The latest news stories from the major news organizations in Cebu and Manila in the Philippines, the US and other countries.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April 8, 2010 Major News Stories



Wall falls, kills 5


ELEVEN construction workers were exchanging jokes while working overtime when tragedy struck yesterday.

Four workers died on the spot when a firewall collapsed along F. Llamas St. in Barangay Tisa, Cebu City. It fell on the 11 workers who stayed on the scaffolding, bringing them all to the ground at 1 a.m.

Seven others were brought to Cebu City Medical Center (CCMC), but one of them died within hours.

Weak concreting works and a possible deviation from the original building plan for the three-storey Gaisano Capital building were initially blamed for the collapse.

Cebu City Hall's inspectors also observed the lack of safety measures in the construction site, which they said would help explain the deaths and extent of the other workers' injuries.

The Office of the Building Official (OBO) last inspected the construction site last March 25, but its engineers and architects did not notice anything irregular or dangerous there.

Representatives of CYC Construction said they are saddened by the "unfortunate accident" and agreed to fully cooperate in the investigation.

Construction lead man Jezrel Villena, 22, said he was watching the workers from the ground when he saw the firewall fall. He said the beam that supported the firewall also gave way and hit the main line of an electric post, causing a brownout in some areas of the barangay.

"Nagtiaw-tiaw pa sila. Sige pa to sila og pangatawa unya mikalit ra og bigay ang firewall (They were telling jokes and laughing, when the firewall collapsed without warning)," said Villena.

Killed on the spot were Deony N. Delan, 30; his brother Christian, 27; Teodulfo Detumal, 35, and Lyndon Melendrez, 18. All four were residents of Carmen town, Cebu.

Their bodies were brought to St. Francis Funeral Homes.

The mason Argie Ceniza, 27, of Dawis, Carmen, Cebu died while undergoing treatment at the city hospital.

Six others survived but were brought to the CCMC for lacerations and bruises: Jerome P. Siose, 19; Ricardo Rixon M. Villegas, 27; Joy C. Manseras, 36; Arnel A. Pacible, 23; Roel Pasaje, 26; and Noel G. Lucero, 23. All come from Carmen town.

The workers are employees of CYC Construction, which was hired to construct the Gaisano Capital branch in Barangay Tisa.

Pacible, in an interview at the hospital, said he noticed that the mixed cement he was trying to place on the firewall for finishing touches would not stick.

He asked his fellow workers noticed the same thing.

When the wall collapsed, he said, most of them clung to the scaffolding, while one or two held on to an electric post nearby.

Overtime

Pacible said they have been working overtime since 7 p.m. last Tuesday, putting finishing touches on the firewall. They were supposed to wind up the job at 3 a.m.

Pacible said he asked Detumal, one of those who later died, if the firewall was safe because it appeared to be slanted apart from being too high.

Detumal told him it was fine.

Villena said they started constructing the building in October 2009. It was expected to be done by April 30.

Romulo Guarin of the Cebu City Disaster Coordinating Council said the last person they retrieved from the rubble was Melendrez.

He said the workers fell about 30 feet.

Dave Delan, the younger brother of two workers who died, was saved after the trowel he was holding fell to the ground.

Dave went down to get it, then decided to relieve himself. It was during this time that the wall collapsed.

Families

SPO1 Jay Yballe, chief investigator of the Homicide Section, said they will wait for the decision of the workers' families whether to pursue charges against CYC owner Charles Yu Chiu.

The Homicide Section invited Chiu, Villena, Dave Delan and the construction engineer to report to the police to shed light on the accident.

At City Hall, Mayor Tomas Osmeña ordered the immediate halt of construction work on the building, except for necessary steps to prevent further damage and remove debris.

Shortly before 8 last night, a fire broke out on the second floor of the building but was quickly put out.

The Bureau of Fire Protection said some workers were clearing the area and sparks from their welding rods fell on some insulation materials, which caught fire.
The damage was negligible, said SFO1 Nilo Daculan, fire investigator, quoting a security guard.

Safety gear

In a phone interview last night, the mayor declined to disclose the initial report given to him by Engineer Pericles Dakay of Dakay Construction and Development Corp. He will instead wait for the official report of all the engineers he asked to look into the matter.

During their search and rescue operation past 1 a.m. Yesterday, personnel from the Cebu City Disaster Coordinating Council (CCDCC) observed that construction workers did not have protective gear such as hard hats, safety lines that will support them when hanging from the walls, and other safety devices.

There was also no safety engineer present at the site when the accident happened.

City Councilor Gerardo Carillo told reporters that if the workers had protective gear, their deaths could have been prevented.
"Most of them died due to hemorrhage," he said.

Carillo met with representatives of CYC Construction and Gaisano Capital and officials from the CCDCC, OBO and the Bureau of Fire Protection yesterday afternoon and instructed them to conduct a formal investigation.

Carillo and OBO Chief Josefa Ylanan said a separate review will be conducted to find out if there was criminal negligence on the part of CYC Construction.

Materials

The building permit was issued to Edmund Gaisano of First Pacific Fortune Commercial Corp., the owner of Gaisano Capital.

"The initial report we got based on the inspection is that there was something wrong with curing of the cement. Perhaps the cement needed to be cured much longer…

There was nothing wrong with the beams and other materials used; it's only the cement. Perhaps there were shortcuts sa pagtrabaho (in the work)," said Carillo, action officer of the CCDCC.

Ylanan confirmed the councilor's statements, but said the findings were based only on the initial inspection and still have to be verified.

She said that the contractor appears to have deviated from the building plans approved by her office, "because the firewall seems to be much higher than what we approved."

"We will also refer this to the City Attorney's Office because generally speaking, there is a probability of civil and criminal liabilities due to the deaths and damages," Ylanan told reporters.

Ylanan said that her staff reviewed the building plans submitted by the contractor to her office. Based on the plans, the firewall was only supposed to be for a three-level structure.

Help

Niceto Caldoza, the project site engineer, said he also did not see any defect in the construction of the building, which is already 70 percent completed.
The target date of completion is April 30.

He admitted that work at the site is being done 24 hours to beat the deadline by month's end.

Lawyer Ronnie Gocuan, legal counsel for CYC Construction, said they still do not know what caused the collapse.

He assured Carillo they have taken care of all the hospital expenses of the six who were injured, and that the P100,000 financial and burial assistance was supposed to be given yesterday to the families of the five workers who died.

"It was an unfortunate accident and the contractor feels very sad with what happened. No one wanted it to happen, especially the loss of lives," Gocuan said.

Carillo told reporters that resumption of work will depend on the results of the structural investigation, which the contractor said they will finish as soon as possible.

Probe Bolo over Balili purchase, executive committee suggests

CITING Provincial Board (PB) Member Juan Bolo's "active and direct participation," the Balili Properties Review Committee recommended an investigation on the Capitol legislator.

This is aside from their recommendation for an administrative investigation on the Cebu Provincial Appraisal Committee (CPAC).

Bolo refused to comment, saying he was not given a copy of the committee's full report. He also did not say if he expected the result, but that he intends to speak with Capitol consultant Rory Jon Sepulveda to clarify things.

Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia created the review committee in August last year, after Capitol officials found out that nearly 10 hectares of the 24.7-hectare Balili property were underwater or mangrove lands. The Capitol paid P98 million for the property.

In its report, the review committee said the governor acted within her "discretion, prerogative and authority."

They said the PB had authorized the purchase and that the price paid was substantially below the fair market value.

The review committee ruled out a proposal to rescind the sale, saying the property is already being developed. (Unlike majority of the PB, Vice Gov. Greg Sanchez and PB Member Victoria Corominas have also pushed for a rescission.)

A separate report by the PB, recently released, stopped short of calling for an investigation on Bolo. But it recommended, among others, that legislators should not perform executive functions during negotiations for a planned purchase.

In its findings, the executive committee said Bolo's direct participation was evident, adding he was the one who brought up the availability of the property to the governor, despite the governor's initial "non-interest."

Bolo, the committee added, negotiated with the broker and prepared the memorandum of agreement for the sale, without referring it to the provincial attorney.

As for the governor, the review committee said: "We find nothing wrong with her reliance and adherence to the presumption that officials of the government performed their duties and functions regularly, in good faith and in order."

If there were errors committed by her subordinates that were belatedly noticed, these could be attributed to the failure of the existing system of administrative checks and balances, they added.

Garcia, in her answers to the committee's questions, said she was of the impression that the MOA, authorizing her to execute the purchase of the property, went through a regular course.

She said she also received no report about the environment department's plan to revert the titles issued for parts of the Balili property.

"The information was only known to me when the subject sale was investigated and the regional DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) office volunteered the information," she added.

Meanwhile, the Committee on Discipline and Investigation has formally started its administrative investigation on three department heads who serve in the Cebu Provincial Appraisal Committee (CPAC).

Discipline committee head Rodrigo Urbiztondo, a lawyer, said the investigation will be given top priority as ordered by the governor.

The lawyer explained that as of the moment, the case is under preliminary investigation. This will determine if there is a basis to file a formal charge against Provincial Assessor Anthony Sususco, Provincial Treasurer Roy Salubre and Provincial Engineer Eulogio Pelayre.

The preliminary investigation will also determine what office should acquire jurisdiction if a formal charge is filed. Among the options are the Office of the Governor, the Office of the Ombudsman-Visayas and the Civil Service Commission.

Urbiztondo will request the governor to appoint another member of the discipline committee, because Sususco is also a member.

Sepulveda, who also sits in the review committee, said the CPAC members will need to face an administrative investigation because, among others, they did not formally convene to consider the purchase.

The committee also said that the PB clearly relied exclusively on Bolo, then chairman of the municipal and provincial properties committee.

They noted the "lack of clear and definite guidelines and or procedures in the purchase of real property, thus the resolution (for the Balili deal) was passed despite the lack or or incomplete information or the status and condition of the property," the executive committee's report added.

The committee was headed by National Bureau of Investigation 7 Director Medardo de Lemos and had six members: Sepulveda; PB Members Peter John Calderon, Agnes Magpale and Victor Maambong; lawyer Manolette Dinsay; and Adolfo Quiroga of the Provincial Planning and Development Office. 

MARTINEZ SAFEHOUSE RAIDED? Digal orders probe vs RMG

The Cebu Provincial Police Office has ordered an investigation against the members of the Regional Mobile Group in Bogo City for allegedly raiding the safehouse owned by Mayor Celestino "Junie" Martinez Jr. in barangay Taytayan.

House in Tabuelan straffed

A house was straffed yesterday by unidentified person believed to be armed with a Carbine rifle in the northern town of Tabuelan.

Estafa case vs. Cabillon dismissed

The provincial prosecutor's office has dismissed one of the two estafa cases filed against former monk Venancio Cabillon.

Father holds 2 kids hostage


AFTER the hostage-taking in Lapu-Lapu City last Tuesday, another father held his two children at knife-point in Barangay Manatad, Sibonga, Cebu at 8 a.m. yesterday.

The negotiation for the safe release of the children, a boy and a girl, though, did not take long as the father let his children go shortly after the police team arrived.

Cebu Provincial Police Office (CPPO) Director Erson Digal said the children's mother sought the assistance of Manatad Barangay Captain Leodegario Mestallos in calling the police.

The father, who is reportedly suffering from a mental disorder, took his children to his side while pointing a knife at them for no reason.

A team from the Sibonga Police Station led by SP02 Charlene Banogon went to the house and asked him to release the children.

The father is temporarily under the custody of the police.

He will be brought today to the psychiatric ward of Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City.

Meanwhile, Dionilo Salvador, the man who held his three children hostage, for failure of the victims' mother to return his P30,000, walked out of the Lapu-Lapu City Police Office detention cell yesterday. He reached a settlement with the mother in the presence of Acting City Police Director Mariano Natuel and officers of the Women and Children's Desk.

Mimi Acawayan won't press charges against Salvador, provided that the latter will go back to his hometown, Pagadian City, and will no longer set foot in Cebu. She will pay him the P30,000 on installment basis and send the money through his bank.

Natuel said Salvador, who tied the children using a nylon cord and pointed a knife at them, is supposed to face a charge of illegal detention.

However, the settlement that Salvador and Acawayan signed before him and other witnesses said she waived her right to press charges unless Salvador violates the agreement.

When Natuel negotiated with Salvador during the hostage drama that lasted nearly two hours in Barangay Punta Engaño, the police chief convinced Salvador to surrender by assuring him that he won't be charged for the crime he committed.


Noise barrage vs oil price hike begins today

MANILA, Philippines -- Militant transport group Piston is set to stage a noise barrage today in Quezon City to protest the latest 50-centavo hike in diesel and gasoline.

Piston secretary general George San Mateo said they will converge at around 11 a.m. in front of the Isetann department store along Aurora Boulevard in Cubao, Quezon City for the noise barrage.

San Mateo cited that diesel now sells for P34.65 per liter in Metro Manila, P39.75 in Eastern Visayas and P38.60 in General Santos.

He challenged former Energy secretary Angelo Reyes to condemn the move of the so-called "Big Three" oil players to jack up prices of petroleum products.

Reyes is one of the nominees of the 1-UTAK party-list group, which represents the transport sector.

San Mateo said the noise barrage today will be the start of a series of protest rallies against the spate of oil price hikes. 


DoE monitors oil price increase

The Department of Energy (DoE) on Wednesday assured the public that it is monitoring the oil companies to ensure that there is no irregularity in oil price hike.

Energy Secretary Jose Ibazeta even justified that the P0.50 per liter increase on pump prices citing the world crude prices and the depreciation of the dollar.

"Those two alone will cause oil prices to adjust. We are continuing to monitor the oil companies and to make sure they follow upon the formula that we have agreed upon in imposing prices," Ibazeta said.

He also said that he does not see any irregularity in the move of the oil big players in imposing such hike.

The oil companies explained that the recent increase was caused by the hike of imported crude costs in Asia, particularly the Mean of Platts Singapore (MOPS) which reached $86 per barrel. This resulted in the increase of average retail price of fuel in Metro Manila to P34.50 for diesel; P44.50 for gasoline (unleaded); and P45 for kerosene. (Charissa Luci)


Most violent elections yet, says Comelec exec

MANILA, Philippines(UPDATE) The May 2010 elections are shaping up as the country's most violent yet, a spokesman for the Commission on Elections said Wednesday.

Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said the Comelec leadership was concerned about news of intensified violence against candidates and their supporters a month ahead of the nationwide balloting on May 10.

At a press briefing on Wednesday, Jimenez said, It looks like there are more ERVIs (election-related violent incidents) in these elections and we want to know why.

The Philippine National Police said 567 municipalitiesa third of the country's 1,600 municipalities have witnessed some form of election violence since the election period started last January.

The figure was higher than the previous record. In the 2007 mid-term elections, the PNP and Comelec identified 307 election hotspots.

The Consortium for Electoral Reforms, meanwhile, said it monitored 39 incidents of election-related violence nationwide from the start of the year to March 25.

The PNP also noted the proliferation of private armies, now numbering 112, despite government efforts to neutralize them. The police, in past reports to the Comelec, said private armies were employed by politicians to harass their opponents in the local contests.

Jimenez also noted that media reports show intensified attacks against candidates and supporters in the run-up to May 10.

The commission, he said, was concerned over the mounting violence could not just put a town or city under its control on the basis of local leaders claims.

Some local politicians can use Comelec control to suppress dissent in their towns or oppress their opponents, he said.

He noted that the police or the military would first have to make an objective assessment of the security situation in an area before the Comelec can move to put any place under its control. Local executives will also have to formalize their request through a petition to the Comelec.

By putting a town or province under its control, the Comelec will have authority over that localitys law enforcement and local personnel. The measure is intended to stop violent partisan activity.

Recently, local officials from Makati City and Nueva Ecija have asked the Comelec to put their areas under its control following shooting incidents and other forms of harassment.

The Consortium for Electoral Reforms, which is monitoring election violence, identified at least eight provinces as election hot spots. It noted that Davao City, Compostela Valley, Masbate, Sorsogon, Quezon, Mindoro Oriental and Occidental and Negros Oriental, have seen intense violence and strong political clans vying for control.

Verzosa to police chiefs: Disregard illegal orders from local officials

MANILA, Philippines - Philippine National Police (PNP) chief director-general Jesus Verzosa met police chiefs from different provinces in Luzon and ordered them not to follow illegal orders which may be issued by politicians in their areas of jurisdiction during the election period.

PNP, AFP hold vigil for honest, peaceful elections

MANILA, Philippines The Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines on Wednesday held a prayer vigil with various religious groups to call for honest, orderly and peaceful elections on May 10.

Dubbed as the National Prayer for HOPE (honest, orderly, and peaceful elections) 2010, the vigil was attended by PNP Director General Jesus Verzosa and AFP Chief of Staff General Delfin Bangit, as well as other officers from both agencies.

A mass was held at 6 a.m. at the Heritage Park inside Camp Crame, Quezon City, where various religions from Catholic to Islam were represented by religious leaders.

Today, we are at Camp Crame with the AFP and the PNP to encourage everyone to pray for our country, for us to have an honest, orderly and peaceful elections, said Bishop Leopoldo Tumulak, D.D., AFP and PNP Bishop.

I would like to ask everyone here, led by the AFP and the PNP, to trust in God who is going to give us a miracle this elections, he added.

For his part, Verzosa said that despite of all of their security preparations, ensuring peaceful elections would not be possible without spiritual help.

We started this today and this activity will continue up to the election day itself towards an honest and orderly elections. The three important agencies: Commission on Elections, AFP and PNP, always seek the guidance of our Almighty God because we cannot do this without Him, Verzosa told reporters.

Similar prayer vigils are expected to be held on April 14 at all regional police offices, April 21 at all provincial and city police offices, and April 28 on all municipal police stations.

But Verzosa said they are confident that the upcoming elections will be a peaceful one.
No, actually were not nervous because we have the commitment and we are encouraged by our countrymen, our religious and our political leaders. We try to keep this elections as orderly as possible. Its better now since the elections is automated, we are not as tied up with over events as with the previous elections. We are optimistic that with the cooperation of everybody, we will have the most orderly elections possible, Verzosa added.

But in a separate interview, Verzosa asked for the cooperation of all local candidates to reign in their supporters to prevent possible violence.

Citing the past incidents in Agoo, La Union and Antipolo City where supporters of rival political candidates clashed during the heat of the campaign season, Verzosa said that political candidates should guide their respective supporters.

We also want to appeal to other candidates to also control their supporters so there wont be any violence, he added.

PNP chief to retiring police officers: Quit your posts

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) To further insulate the police force from partisan politics, Philippine National Police Director General Jesus Verzosa ordered all unit commanders who are set to retire from April 15 to June 30 to relinquish their posts.

In a directive obtained by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Wednesday, Verzosa ordered his 17 regional directors and chiefs of national support units to replace all retiring senior police officers in command of various PNP units.

This is to ensure that our line commanders are still focused on their job and not distracted nor hesitant to do action because of their impending retirement, Verzosa said in his one-page memorandum.

Verzosas order will affect senior officers assigned as chiefs of police offices in the regional, provincial, city and station levels.

He said all retiring police officers, including chief superintendents assigned as regional directors, must also yield their posts.

All others who will be affected are likewise encouraged to file their non-duty status so they can prepare their necessary documentation for retirement, the PNP chief said.

Inquirer sources in Camp Crame said at least eight senior officers occupying sensitive positions will be affected by Verzosas directive, including Quezon City police director Chief Superintendent Elmo San Diego.

But in a separate interview, Verzosa clarified that the memorandum is not mandatory but voluntary.

There was an information to the commanders that those set to retire up until the end of the election period may be encouraged to file a non-duty status so that they can be replaced. But this is voluntary, he said.

Those who do not wish to file for early retirement will not be compelled to do so, he stressed.

This has been the practice. We encourage them [to retire early] so that they can take care of their retirement papers. This has been the practice before. This is important as it is very difficult to have a turnover of command during election week, so we are encouraging, in the interest of continuity, that they retire earlier, Verzosa said.

Versoza also met with chiefs of police in Luzon to remind them of security preparations for the upcoming May 10 elections.

The meeting, which started 8 a.m. at Camp Crame, sees a gathering of all police chiefs in the region.

Earlier, Verzosa led a prayer vigil also at Camp Crame for an honest, orderly and peaceful elections.

Supplier: No contract for ballot secrecy folders

Tatlumpu't tatlong araw na lang bago ang halalan sa Mayo! Inamin ngayon ng supplier ng kontrobersyal na ballot secrecy folders na sinimulan na nila ang pagpapagawa ng mga mamahaling folder na gagamitin sana sa halalan, kahit wala pang pirmadong kontrata sa Comelec.

Folder supplier may get ultraviolet lamp contract

MANILA, Philippines - The company that nearly bagged a P689-million contract to supply ballot secrecy folders to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) could end up winning the contract to supply ultraviolet lamps.

OTC Paper Supply submitted the lowest bid of P28 million to supply the lamps that will be used to scan security markings in the ballots, besting two other companies.

Manager Henry Young of OTC Paper said the company might withdraw its bid for the UV lamps if the Comelec would allow it to do so without slapping the company with a fine. He said he had not yet been notified by the Comelec Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) that his company had won the lamp deal.

The bid for the lamps will have to be approved by the Comelec commissioners. As of yesterday, the commissioners said they had not yet been notified about OTC's bid.

Young also told GMA 7 that he would insist on the Comelec pushing through with the folder contract, saying he had put nearly P500 million of his assets in hock to fulfill his commitment.

Through a negotiated contract, OTC was initially awarded the deal to provide over 1.8 million ballot secrecy folders made of polypropylene at a cost of P380 each.

Comelec Chairman Jose Melo deemed the price "too luxurious and exorbitant" and scrapped the deal.

Young also maintained that his ballot secrecy folders are not expensive, and said they would exhaust "all administrative and legal remedies" to regain the contract, which the Comelec has cancelled.

"We are filing a motion for reconsideration with the Comelec on Friday," he said." If nothing happens, we'll take all administrative and legal remedies. We are very devastated and disappointed because there was nothing irregular in our offer."

Last Monday, the Comelec cancelled the notice of award to OTC to supply the secrecy folders to be used in the May 10 polls after finding the P380 for each folder "exorbitant."

OTC has a pending application for patent for the folders before the Intellectual Property Office since Feb. 10, seven days before the Comelec came up with specifications of the folders.

However, Young said he has been conceptualizing the design of the folders since the Comelec held mock elections in various schools last February.

 "The folders are made of hard plastic so voters don't have to worry that their ballots would be crumpled," he said. 

He noticed during the mock polls that the ballots were 25 inches long and were not convenient for voters, he added.

Young said he would fight to the end since they have already spent so much for the project. 

"The P34-million bond that we paid is refundable but we already spent a lot for the materials," he said.

 "We can never give up. In the first place, everything was above board. We did nothing irregular."

BAC might be revamped

The Comelec's BAC might be reorganized following the controversial approval of a multi-million contract for the purchase of ballot secrecy folders.

"That's always a possibility," said Comelec spokesman James Jimenez.

"The BAC is not really a permanent body. Sometimes the composition changes. That's definitely one of the possibilities."

The BAC is comprised of Maria Lea Alarkon as chair, with vice chair Allen Francis Abaya and members Maria Norina Tangaro-Casingal, Martin Niedo and Antonio Santella.

Melo has admitted lapses on the part of the commission when they approved the awarding of the folder project to OTC Paper Supply.

Rafanan and two other members of a special panel will conduct an investigation and submit their recommendation within two weeks.

Meanwhile, Jimenez said all other procurements by the Comelec in connection with the May 10 elections are in order and need not be reviewed.

"At this stage, all of the other procurements have not raised any red flag so we can presume that everything has been in order," he said.

The Comelec is prepared to face possible cases that might be filed by OTC Paper Supply after the Commission discontinued the deal, Jimenez said.

Ballots sent to voters abroad

Official ballots have been mailed to 138,598 Filipino voters in 104 countries for the start of the one-month overseas absentee voting (OAV) on Saturday, according to the Philippine Postal Corp.

Reynaldo Malacapo Jr., Philpost-National Capital Region operations director, said they distributed the 138,598 official ballots two weeks before the deadline.

"We have finished with all the OAVs," he said.

"The letters were sent to the addresses provided for by the Comelec and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

"It is the Comelec who could say if all the voters under the OAV received their ballots."

Malacapo said their target was to mail all the official ballots by March 10, but that they completed the distribution by the middle of February.

"We worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week and arranged three shifts for work."

Malacapo said compared to the 2007 senatorial elections, they had more official ballots to mail this year.

Three years ago, the Philpost was tasked to pack and prepare 128,821 official ballots to 43 countries, he added.

Malacapo said while they had less ballots to mail in 2007, it was more time consuming because the Comelec at that time preferred to send the ballots by registered mail, unlike this year, when they used ordinary mail.

Malacapo said the Comelec was charged P7 million for the ordinary mail service.

In 2007, the poll body had to pay P17 million for the registered mail service, he added.

Malacapo said each yellow envelop they had mailed to voters contained the return mailing address, the serial number of the ballot, the instruction to the voters, list of candidates, and the official ballot.

Voters based in other countries would be given a blank official ballot, similar to the ballots used in previous elections, he added.

They would only be asked to vote for the positions of president, vice president, 12 senators and party-list.

Bidding 'rigged'

LIKE the alleged overpricing in the contract to supply the Commission on Elections (Comelec) ballot secrecy folders, questions are expected in today's bidding on the contract to supply the Voter's Information Sheet (VIS) for Cebu and the rest of Central Visayas.

The proprietor of a Cebu City-based printing press is accusing Comelec 7 Director Ray Rene Buac of "rigging" the bidding process by inserting, into the guidelines, requirements only a favored supplier could meet.

"Three mini-web perfecting machines, two offset with perfecting capability, a 1,500-square-meter covered production area. That basically describes the plant of the favored supplier," a source, who requested anonymity, said.

"Failure to comply with any one of the above listed requirements or any misrepresentation in any one shall disqualify a bidder," the guidelines read.

Buac denied any illegality, saying he is well within his authority to specify certain requirements in the bidding guidelines. He said he will lose face if the supplier fails to deliver in the end.

The region has a total of 3,297,946 voters, with Cebu accounting for over half—2,018,719.

The source asked that his firm not be identified, fearing a ban in future transactions.

But a document Sun.Star Cebu obtained showed four suppliers—Cebu Lithographic Printers, FF Sibi Enterprises Inc., JI Printers and Philippine Paper Craft Inc.—are taking part in the bidding today.

The VIS is an official document that the Comelec is mandated, under Sec. 1 of Republic Act 7904, to give every registered voter 30 days before the election.

It should contain simplified instructions as to the casting of votes and a list of all registered national, provincial and city candidates to be voted for, among others.

It is different from the ballot secrecy folders used in the precincts by individual voters and which came under question recently when it was discovered that each could cost the government P320.

Cancelled

Comelec Chairman Jose Melo has cancelled the contract, saying the commission was "mistaken" in approving the purchase, which would have cost P700 million. It will use ordinary long-sized folders instead.

But Buac said there is nothing anomalous about the transaction, which he will be supervising.

"I cannot just let anybody take part in the bidding because this is for the whole region. The participating bidder has to have the capacity," he explained.

He said he will wait for a formal charge to be filed and let the Office of the Ombudsman-Visayas decide if the complaint has basis.

He understands if people who submitted an intent to bid but cannot otherwise comply with the requirements would feel disappointed.

"If they fail in the requirements (and file complaints), we will just answer those," he said.

But the source said capability and track record are satisfied by submitting proof, like registration with the Government Electronic Procurement System, a subscribed and sworn to list of completed and on-going government and private printing contracts, and the like.

"Getting what machines are necessary to perform the job is something left to the supplier. That's our problem," the source said, adding that they only recently delivered election-related printed materials for another Comelec regional office.

Moreover, the source said printing the Comelec document does not actually require special equipment. Any machine that can print in dimension of 8.5 by 27 inches will do.

But the guidelines, contained in a two-page document Buac signed, specified equipment like a manual camera with computer-film facilities, three mini-web perfecting machines and two offset machines with perfecting capability.

Match

"These machines mean that you can print back to back. But any machine can do that. You do one side first and then the other. Why specify equipment which, incidentally, is exactly what one bidder has?" the source added.

The source also doubts if people in Cebu City got their VIS, as they are supposed to, under the law.

"If not, then we can suspect that these were ghost purchases," the source said.

The deadline for the submission of bids is at 1:30 p.m. at the Comelec 7 office today. The opening of the sealed bids will follow immediately.

"We are already resigned to the fact that everybody else will be rejected because no other printer has the exact number and type of equipment specified in the guidelines.

But we hope that all sealed bids will be opened and that all bid prices will be announced for transparency," the source said. (KNR)

Spending for poll materials subject to tax, BIR to bets

BUREAU of Internal Revenue (BIR) 13 officials yesterday reminded candidates that expenses for campaign materials are subject to tax.

"So, anytime the politicians spend for campaign materials and they receive campaign contributions, they should report to the Comelec per guidelines on campaign expenditures," BIR 13 Assistant Director Conrad Lee said.

Lee said BIR will only come in once the candidates incur expenses.

"The BIR will look into campaign contributions to ensure that there is a withholding tax. And before politicians pay their suppliers for campaign materials, they should withhold the tax due to the government and remit it to the BIR," he said.

He said every time a supplier earns from campaign materials, the supplier should pay the corresponding tax of the realized income.

"But we consider the politicians as withholding agents because they are the ones paying for their campaign," Lee said.

To determine whether candidates are truthfully reporting their expenses, the BIR is coordinating with the Commission on Elections (Comelec) on the audit of their expenditures.

"So, if the Comelec will determine that a politician has exceeded the limit on campaign expenses, the BIR will investigate where the excess spending went," Lee said.

For his part, lawyer Neri Yu, BIR 13 assistant division chief for legal, said if campaign contributions are reported to the Comelec by the candidate who received them, these will not be subject to a donor's tax.

"But if the receiver will not report it to the Comelec and the BIR will discover it, this will be subject to donor's tax," Yu said.

Meanwhile, BIR 13 Director Jose Tan reported a surplus collection of P345 million for March after its actual collections reached P986,639,611.20. The agency's target was P641 million.

Mixed signals on funding from Lakas-Kampi-CMD bets

LIBMANAN, Camarines Sur, PhilippinesThe Lakas-Kampi-CMD national candidates sent mixed signals regarding the issue of funding to bankroll their campaign, including that of standard-bearer Gilberto Gibo Teodoro, and talk of disintegration.

Teodoro evaded answering questions on the issue and essentially washed his hands by pointing his fingers to the new officials of the Lakas-Kampi-CMD.

I am not privy to the report. You ask the new officials, he said when asked by the Inquirer.

Teodoro visited Camarines Sur on Tuesday together with party mates running for for senatorRamon Bong Revilla Jr., Silvestre Bello, Raul Lambino (represented by his son), Rey Langit and Ramon Guico.

He told the media he would be going down to the grassroots to win the elections.

They are winning in the surveys but we will win the elections. I will not glorify any survey now, Teodoro said.

When asked what they knew and how they felt about party funding, Bello and Langit dismissed talk there were defections and claimed that funding was not an issue.

The Lakas-Kampi-CMD national candidates attended one political forum in Sipocot, Camarines Sur, on Tuesday, with former budget secretary Rolando Andaya Jr. hosting, as the standard-bearer in the first district of Camarines Sur.

They proceeded to Libmanan, Camarines Sur, at the Amigo Gym built at Rep. Diosdado Dato Ignacio Arroyos property in Barangay Potot where municipal candidates of the new second district attended another forum.

After taking lunch, the Lakas-Kampi-CMD candidates proceeded to Naga City where they had a motorcade around the city and proceeded to Iriga City, the hometown of the candidate for governor, Rep. Felix Alfelor Jr., later in the afternoon.

Lakas bets told: You should have own campaign funds

MANILA, Philippines -  A spokesman of Lakas-Kampi Christian Muslim Democrats standard-bearer Gilbert Teodoro on Wednesday said national candidates who complain about the lack of funding support from the party should use their own funds for their campaigns.

Comelec gets vote of confidence from veep bets

DAVAO CITY, PhilippinesThe Commission on Elections may have a lot of problems concerning the May 10 elections, but vice presidential candidates have given it a much-needed vote of confidence.

Participating in a forum organized by The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Name Above Every Name of Pastor Apollo C. Quiboloy on Tuesday, candidates vying for the vice presidency said they believed that the credibility of the Commission on Elections was still intact.

They said the election body headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo had the best intentions in preparing for the automation process, ensuring that the will of the people is heard come election day.

All the VP candidates attended Sukatan 2010: The Sonshine Media Network International Vice Presidential Forum. They were: Sen. Loren Legarda, Sen. Mar Roxas, Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay, former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Bayani Fernando, former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Perfecto Yasay, broadcast journalist Jay Sonza and former Optical Media Board Chairman Edu Manzano.

Quiboloy claims to have a following of six million Filipino believers around the world, half of them of voting age.

The question posed by lawyer Romulo Macalintal, the forum moderator, to the candidates was: Do you believe in the credibility of the present Comelec? If yes, how would you distinguish it from the previous Comelec in terms of preparation and credibility, and if you don't believe what grim scenario do you foresee and how do you suggest to address this concern?

First to give his thoughts was Fernando, running mate of presidential candidate Richard Gordon, who was supportive of Comelec although not 100 percent.

Yes, I believe, he said, pointing out that the Automation Law was principally authored by Gordon.

Fernando said he had reason to believe that the Comelec body would let the decision of the people dictate the results of the elections and that the true will (of the people) will be served.

Legarda, running mate of Nacionalista Party standard-bearer Manuel Villar, said: I want to believe in the credibility of Comelec because I believe in the institutions of government and democracy. If we don't believe in our institutions, why are we running at all for political office?

However, since she claimed to be a victim of cheating in the 2004 elections and because of the new system in place, she had certain concerns.

Now, it's automation. I will admit to have a certain apprehension because of the completely new system, she said, explaining that both the process of voting and the type of ballots and machines to be used would be different from the antiquated manual system.

She said the elections could be marred by power outages, which could sabotage the true will of the people.

But she gave Melo and his officials the benefit of the doubt.

Sonza appeared more optimistic as he declared that the automated system would work for the Filipino people.

We should believe in the system because if we don't, we have nowhere to go, said Sonza in Filipino.

Sonza said the manual system of balloting was to blame for the political uncertainties facing the nation.

Look at us today. This is our only chance because I want to educate our people on this new electoral process. I can guarantee you, it may have some birth pains, but it is our hope for new governance, for a new Philippines.

Let's trust that the Filipino is honorable, [so are] the Comelec and the whole nation. We are a decent people, we will not allow ourselves to be cheated, he added.

Manzano noted that Comelec's integrity had been put in doubt in the past elections.

I speak from experience because my mother used to be a Comelec employee (in the) public relations (department). They had a big problem on how to assure people that the sanctity of the ballot will be protected. Today in this modern age, there are so many safeguards to protect the ballot, said Manzano, running mate of Lakas-Kampi-CMD's Gilbert Teodoro.

Manzano cited the participation of studentsarmed with cellular phones with camerasto document election fraud.

The students had been in the fringes before. Now, they are actively participating. We have international watchdogs, international monitoring committees and different civic organizations, so I would like to believe that we should give a chance to computerization. Let us not be pessimistic but rather optimistic that the we will be known around the world (as a) developing as a nation and as a people, said Manzano.

Roxas had a contrasting view.

For me, I'm worried about the credibility of Comelec now. Sa palagay ko butas-butas na at natatastas na (In my view, it's full of holes and unraveling ), said Roxas.

The running mate of Liberal Party standard-bearer Benigno Aquino then enumerated what he said were questionable actions taken by the Comelec.

He said that despite LP's petition to strike out Vetellano Acosta's name after he was declared a nuisance candidate, the poll body continued to refuse to remove the name of the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan standard-bearer from the ballots for the May 10 presidential race.

Second, he questioned why the Comelec discarded the checking of the ultraviolet marks on the ballots by the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machines, a stipulation in the law to ensure the authenticity of the ballots.

Roxas also questioned the Comelecs refusal to provide information technology experts the source code to be used in the electronic transmission of election results for canvassing.

Roxas said that the onus was on the Comelec to show efficiency, impartiality, integrity and honesty in the conduct of elections.

Erap camp to Villar, Aquino: Apologize

MANILA, Philippines – Stalwarts of former president Joseph Estrada's party called on presidential hopefuls Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III and Sen. Manny Villar to apologize to the ex-chief executive if they truly are opposing the administration of President Arroyo.

In a joint statement, Puwersa ng Masang Pilipino vice president for Luzon and San Juan Mayor JV Ejercito, and PMP spokesman for Metro Manila Toby Tiangco said that before Aquino and Villar accused each other of being the secret candidates of President Arroyo, they should apologize also to the public for the ouster of Estrada in 2001. 

The statement added that both Villar and Aquino had a hand in installing President Arroyo in 2001. 

The PMP officials also reiterated that only Estrada is the true opposition candidate. 

PGMA to hold talks with leaders of Malaysia, Vietnam

MANILA, Philippines - President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo will hold bilateral meetings on Thursday with Malaysian Prime Minister Dato' Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung at the sidelines of the 16th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.

RP to get 1.9M doses of A(H1N1) vaccine

MANILA, PhilippinesHealth Secretary Esperanza Cabral said Wednesday that the Philippines will receive anytime this week about 1.9 million doses of vaccines against A(H1N1) flu virus, which will be distributed to high-risk groups.

Cabral said the vaccines donated by the World Health Organization (WHO) will be distributed for free among high-risk groups individuals such as those who are pregnant, health workers, children below five years and the elderly.

She said the DoH will post notices at barangay (village) health centers to notify high-risk groups of their vaccination schedule.

Under WHO guidelines, at least ten percent of the general population or 9 million Filipinos should be able to avail of the A(H1N1) vaccination but high-risk groups will be given priority.

DOH calls conference to halt advance of HIV/AIDS in RP

MANILA, PhilippinesHealth Secretary Esperanza Cabral is calling for a "national coordinated response" to prevent the further spread of HIV-AIDS in the country and is organizing a national conference for this purpose next Monday.

"Everyone should be involved in addressing the HIV-AIDS epidemic," said a DOH report furnished the Inquirer.

The department asserted that "intensifying the campaign at various levels of collaboration can help significantly in reinforcing education of the people about HIV prevention and control measures."

"HIV has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and has been a biomedical as well as a social issue. This alarm must be transformed into behavior change and accountability for one's actionstaking charge of our own overall health," the DOH report said.

Next Monday, the multisectoral Philippine National AIDS Council, which Cabral chairs, is scheduled to hold a conference to "inform leaders of society about the HIV-AIDS situation in the country."

The one-day meeting also aims to convince these leaders to "scale up the national response to HIV-AIDS."

In a statement on Wednesday, Cabral said that "with increasing cases of HIV reported in the past three years in the Philippines, it has now become imperative for the government to conduct an HIV-AIDS summit."

The HIV-AIDS conference, which will be held at the Manila Diamond hotel, "will serve as a venue to strengthen collaboration among key players in the national response (to the epidemic) and engage others in the realization of a harmonized, collaborative and scaled-up initiative to address the challenges of HIV-AIDS."

In another report, the DOH disclosed that it recorded a total of 835 AIDS cases between 1984 and 2010. During the period, a total of 314 AIDS victims (38 percent) died.

Of the 273 HIV cases registered by the DOH during the past two months, at least three were positive for AIDS.

"For February alone, a total of 130 HIV cases were registered, an increase of 117 percent compared to the same period last year," said the DOH.

"The number of cases have increased significantly," it added. "From one new case reported every three days in 2000, it increased to one per day in 2007 and doubled to two new cases per day in 2009."

This year, about five new cases are being reported to the DOHs AIDS registry each day, and, according to the DOH, "The number only represents the tip of the iceberg."

During the past 26 years, the DOH recorded a total of 4,697 HIV cases.

A total of 3,477, or 74 percent of the cases, were males, 23 percent of whom were in the 25-29 age group.

Another 20 percent of the victims were in the 30-34 age group, followed by 16 percent in the 35-39 age group.

Ninety percent of the HIV cases (4,203) got the infection through sexual contact: heterosexual (54 percent), homosexual (30 percent) and bisexual (16 percent).

The other modes of HIV transmission were needle-sharing among injecting drug users, blood transfusions, needle-prick injuries and mother-to-child infection.

In January and February, at least 16 overseas Filipino workers were reported HIV positive, said the DOH. Twelve of them were males while four were females. Their ages ranged between 18 and 69.

All 16 HIV cases got the infection through sexual contact.

ASEAN body to address rights of women and children

HANOI--Southeast Asia on Wednesday took another step towards addressing long-neglected human rights issues, with the inauguration of a commission to address the rights of women and children.

Regional campaigners welcomed the creation of the body but said it could face the same limitations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' human rights commission founded late last year.

They expressed concern about the independence of commissioners, and whether either body can actually protect the region's most vulnerable.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, called the commission a step forward but said: "We're really going to have to watch very closely."
At a ceremony in Hanoi, ASEAN proclaimed that the commission on women's and children's rights marks a "turning point" for the region.

"These are the vulnerable half of the ASEAN community, the women and the children," the bloc's secretary general, Surin Pitsuwan, told reporters ahead of a summit which opens Thursday.

"So if we wish to become a compassionate community, a sharing and caring community... we have to take care of the women and the children."

ASEAN aims by 2015 to form a free-market "community" of almost 600 million people committed to democratic ideals.

Activists say they expect the new commission to examine issues including human trafficking, child labor, child soldiers, and gender discrimination.

Among its stated functions, the 20-member commission is to "promote and protect rights"; build judicial and administrative capacity; and encourage data collection, studies and research.

Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Forum-Asia, an umbrella for regional rights groups, said the commission's terms of reference lean more towards promotion of rights.
"I think it will be difficult for the commission to embark on a protection mandate," he said, a criticism also levelled at ASEAN's human rights commission.

The 10-nation ASEAN has a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, which activists say has restricted its ability to criticize rights abuses, particularly in military-run Myanmar.

Activists said rules and procedures for both the new commission and the existing rights body need to be further defined for them to work effectively, including with non-governmental organizations.

Robertson said both commissions are dominated by current and former civil servants, rather than independent experts, raising questions about their potential effectiveness.
"I think, before this, ASEAN was criticized for not having these kind of mechanisms. Now that we have them we are being criticized that they will not be effective enough. I think, give us a chance," Surin told AFP.

He said that, given time, the institutions can develop "into something that I think the region can be proud of."

In the past, ASEAN was focused on economic issues, but since the bloc's 2008 charter committed it to tighter links as a "community", there must be a strong social component as well, said one Asian diplomat.

Despite what critics say, the new rights mechanisms will at least "put things on the table to talk about," said the Hanoi-based diplomat.

Asia-Pacific was the only region in the world without a formal human rights body, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in its latest report on global rights.

It said it welcomed ASEAN's commitment to establish a rights mechanism.


SC raps dismissed Mindanao judge who forgot Muslim holiday

BAGUIO CITY, PhilippinesThe Supreme Court on Monday fined a Cagayan de Oro judge P10,000 for simple misconduct for dismissing a 2005 Catholic Church land case on a technicality because he was oblivious to a Muslim holiday.

Judge Maximo Paderanga would have been penalized for gross ignorance of the law had the office of the court administrator had its way because he enforced a mediation deadline on Nov. 4, 2005, which President Macapagal-Arroyo had declared a holiday to celebrate that year's Feast of Ramadan or Eid'l Ftr.

But the high courts first division noted that it had already dismissed Paderanga from service as of June 19, 2008 after he was found guilty of committing several other administrative infractions.

Paderanga was mediating a civil case involving a piece of church land that its previous owner had wanted to recover.

Lorna Cabarrubias Bacalzo sought to reclaim a 350-square-meter lot, which a predecessor had donated to the Catholic Church, "since allegedly the property was no longer being devoted for the purpose [for which] it was donated," according to the high court's 12-page ruling.

Paderanga directed Bacalzo and the archbishop of Cagayan de Oro "to proceed and personally appear, with or without their respective counsels, for mediation proceedings on Nov. 4, 2005." However, that day, which was that year's Feast of Ramadan, had been declared a holiday.

Bacalzo flew in from the United States for the mediation, but proceeded to a designated mediation site on Nov. 7, 2005 in lieu of the holiday. Her lawyer also petitioned Paderanga to reschedule the mediation conference on Nov. 15, 2005.

"Regardless of the resetting of the mediation proceedings, Judge Paderanga issued on Nov. 9, 2005 an order [which dismissed the case] for failure of the parties to obey the order of the court [to] appear at the mediation conference on Nov. 4, 2005," said the ruling.

Paderanga argued that he was unable to "keep track of all events being busy with daily court trials," and had pointed out that his mediation order was issued on Oct. 7, 2005 or seven days before Malacaang announced the holiday.

But the high court said: "A heavy workload does not excuse Judge Paderanga from ascertaining all pertinent facts that would have enabled him to justly resolve or decide a case. A judge must not sacrifice the orderly administration of justice in favor of a speedy but reckless disposition of a case."

Peso gains further momentum, posts new 20-month high

MANILA, PhilippinesThe peso gained further momentum on Wednesday's trade to record a new 20-month high on the back of rising inflows both in the form or remittances and investments.

The local currency ended the trading day at 44.8 against the US dollar, 13 centavos stronger than the previous day's finish of 44.93.

Intraday high was recorded at 44.75, while intraday low was registered at 44.88. Volume of trade slipped a bit to $997.92 million from $1.027 billion previously.

Traders said the peso's appreciation was in line with the strengthening of other currencies, which are benefiting from optimism by investors who see Asia as leading the world's economic growth this year.

"Inflows are not only in the form of remittances. Investments, especially to the country's equities market, are rising as well, and these are pushing the peso," Jonathan Ravelas, market strategist at Banco de Oro, said in a phone interview.

Traders said the peso could have even been stronger if not for the intervention being done by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. The BSP adopts a policy of intervening in the foreign exchange market, but said it only does so to prevent sharp volatility of the local currency.

Ravelas said the peso is likely to test the 44.5-to-a-dollar level within the month.

He said, however, that the peso might experience some downward pressure as the elections draw nearer as these could fuel some uncertainty among investors. Still, he said the peso is likely to regain strength after the elections.

The World Bank has revised its outlook on the Philippine economy from a growth of 3.1 percent to 3.5 percent this year. The World Bank said the revision took into account rising remittances from overseas Filipino workers amid a recovering global economy.

Traders said positive outlook on the Philippine economy could draw even more investments into the country's stock market.

'Substandard' flour from Turkey tested for toxins—DoH

MANILA, Philippines Samples of flour imported from Turkey are being analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration amid reports of substandard quality and of being harmful to consumers, the Department of Health said Wednesday.

The Department of Health (DoH) disclosed that samples of flour imported from Turkey are being analyzed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) following media reports that they are substandard and may harm consumers.

It had been reported that the flour from Turkey used by local manufacturers for making noodles and bread contained mycotoxins, particularly Ochratoxin A and Aflatoxin.

The DoH, through the FDA's Laboratory Services Division, immediately moved to test flour samples for the presence of mycotoxins, particularly Ochratoxin A and Aflatoxin, which are produced by certain poisonous non-edible fungi species, said Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral.

Six flour samples five imported from Turkey and one from a local source being used in Central Visayas and Metro Manila were collected from March 9 to 22 and were tested, said Cabral.

Initial results revealed that none of the samples had concentrations of mycotoxins above the allowable limit, said Cabral. Despite this, the FDA will conduct more tests on the flour samples.

Representatives from Turkey flour manufacturers arrived in the country on March 26 and assured FDA officials that their flour products are fit for human consumption.

The manufacturers will submit a special certification from the Turkish government that their flour is safe and routinely tested for the presence of toxic substances by the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs before being exported to other countries.

We would like to assure the public that the DoH is on top of the situation. If and when it is proven that the flour imported from Turkey is unsafe, they can expect us to take immediate and decisive action, said Cabral.

FG Arroyo's name dragged into Louisiana teachers' suit

WASHINGTON D.C. - Teachers suing a California-based Filipino recruiter said they were instructed to borrow thousands of dollars from a lending company that they believed was owned by First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, apparently to discourage them from complaining afterwards.

No Pinoys hurt in Sumatra quake

MANILA, Philippines – No Filipino nationals were hurt in the powerful earthquake that rocked Sumatra, Indonesia on Wednesday morning, the Department of Foreign Affairs reported.

7.8-magnitude quake in Indonesia causes panic but no damage

BANDA ACEH (UPDATE) A powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Indonesia's Sumatra Island early Wednesday, causing widespread panic and tsunami warnings but no major damage.

The quake struck off the northwest coast of Sumatra in an area devastated by the massive Asian tsunami of 2004, triggering local warnings and an alert in nearby Thailand.

Residents of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said they felt the earth shudder with frightening intensity for about a minute.

Many fled their homes or piled onto motorcycles to head inland in fear of destructive waves, but a tsunami warning issued by the Indonesian government was lifted about two hours later.

"People panicked and ran out of the house, it lasted almost a minute," an Agence France-Presse reporter in Banda Aceh said.

"I saw a lot of people who live close to the sea using motorcycles to drive inland."

The quake struck at a depth of 46 kilometers (29 miles) at 5:15 a.m. (2215 GMT Tuesday), according to the US Geological Survey.

Indonesian geologists said the epicenter was 60 kilometers southeast of Sinabang, on Simeulue Island of Aceh province.

The people of Aceh are still traumatized by memories of the 2004 disaster, when the Indian Ocean surged over the northern tip of Sumatra after a 9.3-magnitude quake split the seabed to the island's west.

Indonesia was the nation hardest hit, with at least 168,000 people killed out of more than 220,000 who lost their lives across the region.

Officials in Sinabang and the Indonesian capital of Jakarta said there were no immediate reports of damage near the epicenter. Electricity was down in the Acehnese capital of Banda Aceh but mobile phones were working.

"Our personnel haven't found any damage in Sinabang," local police chief Dedi Junaidi told MetroTV.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said sea level readings indicated a tsunami was generated in waters off Sumatra but it was not destructive.

The threat was assumed to have passed two hours after the quake although shipping and coastal structures still faced the danger of strong currents, it added.

The National Disaster Warning Center in Thailand issued a tsunami warning for the Andaman Coast, where an estimated 5,400 people were killed in 2004.

It later cancelled the alert, saying only small waves were generated by quake.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," where the meeting of continental plates causes high volcanic and seismic activity.

The Indo-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates converge off the western coast of Sumatra and scientists believe it is only a matter of time before a major catastrophe strikes the area again.

A 7.6-magnitude quake killed about 1,000 people in the port of Padang, western Sumatra, in September last year.

Death toll 95 in Brazil flooding, mudslides

RIO DE JANEIRO – The most intense rain in half a century triggered flooding and mudslides that killed at least 95 people in southeastern Brazil, most of them in the Rio de Janeiro area, authorities said Tuesday.

Kyrgyz opposition says it has taken power

BISHKEK (Reuters) - The Kyrgyz opposition said on Wednesday it had forced the Central Asian country's government to resign after troops shot at protesters besieging government buildings, killing dozens.

World

"We have reached an agreement that the government will resign. That has not been signed on paper yet," Galina Skripkina, a senior official in the opposition Social-Democratic Party and member of parliament, told Reuters.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev had flown to the southern city of Osh. "Bakiyev has taken a plane from Bishkek to Osh and he has already landed there," she said.

"The opposition is in full control of power," an opposition leader, Roza Otunbayeva, said, Russian news agency RIA reported earlier.

The announcement followed a day of violent clashes in Bishkek and other towns. Spokesmen for the government and the president were not available for comment.

Another opposition leader, Temir Sariyev, said the opposition had entered the government building in central Bishkek and Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov had written a resignation statement, RIA reported.

"Bakiyev has left the White House ... He is no longer in Bishkek," said Sariyev, who was arrested on his arrival on a flight from Moscow on Wednesday, but later freed by the protest.

Bakiyev himself came to power after 2005 protests which ousted Kyrgyzstan's first post-Soviet President Askar Akayev. Both men were accused by their opponents of concentrating power in the hands of their associates.

Political unrest over poverty, rising prices and corruption has gripped Kyrgyzstan since early March. About a third of the population live below the poverty line and remittances from workers in Russia have fallen during the global economic crisis.

The opposition said at least 100 people had been killed on Wednesday in clashes that have spread since last month across the ex-Soviet Central Asian country that hosts a U.S. military air base supporting troops in Afghanistan, and a Russian base.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin earlier denied Russia -- a major donor to Kyrgyzstan along with Washington and neighboring China -- had played a hand in the clashes.

"Neither Russia, nor your humble servant, nor Russian officials have any links whatsoever to these events," Putin was quoted as saying by RIA news agency.

SHOOTING

Kyrgyz troops earlier shot at thousands of anti-government protesters who tried to smash two trucks through the perimeter fence of government buildings, a Reuters reporter said.

Around 1,000 people stormed the prosecutor-general's office before setting fire to the building. Opposition activists also took control of state television channel KTR.

"There are dozens of dead bodies, all with gunshot wounds," Akylbek Yeukebayev, a doctor at a Bishkek hospital told Reuters.

Many of the injured had gunshot wounds to their heads. "They are killing us," said one wounded man on the emergency ward.

"About 100 people were killed today, possibly more. What kind of negotiations with the government can we talk about when they are killing our people?," prominent opposition and human rights campaigner Toktoaim Umetaliyeza told Reuters.

The Kyrgyz Health Ministry said the official death toll in Bishkek was 40, with around 400 injured across the country.

Protesters seized government buildings in three other towns. In Talas, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Aklybek Japarov and Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev were beaten. Kongantiyev was forced to shout: "Down with Bakiyev!," two witnesses said.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov earlier told Reuters by phone that he and the president were working in their offices.

"We daren't even look out of the window," Kamil Sydykov, the prime minister's spokesman, said by telephone from inside the presidential building.

European security watchdog, the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe, chaired by neighboring Kazakhstan, called for calm and offered to broker any negotiations.

"The OSCE recognizes that there are political, economic and social issues underlying the unrest, which need to be addressed through broad political dialogue. The Organization stands ready to facilitate such a dialogue," Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev told Kyrgyz counterpart Kadyrbek Sarbayev by telephone.

Analysts said the violence was likely to continue.

"Given (Bakiyev's) resolve in recent years to concentrate power in his hands only, it is difficult to see how a political compromise may be found," Lilit Gevorgyan, political analyst at IHS Global Insight.

Smoke from burning buildings and makeshift bonfires billowed around the capital of the ex-Soviet state of 5.3 million people.

Around 5,000 people were in the center of Bishkek, some carrying rifles and holding red-and-yellow Kyrgyz flags, beyond a curfew which came into effect at 8 p.m. (1400 GMT). Some shops and restaurants in the main square were looted.

The protests spread to the capital after riots which began in Talas and Naryn the day before and continued into Wednesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bishkek last week and called on the government to do more to protect human rights.

"The secretary-general is shocked by the reported deaths and injuries that have occurred today in Kyrgyzstan. He urgently appeals for dialogue and calm to avoid further bloodshed," Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov in Bishkek; Guy Faulconbridge; Amie Ferris-Rotman and Conor Sweeney in Moscow; Sylvia Westall in Vienna; Writing by Robin Paxton and Alison Williams; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)

If Mayweather drops drug test issue, fight is on – Arum

Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum told the media gathered in Los Angeles Wednesday that the only thing that would pave the way for having the megabuck fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. is if the American drops his drug-testing demands.

"(If Mayweather) stops the nonsense," said Arum, the much-awaited showdown between the current pound-for-pound king and the former holder of that mythical title, will take place.

Talking to fighthype, Arum said a clearer picture of what lies ahead for Pacquiao should be known after the May 10 elections. Pacquiao is running for a congress seat in Sarangani province.

Arum said that while a November date is being looked at, Pacquiao could fight as early as September although a win in the elections would push the fight back to November.

"October is out because of the World Series (of baseball)," said Arum.

Pacquiao-Mayweather was close to being done but a last-minute demand by Mayweather for Olympic-style drug testing to be done on them was the deal-breaker.

Pacquiao contested that there was no reason for him to undergo such tests since he has never even tested positive for a banned substance in all of his 18 fights on US soil.

Arum said Mayweather is on top of the list of priorities, while also being looked at are Antonio Margarito and Juan Manuel Marquez and possibly the winner of the June superwelterweight battle between Miguel Cotto and Yuri Foreman.

It is widely believed that Pacquiao is in the final phase of his storied career and that the Mayweather fight will be his last ring appearance.

Pinay boxer in Holyfield-Botha undercard

MANILA, Philippines – Filipino-American pugilist Crystal Hoy is set to face American Jennifer Han in the undercard of "The Legend Returns," which features Evander Holyfield of the US and South African Francois Botha in the main event.

Alcano, Corteza progress in Fujairah World 8-Ball

MANILA, Philippines – Ronnie "Volcano" Alcano and Lee Van "The Slayer" Corteza progressed in the Etisalat WPA World 8-Ball Pool Championship 2010 in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates (UAE), making it to the knockout phase Round of 32.

Talk 'N Text wins to make MVP 'happy'

MANILA, Philippines -- Shawn Daniels delivered an all-around performance for Talk 'N Text to lead his team to a 100-92 win over Alaska Wednesday night in the KFC-PBA Fiesta Conference at the Cuneta Astrodome in Pasay City.

N.B.A. Roundup: Raptors' Bosh Injured in Crucial Loss to Cavaliers

from NYT > Pro Basketball by By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Bosh was accidentally struck by Cleveland's Antawn Jamison in the first three minutes. Bosh, who had blood dripping from his nose and mouth area as he was helped from the floor, was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for a CT scan.

After the game, the Raptors said in a statement that tests showed Bosh had suffered a "maxilla and nasal fracture to the right side of his face." Bosh, who returned to Quicken Loans Arena in the fourth quarter, was to stay in a hospital overnight for evaluation.

Jamison scored 20 points — 12 in the third, when the Cavs opened a double-digit lead — and Anthony Parker had a season-high 18.

LeBron James scored 19 with 13 assists and Mo Williams had 14 points and 12 assists for Cleveland, which has clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and is expected to rest players in the next few games.

Jarrett Jack scored 23 for the Raptors, who also lost forward Antoine Wright in the third quarter with an ankle injury.

The Raptors began the night clinging to the No. 8 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has a tough week ahead with games against Boston, Atlanta and the Chicago Bulls, who also lost and remained one game behind the Raptors in the standings.

BOBCATS 109, HAWKS 100 Gerald Wallace scored 28 points and Boris Diaw nearly had a triple-double as host Charlotte ensured its first nonlosing season in its six-year history. Diaw had 17 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists for the Bobcats (41-36), who inched closer to their first playoff berth and can finish no worse than .500.

Maurice Evans scored 20 points and Jamal Crawford 18 for Atlanta.

BUCKS 79, BULLS 74 John Salmons scored 26 points against his former team, and visiting Milwaukee, playing for the first time since center Andrew Bogut was injured, clinched its first playoff berth since the 2005-6 season.

WIZARDS 112, WARRIORS 94 Nick Young scored a season-high 29 points and JaVale McGee set career highs with 25 points and 15 rebounds for host Washington. Golden State Coach Don Nelson remained tied with Lenny Wilkens at 1,332 victories, the most among N.B.A. coaches.

PISTONS 124, 76ERS 103 Charlie Villanueva scored 25 points, Rodney Stuckey had 24 and Ben Wallace a season-high 18 as visiting Detroit ended an 11-game losing streak.

ACTING COACH AILING Adrian Dantley, the Denver Nuggets' acting head coach, missed practice because of a kidney stone, though a team spokesman said Dantley would probably be on the job Wednesday against the Thunder in Oklahoma City.

The Nuggets' regular coach, George Karl, is nearing the end of a six-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy for throat cancer. Dantley has coached 14 games this season.

SPURS' PARKER RETURNS Spurs guard Tony Parker, who broke his shooting hand March 6, returned for San Antonio's game against the Kings in Sacramento. George Hill, the Spurs' backup point guard, sprained his right ankle Sunday and will miss at last two games. The Spurs were 11-5 without Parker.

"Battle of Mactan" set April 27

Lapu-Lapu City will mark the "Battle of Mactan on April 27," the final day of the "Kadaugan sa Mactan" festivities, with movie and television personalities playing the roles of Datu Lapu-Lapu, Lapu-Lapu's wife Bulakna, and Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Party list's appeal: 'Respect Baby James' childhood'

MANILA, PhilippinesSpare Baby James from ridicule and politics, a party-list group for childrens rights and welfare said Wednesday.

In a statement, the Akap-Bata party noted that people seemed to be making fun of a recent news item about Baby James, son of TV host Kris Aquino who is a sister of front-running presidential candidate Benigno Noynoy Aquino III, shouting the name of his uncles closest rival Manny Villar at a recent campaign rally.

The party said it found videos on the Internet showing Baby James shouting Villar with the caption, "Baby James: Secret Supporter of Villar," and photos of Baby James holding a placard with the tag "I Love Villar"spreading through YouTube, Facebook, blogs and other websites.

Dr. Joy Alcantara, first nominee of Akap Bata, said she and her partymates were concerned with how these images might affect the child.

He is still innocent. On the Internet, all these people are doing these things and he needs to be protected from that. Its just too much, Alcantara said.

She added they were confident the childs mother was perfectly capable of protecting her child from ridicule.

What worries us the most are the possible immediate and long-term effects of this incident on Baby James. We are appealing to those people playing up this issue and have been spreading and ridiculing Baby James to please leave Baby James alone and respect his innocence and childhood, Alcantara said.

The group said it saw nothing wrong with bringing Baby James to political activities.

Akap Bata also supported Kris statement to spare her son from politics. It said that putting words into the mouth of Baby James exploited his innocence and violated his rights as a child.

We are calling on all individuals and groups that have been ridiculing and giving meaning to the words of Baby James to stop these activities and keep him out of all the election controversies. We hope that the coming elections will prioritize protection of every childs welfare and interests.

Alcantara added that the incident should serve as a learnig experience for everyone.

As elders, we must be concerned with all possible effects of our actions on our children. Instead of making big issues out of the acts of Baby James, we must set a good example and be mature enough to start ending this controversy, Alcantara said.

Alcantaras group has asked Villars camp permission to use his Dagat ng Basura jingle for its own TV ad. But the group denied it was being funded by Villar.

Kris Aquino told to guide Baby James well

MANILA, Philippines – Akap Bata, the sole party-list for children's rights and welfare, on Wednesday called on the public to stop dragging the 2-year-old son of Kris Aquino into the messy world of politics.

Noynoy's sis, GF hurt by mudslinging

MANILA, Philippines - Black propaganda being hurled against Liberal Party standard-bearer Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III is taking a toll on Aquino's loved ones including his sister, Pinky Aquino-Abellada, and girlfriend, Shalani Soledad.

Edu Manzano's brother dies

SAN FERNANDO CITY, Pampanga (UPDATE) Administration vice presidential candidate Edu Manzano will take an indefinite leave from campaigning to attend the wake and burial of his brother who died in the United States.

Attending a sortie here Wednesday, the television host said he was due to fly to California Thursday.

Adrian, 64, died of aneurism, Manzano said.

Manzano was with standard-bearer Gilbert Teodoro and senatorial candidates Raul Lambino, Rey Langit, and Silvestre Bello III when informed of the news.

Mike Arroyo discharged from hospital, told to lose weight

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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) First Gentlemen Miguel Mike Arroyo left St. Lukes Hospital in Taguig City around noon Wednesday with strict instructions from his doctors to lose weight.

Aortic redissection might recur if he does not meet his ideal body weight which might trigger other symptoms like intense back pain and high blood pressure, said Doctor Juliet Gopez-Cervantes, main attending physician who spoke for a team of doctors who took care of Arroyo.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, accompanied by one of her grandchildren, picked up her husband.

The First Gentleman clad in blue shirt looked slimmer while the President, in a sky blue top, appeared in high spirits.

They left the hospital around noon after a photo op with the team of doctors.

Gopez-Cervantes said the First Gentleman wore a flesh-colored corset to stabilize his abdomen and lower back on the ride back to Malacaang.

Doctor Gary Lopez, cardiologist, said the Presidents husband lost about three kilos in over two weeks of confinement.

Lopez said Arroyo should still lose more to meet his ideal weight to prevent another redissection.

Gopez-Cervantes said the First Gentleman would be doing physical therapy in St. Lukes three times a week to help him get well. His therapy is set to start Thursday, she said.

Is KC the new co-host of 'The Buzz'?

MANILA, Philippines - Is showbiz royalty KC Concepcion the newest co-host of ABS-CBN's weekly entertainment show "The Buzz"?

Suspect in Nida Blanca murder dies

MANILA, Philippines - Philip Medel, a suspect in the killing of actress Nida Blanca in November 2001, died in Pasig City General Hospital Wednesday night.

Veteran comedian Palito in critical condition in hospital

Ilang linggo nang nakaratay sa ospital ang beteranong komedyanteng si Palito! Wala na nga ang sigla ng dating komedyante na larawan ng matinding kahirapan at pagdurusa. 

Family of ailing Palito appeals for financial aid

MANILA, Philippines - Seasoned comedian Palito, or Reynaldo Hipolito in real life, was rushed to a hospital on Tuesday after complaining of severe stomach pain.

Tennis legend Navratilova diagnosed with breast cancer

WASHINGTON -- Tennis legend Martina Navratilova revealed Wednesday she has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gene links lower birth weight and diabetes: study

Scientists have found two genetic regions that affect a baby's size at birth and say one of them is also linked with developing diabetes in later life.

Sandra Bullock's divorce reluctance

Sandra Bullock is reportedly reluctant to divorce Jesse James over fears he will sell a story on her. The Oscar-winning actress - who has been left devastated by allegations the motorcycle enthusiast cheated on her with at least 4 other women - has allegedly told friends their almost 5-year marriage is over but is scared to call in the lawyers as she's worried he will get his revenge.

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