Israel, New Zealand latest countries hit by swine flu

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – New Zealand and Israel confirmed cases of swine flu on Tuesday, the latest countries hit by a new strain that has killed up to 149 people in Mexico and which threatens to become a pandemic.

The World Health Organization has raised its alert level to phase 4, indicating a significantly increased risk of pandemic.

Global markets slumped for a second day on Tuesday on fears the outbreak could snuff out fragile signs of economic recovery.

No one has died outside Mexico but more than 50 infected people have been found in the United States, six in Canada and two each across the Atlantic in Spain and Scotland. Possible cases were being tested in South Korea and Australia.

New Zealand said three of 11 people in a school group that visited Mexico had tested positive and it expected the others would also turn out to be positive when tests were completed.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said all those affected appeared to have only mild symptoms and had been responding to treatment.

The Israeli carrier, a 26-year-old man, had also recently returned from Mexico.

“His condition is good but he is being kept hospitalized for observation,” health ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron said.

A honeymooning Scottish couple who recently returned from Cancun, one of Mexico’s biggest beach resorts, were the first people in Britain to test positive for swine flu.

One of the mysteries of the current outbreak is why all cases outside Mexico have so far been relatively mild.

The WHO said the flu was being spread by human-to-human transmission but it did not advise any travel restrictions or border closures.

European and Asian stock markets retreated, with airline stocks taking another hit and drug makers posting gains. Investors cut their exposure to riskier currencies.

Oil dropped 2 percent, sinking below $50 a barrel.

“Markets are doing what they tend to do, taking fright,” said Howard Wheeldon, strategist at BGC Partners in London. “But in my view, it’s totally unnecessary.”

Airlines braced for significant falls in traffic due to the outbreak.

“Anything that shakes the confidence of passengers has a negative impact on the business. And the timing could not be worse given all of the other economic problems airlines are facing,” international airlines lobby IATA said in a statement.

Britain, France, Germany and the United States issued travel alerts for Mexico, which relies on tourism as a main source of foreign currency. Japan advised its citizens in Mexico to consider returning home soon.

U.K. travel firms Thomson Holidays and First Choice said they had decided to repatriate their customers from Mexico and to cancel flights bound for Cancun on Tuesday. British Airways said it will continue to operate its services.


China promised to disclose any cases promptly. State-run newspapers urged officials to be open and avoid the kind of cover-up that brought panic during the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Asian companies stepped up precautions, restricting travel and advising staff on how to protect themselves.

Experts say that while it is impossible to stop the spread of the disease, efforts to slow its progress around the world could buy crucial time for countries to procure essential drugs.

The last flu pandemic, a Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1968, killed about one million people around the world.

In Mexico, epicenter of the latest outbreak, people from company directors to couriers wore face masks while airlines checked passengers for flu symptoms.

“We will defeat this threat,” Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard said as several hundred people suspected to be suffering from the flu were treated in hospitals and life in the normally hectic capital took on an eerie hush.

Mexico City shut restaurants, bars, cinemas, stadiums and some government offices to stop the infection from spreading.

Unsure how worried they should be, people stocked up on food, drinking water, rental movies and surgical masks. Some opted to work from home. Schools were closed until May 6.

Facing damage to tourism and trade — motors of an economy that is already tipping into recession from the global downturn — Mexico said it would not order a mass closure of businesses to try to contain the infection.

“Economic activity must continue,” Labor Minister Javier Lozano told a news conference.

Danske Research said global markets were worried but not panicking. The outbreak could be used as an excuse to reduce risk after a period of increased appetite, it said. But if the WHO raised its alert level, it could hit harder.

“The impact would obviously be biggest for countries involved and for emerging markets with weak medical infrastructure and lack of contingency plans for fighting pandemics,” Danske said in a research note.

Worldwide, seasonal flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people in an average year. The new strain is worrying as it spreads rapidly between humans and there is no vaccine for it.

Most of the fatalities have been people aged between 20 and 50, an ominous sign because a hallmark of past pandemics has been the high rate of fatalities among young adults.

Mexican media have speculated the flu may have originated at a pig farm in the southeastern state of Veracruz.

But Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova said the first case that alerted authorities to a possible rogue flu strain was in the southern state of Oaxaca. It was too early to identify the cause or geographical source of the virus.

The WHO said the first victims may not have known they were infected with a new type of flu requiring different treatment than normal, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in Geneva.

They may not have received the medicines until late or may have been infected with other diseases reducing their immunity to the virus, he added.

Officials say the virus is not caught from eating pig meat products but several countries banned U.S. pork imports.


Israel launches covert war to disrupt Iran’s nuke program

TEL AVIV: Israel has launched a covert war in an effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, a British daily ph quoted US intelligence sources as saying.

According to the article published on Tuesday, sabotage, front companies and double agents, as well as the assassination of top figures involved in Iran’s atomic operations, were being used to interrupt the program.

“Disruption is designed to slow progress on the program, done in such a way that they don’t realize what’s happening. You are never going to stop it,” a former CIA officer on Iran told the newspaper.

“The goal is delay, delay, and delay until you can come up with some other solution or approach. We certainly don’t want the current Iranian government to have those weapons.

“It’s a good policy, short of taking them out militarily, which probably carries unacceptable risks.”

“With cooperation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key human assets involved in the nuclear program and in sabotaging the Iranian nuclear supply chain,” she said. “As US-Israeli relations are bound to come under strain over the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran, and as the political atmosphere grows in complexity, an intensification of Israeli covert activity against Iran is likely to result.”

The paper went on to cite a report that the Mossad was responsible for the death of Ardeshire Hassanpour, a top nuclear scientist at Iran’s Isfahan uranium plant, who reportedly died from gas poisoning in 2007. It also mentioned other recent deaths of figures connected to Iran’s nuclear program that have reportedly been the result of Israeli hits.

“Israel has shown no hesitation in assassinating weapons scientists for hostile regimes in the past,” the paper quoted an anonymous European intelligence official as saying. “They did it with Iraq and they will do it with Iran when they can.”

Mossad and Western intelligence operations have also infiltrated the Iranian nuclear program, “bought” information from prominent atomic scientists and leaked details to its allies, the media and United Nations atomic agency inspectors, the paper went on to say.

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Rockets, airstrikes rock Gaza cease-fire

GAZA CITY: Palestinian rockets exploded in -Israel and Israeli jets bombed the Egypt-Gaza border Monday, as talks dragged on over a long-term truce that would bring quiet to the coastal territory.

Two rockets fired from Gaza landed in Israel, the Israeli military said, a near-daily occurrence even after the devastating three-week Israeli offensive that was meant to bring a halt to the fire. No one was injured, the military said.

Several hours later, Israeli jets bombed an area of smuggling tunnels in the frontier town of Rafah, according residents and Hamas security officials. Israel’s military said the strike targeted a tunnel used to smuggle weapons in from Egypt and was retaliation for the rocket fire.

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Egypt hopes for Gaza truce deal ‘in few days’

CAIRO: Egypt is hopeful that a Gaza truce accord between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas can be reached in the next few days, foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told a foreign news agency on Sunday.

“There are positive signs that in the next few days we will reach an understanding on a truce and and a partial reopening of crossing points (into Gaza),” Zaki said.

Egypt has been mediating indirect talks for a lasting truce since the end of Israel’s massive 22-day onslaught on the Gaza Strip, which killed at least 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The fighting ended when both Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Islamist rulers called separate ceasefires on January 18.

However, the fragile calm has been tested by Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel and retaliatory air strikes.

On Saturday, a spokesman for Hamas said it expected an agreement with Israel on the the reopening of border crossings into the Gaza Strip “within the next few days.”

Israeli and Palestinian officials have been shuttling to Cairo for talks with Egypt’s intelligence chief and Middle East mediator Omar Suleiman, hoping for a truce deal with just two days until Israel’s election.

A Hamas delegation from Gaza led by firebrand Mahmud Zahar was in Syria on Sunday for consultations on the truce negotiations with Damascus-based members of the group’s powerful politburo, Hamas official Mohammed Nasr said.

The delegation is due to return to the Egyptian capital on Monday, the Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman said.

Israel, which controls all border crossings except Rafah, which is managed by Egypt, has kept the densely populated strip closed to all but essential supplies since June 2007 when Hamas violently seized power, ousting forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Egypt closed Rafah on Thursday, after opening it to aid and to Palestinians who were wounded during the war. Egypt has refused to permanently open the crossing in the absence of EU monitors and Abbas’s representatives.

Hamas officials have said they are seeking clarifications on an Israeli offer to allow between 70 and 80 percent of goods through its crossings into Gaza, barring those it says could be used to make weapons.

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Gaza farmers hit hard by war with Israel: UN

ROME: Palestinian farmers were severely affected by the Gaza war, posing a threat to food security, the UN food agency said Friday, appealing for 6.5 million dollars (five million euros) in immediate assistance.

“Almost all of Gaza’s 13,000 families who depend on farming, herding and fishing have suffered damage to their assets during the recent conflict, and many farms have been completely destroyed,” the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a news release.

Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza to stop rocket attacks by Palestinian militants caused widespread destruction in the Palestinian territory and killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, a third of them children.

“Farmers already struggling to make a profit before the outbreak of the conflict are now facing the possible irreversible loss of their livelihoods,” said Luigi Damiani, senior project coordinator for the FAO in Jerusalem.

“Destruction caused to the agricultural sector has worsened ongoing problems of food production caused by 18 months of border closure,” the Rome-based agency said, predicting increased food insecurity.

Pre-existing problems include costly or unavailable agricultural inputs, restricted access to land and sea, and “severely curtailed” movement of goods, the FAO said.

“People in Gaza are facing an acute shortage of nutritious, locally produced and affordable food,” the agency said, adding that more and more Gazans are relying on food aid or turning to cheaper and less nutritious food.

“For many women whose husbands were killed or injured during the conflict it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide food for their families,” Damiani said.

The UN Relief and Works Agency has estimated financial needs of nearly 270 million euros to rebuild their own infrastructure and keep providing essential services to the Palestinians in Gaza.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that the United Nations was appealing for 470 million euros to provide food, water, shelter, health care and other assistance after the conflict.

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Protest rally against massacre of Palestinians by Israel

MIRPUR: A large number of people representing various sections of the civil society staged a protest demonstration here Tuesday against the genocide of innocent people of Palestine.

The recent terrible attacks on Ghaza belt by the Israeli forces killing
hundreds of Palestinians including men, women, children and infants.
The demo was held on the call of Jammu & Kashmir Human Rights
Commission to express indignation against the continued brutal killing of innocent civilians in Gaza city by the brutal Israeli troops.

MIRPUR: A large number of people representing various sections of the civil society staged a protest demonstration here Tuesday against the genocide of innocent people of Palestine.

The recent terrible attacks on Ghaza belt by the Israeli forces killing
hundreds of Palestinians including men, women, children and infants.
The demo was held on the call of Jammu & Kashmir Human Rights
Commission to express indignation against the continued brutal killing of innocent civilians in Gaza city by the brutal Israeli troops.

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Egypt, Hamas discuss ‘lasting’ truce with Israel

CAIRO: A Hamas team met Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in a bid to clinch a lasting truce in the war-battered Gaza Strip, days after an Israeli negotiator held similar talks in Cairo.

But even as Egypt pushed on with its diplomatic drive, Hamas vowed to keep arming Gaza militants and an Israeli official warned that a Hamas leader will be unable to move freely if an Israeli soldier is not freed.

Egypt closed its Rafah crossing point with Gaza for fear that Israel might renew its attacks on the smuggling tunnels, security officials said.

Egyptian media reported that Suleiman and the Hamas officials discussed “Egyptian efforts to consolidate the ceasefire, reach a (permanent) truce, reopen Gaza crossings and resume Palestinian national dialogue.”

Hamas and Egyptian officials were tight-lipped about the talks, held behind closed doors and attended by members of the group’s powerful Syria-based politburo and a delegation from Gaza. Suleiman, Egypt’s point man for Palestinian-Israeli affairs, met separately with Hamas and Israeli officials during the 22-day assault to push for acceptance of an Egyptian plan to end the onslaught.

Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27 to halt rocket attacks from Gaza and stop arms trafficking from Egypt, and has warned it will strike again if Hamas is allowed to rearm.

Hamas has also threatened to resume fighting if Israel does not reopen the crossings into Gaza, where 1,330 Palestinians were killed during the onslaught, almost a third of them children. Thirteen Israelis were also killed.

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