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BEIRUT: Syrian rebels blew up an army checkpoint outside Damascus yesterday and more than 30 combatants from both sides died in the blast and ensuing clashes, a monitoring group said. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 rebels and at least 16 soldiers were killed. Elsewhere near the capital, Syrian forces tried to storm the suburb of Mouadamiya, which the army has blockaded for months, leading to a rising death toll from hunger and malnutrition. The British-based Observatory said the checkpoint explosion, near the suburbs of Mleiha and Jaramana, was detonated by a suicide bomber from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Nusra supporters on Twitter, however, said the bomber had intended to blow himself up in the car, but instead got out before setting off the explosives inside.

They said rebel forces had captured the checkpoint hit by the car bomb and were battling to take a second one nearby. Syrian state television reported the blast but gave no death toll, saying only that several people had been killed or wounded in a “terrorist bombing”. The Observatory, which has a network of activists across Syria, said Syrian fighter jets retaliated by striking nearby opposition- held areas such as Mleiha. Video uploaded by activists showed a huge column of smoke billowing up from the scene and the sound of fighter jets streaking overhead could be heard. Rebels also fired rockets into Jaramana, a suburb held by the government, according to the Observatory. It said the air force carried out four strikes on adjacent rebel-held districts. More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old conflict, which began with popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad before degenerating into civil war. In Mouadamiya, activists said they were facing heavy bombardment during an assault by Assad’s forces.

The army had advanced, but had yet to enter the suburb, said Qusair Zakariya, an activist there. “Our rebels are fighting hard to repel the regime … We’ve been doing our best to try to evacuate civilians from the western front of the town because they’re now exposed to shelling and tank fire,” he said, speaking by Skype over audible bursts of rocket fire. Like most rebel enclaves in the suburbs that ring Damascus, Mouadamiya has been under an army-imposed siege for months, causing a particularly acute shortage of food and supplies. Doctors in the town have reported an increasing number of deaths from malnutrition, especially among children. The United States condemned the siege on Friday, saying the Assad government had only allowed a limited number of civilians to escape from Mouadamiya and that it must allow food, water and medicine to reach those still inside. “We also warn the regime … not to use limited evacuations of civilians as an excuse to attack those residents who remain behind,” it said. “The regime’s deliberate prevention of the delivery of life-saving humanitarian supplies to thousands of civilians is unconscionable.”

Western powers have mostly backed opposition forces trying to end four decades of Assad family rule, but have hesitated to supply military aid to the rebels, fearing the rising influence of Al Qaeda. Russia and Iran have supported Assad unstintingly. International efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria have stuttered for months, but Russia and the United States are now planning to hold peace talks in Geneva next month. The deeply divided opposition remains reluctant to attend, however, and Assad’s government has already said it will not consider any deal that requires the president to step down. — Reuters

MUMBAI: Pakistani musician Adnan Sami was given a notice on Tuesday by Mumbai police for overstaying in India after his visa expired earlier this month.

The 44-year-old singer and composer, who has made India his second home for the last several years, has been asked to reply to the notice explaining reasons for overstaying and efforts being made by him for renewal of the visa within a week, sources in the special branch of city police said.

His last visa was valid from September 26, 2012 to October 6, 2013.

Sources said Mr Sami had informed Mumbai police that he had applied for an extension of his visa in Delhi but failed to produce any valid documentary evidence to support his claim.

If he fails to reply to the notice and follow the norms prescribed for foreigners, the ministry of home affairs would be informed for taking appropriate action, they said.

The expiry of the singer’s visa came to light recently during the hearing of a court case between him and his former wife Sabah Galadari over possession of a duplex flat in Lokhandwala complex.

Following this, the film wing of Raj Thackeray-led MNS had demanded that Mr Sami be deported.

The singer had met M.N.S. Chitrapat Karmachari Sena leader Amey Khopkar on Saturday seeking their cooperation on the matter.

“Sami met us at our office seeking our cooperation. We told him to leave the country as his visa has expired,” Mr Khopkar had said.

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.

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