Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Momentum for diplomacy hides chasm between Syrian foes

Diplomatic momentum is building to bring Syria's warring parties together for peace talks, but with Bashar al-Assad in no mood for concessions and his opponents still deeply divided there is little prospect for an early end to the catastrophic civil war.

Hopes that the long-delayed talks may finally go ahead in Geneva next month have been boosted by the rare sight of Washington and Moscow cooperating to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons and hints of a U.S. thaw with Assad's ally Iran.
President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday Russia and the United States had a common understanding on disarming Syria's chemical arsenal - a sharp change in language about a 2-1/2 year conflict which has revived Cold War antagonisms.
Building on that consensus the two countries say they will push hard to convene the talks, known as Geneva 2 because they follow an international meeting in the Swiss city last year.
But the drive to get talks underway is worrying some countries which fear the main achievement of the original Geneva accord - agreement to set up a fully empowered Syrian transitional government - may be lost in the bargaining.
Syrian authorities, buoyed by recent battlefield gains, say they are ready to attend Geneva without preconditions but in the same breath spell out they have no intention of surrendering any powers to rebels they have vilified as terrorists.
Assad says the only way to reduce his presidential powers, which include commanding the forces battling rebel fighters, is through a referendum, and the decision on whether he runs for re-election next year is not for outsiders to take.
He says there can be no talks with the rebels unless they give up their guns and declared that any opposition figures who call for foreign military or even political involvement in Syria should be disqualified from the process.
He has also ruled out a ceasefire with his opponents. "A ceasefire is reached between two fighting states, between two armies. There can never be a ceasefire between a state and terrorists," he told Chinese television last month.
A French official said this week that the statements coming out of Damascus showed that authorities had rejected the main premise of the proposed negotiation, a position which would rob Geneva 2 of any purpose.
"The question is whether we want a pretty photo next to Lake Geneva or a political process," the official said.
United Nations peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has spoken more than once about resigning in frustration over the international impasse over Syria, said on Sunday there was still no certainty the Geneva talks would go ahead as planned.
Enmity between Assad and his opponents has hardened over the course of a war in which his troops escalated the use of force from gunfire when the uprising against him erupted in March 2011 through tank fire to air strikes and missile warfare.
A chemical attack near Damascus killed hundreds in August, and both sides have been accused of committing war crimes. Two million people have fled the bloodshed as refugees, while millions more have been displaced inside Syria by the violence.
Complicating the picture are the chronic divisions among rebels and the political opposition, and between fighters and activists on the ground and the opposition coalition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition.
Military coalitions among the hundreds of local rebel brigades inside Syria are constantly shifting, with Islamist and jihadi elements growing in influence. The only constant is the scorn many fighters have for the political opposition abroad.
All those factors played a role in the denunciation last month by a dozen rebel groups, including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, of the National Coalition which they disowned as unrepresentative.
The move was a setback for the coalition's Western supporters who have sought to build it up alongside the Free Syrian Army which they have portrayed as a moderate bulwark against the Islamists.
Instead, as they try to assemble a diplomatic stage for the peace talks, Western countries are left with ever-weakening allies and fewer levers of influence in a conflict which has killed more than 100,000 people.
Assad by contrast has consolidated his military position around Damascus and the central city of Homs and enjoys military support from Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah as well as diplomatic cover and arms sales from Moscow.
Western diplomats seek to play down the rebel rejection of the coalition, saying it may have been an opportunist appeal for funding from private donors in the Gulf, and does not mark an irreversible break with the SNC coalition or the FSA rebels.
"The West is tied to the SNC for lack of any alternative and is unable to connect to the rebel groups on the ground - partly for fear of allying itself to Islamist groups," said Julien Barnes Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"A brave move would be to shift and acknowledge that the SNC is incapable of representing the Syrians on the ground."
But the willingness of the SNC and some of the FSA rebels to conduct some form of negotiation with authorities in Damascus make them indispensable to the United States and its allies.
"I would expect that Western policy will proceed along the assumption that yes, these groups represent a narrowing slice of opposition, and that any agreement reached with them will have only limited applicability across Syria's opposition," said Shashank Joshi of London's Royal United Services Institute.
"But it's better than nothing."
Washington's tentative opening with Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani has also highlighted the role of regional powers who have taken firm stands on either side of Islam's Sunni and Shi'ite divide - Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, while the rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims.
While Shi'ite Iran has supported Assad militarily and financially, the Sunni Muslim Gulf states and Turkey have been the strongest backers of the rebels.
"There's an opportunity if, following the chemical weapons accord and the U.S.-Iranian talks, they can build up steam and Russia and Iran put pressure on Assad," Barnes Dacey said. "He will struggle to resist a political process if his main backers are telling him to get in the game."
The United States said on Monday it would be open to Iran taking part in the peace conference if it publicly backed last year's call for a transitional government in Syria.
"The more challenging aspect is to get the hardline backers of the opposition to move in that direction. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not prepared to accept any process that gives Assad legitimacy," he said.
Coalition president Ahmed Jarba said this week the SNC wanted the endorsement of Ankara and Riyadh and other regional supporters for its attendance at the Geneva talks.
He also declined to characterize the proposed meeting with Assad's "criminal regime" as a dialogue, describing it instead as "negotiations with an enemy".
"The only goal from our perspective is to set the conditions for the handover of power and to ensure justice through prosecution of everyone who has committed war crimes against our people," he told a news conference on Monday.
If the two sides ever do sit down to negotiate in Geneva, the chasm between those demands and Assad's unyielding position leaves little obvious room for compromise.
"I don't see the pieces in place for a successful diplomatic settlement," RUSI's Joshi said. "Which is not to say you won't get people round the table. I just don't think you'll get a lot resolved." (additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Stephen Kalin in Beirut; editing by Janet McBride)

Federal Reserve ships new $100 bills with anti-counterfeit features

The Federal Reserve began supplying banks on Tuesday with redesigned $100 bills that incorporate advanced anti-counterfeiting features, the U.S. central bank said.
The notes, which retain the image of American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, include two new security features - a blue three-dimensional security ribbon with images of bells and 100s, and a color-changing bell in an inkwell, the Fed said in a statement.
The bills, known as Benjamins, also keep security features from the previous design, such as a watermark.
"The new design incorporates security features that make it easier to authenticate, but harder to replicate," said Federal Reserve Board Governor Jerome Powell said in a statement.
The security features will let users verify the notes' authenticity more easily, he said.
U.S. officials have said the $100 note is the most frequently counterfeited denomination of U.S. currency outside the United States due to its broad circulation overseas. In the United States, the $20 bill is the most frequently counterfeited note.
Benjamins are the highest-denominated notes issued by the Federal Reserve, since the United States stopped issuing $500, $1,000 and $10,000 notes in 1969.
The new bills have been in development since 2003.
People with old bills do not need to trade them in for new ones since all designs of U.S. currency remain legal tender, the Fed said.

Elite U.S. team questions seized al Qaeda leader on Navy ship

An elite American interrogation team is questioning the senior al Qaeda figure who was seized by special operations forces in Libya and then whisked onto a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea, U.S. officials said on Monday.
Nazih al-Ragye, better known by the cover name Abu Anas al-Liby, is being held aboard the USS San Antonio, an amphibious transport dock ship, the officials said.
He is being questioned by the U.S. High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an inter-agency unit created in 2009 and housed in the FBI's National Security Branch. The group specializes in garnering information from terrorism suspects to prevent planned attacks.
A suspect in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians, Liby was snatched on the streets of Tripoli on Saturday and quickly taken out of the North African country.
The successful capture of Liby and a failed weekend attempt by U.S. commandos to nab an Islamist leader in Somalia offered evidence that the United States is still willing to use ground troops to seize wanted militants.
But, analysts say, it is too early to tell whether such operations might eventually mean a diminished focus on the armed drone strikes central to President Barack Obama's counterterrorism policy.
The raid in Tripoli was carried out by the U.S. Army's special operations Delta Force, an official said. Liby's son, Abdullah al Ragye, 19, told reporters that men pulled up in four cars, drugged his father, dragged him from his vehicle and drove off with him.
Liby is wanted by the FBI, which gives his age as 49 and had offered a $5 million reward for help in capturing him. He was indicted in 2000 along with 20 other al Qaeda suspects including Osama bin Laden and current global leader of the militant network, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Liby's indictment was filed in New York, making that a possible venue for a civilian, rather than military, trial.
One U.S. official said he might face prosecution in New York, but the U.S. government has not announced its plans and no decision has been made.
Liby's capture provoked a complaint about the "kidnap" from the Western-backed Libyan prime minister. U.S. officials declined to say if the Libyan government was given advance notice.
The White House defended the U.S. action. It marked the use of "rendition" - seizing a terrorism suspect in a foreign country without extradition proceedings, a practice heavily criticized internationally under former President George W. Bush but which Obama has reserved the right to use selectively.
"He is clearly al Qaeda and he is clearly wanted on charges," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters of Liby's case. "When we are able to, we prefer to capture someone like Mr. al-Liby."
The capture in Tripoli came the same weekend that a Navy SEAL team swooped into Somalia in an operation targeting a senior al Shabaab figure known as Ikrima, whom U.S. officials described as a foreign commander for the organization.
Obama, who ordered the SEAL raid that killed bin Laden in 2011, approved both operations but they were planned separately. "It is a coincidence that they happened at the same time," Carney said
The Somalia raid was designed to capture Ikrima, but the SEAL team broke off the mission when it became apparent that capturing him would not be feasible without a heavy risk of civilian casualties and to the SEAL team itself, officials said.
"If the intent was to kill him, we have other ways to do that," said a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.
After arriving in the town of Barawe, there was a firefight with al Shabaab militants who U.S. officials say sustained multiple casualties. Ikrima's status was unclear.
As the situation escalated, the commander on the ground made decision to pull out.
Ikrima, whose real name is Abdikadar Mohamed Abdikadar, was linked with now-dead al Qaeda operatives Harun Fazul and Saleh Nabhan, who had roles in the 1998 embassy bombing in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and airline in Mombasa, U.S. officials said.
Despite his status within al Shabaab, Ikrima is not seen as particularly close to al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane, one U.S. official said.
Officials say the U.S. operation in Somalia was planned weeks ago and was not in direct response to last month's al Shabaab attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi that killed at least 67.
A U.S. official, said the two commando operations did not represent a change in counterterrorism strategy - even though Obama insisted in a speech in May that he wanted to scale back the used of armed drones, a tactic that he has controversially used against militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
The official said the two weekend raids were "capture" operations in places where it was considered practical, but that in riskier areas like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border drone strikes remained the preferred option.
Micah Zenko, a counterterrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said that while special operations can put American forces at risk, it offers the potential benefit of interrogating suspects for intelligence on future attacks.
"You'd take information over corpses any day of the week," he said.

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Russia commits anti-Putin activist to psychiatric hospital

Mikhail Kosenko, an activist accused of violence at a rally on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration, stands in a defendant's cage in a court in Moscow on October 8, 2013Mikhail Kosenko, one of the activists accused of violence at a rally, stands in a defendant's cage in a court in Moscow on October 8, 2013, as Moscow Helsinki Group president Lyudmila Alekseyeva (front) attends the trial
A Russian court Tuesday ordered that an activist be committed to a mental hospital after being convicted for his role in a protest against Vladimir Putin, a move that has raised charges of reviving Soviet-era punitive methods.
In its verdict, a Moscow court found the activist Mikhail Kosenko, who suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia, guilty of participating in an anti-Putin mass protest and using violence against police.
The judge however ruled that due to his illness Kosenko was mentally incompetent and must be admitted to a high-security facility indefinitely.
"The court ruled that Kosenko undergo compulsory medical treatment," his lawyer Valery Shukhardin told AFP.
Diagnosed with "sluggish schizophrenia" -- a term for mild mental illness used in Russia -- Kosenko had been treated on an outpatient basis before his pre-trial detention.
His defence insists that he should not be hospitalised and continue treatment as an outpatient. But a psychiatric report submitted to the court said his schizophrenia was so serious he needed to be committed.
"A conclusion by expert psychiatrists says that he is a danger to society and therefore should be isolated in a psychiatric facility," said Shukhardin.
"It's unclear to us where these conclusions come from. They are not justified by anything except the charges laid against him."
Kosenko was one of a dozen activists accused of mass disorder when a peaceful opposition protest suddenly descended into violence on May 6 last year, on the eve of Putin's inauguration to a third presidential term.
A group of Kosenko's supporters gathered outside the Moscow court, some holding white flowers that symbolise the opposition movement against Putin, shouting "Shame!"
Kosenko had denied the charges, insisting he did not attack a policeman but simply pushed him away.
Shukhardin said that the court ruling could see him spend several years in a psychiatric ward.
Veteran human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who has monitored the trial, called the ruling "a resumption of the psychiatric persecutions for dissent that were practised in the Soviet Union."
"Now they have started it again....Butchers," she told AFP.
The Soviet Union regularly diagnosed political dissidents with mental illnesses and incarcerated them in psychiatric hospitals for years on end.
Kosenko has been held in pre-trial detention since June last year. When his mother died recently he was not allowed to attend her funeral.
Kosenko's lawyer said his health had deteriorated over the past month because he had not been issued with the correct medication.
The opposition has maintained that the scuffles with police at the May 2012 rally in Moscow came as a result of a provocation and that the Kremlin is persecuting innocent people.
Authorities, however, have said protesters deliberately attacked police and vowed that attacks against law-enforcement agencies will not be tolerated.
Rights activists say the trial is part of a tough crackdown on the opposition after unprecedented protests against Putin's 13-year rule.

IMF says Asia growth facing headwinds

The International Monetary Fund warned Tuesday that fears over the global economy and a rapid slowdown in China were putting the brakes on Asian growth, as it called Japan the region's "main bright spot".
The Washington-based Fund pared back its growth forecast for the region, saying it expected Asia's economies to expand at an average 5.25 percent through this year and 2014, still strong but "weaker than anticipated" in its April World Economic Outlook.
"During the first half of 2013, growth in Asia generally moderated," said the IMF's latest report, published Tuesday.
"This was due to a more rapid slowdown in the pace of growth in China, which affected industrial activity in much of emerging Asia," it added.
However, the report credited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's growth policy blitz for powering the world's third-largest economy since he swept to power late last year.
The report projects Japan's economy will expand 2.0 percent this year before slowing to 1.2 percent in 2014 as Tokyo ushers in a sales tax hike.
"Japan was the main bright spot, reflecting the new policy momentum," the report said.
Still, the IMF also warned that Tokyo must enact deeper reforms -- including liberalising Japan's labour market and chopping trade barriers -- or its bid to reboot the long-stagnant economy would fail.
Across the region's fast-developing economies, the IMF said it was keeping its outlook for continued strong growth although "the risks are tilted to the downside".
"A major downside risk is a synchronised global slowdown, which would take a heavy toll on the region's export-dependent economies," it said.
"Another risk is that capital outflows -- due to a further tightening in US monetary conditions or deteriorating domestic fundamentals -- could intensify."
Indonesia, India and other emerging markets have been hit by huge outflows of foreign cash since May when the US Federal Reserve first signalled it may start tapering its stimulus drive, known as quantitative easing.
The Fed's massive bond-buying programme saw a huge investment splurge in emerging economies when it was unveiled last year. That money started racing back the other way when the central bank said it was considering a wind down.
Slower expansion in China
The IMF also cut its 2013 China growth forecast to 7.6 percent, in the latest acknowledgement of slower expansion for the region's growth engine.
It also reduced the prediction for the world's second-biggest economy in 2014, expecting gross domestic product (GDP) growth to come in at 7.3 percent.
China's slowdown "will affect many other economies, notably the commodity exporters among the emerging market and developing economies", the IMF said.
The country has enjoyed decades of double-digit growth fuelled by exports and big-ticket investment projects.
But it recorded its slowest performance in 13 years in 2012, growing 7.7 percent, down from 9.3 percent in 2011 and 10.4 percent in the previous year.
Beijing's new leadership under President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang has stressed the need for the country to retool its growth model to one where private, consumer-led demand drives sustained, albeit lower, expansion.
Speaking at an Asia-Pacific business forum in Indonesia on Monday, Xi described the economy as being on a smooth and controlled slowdown, calling it "an intended result of our own regulatory initiatives".
However, the impact has already been felt with Indonesia's economy, Southeast Asia's biggest, projected to slow to 5.3 percent this year from 6.2 percent in 2012 due in part to sluggish investment and weaker demand for commodities from the resources-rich archipelago nation.
India's economy, meanwhile, is expected to grow 3.8 percent this year, the IMF said, as it lowered its earlier 5.6 percent growth forecast in July.
The new assessment deals a blow to India's embattled government, which is struggling to boost the sluggish economy ahead of elections due next year, hit by weaker investment, stubbornly-high inflation and a slumping rupee.
India's growth will rise to 5.0 percent in 2014, thanks to stronger exports and an easing of supply bottlenecks, the IMF said. But inflation is expected to hit 11.0 percent this year and 9.0 percent in 2014, driven by high food prices.
Solid domestic demand would help power the economies of some Southeast Asian nations, particularly Malaysia and the Philippines, while Thailand should pick up in the second half of this year after a slowdown, the IMF report said.

Harga gula dan tepung naik untuk kesejahteraan rakyat, kata menteri

Harga gula dan tepung naik untuk kesejahteraan rakyat, kata menteri
Keputusan kerajaan menaikkan harga tepung dan gula adalah demi menjaga kestabilan ekonomi negara di samping menjaga kesejahteraan hidup rakyat, kata Menteri Perdagangan Dalam Negeri, Koperasi dan Kepenggunaan, Datuk Hasan Malek (gambar).
Beliau berkata, niat kerajaan hanya untuk menjaga kepentingan negara dan rakyat perlu menunggu pengumuman Perdana Menteri, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, dalam Bajet 2014 pada 25 Oktober ini dan kenaikan harga dua barangan asas itu akan dilakukan bergantung kepada hasil kajian yang sedang dijalankan.
"Kita akan melihat pelbagai faktor sebelum sebarang keputusan diambil termasuk fiskal serta kedudukan mata wang negara biarpun keputusan diambil mungkin tidak popular namun ia terpaksa dibuat bagi menjaga kestabilan ekonomi serta kesejahteraan hidup rakyat," katanya dipetik daripada Berita Harian Online.
Tiga hari lalu Hasan dilaporkan oleh akhbar New Straits Times (NST) membayangkan kenaikan harga gula dan tepung bakal berlaku.
Kenyataan tersebut bertentangan dengan jaminan yang dibuat Hasan pada pertengahan September lalu apabila mendakwa pengeluar gula dan tepung memberi jaminan harga kedua-dua bahan asas itu tidak akan dinaikkan.
“Pengguna juga tidak perlu bimbang kerana mereka diberi jaminan bekalan bahan adalah cukup untuk keperluan mereka,” kata Hassan seperti dilaporkan Utusan Malaysia pada 13 September.
Selepas pilihan raya umum ke 13 (PRU13) pada 5 Mei lalu, kenaikan harga bagi barangan dan berlaku seperti harga bahan bakar RON95 dan rokok.
Kerajaan jugakan dikatakan bakal menaikkan tarif elektrik dan berkemungkinan akan memperkenalkan cukai barangan dan perkhidmatan (GST) dalam Bajet 2014.

Milan's Mexes gets four-match ban for punch

AC Milan's French defender Philippe Mexes controls the ball during the Serie A match against Hellas Verona at Bentegodi Stadium in Verona on August 24, 2013
AC Milan defender Philippe Mexes has been slapped with a four-match ban after video footage showed the Frenchman punching Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini.
Chiellini had called for a "heavy sanction" for Mexes following the sides' bad-tempered clash in Turin on Sunday, which Juve won 3-2.
Serie A disciplinary officials used video footage to rule that Mexes had indeed punched Chiellini as the pair tussled prior to a corner being taken.
The Juventus defender said after the match: "Some people just won't learn. When you're tough and determined, that's fair enough because at the end of the day you get up from a hard tackle and shake hands. But that is just not football."
Mexes was handed a three-match suspension for the punch and another match for receiving a red card.
The 31-year-old former France international, who had previously been red carded seven times in Serie A during spells with Roma and Milan, will now miss games against Udinese, Parma, Lazio and Fiorentina.
Injury-ravaged Milan sit in 12th place, 13 points adrift of leaders Roma.
Milan's woes deepened after league officials also ordered the club to play their next game, at home to Udinese, behind closed doors because of racist chanting from some sections of their visiting support on Sunday.
League officials ruled the fans had been guilty of "insulting chants of territorial discrimination", a violation which also copped the Serie A giants a 50,000 euros ($67,840) fine.
Milan said they will appeal the sanction.

Nadal rises to world no.1, Federer drops

Rafael Nadal of Spain hits a return during his men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia in Beijing on October 6, 2013
Rafael Nadal was confirmed as the new world number one in the latest ATP tennis rankings published on Monday, pushing Novak Djokovic to second as Roger Federer drops to seventh.
Nadal has 11,160 points, just 40 ahead of Djokovic, who lost his grip on the top spot despite defeating the Mallorcan to win the China Open on Sunday.
Britain's Andy Murray, currently recuperating from back surgery, is third in the revised rankings but Swiss great Federer sinks one place from sixth to seventh.
Spain's David Ferrer remains at number four, just 185 points off Murray's tally, while Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro moves up two places to fifth after winning the Japan Open.
Since returning in February after seven months out with a left knee injury, Nadal, 27, has won 10 titles, including the French Open and US Open.
Until Sunday's loss to Djokovic, he had been unbeaten since Wimbledon, where he was a shock first-round loser to Belgium's Steve Darcis.
Nadal has previously had two stints at the summit of men’s tennis. He first became number one in August 2008 and stayed there for 46 weeks, regaining top spot in June 2010 and adding 56 weeks to his tally.
ATP world rankings
1 Nadal, Rafael (ESP) 11,160 (+1)
2 Djokovic, Novak (SRB) 11,120 (-1)
3 Murray, Andy (GBR) 6,895
4 Ferrer, David (ESP) 6,710
5 Del Potro, Juan Martin (ARG) 4,925 (+2)
6 Berdych, Tomas (CZE) 4,610 (-1)
7 Federer, Roger (SUI) 4,515 (-1)
8 Wawrinka, Stanislas (SUI) 3,150 (+1)
9 Tsonga, Jo-Wilfried (FRA) 3,115 (-1 0
10 Gasquet, Richard (FRA) 3,095
11 Raonic, Milos (CAN) 2,815
12 Haas, Tommy (GER) 2,355
13 Isner, John (USA) 2,115 (+3)
14 Simon, Gilles (FRA) 2,095
15 Janowicz, Jerzy (POL) 2,060
16 Almagro, Nicolas (ESP) 2,030 (+1)
17 Fognini, Fabio (ITA) 1,885 (+2)
18 Nishikori, Kei (JPN) 1,840 (-5)
19 Robredo, Tommy (ESP) 1,830 (-1)
20 Anderson, Kevin (RSA) 1,775 (+1)

Arsenal squad in need of a break, admits Flamini

Arsenal squad in need of a break, admits FlaminiMathieu Flamini believes the international break could not have come at a better time for Arsenal after their winning streak came to an end against West Brom.

The Gunners' 10-game run was halted with a 1-1 draw at the Hawthorns on Sunday, with the squad now departing for international commitments for the next 10 days.

Flamini has started and finished Arsenal's last four Premier League games as they climbed to top spot in the table but admits he, and the squad, are already struggling with fatigue.

"I think [the international break] comes at a really good time because we have played a lot," Flamini told the club's official website.

"Obviously everybody is tired physically and tired mentally because you have to give 200 per cent in every single game.

"For us it is a chance to have players coming back into the group like maybe Theo [Walcott] and Santi [Cazorla]. I hope everyone will be back soon."

Despite earning his week off, Flamini says that the demands of the Premier League have not let up during his five-year stay with AC Milan.

"I don’t think it is harder - the Premier League was very hard before and it is still as hard as before," he added.

"Top players were playing in the Premier League before and top players are still playing in the Premier League now. That means it's very physical and very quick from one side to another.

"The transition from the defence to the attack is very quick. We have a lot of space also and of course for me it is the most difficult championship. We can see that every time on the pitch."

Jagielka backs Baines to plug Cole hole

England defender Phil Jagielka speaks during a press conference at the St George's Park training complex, near Burton-upon-Trent, central England on October 8, 2013
Phil Jagielka has backed Everton colleague Leighton Baines to prove an able deputy for the injured Ashley Cole in England's penultimate World Cup qualifier at home to Montenegro on Friday.
Chelsea defender Cole has been ruled out of the game due to a rib injury and could also miss England's final Group H game at home to Poland next Tuesday.
It means manager Roy Hodgson will probably turn to Baines, who has excelled at left-back for Everton for several seasons but whose progress at international level has long been barred by the consistency of Cole.
Jagielka, however, has no doubts that his 28-year-old Goodison Park colleague is ready to prove his worth.
"Ashley Cole has done a fantastic job," Jagielka said during a press conference at England's St George's Park training base on Tuesday.
"If Leighton does get a chance to play, I'm sure he won't let us down. He's a fantastic defender and a fantastic attacking threat as well."
With second-place Ukraine hosting Poland on Friday, failure to beat Montenegro at Wembley Stadium could see England forfeit top spot in the group, which would seriously jeopardise their chances of securing automatic qualification for next year's tournament in Brazil.
However, England can guarantee qualification with a pair of victories in their final two qualifiers and Jagielka says that he and his team-mates are not even contemplating failure.
"We should have got it done and dusted by now, but obviously that's not the case," the Everton captain said.
"But we're still looking at it from a very positive angle. The two results we need, it's in our hands, and we're looking at booking that flight to Rio."
Central midfielder Jack Wilshere has pointed to the availability of strikers Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge, both of whom missed England's last two qualifying games through injury, as a further reason for optimism.
"We have got Sturridge and Rooney back, which is going to be massive for us as you want your best players available," said the Arsenal midfielder.
"Rickie Lambert has done a great job. He scored a couple and did well in (the 0-0 draw in) Ukraine, which was a difficult place to go and be up there on your own and do the job he did. He did really well.
"We have got (Jermain) Defoe as well, who can score from any position, and Danny Welbeck as well, who is looking sharp. We have got a good mix there and it can only be helpful for us."
England drew 1-1 when they last met Montenegro in Podgorica in March and Jagielka says that Hodgson's side know what to expect from them.
"I was there when we drew the game away at Montenegro. As a team they've got a fantastic unit together," he said.
"They put us under a lot of pressure, they are progressing and they're confident as well. They're going into this game as confident as us due to the fact they've picked up draws against us before, and they're still in with a chance of trying to qualify themselves.
"We all know the task that lies ahead. I think there are quite a few people who've got the experience of being in similar situations before, so they've got big roles to play.
"We've also got some young lads with fantastic ability, so we're massively confident we can go out there and put on a good performance which can hopefully produce goals."

Wilshere backing Rooney & Sturridge to fire England to the World Cup

Wilshere backing Rooney & Sturridge to fire England to the World Cup
Jack Wilshere is backing England’s strikers to fire the Three Lions to World Cup 2014 as they prepare for the final two group games against Montenegro and Poland.

Roy Hodgson’s men currently top Group H by a point and know that two victories will see them qualify for next summer’s competition.

And Wilshere believes the Three Lions' in-form strikers, particularly Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge, could prove the difference in the two games at Wembley.
7/1 Liverpool are 7/1 with BetVictor to win the title
“The results have been pleasing, but there is a lot of improvement for us as a team,” he told reporters. “We have a lot of work to do still; we need to continue building on what we have achieved so far.

“We are not playing at the level we know we can. The manager has spoken a lot to us about continuing to improve – it’s frustrating when you see in training how good we are as a group.

“We’ve got a lot of good players and he wants us to perform at our best every single game and at the highest level.

“We know we can get better. At the moment, we are scoring goals and we are good going forward, but there are a few areas the manager wants us to improve on.”

Since returning from suspension, Luis Suarez has formed a deadly partnership with England’s Daniel Sturridge, both of whom scored during last weekend’s 3-1 win against Crystal Palace.

And Henderson believes Liverpool can compete for the Premier League if they keep both players fit.

“We know we have quality though, especially up front,” he added. “We are as good as anyone going forward and that will be important over the course of a season.

“We know the two up front will score goals, and in tight games, that can be really important. They can be a massive factor for us this season, because their goals can turn tight games.”
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