Australia PM pledges financial help for flood-hit Queensland

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard flies in a Black Hawk helicopter as she views flooding near the northern Australian city of Rockhampton, in this January 8, 2011 handout photograph. Gillard pledged financial support for Australia's flood-hit northeast on Saturday during a tour of the most heavily inundated parts of Queensland state, but warned the recovery would be slow. REUTERS/Australian Department of Defence/Handout

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SYDNEY, Jan 08 (KATAKAMI / Reuters) – Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged financial support for Australia’s flood-hit northeast on Saturday during a tour of the most heavily inundated parts of Queensland state, but warned the recovery would be slow.

In a series of visits by military helicopter, Gillard went to towns whose streets have been turned into waterways by a Christmas deluge that left an area the size of France and Germany combined under water.

The floods have swamped coal mines and hit agriculture hard, washed away roads and railways, killed four, and brought the country’s $50 billion coal export industry to a near standstill.

Some river levels have hit records and some are still rising with further rain forecast for this weekend. Months more wet weather is predicted, brought by the La Nina weather phenomenon.

“The scale of the floodwaters, the sheer size of this is best appreciated from the air and we are talking about huge areas, lots of water, a lot of it still very fast moving and so it’s going to be a long time back,” Gillard told a news conference in the flooded town of Rockhampton, 600 km (370 miles) north of the state capital Brisbane.

Asked how much it would cost Australia’s federal government, she said: “I’ve been very clear that we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Thousands have been evacuated from their homes, and in many towns locals and relief workers have taken to getting around the streets in boats. Authorities say around 200,000 people have been affected.

Gillard pledged funding to help improve flood protection for Rockhampton, a town of around 75,000 situated near the mouth of the Fitzroy River which peaked at 9.2 meters on Wednesday. On Saturday, it was still at 9.15 meters and predicted to stay above 8.5 meters until next Friday.

Rendering some highways flood-proof would be a priority, she said, after the state’s major rail and road links were seriously disrupted and in some cases washed away.

Earlier in the flooded town of St George, 450 km (270 miles) west of the state capital Brisbane, Gillard said A$4 million ($4 million) in emergency payments had already been paid and more was on the way to help “families who are doing it tough.”

Gillard pledged to work with state Premier Anna Bligh to “help Queensland through.” The Balonne River in St George was forecast to peak at near 13.4 meters over the weekend.

On Saturday a fourth person was confirmed dead in the latest flooding, a 55-year-old truck driver whose truck veered off a road while transporting water to the inundated town of Condamine. The scale of the disaster has prompted fears of disease in the largely tropical areas affected, and in some areas drinking water has been in short supply.

Flood warnings were still current on Saturday for more than 10 rivers in Queensland. Up to 200 mm of rain was forecast in some areas over the weekend, but forecasters said the worst would likely spare the areas most heavily affected by the floods.

The man tasked with overseeing the recovery, Major General Mick Slater, has warned it is likely to take years and said the damage cannot be properly assessed until the waters recede. While traveling with Gillard on Saturday, he said the crisis was “not over yet.”   (*)

Photostream : Russian President Medvedev and First Lady Svetlana visits an orphanage in Ivanovo near Moscow


Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev (R) delivers a speech, while First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva listens, during a Christmas concert at an orphanage in the city of Ivanovo, some 300 km (186 miles) northeast of Moscow, January 7, 2011. The board in the background reads: “Congratulations with New Year and Christmas”. As reported by RIA NOVOSTI, Medvedev has pledged to allocate about $1 million for cosmetic repairs of an orphanage in central Russia. REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva (C) attend a Christmas concert as they visit an orphanage in the city of Ivanovo, some 300 km (186 miles) northeast of Moscow, January 7, 2011. REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R, front) and First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva (L, front) attend a Christmas concert as they visit an orphanage in the city of Ivanovo, some 300 km (186 miles) north-east of Moscow, January 7, 2011. REUTERS/Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) claps during a visit to an orphanage in Ivanovo, on January 7, 2011, the day on which Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas. (Photo byd DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) and his wife Sveltana (R) visit a children's orphanage in Ivanovo, on January 7, 2011, the day on which Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas. (Photo by DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Photostream : French President Nicolas Sarkozy and First Lady Carla Bruni visits Martinique and Guadeloupe

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy are welcomed by officials upon their arrival at Lamentin airport on January 7 2011 in Fort-de-France, on the French eastern Caribbean Sea island of La Martinique, where Sarkozy is to present his New Year wishes to the French citizens of the overseas territories. (Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy arrive in Fort-de-France, the capital of France’s Caribbean overseas department of Martinique, January 7, 2011 to start a three-day working visit to the region. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

A member of the Elysee Palace press office (R) helps France’s First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy as she picks up a telephone lost by a journalist as she and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy arrive at Fort-de-France airport on Martinique island January 7, 2011. Sarkozy and his wife travel to Martinique and Guadeloupe to deliver the New Year’s address to French overseas territories ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on January 10. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy are presented flowers as they arrive in Fort-de-France, the capital of France’s Caribbean overseas department of Martinique, January 7, 2011 to start a three-day working visit to the region. Sarkozy and his wife travel to Martinique and Guadeloupe to deliver the New Year’s address to French overseas territories ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on January 10. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Photostream : Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad meets EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad (R) shows EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton an area disputed with Israel on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 6, 2011. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton, left, and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, right, gesture towards Ofer prison, an Israeli detention facility for Palestinians, as they tour the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011. Ashton is on an official visit to the region. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad (R) shows EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton an area disputed with Israel on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 6, 2011. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad (R) shows EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton an area disputed with Israel on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 6, 2011. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

French President Nicolas Sarkozy Deplores Attack Against Egypt Church

French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers his New Year address to religious representatives at the Elysee Palace on January 7, 2011 in Paris. (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

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PARIS, Jan 07 (KATAKAMI / VOA) —French President Nicolas Sarkozy made his annual New Year’s address to religious leaders on Friday. In it, he described recent violence against Christians as a “perverse plan of religious cleansing in the Middle East”.

He said religious and cultural diversity cannot disappear from the region.

A series of violent attacks have hit Christians living in Egypt and Iraq in recent months.

In Iraq last October dozens of people were killed during a siege of a Christian church in Baghdad – that was followed by more attacks in December.

And in Egypt on New Year’s Day a bomb planted outside a church killed more than 20 people. It was the deadliest attack against Christians in Egypt for decades.

‘Decisive shift’

Erica Hunter, a Lecturer in Eastern Christianity at Britain’s School of Oriental and African Studies,says attacks against Christians in the Middle East have taken a decisive shift in recent months.

“What is new in Iraq and in Egypt is the actual targeting of Christians in churches. Previously there had been many kidnappings, difficulties, murders but we have not seen until October the 31 where worshipers are actually attacked within the churches,” Hunter said.

The aim, she says, is to destroy morale within the Christian community. Coptic Christians in Egypt mark Christmas Day on January 7 – later than most Christians around the world.

But rather than celebrating on Friday, says Hunter, Christians were mourning the loss of those killed.

Hunter says the increase in violence stems from fundamentalist groups.

“There does seem to be an escalation in activities by such groups as Al Qaeda and I’m sure they are not the only group,” she said. “There does seem to have been a shifting attitude from within the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups. ”

Religious persecution from certain groups

Fiona McCallum from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is a specialist on the political role of Christian communities in the Middle East.

She says attacks against Christians do not reflect widespread attitudes in the Middle East. She says to describe the violence, as Mr. Sarkozy has done, as a plan of “religious cleansing” suggests a broad-based persecution that does not exist.

“I think the word persecution has connotations which are perhaps wider than we would want to say at the moment,” said McCallum. “Persecution suggests that it is being supported by states, which I would say is not the case in the Middle East at the moment. The acts that can be seen as providing persecution are more linked to particular groups which are not supported by the wider community.”

But she says attacks are likely to force many Christians to leave their home country.

McCallum says in Iraq Christians have already been fleeing the country for many years. The Christian population which once stood at 1.5 million people is now estimated at less than 850,000. She says Christians in Egypt could go the same way.

“It’s important to also note that emigration takes place from the region from both Christians and Muslims as well. However, I do think these attacks leave the Christians in the entire region feeling a lot more vulnerable that they are being targeted solely because of their religious identity,” McCallum said.

Last month the United Nations said around 6,000 people had fled to Iraq’s Northern Kurdish region or to other countries in the region since the attack in Baghdad in October.  (*)

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