Chinese nationals missing after attack in Sudan

Written By Ivan Kolev on Sunday, January 29, 2012 | 6:57 PM

Sunday, January 29, 2012

BEIJING – More than 20 Chinese nationals are missing after militants attacked their remote worksite in a volatile region of Sudan, the Foreign Ministry and embassy said Sunday.

The Foreign Ministry said the militants attacked Saturday and Sudanese forces launched a rescue mission Sunday in coordination with the Chinese embassy in Khartoum. Sudanese forces are also beefing up security for Chinese personnel and projects in Sudan, it said.

China has close political and economic relations with Sudan, especially in the energy sector.

The Foreign Ministry's head of consular affairs met with the Sudanese ambassador in Beijing and "urged him to actively conduct rescue missions under the prerequisite of ensuring the safety of the Chinese personnel," the statement said.

Other details weren't given, although the official Xinhua News Agency cited the state governor as saying the attack was launched by the Sudan People's Liberation Army against a road-building site in South Kordofan.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army are a guerilla force loyal to the southern movement and hail from a minority ethnic group now in control of much of South Sudan, which became the world's newest country only six months ago.

Sudan has accused South Sudan of arming pro-South Sudan groups in South Kordofan. The government of South Sudan has called such accusations a smokescreen intended to justify a future invasion of the South.

China has sent large numbers of workers to potentially unstable regions such as Sudan and last year was forced to send ships and planes to help with the emergency evacuation of 30,000 of its citizens from the fighting in Libya.

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Spanair shutdown sparks disruptions

MADRID – Thousands of passengers faced travel disruptions across Spain Saturday after domestic carrier Spanair canceled all of its flights late Friday night and prepared to file for bankruptcy protection.

The collapse of the Barcelona carrier took place shortly after Qatar Airways walked away from talks to take over the airline after months of negotiations.

"Due to a lack of financial visibility for the coming months, the company has had no option but to cease flying out of a duty of care for the safety of its operation and the well being of all concerned," Spanair said in a statement late Friday. "The appropriate next steps will be taken as soon as possible."

More than 200 Spanair flights have been canceled, affecting more than 22,000 passengers. Public Works Minister Ana Pastor said Saturday the government may slap Spanair with abou t$12 million in fines and cancel its airline license due to the sudden cancellation of flights and failure to assist passengers.

The Public Works Ministry, which supervises the transport sector, said Spanair is required to assist customers and reimburse canceled tickets.

Many affected passengers complained on local television stations that Spanair was struggling to provide flight alternatives or even return the luggage from passengers who checked in shortly before all flights were canceled. A Spanair spokeswoman declined to comment on specific complaints from customers.

"The company would like to apologize to everyone affected by this announcement and thank the aviation authorities for their help and support," as well as other airlines that are assisting affected passengers, Spanair said on Friday night.

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Iran says oil could reach $120 to $150 per barrel

TEHRAN, Iran – The head of Iran's state oil company said Sunday that the price of crude will reach $120 to $150 per barrel, as officials in Tehran prepare to discuss a ban on crude sales to European Union countries in retaliation for an EU embargo.

Head of the National Iranian Oil Company Ahmad Qalehbani also said that Tehran would expand its capacity to refine crude domestically, instead of selling it on international markets.

The EU announced an embargo on Iranian oil last week to pressure Tehran on its controversial nuclear program.

The embargo is set to go into effect in the summer, but Iran says that it may cut the flow of crude to Europe early.

Iran says the EU accounts for only 18 percent of its output and that it can find new customers. It says the embargo will hurt the West more than Iran, in part by causing a spike in prices.

"It seems we will witness prices from $120 to $150 in the future," Qalehbani was quoted as saying by IRNA. He did not give a time frame for the prediction, nor any other details.

The price of benchmark U.S. crude on Friday was around $99.56 per barrel.

Qalehbani also said that Iran could find other customers for its crude in the short term, while in the longer term expanding its refining capacity to turn the crude into other petroleum products.

"The sale of some 18 percent of Iranian oil, to a market other than the EU, is quite possible. But our long term idea is to increase refining capacities to produce valuable products," he said.

Qalehbani's statement came as Iranian oil officials prepare to debate a ban on crude sales to European Union countries.

Many Iranian lawmakers and officials have called for an immediate ban on oil exports to the European bloc before the EU's ban fully goes into effect in July. They say this will hurt Europe before it can find alternative suppliers.

It also coincided with a visit by a U.N. nuclear team expected to focus on Iran's alleged attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States and its allies argue that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons technology, while Tehran says the program is for purely peaceful purposes.

With some 3.5 million barrels of crude production, Iran is the second largest OPEC producer.

Some 80 percent of the country's foreign revenue comes from exporting around 2.2 million barrels of oil per day.

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Syrian military launches offensive in clashes with army defectors


BEIRUT – The Syrian military launched an offensive to regain control of suburbs on the eastern edge of Damascus Sunday, storming neighborhoods and clashing with groups of army defectors in fierce fighting that sent residents fleeing and killed at least three civilians, activists said.

Six soldiers were also killed when a roadside bomb detonated near the bus they were traveling in several miles south of the capital.

Activists said government forces dispatched dozens of tanks and armored vehicles to reinforce troops in a belt of suburbs and villages on the eastern outskirts of Damascus where armed defectors have grown increasingly bold, staking out positions and setting up checkpoints in recent days.

The area on Saturday witnessed some of the most intense fighting yet so close to the capital as President Bashar Assad's regime scrambles to try to uproot protesters and dissident soldiers who have joined the opposition.

The ten-month uprising against Assad, which began with largely peaceful demonstrations, has become increasingly militarized recently as more frustrated protesters and army defectors have taken up arms against the regime.

The assault on the suburbs seemed to be a sign of the growing presence of dissident soldiers closer to Damascus, and the regime's rising concern about the situation. Although the tightly controlled capital has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its outskirts have witnessed intense anti-regime protests and army defectors have become more visible and active in the past few months.

The military has responded with a withering assault on a string of Damascus suburbs in a bid to stamp out the resistance, leading to a spike in violence has killed nearly 100 people since Thursday.

The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence, which according to the United Nations has killed at least 5,400 people as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule.

The U.N. is holding talks on a new resolution on Syria and next week will discuss an Arab League peace plan aimed at ending the crisis. But the initiatives face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab plan that it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told reporters in Egypt on Sunday that contacts were under way with China and Russia.

"I hope that their stand will be adjusted in line with the final drafting of the draft resolution," he told reporters at Cairo airport before leaving for New York with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim.

The two will seek U.N. support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plans calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.

The Arab League announced Saturday it was halting the work of its observer mission in Syria immediately because of the increasing violence, until the League's council can meet to decide the mission's fate. Arab foreign ministers were to meet Sunday in Cairo to discuss the Syrian crisis in light of the suspension of the observers' work and Damascus' refusal to agree to the transition timetable, the League said.

Elaraby said the observers will not leave Damascus, pending a decision on the mission's fate.

While the international community scrambles to find a resolution to the crisis, the violence on the ground in Syria has continued unabated.

On Sunday, activists said three civilians including a 16-year-old died in fierce fighting in the suburb of Kfar Batna. There was heavy shelling there and in the nearby suburbs of Saqba and Arbeen, they said.

"Troops this morning stormed Kfar Batna, Hammouriyeh and Ein Tarma," said an activist who identified himself as Mohammad Doumani, based in the Damascus suburb of Douma. "It looks like the regime has launched an operation to regain control of those areas."

Doumani said dozens of families were fleeing Ein Tarma and nearby areas, headed to Damascus. Amateur videos posted on the Internet showed residents, including women and children, fleeing on foot carrying bags stuffed with belongings as the crackle of gunfire resonated in the background.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three people were killed in Kfar Batna as well as an army defector near the Damascus suburb of Zabadani. It said one person was killed in the central city of Homs, and another in the capital, when troops fired on a funeral procession for a victim of Saturday's' fighting.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network said 13 people were killed on Sunday.

Syria's state-run news agency said "terrorists" detonated a roadside bomb by remote control near a bus carrying soldiers in the Damascus suburb of Sahnaya, killing six soldiers and wounding six others.

Among those killed in the attack some 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the capital were two first lieutenants, SANA said.

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Iran issues warning as UN nuclear team arrives


TEHRAN, Iran – A U.N. nuclear team arrived in Tehran early Sunday for a mission expected to focus on Iran's alleged attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

The U.N. nuclear agency delegation includes two senior weapons experts -- Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa -- suggesting that Iran may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations.

The delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency is led by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, who is in charge of the Iran nuclear file. Also on the team is Rafael Grossi, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano's right-hand man.

In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival in Tehran, Nackaerts urged Iran to work with his mission on probing the allegations about Iran's alleged attempts to develop nuclear weapons, reflecting the importance the IAEA is attaching to the issue.

Ahead of his departure, Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport he hopes Iran "will engage with us on all concerns."

"So we're looking forward to the start of a dialogue," he said: "A dialogue that is overdue since very long."

Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, on Sunday called the visit a "test" for the UN agency, according to the website of the official IRIB state broadcaster.

If the IAEA officials were "professional," then "the path for cooperation will open up," Larijani said. "But if they deviate and become a tool, then the Islamic Republic will be forced to reflect and consider a new framework" for cooperation.

Iran, which maintains that its program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, is increasingly furious at the Western measures being leveled at its economy to get it to halt uranium enrichment.

It defiantly stepped up the enrichment at a new bomb-proof bunker in Fordo, near the Shiite holy city of Qom.

It also reacted fiercely to new sanctions targeting its oil and finance sectors, notably the European Union's announcement that it would ban all Iranian oil imports within the next five months, after weak economies such as Greece and Spain found alternative suppliers.

Iran's parliament is considering a draft law that would pre-empt that EU ban by cutting off shipments to Europe immediately in a bid to destabilize the bloc. The bill could be debated Sunday.

In a sign of the difficulties the team faces and the tensions that surround Iran's disputed nuclear program, a dozen Iranian hard-liners carrying photos of slain nuclear expert Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan were waiting at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport early Sunday to challenge the team upon arrival.

That prompted security officials to whisk the IAEA team away from the tarmac to avoid any confrontation with the hard-liners.

Iran's official IRNA news agency confirmed the team's arrival and said the IAEA experts are likely to visit the underground Fordo uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, 80 miles south of the capital, Tehran.

During their three-day visit, the IAEA team will be looking for permission to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of working on a weapons program, inspect documents related to such suspected work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits to sites linked to such allegations. But even a decision to enter a discussion over the allegations would be a major departure from Iran's frequent simple refusal to talk about them.

The United States and its allies want Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium, which they worry could eventually lead to weapons-grade material and the production of nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes, such as generating electricity and producing medical radioisotopes to treat cancer patients.

Iran has accused the IAEA in the past of security leaks that expose its scientists and their families to the threat of assassination by the U.S. and Israel.

Iranian state media say Roshan, a chemistry expert and director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, was interviewed by IAEA inspectors before being killed in a brazen bomb attack in Tehran earlier this month.

Iranian media have urged the government to be vigil, saying some IAEA inspectors are "spies," reflecting the deep suspicion many in Iran have for the U.N. experts sent to inspect Iran's nuclear sites.

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Palestinian leader blames Israel for failure of latest talks


RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Sunday blamed each other for the impasse in newly launched peace efforts, raising doubts about whether the dialogue would continue just weeks after it began.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of spoiling the low-level talks, saying it failed to present detailed proposals for borders and security requested by international mediators. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinians "refused to even discuss" Israeli security needs.

For the past month, the sides have held Jordanian-mediated exploratory talks at the urging of the Quartet of international Mideast mediators -- the U.S., the U.N., the E.U. and Russia. The goal of the talks has been to find a formula to resume formal peace negotiations, with the aim of forging an agreement this year.

The Palestinians say a three-month period set by the Quartet for the exploratory talks ended last week, counting from the day the mediators issued their marching orders last October.

But Abbas, deeply skeptical about the hardline Netanyahu, is under intense international pressure to stay at the table and would risk being blamed for the failure of the latest Mideast peace efforts.

Walking away would be a risky strategy at a time when he seeks global recognition of a state of Palestine ahead of a possible border deal with Israel. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon is expected in the region this week to help keep the talks alive.

Abbas said Israel's efforts so far have fallen short.

"By not presenting a clear vision on the issues of borders and security, as the Quartet demanded, Israel foiled the exploratory talks in Amman," Abbas said in remarks published late Saturday by the Palestinian news agency Wafa.

Israel has said it wants to keep talking and is serious about reaching a deal by year's end. It says the exploratory talks should continue for another two months, starting its countdown of the Quartet's three-month period from the beginning of meetings in early January.

Addressing his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said the dialogue had gotten off to a rocky start, but held out hope the talks would continue.

"Until this moment, according to what happened in recent days, the Palestinians refused to even discuss with us the needs of Israel's security," he said. "The signs are not very good, but I hope they will come to their senses and we'll continue the talks so we can reach real negotiations."

The Quartet had asked both sides to present detailed proposals on borders and security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestinian state, in hopes the exploratory talks would evolve into full negotiations.

The Palestinians said they presented four-page proposals on each subject, but refused to elaborate. Earlier this week, Israel presented its principles for drawing a border with a future state of Palestine -- the first-ever indication by Netanyahu on how much war-won land he would be willing to relinquish.

Abbas said he remains committed to serious negotiations that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.

The Palestinians want to establish their state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians, who regained control of Gaza in 2005, have said they are willing to swap some land to enable Israel to keep some of the largest of dozens of settlements it has built on occupied lands. In talks with Netanyahu's predecessor, the Palestinians suggested swapping 1.9 percent of the West Bank, while Israel proposed 6.5 percent.

Two Palestinian officials said last week that Israel proposed keeping control of east Jerusalem and essentially turning its West Bank separation barrier into the border. That would place attach roughly 10 percent of the West Bank to Israel.

Israeli officials have declined comment.

However, it is unlikely Abbas would accept any deal that leaves east Jerusalem under Israeli control and gives him only 90 percent of the West Bank.

Abbas consulted Sunday with his Fatah movement and was to talk Monday with top officials in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Abbas said he would make his final decision after briefing the Arab League at the end of the week.

Western diplomats said Quartet envoy Tony Blair will try in coming days to persuade Netanyahu to agree to incentives to salvage the talks, including the release of veteran Palestinian prisoners.

Mahmoud Aloul, a senior Fatah official, said Sunday that Fatah would likely urge Abbas to end the talks.

"There is no hope ... that these talks or any talks with this right-wing Israeli government would lead to any progress," Aloul said.

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British police arrest 5 in London tabloid bribery probe

LONDON – British authorities investigating potential cases of bribery of police arrested four current and former employees of News Corp.'s tabloid the Sun, the company said, deepening the media firm's problems in a scandal involving illicit reporting tactics.

The focus on Sun employees expands a police probe that until now had focused largely on News Corp.'s now closed News of the World tabloid. A police officer also was arrested on Saturday in connection to the bribery probe, according to London's Metropolitan Police.

While neither police nor the company named the employees, a person familiar with the matter indicated that some of the arrested have served in top roles in the Sun's newsroom. They include Graham Dudman, who had been the paper's managing editor before being promoted last year to a job as editorial development director at News International, the company's U.K. newspaper unit.

In addition to Dudman, the arrested Sun employees are Mike Sullivan, Chris Pharo and Fergus Shanahan, according to a person familiar with the matter. Sullivan is the tabloid's crime editor. Pharo last year was promoted to associate editor of news. In 2007, Shanahan was named executive editor of the paper, a senior editorial role. Shanahan previously had been deputy editor. The men couldn't immediately be reached to comment.

Police said they also were carrying out searches at the east London offices of News International, the News Corp. unit that publishes the Sun and the Times of London. It also published the News of the World before it was closed down last summer amid the scandal over the tabloid's practice of illegally intercepting voice-mail messages in pursuit of scoops.

Police said the arrests were "the result of information provided to police by News Corp.'s Management and Standards Committee." The operation "relates to suspected payments to police officers and is not about seeking journalists to reveal confidential sources in relation to information that has been obtained legitimately," the police statement said. News Corp. also owns The Wall Street Journal.

In its statement, News Corp. said it intends to ensure "that unacceptable news-gathering practices by individuals in the past would not be repeated."

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Japan, Russia to boost economic and security ties


TOKYO – The foreign ministers of Japan and Russia agreed Saturday to strengthen economic and security cooperation but made no progress on resolving a long-standing territorial dispute that has kept the two nations from concluding a peace treaty.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the two countries need to address the row over islands off northeastern Japan in a calm manner. Gemba said resolving the dispute and forging a peace treaty officially ending their hostilities in World War II is "more necessary than ever."

Both men sought to downplay the dispute and focus on ways the two nations could expand their ties.

"As the security situation in the Asia-Pacific undergoes major changes, the Japan-Russia relationship has taken on new importance," Gemba said at a joint news conference following what he called a "fruitful" two-hour meeting.

"We reaffirmed that we want to strengthen our cooperation in security, defense and economic matters, particularly energy modernization," he added.

Lavrov welcomed the increased trade between the two nations, which grew last year to 2.45 trillion yen ($31 billion).

"We want our international cooperation to expand," Lavrov said.

The two sides signed an agreement to simplify visa procedures to boost visitors and business interaction, particularly from Japan to Russia.

Ties between Japan and Russia soured in late 2010 when Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit the disputed islands, called the southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. They were seized by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II, but Japan says they are part of its territory.

The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are believed to have oil, natural gas and mineral deposits.

"Resolving this problem and concluding a peace treaty is more necessary than ever," Gemba said. "But unfortunately ... our positions are different. We hope to resolve this through dialogue."

Lavrov said tackling the matter would have to wait until a new leader is chosen in Russia's presidential election on March 4.

"Both countries need to address the row over the islands in a calm manner without getting emotional or critical," he said.

Lavrov and Gemba were to discuss North Korea over a working lunch in the second part of their meeting. Japan and Russia are among six nations involved in long-stalled talks offering aid for North Korean nuclear disarmament.

Asked about North Korea, Lavrov said Moscow has information that the talks will "possibly resume." He did not elaborate.

North Korea, which is undergoing a leadership transition, appears to be pushing for a resumption of the talks, but the U.S. and its allies want it to first show it is serious about previous disarmament commitments. South Korea and China are the other countries involved in the talks.

Lavrov also said Russia would support Japan's efforts to press North Korea on its abduction of Japanese citizens.

After years of denials, North Korea said in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese to train its spies. It returned five abductees but claimed the rest had died. Japan disputes that and says as many as 12 Japanese may still be captive in the North.

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US official's son detained in Egypt says he could face 5 years in jail


CAIRO – Sam LaHood, son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary and one of several Americans barred from leaving Egypt last weekend, said Friday he could be facing five years in jail.

LaHood, the director of the Egyptian program for the International Republican Institute (IRI), was stopped at Cairo's airport last Saturday when he tried to leave the country and told he was on a "no-fly list."

He told Fox News by phone on Friday that an Egyptian judge claims he, along with the other Americans stopped, worked for an unregistered non-governmental organization and took a salary.

"We're kind of expecting the worst," LaHood said.

"There hasn't been a lot of movement nothing has really changed.

"If it does go to trial, a trial could last up to one year in a case that's as wide-ranging as this one is. But the penalty for that is six months to five years in jail so these are very serious charges."

LaHood said his family -- including his father, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- was concerned for his safety, but he didn't think there were any impending physical threats to his well-being.

"It's a little bit scary for us to be facing these very serious allegation," LaHood said.

"I don't think there is a physical threat to me at this point I have no reason to think that, I mean Cairo traditionally is a very safe city.

"But the legal implications of the ongoing investigations are very serious. If somebody asked me five weeks ago if I thought there was any chance the police were going to come and raid our offices I would have said that was inconceivable, that it was ludicrous.

"And then again if two weeks ago somebody had asked me if I thought there would be a travel restriction I would have thought that was ridiculous, but here now, given all the things taken place, the idea that this could go to trial is entirely possible at this point."

Egyptian authorities raided more than a dozen offices belonging to local and foreign rights groups in late December, including at least two American ones, drawing a sharp rebuke from the State Department, which said it was "deeply concerned" by the actions.

The raids, part of an investigation into alleged illicit foreign funding, targeted the American groups National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the IRI -- a nongovernmental organization operating throughout the world that has close ties to GOP congressional leadership.

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Corruption seen as a top problem for Russia at World Economic Forum

Russia is hugely represented here at the World Economic Forum.

Bill Browder of Hermitage Capital takes issue with that. "There are so many examples of high level government crime in Russia that it's almost ridiculous that Russia is allowed to come here as a country displaying its wares. It's like inviting the Cali drug cartel to Davos."

Browder was one of the biggest foreign investors in Russia and a vocal anti-corruption campaigner. He was expelled from Moscow in 2005. His offices were raided in 2007. Subsequently his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky was arrested.

Browder says, "he was tortured for 358 days and ultimately killed in prison."

Magnitsky uncovered $230 million in tax money Browder's company had paid to the state, but which was ultimately stolen, according to Browder, by tax police who squirreled it away in bank accounts in places like Switzerland.

Browder vows he will not stop talking about this case until justice is done for Magnitsky. He is in Davos trying to learn more about the global investment environment. But he uses this high profile venue to lobby for action in Magnitsky's case.

No one has been convicted. Browder has managed to get the people he says were involved in Magnitsky's killing sanctioned in the United States and some European countries -- they can't travel to those places. And he got $11 million of stolen assets frozen in Switzerland.

Andrei Kostin, Chairman and CEO of VTB Bank, disagrees that organized crime is a big problem in Russia. "I think corruption and bureaucracy are much worse evils today." He adds that he does a lot of business in China, and it's not much better there.

Kostin says these problems are unavoidable in emerging markets. He says a combination of carrot and stick need to be employed in Russia to eliminate these problems once and for all. Bureaucrats need better pay.

I ask if Russia's trade orientation is more to the East, than to the West. He says Russia is standing on two legs.

"Being a country that is half European and half Asian, we are always trying to develop lines. Frankly speaking, though, it's not only Russia. Leading American investors are looking to Asia much more than to Europe."

Kostin points out that Russia has growth and is one of the few countries that finished last year with a budget surplus.

When asked how prime minister and probable future President Vladimir Putin appears equipped to deal not only with issues of corruption and bureaucracy but the protest movement that has cropped up in Russia he says, "Russia has a growing middle class. It has doubled in the last ten years when Putin was in power. There are lots of younger people with good income. They have a different point of view of political and economic systems in Russia. They want a bit more economic opportunity and probably more political freedoms. Putin has to take that into account if he wants to keep control of the country."

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Saudi women reportedly to be allowed in soccer stadium


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – A government-run Saudi Arabian newspaper reports that for the first time in the conservative Muslim country, women will be allowed to attend soccer matches in one of the country's stadiums.

Al-Sharq newspaper on Saturday quoted unnamed officials as saying that women will be able to watch the matches in a new facility that will be completed in 2014 in the western port city of Jeddah.

The officials say that the new stadium will include a family section with private cabins and balconies for women who wish to attend the games.

Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam prohibits unrelated men and women from mingling.

Women and men in Saudi Arabia remain highly segregated and are restricted in how they are allowed to mix in public.

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Costa Concordia fuel removal stalled due to rough seas


GIGLIO, Italy – Rough seas off Italy's Tuscan coast have forced a delay in the start of the operation to pump out half a million gallons of fuel from the grounded cruise liner Costa Concordia.

The choppy waters also partially dislodged a barge owned by Dutch salvage firm Smit that was hitched to the Concordia's hull to serve as a staging platform for the fuel removal operation.

Smit had intended to start pumping fuel out Saturday amid concerns that a leak could wreak havoc on the protected marine sanctuary. It isn't clear when the operation will now begin.

Paola Pagliara from Italy's civil protection forecast center says weather conditions off the island of Giglio, where the Concordia ran aground Jan. 13, are likely to remain rough through the weekend.

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UN nuclear officials want Iranian cooperation


VIENNA -- The head of a U.N. nuclear team traveling to Iran on Saturday urged the country to work with his mission on probing Tehran's alleged attempts to develop an atomic arms program, adding such cooperation is long overdue.

The unusually blunt comments by International Atomic Energy Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts reflected the importance the IAEA is attaching to the chief focus of the trip -- ending more than three years of Iranian refusal to answer questions about such suspicions.
Ahead of departure, Nackaerts told reporters at Vienna airport he hopes Iran "will engage with us on all concerns."

"So we're looking forward to the start of a dialogue," he said: "A dialogue that is overdue since very long."

Diplomats said Iran had accepted the inclusion of two senior weapons experts -- Jacques Baute of France and Neville Whiting of South Africa -- with relatively little fuss. That suggests the Islamic Republic may be prepared to address some issues related to the allegations.

Also on the team is Rafael Grossi, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano's right-hand man.
Any progress would be significant.

Tehran has blocked IAEA attempts for more than three years to follow up on U.S. and other intelligence, dismissing the charges as baseless and insisting all its nuclear activities were peaceful and under IAEA purview.

Faced with Iranian stonewalling, the IAEA summarized its body of information in November, in a 13-page document drawing on 1,000 pages of intelligence. It stated then for the first time that some of the alleged experiments can have no other purpose than developing nuclear weapons.

Iran continues to deny the charges and no change in its position is expected during the three-day Tehran talks with IAEA officials. But even a decision to enter a discussion over the allegations would be a major departure from outright refusal to talk about them.

The diplomats said that the IAEA team was looking for permission to talk to key Iranian scientists suspected of weapons work, inspect documents relating to such suspected work and get commitments for future visits to sites linked to such allegations.

Iran says it is enriching only to generate energy. But it has also started producing uranium at a higher level than its main stockpile -- a move that would jump-start the creation of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, should it chose to go that route. And it is moving its higher-enriched operation into an underground bunker that it says is safe from attack.

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Six Costa Concordia passengers reportedly sue for $460 million

MIAMI – Six passengers on the stricken Costa Concordia cruise ship filed a complaint against Carnival Cruise Lines, the parent company of ship owner Costa Cruises, demanding $460 million in compensation, the ANSA news agency reported Saturday.

The lawyer acting for the six passengers, Marc Bern, said the legal action was launched Friday in a court in Miami, where the headquarters of Carnival Cruise Lines is based.

The action alleges that the ship operator was guilty of negligence, leading to the Jan. 13 disaster.
Divers recovered Saturday the body of a woman from the wreckage of the ship, raising the death toll from the disaster to 17, with a further 15 people missing. The woman's body was found on deck six.

On Friday, Costa Cruises reached an agreement with Italian consumer groups for an offer of at least $14,400 to be made to every surviving passenger of the incident, including children.

The payment will be made "to cover all financial losses incurred and assets, including those related to the loss of baggage and personal effects," according to a joint statement issued by Costa Cruises and several consumer advocacy groups in Rome.

Costa Cruises also will refund the value of the cruise and reimburse passengers for the cost of returning to their homes after the ship crashed. It also agreed to fund a program of psychological counseling for passengers who need it.

Those payouts will see Costa Cruises provide some $52 million in compensation.

Meanwhile, preliminary operations to pump fuel out of the cruise ship were suspended Saturday due to bad weather. Workers with the Dutch salvage company Smit and Italy's Neri decided the sea was too rough to continue the salvage operation.

The workers pulled the barge serving as their operations base near the wreck of the Costa Concordia into port until the weather improved, according to the civil protection agency.

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Amid violence, Arab League halts observer mission in Syria


BEIRUT – The Arab League halted its observer mission to Syria on Saturday, sharply criticizing the regime of President Bashar Assad for escalating violence in recent days that has killed at least 80 people across the country.

The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence that according to the United Nations has killed at least 5,400 people as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule.

But the initiatives continue to face two major obstacles: Damascus' rejection of an Arab peace plan which it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia's willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.

Syrian government forces clashed with anti-regime army defectors across the country on Saturday. At least nine were reported killed in the clashes and other violence. The new deaths come after two days of bloody turmoil killed at least 74 people, including small children.

The month-old Arab observer mission in Syria had come under widespread criticism for failing to bring a halt to the regime's crackdown. Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia pulled out of the mission Tuesday, asking the U.N. Security Council to intervene.

League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement that after discussions with Arab foreign minister, the organization decided to halt the observers' work immediately because of the increasing violence, until the League's council can meet to decide the mission's fate.

He blamed Damascus for the spike in bloodshed, saying the regime has "resorted to escalating the military option in complete violation of (its) commitments" to end the crackdown, Elarabi said.

He said the victims of the violence have been "innocent citizens," in an implicit rejection of Syria's claims that it is fighting "terrorists."

Elaraby's deputy, Ahmed Ben Heli, told reporters that the around 100 observers will remain in Damascus while their mission is "reevaluated."

Ben Heli suggested the observers could resume their work later. Asked if the mission would be withdrawn, he said the halt was "forced by events" and aimed to ensure the observers' safety, but he spoke of a possible "new map" of places where the teams would visit, and said the mission would wait to see what new personnel and logistical help the League would give it.

Elaraby and the prime minister of Qatar were set to leave for New York on Sunday to seek U.N. support for the latest Arab plan to end Syria's crisis. The plans calls for a two-month transition to a unity government, with Assad giving his vice president full powers to work with the proposed government.

Syria has rejected the proposal, saying it violates its sovereignty. Elaraby had previously been due to travel Saturday, but his trip was pushed back to Sunday with no explanation.

The U.N. Security Council began closed-door negotiations Friday on a new Arab-European draft resolution aimed at resolving the crisis, but Russia's envoy said he could not back the current language as it stands.

Any resolution faces strong opposition from China and Russia, and both nations have veto power. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters that the text introduced by new Arab Security Council member Morocco has "red lines" for Moscow, but he's willing to "engage" with the resolution's sponsors.

Churkin said those lines include any indication of sanctions, including an arms embargo. "We need to concentrate on establishing political dialogue," he said.

The Arab League chief Elaraby has been holding talks with Russia's foreign minister over the crisis ahead of the visit to the U.N., Ben Heli said.

In the bloodiest incident reported on Saturday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said "terrorists" ambushed a bus carrying army officers near the tense Damascus suburb of Douma, killing seven of them.

Although Damascus has been relatively quiet since the uprising began, its suburbs have witnessed intense anti-regime protests and army defectors have become more visible and active in the past few months.

Syrian opposition groups had no immediate reports on the ambush in Douma, but the Local Coordination Councils activist network said government troops were attacking several other Damascus suburbs -- Kfar Batna, Saqba, Jisreen and Arbeen -- using tanks and armored personnel carriers. It added that defectors were fighting advancing troops.

In the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour, an oil pipeline took a direct hit and caught fire as government troops shelled a town, activists said.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the LCC said the early morning shelling of the town of Qoriah killed at least one person and set the pipeline on fire.

Syria's state-run media blamed anti-government "terrorists" for the attack, saying the fire was extinguished four hours later. It said the pipeline carried crude oil from al-Omar field to a station in the area.

SANA also reported that Syrian troops prevented gunmen from crossing from neighboring Turkey into the northwestern province of Idlib. SANA said a Syrian soldier was wounded while many of the infiltrators were either killed or wounded, adding that the rest returned to Turkey.

The Free Syrian Army force of anti-regime military defectors is based in Turkey, and its fighters frequently try to cross into Syria through the mountainous border area in the northwest.

The LCC and the Observatory also reported intense fighting between troops and defectors in the town of Rastan near the restive central city of Homs.

The observatory said at least two people were killed across the country in Saturday's violence while the LCC said six died, most of them in the central city of Homs, which has been one of the areas hardest hit by government crackdowns.

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Search for bodies in Rio collapse continues


SAO PAULO -- Firefighters have raised the death toll from the collapse of three buildings in Rio de Janeiro earlier this week to at least 16 people and say hopes of finding anyone alive beneath the rubble are slim.

A Rio de Janeiro fire department official says rescuers pulled four more bodies from the debris overnight. The death toll had been 12. The official declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press. Thirteen people are still missing.

He said the search for survivors would continue at least through Sunday, but the chances of finding anyone alive are "practically nonexistent."

It's not yet known why a 20-story building suddenly collapsed Wednesday night and brought two nearby buildings down with it.

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Yemen: 5 killed in clashes with Al Qaeda militants

SANAA, Yemen -- Yemeni security officials say fighting between government troops and Al Qaeda linked militants in the country's south has killed at least five people.

The army has been trying for months to dislodge the militants from the towns and territory they seized last spring in Abyan province, taking advantage of the security collapse in the country amid months of political turmoil.

The security officials say Friday's fighting is centered near the town of Jaar, and that four militants and one soldier have been killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Resident Hisham Abdel-Qader says he fled his home near Jaar because of intense government shelling.

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