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SAO PAULO: A feared organized crime syndicate based in Brazil has threatened to launch terror-style attacks during the World Cup and presidential elections next year, a daily newspaper reported Tuesday.

The so-called First Command of the Capital gang, which is led from inside prisons in Sao Paulo state, vowed to unleash a “World Cup of terror” if its chiefs are transferred and isolated in other jails, the report said.

The O Estado de Sao Paulo daily's story followed its revelation last week of details of an extensive report by prosecutors on the activities of the group, which is better known by its shortened moniker, the PCC.

“The threats extend to 2014, when they are promising a 'World Cup of terror' and attacks during the presidential elections,” it warned. The World Cup, the first in Brazil since 1950, kicks off in Sao Paulo next June.

However, the commander of Sao Paulo state's military police, Colonel Benedito Meira, told AFP that while some criminals have been wiretapped discussing the World Cup, there was no intelligence report of a “real threat” during a sporting event.

“There is no need to be alarmist. One needs to see when the (wiretapped) comments were made, in what context,” he said, adding that police have been conducting various simulation scenarios to be better prepared for all types of security threats during the football extravaganza.

The PCC, as described in the prosecutors' report, is a huge organization with separate divisions to coordinate the drug trade, commit crimes, provide legal defense to its members and manage its finances.

The syndicate, which has more than 11,000 members, including 6,000 behind bars, also operates in Paraguay and Bolivia, it added.

The prosecutors called for 175 PCC members who are currently free to be incarcerated. They are also demanding tougher jail conditions for 32 others currently held, including the entire leadership, in Presidente Venceslau in Sao Paulo state.

The paper said the gang relies on a “board of directors” made up of criminals not in detention to run day-to-day operations.

The report grew out of more than three years of investigation and was based on documents, witnesses' testimonies and wiretaps.

The PCC was blamed for a wave of violence that left more than 300 people dead, including some police officers, late last year.

In 2006, the gang also went on a rampage in Sao Paulo, attacking police stations and public buildings.

According to human rights groups, the PCC assault, which triggered a wave of police reprisal attacks in which scores of suspects were gunned down, came in large part in response to a series of organized shakedowns by police.

The PCC was set up in 1993 by jailed drug traffickers in Sao Paulo.

BANGKOK: A Lao Airlines plane carrying at least 44 people, including French and Thai citizens, crashed as it tried to land in southern Laos killing all on board on Wednesday, officials said.

At least seven French citizens and five Thais were among those killed when the plane travelling from the capital Vientiane plunged into the Mekong River around eight kilometres (five miles) from Pakse airport in Champasak province in southern Laos, officials said.

“I can now confirm, according to our reports, that all 44 people on board have died, including five Thai,” Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told AFP, adding that he had been told there were 39 passengers and five crew.

State-owned Lao Airlines confirmed the crash in a statement on its official Facebook page, in which it said there were 44 passengers and an additional five crew.

It said the aircraft hit “extreme” bad weather and had crashed into the Mekong.

“There were no news of survivors at this time,” it said, but did not confirm any deaths.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France was rushing embassy officials to the site of the crash in Pakse, which is a hub for tourists travelling to more remote areas in southern Laos.

“I have just learned with deep shock and great sadness of the air disaster that took place in southern Laos in which at least seven of our compatriots were killed,” he said in a statement.

“My first thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims,” he said, adding that a crisis team had been set up to help the families of the victims.

An unconfirmed passenger list obtained by AFP suggested that more than half of the people onboard were foreign nationals, including those from Australia, South Korea, the United States, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Canada and Malaysia.

Some 17 people were listed as Laos nationals.

An official at the South Korean embassy in Bangkok told Yonhap news agency that three South Koreans were also among the dead.

Pictures on Thai television showed a small plane, half submerged in the river, with what appeared to be bodies lying on the banks.

The airline expressed “our condolences to family, friends, colleagues and relatives” of the passengers.

“Lao Airlines is taking all necessary steps to coordinate and dispatch all rescue units to the accident site in the hope of finding survivors and at the same time informing relative of the passengers,” the English language statement said.

The QV301 flight set off from Vientiane on time at 2.45pm (0745 GMT) and was supposed to arrive in Paske just over an hour later.

Images shared on social media, which AFP could not independently verify, showed people dragging broken shards of the plane from the river.

A spokesman from aircraft manufacturer ATR in France confirmed the crash and told AFP that the state-owned Lao Airlines flight was one of its twin-engine turboprop ATR-72 planes. He said Lao Airlines has a fleet of six ATR-72 planes.

An official at the Vietnamese Embassy in Laos told AFP on condition of anonymity that all on board the plane had been killed.

Founded in 1976, the carrier operates a fleet of ATR-72 turboprop, Airbus A320 and Chinese-made MA60 planes, serving domestic airports and destinations in China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, according to its website.

The country has had 29 fatal air accidents since the 1950s, according to the Aviation Safety Network, whose data showed that the country's safety record has improved dramatically in the last decade.

The last fatal air accident was in October 2000 when eight people died when a plane operated by the airline, then called Lao Aviation, crashed in remote mountains in the northeast of the country.

Communist Laos, landlocked between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, is a closed country with a secretive one-party government.

The nation of about seven million people is one of Asia's poorest countries and is highly dependent on foreign donors.

The economy is relatively insulated from global trade and financial networks, though Laos has become a popular tourism destination and mining has played an increasingly important role in growth.

Lao Airline operates domestic flights as well as a limited number of international flights to other regional countries.

The carrier recorded some 900,000 passengers in 2012 and is expected to exceed 1 million people this year, according to a report in the Vientiane Times in March.

It said the country's tourist arrivals reached 3.3 million in 2012, an increase of 22 per cent compared to the previous year.

MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia: Some 1.5 million Muslim pilgrims thronged Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia yesterday for the high point of the annual hajj, praying for an end to disputes and bloodshed. Helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of troops stood guard to organise roads flooded with men, women and children. Chanting “Labaik Allahum Labaik” (I am responding to your call, God), many of them camped in small colourful tents and took shelter under trees to escape temperatures of around 40 degrees Celsius. Special sprinklers were set up to help cool the pilgrims.

In his annual sermon, top Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh urged Muslims to avoid divisions, chaos and sectarianism, without explicitly speaking of the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring. “Your nation is a trust with you. You must safeguard its security, stability and resources,” the cleric, who heads Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, said in an address to the Muslim world. “You should know that you are targeted by your enemy… who wants to spread chaos among you … It’s time to confront this.”

He did not speak specifically of Syria, where Sunni-led rebels backed by Saudi Arabia are at war with a regime led by Alawites – an offshoot of Shiism – and closely allied with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. But the cleric recalled the Islamic prohibition of killing and aggression, while insisting there is “no salvation or happiness for the Muslim nation without adhering to the teachings of the religion.”

Attendance is sharply down from last year, due to fears linked to the MERS virus and to multi-billion-dollar expansion work at the Grand Mosque to almost double its capacity to around 2.2 million worshippers. Governor of Makkah province and head of the central hajj committee Prince Khaled Al-Faisal said 1.38 million pilgrims had arrived from outside of the kingdom while ony 117,000 hajj permits were issued for domestic pilgrims. This puts the total number of pilgrims this year at almost 1.5 million, less than half of last year’s 3.2 million, after Riyadh slashed hajj quotas.

Prince Khaled told the official SPA news agency late Sunday that authorities had turned back 70,000 nationals and expatriates for not carrying legal permits and had arrested 38,000 others for performing the hajj without a permit. Authorities have also seized as many as 138,000 vehicles for violating the hajj rules, and owners will be penalised, the prince said.

Saudi health authorities have stressed that no cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus have been detected so far this pilgrimage. The disease has killed 60 people worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrims arrived at Arafat from nearby Mina where most of them spent the night following the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who performed the rituals 14 centuries ago.

They had moved to Mina on Sunday from the holy city of Makkah, home to the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest place of worship, which houses the cube-shaped Kaaba towards which all Muslims pray five times daily. On reaching Arafat, they crowded onto the hill and the vast plain surrounding it to pray until sunset, when they are due to set off for Muzdalifah for a ritual on Monday symbolising the stoning of the devil.

“I will pray the whole day for God to improve the situation for Muslims worldwide and an end to disputes and bloodshed in Arab countries,” 61-year-old Algerian pensioner Saeed Dherari said. “I hope that God will grace all Muslims with security and stability,” said 75-year-old Ahmad Khader, who hails from the southern Syrian province of Daraa. “The regime is tyrannical and I pray for God to help the oppressed people,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s embattled government.

Egyptian Ahmad Ali, who is performing hajj for the first time, prayed for peace after hundreds were killed in recent months in fighting between security forces and Islamist supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. “I pray for Egypt to enjoy security and stability and for the people to reach understanding and reconciliation,” Ali told AFP. The hajj, which officially ends on Friday, is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.

After praying on Mount Arafat, the faithful descended to Muzdalifah, where they were to spend the night before today’s symbolic stoning of the devil and celebration of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. A majority of the pilgrims walked the 5-km distance while others took buses and trains, some riding on the roofs. – AFP

MAKKAH: Mohammed Shuaib wears a mask as he walks amid a flood of Muslims arriving for the haj, but his wariness about the deadly MERS virus that has struck Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem to be widely shared. “Prevention is better than cure,” said the 67-year-old Algerian pensioner as he removed his mask to speak to AFP after performing noon prayers at the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

But the overwhelming majority of those around him have no masks, and some said they never even heard of the MERS coronavirus, which has claimed 60 lives worldwide, 51 of them in Saudi Arabia. The latest two Saudi victims were announced on Thursday. “We heard that the coronavirus is deadly and people in this case should protect themselves,” said Shuaib, accompanied by his nephew, who also wore a mask.

“I obtained the mask from Algerian authorities, who also briefed pilgrims about the disease,” he said. The haj, the largest annual gathering in the world, starts on Sunday and ends on October 18, with about two million pilgrims expected from Saudi Arabia and around the world. The fact the kingdom accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases has raised concerns about the haj to Makkah, Islam’s holiest site. Some fear pilgrims could be infected and return to their homelands carrying the virus.

But the authorities have said they are optimistic the haj will pass without incident, given Muslims also go on lesser pilgrimages at other times of the year and there has been no problem. This year’s minor pilgrimage season, or Umrah, during the fasting month of Ramadan in July-August passed off without any MERS outbreak even though millions of Muslims took part.

And on Thursday, Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabia was quoted as saying no cases of the virus had been recorded at this year’s event. “So far, no case for any epidemic has been recorded among the pilgrims, especially the coronavirus,” media quoted him as saying. But to be on the safe side, the minister said precautions against the outbreak of any disease, especially MERS, have been beefed up this year with strict measures. Health employees have been strictly instructed to isolate any suspected case and carry out the necessary laboratory tests to ensure the safety of pilgrims.

The minister said up to 600 public health employees wearing face masks were deployed at Jeddah international airport to screen arriving pilgrims and ensure they had the necessary vaccinations, mainly shots against influenza and meningitis. Immigration officers at the airport, the main entry point for pilgrims from abroad, and other staff also wore masks as did most of the soldiers manning road blocks to prevent illegal pilgrims.

Riyadh has also urged the elderly and chronically ill, who are particularly susceptible to MERS, to avoid the haj and have advised pilgrims to wear face masks. Even so, most of the pilgrims interviewed seemed unmoved over the disease and were not wearing masks. “We depend on God,” said middle-aged Ahmad Mahmoud from Egypt as he walked without a mask in a sea of people near the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest shrine. Mahmoud said he was given a mask at the airport and another when he arrived at the hotel and will wear it later.

Harris Zawawi from Malaysia was wearing a mask, but said it was not specifically against the coronavirus, “which I did not hear about.” “It is to protect me from contagious diseases in general as I was advised by Malaysian haj authorities,” said Zawawi, who is performing the haj for the second time. It appears that the large number of pilgrims not wearing the masks were either unaware of MERS or just being careless.

Experts are struggling to understand MERS, for which there is still no vaccine. It is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that erupted in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died, and sowed economic chaos. Like SARS, it is believed to have jumped from animals to humans. It shares the former’s flu-like symptoms, but differs by also causing kidney failure.- AFP

DHAKA: A fire Tuesday at a garment factory outside Bangladesh's capital has killed at least 10 people, an official said.

Fire official Zafar Ahmed said 10 bodies were found inside the multistory Aswad garment factory in Gazipur outside Dhaka. He said several other people were injured while trying to escape from the building.

Local journalist Iqbal Ahmed said from the scene that the fire occurred when the factory was closed for the day, but some employees were still inside working overtime.

TV footage showed the top three floors of the building on fire as dozens of firefighters tried to bring the blaze under control. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.

Harsh and often unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh's garment industry drew global attention after the collapse of an eight-story factory building in April killed more than 1,100 people.

The industry has experienced numerous fires, including one last November that killed 112 workers.

Bangladesh earns $20 billion a year from garment exports, mainly to the United States and Europe. The sector employs about 4 million workers, mostly women.

Authorities in Bangladesh and global clothing companies have pledged to improve safety standards.

CANADA: Hold your nose and don’t spit out your coffee: Doctors have found a way to put healthy people’s poop into pills that can cure serious gut infections – a less yucky way to do “fecal transplants.” Canadian researchers tried this on 27 patients and cured them all after strong antibiotics failed to help. It’s a gross topic but a serious problem. Half a million Americans get Clostridium difficile, or C-diff, infections each year, and about 14,000 die. The germ causes nausea, cramping and diarrhea so bad it is often disabling. A very potent and pricey antibiotic can kill C-diff but also destroys good bacteria that live in the gut, leaving it more susceptible to future infections.

Recently, studies have shown that fecal transplants – giving infected people stool from a healthy donor – can restore that balance. But they’re given through expensive, invasive procedures like colonoscopies or throat tubes. Doctors also have tried giving the stool through enemas but the treatment doesn’t always take hold. There even are YouTube videos on how to do a similar treatment at home via an enema. A study in a medical journal of a small number of these “do-ityourself” cases suggests the approach is safe and effective. Dr Thomas Louie, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, devised a better way – a one-time treatment custommade for each patient. Donor stool, usually from a relative, is processed in the lab to take out food and extract the bacteria and clean it. It is packed into triple-coated gel capsules so they won’t dissolve until they reach the intestines. “There’s no stool left – just stool bugs.

These people are not eating poop,” and there are no smelly burps because the contents aren’t released until they’re well past the stomach, Louie said. Days before starting the treatment, patients are given an antibiotic to kill the C-diff. On the morning of the treatment, they have an enema so “the new bacteria coming in have a clean slate,” Louie said. It takes 24 to 34 capsules to fit the bacteria needed for a treatment, and patients down them in one sitting. The pills make their way to the colon and seed it with the normal variety of bacteria. Louie described 27 patients treated this way on Thursday at IDWeek, an infectious diseases conference in San Francisco. All had suffered at least four C-diff infections and relapses, but none had a recurrence after taking the poop pills. Margaret Corbin, 69, a retired nurse’s aide from Calgary, told of the misery of C-diff. “It lasted for two years. It was horrible. I thought I was dying. I couldn’t eat.

Every time I ate anything or drank water I was into the bathroom,” she said. “I never went anywhere, I stayed home all the time.” With her daughter as the donor, she took pills made by Louie two years ago, and “I’ve been perfectly fine since,” Corbin said. Dr Curtis Donskey of the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who has done fecal transplants through colonoscopies, praised the work. “The approach that Dr Louie has is completely novel – no one else has done this,” he said. “I am optimistic that this type of preparation will make these procedures much easier for patients and for physicians.” —AP

WASHINGTON: It’s the latest weight loss craze among American teens striving to emulate the models they see in magazines: the “thigh gap”, in which slender legs, when standing with feet together, do not touch. Experts say the cost of what teens see as an ideal body shape-but really is for most unattainable-is self-esteem problems that can lead to eating disorders, depression and even suicide. On Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook, “thigh gap” photos abound: close-ups of sometimes unbearably skinny legs published by young girls eager to show off their success-or bemoan what they see as a failure to whittle away fat. “My thigh gap is huge,” brags a Tumblr user with the handle foster-the-beatles.

Another user, skinnysizezero, cheers her fellow dieters on, saying: “Together we can lose weight. Together we can be skinny.” “Together we can be a size zero with a beautiful thigh gap and flat stomach. Together we can be happy and finally say that we love our bodies,” her post pledges. Another poster, elleskyyy, said she felt better when she “realized I’m getting a thigh gap.” Meanwhile, a user called “starving for perfection” complained about her “mediocre/nonexistent thigh gap” and flagellated herself for her “fatfatfatfat.” Experts say the obsession with leg shape is not new, but has been dramatically amplified by social media websites and their 24/7 influence on the lives of American teens.

The fan Twitter account Cara’s Thigh Gap, is dedicated to the extreme slenderness of British model Cara Delevingne, while dozens of Facebook pages and websites propose diets and exercise regimes to achieve the almighty gap. But clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg warned that for most women, the “thigh gap” is a pipe dream, even via extreme dieting and exercise. “Most women are not built that way to have that space between their thighs,” she said. “It is a matter of bone structure,” she explained, which “the majority of women do not have.” For teenagers, adopting what Greenberg called an “unrealistic obsession” can be dangerous- increasing pressures that can lead to depression, even suicidal behavior, as well as to severe eating disorders, which can cause lasting brain and bone damage

. Indeed, starvation diets-and self-loathing-are a common theme on the “thigh gap” pages of young girls. “Yesterday i had 380 calories but then i ate candys so much that my calorie number switch to ca. 650…. faaaaaaaaaaaaaat,” writes Anastasia, a young German girl, on Tumblr, who prays: “Please God let me be skinny.” The World Health Organization recommends a daily intake of around 2,500 calories to support the energy needs of a growing teenage girl. Shannon Snapp, a sociologist at the University of Arizona, blames magazines, movies and television for spreading the “thin ideal,” and urges consumers to stop buying into it. “That message is internalized by young women and girls: if you want to be successful, if you want to be liked, this is the way you should look,” Snapp said-”thin everywhere except for their breasts.” “Teenage girls are probably the most likely to be feeling the pressure to look that particular way, because they are going through puberty: for the first time, they are compared to adult women,” she added. Likewise, San Jose State University sociologist Natalie Boero said the skinny-obsessed “are looking for social acceptance and to fit in.” “Young women are aware that in a sexist and sizeist culture, their bodies are their currency, and they are looking to increase their perceived social value,” she added.

That’s not how the teenagers themselves always see it, however. One girl, “mannddda,” declares on Tumblr: “I hate when people tell me I’m dumb for wanting a thigh gap and to be skinny. It’s not for anyone else but ME. I wanna look in the mirror and be happy for MYSELF & NO ONE ELSE.” But sociologists say there is an unmistakable trend linking body size with social status. Abigail Saguy, a body image expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Attaining thinness is a way of signaling elite social status.” But, worse than that, “fatness not only connotates low social status, but it may predict low social status.” “Studies show that heavier girls and women are less likely to get hired and when they are hired, they are paid less,” Saguy said, adding that larger women are also less likely to marry.

However, a counter-movement against the “thigh gap” is building, with girls also taking to social media to mock the obsession. One YouTube video, “5 Ways to Fake a Thigh Gap,” posted by “tadelesmith,” suggests, for example, that girls who want a gap between their thighs should move their legs apart. And on Twitter, Common White Girl declares herself relieved that her thighs touch, saying: “Not having a thigh gap saved my phone from falling in the toilet.” — AP

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