Weekly Briefing

US: midterms

Barack Obama did his best, campaigning in Illinois just days before the midterm elections, but the jubilant Republican Mark Kirk still turned the Senate seat red. Much of the House of Representatives went the same way - thanks largely to voters' discontent at the fragility of the US economy - and the Republicans took control.

But the elections had their bright spots, too. The Senate remained under the control of the Democrats. And Christine O'Donnell, despite her telegenic looks and whatever magical powers "dabbling in witchcraft" might have brought her, was trounced by the Democrat Chris Coons by a double-digit margin in Delaware. Other Tea Party members won their seats but the failure of one so warmly endorsed by Sarah Palin might have an interesting fallout for the country's premier mama grizzly.

Zimbabwe: diamonds

“Our compliance must entitle Zimbabwe to immediately and unconditionally export [diamonds]," Obert Mpofu, the country's mines minister, told the Kimberley Process, the industry's trading body. Last year's ban on sales from the Marange region following human rights abuses on the diamond fields infuriated Robert Mugabe's government, which viewed it as "a tool to regulate improperly the flow of exports out of Zimbabwe". The ban didn't impress human rights activists, either, as Zimbabwe's sales were not fully suspended.

Monitors in the country are divided. Those from the US and Australia want the ban to remain. But the majority, from Israel and various parts of Africa, argue that conditions have improved greatly. Some say they are no worse than in other developing countries.

Japan: Russia spat

Islands have been causing some headaches for Japan. First, it was a cluster known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan that both countries claim as their own. Now, a dispute over the Kuril Islands, seized by Russia at the end of the Second World War, is the focus of the trouble.

On 1 November, President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit the islands - which he pointedly described as "a very important region in our country" - causing Japan to recall its envoy from Moscow. It is less the land than the sea around the Kurils - rich fishing waters with some promise of oil and gas reserves - that is of interest to the squabbling nations. The islands have had little attention since they became part of Russia.

Serbia: Ratko Mladic

“Mladic will be arrested without question if he is within the reach of the Serbian security services," Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, assured the daily newspaper Blic. The former general is believed to be in Serbia; the price on his head has increased tenfold to €10m.

Serbia sees the arrest of Mladic, indicted along with Radovan Karadzic for genocide and crimes against humanity, as the final hurdle to be overcome on its path to joining the EU. But the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, disagrees: "We're a long, long way from the end of the process." Negotiations with Kosovo - whose government lost a vote of no confidence in late October - are also essential.

Australia: swim smarts

Does swimming make you smarter? It's an unlikely question, but researchers in Queensland have become the first in the world to address it.

The four-year study will survey more than 10,000 children under the age of five to ascertain how the sport affects their mental and physical development. "[Kids who swim] are exposed to a language that they wouldn't be exposed to anywhere else," said Robyn Jorgensen.

She didn't say whether she swam as a child, but explained: "We want to see if it does make them smarter, more physically developed, better linguistic."

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