Pakistan orders Facebook ban be lifted

A Pakistani court on Monday ordered authorities to restore access to Facebook, nearly two weeks after closing the site in a row over blasphemy, but hundreds of web links remain restricted.

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A contest organised by an anonymous Facebook user calling on people to draw the Prophet Mohammed to promote “freedom of expression” sparked a major blacklash in the conservative Muslim country of 170 million.

Islam strictly prohibits the depiction of any prophet as blasphemous and even moderate Muslims were deeply offended by the drawings that appeared on a Facebook page in response to the call for an “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day”.

YouTube also banned

A group of Islamic lawyers on May 19 petitioned a court in the city of Lahore, which ordered Facebook blocked until May 31.

The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) then banned popular video sharing website YouTube for a week and restricted access to other websites, including Wikipedia, lashing out against “growing sacrilegious” content.

But Justice Ejaz Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court on Monday issued orders that access to Facebook should be restored, asking the government to develop a system to block access to “blasphemous” content online, as in Saudi Arabia.

‘Spark resentment’

“Restore Facebook. We don’t want to block access to information,” Chaudhry told the court.

“It is the government’s job to take care of such things, which spark resentment among the people and bring them on to the streets. They should take steps to block any blasphemous content on the Internet,” Chaudhry said.

The court adjourned until June 15 the petitions from the Islamic lawyers.

Mudassir Hussain, an official from the information technology ministry, told the court that all links to to “blasphemous” content on the Internet would remain blocked in Pakistan.

Court documents delayed

Facebook was still inaccessible in the country several hours after the court order and a spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan told AFP they were still awaiting the written orders.

“We are still waiting for the court orders. Pakistan Telecommunications Authority is yet to deliver this order and as soon as we receive the order to unblock Facebook, we will implement it quickly,” Wahaj-ul-Siraj told AFP.

Pakistan last week restored access to YouTube — which together with Facebook accounts for up to 25 percent of Internet traffic in Pakistan — but 1,200 web pages of “sacrilegious” content have been blocked.

Islamic activists and students have taken to the streets, shouting “Death to Facebook” and burned US flags, venting anger over “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day.”

2.5 million Pakistani users

But although the caricatures were universally condemned in Pakistan, the Internet-literate urban elite has criticised the blanket ban on websites.

Facebook expressed disappointment at being blocked and the offending page has disappeared from the social networking service.

There are an estimated 2.5 million Facebook users in Pakistan and demonstrations.

Pakistan also briefly banned YouTube in February 2008 in a similar protest against “blasphemous” cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

What makes an online star?

Since its inception in 2005, video-sharing hub YouTube has attracted tens of millions of users who watch and upload videos of a diversity unprecedented on one website.

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Music videos, movie trailers, how-to videos and big brand channels rate highly, but the medium has also given rise to a whole new kind of star which often surpasses their popularity.

Ordinary people taking advantage of increasingly cheaper and easier to use video editing equipment to document their lives and broadcast them frequently become YouTube ‘stars’, attracting millions of viewers.

The term ‘vlogger’ emerged to describe these online video personalities, based on the term blogger which describes their more text-oriented predecessors.

In January 2009, the disappearance of popular vlogger ‘Boxxybabee’ from YouTube and another video site reportedly crashed 4chan.org, which bills itself as the Web’s largest English image board.

As for what vloggers produce, the website’s slogan – ‘Broadcast Yourself’ – sums it up, with its user-generated content covering a range of subjects possibly more diverse than commercial material.

Australia’s most popular YouTuber, Natalie Tran, produces and broadcasts videos regularly on her stream ‘community channel’, on topics like her favourite toys as a child to nicknames she’d like to have.

At the time of writing, her channel had over 540,000 subscribers, far outstripping that of rock band AC/DC which has around 80,000 and is Australia’s second most popular.

Tran’s popularity is due in large part to the fact she solicits and responds to comments, according to YouTube marketing head Jason Chuck.

At the end of each of her videos she reviews selected comments posted about her previous one, including negative and racist remarks, often hitting back with witty or self-deprecating replies.

Despite her popularity, Tran says she is reluctant to cash in on the many advertising offers she receives, saying they may offend her viewers if they’re not relevant to her videos.

Media analyst Tim Burrowes said that in years of watching YouTube he has seen ‘surprisingly little’ product placement by popular entertainers.

Popular Sydney bloggers Louise Hawson and Kate Low both told SBS they would only advertise if ads were ‘unintrusive’ and ‘relevant’, perhaps indicating that selectivity around advertising is an internet ethic that has remained firm as its platforms evolve.

Kyrgyzstan rioters force TV station off air

The Kyrgyzstan government declared a nationwide state of emergency after clashes between security forces and opposition protesters which left at least twelve dead and scores injured.

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Opposition protestors on Wednesday stormed the Kyrgyz television centre, forcing all the channels off the air as riots sweep through the capital Bishkek.

Thousands of angry demonstrators surrounded the offices of strongman President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the capital Bishkek. The opposition accuses the government of rights violations, authoritarianism and economic mismanagement.

Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades in repeated efforts to disperse the protestors, but then retreated to the grounds of the president’s offices as demonstrators tried to ram the gates with an armoured vehicle.

Weapon fire, grenades

Prime Minister Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov announced the state of emergency as the troubles grew.

Explosions from stun grenades reverberated across the city and the crackle of automatic weapons fire filled the air as protestors in Bishkek’s main square gasped for breath in a fog of tear gas.

AFP reporters saw six bodies being carried out of the square near the presidential administration but could not immediately confirm whether they were dead. Russian news agencies reported at least two dead and more than 90 injured.

The death toll has since been revised up to twelve.

Amid appeals for calm from Russia, authorities in the ex-Soviet republic said three opposition leaders had been arrested for perpetrating “serious crimes”.

US expresses ‘deep concern’

The United States, which maintains an air base in Kyrgyzstan used in the NATO campaign in nearby Afghanistan also voiced “deep concern” at the unrest.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 protestors overturned cars and set them on fire as they marched from the opposition headquarters towards the presidential offices, witnesses said.

Protestors appeared to have seized several heavily armoured police vehicles and were standing atop them waving red Kyrgyz flags and the blue flag of the opposition movement.

The violence came a day after more than 1,000 opposition protesters burst through police lines and took control of government offices in the remote northwest town of Talas.

Witnesses said police in Talas fired warning shots into the air but the crowds overran security forces as the main United Opposition Movement vowed to stage nationwide protests.

In the central city of Naryn, hundreds of opposition protesters on Wednesday stormed the regional government headquarters after the local governor refused to negotiate, local witnesses told AFP.

‘Aggressive’ crowds

Adilet Ishenov, a human rights activist in Naryn, described the crowds at the government offices there as “aggressive”. His account of events was supported by a local state media journalist, contacted by AFP by phone.

Witnesses in the city of Tokmak, just outside the capital, said around 2,000 demonstrators had gathered there. Residents in three regions near the southern town of Osh also told of protests in the streets.

Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous country perched at the strategic junction between China, Russia and southwest Asia, is among the poorest countries to have emerged from the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Instability

It has been plagued by corruption and chronic instability and the troubles resemble widespread unrest that washed over the country in March 2005 and resulted in the ouster of President Askar Akayev.

Opposition leaders accuse the Bakiyev government of basic rights violations, authoritarianism and arbitrary economic management that has resulted in sharply higher prices for basic goods and services.

As the unrest unfolded, Kyrgyzstan’s prosecutor general Nurlan Tursunkulov announced police had arrested former prime minister and presidential candidate Almazbek Atambayev, ex-parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebayev and his aide Bolot Cherniazov.

Bakiyev’s government vowed on Tuesday to “severely” crush the opposition protests.

As the demonstrations appeared to gather momentum, Russia called for Kyrgyzstan not to use force against the protesters.

Kyrgyzstan strategically important

“We consistently stand for all disagreements — political, economic and social — to be solved within the framework of the democratic procedures that exist in Kyrgyzstan, without the use of force and harm to the Kyrgyz citizens,” deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin told the Interfax news agency.

The United States has an airbase at Manas that has become a pivotal staging ground for the battle against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

In a statement on Tuesday, the US embassy in Bishkek said it was “deeply concerned” about the unrest in Talas and urged “all parties to show respect for the rule of law and … to engage in talks to resolve differences”.

Obama to miss Guantanamo closure deadline

President Barack Obama has admitted for the first time that the US will miss the January 2010 deadline he set for closing the “war on terror” prison at Guantanamo Bay.

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“Guantanamo – we had a specific deadline that was missed,” Obama told NBC television, in one of a flurry of interviews he gave on his tour of Asia.

Obama vowed during his first week in office that he would close Guantanamo within a year, saying that the prison camp did not adhere to US standards on human and civil rights.

The White House has said it will continue to push for the facility’s closure, and is moving to repatriate some detainees who have been cleared for release while seeking countries willing to provide asylum to others.

The US leader also said Americans should not be “fearful” of the prospect that five men accused of masterminding the September 11, 2001 attacks are to go on trial in New York City, a notion that has sparked vocal domestic opposition.

Capital punishment for 9/11 plotter

“I think this notion that somehow we have to be fearful, that these terrorists possess some special powers that prevent us from presenting evidence against them, locking them up and exacting swift justice, I think that has been a fundamental mistake,” he told CNN.

The US leader told NBC television he did not anticipate serious negative fallout from the coming capital punishment trial in New York of professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

“I don’t think it would be offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him,” Obama told NBC, expressing “confidence” in the government’s case.

“What I’m absolutely clear about is that I have complete confidence in the American people and in our legal traditions, and the prosecutors, tough prosecutors, from New York who specialize in terrorism.”

Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that five men accused of plotting the attacks would be moved from Guantanamo Bay to New York for prosecution.

The five terror suspects will be tried at a courthouse just steps from Ground Zero, where thousands lost their lives after hijacked airliners were flown into the two World Trade Center towers.

Holder’s announcement, made while Obama visits Asia, prompted furious reactions from a number of victims’ families and outrage among Republican politician.

‘Mixed messages’ on terrorism

Republican Senator John McCain, Obama’s former election rival, warned the decision sent “a mixed message about America’s resolve in the fight against terrorism.

“We are at war, and we must bring terrorists to justice in a manner consistent with the horrific acts of war they have committed,” he said.

A CNN poll on Tuesday showed that almost two-thirds of Americans disagree with Obama’s decision.

Sixty-four per cent of those surveyed said Mohammed should be tried in a military court, while only 34 per cent agreed with Obama that the civilian judicial system was the best way forward.

Seventy-eight per cent of those polled said they thought he should be executed if found guilty, and a quarter of those said they did not normally support capital punishment.

But Obama said he believed the decision was the right one.

“You know, I said to the attorney general, ‘Make a decision based on the law,'” he said.

“I also have great confidence in our… courts, the courts that have tried hundreds of terrorist suspects who are imprisoned right now in the United States.”

Homeowners slugged with new rate hike

The Reserve Bank of Australia has announced a rate hike of 0.

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25 per cent, taking the cash rate from 3.75 to 4 per cent.

Treasurer Wayne Swan warned banks against raising their interest rates any further than the cash rate, saying they had no need whatsoever to do so.

Homeowners could expect to pay just under $50 more a month on an average-sized mortgage due to the raised cash rate, the AAP reported.

RBA governor Glenn Stevens said despite recent interest rate rises, lending rates were still below average.

“The board judges that with growth likely to be close to trend and inflation close to target over the coming year, it is appropriate for interest rates to be closer to average,” Stevens said in a statement on Tuesday.

The government’s economic stimulus had ensured the rate remained relatively low compared to that of other developed nations, and averted a recession, Swan told reporters after the RBA announcement.

He warned that the opposition may soon begin a ‘scare campaign’, but stressed that interest rates could not have remained static at 3.75 per cent indefinitely.

“Parts of the economy are still soft,” Swan told reporters after the RBA announcement, adding that the outlook for the resources industry was very good.

“The economy is beginning to grow again, and we are seeing signs of that,” he said.

He reiterated his disapproval of Westpac, which raised its interest rates by 0.45 per cent last December, 20 basis points above the RBA’s 0.25 per cent hike.

The decision came after a surprise announcement that the rate would remain static last month, but 40 per cent of economists surveyed expected it would now continue to increase, reaching 4.75 by December 2010.

In its statement, the RBA said a strong labour market and robust business expenditure were responsible for the hike.

“CPI inflation has risen somewhat recently as temporary factors that had been holding it to unusually low rates are now abating”, the statement said.

This was exactly as many economists had predicted before the announcement.

“A strong labour market and very robust business expenditure are all adding up to a very good dynamic for the domestic economy, which we don’t think the RBA will be comfortable in continuing to ignore,” Commonwealth Bank economist James McIntyre said on Monday.

Strong jobs and capital expenditure data in February had already prompted the central bank and many economists to revise up the chances of the first rate rise this calendar year.

The RBA raised the cash rate by 0.25 per cent each in October, November and December last year to the current rate of 3.75 per cent.

Mr McIntyre noted the 2010/11 capital expenditure figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) suggested a 20 per cent increase in business investment.

“Despite the fact that there was quite a stimulus boost to the December outcome through the commercial vehicles in particular and the equipment appreciation bonus … the expectations component of the capex was particularly strong,” Mr McIntyre said.

ABS figures showed new private capital expenditure rose 5.5 per cent, seasonally adjusted, in the December quarter, while the unemployment rate was a seasonally adjusted 5.3 per cent in January, down from an unrevised 5.5 per cent in December.

Total construction work rose 2.6 per cent in the December quarter in chain volume terms, seasonally adjusted.

Rocky Elsom to captain Wallabies

Rocky Elsom will replace Stirling Mortlock as Wallbies’ captain for the team’s October-November tour of Japan, the UK and Ireland.

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The 35-man squad will also contain seven uncapped players.

Elsom, 26, has played 44 Tests and returned home earlier this year after a successful off-season in Ireland where he helped the Leinster club win its maiden European Cup title.

Coach Robbie Deans has reportedly turned to Elsom to inject some passion into the Australian team, who took the wooden spoon at this year’s Tri-Nations series.

Deans said Elsom’s ability to lead from the front and his certainty of selection meant he was the best man for the job. “Rocky has the respect of his team-mates because of his approach and the total commitment he brings to the game,” he said. But Deans was keen to stress that Stirling will still be included in the touring party after returning from injury. “Stirling has done a good job as Australian skipper and he understands that this initiative has no meaning in terms of his playing future”, Deans said. The squad for Australia’s first attempt at a Grand Slam of the four British Home Unions in 25 years contains seven uncapped players. Western Force flanker Matt Hodgson and NSW Waratahs utility back Kurtley Beale had been involved within the Wallabies set-up this year, but the tour will represent the first Wallabies involvement for five other players. Queensland Reds scrum-half Richard Kingi, NSW Waratahs midfield back Rob Horne, ACT Brumbies blindside flanker Mitchell Chapman, NSW Waratahs lock Dave Dennis and ACT Brumbies prop Salesi Ma’afu have all been called up. The Wallabies leave for Tokyo next week before the final Bledisloe Cup Test against the All Blacks on October 24. England, Ireland and Scotland will take on the Australians over successive weekends in November.

Conservationists’ boat sinks after whaling clash

The Ady Gil, a high-tech speedboat used by anti-whaling activists, has sunk in the icy waters of the Southern Ocean, days after it was torn in half in a collision with whalers.

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Captain Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said the group had spent all day yeterday trying to salvage the $1.5m craft, but were unable to keep it afloat.

Captain Watson said Japanese whalers remained close by as the crew of the Bob Barker anti-whaling ship worked to remove all oil and fuel from the boat to avoid pollution.

But he said they ignored all of the activists’ calls for help.

“The Japanese harpoon vessels stayed close by but offered no assistance at any time,” he said.

Distress signals ‘ignored’

“They were responsible, they destroyed the vessel and the effort to try and keep it from polluting the ocean, I think, they should have offered some sort of assistance but they didn’t.

“They refused to acknowledge any distress signal.”

The Ady Gil’s six-person crew had to be rescued on Tuesday when the speedboat was ripped in two by the collision with the Shonan Maru. One suffered two broken ribs in the crash.

Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Environment Minister Peter Garrett have called for restraint, urging both sides to respect human life.

But Captain Watson insisted Sea Shepherd members would not restrain themselves from

protecting whales.

Investigation under way

“I think that the governments have shown so much restraint themselves over the years they’ve done absolutely nothing.”

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told ABC TV the Japanese should be forced to pick up the bill for the Ady Gil.

“Clearly we need the investigation to happen and obviously Deputy Prime Minister (Julia) Gillard has said there will be one,” she said.

“But the big problem is that the evidence that this investigation will draw on is simply going to be taken from the Japanese because Australia was not down there.

“The Australian government have simply allowed this incident to happen by virtue of being absent in the entire activities of what’s going on.”

North Korea threatens military action

The accusation came amid high tensions sparked by an investigation into the sinking of a South Korean warship near the disputed Yellow Sea border in March.

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The North’s military made its complaint in a message to the South’s armed forces, the Korean Central News Agency reported.

Over 10 days ending Monday, it said, dozens of the South’s naval ships had intruded into the North’s waters.

“This is a deliberate provocation aimed to spark off another military conflict in the West (Yellow) Sea of Korea and thus push to a war phase the present North-South relations that reached the lowest ebb,” KCNA quoted the message as saying.

If the intrusions continued, the North “will put into force practical military measures to defend its waters as it had already clarified and the South side will be held fully accountable for all the ensuing consequences.”

A defence ministry spokesman in Seoul denied any of the South’s ships had crossed the border known as the Northern Limit Line.

The North refuses to accept the line drawn by the South’s allies after the 1950-53 war and demands it run further to the south.

The area was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight last November that left a North Korean patrol boat in flames.

Investigators concluded last week that a North Korean torpedo ripped a South Korean warship in two in the area on March 26, and Seoul Monday announced several punitive measures.

The North has denied responsibility and has threatened “all-out war” if there is any attempt to punish it.

Australians welcome Balibo ‘confession’

Relatives of five journalists killed in the East Timor border town of Balibo welcomed a former soldier’s “milestone” statement that they were shot by invading Indonesian troops.

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Shirley Shackleton, the widow of Australian television reporter Greg Shackleton, said the retired Indonesian colonel’s comments shattered Jakarta’s “lies” that the five died in crossfire.

“It is a milestone. It’s another nail in the coffin of lies,” she told Fairfax radio.

Gatot Purwanto, a former special forces commando, told Tempo weekly magazine that the “Balibo Five” were killed when troops heard gunfire coming from the house where the foreigners were hiding.

The comments contradict Indonesia’s long-held position that the reporters — two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander — were killed in gunbattles as Indonesian forces entered the town.

“At that time, when our soldiers were relaxing and sitting around, suddenly there was gunfire from the house,” Purwanto was quoted as saying.

“Maybe somebody tried to rescue them. Our soldiers immediately opened fire at the house… all the journalists were then found dead,” he said.

Purwanto was reportedly speaking after viewing the film “Balibo”, directed by Robert Connolly and starring Anthony LaPaglia, which was banned in Indonesia last week.

Australian Paul Stewart, whose 21-year-old brother Tony was the youngest of the Balibo Five, said Purwanto had shown the Indonesia’s official explanation was “absolute nonsense”.

“It just goes to show banning the film was probably the worst thing the Indonesians could have done because it’s opened up the whole controversy again,” Stewart told ABC radio. “It’s going to bite them on the bum, big-time.”

Purwanto, who was a lieutenant disguised as a local food vendor at the time of the offensive, said Indonesian troops in Balibo were confused about what to do with the reporters.

There was concern that should they be allowed to tell their stories, it would be used as “evidence” of the invasion of the former Portuguese colony which Indonesia wanted to keep secret.

He said the soldiers had not been ordered to kill the journalists, adding that the bodies were burnt for two days to conceal their identities.

“I think he’s in deep strife,” Stewart said. “He’s probably written his own death warrant. The Indonesian generals have never wanted this to come out — I think this guy might disappear overnight.”

Australian police in September launched a war crimes investigation into the deaths after a coroner’s report recommended charges against a number of Indonesian military officers.

Former army chief Wiranto is among the senior officers who have been indicted by UN prosecutors over gross human rights abuses during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.

East Timor gained formal independence in 2002 after a referendum in 1999 voted to split from Indonesia. Its President Jose Ramos-Horta, a former rebel leader, has said at least one of the Balibo Five was “brutally tortured”.

Haiti PM begs for quake aid

Haiti’s Prime minister says the world must map out a long term strategy for the quake hit country, after meeting immediate needs for food, water and healthcare.

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Speaking in Montreal, Prime minister Jean Max Bellerive says Haiti faces a ‘colossal’ reconstruction effort.

“I just want to say that the people of Haiti will need to be helped to face this colossal work of reconstruction,” Bellerive told world officials including US Secretary of State Hillary

Clinton.

Long path ahead: Canadian PM

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned of a long path ahead to rebuild Haiti and urged the world to hash out a “coordinated” plan for the ill-starred country.

“It was not an exaggeration to say that at least 10 years of hard work awaits the world in Haiti,” Harper said.

Donor countries had agreed to hold a full conference on aid to Haiti at the UN headquarters in New York in March, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.

Nearly two weeks after the disaster, which killed around 150,000 people and left a million homeless, international powers meeting in Montreal heard that it would take at least a decade to rebuild the stricken Caribbean nation.

Scavengers killed

Haitian police shot two people in the head as scavengers plundered the debris in the ruined heart of Port-au-Prince, while thousands more people joined a mass exodus from squalid tent camps in the capital.

“The country is ravaged, I ask myself how it can be rebuilt after this catastrophe. The Haitian government is very corrupt,” said Gesnel Faustin, 29, living in a tent outside Haiti’s destroyed

presidential palace.

Haiti’s President Rene Preval, in a statement from Port-au-Prince, urged the world to urgently airlift a further 200,000 tents and 36 million ready-to-eat ration packs before the country’s rainy season starts in May.

Aid trickling in slowly

International rescuers led by 20,000 US troops have struggled to get enough aid in the capital and badly-hit towns near the epicentre of the 7.0-magnitude quake, increasing fears about post-quake security.

A group of Haitian police, trying to keep control among a desperate population after the quake which was also wrecked the city prison, opened fire on a warehouse in the capital where many looters were hiding out.

An AFP photographer inside the building said two men were shot in the head, one of whom received medical attention.

Two others were lying prone on the floor, one lifeless. The other was treated for a serious head wound.

Bulldozers used to clear corpses

Bulldozers cleared corpse-filled houses elsewhere in the city centre, as hopes dimmed of finding more miracle survivors in the rubble. The last, a man who survived for 11 days by drinking cola, was found on Saturday.

The UN said more than 235,000 Haitians have taken advantage of free buses to flee the filthy conditions in Port-au-Prince for more hygienic camps outside the capital.

Others have used private transport.

Health Minister Alex Larsen said tents were being readied for 400,000 quake victims at mini-villages outside the capital that will initially hold 20,000 people, and in the long term accommodate around one million.

Meanwhile, Nobel Peace Prize winning NGO Handicap International is moving fast to help Haiti deal with the futures of the many amputees.

“The first plane-load of short-term DynaCast prosthetics is already in the country,” said Wendy Batson, executive director of the US branch of Handicap International.

“We’re setting up a database and moving in the medical equipment we need so that as soon as stumps are healed enough after surgery, we can put on DynaCast prosthetics, which last four to six months,” she said.

Batson said the disabling injuries in Haiti “surpass anything we’ve ever seen anywhere else”.