Afghans are heading to the polls to vote in a second-round presidential election under the threat of Taliban attack, as US-led combat troops wind down a 13-year war that has failed to defeat the insurgents.

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The run-off election will decide whether former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani leads the country into a new era with declining international military and civilian assistance.

President Hamid Karzai is due to step down after ruling the country since 2001, when a US-led offensive ousted the austere Taliban regime for sheltering al-Qaeda militants behind the 9/11 attacks.

Afghan officials and international allies are hoping for a repeat of the successful first-round vote in April, when the insurgents failed to launch a single high-profile attack and voter turnout was more than 50 per cent.

But the stakes are high with the Taliban issuing specific threats to target polling stations and widespread fears that electoral fraud could produce a contested result.

UN head of mission Jan Kubis issued a stark warning to candidates’ supporters not to resort to the kind of ballot-box stuffing that marred the 2009 election when Karzai retained power.

“Do not commit fraud. Do not use intimidation or manipulation to favour your candidate,” Kubis said.

Abdullah secured 45 per cent of the first-round vote with Ghani on 31.6 per cent, after investigations into multiple fraud claims by both sides.

The two candidates came top of an eight-man field, triggering the run-off election as neither reached the 50 per cent threshold needed for an outright victory.

A smooth handover in Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power would be a major achievement for the international effort to establish a functioning state after the depredations of the Taliban era.


The Dutch were nothing but brutal in a tetchy 1-0 final defeat by the Spaniards four years ago, but they set out to disrupt the champions’ possession game and blew them away with two goals each from Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.

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Only once before had Spain conceded five times in a World Cup game, in a 6-1 loss to hosts Brazil in 1950. The mauling was also the worst ever start for defending world champions.

“Spain were always going to come at us and we catch them on the counter. My players did it perfectly. It’s far better than we ever expected,” Dutch coach Louis van Gaal told reporters.

Dutch revenge looked unlikely when Spain, also 2008 and 2012 European champions, went ahead in the Group B clash with a 27th- minute Xabi Alonso penalty after Diego Costa was brought down.

With halftime approaching, David Silva spurned a chance to double Spain’s lead with a cheeky chip that was pushed wide – a miss compounded by a spectacular Dutch equaliser seconds later.

Looking for quick balls over the top, captain Van Persie got between defenders Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba in the 44th minute to meet a searching Daley Blind cross with a powerful diving header that left goalkeeper Iker Casillas rooted to the spot.

A likely standout goal of the tournament, even Van Persie struggled to assume a modest demeanour after the game.

“Best goal of my career,” he told reporters with a broad smile.

“It was a brilliant goal, even I have to say that. It was a bit of a gamble but I had spotted Casillas off his line before the cross came in.”

GOAL GLUT

Most of Brazil’s 12 host cities witnessed anti-World Cup demonstrations ahead of Thursday’s opener, but as fans flooded to games and violent protests subsided on Friday a second-half Dutch goal glut ensured the day’s headlines belonged to soccer.

Robben put the Netherlands ahead after 53 minutes, latching on to another excellent Blind lobbed pass before turning Gerard Pique and holding off Ramos to fire home.

Del Bosque reacted by swapping Alonso for the more attack-minded Pedro and Brazilian-born striker Costa, booed with every touch by the locals, went off for Fernando Torres.

The match opened up, but all in the Netherlands’ favour.

Van Persie rattled the crossbar with a ferocious right-foot volley before Stefan de Vrij, whose tackle on Costa had led to the penalty, stole in at the back post to convert a free kick after Casillas was pressured by Van Persie.

It got worse for Spain as Van Persie added a fourth after taking advantage of a sloppy touch by Casillas to slot home in the 72nd minute, and the excellent Robben sent the disbelieving Dutch fans into raptures with a brilliant fifth eight minutes later.

The rapid forward, who had spurned a glorious chance to give the Netherlands their first world title four years ago after bearing down on Casillas, flew out of his half on to a through ball before toying with the Spanish rearguard and belting home.

“I can’t find words to explain five goals,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said.

“It is now a delicate situation for us which we will and try and overcome in our next game against Chile and then see what happens.”

Del Bosque sat disconsolately in his dugout long after his squad had disappeared down the tunnel, perhaps pondering whether to shake-up a team packed with champions. On their way to winning Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Spain only conceded six goals in 19 games.

While defenders Pique and Ramos were run ragged, midfield maestros Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Alonso were overrun in the second half and Casillas had a night to forget.

For the Netherlands, a post-match lap of honour in front of their dancing orange-clad fans represented the perfect start in Brazil.

Ahead of facing Chile next Wednesday, Del Bosque will be left to take comfort from remembering Spain lost their opening match in 2010, 1-0 to Switzerland, before going on to lift the trophy.

(Additional reporting by Mark Gleeson and Iain Rogers; Editing by Ed Osmond)


Australia will again be judged on its efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef when the World Heritage Committee meets in coming days.

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However, it’s unlikely the UNESCO group, which begins its annual meeting in Doha on Sunday, will rule on whether to put the reef on its in-danger list.

It is instead expected to give the Commonwealth another 12 months to continue its work ticking off recommendations made by the committee.

The group indicated earlier this year it would make a decision on the reef’s status in 2015.

This decision will be based on the health of the reef and measures Australia has taken to ensure it is being properly managed and protected.

An in-danger listing for the reef would admit Australia to an undesirable club that includes the likes of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has all five of its World Heritage sites on the danger list.

The committee has said Australia has made progress in improving water quality and praised the Commonwealth’s plan to restrict developments to current port blueprints.

However, it raised concerns about decision making powers over future developments being transferred from the federal government to the states.

It also said a decision to allow three million tonnes of dredge spoil to be dumped within the marine park as part of a planned expansion of Abbot Point coal port, near Bowen, was concerning.

No developments that would impact the reef’s overall universal value should be approved, it said.

Green groups have argued those in power haven’t done enough to protect the reef and predict the committee will demand Australia do more.

The state and federal governments have said they’ve made significant progress, have thrown millions at protecting the reef and are committed to improving its health.

Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell, who is heading to Doha to explain the progress Australia has made, has said the reef is one of the best managed sites in the world.

Whether the World Heritage Committee agrees will be revealed when the reef is discussed, which is expected to be on Wednesday or Thursday.


Facebook has successfully defended itself against a lawsuit that claimed the social media company infringed on patents held by a Dutch programmer who launched a website called “Surfbook” more than a decade ago.

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A holding company called Rembrandt Social Media had alleged that a now-dead Dutch computer programmer, Joannes van der Meer, developed and patented methods for running a web-based personal diary before Facebook came into existence in 2003.

But van der Meer’s website, Surfbook, never got off the ground.

Facebook said the patents should never have been issued to van der Meer, in part because they described methods that would be obvious to people in the trade.

Rembrandt lawyers and officials did not immediately return phone calls and emails seeking comment on whether they planned to appeal. The company complained about rulings before and during the trial that hurt its case.

A jury returned a verdict on Friday in favour of Facebook after a week-long civil trial in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Judge TS Ellis III barred Rembrandt’s expert on potential damages from testifying.

Rembrandt tried unsuccessfully before the trial began to appeal that ruling to the 4th US Circuit court of Appeals in Richmond.

And during the trial, Rembrandt complained that questions Ellis asked of witnesses unfairly hurt Rembrandt’s case in front of the jury, and asked for a new trial. Ellis rejected the motion.

Rembrandt had claimed that features on Facebook, including the “like” and “share” buttons, as well as adjustable privacy settings, were all anticipated under van der Meer’s patents.

More technically, the lawsuit alleged that technology called Bigpipe, used by Facebook to speed up the loading of web pages, directly infringed on van der Meer’s patents.

California-based Facebook is frequently a target of patent-infringement lawsuits. Jason Rantanen, a law professor at the University of Iowa who specialises in patent law, said he could find only one other case where Facebook was the primary defendant in a patent-infringement trial that made it all the way to a jury. Facebook won that case as well.

In 2008, Facebook agreed to pay a $US65 million ($A70.33 million) settlement to twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, Harvard classmates of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. They claimed that Zuckerberg stole their idea.


Despite a last minute scramble to get some venues ready and heavy rains in northeastern cities that hosted two of the day’s three games, dramatic on-the-field action eclipsed most of the concerns outside stadiums.

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Raucous fans watched the Netherlands humiliate Spain, the team that beat the Dutch for the title four years ago, with a 5-1 pummeling.

A plucky Mexican team coped with having two goals controversially disallowed and went on to beat Cameroon 1-0 under a downpour. Chile then defeated Australia 3-1 in the third fast-paced match of the day.

After years of construction delays, alleged corruption and sometimes violent protests over the $11 billion spent by Brazil to host the World Cup, the tournament has had a good start.

Widely-fancied Brazil won the opening game against Croatia 3-1 on Thursday and, with 15 goals in the first four games and Spain unexpectedly demolished, no one was complaining about a dull start.

A lack of major problems or street demonstrations on Friday also helped organizers breathe easier. Still, security forces remain on the alert after a year of protests contrasting the high cost of the tournament with the poor state of public services and investments in Brazil.

Although demonstrations have progressively grown smaller since mass protests last June, small but more radical groups of activists continue efforts to disrupt the tournament and they have planned marches for the weekend.

Brazil’s opening victory unleashed celebrations into early Friday, with fireworks and car horns echoing for hours as fans got into the spirit of the first World Cup on Brazilian soil since 1950. (Full Story)

Shopkeepers in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte on Friday cleaned up storefronts that they had boarded up for opening day, when some protests broke into scattered clashes with police.

About 100,000 police are patrolling Brazil’s 12 host cities during the month-long tournament, complemented by nearly 60,000 soldiers.

After police used teargas, stun grenades and rubber bullets against protesters in some cities on Thursday, especially Sao Paulo, Amnesty International said they deserved a “yellow card.”

President Dilma Rousseff, who is running for a second term in October and was loudly jeered at the opening game in Sao Paulo, told supporters from the ruling Workers’ Party that the derisive chants “will not intimidate me.” (Full Story)

Most soccer fans said they now want to enjoy the Cup even if they agree with the grievances raised by protesters.

“They won’t stop us having our fun, especially when Brazil win!” said Pedro Ribeiro, 29, a businessman in Belo Horizonte.

“People have a right to complain. There are lots of problems in Brazil. But they don’t have the right to be violent or to spoil the World Cup,” he added.

LAST-MINUTE SCRAMBLE

Hours before Friday’s games, questions still hung over finishing touches in some host cities.

In the northeastern city of Natal, pouring rain, striking bus drivers and lingering safety questions about the stadium marked the run-up to the Mexico-Cameroon match.

Temporary new bleachers only cleared 90 percent of a safety check on Wednesday, officials told Reuters, and inspectors were barred from entering the stadium on Friday while world soccer body FIFA prepared for the match.

As many as 100 fans were moved to alternative seating due to safety concerns about the new bleachers, a FIFA spokesman said.

Natal also resorted to using school buses and vans to keep public transportation flowing after a bus drivers’ union voted to strike over a wage dispute.

Making it more difficult, days of sunshine in Natal gave way to driving rain that flooded city streets and drenched fans in the Dunas arena. The downpour knocked out some of the stadium’s security scanners.

Rain in Porto Alegre also interrupted construction around the World Cup arena, which remains a muddy work site just two days before hosting France vs Honduras.

In Cuiaba, a dry heat cooked the dusty roads around the Pantanal arena. Workers were still scrambling on Friday morning to install air conditioning and carpets, just hours ahead of the Chile vs Australia match.

Across the country, however, Brazilians’ good cheer was already overwhelming the rocky preparations in the minds of visiting fans.

Just before kickoff of the day’s last game, Christian Reilly, an Australian business executive, made light of the fact that much of the infrastructure promised in Cuiaba, including a light rail system and an airport upgrade, is still not finished.

“We were surprised our hotel was there,” he joked. “But it’s good. We are just having a good time.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Belo Horizonte, Michael Kahn in Natal, Steve Keating in Porto Alegre,; Philip O’Connor in Recife, Mary Milliken in Cuiaba and Brian Winter in Sao Paulo; Editing by Paulo Prada and Kieran Murray)


The coach said he was surprised by the 5-1 hammering the Netherlands dealt defending champions Spain earlier in the day.

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“I think the start of the tournament will hopefully be the continuation as well. We’ve seen attacking football, we haven’t seen one team defending for all it’s worth … we’ve seen both teams going at each other,” he told a news conference.

Asked whether England would take the same attack-minded approach, he replied: “We always try to play that way. I don’t think over the years there’s been a (time) where England teams go out to keep a clean sheet and not attack … and certainly on this stage we’d be even less inclined to do it.”

England are sporting many younger players than the squad that struggled into the second round in the 2010 World Cup before being thumped 4-1 by Germany.

Daniel Sturridge looks set to play alone up front supported by a trio of Wayne Rooney and Adam Lallana and one of either Danny Welbeck or Raheem Sterling, who was sent off in a friendly against Ecuador in Miami earlier this month.

“I think it’s important we keep all our men on the pitch,” team captain Steven Gerrard told the news conference, in a sign Sterling will start on the bench.

Given the ferocious heat and humidity in Manaus, Hodgson may decide not to play veteran Frank Lampard in midfield with Gerrard. Instead, he could opt for the younger Jordan Henderson, Gerrard’s team mate at Liverpool.

Ross Barkley, who was electric as a substitute in England’s second Miami warm-up against Honduras, is expected to come off the bench as an impact player.

Gerrard said England’s game plan was to “defend very well and make it really difficult for Italy to play through us and try and limit them to very few chances on goal and then try to be brave and bold and attack.”

Italy depend heavily on 35-year-old midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who could well struggle in the oppressive conditions against younger and more energetic opponents.

“I think we’re going to be fine, we’re going to be able to cope,” said Gerrard, predicting the pitch conditions in Manaus would be “quick and zippy”.

Hodgson bristled when asked about his game plan over the last few weeks, replying that the team had been trying to play the same way for two years.

Yet he conceded that planning could only go so far.

“If you’d have said to me after I’d watched the first half of Spain against Holland that the game would end 5-1, I might have been tempted to laugh in your face. But it did end 5-1 and that’s what football is,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ken Ferris; Editing by Mike Collett-White)


The NRL has taken control of embattled club Newcastle.

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Chief executive Dave Smith announced on Saturday that the governing body had taken ownership of the Knights from businessman Nathan Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group (HSG).

He assured fans the Knights would continue to play out of Newcastle and would keep their traditional jersey and logo.

“The Knights will continue to be Newcastle through and through,” Mr Smith said.

“The team will look the same, they will continue to be based in Newcastle and they will represent this region proudly like they have for the last 26 years.

“The difference is that, financially, they will be one of the top-tier clubs in the competition.”

Tinkler relinquished ownership after he failed to get a $10.52 million bank guarantee 11 weeks ago.

The agreement was reached after extensive negotiations between the former owners and the Knights Members Club, which will hold a 20 per cent minority interest under the new structure.

Smith said the arrangement was designed to stabilise the club while the NRL searched for a long-term owner.

The Knights board will consist of one community representative nominated by the Members Club, two shareholder representatives initially from the NRL, and four independent directors.

The cash proceeds of the bank guarantee will be used to pay HSG’s existing employee and supplier obligations and to provide $5.1 million in start-up funds for the new club.

There will be no change to the business operations of the club for the rest of the season.

“We now have an opportunity for a fresh, strong start and that will be welcomed by our proud rugby league community,” Knights chief executive Matt Gidley said.


 

At last week’s home friendly against Slovenia in La Plata, the Argentina team stood behind a banner proclaiming sovereignty over the Falkland islands, or Malvinas as South Americans know them, in a long-running dispute with Britain.

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“Las Malvinas Son Argentinas,” or “The Malvinas Are Argentine”, read the large poster displayed on the pitch before Argentina’s 2-0 win.

“FIFA can confirm that disciplinary proceedings have been opened today,” the world body said, referring to an “apparent breach” of two regulations referring to “prevention of provocative and aggressive actions” and “team misconduct.”

“The Argentina FA has been invited to provide its position to the FIFA Disciplinary Committee, together with any documentary evidence it might deem appropriate,” it added in a statement.

Britain has controlled the South Atlantic archipelago, home to about 3,000 people, since 1833 and went to war with Argentina in 1982 to repel an invasion. That resulted in the deaths of 255 British and about 650 Argentine soldiers.

The dispute has given a political edge to Argentina-England football clashes over the years, most famously in 1986 when Diego Maradona said his two goals against England in the Mexico World Cup finals were revenge for the Falklands war.

Calls to Argentine football officials in Brazil went unanswered, and there was no immediate response to FIFA’s announcement on the national association’s web site.

Current President Cristina Fernandez has revived nationalist sentiment over the Falklands in recent years, mounting a vocal campaign to renegotiate sovereignty and prevent London-listed oil and gas firms from drilling near the islands.

 

(Editing by Nigel Hunt)


US President Barack Obama says he is examining options short of sending ground troops to help Iraq counter a Sunni extremist offensive, but warned the country must heal its own divisions.

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“We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces,” Obama said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has asked the United States to provide military assistance to counter a stunning advance by ISIL, a Sunni extremist movement.

But, in brief remarks to reporters at the White House, Obama warned the Baghdad government that it had brought disaster on itself by failing to heal the divides between Sunni and Shiite camps in the country.

“The United States will not involve itself in military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they’re prepared to work together,” he said.

“We won’t allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which while we’re there we’re keeping a lid on things and, after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability of the country.”

The US withdrew the last of its occupation forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after they overthrew the then-dictator Saddam Hussein, but Obama said he was studying options to increase ongoing support for the Iraqi military.

He added, however, that “any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences”.


Alexis Sanchez put Chile ahead from close range after 12 minutes and two minutes later Jorge Valdivia made it 2-0 with a well-struck shot as the South Americans looked in control.

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Australia fought back strongly, though, and Tim Cahill replied with a trademark header after 35 minutes and thought he had equalized with another early in the second half only to have it ruled offside by an excellent linesman’s decision.

Both sides went close in an end-to-end second half before Jean Beausejour grabbed a third for Chile in stoppage time, and they will now have to try to get something from games against Spain or the Netherlands, who thrashed the holders 5-1 earlier in the day.

Amidst the 40,000 spectators at Cuiaba’s brand new Pantanal arena, dominated by Chile’s “Red Tide” of fans, the South Americans looked to be coasting to a comfortable victory when Sanchez and Valdivia scored in quick succession.

“The ambience really helped the team establish its authority to go after those goals at the beginning,” Chile’s Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli told reporters.

CHILE WILL ‘CORRECT THINGS’

Charles Aranguiz neatly kept the ball in play on the right with defenders scrambling to block him and he chipped into the middle where Eduardo Vargas and Mile Jedinak jostled for the header, the ball falling for goalscoring talisman Sanchez to poke home.

Chile were quickly two up, carving through Australia’s defence before Sanchez squared for Valdivia to rifle into the roof of the net from the edge of the box.

A heavy defeat looked on the cards for the Socceroos but Chile sat back and allowed them to settle.

Australia’s record goalscorer Cahill got above Gary Medel to head powerfully home and the striker was denied again moments later when his low strike was saved by Claudio Bravo.

The lowest-ranked team of the 32 in Brazil began the second half strongly with Cahill’s bullet header ruled out and then veteran midfielder Mark Bresciano forcing Bravo into another sprawling save, this time one-handed low to his left.

Australia had a let-off when Alex Wilkinson got back to clear off the goalline from Vargas but Chile could not relax.

Cahill again demonstrated his renowned aerial ability when he climbed above his marker Gonzalo Jara but this time headed over.

Any hopes of securing a point vanished when substitute Beausejour drilled a low strike into the far corner in stoppage time.

Even so, the outcome was a victory of sorts for Australia coach Ange Postecoglou, hired in October to rejuvenate an aging team only to be faced with one of the toughest groups in December’s draw.

“The good thing is that we believe in our football, we believe in our structure,” said Cahill, who scored his 33rd goal for Australia.

“Last week they were questioning whether we could create chances – we did create quite a lot.”

After the tougher-than-expected challenge from Australia, Chile recognized that they need to do better to get to the next stage. They play Spain in Rio de Janeiro on June 18.

“This is good to correct things and we need to play more complete games to face the strong teams ahead of us,” Sampaoli said.

(Additional reporting by Rex Gower; editing by Ed Osmond)