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

U.S. to give Syrian rebels medical, food aid, not arms

ROME (Reuters) - The United States will send non-lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels for the first time, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday, disappointing opponents of President Bashar al-Assad who are clamoring for Western weapons.

But in a change of emphasis, the mainly Western and Arab "Friends of Syria" group meeting in Rome "underlined the need to change the balance of power on the ground".

A final communique said participants would "coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense".

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.

Kerry, after the talks in Rome, said Washington would more than double its aid to the Syrian civilian opposition, giving it an extra $60 million to help provide food, sanitation and medical care to devastated communities.

The United States would now "extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military (Council)", Kerry said.

In their communique, the "Friends of Syria" pledged more political and material support to the Syrian National Coalition, a fractious Cairo-based group that has struggled to gain traction inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.

Riad Seif, a coalition leader, said before the Rome meeting that the opposition would demand "qualitative military support".

Another coalition official welcomed the result of the talks. "We move forward with a great deal of cautious optimism. We heard today a different kind of discourse," Yasser Tabbara said.

But the continued U.S. refusal to send weapons may compound the frustration that prompted the coalition to say last week it would shun the Rome talks. It attended only under U.S. pressure.

Many in the coalition say Western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Assad.

However, a European diplomat held out the possibility of Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the insurgents.


Kerry's offer of medical aid and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the U.S. army's basic ration, fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the tables against Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.

It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armored personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.

Last week the European Union opened the way for direct aid to Syrian rebels, but did not lift an arms embargo on Syria.

The Rome talks again signaled the lack of appetite among the United States and its allies for direct military intervention in Syria, after the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Iraq and the drawdown under way in Afghanistan.

The communique called for an immediate halt to "unabated" arms supplies to Damascus by third countries, referring mostly to Assad's allies Russia and Iran.

It also said Syria must immediately stop indiscriminate bombardment of populated areas, which it described as crimes against humanity. NATO officials say Assad's military has fired ballistic missiles within Syria, which the government denies.

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 171 civilians were killed in four Scud missile strikes last week.

The "Friends of Syria" pledged "more political and material support to the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to get more concrete assistance inside Syria", but gave no details on exactly what would be provided.

Kerry said earlier this week he would not leave the Syrian opposition "dangling in the wind", unsure of getting support.

But the White House continues to resist providing weaponry to the rebel forces, arguing there is no way to guarantee the arms might not fall into the hands of Islamist militants who might eventually use them against Western or Israeli targets.


U.S. officials have said that the U.S. Defense and State departments, under former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, privately recommended that the White House arm the rebels, but were overruled.

"It's a huge debate inside the administration between those that have to deal with Syria on an everyday basis, the State Department and DoD (Defense) particularly, and the White House, which ... until now has vetoed any kind of outreach to the armed groups," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank.

The United States says it has already provided more than $50 million in non-lethal assistance such as communications gear and governance training to Syria's civilian opposition.

A source in the Syrian coalition, however, said even the extra $60 million promised by Washington was a pittance compared to what he said was the $40 million a day in humanitarian aid needed for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons.

The United States has provided some $365 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and for internally displaced people, channeling this money through non-governmental organizations.

More than 40,000 people a week are fleeing Syria and the total number of refugees will likely pass 1 million in less than a month, far sooner than the United Nations had forecast, a senior U.N. official told the Security Council on Wednesday.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said his agency had registered 936,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa, nearly 30 times as many as in April last year.

"We expected to have 1.1 million Syrian refugees by June. If things continue to accelerate like this, it will take less than a month to reach that number," he told the 15-member council.

(Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Italy faces post-vote stalemate, spooking investors

ROME (Reuters) - The Italian stock market fell and state borrowing costs rose on Tuesday as investors took fright at political deadlock after a stunning election that saw a comedian's protest party lead the poll and no group secure a clear majority in parliament.

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

In a sign of where that might lead, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi indicated his center-right might be open to a grand coalition with the center-left bloc of Pier Luigi Bersani, which will have a majority in the lower house thanks to a premium of seats given to the largest bloc in the chamber.

Results in the upper house, the Senate, where seats are awarded on a region-by-region basis, indicated the center-left would end up with about 119 seats, compared with 117 for the center-right. But 158 are needed for a majority to govern.

Any coalition administration that may be formed must have a working majority in both houses in order to pass legislation.

Comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement won the most votes of any single party, taking 25 percent. He shows no immediate inclination to cooperate with other groups.

Despite talk of a new election, the main established parties seem likely to try to avoid that, fearing even more humiliation.

World financial markets reacted nervously to the prospect of a stalemate in the euro zone's third largest economy with memories still fresh of the crisis that took the 17-member currency bloc to the brink of collapse in 2011.

In a clear sign of worry at the top over what effect the elections could have on the economy, Prime Minister Mario Monti, whose austerity policies were repudiated by voters, called a meeting with the governor of the central bank, the economy minister and the European affairs minister for later on Tuesday.

Other governments in the euro zone sounded uneasy. Allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel made no secret of disappointment at Monti's debacle and urged Rome to continue with economic reforms Berlin sees as vital to stabilizing the common currency.

France's Socialist finance minister also expressed "worry" at the prospect of legislative deadlock in Italy but said that Italians had rejected austerity and hoped Bersani's center-left could form a stable government to help foster growth in Europe.


Fabio Fois, an economist at Barclays bank, said: "Political instability is likely to prevail in the near term and slow the implementation of much needed structural reforms unless a grand coalition among center-left, center-right and center is formed."

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 technocrat summoned to replace him in a crisis 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 more than four percent and the premium Italy pays over Germany to borrow on 10-year widened to a yield spread of 338.7 basis points, the highest since December 10.

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

Berlusconi, who was forced from office in November 2011 as borrowing costs approached levels investors feared would become unsustainable, said he was "not worried" about market reaction to the election and played down the significance of the spread.

The poor showing by Monti's centrist bloc reflected a weariness with austerity that was exploited by both Berlusconi and Grillo; only with the help of center-left allies did Bersani beat 5-Star, by just 125,000 votes, to control the lower house.

The worries immediately went beyond Italy's borders.

"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."

The euro skidded to an almost seven-week low against the dollar in Asia on fears about the euro zone's debt crisis. It fell as far as $1.3042, its lowest since January 10.


Commentators said all Grillo's adversaries underestimated the appeal of a grassroots movement that called itself a "non-party", particularly its allure among young Italians who find themselves without jobs and the prospect of a decent future.

The 5-star Movement's score of 25.5 percent in the lower house was just ahead of the 25.4 percent for Bersani's Democratic Party, which ran in a coalition with the leftist SEL party, and it won almost 8.7 million votes overall - more than any other single party.

"The 'non-party' has become the largest party in the country," said Massimo Giannini, commentator for Rome newspaper La Repubblica, of Grillo, who mixes fierce attacks on corruption with policies ranging from clean energy to free Internet.

Grillo's surge in the final weeks of the campaign threw the race open, with hundreds of thousands turning up at his rallies to hear him lay into targets ranging from corrupt politicians and bankers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In just three years, his 5-Star Movement, heavily backed by a frustrated generation of young Italians increasingly shut out from permanent full-time jobs, has grown from a marginal group to one of the most talked about political forces in Europe.


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

Italy's borrowing costs have come down in recent months, helped by the promise of European Central Bank support but the election result confirmed fears of many European countries that it would not produce a government strong enough to implement effective reforms.

A long recession and growing disillusionment with mainstream parties fed a bitter public mood that saw more than half of Italian voters back parties that rejected the austerity policies pursued by Monti with the backing of Italy's European partners.

Monti suffered a major setback. His centrist grouping won only 10.6 percent and two of his key centrist allies, Pier Ferdinando Casini and lower house speaker Gianfranco Fini, both of parliamentarians for decades, were booted out.

"It's not that surprising if you consider how much people were let down by politics in its traditional forms," Monti said.

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.

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.

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

(Additional reporting by Barry Moody, Gavin Jones, Catherine Hornby, Lisa Jucca, Steven Jewkes, Steve Scherer and Naomi O'Leary; Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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Frustrated Italians vote in crucial election for euro zone

ROME (Reuters) - Italians voted on Sunday in one of the most closely watched and unpredictable elections in years, with pent-up fury over a discredited elite adding to concern it may not produce a government strong enough to lead Italy out of an economic slump.

The election, which concludes on Monday afternoon, is being followed closely by investors; their memories are still fresh of the potentially catastrophic debt crisis that saw Mario Monti, an economics professor and former bureaucrat, summoned to serve as prime minister in place of Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago.

A weak Italian government could, many fear, prompt a new dip in confidence in the European Union's single currency.

Opinion polls give the center-left a narrow lead but the result has been thrown completely open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against the painful austerity measures imposed by Monti's government and deep anger over a never-ending series of corruption scandals. Berlusconi's centre-right has also revived.

"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 builder in Milan, who voted for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic and blogger Beppe Grillo.

The 64-year-old Grillo, heavily backed by a frustrated generation of young Italians hit by record unemployment, has been one of the biggest features of the last stage of the campaign, packing rallies in town squares up and down Italy.

"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 the Sicialian capital Palermo.

Italians started voting at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT). Polling booths will remain open until 10 p.m. on Sunday and open again between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Monday. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early Tuesday.

Snow in northern regions is expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million people eligible to vote in Italy to head out to polling stations, though the Interior Ministry has said it is fully prepared for bad weather.

Monti and his wife cast their votes at a polling booth in a Milan school on Sunday morning and centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader opinion polls suggest will have to form a new government, voted in his home town of Piacenza.

A small group of women's rights demonstrators greeted former prime minister Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They bared their breasts in protest at the conservative leader, who is on trial at present for having sex with an underage prostitute.

Whichever government emerges from the election will have to tackle reforms needed to address problems that have given Italy one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world for the past two decades.

But 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, has left deep scars.

"It's our fault, Italian citizens. It's our closed mentality. We're just not Europeans," said Luciana Li Mandri, a 37-year-old public servant in Palermo.

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


Final polls published two weeks ago showed center-left leader Bersani with a 5-point lead, but analysts disagree about whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can make the economic reforms they believe Italy needs.

While the center left is still expected to gain control of the lower house, thanks to rules that guarantee a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally, a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate, which any government also needs to control to be able to pass laws.

The euro zone's third-largest economy is stuck in deep recession, struggling under a public debt burden second only to Greece in the 17-member currency bloc and with a public weary of more than a year of austerity policies.

Bersani is now thought to be just a few points ahead of media magnate Berlusconi, the four-times prime minister who has promised tax refunds and staged a media blitz in an attempt to win back voters.

Think-tank consultant Mario, 60, who was on his way to vote in Bologna, said Bersani's Democratic Party was the only serious grouping that could help solve the country's economic woes.

"They're not perfect," he said. "But they've got the organization and the union backing that will help them push through the structural reforms."

A strong fightback by Berlusconi, who has promised to repay a widely hated housing tax, the IMU, imposed by Monti last year, saw his support climb during a campaign that relentlessly attacked the "German-centric" austerity policies of the former European Union commissioner.

"I won't vote for Monti, and I don't think a lot of people will. He made a huge blunder with IMU," said 35-year-old hairdresser Marco Morando, preparing to vote in Milan.

But the populist frustration Berlusconi's campaign tapped into has also benefitted Grillo and many pollsters said his 5-Star Movement, made up of political novices, was challenging the center-right for the position as second political force.

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

"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 and Sara Rossi in Milan, Stephen Jewkes in Bologna, Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo, Stefano Bernabei and Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Alastair Macdonald)

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Abe vows to revive Japanese economy, sees no escalation with China

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Americans on Friday "I am back and so is Japan" and vowed to get the world's third biggest economy growing again and to do more to bolster security and the rule of law in an Asia roiled by territorial disputes.

Abe had firm words for China in a policy speech to a top Washington think-tank, but also tempered his remarks by saying he had no desire to escalate a row over islets in the East China Sea that Tokyo controls and Beijing claims.

"No nation should make any miscalculation about firmness of our resolve. No one should ever doubt the robustness of the Japan-U.S. alliance," he told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"At the same time, I have absolutely no intention to climb up the escalation ladder," Abe said in a speech in English.

After meeting U.S. President Barack Obama on his first trip to Washington since taking office in December in a rare comeback to Japan's top job, he said he told Obama that Tokyo would handle the islands issue "in a calm manner."

"We will continue to do so and we have always done so," he said through a translator, while sitting next to Obama in the White House Oval Office.

Tension surged in 2012, raising 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 he and Obama "agreed that we have to work together to maintain the freedom of the seas and also that we would have to create a region which is governed based not on force but based on an international law."

Abe, whose troubled first term ended after just one year when he abruptly quit in 2007, has vowed to revive Japan's economy with a mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, big spending, and structural reform. The hawkish leader is also boosting Japan's defense spending for the first time in 11 years.

"Japan is not, and will never be, a tier-two country," Abe said in his speech. "So today ... I make a pledge. I will bring back a strong Japan, strong enough to do even more good for the betterment of the world."


The Japanese leader stressed that his "Abenomics" recipe would be good for the United States, China and other trading partners.

"Soon, Japan will export more, but it will import more as well," Abe said in the speech. "The U.S. will be the first to benefit, followed by China, India, Indonesia and so on."

Abe said Obama welcomed his economic policy, while Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the two leaders did not discuss currencies, in a sign that the U.S. does not oppose "Abenomics" despite concern that Japan is weakening its currency to export its way out of recession.

The United States and Japan agreed language during Abe's visit that could set the stage for Tokyo to join negotiations soon on a U.S.-led regional free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In a carefully worded statement following the meeting between Obama and Abe, the two countries reaffirmed that "all goods would be subject to negotiations if Japan joins the talks with the United States and 10 other countries.

At the same time, the statement envisions a possible outcome where the United States could maintain tariffs on Japanese automobiles and Japan could still protect its rice sector.

"Recognizing that both countries have bilateral trade sensitivities, such as certain agricultural products for Japan and certain manufactured products for the United States, the two governments confirm that, as the final outcome will be determined during the negotiations, it is not required to make a prior commitment to unilaterally eliminate all tariffs upon joining the TPP negotiations," the statement said.

Abe repeated that Japan would not provide any aid for North Korea unless it abandoned its nuclear and missile programs and released Japanese citizens abducted decades ago to help train spies.

Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. Five have been sent home, but Japan wants better information about eight who Pyongyang says are dead and others Tokyo believes were also kidnapped.

Abe also said he hoped to have a meeting with new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who takes over as president next month, and would dispatch Finance Minister Taro Aso to attend the inauguration of incoming South Korean President Park Geun-hye next week.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Doug Palmer; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Paul Simao)

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Iran appears to advance in construction of Arak nuclear plant

VIENNA (Reuters) - Iran appears to be advancing in its construction of a research reactor Western experts say could offer the Islamic state a second way of producing material for a nuclear bomb, if it decided to embark on such a course, a U.N. report showed.

Iran has almost completed installation of cooling and moderator circuit piping in the heavy water plant near the town of Arak, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a confidential report issued to member states late on Thursday.

Nuclear analysts say this type of reactor could yield plutonium for nuclear arms if the spent fuel is reprocessed, something Iran has said it has no intention of doing. Iran has said it "does not have reprocessing activities", the IAEA said.

In its previous report on Iran, in November, the Vienna-based U.N. agency said installation work at Arak was continuing, without giving any indication of how far advanced it was.

Iran rejects Western allegations it seeks to develop a capability to assemble nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is entirely peaceful and that the Arak reactor will produce isotopes for medical and agricultural use.

Iran says it plans to begin operating the facility in the first quarter of 2014, the IAEA said. Tehran last year postponed the planned start-up from the third quarter of 2013, a target that Western experts said always had seemed unrealistic.

The Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said late last year that it was questionable whether Iran would be able to meet the new target date as well, in view of "significant delays and impeded access to necessary materials" because of international sanctions imposed on Iran.

Western worries about Iran are focused largely on uranium enrichment plants at Natanz and Fordow, as such material refined to a high level can provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb. But experts say Arak may also be a proliferation issue.

The Arak facility is a "growing source of concern", said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed state, sees Iran's nuclear program as a serious danger and has threatened to attack its atomic sites if diplomacy and sanctions fail to resolve the decade-old dispute.

If it does, the nuclear sites at Natanz, Fordow and Arak in central Iran are likely to be targets. Fitzpatrick said it could be Arak that triggers a conflict because attacking it after it is launched could cause an environmental disaster.


Thursday's quarterly IAEA report showed Iran expanding its uranium enrichment program in defiance of tightening Western sanctions, installing advanced centrifuge machines at its main enrichment plant near the town of Natanz.

The report, issued just a few days before six world powers and Iran are due to resume negotiations after an eight-month hiatus, underlined the tough task facing the West in seeking to pressure Tehran to curb its nuclear activities.

Cliff Kupchan, Middle East director at the Eurasia consultancy, said Iran had adopted a defiant policy of pressing ahead with its nuclear program, despite harsh sanctions.

"As a result, Israel and the U.S. Congress will press a receptive U.S. administration to move forward with new and even harsher sanctions," he said in a research note.

Enriched uranium can fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated aim, but also provide the explosive core of a nuclear weapon if refined much further. Making plutonium from spent fuel is a second way of obtaining potential bomb material.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a U.S. think-tank, noted that Iran planned to use a medical research reactor in Tehran, known as TRR, to test fuel for Arak.

"The TRR is now more than a medical isotope production reactor, Iran's stated use for the reactor, and is necessary for the operation" of Arak, it said in a report.

If operated optimally, the heavy-water plant could produce about nine kilograms (20 pounds) of plutonium a year, or enough for about two nuclear bombs annually, ISIS has said previously.

"Before it could use any of the plutonium in a nuclear weapon, however, it would first have to separate the plutonium from the irradiated fuel," it added on its website.

Iran has repeatedly declared it has no plans to reprocess the spent fuel. But, "similarly sized reactors ostensibly built for research" have been used by India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan to make plutonium for weapons, Fitzpatrick said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Cameroon, Nigeria officials deny French hostages freed

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - The fate of seven French tourists seized in Cameroon by suspected Nigerian Islamist militants was unclear on Thursday after government officials denied French media reports that they had been freed.

The hostages, four children and three adults, were captured this week while on an excursion to the Waza national park near Cameroon's border with Nigeria.

Several French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria and freed.

"The hostages are safe and sound and are in the hands of Nigerian authorities," BFMTV quoted a Cameroon army officer as saying.

"This is a crazy rumor that we cannot confirm. We do not know where is it coming from," Cameroon Communications Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said by telephone from the capital Yaounde.

Sagir Musa, a spokesman for Nigeria's military, told Reuters the report was "not true."

Kader Arif, France's minister for veterans' affairs, told parliament on Thursday that the seven hostages had been released but retracted his statement minutes later, saying he had been quoting media reports and there was no official confirmation.

It was the first case of foreigners being seized by suspected Islamist militants in the mainly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony.

The region is seen as being within the operational sphere of Nigerian sect Boko Haram and another Islamist militant group, Ansaru.

The threat to French nationals in the region has grown since France deployed thousands of troops to nearby Mali to root out al Qaeda-linked Islamists who took control of the country's north last year.

The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.

French diplomatic sources said the government would not confirm the hostages had been released until it had physical proof, or until they were in French hands.

(Reporting By Emile Picy and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Additional reporting by Joe Brock in Abuja and Bate Felix and John Irish in Dakar; Editing by Pravin Char and Tom Pfeiffer)

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Bulgarian government resigns amid growing protests

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after violent nationwide protests against high power prices, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during Europe's debt crisis.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, a former bodyguard who swept to power in 2009 on pledges to root out corruption and raise living standards in the European Union's poorest member, now faces a tough task to prop up eroding support ahead of a probable early election.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where living standards 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".

On Tuesday, 11 people were hospitalized - including one man bleeding heavily from the head - and 11 arrested after protesters threw flares at police, who fought demonstrators with shields and truncheons.

"I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people," Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, said as he announced his resignation on Wednesday.

Parliament is expected to accept the resignation later in the day.

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's domineering manner and unpredictable decision making.

The prime minister made sacrifices in an attempt to cling on, sacking his finance minister, cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing foreign-owned companies, a move that conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.

Borisov's rightist GERB party is the dominant faction in parliament but will not take part in talks to form a new government, Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov said, indicating that an election planned for July will now be held early.

"He made my day," student Borislav Hadzhiev, 21, in central Sofia said, commenting on Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."


GERB's popularity has held up well and it still leads, just, in the polls, largely because budget cutbacks have been relatively mild compared with those in many other European countries. Salaries and pensions were frozen rather than cut.

But the last opinion poll, taken before protests grew last weekend already showed the opposition Socialists were nearly tied with the ruling party and analysts said the protests had boosted the Socialists' chances.

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 and average salaries are stuck at around 800 levs ($550) a month.

Millions have emigrated in search of a better life, leaving swathes of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.

The measures announced this week has also put the country on a collision course with the EU and financial investors without easing the tension at home.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas demanded an explanation from Bulgaria and accused it of "politicizing" the power sector by threatening to revoke the electricity distribution license of central Europe's largest listed company CEZ, 70 percent of which is owned by the Czech state.

There have also been fines for another Czech company, Energo-Pro and Austria's EVN.

The precedent is unlikely to encourage other foreign investors, who already have to navigate complicated bureaucracy and widespread corruption and organized crime if they want to take advantage of Bulgaria's 16-percent flat tax rate.

"The resignation is the only responsible move," said Kantcho Stoychev, an analyst with pollster Gallup International. "It also gives Borisov some legitimacy to stay in political life in the future, despite the violent police actions last night."

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

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Venezuela's Maduro would win if Chavez goes: poll

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro would comfortably win a presidential election should his boss Hugo Chavez's cancer force him out of power, according to an opinion poll.

The first survey on such a scenario, by local pollster Hinterlaces, gave Maduro a potential 50 percent of votes, compared to 36 percent for opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Chavez returned to Venezuela on Monday after a long stay in Cuba to continue treatment at home for the disease that is jeopardizing his 14-year socialist rule of the South American OPEC nation.

He has named 50-year-old former bus driver and union activist Maduro as his preferred successor. But Capriles, 40, a center-left state governor who lost to Chavez in a presidential vote last year, would likely run again.

Chavez still has not said a word in public since his December 11 operation in Cuba, and Venezuelans were debating on Tuesday the various possible scenarios after his homecoming - from full recovery, to resignation, or even death from the cancer.

Should Chavez be forced out, Venezuela's constitution stipulates an election must be held within 30 days.

Capriles, who crossed swords with Hinterlaces at various points during the presidential election, again mocked its director, Oscar Schemel, as being biased against him.

"That man is not a pollster, he's on the government's payroll," Capriles told local TV.

"He said in December I would lose the Miranda governorship," he added, referring to his defeat of government heavyweight Elias Jaua, now foreign minister, in that local race.

Opinion surveys are notoriously controversial and divergent in Venezuela, with both sides routinely accusing pollsters of being in the pocket of the other.

Hinterlaces surveyed 1,230 people between January 30-February 9.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

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U.N. says has list of Syrian war crimes suspects

GENEVA (Reuters) - Syrians in "leadership positions" who may be responsible for war crimes have been identified, along with units accused of perpetrating them, United Nations investigators said on Monday.

Both government forces and armed rebels are committing war crimes, including killings and torture, spreading terror among civilians in a nearly two-year-old conflict, they said.

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.

The independent team, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, called on the U.N. Security Council to "act urgently to ensure accountability" for grave violations, possibly by referring the violators to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

"The ICC is 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," the 131-page report said.

It added: "Individuals may also bear criminal responsibility for perpetuating the crimes identified in the present report. Where possible, individuals in leadership positions who may be responsible were identified alongside those who physically carried out the acts."

Karen Konig AbuZayd, one of the four commissioners on the team of some two dozen experts, told Reuters: "We have information suggesting people who have given instructions and are responsible for government policy. People who are in the leadership of the military, for example."

"It is the first time we have mentioned the ICC directly. The Security Council needs to come together and decide whether or not to refer the case to the ICC. I am not optimistic."

But its third list 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 current mandate at the end of March, the report said.

Pillay, a former judge at the ICC, said on Saturday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be probed for war crimes and called for immediate action by the international community, including possible military intervention.

"The evidence collected sits in the safe in the office of the High Commissioner against the day it might be referred to a court and evidence would be examined by a prosecutor," said a European diplomat.

The death toll in Syria is likely approaching 70,000 people, Pillay told the Security Council last week in a fresh appeal for it to refer Syria to the ICC, the Hague-based war crimes court.

Government forces have carried out shelling and aerial bombardment across Syria including Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Idlib, the independent U.N. investigators said, citing corroborating evidence gathered from satellite images.

"In some incidents, such as in the assault on Harak, indiscriminate shelling was followed by ground operations during which government forces perpetrated mass killing," it said, referring to a town in the southern province of Deraa where residents told them that 500 civilians were killed in August.


"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 U.N. report said.

They have targeted queues at bakeries and funeral processions, in violence aimed at "spreading terror among the civilian population", it said.

"Syrian armed forces have implemented a strategy that uses shelling and sniper fire to kill, maim, wound and terrorize the civilian inhabitants of areas that have fallen under anti-government armed group control," the report said.

Government forces had used cluster bombs, it said, but it found no credible evidence of either side using chemical arms.

Rebel forces fighting to topple Assad in the protracted and increasingly sectarian conflict have committed war crimes include 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," it said. Rebel snipers had caused "considerable civilian casualties".

"The violations and abuses committed by anti-government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia."

Foreign fighters, many of them from Libya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, have radicalized the rebels and helped detonate deadly improvised explosive devices, it said.

The two other commissioners are former chief ICC prosecutor Carla del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand.

"It is an investigative mechanism and its evidence can be given to relevant judicial authorities when the time comes. In the interim, it is the one piece of U.N.-approved machinery shining a light on abuses," the European diplomat said.

Referring to del Ponte, who joined in September, the diplomat said: "She brings a harder-edged prosecutorial lens so when they are looking at the evidence she is very well placed to know what sort of evidence would assist a later judicial process."

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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Pope, nearing retirement, says pray "for me and next pope"

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope, addressing a crowded St. Peter's Square in his penultimate Sunday address before becoming the first pontiff in centuries to resign.

The crowd chanted "Long live the pope!," waved banners and broke into sustained applause as he spoke from his window. The 85-year-old Benedict, who will resign on February 28, thanked them in several languages.

Speaking in Spanish, he told the crowd which the Vatican said numbered more than 50,000: "I beg you to continue praying for me and for the next pope".

It was not clear why the pope chose Spanish to make the only specific reference to his upcoming resignation in his Sunday address.

A number of cardinals have said they would be open to the possibility of a pope from the developing world, be it Latin America, Africa or Asia, as opposed to another from Europe, where the Church is crisis and polarized.

After his address, the pope retired into the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for a scheduled, week-long spiritual retreat and will not make any more public appearances until next Sunday.

Speaking in Italian in part of his address about Lent, the period when Christians reflect on their failings and seek guidance in prayer, the pope spoke of the difficulty of making important decisions.

"In decisive moments of life, or, on closer inspection, at every moment in life, we are at a crossroads: do we want to follow the ‘I' or God? The individual interest or the real good, that which is really good?" he said.


Since his shock announcement last Monday, the pope has said several times that he made the difficult decision to become the first pope in more than six centuries to resign for the good of the Church.

"In a funny way he is even more peaceful now with this decision, unlike the rest of us, he is not somebody who gets choked up really easily," said Greg Burke, a senior media advisor to the Vatican.

"I think that has a lot to do with his spiritual life and who he is and the fact he is such a prayerful man," Burke told Reuters Television.

The pope has said his physical and spiritual forces are no longer strong enough to sustain him in the job of leading the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics at a time of difficulties for the Church in a fast-changing world.

Benedict's papacy was rocked by crises over the 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 to violence. Jews were upset over his rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the Church's business dealings, his butler was convicted of leaking his private papers.

People in the crowd said the pope was a shadow of the man he was when elected on April 19, 2005.

"Like always, recently, he seemed tired, moved, perplexed, uncertain and insecure," said Stefan Malabar, an Italian in St. Peter's Square.

"It's something that really has an effect on you because the pope should be a strong and authoritative figure but instead he seems very weak, and that really struck me," he said.

The Vatican has said the conclave to choose his successor could start earlier than originally expected, giving the Roman Catholic Church a new leader by mid-March.

Some 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter the secretive conclave to elect Benedict's successor. Church rules say the conclave has to start between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, which it will on February 28.

But since the Church is now dealing with an announced resignation and not a sudden death, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Vatican would be "interpreting" the law to see if it could start earlier.


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 Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected and then formally installed before Palm Sunday on March 24 so he can preside at Holy Week services leading to Easter.

New details emerged at the weekend about the state of Benedict's health in the months before his shock decision.

Peter Seewald, a German journalist who wrote a book with the pope in 2010 in which Benedict first floated the possibility of resigning, visited him again about 10 weeks ago and asked what else could be expected from his papacy.

According to excepts published in the German magazine Focus, the pope answered: "From me? Not much from me. I'm an old man and the strength is ebbing. I think what I've done is enough."

Asked if he was considering resigning, the pope said: "That depends on how much my physical strength will force me to that".

Seewald said he was alarmed about the pope's health.

"His hearing had deteriorated. He couldn't see with his left eye. His body had become so thin that the tailors had difficulty in keeping up with newly fitted clothes ... I'd never seen him so exhausted-looking, so worn down."

The pope will say one more Sunday noon prayer on February 24, hold a final general audience on February 27. The next day he will take a helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castle Gandalf, south of Rome, flying into the history books.

Vatican officials said he would stay there for the two months or so needed to restore the convent inside the Vatican where he will live out his remaining years.

(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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Exclusive: North Korea tells China of preparations for fresh nuclear test - source

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea has told its key ally, China, that it is prepared to stage one or even two more nuclear tests this year in an effort to force the United States into diplomatic talks, said a source with direct knowledge of the message.

Further tests could also be accompanied this year by another rocket launch, said the source, who has direct access to the top levels of government in both Beijing and Pyongyang.

North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday, drawing global condemnation and a stern warning from the United States that it was a threat and a provocation.

"It's all ready. A fourth and fifth nuclear test and a rocket launch could be conducted soon, possibly this year," the source said, adding that the fourth nuclear test would be much larger than the third, at an equivalent of 10 kilotons of TNT.

The tests will be undertaken, the source said, unless Washington holds talks with North Korea and abandons its policy of what Pyongyang sees as attempts at regime change.

North Korea also reiterated its long-standing desire for the United States to sign a final peace agreement with it and establish diplomatic relations, he said. North Korea remains technically at war with both the United States and South Korea after the Korean war ended in 1953 with a truce.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged North Korea to "refrain from additional provocative actions that would violate its international obligations" under three different sets of U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit nuclear and missile tests.

North Korea "is not going to achieve anything in terms of the health, welfare, safety, future of its own people by these kinds of continued provocative actions. It's just going to lead to more isolation," Nuland told reporters.

The Pentagon also weighed in, calling North Korea's missile and nuclear programs "a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace and security."

"The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and steadfast in our defense commitments to allies in the region," said Pentagon spokeswoman Major Catherine Wilkinson.

Initial estimates of this week's test from South Korea's military put its yield at the equivalent of 6-7 kilotons, although a final assessment of yield and what material was used in the explosion may be weeks away.

North Korea's latest test, its third since 2006, prompted warnings from Washington and others that more sanctions would be imposed on the isolated state. The U.N. Security Council has only just tightened sanctions on Pyongyang after it launched a long-range rocket in December.

Pyongyang is banned under U.N. sanctions from developing missile or nuclear technology after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

North Korea worked to ready its nuclear test site, about 100 km (60 miles) from its border with China, throughout last year, according to commercially available satellite imagery. The images show that it may have already prepared for at least one more test, beyond Tuesday's subterranean explosion.

"Based on satellite imagery that showed there were the same activities in two tunnels, they have one tunnel left after the latest test," said Kune Y. Suh, a nuclear engineering professor at Seoul National University in South Korea.

Analysis of satellite imagery released on Friday by specialist North Korea website 38North showed activity at a rocket site that appeared to indicate it was being prepared for a launch (


President Barack Obama pledged after this week's nuclear test "to lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats" and diplomats at the U.N. Security Council have already started discussing potential new sanctions.

North Korea has said the test was a reaction to "U.S. hostility" following its December rocket launch. Critics say the rocket launch was aimed at developing technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile.

"(North) Korea is not afraid of (further) sanctions," the source said. "It is confident agricultural and economic reforms will boost grain harvests this year, reducing its food reliance on China."

North Korea's isolated and small economy has few links with the outside world apart from China, its major trading partner and sole influential diplomatic ally.

China signed up for international sanctions against North Korea after the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and for a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in January to condemn the latest rocket launch. However, Beijing has stopped short of abandoning all support for Pyongyang.

Sanctions have so far not discouraged North Korea from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.

"It is like watching the same movie over and over again," said Lee Woo-young, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "The idea that stronger sanctions make North Korea stop developing nuclear programs isn't effective in my view."

The source with ties to Beijing and Pyongyang said China would again support U.N. sanctions. He declined to comment on what level of sanctions Beijing would be willing to endorse.

"When China supported U.N. sanctions ... (North) Korea angrily called China a puppet of the United States," he said. "There will be new sanctions which will be harsh. China is likely to agree to it," he said, without elaborating.

He said however that Beijing would not cut food and fuel supplies to North Korea, a measure it reportedly took after a previous nuclear test.

He said North Korea's actions were a distraction for China's leadership, which was concerned that the escalations could inflame public opinion in China and hasten military build-ups in the region.

The source said he saw little room for compromise under North Korea's youthful new leader, Kim Jong-un. The third Kim to rule North Korea is just 30 years old and took over from his father in December 2011.

He appears to have followed his father, Kim Jong-il, in the "military first" strategy that has pushed North Korea ever closer to a workable nuclear missile at the expense of economic development.

"He is much tougher than his father," the source said.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Phillip Stewart in WASHINGTON; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, David Brunnstrom and Jackie Frank)

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Meteorite hits central Russia, more than 500 people hurt

CHELYABINSK, Russia (Reuters) - More than 500 people were injured when a meteorite shot across the sky and exploded over central Russia on Friday, sending fireballs crashing to Earth, shattering windows and damaging buildings.

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

A fireball blazed across the horizon, leaving a long white trail in its wake which could be seen as far as 200 km (125 miles) away in Yekaterinburg. Car alarms went off, windows shattered and mobile phone networks were interrupted.

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

"I felt like I was blinded by headlights," he said.

No fatalities were reported but President Vladimir Putin, who was due to host Finance Ministry officials from the Group of 20 nations in Moscow, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were informed.

A local ministry official said such incidents were extremely rare and Friday's events might have been linked to an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool due to pass Earth at a distance of 27,520 km (17,100 miles) but this was not confirmed.

Russia's space agency Roscosmos said the meteorite was travelling at a speed of 30 km (19 miles) per second and that such events were hard to predict. The Interior Ministry said the meteorite explosion had caused a sonic boom.

Russia's Emergencies Ministry said 514 people had sought medical help, mainly for light injuries caused by flying glass, and that 112 of those were kept in hospital. Search groups were set up to look for the remains of the meteorite.

"There have never been any cases of meteorites breaking up at such a low level over Russia before," said Yuri Burenko, head of the Chelyabinsk branch of the Emergencies Ministry.


Windows were shattered on Chelyabinsk's central Lenin Street and some of the frames of shop fronts buckled.

A loud noise, resembling an explosion, rang out at around 9.20 a.m. (12:20 a.m. ET). The shockwave could be felt in apartment buildings in the industrial city's center.

"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 shockwave that smashed windows."

A wall was damaged at the Chelyabinsk Zinc Plant but a spokeswoman said there was no environmental threat.

Although such events are rare, a meteorite is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (1,250 miles) in Siberia in 1908, smashing windows as far as 200 km (125 miles) from the point of impact.

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

Chelyabinsk city authorities urged people to stay indoors unless they needed to pick up their children from schools and kindergartens. They said what sounded like a blast had been heard at an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,800 feet).

The U.S. space agency NASA has said an asteroid known as 2012 DA14, about 46 meters in diameter, would have an encounter with Earth closer than any asteroid since scientists began routinely monitoring them about 15 years ago.

Television, weather and communications satellites fly about 500 miles higher. The moon is 14 times farther away.

(Additional reporting by Natalia Shurmina in Yekaterinburg and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Writing by Alexei Anishchuk and Timothy Heritage, Editing by Michael Holden)

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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 home in Pretoria.

Police said they had opened a murder case after a 30-year-old woman was found dead at the track star's house after an incident in the upmarket Silverlakes gated complex on the outskirts of the capital.

"At this stage he is on his way to a district surgeon for medical examination," police brigadier Denise Beukes told reporters outside the heavily guarded residential complex.

Pistorius and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, had been the only people in the house at the time of the shooting, Beukes, said, and witnesses had been interviewed about the incident, which happened in the early hours of the morning.

"We are talking about neighbors and people that heard things earlier in the evening and when the shooting took place," she said. Earlier, police said a 9mm pistol had been found at the scene.

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

Pistorius is due to appear in a Pretoria court after 1200 GMT.

Before the murder charge was announced, Johannesburg's Talk Radio 702 said the 26-year-old may have mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar.

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' 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.


Steenkamp, a model and regular on the South African party circuit, was reported to have been dating Pistorius for a year, and there had been little to suggest their relationship was in trouble.

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 celebrating Valentine's Day on Thursday with him.

"What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow???" she posted.

However, Beukes said the police were aware of previous incidents at the house of a "domestic nature", and recent media interviews with Pistorius revealed he kept an assortment of weapons in his home.

"Cricket and baseball bats lay behind the door, a pistol by his bed and a machine gun by a window," Britain's Daily Mail wrote in a profile published last year.

He 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 the charges were later dropped.

Steenkamp's colleagues were distraught.

"We are all devastated. Her family is in shock," Steenkamp's agent, Sarita Tomlinson, told Reuters, in tears. "They did have a good relationship. Nobody actually knows what happened."


Pistorius, who races wearing carbon fiber prosthetic blades after he was born without a fibula in both legs, was the first double amputee to run in the Olympics and reached the 400 meter semi-finals in London 2012.

Respected worldwide for triumphing over his disabilities to compete on a level playing field with able-bodied athletes, his sponsorship deals are thought to be worth $2 million a year.

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 his regret for the comments.

Pistorius is sponsored by British telecoms firm BT, sunglasses maker Oakley, sports apparel maker Nike 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 Peter Graff and Will Waterman)

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Insight: Divided Damascus confronted by all-out war

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - MiG warplanes roar low overhead to strike rebels fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad on the fringes of Damascus, while artillery batteries pound the insurgents from hills overlooking a city divided between all-out war and a deceptive calm.

Whole families can be obliterated by air raids that miss their targets. Wealthy Syrians or their children are kidnapped. Some are returned but people tell grim tales of how others are tortured and dumped even when the ransom is paid.

People also tell of prisoners dying under torture or from infected wounds; of looting by the government's feared shabbiha militias or by rebels fighting to throw out the Assad family.

That is one Damascus. In the other, comprising the central districts of a capital said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, the restaurant menus are full, the wine is cheap and the souks are packed with shoppers.

Employees report for work, children go to school and shops are open, seemingly undeterred by the din and thud of war.

The two cities exist a few miles apart - for now.

For Damascus and its outskirts are rapidly descending into civil war and everything that comes with it - lawlessness, looting, kidnapping and revenge killings. Like the rest of the country, the capital and its suburbs are crawling with armed gangs.

"Anybody can come to you pretending he is security and grab you in broad daylight, put you in a car and speed off and nobody dares interfere or rescue you," says Lama Zayyat, 42. "A girl in the 7th grade was kidnapped and her father was asked to pay a big ransom. The same happened to other children," she said.

Nobody really knows who is behind the kidnappings. In one gang, one brother is in charge of abductions while another brother negotiates with the victims. The fear is palpable.


The war has not yet reached the heart of the capital, but it is shredding the suburbs. In the past week, government troops backed by air power unleashed fierce barrages on the east of the city in an attempt to flush out rebel groups.

Most of central Damascus is controlled by Assad's forces, who have erected checkpoints to stop bomb attacks. The insurgents have so far failed to take territory in the center.

Just as loyalist forces seem unable to regain control of the country, there looks to be little chance the rebels can storm the center of Damascus and attack the seat of Assad's power.

For most of last week the army rained shells on the eastern and southern neighborhoods of Douma, Jobar, Zamalka and Hajar al-Aswad, using units of the elite Republican Guard based on the imposing Qasioun mountain that looms over the city.

The rebels, trying to break through the government's defense perimeter, were periodically able to overrun roadblocks and some army positions, but at heavy cost.

Jobar and Zamalka are situated near military compounds housing Assad's forces, while Hajar al-Aswad in the south is one of the gateways into the city, close to Assad's home and the headquarters of his republican guard and army.

Since the uprising began two years ago, 70,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from Syria and millions more are displaced, homeless and hungry. No section of society has been spared, whether Christians, Alawites or Sunnis, but in every community it is the poor who are suffering most.

Electricity is sporadic. Hospitals are understaffed as so many doctors - often targeted on suspicion of treating rebel wounded - have fled. Hotels and businesses barely function.

Outside petrol stations and bakeries, queues are long and supplies often run out, meaning people have to come back the next day. Those who can afford it pay double on a thriving black market.

The scale of the suffering can be seen in the ubiquitous obituary notices on the walls of Damascus streets - some announcing the deaths of whole families killed by shelling.

As if oblivious of these private daily tragedies, the government insists the situation is under control, while the rebels say the Assads' days are numbered.


Ordinary Syrians are convinced their ordeal is nowhere near over. While they believe Assad will not be able to reverse the gains of the rebels, they cannot see his enemies prevailing over his superior firepower, and Russian and Iranian support.

"The regime won't be able to crush the revolution and the rebels won't be able to bring down the regime," said leading opposition figure Hassan Abdel-Azim. "The continuation of violence won't lead to the downfall of the regime, it will lead to the seizure of the country by armed gangs, which will pose a grave danger not only to Syria but to our neighbors".

"Right now no one is capable of winning," said a Damascus-based senior Arab envoy. "The crisis will continue if there is no political process. It is deadlock."

Other diplomats in Damascus say the United States and its allies are getting cold feet about arming the rebels, fearing the growing influence of Islamist radicals such the al-Nusra Front linked to al-Qaeda, banned last year by Washington.

Some remarks recur again and again in Damascus conversations: "Maybe he will stay in power, after all", and, above all, "Who is the alternative to Assad?"

"At first I thought it was a matter of months. That's why I came here and stayed to bear witness to the final moments," said Rana Mardam Beik, a Syrian-American writer. "But it looks like it will be a while so I am thinking of going back to the U.S."

Loyalty to Assad is partly fed by fear of the alternative. Facing a Sunni-dominated revolt, Syria's minorities, including Christians and Assad's own Alawites - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - fear they will slaughtered or sidelined if the revolution succeeds and Sunni fundamentalists come to power.


Many Christians are already trying to emigrate to countries such as Sweden, diplomats say.

"The minorities have every right to be frightened because no one knows what is the alternative. Is it a liberal, civic, pluralistic and democratic state, or is the alternative an Islamist extremist rule that considers the minorities infidels and heretics?" said Abdel Azim.

The government tells the minorities the only alternative to Assad is Islamism. Loyalist brutality against the Sunni majority is in danger of making this a self-fulfilling prophecy, by sucking in jihadi extremists from Libya to Saudi Arabia.

"I am not with the regime but we are sure that if Bashar goes the first people they will come for are the Alawites, then the Shi'ites and then us Christians. They are fanatics," said George Husheir, 50, an IT engineer.

At the Saint Joseph Church in Bab Touma, the old Christian quarter of Damascus, Christians in their dozens, mostly middle-aged and older couples, gathered for mass on a Friday morning.

"We don't know what the future holds for us and for this country," said the priest in his sermon. "The Christians of Syria need to pray more."

Nabiha, a dentist in her 40s, said: "Bashar is a Muslim president but he is not a fanatic. He gave us everything. Why shouldn't we love him. Look at us here in our church, we pray, we mark our religious rituals freely, we do what we like and nobody interferes with us."

The fear of the Christians extends to the Alawite and minority Shi'ites. "If Bashar goes we definitely have to leave too because the Sufianis (Sunni Salafis) are coming and they are filled with a sectarian revenge against us," said one wealthy middle class Shi'ite.


Alongside sectarian hatreds, class and tribal acrimony is also surfacing. Wealthy Sunnis in the capital are already in a panic about poor Sunni Islamists from rural areas descending on their neighborhoods.

"When they come they will eat us alive", one rich Sunni resident of Damascus said, repeating what a cab driver dropping him in the posh Abou Roummaneh district told him: "Looting these houses will be allowed."

Yet many activists feel protective of the revolution, despite the brutal behavior of some Islamist rebels.

"People talk about chaos and anarchy after Assad, but so what if we have two years of a messy transition? That is better than to endure another 30 years of this rule," said Rana Darwaza, 40, a Sunni academic in Damascus.

Prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said the suffering is a price that had to be paid. "Those on the ground will continue to fight even with their bare hands", he said.

He said there are thousands of prisoners in horrific conditions in Assad's jails. Some suffocate in overcrowded cells while others die under torture or from untreated wounds. "They don't give them medical treatment or pain killers or antibiotics. They leave them to die," he said.

Close watchers of Syria predict that if there is no settlement in a few months the conflict could go on for years. Yet the economy is collapsing, leaving the government to rely on dwindling foreign reserves, private assets and Iranian funds.

There is no tourism, no oil revenue, and 70 percent of businesses have left Syria, said analyst Nabil Samman. "We are heading for destruction, the future is dark", he added.

Added to the religious animosity between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority who took control when Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 are social and economic grievances fuelled by the predatory practices of the elite.

This resentment extends to young middle class Syrians who feel they have lost a way of life and that their country is being used by regional powers for proxy war.

"All the regional point-scoring is taking place in Syria. We have Libyan fighters and Saudis fighting for freedom in Syria, why are they here? Let them go and demand freedom in their own countries?," said banker Hani Hamaui, 29.

Two years into the uprising, Assad is hanging on. Some will always back him and others want him dead. But many just want an end to the fighting. They may have to wait for some time.

Signs daubed on the gates to the city by Assad's troops are a reminder that the battle for Damascus will be costly. "Either Assad, or we will set the country ablaze", they say.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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China joins U.S., Japan in condemning North Korea nuclear test

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

The reclusive North said the test was an act of self-defense against "U.S. hostility" and threatened further, stronger steps if necessary.

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

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.

China, which has shown signs of increasing exasperation with the recent bellicose tone of its 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".

China is a permanent member of the Security Council.

U.S. President Barack Obama labeled the test a "highly provocative act" that hurt regional stability and pressed for new sanctions.

"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 in a statement.

The Security Council will meet on Tuesday to discuss its reaction to the test, although 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. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the test was a "clear and grave violation" of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

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" that posed a grave threat to world peace.

The test "was only the first response we took with maximum restraint", an unnamed spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry, which acts as Pyongyang's official voice to the outside world, said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.

"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."

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.

South Korea, still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 civil war ended in a mere truce, also denounced the test.

The magnitude was roughly twice as large as that of 2009, Lassina Zerbo, director of the international data centre division of the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization, said. The U.S. Geological Survey said that a seismic event measuring 5.1 magnitude had occurred.

"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.

Despite China's strong response, the test is likely to be a major embarrassment for Beijing, the North's sole major economic and diplomatic ally.

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

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

It 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 merely at putting satellites in space.

North Korea used plutonium in previous nuclear tests and prior to Tuesday there had been speculation it would use highly enriched uranium so as to conserve its plutonium stocks as testing eats into its limited supply of the material that could be used to construct a nuclear bomb.


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.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Pyongyang had informed China and the United States of its plans to test on Monday, although this could not be confirmed.

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

Instead, the North, 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."

But options for the international community appear to be in short supply.

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 achieved 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. He 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, prepares 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 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 the North struggles to win attention on the global stage - other than through nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, last 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," said Jeung Young-tae, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, urged North Korea to refrain from further provocation.

EU member Denmark called on China to step up to the plate and use its influence to rein in its ally.

"This deserves only one thing and that is a one-sided condemnation," said Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal. "North Korea is likely the most horrible country on this planet."

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Christine Kim and Jumin Park in SEOUL; Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Louis Charbonneau 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; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Pope Benedict stepping down, cites poor health

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict shocked the world on Monday by saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to cope with his ministry, in an announcement that left his aides "incredulous" and will make him the first pontiff to step down since the Middle Ages.

The German-born Pope, 85, hailed as a hero by conservative Roman Catholics and viewed with suspicion by liberals, told cardinals in Latin that his strength had deteriorated recently. He will step down on February 28 and the Vatican expects a new Pope to be chosen by the end of March.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope had not decided to resign because of "difficulties in the papacy" and the move had been a surprise, indicating that even his inner circle was unaware that he was about to quit.

The Pope does not fear schism in the Church after his resignation, the spokesman said.

The Pope's leadership of 1.2 billion Catholics has been beset by child sexual abuse crises that tarnished the Church, one address in which he upset Muslims and a scandal over the leaking of his private papers by his personal butler.

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 fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

"For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter."

He also referred to "today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."

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.


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.

But after several years into his new job Benedict showed that he not only did not bite but barely even barked.

In recent months, the pope has looked increasingly frail in public, sometimes being helped to walk by those around him.

Lombardi ruled out depression or uncertainty as being behind the resignation, saying the move was not due to any specific illness, just advancing age.

The Pope had shown "great courage, determination" aware of the "great problems the church faces today", he said, adding the timing may have reflected the Pope's desire to avoid the exhausting rush of Easter engagements.

There was no outside pressure and Benedict took his "personal decision" in the last few months, he added.

Israel's Chief Rabbi praised Benedict's inter-faith outreach and wished him good health. The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church, 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."

The pontiff would step down from 2 p.m. ET on February 28, leaving the office vacant until a successor was chosen to Benedict who succeeded John Paul, one of history's most popular pontiffs, the spokesman said.

Elected to the papacy on April 19, 2005 when he was 78 - 20 years older than John Paul was when he was elected - Benedict ruled over a slower-paced, more cerebral and less impulsive Vatican.


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.

Under the German's meek demeanor lay a steely intellect ready to dissect theological works for their dogmatic purity and debate fiercely against dissenters.

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 managed to show the world the gentle side of the 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.

He 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.

But his trip to Germany also prompted the first major crisis of his pontificate. In a university lecture he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor as saying Islam had only brought evil to the world and that it was spread by the sword.

After protests that included attacks on churches in the Middle East and the killing of a nun in Somalia, the Pope later said he regretted any misunderstanding the speech caused.

In a move that was widely seen as conciliatory, in late 2006 he made a historic trip to predominantly Muslim Turkey and prayed in Istanbul's Blue Mosque with a Turkish Mufti.

But months later, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami met the Pope and said wounds between Christians and Muslims were still "very deep" as a result of the Regensburg speech.

(Writing by Peter Millership; editing by Janet McBride and Ralph Boulton)

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