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Since opening its doors to Syrians fleeing war, Sweden has welcomed record numbers of refugees and a small but growing group are taking fast-tracks to jobs, bucking unemployment trends.

Rami Sabbagh, an energetic 31-year-old financial analyst, fled the Syrian capital Damascus after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad put his name on a wanted list for helping refugees from the city's bombed-out suburbs.

Just over two years later -- clad in dark jeans and a leather jacket -- he leads the way to a plush meeting room in Spotify's sleek Stockholm headquarters.

The music streaming giant hired him in March after a four-month job placement.

"Four years ago I would never have imagined ending up in Sweden," he told AFP, recalling how his life was changed by the civil war that erupted in his country in 2011.

"My career was moving forward, I'd been promoted at my bank, I had my own apartment, my own car and my family there. I had a life," he added.


"But some things force you to move forward, just leave everything behind and try to start a new life."

When he arrived in the southern Sweden town of Malmo in December 2012, migration authorities placed him in a village 1,200 kilometres (800 miles) farther north where he waited for his residence permit, struggling with boredom and longing to get to the city.

Papers in hand eight months later, he used family contacts to find a room in Stockholm and spent a year studying Swedish, working in odd jobs and applying for positions at English-speaking companies before starting Korta Vagen (Short Cut), a fast-track state-funded programme for university graduates that led to Spotify.


- More qualified refugees -


In September 2013, Sweden threw its doors open to Syrians, granting them near automatic residency and boosting overall asylum applications -- the highest per capita in the EU according to Eurostat -- to record levels.

Since then, more than 40,000 Syrians have arrived -- including 30,000 out of last year's 80,000 refugees -- amid growing concerns over housing shortages and lengthening queues at employment offices.





A drug nicknamed the "female Viagra" because it could help increase women's sex drive, will be discussed for a third time at a meeting of an advisory committee to US regulators Thursday.

If the US Food and Drug Administration gives flibanserin the go-ahead, it would be the first drug on the market to boost female libido.

But two attempts at bringing the drug to market have already failed in 2010 and 2013, given what experts described as inconclusive advantages when compared to a placebo.

Flibanserin, which is aimed at pre-menopausal women, also can have significant side effects including nausea, dizziness and sleepiness.

On Thursday, a committee of advisors to the FDA will hear more evidence from clinical studies and from experts both for and against the drug.

It will vote at the end of the day on whether or not the FDA should approve the drug, a decision that is non-binding but is usually followed by the regulatory agency.

After it was initially rejected by the FDA, flibanserin was sold by its developer, the German laboratory Boehringer Ingelheim, to a US firm called Sprout Pharmaceuticals.

For this latest attempt at approval, Sprout Pharmaceuticals is presenting research that shows the medication does not affect women's ability to drive.

According to documents on the FDA website that describe a previous study of the drug, women taking flibanserin reported on average 4.4 sexually satisfying encounters per month, compared to 3.7 in a placebo group and 2.7 before beginning the study.

The difference between flibanserin and a sugar pill was deemed statistically insignificant in 2010 after a debate among the committee members which included seven women and four men.



A replica of the Hermione, the French ship that transported General Lafayette to America in 1780 to rally US rebels battling for independence, arrives Friday in the Virginia town where British forces eventually surrendered.

The three-masted tall ship is expected to dock at roughly 8:00 am (1200 GMT) in Yorktown for its first official stop in the United States.

The Chesapeake Bay port town is where American forces led by George Washington and French soldiers accompanied by Lafayette scored a decisive victory over the British in 1781, prompting their capitulation.

The ship left France in mid-April, embarking on an Atlantic crossing to retrace the voyage made by French general Gilbert du Motier -- the Marquis de Lafayette -- 235 years ago before he arrived on US soil to help America's rebels.

"Lafayette is remembered as 'the French hero of the American Revolution'," said historian Laura Auricchio, author of "The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered."

"He has come to embody the long and honorable legacy of French-American friendship."

- 'Lafayette is everywhere in the US' -

The general, who was born in 1757 to a noble family in south-central France, joined the American Revolution at age 19, inspired by the cause.


"Lafayette is everywhere in the United States. Scores of cities, towns, counties, villages, parks, schools and streets carry his name or variants on it," Auricchio said.

A symbol of more than two centuries of Franco-American alliance, the Hermione will be feted as it makes 11 stops on the US East Coast over the next month or so, including in Philadelphia and Boston. It will also make a stop in Canada.

The high point of the celebrations will take place in New York, where the Hermione will be escorted by hundreds of sail and motor boats past the Statue of Liberty during a July 4 parade to mark US Independence Day.

On Tuesday, the frigate was given a welcome by the US Navy's USS Mitscher off Norfolk in Virginia.

Tribute was also paid to sailors who died in the Battle of the Capes -- fought between the British and French near the mouth of the Chesapeake -- several weeks before the decisive Battle of Yorktown began.

- Cognac on board -

According to the Hermione's website, the boat has since been in Norfolk following its 3,700-mile (6,000-kilometer) journey across the Atlantic, where it will go through customs before departing for Yorktown.

On Friday, the Hermione will be welcomed with a 21-gun salute followed by a ceremony attend by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and French Ecology Minister Segolene Royal.

A wreath will be placed in honor of those who died in the Battle of Yorktown.


Francophiles, history buffs and tall ship fans are expected for three days of festivities that will include tours of the Hermione, actors dressed as Washington or Lafayette, and fife and drum music.



The little Belgian town of Waterloo is feverishly preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of one of history's greatest battles, hoping it can reclaim its name from a London railway station and an ABBA song.

Two centuries after it became famous as the place where "Napoleon did surrender," the former farming village has become a sleepy suburb 25 kilometres (17 miles) south of the capital Brussels, with a population of 30,000.

But now its shop windows are full of pictures of the French emperor's famous two-horned hats and little Napoleons perched on white stallions, ahead of several days of huge celebrations later this month.

After years of relative obscurity there is a feeling that Waterloo is finally facing its fate as a historic tourism draw.

"I've lived in Waterloo for 50 years and I've always known the story of Napoleon," retiree Antoine Delsemme told AFP in the small town centre. "But all this will attract people, it will make the town better known and that will profit the inhabitants, especially shop-owners. That's very good."



While the battle is commonly known as Waterloo, the town itself was only the headquarters of the Duke of Wellington, who led the allied British and Prussian forces.

Most of the actual fighting in fact took place in neighbouring villages.

And it is there, several miles south of Waterloo on the plain of Mont-Saint-Jean, that the busiest preparations are underway for the commemorative events which are expected to draw around 200,000 people, a quarter of them foreigners.


- Five thousand to re-enact battle -


A huge light-and-sound show called "Inferno" on June 18, and two days of battle re-enactments that follow on June 19 and 20 will take place in a huge bowl-shaped field full of tall grass.

For weeks workers have been setting up stands that will seat around 50,000 spectators per day -- more than the capacity of Belgium's national football stadium -- with still more standing.


From the peak from where Wellington led the British troops, it is only a few hundred metres to the Hougoumont and de la Haie-Sainte farms where the allied troops made their most heroic and bloody stands against French forces. Also nearby is the Belle Alliance inn that Napoleon used as his headquarters.

The two colossal re-enactments -- which will evoke the heat of a history-changing battle lasting a dozen hours, during which 45,000 people were killed or wounded -- will involve 5,500 enthusiasts in period uniforms from 52 countries.

Alongside them will be 100 cannon and 360 horses to lend authenticity.



Australian scientists said Wednesday they have uncovered a "very rare" 2,000-year-old natural sea pearl -- the first found on the vast island continent -- while excavating a remote coastal Aboriginal site.

Archaeologists were working the site on the north Kimberley coast of Western Australia when they came across the unique gem below the surface, said Kat Szabo, an associate professor at the University of Wollongong.

"Natural pearls are very rare in nature and we certainly -- despite many, many (oyster) shell middens being found in Australia -- we've never found a natural pearl before," Szabo, who specialises in studying shells at archaeological sites, told AFP.

A midden is a prehistoric refuse pit.

"The location makes it particularly significant because the Kimberley coast of Australia is synonymous with pearling, and has been for the better part of the last century."

The pink-and-gold-coloured pearl is almost spherical, with a five-millimetre diameter. Due to its near-perfect round shape, the researchers used a micro CT scan to test its age and prove that it was naturally occurring rather than a farmed modern cultured pearl.

The oysters that produce pearls have been used in rainmaking ceremonies in indigenous cultures, and their shells have been found in the central desert more than 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) away.



From stylish, manicured creations to small vegetable plots, gardens are taking to the rooftops of the South Korean capital Seoul -- bringing dashes of spontaneity and colour to the skyline of one of the world's most densely populated cities.

With help from the municipal government, otherwise largely drab buildings are being crowned with flower beds, allotments and trees, where the scent of fresh blossoms in the springtime can briefly mask the fumes from the traffic below.

The project has produced one of the largest rooftop gardens in Asia, Garden 5, which is spread across the top of four 10-storey buildings and linked by skywalks, with a total surface area equal to three football fields.

Inter-M Corp., a broadcasting and audio equipment maker housed in a grey, nondescript, seven-storey office building in northern Seoul, decided to convert their roof several years ago.



Completed in late 2013 at a cost of 110 million won ($100,000) -- half provided by City Hall -- the 450 square meter (4,840 square feet) garden boasts azalea, lilies, maple trees, herbs and two small pavilions.

Company spokesman Bae Seung-San said staff used it to unwind, while potential customers were taken to the roof as part of a sales pitch.

"When we have foreign buyers, we throw barbecue parties here, with music playing on our equipment," Bae said.

The municipal financial support comes with a rider -- any garden must be properly maintained and opened for public use within five years of its completion.

- The green fund -

Since the project began in 2002, the city government has spent more than 60 billion won ($57 million) helping to bankroll rooftop gardens, allotments or small ecological parks on more than 650 buildings around the city.




"We need more green, but don't really have the budget to buy the land for urban parks," said Bang Seong-Weon, a municipal official in charge of the Green Roof Construction programme.

"If you green the rooftops, land prices cease to be an issue," Bang said.

Home to 20 percent of South Korea's 50 million people, Seoul is a modern, thriving city with a population density nearly twice that of New York and eight times greater than Rome.

Largely destroyed in the 1950-53 Korean War, Seoul was rebuilt at a time of rapid industrialisation and laissez-faire urban planning that resulted in an uninspiring landscape of cookie-cutter apartment blocks and utilitarian office buildings.

In the last 10 to 15 years, efforts have been made to revitalise the city architecturally and environmentally with varying degrees of success.

Bang is keen to highlight the economic as well as environmental benefits of the roof gardens which both absorb heat and act as insulators for buildings, reducing energy needed to provide heating and cooling in Seoul's freezing winters and hot, humid summers.

"And they improve the landscape, giving people a sense of the changing seasons," he added.

- A roof for all seasons -

While other high-density Asian cities have also seen a turn to rooftop gardens, the scale of Seoul's programme sets it apart.




Gnarled and gnomish, the vines that produced the best white in one of the world's top wine competitions crouch low and untrellised amid more traditional vineyards in South Africa's scenic Cape winelands.

The Chenin Blanc made from these 40-year-old "bush vines" beat global competition across the full range of white wines to take the top spot in this year's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which tested a total of 8,000 wines.

Winemaker Reginald (RJ) Botha says the Kleine Zalze estate outside Stellenbosch set out to build a wine that tasted of "elegance".

Given that more than 320 experts from some 50 countries chose the 2013 Kleine Zalze Family Reserve as best white at the 22nd edition of the Concours Mondiale in Italy this month, they must have succeeded.

But elegance is not a word that springs to mind when looking at the denuded bush vines amid the autumnal beauty of the surrounding landscape.

Unlike trellised vines, they are three-dimensional, with at least five arms rather than two, and stand about knee-high.




Bush vines are less productive than trellised vines because they provide a greater canopy of leaf coverage to the fruit, and are also labour-intensive as they cannot be harvested by machine.

But their advocates say the lower yield and greater effort is worth it because the berries have much thicker skins and therefore produce more concentrated flavours.

"The winning Family Reserve comes from three different sites, that's three different soils," says Botha.

"All the vines are more than 40-years-old and are all bush vines. And they're unirrigated.

"We get smaller berries, thicker skins -- so there is lot more concentration of flavours in your grapes and a lot of different microclimates in one vine.


- Complex flavours -






A rare pure white sparrow has been spotted in Australia, leaving ornithologists all aflutter.

The albino was photographed at Sanctuary Lakes near Melbourne, but it is not expected to survive long with its snowy white plumage making it stand out to birds of prey.

Bob Winters, a birdwatching expert and environmental educator, photographed the animal after being alerted to its presence by a friend. But it wasn't an easy task.

"It's a very nervous animal, understandably, so I had to try for quite a few days to get some photos," he told AFP, adding that pure white sparrows had been seen globally only "once in a blue moon".

Australian media said there had been a handful of confirmed sightings of the bird across the world, including one reported in Britain in 2010.




Paris’s iconic Eiffel Tower on Friday reopened after staff working at the popular landmark staged a near one-day walkout to protest a steep increase in pickpockets targeting the plethora of tourists.

The tower, also known as the Iron Lady, was closed on Friday morning when staff said they had had enough of the "increase in pickpockets around the Eiffel Tower”, saying they are regularly subject to “threats and assaults" by the thieves.

The workers demanded "formal guarantees from management that lasting and effective measures will be taken to end this scourge to which numerous tourists fall victim every day".

After a near seven-hour closure, however, La Société d'exploitation de la tour Eiffel (SETE), the firm in charge of operating the 126-year-old monument, said it had come to an agreement with the workers and that the tower had opened again, but did not provide more details on the measures agreed upon.

One of the workers that took part in the walkout told the AFP news agency that the pickpockets operating in the area commonly work in gangs of four to five people, but can at times be as many as 30. It is not unusual for staff operating the tower’s elevators to warn passengers if a pickpocket is trying to blend in with the tourist crowds.

The Eiffel Tower receives around seven million visitors a year.

The Paris police department could not immediately provide the number of complaints it received from tourists targeted by thieves last year, but are expected to release the number in the coming days.


Irish voters backed legalizing gay marriage by a landslide, according to electoral figures announced Saturday - a stunning result that illustrates the rapid social change taking place in this traditionally Catholic nation.

Figures from Friday’s referendum announced at Dublin Castle showed that 62.1 percent of Irish voters said “yes.” Outside, watching the results announcement live in the castle’s cobblestoned courtyard, thousands of gay rights activists cheered, hugged and cried.

The unexpectedly strong percentage of approval surprised both sides. Analysts and campaigners credited the “yes” side with adeptly using social media to mobilize first-time young voters and for a series of searing personal stories from Irish gay people to convince voters to back equal marriage rights.

Ireland is the first country to approve gay marriage in a popular national vote. Nineteen other countries have legalized the practice.

“We’re the first country in the world to enshrine marriage equality in our constitution and do so by popular mandate. That makes us a beacon, a light to the rest of the world, of liberty and equality. So it’s a very proud day to be Irish,” said Leo Varadkar, a Cabinet minister who came out as gay at the start of a government-led effort to amend Ireland’s conservative Catholic constitution.

“People from the LGBT community in Ireland are a minority. But with our parents, our families, or friends and co-workers and colleagues, we’re a majority,” said Varadkar, who watched the votes being tabulated at the County Dublin ballot center.

“For me it wasn’t just a referendum. It was more like a social revolution,” he added.
Michael Barron and Jaime Nanci, a gay couple legally married in South Africa five years ago, celebrated with friends at the Dublin City counting center as the reality sank in that, once Ireland’s parliament passes the complementary legislation, their foreign marriage will be recognized in their homeland.

“Oh.My.God! We’re actually Married now!” Nanci tweeted to his spouse and the world, part of a cavalcade of tweets from Ireland tagged #LandslideOfLove.

A rainbow nation

Political analysts who have covered Irish referendums for decades agreed that Saturday’s emerging landslide marked a stunning generational shift from the 1980s, when voters still firmly backed Catholic Church teachings and overwhelmingly voted against abortion and divorce.

“We’re in a new country,” said political analyst Sean Donnelly, who called the result “a tidal wave” that has produced pro-gay marriage majorities in even the most traditionally conservative rural corners of Ireland.

“I’m of a different generation,” said the gray-haired Donnelly, who has covered Irish politics since the 1970s. “When I was reared up, the church was all powerful and the word ‘gay’ wasn’t even in use in those days. How things have moved from my childhood to now. It’s been a massive change for a conservative country.”

Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Labour Party leader Joan Burton, said Ireland was becoming “a rainbow nation with a huge amount of diversity.” She said while campaigning door to door, she met older gay people who described how society made them “live in a shadow and apart,” and younger voters who were keen to ensure that Irish homosexuals live “as free citizens in a free republic.”

The “yes” side ran a creative, compelling campaign that harnessed the power of social media to mobilize young voters, tens of thousands of whom voted for the first time Friday. The vote came five years after parliament approved marriage-style civil partnerships for gay couples.

Those seeking a “no” outcome described their defeat as almost inevitable, given that all of Ireland’s political parties and most politicians backed the legalization of homosexual unions.

‘Never underestimate the electorate’

David Quinn, leader of the Catholic think tank Iona Institute, said he was troubled by the fact that no political party backed the “no” cause.

“We helped to provide a voice to the hundreds of thousands of Irish people who did vote no. The fact that no political party supported them must be a concern from a democratic point of view,” he said.

Fianna Fail party leader Michael Martin, a Cork politician whose opposition party is traditionally closest to the Catholic Church, said he couldn’t in good conscience back the anti-gay marriage side because “it’s simply wrong in the 21st century to oppress people because of their sexuality.”