Obama reaffirms support for CIA

President Barack Obama heaped praise on the CIA, vowing his “full support” and telling employees not to be discouraged by his release of stunning details on the agency\’s harsh terror interrogations.

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The president reassured the embattled spies at their Virginia headquarters amid a heated controversy over his release of secret memos detailing Bush-era interrogations of terror suspects denounced as torture by critics.

If there were hard feelings, they weren\’t on public display at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Hundreds of agency employees packed the lobby of the original headquarters building to hear Obama and exploded in cheers and applause when he strode in with CIA director Leon Panetta.

“Don\’t be discouraged by what\’s happened the last few weeks. Don\’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we have made some mistakes — that\’s how we learn,” Obama said.

“But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be president of the United States and that\’s why you should be proud to be members of the CIA.”

Obama\’s visit coincided with fresh revelations about the repeated use of waterboarding, or near drowning, on up to 266 occasions by CIA interrogators against two top Al-Qaeda terror suspects.

Last week, the president released a series of Justice Department memos detailing harsh techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and even a proposal to use insects to frighten a detainee, endorsed by the previous administration of George W. Bush.

The move, which came in response to a court order, exposed Obama to fierce attacks from across the political spectrum.

Former Bush administration officials warned he had tied the hands of the agency for the future, damaged individual agents who carried out the questioning or offered a propaganda tool to US enemies.

Human rights groups were furious that Obama simultaneously ruled out prosecutions of CIA operatives who carried out interrogations viewed as torture, by reasoning that they were acting on orders to defend their country.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Monday asked Obama to withhold judgment on possible prosecutions until her committee has completed a review of the secret program in about six to eight months time.

Obama, however, vowed “my full support” for the CIA, calling it “an indispensable tool, the tip of the spear, in America\’s intelligence mission and our national security.

“I need everybody to be clear: We will protect your identities and your security as you vigorously pursue your missions. I will be as vigorous in protecting you, as you are vigorous in protecting the American people,” he said.

Before his remarks, Obama met privately with 50 intelligence officers and agency leaders and acknowledged later that “people have expressed understandable anxiety and concern.

“I\’m sure that sometimes it seems as if … we\’re operating with one hand tied behind our back, or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive. I understand that.

“What makes the United States special and what makes you special is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it\’s hard, not just when it\’s easy; even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it\’s expedient to do so.”

Obama showered praise on the agency operatives who operate in the shadows and have played a new and more vital role since the September 11 attacks in 2001.

“I want you to know how much the American people appreciate your service,” Obama said.

Obama\’s euphoric reception was in sharp contrast with what is reported to have been an intense behind-the-scenes debate over whether to release the interrogation memos, which Panetta and other CIA officials argued against.

Former CIA chief Michael Hayden has warned that the release of the documents could still leave agents vulnerable to civil lawsuits or congressional probes targeting CIA operatives who relied on the Bush-era memos to carry out harsh interrogations.

“There will be more revelations. There will be more commissions.

There will be more investigations,” he told the TV program “Fox News Sunday.”

Hayden also insisted that the harsh interrogation techniques had succeeded in combating Al-Qaeda and saving American lives, something he characterized as “an inconvenient truth.”

Former vice president Dick Cheney told Fox News on Monday he had asked the CIA to declassify memos that showed the successes that resulted from the interrogations.

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Rudd hints at third stimulus package

A day after saying Australia would inevitably slip into recession, the prime minister has warned that unemployment will rise but said next month\’s budget would increase stimulus for the economy.

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But Kevin Rudd\’s press conference ended minutes before he could be quizzed on Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens\’ declaration that Australia was now in recession.

Mr Stevens today went further than the prime minister, saying Australia was now in recession.

“Whether or not the next GDP statistic, due in early June, shows another decline, I think the reasonable person, looking at all the information available now, would come to the conclusion that the Australian economy, too, is in recession,” Mr Stevens told a lunch in Adelaide.

Mr Rudd is in Western Australia hosting a jobs forum in the state, which has seen its powerhouse economy slow dramatically as the global financial crisis bites.

Mr Rudd said it was necessary to act locally, nationally and globally to reduce the impact of the global recession on Australia.

“The truth is this – the global economic recession makes it inevitable that we\’ll have a recession in Australia which means that, as we frame the budget, we\’re going to have to make even stronger our economic stimulus strategy because unemployment will rise even further,” Mr Rudd told reporters in Perth.

“As prime minister of Australia, I can\’t wish this global economic recession away.”

Mr Rudd said the federal government working with local communities could make a huge difference to the impact of the global recession on Australia.

“If we don\’t act together, then the impact of this recession will be greater than need be the case,” Mr Rudd said. Mr Rudd\’s press conference ended minutes before Mr Stevens\’ declaration.

Yesterday, Mr Rudd finally conceded the economy will be dragged into a recession for the first time since the early 1990s. Previously, he and Treasurer Wayne Swan had avoided using the “R” word.

Mr Rudd rejected Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull\’s claims he was shifting the focus from border protection issues to the global recession.

He said it was quite clear from the economic data from China and a range of other countries that a recession was inevitable in Australia.

“Australia is not an island, Australia is directly impacted by global economic factors in the first quarter of 2009,” Mr Rudd said.

“Most of the economic data coming out of those economies which directly affect Australia were negative, therefore, as night follows day, it affects Australia,” he said.

“Therefore, the global economic recession is making it inevitable there will be a recession (in) Australia.”

Mr Rudd said his comments were made in anticipation of a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

He said the federal government had maintained a consistent strategy of economic stimulus through payments since the end of 2008 and its focus would be on job creation through infrastructure projects including the national broadband network.

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Inter-Korean talks delayed by disagreement

The South\’s team crossed the heavily fortified border at around 8:35am for the scheduled talks at the nearby Kaesong joint industrial complex.

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But as of 2:00 pm (0500 GMT) initial contacts had failed to produce agreement on which building to use for the talks or what to discuss, according to sources quoted by Yonhap news agency.

“Both sides exchanged opinions during the morning about how to arrange this contact, and liaison officers will meet again in the afternoon,” said Kim Ho-Nyoun, spokesman for Seoul\’s unification ministry which handles cross-border relations.

Analysts had predicted little or no agreement.

The meeting at Kaesong, the last major co-operation project between the two sides, comes amid icy cross-border relations and threats from Pyongyang\’s military.

“The Lee group of traitors should never forget that Seoul is just 50 kilometres (30 miles) away” from the border, the North\’s military spokesman said Saturday, suggesting the city is vulnerable to attack.

The North is furious with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, who has abandoned a policy of providing almost unconditional aid to the communist state.

Regional tensions are also rising after the North\’s purported satellite launch on April 5, widely seen overseas as a disguised missile test.

The North, angry at UN censure of the launch, has announced it is quitting nuclear disarmament talks and restarting its atomic weapons programme.

It has expelled US and UN nuclear inspectors. Following the launch South Korea announced it would push ahead with plans to join a US-led initiative against shipments of weapons of mass destruction.

The North says any move by its neighbour to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) would be seen as a declaration of war. In another complication, the North has been holding a South Korean worker at Kaesong for more than three weeks.

It accuses him of criticising its communist regime and trying to persuade a local woman worker to defect.

Analysts believe the North will try to force the South to choose between PSI and the future of Kaesong, using the detainee as a bargaining chip.

Cho Bong-Hyun, an analyst with South Korean bank IBK, said the North will likely charge the detainee to raise tension and may even demand that all South Korean workers quit the joint venture.

“Chances are they will be saying, \’These are the results of our investigation and the crime is so grave he has to be tried here,\'” Cho told Yonhap, citing sources involved in Kaesong.

“There could be a further warning, such as ordering all South Korean workers to leave the complex unless Seoul makes a big compromise.”

The unification ministry said Seoul would respond “strongly” to any attempt to charge the detainee with a crime. Spokeswoman Lee Jong-Joo said the previously agreed procedure is for South Korean employees at Kaesong to be warned, fined or expelled for any infraction.

She stressed that PSI and the investigation into the detainee are separate issues. “These two issues cannot be and must not be linked.”

Opened in 2005, Kaesong is both a symbol of reconciliation and an attempt to combine the North\’s cheap but skilled labour with the South\’s capital and know-how. Some 38,300 North Koreans work at 101 South Korean firms, producing items such as garments, kitchenware and watches.

But operations have often been hit by political tensions. In December the North restricted border crossings and expelled hundreds of South Korean managers from the estate.

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Fiji regime employs NZ lawyer

New Zealand lawyer Christopher Pryde has rejected harsh criticisms of his decision to remain Solicitor-General of Fiji after its military regime ruled that it cannot be challenged in court.

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The New Zealand Law Society had advised Pryde that lawyers should not accept office with an unlawful regime.

Pryde explained on radio that he had made his choice to ensure the country could restore the rule of law.

However Fiji\’s military regime had reportedly begun shredding documents that incriminate it, ruling that it cannot be legally challenged over its 2006 coup.

A top United Nations official also declared Fiji’s disbandment of its constitution a ‘brazen action’ which increased the potential for instability and violence.

Pryde also rejected criticism from the Fiji Law Society, saying it has been successively compromised over the last two years and was a shadow of its former self.

Eight magistrates and a chief magistrate were sworn in by President Ratu Josefa Iloilo on Monday and the Fiji Law Society said it had been told court documents concerning the interim government dating back to 2006 had been destroyed.

Blog websites have reported that the troubled country\’s newly-appointed chief registrar, Major Ana Rokomokoti, has been destroying court documents related to the coup and any other negative claims.

The actions are part of the latest power grab by military leader Frank Bainimarama, who has ruled the country by virtual dictatorship since overthrowing a democratic government in December 2006.

His government was recently handed more power when the constitution was abolished, elections delayed, media censored, judiciary sacked and top officials replaced with those suiting Bainimarama\’s new order.

Fiji Law Society president Dorsami Naidu said the actions were a vain attempt to protect an illegal government.

“I have heard they have shredded all paperwork and files on actions pending against the military regime,” Naidu said.

“They\’re wrecking it to try to get away with what they\’ve done.”

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State of emergency extended by new protest

A fresh rally planned by anti-government protesters will prolong a state of emergency in Thailand\’s capital Bangkok and surrounding areas, a government minister said.

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Supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra have announced they will regroup Saturday outside the emergency zone after rallies in Bangkok ended last week following street battles between demonstrators and armed soldiers.

But Satit Wonghnongtaey, the minister attached to the prime minister\’s office, said the protests in Samut Sakhon province, 36 kilometres (22 miles) outside Bangkok would worsen the kingdom\’s political chaos.

Rally to ‘worsen the crisis’

“The government is ready to deal with any chaos but the rally will affect the government\’s decision when to lift the state of emergency,” Satit told reporters.

“This is bad news for our country because it will worsen the crisis. They (Thaksin\’s supporters) should rely on parliament as the government is implementing charter amendments as demanded by the protesters,” he said.

‘Red shirts’ ready for more

On Monday Jakrapob Penkair, a senior member of the so-called “Red Shirt” protest movement loyal to fugitive Thaksin, told AFP from exile that the group would continue their campaign against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“We have developed some strategies,” Jakrapob told AFP in a telephone call diverted by an assistant to avoid detection.

The Red Shirts shut down an Asian summit in the beach resort of Pattaya on

April 11 and then clashed with troops in Bangkok on Monday. Two people were killed and 123 injured in the unrest in the capital.

The Red Shirts want Abhisit to quit and call elections, saying that he came to power unfairly in December after a court toppled Thaksin\’s allies from power.

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Missing Aussie bomber \’found\’ in Vietnam

It\’s been 39 years since Australian airmen Michael Herbert and Robert Carver vanished along with their plane after a bombing mission in Vietnam.

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But investigators are convinced they\’ve found the aircraft and hope it might lead to a long-awaited return home for the last two Australian servicemen missing in action in Vietnam.

Defence Personnel Minister Warren Snowdon said the Australian defence team was confident it had located the wreckage of the Canberra bomber in thick jungle in remote Quang Nam province, near the border with Laos.

No human remains were found but a number of military artefacts were discovered, including a badge unique to the Royal Australian Air Force\’s 2 Squadron.

The next step will be an archaeological dig to conclusively determine if there are any human remains at the site.

These brave airmen gave their lives in the service of their nation and locating the crash site is an important step in accounting for them,” Mr Snowdon said in a statement.

He said investigators had spent a week in the isolated province gathering information and then hiking to the wreck site, reaching it last Wednesday. Relatives of Flying Officer Herbert and Pilot Officer Carver have been advised of the find, and RAAF officials will keep them informed of further developments.

The two men vanished on November 3, 1970. They had conducted a bombing mission and were returning to base when their bomber disappeared from radar screens about 65km southwest of Da Nang.

There was no distress call and subsequent searches found no trace of the plane. When Australian troops withdrew from Vietnam, six dead remained behind, their bodies lost in the jungle.

That was until the group Operation Aussies Home, led by Vietnam veteran Jim Bourke, located the remains of Lance Corporal Richard Parker and Private Peter Gillson in 2007, buried near where they had died during fighting in 1965.

This prompted a resurgence of official interest in finding Lance Corporal John Gillespie, killed in a helicopter crash in 1971, and SASR Private David Fisher, who fell from a rope as he was being evacuated by helicopter in 1969.

The remains of all four men were returned home and reinterred with full military honours.

The search for officers Herbert and Carver always appeared the most difficult because the potential search area was so vast.

Mr Snowdon praised the work of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation for its use of innovative modelling techniques to refine the search area, and the Army History Unit for its exhaustive and skilled research.

“Invaluable assistance has also been given by a number of former North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers and their commanders as well as many local villagers and their compassion and commitment in assisting us is humbling,” he said.

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Marysville golfers tee off for first time since fires

Marysville\’s golfing community, whose golf club was damaged in Victoria\’s bushfires, were still able to enjoy a game of golf after an invitation from the Sandhurst Golf Club.

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Funds raised from today\’s Marysvile-Sandhurst Challenge will go toward re-establishing the Marysville\’s golfing fraternity.

Sunny skies in Melbourne provided a perfect day for the Marysville golfers, who gathered for the first time as a group since Black Saturday.

Many had been playing golf at their own club that fateful day.

Two of the club\’s junior members, James and Mathew Liesfield, died in the fires. Some of the money raised from today\’s event will go towards establishing a Junior Golf Trust, named the two brothers, to support up and coming players in the Marysville community.

The ringing of the Captain\’s Bell signalled a minutes silence for the bushfire victims, before the President of the Marysville Golf Club hoisted the flag.

It\’s hoped about $12,000 will be raised from today\’s event but several hundred thousand more is needed to get the Marysville Golf Club up and running again, although it\’s hoped nine holes will be playable soon.

Nick Jans, President of the Marysville Golf Club praised the strengh the marysville community.

“We were wounded, but not crippled, and with the right kind of management and the right kind of investment and technical support we can get it going again and that\’s really important to Marysville as a whole”.

It\’s envisaged the Marysville-Sandhurst Challenge will become an annual event.

Meantime at the Springvalley Golf Club, police and emergency services workers joined bushfire survivors in a pro-am event.

About 60 people took part in today\’s event, including football legend, Kevin Bartlett, and Melbourne personality John Blackman.

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Detention protest \’a mystery\’

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship still does not know what triggered a violent protest by illegal Chinese immigrants at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre in Melbourne\’s west.

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About 20 detainees went on a destructive spree, wrecking furniture at the centre in Hampstead Road about 8pm (AEST) on Monday.

Emergency crews from the Metropolitan Fire Brigade were placed on stand-by outside the facility as detention services provider G4S brought the situation under control.

When asked what triggered the unrest, an immigration spokesman told AAP: “Their reasons were their own”.

“There was some property damage but the detention services provider got it under control pretty quickly,” the spokesman said. The protesters were among 39 illegal immigrants detained in March at a Warrnambool abattoir.

Emergency authorities were placed on standby outside the centre, but staff inside managed to bring the unrest under control. No one was injured.

The damage was estimated at around 5,000 dollars, the immigration department said.

Refugees \’uncertain about their future\’

Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said many detainees in Australia\’s mainland immigration centres were Chinese who faced an uncertain future.

“They spend a long time in detention waiting for decisions on their refugee claim,” Mr Rintoul told AFP.

“There\’s a lack of transparency, and many of them are getting caught up in the technicalities of making a claim.”

Mr Rintoul said the prospect of returning to China was notably unsettling for those who considered themselves democracy activists or were followers of the Falun Gong religious group.

Australia\’s refugee policy has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, especially after five asylum seekers died and dozens more were injured in an explosion on a boat off the northwest coast last week.

Last year, the centre-left government scrapped a widely-criticised system that often resulted in asylum seekers, including children, being locked up for years.

The opposition conservatives have blamed the softer policy for an increase in the number of boatpeople making for Australia\’s shores.

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Zuma confident ahead of election

South Africa\’s likely next president Jacob Zuma is confident of a landslide win in a general election, brushing aside concerns that corruption charges had dented his campaign.

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Polls predict his African National Congress (ANC) would take 67 per cent of the vote in Wednesday\’s polls, making Zuma a shoo-in for president when parliament meets in early May to elect a new head of state.

The 67-year-old former anti-apartheid activist said he was confident of a “huge and decisive mandate” and moved to dispel doubts about his integrity after graft charges against him were dropped only two weeks ago.

\’No cloud\’ around Zuma

“There\’s absolutely no cloud. I\’ve never seen a cloud around me,” Zuma told reporters at a final pre-election media briefing.

Prosecutors argued that political meddling had compromised the legal case against Zuma, but insisted they remained confident of the case against him. Zuma has repeatedly insisted that the case no longer matters.

Election authorities expect a record turnout, with more than 23 million people registered to vote.

“All of our 19,726 stations will be open at 7:00 am on Wednesday,” Independent Electoral Commission spokeswoman Kate Bapela told AFP.

“At this stage we do not foresee any disruptions or hiccups,” she said.

The build-up to the country\’s fourth democratic elections has been the most energetic since the 1994 polls which swept Nelson Mandela to power and ended white minority rule.

Middle class mistrust

Speculation is rife about a Zuma presidency. While revered by the poor, he is distrusted by the middle class because of his tainted image and fears over strong ties to the ANC\’s leftist partners.

The ANC leader, who was jailed for a decade alongside Mandela, has pushed campaign themes of anti-corruption and good governance, and on Tuesday promised a smooth transition to a new government.

“We reiterate that we will use our majority responsibly and will not ride roughshod over the rights of the people, or bulldoze other parties into submission,” he said.

President Kgalema Motlanthe, viewed as the ANC\’s bench-warmer for Zuma after the ouster of Thabo Mbeki last September, insisted that South Africa\’s democracy remained strong, despite a series of scandals.

Economic woes \’overstated\’

“Our democracy is vibrant and those doomsayers who have been predicting our democracy is floundering will be made to eat humble pie,” he said.

However, the ANC\’s two-thirds majority in parliament – allowing it to introduce constitutional changes – is being challenged by a new breakaway group, the Congress of the People (COPE), formed by a splinter group of Mbeki supporters.

COPE is among 40 parties to contest the elections, 26 at national level and 14 at provincial level.

An Ipsos Markinor poll on Tuesday predicted the ANC to win 67 per cent of the vote, the opposition Democratic Alliance 13 per cent and COPE 11 per cent.

While some analysts have said the ANC\’s super majority could be lost, Zuma insisted that COPE, which has tried to eat into the ANC support base, will not make significant electoral inroads.

Zuma received a major endorsement when 90-year-old Mandela made a rare public appearance at a mass rally in Johannesburg at the weekend.

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Rebels say Sri Lanka troops kill 1,000 civilians

The Tamil Tigers have accused Sri Lankan government forces of killing more than 1,000 civilians and wounding another 2,300 during heavy fighting the previous day.

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The island\’s defence ministry, however, rejected the allegation and said there had been no military attacks against Tamil civilians in the remaining patch of land still in the hands of the Tigers in the island\’s northeast.

“Over 1,000 civilians were killed and nearly 2,300 civilians were injured,” the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said in a statement. “And today, a bloodbath is prevailing.”

Sri Lanka rebels ignore deadline to surrender

Earlier, the defence ministry said the Sri Lankan army seized more ground from the Tamil Tigers as the rebels ignored a deadline to surrender.

The government says its troops were poised to defeat the LTTE, a hardened guerrilla group that has been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland on the ethnic Sinhalese-majority island since the 1970s.

The defence ministry said nearly 50,000 men, women and children managed to escape on Monday after troops punctured rebel defences at Puttumatalan, inside the rebel-held area in the island\’s northeast.

It also said 17 civilians who tried to escape from rebel-held territory on Monday had been killed by the guerrillas while another 373 had been wounded. The pro-rebel Tamilnet website reported the area was littered with the bodies of hundreds of civilians it said were killed in government shelling.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was concerned that the final offensive against the LTTE could lead to a “dramatic increase” in civilian casualties, a concern echoed by the UN.

“The situation is nothing short of catastrophic. Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care,” ICRC\’s Director of Operations Pierre Kraehenbuehl said in Geneva.

In Washington, a US official warned on Monday that time was running out for a deal that he hoped would bring lasting peace to Sri Lanka.

Michael Owen, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said Sri Lanka should offer a package in which the Tigers hand in their arms, possibly to a third party, in exchange for amnesty for low-level cadres.

During the surrender, both sides would hold fire and let civilians leave, he said.

“We are running out of time,” Owen told the Brookings Institution think-tank.

“Really, there is literally only a couple of days to try to get this finalised.” Sri Lanka\’s government has resisted calls for any international intervention and for a prolonged pause in the military campaign to minimise the humanitarian suffering.

The government estimates show another 30,000 civilians could still be held by the Tigers but the United Nations says the number could be twice as high and warned Tuesday that an all-out assault risked a bloodbath.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the escape of the civilians but was “deeply concerned” about those still trapped, his office said. Journalists are barred from working in the north, making it impossible to verify the rival claims independently.

“If fighting continues and if the LTTE refuses to allow people to leave the conflict zone, then we face the intolerable inevitability of seeing many more children killed,” said UNICEF\’s South Asia regional director, Daniel Toole.

The Tigers have not formally responded to the surrender call but renewed their call for an unconditional ceasefire — something the government has already rejected.

The crisis has sparked protests in Europe and expressions of concern by UN and human rights groups.

In Paris, French police arrested 210 people Monday when a rally by Tamils turned violent as demonstrators threw bottles at security forces and smashed windscreens.

In London, thousands of Tamils blocked some of the city\’s busiest streets, demonstrating outside parliament and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

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