Oil prices rally to nine-month highs

Oil prices leapt to their highest level in nearly nine months on Thursday, on rising concerns that turmoil in Iraq will disrupt Middle East supplies.

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US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for delivery in July jumped $2.13 compared with Wednesday’s close to $106.53 a barrel, the highest level since September 18, 2013.

European benchmark Brent crude for July delivery rallied $3.07 to $113.02 a barrel on London’s Intercontinental Exchange.

Jihadists pushed toward Baghdad on Thursday after capturing a town to the north, as US President Barack Obama said his national security team “is looking at all the options.”

With the militants approaching the capital, forces from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region took control of the disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it from jihadist attack, officials said.

“Obviously the market is concerned that there could a potential for shutoff of production,” said Andy Lebow, trader and braker at Jefferies Bache.

Lebow said the oil market is already dealing with a major outage to production in Libya.

“No question that should we lose any Iraqi production, that would be serious,” he said.

Iraq boasts the fifth-largest proven crude oil reserves in the world and is the second-largest crude producer in the OPEC cartel after Saudi Arabia, pumping an average of about 3.5 million barrels a day.

On Wednesday, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, meeting in Vienna, maintained its crude output ceiling where it has been since late 2011, and Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi expressed satisfaction with a relatively stable oil market.

A note by Eurasia Group said in spite of Iraq’s upheaval, risks in the oil market are “primarily to the downside,” given weak Chinese demand for oil products and signs of a political realignment under way in Libya, which could allow the North African country to return to substantial volumes of crude exports.

The chance the Iraqi strife could significantly “undermine operations within the relatively small geographic footprint where the bulk of Iraq’s current oil production takes place” in southern Iraq is “minimal,” Eurasia Group said.

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NATO says alliance has no role in Iraq

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen says he sees no role for the alliance in Iraq, where Islamic militants are closing in on Baghdad after capturing swathes of territory in the country.

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The NATO secretary general demanded the immediate release of Turkish citizens, snatched by Islamic militants who have overrun the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

“Let me stress that I do not see a role for NATO in Iraq, but of course we follow the situation closely and we urge all parties involved to stop the violence,” Rasmussen told a news conference in Madrid on Thursday, alongside Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo.

“We urge the hostage-takers to release the hostages immediately,” he said, a day after militants seized 49 Turkish citizens from the consulate in Mosul.

“Nothing can justify this criminal act.”

Militants are approaching Baghdad after overrunning Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in a spectacular military operation.

Turkey says the jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has taken control of swathes of Iraq, kidnapped 49 of its citizens at the Mosul consulate and took them to another part of the city.

Another 31 Turkish truck drivers, kidnapped by ISIL fighters on Tuesday, were being held at a power station in Mosul, the foreign ministry told AFP.

“I strongly condemn the violence we have seen in Iraq. I strongly condemn the hostage taking,” said the head of the 28-nation NATO.

“Our thoughts are with the hostages and their families and loved ones.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also called for the hostages’ release, saying those responsible for “terrorist acts” must be held to account.

Turkey has pledged to retaliate if any of its citizens are harmed.

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Militants ‘on the run’: Iraqi minister

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says jihadists who have stormed two cities were “on the run” after the security forces fought back.

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Fighters from the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were, according to some accounts on Thursday, advancing on Baghdad after over-running the cities of Mosul and Tikrit in recent days.

Zebari, who was attending a conference in London, admitted there had been “a serious development in the city of Mosul and Tikrit”.

“But the information I have today from my capital… the situation (has) started to be reversed and the Iraqi security forces have managed to reorganise and to push them back to prevent them from taking some other important strategic installations further south of Tikrit,” he told Sky News television.

“Now I think they are on the run, the (ISIL) people and al-Qaeda and the armed groups.”

ISIL has spearheaded a lightning offensive, overrunning the northern province of Nineveh and significant parts of Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces, and also moving into northern Diyala.

Zebari admitted the offensive was “a very, very serious disruption” for Iraq, particularly for the US-trained security forces.

“It is a setback definitely for the Iraqi security forces, who collapsed in the largest city and abandoned their weapons and equipment,” he said.

“Now we are trying to overcome this, to flush these terrorists out of our major cities.”

He said there were signs the jihadists were already withdrawing from Mosul because the security forces were fighting back.

“There are indications they are withdrawing from Mosul because of the counter-offensive or attack and there is a better coordination between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government who are also pushing in the north towards certain strategic areas,” he said.

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Nigerian girls’ kidnap ‘a heinous example’

Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls is a “heinous example of the scourge of sexual violence”, Nigeria and its neighbours have said as they reaffirmed their commitment to defeating the militant group.

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Representatives from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin gathered in London to discuss progress on an action plan agreed last month in Paris, when their countries pledged to “declare war” on the Islamic insurgency.

They met on the sidelines of a global summit on combating sexual violence in conflict, co-hosted by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, which they said was directly related to the schoolgirls’ plight.

“The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls was a heinous example of the scourge of sexual violence, which we are determined to eliminate around the world,” they said in a communique.

They were joined by representatives of the European Union, United Nations, African Union, France, Canada, Britain and the United States, which are providing support.

In a video released after the kidnapping Boko Haram said it would sell the girls as slaves.

Hague pledged further British training and tactical assistance for the Nigeria armed forces in their search for the girls, although his office would not give details.

The minister himself refused to give a “running commentary” on the search, but said a “great deal of work continues with multi-national support”.

He also announced a fresh initiative with the United States to boost by one million the number of children going to school in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is based.

“We want to ensure that Boko Haram does not succeed in its twisted mission to deny education to girls,” Hague said.

The minister said that defeating the group would be “a long and difficult task”.

“But the atrocities committed against innocent and vulnerable communities are too important to ignore,” he said.

“And all the countries gathered here today have shown that we are certainly not going to ignore them and our resolve to defeat them has been further increased.”

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Central Africa fighting kills 22

Fighting between mainly Muslim ex-rebels and the largely Christian “anti-balaka” militia has killed at least 22 people in eastern Central African Republic, security officials say.

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“At least 22 people have been killed and more than 30 were wounded in clashes that broke out last Monday and Tuesday” in a village outside of the central town of Bambari, a source in the local gendarmerie told AFP on Thursday, asking not to be named.

He said the fighting was between former rebels of the Seleka alliance backed by armed ethnic Fulani and the mainly Christian militia.

“We have also counted 127 homes burned by the ex-Seleka and armed Fulani. Other people were kidnapped and taken to Bambari by the latter, who on Tuesday publicly executed two men,” the source added.

The French defence ministry, which has deployed 2000 peacekeeping troops in the strife-torn and deeply poor former colony, also reported “fighting” between the ex-Seleka and anti-balaka vigilantes near Bambari on June 6 and 10.

“In particular, we recovered the bodies of five Christians and two Muslims,” army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said during a weekly press briefing.

The Seleka seized power in Bangui in a successful coup in March 2013, ousting president Francois Bozize and installing Michel Djotodia as head of state until he resigned last January, giving way to a transitional regime.

Many Seleka forces went rogue and killed, raped and looted civilians, leading to a backlash with the emergence of anti-balaka (anti-machete) forces, who are equally accused of widespread atrocities, primarily targeting the Muslim minority.

The transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba Panza has denounced the establishment of this Seleka base. Her stance was broadly backed by the international community.

In addition to the French peacekeepers, more than 5000 soldiers in a multinational force have been deployed in the CAR.

The UN Security Council voted in April to send 12,000 peacekeepers to the troubled country, where the latest conflict has displaced about a quarter of the population of some 4.5 million.

UN troops are expected to start deploying in September.

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Sao Paulo police crack down on protest

Police in Sao Paulo fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets Thursday to break up an anti-World Cup protest on the morning the Brazilian mega-city hosts the tournament’s opening match.

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Dozens of protesters had gathered near a Sao Paulo subway station with a red banner reading “If we have no rights, there won’t be a Cup.” They said they planned to march as close as possible to Corinthians Arena, the city’s World Cup stadium.

But police carrying anti-riot shields forcefully broke them up before they could start, firing stun grenades and gas.

One officer fired rubber bullets at a shirtless protester who stood in the middle of the street refusing to disperse. Police then detained the man.

The demonstrators had been chanting “There won’t be a Cup,” the rallying cry of the protest movement against the more than $11 billion in government spending laid out for the tournament, which opponents say should have been used for education, health, housing and transport instead.

Gregory Leao, a 27-year-old law student who participated in the protest, said the demonstrators wanted to invade the stadium.

“The objective is to put an end to the World Cup. We realise we’re not going to achieve it, but we believe Brazilians should rise up,” he told AFP.

“Brazilians love football but they don’t need this (World Cup) right now.”

The sprawling South American country was visibly divided Thursday between excited fans decked out in green and yellow in fervent support of the national team and those fearful of anti-World Cup protests or determined to join them.

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Dellacqua downs Stosur in Birmingham

Casey Dellacqua has upstaged higher-ranked compatriot Samantha Stosur to reach the quarter-finals of the WTA event in Birmingham.

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Dellacqua contributed to Stosur’s woes on grass, fighting back from a set down to send the tournament’s second seed packing 2-6 6-2 6-2 on Thursday.

World No.43 Dellacqua will next face Japanese veteran Kamiko Date-Krumm, who thrashed Slovakian seventh seed Daniela Hantuchova 6-4 6-0.

The 29-year-old West Australian was ranked outside the world’s top 200 last September as she struggled in her comeback from injuries.

However she return to the top 50 for the first time since 2008 last month and is inching back towards her career high of 39.

Dellacqua and Australia’s top-ranked player Stosur had not played each other for more than a decade, but Dellacqua had won both of their previous encounters.

World No.17 Stosur, who lost to eventual champion Maria Sharapova in the last 16 at last month’s French Open, was dominant in the first set but was blasted off the court as Dellacqua stepped up her aggression.

Stosur will now turn her attention to next week’s event in Eastbourne, a final warm-up for Wimbledon.

Grass is Stosur’s least-favoured surface and she equalled her best effort by reaching the third round of the grass court grand slam last year.

Elsewhere top seeded Ana Ivanovic of Serbia enjoyed an easy day, loosing just two games against American Lauren Davis to win 6-1 6-1.

Third seed Sloane Stephens had a much tougher time against fellow American Alison Riske but finished strongly to win 7-6 (7-4) 2-6 6-1.

It was a similar story for fourth seed Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year, who came from a break down in the second set to defeat Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak 1-6 7-5 6-4.

The world number 25 now faces Barbora Zahlavova Stycova of the Czech Republic for a place in the last four.

Finally, fellow Czech Klara Koukalova reached the quarter-finals along with ninth seed Zhang Shuai of China.

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Halatau adding utility value to Tigers

Initially touted as a key off-season signing, Dene Halatau will resume his Wests Tigers career on Friday battling to be a part of the club’s charge up the NRL ladder.

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After a poor 2013 for the Tigers, Halatau’s utility value and 197 games of NRL experience were seen as a vital addition to the joint venture.

But an ankle injury suffered in a trial win over Penrith has sidelined the former Canterbury player for half the season as the Tigers emerged as unlikely finals contenders.

In that time Blake Austin has emerged as an impressive utility option and Curtis Sironen’s recent return from a foot injury has also added further depth to Wests’ back-row.

After struggling with injuries early in the season, the Tigers have virtually a fully fit squad and Halatau has been named on an extended bench for the round 14 match with South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Friday.

With NSW State of Origin stars Robbie Farah and Aaron Woods absent, Halatau’s versatility is of even greater importance, ahead of what could be his first game for the Tigers since 2009.

“Dene has that ability to play any position for us,” Potter said

“He is a solid NRL player and he will add that little bit of experience and even though he is not as big as the Burgess boys he has definitely got some attributes, that will trouble the opposition.

“He can play hooker, lock, back-row, centre at a pinch so he is going to be a guy that might play a few positions on the night.

“He is quite capable of that and we have been slotting him in at training to accommodate that.

“He has got good footwork, he has got good vision, he will do a good job where ever he is put.”

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Amazon launches music streaming service

Amazon has begun offering a streaming music service, with a catalogue of over one million songs.

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The US online giant announced on Thursday Prime Music will be offered free and without advertising for customers of Amazon Prime – a subscription service that includes free delivery, access to online movies and books and other advantages.

The Amazon music catalogue is far smaller than rival offerings from services like Spotify, which has 20 million songs, but appears to aim for a niche of customers as a new benefit to the Amazon Prime service.

“With Prime Music, Prime members have unlimited, ad-free access to over a million songs at no additional cost to their membership,” Amazon said in a statement.

“Prime Music includes tens of thousands of albums from top artists like Daft Punk, Pink, Bruno Mars, Blake Shelton, The Lumineers, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. And we’re just getting started – more music is being added all the time.”

Amazon has been rumoured for months to have been working on a music service, but reports said talks had been bogged down over royalties and licensing fees.

The New York Times said Sony and Warner Music had agreed to terms with Amazon, but that no deal had been reached with the other major music publisher, Universal Music Group, which carries artists such as Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

The music is an added bonus for customers of Amazon Prime, the annual fee for which was hiked to $US99 ($A107) from $US79 ($A85) earlier this year.

“Prime Music is the latest great addition for Prime members and we think they’re going to love it,” Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said in a statement.

The move comes after Apple agreed to pay $US3 billion for Beats Music to boost its streaming service and compete with the likes of Spotify and Pandora.

The online news site TechCrunch said nine of the top 10 songs on the Billboard 100 were not available for streaming on Amazon.

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New India murder sparks resignation calls

Indian police say they are investigating a spate of rapes and hangings in a troubled northern region, as the national women’s rights body called for the state government to resign over the crisis.

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India has sought to improve its reputation over violence against women, but public outrage was reignited by the deaths last month of two girls, aged 12 and 14, who were gang-raped and lynched in their impoverished village in Uttar Pradesh.

On Thursday, a woman said she had been gang-raped by four officers at a police station in the state, and police said they were also investigating the death of a 19-year-old found, like the two girls, hanging from a tree.

“The body was strung up using the girl’s dupatta (long scarf),” senior police superintendent Ashutosh Kumar said, adding the incident occurred in a village in Moradabad district.

“The FIR (first information report) was lodged by the girl’s brother against unidentified persons. He has alleged the girl was murdered,” Kumar told AFP.

The case is the latest in a series of attacks in Uttar Pradesh whose chief minister Akhilesh Yadav is under mounting political pressure to resign for his handling of law and order.

Mamatha Sharma, head of the state-run National Commission for Women, urged Yadav to resign, calling his government’s failure to protect women “shameful”.

“They (the government) not only fails in protecting their women but they don’t even have the police in their control,” Sharma told NDTV.

But Yadav, speaking on a visit to New Delhi, insisted that the situation was no worse than elsewhere in the country.

“Law and order is an important issue for any state. The government is working to maintain law and order,” he said.

“In UP, the environment is good and the law and order situation is better than several other states.”

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