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Obama to honor gay rights promises

US President Barack Obama on Monday urged gay and lesbian activists to judge him on results, following some complaints that he has been slow to honor promises to fight for equal rights.

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“We seek an America in which no one feels the pain of discrimination based on who you are or who you love,” Obama told up to 300 lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender activists at a White House reception.

“I know that many in this room don’t believe that progress has come fast enough, and I understand that,” Obama said, his remarks drawing cheers and shouts of “Thank you Mr President” at the event, celebrating Gay Pride month.

“It’s not for me to tell you to be patient anymore than it was for others to counsel patience to African-Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half-century ago,” Obama said.

“But I say this: we have made progress,” Obama said, less than two weeks after signing a presidential memorandum extending partial federal benefits to same-sex partners of US government workers.

“I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I’ve made, but by the promises that my administration keeps,” he said, adding that by the end of his mandate in 2013, he believed the community would be happy with his administration.

Sluggish progress

Some gay and lesbian rights groups have complained about what they see as sluggish progress towards implementing campaign promises.

The White House has yet to follow through on a promise to end the ban on gays serving openly in the US military — a hugely controversial issue.

Obama made clear at the event that he had asked the Pentagon and Congress to work out how best to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — which would require a change in US law.

“But as commander-in-chief, in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term,” Obama said.

DOMA slammed

Gay groups also recently slammed the Obama Justice Department for backing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denies federal benefits to same-sex married couples.

In his White House event, the president made clear he had called on Congress to overturn the law.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked at his daily briefing whether the president felt under pressure to “mollify” gay Democratic supporters.

“That’s not the way the president looks at important issues,” Gibbs said.

“We didn’t play a lot of interest group-based politics in the presidential race. The president makes those decisions… based on his values.”

Merkel rallies election support

German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a call to arms to her centre-right party on Monday as she unveiled a manifesto she hopes will lead her to a second term in power with elections only 90 days away.

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Speaking at the party convention of her Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), she said that ditching Germany’s unwieldy “grand coalition” was the best way to ensure the country emerged strongly from its worst recession in generations.

“We have the power to make our country stronger than it was before. We have the power to promote growth … and we say, we can best do this with another coalition partner,” Merkel told some 750 delegates.

Jettison coalition

Merkel hopes to get enough votes at the September 27 poll to jettison her current coalition partner — the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) — in favour of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP).

“I am deeply convinced that, with our unanimously agreed manifesto, we have the grounds to say to people: this is what we want,” she said.

“Now it is about delivering our message to the people. So I call on you: let us fight so that we have a fabulous September 27,” she added.

The centrepiece of Merkel’s manifesto is a tax-cut pledge totalling 15 billion euros that would see the lowest tax bracket pared to 12 percent from 14 percent and the threshold for the highest tax rate (45 percent) raised.

She also vowed not to raise value-added tax if re-elected, despite several economists and some from within her own party calling for such a hike to plug gaping holes in Germany’s public finances caused by the economic crisis.

She moved quickly to crush any hint of dissent within the party on the issue of tax, which had prompted front-page stories of a split in the leadership.

“We have spent enough time thinking,” Merkel said pointedly.

Recession worries

Last week, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck said the recession had blown a “monstrous” hole in Germany’s coffers, with the country expected to break EU deficit rules until 2013 or 2014.

Merkel said boosting growth must come ahead of fiscal consolidation, adding: “We have one goal and that is to pull our country quickly out of this slump so we can be strong on the international stage.”

Other central planks of the CDU/CSU manifesto include a commitment to strengthen banking supervision in Germany and a pledge not to build any new nuclear power plants. The document also rejected the implementation of a minimum wage, favoured by the SPD.

The SPD hit back at Merkel’s tax plan, with the secretary-general of the party, Hubertus Heil, dismissing it as “completely unrealistic.”

The conservatives “are not telling the people how they will finance” their tax plans, he said, adding there would need to be “massive cuts” in public services.

The SPD has said it would cut the lowest rate of income tax but raise it for top earners.

Merkel’s main rival in the upcoming election, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned Monday that Germany’s debt was “up to the limit of what is responsible.”

Therefore “I don’t see any leverage for tax cuts”, the SPD candidate added.

Victory concerns

Although the 54-year-old Merkel remains popular, polls suggest that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP will have its work cut out to clinch a majority, despite the SPD being in disarray following a drubbing in June European elections.

According to the latest poll for ARD television, support for the conservatives remains solid at 35 percent, compared to 24 percent for the SPD.

The FDP polled 15 percent of the vote and the Greens 13 percent.

The Die Linke party, a far-left outfit comprised of disaffected Social Democrats and former members of the communist party that ruled East Germany, scored 10 percent in the survey.

An editorial in the Tagesspiegel daily warned that Merkel’s personal popularity might not translate into victory for her conservatives.

“The fact that most Germans like Merkel does not mean they vote for her party,” the paper said on Monday.

Atlas focused on cost cuts

Junior miner Atlas Iron will continue to aggressively cut costs after iron ore price falls forced it into the red with a $1 billion loss.

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Managing director Ken Brinsden says Atlas made significant cost cuts in the first six months of the 2014/15 financial year to deal with challenging market conditions.

Further reductions are expected in the current half.

“For us, it’s all about where we’ve got to with respect to the cost base,” Mr Brinsden said on Tuesday.

“I’m still confident that there’s more cost savings to come out of the business.”

Atlas made a net loss of $1.09 billion for the six months to December 31, compared to a profit of $73.7 million a year earlier.

The result included about $834 million in impairments on Atlas’s Pilbara assets that were flagged in December.

Excluding one-off items including the impairments, Atlas made an underlying loss of $139 million, compared to a profit of $61.15 million.

Atlas is forecasting its cost of landing a tonne of iron ore in China to fall to between $60 and $63 in the six months to June 30, 2015 – down from $67.29 in the first half of the financial year.

Atlas aims to be at the lower end of the revised range by June 2015.

Mr Brinsden said that in January, Atlas landed iron ore in China at $60.80 per tonne.

Mr Brinsden said the first half had been really tough, characterised by a “massive” reduction in the iron ore price.

But he said Atlas had had a “cracking” first half from a production point of view, with 6.89 million tonnes shipped – well above initial guidance for 2014/15.

On the outlook for the iron ore price, Mr Brinsden said Atlas believed that over time, the price will probably be higher than it is today.

Shares in Atlas were flat at 20.5 cents at 1425 AEDT.

ATLAS CUTS COSTS TO COUNTER LOW IRON ORE PRICE

* First half net loss of $1.09b, down from a net profit of $73.7m in 2013/14

* Revenue of $450.8m, down 23.4pct, from $588.2m

* No interim dividend

Iran police out in force as election result upheld

Iranian police were out in force across the capital Tehran on Monday as the authorities upheld the official results of this month’s fiercely-disputed presidential election over opposition protests.

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As Iranian authorities continued to hold four locally recruited British embassy staff, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi warned that the Group of Eight major powers would consider sanctions against Tehran at a summit next week.

State television announced that, after a “thorough and comprehensive investigation”, Iran’s official electoral watchdog had upheld the re-election of hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a vote denounced by his main challenger, former premier Mir Hossein Mousavi, as a “shameful fraud”.

The head of the Guardians Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, concluded that “the majority of the objections were not deemed infringements or fraud and were only minor irregularities that occur in each election”, the television reported.

Boycott

Mousavi’s supporters had boycotted the partial recount of the vote carried out by the council in response to the complaints of the defeated candidates.

The opposition had demanded a complete rerun and has staged massive public demonstrations in a dispute that has shaken the foundations of the Islamic regime, with unprecedented criticism of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Official results

According to the official results, Ahmadinejad won by a thumping majority of 63 per cent against just 34 per cent for Mousavi, a gap of 11 million votes.

US Secretary of State Hillary said the limited recount was unlikely to satisfy the opposition.

“Obviously, they have a huge credibility gap with their own people as to the election process, and I don’t think that’s going to disappear by any finding of a limited review of a relatively small number of ballots,” she said.

Thousands deployed

Witnesses said thousands of policemen and Basij militiamen brandishing sticks were deployed in Tehran’s main squares to prevent any recurrence of the opposition protests over the conduct of the election that have broken out since the June 12 poll.

They said security forces were also randomly checking the boots of cars and vehicles, and checking the identification cards of drivers.

Embassy detention ongoing

Western governments meanwhile expressed outrage at Iran’s continued detention of the four British embassy staffers.

Iran freed five of their colleagues earlier in the day, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown slammed the arrests as “unacceptable” and demanded the immediate release of the other

four.

Clinton described Iran’s treatment of the British embassy staff as “deplorable” and said Washington was following the situation “with great concern”.

Speaking after talks with Brown in London, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his “full solidarity” with Britain over the arrests.

“Intimidation and harassment are unacceptable and they will be met with a strong collective European response,” he warned.

G8 concern

And the Italian prime minister who will chair the G8 summit from July 8 to 10, said: “Iran will be the first topic that we will deal with.

“According to the telephone conversations I have had with other leaders, I think that we will go in the direction you indicated, namely sanctions.”

Iran has repeatedly accused the West particularly Britain and the United States of “meddling” as its Islamic rulers struggle to contain the most serious upheaval since the revolution 30 years ago.

In the face of a massive crackdown on protesters, the opposition has scaled down its public demonstrations over the election results.

At least 17 people have been killed and many more wounded in clashes with security forces, according to state media.

Probe called

Ahmadinejad on Monday called for a probe into the death of Neda Agah-Soltan, a woman whose apparent killing by the Islamic militia during a protest rally in Tehran generated an international outcry.

Neda became an icon for the opposition after an Internet video showing her final moments was seen around the world.

On Sunday, riot police in Tehran dispersed about 3,000 Mousavi supporters who had defied a ban on public gatherings, witnesses said, with one reporting a “minor confrontation.”

The information could not be independently verified as foreign media are banned from the streets under tough new restrictions imposed by the authorities.

Human rights worry

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said on Sunday that more than 2,000 people are still in custody and hundreds more missing across Iran as a result of the government crackdown on the opposition.

London-based watchdog Amnesty International said it was gravely concerned that several opposition leaders may be facing torture, possibly to force them to make televised ‘confessions’ as a prelude to unfair trials in which they could face the death penalty.

It expressed particular concern for the well-being of three former officials in the government of Mohammad Khatami, whose 1997-2005 presidency saw a thaw in relations with the West — Mohsen Aminzadeh, Abdollah Ramazanadeh and Mostafa Tajzadeh.

Timeline: Major recent plane crashes

It is the second Airbus to plunge into the sea this month.

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An Air France Airbus A330-200 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing 228 people on board on June 1.

Here are details of recent major plane crashes.

June 30, 2009 – A Yemen Airways aircraft carrying a total of 153 people crashes in the waters of the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros.

June 1 – An Air France Airbus A330-200 jetliner carrying 228 people crashes over the Atlantic. Fifty-one bodies and 600 pieces of wreckage are recovered before the search for survivors is called off on June 26.

May 20 – An Indonesian C130 military transport plane carrying 110 passengers and crew crashes and bursts into flames 6.5 km from the Iswahyudi air force base in East Java while preparing to land, killing 98 people including two on the ground.

Sept. 16, 2008: One-Two-Go, a budget Thai airliner carrying 123 passengers and several crew crashes on landing at the resort island of Phuket. At least 85 of the 123 passengers were killed and five of the seven crew.

Aug. 24 – A Boeing 737-200 belonging to a private Kyrgyz company Itek-Air, chartered by an Iranian company and bound for Iran, crashes at Bishkek airport. Around 70 people, including members of a local teenage basketball team, died.

Aug. 20 – A Spanair MD-82, flying to the Canary Islands with 166 passengers and six crew, crashes on takeoff at Madrid airport killing 154 people. The remaining 18 are seriously injured.

July 17 – A Brazilian TAM passenger plane crashes into buildings when trying to land in Sao Paulo, killing 199 people aboard and on the ground.

May 5 – All 114 people on board a Kenya Airways Boeing 737 are killed after the plane crashed in torrential rain after takeoff from Douala in Cameroon en route to Nairobi.

Oct. 29, 2007 – A Boeing 737 operated by domestic carrier ADC, crashes after take off on a flight from the Nigerian capital Abuja to Sokoto. Only seven of the 106 people aboard the flight survived. Among the dead was Ibrahim Muhammadu, who as Sultan of Sokoto was the leader of the Muslim community.

Sept. 29 – One hundred and fifty-four people are killed when a Boeing 737-800 operated by low-cost Gol airline crashes in the Amazon rain forest.

Jan. 1 – An Indonesian Boeing 737-400 operated by budget carrier Adam Air disappeared from radar screens during a flight from Java to Sulawesi islands. Wreckage was located at sea 10 days later. All 102 passengers and crew were killed.

Aug. 22, 2006 – A Russian Tu-154 operated by Pulkovo Airlines crashes 30 miles (48 km) north of the east Ukrainian town of Donetsk, killing all 170 passengers and crew.

(Additional writing by Gillian Murdoch)