Now for some good news

Democracy returns to Afghanistan after 30 years... Chocolate helps reduce the risk of heart disease... House prices are on the rise again... Belfast hosts gay wedding... More trains are running on time... Dramatic fall in the fear of crime... The corncrake returns to Britain's shores... 60 per cent of tsunami victims find new jobs
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The Independent Online

By Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul

Former warlords, ex-communists, Taliban defectors and women activists were sworn in yesterday as members of the first parliament in Afghanistan in more than 30 years amid hopes of national reconciliation after decades of bloodshed.

The inauguration was peaceful, despite threats by Taliban guerrillas, and was greeted with tears of emotion although there is disappointment that many in the parliament are accused of serious rights abuses and links to the drugs trade.

"This meeting is a sign of us regaining our honour," President Hamid Karzai said after swearing in the 351 lower and upper house members. He added: "It means a lot. It means progress, it means achievement, it means togetherness." He urged national reconciliation after almost three decades of warfare and reiterated a call to the Taliban to abandon their insurgency, which has intensified in the past year.

Parliament has to endorse Mr Karzai's ministers, and government officials said after the inauguration he was considering reshuffling his cabinet and cutting the number of ministries.

Analysts say Mr Karzai appears to have support in parliament to avoid major problems, but could face difficulties given disappointment at his administration's failure to improve people's lives and carry out crucial reforms. The inauguration was the culmination of a UN-backed plan to bring democracy to the state, drawn up after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.

Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, who attended the inauguration after a visit to Washington's more troubled front in Iraq, said the US was committed to supporting Afghanistan for the long term. In Washington, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said in a statement: "The extremist elements who threatened to disrupt Afghanistan's electoral process and democratic institutions have failed."

Security was tight after a Taliban suicide attack near parliament on Friday and a vow by the guerrillas for more attacks on "a symbol of American occupation".

The the frail, 91-year-old former king, Zahir Shah - overthrown in 1973 by his cousin Daud Khan, who dissolved the last parliament - delivered the first speech to the new one. "I thank God that today I am participating in a ceremony that is a step towards rebuilding Afghanistan."

Shukria Barakzai, one of two women among more than a dozen MPs bidding to head the lower house, called it a "momentous day". Sixty-eight lower house seats were reserved for women but critics have doubts about parliament's overall composition.

Human Rights Watch says up to 60 per cent of deputies are warlords or their proxies, boding ill for efforts to account for abuses and to stamp out a massive drugs trade. Malalai Joya, a 27-year-old MP, said she was upset by an assembly of "warlords, war criminals and drug lords" and vowed to reveal their crimes, or resign.

Yunus Qanuni, a former factional official whose forces have been accused of abuses, called the term "warlord" outmoded. "The vote of people should be respected," he said, appearing to underline fears that some MPs will try to block efforts to bring war criminals to justice.

Opinions differed amongst Afghans. Abdul Karim, 40, said: "It was decided by the US. It won't be able to do anything for Afghans because lots of MPs are illiterate and most are warlords who know nothing except killing people." REUTERS

GAY WEDDINGS

By David McKittrick, Ireland correspondent

Inside Belfast city hall two women exchanged vows: outside, supporters and opponents furiously disputed whether their action was a beautiful thing or an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

Evangelical Christians fanned out behind a banner declaring "Homosexuality is sin" while a large van played hymns and displayed posters urging sinners to repent. But the protests from religious hardliners could not diminish the impact of a historic breakthrough in civil rights.

For the first time ever on British soil, a gay couple, Shannon Sickles and Grainne Close, were able to formalise their relationship in the eyes of the law. Through a legal technicality Belfast was yesterday thrust into the unaccustomed role of being a social and sexual pioneer, hosting the first civil partnership ceremonies. More than 600 other couples will follow suit around the UK today and tomorrow.

Both the pro-gay and anti-gay communities turned out to make their feelings known. But by the end of the day the well-wishers prevailed over the ill-wishers. Ms Sickles and Ms Close grinned broadly as their taxi edged back through the crowd.

It all began staidly enough but things became more heated when the two sides were corralled together at the back gate. There, sober-suited members of the Rev Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian church became entangled with some of the more exuberant members of Belfast's gay community. Little skirmishes broke out, mostly rhetorical. "I was assaulted," a prominent gay rights activist complained indignantly. "That man pushed me and said, 'I'll push you again, you fruit you.'"

But there was next to no physical stuff, apart from outbreaks of finger-jabbing.

"Fornicators, that's what you are," a man in a pork-pie hat said angrily. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves." A young gay man said: "This is about love."

"No, it's about filth - filth," a man in a cap responded. "You will be burning in hell," the young man was solemnly warned.

Inside the city hall, which aptly enough is often described as having the shape of a wedding cake, two female and one male couple were going through the first set of civil partnership ceremonies for gays in the UK.

The Paisleyites momentarily seized the initiative with a spirited burst of hymn-singing. Their opponents responded by singing: "We wish you a merry Christmas."

HOUSE PRICES RISING

By Susie Mesure

There are growing signs that life is creeping back into the housing market, which appears to have avoided the slump that some pundits had feared during 2005.

Homeowners' hopes for a revival in the value of their properties are boosted today by a survey showing house prices rose in November for the first time in 15 months.

Chartered surveyors said they were more confident about the outlook for prices than at any time in the past 18 months, signalling the housing market has turned the corner.

The upbeat message from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) chimes with recent figures from Halifax, the country's biggest mortgage lender, which showed house prices had risen by nearly 5 per cent in the six months to November.

Retailers believe it is crucial for house prices to stabilise for consumers to embark on major spending sprees.

The first increase in the number of properties sold in 16 months is tipping the balance of power from buyers to sellers, Rics said. Last month, 1 per cent more homes changed hands as the stock of unsold properties continued to edge down from its April high.

Ian Perry, Rics spokesman, said: "All the numbers point to renewed price rises. There is a universal expectation from agents that interest rates are heading down in the new year, which is providing the market with confidence. The biggest increases have been seen in London where city bonuses are expected to help the market in the coming months."

Rics, which correctly forecast that prices would rise about 3 per cent this year, is forecasting house price inflation of 4 per cent in 2006 and 2007. This is more bullish than the Nationwide, which expects average price rises across the country of between zero and 3 per cent, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders, which has pencilled in 2 per cent for the next two years.

George Buckley, UK economist at Deutsche Bank, said: "We have had the soft landing. Rises in the number of mortgage approvals and the ratio of property sales to the stock of unsold property suggest house price growth should be stronger than it is. They are both telling you house prices should be rising between 5 and 15 per cent per year."

TSUNAMI RECOVERY

By Maxine Frith

Social Affairs Correspondent

The economies of tsunami-hit countries are recovering from the disaster at a much faster rate than expected, according to a new report.

Almost two-thirds of the people who lost their jobs as a result of the tragedy are already back in work, the analysis by Oxfam found. The charity said that the huge public response to the tsunami had prevented millions of people from falling into poverty over the past year.

The Boxing Day disaster killed more than 224,000 people and left a further 1.6 million homeless.

At the time, aid agencies warned that the scale of the damage to the economies of some countries was so great that two million people were in danger of being pushed into poverty.

One million jobs were lost and 64,000 hectares of agricultural land were damaged or contaminated as a result of flooding.

In Aceh, Indonesia, unemployment rose from 7 per cent to 33 per cent, while the jobless rate in some districts of Sri Lanka doubled to one in five of the population.

The worst affected livelihoods were fishing, small scale farming, labouring work and tourism.

Charities on the ground have spent months rebuilding boats, desalinating land and retraining small communities in new trades and crafts to enable them to become sustainable.

The Oxfam analysis on the progress of the aid effort found that, as the first anniversary of the tsunami approached, 60 per cent of people who lost their jobs are now in employment.

The fish catch in Sri Lanka, which fell by 95 per cent in the months after the huge wave struck, is now back up to 70 per cent of its previous level.

Almost 70 per cent of the fishing boats that were destroyed or damaged in Aceh have been repaired or replaced.

Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam, said: "Getting people back to work, as well as giving them an income and some control their future, has been critical in helping them deal with the trauma of what happened." She added: "The public's generous response and the resilience of local people has made the rebuilding of people's livelihoods one of the most impressive aspects of the entire aid operation."

In the first nine months following the tsunami, Oxfam spent £15m on projects designed to help people back into work.

While some reports have been critical of the way in which aid was distributed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Oxfam analysis highlighted the success of long-term projects in the worst-hit countries.

The charity estimates that it will take up to five years for the soil in some tsunami countries to return to full productivity. While 1.4 million people were pushed over the poverty line by the events of 26 December last year, economists believe that 70 per cent of them will be restored to their previous status by 2007.

FEAR OF CRIME IS FALLING

By Nigel Morris, Home Affairs Correspondent

The number of people who worry about serious crime and antisocial behaviour is falling sharply, according to Home Office research.

Just 16 per cent of adults now say they worry that they will become a victim of violent crime, compared with 21 per cent two years ago. Falls in rates for vehicle and property crime have also had a knock-on effect on public confidence - 13 per cent say they worry about car crime (down from 17 per cent) and 12 per cent fear being burgled (down from 15 per cent).

The figures, based on British Crime Survey (BCS) research, were disclosed in a Home Office performance report. All measures suggest that lower-level crime is dropping, while the number of violent offences recorded by the police is climbing.

But ministers will be heartened that the public's confidence in its safety is growing. They will also be encouraged that public fears over antisocial behaviour appear to be dropping.

Two years ago more than one in five adults (21 per cent) said they were very worried about levels of yobbery and vandalism in their areas. Following an increase in antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) handed out, 17 per cent say they fear yobbery in their communities.

Confidence in the police has increased (from 47 per cent to 49 per cent) and in the criminal justice system (from 39 per cent to 43 per cent). The BCS interviews 40,000 people every year about their experiences of crime.

RETURN OF THE CORNCRAKE

Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

Its call is one of the long-lost sounds of the summer, and at last it is coming back. In 2005 one of Britain's most threatened bird species, the corncrake, had its best breeding year since efforts began to halt its precipitous decline nearly three decades ago.

Related to the moorhen and coot, the browny-grey corncrake was common in hayfields everywhere till the 20th century, although its skulking behaviour meant it was heard rather than seen. Its rasping call was as familiar in the countryside as a skylark's song.

But intensive farming devastated its numbers and by the early 1970s it had retreated to a last stronghold in the Scottish Western Isles, where its numbers continued to fall: by 1993 only 470 calling males were recorded, and the species, which migrates here for the summer from Africa, seemed to be on the brink of extinction in the UK.

However, concentrated efforts at preserving the birds, mainly on islands such as Lewis and the Uists in the Outer Hebrides, and the Inner Hebridean islands of Coll and Tiree, are now paying dividends.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Scottish Natural Heritage, the Government wildlife watchdog, have joined forces with local farmers and crofters to provide just the right conditions (such as undisturbed hay meadows). This year the population has exceeded 1,100 for the first time. Figures from the 2005 survey of the birds show a total of 1,108 calling males- the highest number recorded in 27 years of monitoring the species. Tiree holds the most birds, with a total of 310 calling males recorded.

Environmentalists hope that the corncrake may also be on its way back in England, where the bird has long been presumed extinct, although that will be a much slower process.

Captive-bred birds have been released in the Nene Washes in the Cambridgeshire Fens, and in 2004 at least one pair returned from Africa to breed. This year a male was heard calling, and breeding was suspected, but was not proved.

CHOCOLATE IS GOOD FOR YOU

By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

It is a research finding that will gladden the hearts of chocoholics. A few squares of the dark stuff every day cuts the risk of serious cardiovascular disease.

Unfortunately the finding only applies to smokers who avoid consuming other foods that might possibly do them good such as onions, apples, and cabbage.

These foods, like dark chocolate, contain high levels of antioxidants which are known to be good for the heart.

However, dark chocolate contains more anti-oxidants, gram for gram than other foods better known for their health-giving properties such as red wine, green tea and berry fruits, the researchers say in the journal Heart.

MORE TRAINS ARE ON TIME

Barrie Clement, Transport Editor

The good news for rail passengers is that Britain's railway network is finally hitting the punctuality levels achieved before the Hatfield disaster in 2000.

The latest figures from the Office of Rail Regulation show that 87 per cent of trains ran on time between July and September, compared with 83.3 per cent in the same period last year.

Network Rail believes that it will hit its 90 per cent target by March 2009 on a consistent basis.

Passengers are also happier with the service they are getting. Complaints per 100,000 journeys between July and September also decreased for the long-distance operators by 5.8 per cent (although they increased for regional operators by 5.0 per cent).

Seven train operators ran fewer trains on time this summer compared with last year, but 16 companies improved punctuality.

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