The Spectator

Portrait of the Week - 28 August 2004

A speedy round-up of the week's news

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Mr Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, visited Sudan, seeing some refugees in one of the better camps in Darfur, and meeting the Prime Minister and minister for foreign affairs; he confirmed that British troops would not be sent to Sudan. Sir Mark Thatcher Bt, the son of Lady Thatcher, was arrested by South African police investigating an attempted coup against Equatorial Guinea. Nearly 140,000 immigrants from outside the European Union were granted leave to settle permanently in Britain last year, 20 per cent up on the year before; the total in five years is about half a million. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in English at school rose to 77 per cent (up from 75) and in maths to 74 per cent (from 73). British Airways averted a bank-holiday strike by check-in staff, but dozens of flights at Heathrow were cancelled during the week through staff shortages. British Gas said household gas bills would rise by 12.4 per cent and electricity by 9.4 per cent from 20 September. UK Coal, which operates most British coalmines, complained that planning permission for open-cast mines has become virtually impossible to obtain even though the rising price of coal has made new sites economically possible. Old people were unable to draw their pensions when an electronic system imposed on post offices by the government broke down. It was said that Shanghai Automotive, China’s biggest car makers, wanted to take over MG Rover. It was said that Asda’s sale of clothing had outstripped that of Marks & Spencer, but the statement relied on estimates of items sold, not on value, which for Marks & Spencer stands at £4 billion a year, against Asda’s £1 billion. Kelly Holmes won an Olympic gold medal in the 800 metres in Athens, the first British woman to triumph on the Olympic track since Sally Gunnell in 1992. Grain harvests were delayed and spoiled by continuing wet weather.

The Iraqi interior ministry announced that the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf was in the hands of police, who had arrested 400 fighters of the Mahdi army; but it was not so. Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the militia’s leader, said that he was willing to hand over the key to the mosque to senior Shia clergy, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had gone to London for medical treatment. American troops backed by Iraqi government forces continued to close in on the mosque. Hundreds of thousands of refugees remained in camps in the Darfur region of Sudan because they feared to return to their villages lest they be attacked by Arab forces tolerated by the government; heavy rains added to their problems, while crops went unplanted. At talks in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, agreement could not be reached in sending a force to Sudan under African Union command. Two Russian aeroplanes crashed at the same time in different places, killing all 89 aboard. A version of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ was stolen by armed robbers from the Munch Museum in Oslo; another version was stolen from Norway’s National Gallery in 1994. The Socialist government of Spain announced plans to grant residence permits to about 800,000 illegal immigrant workers. Germany made plans to join Belgium, Holland and Finland in dropping the use of one cent and two cent coins, which cost more to produce than their face value. Researchers at the University of Mississippi found that blueberries cut down harmful cholesterol by means of a chemical called pterostilbene. China became a net importer of farm produce in the first six months of the year; grain harvests have been falling every year since 1998. The Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation was obliged to suspend live broadcasts because of a plague of fleas in its studios.

CSH