- Thai police allow protesters through barricades at government HQ
- Hong Kong confirms first human case of H7N9 bird flu
- Afghanistan, N.Korea, Somalia top world graft index
BANGKOK: Thai police allowed opposition protesters through barricades outside the government and metropolitan police headquarters Tuesday, sharply easing tensions after two days of violent clashes aimed at ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The reason for the sudden thaw in hostilities was not immediately clear but it came after police said they would no longer use force to defend their Bangkok headquarters from thousands of anti-government protesters who marched on the high-profile target.
Demonstrators were allowed to approach the perimeter fence of Government House with no resistance from security forces. Dozens of protesters also streamed into the police building where they were seen shaking hands with officers, AFP reporters saw.
Metropolitan Police chief Lieutenant General Kamronwit Thoopkrajang said his officers would no longer try to fend off protesters at the police base.
"The Metropolitan Police Headquarters belongs to the public," he told AFP.
"There will be no use of tear gas today," he said. "Last night a police officer was injured by a gunshot so if we resist there will be more injuries, and we are all Thais," he said.
The protests, aimed at unseating the elected government and replacing it with a "people's council", are the latest bout of unrest in the kingdom since royalist generals ousted Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup seven years ago.
The demonstrators seized upon the developments to claim they had won the battle.
"Victory is in the hands of the people's army. We are able to seize all key government facilities," one of the protest leaders, Issara Somchai, said to supporters.
On Monday police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to fend off rock-throwing demonstrators for a second day, after weekend unrest that left several dead and scores wounded.
It is the kingdom's worst political violence since a deadly military crackdown on pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" rallies in 2010, although the recent clashes have been largely confined to certain parts of the city, away from main tourist districts.
Thailand's long-running political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based elite backed by the military and the palace against rural and working class voters loyal to Thaksin, a billionaire businessman turned premier.
The latest battle played out on the streets of Bangkok has pitted a shrinking band of hardcore protesters against pro-Thaksin political forces who have won every election in more than a decade, most recently in 2011 under Yingluck.
In her first televised address since the weeks-long protests descended into violence at the weekend, Yingluck said Monday that the protest leader's demands were unconstitutional.
The embattled premier said she would have considered resigning or calling an election if her opponents had not already ruled out these moves as insufficient. She insisted the government was open to "every option" to restore peace.
The violence has caused growing international alarm, with the United States voicing concern about the loss of life.
"Peaceful protest and freedom of expression are important aspects of democracy," a State Department spokeswoman said. "Violence and seizure of public or private property, however, are not acceptable means of resolving political differences."
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was worried about the escalating violence, calling on all parties to exercise restraint.
Clashes had continued through the night as police fought to defend barriers at the prime minister's offices and police headquarters.
Police said two of their trucks were set ablaze near Government House. Police helicopters dropped leaflets at the two rally bases giving notice of an arrest warrant issued for protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban for insurrection, urging demonstrators to leave.
The rallies were triggered by an amnesty bill, since abandoned by the ruling party, which opponents feared would have allowed Thaksin to return to his home country, which he fled in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction he contends is politically motivated.
The demonstrators are a mix of royalists, Thaksin opponents, students and supporters of the opposition Democrats, who have not won an election in 20 years.
While the numbers have fallen sharply since an estimated 180,000 people joined an opposition rally on November 24, protesters have besieged high-profile targets - including several key ministries - in what some observers believe is an attempt to provoke a military coup.
Thailand has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, most recently with Thaksin's overthrow in 2006. But the military has appeared reluctant to intervene in the current standoff.
"I will let this problem be solved by politics. The military will observe from a distance," army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha told reporters Tuesday. -AFP
US regrets loss of life in Thai protests
HONG KONG: Hong Kong on Monday confirmed its first human case of the deadly H7N9 bird flu, according to a report, in the latest sign of the virus spreading beyond mainland China.
A 36-year-old Indonesian domestic helper with a history of travelling to the mainland city of Shenzhen and coming into contact with live poultry has been infected and is in critical condition, Health Secretary Ko Wing-man said, according to the broadcaster RTHK.
The patient was admitted to hospital on November 27 after developing a cough and shortness of breath. She was transferred to intensive care at the city's Queen Mary Hospital last Friday, the report added.
In all, 137 human cases of H7N9 have been reported in mainland China since February with 45 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
In April Taiwan reported its first case, a 53-year-old man who had been working in eastern China.
The man was eventually discharged but the case prompted the island's authorities to begin research into a vaccine they hope to roll out by late 2014.
Secretary Ko said Hong Kong had suspended the import of live poultry from Shenzhen and escalated the grade of its flu contingency plan to "serious", according to the RTHK report.
People who had come into close contact with the patient recently have also been admitted to another hospital for isolation and testing.
In August, Chinese scientists reported the first likely case of direct person-to-person transmission of H7N9, but stressed that the virus, believed to jump from birds to people, was still inadept at spreading among humans.
The infection comes 10 years after the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak swept through Hong Kong, killing 299 people and infecting around 1,800.
Avian flu viruses have been around for a very long time in wild birds. They do not generally cause disease in humans, though in rare cases they mutate and jump species.
A report by researchers published in The Lancet medical journal in October said closing live poultry markets, though a huge economic setback, is a sure-fire way of curbing H7N9.
BERLIN: Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia are seen as the world's most corrupt countries while Denmark and New Zealand are nearly squeaky-clean, graft watchdog Transparency International said in a survey Tuesday.
Worldwide, almost 70 percent of nations are thought to have a "serious problem" with public servants on the take, and none of the 177 countries surveyed this year got a perfect score, said the Berlin-based non-profit group.
Transparency International's annual list is the most widely used indicator of sleaze in political parties, police, justice systems and civil services, a scourge which undermines development and the fight against poverty.
"Corruption hurts the poor most," lead researcher Finn Heinrich told AFP.
"That's what you see when you look at the countries at the bottom. Within those countries, it's also poor people who get hurt the most. These countries will never get out of the poverty trap if they don't tackle corruption."
Among countries that have slipped the most on the group's 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index are war-torn Syria as well as Libya and Mali, which have also faced major military conflict in recent years.
"Corruption is very much linked to countries that fall apart, as you see in Libya, Syria, two of the countries that deteriorated the most," said Heinrich.
"If you look at the bottom of the list, we also have Somalia there. These are not countries where the government is functioning effectively, and people have to take all means in order to get by, to get services, to get food, to survive."
Heinrich said Afghanistan, where most NATO-led Western forces are pulling out next year after a more than decade long deployment, is "a sobering story. We have not seen tangible improvements".
"The West has not only invested in security but also in trying to establish the rule of law. But there have been surveys in the last couple of years showing the share of people paying bribes is still one of the highest in the world."
Also at the bottom of the list is North Korea, "an absolutely closed totalitarian society", said Heinrich, where defectors report that famine is worsening corruption "because you have to know someone in the party who is corrupt in order to even survive".
Among the "most improved" countries, although from a low base, was Myanmar, where a former military junta has opened the door to the democratic process and, facing an investment boom, has formally committed to transparency and accountability rules.
"That's the only way countries can avoid the 'resource curse', where the resources are only available to a very small elite," said Heinrich. "Nigeria and other oil-rich countries are obviously very good examples."
Huguette Labelle, chair of Transparency, said "all countries still face the threat of corruption at all levels of government, from the issuing of local permits to the enforcement of laws and regulations".
The group says that because corruption is illegal and secretive, it cannot be meaningfully measured.
Instead Transparency collates expert views on the problem from bodies such as the World Bank, African Development Bank, Economist Intelligence Unit, Bertelsmann Foundation, Freedom House and other groups.
It then ranks countries on a scale of 0-100, where 0 means a country's public sector is considered highly corrupt and 100 means its is regarded as very clean.
The latest survey "paints a worrying picture", said Transparency. "While a handful perform well, not one single country gets a perfect score. More than two-thirds score less than 50."
The bottom-ranked countries, scoring 10 to 19, included Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
At the top, between 80 and 89, aside from Denmark and New Zealand, were Luxembourg, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Singapore, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
"The top performers clearly reveal how transparency supports accountability and can stop corruption," said Labelle.
"Still, the better performers face issues like state capture, campaign finance and the oversight of big public contracts which remain major corruption risks." -AFP
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