Woods in charge after flirting with 59

Needing two more birdies for the magical number with five holes to play, Woods narrowly missed a nine-footer at the 15th and a six-footer at the 17th on the way to a nine-under-par 61 at Firestone Country Club.


His sizzling score equalled the course record, which he had previously tied in the second round in 2000, and gave him a commanding seven-shot lead with a 13-under total of 127.

Woods, who has triumphed a record seven times in the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event at Firestone, is bidding to win his fifth title on the PGA Tour this year as he builds momentum for next week’s PGA Championship.

“I had a lot of control today from tee to green and obviously the way I putted,” the American world number one told reporters after totalling only 22 putts. “I felt I was in total control of my game.

“Obviously things like that don’t happen every day, and it’s fun when it all comes together and I was able to take advantage of it, especially on a golf course like this.”

Asked whether he was at all disappointed to fall short in his bid to fire a 59, Woods replied: “Absolutely not, nope. 61 is pretty good. I’m not bummed.

“Would it have been nice to shoot 59? Yeah, it would have been nice. I certainly had the opportunity. I just had (to get) two more (birdies) out of five holes. I had two good chances at 15 and 17 to do it.

“But the par putt at 18 was even bigger,” Woods said, referring to the 26-footer he sank from the back fringe to keep his card bogey-free, prompting him to raise his right arm skyward with a pointing finger in celebration.

Defending champion Keegan Bradley and Englishman Chris Wood carded matching 68s on the challenging South Course to end the day tied for second, with Swede Henrik Stenson (70) and American Bill Haas (68) a further stroke back at five under.

However, the tournament would now appear to be in Woods’ hands to win or lose as he heads into the weekend at one of his favourite venues with a seven-shot advantage.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)

Al-Qaeda accuses US of plotting overthrow Morsi

Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri accused the US of “plotting” with Egypt’s military, secularists and Christians to overthrow Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, in an audio recording posted on militant Islamist forums.


In his first public comment on the July 3 military coup, the Al-Qaeda boss, himself an Egyptian, said: “Crusaders and secularists and the Americanised army have converged … with Gulf money and American plotting to topple Mohamed Morsi’s government.”

In the 15-minute recording, Zawahiri also accused Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority of supporting the Islamist president’s ouster to attain “a Coptic state stripped from Egypt’s south.”

Zawahiri attacked Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and former UN nuclear watchdog chief who was an opposition leader during Morsi’s single year in office.

ElBaradei is the “envoy of American providence,” Zawahiri said, labelling the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief as “the destroyer of Iraq.”

Zawahiri, who belonged to the militant Egyptian Islamic Jihad group, criticised Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement for going soft on applying strict Islamic law.

Morsi’s “Muslim Brotherhood government strove to please America and the secularists as much as it could, but they were not satisfied with it,” said Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

“They did not trust it (Morsi’s government) because they did not forget the Brotherhood’s slogan: ‘Jihad is our war, and death in the path of God is our highest aspiration’,” he said.

“The Brotherhood abandoned that slogan, substituting it with the slogan ‘Islam is the solution,’ but the Crusaders and secularists did not forget,” he said.

“What happened is the biggest proof of the failure of democratic means to achieve an Islamic government,” he said of the coup.

“I call for them to be united … to make Islamic law rule.”

Malaysia rejects Borneo ceasefire call

Malaysia’s prime minister has rejected a ceasefire call by the self-proclaimed Philippine sultan whose Islamic fighters launched a deadly incursion into Malaysia.


Malaysian forces are currently hunting for the Islamic militants in a remote region of Borneo island where they landed last month to assert a long-dormant territorial claim in what has become Malaysia’s worst security crisis in years.

Their Manila-based leader called for ceasefire at midday but Prime Minister Najib Razak, who flew to the region Thursday to inspect security operations, said he told Philippine leader Benigno Aquino by phone the offer was rejected.

“I told President Aquino they must lay down their arms immediately,” Najib told reporters in a village near the area where up to 300 militants were being searched for.

“They have to surrender their arms and they have to do it as soon as possible.”

The “sultan”, Jamalul Kiram III, declared a unilateral ceasefire for 12:30 pm (0430 GMT) and urged Malaysia to reciprocate.

But Najib said Malaysian forces would continue to press the offensive, adding that still more soldiers would be sent in to the hilly region of vast oil palm estates and pockets of jungle.

Anger has mounted in Malaysia over the incursion, which began February 12 when fighters arrived from the southern Philippines to press Kiram’s claim to the area.

Kiram says he is heir to the Sultanate of Sulu, which once ruled islands that are now part of the southern Philippines, as well as Sabah.

An estimated 100-300 militants were holed up in the sleepy farming village of Tanduo for three weeks until a pair of deadly shootouts with security forces at the weekend triggered a military assault with jet fighters and ground forces Tuesday.

However, the attack appears to have merely scattered the fighters, and security forces were combing through huge palm groves for them. Sporadic exchanges of fire have been reported since the assault.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged a peaceful resolution of the bizarre incursion, which has led to at least 28 reported deaths — 20 militants and eight police officers.

“(Ban) urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation,” said a statement released by his office late Wednesday.

Kiram declared the “unilateral ceasefire… in order to reciprocate the call of the UN to preserve lives”, said his spokesman.

Malaysia’s military assault appears to have failed, with authorities confirming just one kill so far.

They have not explained how the militants — said to be alive and well and in contact with their Manila comrades — were able to escape a tight security cordon built up over three weeks.

Tension is running high in eastern Sabah due to the incursion, and residents of some towns have fled after police said gunmen were spotted in other areas down the coast, raising fears of a wider guerrilla infiltration.

Late Wednesday, police said the bodies of six police officers killed in a weekend ambush in the coastal town of Semporna were mutilated.

“The bodies of dead police personnel were found to have been brutally mutilated by the armed intruders,” a statement said, giving no further details.

Police have said six militants responsible for the Semporna ambush were later killed by reinforcements.

The incursion has proven a delicate situation for the two neighbours, with Manila earlier calling for Malaysian restraint just before Tuesday’s military assault was launched.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said late Wednesday that his government might seek Kiram’s extradition if Manila failed to take action, but the Philippine government said that was unlikely, citing the lack of an extradition treaty.

Saudi Arabia appoints new crown prince

Saudi Arabian Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, a half-brother to the king, has been appointed heir to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom, a statement from the royal court says.


King Abdullah’s appointment of Salman, 76, as crown prince follows the death of the previous heir apparent – Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, another half-brother – on Saturday in Geneva, where he had been undergoing medical treatment.

Saudi Arabia buried the 79-year old Nayef during a sombre ceremony in Islam’s holiest city A medical source said Nayef died of “cardiac problems” at his brother’s residence in Geneva.

The ceremony was held late Sunday afternoon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, and attended by a grieving King Abdullah, members of the royal family and a number of heads of state from Islamic countries.

Tributes for Nayef, Saudi’s long-serving interior minister, poured in from around the world.

“Crown Prince Nayef devoted his life to promoting the security of Saudi Arabia,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while US President Barack Obama praised his co-operation in the fight against terror that “saved countless American and Saudi lives”.

Salman, who retains his position as minister for defence, is one of the so-called Sudairy Seven brothers, a group of powerful princes that included both Naif and previous monarch Fahd bin Abdul Aziz.

Locals see Salman as a supporter of gradual reform in the conservative kingdom. The influential pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, in which Salman officially has a 10-per-cent stake, is thought to reflect his views.

According to a 2007 Wikileaks cable, Salman said the pace and extent of reforms depend on social and cultural factors, and that “changes have to be introduced in a sensitive and timely manner.”.

“He said that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is composed of tribes and regions and if democracy were imposed, each tribe and region would have its political party,” said the cable.

He served as the governor of the Saudi capital Riyadh from 1954 until he was named minister of defence since November 2011.

Nayef’s son, Muhammad bin Naif, is expected to be promoted in turn to deputy minister for interior. Currently assistant minister for the interior with responsibility for security, he has played akey role in Saudi Arabia’s fight against al-Qaeda and is seen as one of the members of the next generation of Saudi princes most likely to hold high positions in the future.

Nayef is the second crown prince to die in less than a year. His predecessor, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, died in October.


Troops ring Egypt court ahead of election ruling "Ž

Some 200 protesters were gathered outside the court, chanting slogans against Shafiq.


Egypt’s top court will on Thursday examine a law which could disqualify one of two presidential candidates, in a legal crisis that threatens to derail an already tumultuous transition from Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

The Supreme Constitutional Court is to examine the legality of the political isolation law which bars senior officials of the Mubarak regime and top members of his now-dissolved National Democratic Party from running for public office for 10 years.

The law applies to those who served in the 10 years prior to Mubarak’s ouster on February 11, 2011 after a popular uprising.

If approved, the legislation will mean disqualification for Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who faces Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi in a presidential runoff on Saturday.

Shafiq was initially disqualified from standing in the election in accordance with the law passed by the Islamist-dominated parliament in April.

But in late April the electoral commission accepted an appeal from Shafiq against his disqualification and the case was referred to the court.

On Thursday, the Supreme Constitutional Court will first examine whether the electoral body had the right to refer the case, and if so, will then look into the legality of the text.

The hearing comes two days before the landmark presidential election to choose a successor for Mubarak.

In the first round of voting on May 23 and 24– which saw 13 candidates compete for the top job– Mursi won 24.7 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of Shafiq’s 23.6 percent.

The race has polarised the nation between those who fear a return to the old regime under Shafiq’s leadership and those wanting to keep religion out of politics and who accuse the Muslim Brotherhood — which already dominates parliament — of monopolising power since last year’s revolt.

The next president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath, but his powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution.

At Thursday’s hearing, the court will also examine a High Administrative Court appeal over the constitutionality of aspects of a law governing legislative polls between last November and February that saw Islamists score a crushing victory.

Greece tops G8 agenda

The Group of Eight top economies come together as Greece faces its second election in just six weeks, putting its eurozone future in doubt and dragging down Spain, where the government is struggling to keep its banks afloat.


“Time is clearly running out,” London-based analysts Capital Economics warned in a note over Greece’s continued political paralysis.

“If the government does not meet the conditions required to receive the next tranche of the bailout, it could run out of money before the end of the summer,” they said, referring to Greece’s EU-IMF loan lifeline.

“It has become obvious that the period up to the Greek elections will be volatile and nervous,” said the debt research wing of Dutch bank ING.

“Speculation regarding a (Greek) eurozone exit will continue and there is hardly anything that can be done about it,” they said.

European stock markets posted sharp losses, mirroring drops in Asia, though Madrid rose in an illustration of the extreme volatility at work.

Money flowed again into Germany, seen as the safest of bets against the risk of contagion from Greece, with investors worried that if Spain needs a bailout, the EU will be hard put to stump up enough rescue funding.

Ratings agency Moody’s downgraded 16 Spanish banks late on Thursday, citing concerns over the crisis, while figures showed the economy slumped in recession and bank bad loans at an 18-year high.

Germany sought to be reassuring on Friday, saying it had no reason to doubt that Spain could help its banks without seeking outside aid — the problem Ireland faced when it had to be bailed out in 2010.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meanwhile called for a stable Greek government to be formed quickly after elections June 17 in a telephone call with President Carolos Papoulias on Friday.

Merkel “repeated the German position that we are waiting for the elections and that it is the wish of all European partners… that a government is formed as quickly as possible,” a German spokesman said in Berlin.

In Athens, the prime minister’s office said the chancellor had in addition suggested the holding of a referendum alongside the June 17 vote, apparently with the aim of making the poll absolutely decisive.

Merkel “conveyed thoughts on holding a referendum alongside the election, on the question of whether Greek citizens wish to remain in the eurozone,” the premier’s office said in a statement.

But Merkel’s spokeswoman denied the report. “The information reported that the chancellor had suggested a referendum to the Greek President Carolos Papoulias is wrong,” she said.

Greek voters rejected painful spending cuts in a May 6 poll and could do so again June 17, raising concerns about the fate of the latest 237 billion euros ($300 billion) EU-IMF bailout package.

In Washington French President Francois Hollande said Greece should remain in the eurozone as Obama noted after talks that the region was of “extraordinary importance” not only to the people of Europe but to the global economy.

Latest opinion polls in Greece showed meanwhile that the conservative New Democracy party, which supported the EU-IMF rescue terms, would have 23.1 percent of the vote, up from the 18.85 percent it won on May 6.

The radical left Syriza party, which opposes the deal, was on 21 percent, up from its second-place finish with 16.8 percent, with analysts expecting the vote to turn into a straight fight over Greece’s future in the eurozone.

Many EU leaders insist that there can be no change to the terms of the debt deal but have also begun to allow some room for movement, especially as Hollande won power this month on a growth pledge.

European parliament chief Martin Schulz warned that a Greek exit from the eurozone could see its economy collapse in days, with untold consequences.

“Many people believe that it would be the end of a negative cycle but for me it would be the beginning of an even more negative cycle,” Schulz told German radio from Athens.

“We are all in the same boat,” Schulz added after a meeting with conservative leader Antonis Samaras.

In Athens, a caretaker government took office on Thursday after the May 6 vote left Greece in limbo.

Since there is no provision for an orderly exit from the 17-nation currency bloc, the prospect is for chaos if Athens cannot stick to the tough terms of the latest bailout deal.

Panagiotis Pikrammenos, 67, Greece’s caretaker premier, told his colleagues: “We must not forget that all of Europe is watching us… The country must honour the obligations it has undertaken.”

Mortgage market ‘not rotten’ in Denmark

It’s been 200 years since someone defaulted on home loan payment in Demark and the unique model uses the same ‘toxic’ assets that led to the sub-prime crisis.


Danes have the reputation of being life-loving, friendly people with a developed sense of environmental awareness.

They aren’t known as particularly talented finance engineers – but this could all change. In the first four months of 2012, the OMX-C-20, the leading index on the Copenhagen stock exchange, took a sprint forward that left everybody else well behind.

The Danes pride themselves on being the best in the world in one very specific area: mortgages.

They have a good reason for being so proud: the Danish mortgage model is truly worthy of admiration.

It was created in 1795, following the Great Fire in Copenhagen. In its 200 years of existence, the mortgage bond market has never known a single case of default.

Yet the market is relatively huge: the country’s 5.5 million citizens have a collective mortgage debt of over 320 billion euros, which is about 50% higher than the national debt.

By way of comparison, Switzerland with its 8 million people has 800 billion Swiss francs (666 billion euros) in property loans, amounting to 3.7 times the national debt.

And while Scandinavians in general have the reputation for being pro-state, the Danish mortgage bond market is a real market – but one that’s intelligently constructed and sensibly regulated. It’s based on a few simple principles.

House owners take out long-term loans, with an 80% lending limit for residential property and 60% limit for business real estate.

The terms of the mortgages are not negotiated between a bank and the borrower. Rather, financial institutions act as brokers, who bundle loans into obligations and sell them on to investors who buy directly or via general, specialized funds.

The mortgage institutions earn a small margin on these transactions.


Bundling mortgages and selling them on the market as obligations? That idea should get a few alarm bells ringing.

Because exactly that is the underlying idea behind Collateral Debt Obligations, the nefarious CDOs that made the American subprime market possible and led to the irresponsible sale of over-valued real estate to under-capitalized wannabee homeowners.

CDOs relieved the banks of their control duties and contributed significantly to the US real estate bubble, the bursting of which unleashed the world financial crisis.

Nowadays, CDOs are considered toxic junk that responsible investors won’t touch. Yet this system is supposed to work in some miraculous way for the Danes?

The Danish mortgage bond market works because it differs from the failed American bond experiment in critical ways – the main one being the “balance principle” which stipulates that the needs of both lenders and borrowers have to be in synch.

In other words, a borrower can only get a mortgage after a bank has established under what terms he or she could reasonably be expected to service that loan, and if the lender is agreed.

Selling the debts to third parties is forbidden, as is granting mortgages to borrowers with low credit. Added to the 80% limit there is enough protection to prevent a U.S.-style real estate crisis.

Yet there’s also enough room within the system to be able to use market advantages. Danish homeowners don’t have to opt for long-term mortgages with fixed interest or LIBOR rates to get cheap interest rates. The can refinance, or pay a mortgage back and then take out another one at a lower rate.

As a rule, the return on Danish mortgage obligations is 100 to 150 basis points higher than the return on Danish government bonds.

Favourite ‘son’ Suarez should heed fans: Rodgers

British media reported the north London club had offered 40 million and one pound ($61.


47 million) for Suarez prompting Liverpool owner John W. Henry to ask on Twitter: “What do you think they are smoking over there at Emirates?”

Arsenal’s unusual bid ties in with media reports that an offer of more than 40 million pounds triggers a clause in the Uruguay international’s contract that says Liverpool must inform the striker of their Premier League rivals’ interest.

“There’s no doubt the market these days for top players is very small so Luis will always be linked with top clubs,” Rodgers told reporters after Suarez made a cameo appearance in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over local club Melbourne Victory.

“But I think the support that he’s received from the supporters and the people of the city of Liverpool has been unrivalled.

“In the period of time, he’s missed a lot of games for the club through various reasons. And the people have stood by him like a son and really looked after him.

“So I’m sure whatever happens in the coming weeks, that will be in his mind because it’s certainly something you can never forget.”

Suarez was due to discuss his future with Rodgers in Melbourne after rampant speculation about his future went up a notch following reports Arsenal had made a second bid for the 26-year-old.

Suarez has said he wants to leave Liverpool to play in Spain, blaming the British media for making his life impossible in England.

Rodgers, who left Suarez on the bench until the last 20 minutes in front of more than 95,000 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, said he had already shared several chats with his tempestuous striker since he landed in Melbourne.


Suarez, who signed for Liverpool from Ajax Amsterdam in January 2011 and was second top scorer in the Premier League with 23 goals last season, has tempered his brilliance on the pitch with a series of controversial misdemeanours.

He still has to serve six matches of a 10-match ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic in April, which excludes pre-season friendlies.

Suarez also sparked a storm of criticism the previous season when he was found guilty of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and earned an eight-game suspension.

Rodgers had “nothing to report” on reports of the latest move by Arsenal, who have already had one bid for Suarez rejected by Liverpool.

“The only talks have been between me and Luis,” he said.

Suarez provided a reminder of his value to the club when his entry onto the MCG’s temporary soccer pitch sparked a thunderous roar from the terraces packed with red-clad fans.

While his body language on the pitch prompted debate about his current commitment, he signed off his brief appearance with some trademark trickery.

Receiving a pass from a corner, he jinked into the box and steered a low cross through a crowd of players for Iago Aspas to tap home.

“He’s a little bit tired at the moment,” Rodgers said. “He’s trained a double session on Monday after being off for three weeks so he was a little bit tired and, obviously, he came on and played that 20-odd minutes or so.”

Suarez was among the last players to leave the MCG turf, saluting cheering fans in a victory lap, some of whom may wonder whether it was a valedictory bow in Liverpool colours.

“He’s very much a Liverpool player,” Rodgers added. “Over the course of the next number of weeks we’ve got to get him up to speed.”

($1 = 0.6508 British pounds)

(Editing by Toby Davis)

Comment: Israeli elections — the return of the centre

By Binoy Kampmark, RMIT University

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bruising victory in Israel’s election was costly.


The hawkish atmosphere over electing members of the 19th Knesset saw the highest voter turnout since 1999 and some surprise. The wind did blow to the right of politics, which is not to say that it did not deliver its host of surprises. Israel’s political representatives have ratcheted up the rhetoric.

Before voting, Netanyahu sensed danger from such contenders as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a grouping keen to abolish military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox civilians along with a host of generous subsidies.

Atid eventually came in with 19 seats, second to Netanyahu’s Likud at 31 (down from 11 seats from the previous election).

“The Likud government is in danger, go vote for us for the sake of the country’s future,” Netanyahu proclaimed on the eve of the election.

Prior to the election, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu coalition was obsessed by a battle of the right wings. Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), lead by Naftali Bennett, former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council, was seeking to position himself as a possible “powerbroker”. As the new glamorous reactionary, he did not do quite as well as he had hoped. His influence is, however, unmistakable.

Given the nature of Israeli politics, coalitions are a frequent thing. Netanyahu will be in search of allies. They are not likely to stem from Bennett’s side, given that the software tycoon is more than happy to go the distance with reactionary politics. His position, in part, makes Netanyahu look like an enlightened progressive. For one, Bennett has decided that Israel should give up the ghost on reaching any consensus with the Palestinians. His party, as noted in The Economist, is “a brash reincarnation of the venerable but moribund National Religious Party.” Jewish settlements in the West Bank are promoted with fire brand conviction, and annexation has not been ruled out as a possibility.

Bennett’s views have found sympathy with many of Netanyahu’s own party, and these feel that a miscalculation was made when the Prime Minister threw Likud’s lot in with Avigdor Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu. Those unhappy with the move are gravitating towards Bennett, certainly in light of Lieberman’s fall from grace with inconclusive investigations into bribery and money-laundering.

The impressive performance of such groupings as Yesh Atid have confused the punditry, meaning that Netanyahu may have to seek moderates to swell the fold. Being keen on seeking some form of compromise with the Palestinians, there may be a very different political Israeli landscape forming.

The 2013 election itself has drawn complaints. It was deemed sudden, declared in a blink of an eye and a confused result. Netanyahu did not face a coherent united front. In Allison Kaplan Sommer’s words, writing for Haaretz, “there was no real horse race to watch and not enough suspense.” Sommer may well have to be reconsidering that assessment.

The fact that Netanyahu has won makes the chances of a calmer approach to the divisions with Palestinians, and more broadly the Middle East, more difficult.

Domestically, Israel is considered to be suffering an erosion of its civic culture, an attempt orchestrated as much out of fear than anything else. Mohammed Ishtayeh, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, spoke of Abbas’ concern that the continued emphasis on settlements would eventually threaten Israeli democracy, given the reluctance of Netanyahu to embrace the two-state solution.

Ishtayeh himself suggested that the continued policy might eventually produce “an apartheid-styled state” given that a single state solution would only lead to an Arab majority being controlled by a Jewish minority.

Organisations such as the US-based Freedom House will have none of that, claiming that Israel remains the Middle East’s “only free country”.

While it is true that laws have been proposed that eat away at the structure of free speech and rights of civil society organisations, many such measures have failed to pass in the Knesset, or been given short shrift by the Israeli Supreme Court. But the country’s relationship with human rights is a stormy one. Keeping one’s nerve alongside one’s rights is a herculean task.

Then, there is the case of how Israel will deal with the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention its neighbours. The Netanyahu of the Arab Spring cut a negative figure suspicious of those seeking to change authoritarian regimes. While this was hardly a very democratic sentiment, it certainly matches the Likud’s realpolitik vision: let Israel maintain a monopoly on democracy – the rest don’t need it.

As for Iran, a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear facilities remains very much on the cards. Whether a new centrist focus will change this is speculative. Such relationships are viewed through the prism of insecurity rather than that of seeking peace – whether embargoes should be tightened; whether rockets are fired, or not fired; whether troops are sent in periodically or otherwise.

The new Netanyahu is unlikely to deviate from this line, a circuitous, inescapable rationale for violence, but the necessity to form a differently constituted coalition may change the game altogether.

Binoy Kampmark does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Next UN chief sworn in

The 62-year-old South Korean is to officially take up his post on January 1, 2007.

“I add my voice to the many tributes that have been paid to you today,” Mr Ban told Mr Annan, who is to step down on December 31 after completing two five-year terms.

He vowed to build on the legacy of the outgoing Ghanaian UN chief, adding that one of his priorities would be to “breathe new life and inject renewed confidence into the sometimes weary (UN) Secretariat.”

Mindful of the recent corruption and sexual abuse scandals that have tarnished the world body, Ban promised to “set the highest ethical standard” and to “lead by example”.

Addressing a news conference later in the day, the secretary general-designate described the tragedy in Sudan’s Darfur region as “unacceptable” and pledged to be personally engaged in efforts to end the bloodshed there.

And he took Iran to task for hosting a conference casting doubt on the Holocaust.

“The denial of the Holocaust is not acceptable,” he said. “Nor is it acceptable to call for the elimination of any state or people,” he added in reference to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks that Israel should be “wiped off” the map and “would soon disappear”.

He also said the deteriorating Middle East situation would be one of his priorities, particularly the need to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He also urged Iran to resume negotiations with European powers to settle the standoff with the Security Council over its nuclear program “in a peaceful way”.

French test flunked

On a lighter note, Ban flunked a French language test when he was unable to answer a reporter’s question posed in French as to why French should remain the second working language of the world body, after English.

After he fumbled a “je n’ai pas pu (I was not able)”, an aide came to his rescue and translated the question into English, to which Mr Ban replied that the decision to give priority to French was made by UN member states for reasons of “convenience and practicality.”

By tradition, the UN secretary general is required to have a working knowledge of French.

Mr Ban has been working assiduously on his French since he launched his bid to succeed Annan early this year. France’s UN Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere certified that Ban’s French was adequate.

Meanwhile the US acting Ambassador to the UN, Alejandro Wolff, whose country played a key role in Ban’s appointment, said the South Korean “commands our full respect.”

Earlier the 192-member General Assembly paid a warm tribute to Annan, hailing his “exceptional contribution to international peace and security”.

The assembly gave Annan a standing ovation and adopted by acclamation a resolution “acknowledging with deep gratitude” his “indefatigable efforts and dedicated service” over the past 10 years.

Mr Ban has been at UN headquarters in New York since November working on setting up a transition team ahead of his official assumption of duties.

His election by the General Assembly last October was a mere formality after the powerful 15-member Security Council recommended him.

Ban will become the UN’s eighth secretary general and the first Asian UN chief since U Thant of Burma led the organization from 1961 to 1971. He will lead a staff of over 15,000, drawn from more than 170 nations.

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