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Two Taliban dead in Afghan city gunbattle

Police fought a three-hour gunbattle in the centre of an Afghan provincial capital, finally killing two Taliban militants who stormed a multi-storey market with dozens of civilians inside, an official said.

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During the shootout, terrified shopkeepers shuttered their doors and residents stayed inside for fear of being caught in the crossfire as army and police rushed to the scene, reportedly backed up by NATO forces.

Three civilians and one police officer were wounded in the fighting in the eastern province of Paktia, said the deputy provincial police chief.

AP Television News video from the scene after the operation was over showed a man holding what appeared to be an unexploded suicide vest, but reports differed on how many attackers there were and whether they were wearing explosives.

The violence comes as Afghanistan prepares for a surge of new foreign troops in the next few months to help the weak central government beat back a resurgent Taliban that has taken over vast swathes of the countryside.

The Taliban controls most of Paktia province, which borders Pakistan, and the strengthening insurgency has previously launched assaults on the provincial capital, Gardez, about 100 kilometres south of Kabul.

Shortly after Monday’s assault began, officials said that five militants armed with guns and suicide vests had stormed the building near the provincial police headquarters in Gardez and that at least three had been killed.

But Ghulam Dastagir, Paktia’s deputy police chief, told The Associated Press by telephone that there were only two attackers armed with assault rifles, a machine gun and about 40 rifle-launched grenades. He said no suicide vests were found when police finally killed the militants and searched the building.

A separate statement later from the national Interior Ministry, however, said the attackers were wearing explosives-filled vests.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told The Associated Press said that there were five attackers, all wearing suicide vests.

Shops throughout the city were closed as residents hunkered down in their houses to wait out the fighting.

University student Jumakhan, who like many Afghans goes by one name, said he saw the fighting start and ran behind a nearby building.

He said he could see NATO forces in the streets, along with Afghan army and police.

Dastagir said the attackers were on the top floor of a four-storey building housing a supermarket and shops, about 150 metres from the police headquarters.

The floor itself was under construction, but there were about 50 civilians in the building when the fighting broke out, forcing police to conduct the operation carefully, he said.

There was no immediate word on the condition of the three civilians and police officer who were wounded, he said.

The most recent major insurgent attack on Gardez was in July, when militants launched nearly simultaneous attacks on security facilities, killing three police and three intelligence officers.

President Barack Obama is planning to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan to try to stem rising violence and reverse gains made by the Taliban since the 2001 invasion that drove their hardline Islamist regime from power. Another 7,000 troops are to come from other countries to bolster security.

Also on Monday, the Defence Ministry said 24 militants were killed in operations the day before.

The ministry said eight insurgents were killed in southern Helmand province, six in Ghazni in the east, seven in northern Kunduz province, two in Kandahar province in the south and one in Wardak, west of Kabul.

NATO said a joint Afghan-international force killed several militants on Sunday after coming under fire while searching a compound in Wardak province.

In Nangarhar province in Afghanistan’s east, a civilian was killed and two were injured when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, said Gafor Khan, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.

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Greek PM says country risks sinking in debt

Greece’s prime minister has warned the country must seize control of a ballooning government budget deficit, saying it risks drowning in debt if it fails.

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George Papandreou on Monday called for unity during a speech to business and union leaders in Athens.

He pledged that his new Socialist government, elected in October, would take steps during the next few months that are decades overdue.

“Greece, with so much potential, is in critical condition,” he said.

The raft of measures included a reduction in defence spending in 2011 and 2012; slashing bonuses across the public sector; reducing social security and government operating expenditures by 10 per cent each, and imposing salary caps for public utility directors.

He also called for taxes of up to 90 per cent on large bonuses for private bankers; the closure of a third of Greece’s tourist offices abroad, and eliminating cost-of-living increases for public sector workers with monthly salaries of more than 2,000 euros ($A3,000).

Other measures include the introduction of a capital gains tax and the resumption of inheritance and property taxes abolished by the previous government.

Many measures would be painful, the prime minister acknowledged, but he promised that the weaker sections of society would be protected.

Greece has been facing its worst debt crisis in decades amid the global recession. It faces political pressure from the European Union to straighten out its finances and obey deficit limits intended to support the shared euro currency. “

Greece faces the risk of sinking under its debt,” Papandreou said, adding that the country “has lost every trace of credibility” and that financial markets want to see action.

“Our slogan of ‘Either we change or we sink’ is more pertinent than ever,” he said. Papandreou pledged that Greece’s debt, which has soared to a staggering 300 billion euros ($A479.5 billion), will begin to be reduced by 2012 at the latest.

He promised to bring deficit spending, currently projected at 12.7 per cent of economic output for 2009, to below the EU’s euro-zone requirement of three per cent by the end of 2013, when his Socialist party will be completing its first four-year term.

European Union officials have warned that Greece must deal with its problems itself and not expect a bailout.

“We are all hurt when Greece is held up as an example to be avoided in the entire European Union,” Papandreou said. “We are all hurt when we hold the negative records in corruption, lack of competitiveness, in the deficit, the national debt.”

The prime minister also pledged to crack down on corruption, carry out a major reform of health care finances and bring immigrants – tens of thousands of whom work in the country illegally – into the social security system.

“The stakes for Greece are clear. This concerns our sovereign rights, our right to have a social state,” Papandreou said, adding that he did not want to “take half-measures which target the wrong problems and the wrong groups of people”.

Greece is not the only country in the eurozone facing debt problems. Ireland, Spain and Portugal all are suffering from extra scrutiny in bond markets.

The Irish government last week unveiled a record four billion euros ($A6.39 billion) in budget cuts to combat its own runaway deficit.

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World’s tallest tower to open in Dubai

Dubai is set to celebrate the opening of the world’s tallest building on Monday – though the tower’s exact height remains a closely-guarded secret.

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The Burj Dubai – Arabic for Dubai Tower – is being heralded by developers as a bold feat on the world stage despite the city state’s shaky finances.

At a reported height of 818 metres, the building long ago vanquished its nearest rival, the Taipei 101 in Taiwan.

But Burj’s record-seeking developers didn’t stop there.

The building boasts the most storeys and highest occupied floor of any building in the world, and ranks as the world’s tallest structure, beating out a television mast in North Dakota. Its observation deck – on floor 124 – also sets a record.

“We weren’t sure how high we could go,” said Bill Baker, the building’s structural engineer, who is in Dubai for the inauguration.

“It was kind of an exploration… a learning experience.”

Massive fireworks display

Baker, of Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said early designs for the Burj had it edging out the world’s previous record-holder, the Taipei 101, by about 10m. The Taiwan tower rises 508m.

The Burj’s developer, Emaar Properties, kept pushing the design higher even after construction began, eventually putting it about 300m taller than its nearest competitor, Baker said. He is keeping quiet about the exact height.

Dubai’s ruler will open the tapering metal-and-glass spire with a fireworks display on Monday evening.

Security is expected to be tight.

Major General Mohammed Eid al-Mansouri, head of the protective security and emergency unit for Dubai Police, said more than 1,000 security personnel, including plainclothes police and sharpshooters, will be deployed to secure the site for the opening.

Work on the Burj Dubai began in 2004 and continued rapidly. At times, new floors were being added almost every three days, reflecting Dubai’s raging push to reshape itself over a few years from a small-time desert outpost into a cosmopolitan urban giant packed with skyscrapers.

By January 2007, thousands of labourers, many of them brought in on temporary contracts from India, had completed 100 storeys.

Apartments, offices, hotel

The finished product contains more than 160 floors. That is over 50 storeys more than Chicago’s Willis Tower, the tallest record-holder in the US formerly known as the Sears Tower.

At their peak, some apartments in the Burj were selling for more than $US1,900 ($A2,128) per square foot, though they now can go for less than half that, said Heather Wipperman Amiji, chief executive of Dubai real estate consultancy Investment Boutique.

Besides luxury apartments and offices, the Burj will be home to a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani.

It’s also the centrepiece of a 202.34ha development that officials hope will become a new central residential and commercial district in this sprawling and often disconnected city.

It is flanked by dozens of smaller but brand new skyscrapers and the Middle East’s largest shopping mall.

That layout – as the core of a lower-rise skyline – lets the Burj stand out prominently against the horizon. It is visible across dozens of miles of rolling sand dunes outside Dubai.

From the air, the spire appears as an almost solitary, slender needle reaching high into the sky.

Property market collapse

The Burj’s opening comes at a tough time for Dubai’s economy. Property prices in newer parts of the sheikdom have collapsed by nearly half over the past year.

The city-state turned to its richer neighbour Abu Dhabi for a series of bailouts totalling $US25 billion ($A28 billion) in 2009 to help cover debts amassed by a network of state-linked companies.

Burj developer Emaar is itself partly owned by the government, but is not among the companies known to have received emergency cash.

Emaar has said the entire Downtown Burj Dubai development, which includes the tower, will cost $US20 billion ($A22.4 billion) to build.

Sales of properties around the Burj are meant to help pay for the tower itself, which analysts say is unlikely to be profitable on its own.

Jan Klerks, research and communications manager for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which tracks world’s tallest claims, said the building’s real value might be that it is the “biggest city marketing campaign” Dubai could have come up with.

“Put your name and that of the Burj Dubai on an envelope, and no postal service in the world will have problems delivering the mail,” he said.

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Montazeri: Spiritual father of Iranian reform

Montazeri was a key figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution who later accused his fellow clerical leaders of imposing dictatorship in the name of Islam.

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His criticism persisted after June’s disputed presidential election ignited a new wave of anti-government protest.

The cleric had long been critical of the concentration of power in the hands of the supreme leader and called for changes to the constitution which he helped draw up after the Islamic revolution to limit the leader’s authority.

Montazeri had often criticised hardliner Ahmadinejad over his domestic and foreign policies, including Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West.

He had also called on other leading clerics to break their silence over incidents and rights abuses during the government’s crackdown on opposition supporters protesting the June presidential election, which they claimed was massively rigged in Ahmadinejad’s favour.

In August, he decried the “despotic treatment” of protesters at the hands of the ruling theocracy. A month later, he accused the regime of committing “crimes … in name of Islam”.

Opposition movement to continue

Despite his stature, Montazeri’s death is not likely to have a profound impact on the opposition movement, which has moved past allegations of vote rigging to assert that the entire ruling system has been corrupted, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at the United Arab Emirates University.

“I think the current opposition movement has gone way beyond and above what Montazeri was standing for,” Abdulla said.

Opposes political and cultural restrictions: late 80s

Montazeri, one of the main architects of the Islamic republic, was a student and close ally of Khomeini, whom he was set to succeed.

But the cleric fell from grace in the late 1980s after he became too openly critical of political and cultural restrictions, most notably Iran’s treatment of political prisoners and opposition groups.

Montazeri resigned months before Khomeini’s death in 1989, and was told by Khomeini to stay out of politics and focus instead on teaching in the city of Qom.

Unfazed by such warnings, he continued to speak out.

Five year house arrest

The grand ayatollah also questioned the theological credentials of current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This was branded as treason, and in 1997 Montazeri was placed under house arrest.

Freed after five years on health grounds during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, the grand ayatollah vowed that he would continue to speak out in defence of freedom and justice.

In his latest reaction to the post-vote crackdown on protests, Montazeri strongly slammed “the killing of innocent people, the arrest of political activists and freedom-seekers as well as their illegal show trials.”

Montazeri regularly met pro-reform activists and rights campaigners who sought his opinion on political and religious issues.

Although the dissident’s comments rarely appeared in the Iranian press, his views and interviews were published on his official website as well as by the foreign and Persian-language media based outside Iran.

Reporting his death, pro-government news agencies IRNA and Fars dropped the clerical title of Grand Ayatollah and their headlines read “Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away.”

“He acted as the clerical figure of rioters in the post-election incidents and his unfounded statements were widely welcomed by anti-revolutionary media,” the official IRNA news agency said of Montazeri.

“Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri died of illness and senility… in the Qom city,” state television website reported.

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Iran charges three US hikers

Charges against three detained Americans are “totally unfounded”, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after it emerged an Iranian court would try the trio who wandered across the border from Iraq.

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Their apparent misadventure last July propelled them into the middle of a bitter stand-off with the West over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not say on Monday when the trial would begin or even what the Americans were charged with, other than that they had “suspicious aims”.

Spy charges

Last month, Iran’s chief prosecutor said they were accused of spying.

“They will be tried by Iran’s judiciary system and verdicts will be issued,” Mottaki told a news conference. He said the three were still being interrogated.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Iranian move was “totally unfounded” and appealed anew to authorities to release the Americans.

“We consider this a totally unfounded charge,” she told reporters. “There is no basis for it. The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government.”

“In fact, they were out hiking and unfortunately, apparently, allegedly, walked across an unmarked boundary,” she said. “We appeal to the Iranian leadership to release these three young people and free them as soon as possible.”

The three, Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, – all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley – had been trekking in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region when they accidentally crossed into Iran, according to their relatives. The trio were arrested on July 31.

Journalist freed

All three families declined to comment on Monday’s announcement.

The case recalls that of American-Iranian journalist Roxanna Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January and convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison.

She was freed on appeal in May after heavy pressure from the US – and several months later, the US military released five Iranians it had held for more than two years.

The accusations against the three Americans could be a first step in a similar move by Iran to put them on trial and convict them, then arrange their release, aiming to get concessions.

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UK and US to ‘tackle’ extremists in Yemen

Britain and the US plan to step up action to fight extremism in Yemen and Somalia, Downing Street said on Sunday, amid investigations into an alleged al-Qaeda plot to bomb a US plane.

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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US President Barack Obama, who accused al-Qaeda over the plot for the first time on Saturday, also wanted to see a bigger peacekeeping force in Somalia to tackle violent radicalism in the region, officials said.

“Downing Street and the White House have agreed to intensify joint US-UK work to tackle the emerging terrorist threat from both Yemen and Somalia in the wake of the failed Detroit terror plot,” a statement said.

“Amongst the initiatives the PM has agreed with President Obama is US-UK funding for a special counter-terrorism police unit in Yemen.”

It added: “In Somalia, the PM and president believe that a larger peacekeeping force is required and will support this at the UN Security Council.”

Details lacking

Downing Street told the BBC that the decision was reached “after discussion with the Yemeni government and the White House”, but conceded the fine points are yet to com.

“The details are still to be worked out but this will build on the work already being done by the UK to help the Yemeni government combat terrorism”, it said.

The announcement came two days after Britain called a London meeting of world powers on fighting extremism in Yemen, where a Nigerian in custody in the US over the foiled December 25 plot is thought to have been trained and equipped by al-Qaeda.

Somalia singled out for ‘assistance’

Al-Qaeda-inspired Shebab insurgents in Somalia control large swathes of south and central parts of the country and have wrested control of much of the capital Mogadishu, attacking government and African Union peacekeepers.

The Horn of Africa state has not had a fully-functioning government since 1991, and has long been considered a ‘failed state’ by Western powers. The UN-backed government controls only a small part of the capital, Mogadishu, and the issue hasonly recently gained prominence due to piracy, and more recently, the failed airliner bombing in the US last week, with links to neighbouring Yemen.

The US said last week that it was sharply increasing its military and economic aid to Yemen.

UK Government says it is working closely with Obama administration

Brown and Obama have discussed what to do about the situation in a series of phone calls since the alleged plot was uncovered and believe more support for Yemen’s coastguard is also needed, the statement added.

Brown will also ask that the situation be discussed by the European Union and push for tougher action on Yemen from the Financial Action Task Force, an international body tackling money laundering and funding for violent extremist groups.

He is also to hold a meeting of a special committee featuring leading members of his cabinet to discuss Britain’s response to the alleged plot.

On Friday, the British premier called a London meeting of international powers on Yemen on January 28 and announced a review of airline security here which could see the use of full body scanners in British airports.

He added that the Detroit incident, which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of carrying out, showed terrorism remains a “very real” global threat as the world enters a new decade, eight years after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.

“Enemies of democracy and freedom – now trying to mastermind death and destruction from Yemen as well as other better-known homes of international terror such as Pakistan and Afghanistan – are concealing explosives in ways which are more difficult to detect,” he wrote in an article on the Downing Street website.

“Al-Qaeda and their associates continue in their ambition to indoctrinate thousands of young people around the world with a deadly desire to kill and maim.

“Our response in security, intelligence, policing and military action, is not just an act of choice but an act of necessity” the statement added.

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Thousands evacuated near volcano

The Philippines’ most active volcano is oozing lava and shooting up plumes of ash, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes and face the possibility of a bleak Christmas in a shelter.

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State volcanologists raised the alert level on the cone-shaped, 2,460-metre Mayon volcano overnight to two steps below a major eruption after ash explosions.

Dark orange lava fragments glowed in the dark as they trickled down the mountain slope overnight. Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said the activity could get worse in coming days. “It’s already erupting,” Solidum told The Associated Press.

Evacuation

More than 20,000 people were evacuated to safety by nightfall on Tuesday, said Gov. Joey Salceda of Albay province, where Mayon is located about 340km southeast of Manila.

The first of 20 vehicles, including army trucks, were sent to villages to take residents to schools and other temporary housing, provincial emergency management official Jukes Nunez said.

“It’s 10 days before Christmas. Most likely people will be in evacuation centres, and if Mayon’s activity won’t ease down we will not allow them to return to their homes,” Nunez said. “It’s difficult and sad, especially for children.”

Residents in Albay are used to moving away from Mayon. Nearly 50,000 people live in a 8km radius around the mountain, and some villages were evacuated last month when the volcano spewed ash.

Ring of Fire

Mayon last erupted in 2006, and about 30,000 people were moved. Another eruption in 1993 killed 79 people.

Salceda said on Tuesday that he has placed the central province under a “state of imminent disaster,” which will make it easier for him to draw and use emergency funds.

The Philippines lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where volcanic activity and earthquakes are common. About 22 out of 37 volcanos in the country are active.

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Obama girls hint at Presidential present

US President Barack Obama is getting “sports stuff” for Christmas.

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But the president, an avid golfer and basketball player, will have to wait until December 25 to find out exactly what it is.

First lady Michelle Obama gave away that hint during a trip to the Children’s National Medical Centre. She visited privately with young patients in the heart and kidney unit, then came downstairs to the atrium to read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to dozens more.

Daughters Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8, helped their mother deliver that dose of holiday cheer, along with family dog Bo, who sported a red-and-white collar with sleigh bells. They walked him around to meet many of the sick children. A hospital worker followed closely behind offering squirts of anti-bacterial lotion to anyone who had patted Bo.

The sisters also took turns reading “Snowmen at Night”, about what these frozen figures do after dark.

Then came questions from the audience, which included numerous apron-clad hospital volunteers and staffers, and relatives of the children. Dozens of other workers peered down on the scene through windows on the floors above.

Neither Malia nor Sasha shied away from answering questions. They are often seen at White House events with either or both of their parents, but Tuesday’s appearance was their first time speaking so extensively in public.

President just wants ‘hugs’ for Christmas

One child wanted to know what the president would be getting for Christmas.

Ms Obama at first joked that she couldn’t talk about her husband’s present because reporters would tell. But she finally relented and said: “It’s good. I got him sports stuff.”

Sasha started to say what she and her sister got him, but the first lady interrupted. “It’s something he likes,” Sasha said.

Earlier on Tuesday, however, the president said in a radio interview that he and the first lady decided several years ago not to buy each other presents. He said the only Christmas presents he needs from his daughters are hugs.

Another child asked how the holiday will be different for the Obamas. It’s their first Christmas in the White House.

“It will be easier to get on the plane,” said Sasha, drawing laughs from grown-ups in the audience familiar with the difficulties of commercial air travel. Sasha now travels on Air

Force One, the plush and spacious presidential plane.

Ms Obama said the family planned to do what it has done for many years and head to Hawaii with a group of friends to celebrate the holidays. The president was born on the island and lived there as a child.

“As soon as all the work here is done, we’ll go there,” she said.

Obama said that he wouldn’t go on holiday until the Senate completes its work on the health care bill, even if that means staying in town for Christmas Eve. That’s when senators are expected to pass their version of the bill.

26 Christmas trees in the White House

One difference for the Obamas this holiday is the number of Christmas trees in their new house. Ms Obama first guessed 24 after a third child asked how many, then an aide whispered that the correct number was 26 trees.

“Unfortunately, you don’t get presents under all of them,” Malia joked.

Ms Obama’s visit to the children’s hospital continued a tradition of first ladies that dates to Bess Truman. Ms Obama also gave out frosted cookies in the shape of Christmas trees and dog Bo to the children.

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Olympic village could face drug searches

The head of Britain’s Olympic body is proposing a new law that would allow police to search the athletes’ village for performance-enhancing drugs at the 2012 London Games.

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Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, says he plans to submit a draft bill in the House of Lords to give police extra powers to clamp down on doping in 2012.

Moynihan, a former British sports minister, sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative Peer.

He wants to bring Britain in line with other countries that have anti-doping legislation, such as Italy and France.

“That would mean that if someone was blood doping at the Olympic Village in 2012, they (police) would have the right under law to search the premises under a warrant,” Moynihan told British media.

“If athletes know that could happen, we are going to deter people from cheating and doing themselves harm. It is important that it should be on the statute book.”

Anti-doping plans

The International Olympic Committee wants all Olympic host countries to have anti-doping legislation in place for the Games.

In 2006, Italian police – acting on a tip-off from Olympic officials – raided the private accommodations of the Austrian cross-country and biathlon teams during the Turin Winter Games, seizing doping substances and equipment.

Moynihan said police would need reasonable grounds to search the London village. At present, authorities only have the powers to search for prohibited drugs such as heroin, not performance-enhancing substances.

Under Moynihan’s proposal, police could search for all drugs on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.

“It will make it a criminal offence to supply performance-enhancing substances in sport,” he said. “I think that as the next Olympic host nation we should be taking a lead.”

Moynihan said he plans to introduce the bill in February and hopes it can become law by July 2011.

“I do not believe the bill will be contentious,” he said.

Athletes’ reaction

A British athletes’ association said it hoped the measure would not lead to random searches in the village.

“That would be utterly disastrous for the London Olympics,” said Peter Gardner, chief executive of the British Athletes Commission.

“If there is a good reason for a search based on intelligence, then fine, but we don’t want to see random searches.”

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US ‘missed red flags’, admits Obama

President Barack Obama admits US intelligence missed “red flags” before the Christmas Day airliner attack and has demanded immediate reforms to correct them.

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Obama said the US security system had failed in a ‘potentially disastrous way’.

He said the US had had sufficient information to uncover the plot to blow up a but ‘failed to connect the dots’.

A 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines jet over the US city of Detroit on Christmas Day.

Abdulmutallab’s father had visited the US embassy in Abuja on November 19 to express fears that radicals might be influencing his son.

Failure to ‘connect the dots’

The embassy relayed those concerns the following day in a diplomatic cable to the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center, which coordinates intelligence among various government agencies.

“The bottom line is this – the US government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots,” Obama told reporters in Washington.

“In other words this was not a failure to collect intelligence it was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence we already had.”

US prosecutors charged that Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Flight 253 using a device containing the explosive PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, but was overpowered by passengers.

Allegedly stitched into his underwear, the explosives were not spotted by the traditional metal detectors.

The bomb failed to go off properly, but sparked an on-board fire that was swiftly put out.

The Obama administration has had to fend off criticism of lax safety and intelligence procedures exposed by the foiled bombing attempt.

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