Posted: 04 Jan 2011 07:20 PM PST
Iran's surprise invitation to ambassadors accredited to the UN nuclear watchdog in Vienna was a bid to show openness before Tehran and six world powers are due to meet in Istanbul later this month to discuss its disputed atomic activities.
The West suspects Iran's uranium enrichment program aims to make nuclear bombs while Tehran says it is for peaceful ends.
None of the four major Western powers in diplomatic efforts to resolve the long-running dispute — the United States, Britain, Germany and France — received invitations.
The United States and Britain dismissed the Iranian move, as did Western analysts who viewed Tehran's gesture as a public relations exercise and said Iran would be more transparent if it gave international inspectors greater access to its sites.
"This is pretend transparency," said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington. "Taking a bunch of diplomats ... to see what you want them to see is not meaningful transparency."
Hungary, the current EU president, said it was invited. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has represented the bloc in negotiations so far, not the EU presidency holders.
"We are still trying to determine who is on Iran's invite list. We aren't," US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told Reuters.
A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity said neither the United States nor the EU3 — European Union members Britain, France and Germany — have been invited.
"A fair number of invitations have been issued. The pattern is clearer regarding who is not invited — the US and E3 — than who is invited," said the US official. "Hungary, invited as the EU presidency, has already declined."
The was no immediate confirmation from either Hungary or the EU on whether Hungary had turned down the invitation.
Britain said "a tightly controlled visit of selected facilities was unlikely to provide the assurances needed by the international community" about Iran's nuclear plans.
China said it had been invited while a Vienna-based diplomat said Russia, the sixth big power involved in talks with Iran, was also believed to have received an invitation.
Egypt appeared to be the first to officially confirm it would accept Iran's invitation, with Hossam Zaki, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, saying it would take part.
A senior Western diplomat dismissed the planned trip as an Iranian stunt seeking to divert attention from its obligations under repeated UN Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend activity the West fears has military aims.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference the ambassadors would "possibly visit Iran and our nuclear facilities on January 15 and 16."
Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear body, said the plan was for the group to travel to the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor.
The two sites are at the heart of Iran's nuclear dispute with the West, which suspects the Islamic Republic is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran denies this.
"Ambassadors ... are invited to visit our nuclear sites, particularly in Natanz and Arak," Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Reuters in Vienna. "This is in the line of our transparent nuclear policy," he said, adding that meetings with high-ranking Iranian officials would also be organised.
Tehran and the powers agreed in Geneva last month to meet again in Istanbul in late January. The Geneva talks were the first in more than a year and also the first since tougher UN, US, and EU sanctions were imposed on Iran in mid-2010.
But the Geneva meeting made no substantial progress toward finding a solution to the nuclear row. Iran says its nuclear program is purely for peaceful electricity production and has rejected international demands to curb it. — Reuters
Posted: 04 Jan 2011 07:09 PM PST
The worst flooding in decades has affected an area the size of Germany and France, left towns virtual islands in a muddy inland sea, cut major rail and road links to coal ports, slashed exports and forced up world coal prices.
"Seventy-five per cent of our mines are currently not operating because of this flood, so that's a massive impact on the international markets and the international manufacture of steel," Premier Anna Bligh told local television.
Queensland state is the world's biggest exporter of coal used in steel-making.
"Queensland is a very big state. It relies on the lifelines of its transport system, and those transport systems in some cases are facing catastrophic damage," said Bligh.
"Without doubt this disaster is without precedent in its size and its scale here in Queensland. What I'm seeing in every community I visit is heartbreak, devastation."
Residents in flooded towns worked desperately to build sandbag levees on Wednesday in the hope of holding back the rising waters. In the cattle town of Rockhampton, a rise of just 20 cm (8 in) in floodwaters would inundate another 400 homes and lap at the front door of a further 4,000 properties.
"It's rising very slowly. We're hoping against hope that we might not reach the 9.4 meter (31 ft) mark. Let's hope we dodge the bullet. Every centimetre counts," said Queensland state disaster co-ordinator Ian Stewart.
Some 200,000 people have been affected by the floods and three have drowned. Authorities are warning people to stay out of floodwaters, not just because of the risk of drowning. Snakes and crocodiles are being washed into homes and shops.
Macarthur Coal said on Wednesday it had resumed transporting coal by rail to Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal this week, but force majeure remained in place and future coal trains will depend on coal availability.
"Once the pits are free of water, we'll have more coal exposed that can be processed and transported," said Nicole Hollows, Macarthur's managing director.
"But it is not possible to predict when we will return to a steady state of mining as that largely depends on any future rain."
Wesfarmers is also resuming output at its Curragh mine in the Bowen Basin, but retained its declaration of force majeure, which releases companies from contractual obligations.
A spokesman for Dalrymple port warned that unless mine companies resume production in the nation's biggest coal region soon, coal export shipments could again be cut.
Coal mines with an annual capacity of more than 90 million tones are under force majeure.
Australia accounts for more than half of global coking coal exports, which are vital to steelmakers, especially in Asian countries such as booming China.
The floods have hit 35 per cent of Australia's estimated 259 million tonnes of coal exports in 2009. An estimated US$1 billion (RM3.07 billion) has been lost in coal production due to the floods, said the Queensland Resource Council.
FRESH FLOODS FEARED
While floodwaters are receding in the Bowen Basin coal region, flooding continued further downstream and fresh monsoonal rains are forecast to cause fresh flooding.
Flood warnings have been declared for seven river systems, with one swollen river now 6km wide.
"It's going to be two weeks before people...are able to move back into their homes," said Rockhampton mayor Brad Carter.
Residents in the town of St George have built dirt moats to try and stop the floodwaters reaching their homes, but authorities fear 80 per cent of the small town will be swamped if the Balonne River reaches a record 14 metres on Saturday.
"It's started to rain here again. We could get a flood on top of our (earlier) flood," said Barnaby Joyce, a National party senator who lives in St George.
The Australian floods, which have cut off 22 towns, have been caused by a "La Nina" weather pattern which produces monsoonal rains over the western Pacific and Southeast Asia.
Australia recorded its third wettest year on record in 2010, with 11 months of above-average rainfall soaking the east of the country because of La Nina, the nation's weather Balonne River reaches a record 14 metres on Saturday.
The flood disaster, say analysts, is forecast to shave around 0.4 percentage points off GDP, which equates to just over A$5 billion (RM15.40 billion) of Australia's annual output of A$1.3 trillion.
"The cost is already in the billions and billions of dollars. And that's in public infrastructure, private dwellings and possessions, crop losses, stock losses, business impacted," said Queensland Emergency Services Minister Neil Roberts.
"It's just going to be an enormous bill, and it's going to take a long, long time to recover." — Reuters
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