Hurricane batters Bahamas

but largely spared the capital Nassau as it tore over the sprawling archipelago on its way toward the US east coast.

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There were no reports of deaths in the Bahamas from the category three hurricane, but some small settlements reported up to 90 percent of their homes damaged.

Irene is forecast to continue moving over the northwestern Bahamas before heading north toward the United States, where it has sent thousands of holiday-makers fleeing and threatens up to 65 million people from the Carolinas to New England.

It would be the strongest to strike the east coast in seven years.

NEW YORKERS BRACE THEMSELVES

New Yorkers prepared Thursday for potential evacuation from Hurricane Irene, which was on track to become the first hurricane in the Big Apple for a generation.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg told residents in low-lying neighborhoods to prepare immediately to escape what could be massive flooding when the storm whips through on Sunday.

“If you have a car and live in a low lying area, park it on a hill,” he told a televised press conference. “Move stuff upstairs.”

City services, including the transportation department, were already moving equipment out of potential flood areas and police were deploying boats around the city, Bloomberg said.

In the worst case, some “relatively small” areas in the city of more than eight million people will be asked — or required — to evacuate.

The city can “suggest people move. Another thing is the mayor apparently has the power to issue an executive order and force people to move,” Bloomberg said.

New York hasn’t faced a hurricane for a quarter of a century and its complex maze of underground trains, airports, busy road traffic and densely packed waterside communities could make it especially vulnerable.

Forecasters say the fate of New York, as well as other big cities in the hurricane’s sights, like Philadelphia, depends on the exact path that Irene takes.

If the system tracks a little more out to sea, that may save the cities a pasting, but if Irene’s eye homes in on the coastline, famous places like the New Jersey gambling resort of Atlantic City and the Big Apple itself could be in trouble.

Bloomberg reassured residents that for now there was no fear of damage to Manhattan’s skyscrapers, which already took a shaking this week from a rare earthquake.

The biggest potential danger will come from flooding and falling trees when the rain pours into ground already soaked by weeks of wet weather.

“Big buildings are designed to withstand enormous winds,” Bloomberg said. “There’s no reason for you to leave a big building.”

Rather, the mayor said, there is likely to be damage in “very old, rather low rise wooden buildings, brick buildings.”

“You’re going to see small bricks come down,” he said.

He said that shelters were being organized for people forced to leave their homes, but that the best solution was to find friends or relatives.

“If you live in one of these areas, spend a bit of time today on precautions and see if that long lost cousin is willing to put you up overnight,” he quipped.

Among the other unknowns for now is whether the weather will affect outdoor events in New York, including the US Open at Flushing Meadows, Bloomberg said.

Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center, said New York had not suffered a direct hit from a hurricane since Gloria in September 1985, which hit Long Island as a category one storm causing widespread damage.

“This is different, because it is slow-moving, meaning the impacts could be over a longer period and over a wider area,” Feltgen said.

“Cities that could be directly impacted include Washington DC, Baltimore, New York City and Boston. They face a very big threat.”

‘Little hope’ for Philippine quake missing

Two days after a 6.

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7 magnitude quake flattened homes, destroyed bridges and triggered deadly landslides in the central island of Negros, rescuers had yet to find anyone alive among at least 92 people reported missing.

“Rescue teams have so far not seen or heard any signs of life underneath,” Ernesto Reyes, mayor of the city of Guihulngan on Negros island where 29 people from a small mountain community were believed buried by a landslide, told AFP.

“None of our missing have so far been retrieved.”

At least 48 people were confirmed to have died in Negros, with another 92 missing, regional military commander Colonel Francisco Patrimonio said on Tuesday.

In Manila, the national government’s disaster office said on Wednesday its death toll was 22, with 71 missing, but acknowledged it had not yet been able to verify reports from authorities in Negros.

Reyes said the mountain community in Guihulngan was buried under about 10 metres (30 feet) of debris, with rescue efforts painfully slow because people had only picks, shovels and their bare hands to claw through the dirt.

Roads and bridges to Guihulngan, a coastal city of about 100,000 flanked by mountains, were badly damaged in the quake, meaning earth movers and supplies for survivors could not be quickly deployed to the area, he said.

“Our immediate concern now is how to serve the living — we don’t have enough food, there is no electricity and water,” Reyes said.

“We are appealing for help from everyone.”

The other missing people were reported in the nearby farming town of La Libertad, where a cluster of hillside homes were also crushed by a landslide, according to Negros Oriental province governor Roel Degamo.

“We are in a state of shock, and all we can do now for those still missing is to pray,” Degamo said.

He said soldiers and rescuers raced against time Tuesday to find a young woman who had sent a mobile phone text message to her relatives that she was pinned down, but alive.

The dramatic search, however, ended in tears hours later.

“She was found dead and still clutching her cell phone,” Degamo told AFP, declining to give further details about the victim in deference to her grieving family.

Civil Defense Office chief Benito Ramos said five military battalions, or about 2,000 troops, had been deployed to the devastated zones and were helping local rescue units.

“We are racing against time, and hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe some of them might still be alive,” he said.

However, he said the military had not yet been able to get heavy equipment into the landslide-devastated communities because of the damaged roads.

President Benigno Aquino was expected to fly into the disaster zone Wednesday to personally check on the search and rescue operations.

Two killed in Homs as troops tighten screws

Syrian security forces shot dead two people as they pressed their clampdown on dissidents in the central city of Homs, the capital and elsewhere, activists said, calling for mass protests.

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“There was heavy gunfire in the Al-Khalidiyeh, Baba Amr and Al-Nazhine quarters (of Homs), and two people were killed,” said Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for Human Rights.

Rami Abdel Rahman, of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said “shots were heard in Homs from dawn.

Most streets were deserted because of the military operations. Tanks were seen around the fortress and entrances to many neighbourhoods were closed.”

Saying security forces had “entered houses and made arrests,” he added that “the army has erected barricades in all the streets, communications have been cut in most neighbourhoods and the humanitarian situation is deplorable.”

Activists say pro-regime gunmen have killed at least 22 people in Homs since Monday, including seven mourners at a funeral.

Syria’s third-largest city, Homs has spearheaded demonstrations against Assad and his regime since protests erupted on March 15.

Fierce fighting rocked the city at the weekend, with activists reporting more than 30 people killed in clashes among Christians, Sunni Muslims and President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite community.

The army had already entered the city in May in a bid to stop rallies calling for the fall of the regime.

In Damascus, meanwhile, a wave of arrests was made in three quarters, with “searches by loyalist militants very violent,” the Observatory said.

And in the southern town of Sueida, security forces had surrounded the local offices of a union, where some 70 lawyers and militants were holed up, rights lawyer Cyrine Khoury told AFP in Nicosia.

Amid the continuing crackdown, activists called for more protests countrywide after the main weekly Muslim prayers on Friday, following a pattern that has become standard in many parts of the Arab world since popular uprisings toppled the veteran rulers of Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.

Using the Facebook site Syrian Revolution 2011, one of the motors of the revolt against Assad’s autocratic rule, the activists said Friday’s protests would be in support of the residents of Homs.

It appealed for a mass turnout to honour “the grandsons of Khalid and for national unity.”

Khalid ibn al-Walid, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed known for his courage and military prowess, is buried in Homs.

Last Friday, more than one million people turned out across Syria — mainly in the cities of Hama and Deir Ezzor — to protest against Assad’s regime and to demand the release of hundreds of detainees seized at earlier pro-democracy rallies.

Human rights activists said at least 28 civilians were killed, including 16 in the capital Damascus and a child, when security forces opened fire to quell last week’s protests.

The activists say the government’s crackdown has left more than 1,400 civilians dead since mid-March. Thousands more have been jailed.

On assignment: United Nations

SBS Senior Correspondent Brian Thomson is at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York to cover the Palestinian bid for statehood.

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VIDEO September 24 – Abbas applies for membership

On Friday the 23rd, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally handed over his application for full membership of the United Nations.

VIDEO September 24 – Stagnant mood in NY

There’s a depressing mood in New York, Brian reports, with Mahmoud Abbas and Benyamin Netanyahu disagreeing as ever.

VIDEO September 23- Rudd addresses UN

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has told the UN he fears for the future of the Middle East if a peace deal is not struck soon between Israel and the Palestinians.

AUDIO UPDATE: Brian reports that he’s spoken with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, who says Australia’s had an ‘encouraging’ attitude shift on Israeli-Arab relations.

He sums up Rudd’s comments at a press conference focussing on the Palestinian statehood bid.

Rudd surprises Palestinians at UN (mp3)

VIDEO September 22 – Palestinians on course for US clash

US President Barack Obama has urged his Palestinian counterpart to end his bid for full UN membership and instead seek upgraded status in the world body.

WEB-EXTRA VIDEO: September 22 – Interview with Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev

Palestinian statehood can only come as a product of Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel’s government spokesman said.

AUDIO: Brian updates SBS from the sidelines of the Palestinian statehood bid

Palestinian statehood: update (mp3)

VIDEO September 21 – Libyan leaders welcomed at UN

Interim government leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil has been welcomed at the UN, as US President Barack Obama used the occasion to warn that foreign military help will be needed for a while yet.

VIDEO September 20 – Abbas defiant over UN bid

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas says he won’t back down from his bid to seek statehood at the United Nations. He says he’s fed up with the endless delays in creating a two state solution in the Middle East.

WEB-EXTRA Sept 20 – Full interview with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malaki

VIDEO September 19 – Palestinian bid dominating UN talks

The Palestinian bid for statehood is dominating talks at the United Nations, as the General Assembly prepares to meet this week. Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad met Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak — for talks over the country’s bid for UN membership. But the Diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East is hoping to head off a potential showdown.

Follow Brian Thomson on Twitter @brianthomsonsbs

Follow Brian Thomson SBS on Facebook

Bloody clashes as Egypt tensions mount

Bloody clashes between protesters and anti-riot police that raged overnight in Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted in new scuffles on Wednesday amid mounting frustration with Egypt’s military rulers over the pace of reform.

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The health ministry said there were 1,036 injured in the clashes. Those included 120 who were hospitalised and most of whom were later released.

By Wednesday evening calm had been restored in central Cairo as protesters made their way to Tahrir Square– the epicentre of protests that toppled president Hosni Mubarak– in response to calls for an open-ended sit-in to push for reforms.

Dozens were arrested in connection with the clashes, including an American and a Briton, state media reported.

A military source said the two were not among 50 protesters who had been referred to the military prosecution earlier on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns called for an “open and inclusive” process in Egypt after talks with Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council.

Burns said that during talks with officials, he emphasised “American support for an open and inclusive political process in Egypt, the importance of following through on their commitment to lift the emergency law before the elections, the importance of protecting freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Hours after bloody overnight clashes, hundreds of angry protesters gathered in front of the interior ministry headquarters in central Cairo, burning tyres and pelting police with stones, a security official said.

Egyptian stocks fell on Wednesday as the clashes raised fears of widespread unrest, with main EGX-30 index closing down 2.03 percent at 5,283.81 points.

Witnesses said the overnight disturbances were some of the most violent in months in the square, which was the focal point of protests that forced veteran president Hosni Mubarak from power in February.

Police fired tear gas and protesters threw stones, amid scenes reminiscent of demonstrations during the uprising.

Protesters accused loyalists of the ousted leader of stirring up the violence after municipal councils they dominated across the country were dissolved by court order on Tuesday.

Activists have called for an open-ended sit-in in the square. The ruling military council warned of a plot to destabilise the country.

The April 6 Movement said a protest to push for democratic reforms that was scheduled for July 8 “will begin today and a sit-in will carry on until there are clear signs that the demands are met.”

But the army called on protesters not to give in to “schemes” aimed at sowing chaos.

“The regrettable incidents in Tahrir Square… are designed to destabilise the country and pit the revolutionaries against the police,” the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said.

The clashes “have no reason behind them except to destabilise Egypt’s security and stability in accordance with a carefully thought out and organised scheme,” the council said.

The interior ministry blamed families of victims killed in the uprising saying some of them stormed a theatre where a memorial service was being held for those who died, which led to clashes with security.

But activists said police beat the families who had been barred from joining the service prompting activists back to the streets.

Nearly 850 people were killed during the popular revolt that brought an end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Witnesses told AFP that buses unloaded young men armed with sticks and knives, and accused loyalists of the old regime of stirring up the trouble.

After protests erupted against Mubarak’s rule on January 25, the authorities deploying hired thugs in a bid to quell the unrest.

Tuesday’s clashes broke out just hours after a Cairo court ordered the dissolution of municipal councils across the country, all of which were dominated by members of Mubarak’s now disbanded National Democratic Party.

“I don’t think the timing of these clashes is a coincidence,” one witness told satellite channel ON TV.

“It came just after the dissolution of the local councils, a decision which I’m sure will make many people (from the old regime) very angry,” the witness in Tahrir Square said.

Protesters who first took to the streets to demand the overthrow of Mubarak, have begun to shift their anger to the ruling military council, accusing it of using Mubarak-era tactics to stifle dissent.