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UNESCO warns Timbuktu in danger amid Mali unrest
by Staff Writers
Saint Petersburg (AFP) June 28, 2012

China lends Cameroon 368 mn euros for road
Yaounde (AFP) June 28, 2012 - Cameroon and China signed a large infrastructure deal Thursday that will see Beijing lend the African country 368 million euros to build its first new motorway since independence in 1960.

China's Exim Bank will lend Cameroon 241.4 billion CFA francs (368 million euros, $451 million) for the first phase of a motorway between economic hub Douala on the western coast and capital city Yaounde in the centre, a statement said.

The 215-kilometre (135-mile), five-year road project will cost a total of 284 billion CFA francs, it said. Cameroonian officials did not say how the government planned to fund the remaining 15 percent.

Cameroon's Economy Minister Emmanuel Nganou Djoumessi said the government had invited bids from Chinese companies.

The Exim Bank has become a major funder of African development projects as the Chinese economy has boomed.

The current link between the two cities is a two-lane road that is one of the deadliest in the country.

The UN cultural organisation UNESCO on Thursday listed Mali's legendary town of Timbuktu as endangered world heritage because of the deadly unrest hitting the West African nation.

UNESCO said the decision to place both the town and the nearby Tomb of Askia on its List of World Heritage in Danger "aims to raise cooperation and support for the sites threatened by the armed conflict in the region."

The world's main watchdog over the safety of some of history's greatest treasures and most threatened cultural exhibits designated the iconic town -- once a trading mecca and hub of scholarly studies -- a heritage site in 1988.

The Tomb of Askia for its part is a towering pyramidal structure erected out of mud more than 500 years ago to commemorate the burial site of a ruler who created an empire around the powerful Niger River.

The tomb is located in Gao -- a town that in recent weeks has been held both by Islamist gunmen with links to Al-Qaeda and a group of Tuareg rebels who also oppose the Mali state.

Tuareg rebels spearheaded the takeover of the north when a March 22 coup in the capital Bamako left the country in chaos. They were soon joined by the Ansar Dine Islamist rebels who have since taken the upper hand.

Tensions have been running high between the two rebel groups because of their differing objectives. Deadly clashes in the resulting fight for supremacy have made Gao into a focal point of unrest.

Islamists claimed control of Gao on Wednesday after fierce clashes with Tuareg separatists left at least 21 people dead.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee said during its meeting in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg that both Timbuktu and the tomb were now in danger of being looted.

It called on Mali's neighbours "to do all in their power to prevent the trafficking in cultural objects from these sites" and encouraged stronger cooperation in the region.

"There is concern that such objects, notably important ancient manuscripts, be looted and smuggled abroad by unscrupulous dealers," UNESCO said in a statement.

Fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been accused of destroying the tomb of St Sidi Amar after taking over Timbuktu in late March.

Fifteen other holy tombs and 300,000 Muslim manuscripts are now at risk in Timbuktu and Gao, experts said last month.

The annual UNESCO committee meeting has already produced some surprise decisions and been torn by diplomatic wrangling linked to the Middle East conflict and even religious affairs.

The committee on Tuesday proclaimed the British city of Liverpool -- home to the Beatles and passionate football -- in danger because of a controversial docklands redevelopment project.

The designation means Liverpool could lose the prestigious heritage status it gained in 2004 in recognition of it being one of the world's most important trading centres in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"The committee contended that the development will extend the city centre significantly and alter the skyline and profile of the site inscribed on the World Heritage List," UNESCO said.

But the biggest controversy concerns the status of a church marking the traditional birthplace of Jesus -- scene of a bloody hostage crisis during the Palestinian uprising against Israeli in 2002.

The Palestinians are trying to get fast-track approval for the Church of the Nativity in the Israeli-controlled West Bank town of Bethlehem to be added to heritage list.

Israel argues that granting the "emergency basis" status would essentially mean that the United Nations as a world body was backing the Palestinian view that the church was being threatened by the Jewish state's troops.

The three Churches involved -- the Catholic as well as Greek Orthodox and Armenian -- for their part have only given look-warm approval for the idea because the dangers this potentially poses to their own rights on the shrine.

A decision on the ancient Bethlehem church is expected by this weekend.

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Palestinians wait to hear on Bethlehem UNESCO bid
Bethlehem, Palestinian Territories (AFP) June 28, 2012 - Less than a year after winning membership at UNESCO, the Palestinians are waiting to hear if their bid to win World Heritage status for the Church of the Nativity will be approved.

This week, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee is meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia to consider the addition of dozens of new sites to its World Heritage list, including Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and pilgrimage route.

The bid, Palestine's first since winning controversial membership at UNESCO in October 2011, is being submitted "on an emergency basis" because the Palestinians say urgent restoration work is needed.

On Thursday, a delegation headed by Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki left for Russia to bolster the bid, a key foray into the international community as a state player for the Palestinians.

"This will be the first time that Palestine will exercise her sovereign right as a nation," said Omar Awadallah, an official at the foreign ministry's multilateral relations unit.

The bid also seeks to draw attention -- as well as visitors and funds -- to the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which Christians around the world believe to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

But it faces serious hurdles, including continued opposition from the United States and Israel, a negative report from the body that evaluates sites for UNESCO and, reportedly, domestic disagreements about the bid itself.

Publicly, Palestinian officials speak positively about the effort, urging broad support and saying it will bring long-overdue recognition to the city and church, draw new visitors, and help fund much-needed restoration.

"The day of the vote in UNESCO is a very important day for us," Bethlehem's deputy mayor George Saadeh told journalists on a tour of the city this week.

"We think all our friends who voted for us in UNESCO will vote for us, for Bethlehem, in Saint Petersburg, and we ask the countries who are not willing to vote for us to rethink," he added.

Ziad Bandak, who serves as an adviser on Christian affairs to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, stressed the threats to the Church of the Nativity.

"We need 19 million euros ($23.6 million) to restore the church," he said. "We have experts but we don't have the money."

But the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Latin Christian custodians of the church have discreetly expressed reservations about the bid, fearing the politicisation of the holy site.

And the Palestinians can expect pressure from Israel and the United States, which both opposed their UNESCO membership, each cutting their funding for the body after it voted 107-14 to admit Palestine last October.

A further blow to the bid came earlier this month from the International Council on Monuments and Sites, which evaluates prospective sites for UNESCO.

It said the Palestinians had failed to carry out a full survey of threats to the sites and recommended that they not be listed on an emergency basis.

The body said it would recommend that the international community "be encouraged to facilitate the conservation of the property."

And it added that the Palestinians could resubmit their bid, with additional information, for consideration on a non-emergency basis in the future.

But the bid has taken on symbolic and political importance for Palestinians, with Bethlehem municipality enlisting other local authorities, NGOs, public figures and priests to sign an open letter to UNESCO members, urging them to grant the requested status.

"We ask you to join us in protecting our city, Bethlehem, and its rich heritage," they wrote. "Our nomination as a World Heritage Site is not only a right, it is a need."


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Shell says close to launch of test drilling off Guiana coast
Deauville, France (AFP) June 28, 2012
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