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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

NEW YORK: Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif held a meeting with Bill Gates, co-chair and founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the sideline of the 68th session of the United nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

During the meeting, the premiere appreciated Mr Gate's continued interest in and support for polio eradication in Pakistan.

The Prime Minister informed Mr Gates that his government had redoubled its efforts to ensure effective implementation of the National Emergency Action Plan to completely eradicate polio in Pakistan.

Mr Gates praised efforts made by Pakistan over the past two years for eradicating the crippling disease disease from the country.

He recognised government's commitment to reach all Pakistani children with Polio vaccine for the eradication of this debilitating disease.

The Prime Minister also shared with Mr Bill Gates his government's vision on science and technology promotion.

In this regard, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance of IT and telecommunication sector, especially its job creation potential for the youth of Pakistan.

Mr Sharif said that his government was committed to increase IT-related exports, introducing e-government framework and establishing technology parks.

Bill Gates thanked the Pakistani premier for sharing his vision on further strengthening Pakistans IT and Telecommunication sector.

 

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama will welcome Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif to the White House on October 23 to encourage his pledge to improve relations with Washington and India.

 

The announcement of Sharif's visit came from the White House as the premier met US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

 

“The president looks forward to discussions with Prime Minister Sharif on ways we can advance our shared interest of a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.

 

“The visit will highlight the importance and resilience of the US-Pakistan relationship and provide an opportunity for us to strengthen cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism.”

 

The announcement of Sharif's visit came on the eve of a meeting between Obama and Indian Premier Manmohan Singh at the White House on Friday.

 

Singh and Sharif are expected to meet at the weekend at the UN General Assembly in an attempt to quell rising border tensions between the rivals.

 

After Kerry met Sharif, who was elected in May, a senior US official praised his effort to lower tensions in volatile South Asia.

 

“In the short intervening period (since Sharif's election) he's made it clear that he's committed to improving relations not only with his neighbors but also importantly with the United States,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

 

The officials predicted a “full agenda” for the White House talks but also warned of “frank discussions about some serious challenges and some serious concerns.” The anti-terror alliance between Washington and Islamabad has been troubled ever since it was forged in the days after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

 

But it has been especially frayed since the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory in 2011 and a US airstrike, which it claimed, ‘mistakenly’ killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border later the same year.

 

Washington needs Pakistan's cooperation as it prepares to withdraw thousands of pieces of heavy equipment from Afghanistan ahead of the end of Nato combat operations at the end of 2014.

 

The United States also wants the Pakistani government to do more to crack down on militant havens. Pakistan, meanwhile, is chafing at continued US drone strikes against militants on its territory.

 

The senior US official said that Sharif took along his national security advisor, and finance and energy ministers to the meeting with Kerry.

 

“I think the inclusion of those three ministers is pretty indicative of the priorities of the Sharif government ... in the first 100 days,” the official said.

 

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