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Aussie stocks gain 3 percent

The Australian share market closed almost three per cent higher, with strong gains from banks and big miners pushing the local bourse into positive territory.

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At the close, the S&P/ASX200 was 100.5 points, or 2.81 per cent higher at 3680.2, while the broader All Ordinaries gained 95 points, or 2.69 per cent to 3622.2.

At 1615 AEDT on the Sydney Futures Exchange, the June share price index contract was 103 points higher at 3684 on a volume of 24,487 contracts.

ABN Amro Morgans Ipswich manager Tony Russell said gains on the local market were underpinned by positive leads from Wall Street, a spot of bargain hunting and a rise in the banking and resource sectors.

“The stronger leads coming out of the US market over the last couple of evenings has certainly given a bit more confidence to our market,” Mr Russell told AAP.

“The banking and financial sector has been strong today, strongly followed by the resource sector with BHP and Rio.”

BHP Billiton put on $1.28, or 3.99 per cent, to close at $33.38, while rival Rio Tinto gained $2.56, or 4.62 per cent, to $57.96.

The market got off to a positive start opening one per cent higher after gains on Wall Street, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average putting on 152.68 points, or 2.01 per cent, to close at

7,761.60.

Meanwhile, One of Rio Tinto Ltd\’s major shareholders says plans by Aluminium Corporation of China (Chinalco) to invest $US19.5 billion ($A28.29 billion) in the world\’s third biggest resources company is good for Australia and the group.

Aberdeen Asset Management global head of equities Hugh Young said on Thursday the deal proposed by the Chinese state-owned firm, and which has been criticised by some Australian politicians, was “clever” for Rio Tinto.

Stock Move Price

AMP +0.180 4.790

ANZ Bank +0.460 16.340

BHPBilton +1.280 33.380

CBA +0.720 35.350

NAB +1.180 21.500

NewsCorp +0.690 11.730

Polartech +0.010 .135

Rio Tinto +2.560 57.960

TelstraCp +0.070 3.160

WestpacBk +0.480 19.900

Woolwrths +0.110 25.000

Grim times to come, says Swan

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan has warned of higher unemployment and slower growth than earlier forecast, due to the effects of the global economic slowdown.

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Treasurer Wayne Swan released official forecasts in February predicting unemployment would rise to seven percent by mid-2010 and economic growth would slow to one percent this year.

But he said that OECD figures released this week projecting developed economies would experience a 4.3 percent contraction and unemployment of 10 percent this year cast new light on the depth of the crisis facing Australia.

“Certainly it does mean that growth will be slower in Australia than was forecast back in February,” Swan told ABC television late Wednesday.

“It certainly does mean that unemployment as a consequence will be higher, and I think it certainly does mean as a consequence that the hit to our bottom line in terms of budget revenue will be higher than was forecast in February.”

Australia\’s unemployment rate hit a four-year high of 5.2 percent in February, while the economy shrank for the first time in eight years in the final quarter of 2008.

Swan said Australia\’s official forecast would be updated in early May when the government hands down its annual budget.

He refused to speculate on whether the budget would add further economic stimulus to two packages already released worth a combined 52 billion dollars (36 billion US).

But the treasurer predicted a “tough” budget, given that estimates the financial crisis would cost Canberra 115 billion dollars in revenues over the next four years were also outdated.

“There will be tough choices in the budget … revenues have been downgraded to the tune of 115 billion and I think the downgrades would certainly be greater than that,” he said.

He also said Australia\’s plan was to run a temporary budget deficit for the duration of the crisis, then return to surplus over time.

“Everybody at the table recognises that over time that some discipline has to be restored, but that can only happen … when growth is restored and growth returns to trend,” he said.

New laws crack down on bikies

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Document\”> The NSW government has rushed tough new laws to crack down on bikies through parliament, vowing to stop warring gangs from endangering the public.

The legislation was introduced on Thursday, only three days after Premier Nathan Rees warned it might not be ready until June to ensure it withstood a High Court challenge.

It passed the lower house within an hour, with only Independent MP Clover Moore voting against it.

It\’s expected to pass the upper house late on Thursday with the support of all parties except the NSW Greens.

The government said it was determined to push the laws through, with parliament not scheduled to sit again until May.

“These are tough and well constructed laws,” Mr Rees told parliament.

“They aim to give no second chances to those declared members of an illegal gang.”

The legislation will enable the police commissioner to make an application to the Supreme Court to have an outlaw motorcycle gang declared a criminal organisation.

Gang members will be able to make submissions to the court.

The judge can make a declaration without giving any reason, but it will only come into effect once it is published in the government\’s Gazette and a statewide newspaper.

Gang members who associate with each other can be charged without warning and face at least two years in jail.

South Australia already has similar laws, with Queensland expected to follow shortly.

Mr Rees last month said bikie gangs “crossed the line” by risking public safety with a vicious Sydney airport brawl which resulted in the death of Anthony Zervas, 29.

His brother, Hells Angel Peter Zervas, 32, is in a serious but stable condition at St George Hospital after being shot as he sat in a car outside a Sydney unit block on Sunday.

Five Comancheros bikies have been charged with affray over the March 22 airport brawl with the Hells Angels.

Police on Thursday afternoon raided the home of Comancheros president Mahmoud “Mick” Hawi, but he is reportedly in hiding with a $100,000 contract taken out for his death.

Opposition Leader Barry O\’Farrell said it took a dramatic escalation of violence to force the government to act on laws NSW police first requested late last year.

He said the coalition would support the laws to ensure the public was protected.

“I would have no problem if you put all the outlaw motorcycle gang members in two rooms and allowed them to shoot themselves to death,” he told parliament.

“I would have no problems with that at all.

“In the current climate of NSW you have drive-by shootings, you have bashings, you have bombings, you have murders, that at any stage could affect an innocent bystander.

“That is why we need to give police these powers.”

But the Law Society of NSW said police already had sufficient powers under the Crimes Act, and that the new legislation would do nothing to wipe out criminal conduct.

“The legislation simply will lead to people going underground and we\’re very concerned about that,” president Joe Catanzariti told reporters.

“At the present time … the people are visible in these activities and that does allow us to have proper justice.”

Mr Catanzariti said he was surprised at the haste with which the laws were introduced and debated in parliament, adding he felt it was an overreaction.

Pakistan lifts ban on popular party

Pakistan has suspended a court ban on politician Shahbaz Sharif and reinstated his party\’s rule in a key province, in a move likely to ease political tensions in the troubled country.

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A February 25 court decision to disqualify Sharif and his brother, former premier and main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, from contesting elections and holding office sparked mass protests.

Authorities detained hundreds of activists in response.

Under Western pressure to defuse the crisis, the government appealed the ban and agreed to reinstate chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, bowing to a key demand from Nawaz Sharif – now the country\’s most popular politician.

“The supreme court has suspended the February 25 decision,” Syed Zafar Ali Shah, a lawyer and leader in Sharif\’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party, told reporters outside the court.

The decision reinstates Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of the country\’s most important province, Punjab.

PML-N spokesman, Siddiqul Farooq, said the court will fix a date to hear the petition of Nawaz Sharif sometime after May 7.

Workers in PML-N, the second-largest political party in the country, danced and handed out sweets in jubilation outside the court in the capital Islamabad, shouting “congratulations to the nation.”

“Thanks to Allah, our stance was just. Today a new judiciary has come into being in Pakistan. We\’ll work day and night for the welfare of our people,” Shahbaz Sharif told reporters from Lahore, the Punjab capital.

“I\’ll now be completing my agenda for people\’s welfare. A provincial cabinet meeting will be convened soon and we will consult our colleagues in the Pakistan People\’s Party (PPP) about the future course of action,” he added.

The government\’s March 16 promise to put Chaudhry back in office saw Nawaz Sharif call off a mass protest march on the capital and raised hopes of ending the debilitating political crisis in the nuclear-armed country.

Tuesday\’s stay is another significant step towards political reconciliation after Nawaz Sharif walked out of government last August on the judges\’ issue.

It comes one day after the government lifted central rule in Punjab.

The deeply unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari had put the province, home to more than 60 percent of national lawmakers and Sharif\’s power base, in the hands of one of his allies on February 25.

“The president respects the courts and court verdicts. The PPP accepts unreservedly the supreme court verdict,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.

“It is hoped that the restoration of government in Punjab will take the process of reconciliation further forward and help in diluting the bitterness generated recently,” Babar said.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called Shahbaz Sharif and “congratulated” him on the restoration of his government, an official at the premier\’s office told AFP.

Analysts also welcomed the suspension.

“The decision is likely to provide a reconciliatory environment and they have to learn to co-exist,” Zafarullah Khan, director of the independent, Islamabad-based Centre for Civic Education, told AFP.

Political parties have long battled for control of the huge province, where the PPP had wanted to establish its own government.

A court in Lahore ruled in June that Nawaz Sharif, ousted by then military ruler Pervez Musharraf in a 1999 coup, was ineligible to stand in a by-election because of criminal convictions.

He was convicted of “hijacking” a Pakistani commercial airliner carrying Musharraf after denying the aircraft landing rights while he was prime minister, on October 12, 1999. The plane eventually landed and Musharraf seized power.

Sharif\’s brother, who has been acquitted of murder charges, was disqualified on the grounds of defaulting bank loans and ridiculing the judiciary.

Fears for peace under new Israeli FM

Israel\’s new government has set a hawkish tone in its first days in office, with statements by its top diplomat setting off warnings that Benjamin Netanyahu\’s cabinet risked burying the troubled peace talks.

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A day after he sparked criticism by saying Israel was not bound by a US-backed 2007 agreement to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday refused any withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

“There is no cabinet resolution regarding negotiations with Syria, and we have already said that we will not agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights,” Lieberman told the Haaretz daily.

The Golan is a strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981, which Damascus wants back as part of any peace treaty.

It marked the second day running of controversial statements by firebrand Lieberman, which have sparked furious reactions by Palestinians already worried about a cabinet led by Netanyahu, who opposes giving them a state.

“This minister is an obstacle to peace. He will cause harm to Israel first,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, told AFP.

“Nothing obliges us to deal with a racist person hostile to peace such as Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Lieberman,” he added.

Opposition MPs in Israel were as harsh in their criticism of a man whom critics have branded a “racist” and “fascist” for his regular diatribes against Israeli Arabs.

Tzipi Livni, from whom Lieberman took over the foreign ministry, said that with the statements “Israel in effect announced that it was no longer a partner” in the peace process and called on Netanyahu to distance himself from the comments.

Comparing the Soviet-born onetime bouncer to a “bull in a china shop,” Opher Pines-Paz of the centre-left Labour party warned that ultra-nationalist Lieberman was “a strategic threat to Israel.”

“This is proof of total irresponsibility,” he told public radio. “The damage that he has caused will take years to repair.”

Reactions from abroad remained muted.

US President Barack Obama, who has called advancing a two-state solution “critical,” called Netanyahu on his assuming office, saying he looked forward to working with him on his concerns abut Iran and reiterating his desire to advance the peace process.

“The president said he looked forward to working closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to address issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Arab-Israeli peace,” the White House said.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the US State Department declined to comment on Lieberman\’s statements, saying Washington was instead focusing on Netanyahu\’s pledges to continue negotiations with the Palestinians.

“I\’d point you to Prime Minister Netanyahu\’s comments, that he will work for peace with the Palestinians and peace in the region,” Gordon Duguid told reporters in Washington.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon went further, saying that the Palestinians\’ promised state remained a key goal for the international community.

“The secretary general… looks forward to working with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the full range of peace and security issues in the region,” UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said in a statement.

“This includes the resumption of the Middle East peace process, with the aim of achieving an independent and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace with a secure Israel, and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace as envisaged in Security Council resolutions.”

Chocolate sales soar in tough times

Swiss chocolate giant Barry Callebaut says its net profit had soared 15.

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3 percent for the six months ending February, despite downturns in most other commodities across the globe.

Barry Callebaut, which is one of the world\’s biggest suppliers of cocoa to other chocolate-makers, said net profit reached 94.12 million euros for the period.

However, the environment would continue to be tough in the second half, with volatile exchange rates, outgoing chief executive Patrick De Maeseneire said.

“Softening cocoa butter prices will have an adverse effect on margins, which we intend to partly offset through continued efficiency gains and cost cutting,” he added.

Its earnings were nonetheless hit by the weakening of key currencies such as the euro, dollar and pound against the Swiss franc. In local currency terms, the growth in profit was 23.2 percent.

Revenues slid 1.6 percent to 2.54 billion francs on weaker consumer demand, particularly in North America and Europe.

“Many food manufacturers, artisans and retailers reduced their stocks in the wake of economic uncertainties and were reluctant to place new orders,” said the group.

Outgoing chief executive Patrick De Maeseneire noted however that the group had a “strong start” in its third quarter (March – May) due to a late Easter, with more orders than a year ago.

The group also announced that De Maeseneire would be leaving Barry Callebaut to become chief executive of Adecco, the employment group, from June 1.

Juergen Steinemann will be Barry Callebaut\’s new chief executive from August 1.

G20 leaders thrash out crisis as protests rage

World leaders have begun thrashing out a rescue package for the global economy.

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Leaders including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown began talks about tackling the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

The talks followed a day of protests across London, with more than 4,000 people taking to the streets in an outburst of anger over the handling of the global economic crisis.

More than 80 people were arrested and one man died after a protest outside the Bank of England descended into violence on Wednesday.

Police feared there could be more violence on Thursday, with further protests planned around the London Stock Exchange and near the G20 summit at the ExCel conference centre in the Docklands, in the city\’s east.

G20 leaders began the day with a working breakfast before nearly five hours of formal talks were due to begin later in the morning.

On the agenda are new regulations for the finance industry, extra economic stimulus packages, more money for the International Monetary Fund to help poorer countries, a crackdown on tax havens and a $US100 billion boost for international trade.

The talks began amid clear warnings from France and Germany that unless their calls for tougher regulations for the finance sector were backed by their G20 counterparts, they could walk away from a global economic rescue package.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made their demands clear at a last-minute joint press conference in London on the eve of the summit.

The two leaders have repeatedly criticised calls by Britain and the US for G20 nations to increase government spending to drive an economic recovery.

Sarkozy and Merkel insist their governments have already introduced substantial stimulus packages and there is a greater need for the finance industry to be subject to tighter rules to prevent a repeat of the economic crisis gripping the globe.

Brown has played down divisions with the European leaders and expressed confidence that a rescue deal can be struck.

But the French president, who had earlier threatened to walk out of the summit, told reporters that tighter rules for tax havens, hedge funds and ratings agencies were a “non-negotiable goal”.

Companies found to break the new rules would effectively be named and shamed while bankers\’ pay would be capped, under the Franco-German plan.

“In the results, we want the principle of new regulation to be a major objective … this is not negotiable,” Sarkozy said, adding it was time to “moralise an immoral system”.

“We are just trying to take responsibility.

“This is a historic opportunity afforded us to give capitalism a conscience, because capitalism has lost its conscience and we have to seize this opportunity.”

Merkel said France and Germany wanted the summit to produce results which would “change the world”.

“Any regulations we don\’t agree here, won\’t be agreed for the next five years,” she said.

“The summit is not about horse trading between regulation and economic growth programs.”

Brown expressed confidence that agreement would be struck on regulation, boosting global trade and job creation.

“We are within a few hours, I think, of agreeing a global plan for economic recovery and reform and I think the significance of this is that we are looking at every aspect,” Brown said.

Obama said it was vital all countries worked together to resolve the economic crisis.

“Make no mistake, we are facing the most severe economic crisis since World War II, and the global economy is now so fundamentally interlinked that we can only meet this challenge together,” he said.

South African star to miss Aussie match

South Africa have decided to rest star all-rounder Jacques Kallis from Friday\’s opening one-day international against Australia.

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The 33-year-old pace bowler and No.4 batsman is likely to make his return from a groin-muscle injury in Sunday\’s second ODI match at Centurion.

“Jacques hasn\’t come through quite for Friday so he\’s going to be missing out,” captain Graeme Smith said on Thursday.

“Roelof (van der Merwe) is going to be missing out and Vaughan Van Jaarsveld and Wayne Parnell.”

The selection leaves off-spinner Johan Botha to bat at No.8 followed by fast bowlers Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini.

Smith, who like Kallis missed South Africa\’s two Twenty20 International wins against Australia last week because of injury, has returned to the side after overcoming a fractured little finger.

“There\’s myself Herschelle (Gibbs) and Hashim (Amla) in the top three, Botha\’s at eight,” Smith said.

“We bat deep enough. You always want your top order to take as much responsibility as possible,” he added.

“All three of us up front have had our success so it would be nice if we can really make it count here at Kingsmead.

“We\’re excited to go.”

Australia have won the past three World Cups but Proteas coach Mickey Arthur can barely contain his excitement about how his squad is progressing in their push for a title campaign in 2011 on the sub-continent.

No.1-ranked South Africa host Australia for a five-match ODI series starting on Friday in Durban and Arthur says it\’s going to be “huge”.

“We\’ve prioritised what we want to get out of this series. So for us it\’s almost like the re-start of something,” Arthur says.

“Friday for us is huge. You want to go one-nil up and hopefully you can then take momentum from the game on Friday.”

Arthur said the Proteas would be using the series to experiment with combinations ahead of the 2011 World Cup.

We are continually trying to have a look at what is going to be best for us,” said Arthur, who mentored South Africa at the 2007 World Cup where they lost their semi-final to Australia.

“We\’ve alluded to World Cups, there\’s a lot for them to play for.

“We\’ve got a really good mix here.

“Time will tell, without wanting to get too excited.

“But I\’m very happy and I think we\’re dead on track.”

Crew saved in remarkable yacht rescue

One of Australia\’s top racing yachts has been salvaged, and her skipper and crew saved, in a rescue operation in wild seas off the south Queensland coast.

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Dual Sydney to Hobart handicap winner Ausmaid rolled and was dismasted on Thursday morning after being hit by a massive wave about eight nautical miles northeast of Noosa Heads.

wner Bruce Absolon said it was only the professionalism of the crew that averted a major disaster.

Mr Absolon said the boat was sailing in very light conditions with no forecasts of heavy weather when everything suddenly changed.

“Within 10 minutes they were in three to four metre seas,” he said.

“They dropped all the sails, lashed the mainsail to the deck and were in the process of lashing the boom to the deck when one rogue wave reared up.

“According to the skipper it was between eight to 10 metres and breaking.

“They rode vertically up on that but it rolled them over,” Mr Absolon said.

Ausmaid did a full 360 degree roll under water before surfacing – without the skipper.

“The skipper was washed overboard but he was still attached to the boat by his safety harness, and the other two crew members pulled him back on board.

“It\’s due solely to the sheer professionalism and experience of the crew that there hasn\’t been a serious injury – or worse”.

The skipper was winched to safety by a rescue helicopter and taken to Nambour Hospital with suspected back injuries, but Mr Absolon said he escaped with some severe bruising and was due to be released from hospital on Thursday night.

After he was rescued the weather worsened and the helicopters were grounded.

A coast guard boat was sent to find the yacht but by then Ausmaid had drifted several kilometres in the strong current.

When it was eventually located, it was much closer to shore, and being pushed in even further by the big seas.

Despite the swell running up to five metres, the coast guard got a line on the drifting ocean racer and started towing her in to Noosa.

Then there was a break in the weather and the two crewmen were also winched onto a helicopter and flown to safety.

Mr Absolon said the boat would be anchored at Laguna Bay off Noosa overnight and he would assess the damage after it was towed into Mooloolaba in the next day or two.

“The mast is in three pieces, there appears to be damage to the steering, but the hull seems to be intact,” he said.

Ausmaid was on her way from Hamilton Island to the Queensland Cruising Yacht Club to compete in the Brisbane to Gladstone race starting on Good Friday.

Madonna\’s adoption bid rejected

A Malawian court has rejected pop icon Madonna\’s request to adopt a three-year-old girl, on the grounds that it could open the door to human trafficking.

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“I must have to decline to grant the application to Madonna,” judge Esmie Chondo said in a ruling following a closed-door hearing.

Madonna\’s lawyer Alan Chinula did not speak to reporters as he left the High Court in Malawi\’s administrative capital Lilongwe. The star was not seen at the courthouse.

The judge said that if the courts began facilitating international adoption, their rulings could open the door to trafficking in children.

“By removing the very safeguard that is supposed to protect our children, the courts by their pronouncements could actually facilitate trafficking of children by some unscrupulous individuals who would take advantage of the weakness of the law of the land,” she said.

The judge also said that since the girl was admitted to one of Malawi\’s best orphanages, she was no longer facing the poverty she endured after her mother\’s death during childbirth, mitigating the case for adoption.

“It is evident that Chifundo James no longer is subject to the conditions of poverty at her place of birth, since her admission at Kondanani orphange,” the ruling said.

“I must confess that there\’s a gripping temptation to throw caution to the wind and grant an adoption in the hope that there will be a difference in the life of just one child.

“However, it should be borne in mind that inter-country adoptions may not (be) and are not the only solution,” it added.

The singer and actress arrived by private jet in the southern African state on Sunday accompanied by her 12-year-old daughter Lourdes and three-year-old David Banda, whom she adopted in 2006 after seeing him in a Malawian orphanage.

The following day she filed her application to adopt Chifundo “Mercy” James, sparking fresh controversy over foreign adoptions.

Rights groups, led by the Human Rights Consultative Committee, a coalition of 85 groups, have objected that the impoverished southern African state does not have a law on inter-country adoptions.

But Chinula, Madonna\’s lawyer, has insisted the law had been followed to the letter.

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