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Obama statue pulled down in Indonesia

The bronze statue, inspired by a childhood photograph of a 10-year-old Obama in shorts with a butterfly perched on an outstretched thumb, was put up last December.

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But it had been targeted by critics ever since – and will now be moved to a nearby school which the president attended as a child.

Detractors have argued that an Indonesian hero should have been honoured instead, noting that Obama still could pursue policies that hurt Indonesia’s interests.

Obama, whose American mother married an Indonesian after divorcing his Kenyan father, went to school in the capital from 1967 to 1971 and is regarded fondly by most Indonesians.

Edi Kusyanto, a teacher at the affluent government school Obama attended, said the 1.1 metre statue would be standing in the school grounds by the time the president visits Jakarta next month.

“There is no controversy about the statue being here. Everyone at the school welcomes it,” Kusyanto said.

Facebook campaign

The statue was erected with private funds raised by the Jakarta-based nonprofit group Friends of Obama Foundation, but Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo is paying for its relocation.

Ron Mullers, an American living in Jakarta who came up with the idea for the statue and raised money for it, declined to say whether he thought moving it was an overreaction.

“It’s a beautiful statue and it had become a tourist attraction,” Mullers said.

“My feeling is that the park is a place where more Indonesian people can see it,” he said.

Still, he said he was happy that the statue might inspire the school’s students to follow their dreams.

Heru Nugroho, leader of a Facebook campaign to remove the statue, welcomed the move but added that the decision had taken too long.

He said he would now drop court action seeking the statue’s removal.

Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and many Indonesians believe Obama will improve relations with the West.

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Casualties ‘expected’ in massive assault

The British government is warning a sceptical public to ‘expect’ casulaties ahead of potentiially the biggest operation against the taliban since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

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Thousands of people are already leaving their homes on the Marjah plain in southern Afghanistan, ahead of a massive assault to clear Taliban militants from their last stronghold.

“Of course casualties are something that we have to expect when we are involved in these operations,” said Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth in comments to broadcasters.

“This is not in any way a safe environment and it doesn’t matter how much kit and equipment we provide for people. We can never entirely make these operations risk-free.”

Huge assault to start within days

A huge force of US Marines leading NATO and Afghan soldiers is expected to launch the operation – which commanders say will be the largest assault against the militants since the war began – within days.

“The government of Afghanistan will reclaim Marjah as one of its own,” said the British commander of the operation, General Nick Carter.

The operation begins just days after Taliban leaders said on the Afghan Taliban’s website that efforts to ‘reach out’ to them were ‘futile.’

The new assault is known as Operation Mushtarak – ‘together’- as Afghan troops will also play a pivotal role – and has been flagged by military officials for months to either repel or draw in the enemy.

Taliban leaders say they are massing fighters around Marjah, in the centre of Helmand province, in preparation for a bloody battle.

“We are in control and ready to fight,” said purported Taliban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The area is said to be the last bastion of control for the militants, whose insurgency has nevertheless been spreading since their regime was overthrown in 2001.

Mushtarak echoes assaults last year – the British Operation Panther’s Claw and the Marines’ Operation Dagger – seen as successfully eradicating militants who had controlled other poppy-growing regions in Helmand valley.

Preparatory operations around Marjah, south of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, have been going on for weeks, with leaflets dropped on the area from NATO helicopters warning residents of the assault to come.

Residents flee

Habibullah, 48, said he and his family left Marjah for Lashkar Gah two months ago to escape the violence.

“There are a lot of Taliban there. They are violent towards us, accusing us of spying for the foreign forces, demanding food all the time,” he told AFP.

“There are still people living there and the Taliban are still in control, but there has been a lot of fighting, with gunfire and bombings, and lots of soldiers have been coming in to fight the Taliban and then leave,” he said.

The battle to come is expected to be hard and bloody. The Taliban have evolved their tactics to a devastating degree, retreating from the battlefield and using IEDs, or improvised explosive devises, and suicide bomb attacks.

According to the Marines’ Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, Marjah will present “the largest IED threat NATO has ever faced”.

IEDs are crudely made bombs, often detonated by remote control. Their strike rate is highly accurate and military intelligence officers say they are now claiming up to 90 percent of foreign troops’ deaths and casualties.

Of the 57 foreign troops killed in Afghanistan so far this year, the vast majority have fallen to IEDs.

Obama’s ‘troop surge’ in operation

Operation Mushtarak comes after US President Barack Obama announced in December his plan for a troop surge to take the fight to the militants to clear the way for desperately needed governance and development.

The US and NATO are deploying an extra 40,000 troops, on top of the 113,000 already in Afghanistan, as part of the surge, with most heading to the southern battleground.

The Marjah assault is the spearhead of a new counter-insurgency strategy, brainchild of US General Stanley McChrystal, who commands foreign forces in Afghanistan, aimed at winning over ordinary Afghans to support the government.

He told a global security conference in Istanbul last week the situation in Afghanistan is serious but no longer deteriorating because “we have made significant progress… and we’ll make new progress in 2010”.

President Hamid Karzai is eager to bring on board Taliban foot soldiers, who largely fight for cash rather than loyalty to the Islamists, by offering them money and jobs to put down arms and rejoin mainstream society.

Marjah is at the heart of one of the world’s biggest poppy growing areas. Illegal drug exports from Afghanistan are believed to be worth close to three billion dollars a year, helping fund the insurgency.

French army Major General Jacques Lechevalier said clearing the Taliban from the area would also add momentum to the fight against drugs and corruption.

If the assault goes ahead – possibly within days – it will be the biggest against the insurgents since the war started in 2001.

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Taipei welcomes deal as Beijing threatens US sanctions

The Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has welcomed the US government’s decision to sell $6.

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4bn of arms to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations act – but the Chinese government in Beijing is fuming, annoucing a raft of reprisals in the escalating dispute.

The US has hastily defended its proposed weapons sale to Taiwan following Beijing’s response, in the biggest Sino-US crisis yet under President Barack Obama.

Berating the year-old Obama administration for “crude interference” in its affairs, China said it was suspending military and security contacts with the United States, and imposing sanctions on US firms involved in the Taiwan deal.

China regards the island it refers to as Chinese Taipei a ‘renegade province’ inextricably linked to the mainland.

Reuters reported the US State Department saying after the announced reposte that the sale contributed to “security and stability” between Taiwan and China.

China disputes this, while Taiwan’s national news agency reports that ‘the arms sale will take effect if the U.S. Congress does not voice any objections within 30 days of the notification. It was reported that the package would become effective in a week.”

Arsenal proposed for Taiwan would cause ‘severe harm’: Beijing

The furious moves from China came a day after the Pentagon approved the sale of Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, mine-hunting ships and communications equipment for Taiwan’s F-16 fleet of fighter jets among other weaponry.

Chinese defence ministry spokesman Huang Xueping said the reprisals reflected the “severe harm” posed by the deal with Taiwan, which Beijing says is a part of its territory and must return to the mainland fold.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who has overseen a marked warming in trade and political relations with China, said Beijing had nothing to fear from the sale.

“It will let Taiwan feel more confident and secure so we can have more interactions with China,” Ma said, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

However, the Chinese response underscored a rapid degeneration in relations with the United States following recent strains over trade, climate change and Google’s threat to quit China.

Iran potential next pawn

Observers said China could yet go further by rejecting new UN sanctions on Iran. Hours before the announcement on Taiwan, the United States urged Beijing to help curb Iran’s nuclear programme.

“Cooperation between China and the US on key international and regional issues will also inevitably be affected,” China’s foreign ministry said.

The defence ministry’s Huang said the US package “runs counter” to commitments on cooperation outlined by the two governments when Obama visited China in November.

“The Chinese side will never make concessions and compromise on this issue (Taiwan),” Huang told Xinhua.

History of dispute over ‘Chinese Taipei’

China refuses to rule out the use of force to reacquire Taiwan, and has hundreds of missiles deployed against the self-governing island of 23 million people, which split from the mainland in 1949.

The last US arms package for Taiwan, announced under Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush in 2008, also led China to cut off military relations with the United States temporarily.

But this time the sanctions were more biting, and analysts said they reflected China’s increased clout at a time when its economy looks set to overtake Japan’s and its military budget is surging annually.

The foreign ministry said China was suspending regular military exchanges and scheduled high-level talks on strategic security, arms control and non-proliferation. US arms firms would be specifically targeted, it said.

In Washington, officials said the White House was committed to Taiwan’s defence and denied it was picking a fight.

For a brief 20th Century history of relations between China, Taiwan and the US, click here.

Washington denies provocation

Obama’s national security advisor, former general James Jones, said the administration was being “transparent” with Beijing, which the United States recognises as the legal government for all of China.

“But we are bent towards a new relationship with China as a rising power in the world, with influence on a variety of issues that go beyond the arms sales,” he said.

The Pentagon said it regretted Beijing’s suspension of military exchanges.

“We regret that the Chinese side has curtailed military-to-military and other exchanges,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told AFP.

“We also regret Chinese action against US firms transferring defensive articles to Taiwan.”

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei made an urgent official protest to the US ambassador in Beijing, Jon Huntsman, Chinese officials told AFP.

In a statement to Huntsman, he urged Washington to cancel the deal, which he said constituted “crude interference in China’s internal affairs that seriously endangers China’s national security and damages China’s peaceful reunification.”

Despite Washington’s recognition of Beijing, Taiwan enjoys high-profile backers in the US Congress, and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the administration to provide the island with weapons of a defensive nature.

According to Al-Jazeera, a Chinese embassy spokesman said that the weapons deal violated the 1982 communique between China and the US, which statesarms sales to Taiwan “will not exceed, in qualitative or in quantitative terms,” the level in the years before that.

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Tibetans shun New Year celebrations

The Dalai Lama says Tibetans will not be celebrating the Lunar New Year for the second year running, in protest at the suffering of people inside Tibet.

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Speaking in Dharmsala in India where the Tibetan spiritual leader is exiled, he asked his followers not to lose hope.

He said people in Tibet have shown great courage and sincerity in facing China’s crackdown after uprisings in March 2008.

Tibetans in exile also called off New Year celebrations last year.

The Lunar New Year holiday that began Saturday is the most important of the year in China.

“Tibetans inside Tibet are the real citizens of Tibet. People are grieving in many parts of Tibet and are not celebrating the New Year,” the Dalai Lama told more than a thousand Tibetans in exile who dressed in traditional finery and greeted him at the Tsuglakhang temple.

The Dalai Lama led a prayer session, attended by senior Buddhist monks and Tibetan parliamentarians.

Tibetans beat drums and cymbals during the two-hour ceremony on the terrace of the temple.

A group of young Tibetans, led by Tenzin Tsundue, a writer and political activist, waved Tibetan flags outside the temple and shouted “Free Tibet.”

The Dalai Lama is scheduled to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington next Thursday.

China has urged Washington to cancel the meeting and says it could damage US-China relations.

China accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing to free Tibet from Chinese rule, which he denies.

He has been living in the northern Indian town of Dharmsala since he fled Tibet 50 years ago when Chinese troops marched in.

China maintains that Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say the region was functionally independent for much of its history.

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Jackson’s doctor denies manslaughter

Dr Conrad Murray, a Houston cardiologist who was with Jackson when he died in June last year, appeared in court in Los Angeles on Monday.

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Jackson hired Murray to be his personal physician as he prepared for a strenuous series of comeback performances.

Officials say the singer, 50, died after Murray administered the powerful general anaesthetic propofol and two other sedatives to get the chronic insomniac to sleep.

Jackson’s father Joe, mother Katherine, and siblings LaToya, Jermaine, Tito, Jackie and Randy were in court to hear an attorney for Murray enter the not guilty plea.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office charge that Murray “did unlawfully, and without malice, kill Michael Joseph Jackson … in the commission of an unlawful act.”

Murray, who could face up to four years in prison if convicted, has acknowledged giving the anesthetic propofol to Jackson following his “repeated demands/requests” for the drug.

Powerful anaesthetic

Propofol is a potent anesthetic used to render patients unconscious before major surgery. Medical experts say it should only be used and administered by trained staff under hospital conditions.

The Los Angeles County’s coroner’s office blamed Jackson’s death on “acute propofol intoxication”.

Monday’s long-anticipated hearing took place in a circus-like atmosphere, as Jackson devotees gathered outside the court to protest the manslaughter charge, saying Murray should have been charged with murder.

“We want justice for Michael,” said Michelle Perell, 26. “He should be charged with first or second degree murder and go to jail for life. He killed the most beautiful person in the world.”

Other fans brandished banners which read: “The World Wants Justice for Michael” and: “Conrad Murray is a Murderer: Arrest him in handcuffs.”

Brian Oxman, a lawyer for Jackson’s family, has also criticised the involuntary manslaughter charge, saying it amounted to a “slap on the wrist”.

‘Slap on the wrist’ claim

“I don’t think it would satisfy anybody, the millions of fans around the world,” he told CBS television.

“That is just a slap on the wrist and a slap in the face because Michael Jackson was someone who we knew was in danger of being brought to his knees, brought to his death by the use of these medications.”

The manslaughter case against Murray was built during a prolonged investigation which saw raids on the doctor’s offices in Houston and Las Vegas.

According to affidavits unsealed during the investigation, Murray told investigators he feared Jackson was becoming addicted to propofol and that he was trying to wean him off the drug at the time of his death.

Murray allegedly told investigators he left the singer alone for a few minutes before returning to find he was not breathing.

Murray has insisted he didn’t give Jackson anything that should have caused the singer’s death.

In a one-minute video posted on YouTube in August, Murray assured his patients that he had told the truth and said he had “faith the truth will prevail”.

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Aussie film wins major Sundance prize

Director David Michod’s Australian teen drama Animal Kingdom earned the dramatic jury prize for world cinema at the Sundance Film Festival.

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The drama Winter’s Bone and the war-on-terror documentary Restrepo won top honours on Saturday among US movies.

Director Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, the story of a 17-year-old trying to uncover the fate of her father among the criminal clans of the Ozark Mountains, earned the grand jury prize for American dramas at Sundance, Robert Redford’s showcase for independent cinema, at the final day on Saturday.

Screenwriting award

Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini also won the festival’s Waldo Salt screenwriting award for their script, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell.

Animal Kingdom also centres on a teenager.

The film stars Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton and James Frechevill.

It’s the story of a 17-year-old boy who must navigate his way between a crime-driven family in Melbourne and a cop who thinks he can save him.

Michod ‘like Tarantino, Scorsese’

The Friday viewing of the film grew gasps and shrieks from the audience, and reviewers compared Michod’s work to that of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.

Winter’s Bone was the second-straight Sundance drama winner featuring a breakout role for a young actress.

Jennifer Lawrence, whose credits include Charlize Theron’s The Burning Plain, offers a fearless lead performance in Winter’s Bone, which follows Gabourey Sidibe’s sizzling debut in the title role of Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire,” last year’s Sundance dramatic winner.

The US documentary prize went to Restrepo, a visceral account of a year in the lives of 15 Americans fighting in Afghanistan, where the troops have erected a remote mountain outpost to remember a fallen comrade, Private Juan Restrepo.

The film was directed by journalist Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, and photographer Tim Hetherington.

Documentary on schools wins

“We’re in the middle of two wars,” Junger said.

“If our movie can help this country understand how to go forward, we would be incredibly honoured by that.”

The audience award for favourite US drama chosen by Sundance fans was given to the romance “happythankyoumoreplease,” written and directed by and starring Josh Radnor, the star of the television comedy series How I Met Your Mother.

Waiting for Superman – a study of the problems at US public schools that was directed by Davis Guggenheim, who made the Academy Award winner An Inconvenient Truth – earned the audience award for US documentaries.

More than 110 films were screened during Sundance, with 58 entered in competition.

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UK couple laughing all the way to the bank

A British couple were revealed as the winners of the multi-million Euromillions lottery draw.

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Nigel Page and partner Justine Laycock won $A98.3 million to become Britain’s biggest ever lottery winners.

The prize of EuroMillions $A198.9 million jackpot will be shared with one other ticket, bought in Spain.

Justine Laycock told a press conference that they just laughed when they realised they had won.

“I looked at him and I said ‘Nige, you’ve won 56 million’ and he went ‘and 20 pence, don’t forget that’ and he’d got his voice back. We just went in the front room, didn’t we and just stood there laughing. It’s just an amazing feeling.” Justine said.

They now plan to give up their jobs and buy a new house.

Laycock, who works for a local estate agents in Cirencester, said that “it’s an amazing amount of money, and we could never have wished for this,” Sky’s report showed.

Page, who works in property maintenance, said he was looking forward to swapping his white van for a new car.

She added that the couple intend to use some of the money to help their friends and family.

The couple have three children between them from previous relationships.

Page has a daughter Ella, aged 12, and Laycock has a son and daughter – Jacob, aged 11, and Georgia, aged 15.

When asked by the interviewer what Nigel Page gave Justine for Valentines day he replied “Well, I was planning on going out on Saturday to get some flowers and chocolates and a card but with one thing and another, I didn’t actually manage to get her anything”.

Mr Page and Ms Laycock are now considered to be richer than Oasis stars Noel and Liam Gallagher and film director Guy Richie and are placed 980th in Britain’s rich list.

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More glitches deflate Honda

Japanese carmaker Honda has recalled 437,763 vehicles worldwide, mostly in North America, to fix defective airbags.

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“Honda has decided to expand a recall related to a defect in the driver’s SRS airbag installed on certain vehicles produced in 2001 and 2002 and has issued a notification in North America and Japan,” Honda said in a statement.

“This recall also will be conducted in other affected regions and countries,” it added. “The total number of vehicles subject to this expanded recall is 437,763 units worldwide.”

“We have concluded that we cannot be completely certain that the driver’s airbag inflator in the vehicles being added to the recall at this time will perform as designed,” the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

Honda said airbag inflators in affected vehicles “could produce excessive internal pressure which may cause the airbag inflator casing to rupture, resulting in metal fragments passing through the airbag cushion material and possibly causing injury or fatality to vehicle occupants”.

The statement said the company was aware of twelve incidents in total involving the defect and one fatality.

The expansion is the third the company has made over the airbag problem, bringing the total number of cars affected to more than 900,000, including Accords and Civics.

A Honda spokeswoman in Tokyo said the company was also recalling “a small number of vehicles” elsewhere in the world,” and that the company would announce the global figure on Wednesday.

“It’s primarily a North America recall,” Honda US spokesman Chris Martin told AFP.

An initial recall announced in November 2008 affected just under 4,000 2001 Accords and Civics in the United States and just 218 cars in Canada.

After two more incidents involving cars not included in the original recall were reported, the company expanded the recall in July 2009 to include an additional 440,000 model-year 2001 and 2002 Accord, Civic and certain 2002 Acura TL vehicles. It also recalled an additional 49,452 vehicles in Canada.

Last month Honda announced a global recall of some 646,000 units of its Fit/Jazz and City cars due to defective parts of their window switch.

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NATO airstrike kills four Afghan soldiers

NATO has promised a full investigation into an airstrike on an Afghan army post that managed to kill four Afghan soldiers.

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A joint US-Afghan force called in an airstrike on what turned out to be an Afghan army post after taking fire from there before dawn on Saturday, killing four Afghan soldiers and prompting an angry demand for punishment from the country’s defence ministry.

Both NATO and Afghan authorities described the clash around a snow-covered outpost in Wardak province southwest of Kabul as a case of mistaken identity. NATO called the attack “unfortunate” and promised a full investigation.

The deadly strike threatens to strain relations between NATO and the Afghan government at a time when both sides are calling for a closer partnership in the fight against the Taliban. The fighting came on the heels of several recent cases of bloodshed between Afghans and Americans.

Interpreter kills two US soldiers

NATO and Afghan officials said an Afghan interpreter angry over “job issues” shot and killed two US soldiers on Friday before he was gunned down by an American service member in the same district as the airstrike. NATO officials said the two attacks appeared unrelated.

Saturday’s fighting erupted about 3am when a group of US Special Forces and Afghan commandos approached a remote Afghan army outpost that was set up about 18 months ago to guard the main highway between Kabul and Kandahar.

NATO said the Afghan soldiers believed the unit was the Taliban and started shooting.

Seven Afghans wounded at checkpoint

The joint force returned fire and called in the airstrike, which killed the four Afghan soldiers, NATO and the Afghan Defence Ministry said. Seven Afghan soldiers at the checkpoint were wounded, provincial spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said.

Associated Press Television News video of the aftermath showed snow around the fortified compound blackened by the airstrike. American armoured vehicles stood guard on the highway about a kilometre from the hilltop outpost, while a US Black Hawk helicopter roamed the skies overhead.

“I am from this area, and I witnessed the entire incident myself,” said local resident Khan Mohammed. “Planes arrived and bombed the Afghan National Army checkpoint. They hit some of the houses around the area with mortars.”

Last year, the top US and NATO commander, Gen Stanley McChrystal, curbed the use of airpower to assuage rising public

anger over civilian casualties. Commanders still have the option of calling in airstrikes if they come under fire and civilians are not at risk.

Saturday’s clash and the string of recent deadly encounters between Americans and Afghans are likely to stoke public anger against foreign forces – even though the United Nations reported this month that most civilian casualties were caused by the Taliban.

NATO said its troops opened fire on Friday on a taxi as it sped toward a patrol in Ghazni province, killing two civilians and wounding another. US soldiers shot and killed an Afghan imam on Thursday when his car approached a convoy on the eastern outskirts of Kabul.

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No change to Israel nuke ambiguity: Leaders

The Israeli delegation has said it is pleased it was not mentioned by any of the speakers at this week’s nuclear summit, despite the ambiguity surrounding its nuclear programme.

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Instead, much of the focus has been on gaining momentum for sanctions on Iran, while world leaders also Tuesday pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years.

Ambiguity is foundation of our security: Israel

“The policy of ambiguity is the foundation of Israel’s security, it has always been and will continue to be. President Obama did not ask to change it in the current period,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told public radio.

At the summit, US President Barack Obama put no pressure on Israel to shift away from its policy of deliberate ambiguity on its atomic programme, a minister said Wednesday.

Ayalon said the summit saw “no changes in policies towards Israel and no new demands from Israel.”

Asked about Obama’s statements that Israel should sign the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Ayalon said the request was not pressing.

“When all threats, from near or far, against Israel will be definitely removed, then we can consider this question in a positive manner,” he said.

Netanyahu stays home

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced at the last minute he would not take part in the conference, sending instead one of his deputies.

The Maariv newspaper said Netanyahu was pleased with his decision not to attend. “His satisfaction stems from the fact that the attention of the summit’s participants was diverted from his presence and from Israel’s nuclear policy,” it said.

“Israel did not stand at the centre of the events,” Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who headed the Israeli delegation, was quoted as saying.

“We weren’t mentioned by any of the speakers, even those who we feared would talk about us.”

Israel ‘has 700 nuclear warheads’: Experts

Foreign military experts believe Israel has an arsenal of several hundred nuclear warheads, but Israel has never publicly acknowledged having atomic weapons, maintaining a policy of deliberate ambiguity since it inaugurated its Dimona nuclear reactor in 1965.

In 1969, Israeli leaders undertook not to make any statement on their country’s nuclear potential or carry out any nuclear test, while Washington agreed to refrain from exerting pressure on the issue.

Like nuclear-armed countries India, Pakistan and North Korea, Israel is not party to the NPT in order to avoid international inspections.

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