Serial killer hunt continues

The murders by a suspected serial killer in the eastern port town of Ipswich have also triggered a strong emotional reaction, with prayers in local churches on Sunday and soccer fans observing a minute’s silence at a game on Saturday.

Suffolk Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull, leading the probe, told a press conference on Sunday that no arrests had been made and there were no suspects in the case yet, but praised the public’s “phenomenal response”.

Police were studying information based on the calls, Chief Supt Gull said.

Among them were 60 calls received since Saturday’s release of closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showing the last known movements of murdered prostitute Anneli Alderton, 24, who was three months pregnant.

The pictures, showing the pony-tailed blonde in a black jacket and blue jeans on a train a week before the discovery of her strangled body on December 10, were released in a bid to jog the memories of witnesses.

Police officers also travelled on the same train that Ms Alderton boarded two weeks ago, speaking to passengers on board and on the platform, in the hope that they may have had important information.

“We need to find the clothing we see in the TV footage,” Chief Supt Gull said, adding a team had been set up to examine items of discarded clothing.

The bodies of all five drug-using prostitutes were found naked on the outskirts of Ipswich, a town of 140,000 people about 140 kilometres northeast of London, between December 2 and December 12.

Though naked, none showed signs of having been subjected to significant trauma or serious sexual assault, fueling speculation that the murderer or murderers might have been a drug dealer who doped them.

Police were awaiting toxicology results that can take weeks.

Chief Supt Gull said police had also released CCTV footage of Tania Nicol, 19, while searching 10,000 hours of footage in the hope of finding images of the other three women: Gemma Adams, 25, Paula Clennell, 24, and Annette Nicholls, 29.

Though footage was not available for all of them, he said officers were confident that they knew what the women were wearing when they disappeared, which would help determine where they were last seen alive.

Police also spoke on Saturday night to more than 400 motorists and pedestrians in Ipswich’s red-light district in an effort to learn about the women’s final days.

The Observer newspaper said police were no longer looking for a murder weapon, claiming that the killer is now thought to have used his bare hands, but Chief Supt Gull declined to rule out whether a weapon had been used.

Gull said that almost 500 officers were working in one of Britain’s biggest ever manhunts, with 350 being drafted in from 31 police forces around the country, including Northern Ireland, to help Suffolk police.

As Britain’s media continues its fevered coverage of the case, the News of the World tabloid reported on Sunday that an unnamed senior police officer was a client of two of the dead women, although it only named Paula Clennell.

Suffolk Police said they could not comment on the report.

Meanwhile prayers were said on Sunday for the murdered women at churches across Suffolk and in the heart of Ipswich’s red light district 25,000 football fans at Ipswich Town’s ground observed a minute’s silence and prayed before Saturday’s Championship match with Leeds United.

Rafsanjani gains in Iran poll

Centrist cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appeared to have sprung a surprise by reaping by far the most votes and beating a hardline rival in the election for the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader.

In the keenly watched race for Teheran city council, reformists were on course to take a handful of seats and end total conservative domination of the body since the last local vote in February 2003.

However the authorities were keen to emphasise an unexpectedly high turnout which appeared to have topped 60 per cent for both votes — far higher than in similar elections in the past.

“The people have won. The enemies thought they had found a point of weakness but the Iranian people have shown their intelligence and grandeur to the entire world,” Mr Ahmadinejad declared.

But the results themselves were less palatable for Mr Ahmadinejad’s political allies, with the man seen as his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, trailing behind Mr Rafsanjani in the Assembly of Experts vote.

Although both men appear certain to have reaped enough votes to represent Teheran province on the assembly for the next eight years, the results are a victory of vital symbolic importance for Mr Rafsanjani.

Partial results announced by election officials showed Mr Rafsanjani in first place with 1.3 million votes, almost half a million more than the second-placed cleric, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the current head of the assembly.

The figures showed Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi trailing in sixth place with about 700,000 votes, and reports also said allies of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi had failed to win seats in Iran’s second city of Mashhad.

The results represent a significant reversal of fortune for Mr Rafsanjani, a 71-year-old former president, after his humiliating election defeat to Mr Ahmadinejad last year.

His popularity appears to have been helped by a growing alliance with reformists, a fact symbolised by pictures of Mr Rafsanjani voting side-by-side with liberal ex-president Mohammad Khatami widely published in the press.

“The results are a clear defeat for the allies of Ahmadinejad,” said the main Participation Front reformist party. “Voters said a resounding ‘no’ to the incompetence and authoritarian methods of the government.”

The picture emerging from the local elections was mixed, but it appeared that close allies of Mr Ahmadinejad would not dominate city councils over the next four years.

In Isfahan, Iran’s third city, reformists won two seats on the city council, with Mr Ahmadinejad loyalists and moderate conservatives winning five seats apiece, the Mehr news agency reported.

Although results for Teheran city council are not expected until well into next week, unofficial reports indicated the body would be shared between a mixture of reformists, Mr Ahmadinejad allies and technocratic conservatives.

The Fars news agency said the strongest performance had been by the technocrats close to Teheran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former police chief who has been happy to hand out posts to reformers as well.

Mr Qalibaf supporters were in line to win nine seats, Mr Ahmadinejad’s allies three and reformists two, with a wrestler running as an independent winning the last spot, it said.

It remained to be seen if Mr Ahmadinejad’s sister Parvin would be successful in her bid to win a seat on the body.

Elsewhere, women put in an impressive show, with 25-year-old reformist Fatemeh Houshmand winning the largest number of votes in the southern city of Shiraz — a feat repeated by female candidates in four other cities.

The expected lateness of final results for Teheran city council was lambasted by the reformist parties.

“This unprecedented situation makes people worry about the counting mechanism of their votes and it also creates doubt among candidates,” the ISNA agency quoted Hassan Beyadi, a member of the reformist coalition, as saying.

Solar panel problem on ISS

After several stops and starts, the crew successfully retracted the wing enough to provide clearance so new arrays installed on the station in September can track the sun for power.

Space station crew member Suni Williams sent commands for the 37-metre-long panel to begin folding like a Venetian blind into a flat box at the base of the array. Problems began as the panel was less than 25 per cent retracted.

Television images relayed from space showed the golden panel slightly buckled at the bottom of the array. The manoeuvre was aborted.

“It looks like it’s a big concern,” station commander Michael Lopez-Alegria radioed to Mission Control.

Flight directors decided to re-extend the panel, which has been spread out in the harsh space environment for six years – about twice as long as planned.

NASA wanted to rewire the station in 2003, but the destruction of space shuttle Columbia halted all shuttle flights.

Assembly resumed in September, with a new deadline to complete the outpost before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. NASA needs at least another 13 missions to finish the complex.

The Discovery crew, which arrived at the station on Monday for a weeklong stay, needs to rewire the station’s electrical system to tap power produced by the new solar panels.

The rewiring will pave the way for laboratories built by Europe and Japan to be attached to the space station beginning next year.

By alternatively extending and retracting the panel, Williams was able to smooth out misalignments in the wing, clearing enough space for the new arrays to rotate and bolstering hopes the entire wing could be folded up as planned.

The panel is one of two that have been operating since 2000 from a temporary location on top of the station. The second array is scheduled to be folded up next year.

Engineers suspected the panel might not retract as planned, having been subjected to the extreme heat and cold of space for years.

Astronauts Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang completed the first of three planned spacewalks on Tuesday, successfully installing a new metal piece to the station’s backbone.

Solar flare danger

As the spacewalk was wrapping up, NASA got word of a powerful solar flare that discharged higher levels of X-ray radiation and charged particles toward Earth.

Flight controllers told the commanders of the shuttle and the station to have their crews sleep in protected parts of their ships.

The radioactive environment is not expected to impact plans for spacewalks on Thursday and Saturday, though NASA will continue to monitor the space weather, Johnson Space Centre spokesman Bill Jeffs said.

Blair in Turkey, then Mideast

Mr Blair flew in from Brussels, where he had attended a two-day summit of
European Union leaders that endorsed the partial suspension of Turkey’s accession talks, mainly over an unresolved trade dispute with EU member
Cyprus.

London has been one of Ankara’s strongest supporters in its attempt to join the 25-member bloc, arguing that its accession could bridge the gap between
East and West, Christian and Muslim, and help stabilise the Middle East.

Mr Blair was expected to reiterate his government’s support for Turkey’s reform program when he meets Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks.

Before leaving Brussels, Blair said EU leaders had given very firm indications that they favoured further enlargement, provided candidate countries meet the entry criteria.

But the summit also decided that the EU must carry out internal institutional reforms before further expansion amid concerns about the pace of enlargement and the bloc’s ability to absorb new members.

Critics of Turkey’s bid say that although the government has made significant progress it still has work to do such as improving its human rights record and over Cyprus.

But Mr Blair said: “For the broader global interests of the EU and also
Britain, it is important that we continue the process to accession with Turkey and we do not shut the door to Turkey’s membership.

He also linked the issue with the situation in the Middle East.

“It is also part, at least, of the backdrop to the broader Middle East and in particular to trying to make sure that if there is any way possible at all, we should try to achieve a Palestinian government with which we and the rest of the world can deal,” Mr Blair said.

That would help countries release vital foreign aid to the Palestinian people as well as ensure movement towards a situation where Israel’s security is protected and a viable, stable Palestinian state is created, he added.

EU leaders focused their efforts on Friday on agreeing a common line of support for reigniting the Middle East peace process amid heightened tensions in Gaza and Lebanon, Mr Blair said.

“There was a consensus round the table that it is of immense strategic importance for Europe that there is progress again between Israel and Palestine and that we get a resolution on issues to do with Lebanon and support strongly the efforts of the democratically elected government in Lebanon,” he said.

But Mr Blair’s spokesman told reporters travelling on the prime minister’s chartered British Airways Boeing 747 that the premier was not taking any specific EU proposals to resolving the impasse.

The spokesman declined to say what Britain’s position was on whether it supported achieving progress through a national unity government or via fresh elections, such as those proposed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Blair, who last visited the region in September, is due to leave office in the next nine months and sees making progress on peace and democracy as a vital part of his legacy.

But his office played down the overall aims of the trip, saying he was going in “listening mode”, acting as a “facilitator” between those involved.

“There’s not a rabbit we’re trying to pull out of the hat. What there is a renewed sense of momentum.

“If there’s a better sense of what the next steps are, that gives us a basis for a new sense of direction,” his spokesman said.

When will William wed?

Happy news from the royal household has been rare these last few years. The last birth dates back to November 2003 when Queen Elizabeth II’s youngest son Prince Edward had a daughter, Lady Louise.

And there was a marriage in 2005, that of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, but it was more about normalising a long-term relationship that had caused scandal in the past.

Since then the media and souvenir merchants have become restless: Will 2007 be the year of Prince William and the return to glamour?

On Saturday, the Daily Mail raised the possibility of an engagement party during the Christmas holidays, when the royal family will gather in Sandringham, eastern England.

The official announcement would then come in the spring, according to the daily which said Kate was invited to dinner on December 24 at Sandringham, an unprecedented event for a royal girlfriend, and would also join William and his family for Christmas Day services.

Buckingham Palace neither confirmed nor denied the report, citing the privacy of the event.

The courtship of Kate

For three years, 24-year-old William, the older son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, has been dating Kate Middleton, a brunette of the same age whom he met while he was studying geography and she art history at St Andrews University in Scotland.

They shared the same apartment with other students and quickly became inseparable. Signs increasingly point to marriage, even if the couple do nothing to confirm it.

Their first public appearance together happened on the ski slopes of the Swiss resort at Klosters in April 2004. Then there was the first meeting with the queen in her Scottish castle at Balmoral.

The first public kiss was in the spring this year, also at Klosters. And for several months, Kate has been taking riding lessons, a virtual requirement for anyone who might want to enter a royal household passionate about horses.

In anticipation of a hypothetical engagement, the tabloid press has given Kate little breathing space, showing her in a bikini during a vacation with William in Ibiza, shopping in London, and during a night out at a club with the prince’s double.

Nothing escapes them, including the first job she landed in late November.

Kate Middleton now buys accessories for Jigsaw, a British clothing chain whose owners are friends of her parents, themselves owners of an Internet company.

Souvenirs at the ready

With impatience growing about their plans, some firms are taking no risks.

The Woolworth department store chain recently negotiated contracts for 20 souvenir items showing the smiling faces of the prince and his beauty: cups, china ware, and even computer mouses.

All that must be added to them is a wedding date.

Other firms have taken the precaution to register Internet sites, such as willandkate.co.uk, willandkate.com, williamandkate.net

But neither of the two has said anything.

When identical rumours were making the rounds last year, Prince William clearly discouraged them. “I don’t want to get married until I am at least 28 or maybe 30,” William said.

For Ingrid Seward, an expert on the British monarchy, a wedding is not particularly pressing.

“I can’t see them getting married soon because William isn’t settled in his life yet,” Seward said.

After Sandhurst, he must continuing serving in the armed forces for around another three years.

Somalia tension on the rise

Both sides appeared to ignore urgent appeals to ease soaring tensions with the Islamists vowing to attack Ethiopian troops protecting the administration and both sides ruling out new peace talks if the status quo remains.

Despite growing calls to resume negotiations that collapsed last month, the
Islamists said they would not attend while Ethiopian soldiers are in the country and the government said Islamist threats had shut the door to peace.

In the capital, Islamist deputy security chief Sheikh Mukhtar Robow said attacks against Ethiopian soldiers, on whom the Islamists have declared holy war, were imminent but pledged the government itself would not be a target.

“We are not going to attack Somalis, we will only target Ethiopian forces on our territory,” he told news agency AFP. “We urge Ethiopia to leave our country because we have made it clear we will strike them anywhere they are.”

The Islamists have set a Tuesday deadline for Ethiopian troops in the country to leave or face major attacks, an ultimatum that Ethiopia has played down, saying its soldiers will remain as long as the Somali government wants.

“As long as Ethiopian forces are in Somalia, there will be no negotiations,” Sheikh Robow said. “We have liberate our country from the invaders.”

The pledge not to directly attack the government, however, appeared not to alter the steady march to war as thousands of Ethiopian troops are said to be entrenched in and around the government seat of Baidoa.

Ethiopia denies having thousands of combat troops in the town, about 250
kilometres northwest of the capital, but admits to sending several hundred military trainers and advisers to help the government.

In Baidoa, the only major town still under government control, Somali
President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed said the Islamists had destroyed any chance for peace.

“The door for peace talks has been closed as long as the Islamists are threatening the government,” he told reporters at the presidential compound, noting a steady advance of Islamist fighters toward the town.

“War is now inevitable,” President Yusuf predicted, repeating allegations made by the United States that the Islamist movement had been taken over by Al-Qaeda militants and were bent on terrorism.

“The Islamists are controlled by al-Qaeda terrorists in east Africa and they want to make Somalia a base to wage war against the west,” he said.

In Baidoa itself, tensions ran high as residents braced for war amid reports of new Ethiopian troop and tank movements after a night punctuated by heavy gunfire, the origin of which was disputed.

“More Ethiopian troops are arriving day after day despite the Islamists deadline for them to withdraw from Somalia,” said Baidoa resident Halima Ali
Bashir.

“All this means we are anticipating full-scale war,” added neighbour Sayid
Ali Abukar Hassan.

On Thursday, Washington slammed the Islamist ultimatum to Ethiopia as “irresponsible” and accused the movement of undermining efforts to restart peace talks, saying it had been overrun by Al-Qaeda.

“The top layer of the courts are extremists to the core, they are terrorists and they are creating this logic of war,” the top US diplomat for
Africa Jendayi Frazer told reporters in Washington.

The United States has designated the supreme Islamist leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys a “terrorist” and accuses elements in the movement of harbouring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

It ran a covert operation to support warlords fighting the Islamists that collapsed in June when Mogadishu fell, paving the way for the Islamist seizure of much of Somalia.

In Mogadishu on Friday, Islamist officials who deny any link with terrorism denounced the US allegations as untrue and as an attempt to split their ranks with a smear campaign.

“America wants to divide us by saying some of us are Al-Qaeda operatives,” said Sheikh Abdurahim Ali Muddey, spokesman for the Supreme Islamic Council of Somalia (SICS). “We have no hardliners.”

Somalia has been without a functioning central authority since the 1991 ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and the two-year-old government has been unable to assert control across the nation of some 10 million.

Rumsfeld’s final ‘snowflake’

Seen off with military fanfare at a Pentagon ceremony, Mr Rumsfeld was showered with praise and hailed as a great defence secretary who rose to the challenge of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In a cautionary farewell speech not far from where a hijacked airliner struck the Pentagon on September 11, Mr Rumsfeld said the threat had not passed and America had to invest more in defending itself and not let down its guard.

“This is a time of great consequence,” he said. “Our task is to make the right decisions today so that future generations will not have to make much harder decisions tomorrow.”

“It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat. But the enemy thinks differently,” he said.

“Our country has taken on a bracing and difficult task. But let there be no doubt: It is neither hopeless nor without purpose,” he said.

Mr Rumsfeld made no direct reference to the war in Iraq or the intense debate now underway over how to salvage a US mission that has been battered by a protracted insurgency and a chaotic descent into sectarian violence.

But he used his speech to warn that even the perception of a loss of will on the part of the United States was dangerous in a world of “unstable dictators, weapon proliferators and rogue regimes.”

“Today, it should be clear that not only is weakness provocative, but the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative as well,” he said.

With 2,933 US military dead and more than 22,000 wounded, the Mr Rumsfeld-directed war in Iraq has become the most divisive inside the United States since Vietnam.

A lightning rod for criticism who had survived repeated calls for his removal, Mr Rumsfeld resigned the day after a crushing Republican defeat in November 7 mid-term elections.

The vote was widely seen as a repudiation of the administration’s conduct of the war, and has spurred President George W. Bush to launch a search for a new way forward in Iraq.

‘Finest ever defence secretary’

Mr Bush described Mr Rumsfeld as a man of energy and vision who had brought about the most profound changes in the US Defence Department since its creation in 1940s.

“This man knows how to lead and he did, and the country is better off for it,” Bush said.

Vice President Dick Cheney said his old friend was “the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.”

Military brass, members of Congress and Mr Rumsfeld’s aides and colleagues turned out to watch him review the honour guards on a Pentagon parade ground.

Some aides were seen brushing away tears.

General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commended Mr Rumsfeld’s courage to speak his mind when the current of opinion was running in the opposite direction.

He said “sometimes the course of the nation change(d) because he had the courage to speak at those times.”

When he hands over the reins on Monday, Mr Rumsfeld will be 11 days shy of breaking Robert McNamara’s record as the longest-serving defence secretary.

Mr Rumsfeld was the youngest defence secretary when he served for the first time under president Gerald Ford in 1975, at age 43; he is the oldest now at age 74.

His tart remarks about “unknown unknowns” and “Old Europe” by turns sparked delight or anger, while his brusque, combative style raised hackles in Congress and the officer corps.

Blizzard over

On Friday, Mr Rumsfeld sent out the last of more than 29,000 “snowflakes,” the brief memos he showered down on the Pentagon bureaucracy to prod it into action.

“The Blizzard Is Over,” it said.

Mr Rumsfeld entered office determined to transform the military into a smaller, more deployable high-tech force.

But his tenure has been defined by the US military’s response to the
September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the deadliest on American soil in the country’s history.

He led a swift and innovative campaign in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban and scattered Al-Qaeda by December 2001. US forces invaded Iraq next in March 2003, seizing Baghdad in less than three weeks.

Both conflicts remain unfinished, however, with the Taliban on the rebound in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden still at large and US forces bogged down in Iraq.

Dodi bought ring for Diana

The renowned jeweller Repossi made its first detailed public comment on the purchase to refute numerous articles in the press which alleged that Al-Fayed had bought the ring for another woman. The company said it had not made the information public earlier on the advice of its lawyers.

“In August 1997, Mr Dodi Al-Fayed and Princess Diana went to the Repossi boutique in Monte Carlo, where they chose a ring,” the jeweller said in a statement.

The billionaire son of Harrods owner Mohammed Al-Fayed “wanted the ring to be ready by August 30, 1997, at the latest. The Repossi workshops are usually shut during that period but they nevertheless altered the ring to the right size”, the statement said.

On August 30, 1997, just a few hours before he and Diana were killed, “Dodi Al-Fayed went to the Repossi boutique on the Place Vendome (Paris) to collect the engagement ring, which came from the ‘Say Yes’ collection, to give it to Princess Diana”, the jeweller said.

Repossi said it had proof of the event in the form of a receipt and a close circuit television recording from the boutique on the high-class Place Vendome, both dated August 30, 1997. Both had been submitted to the judicial authorities investigating the subsequent car crash.

Diana, 36, and Al-Fayed, 42, were killed with chauffeur Henri Paul when their high-powered Mercedes crashed in the Pont d’Alma tunnel in Paris on the night of August 30-31, 1997.

They were being pursued at the time by paparazzi photographers, after leaving the Ritz Hotel for Fayed’s apartment.

A two-year investigation in France blamed Paul for losing control of the car because he was drunk, high on prescription drugs and driving too fast.

Diana married Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, in July 1981 and was a hugely popular member of the royal family. The couple separated in December 1992 and divorced in August 1996.

The British media said on Sunday that a long-awaited report into Diana’s death will confirm the findings of the French probe that it was an accident and refute theories of a plot by British intelligence.

UK ‘strangler’ still at large

The positive comments came as they sought to allay panic in the English town of Ipswich, which is gripped by fears of a new strike by the killer dubbed the “Suffolk Strangler”.

“We are making good progress,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull. “We’re looking at a number of interesting people (and) pursuing a number of interesting lines of inquiry.”

But he admitted: “We don’t have any suspects at this stage.”

The Ipswich killings have evoked one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers, east London’s Jack the Ripper, who murdered five prostitutes in 1888, as well as the “Yorkshire Ripper,” who murdered 13 women from 1975 to 1980.

In one of the biggest murder investigations ever in Britain, more than 300 officers from nine different police forces around the country have been drafted in to help in the massive manhunt.

On Friday Chief Supt Gull confirmed the identity of the fifth victim as Annette Nicholls, 29, whose body was found on Tuesday along with that of 24-year-old Paula Clennell.

The three other victims have already been identified as 25-year-old Gemma Adams, 19-year-old Tania Nicol and 24-year-old Anneli Alderton. The cause of death has only been established in two of the cases – Ms Clennell died of “compression to the neck,” while Ms Alderton was strangled.

Asked about locals’ concerns that detectives still have no suspects, Chief Supt Gull underlined that the threat should be seen in perspective.

“My message is, don’t panic. We know that those responsible have targeted working girls. There’s no suggestion that other women … are at risk,” he told reporters.

Investigators in the normally tranquil town, about 130 kilometres northeast of London, are ploughing through more than 7,000 calls from the public and trying to trace the victims’ last movements.

In new leads, police said they were investigating whether the victims had been drugged before being killed, reporting that none of the bodies showed signs of a struggle.

Officials meanwhile confirmed to news agency AFP that police and local drug workers were paying prostitutes in Ipswich to stay off the streets. The money was being provided by an unidentified charity.

Police also reported progress in searching for a man driving a blue BMW, after a local sex worker was quoted by several news outlets as saying she saw Ms Alderton climb into the car last week.

Detectives had interviewed a man fitting that description but were now searching for the prostitutes who had given the information “so that this man can be eliminated from our inquiries”, The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.

Another possible lead came after it also emerged that Ms Clennell had stolen £1,000 pounds ($A1,673) from a client of hers after they fell out, according to the Daily Mirror tabloid.

Ms Clennell’s boyfriend, Paul Turner, suggested that the client, whose name he did not know, might be the killer.

“I think I know who killed her,” he said, adding: “Maybe this guy had enough of being ripped off and lashed out… It could be that he got the killing bug or that he wanted to get revenge on every one of them who’d stolen from him.”

Police chief Gull declined to elaborate on the “interesting” people police were checking on. But sources said the number of individuals involved was fewer than 50, including some men who regularly used the prostitutes’ services.

“We have got a range of individuals who have been suggested to us. Some are local and some are not. Some are not punters,” he said. “We are determined to find the person or persons responsible.”

Bomb targets Afghan governor

Separately, US-led security forces shot dead four suspected Taliban militants and a teenage girl, while elsewhere a soldier from a NATO-led force was killed in a firefight with insurgents.

The violence came as President Hamid Karzai attended a high-level security conference in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban regime, to urge foreign forces to do their best to avoid civilian casualties.

Six bodyguards, a district chief and a civilian were killed when the suicide bomber sneaked into the heavily guarded residence of the governor of troubled Helmand province, provincial police chief Mohammad Nabi Mullahkhil told AFP.

“Governor Mohammad Daud was about to leave and as his motorcade and bodyguards were prepared the attacker penetrated into the governor’s house and
tried to approach the governor,” Mullahkil said.

“The bodyguard suspected he might be an attacker and stopped him but then the man exploded himself,” he said, adding that eight other bodyguards were injured.

The interior ministry also said eight people were killed in the attack, which took place during working hours at the house in Lashkargah, the provincial capital, but said seven of the victims were policemen and one was a civilian.

NATO troops rushed to the governor’s house after the explosion but there were no casualties among foreign troops, said Jason Chalk, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

“All we can say is that the governor is safe,” Chalk said.

More than 30,000 NATO-led troops are currently hunting Taliban insurgents and their Islamic extremist allies, mainly in southern Afghanistan.

Another 10,000 US-led troops are operating in the conflict-ridden country.

ISAF said one NATO soldier was killed in a gunbattle with insurgents in Helmand on Tuesday. It did not give the soldier’s nationality or any more details but most of the troops in the province are British.

Separately on Tuesday, the US-led coalition and the Afghan army killed four suspected Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan, the coalition said in a statement.

A 13-year-old girl was killed and an eight-year-old girl injured in the incident, when the soldiers raided a house near the village of Darnami in restive Khost province, where the alleged insurgents were hiding out, it said.

The wounded girl was taken to a coalition hospital, escorted by a family member, the coalition said. There were no casualties among the Afghan soldiers or coalition troops.

Karzai said he discussed the issue of civilian casualties when he held a meeting on security and reconstruction with NATO and US commanders, key foreign diplomats and government ministers in Kandahar, which borders Helmand.

“We discussed it. It was one of the very serious and main topics. We take it very seriously. NATO takes it very seriously,” the president told reporters after flying into the restive city by US helicopter.

It was the first meeting of the so-called Policy Action Group that the beleaguered Afghan leader has attended and the first outside Kabul.

Security was tight for the meeting, an AFP correspondent said.

Karzai said NATO commanders were holding a meeting later Tuesday to discuss ways to avoid civilian losses during their operations.

At least 1,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan’s worst year of violence since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001 — most through insurgent action but some in NATO and coalition operations, according to an official report.

The 2006 death toll — taking into account civilian, militant, police, and Afghan and foreign troop casualties — is more than 3,700, four times the number in 2005.

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