Showing posts with label Business. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Business. Show all posts

Turkish PM's Zionism comments "objectionable": Kerry


ANKARA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday criticized a comment by Turkey's prime minister likening Zionism to crimes against humanity, as the disagreement cast a shadow over talks between the NATO allies.


Kerry, on his first trip to a Muslim nation since taking office, met Turkish leaders for talks meant to focus on the civil war in neighboring Syria and bilateral interests from energy security and Iran's nuclear program to counter-terrorism.


But the comment by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at a U.N. meeting in Vienna this week, condemned by his Israeli counterpart, the White House and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has clouded his visit.


"We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable," Kerry told a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, saying he raised the issue "very directly" with Davutoglu and would do so with Erdogan.


Erdogan told the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Vienna on Wednesday: "Just as with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it has become necessary to view Islamophobia as a crime against humanity."


The Turkish prime minister's caustic rhetoric on Israel has in the past won applause from conservative supporters at home but raised increasing concern among Western allies.


Kerry said Turkey and Israel were both key U.S. allies and urged them to restore closer ties.


"Given the many challenges that the neighborhood faces, it is essential that both Turkey and Israel find a way to take steps ... to rekindle their historic cooperation," Kerry said.


"I think that's possible but obviously we have to get beyond the kind of rhetoric that we've just seen recently."


Washington needs all the allies it can get as it navigates the political currents of the Middle East, and sees Turkey as a key player in supporting Syria's opposition and planning for the era after President Bashar al-Assad.


Ties between Israel and Turkey have been frosty since 2010, when Israeli marines killed nine Turks in fighting aboard a Palestinian aid ship that tried to breach Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.


"If we must talk about hostile acts, then Israel's attitude and its brutal killing of nine of our civilian citizens in international waters may be called hostile," Davutoglu said, adding Turkey had always stood against anti-Semitism.


"No single statement carries a price higher than the blood of a person ... If Israel wants to hear positive statements from Turkey it needs to reconsider its attitude both towards us and towards the West Bank," he told the news conference.


Turkey has demanded a formal apology for the 2010 incident, compensation for victims and their families and for the Gaza blockade to be lifted. Israel has voiced "regret" and has offered to pay into what it called a "humanitarian fund" through which casualties and relatives could be compensated.


SUPPORT FOR SYRIAN OPPOSITION


Erdogan appeared displeased when Kerry arrived late for their evening talks, remarking there was not much time left, according to a U.S. pool reporter who attended the picture-taking session at the start of the meeting.


Kerry, in turn, apologized, saying that he had a good meeting with Davutoglu, according to the pool reporter.


Erdogan, speaking through an interpreter, replied that they "must have spoken about everything so there is nothing left for us to talk about." In a joking tone of voice, Kerry said: "We need you to sign off on everything."


Turkey's relations with the United States have always been prickly. And Erdogan's populist rhetoric, sometimes at apparent odds with U.S. interests, is aimed partly at a domestic audience wary of Washington's influence.


But the two have strong common interests. Officials said Syria would top the agenda in Kerry's meetings with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, building on the discussions in Rome between 11 mostly European and Arab nations within the "Friends of Syria" group.


After the Rome meeting, Kerry said on Thursday the United States would for the first time give non-lethal aid to the rebels and more than double support to the civilian opposition, although Western powers stopped short of pledging arms.


Turkey has been one of Assad's fiercest critics, hosting a NATO Patriot missile defense system, including two U.S. batteries, to protect against a spillover of violence and leading calls for international intervention.


It has spent more than $600 million sheltering refugees from the conflict that began almost two years ago, housing some 180,000 in camps near the border and tens of thousands more who are staying with relatives or in private accommodation.


Washington has given $385 million in humanitarian aid for Syria but U.S. President Barack Obama has so far refused to give arms, arguing it is difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of militants who could use them on Western targets.


Turkey, too, has been reluctant to provide weapons, fearing direct intervention could bring the conflict across its borders.


(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jason Webb)



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Italy parties seek way out of election stalemate


ROME (Reuters) - Italy's stunned political parties looked for a way forward on Tuesday after an election that gave none of them a parliamentary majority, posing the threat of prolonged instability and European financial crisis.


The results, notably by the dramatic surge of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo, left the center-left bloc with a majority in the lower house but without the numbers to control the powerful upper chamber, the Senate.


Financial markets fell sharply at the prospect of a stalemate that reawakened memories of the crisis that pushed Italy's borrowing costs toward unsustainably high levels and brought the euro zone to the brink of collapse in 2011.


"The winner is: Ingovernability," ran the headline in Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, reflecting the deadlock the country will have to confront in the next few weeks as sworn enemies are forced to work together to form a government.


Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has the difficult task of trying to agree a "grand coalition" with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the man he blames for ruining Italy, or striking a deal with Grillo, a completely unknown quantity in conventional politics.


The alternative is new elections either immediately or within a few months, although both Berlusconi and Bersani have indicated that they want to avoid a return to the polls if possible: "Italy cannot be ungoverned and we have to reflect," Berlusconi said in an interview on his own television station.


For his part, Grillo, whose "non-party" movement won the most votes of any single party, has indicated that he believes the next government will last no more than six months.


"They won't be able to govern," he told reporters on Tuesday. "Whether I'm there or not, they won't be able govern."


He said he would work with anyone who supported his policy proposals, which range from anti-corruption measures to green-tinted energy measures but rejected suggestions of entering a formal coalition: "It's not time to talk of alliances... the system has already fallen," he said.


The election, a massive rejection of the austerity policies applied by Prime Minister Mario Monti with the backing of international leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caused consternation across Europe.


"This is a jump to nowhere that does not bode well either for Italy or Europe," said Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.


In a sign of worry at the top over what effect the elections could have on the economy, Monti, whose austerity policies were repudiated by voters who shunned his centrist bloc, met the governor of the central bank, the economy minister and the European affairs minister to discuss the situation on Tuesday.


The former EU commissioner and his team of technocrats, who were brought in to govern when Berlusconi was consumed by crisis and scandal, will stay on until a new administration is formed.


UNTHINKABLE WITHOUT GRILLO


Projections for the Senate by the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies indicated that the center-left would have 121 seats, against 117 for the center-right alliance of Berlusconi's PDL and the regionalist Northern League. Grillo would take 54.


That leaves no party with the majority in a chamber which a government must control to pass legislation and opened up the prospect of previously inconceivable partnerships that will test the sometimes fragile internal unity of the main parties.


"The idea of a majority without Grillo is unthinkable. I don't know if anyone in the PD is considering it but I'm against it," said Matteo Orfini, a member of Bersani's PD secretariat.


"The idea of a PD-PDL government, even if it's backed by Monti, doesn't make any sense," he said.


Berlusconi, a media magnate whose campaigning all but wiped out Bersani's once commanding opinion poll lead, hinted in a telephone call to a morning television show that he would be open to a deal with the center-left - but not with Monti, the economics professor who replaced him 15 months ago.


"Italy must be governed," Berlusconi said, adding that he "must reflect" on a possible deal with the center-left. "Everyone must be prepared to make sacrifices," he said of the groups which now have a share of the legislature.


The Milan bourse was down almost 4 percent and the premium Italy pays over Germany to borrow on 10-year widened to a yield spread of 338 basis points, the highest since December 10 and more than 80 points above the level seen earlier on Monday.


At an auction of six-month Treasury bills, Italy's borrowing costs jumped by more than two thirds with the yield reaching 1.237 percent, the highest since October and compared to just 0.730 percent in a similar sale a month ago.


The euro dropped to an almost seven-week low against the dollar in Asia on fears of a revival of the euro zone crisis. It fell as far as $1.3042, its lowest since January 10.


"What is crucial now is that a stable functioning government can be built as swiftly as possible," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "This is not only in the interests of Italy but in the interests of all Europe."


However the view from some voters, weary of the mainstream parties, was unrepentant: "It's good," said Roger Manica, 28, a security guard in Rome, who voted for the center-left PD.


"Next time I'll vote 5-Star. I like that they are changing things, even if it means uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn't matter to me, for me what's important is a good person who gets things done," he said. "Look how well they've done."


A long recession and growing disillusionment with mainstream parties and tax-raising austerity fed the bitter public mood and contributed to the massive rejection of Monti, whose centrist coalition was relegated to the sidelines.


Berlusconi's campaign, mixing sweeping tax cut pledges with relentless attacks on Monti and Merkel, echoed many of the themes pushed by Grillo and underlined the increasingly angry mood of the Italian electorate.


But even if the next government turns away from the tax hikes and spending cuts brought in by Monti, it will struggle to revive an economy that has scarcely grown in two decades.


Monti was widely credited with tightening Italy's public finances and restoring its international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, who is currently on trial for having sex with an under-age prostitute.


However he struggled to pass the kind of structural reforms needed to improve competitiveness and lay the foundations for a return to economic growth. A weak center-left government may not find it any easier.


For Italian business, with an illustrious history of export success, the election result brought dismay that there would be no quick change to what they see as a regulatory sclerosis that has kept the economy virtually stagnant for a decade.


"This is probably the worst possible scenario," said Francesco Divella, whose family began selling pasta under its eponymous brand in 1890 in the southern region of Puglia.


"We are very concerned about the uncertainty and apparent ungovernability," said Silvio Pietro Angori, chief executive of Pininfarina, which has designed Ferrari sportscars since 1950. "A company competing on the global markets like Pininfarina needs the support of a stable government that inspires trust."


One of the country's leading bankers summed up his personal reaction: "I'm in shock," he told Reuters. "What a mess!"


(Additional reporting by Barry Moody, Gavin Jones, Lisa Jucca, Steven Jewkes, Steve Scherer Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)



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Italy election forecasts point to political gridlock


ROME (Reuters) - A huge protest vote by Italians enraged by economic hardship and political corruption pushed the country towards deadlock after an election on Monday, with voting projections showing no coalition strong enough to form a government.


With more than two thirds of the vote counted, the projections suggested the center left could have a slim lead in the race for the lower house of parliament.


But no party or likely coalition appeared likely to be able to form a majority in the upper house or Senate, creating a deadlocked parliament - the opposite of the stable result that Italy desperately needs to tackle a deep recession, rising unemployment and a massive public debt.


Such an outcome has the potential to revive fears over the euro zone debt crisis, with prospects of a long period of uncertainty in the zone's third largest economy.


Italian financial markets took fright after rising earlier on hopes for a stable and strong center-left led government, probably backed by outgoing technocrat premier Mario Monti.


The projected result was a stunning success for Genoese comic Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist 5-Star Movement, who toured the country in his first national election campaign hurling obscenity-laced insults against a discredited political class.


With vague election promises and a team of almost totally unknown candidates, the shaggy haired comedian channeled pure public anger against what many see as a sclerotic and useless political system.


The likely result was also a humiliating slap in the face for colorless center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who appeared to have thrown away a 10-point opinion poll lead less than two months ago against Silvio Berlusconi's center right.


Berlusconi, 76, who staged an extraordinary comeback from sex and corruption scandals since diving into the campaign in December, appeared to be leading in the Senate race, but Grillo's projected bloc of Senators would leave him well short of a majority.


Projections gave Bersani's center-left alliance a lead of less than one percentage point in the lower house. If confirmed, that would be enough to control the chamber because of election laws that guarantee a 54 percent majority to the party with the largest share of the vote.


In the Senate the picture was different. The latest projection from RAI state television showed Berlusconi's bloc winning 112 Senate seats, the center-left 105 and Grillo 64, with Monti languishing on only 20 after a failed campaign which never took off. The Senate majority is 158.


Berlusconi, a master politician and communicator, wooed voters with a blitz of television appearances and promises to refund a hated housing tax despite accusations from opponents that this was an impossible vote buying trick.


Grillo has attacked all sides in the campaign and ruled out a formal alliance with any group although it was not immediately known how he would react to his stunning success or how his supporters would behave in parliament.


DANGER OF NEW ELECTION


A bitter campaign, fought largely over economic issues, made some investors fear a return of the kind of debt crisis that took the euro zone close to disaster and brought the technocrat Monti to office, replacing Berlusconi, in 2011.


The projected results showed more than half of Italians had voted for the anti-euro platforms of Berlusconi and Grillo.


Officials from both center and left warned that the looming deadlock could make Italy ungovernable and force new elections.


A center-left government either alone or ruling with Monti had been seen by investors as the best guarantee of measures to combat a deep recession and stagnant growth in Italy, which is pivotal to stability in the currency union.


The benchmark spread between Italian 10-year bonds and their German equivalent widened from below 260 basis points to above 300 and the Italian share index lost all its previous gains after projections of the Senate result.


"These projections suggest that we are heading for an ungovernable situation", said Mario Secchi, a candidate for Monti's centrist movement.


Stefano Fassina, chief economic official for Bersani's center-left, said: "The scenario from the projections we have seen so far suggests there will be no stable government and we would need to return to the polls."


If the results are confirmed the only possibility looks like a "grand coalition" combining right and left, like the one Monti led for a year. But politicians said before the vote this could not work for long and would struggle to work decisively.


Monti helped save Italy from a debt crisis when Rome's borrowing costs were spiraling out of control, but few Italians now see him as the savior of the country, in its longest recession for 20 years.


Grillo's movement rode a huge wave of voter anger about both the pain of Monti's austerity program and a string of political and corporate scandals. It had particular appeal for a frustrated younger generation shut out of full-time jobs.


"I'm sick of the scandals and the stealing," said Paolo Gentile, a 49-year-old Rome lawyer who voted for 5-Star.


"We need some young, new people in parliament, not the old parties that are totally discredited."


Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon, exploited anger against Monti's austerity program, accusing him of being a puppet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but in many areas Grillo was a bigger beneficiary of public discontent.


Italy desperately needs a strong, reform-minded government to revive growth after two decades of stagnation and address problems ranging from record youth unemployment to a dysfunctional justice system and a bloated public sector.


Italians wrung their hands at prospects of an inconclusive result that will mean more delays to these reforms.


"It's a classic result. Typically Italian. It means the country is not united. It is an expression of a country that does not work. I knew this would happen," said 36-year-old Rome office worker Roberta Federica.


Another office worker, Elisabetta Carlotta, 46, shook her head in disbelief. "We can't go on like this," she said.


(Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei, Steve Scherer, Gavin Jones, Naomi O'Leary and Giuseppe Fonte in Rome and Lisa Jucca in Milan; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Peter Graff)



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Gloomy Italians vote in election crucial for euro zone


ROME (Reuters) - Italy voted on Sunday in one of the most unpredictable elections in years, with many voters expressing rage against a discredited elite and doubt that a government will emerge strong enough to combat a severe economic crisis.


"I am pessimistic. Nothing will change," said Luciana Li Mandri, 37, as she cast a ballot in the Sicilian capital Palermo on the first of two days of voting that continues on Monday.


"The usual thieves will be in government."


Her gloom reflected the mood across Italy, where many voters said they thought the new administration would not last long, just the opposite of what Italy needs to combat the longest slump in 20 years, mounting unemployment and a huge public debt.


The election is being closely watched by investors whose memories are fresh of a debt crisis which forced out scandal-plagued conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago and saw him replaced by economics professor Mario Monti.


"I'm not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems," said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old building tradesman in Milan.


Underlining his disilluion with the established parties, he voted for the 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.


An iconclastic, 64-year-old Genoese, Grillo has screamed himself hoarse with obscenity-laced attacks on politicians that have channeled the anger of Italians, especially a frustrated young generation hit by record unemployment.


"He's the only real new element in a political landscape where we've been seeing the same faces for too long," said Vincenzo Cannizzaro, 48, in Palermo.


Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani a narrow lead but the result has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against Monti's painful austerity measures and rage at a wave of corruption scandals.


A weak government could usher in new instability in the euro zone's third largest economy and cause another crisis of confidence in the European Union's single currency.


Television tycoon Berlusconi, showing off unrivalled media skills and displaying extraordinary energy for a man of 76, has increased uncertainty over the past couple of months by halving the gap between his centre-right and Bersani.


"I am pessimistic. There is such political fragmentation that we will again have the problem of ungovernability" said Marta, a lawyer voting in Rome who did not want to give her family name. "I fear the new government won't last long."


Another Roman voter, lab technician Manila Luce, 34, said: "I am voting Grillo and I hope a lot of people do. Because it's the only way to show how sick to the back teeth we are with the old parties."


Voting continues until 10 p.m. (4 p.m. EST) and resumes on Monday at 7 a.m. Exit polls will be published shortly after polls close at 3 p.m. on Monday. Full official results are expected by early Tuesday.


Snow in the north was expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million eligible voters. Authorities said they were prepared for the weather and in the central city of Bologna roads were cleared of snow before voting started.


TOPLESS FEMINISTS


Several bare-breasted women protested against Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They were bundled away by police.


The four-time premier, known for off-color jokes and a constant target of feminists, is on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during "bunga bunga" parties at his villa.


Most experts expect a coalition between Bersani and Monti to form the next administration, but whatever government emerges will have to try to reverse years of failure to revitalize one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world.


The widespread despair over the state of the country, where a series of corruption scandals has highlighted the stark divide between a privileged political elite and millions of ordinary Italians struggling to make ends meet, has left deep scars.


"It's our fault, Italian citizens. It's our closed mentality. We're just not Europeans," said voter Li Mandri in Palermo.


"We're all about getting favors when we study, getting a protected job when we work," she said. "That's the way we are and we can only be represented by people like that as well."


ECONOMIC AGENDA


Even if Bersani wins as expected, Analysts are divided over whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can force through sweeping economic reforms.


His centre-left is expected to have firm control of the lower house, thanks to rules that give a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally.


But a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate which is elected on a regional basis and which has equal law making powers to the chamber.


Berlusconi has clawed back support by promising to repeal Monti's hated new housing tax, the IMU, and to refund the money. He relentlessly attacked what he called the "Germano-centric" policies of the former European Union commissioner.


Think-tank consultant Mario, 60, said on his way to vote in Bologna that Bersani's Democratic Party was the only group serious enough to repair the economy: "They're not perfect," he said. "But they've got the organization and the union backing that will help them push through structural reforms."


Despite Berlusconi's success, Grillo has tapped into the same public frustration as the conservative tycoon and pollsters say his 5-Star Movement of political novices could overtake the centre-right to take second place in the vote.


Rivals have branded Grillo a threat to democracy - a vivid image in a country ruled by fascists for two decades until World War Two. Several voters who spoke to Reuters said Grillo was not the answer because of his lack of concrete policies and the inexperience of those who will sit in parliament for 5-Star.


"Grillo is a populist and populism doesn't work in a democracy," said retired notary Pasquale Lebanon, 76, as he voted for Bersani's Democratic Party in Milan.


"I'm very worried. There seems to be no way out from a political point of view, or for being able to govern," said Calogero Giallanza, a 45-year-old musician in Rome as he also voted for Bersani.


"There's bound to be a mess in the Senate because, as far as I can see the 5-Star Movement is unstoppable."


(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino, Lisa Jucca, Jennifer Clark, Matthias Baehr, Jennifer Clark and Sara Rossi in Milan, Stephen Jewkes in Bologna, Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo, Stefano Bernabei and Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome; Writing by James Mackenzie and Barry Moody; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)



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Abe: Japan acting calmly in island dispute with China


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday said he told President Barack Obama in a meeting that Japan would act calmly in its row with China over tiny islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Asian countries.


"I explained that we have always been dealing with this issue ... in a calm manner," he said through a translator, while sitting next to Obama in the White House Oval Office.


"We will continue to do so and we have always done so," he said.


Tension has raised fears of an unintended military incident near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Washington says the islets fall under a U.S.-Japan security pact, but it is eager to avoid a clash in the region.


Abe said the existence of the Japan-U.S. alliance was a stabilizing factor in the area.


"We agreed that we would stay in close coordination with each other in dealing with such issues and other issues," he said.


Obama, in his remarks to reporters, said Japan was one of the United States' closest allies. He said the two men would discuss trade and other economic issues and agreed that their top priority was economic growth.


Obama declined to answer a reporter's question on whether they would discuss the Japanese yen.


Expectations for Abe's economic programs, especially monetary easing, have cut some 10 percent off the yen's value against the U.S. dollar since Abe took office, raising concern that Japan is weakening its currency to export its way out of recession.


Obama and Abe also discussed North Korea and agreed to cooperate at the United Nations over the issue. Abe said the two men also talked about additional sanctions against North Korea, which tested a nuclear bomb last week in defiance of U.N. resolutions.


(Editing by Vicki Allen)



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French, Malian forces fight Islamist rebels in Gao


GAO, Mali (Reuters) - French and Malian troops fought Islamists on the streets of Gao and a car bomb exploded in Kidal on Thursday, as fighting showed little sign of abating weeks before France plans to start withdrawing some forces.


Reuters reporters in Gao in the country's desert north said French and Malian forces fired at the mayor's office with heavy machineguns after Islamists were reported to have infiltrated the Niger River town during a night of explosions and gunfire.


French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference in Brussels that Gao was back under control after clashes earlier in the day.


"Malian troops supported by French soldiers killed five jihadists and the situation is back to normal," he said.


In Kidal, a remote far north town where the French are hunting Islamists, residents said a car bomb killed two. A French defense ministry source reported no French casualties.


French troops dispatched to root out rebels with links to al Qaeda swiftly retook northern towns last month. But they now risk being bogged down in a guerrilla conflict as they try to help Mali's weak army counter bombings and raids.


"There was an infiltration by Islamists overnight and there is shooting all over the place," Sadou Harouna Diallo, Gao's mayor, told Reuters by telephone earlier in the day, saying he was not in his office at the time.


Gao is a French hub for operations in the Kidal region, about 300 km (190 miles) northeast, where many Islamist leaders are thought to have retreated and foreign hostages may be held.


"They are black and two were disguised as women," a Malian soldier in Gao who gave his name only as Sergeant Assak told Reuters during a pause in heavy gunfire around Independence Square.


Six Malian military pickups were deployed in the square and opened fire on the mayor's office with the heavy machineguns. Two injured soldiers were taken away in an ambulance.


French troops in armored vehicles later joined the battle as it spilled out into the warren of sandy streets, where, two weeks ago, they also fought for hours against Islamists who had infiltrated the town via the nearby river.


Helicopters clattered over the mayor's office, while a nearby local government office and petrol station was on fire.


A Gao resident said he heard an explosion and then saw a Malian military vehicle on fire in a nearby street.


Paris has said it plans to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from Mali next month. But rebels have fought back against Mali's weak and divided army, and African forces due to take over the French role are not yet in place.


Islamists abandoned the main towns they held but French and Malian forces have said there are pockets of Islamist resistance across the north, which is about the size of France.


CAR BOMB


Residents reported a bomb in the east of Kidal on Thursday.


"It was a car bomb that exploded in a garage," said one resident who went to the scene but asked not to be named.


"The driver and another man were killed. Two other people were injured," he added.


A French defense ministry official confirmed there had been a car bomb but said it did not appear that French troops, based at the town's airport, had been targeted.


Earlier this week, a French soldier was killed in heavy fighting north of Kidal, where French and Chadian troops are hunting Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, which border Algeria.


Operations there are further complicated by the presence of separatist Tuareg rebels, whose rebellion triggered the fighting in northern Mali last year but were sidelined by the better-armed Islamists.


Having dispatched its forces to prevent an Islamist advance south in January, Paris is eager not to become bogged down in a long-term conflict in Mali. But their Malian and African allies have urged French troops not to pull out too soon.


(Additional reporting by Emanuel Braun in Gao, Adama Diarra in Bamako, David Lewis and John Irish in Dakar and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Jason Webb and Roger Atwood)



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Bulgarian government resigns amid growing protests


SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after mass protests against high power prices and falling living standards, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during four years of debt crisis.


Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, an ex-bodyguard who took power in 2009 on pledges to root out graft and raise incomes in the European Union's poorest member, faces a tough task of propping up eroding support ahead of an expected early election.


Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where earnings are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting "Mafia" and "Resign".


Moves by Borisov on Tuesday to blame foreign utility companies for the rise in the cost of heating homes was to no avail and an eleventh day of marches saw 15 people hospitalized and 25 arrested in clashes with police.


"My decision to resign will not be changed under any circumstances. I do not build roads so that blood is shed on them," said Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.


A karate black belt, Borisov has cultivated a Putin-like "can-do" image since he entered politics as Sofia mayor in 2005 and would connect with voters by showing up on the capital's rutted streets to oversee the repair of pot-holes.


But critics say he has often skirted due process, sometimes to the benefit of those close to him, and his swift policy U-turns have wounded the public's trust.


The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov and political elites with perceived links to shadowy businesses.


"He made my day," said student Borislav Hadzhiev in central Sofia, commenting on Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."


POLLS, PRICES


The prime minister's final desperate moves on Tuesday included cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing companies including CEZ, moves which conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.


CEZ officials were hopeful on Wednesday that it would be able to avoid losing its distribution license after all and officials from the Bulgarian regulator said the company would not be punished if it dealt with breaches of procedure.


But shares in what is central Europe's largest publicly-listed company fell another 1 percent on Wednesday.


If pushed through, the fines for CEZ and two other foreign-owned firms will not encourage other investors in Bulgaria, who already have to navigate complicated bureaucracy and widespread corruption and organized crime to take advantage of Bulgaria's 10-percent flat tax rate.


Financial markets reacted negatively to the turbulence on Wednesday. The cost of insuring Bulgaria's debt rose to a three-month high and debt yields rose some 15 basis points, though the country's low deficit of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product means there is little risk to the lev currency's peg against the euro.


Borisov's interior minister indicated that elections originally planned for July would probably be pulled forward by saying that his rightist GERB party would not take part in talks to form a new government.


MILLIONS GONE


GERB's woes have echoes in another ex-communist EU member, Slovenia, where demonstrators have taken to the streets and added pressure to a crumbling conservative government.


A small crowd gathered in support of Borisov outside Sofia's parliament, which is expected to approve his resignation on Thursday, while bigger demonstrations against the premier were expected in the evening.


Unemployment in the country of 7.3 million is far from the highs hit in the decade after the end of communism but remains at 11.9 percent. Average salaries are stuck at around 800 levs ($550) a month and millions have emigrated, leaving swathes of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.


GERB's popularity has held up well and it still led in the latest polls before protests grew in size last weekend, but analysts say the opposition Socialists should draw strength from the demonstrations.


The leftists, successors to Bulgaria's communist party, have proposed tax cuts and wage hikes and are likely to raise questions about public finances if elected.


(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Patrick Graham)



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Syria "Scud-type" missile said to kill 20 in Aleppo


AMMAN (Reuters) - A Syrian missile killed at least 20 people in a rebel-held district of Aleppo on Tuesday, opposition activists said, as the army turns to longer-range weapons after losing bases in the country's second-largest city.


The use of what opposition activists said was a large missile of the same type as Russian-made Scuds against an Aleppo residential district came after rebels overran army bases over the past two months from which troops had fired artillery.


As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, now a civil war, nears its two-year mark, rebels also landed three mortar bombs in the rarely-used presidential palace compound in the capital Damascus, opposition activists said on Tuesday.


The United Nations estimates 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict between largely Sunni Muslim rebels and Assad's supporters among his minority Alawite sect. An international diplomatic deadlock has prevented intervention, as the war worsens sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East.


A Russian official said on Tuesday that Moscow, which is a long-time ally of Damascus, would not immediately back U.N. investigators' calls for some Syrian leaders to face the International Criminal Court for war crimes.


Moscow has blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have increased pressure on Assad.


Casualties are not only being caused directly by fighting, but also by disruption to infrastructure and Syria's economy.


An estimated 2,500 people in a rebel-held area of northeastern Deir al-Zor province have been infected with typhoid, which causes diarrhea and can be fatal, due to drinking contaminated water from the Euphrates River, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.


"There is not enough fuel or electricity to run the pumps so people drink water from the Euphrates which is contaminated, probably with sewage," the WHO representative in Syria, Elisabeth Hoff, told Reuters by telephone.


The WHO had no confirmed reports of deaths so far.


BURIED UNDER RUBBLE


In northern Aleppo, opposition activists said 25 people were missing under rubble of three buildings hit by a several-meter-long missile. They said remains of the weapon showed it to be a Scud-type missile of the type government forces increasingly use in Aleppo and in Deir a-Zor.


NATO said in December Assad's forces fired Scud-type missiles. It did not specify where they landed but said their deployment was an act of desperation.


Bodies were being gradually dug up, Mohammad Nour, an activist, said by phone from Aleppo.


"Some, including children, have died in hospitals," he said.


Video footage showed dozens of people scouring for victims and inspecting damage. A body was pulled from under collapsed concrete. At a nearby hospital, a baby said to have been dug out from wreckage was shown dying in the hands of doctors.


Reuters could not independently verify the reports.


Opposition activists also reported fighting near the town of Nabak on the Damascus-Homs highway, another route vital for supplying forces in the capital loyal to Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since the 1960s.


Rebels moved anti-aircraft guns into the eastern Damascus district of Jobar, adjacent to the city centre, as they seek to secure recent gains, an activist said.


"The rebels moved truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns to Jobar and are now firing at warplanes rocketing the district," said Damascus activist Moaz al-Shami.


Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told a news conference a U.N. war crimes report, which accuses military leaders and rebels of terrorizing civilians, was "not the path we should follow ... at this stage it would be untimely and unconstructive."


Syria is not party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC and the only way the court can investigate the situation is if it receives a referral from the Security Council, where Moscow is a permanent member.


(Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Jason Webb)



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Time to refer Syrian war crimes to ICC: U.N. inquiry


GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations investigators said on Monday that Syrian leaders they had identified as suspected war criminals should face the International Criminal Court (ICC).


The investigators urged the U.N. Security Council to "act urgently to ensure accountability" for violations, including murder and torture, committed by both sides in an uprising and civil war that has killed about 70,000 people since March 2011.


"Now really it's time ... We have a permanent court, the International Criminal Court, who would be ready to take this case," Carla del Ponte, a former ICC chief prosecutor who joined the U.N. team in September, told a news briefing in Geneva.


But because Syria is not party to the Rome Statute that established the ICC, the only way the court can investigate the situation is if it receives a referral from the Security Council. Russia, Assad's long-standing ally and a permanent veto-wielding member of the council, has opposed such a move.


"We cannot decide. But we pressure the international community to decide because it's time to act," del Ponte said.


Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the U.N. inquiry set up in 2011, said: "We are in very close dialogue with all the five permanent members and with all the members of the Security Council, but we don't have the key that will open the path to cooperation inside the Security Council."


His team of some two dozen experts is tracing the chain of command in Syria to establish criminal responsibility and build a case for eventual prosecution.


"Of course we were able to identify high-level perpetrators," del Ponte said, adding that these were people "in command responsibility...deciding, organizing, planning and aiding and abetting the commission of crimes".


She said it was urgent for the Hague-based war crimes tribunal to take up cases of "very high officials", but did not identify them, in line with the inquiry's practice.


"We have crimes committed against children, rape and sexual violence. We have grave concerns. That is also one reason why an international body of justice must act because it is terrible."


Del Ponte, who tried former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on war crimes charges, said the ICC prosecutor would need to deepen the investigation on Syria before an indictment could be prepared.


Karen Koning AbuZayd, an American member of the U.N. team, told Reuters it had information pointing to "people who have given instructions and are responsible for government policy, people who are in the leadership of the military, for example".


The inquiry's third roster of suspects, building on lists drawn up in the past year, remains secret. It will be entrusted to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay upon expiry of its mandate at the end of March, the report said.


Pillay, a former ICC judge, said on Saturday Assad should be investigated for war crimes, and called for outside action on Syria, including possible military intervention.


Pinheiro said the investigators would not speak publicly about "numbers, names or levels" of suspects.


SEVEN MASSACRES IDENTIFIED


The investigators' latest report, covering the six months to mid-January, was based on 445 interviews conducted abroad with victims and witnesses, as they have not been allowed into Syria.


"We identified seven massacres during the period, five on the government side, two on the armed opponents' side. We need to enter the sites to be able to confirm elements of proof that we have," del Ponte said.


The U.N. report said the ICC was the appropriate institution for the fight against impunity in Syria. "As an established, broadly supported structure, it could immediately initiate investigations against authors of serious crimes in Syria."


Government forces have carried out shelling and air strikes across Syria including Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Idlib, the 131-page report said, citing corroborating satellite images.


"Government forces and affiliated militias have committed extra-judicial executions, breaching international human rights law. This conduct also constitutes the war crime of murder. Where murder was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with knowledge of that attack, it is a crime against humanity," the report said.


Those forces have targeted bakery queues and funeral processions to spread "terror among the civilian population".


Rebels fighting to topple Assad have also committed war crimes including murder, torture, hostage-taking and using children under age 15 in hostilities, the U.N. report said.


"They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives inside civilian areas" and rebel snipers had caused "considerable civilian casualties", it said.


George Sabra, a vice president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, asked about the U.N. report, told Reuters at a conference in Stockholm: "We condemn all kind of crimes, regardless who did it.


"We can't ignore that some mistakes have been made and maybe still happen right now. But nobody also can ignore that the most criminal file is that of the regime."


(This story has been corrected to fix name of Milosevic tribunal in 11th paragraph)


(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm; Editing by Mark Heinrich)



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Israeli lawmakers to investigate Australian spy mystery


JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli lawmakers announced plans on Sunday to investigate the 2010 jailhouse death of a reported Australian immigrant recruit to the Mossad spy agency.


The statement by Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee followed calls by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting to dim a growing media spotlight on the affair he saw as at risk of jeopardizing national security.


The case kept under wraps for two years then publicized by Australian television last Tuesday involves a 34-year-old immigrant, Ben Zygier, said to be a Mossad operative held on suspicion of security offences, who died of what has been labeled an apparent suicide behind bars.


In a terse communique, the legislative panel's subcommittee on intelligence said it has "decided to conduct an intensive examination of all aspects of the incident involving the prisoner found dead in his (prison) cell in December 2010."


While unlikely to have any immediate political consequences the investigation may lead to a wider inquiry with potentially broader repercussions.


Netanyahu's government has restricted reporting in Israel on the case, now overshadowing his victory in a national election held last month, using court gag orders, military censorship and direct requests to news editors.


Such steps have done little to douse demands for the authorities to come clean about the circumstances of Zygier's imprisonment and how he was able to kill himself in a highly-supervised isolation cell.


Without citing the case specifically, Netanyahu said on Sunday he "absolutely trusts" Israel's security services and what he described as the independent legal monitoring system under which they operated.


"We are an exemplary democracy," Netanyahu said in remarks aired by Israeli broadcasters.


"But we are also more threatened, more challenged, and therefore we have to ensure the proper operation of our security branches," Netanyahu also said.


"Therefore I ask over everyone: Let the security services continue working quietly so that we can continue to live in safety and tranquility in the State of Israel."


The few Israeli officials who have spoken of Zygier's case have not denied that he was linked to Mossad, which in early 2010 was accused by Dubai of using Australian passport-holders to assassinate a Palestinian arms procurer in the Gulf emirate.


BETRAYED MOSSAD MISSIONS?


Media reports have speculated that Israel suspected the Melbourne-born Jew of betraying or threatening to divulge Mossad missions, perhaps to Australia's security services, as they probed passport fraud.


Civil liberties groups and some Israeli lawmakers have demanded to know whether Zygier's rights were violated by his months of incarceration under alias.


In an apparent reversal from previous statements, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said on Thursday his ministry had known about Zygier's jailing as early as February 2010. On Wednesday he said Australian diplomats in Israel only found out about the detention after his death in custody later that year.


Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli lawyer with whom Zygier consulted in Ayalon prison, said last week that that meeting was arranged by a "Mossad liaison" and that his client had denied "grave charges" for which he awaited trial.


Feldman also said that Zygier's family, which has declined all comment on the affair, knew about his detention. The incarceration was approved by several Israeli courts.


Two senior cabinet members, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, told Israeli media on Saturday the case was rare but lawful.


"There are extreme situations...to do with our security and even the need to preserve human life, when we need to take an extreme step such as this," Yaalon told Channel Two television.


Meridor said that publishing the prisoner's identity would have risked "serious harm to security." He did not elaborate.


Tzachi Hanegbi, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's conservative Likud party said he had never been informed of Zygier's arrest as chairman of the parliamentary defence panel at the time.


"This requires explanation," Hanegbi said. "Usually, every significant subject, whether it is impressive achievements or embarrassing failures, is laid out before the subcommittee."


Former Mossad director Danny Yatom told Reuters the agency was under no legal obligation to brief oversight lawmakers in such circumstances.


(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Dan Williams; Editing by Jason Webb)



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Bomb kills 64 in Pakistan's Quetta


QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Sixty-four people including school children died on Saturday in a bomb attack carried out by extremists from Pakistan's Sunni Muslim majority, police said.


A spokesman for Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni group, claimed responsibility for the bomb in Quetta, which caused casualties in the town's main bazaar, a school and a computer center. Police said most of the victims were Shi'ites.


Burned school bags and books were strewn around.


"The explosion was caused by an improvised explosive device fitted to a motorcycle," said Wazir Khan Nasir, deputy inspector general of police in Quetta.


"This is a continuation of terrorism against Shi'ites."


"I saw many bodies of women and children," said an eyewitness at a hospital. "At least a dozen people were burned to death by the blast."


Most Western intelligence agencies have regarded the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as the gravest threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan, a strategic U.S. ally.


But Pakistani law enforcement officials say Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has become a formidable force.


TENSIONS


Last month the group said it carried out a bombing in Quetta that killed nearly 100 people, one of Pakistan's worst sectarian attacks. Thousands of Shi'ites protested in several cities after that attack.


Pakistani intelligence officials say extremist groups, led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have escalated their bombings and shootings of Shi'ites to trigger violence that would pave the way for a Sunni theocracy in U.S.-allied Pakistan.


More than 400 Shi'ites were killed in Pakistan last year, many by hitmen or bombs, and the perpetrators are almost never caught. Some hardline Shi'ite groups have hit back by killing Sunni clerics.


The growing sectarian violence has hurt the credibility of the government, which has already faced criticism ahead of elections due in May for its inability to tackle corruption and economic stagnation.


The schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites developed after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 when his followers could not agree on a successor.


Emotions over the issue are highly potent even today, pushing some countries, including Iraq five years ago, to the brink of civil war.


Pakistan is nowhere near that stage but officials worry that Sunni extremist groups have succeeded in dramatically ratcheting up tensions and provoking revenge attacks in their bid to destabilize the country.


(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Stephen Powell)



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Meteorite explodes over Russia, more than 1,000 injured


CHELYABINSK, Russia (Reuters) - A meteorite streaked across the sky and exploded over central Russia on Friday, raining fireballs over a vast area and causing a shock wave that smashed windows, damaged buildings and injured 1,200 people.


People heading to work in Chelyabinsk heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt the shock wave, according to a Reuters correspondent in the industrial city 1,500 km (950 miles) east of Moscow.


The fireball, travelling at a speed of 30 km (19 miles) per second according to Russian space agency Roscosmos, had blazed across the horizon, leaving a long white trail that could be seen as far as 200 km (125 miles) away.


Car alarms went off, thousands of windows shattered and mobile phone networks were disrupted. The Interior Ministry said the meteorite explosion, a very rare spectacle, also unleashed a sonic boom.


"I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it were day," said Viktor Prokofiev, 36, a resident of Yekaterinburg in the Urals Mountains.


"I felt like I was blinded by headlights."


The meteorite, which weighed about 10 metric tons and may have been made of iron, entered Earth's atmosphere and broke apart 30-50 km (19-31 miles) above ground, according to Russia's Academy of Sciences.


The energy released when it entered the Earth's atmosphere was equivalent to a few kilotonnes, the academy said, the power of a small atomic weapon exploding.


No deaths were reported but the Emergencies Ministry said 20,000 rescue and clean-up workers were sent to the region after President Vladimir Putin told Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to ease the disruption and help the victims.


The Interior Ministry said about 1,200 people had been injured, at least 200 of them children, and most from shards of glass.


WINDOWS BLOWN OUT


The early-morning blast and ensuing shock wave blew out windows on Chelyabinsk's central Lenin Street, buckled some shop fronts, rattled apartment buildings in the city center and blew out windows.


"I was standing at a bus stop, seeing off my girlfriend," said Andrei, a local resident who did not give his second name. "Then there was a flash and I saw a trail of smoke across the sky and felt a shock wave that smashed windows."


A wall and roof were badly damaged at the Chelyabinsk Zinc Plant but a spokeswoman said no environmental threat resulted.


One piece of meteorite broke through the ice the Cherbakul Lake near Chelyabinsk, leaving a hole several meters (yards) wide.


The region has long been a hub for the Russian military and defense industry, and it is often the site where artillery shells are decommissioned.


A local Emergencies Ministry official said meteorite storms were extremely rare and Friday's incident may have been connected with an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool that was due to pass Earth.


But an astronomer at Russia's Academy of Sciences, Sergei Barabanov, cast doubt on that report and the European Space Agency said its experts had confirmed there was no link.


The regional governor in Chelyabinsk said the meteorite shower had caused more than $30 million in damage, and the Emergencies Ministry said 300 buildings had been affected.


Despite warnings not to approach any unidentified objects, some enterprising locals were hoping to cash in.


"Selling meteorite that fell on Chelyabinsk!" one prospective seller, Vladimir, said on a popular Russian auction website. He attached a picture of a black piece of stone that on Friday afternoon was priced at 1,488 roubles ($49.46).


RARE EVENT


The Emergencies Ministry described Friday's events as a "meteorite shower in the form of fireballs" and said background radiation levels were normal. It urged residents not to panic.


The first footage was shot by car dashboard video cameras and soon went viral.


Russians also quickly made fun at the event on the Internet. A photo montage showed Putin riding the meteorite and Nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovksy said in jest it was really a new weapon being tested by the United States.


Experts drew comparisons with an incident in 1908, when a meteorite is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (1,250 miles) in Siberia, breaking windows as far as 200 km (125 miles) from the point of impact.


Simon Goodwin, an astrophysics expert from Britain's University of Sheffield, said that roughly 1,000 to 10,000 metric tons of material rained down from space towards the earth every day, but most burned up in the atmosphere.


"While events this big are rare, an impact that could cause damage and death could happen every century or so. Unfortunately there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop impacts."


The meteorite struck just as an asteroid known as 2012 DA14, about 46 m in diameter, was due to pass closer to Earth - at a distance of 27,520 km (17,100 miles) - than any other known object of its size since scientists began routinely monitoring asteroids about 15 years ago.


($1 = 30.0877 Russian roubles)


(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Thomas Grove; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Michael Roddy)



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"Blade Runner" Pistorius charged with murdering girlfriend


JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who became one of the biggest names in world athletics, was charged on Thursday with shooting dead his girlfriend at his upscale home in Pretoria.


Police said they opened a murder case after a 30-year-old woman was found dead at the Paralympic and Olympic star's house in the Silverlakes gated complex on the capital's outskirts.


Pistorius, 26, and his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, had been the only people in the house at the time of the shooting, police brigadier Denise Beukes told reporters, adding witnesses had been interviewed about the early morning incident.


"We are talking about neighbors and people that heard things earlier in the evening and when the shooting took place," Beukes said outside the heavily guarded residential complex.


Police said a 9mm pistol had been found at the scene.


Beukes said police were aware of previous incidents at the Pistorius house. "I can confirm that there has previously been incidents at the home of Mr Oscar Pistorious, of allegations of a domestic nature," she said.


Pistorius, who uses carbon fiber prosthetic blades to run, is due to appear in a Pretoria court on Friday.


"He is doing well but very emotional," his lawyer Kenny Oldwage told SABC TV, but gave no further comment.


A sports icon for triumphing over disability to compete with able-bodied athletes at the Olympics, his sponsorship deals, including one with sports apparel group Nike, are thought to be worth $2 million a year.


South Africa's M-Net cable TV channel said it was pulling adverts featuring Pistorius off air immediately after blanket coverage of the arrest in a country more used to honoring Pistorius as a national hero.


"WE ARE ALL DEVASTATED"


Steenkamp's colleagues in the modeling world were distraught. "We are all devastated. Her family is in shock," her agent, Sarita Tomlinson, tearfully told Reuters. "They did have a good relationship. Nobody actually knows what happened."


Pistorius, who was born without a fibula in both legs, was the first double amputee to run in the Olympics and reached the 400-metre semi-finals in London 2012.


In last year's Paralympics he suffered his first loss over 200 meters in nine years. After the race he questioned the legitimacy of Brazilian winner Alan Oliveira's prosthetic blades, though he was quick to express regret for the comments.


South Africa has some of the world's highest rates of violent crime, and many home owners have weapons to defend themselves against intruders, although Pistorius's complex is surrounded by a three-meter high wall and electric fence.


In 2004, Springbok rugby player Rudi Visagie shot dead his 19-year-old daughter after he mistakenly thought she was a robber trying to steal his car in the middle of the night.


Before the murder charge was announced, Johannesburg's Talk Radio 702 said the athlete may have mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar.


Pistorius was arrested in 2009 for assault after slamming a door on a woman and spent a night in police custody. Family and friends said it was just an accident and charges were dropped.


OLYMPIAN UNDERGOES POLICE TESTS


Steenkamp, a regular on the South African social scene, was reported to have been dating Pistorius for several months.


In the social pages of last weekend's Sunday Independent she described him as having "impeccable" taste. "His gifts are always thoughtful," she was quoted as saying.


Some of her last Twitter postings indicated she was looking forward to Valentine's Day on Thursday. "What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow???" she posted.


Pistorius was on Thursday being processed through the police system. "At this stage he is on his way to a district surgeon for medical examination," the police brigadier said.


"When a person has been accused of a crime like murder they look at things like testing under the finger nails, taking a blood alcohol sample and all kinds of other test that are done. They are standard medical tests," Beukes said.


Pistorius is also sponsored by British telecoms firm BT, sunglasses maker Oakley and French designer Thierry Mugler.


"We are shocked by this terrible, tragic news. We await the outcome of the South African police investigation," a BT spokeswoman said before Pistorius was charged.


A Nike spokesman in London said before hearing of the murder charge that the company was "saddened by the news, but we have no further comment to make at this stage".


Pistorius also has a sponsorship deal with Icelandic prosthetics manufacturer Ossur.


"I can only say that our thoughts and prayers are with Oscar and the families involved in the tragedy," Ossur CEO Jon Sigurdsson told Reuters. "It is completely premature to discuss or speculate on our business relationship with him."


Neighbors expressed shock at the arrest of a "good guy".


"It is difficult to imagine an intruder entering this community, but we live in a country where intruders can get in wherever they want to," said one Silverlakes resident, who did not want to be named.


"Oscar is a good guy, an upstanding neighbor, and if he is innocent I feel for this guy deeply," he said.


(Additional reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas, David Dolan, Ed Cropley, Jon Herskovitz, Keith Weir and Kate Holton; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Will Waterman)



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Ovation for Pope Benedict at final public mass


VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - A capacity crowd in St Peter's Basilica gave Pope Benedict a thunderous standing ovation on Wednesday at an emotional last public Mass before he resigns at the end of the month.


"Thank you. Now, let's return to prayer," the 85-year-old pontiff said, bringing an end to several minutes of applause that clearly moved him. In an unusual gesture, bishops took off their mitres in a sign of respect and a few of them wept.


One of the priests at the altar, which according to tradition rests above the tomb of St Peter, took out a handkerchief to dry his tears.


The Mass was moved to St Peter's from a venue in Rome so more people could attend. Hundreds of others waited outside.


Hours earlier in the Vatican's modern audience hall, a visibly moved Benedict tried to assure his worldwide flock, saying he was confident his decision to step down would not hurt the Church.


The Vatican, meanwhile, announced that a conclave to elect his successor would start sometime between March 15 and March 20, in keeping with Church rules about the timing of such gatherings after the papal see becomes vacant.


"Continue to pray for me, for the Church and for the future pope," he said in unscripted remarks at the start of his weekly general audience, his first public appearance since his shock decision on Monday that he will step down on February 28.


It was the first time Benedict, 85, who will retire to a convent inside the Vatican, exchanging the splendor of his 16th century Apostolic Palace for a sober modern residence, had uttered the words "future pope" in public.


Church officials are still so stunned by the move that the Vatican experts have yet to decide what his title will be and whether he will continue to wear the white of a pope, the red of a cardinal or the black of an ordinary priest.


His voice sounded strong at the audience but he was clearly moved and his eyes appeared to be watering as he reacted to the thunderous applause in the Vatican's vast audience hall, packed with more than 8,000 people.


In brief remarks in Italian that mirrored those he read in Latin to stunned cardinals on Monday he appeared to try to calm Catholics' fears of the unknown.


He message was that God would continue to guide the Church.


EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE


"I took this decision in full freedom for the good of the Church after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God," he said.


He said he was "well aware of the gravity of such an act," but also aware that he no longer had the strength required to run the 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church, which has been beset by a string of scandals both in Rome and round the world.


Benedict said he was sustained by the "certainty that the Church belongs to Christ, who will never stop guiding it and caring for it" and suggested that the faithful should also feel comforted by this.


He said that he had "felt almost physically" the affection and kindness he had received since he announced the decision.


When Benedict resigned on Monday, the Vatican spokesman said the pontiff did not fear schism in the Church after his resignation.


Some 115 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect his successor.


Cardinals around the world have already begun informal consultations by phone and email to construct a profile of the man they think would be best suited to lead the Church in a period of continuing crisis.


The conservative Benedict has appointed more than half of the cardinals who will elect his successor so it is unlikely the new man will tamper with any teachings such as the ban on artificial birth control or women priests.


But many in the Church have been calling for the election of someone who they say will be a better listener to other opinions in the Church.


The likelihood that the next pope would be a younger man and perhaps a non-Italian, was increasing, particularly because of the many mishaps caused by Benedict's mostly Italian top aides.


Benedict has been faulted for putting too much power in the hands of his friend, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Critics of Bertone, effectively the Vatican's chief administrator, said he should have prevented some papal mishaps and bureaucratic blunders.


ILL-SERVED POPE


"These scandals, these miscommunications, in many cases were caused by Pope Benedict's own top aides and I think a lot of Catholics around the world think that he was perhaps ill-served by some of the cardinals here," said John Thavis, author of a new book, The Vatican Diaries.


Benedict's papacy was rocked by crises over sex abuse of children by priests in Europe and the United States, most of which preceded his time in office but came to light during it.


His reign also saw Muslim anger after he compared Islam with violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the Church's business dealings, his butler was accused of leaking his private papers.


"When cardinals arrive here for the conclave ... they are going to have this on their mind, they're going to take a good hard look at how Pope Benedict was served, and I think many of them feel that the burden of the papacy that finally weighed so heavy on Benedict was caused in part by some of this in-fighting (among his administration)," Thavis told Reuters.


Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi urged the faithful to remain confident in the Church and its future.


"Those who may feel a bit disorientated or stunned by this, or have a hard time understanding the Holy Father's decision should look at it in the context of faith and the certainty that Christ will support his Church," Lombardi said.


Lombardi said that on his last day in office, Benedict would receive cardinals in a farewell meeting and after February 28 his ring of office, used to seal official documents, would be destroyed just as if he had died.


(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Giles Elgood)



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North Korean nuclear test draws anger, including from China


SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday in defiance of U.N. resolutions, drawing condemnation from around the world, including from its only major ally, China, which summoned the North Korean ambassador to protest.


Pyongyang said the test was an act of self-defense against "U.S. hostility" and threatened stronger steps if necessary.


The test puts pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama on the day of his State of the Union speech and also puts China in a tight spot, since it comes in defiance of Beijing's admonishments to North Korea to avoid escalating tensions.


The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting at which its members, including China, "strongly condemned" the test and vowed to start work on appropriate measures in response, the president of the council said.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the third of his line to rule the country, has presided over two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear test during his first year in power, pursuing policies that have propelled his impoverished and malnourished country closer to becoming a nuclear weapons power.


North Korea said the test had "greater explosive force" than those it conducted in 2006 and 2009. Its KCNA news agency said it had used a "miniaturized" and lighter nuclear device, indicating it had again used plutonium, which is suitable for use as a missile warhead.


China, which has shown signs of increasing exasperation with the recent bellicose tone of its reclusive neighbor, summoned the North Korean ambassador in Beijing and protested sternly, the Foreign Ministry said.


Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China was "strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed" to the test and urged North Korea to "stop any rhetoric or acts that could worsen situations and return to the right course of dialogue and consultation as soon as possible".


Analysts said the test was a major embarrassment to China, which is a permanent member of the Security Council and North Korea's sole major economic and diplomatic ally.


Obama called the test a "highly provocative act" that hurt regional stability.


"The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community. The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies," Obama said.


U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Washington and its allies intended to "augment the sanctions regime" already in place due to Pyongyang's previous atomic tests. North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned states in the world and has few external economic links that can be targeted.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a "grave threat" that could not be tolerated.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program and return to talks. NATO condemned the test as an "irresponsible act."


South Korea, still technically at war with North Korea after a 1950-53 civil war ended in a mere truce, also denounced the test. Obama spoke to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday and told him the United States "remains steadfast in its defense commitments" to Korea, the White House said.


MAXIMUM RESTRAINT


North Korea's Foreign Ministry said the test was "only the first response we took with maximum restraint".


"If the United States continues to come out with hostility and complicates the situation, we will be forced to take stronger, second and third responses in consecutive steps," it said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.


North Korea often threatens the United States and its "puppet", South Korea, with destruction in colorful terms.


North Korea told the U.N. disarmament forum in Geneva that it would never bow to resolutions on its nuclear program and that prospects were "gloomy" for the denuclearization of the divided Korean peninsula because of a "hostile" U.S. policy.


Suzanne DiMaggio, an analyst at the Asia Society in New York, said North Korea had embarrassed China with the test. "China's inability to dissuade North Korea from carrying through with this third nuclear test reveals Beijing's limited influence over Pyongyang's actions in unusually stark terms," she said.


Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said: "The test is hugely insulting to China, which now can be expected to follow through with threats to impose sanctions."


The magnitude of the explosion was roughly twice that of the 2009 test, according to the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization. The U.S. Geological Survey said that a seismic event measuring 5.1 magnitude had occurred.


U.S. intelligence agencies were analyzing the event and found that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion with a yield of "approximately several kilotons", the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said.


Nuclear experts have described Pyongyang's previous two tests as puny by international standards. The yield of the 2006 test has been estimated at less than 1 kiloton (1,000 tons of TNT equivalent) and the second at some 2-7 kilotons, compared with 20 kilotons for a Nagasaki-type bomb.


North Korea trumpeted the announcement on its state television channel to patriotic music against a backdrop of its national flag.


"It was confirmed that the nuclear test that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment," KCNA said.


North Korea linked the test to its technical prowess in launching a long-range rocket in December, a move that triggered the U.N. sanctions, backed by China, that Pyongyang said prompted it to take Tuesday's action.


The North's ultimate aim, Washington believes, is to design an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States. North Korea says the program is aimed at putting satellites in space.


Despite its three nuclear tests and long-range rocket tests, North Korea is not believed to be close to manufacturing a nuclear missile capable of hitting the United States.


It used plutonium in previous nuclear tests and before Tuesday there had been speculation that it would use highly enriched uranium so as to conserve its plutonium stocks, as testing eats into its limited supply of materials to construct a nuclear bomb.


"VICIOUS CYCLE"


When Kim Jong-un, who is 30, took power after his father's death in December 2011, there were hopes that he would bring reforms and end Kim Jong-il's "military first" policies.


Instead, North Korea, whose economy is smaller than it was 20 years ago and where a third of children are believed to be malnourished, appears to be trapped in a cycle of sanctions followed by further provocations.


"The more North Korea shoots missiles, launches satellites or conducts nuclear tests, the more the U.N. Security Council will impose new and more severe sanctions," said Shen Dingli, a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University. "It is an endless, vicious cycle."


Options for the international community appear to be in short supply. Diplomats at the United Nations said negotiations on new sanctions could take weeks since China is likely to resist tough new measures for fear they could lead to further retaliation by the North Korean leadership.


Beijing has also been concerned that tougher sanctions could further weaken North Korea's economy and prompt a flood of refugees into China.


Tuesday's action appeared to have been timed for the run-up to February 16 anniversary celebrations of Kim Jong-il's birthday, as well as to achieve maximum international attention.


Significantly, the test comes at a time of political transition in China, Japan and South Korea, and as Obama begins his second term. The U.S. president will likely have to tweak his State of the Union address due to be given on Tuesday.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bedding down a new government and South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, is preparing to take office on February 25.


China too is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition to Xi Jinping, who takes office in March. Both Abe and Xi are staunch nationalists.


The longer-term game plan from Pyongyang may be to restart international talks aimed at winning food and financial aid. China urged it to return to the stalled "six-party" talks on its nuclear program, hosted by China and including the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia.


Its puny economy and small diplomatic reach mean that North Korea struggles to win attention on the global stage - other than through nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, the last of which was made in 2010.


"Now the next step for North Korea will be to offer talks... - any form to start up discussion again to bring things to their advantage," predicted Jeung Young-tae, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.


(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Christine Kim and Jumin Park in SEOUL; Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS; Fredrik Dahl in VIENNA; Michael Martina and Chen Aizhu in BEIJING; Mette Fraende in COPENHAGEN; Adrian Croft, Charlie Dunmore and Justyna Pawlak in BRUSSELS; Paul Eckert, Roberta Rampton, Tabassum Zakaria and Jeff Mason in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie, Claudia Parsons and David Brunnstrom)



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Pope's sudden resignation sends shockwaves through Church


VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict stunned the Roman Catholic Church including his closest advisers on Monday when he announced he would stand down in the first papal abdication in 700 years, saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to run the Church through a period of major crisis.


Church officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence in the running of a 2,000-year-old institution but the decision could lead to one of the most uncertain and unstable periods in centuries for a Church besieged by scandal and defections.


Several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor John Paul, refrained from stepping down even when severely ill, precisely because of the confusion and division that could be caused by having an "ex-pope" and a reigning pope living at the same time.


This could create a particularly difficult problem if the next pope is a progressive who influences such teachings as the ban on women priests and artificial birth control and its insistence on a celibate priesthood.


The Church has been rocked during Benedict's nearly eight-year papacy by child sexual abuse crises and Muslim anger after the pope compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier and there was scandal over the leaking of the pope's private papers by his personal butler.


In an announcement read to cardinals in Latin, the universal language of the Church, the 85-year-old said: "Well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of St Peter ...


"As from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours (1900 GMT) the See of Rome, the See of St. Peter will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is."


POPE DOESN'T FEAR SCHISM


At a news conference, chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope did not fear a possible "schism" in the Church, with Catholics owing allegiances to a past and present pope in case of differences on Church teachings.


The pope, known for his conservative doctrine, stepped up the Church's opposition to gay marriage, underscored the Church's resistance to a female priesthood and to embryonic stem cell research.


But Lombardi said Benedict, who is expected to go into isolation for at least a while after his resignation, did not intend to influence the decision of the cardinals who will enter a secret conclave to elect a successor.


A new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics could be elected as soon as Palm Sunday, on March 24, and be ready to take over by Easter a week later, Lombardi said.


He indicated the complex machinery of the process to elect a new pope would move quickly because the Vatican would not have to wait until after the elaborate funeral services for a pope.


The decision shocked many throughout the world, from ordinary believers, to politicians to world religious leaders.


"This is disconcerting, he is leaving his flock," said Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian who is granddaughter of Italy's wartime dictator.


"The pope is not any man. He is the vicar of Christ. He should stay on to the end, go ahead and bear his cross to the end. This is a huge sign of world destabilization that will weaken the Church."


OWN BROTHER SURPRISED


The announcement even caught the pope's elder brother Georg Ratzinger, off guard, indicating just how well-kept a secret it was. Ratzinger told reporters in Germany that he had been "very surprised" and added: "He alone can evaluate his physical and emotional strength."


Lombardi said Benedict would first go to the papal summer residence south of Rome and then move into a cloistered convent inside the Vatican walls. It was not clear if Benedict would have a public life after he resigns.


The last pope to resign willingly was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for only five months, his resignation was known as "the great refusal" and was condemned by the poet Dante in the "Divine Comedy". Gregory XII reluctantly abdicated in 1415 to end a dispute with a rival claimant to the papacy.


Lombardi said Benedict's stepping aside showed "great courage". He ruled out any specific illness or depression and said the decision was made in the last few months "without outside pressure".


Joseph Curran, professor of religious studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, said the modern medicine prolonging the life of people had posed difficulties for institutions whose leaders usually rule for life.


"His resignation is a tremendous act of humility and generosity," he said. "A man who lives up a position of authority because he can no longer adequately exercise that authority, and does so for the good of the Church, is setting a wonderful example," he said.


But Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, secretary to the late Pope John Paul, who suffered through bad health for the last decade of his life, had a thinly veiled criticism of Benedict. John Paul stayed to the end of his life as he believed "you cannot come down from the cross," Dziwisz told reporters in Poland.


NO HINT OF RESIGNATION


While the pope had slowed down recently - he started using a cane and a wheeled platform to take him up the long aisle in St Peter's Square - he had given no hint recently that he was mulling such a dramatic decision.


Elected in 2005 to succeed the enormously popular John Paul, Benedict never appeared to feel comfortable in a job he said he never wanted. He had wished to retire to his native Germany to pursue his theological writings, something which he will now do from a convent inside the Vatican.


The resignation means that cardinals from around the world will begin arriving in Rome in March and after preliminary meetings, lock themselves in a secret conclave and elect the new pope from among themselves in votes in the Sistine Chapel.


There has been growing pressure on the Church for the cardinals to shun European contenders and choose a pope from the developing world in order to better reflect parts of the globe where most Catholics live and where the Church is growing.


John Paul was only 58 when he was elected in 1978 - 20 years younger than Benedict when he was elected - and some commentators said the resignation would likely convince the cardinals to elect a younger man.


"MIND AND BODY"


In his announcement, the pope told the cardinals that in order to govern "... both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me."


Before he was elected pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was known by such critical epithets as "God's rottweiler" because of his stern stand on theological issues.


After a few months, he showed his mild side but he never drew the kind of adulation that had marked the 27-year papacy of his predecessor John Paul.


The Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the worldwide Anglican communion at odds with the Vatican over women priests, said he had learned of the pope's decision with a heavy heart but complete understanding.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pope's decision must be respected if he feels he is too weak to carry out his duties. British Prime Minister David Cameron said: "He will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions."


Elected to the papacy on April 19, 2005, Benedict ruled over a slower-paced, more cerebral and less impulsive Vatican.


CHEERS AND SCANDAL


But while conservatives cheered him for trying to reaffirm traditional Catholic identity, his critics accused him of turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century and hurting dialogue with Muslims, Jews and other Christians.


After appearing uncomfortable in the limelight at the start, he began feeling at home with his new job and showed that he intended to be pope in his way.


Despite great reverence for his charismatic, globe-trotting predecessor -- whom he put on the fast track to sainthood and whom he beatified in 2011 -- aides said he was determined not to change his quiet manner to imitate John Paul's style.


A quiet, professorial type who relaxed by playing the piano, he showed the gentle side of a man who was the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer for nearly a quarter of a century.


The first German pope for some 1,000 years and the second non-Italian in a row, he traveled regularly, making about four foreign trips a year, but never managed to draw the oceanic crowds of his predecessor.


The child abuse scandals hounded most of his papacy. He ordered an official inquiry into abuse in Ireland, which led to the resignation of several bishops.


Scandal from a source much closer to home hit in 2012 when the pontiff's butler, responsible for dressing him and bringing him meals, was found to be the source of leaked documents alleging corruption in the Vatican's business dealings, causing an international furor.


Benedict confronted his own country's past when he visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.


Calling himself "a son of Germany", he prayed and asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, most of them Jews, died there during World War Two.


Ratzinger served in the Hitler Youth during World War Two when membership was compulsory. He was never a member of the Nazi party and his family opposed Adolf Hitler's regime.


(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Barry Moody, Cristiano Corvino, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, and Dagamara Leszkowixa in Poland; editing by Peter Millership, Ralph Boulton, Janet McBride)



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