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Briefs (left)

Hearings Continue
in Kickback Scandal

By Raymond Bonner

The high-profile hearings into accusations that an Australian wheat company, AWB Ltd., paid $200 million in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s government under the United Nations’ oil-for-food program became even more dramatic on Monday with the appearance of the deputy prime minister, Mark Vaile.

Vaile, who is also minister of trade, was asked whether he knew about the kickbacks and about his harsh rejection three years ago of public suggestions by American wheat growers that AWB was paying kickbacks. He responded repeatedly to questions with the answer, “I don’t recollect.”

Adding to the tension, Prime Minister John Howard announced that he had been asked to give a written statement to the commission, the first Australian leader since 1984 to have been asked to give testimony to a judicial inquiry.

“I do not believe, on the information known to me, that any of my ministers have been guilty of dereliction of duty and I am very, very happy to provide a statement and, if asked, to appear,” Howard said on Monday morning.

The lawyers involved in the case will review Howard’s statement to decide whether to request that he be called as a witness. The decision will rest with Terence Cole, chief of the investigating commission.

At Least 45 Killed in Consumer
Fair Fire

By Hari Kumar

At least 45 people burned to death and more than 100 were injured on Monday when fire engulfed three tents during an electronics consumer fair in Meerut, in northern India. Officials said the death toll could rise.

The fire was caused by an electrical short circuit in a cluster of tents displaying television sets, air-conditioners, washing machines, and other appliances popular with newly-affluent Indians. The five-day exhibit, about 50 miles northeast of New Delhi, had been billed the Brand India Consumer Show.

“Unfortunately, the dead include a large number of women and children,” R.M. Srivastav, the Uttar Pradesh home secretary, told a Hindi-language news channel.

Television showed a heap of badly charred bodies and thick black smoke over the tents. Weeping relatives combed the tents for missing family members.

Consumer fairs have become increasingly popular in small Indian towns, as economic growth and rising disposable income increase demand for consumer electronics.

U.N. Finds 25 Percent of Syrian
Wives Have Been Abused

By Katherine Zoepf

Syria’s first comprehensive study of violence against women has concluded that nearly one married woman in four surveyed had been beaten. The study was released last week as part of a report on Syria by the U.N. Development Fund for Women.

The findings have been published in local news media, helping to draw attention to topics, like domestic abuse and honor killings, that have long been considered taboo in this conservative society.

The study was carried out under the supervision of the quasi-governmental General Union of Women, which oversees the welfare of Syria’s women. The study included nearly 1,900 families, selected as a random sample, including a broad range of income levels and all regions. The men and women in each family were questioned separately.