Pope hits out at `radical secularism'

Written By Ivan Kolev on Thursday, January 19, 2012 | 11:20 PM

Thursday, January 19, 2012

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Interpol chief: Countries not using databases

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Police: Gunmen kidnap 2 foreigners in Pakistan

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Putin Prepares his Counterattack: Jeffrey Tayler - Bloomberg

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Murdoch Company Settles for $200000 With Jude Law - ABC News

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Arab League Monitors to Remain in Syria Until Sunday - Voice of America

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Pakistan to re-open NATO route, Taliban talks falter - Reuters

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Pakistan's Prime Minister Appears Before Supreme Court - New York Times

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Turkey, Iran eye closer financial transfers - Reuters

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US military chief in Israel to discuss Iran nukes - The Associated Press

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Palestinian parliament speaker arrested, Hamas officials say

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Bangladeshi military 'foils coup plot' - The Guardian

Bangladesh Army foil coup

The Bangladeshi army spokesman Brigadier General Muhammad Masud Razzaq describes the coup plot at a press conference. Photograph: EPA

The Bangladeshi military says it has foiled a plot by a group of hardline officers, their retired colleagues and Bangladeshi conspirators living abroad to overthrow the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

The coup attempt underlined tensions between Hasina's government and elements of the military that have lingered since a mutiny in 2009.

Brigadier General Muhammad Masud Razzaq told a news conference the military had specific evidence that up to 16 current and former Bangladeshi military officers "with extreme religious views" were involved in the "heinous conspiracy". The plot was instigated by Bangladeshi conspirators living abroad, he said.

Two retired officers, Lieutenant Colonel Ehsan Yusuf and Major Zakir, have been arrested, Razzaq said, but did not reveal when the arrests had been made. He said the authorities were looking for another fugitive serving officer, Major Ziaul Haq, who had fled his post after the arrests of Yusuf and Zakir.

In 2009, two months after Hasina took office after a sweeping general election victory, Bangladeshi border guards mutinied over pay, perks and promotion prospects. At least 74 military commanders were killed, many of them the commanders of the mutineers.

Military officials were furious with Hasina for not ordering an assault on the compound but instead ending the standoff by offering an amnesty to the mutineers that was later rescinded.

Since then, the military has been pressing for an early trial for the mutineers. Hasina's government is trying more than 800 border guards on charges of killing, arson and looting in Dhaka. Hundreds who mutinied at locations outside the capital have already been tried and sentenced to prison.

It is not clear why the alleged coup participants are being described as having extreme religious views. Hasina banned Islamic militant groups after taking office in 2009, and has warned in recent speeches that such groups are "conspiring against [the] elected government".

Bangladesh, a parliamentary democracy since 1990, has seen two presidents killed in military coups and 19 other failed coup attempts.

Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh, was assassinated in the country's first military coup in 1975.

Another coup, in 1981, killed the army general turned president Ziaur Rahman, the husband of the former prime minister Khaleda Zia, Hasina's main rival.

The country's last military ruler, General Hussain Mohammad Ershad, was ousted in 1990 in a pro-democracy movement led jointly by Hasina and Zia.

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Arab League Considers Extension of Syria Mission - ABC News

Arab League foreign ministers will consider extending the League's observer mission in Syria in a meeting next week, officials said Thursday.

The one-month mission expired Thursday, but Adnan al-Khudeir, head of Cairo operations room that handles reports by the monitors, told The Associated Press that observers will remain in Syria until a decision is made at Sunday's meeting in Cairo.

Another Arab League official said the mission could be extended for another month.

Rejecting charges that the observers have been ineffective in reducing violence, he said extending the mission would help the opposition more than the regime.

null

In this Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 photo, anti-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans and flash the victory sign as they march during a demonstration at the mountain resort town of Zabadani, Syria, near the Lebanese border. As diplomats debated, opposition activists said Syrian troops shelled the mountain resort town of Zabadani, which has come under the control of army defectors. Syria's powerful ally Russia said Wednesday it would block any attempt by the West to secure U.N. support for the use of force against the regime in Damascus, which is under intense international pressure to end its deadly crackdown on dissent. (AP Photo) Close

"The killings are less, the protests increase," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made. "The mission's presence offers assurance to the people because the observers can spot any violations. There is a conviction even among Syria opponents that the extension is better than withdrawal."

More than 5,400 people have been killed since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted last March.

The uprising has turned increasingly militarized and chaotic as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces. The capital has seen three suicide bombings since late December which the government blamed on terrorist extremists.

According to al-Khudeir, the Sunday meeting chaired by the Qatari foreign minister will discuss a report by the head of the mission Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi who is arriving in Cairo from Syria on Thursday.

The monitors will remain in 17 different places around Syria until the Arab League makes a final decision, he says.

"If there is a decision to extend the mission of the observers, we are ready to send more monitors after training them in three days," he said, adding that the total number of monitors might reach 300.

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Radiation, rusty metal seen in tsunami-hit reactor

TOKYO-- The first look inside one of Japan's tsunami-hit nuclear reactors showed radiation, steam and rusty metal surfaces scarred by 10 months' exposure to high temperatures and humidity.


The steam-blurred photos taken by remote control Thursday found none of the reactor's melted fuel but confirmed stable reactor temperature and showed no major damage or ruptures caused by the earthquake last March, said Junichi Matsumoto, spokesman for the plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co.


Radiation appeared on the images as static, or electronic interference with the equipment being used. Some parts that were photographed inside the reactor's containment vessel are not yet identifiable.


The photos also showed inner wall of the container heavily deteriorated after 10 months of exposure to high temperature and humidity, Matsumoto said.


TEPCO workers inserted the endoscope -- an industrial version of the kind of endoscope doctors use -- through a hole in the beaker-shaped container at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's No. 2 reactor, hoping the first look inside since the crisis would help them better assess reactor conditions and make repairs.


High temperatures and radiation leaks had prevented the close-up view until now. Results of the 70-minute operation were mixed.


"Given the harsh environment that we had to operate, we did quite well. It's a first step," Matsumoto said. "But we could not spot any signs of fuel, unfortunately."


He said it would take more time and a better technology to get to the melted fuel, most of which has fallen straight down into the area that the endoscope could not reach. TEPCO hopes to use the endoscope to look inside the two other reactors that had meltdowns but that also would require customization of the equipment and further reduction of radiation levels.


Better assessment will help workers know how best to plug holes and cracks in the containment vessel -- a protective chamber outside the core -- to contain radiation leaks and gradually work toward dismantling the reactors.


Three of six reactors at the Fukushima plant melted down after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the plant's cooling systems and set off the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.


TEPCO and nuclear officials have said that melted fuel probably fell to the bottom of the core in each unit, most likely breaching the bottom of the core and falling into the primary containment vessel, some dropping to its concrete floor.


Experts have said those are simulation results and that exact location and condition of the fuel could not be known until they have a first-hand observation inside.


The probe Thursday successfully recorded the temperature inside the containment vessel at 112 F, confirming it stayed below the boiling point and qualifying a "cold shutdown state," the stable condition that the government had declared in December despite skepticism from experts.


The probe failed to find the water surface, which indicate the water sits at lower-than-expected levels inside the primary containment vessel and questions the accuracy of the current water monitors, Matsumoto said.


The government has said that it would take 40 years until the Fukushima plant is fully decommissioned.


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Pakistani PM: President is immune from charges anywhere - CNN

Members of the cabinet and the leaders of allied political parties joined Gilani in court Thursday.


His attorney asked for more time to look through records pertaining to the case, and the court adjourned until February 1. Gilani will not have to appear at that hearing.


Gilani's appearance Thursday came after weeks of political turbulence in Pakistan that has strained relations between the country's civilian and military leaders and fueled speculation about the possibility of a military coup.


Military and civilian leaders held meetings over the weekend in an effort to defuse tensions. And the National Assembly passed a resolution Monday supporting the country's democratic system.


The corruption cases stem from money-laundering charges against Zardari and his late wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A Swiss court convicted them in absentia in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars.


After a controversial amnesty was granted in 2007 by then-President Pervez Musharraf to Zardari, Bhutto and thousands of other politicians and bureaucrats, the Pakistani government asked Swiss authorities to drop the case.


In 2009, the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled the amnesty was unconstitutional and called on the government to take steps to have the cases reopened.


The government has not done so, and the court apparently lost patience.


Since Gilani is the head of the government, the court justices view him as responsible and want him to explain why the government has not followed the court's order.


Gilani's argument Thursday that Zardari is exempt from prosecution did not appear to satisfy the judges.


The outcome of the process remains unclear.


If Gilani apologizes and convinces the court that the government will follow its orders, the court could withdraw the contempt notice.


If the court is not satisfied with Gilani's answer, it will formulate contempt charges against him and present them at a later date.


"If the court concludes that he's in contempt, then they can take action against him," said Saeed-uz-Zaman Siddiqui, a former chief justice of Pakistan. "The maximum sentence is six months in prison."


Even if he went to prison, Gilani would not necessarily lose his premiership.


Pakistani law says that after a contempt of court conviction, the court sends a notice to the speaker of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. The speaker has 30 days to forward the notice to the Election Board, which has 90 days to decide if Gilani is disqualified as a member of Parliament and therefore disqualified as prime minister.


Aitzaz Ahsan, Gilani's lawyer, has expressed confidence his client will be cleared.


"The prime minister will survive," Ahsan said Wednesday night on GEO-TV, a Pakistani news channel. "There will be no storm."


Ahsan is one of the most prominent and widely respected lawyers in Pakistan. He led the so-called "lawyer's movement," an uprising in 2008 that helped bring about the reinstatement of the current Pakistani chief justice, Iftikhar Muahmmad Chaudhry, and dozens of other judges who were sacked by Musharraf in 2007.


Analysts said they believe Ahsan carries considerable influence in the Supreme Court because of his efforts to restore Pakistan's judiciary.


Ahsan said Gilani would appeal if convicted.

Journalist Nasir Habib contributed to this report.


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List of dead, missing from Italy cruise ship

A list of those confirmed dead or missing in the grounding of the cruise ship Costa Concordia off Italy. Italian officials released a list of the missing. Those not listed as crew are passengers.


CONFIRMED DEAD (11):


Sandor Feher, Hungary, 38, crew
Jeanne Gannard, France
Pierre Gregoire, France
Giovanni Masia, Italy, 86
Thomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, Peru, crew
Jean-Pierre Micheaud, France, 61
Francis Servil, France, 71
5 other bodies that have been recovered from the wreckage but not identified.


UNACCOUNTED FOR (These names include 21 still missing and three bodies already found):


Dayana Arlotti, Italy
William M. Arlotti, Italy
Elisabeth Bauer, Germany
Michael M. Blemand, France
Maria Dintrono, Italy
Horst Galle, Germany
Christina Mathi Ganz, Germany
Norbert Josef Ganz, Germany
Girolamo Giuseppe, Italy, crew
Gabriele Grube, Germany
Barbara Heil, United States
Gerald Heil, United States
Egon Hoer, Germany
Mylene Litzler, France
Margarethe Neth, Germany
Russel Terence Rebello, India, crew
Inge Schall, Germany
Erika Fani Soriamolina, Peru, crew
Siglinde Stumpf, Germany
Brunhild Werp, Germany
Josef Werp, Germany
Margrit Schroeter, Germany
Maria Grazia Trecarichi, Italy
Luisa Antonia Virzi, Italy


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US Forces Poised to Deal with Iran Threat - Voice of America

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News Corp. settles some phone-hacking cases - Fox News

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Former Brazilian congressman found guilty of murder

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German prosecutor seeks to jail Nazi war criminal

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Top US General in Israel for Talks on Iran - New York Times

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Hamas bans singing competition in Gaza

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At least 6 killed in car bomb blast in Kandahar - Xinhua

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Yet Another Exciting Day in Pakistan - The Hindu

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Huge oil rig arrives to explore Cuban waters

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Murdoch to pay Jude Law, 36 others for hacking - The Associated Press

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Swede arrested in Thai terror probe claims he was set up by Mossad

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5 unemployed Moroccans set selves on fire

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Tens of thousands mark journalist's death in Turkey

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Magnitude 5.6 earthquake strikes northeastern Iran

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Explosion in Somali refugee camp after media visit

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Putin Steps In to Try to Save Indebted Football Club - RIA Novosti

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Costa Concordia captain reportedly seen dining with mystery woman before ... - Fox News

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The Thames: Potential security threat to Olympics

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News Corp pays out over hacking claims, said to admit coverup - Reuters

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Ex-Israeli intelligence chief reportedly says he believes Iran can build ... - Fox News

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Plane carrying cattle from US makes emergency landing in London

MAPUTO, Mozambique -- Nearly 500 people were flooded out of their homes in Mozambique's capital after a tropical depression brought torrential rain and high winds, city officials said Wednesday.


In neighboring South Africa, the flagship Kruger National Park was affected during the busy summer season.


The homeless in Mozambique were being sheltered in schools, churches and even on sports fields, city officials said. In the southern Inhambane province, officials said roofs were blown off 71 classrooms, seven teachers' homes and two offices at a school. In neighboring Gaza province, 40 small homes were swept away and 1,000 goats were killed.


Mozambique's National Operational Emergency Center said tropical depression Dando had now dissipated after two days of destroying homes, downing power lines and causing other damage in Maputo and other southern areas. No deaths were reported.


In South Africa, helicopters were used to evacuate guests from one private lodge and a trail in Kruger, which borders Mozambique, park officials said in a statement Wednesday. Flooding has made some roads and low-lying bridges inaccessible and several camping sites and a picnic area were closed, they added.


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Iran warns region against "dangerous" stance on Hormuz - Reuters

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi speaks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (not pictured) before an official meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Tehran January 5, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi speaks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (not pictured) before an official meeting with Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Tehran January 5, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl

By Ibon Villelabeitia

ANKARA (Reuters) - Iran's foreign minister warned Arab neighbors on Thursday not to put themselves in a "dangerous position" by aligning themselves too closely with the United States in the escalating dispute over Tehran's nuclear activity.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for a third of the world's seaborne oil trade, if pending Western moves to ban Iranian crude exports cripple its lifeblood energy sector, fanning fears of a descent into wider Middle East war.

Tehran, which denies suspicions it is seeking nuclear weapons, was riled earlier this week when Saudi Arabia asserted it could swiftly raise oil output for key customers if needed, a scenario that could transpire if Iranian exports were embargoed.

"We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in English during a visit to Turkey.

The remark was an apparent reference to the alliance of Iran's Arab neighbors with Washington, which maintains a huge fleet in the Gulf and says it will keep the waterway open.

"I am calling to all countries in the region, please don't let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position," he told Turkey's NTV broadcaster.

Salehi added the United States should make clear that it was open for negotiations with Tehran without conditions. He referred to a letter Iran says it received from U.S. President Barack Obama about the situation in the Straight of Hormuz, the contents of which have not been made public.

"Mr Obama sent a letter to Iranian officials, but America has to make clear that it has good intentions and should express that it's ready for talks without conditions," he said.

"Out in the open they show their muscles but behind the curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk. America has to pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that America this time is serious and ready."

The United States, like other Western countries, says it is prepared to talk to Iran but only if Tehran agrees to discuss halting its enrichment of uranium. Western officials say Iran has been asking for talks "without conditions" as a stalling tactic while refusing to put its nuclear program on the table.

IAEA SAYS MUST WARN WORLD ABOUT IRAN

The International Atomic Energy Agency chief said it was his duty to warn the world about possible military aspects to Iran's nuclear energy program, keeping the heat on Tehran ahead of a rare visit by senior IAEA officials for talks on January 29-31.

"What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons," he was quoted as saying in comments published in the Financial Times Deutschland on Thursday. "We want to check over everything that could have a military dimension."

An IAEA delegation, to be headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, is expected to seek explanations for intelligence information indicating Iran has engaged in research and development relevant for nuclear weapons.

Tehran denies it is after atom bombs, saying it is refining uranium only for power generation and medical applications.

With EU foreign ministers preparing to approve a phased ban on imports of Iranian oil at a meeting on January 23, Salehi said on Wednesday that the Islamic Republic was in touch with world powers to reopen talks frozen for a year.

Washington and the EU quickly denied this, saying they are still waiting for Iran to show it wanted serious negotiations addressing fears that it trying to master ways to build atom bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy program.

TARGETING IRANIAN CENTRAL BANK

In addition to an embargo on Iran's economically vital oil exports, EU diplomats said member governments had agreed in principle to freeze assets of Iran's central bank, but had yet to agree how to protect non-oil trade from sanctions.

Iranian politicians said Obama had expressed readiness to negotiate in a letter to Iran's clerical supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"In this letter it was said that closing the Strait of Hormuz is our (U.S.) 'red line' and also asked for direct negotiations," the semi-official Fars news agency quoted lawmaker Ali Mottahari as saying.

Washington denied there were any new discussions under way about resuming talks with Iran, but declined to comment on whether Obama had written to Khamenei.

"There are no current talks about talks," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday.

"What we are doing, as we have said, is making clear to the Iranians that if they are serious about coming back to a conversation, where they talk openly about their nuclear program, and if they are prepared to come clean with the international community, that we are open to that," she said.

The Islamic Republic has wanted to discuss only broader international security issues with the powers up to now.

OIL SANCTIONS PENDING

The die was cast for international oil sanctions against Iran when Obama signed legislation on December 31 that would freeze out any institution dealing with Iran's central bank, making it impossible for most countries to buy Iranian oil. Similar measures are expected from Europe this month.

"On the central bank, things have been moving in the right direction in the last hours," one EU diplomat said on Wednesday. "There is now a wide agreement on the principle. Discussions continue on the details."

An IAEA report in November lent weight to concerns that Iran has worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and Tehran is shifting enrichment to an underground bunker in a mountain fortified against air attack.

Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal but sees Iran's nuclear ambitions as a mortal threat, and the United States have not ruled out military action as a last resort to prevent an atomic "breakout" by Tehran.

However, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that any decision about an Israeli assault on Iran was "very far off.

The last talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - along with Germany stalled in Istanbul a year ago, with the parties unable to agree even on an agenda.

The six have also failed to agree on a common line in their approach to Iran, a lack of unity that resulted in the dilution of four earlier rounds of sanctions adopted since 2006.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended his country's extensive oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in comments published on Thursday. Nevertheless, he said, Beijing firmly opposes any Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a last-ditch military option mooted by the United States and Israel would ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. Russia has also criticized the new sanctions, calling them counterproductive.

(Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Russia urges quick missile defense deal with US

MOSCOW -- A deal with Washington to assuage Moscow's concerns about U.S. missile defense plans in Europe is still possible, but time is running out, Russia's foreign minister said Wednesday.


Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed that Moscow will take retaliatory action if moves by Washington to deploy missile shield components around Europe pose a threat to Russia.


The U.S. says its planned missile shield is aimed at deflecting potential missile threats from Iran, but Russia fears that the missile shield will eventually grow powerful enough to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent.


"Like any responsible state, we proceed not from declarations, but from concrete action when it comes to security issues," Lavrov said. "Our response will strictly correspond to the potential of the European component of the U.S. missile defense as it develops."


Moscow agreed in 2010 to consider NATO's proposal to cooperate on the U.S.-led missile shield, but the talks have run into a deadlock over how the system should be operated. Russia has insisted that it should be run jointly, which NATO has rejected.


In a televised address to the nation in November, President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to deploy missiles to the Kaliningrad region, bordering Poland and Lithuania, and to other areas of Russia to be aimed at U.S. missile defense sites, if the U.S. and NATO fail to reach a deal allaying Russian worries. He urged the U.S. to provide firm and specific guarantees that its future missile defense potential will not be directed against Russia.


Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia doesn't want confrontation with the U.S. and doesn't think that Washington is making a specific effort to erode Russia's nuclear deterrent.


But he added that the growing power of the U.S. missile shield could eventually make it capable of engaging Russia's nuclear forces. "I hope that it's not their goal, but its development undermines the strategic parity," he said.


"We still have time to solve the acute problems, but it's not unlimited," Lavrov said, adding that Russia hopes that differences over missile defense wouldn't throw Moscow and Washington back to a Cold War-style pattern of confrontation. "We must be heard and there must be a response to our legitimate concerns."


Washington's missile defense plans have been a key irritant in U.S.-Russian relations since President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" plans that spooked the Kremlin in the 1980s.


The current toughening of Moscow's rhetoric has posed a challenge to President Barack Obama's policy of "resetting" relations with the Kremlin, which suffered badly under George W. Bush's administration.


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Mayor: Ambitious new London airport gets support

LONDON-- Support is growing for constructing a brand-new London airport in the Thames Estuary region of southeast England, the capital's mayor said Wednesday.

Boris Johnson said the government was "increasingly interested" in the ambitious proposal, which would see a massive new air hub built where London's River Thames meets the North Sea.

Although detailed plans are likely to be years in the making, one high-profile proposal would see a 150 million passenger-a-year airport built at the edge of the sea for 50 billion pounds ($76 billion).

Johnson acknowledged that building an entirely new airport would be costly and time-consuming, but he argued it was critical to the country's economy.

"You can't go on expecting Britain to compete with France and Germany and other European countries when you simply can't supply the flights to these growth destinations," he told BBC radio.

Johnson's new airport would effectively replace Heathrow, London's current long-haul hub. The airport handles 65 million passengers annually, making it Europe's busiest, but longstanding plans to build a third runway there were scrapped following a drawn-out and acrimonious debate with local residents and environmental groups.

Gert Zonneveld, a transport analyst at Panmure Gordon, said that the capital's other four airports are either too small or too dominated by short-haul, low-cost carriers to take on Heathrow's role.

That has led Johnson to champion an entirely new airport built about 40 miles southeast of central London. A proposal recently published by London-based Foster & Partners envisions a multi-runway facility on the Isle of Grain, a marshy, sparsely populated peninsula at the edge of the estuary.

The airport would be linked to London by a four-track, high-speed train line which would plug into the Channel tunnel rail link and a planned high-speed line to Birmingham. Concept drawings published by the architecture firm show bullet trains pulling into a glass-domed terminal building at a massive airport at the edge of the sea, as well as a futuristic-looking flood-protection barrier aimed at generating tidal power for the region.

Critics say the plan is expensive, impractical, dangerous and environmentally destructive.

Foster & Partners' proposed price tag of 50 billion pounds is nearly half the size of Britain's budget deficit. Local council leaders have expressed outrage, saying the airport would be on the wrong side of London and that flight paths would slice through an area which is home to thousands of migratory birds.

The fact that the Isle of Grain also handles a fifth of Britain's liquefied natural gas imports has raised safety concerns, and there's a further danger lurking just below the surface of the water:

The SS Richard Montgomery, a World War II-era American munitions ship, remains submerged with 1,400 tons of explosives only four miles from the proposed terminal building.

The government is planning to soon publish proposals for a possible expansion of Britain's airports, a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister David Cameron's office said Wednesday.

The consultation is expected to include proposals for a new London hub, including Johnson's estuary idea.

Zonneveld said that technical challenges could be overcome -- but suggested that cost would be the biggest stumbling block.

"From an engineering point of view, yeah sure it could be done," he said. "Clearly it needs to be paid for."


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Celebrating Lunar New Year in Canberra - ABC Online

Wondering where you can see the Mountain Lion scare away evil spirits, eat some noodles to bring you long life, or make a Dragon Chatterbox to predict your future?

Canberra is getting ready to celebrate Lunar New Year with a range of broadcasts, events, activities and banquets starting this weekend, and for over the next few weeks.

Some of these include:

-ABC Local radio will hold a special Lunar New Year broadcast on Sunday 22 January from 10am. Co-hosted by our very own ABC Canberra's Andrea Ho.

-Vegetarian food will be served at the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre on Sunday 22 January at 7pm followed by New Year celebrations through to midnight. 32 Archibald Street, in Lyneham. Donations accepted.

-The National Museum of Australia is holding a Chinese Lucky Dragon Family festival on 26 January which will include music, dance, demonstrations, art and craft to celebrate Australia Day, Chinese New Year and the Year of the Dragon.

-The Australia-China Friendship society is organising a Chinese lantern workshop on 28 January at 2pm in Cook. Register at acfsevent@gmail.com.

-This will be followed by a Lantern Festival in Commonwealth Park, at the foot of Anzac Parade at 6pm on the Saturday 4 February.

-The Blessing of the Shops ritual will be held at noon at Gungahlin and in the evening at Dickson on Saturday 11 February with the ceremony being conducted by the Prosperous Mountain Lion dance troupe

-The Chinese community are organising the Year of the Dragon event at the National Multicultural Festival on the 12 February. Starting 9.45am, the event includes local dancers, national performers and international performers from Hong Kong.


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Search resumes for missing passengers as captain in cruise ship disaster says he fell out of the ship during evacuation



ROME –  Divers have resumed the search for 21 people still missing after a cruise ship capsized off the Tuscan coast.

Divers were scouring the submerged area of the ship Thursday once officials determined it had stabilized after shifting on the rocks a day earlier.

Rough seas were forecast for later in the day, adding an element of uncertainty to the search and plans to begin pumping a half-million gallons of fuel from the vessel.

The missing include a 5-year-old Italian girl and her father. The girl's mother issued a fresh appeal to speed the search and for passengers who saw the pair to come forward to help determine where they were last seen.

As details emerged Wednesday about the missing and the dead in the grounding of the Costa Concordia, the captain was quoted as saying he tripped and fell into the water from the listing vessel and never intended to abandon his passengers.

The $450 million Costa Concordia was carrying more than 4,200 passengers and crew when it slammed into a reef and capsized Friday after the captain made an unauthorized diversion from his programmed route and strayed into the perilous waters.

Capt. Francesco Schettino, who was jailed after he left the ship before everyone was safely evacuated, was placed under house arrest Tuesday, facing possible charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning his ship.

The ship's operator, Crociere Costa SpA, has accused Schettino of causing the wreck by making the unapproved detour, and the captain has acknowledged carrying out what he called a "tourist navigation" that brought the ship closer to Giglio. Costa has said such a navigational "fly by" was done last Aug. 9-10, after being approved by the company and Giglio port authorities.

However, Lloyd's List Intelligence, a leading maritime publication, said Wednesday its tracking of the ship's August route showed it actually took the Concordia slightly closer to Giglio than the course that caused Friday's disaster.

"This is not a black-and-white case," Richard Meade, editor of Lloyd's List, said in a statement.

"Our data suggests that both routes took the vessel within 200 yards of the impact point and that the authorized route was actually closer to shore."

New audio of Schettino's communications with the coast guard during the crisis emerged Wednesday, with the captain claiming he ended up in a life raft after he tripped and fell into the water.

"I did not abandon a ship with 100 people on board, the ship suddenly listed and we were thrown into the water," Schettino said, according to a transcript published Wednesday in the Corriere della Sera paper.

Initial audio of Schettino's conversations made headlines on Tuesday, showing an increasingly exasperated coast guard officer ordering Schettino back on board to direct the evacuation, and the captain resisting, saying it was too dark and the ship was tipping.

The officer's order, "Get back on board, (expletive!)" has entered the Italian lexicon, becoming a Twitter hashtag and adorning T-shirts.

Eleven people have been confirmed dead so far, and 21 are missing. Italian officials have only released 27 names so far, including two Americans, 12 Germans, six Italians, four French, and one person each from Hungary, India and Peru.

The Hungarian victim was identified Wednesday as 38-year-old Sandor Feher, who had been working as an entertainer on the stricken cruise ship. His body was found inside the wreck and identified by his mother, who had traveled to the Italian city of Grosseto, according to Hungary's foreign ministry.

Jozsef Balog, a pianist who worked with Feher on the ship, told the Blikk newspaper that Feher was wearing a life jacket when he decided to return to his cabin to retrieve his violin. Feher was last seen on deck en route to the area where he was supposed to board a lifeboat.

According to Balog, Feher helped put life jackets on several crying children before returning to his cabin.

Others among the missing include 5-year-old Dayana Arlotti and her father, William Arlotti, who were on the cruise with the father's girlfriend. The girl's parents separated three years ago.

The girl's mother, Susy Albertini, said she has been desperately calling police, port officials and the cruise company for days for news of her daughter and estranged husband.

"I last heard from her on Thursday," when she waved goodbye at school, Albertini, 28, told the La Voce di Romagna newspaper.

"The absurd thing is that no one can tell me anything, and what little I know is from the newspapers," she said. "Sometimes they ask absurd questions, like if my daughter knows how to swim. Do they understand she is 5 years old? What kind of question is that?"

William Arlotti, 36, had gone on the cruise with his girlfriend, Michela Marconcelli, who survived. She reported seeing Dayana, who was wearing a life jacket, slide into the water when the boat shifted, but said someone helped retrieve her, the newspaper reported.

Marconcelli said she was pushed forward onto the life raft, and lost track of her companion and his daughter.

Other missing include retirees Jerry and Barbara Heil of White Bear Lake, Minn.

Sarah Heil, their daughter, told WBBM radio in Chicago that her parents had been looking forward to the 16-day cruise after raising four kids and sending them all off to college.

"They never had any money," she said. "So when they retired, they went traveling. And this was to be a big deal, a 16-day trip. They were really excited about it."

The Heil children said in a blog post Wednesday that their parents were not among the passengers whose bodies were recently recovered, and they were praying that weather conditions would improve so authorities could resume search operations.

A U.S. congressional committee announced Wednesday that it will hold a hearing next month on the safety implications of the Costa Concordia accident, saying U.S. and international maritime organizations need to ensure standards are in place to protect passengers' safety on cruise ships.

Passengers have complained vocally about the chaotic evacuation and poor treatment by Costa officials once they got on land, with some saying they were provided only a single night of hotel accommodations and denied help getting to their embassies to get new passports.

Costa owner, Miami-based Carnival Corp., responded Wednesday, saying it was offering assistance and counseling to passengers and crew and was trying to take stock of lost possessions.

"Costa has also begun the process of refunding all voyage costs including both passenger cruise fares and all costs incurred while on board," Carnival said in a statement. "Our senior management teams are working together to determine additional support."

Rescue operations were suspended early Wednesday after instruments attached to the ship detected it had shifted, raising concerns for the safety of rescuers. By evening, officials still did not have enough data to assure the ship had stopped resettling and it was unclear when the search would resume.

Environment Minister Corrado Clini, who has warned of an environmental catastrophe in the waters around Giglio, a sanctuary for marine mammals, briefed Parliament on the effort to extract the half-million gallons of fuel. He said the ship risked sinking if it slips off its rocky perch.

Schettino was questioned by a judge for three hours Tuesday, then ordered held under house arrest rather than jailed -- a decision that federal prosecutors plan to challenge.

The judge, in her reasoning released Wednesday, said Schettino didn't represent a flight risk since he had stayed near the ship even after abandoning it, the ANSA news agency reported.

Schettino's lawyer, Bruno Leporatti, told reporters house arrest made sense.

"He never left the scene," the lawyer said. "There has never been a danger of flight."

Leporatti added that Schettino was upset by the accident, contrary to depictions in the Italian media that he did not appear to show regret.

"He is a deeply shaken man, not only for the loss of his ship, which for a captain is a grave thing, but above all for what happened and the loss of human life," Leporatti said.

Criminal charges including manslaughter and abandoning ship are expected to be filed by prosecutors shortly. Schettino faces a possible 12 years in prison on the abandoning ship charge alone.

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East Africa's drought: the avoidable disaster - The Guardian

SOMALIA-DROUGHT

Displaced Somali families queue to receive food rations at a feeding centre in Mogadishu this month. Photograph: Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

The deaths of tens of thousands of people during the drought in east Africa could have been avoided if the international community, donor governments and humanitarian agencies had responded earlier and more swiftly to clear warning signs that a disaster was in the making, according to a new report.

Figures compiled by the Department for International Development (DfID) suggest that between 50,000 and 100,000 people, more than half of them children under five, died in the 2011 Horn of Africa crisis that affected Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The US government estimates separately that more than 29,000 children under five died in the space of 90 days from May to July last year. The accompanying destruction of livelihoods, livestock and local market systems affected 13 million people overall. Hundreds of thousands remain at continuing risk of malnutrition.

The authors of the report, published by Save the Children and Oxfam, suggest current emergency response systems, which they believe to be seriously flawed, will soon be tested again as new humanitarian crises loom in west Africa and the Sahel, where growing food shortages are reported.

"Early warning systems in the Sahel region show that overall cereal production is 25% lower than the previous year and food prices are 40% higher than the five-year average. The last food crisis in the region, in 2010, affected 10 million people," the report warns.

A recent Save the Children assessment in Niger showed families in the worst-hit areas were already struggling with a third less food, money and fuel than is necessary to survive.

The report, A Dangerous Delay, concludes that although drought sparked the east Africa crisis, human factors turned it into a disaster.

"A culture of risk aversion caused a six-month delay in the large-scale aid effort because humanitarian agencies and national governments were too slow to scale up their response to the crisis, and many donors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one," it says.

"Sophisticated early-warning systems first forecast a likely emergency as early as August 2010, but the full-scale response was not launched until July 2011, when malnutrition rates in parts of the region had gone far beyond the emergency threshold and there was high-profile media coverage.

"Waiting for a situation to reach crisis point before responding is the wrong way to address chronic vulnerability and recurrent drought in places like the Horn of Africa. The international community must change the way it operates to meet the challenge of recurrent crises … Long-term development work is best placed to respond to drought."

Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's chief executive, said: "We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in east Africa, and need to learn the lessons of the late response.

"It's shocking that the poorest people are still bearing the brunt of a failure to respond swiftly and decisively."

Justin Forsyth, Save the Children's chief executive, said: "We can no longer allow this grotesque situation to continue, where the world knows an emergency is coming but ignores it until confronted with television pictures of desperately malnourished children.

"The warning signs were clear and with more money when it really mattered the suffering of thousands of children would have been avoided."

The report comes before a March summit on Somalia, to be hosted in London by the British government, which is expected to address aid and development as well as governance and security issues.

Somalia's remains the most acute food crisis in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people still at risk. According to UN estimates, the rate of malnutrition, measured by the median global acute malnutrition (GAM) standard, increased in southern and central Somalia from 16.4% to 36.4% in 2011. The 15% "critical" threshold was exceeded early in 2011.

The report notes that the delays in activating relief operations last year massively increased the cost of subsequent assistance. "Trucking five litres of water per day as a last-resort lifesaving intervention to 80,000 people in Ethiopia costs more than $3m [?2m] for five months, compared to $900,000 to prepare water sources in the same area for an oncoming drought," it says.

The report makes a series of recommendations, including improved risk-reduction strategies, greater funding flexibility, and preventative humanitarian work. "All actors and early-warning specialists need to develop a common approach to triggers for early action," it says.

The report backs further reforms to tackle hunger crises such as the east Africa emergency, as set out in the Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a joint-agency initiative that urges governments to fulfil their responsibilities and take concrete steps to stop food shortages arising from drought and other causes from turning into catastrophes.

A spokesperson for DfID said: "Britain has led the world in tackling food insecurity in east Africa in the last year and we continue to urge others to prioritise this critical issue.

"British taxpayers' generous support has helped hundreds of thousands of people in dire need in the Horn of Africa and longer term British assistance in Ethiopia and Kenya has meant that millions more were not caught up in this terrible tragedy."

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Merkel to open Davos forum in Switzerland

GENEVA-- German Chancellor Angela Merkel will headline the annual elite gathering in Davos, Switzerland this month, underscoring the world's focus on the European debt crisis that for over two years has wreaked havoc on financial markets.

Organizers of the World Economic Forum said Wednesday that close to 40 heads of state and 18 of the world's central bankers will be among the expected 2,600 participants, making it the biggest such gathering in four decades at the Swiss Alpine resort.

The exclusive, invitation-only meeting of government and business leaders and VIPs from all walks of life is held to foster debate on the world's most pressing problems. Participants' expertise ranges from technology to arts and sciences, from NGOs to media organizations.

"We are looking desperately around the world for people who can offer solutions," said the forum's founder Klaus Schwab.

Other public figures expected at the Swiss Alpine resort include Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and League of Arab States Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby.

Most of the sessions are off-the-record discussions. But this year the forum is introducing a series of 29 on-the-record interviews with well-known figures such as Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered microcredit as a tool for development, and actress Michelle Yeoh.

Schwab said capitalism in its traditional form is no longer really working. The world's major economies are burdened by debt and have "failed to learn the lessons" from the 2008-2009 financial crisis, he said.

"We are in danger of completely losing the confidence of future generations," he said. "The question is what can we do, and what should we do, without looking for scapegoats and easy answers."

The five-day annual meeting will likely be dominated also by discussion of the wave of Arab Spring protests and comes just months ahead of Russian and French elections. Last year's forum was held just as Tunisia and Egypt were roiled by protests fueled by a lack of jobs and political inclusion.

Merkel's role as leader of Europe's largest economy will be much on display at the forum.

Germany has been paying the lion's share of the bailouts in Europe's debt crisis. But there are signs that even its economy, which has so far grown strongly throughout two years of financial turmoil, is slowing down. Some fear that could further temper the country's willingness to rescue fellow euro countries.

The German government cut the country's 2012 growth forecast to 0.7 percent from 1 percent on Wednesday. It predicts the country will avoid sinking back into recession, although the fourth quarter is expected to show economic contraction of up to 0.3 percent.

The Davos forum, which has been criticized for being a gathering of rich and powerful people disconnected from the world, will again see some protests.

Activists inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement have set up an igloo camp outside the meeting buildings. None of the protesters have been invited to the panels, but the Geneva-based forum's organizers say activists can join the public at certain parallel events being held.

Last week, the World Economic Forum said the financial crisis of the past few years is fueling resentment that could spark protectionism, nationalism and social unrest.

In a warning to government leaders, the Geneva-based international organization said leaders risk ushering in a "dystopian future" because of the impact of young people with few prospects, retirees dependent on debt-saddled states and an expanding gap between the rich and poor.


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Pakistan to re-open NATO route, Taliban talks falter - Reuters

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan expects to re-open supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan, halted after a NATO cross-border air attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, but will impose tariffs, a senior security official told Reuters Thursday.


The move suggests tensions with the United States and NATO have eased, but more progress is needed for the kind of cooperation necessary to fight militancy in the border region which U.S. President Barack Obama has called the world's most dangerous place.


The official said the fees were designed to both express continued anger over the November 26 attack and raise funds for the state to fight homegrown Taliban militants blamed for many of the suicide bombings across the country.


"The tariffs will cover everything from the port to security to roads, which after all belong to Pakistan," the security official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters.


No date was given for reopening the supply routes. Pakistan's trade ministry was working out details of the tariffs, said the official.


The NATO attack plunged relations between troubled allies Pakistan and the United States to their lowest point in years.


Ties had already been severely strained by a secret raid by U.S. special forces that killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in May last year, embarrassing the military, which has ruled the country for over half of its 64-year history and sets security and foreign policy.


Asked if the re-opening was a sign that the crisis in relations could be tackled, the official said there was some way to go before normalcy was possible.


The two land routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan account for just under a third of all cargo that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ships into Afghanistan.


MYRIAD CHALLENGES


Aside from friction with the United States, Pakistan faces a slowing economy heavily dependent on foreign aid and is struggling with militant violence.


Exploratory peace talks between the homegrown Taliban, which is close to al Qaeda, and Islamabad, raised hopes that Pakistan's leaders could eventually have one less major problem to deal with.


But the talks have made little headway, a senior security official told Reuters Thursday, after the Taliban flatly rejected a demand that it work through tribal elders to reach a deal whereby fighters approach authorities and lay down their arms.


"They felt it would be humiliating. The talks are not making progress," the official said. "If they want to be included in the political system, that is what they will have to do."


The Pakistani Taliban, allied with the Afghan Taliban movement fighting U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, are entrenched in Pakistan's unruly northwestern tribal areas, along the porous frontier with Afghanistan.


GOVERNMENT STABILITY


Past peace talks have merely given the group time and space to consolidate and launch fresh suicide attacks on army installations, police stations and crowded street markets.


Such a new wave of violence could further undermine a government under pressure from the Supreme Court and the military.


Pakistan's Supreme Court Thursday adjourned a contempt hearing for Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in a case that could push him from office and imperil hopes that the longest-running civilian administration in the country's coup-marred history can complete a five-year term.


Gilani was in court to explain why he should not be charged with contempt for failing to re-open old corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari.


The government maintains Zardari has presidential immunity.


"It is my conviction that he (Zardari) has complete immunity inside and outside the country," Gilani told the court.


The prime minister, however, appeared not to have convinced some judges.


"On the next date, let's hear you convince us the issue is of the president's immunity," said Justice Sarmad Osmani, a member of the seven-panel bench. "Let's grab the bull by its horns."


While the immediate battle is about Gilani, the larger political crisis is about Zardari -- who has had his own run-ins with the chief justice -- and the fate of his government which is also increasingly at loggerheads with the military.


Tensions between the civilian leadership and the army, at their worst since a 1999 coup, were sparked by a mysterious memo last year that sought U.S. help in reining in the generals.


(Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman, Serena Chaudhry and Rebecca Conway in ISLAMABAD, and Faisal Aziz and Sahar Ahmed in KARACHI; Editing by Ed Lane)


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Nigeria army outpost attacked in northeast, 2 dead

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria -- Nigeria's military says gunmen from a radical Islamist sect attacked an army outpost in the country's northeast, killing two people.


The attack Wednesday morning occurred near Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and the spiritual home for the sect known as Boko Haram. A witness said a soldier and a hospital worker died in the attack.


Col. Victor Ebhaleme confirmed the attack, but declined to give further details.


These are just the latest killings blamed on the sect, which this year alone have been blamed for at least 76 deaths, according to an Associated Press count.


The sect has been waging an increasingly bloody sectarian battle against Nigeria's weak central government.


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Ex-Israeli intelligence chief reportedly says he believes Iran can build ... - Fox News

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Arab League Considers Extension of Syria Mission - ABC News

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Bangladeshi military 'foils coup plot' - The Guardian

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Pakistan prime minister Gilani refuses to give in to court order - The Guardian

Pakistan prime minister arrives at court

Pakistan's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, waves to supporters as he arrives at the supreme court in Islamabad. Photograph: T Mughal/EPA

Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, has appeared before judges, in the battle of wills between the government and the judiciary, and refused to accept court orders targeting the president.

The supreme court had called Gilani before it on contempt of court proceedings after the Islamabad government persistently ignored court orders to write to Swiss authorities and ask for a dormant money laundering case to be reopened against President Asif Ali Zardari.

It had been suggested that Gilani might apologise to the court, or even offer his resignation, but he came out fighting on behalf of the president.

"He has complete immunity inside and outside the country," Gilani told the court on Thursday, making clear he would not write the letter.

"In the constitution, there is complete immunity for the president. There is no doubt about it."

Gilani's tone was characteristically soft and polite as he said that he could "never think of ridiculing or defaming the court", but the message was uncompromising.

The stakes are high. Gilani risks being convicted of contempt of court, which could mean jail and disqualification from office. Zardari, leader of the ruling Pakistan Peoples party, would also be barred from office if convicted of a crime.

Standing before the judges in a dark suit, Gilani pointed to other leaders of his coalition government, sitting in a row behind him, and said they were all present to show respect to the court.

In a move seemingly designed to show that he was appearing humbly before the judges, Gilani drove the short distance from his official residence to the court with his lawyer, the legal heavyweight Aitzaz Ahsan, in the passenger seat.

In court however, he reminded the judiciary that they were proceeding against an elected leader. "I'm the longest serving democratically elected prime minister in the history of Pakistan," he said.

The supreme court, unable to reinitiate corruption cases against the president inside Pakistan, have pursued a case involving allegations of laundering $60m in Switzerland dating back to the 1990s when Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister. The Swiss authorities dropped the investigation and handed over the boxes of evidence, which then reportedly made their way to the Pakistani embassy in London, where a PPP loyalist is the ambassador.

Ahsan told the court that the prime minister found the order to write the letter asking for the case to be reopened impossible to perform because of bona fide legal advice he had received that the president was immune from prosecution.

"The letter shall be written the day that Asif Ali Zardari is no longer president," Ahsan told the court.

The supreme court has been trying to force the government to write to the Swiss authorities since 2009 only to be stone-walled, leading the judges to start contempt proceedings against the prime mister. The government had not explained to the court before Thursday why it would not write the letter. The case was adjourned until 1 February.

Pakistan's government is locked in a confrontation with the courts and the military, and many believe the judges are determined to find a way to dismiss the government, or at least Zardari. It is widely believed that the powerful military is supporting the court, directly or indirectly.

The government is also facing allegations that its former US ambassador conspired with Washington against Pakistan's armed forces. The main accuser, the American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, failed to appear at a court hearing on Monday and is due to testify next week.

The PPP believes that if it is thrown out of office its best strategy is to go down fighting so that it can claim to be martyrs for democracy and victims of the Pakistani establishment.

It emerged on Thursday that Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who had announced that he would return by the end of January from exile in London and Dubai, was no longer coming. Musharraf's spokesman said that conditions were not right. The government has warned that he faces outstanding arrest warrants, including over the death of a separatist leader in the western province of Baluchistan in 2006.

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Man shot dead at Canadian hotel hosting US women's soccer team

VANCOUVER -- A man was shot and killed at the Vancouver hotel where the US women's soccer team is staying ahead of the Olympic qualifying tournament, The Vancouver Sun reported.


 According to police, the shooting happened at about 8:45pm local time Tuesday night at a bar inside the Sheraton Wall Centre. The victim was a man in his 20s.


No arrests have been made in the case, which according to The Sun was the city's first murder of 2012. No one else in the hotel was injured in the attack.


"Saved by our instant yoga session. Was about to walk to starbucks when all hell broke loose in the lobby of our hotel! Life is precious...," US goalie Hope Solo wrote on Twitter.


A spokesman for the US national squad said no one affiliated with the team witnessed the shooting.


The US team will play the Dominican Republic on Friday in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.


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US uncovers Iranian effort to help Syria evade oil embargo

WASHINGTON –  U.S. officials have uncovered an effort by Iran to help Syria mask its oil exports and evade an American and European embargo, in a potent new sign of Tehran's campaign to bolster Syrian President Bashar al Assad as his regime cracks down on public opposition.


American officials investigating the Iranian operation said it was designed to quietly ship Syrian crude oil to Iran, where it can be sold on the international market, with revenue going back to Damascus. Transit records document one such shipment -- involving more than 100,000 tons of crude -- which took place last month.


"The oil shipment to Iran was designed to evade the sanctions that have been imposed on Syria," said a senior U.S. Treasury Department official familiar with the case.


In response, the treasury department has begun targeting the insurance and registration of international tankers shipping Syrian oil overseas. Many are insured in the U.S.


Concerns aren't limited to Iran. Washington and its allies are also intensifying the scrutiny of maritime and air traffic moving into Syria from Russia, as Moscow has publicly committed to continue arming Assad's security forces.


This month, Cyprus intercepted a St. Petersburg-based ship, the Chariot, that was moving four containers of munitions bound for the Syrian port of Tartus, according to Cypriot officials. Cyprus eventually released the ship after assurances from its Russian owners that it wouldn't complete the delivery, according to Cypriot officials.


But Moscow this week confirmed the arms shipment was made. The ship's owner, the Russian freight company Balchart, declined to comment.


A spokesman for the Iranian embassy at the UN said there are no international sanctions on Syria that Tehran needs to respect. He also said that outside powers, not Iran, have been feeding the conflict inside Syria by shipping in arms. "Syria is an independent country, and Iran respects its sovereignty," said the spokesman. "Iran believes that Syrians have the right to self-determination free from any foreign intervention."


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Chinese premier stresses need to keep Strait of Hormuz open

DOHA, Qatar –  China's premier, touring the oil-rich Gulf, on Wednesday stressed the importance of keeping the Strait of Hormuz open after threats by Iran to shut the strategic waterway.


During a visit to the Qatari capital Doha, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said ensuring the security of the strait is in all nations' interests. About a fifth of the world's oil supply flows through the narrow strait.


"Any extremist action in this region will go against the will of all people in the world," he said following meetings with Qatar's ruling emir and other officials.
China is a major customer for Iran's oil and gas. It has opposed tighter sanctions on Iran over Tehran's disputed nuclear program and has called for a Middle East free of atomic weapons.


China and government-run Qatar Petroleum agreed to work together to develop a petrochemical facility in China, Wen said. Financial details were not disclosed.


The Chinese premier's Gulf tour has also taken him to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was the first such visit by a Chinese prime minister to Saudi Arabia in 20 years, and to the other two Gulf countries since diplomatic relations were established in the 1980s.


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Crucial debt talks resume in Athens

ATHENS, Greece -- The Greek government resumed talks with its private creditors in Athens on Wednesday in the hope of sealing a debt relief deal needed to avoid a disastrous default this spring.


The heads of the Institute of International Finance, a global banking association, returned after negotiations stalled last week.


"Talks with private creditors are without a doubt at a very sensitive stage," Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told parliament shortly before attending the meeting with top IIF official Charles Dallara.


"We want this (deal) to happen in a way that is safe for Greece -- with Greece in the eurozone -- and safe for the real economy and the financial system," he said.


The so-called private sector involvement, or PSI, deal is meant to write off euro100 billion ($128 billion), or half of the debt Greece owes private bondholders, who would get new bonds with extended repayment periods.


Talks have been held up by a disagreement on interest rates for the new bonds and other "variables," a senior government official told the Associated Press on Wednesday.


He said the government was still considering whether to impose so-called collective action clauses on its bonds. The clauses could force private debt holders resisting a settlement to fall in line with the majority if an agreement is reached.


The official asked not to be identified, citing the sensitive nature of the talks.


Greece needs to clinch the agreement quickly to qualify for more bailout loans before it faces a euro14.5 billion ($18.6 billion) bond repayment on March 20. The bond swap is a key part a new euro130 billion ($166 billion) bailout package in loans and bank support from international rescue creditors. Without the bond swap deal, Greece will be cut off from its rescue loans.


Greece needs to write off some of its borrowings if it is to have a fighting chance of emerging from its debt hole.


It has so far relied on austerity measures, which were a condition for it to receive emergency loans from other its fellow eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund. The Greek government has cut pensions and salaries, raised taxes and sold state property.


Yanis Varoufakis, a professor of economics at the University of Athens, argued that even with a debt deal, Greece could do little to eventually avoid default.


"Let the truth be revealed. Let's have a default because Greece is insolvent and insolvent entities have to default. It's a law of nature and of society and of reason, and we should simply succumb to that," Varoufakis told AP Television.


"If European leaders are worried about the effect this will have on banks they might as well recapitalize them, not continue to drip-feed the Greek state," he said.


The cumulative effect of the austerity has taken its toll on Greeks, who have held frequent strikes and protests over the past two years.


Unions and employers are to start talks on Wednesday on reducing labors costs, but the negotiations were disrupted when protesters from a Communist-backed labor union occupied the central building where the meetings were to take place.


EU-IMF debt inspectors are back in Athens this week to monitor progress of those reforms aimed at slashing the country's high budget deficits.


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Turkey calls for resumption of Iran nuclear talks

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Peace Corps pullout latest blow to Honduras

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- The U.S. government's decision to pull out all its Peace Corps volunteers from Honduras for safety reasons is yet another blow to a nation still battered by a coup and recently labeled the world's most deadly country.

Neither U.S. nor Honduran officials have said what specifically prompted them to withdraw the 158 Peace Corps volunteers, which the U.S. State Department in 2011 called one of the largest missions in the world.

But the wave of violence and drug cartel-related crime hitting the Central American country had affected volunteers working on HIV prevention, water sanitation and youth projects, President Porfirio Lobo acknowledged.

Monday's pullout also comes less than two months after U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reconsider sending police and military aid to Honduras as a response to human rights abuses.

"It's a welcome step toward the United States recognizing that they have a disastrous situation in Honduras," said Dana Frank, a University of California Santa Cruz history professor who has researched and traveled in Honduras.

The decision to pull out the entire delegation came 18 days after a Dec. 3 armed robbery in a bus where a female volunteer was shot in the leg in the violence-torn city of San Pedro Sula.

Hugo Velasquez, a spokesman for the country's National Police, said 27-year-old Lauren Robert was wounded along with two other people. One of the three alleged robbers was killed by a bus passenger, Velasquez said. The daily La Prensa said Robert was from Texas.

The U.S. also announced it was suspended training for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala, meaning that when existing volunteers end their missions, the operations end. El Salvador has 113 volunteers, and Guatemala, 222. The U.S. embassies in those countries did not respond to requests for comment.

The three countries make up the so-called northern triangle of Central America, a region plagued by drug trafficking and gang violence. El Salvador has the second highest homicide rate with 66 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, the U.N. said.

Honduras joins Kazakhstan and Niger as countries that have recently had their volunteers pulled out. The Kazakhstan decision followed reports of sexual assaults against volunteers. The Niger decision came after the kidnapping and murder of two French citizens claimed by an al-Qaida affiliate.

A U.N. report, released in October 2011, said Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world with 6,200 killings, or 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010.

"Violence affects all Hondurans. It wouldn't be surprising if Peace Corps members, too," said Jose Rolando Bu, president of a group that represents non-governmental agencies.

It is most significant suspension of Peace Corps activities in Central America since the 1980s, when several Central American nations were torn by civil wars.

The Peace Corps had sent volunteers to Honduras since 1962, and around 1982 it was the largest mission in the world, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. sent more people to help after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Berman said in the Nov. 28, 2011, letter to Clinton that he worried that some murders in Honduras appeared to be politically motivated because high-profile victims included people related to or investigating abuses by police and security forces, or to the June 28, 2009, ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. The coup lead to the temporary diplomatic isolation of Honduras.

On Tuesday, a Honduran lawyer who had reported torture and human rights violations by police officers was killed by gunmen, authorities said.

Three men stormed into the office of Ricardo Rosales, 42, shot him dead and escaped, said Hector Turcios, the police chief of Tela, a city 150 miles north of the capital.

Rosales had told local press that officers had tortured jail inmates in his city.


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British court evicts 'Occupy London' protesters

LONDON -- "Occupy London" protesters must leave their camp on the doorstep of St. Paul's Cathedral, a court ruled Wednesday.


British High Court Judge Keith Lindblom granted London authorities permission to evict the protesters, citing public health, safety and environmental concerns, The Wall Street Journal reported.


Speaking at London's Royal Courts of Justice, Lindblom said, "It is necessary and it is proportionate."


But he added, "No one has doubted, or could, the significance of the causes the defendants promote."


Eviction notices were served on anti-capitalist protesters in November after officials from the City of London Corporation, which runs the district that houses St. Paul's, said negotiations with the demonstrators had stalled.


Protesters ignored a deadline to leave and the authority began legal proceedings.


The "Occupy London" movement -- inspired by "Occupy Wall Street" -- set up camp at St. Paul's on Oct. 15 after failing to secure a spot in front of the nearby London Stock Exchange.


The 200-tent protest has caused divisions in the cathedral's hierarchy and led to the resignations of three members of its clergy.


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Radiation, rusty metal seen in tsunami-hit reactor

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Pakistani PM: President is immune from charges anywhere - CNN

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Ex-Israeli intelligence chief reportedly says he believes Iran can build nuclear bomb

JERUSALEM –  An Israeli newspaper is quoting a former Israeli military intelligence chief as saying Iran has all the components to build a nuclear bomb.


Iran says its nuclear program is designed to produce energy and serve other peaceful purposes, but Israel and the West say it is aimed at developing weapons technology.


Amos Yadlin was quoted by Thursday's Maariv daily as saying that if Iranian leaders "get together tonight and decide they are going to secretly develop a bomb," they have all the resources and components they need.


On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Iran has not officially decided to build bombs because that could draw harsher international sanctions and other actions against it.


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Dutch salvage experts in line for Concordia

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Dutch companies in line to salvage the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship have a long history of mopping up maritime disasters, from raising the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk to securing drilling platforms wrenched loose by Hurricane Katrina.


The Rotterdam-based Smit Salvage has not yet been given the contract to salvage the $450 million cruise ship but is expected to start pumping half a million gallons of fuel off the ship over the coming days.


It is now up to the ship's owner and insurer to decide which salvage company will be awarded the multimillion-dollar contract to remove the ship from the Tuscan coast. Experts are already speculating how they will tackle the daunting task.


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US Navy aids another Iranian fishing boat

For the third time this month, the U.S. Navy has come to the rescue of distressed Iranian fishermen -- at the same time Iran has threatened to disrupt a key oil route off its coast.


Guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey rendered aid to the crew of a sinking Iranian fishing dhow in the central Arabian Sea, according to a Navy press release. 


A helicopter from the Maritime Strike Squadron 71 spotted the fishing boat Wednesday morning reportedly with one person on board. 


"Our first priority was to make sure that all of the crew (of the fishing vessel) was safe," Lt. Will Jourdan, pilot of the helicopter, said in the press release. 


After the the vessel had been identified, it was reported back to the Dewey's crew, who then moved in to help the fisherman who had fled the boat and boarded another. 


"Once we talked with their captain, it was clear that they needed food and water," Lt. J.G. Jason Dawson, the destroyer's visit, board, search and seizer team's leader, said in the press release. 


The crew then provided food, water and medical and hygienic supplies to the fisherman for more than two hours. 


Dewey was in the area conducting maritime security operations as part of a scheduled deployment with the John C. Stennis Strike Group. "I am extremely proud of our John C. Stennis Strike Group Sailors for demonstrating once again their readiness to render life-saving assistance at sea," Rear Adm. Craig Faller, said in the press release. 


The rescues come despite Iranian threats warning the U.S. Navy to keep its distance from the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran threatens to block if provoked over its nuclear program.


On Jan. 10, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomy responded to flares fired from the Iranian cargo dhow, Ya-Hussayn, which was experiencing engine troubles. 


On Jan. 5, the USS Stennis Strike Group rescued 13 Iranian fisherman held hostage by pirates in the North Arabian Sea. 


Fox News' Justin Fishel contributed to this report. 


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Hungary Disagrees With EU Concerns on Judges, Giro-Szasz Says - BusinessWeek

Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Hungary disagrees with the European Commission on the lowering of the mandatory retirement age for judges, over which the European Union has threatened a lawsuit, government spokesman Andras Giro-Szasz said.

The commission is “fundamentally wrong” to consider the lowering of the retirement age for judges to 62 years from 70 years as “early retirement” as 62 years is now the general retirement age, Giro-Szasz told M1 state television today.

“Hungary will negotiate and if there is no agreement in the end, then the case goes to the European court,” Giro-Szasz said. “Obviously, if the Hungarian government presents its reasons next to the European Commission’s reasons, then the two sides will accept each others’ reasons.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told European Parliament members in Strasbourg, France yesterday that he is ready to compromise on disputed laws as he seeks to revive bailout talks with the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

The EU and the IMF suspended the talks last month after Orban refused to compromise on a central bank legislation the EU and IMF said may undermine monetary policy independence. The European Commission has also cited concerns about the overhaul of the data-protection authority.


--Editors: Balazs Penz, Alan Crosby


To contact the reporter on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net


To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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UK's Cameron: Syria's Assad is a 'wretched tyrant'

LONDON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron says Iran and Iranian-backed Islamist group Hezbollah are supporting Syria's violent crackdown on the country's uprising.


Cameron told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Wednesday that both were offering backing to Syrian President Bashar Assad. He described Assad as a "wretched tyrant who is killing so many of his own people."


Thousands have been killed in Syria's crackdown on the 10-month-old uprising, and Cameron has pledged to press for tougher international sanctions -- despite opposition from Russia and China.


He says there is "growing evidence that Iran is providing a huge amount of support" to Syria's ruling regime.


Cameron is seeking a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the violence.


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Egypt's military ruler warns of 'grave dangers' - Fox News

CAIRO -- Egypt is facing unprecedented "grave dangers" but its military will protect it, military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in remarks published Wednesday which appeared aimed at rallying public opinion against protests planned for next week's anniversary of the country's 2011 uprising.


Tantawi's comments also seemed to be a thinly veiled warning to the activists behind last year's Jan. 25-Feb. 11 demonstrations that led to the toppling of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak.


The activists are now calling on the military to step down immediately, and accuse the ruling generals of botching the transition to civilian rule, of killing at least 80 protesters since October, of torturing detainees and of hauling at least 12,000 civilians before military tribunals for trial.


Activists plan to stage a wave of protests to mark next week's first anniversary of the start of the uprising. The state-run media has responded with a media campaign warning of a plot to destabilize the nation on the anniversary.


Tantawi's talk of unspecified "grave dangers" facing the nation and of the military's resolve to counter them harks back to the Mubarak era, when officials frequently sought to shift attention away from domestic problems with warnings of conspiracies against the country by local agents of foreign powers.


"Egypt is facing grave dangers it has not seen before," Tantawi said. Calling on Egyptians to foil the "schemes and conspiracies" against Egypt, he said: "The armed forces is the backbone that protects Egypt. These schemes are aimed at targeting that backbone. We will not allow it and will carry out our task perfectly to hand over the nation to an elected civilian administration."


Tantawi, who is in his late 70s, said that the armed forces were "pushed into the political fray only to protect Egypt from the enemies of the nation and people," language that appears designed to counter charges by activists and politicians that the ruling generals planned all along to retain their political leverage and their privileges.


Activists claim that Tantawi and the rest of the generals sitting on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are an extension of Mubarak's 29-year regime and remain beholden to the former president, whose consent was essential to their promotion through the ranks.


Tantawi himself was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, during which he was widely considered to be unquestioningly loyal to his patron.


The military has said it intended to hand over power to an elected president by the end of June, but many suspect the military will not easily give up the political dominance it has enjoyed ever since army officers seized power in a coup nearly 60 years ago.


Critics of the generals say they hope to promote an ex-officer or an ally as a candidate, to shield the military's budget, economic interests and behind-the-scenes political leverage from civilian scrutiny.


Taking advantage of the frustration of many Egyptians following nearly a year of demonstrations, sit-ins, strikes and deadly street clashes, the generals have been trying to publicly discredit the revolutionaries as troublemakers or as agents of foreign powers.


Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, brought out of retirement in November to take the Cabinet post that runs the police, has warned against what he calls attempts to destroy public property during the uprising's anniversary protests.


The state media has used the loss last month of rare books and manuscripts in a fire in a downtown library during clashes between protesters and troops to portray activists as reckless individuals who destabilize the country.


The army's reputation however has taken a blow from video images of the clashes posted on social networks depicting violence against protesters. They show a woman stripped half-naked while troops kick and stomp her, and soldiers urinating on protesters from the roof of the building of parliament.


But despite those images, activists acknowledge that the army's campaign has largely worked, and that they no longer have the degree of public support which they enjoyed a year ago.


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Afghan official: 6 civilians die in bomb attack

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan –  An attacker blew himself up Thursday at an entrance to a sprawling base for U.S. and NATO operations in southern Afghanistan, killing at least six civilians, police said.


It was the second suicide bombing in as many days in southern Afghanistan, which is the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.


"He arrived on foot and tried to get near the gate of Kandahar Air Field and then he blew himself up," said Abdul Razaq, police chief in Kandahar province.


The incident was confirmed by Gen. Mohammad Hameed, head of the Afghan National Army in the province, who said other civilians were wounded in the blast.


On Wednesday, dozens of civilians, coalition troops and Afghan security forces were killed and wounded when an attacker blew himself up in a bazaar in neighboring Helmand province. Daud Ahmadi, a provincial spokesman, said a bomber on a motorcycle killed at least 12 Afghans, including two policeman, and wounded at least 23 other people in Kajaki district.


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Russia urges quick missile defense deal with US

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Iran warns region against "dangerous" stance on Hormuz - Reuters

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Media group: Romania must probe journalist attacks

BUCHAREST, Romania -- A media organization has called on Romanian authorities to identify and prosecute protesters and policemen who reportedly attacked nine journalists during violent anti-government demonstrations.


The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organization said Wednesday that reporters were assaulted while covering days-long protests against austerity measures that degenerated into violence in Bucharest on Sunday and Monday.


SEEMO says the exact number of attacked journalists is not known. However, it mentions nine cases of journalists and other media employees who were either hit by stones and Molotov cocktails hurled by protesters or allegedly detained or beaten by riot police.


At least 59 people were injured during the disturbances against harsh austerity measures and the way the country is run.


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Plane carrying cattle from US makes emergency landing in London

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News Corp. agrees to pay damages to high-profile victims of phone-hacking

LONDON –  Rupert Murdoch's media company has agreed to pay damages to 19 high-profile victims of tabloid phone-hacking, including actor Jude Law, soccer player Ashley Cole and former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.


They are among dozens of people who were suing News Group Newspapers after their mobile phone voicemails were allegedly hacked by the now-shuttered News of the World tabloid.


Details of the settlements were read out at a court hearing in London on Thursday.


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Search resumes for missing passengers as captain in cruise ship disaster says he fell out of the ship during evacuation

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