garages, renegotiated union contracts and sale of the incinerator. But council members continued to argue over a range of issues before settling on the Act 47 guidelines.

Councilman Wanda Williams said creditors who backed the financing of the city's troubled incinerator "should have known" the project was risky and should accept concessions, while Councilman Susan Brown Wilson said she was not happy the state is preventing Harrisburg from raising new revenue through commuter, sales or drink taxes.

Harrisburg became one of the most-high profile cities to opt for the little-used Chapter 9 of the U.S. bankruptcy code, notably used nearly 20 years ago by Orange County, California.

Municipal bankruptcies are rare. But if Harrisburg is successful in winning concessions with bondholders, pensioners and other stakeholders, it could lead other financially troubled cities to seek bankruptcy.

On Monday night, the council and mayor agreed to keep talking about what should be in the consent agreement, which will be presented to Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Alan Walker on November 14.

The city will be in federal bankruptcy court on Tuesday seeking relief to pay selected vendors and employees. It also faces a November 23 hearing in federal court to determine the validity of its Chapter 9 filing.

Councilman Brad Koplinski, who argued for the city's bankruptcy filing, asked the state to "slow-track" the consent agreement process until the Chapter 9 question is settled.

He also proposed $100 million in concessions from Dauphin County and Assured Guarantee Municipal Corp, two of the biggest creditors in the incinerator deal; approval of a sales tax to generate $36 million a year; and an audit "to determine who caused this problem."

Those recommendations for the consent agreement were not voted on. More are expected when the meeting continues November 3.

Qantas to cut fares to win back passengers: report


Australia's Qantas Airways plans to cut fares and launch an advertising blitz to win back passengers, a newspaper said, after its showdown with unions caused international travel chaos and left almost 70,000 travelers stranded.

Qantas flights returned to normal on Tuesday for the first time since it grounded its global fleet last weekend, a deliberate tactic to gain the upper hand over trade unions in a long-running and costly labor dispute.

The tactic succeeded in spurring local authorities to order an end to all industrial action on Monday and should ensure a speedy resolution, but it also hurt the Qantas brand and left many passengers vowing to shun the airline in future.

Major rival Singapore Airlines Ltd (SIA), which competes with Qantas on a key Asian route to the UK, said its bookings had been strong since the Qantas grounding, especially for flights from Britain to Australia.

"Demand has been particularly strong for flights out of the UK and into Australia in recent days," SIA spokesman Nicholas Ionides said, although he was not aware of any noticeable new trend for bookings out to the Christmas-New Year holidays.

Aviation and brand experts say Qantas has a huge job to restore confidence in its brand, which has traditionally stood for safety and reliability.

"Qantas will cut prices across its international and domestic network, offer grounded passengers special promotional deals, and take out one of the biggest national advertising campaigns in its 90-year history in a bid to win back disenchanted travelers in the lead-up to the peak Christmas period," the Australian Financial Review said.

Qantas also planned to temporarily double the rate of frequent flyer points earned, the newspaper said in its unsourced report.

QANTAS SHARES UP, BUT RIVALS POUNCE

A Qantas spokeswoman described the newspaper report as speculation, but said the airline was apologizing to passengers. "We are also looking at some other customer care and engagement opportunities however we are still in planning stages and do not have any details at this time."

Qantas shares rose 1.1 percent in a weaker overall market on Tuesday, extending strong gains made on Monday.

The stock has risen 5.5 percent since CEO Alan Joyce grounded the airline on Saturday, with investors judging it a tactical victory in a war with unions.

Joyce also won support from AirAsia Bhd CEO Tony Fernandes, who said the move to ground the fleet was about survival.

"You have to salute Alan Joyce for doing what he's doing. This is not about workers versus management. It's about survival in the modern world," Fernandes said on his Twitter account.

The grounding created a national crisis, prompting Australia's labor-market tribunal to step in. On Monday, the tribunal gave both sides three weeks to settle the row or submit to its final ruling on the matter, a tight timeframe that investors believe is more likely to favor Qantas.

Before the grounding, Qantas said it had lost about A$70 million ($75 million) since September owing to the industrial action in its dispute with three trade unions over pay, working conditions and its plan to base more operations in Asia.

Joyce had complained of "death by a thousand cuts" at union hands. Qantas's estimates of the daily cost of a grounding suggests it lost another A$40 million at the weekend.

Trade unions have accused Joyce of risking the airline to pursue a reckless industrial-relations strategy, and one union official has even spoken of a campaign of "civil disobedience" if workers fail to get justice at the tribunal.

Brand expert Tim Heberden, of consultancy Brand Finance, said fare discounting could help win back customers but Qantas needed to be very careful to repair any long-term damage.

"I think Qantas will have to tread very carefully -- not just in the coming months but in the coming years -- to regain lost ground in terms of its reputation," he said.

Domestic rival Virgin Australia has been taking market share from Qantas during the months of union strife, taking aim at Qantas's more profitable business customers.

Credit ratings agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's have both signaled possible credit downgrades for Qantas, citing the grounding and potential for lasting brand damage. Both agencies rate Qantas at the lower end of investment grade.

Another rating agency, Fitch, said late on Monday there was "potential for management's showdown with labor to drive a material shift in passenger booking trends that could worsen the carrier's revenue performance in coming months".

China PMI in surprise fall, lowest since 2009


China's big manufacturers ran at their slowest pace in October since early 2009, purchasing managers' data shows, though signs of a bounce-back at smaller firms and a sharp fall in factory-gate prices suggest no swift change to interest rates.

China's official purchasing managers' index (PMI) fell to 50.4 in October from 51.2 in September, countering expectations for a rise. The National Bureau of Statistics blamed the drop on weak European and U.S. economies.

A private-sector PMI though set a different direction, rising in October to 51.0 from 49.9 in September, the index's first rise above 50 that demarcates contraction from expansion since June.

Taken together, the PMIs backed the consensus view that Chinese interest rates will remain on hold as Beijing balances a need to tackle inflation with concerns that growth is slowing down.

Instead, more fine-tuning via a policy of so-called selective easing to help specific sectors of industry may be in the pipeline.

"All these signs may give Beijing good reason to adopt kind of selective easing in the monetary policy in the coming months," Tang Jianwei, an economist at Bank of Communications in Shanghai, said.

"We expect the central bank may opt for net injection in the money market operations and may loosen some bank loan curbs in the months ahead. There is also a chance of cutting the reserve requirement ratio for banks in the fourth quarter," Tang said.

It's not unusual for the two indexes to deliver divergent results.

China's official PMI, compiled by the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing (CFLP) for the National Bureau of Statistics, gathers more data from the country's biggest manufacturers.

The private-sector gauge, compiled by UK-based private-sector data specialist Markit in conjunction with HSBC, focuses on the small and medium-sized enterprises that provide around 75 percent of the jobs in China.

Still, the drop in the official PMI to its lowest level since February 2009 rattled the Australian dollar, which fell almost half a cent against the U.S. dollar immediately after the index was released. It also added to bearish sentiment in stock markets.
v "The fall of PMI in October points to further economic slowdown in the future," Zhang Liqun, a researcher with the Development Research Centre of the State Council, wrote in the CFLP statement.

That suggests Chinese policymakers will continue on the fine line between battling inflation and supporting growth, particularly in small and medium-sized businesses. Premier Wen Jiabao has maintained tackling inflation is a priority, but in a nod to slowing growth has also said Beijing will "fine-tune" policy if need be.

Indeed, Beijing has already announced measures to support small firms and has intervened in the stock market to prop up banks.

Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist at Nomura Securities, said the official PMI was not as alarming as it may seem, so there was no need for the central bank to relax macro monetary policies.

"Given the drop of the PMI is mostly driven by seasonality rather than economic weakness, we maintain our view that reserve ratio requirements and interest rates will remain unchanged for the rest of 2011," Zhang wrote in a note to clients.

He said that October's decline in the index of 0.8 point was broadly in line with the historical average decline of 0.9 point, which offsets the fall in the new orders and production components of the official PMI.

EXPORT ORDERS DROP

The official PMI recorded falls across key component parts with new orders, which make up 30 percent of the index, slipping to 50.5 from 51.3 and production -- another 25 percent of the headline number -- easing to 52.3 from 52.7.

New export orders dropped to 48.6 from 50.9.

A moderate rebound in China's PMI in recent months had held out hope that the country's vast factory sector was bottoming out after a soft patch earlier this year, when world demand waned on debt problems in the United States and Europe.

But with Europe -- China's largest export market -- still struggling to resolve its debt problems, many investors believe the Chinese economy faces more gloom than cheer right now.

Still, a fall in the input price sub-index to below 50 for the first time since April 2009 showed that "inflationary pressure in the manufacturing sector has eased and price rises have been brought under initial control," the NBS said.

Input prices showed a sharp 10.4 point fall in the prices sub-index of the PMI to 46.2.

China began tightening monetary policy in October 2010 in a fight to bring down inflation.

Economists say it appears to be working as the consumer price index has eased from a near three-year peak of 6.5 percent in July.

The market consensus is for full-year inflation of 5.5 percent, above the government's official 4 percent target, a Reuters poll shows.

The CFLP said in its statement that it expected China's economy to grow 9.2 percent in 2011. That would imply a further easing of activity in the last quarter of the year after growth slowed in the past three quarters.

Greek referendum threatens new euro zone crisis


Prime Minister George Papandreou's shock announcement that he will put Greece's bailout to a referendum threatened to intensify the euro zone crisis, and brought complaints in Germany that Athens is trying to wriggle out of the deal.

Euro zone leaders agreed last week to hand Athens a second, 130 billion-euro ($179 billion) bailout and a 50-percent write-down on its huge debt. The price of the package is a program of harsh state spending cuts that have unleashed a tide of anger among Greeks.

Papandreou, whose ruling Socialist party has suffered several defections as it pushes waves of austerity measures through parliament while protesters rally outside, said he needed wider political backing for the fiscal measures and structural reforms demanded by international lenders.

A leader in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition said on Tuesday he was "irritated" by Papandreou's announcement.

"This sounds to me like someone is trying to wriggle out of what was agreed -- a strange thing to do," said Rainer Bruederle, parliamentary floor leader for the Free Democrats.

"One can only do one thing: make the preparations for the eventuality that there is a state insolvency in Greece and if it doesn't fulfill the agreements, then the point will have been reached where the money is turned off."

Analysts said the latest opinion poll showed a majority of Greeks took a negative view of the bailout deal.

The renewed uncertainty will be likely be an embarrassment for G20 leaders in France this week trying to coax China into throwing the euro zone a financial lifeline.

"If there was to be a referendum, we may reasonably conclude that they may not accept the austerity measures. We may conclude that it will bring the pack of cards tumbling down," Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners in London, said.

Early reactions to the surprise move ranged from accusations that Papandreou was gambling with the country's future and predictions of default, to questions over the legality of the referendum and statements by lawmakers that a "No" vote would force his resignation and early elections.

Nobel prize-winning economist Christopher Pissarides caught the mood of uncertainty: "It is difficult to predict what will happen to Greece if they reject it. It will be bad enough for the European Union and the euro zone in particular, but it will be far worse for Greece.

"In the scenario of a 'No' vote Greece would declare bankruptcy immediately, they would default immediately. I can't see them staying within the euro," he said

REFERENDUM ON MEMBERSHIP

"The situation is so tight that basically it would be a vote over their euro membership," Finland's Europe Minister Alexander Stubb told broadcaster MTV3.

Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos also warned citizens that euro zone membership was at stake. "It's crunch time," he told lawmakers on Monday.

"Citizens will have to answer the question: are we for Europe, the eurozone and the euro?"

Early on Tuesday, Venizelos checked into an Athens hospital with stomach pains but was expected to be discharged later.

Analysts were divided over whether Greek voters would accept the deal, but agreed that a damaging month or two of market volatility lay ahead while pollsters repeatedly took the Greek voters' pulse and European leaders looked on nervously.

The immediate market reaction to the announcement was negative, the euro extending losses against the dollar and tumbling more than 2 percent to a session low.

European shares were seen opening lower on Tuesday.

Opposition New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras will visit President Karolos Papoulias on Tuesday to discuss developments and push for snap elections, party officials said.

"Mr. Papandreou is dangerous, he tosses Greece's EU membership like a coin in the air," party spokesman Yannis Michelakis said. "He cannot govern and instead of withdrawing honorably, he dynamites everything."

UP TO THE VOTERS

Papandreou told the Greek voters it was up to them to decide the country's fate.

"We trust citizens, we believe in their judgment, we believe in their decision," he told Socialist party deputies. "In a few weeks the (EU) agreement will be a new loan contract... we must spell out if we are accepting it or if we are rejecting it."

Papandreou, grappling with Greece's worst financial crisis in 40 years, said the referendum would take place in a few weeks. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told Greek TV it would probably be held early next year.

Opposition parties accused Papandreou of looking for a way out for his embattled party by dragging Greece, which has seen violent clashes between anti-austerity protesters and riot police, through a lengthy period of political instability.

"I never expected Papandreou to take such a dangerous and frivolous decision," said Dora Bakoyanni, former foreign minister and leader of the small center-right Democratic Alliance party. "All the international media will say that Greece itself is putting the EU deal at risk."

Greek newspapers on Tuesday also harshly criticized Papandreou for his choice. "More uncertainty is the last thing that Greece needs right now," said conservative newspaper Kathimerini in its lead editorial.

"The country will certainly paralyze amid endless debates -- the government, the state apparatus and institutions won't work," the newspaper added.

Papandreou also said he would ask for a vote of confidence to secure support for his policy for the rest of his four-year term, which expires in 2013.

Analysts said he was likely to win that, despite dissent among his parliamentary team, and parliament officials said the confidence debate would begin on Wednesday, with a vote on Thursday or Friday.

MONEY RUNNING OUT?

Greece is due to receive an 8 billion-euro tranche in mid-November, but that is likely to run out during January, around the time of the referendum, leaving the government with no funds if there is a "no" vote.

Germany issued a statement saying the EU was working hard to put the second Greek aid package in place by the end of the year and had no comment on the referendum.

Swinging opinion polls would leave markets fluctuating and Greece's EU partners dangling.

A survey carried out on Saturday showed that nearly 60 percent of Greeks viewed the agreement on the bailout package as negative or probably negative.

But David Lea of Control Risks struck a more positive note. "It's all in the question. If he can frame it as a sufficiently apple-pie issue, he stands some chance of winning," he said.

Some parliamentarians questioned the legality of the planned plebiscite under the constitution, which does not allow referendums on economic issues, only on matters of great national importance.

The last time Greeks held a referendum was in December 1974, when they voted to abolish the monarchy shortly after the collapse of a military dictatorship.

To be binding, a referendum result requires a minimum 40 percent turnout on issues of "crucial national importance" and 50 percent on a law that has already been voted on in parliament and "regulates a serious social issue," according to legislation enacted this year. It was not clear which option the government would favor.

"If the referendum answer is no, Papandreou has to resign," said Costas Panagopoulos, an analyst at polling firm Alco.

"In the meantime what will happen with the decisions the EU took last week? I cannot understand what the prime minister wants to do."

MF Global collapses under euro zone bets


Jon Corzine's bid to revive his Wall Street career crashed and burned on Monday when his futures brokerage MF Global Holdings Ltd filed for bankruptcy protection following bad bets on euro zone debt.

Corzine, 64, who once ran Goldman Sachs before becoming a U.S. senator and then governor of New Jersey, had been trying to turn the more than 200-year-old MF Global into a mini Goldman by taking on more risky trades.

But once regulators forced it to fully disclose the bets on debt issued by countries including Italy, Portugal and Spain, it rapidly unraveled with no buyers willing to step in.

MF Global's meltdown in less than a week made it the biggest U.S. casualty of Europe's debt crisis, and the seventh-largest bankruptcy by assets in U.S. history.

The company's shares plunged last week as its credit ratings were cut to junk. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing came after talks to sell a variety of assets to Interactive Brokers Group Inc broke down earlier on Monday, a person familiar with the matter said.

There were also signs that some of its customer accounts that are supposed to be segregated and protected from the rest of the business had suffered what regulators described as "possible deficiencies."

"Early this morning, MF Global informed the regulators that the transaction had not been agreed to and reported possible deficiencies in customer futures segregated accounts held at the firm," the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission said in a joint statement.

A bankruptcy proceeding led by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation would be the "most prudent course of action to protect customer accounts and assets," they said.

The New York Times reported later on Monday that federal regulators had discovered that hundreds of millions of dollars in customer money had gone missing from MF Global.

Less than $700 million was missing by late Monday, down from nearly $1 billion earlier, the paper reported on its website.

Regulators are looking into whether the brokerage used some of the money to support its own trades, the Times reported, citing unnamed sources.

MF Global was not immediately available to comment on the Times' report.

Regulators had expressed "grave concerns" about the viability of MF Global, which filed for bankruptcy only after "no viable alternative was available in the limited time leading up to the regulators' deadline," the company's chief operating officer, Bradley Abelow, said in a court filing.

One of the regulators that pressed MF Global, the CFTC, was unhappy with the brokerage's failure to give it the required data and records.

"(T)o date we don't have the information that we should have," said a source close to the CFTC.

In the end, regulators and markets reacted swiftly to MF Global's troubles, which may have been exacerbated by Corzine's affinity for risk-taking over the course of a career that took him to the top echelons of Wall Street and then into politics.

"They went for what would be a very profitable trade with European sovereign debt that obviously has blown up in their face, and brought the company down," said Dave Westhouse, vice president of Chicago retail broker PTI Securities and Futures.

RIPPLE EFFECTS

The bankruptcy is reminiscent of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 at the height of the financial crisis. But market participants said the impact from this collapse, far smaller, would likely be contained.

Still, MF Global's 2,870 employees, as well as trading counterparties, were left scrambling and confused on Monday, as MF Global halted its shares but did not file for bankruptcy until well after U.S. markets had opened.

Trading activity in gold, crude oil and grain futures slowed to a crawl as the bankruptcy forced a chaotic scramble to untangle trading positions.

"Ultimately it will have lost all confidence of its investor base," Michael Epstein, a restructuring adviser with CRG Partners, said of MF Global. "I'm not sure what restructuring it actually does. In some respects, it's a baby Lehman, in effect."

There was also uncertainty over Wall Street's exposure.

JPMorgan Chase & Co's exposure for a $1.2 billion syndicated loan to MF Global is less than $100 million, a source at the bank said. Deutsche Bank AG is listed in the court filing as a trustee for bondholders with $1 billion of claims. The banks declined to comment.

The impact on the markets should be smaller and nothing like when Lehman failed and hedge funds had money locked up with the firm for months, said Jeff Carter, an independent futures trader in Chicago.

At the Chicago Board of Trade, three traders wearing MF Global jackets were seen leaving prior to the opening of pit trading, and floor sources told Reuters they had been turned away after their security access cards were denied.

Back outside the Manhattan office, one MF Global employee said all he knew about the bankruptcy was what has been on TV. The company's HR department, meanwhile, was busy making calls withdrawing job offers it made in the past few weeks, according to a person familiar with the situation.

"A sale here is potentially the best outcome for employees because the company will continue to operate as opposed to slowly winding down," said Dan McElhinney, the managing director of corporate restructuring for Epiq Systems.

"I think there will be a lot of effort to tee up the sale pretty quickly here."

The New York Federal Reserve terminated MF Global as one of its primary dealers. CME Group Inc, IntercontinentalExchange Inc, Singapore Exchange Ltd and Singapore's central bank, among others, halted the broker's operations in some form except for liquidations.

European clearinghouse LCH.Clearnet declared MF Global in default.

THE ROAD TO BANKRUPTCY

Corzine was trying to transform MF Global from a brokerage that mainly places customers' trades on exchanges into an investment bank that bets with its own capital.

In the past week, the company posted a quarterly loss and its shares fell by two-thirds as investors focused on the euro zone bets and the effect of low interest rates, which hurt profits from its core brokerage operations.

MF Global scrambled through the weekend and into Monday to find buyers for all or parts of the company, while at the same time hiring restructuring and bankruptcy advisers in case nothing could be done.

In the court filing explaining what went wrong, MF Global pointed a finger at regulators. The bankruptcy was hastened by pressure from the CFTC, SEC and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, wrote Abelow, the COO.

FINRA ordered that its U.S. broker-dealer unit, called MFGI, boost net capital, and then reveal a $6.3 billion stake in short-term debt from European sovereigns with "troubled economies," he wrote.

Market concerns over such exposures led to MF Global being downgraded to "junk" status by various credit rating agencies, sparking margin calls that threatened liquidity, he added.

"Concerned about the events of the past week, some of MFGI's principal regulators -- the CFTC and the SEC -- expressed their grave concerns about MFGI's viability."

MF Global in the filing did not elaborate on the regulators' concerns or the reasons behind them.

FINRA declined to comment.

According to a July proxy filing, Corzine would be entitled to $12.1 million in severance, prorated bonus and other benefits upon being terminated without cause. Two other executives would be entitled to more: retail operations chief Randy MacDonald could get $17.9 million and Abelow could get $13.7 million.

However, federal bankruptcy law may limit any possible severance payouts.

First-day hearings in the case were scheduled for Tuesday at 3 p.m. in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. Among other things, MF Global is expected to seek permission from Judge Martin Glenn to use cash collateral to keep operating its business, court papers show.

CLOCK TICKING

By filing for bankruptcy, MF Global freezes the value of its free-falling notes and gives potential suitors a clearer picture of the losses they would be taking on, said Bill Brandt, CEO of Chicago-based turnaround firm Development Specialists Inc.

If a sale is in the offing, he added, the buyer may be a European bank or sovereign government, as such entities would be particularly keen on stopping the slide and maximizing the value of the notes.

"The real question is how many assets will be left to transfer," said Niamh Alexander, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. "Customers might move very quickly and it may be that every hour that passes shrinks the portfolio of assets that could be transferred" to a buyer, she said.

The bankruptcy is the latest flop for finance-focused private equity fund J.C. Flowers, whose other recent investments include nationalized German bank Hypo Real Estate.

After dividends the private equity firm has received for its preferred shares, J.C. Flowers' net exposure to MF Global is $47.8 million, according to a source familiar with the matter. The firm declined to comment.

MF Global hired boutique investment bank Evercore Partners to help find a buyer, separate sources said last week.

The broker's deeply distressed 6.25 percent notes maturing in 2016 fell 4 cents to 46 on the dollar, according to the Trace, which reports bond trades. The price had earlier fallen as low as 15 cents.

MF Global shares remained halted in New York.

Japan intervenes to tame soaring yen ahead of G20


The dollar spiked after the intervention as much as 4 percent past 79 yen from around 75.65 yen. The dollar touched a record low of 75.31 yen earlier on Monday.

Finance Minister Jun Azumi said Tokyo stepped into the market for the second time in less than three months on its own at 10:25 a.m. local time (0125 GMT) and would continue to intervene until it was satisfied with the results.

"I have repeatedly said that we would take decisive steps against speculative moves in the market," Azumi told an ad-hoc news conference.

Azumi would not comment on the size of the intervention, but one trader said the authorities were intervening "quite persistently."

"My sense is that they might not quit very easily," a trader said. The trader added, however, that dollar/yen may start to become heavy at levels above 79 yen.

Tokyo's second foray into currency markets since its record 4.5 trillion yen selling intervention on August 4, follows weeks of warnings by government and central bank officials that their patience with the currency's strength was wearing thin.

Even though the yen's exchange rate when measured against a trade-weighted basket of currencies and adjusted for inflation is not far from its 30-year average, it has been trading at much stronger levels against the dollar than one assumed by Japanese exporters in their earnings projections.

Last Thursday, acting in part out of concern that the yen's impact on corporate profits could derail Japan's recovery from the March earthquake and tsunami, the Bank of Japan eased its monetary policy by boosting government bond purchases.

But the easing failed to take the pressure off the yen, which continued to climb against the U.S. dollar -- underpinned by investors seeking relative safety in the currency from the European debt crisis.

Yunosuke Ikeda, senior FX strategist at Nomura Securities, said last week's central bank easing and Monday's intervention could be an effective combination.

"It was very good timing. The BOJ has prepared the ground by easing last week. Speculators' yen-buying position has piled up, and intervention is most effective in such cases," Ikeda said.

"This will likely be one-off intervention, but I think the government wants to stop the yen's strength, which is out of sync with gradually improving global economic fundamentals.

"The dollar/yen will unlikely fall back to the record low hit earlier today for some time."

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Azumi will head to the Group of 20 summit in Cannes, France later this week and Tokyo has been keen to win its international partners' understanding for its problems with the yen.

Azumi said that while Monday's intervention was a solo act he was in a continuous contact with his international partners.

"I have been frequently in contact (with other countries) ... I have always conveyed Japan's stance and interests at senior official levels," he said. Since September 2010, Japan has now intervened three times on its own and once jointly with other G7 rich nations to weaken the yen. But the effects of past intervention have proved fleeting in the face of steady demand from nervous investors seeking highly liquid and relatively safe assets such as Japanese government bonds.

This has been a source of deepening frustration for Japanese officials, who argue that a yen rally is one problem too many for a nation grappling with a nuclear crisis, a $250 billion post-quake rebuilding effort and ballooning debt.

(Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Hideyuki Sano; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Neil Fullick)

Italy's Berlusconi wins confidence vote


Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi survived a confidence vote in Parliament on Friday, but his narrow majority raises doubts over his ability to govern effectively when the country needs a steady hand during its economic crisis.

Berlusconi's conservatives won in a 316-301 vote in Parliament's lower house. After days of tension, the premier's allies clapped when the result of the vote was announced.

Berlusconi has been weakened by sex scandals and criticized for his handling of Italy's economy. He has been facing repeated calls for his resignation from his political rivals, labor unions and parts of the business community that once considered him their savior.

Even some of his own allies have openly expressed disappointment, with at least two deserting the crucial vote Friday.

Had he lost the vote of confidence, Berlusconi would have been forced to resign — about 1 1 / 2years before the end of his term, in 2013.

Three ratings agencies have downgraded Italy's public debt, citing the country's political gridlock and low growth prospects as key reasons. The vote Friday appeared to do little to reassure markets.

"The best signal that Italy could have sent to the markets would have been to boot Mr. Berlusconi out, but it has failed to do so," said Sony Kapoor, managing director of Re-Define an Economic Think Tank, shortly after the vote. "With Mr. Berlusconi still at the helm, there is nothing that Italy can do from within that will restore market confidence."

The 75-year-old leader has steadfastly hung onto power despite the scandals and four criminal trials in Milan. He has always maintained his innocence and blamed what he says are overzealous, left-leaning prosecutors bent on ousting him from power.

He insisted that there is no alternative to his government. He said the vote Friday amounted to an "ambush" by the opposition, and moments after the vote, he spoke to reporters about his plan to spur the country's moribund economy.

Italy is under pressure to come up with growth-promoting measures to avert being dragged into the widening sovereign debt crisis.

This week, Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, who takes over the helm of the European Central Bank on Nov. 1, urged the government to act more quickly to implement reforms that can spur growth — beyond the austerity package that put Italy on the path to balance its budget by 2013.

Otherwise, Draghi warned that the rising cost of borrowing to service national debt seen over the last three months will eat up "no small part" of the austerity package approved by Parliament last month.

"The goal of relaunching growth is finally largely shared, but the adoption of the measures necessary so far have banged up against apparently insurmountable difficulties," Draghi said.

U.S. missile kills 4 in Pakistan



Drone-fired U.S. missiles killed four people in a northwestern Pakistani region controlled by the Haqqani militant network on Friday, a day after a similar attack there killed a top commander of the group, Pakistani officials said.



The identities of the dead in the North Waziristan region were not known, the officials said.

The four were riding in a car close to Miran Shah town, the main base of the Haqqani network, when two missiles struck, said the officials, who did not give their names because they were not allowed to brief reporters.

U.S. intelligence believes the Haqqanis are the top threat to security in Afghanistan and that they enjoy the support of the Pakistani army. It wants the army to sever its ties and attack the group, something that Islamabad refuses to do.

The issue is a main cause of tensions between the two countries.

On Thursday, a missile attack close to Miran Shah killed Janbaz Zadran, who U.S. officials said was a top commander in the network who helped orchestrate attacks in Kabul and southeastern Afghanistan. They said he was the most senior Haqqani leader in Pakistan to be taken off the battlefield.

Earlier Friday, two militants killed alongside Zadran were buried in the town of Lakki Marwat, which lies just outside the tribal regions. About 2,000 supporters attended the funeral of one of the men, Maulana Iftikhar. They included Arab militants and a lawmaker from the country's largest opposition party.

The size of the funeral indicated significant support in that region for fighters battling the American presence just across the border in Afghanistan. The Pashtun ethnic group that accounts for most of the resistance in Afghanistan straddles the frontier.

Iftikhar was the head of an Islamic school in Miran Shah. He came from Lakki Marwat.

Locals said he was involved in "jihad" in Afghanistan.

"Maulana Iftikhar is a martyr, and we warn America to immediately stop these drone attacks," said Ahmed Jan Qureshi, a local leader of the Islamist Jamiat Ulema Islam political party. "America should realize that these attacks are causing hate against it, and see these thousands of people who are here to attend funeral of a martyr."

Alsso present was Munawar Khan, the town's local lawmaker and a member of the opposition party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He declined to speak to The Associated Press.

Since 2008, the United States has regularly unleashed unmanned drone-fired missiles against militants in the border region. Pakistani officials protest the strikes, which are unpopular among many Pakistanis, but the country is believed to support them privately and makes no diplomatic or military efforts to stop them.

U.N.: Syria death toll tops 3,000

Syrian security forces opened fire Friday on protesters calling for the overthrow of President Bashar Assad, killing at least seven, activists said.

The killings came as the U.N.'s top human rights official urged the international community to take "immediate measures" to protect civilians in Syria.

The protests were called to support the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors who have reportedly clashed with loyalists in northern and central Syria. The demonstrations were the most explicit show of support offered so far by the country's protest movement to the group, whose operations have led to an increased militarization of the seven-month-old uprising.

Clashes between troops and gunmen believed to be defectors left at least 25 people dead on Thursday, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso and the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said the protests on Friday spread from the suburbs of the capital Damascus to the southern province of Daraa, the northern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hassakeh, and to the central regions of Homs and Hama, as well as to other areas.

The observatory and the LCC said security forces killed one protester in the Damascus suburb of Saqba and another in the village of Andan in the northern province of Idlib.

The two groups had different death tolls from the southern village of Dael, with the observatory reporting seven people killed and the LCC reporting five dead. It was impossible to resolve the discrepancy or to independently verify the reports.

A banner in English carried by protesters in the northern village of Kfar Nabul urged the United States to overthrow the Syrian president. "Americans!… If you don't topple Al-Assad now don't boast about democracy again," said the banner, a photo of which appeared on the LCC's Facebook page.

The uprising against Assad's regime began in mid-March amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

In Geneva, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that an unrelenting crackdown by Assad's government could worsen unless further action is taken. She said the death toll from seven months of anti-government unrest in the country rose to above 3,000.

"The onus is on all members of the international community to take protective action in a collective and decisive manner, before the continual ruthless repression and killings drive the country into a full-blown civil war," Pillay said in a statement.

She didn't elaborate on what measures the international community could take beyond the sanctions already imposed on Assad's regime.

Her spokesman, Rupert Colville, told reporters in Geneva that it was up to the U.N. Security Council to decide what action was appropriate.

But he added: "What has been done so far is not producing results and people continue to be killed every single day."

"Just hoping things will get better isn't good enough, clearly," Colville said.

The U.N. human rights office estimates that more than 3,000 people have now been killed since mid-March — about 10 to 15 people every day. The figure includes at least 187 children. More than 100 people had been killed in the last 10 days alone, the global body said.

Colville said hundreds more protesters have been arrested, detained, tortured and disappeared. Families of anti-government protesters inside and outside the country have also been targeted for harassment.