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Salvadoran castaway says ships ignored him

The castaway who survived 13 months adrift in the Pacific says several ships passed by during his ordeal but they ignored his cries for help.

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As Salvadoran Health Minister Maria Isabel Rodriguez relayed a new chapter in Jose Salvador Alvarenga’s amazing tale on Wednesday, the fisherman urged journalists to leave him in peace so that he can recover from his 12,500km odyssey.

Alvarenga, 37, spent his first full day back in his homeland in a hospital near San Salvador, where doctors said he was in impressive physical shape but needed psychological attention.

“He told us that he almost lost any hope of returning to the world because he did not get support,” Rodriguez told a news conference.

“He told us how several boats passed by, including close to him. He asked for help and they did not want to help him.”

One ship’s crew waved back at him but did not stop to help the shaggy-haired castaway, who was only in his underwear, she said.

Another came so close that “it almost destroyed his little boat because it passed next to him,” Rodriguez said.

Alvarenga says he set off on an ill-fated shark fishing trip off southern Mexico in late 2012, floating in a seven-metre fibreglass boat before washing ashore in the Marshall Islands on January 30.

A 24-year-old crewmate died four months into the voyage, unable to stomach a diet that was limited to rainwater, urine, turtle blood, raw fish and bird flesh, according to Alvarenga.

In a short video released by the health ministry, Alvarenga said from his hospital bed that he was “doing well” but pleaded with journalists who have followed his every more since he returned home to leave him alone.

“No more questions or pictures. I want to be alone with my family, that I be given time to be able to speak after I recover, because right now I am not in condition to give explanations,” he said, wearing a blue hospital blouse and resting his left arm above his head.

He also asked reporters to leave his family alone after an emotional reunion with his parents and 14-year-old daughter Fatima, who last saw him eight years ago.

Pictures showed them hugging him tightly as he lay in bed. His family thought he was dead until he emerged in the Marshall Islands.

Alvarenga was taken to the San Rafael National Hospital after landing late Tuesday following a long flight home.

His psychological fragility contrasted with his good physical shape, which has impressed doctors given Alvarenga’s unusual diet.

“His physical condition is enviable,” Rodriguez said.

Alvarenga asked for a corn tortilla and sugary bread at the hospital.

Kidney and heart tests found nothing abnormal, but he underwent psychological evaluations to determine when he can return to his family’s Pacific coast village of Garita Palmera.

“He gets tired quickly, loses a little bit of control. He is still not ready to communicate with the world. He cries easily,” Rodriguez said.

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‘Unspeakable catastrophe’ in CAR: UN

BANGUI, Central African Republic, Feb 13 AFP – The head of the UN’s refugee agency says he has witnessed “a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions” during his visit to the Central African Republic.

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“Massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing. Shocking barbarity, brutality and inhumanity have characterised this violence,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement on Wednesday.

He also said the country’s new government is incapable of effectively protecting its citizens.

His statement clashed awkwardly with a speech on Wednesday by the CAR’s new transitional president, Catherine Samba Panza, who vowed war against a mostly Christian anti-balaka militia whose recent attacks have led to a mass exodus of Muslims.

“We are going to go to war against the anti-balaka,” she told a crowd in the town of Mbaiki, south of the capital Bangui.

“They think that because I’m a woman, I’m weak. But now the anti-balaka who want to kill, will themselves be hunted,” she said.

The anti-balaka emerged last year after a mostly Muslim rebel group seized control of the country. They have gone on the rampage in Bangui and elsewhere, largely targeting Muslims, since the rebels were ousted from power last month.

During her speech, Samba Panza was joined on stage by French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France has grown increasingly strident in its calls for action against the anti-balaka, fearing that the violence could lead to partition of the country.

But the UN refugee agency said much will be needed to stem the attacks, and spoke of “dramatic underfunding” of relief operations.

“The international community must come together for a significant and immediate increase of the forces and police on the ground,” said Guterres.

“Our resources are overwhelmed and ability to do more hampered. The Central African Republic is falling through the cracks of international attention. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

Even a huge airlift launched on Wednesday by the UN’s World Food Programme is unlikely to make a dent in the humanitarian crisis.

The first cargo aircraft, loaded with 80 tonnes of rice, landed in Bangui in the early afternoon. There will 24 daily supply drops to the city.

“This is a rather exceptional operation, our biggest emergency air operation in a long time, bigger than for Syria and the Philippines,” WFP spokesman Alexis Masciarelli told AFP.

But he admitted the operation “would not completely solve the problem” in CAR, where 1.3 million people – more than a quarter of the country’s population – is in need of food assistance.

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Waratahs learning how to win

The NSW Waratahs have recruited with purpose but coach Michael Cheika says it’s a personality transplant that will ensure Groundhog Day doesn’t come around in the 2014 Super Rugby season.

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On the eve of his second season in charge, Cheika has refused to back down from his stated goal of a top-two placing for the Waratahs – but stressed that bold statement is an ambition not a prediction.

After all, a star-studded side talking the talk has become an all-too familiar scenario for long-suffering NSW fans, and still the trophy cabinet is bare.

In Israel Folau, NSW possess the most dynamic attacking weapon in Australian rugby.

With halves Kurtley Beale and Nick Phipps returning to their home state and South African enforcer Jacques Potgieter arriving to give the pack a more physical presence, the Waratahs have also shopped better than their Australian Conference rivals.

However, Cheika knows that NSW could have signed every international on the open market and not be guaranteed a win without a fundamental change in thinking.

Cheika is confident he’s removed the soft underbelly and his players have learned what it takes to convert expectation into results.

“I believe quite clearly that the personality of our playing squad and our rugby has changed,” Cheika told AAP.

“There’s a certain liking of hard work now.

“Guys are getting stuck in with no questions asked.

“You don’t just say, ‘I’m going to win’, and it starts happening. They are learning how to become winners.

“They know everything we get we’ve got to earn.

“We’ve got to make sure we show that on every occasion.

“I think we’re definitely ambitious to be up there in the top two. That’s not about predicting anything, it’s about saying that’s our ambition and we’re going to work hard to get there.”

Cheika has been particularly impressed with the pre-season form and aptitude of Beale, who has a point to prove in his return to the Waratahs.

The smart money is on Beale to run the show at No.10, however there remains a strong possibility he could play inside centre to accommodate fellow Wallaby and incumbent playmaker Bernard Foley.

Where Beale and Foley line-up will ultimately dictate the positions played by Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rob Horne and Jono Lance.

Folau as a roaming presence at fullback is the only certainty.

Cheika says he’s comfortable with changing midfield combinations throughout the season, based on the opposition they are facing, and isn’t concerned about too many (playmaker) cooks spoiling the broth.

“One big thing we’re clear on is everyone’s role and responsibility within the team according to the number that’s on their back,” said Cheika.

“Once you’re in the No.10 you have a certain role, or in the 12 or 15 or 11.

“That’s what good winning teams start to do. They load up on what their role is and go hard on doing their job.”

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Unemployment rate hits 10 year high

Economists expect little improvement in the jobs market in the months ahead, after the unemployment rate hit six per cent for the first time in over 10 years.

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Australia’s jobless rate for January rose from 5.8 per cent in December, according to seasonally adjusted figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“The unemployment rate should continue to edge higher over the next six months or so and this expectation fits in with the Reserve Bank of Australia’s outlook for the jobs market,” St George chief economist Besa Deda said.

“The slowdown in mining investment is making its presence felt among the resource states, with the soft labour market present in Western Australia and Queensland likely to persist.”

RBC currency strategist Michael Turner said ongoing deterioration in the labour market was to be expected.

But the jobs figures would not cause the RBA board to regret their recent decision to signal a period of stable interest rates.

“People have been expecting a little bit more of a bounce back from December’s employment growth numbers but that wasn’t to be,” he said.

Mr Turner expects the unemployment rate to drift a little higher in the first half of 2014 before moderating in the fourth quarter and into 2015.

“Given the slow pace of employment growth it’s hard to see it getting back below six per cent on a sustained basis for most of this year,” he said.

“The leading economic indicators have indeed improved gives some hope that the peak in the unemployment rate is not too far away.”

Ms Deda also said leading indicators of employment, such as job ads, have been stabilising over recent months.

“Employment gauges are a lagging indicator of the economy and so the improvement witnessed in the economy over the past months would not yet show up in the labour numbers,” she said.

The growth in part-time employment at the expense of full-time employment could be explained by employers not wishing to lay off employees because of an anticipation that economic activity will improve, Ms Deda said.

“There was a lift in average hours worked in January, but for now firms are still not willing to take on the risk of lifting their headcount,” she said.

The total number of people with jobs fell 3,700 in January, and was down 23,000 in December.

Full-time employment fell 7,100 in January and part-time employment was up 3,400.

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Cupid flaps wings online in France

The internet is powering Cupid’s wings in France, with use of online dating sites soaring, according to matchmakers preparing to help singletons maximise their seduction opportunities this Valentine’s Day.

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Of the 18 million single people in France “one in two uses internet dating” said Jessica Delpirou, director in France of the Meetic dating website, which was launched in 2001 and recently taken over by the US website Match广西桑拿,.

The run-up to St Valentine’s Day – before New Year resolutions are forgotten – is a particularly busy time.

On February 14 last year, Meetic, which has around 840,000 paying subscribers in Europe, registered a 38 per cent increase in people signing up compared with other Thursdays in the month, said Delpirou.

Keen to woo Paris’s singletons with a bit of pampering, Meetic, the biggest advertiser in the sector, this year organised what it calls “Operation Boudoir”, a vintage 1950s-style lorry which serves as a mobile massage and manicure salon on the streets of Paris.

Since last year, the site has also been offering members a range of different ways of finding love, including soirees, dinners, and other activities such as cooking or photography workshops.

This Valentine’s week alone the firm, which usually puts on around 100 events every month, has organised 35 evenings in France.

Another firm, Lovoo, says it has seen recent monthly increases in users of around 30 to 40 per cent.

The company, which started in Germany and now has seven million users worldwide, is largely aimed at the under-30s with 70 per cent of subscribers aged between 18 and 30.

To mark Valentine’s Day this year it is inviting women to photoshoots to update and improve their profile photograph “because that’s what counts”.

Men, meanwhile, can benefit from an old fashioned shave in a barber’s chair and some all-important internet dating advice.

Stephane Boulissiere of Lovoo said he was not surprised by the increasing numbers turning to online dating, citing increased use of smartphones and tablets.

But France’s economic woes were also seen as an incentive for single people to find a mate.

Faced with financial insecurity, people see a relationship as “a safe haven to cope with daily life”, said Celine Petre of dating site Parship.

A study published in January by the eDarling website found 63 per cent of single people believed recession was not a hindrance in their quest for love.

In fact, “the general mood gives people strong motivation” to look for a partner, the study said.

Nearly eight out of ten consider themselves “in a stronger position to confront the gloom of daily life” as a couple and 75 per cent say that the economic crisis does not change their search criteria.

“They know that the notion of getting established in life is being lost, that nothing is gained at the professional level, and that therefore it is better to base relationships on the human qualities of their partner, rather than on his or her financial stability,” said Sabrina Philippe, a psychologist and consultant at eDarling.

“Obviously in times of crisis, living as a couple with two incomes can only improve daily life, provided that the income is not the main criteria of members when they use our services,” added Alexandre Lubot, general manager of Meetic.

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Boy, monk among five killed in Thai south

Suspected Thai militants have shot dead five people, including a nine-year-old boy and a Buddhist monk, in the latest attacks in the kingdom’s insurgency-torn deep south.

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The killings appear to be revenge attacks for the recent deaths of three young Muslim brothers.

Four gunmen on motorcycles opened fire at the monk while he was collecting alms in Mae Lan district of Pattani province on Thursday morning, killing him and three villagers including the boy, police said Thursday.

Six other people were wounded, including a policeman providing a security escort for the monk.

On Wednesday evening in Pattani’s Yaring district, a 29-year-old Buddhist woman riding a motorcycle home from work was shot dead and her body set on fire, police said.

A note left at the scene said: “To the army chief: this is not the last body for the three brothers.”

The brothers – aged three, five and nine – were gunned down last week in front of their home in neighbouring Narathiwat province after returning from evening prayers at a mosque.

Their pregnant mother and father were also shot in the attack but survived.

In an earlier act of apparent retaliation, a policeman’s wife was shot dead and then set on fire in front of terrified shoppers at a busy market on Monday.

The Muslim-dominated region near the border with Malaysia is in the grip of a decade-long insurgency that has claimed more than 5900 lives, mostly civilians, in near-daily bomb and gun attacks.

Peace talks between rebels and the government have stalled, with officials blaming a political crisis sparked by months of mass opposition protests in Bangkok seeking to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The insurgents want a level of autonomy from Thailand, which annexed the region over a century ago. They accuse Thai authorities of widespread human rights abuses and disrespecting their religion and culture.

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US sets November trial in Boston bombings

A US judge has set a November trial date for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the chief suspect accused of bombing last year’s Boston marathon, killing three people and wounding 260 others.

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The trial, which is likely to attract global media interest, will begin on November 3 and could last several months, US District Judge George O’Toole ruled Wednesday.

Tsarnaev’s main lawyer, Judy Clarke, had pressed for the trial to take place no sooner than September 2015 in light of the huge amount of documents related to the case.

The April 15 bomb attacks near the finish line of the Boston marathon reignited traumatic memories of the September 11, 2001 attacks. US prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Tsarnaev, then 19, and his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev were cornered by police after a four-day manhunt. Tamerlan died after an exchange of fire with police and Dzhokhar was wounded.

The defence team could still ask for a change of location for the trial due to the high emotions triggered by the attacks in Boston. A response to that request is due by June 18.

Tsarnaev, now 20, is a US citizen from a Chechen Muslim family.

The shaggy-haired student has pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges related to the bombings, including 17 serious charges that can carry sentences of death or life in prison.

These charges include using a weapon of mass destruction resulting in death, as well as conspiracy and bombing of a place of public use resulting in death, and carjacking.

Tsarnaev is also charged in connection with the fatal shooting of a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the brothers’ wild four-day getaway attempt.

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Union access to Qld worksites to be curbed

Union officials’ access to work sites in Queensland will be restricted under changes to the Work Health and Safety Act.

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Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie introduced amendments on Thursday to force unions to provide at least 24 hours written notice before entering a work site.

Fines dished out to employers who breach electrical safety regulations will also be upped to $33,000.

Mr Bleijie says unions are exploiting work health and safety laws to hold projects and employers to ransom.

They enter workplaces using the excuse that there have been breaches, but the majority of times there are no immediate or imminent risks, parliament was told.

Mr Bleijie gave the example of one contractor which missed out on 42 days of work due to illegal strike activity in the first year of their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

Amendments to the act would stop unions bringing constructions sites to a halt, Mr Bleijie said.

“Quite frankly, their abuses of the current right of entry provisions are designed to bully contractors until they get their way,” he said.

“Sites are being hijacked and workers held to ransom.

“For too long, we have seen construction unions using safety as an industrial weapon in this state.”

“And hopefully we will rid this state of union militant bully activities.”

Queensland Council of Unions president John Battams says while most employers do the right thing, some could exploit the changes.

“There are disreputable employers who will use the 24 hour notice period to try to cover up dangerous health and safety issues,” Mr Battams told AAP.

“If there are health and safety issues they need to be dealt with immediately.

“This loophole created by the LNP government will be exploited by those companies who don’t regard health and safety as the most important issue in the workplace.”

The legislation has been sent to a committee for further scrutiny.