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

Chad says it killed Algeria hostage mastermind in Mali

N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - Chadian soldiers in Mali have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda commander who masterminded a bloody hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, Chad's military said on Saturday.

The death of one of the world's most wanted jihadists would be a major blow to al Qaeda in the region and to Islamist rebels already forced to flee towns they had seized in northern Mali by an offensive by French and African troops.

"On Saturday, March 2, at noon, Chadian armed forces operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base. ... The toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar," Chad's armed forces said in a statement read on national television.

On Friday, Chad's president, Idriss Deby, said his soldiers had killed another al Qaeda commander, Adelhamid Abou Zeid, among 40 militants who died in an operation in the same area as Saturday's assault - Mali's Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border.

France - which has used jet strikes against the militants' mountain hideouts - has declined to confirm the killing of either Abou Zeid or Belmokhtar.

In Washington, an Obama administration said the White House could not confirm the killing of Belmokhtar.

Analysts said the death of two of al Qaeda's most feared commanders in the Sahara desert would mark a significant blow to Mali's Islamist rebellion.

"Both men have extensive knowledge of northern Mali and parts of the broader Sahel and deep social and other connections in northern Mali, and the death of both in such a short amount of time will likely have an impact on militant operations," said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who follows al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Anne Giudicelli, managing director of security consultancy Terrorisc, said the al Qaeda commanders' deaths - if confirmed - would temporarily disrupt the Islamist rebel network but would also raise concern over the fate of seven French hostages believed to be held by Islamists in northern Mali.

Chad is one of several African nations that have contributed forces to a French-led military intervention in Mali aimed at ridding its vast northern desert of Islamist rebels who seized the area nearly a year ago following a coup in the capital.

Western and African countries are worried that al Qaeda could use the zone to launch international attacks and strengthen ties with African Islamist groups like al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.


Belmokhtar, 40, who lost an eye while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, claimed responsibility for the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January in which more than 60 people were killed.

That attack put Algeria back on the map of global jihad, 20 years after its civil war, a bloody Islamist struggle for power. It also burnished Belmokhtar's jihadi credentials by showing that al Qaeda remained a potent threat to Western interests despite U.S. forces killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

Before In Amenas, some intelligence experts had assumed Algerian-born Belmokhtar had drifted away from jihad in favor of kidnapping and smuggling weapons and cigarettes in the Sahara where he earned the nickname "Marlboro Man".

In a rare interview with a Mauritanian news service in late 2011, Belmokhtar paid homage to bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahri. He cited al Qaeda's traditional global preoccupations, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the fate of the Palestinians, and stressed the need to "attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests".

He shared command of field operations for AQIM - al Qaeda's North African franchise - with Abou Zeid, although there was talk the two did not get along and were competing for power.

A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia, Islamic law, in the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.

Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat held hostage by Belmokhtar from 2008 to 2009, told Reuters, "While I cannot consider reports of the death of both Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar as anything but good news ... I must temper my enthusiasm by the fact that this is by no means the first time Belmokhtar's death has been reported."

President Francois Hollande said on Friday that the assault to retake Mali's vast desert north from AQIM and other Islamist rebels that began on January 11 was in its final stage and so could not confirm Abou Zeid's death.

A U.S. official and a Western diplomat said, however, the reports about Abou Zeid's death appeared to be credible.

U.S. Representative Ed Royce, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the killing of Belmokhtar "would be a hard blow to the collection of jihadists operating across the region that are targeting American diplomats and energy workers."

Washington has said it believes Islamists operating in Mali were involved in the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi in September.

After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali's towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.

Chad was among the quickest to respond to Mali's appeals for help alongside the French, rushing in hundreds of troops experienced in desert warfare, led by Deby's son, General Mahamat Deby.

The country's president may be hoping to polish his regional and international credentials by assisting in this war, while bolstering his own position in power in Chad, which has been threatened in the past by eastern neighbor Sudan.

(Additional reporting by John Irish and David Lewis in Dakar, Gus Trompiz in Paris, and Mark Hosenball and Mark Felsenthal in Washington; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Cooney)

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Assad forces take Aleppo village, reopening supply line

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces seized a village southeast of the city of Aleppo on Friday, reopening a supply line to the country's biggest city where they have been battling rebels for eight months, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the capture of Tel Shghaib marked the last step to creating a land supply route north into Aleppo from Hama province, crucial for Assad's forces who have lost control of part of the main north-south highway.

Rebels say they hold most of the city itself and nearly all the rural hinterland. But they have been unable to achieve a decisive victory and complain that they are outgunned and vulnerable to Assad's air force, artillery and ballistic missiles, which killed dozens of people in Aleppo last week.

The United States pledged direct but non-lethal aid to the rebels at a meeting in Rome on Thursday, disappointing Assad's opponents who had hoped for more tangible military support to tip the balance of forces on the ground.

Activists reported another day of fierce fighting around Aleppo, including the military airport at Nairab, three miles north of Tel Shghaib which Assad's forces retook.

"It's a significant gain for the regime," the British-based Observatory's director Rami Abdelrahman said of the army's push north, which reversed many rebel advances when they moved south into Hama from Aleppo province at the end of last year.

Further east, on the Iraqi frontier, government troops also managed to wrest back control of the Yarubiyah border crossing after insurgents seized it 24 hours earlier, he said.


The revolt against Assad, which erupted in March 2011 with mainly peaceful protests, has escalated into civil war between mainly Sunni Muslim forces and troops and militias loyal to Assad, from the minority Alawite community whose faith derives from Shi'ite Islam.

The United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed, nearly a million have fled the country and millions more have been displaced or need aid.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday that Syria, a major Arab state on the fault lines of broader Middle East conflict, would fall apart if the government and rebels keep fighting instead of seeking a negotiated peace.

"This is a very small window of opportunity which we strongly support and encourage them to use that. The opportunity may close soon," Ban said in Geneva.

The government and opposition have both edged away in recent weeks from their previous rejection of dialogue. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday the government would even talk to armed rebels and opposition coalition leader Moaz Alkhatib has said he is ready to meet Assad's representatives.

But Syrian officials say any serious talks must be on Syrian soil under state control, and have shown no readiness to discuss Assad's departure - the central demand of the opposition. For rebel fighters, who do not answer to exiled civilian opposition leaders, Assad's exit is a precondition for any negotiations.

"I continue to urge the Syrian parties to find their way to the negotiating table. The horrors of the last months and years prove beyond doubt: the military solution in Syria is leading to the dissolution of Syria," Ban said.

He also called on the U.N. Security Council, paralyzed by a standoff between the United States and European allies on one side, pushing for U.N. action against Assad, and Russia and China, who have backed Assad, to unite and address the crisis.

Moscow criticized Thursday's meeting in Rome of largely anti-Assad Western and Arab states for taking positions and steps which "directly encourage extremists" to topple the government by force.

But the Kremlin also said presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama had told their foreign ministers to keep in close touch and seek new initiatives to end Syria's civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday Washington would provide non-lethal aid including medical supplies and food to rebel fighters, as well as $60 million to help the civilian opposition provide services including security, education and sanitation.

The European Union said it had amended sanctions on Syria to allow the supply of armored vehicles, non-lethal military equipment and technical aid.

The steps still fell well short of what rebels are looking for - more arms, and prompted the opposition to postpone a Saturday meeting where they had been due to choose a prime minister to head the administration of rebel-held territory.

Alkhatib said he was tired of hearing Western concerns over the growing role of Islamists in the Syrian rebel ranks - one of the main obstacles to greater military support, saying it paled into insignificance alongside the prolonged civilian suffering.

"Many sides...focus (more) on the length of the rebel fighter's beard than they do on the blood of the children being killed," he said, standing next to Kerry after their meeting.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Iran upbeat on nuclear talks, West still wary

ALMATY (Reuters) - Iran was upbeat on Wednesday after talks with world powers about its nuclear work ended with an agreement to meet again, but Western officials said it had yet to take concrete steps to ease their fears about its atomic ambitions.

Rapid progress was unlikely with Iran's presidential election, due in June, raising domestic political tensions, diplomats and analysts had said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty, the first in eight months.

The United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work but made clear that they expected no immediate breakthrough.

In an attempt to make their proposals more palatable to Iran, the six powers appeared to have softened previous demands somewhat, for example regarding their requirement that the Islamic state ship out its stockpile of higher-grade uranium.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said the powers had tried to "get closer to our viewpoint", which he said was positive.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented that the talks had been "useful" and that a serious engagement by Iran could lead to a comprehensive deal in a decade-old dispute that has threatened to trigger a new Middle East war.

Iran's foreign minister said in Vienna he was "very confident" an agreement could be reached and Jalili, the chief negotiator, said he believed the Almaty meeting could be a "turning point".

However, one diplomat said Iranian officials at the negotiations appeared to be suggesting that they were opening new avenues, but it was not clear if this was really the case.

Iran expert Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said: "Everyone is saying Iran was more positive and portrayed the talks as a win."

"I reckon the reason for that is that they are saving face internally while buying time with the West until after the elections," she said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6, when Western diplomats made clear they wanted to see a substantive response from Iran.

"Iran knows what it needs to do, the president has made clear his determination to implement his policy that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Kerry said.

A senior U.S. official in Almaty said, "What we care about at the end is concrete results."


Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, was watching the talks closely. It has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to ensure that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. Iran denies any such aim.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said economic sanctions were failing and urged the international community to threaten Iran with military action.

Western officials said the offer presented by the six powers included an easing of a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals, and a relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products. They gave no further details.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and "constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there".

The official did not describe what was being asked of Iran as a "shutdown" of the plant as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

Iran says it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and wants to fuel nuclear power plants so that it can export more oil.

But 20-percent purity is far higher than that needed for nuclear power, and rings alarm bells abroad because it is only a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran says it produces higher-grade uranium to fuel a research reactor.

Iran's growing stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium is already more than half-way to a "red line" that Israel has made clear it would consider sufficient for a bomb.

In Vienna on Wednesday, a senior U.N. nuclear agency official told diplomats in a closed-door briefing that Iran was technically ready to sharply increase this higher-grade enrichment, two Western diplomats said.

"Iran can triple 20 percent production in the blink of an eye," one of the diplomats said.

The U.S. official in Almaty said the powers' latest proposal would "significantly restrict the accumulation of near-20-percent enriched uranium in Iran, while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel" for their Tehran medical reactor.

This appeared to be a softening of a previous demand that Iran ship out its stockpile of higher-grade enriched uranium, which it says it needs to produce medical isotopes.

Iran has often indicated that 20-percent enrichment could be up for negotiation if it received the fuel from abroad instead.

Jalili suggested Iran could discuss the issue, although he appeared to rule out shutting down Fordow. He said the powers had not made that specific demand.

The Iranian rial, which has lost more than half its foreign exchange value in the last year as sanctions bite, rose some 2 percent on Wednesday, currency tracking websites reported.

(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl and Yeganeh Torbati in Almaty, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Marcus George in Dubai; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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Italy faces stalemate after election shock

ROME (Reuters) - Italy faced political deadlock on Tuesday after a stunning election that saw the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo become the strongest party in the country but left no group with a clear majority in parliament.

The center-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won the lower house by around 125,000 votes and claimed the most seats in the Senate but was short of the majority in the upper house that it would need to govern.

Bersani claimed victory but said it was obvious that Italy was in "a very delicate situation". Party officials said the center-left would try to form a government but it was unclear what its options would be.

Neither Grillo, a comedian-turned-politician who previously ruled out any alliance with another party, nor Silvio Berlusconi's center-right bloc, which threatened to challenge the close tally, showed any immediate willingness to negotiate.

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

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

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

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

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

"The 5-Star Movement is the real winner of the election," said SEL leader Nichi Vendola, who said that his coalition would have to deal with Grillo, who mixes fierce attacks on corruption with policies ranging from clean energy to free Internet.


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

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

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

Stefano Zamagni, an economic professor at Bologna University said the result showed that a significant share of Italians "are fed up with following the austerity line of Germany and its northern allies".

"These people voted to stick one up to Merkel and austerity," he said.

Election rules give the center-left a solid majority in the lower house, despite its slim advantage in terms of votes, but without the Senate it will not be able to pass legislation.

Calculations by the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies, part of LUISS university in Rome, gave 121 seats to Bersani's coalition, 117 to Berlusconi, 54 for Grillo and 22 to the centrist coalition led by Monti.

That leaves no party or likely alliance with the 158 seats needed to form a Senate majority.

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

Monti was widely credited with tightening Italy's public finances and restoring its international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, whom he replaced as the 2011 financial crisis threatened to spin out of control.

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

(Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary and Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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Cuban leader Raul Castro announces he will retire in 2018

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro announced on Sunday he will step down from power after his second term ends in 2018, and the new parliament named a 52-year-old rising star to become his first vice president and most visible successor.

"This will be my last term," Castro, 81, said shortly after the National Assembly elected him to a second five-year tenure.

In a surprise move, the new parliament also named Miguel Diaz-Canel as first vice president, meaning he would take over if Castro cannot serve his full term.

Diaz-Canel is a member of the political bureau who rose through the Communist Party ranks in the provinces to become the most visible possible successor to Castro.

Raul Castro starts his second term immediately, leaving him free to retire in 2018, aged 86.

Former President Fidel Castro joined the National Assembly meeting on Sunday, in a rare public appearance. Since falling ill in 2006 and ceding the presidency to his brother, the elder Castro, 86, has given up official positions except as a deputy in the National Assembly.

The new government will almost certainly be the last headed up by the Castro brothers and their generation of leaders who have ruled Cuba since they swept down from the mountains in the 1959 revolution.

Cubans and foreign governments were keenly watching whether any new, younger faces appeared among the Council of State members, in particular its first vice president and five vice presidents.

Their hopes were partially fulfilled with Diaz-Canel's ascension. He replaces former first vice president, Jose Machado Ventura, 82, who will continue as one of five vice presidents.

Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdes, 80, and Gladys Bejerano, 66, the comptroller general, were also re-elected as vice presidents.

Two other newcomers, Mercedes Lopez Acea, 48, first secretary of the Havana communist party, and Salvador Valdes Mesa, 64, head of the official labor federation, also earned vice presidential slots.

Esteban Lazo, a 68-year-old former vice president and member of the political bureau of the Communist Party, left his post upon being named president of the National Assembly on Sunday. He replaced Ricardo Alarcon, who served in the job for 20 years.

Six of the Council's top seven members sit on the party's political bureau which is also lead by Castro.

Castro's announcement came as little surprise to Cuban exiles in Miami.

"It's no big news. It would have been big news if he resigned today and called for democratic elections," said Alfredo Duran, a Cuban-American lawyer and moderate exile leader in Miami who supports lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. "I wasn't worried about him being around after 2018," he added.

The National Assembly meets for just a few weeks each year and delegates its legislative powers between sessions to the 31-member Council of State, which also functions as the executive through the Council of Ministers it appoints.

Eighty percent of the 612 deputies, who were elected in an uncontested vote February 3, were born after the revolution.


Raul Castro, who officially replaced his ailing brother as president in 2008, has repeatedly said senior leaders should hold office for no more than two five-year terms.

"Although we kept on trying to promote young people to senior positions, life proved that we did not always make the best choice," Castro said at a Communist Party Congress in 2011.

"Today, we are faced with the consequences of not having a reserve of well-trained replacements ... It's really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century."

Speaking on Sunday, Castro hailed the composition of the new Council of State as an example of what he had said needed to be accomplished.

"Of the 31 members, 41.9 percent are women and 38.6 percent are black or of mixed race. The average age is 57 years and 61.3 percent were born after the triumph of the revolution," he said.

The 2011 party summit adopted a more than 300-point plan aimed at updating Cuba's Soviet-style economic system, designed to transform it from one based on collective production and consumption to one where individual effort and reward play a far more important role.

Across-the-board subsidies are being replaced by a comprehensive tax code and targeted welfare.

Raul Castro has encouraged small businesses and cooperatives in retail services, farming, minor manufacturing and retail, and given more autonomy to state companies which still dominate the economy.

The party plan also includes an opening to more foreign investment.

At the same time, Cuba continues to face a U.S. administration bent on restoring democracy and capitalism to the island and questions about the future largess of oil rich Venezuela with strategic ally Hugo Chavez battling cancer.

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Vicki Allen)

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Italians head to polls in crucial vote for euro zone

ROME (Reuters) - Italians vote on Sunday in one of the most closely watched elections in years with markets nervous about whether it will produce a strong government to pull Italy out of recession and help resolve the euro zone debt crisis.

A huge final rally by anti-establishment-comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo on Friday before a campaigning ban kicked in has highlighted public anger at traditional parties and added to uncertainty about the election outcome.

Polling booths will open between 02:00 am-04:00 pm EST on Sunday and 01:00 am-09:00 am EST on Monday. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early Tuesday.

The election will be followed closely by financial markets with memories still fresh of the potentially catastrophic debt crisis that brought technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti to power more than a year ago.

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

Italy's Interior Ministry has urged some 47 million eligible voters to not let bad weather forecasts put them off, and said it was prepared to handle even snowy conditions in some northern regions to ensure everyone had a chance to vote.

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

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

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

Seats in the upper house are awarded on a region-by-region basis, meaning that support in key regions can decisively influence the overall result.

Pollsters still believe the most likely outcome is a center-left government headed by Bersani and possibly backed by Monti, who is leading a centrist coalition.

But strong campaigning by Berlusconi and the fiery Grillo, who has drawn tens of thousands to his election rallies, have thrown the election wide open, causing concern that there may be no clear winner.

Whatever government emerges from the vote will have the task of pulling Italy out of its longest recession for 20 years and reviving an economy largely stagnant for two decades.

The main danger for Italy and the euro zone is a weak government incapable of taking firm action, which would rattle investors and could ignite a new debt crisis.

Monti replaced Berlusconi in November 2011 after the euro zone's third-largest economy came close to Greek-style financial meltdown while the center-right government was embroiled in scandals.

The former European Commissioner launched a tough program of spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reforms which won widespread international backing and helped restore Italy's credibility abroad after the scandals of the Berlusconi era.

Italy's borrowing costs have since fallen sharply after the European Central Bank pledged it was prepared to support countries undertaking reforms by buying unlimited quantities of their bonds on the markets.

But economic austerity has fuelled anger among Italians grappling with rising unemployment and shrinking disposable incomes, encouraging many to turn to Grillo, who has tapped into a national mood of disenchantment.

(Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Jason Webb)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tension surged in 2012, raising fears of an unintended military incident near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Washington says the islets fall under a U.S.-Japan security pact, but it is eager to avoid a clash in the region.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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French, Malian forces fight Islamist rebels in Gao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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French general urges EU to equip "impoverished" Mali army

BAMAKO, Mali (Reuters) - The European Union should complement a mission to train Mali's army, routed by rebels last year, by providing equipment from uniforms to vehicles and communications technology, a French general said on Wednesday.

General Francois Lecointre, appointed to head the EU training mission to Mali (EUTM) that was formally launched this week, said in Bamako equipping the "very impoverished" and disorganized Malian army was as important as training it.

Europe, along with the United States, has backed the French-led military intervention in Mali which since January 11 has driven al Qaeda-allied Islamist insurgents out of the main northern towns into remote mountains near Algeria's border.

European governments have ruled out sending combat troops to join French and African soldiers pursuing the Islamist rebels.

But the EU is providing a 500-strong multinational training force that will give military instruction to Malian soldiers for an initial period of 15 months at an estimated cost of 12.3 million euros ($16.45 million).

While hailing what he called the EU's "courageous, novel, historic" decision to support Mali, Lecointre told a news conference the Malian army's lack of equipment was a problem.

"I know the Malian state is poor, but the Malian army is more than poor," the French general told a news conference, adding that it urgently needed everything from uniforms and weapons to vehicles and communications equipment.

Last year, when Tuareg separatist forces swelled by weapons and fighters from the Libyan conflict swept out of the northern deserts, a demoralized and poorly-led Malian army collapsed and fled before them, abandoning arms and vehicles.

Mali's military was further shaken by a March 22 coup by junior officers who toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure, sowing division among rival army factions. Islamist radicals allied to al Qaeda later hijacked the victorious Tuareg rebellion to occupy the northern half of the country.

In a fast-charging military campaign led by Paris, French and African troops have driven the jihadists out of principal northern towns like Gao and Timbuktu, and are fighting the rebels in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.


Flanked by Mali's armed forces chief, General Ibrahima Dembele, Lecointre said he was disappointed that a meeting of international donors last month pledged funds for an African military force, known as AFISMA, being deployed in Mali, but included "very few" contributions for the Malian army itself.

"The European Union needs to invest today in the equipping of the Malian army and not just in its training," the general said, adding he would make this point strongly in a report to EU member state representatives early next month.

Asked how much re-equipping the army would cost, he said it would be "much more" than the 12 million euros of EU financing for the training mission, but could not give a precise estimate.

Starting early in April, the EU mission will start instructing Malian soldiers with a plan to train four new battalions of 600-700 members each, formed from existing enlisted men and new recruits.

Lecointre said the EU training would include instruction in human rights. Demands for this increased after allegations by Malian civilians and international human rights groups that Malian soldiers were executing Tuaregs and Arabs accused of collaborating with Islamist rebels.

The European training contingent is drawn from a range of European countries, but the main contributors would be France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain, EUTM officers said.

Mali's army has received foreign training before - several battalions that fled before the rebels last year were trained by the U.S. military and the leader of the March 22 coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, attended training courses in the United States.

Dembele said U.S. training failed to forge cohesion among Malian units and he hoped the EU training would achieve this.

The United States, which halted direct support for the Malian military after last year's coup, could eventually resume aid if planned national elections in July fully restore democracy to the West African country.

Washington is providing airlift, refuelling and intelligence support to the French-led military intervention in Mali. ($1 = 0.7479 euros)

(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jason Webb)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WHO had no confirmed reports of deaths so far.


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

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

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

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

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

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

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

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

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

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

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

(Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Jason Webb)

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Chavez back in Venezuela, on Twitter with four million followers

CARACAS (Reuters) - After Hugo Chavez spent two months out of the public eye for cancer surgery in Cuba, the Venezuelan government hailed his homecoming on Monday and said the president had achieved another milestone - 4 million followers on Twitter.

The 58-year-old flew back from Havana before dawn and was taken to a military hospital. No new details were given on his health, and there were no images of his arrival. Officials say his condition remains delicate.

The normally loquacious socialist leader, who is struggling to speak as he breathes through a tracheal tube, took to Twitter with a passion back in April 2010, tweeting regularly and encouraging other leftist Latin American leaders to do likewise.

His @chavezcandanga account quickly drew a big mixed following of fans, critics and others just curious to see how his famously long speeches and fiery anti-U.S. invective would work within the social media network's 140-character limit.

But as he fought the cancer and underwent weeks of grueling chemotherapy and radiation therapy, he began to tweet less and less frequently, before stopping altogether on November 1.

Early on Monday morning, he made his reappearance.

"It was 4:30, 5 a.m. He got to his room and surprised everyone: rat-tat-tat, he sent three or four messages, and at that moment fireworks began to go off around the country," Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a televised cabinet meeting.

During the day, Maduro added, the president's number of followers had shot up to well over four million.

"It's incredible, in just a few hours ... he's the second most-followed president in the world (after Barack Obama), and the first if we make the comparison by per capita," he said.

Obama has more than 27 million Twitter followers and is No. 5 most followed globally. Chavez is Twitter's No. 190 globally.


Maduro said Chavez's four millionth follower was a 20-year-old single Venezuelan woman named Alemar Jimenez from the gritty San Juan neighborhood in downtown Caracas, near the military hospital where the president arrived earlier in the day.

"She's one of the golden generation of youth who support the fatherland and have been waiting with growing love for commander Hugo Chavez," Maduro said, before presenting a dazzled-looking Jimenez to the cameras and giving her a bunch of flowers.

"We were really emotional" she said, recounting how she was with her mother when they heard Chavez had returned. "I sent him a message on Twitter saying he must get better."

There are still big questions over the president's health. He could have come back to govern from behind the scenes, or he may be hoping to ease political tensions and pave the way for a transition to Maduro, his preferred successor.

Chavez has often ordered followers to fight back against opposition critics of his self-styled revolution by using social media, leading from the front himself on Twitter and referring to the Internet as a "battle trench."

As his ranks of followers grew, Chavez said he hired 200 assistants to help him respond to messages - which he said were a great way to receive first-hand the requests, demands, complaints and denunciations of citizens in the thousands.

During his re-election campaign last year, the government launched an SMS text message service that forwards his tweets to cellphones that lack Internet service, broadening their reach to the poorest corners of the South American country.

"He's a communication revolution!" Maduro said, later unbuttoning his shirt on TV to show he was wearing a T-shirt bearing Chavez's eyes emblazoned across his chest.

For the tens of thousands who signed up on Monday to follow Chavez on Twitter, it is unclear how much will be posted there in the weeks and months ahead. Venezuela's 29 million people are mostly wondering something similar.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Todd Eastham)

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Ecuador's Correa cruises to re-election victory

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa swept to a re-election victory on Sunday that allows him to strengthen state control over the OPEC nation's economy and gives a timely boost to Latin America's alliance of socialist leaders.

The charismatic leftist had 57 percent support compared with 24 percent for runner-up Guillermo Lasso, with almost 40 percent of votes counted. The electoral authority said it did not expect the results to change significantly.

"Nobody can stop this revolution," a jubilant Correa told supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace, after claiming victory.

"The colonial powers are not in charge anymore. You can be sure that in this revolution it's Ecuadoreans in control."

The combative, U.S.-trained economist took power in 2007 and has won strong support among the poor by using booming oil revenues to build roads, hospitals and schools in rural areas and shantytowns.

"Our Ecuador needs a president like Rafael Correa. He has been strong and has not allowed anyone to intimidate him," said Julieta Moira, 46, who is unemployed, as she celebrated outside the presidential palace. "I'm very excited, happy and thankful."

Supporters also gathered in a park in the upscale north end of Quito, waving the signature neon-green flags of Correa's Alianza Pais party.


Correa, 49, may now be in line to become Latin America's main anti-American voice and de facto leader of the ALBA bloc of leftist governments as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been silenced during his battle with cancer.

Correa said he dedicated his victory to Chavez.

The principal challenge in Correa's new four-year term will be wooing investors needed to boost stagnant oil production and spur the mining industry. A $3.2 billion debt default in 2008 and aggressive oil contract negotiations scared off many.

Critics view Correa as an authoritarian leader who has curbed media freedom and appointed aides to top posts in the judiciary.

"This government has not given us anything good, only insults and taxes. We're tired of all that. I'm concerned that this government has alliances with communist countries," said Celeste Guerrero, a 68-year-old pensioner in Guayaquil.

Even some supporters disapprove of his tempestuous outbursts, confrontations with media and bullying of adversaries.

But the fractured opposition failed to make a consolidated challenge. It fielded seven candidates, making it easy for Correa, and he is now on track for a decade in office.

That is rare stability in a country where three presidents were pushed from office by coups or street protests in the decade before Correa took power in 2007.

He is already the longest-serving president since the return to democracy in the 1970s following a military dictatorship.

Correa's success has hinged in part on high oil prices that allowed for liberal state spending, including boosting cash handouts to 2 million people, and spurred solid economic growth.

He is likely to continue spending heavily to maintain his popularity, but state revenues would dry up if oil prices fell.

He now hopes to diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil, in part by bringing in new investment for the mining sector. Despite promising reserves of gold and copper, mining operations have barely gotten off the ground.

In a news conference on Sunday after polls closed, Correa played down the need for more foreign investment. He insisted the ultimate goal was to ensure economic growth rather than "mortgaging" the country to bring in cash from abroad.

"We welcome foreign investment, and we're already getting plenty of it," Correa said. "Ecuador is one of the most successful economies in Latin America."

Lasso, a wealthy ex-banker and Correa's closest rival, had tried to woo voters with promises of lower taxes. He congratulated Correa on his victory but also took pride in his Creo party taking a quarter of the vote.

"We are now the second-largest political force in the country," said Lasso, who was beaming despite losing.


The other six opposition candidates included former Correa ally Alberto Acosta, former President Lucio Gutierrez and banana magnate and five-time presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa.

Pollsters say some of them focused their campaigns too much on attacking Correa and failed to put forward concrete proposals to entice voters.

Ecuadoreans also chose a new Congress on Sunday.

The Alianza Pais party was expected to win a majority in the legislature, which would let Correa push ahead with controversial reforms, including a media law and changes to mining legislation, without having to negotiate with rivals.

The results of the vote for Congress are not expected to be known for several days, but Correa said he was confident.

"I think we are going to get a majority and we will manage that majority with great responsibility," he told Latin America's Telesur TV network, set up by Chavez and his allies as an alternative to established media.

Correa never shies away from a fight, be it with international bondholders, oil companies, local bankers, the Catholic Church or media that criticize his policies.

He vowed on Sunday to expand state regulations over media groups he has called "dogs" and "hired assassins."

"One of the things we have to fix is an unethical and unscrupulous press that wants to judge, legislate and govern," Correa said. "That goes against the rule of law and we will not allow it."

His criticism of the U.S. "empire" and his clashes with foreign investors and the World Bank have fueled Correa's popularity as a strong-minded leader who stands up to foreign powers that many say meddled in Ecuador's affairs for decades.

He took the global limelight last year when he granted asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange. Critics say he did it to brush off accusations that he is curbing freedom of expression in Ecuador.

(Additional reporting by Jose Llangari and Eduardo Garcia in Quito and Yuri Garcia in Guayaquil; Editing by Kieran Murray, Andrew Cawthorne and Eric Beech)

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Bomb kills 64 in Pakistan's Quetta

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

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

Burned school bags and books were strewn around.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Key U.S. general backs keeping Afghan forces at peak strength

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. general nominated to oversee a vast region that includes Afghanistan on Thursday backed keeping Afghan forces at a peak strength of 352,000, contrary to current plans to shrink them after NATO declares the war over next year.

General Lloyd Austin, nominated to lead the U.S. military's Central Command, said at his Senate confirmation hearing that a more robust Afghan force, while more costly, would "hedge against any Taliban mischief" following America's longest war.

"Keeping the larger-size force would certainly reassure the Afghans, it would also reassure our NATO allies that we remain committed," Austin said.

The comments came two days after President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that 34,000 U.S. troops - roughly half of the current U.S. force in Afghanistan - would be withdrawn by early 2014.

Obama reassured Americans that the costly, unpopular war was coming to an end, but he left unanswered bigger questions about America's exit strategy, including how many U.S. troops would stay in the country beyond 2014 to help train and advise the Afghans and to battle remnants of al Qaeda.

Obama also did not discuss the future size of the Afghan forces, although a White House fact sheet sent out after his address noted they would remain at 352,000 until "at least" early 2015.

Austin warned the Taliban would be waiting to test them.

"You could reasonably expect that an enemy that's been that determined, that agile, will very soon after we transition begin to try to test the Afghan security forces," Austin said.

Under current plans, the United States and its NATO allies will help build up the Afghan armed forces to 352,000 personnel, a number they are approaching, but the size of the force - which the allies will continue to fund - will be trimmed to 230,000 after 2015.


The hearing frequently moved away from questions about the Afghan war and other current events to questions about Austin's past role as commander in Iraq, when a failure to strike an immunity deal for U.S. troops led to their total withdrawal in 2011.

Obama administration officials have warned that failure to strike an immunity deal with Afghanistan would also result in a pullout, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials have expressed confidence a deal can be reached.

Republicans, who have criticized Obama's drawdown strategy in Afghanistan, noted that the president would have left a much smaller force in Iraq than Austin recommended, even if a deal had been struck.

Senator John McCain of Arizona lamented the lack of a U.S. presence in Iraq.

Pressed by Republicans, Austin acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was trending in a "problematic" direction, and agreed that a continued U.S. role would have helped bolster Iraqi forces.

When it came to Afghanistan, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina warned Austin that if Obama sought an insufficient force for the post-2014 mission, he would refuse to vote for funding the war effort.

"It can be as low as 9 or 10,000, that I will stand with them," Graham said.

"If they overrule the commanders and create a force that cannot in my view be successful, I cannot in good conscience vote to continue this operation."

Graham said he would vote for Austin's confirmation once Austin spoke with the former commander of the Afghan mission, General John Allen, about his recommendations to Obama and reported back to the committee about his opinion.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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South Korea unveils missile it says can hit North's leaders

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea unveiled a cruise missile on Thursday that it said can hit the office of North Korea's leaders, trying to address concerns that it is technologically behind its unpredictable rival which this week conducted its third nuclear test.

South Korean officials declined to say the exact range of the missile but said it could hit targets anywhere in North Korea.

The Defence Ministry released video footage of the missiles being launched from destroyers and submarines striking mock targets. The weapon was previewed in April last year and officials said deployment was now complete.

"The cruise missile being unveiled today is a precision-guided weapon that can identify and strike the window of the office of North Korea's leadership," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said told reporters.

North Korea has forged ahead with long-range missile development, successfully launching a rocket in December that put a satellite into orbit.

The North's ultimate aim, Washington believes, is to design an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States.

North Korea, which accuses the United States and its "puppet", South Korea, of war-mongering on an almost daily basis, is likely to respond angrily to South Korea flexing its muscles.

North Korea, technically still at war with the South after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, carried out its third nuclear test on Tuesday, drawing condemnation from around the world including its only major ally China.

The test and the threat of more unspecified actions from Pyongyang have raised tensions on the Korean peninsula as the South prepares to inaugurate a new president on February 25.

"The situation prevailing on the Korean peninsula at present is so serious that even a slight accidental case may lead to an all-out war which can disturb the whole region," North Korea's official KCNA news agency said.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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North Korean nuclear test draws anger, including from China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

North Korea - which gave the U.S. State Department advance warning of the test - often threatens the United States and its "puppet", South Korea, with destruction in colorful terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial indications are that the test involved the latest version of a plutonium-based prototype weapon, according to one current and one former U.S. national security official. Both previous tests involved plutonium. If it turns out the test was of a new uranium-based weapon, it would show that North Korea has made more progress on uranium enrichment than previously thought.

The United States uses WC-135 Constant Phoenix "sniffer" aircraft to collect samples to identify nuclear explosions. These would need to be deployed quickly to detect whether highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium was used because uranium decays to undetectable levels within a matter of days. Plutonium takes much longer to decay.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pope's sudden resignation sends shockwaves through Church

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict stunned the Roman Catholic Church on Monday when he announced he would stand down, the first pope to do so in 700 years, saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to carry on.

Church officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence in the running of a 2,000-year-old institution, but the decision could lead to uncertainty in a Church already besieged by scandal for covering up sexual abuse of children by priests.

The soft-spoken German, who always maintained that he never wanted to be pope, was an uncompromising conservative on social and theological issues, fighting what he regarded as the increasing secularization of society.

It remains to be seen whether his successor will continue such battles or do more to bend with the times.

Despite his firm opposition to tolerance of homosexual acts, his eight year reign saw gay marriage accepted in many countries. He has staunchly resisted allowing women to be ordained as priests, and opposed embryonic stem cell research, although he retreated slightly from the position that condoms could never be used to fight AIDS.

He repeatedly apologized for the Church's failure to root out child abuse by priests, but critics said he did too little and the efforts failed to stop a rapid decline in Church attendance in the West, especially in his native Europe.

In addition to child sexual abuse crises, his papacy saw the Church rocked by Muslim anger after he compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the Church's business dealings, his butler was accused of leaking his private papers.

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

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


Benedict is expected to go into isolation for at least a while after his resignation. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict did not intend to influence the decision of the cardinals in a secret conclave to elect a successor.

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

Several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor John Paul, have refrained from stepping down over their health, because of the division that could be caused by having an "ex-pope" and a reigning pope alive at the same time.

Lombardi said the pope did not fear a possible "schism", with Catholics owing allegiances to a past and present pope in case of differences on Church teachings.

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

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

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

There has been growing pressure on the Church for it to choose a pope from the developing world to better reflect where most Catholics live and where the Church is growing.

"It could be time for a black pope, or a yellow one, or a red one, or a Latin American," said Guatemala's Archbishop Oscar Julio Vian Morales.

The cardinals may also want a younger man. John Paul was 58 when he was elected in 1978. Benedict was 20 years older.

"We have had two intellectuals in a row, two academics, perhaps it is time for a diplomat," said Father Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "Rather than electing the smartest man in the room, they should elect the man who will listen to all the other smart people in the Church."

Liberals have already begun calling for a pope that would be more open to reform.

"The current system remains an 'old boy's club' and does not allow for women's voices to participate in the decision of the next leader of our Church," said the Women's Ordination Conference, a group that wants women to be able to be priests.


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

Lombardi said Benedict's stepping aside showed "great courage". He ruled out any specific illness or depression and said the decision was made in the last few months "without outside pressure". But the decision was not without controversy.

"This is disconcerting, he is leaving his flock," said Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian who is granddaughter of Italy's wartime dictator. "The pope is not any man. He is the vicar of Christ. He should stay on to the end, go ahead and bear his cross to the end. This is a huge sign of world destabilization that will weaken the Church."

Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, secretary to the late Pope John Paul, said the former pope had stayed on despite failing health for the last decade of his life as he believed "you cannot come down from the cross."

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

Elected in 2005 to succeed the enormously popular John Paul, Benedict never appeared to feel comfortable in the job.


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

Before he was elected pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was known as "God's rottweiler" for his stern stand on theological issues. After a few months, he showed a milder side but he never drew the kind of adulation that had marked the 27-year papacy of his predecessor John Paul.

U.S. President Barack Obama extended prayers to Benedict and best wishes to those who would choose his successor.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedict confronted his own country's past when he visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Calling himself "a son of Germany", he prayed and asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, most of them Jews, were killed there.

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

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Barry Moody, Cristiano Corvino, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, and Dagamara Leszkowixa in Poland; Editing by Peter Graff)

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