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Hezbollah plans to attack militants inside Syria

In the midst of a damning report by Amnesty International describing the horrors Syrian civilians are living through, plans for fresh attacks on al-Qaeda-linked militants have been announced by Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah.

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The group’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has hinted at an impending military operation against al-Qaeda-linked militants in the mountainous area inside Syria.

Local media and the Syrian opposition are speculating the assault could start within days.

But Mr Nasrallah has not revealed any concrete plans.

“When this operation begins, it will announce itself by imposing itself on the media, and then everyone will know that this operation has started” he said in a televised address.

“But concerning, in regards to, its goals, limits, location and where it’s heading, this will be left for the right time, and we will not declare it now. It’s not in our interest to announce everything now.”

Some Lebanese officials have warned Hezbollah against launching the attack, saying it would stir tensions in the country and drag Lebanon further into the conflict in Syria.

But the Hezbollah leader said, by not taking action, it would be avoiding its responsibility.

The Shi’ite Muslim group is a staunch ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has sent hundreds of combatants to fight with his forces in the four-year civil war.

And it is during this civil war that, the human-rights group Amnesty International said, civilians have endured unbearable suffering and sheer terror.

A new report by the group claimed barrel bombs dropped by Syrian government forces have killed at least 11,000 people in Syria since 2012.

It described the bombings as crimes against humanity.

“Barrel bombs are essentially oil drums with TNT and shrapnel inside, and, when civilians hear the hissing sound so characteristic of barrel-bomb attacks, they essentially know they have two minutes in which they can try to seek refuge,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program director, Philip Luther.

Amnesty’s investigation shows many residents have been forced underground to escape government forces’ relentless aerial bombardment of opposition-held areas.

The report, entitled Death Everywhere: War crimes and human-rights abuses in Aleppo, says the city, near the Syria-Turkey border, has been particularly hard hit.

The report also said torture, arbitrary detention and abduction of civilians in Aleppo by both sides has been widespread.

It said attacks from government and rebel forces have left civilians in Aleppo living in dire conditions.

Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières claimed Al-Sakhour hospital in Aleppo has suspended its activities after being targeted.

“This hospital is the second-biggest in east Aleppo, and it’s one of the two performing life-saving trauma surgeries. It’s a hospital well equipped with materials and staff, so it’s one of the key hospitals treating the war-wounded patients,” said Médecins Sans Frontières spokesman Carlos Francisco.

“We request from the warring parties that they respect these medical facilities, they respect the medical staff and they respect the civilian population.”

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Labor premiers team up on pensioner cuts

Three Labor premiers have written to Prime Minister Tony Abbott demanding the reinstatement of Commonwealth funding for pensioner concessions ahead of the federal budget.

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The Abbott government last year cut $223 million for water, electricity and rate concessions over four years.

Queensland’s former Liberal National Party (LNP) government initially said it would only pick up 10 per cent of the shortfall, but then agreed to bridge the gap after a public backlash.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told state parliament on Wednesday that she had formed an alliance with her Victorian counterpart Daniel Andrews and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, to demand the reinstatement of the money.

“Why should the state have to pick up the burden of what has been in the past solely the responsibility of the federal government, to provide that funding to the states across Australia?” she asked.

“This is the right thing to do. It should never have been ripped out in the first place.”

The South Australian government on Tuesday renewed its own calls for the funding to be returned.

South Australian treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said federal counterpart Joe Hockey will be unable to repair his relationship with local pensioners until he reinstates the annual $30 million in concessions to help cover rates, utility bills, public transport fares and car registrations.

In South Australia, the state government is picking up the tab until July and the opposition says it should fund the concessions over the long term, just like other state governments.

Treasurer Joe Hockey will hand down his budget on Tuesday.

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Greece set to escape ban as sports law goes to parliament

The bill will be voted on in parliament on Wednesday and Thursday after protracted talks between Stavros Kontonis, Greece’s Deputy Minister for Education, Culture and Religious Affairs, and UEFA officials in Nyon reached their conclusion.

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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was also briefed on Tuesday evening ahead of the bill’s submission to parliament.

“We have made a serious effort in order to avoid Greek teams being excluded from international competitions, with our national team always top of our mind,” Kontonis said when addressing parliament.

He added: “National teams are not clubs belonging to the federation, they are teams which belong to the Greek people and give joy when they are successful.

“The situation in Greek football and sports in general is out of control and this bill represents a large step towards tackling the problems.”

After two weeks of consultations with UEFA officials, the text for the bill on emergency measures to deal with violence in stadiums was finalised late on Tuesday.

“We are proud of the result (of the amended law), which we believe serves the best of both the legitimacy and the need for reform in Greek football,” said Kontonis, who also thanked both UEFA and FIFA for their part in talks to resolve the issues.

“Our discussions have been in a spirit of mutual understanding, sincerity and good faith, and they have been completed in the best way despite the continuous efforts of many to torpedo it,” Kontonis added.

Greek football officials were warned initially by a joint FIFA-UEFA statement on April 22 that they could face a suspension over government interference if the sports law was implemented in its initial form.

However, following meetings in Athens and Nyon between both sides, the state reached compromises over the sections of the bill which referred to the self-governance powers of the country’s football federation (EPO).

The new bill was the state’s response to continuous problems with crowd trouble which have caused the suspension of football matches three times alone this season.

Greece have clashed with FIFA on several occasions in the past on similar issues.

EPO suspended the 2004 European champions and its member clubs from international competition because of government interference in the sport in 2006, a ban which lasted nine days until amendments in the country’s sports law were put in place.

FIFA had also threatened to suspend Greece on similar grounds in 2002, before again some last-minute alterations in the state legislation were implemented and the country escaped sanctions.

(Editing by John O’Brien)

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Puma cuts profit forecast as strong dollar takes toll

The German sportswear company, which brought forward its quarterly results from Friday ahead of its annual meeting later on Wednesday, said first-quarter net profit fell 30 percent to 24.

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8 million euros (£18.3 million) on sales up 13 percent to 821 million.

Puma shares traded 3.4 percent lower at 1055 London time, compared with a flat German small-cap index, while the stock of majority-owner French luxury goods group Kering was down 0.8 percent.

Many companies have been hit by big shifts in global currency markets, with fashion players seeking to increase prices and produce more goods in the markets where they sell them to mitigate the impact.

The sportswear industry sources most products from Asia in U.S. dollar contracts, but Puma makes a bigger portion of its profits than its rivals in markets where currencies have tumbled against the greenback like Brazil, Argentina and Russia.

A distant third in the global sportswear market behind Nike and Germany’s Adidas, Chief Executive Bjorn Gulden said Puma also had less power to impose price rises than its bigger competitors, particularly with wholesalers.

“The underlying business, we feel, is going in the right direction but we are not strong enough to counter the currency effect,” Gulden told a conference call with journalists.

GOING LOCAL

Puma has spent heavily on marketing and sponsorship, including ousting Nike as kit supplier to English Premier League football club Arsenal, as it tries to restore its reputation as a sports performance brand after it strayed too far into fashion.

Local rival Adidas said on Tuesday negative currency effects weighed on its gross margin, but it managed to offset them with a more favourable mix of products and prices.

Gulden said it had taken longer than expected to push through price rises in markets like Mexico, Argentina and Russia and efforts to source more products locally were taking time.

Puma is trying to produce, or at least assemble, as many goods locally as possible in Brazil, while it manufactures clothes in Mexico and has a small footwear factory in Argentina.

However, it has no local production in Russia, so it can only counter the fall of the rouble with higher prices, cost control and making sure its leases are denominated in euros.

Puma was only partially or not hedged at all in the Brazilian real, Mexican peso and Russian rouble because it was too expensive, Gulden said. It has now hedged against the rouble for the second half of the year.

The currency hit means Puma now expects its 2015 gross profit margin to fall 100 to 150 basis points from 46.6 percent last year, compared with previous hopes for a slight increase.

It expects operating earnings to fall to between 80 million and 100 million euros from 128 million in 2014.

(Reporting by Emma Thomasson; Editing by Keith Weir)

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Engage us earlier in anti-radicalisation moves, Muslim leaders say

Islamic leaders in Victoria say cases of extremism and IS recruitment could be avoided if law-enforcement agencies involved community groups earlier.

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The Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) has called for authorities to involve them as early as possible when potential jihadists are identified.

ICV secretary Ghaith Krayem says recent counter-terror raids in Melbourne have revived the Council’s push for early intervention.

“We’re saying if you’re concerned about somebody, involve us much earlier in the process,” he said. “Before they’ve gone down this path, give us a genuine opportunity to help them.”

Melbourne teenagers Harun Causevic and Sevdat Ramden Besim, both 18, face possible lengthy jail terms if found guilty of conspiring to commit an act of terror.

“We’re saying if you’re concerned about somebody, involve us much earlier in the process.”

The men were reportedly known associates of Numan Haider, the teenager fatally shot by police last September. From that point onwards, they have been on the radar of counter-terrorism officers.

Mr Krayem said that if the ICV had been notified by police at that point, last month’s raids and any possibility of an Anzac Day incident may have been avoided.

“From our perspective, an arrest or a raid is a failure”. 

“From our perspective, an arrest or a raid is a failure,” he said. “It means somewhere along the way, whatever strategies are in place haven’t worked, and our aim is actually so there is no raids and no arrests.”

Aden Ibrahim is a family friend of Sharky Jama, the model turned jihadist who was killed fighting with IS last month.

Jama was also known to authorities and Mr Ibrahim believes that if the local Somali community was notified, the outcome would have been be quite different.

“If at early stage it had been notified to us, I 100 per cent believe it could [have been] be prevented,” he said.

Like the Islamic Council, Mr Ibrahim advocated a system similar to one proving successful in Europe where a support team including religious mentors, health professionals and family support is established when young people’s behaviour is identified as problematic.

“It can be far more helpful and far cheaper than losing a life”. 

“It can be far more helpful and far cheaper than losing a life,” he said.

In a statement to SBS, an AFP spokesman said it encouraged community engagement.

‘The AFP recognises and values the integral role of local communities, and leaders, in building resilience to violent extremism and creating strong community networks,” the spokesman said. “Community leaders have been very effective in proactively condemning local community violence. 

“The AFP and the Australian Government will continue to support community and religious leaders to spread the message that violence is illegal and detrimental to the vibrant, inclusive and culturally diverse nature of Australia society.”

The AFP said there were intervention programs currently in place to prevent radicalisation.

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“Australian Governments are working together to deliver Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Intervention Programmes in each state and territory,” the spokesman said.

“These programs aim to connect risk individuals with a range of services to divert them away from their current path. 

“The main goal is to intervene at an early stage and prevent persons from continuing down a path which could end in them either preparing and committing acts onshore or preparing to travel off-shore to participate in hostile activities.  Families, communities and local institutions will play a pivotal role in re-engaging with the individual, and reintegrating them within society.”

In a statement to SBS, a spokeswoman for the Attorney-General’s office said the government was “committed to working with our communities to address the radicalisation of young Australians.”

“We have consulted with experts and with representatives of the community on the best way to keep the Australian community safe,” the spokeswoman said.

“The Government has provided over $1.6 million to 34 community-based organisations from across Australia under the Government’s Living Safe Together Grants Programme. The grants are part of the Living Safe Together intervention programme, which has been established to identify radicalised and at-risk individuals and provide tailored services to address the root causes of their radicalisation.

The spokeswoman said community leaders and community service providers were “crucial partners in delivering intervention programmes.” 

Comment has been sought from Victoria Police.

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Bird rubbed out of Origin by judiciary

A crestfallen Greg Bird has been rubbed out of the entire State of Origin series after copping an eight-game ban at the NRL judiciary on Wednesday night.

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After deliberating for just nine minutes the judiciary panel of Chris McKenna, Bronson Harrison and Mal Cochrane upheld Bird’s grade two dangerous throw charge for his tackle on Kiwi winger Jason Nightingale in the Kangaroos’ Test loss on Sunday.

The NSW enforcer will not be available until the Gold Coast’s round 19 fixture against Newcastle.

Bird declined to comment after the verdict was handed out. Instead Titans coach Neil Henry made a brief statement to waiting media.

“Obviously we are very disappointed in the outcome,” Henry said.

“We thought we made a strong case for a downgrade – grade two to grade one – and we thought we had evidence to prove that.

“Unfortunately that wasn’t the case with the judiciary.

“As a club we are very disappointed to lose the services of Greg for an extended period of time.”

Bird’s defence counsel Jim Hall unsuccessfully argued that Australian back-rower Corey Parker held the greater responsibility for Nightingale ending up in a dangerous position.

“There was low force from player Bird (but) the force from player Parker was high or moderate,” Hall said.

“The three players (including Australian winger Alex Johnston) played a part in the tackle going wrong.

“Player Parker took control of the tackle and pulled the player down.”

Bird had pleaded guilty to a dangerous throw but had sought a downgrade from a grade one to a grade two.

However judiciary prosecutor Peter McGrath successfully argued that “the danger or the potential of danger is what makes the grading appropriate.

“There is nothing trivial about it.”

Through numerous angles of the tackle McGrath said that Bird had “re-gripped” or made a “second effort” in tackling Nightingale and then lifting the St George Illawarra star into a dangerous position.

McGrath said that not Parke nor Johnston had contributed to the position Nightingale was placed in.

“Player Parker really lessens the force or impetus,” McGrath said.

In giving evidence Bird conceded it was “an awkward tackle” but said: “I’m suggesting it wasn’t a lifting movement, I wasn’t in control”.

Trent Merrin shapes as the most likely replacement for Bird in NSW’s back-row with Boyd Cordner and Josh Jackson among the other possibilities.

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Wiggins wants to put Hour record beyond reach

A few weeks after fellow Briton Alex Dowsett set a new world record of 52.

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937 kilometres in Manchester, Olympic time trial champion Wiggins says it is not a matter of “if” he can better that distance, but by how much.

“It sounds a bit horrible to say, but I think I could break the record tomorrow,” the 35-year-old Wiggins, who recently left Team Sky to return to the track, said in an interview in The Times on Wednesday.

“But I don’t just want to break it, I want to put it right up there, as far out of reach as I can.”

The seven-times Olympic medallist who left his track roots to become the first Briton to win the Tour de France in 2012, believes he can add two kilometres to Dowsett’s mark.

“I’ve got 55km in my head and I believe that’s realistic,” he said. “And I think if I do that it will stand for 20 years.”

Wiggins is not downplaying the iconic challenge which has seen four riders break the record in the last eight months, but believes riding around 220 laps of the velodrome at virtually full bore is no worse than anything he faced on the road.

“I don’t see it as being any harder than climbing the Ventoux to save fourth place in the Tour de France,” he said.

“I can’t see it being any harder than keeping concentration for three weeks to win the Tour, or riding around Hampton Court with the weight of expectation to win Olympic gold.

“I’ve been in a lot of pressure situations, I know what I can do.”

“The challenge is dealing with the heat, the crowd, pacing yourself early when the crowd is egging you on,” he added.

Once he has completed his Hour attempt, his focus will return to Rio 2016 where Wiggins is eyeing a fifth Olympic gold medal and a British record-extending eighth in all.

“Whatever happens, that’ll be it after Rio,” he said.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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Proxy votes back BHP Billiton spin-off

The non-core parts of BHP Billiton look almost certain to be spun off into a new entity, with proxy votes backing the South32 demerger as expected.

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At the conclusion of a general meeting in Perth, it was revealed 97.2 per cent of BHP Billiton Ltd’s shareholders and 98.1 per cent of BHP Billiton Plc investors had voted in favour of the proposal.

The final count will not be known until late on Wednesday, but the proxy votes represent the majority of the mining giant’s investors.

BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser earlier told the meeting the company had considered all options before settling on South32, which bundles together aluminium, base metals, silver, manganese and coal assets.

“We believe the demerger is likely to create more value than other alternatives, including asset sales,” Mr Nasser said.

“It means we will have a greater focus on operating our core businesses.

“South32 will have a strong balance sheet, giving it the ability to pursue its own growth and investment opportunities … that may not be pursued if its assets remain within BHP Billiton.”

He conceded the upfront costs were high at about $730 million, but insisted the long-term benefits would be worth it, with South32 chief executive Graham Kerr targeting some $4 billion in savings through productivity improvements.

“The payback on what we’re doing will be substantial,” Mr Nasser said.

During the meeting, shareholders expressed concern about the tax implications of the spin-off, while one investor suggested it was effectively unwinding the historic merger of BHP and Billiton in 2001, which Mr Nasser rejected.

BHP Billiton has divested more than $6.5 billion worth of assets over the past three years.

The spin-off will slash its portfolio from 41 to 19 projects, with the focus being petroleum, iron ore, copper, potash and coal.

Both companies are involved in thermal and metallurgical coal, but the projects have been divided up, with those less likely to compete for capital within BHP Billiton going to South32.

The South32 coal assets also happen to be in South Africa and Australia, so can be administered from Perth and Johannesburg under the company’s regional model.

The leaner BHP Billiton is adamant about keeping its weight off, with chief executive Andrew Mackenzie saying few projects would meet the mining giant’s acquisition criteria.

“They’re not going to fall off backs of lorries very quickly,” Mr Mackenzie told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting.

“We’re not really interested in buying back complexity.”

The company would rather invest further in its pared back, existing portfolio, he said.

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Porte primed for Giro assault

Lifestyle changes have Richie Porte feeling his best days are arriving as he prepares his assault on the Giro d’Italia starting on Saturday.

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The 30-year-old Tasmanian has been in career-best form and is rated a big chance to become Australia’s first grand tour winner since Cadel Evans’ breakthrough at the 2011 Tour de France.

With stage race wins at Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino already this season, Porte will lead a powerful nine-man Team Sky outfit announced on Tuesday with strong climbing support for the crucial mountains stages in the three-week race.

His bid to become the first Australian to win the Giro comes a year after illness forced him to miss the race and ultimately cut his season short.

In a revealing interview with cyclingnews广西桑拿,, Porte indicates he’s gone to another level this year because of lessons learned from his miserable 2014.

Already an elite general classification rider, he has lost about five kilograms after changing his diet and cutting his alcohol intake.

Away from cycling, getting engaged brought more perspective.

“Last season was tough in lots of ways but it was a blessing in disguise,” Porte told Cyclingnews.

“One of our team doctors said to me at the time ‘There’s obviously something not right with your health but you’re not living the lifestyle of a professional bike rider.’

“For me that was a big kick up the backside and the one I needed the most.”

“…I think I’ve really turned the corner in my career and this Giro d’Italia is a big opportunity and I’m really looking forward to it.”

He added: “You have a limited time to be a professional but I think I’m coming into my heyday now and I’m certainly going to make the most of it.”

While many riders prefer to focus their season around the Tour de France in July, the Giro has great resonance for Porte.

The former triathlete raced in Tuscany as an amateur for three seasons before starting out on his pro career.

And he really made his name in the 2010 Giro, wearing the leader’s jersey, the Maglia Rosa, for three days and winning the young rider classification after finishing seventh overall in his grand tour debut.

Porte’s team includes key climbing allies in Spaniard Mikel Nieve, Kanstantsin Siutsou of Belarus, exciting 21-year-old Colombian Sebastian Henao and Czech newcomer Leopold Koenig.

Also in the line up are seasoned road captain Bernhard Eisel, Belarussia’s Vasil Kiryienka, who won mountain stage victories 2008 and 2011, and Italians Salvatore Puccio and Elia Viviani.

Last year’s winner Nairo Quintana and Tour de France champion Vicenzo Nibali are notable absentees from the race.

However, Porte can expect major challenges from Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Astana’s Fabio Aru, Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quickstep) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale).

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Alonso back in the Spanish spotlight

Bookmakers were last week offering better odds, before the birth, on Britain’s latest royal baby being named Macbeth than on Fernando Alonso’s McLaren team winning at the Circuit de Catalunya.

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They are now a more reasonable 250-1 on the Spaniard, winner in Barcelona with Ferrari in 2013 and Renault in 2006, and team mate Jenson Button although just getting into the points for the first time this year will be a big step up for the ex-champions.

Alonso, who will attend an FIA news conference on Thursday, will be very much in the spotlight however on his return to the circuit where he crashed heavily in pre-season testing.

That accident ruled him out of the opening race in Australia and triggered all kinds of conspiracy theories about his condition and what had ‘really’ caused the crash.

Neither McLaren nor Alonso made any mention of the incident in their pre-race preview, preferring to focus on improvements they expect to see in the first race of the European season.

“I’m incredibly happy to be heading back to Europe, to my home country and racing in front of the loyal Spanish fans,” said Alonso.

“We are seeing improvements race by race, and I want to ensure that we maintain this consistency throughout this weekend.

“Although we won’t be fighting for victory in Barcelona, I know I can count on the support of the fans to bring even more motivation during the whole weekend, which will be very special.”

PECKING ORDER

After a three week gap, the fifth round of the season will be closely watched for signs of any shift in the pecking order with teams bringing upgrades to their cars now they have had time back at the factory.

The battle at the front, however, is still likely to be between Mercedes, with double world champion Hamilton in commanding form, and resurgent Ferrari.

The Briton, who posted on Instagram a photograph of himself ringside at last weekend’s Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquaio welterweight unification bout in Las Vegas, is up for another fight.

“Having tasted success there (Barcelona) for the first time last year, I want to do it in even better style this time,” said 2014 winner Hamilton, who has a 27 point lead over team mate Nico Rosberg.

Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff added: “Lewis is in the zone right now, probably driving as well as he has ever done, and Nico showed his teeth in Bahrain with some forceful overtaking and a strong, aggressive race.

“We’re expecting more of the same in Spain.”

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)

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