Egyptian army steps in to demand political truce

Egypt's army stepped in to a deepening political crisis on Sunday to demand that the Islamist government and its opponents settle their differences and warned that it would act to stop violence spinning out of control.

Issued a week before mass rallies to demand the resignation of President Mohamed Mursi, and following days of friction and increasingly aggressive rhetoric between factions, the statement by the armed forces chief was the most powerful since generals ceded control to civilians after Mursi's election a year ago.

 

"There is a state of division in society," General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Facebook. "Prolonging it poses a danger to the Egyptian state. There must be consensus among all.

"We will not remain silent as the country slips into a conflict that is hard to control.

There seemed no direct threat to the president from an army that seems to accept its new constitutional role. After Mursi met Sisi, a presidency source called it a "positive statement" reflecting the army's "patriotic role" and "aimed at defusing the rising tension between the different political factions".

But it adds to pressure on Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood to include opponents in rapidly forging consensual policies to address Egypt's economic and social problems. For liberals, too, who also welcomed the statement, it also pushes them to abandon their campaign to overturn last year's election result.

A military source said clashes, aggressive rhetoric and damage to property in recent days had prompted the intervention, in which Sisi warned of a "dark tunnel" ahead and urged leaders to use the days before the protest rallies to find agreement.

Some Islamists who staged a rally on Friday in support of Mursi derided the military, which oversaw decades of oppression. Two men died on Saturday as a result of factional fighting.

"He is stepping closer to the center stage of politics," Gamal Soltan, a political analyst, said of Sisi. "This is the strongest statement from a military official ... This is explicitly saying the armed forces will intervene."

"WILL OF THE PEOPLE"

Neither the Islamists nor their opponents want a return to the six decades of effective military rule they thought they ended with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak of 2011. Yet some Egyptians, frustrated by deadlock, have called for the army to resume the managerial role it took on after pushing Mubarak aside.

The army is held in high esteem by nearly all Egyptians.

Sisi, appointed defence minister by Mursi, insisted he would defend democracy and many analysts believe the army, which has major business interests, is content with its new status.

"The will of the Egyptian nation is what governs us and we protect it with honor," Sisi said. "We cannot permit a violation of the will of the people."

That language implied reproach to both sides - suggesting he disapproved of opposition hopes of overturning Mursi's election but also the president's inability to overcome furious criticism of the Islamists to persuade his opponents to cooperate.

"The army is trying to send a signal to both sides," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt's transition at George Washington University. But because elements in the opposition favored an army move against the Islamists, he added: "This statement will please one side more than the other."

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The Muslim Brotherhood turned their organizational strength, built up over decades as an outlawed mass opposition movement, into success at the ballot box. But they have struggled to manage an economy in crisis or build acceptance for the government among liberal and other non-Islamist groups.

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That polarization has driven a petition campaign demanding Mursi's resignation. Organisers say their 15 million signatures show Mursi, who was elected with 13 million votes, should quit. They plan mass demonstrations next weekend, the first anniversary of Mursi's inauguration.

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In turn, his Islamist supporters have taken to the streets in shows of strength, calling the opposition bad losers.

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While Islamists point to the legitimacy of their electoral power, opponents accuse the Brotherhood of betraying the Arab Spring revolution by seeking to entrench the movement's power.

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They are wary of its association with hardline former militants such as al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, who say they will take up arms again if Islamist rule is overturned.

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Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the National Salvation Front which backs the petition, called the army statement "very reasonable": "We are facing direct threats from supporters of President Mursi to spill blood if we exercise ... our democratic right to demand peacefully early presidential elections."

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A spokesman for the Brotherhood's political party said it was studying the statement before making public comment.

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Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali told Reuters: "This was a supportive message that the army is sending to its people ... The statement was meant to set out the army position ... It cannot ignore anything that might threaten national security."

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CLASHES, DEATHS

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Two men, both Islamists, died as a result of clashes: one was shot dead in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, north of Cairo, overnight; the other died of wounds sustained some days ago in Fayoum.

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The Muslim Brotherhood described both men as "martyrs" and victims of "thugs" or "militia" from the opposition campaign. Brotherhood officials said they suspected Mubarak-era security officers were being paid to attack their supporters.

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Highlighting mutual mistrust, the Brotherhood also denounced as a "political trial" a judge's call for an investigation into its role in a mass jail-break during the uprising against Mubarak. Though Islamists control the executive and legislature, they view the judiciary as holdovers from the old regime.

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A judge in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, in acquitting a man accused of fleeing a local jail during the 2011 uprising, asked the public prosecutor to investigate what he described as a "conspiracy" by the Brotherhood and foreign Islamists to open up the prison.

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Among those freed was Mursi himself, who was among hundreds of Brotherhood leaders rounded up when the revolution began.

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The freeing of Palestinian militants from Hamas and Lebanese members of the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia, among others, has prompted accusations from the Brotherhood's opponents that it connived with enemies of Egypt during the incident.

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(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif, Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh and Maggie Fick in Cairo; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Tom Perry and Andrew Heavens)

Qatar ruler to meet ruling family amid handover reports: Al Jazeera

The ruler of Qatar will meet members of the ruling family and decision makers in the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state on Monday "amid reports that he intends to hand over power to his crown prince, Sheikh Tamim", the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television reported.

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The satellite channel said it had learned of the news from "reliable Qatari sources", but provided no further details.

 

Diplomats said earlier this month that an orderly transfer of power, which would also include the powerful prime minister stepping down, was being considered.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Al Qaeda says hostages in North Africa alive, open to talks

Eight hostages, including five from France, being held by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are safe, the Islamist group said in a statement posted on its Twitter account on Saturday.

The statement coincided with rallies across France organised by the families of French hostages who were seized in Niger in September 2010 to mark more than 1,000 days of captivity.

 

French newspapers reported this week that the hostages had been transferred to Algeria and were in the hands of AQIM's new chief, Yahia Abou el Hamam. The French government declined to comment on the report.

"We would like to assure the family and relatives of the hostages of the safety of their children," said the message, posted by AQIM's Andalus Media arm.

The message repeated previous statements by AQIM that it would kill the hostages if there were any new French military intervention in North Africa, but said it remained open to negotiations to free them.

"Although we are nearing three years holding the hostages, we are open to negotiations. Our demands were clear and legitimate. But they were rejected," the statement said.

The French government has said it does not negotiate with hostage takers.

AQIM said it would soon release a video of the five French hostages and three others.

At least eight French citizens, a Swede, a Dutchman and a South African have been kidnapped in recent years in parts of the Sahara desert.

One Frenchman, kidnapped in Nigeria, close to the border with Niger, is believed to be being held by either AQIM or an affiliated group. Another was kidnapped last year in Mali, near the Mauritanian border, but Saturday's statement did not appear to refer to either of these.

AQIM did confirm in the statement that one French hostage, Philippe Verdon, who was kidnapped in Hombori in northern Mali in November 2011, had been killed in March in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.

The hostages referred to in the AQIM statement were previously thought to have been held in northern Mali before the French-led campaign in January drove out the militants who had seized control of the region after a Tuareg separatist uprising and a military coup in the capital Bamako.

French President Francois Hollande justified the military intervention in Mali partly by saying it would prevent northern Mali being used as a launch pad for Islamist attacks in Africa and in the West.

(Additional reporting by Laurent Prieur in Nouakchott, John Irish in Paris and Angus McDowall in Riyadh; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Mandela's health worsens, condition now 'critical'

Former South African president Nelson Mandela's condition deteriorated to "critical" on Sunday, the government said, two weeks after the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader was admitted to hospital with a lung infection.

The worsening of his condition is bound to concern South Africa's 53 million people, for whom Mandela remains the architect of a peaceful transition to democracy in 1994 after three centuries of white domination.

 

A government statement said President Jacob Zuma and the deputy leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa, visited Mandela in his Pretoria hospital, where doctors said his condition had gone downhill in the last 24 hours.

"The doctors are doing everything possible to get his condition to improve and are ensuring that Madiba is well looked after and is comfortable," it said, referring to him by his clan name.

Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after historic all-race elections nearly two decades ago, was rushed to a Pretoria hospital on June 8 with a recurrence of a lung infection, his fourth hospitalisation in six months.

Until Sunday, official communiques had described his condition as "serious but stable" although comments last week from Mandela family members and his presidential successor, Thabo Mbeki, suggested he was on the mend.

Since stepping down after one term as president, Mandela has played little role in the public or political life of the continent's biggest and most important economy.

His last public appearance was waving to fans from the back of a golf cart before the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium in July 2010.

During his retirement, he has divided his time between his home in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, and Qunu, the village in the impoverished Eastern Cape province where he was born.

The public's last glimpse of him was a brief clip aired by state television in April during a visit to his home by Zuma and other senior ANC officials.

At the time, the 101-year-old liberation movement, which led the fight against white-minority rule, assured the public Mandela was "in good shape" although the footage showed a thin and frail old man sitting expressionless in an armchair.

"Obviously we are very worried," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told Johannesburg station Talk Radio 702. "We are praying for him, his family and the doctors."

"ABSOLUTELY AN ICON"

Since his latest admission to hospital, well-wishers have been arriving at his Johannesburg home, with scores of school-children leaving painted stones outside the gates bearing prayers for his recovery.

However, for the first time, South African media have broken a taboo against contemplating the inevitable passing of the father of the post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation" and one of the 20th century's most influential figures.

The day after he went into hospital, South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper carried a front-page headline saying it was "time to let him go".

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"He's absolutely an icon and if he's gone we just have to accept that. He will be gone but his teachings, what he stood for, I'm sure we've all learnt and we should be able to live with it and reproduce it wherever we go," said Tshepho Langa, a customer at a Johannesburg hotel.

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"He's done his best," he added. "We are grateful for it and we are willing to do the good that he has done."

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Despite the widespread adulation, Mandela is not without detractors at home and in the rest of Africa who feel that in the dying days of apartheid he made too many concessions to whites, who make up just 10 percent of the population.

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After more than 10 years of affirmative action policies aimed at redressing the balance, South Africa remains one of the world's most unequal societies, with whites still controlling much of the economy and the average white household earning six times more than a black one.

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"Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of (blacks)," Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 89, said in a documentary aired on South African television this month.

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"That's being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint."

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(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher, Leon Malherbe and Bart Noonan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Japan ruling bloc sweeps Tokyo poll, on track for upper house win

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc swept to victory in a weekend Tokyo election, a sign it's on track for a hefty win in a July national vote that could strengthen Abe's hand as he aims to end economic stagnation and bolster defence.

Politicians and pundits have been eyeing the outcome of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election for clues to how well Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, the New Komeito, will fare in a July 21 election for parliament's upper house that opinion polls suggest they will win handily.

"We have received a good evaluation of our handling of the government over the past six months," Abe, who campaigned heavily for the local vote, told reporters. "We would like to do our very best so people can feel that the economy is recovering as soon as possible," Kyodo news agency quoted him as saying.

The LDP won 59 seats in the 127-member Tokyo assembly, regaining the top spot it lost four years ago, while the New Komeito took 23 seats.

 

In the latest sign of its faltering fortunes, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan slid to 15 seats, fewer than the Japan Communist Party's 17 seats. Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's right-leaning Japan Restoration Party won just two seats, reflecting his waning popularity after remarks that seemed to justify Japan's wartime military brothels.

Voter turnout, however, was a near record low at 43.50 percent and calculations by the Tokyo Shimbun daily showed the LDP won 46.5 percent of the seats with 15 percent of all eligible votes.

"This tells us that the LDP is likely to win the upper house primarily because the opposition is divided and there is no alternative," said Chuo University political science professor Steven Reed.

Pledging to revive growth in the world's third-biggest economy, bolster its defence posture and revise Japan's pacifist constitution, Abe returned to Japan's top job after the LDP's lower house election win in December. But the LDP and New Komeito lack a majority in the upper house, which can block legislation.

That "twisted parliament" has been foiling policy implementation since the LDP's massive defeat in a July 2007 upper house election during Abe's first troubled 12-month term, which ended with his abrupt resignation two months later.

Surveys of voter preferences for the upper house vote show the LDP has a hefty lead over the demoralised opposition. A Kyodo survey on the weekend showed 28.8 percent plan to vote for the LDP against 8.2 percent for the Democratic Party.

Abe's support rates slipped a bit to 65.6 percent in the Kyodo poll, in line with recent declines that mirror a fall in Tokyo share prices reflecting concern over whether his "Abenomics" policy prescription to end stagnation will succeed.

Financial markets applauded the first two "Arrows" in Abe's policy quiver - hyper-easy monetary policy and big spending - but have grown skeptical about whether he means to follow through on pledges of structural reforms including deregulation.

Steep falls in share prices or verbal gaffes by Abe or his aides could erode support ahead of the national vote, although analysts say it would be almost impossible for the ruling bloc to lose given that the opposition is badly divided and unpopular after three years of what critics see as ineffectual DPJ rule.

(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Stephen Coates)

Qatar readies new leadership, little policy change expected

Qatar appeared on Monday to be readying its population of nearly 2 million for new leadership that could see the emir and prime minister step down, a move analysts say would not herald big changes in energy, investment or foreign policies.

The tiny country, the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, is a global investment powerhouse, a growing force in international media and sport, and a financial backer of Arab Spring revolts in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

The Qatari-owed al Jazeera television channel said the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, would meet ruling family members and decision makers on Monday "amid reports that he intends to hand over power to his crown prince, Sheikh Tamim".

The satellite channel said it had learned of the news from "reliable Qatari sources", but provided no further details.

Diplomats said this month that the emir was considering an orderly transfer of power that would probably begin with the departure of the powerful prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, 53.

Arab and Western diplomats said they understood that the motive was the emir's desire to have a smooth transition to a younger generation. Such a transition would be unusual for Gulf Arab states where leaders usually die in office.

SAVVY DEALMAKER

They said they expected the reshuffle to take one of two courses -- either Sheikh Tamim would replace Sheikh Hamad as the prime minister until he takes over as emir when his father eventually steps down, or Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed al-Mahmoud would become the next prime minister when Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim steps aside.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim has been prime minister since 2007 and has played a key role in positioning Qatar as power broker in the region. He is also chairman of the board of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), a position he is expected to retain. QIA has estimated assets of $100 billion to $200 billion.

Widely seen as a savvy dealmaker, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim has personally negotiated some of the sovereign wealth fund's most high-profile investments, including talks with Glencore's chief last year when the fund demanded better terms for backing the firm's acquisition of Xstrata. The companies eventually merged to create Glencore Xstrata.

The Emir has elevated the country's international profile in recent years through the launch and development of the al Jazeera television network, as well as its successful bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup tournament.

ARAB SPRING

The Gulf state has played a substantial role in promoting the Arab Spring, lending significant support to rebels who ousted former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and to an uprising seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

It has also hosted a delegation of the Afghan Taliban Islamist insurgency, which opened an office in Doha last week in preparation for an expected revival of talks with the United States about how to end a 12-year-old conflict in the Asian nation.

Other political crises and wars Qatar has tackled include Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon, Darfur and the Palestinian territories, often hosting peace talks on its own soil to try to prove it can punch above its weight in international diplomacy.

Qatar has been able to stay on friendly terms with a wide range of countries, including the United States and Iran, and to cultivate alliances with customers in the Americas, Europe and Asia hungry for its gas exports.

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Sheikh Tamim is 33, young compared to other Gulf Arab rulers.

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But Eman Ebed Alkadi of Eurasia Group consultants wrote that she did not expect Qatari domestic priorities or its foreign policies to change significantly with a change of ruler.

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"Tamim has controlled key policies in Qatar for some time, and shares his fathers' views on political development in Qatar and economic diversification", Alkadi wrote.

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National budgets had been agreed up until 2016-2017, Alkadi wrote, and with preparations for the World Cup in 2022 in full swing, much change in domestic momentum was unlikely.

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(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Amena Bakr, Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean, Kevin Liffey and Stacey Joyce)

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Police remove flagpole at center of Afghan, Taliban row

Police have removed a flagpole from the Taliban's office in Qatar, an official said on Sunday, expunging the last visible sign of official decoration that riled the Afghan government and derailed nascent peace talks.

The Taliban was due to hold discussions with U.S. officials in Qatar last Thursday - originally raising hopes the meeting could develop into full-blown negotiations to end Afghanistan's 12-year-old war.

 

But the session was canceled when the Afghan government objected to the fanfare surrounding the militants' opening of an office in the Gulf state, complete with flag and official plaques.

Kabul said the regalia gave the mistaken impression the militants - who ruled Afghanistan until they were ousted by the U.S. offensive starting in 2001 - had achieved some measure of global recognition.

The flag and a plaque were removed late last week amid frantic diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute. The flagpole was no longer visible at the building on Sunday.

"The Taliban's flag has been taken down from (their) office in Qatar, the banner and signboard have been removed, and the Qatar government's police have also removed the Taliban flagpole," said Masoom Stanekzai, a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, a government body set up to pursue a negotiated ceasefire with the Taliban.

His comments, released by the Afghan government, did not go into whether that meant the U.S.-Taliban talks could now continue.

TALIBAN SAYS QATAR APPROVED

The Taliban earlier on Sunday said it had erected its flag and plaques with the agreement of the Qatari government, which is hosting the talks.

The statement, issued by the Taliban's spokesman in Doha, Dr. Muhammad Naeem, did not say whether the subsequent removal of the symbols was meant as a concession to other parties in the talks. There was no comment from the Qatar government.

The news of the removal of the flagpole came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put the onus on the Taliban to revive the talks - and warned the militants their whole office could be closed if the process collapsed.

He kept up the pressure on Sunday, telling reporters in New Delhi a final peace depended on the militants changing course and renouncing violence.

"Any political settlement must result in our judgment in the Taliban breaking ties with al Qaeda ... and accepting the Afghan constitution - including its protections for all Afghans, women and men," Kerry said.

The Afghan government repeated its complaints about the office earlier on Sunday, saying the ceremonial opening of the Taliban office had broken agreements on how the talks would proceed.

"We still need a full explanation about what happened," Said foreign ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai.

The Taliban were pushed out of power in Afghanistan by the U.S. invasion that followed the al Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.

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The group has since waged an insurgency to overthrow the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and oust foreign troops.

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It has until now refused talks with Kabul, calling Karzai and his government puppets of the West.

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(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in New Delhi; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Heavens)

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Syrian rebels renew fight for Aleppo

Syrian rebels battled President Bashar al-Assad's forces in and around the northern city of Aleppo on Sunday, seeking to reverse gains made by loyalist forces in the commercial hub over the last two months, activists said.

The fighting, by a variety of insurgent groups, happened as France urged moderate rebels to wrest territory back from radical Islamists whose role in the fight to topple Assad poses a dilemma for Western countries concerned that arms shipments could fall into the hands of people it considers terrorists.

 

The 11 Western and Arab countries known as the "Friends of Syria" agreed on Saturday to give urgent military support to the rebels, channeled through the Western-backed Supreme Military Council in a bid to prevent arms getting to Islamist radicals.

But radical forces showed they remained formidable on Sunday when the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham brigade detonated a car bomb at a roadblock at an entrance to Aleppo killing at least 12 loyalist soldiers, according to the opposition Aleppo News Network and other activists in the city.

Aleppo, 35 km (20 miles) south of Turkey, has been contested since July last year, when rebel brigades entered the city and captured about half of it. In recent weeks, Assad has focused his military campaign on recapturing rebel-held areas.

He has also been expanding control of the central province of Homs after capturing a strategic town on the border with Lebanon, and has used heavy bombardment and siege warfare to contain rebels dug in around the capital, according to opposition sources and diplomats monitoring the conflict.

Firas Fuleifel, with the moderate Islamist al-Farouq Brigade, said six rebel fighters were killed in fighting in Aleppo in the last day.

WIN BACK CONTROL

French President Francois Hollande, whose country has been at the forefront of Western efforts to re-organize and back the opposition, said moderate rebels must take territory held by radical Islamists whose involvement in the conflict, he said, gives Bashar al-Assad a pretext for more violence.

"The opposition needs to win back control of these areas ... they have fallen into the hands of extremists," Hollande told a news conference in the Doha a day after the Friends of Syria met in the Qatari capital.

"If it seems that extremist groups are present and tomorrow they could be the beneficiaries of a chaotic situation, it will be Bashar al-Assad who will seize on this pretext to continue the massacre," Hollande said.

In Damascus, the Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamist Tawhid al-Asima brigades detonated a car bomb in an area known as Mezze 86, inhabited by members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that has controlled Syria since the 1960s. Two people were killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Rebels also attacked two security compounds in Damascus, killing at least five people, sources in the capital said.

In regional repercussions of the increasingly sectarian Syrian conflict, four Lebanese soldiers were killed in clashes with followers of a Sunni Islamist cleric who is a critic of the role of Hezbollah - the Shi'ite Lebanese group - in giving military support to Assad.

Sources in the city said the fighting broke out when a follower of Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir was arrested at an army roadblock in Sidon, 40 km (28 miles) south of Beirut.

The clashes were followed by fighting between Hezbollah members based in the mostly Sunni city and Assir's followers in which automatic weapons and shoulder fired rockets were used, the sources said.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut and Yara Bayoumy in Doha; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Kevin Liffey)

Japan ruling bloc sweeps Tokyo poll, on track for upper house win

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling bloc swept to victory in a weekend Tokyo election, a sign it's on track for a hefty win in a July national vote that could strengthen Abe's hand as he aims to end economic stagnation and bolster defense.

Politicians and pundits had been eyeing the outcome of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election for clues to how well Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, the New Komeito, will fare in a July 21 election for parliament's upper house that opinion polls suggest they will win handily.

"We have received a good evaluation of our handling of the government over the past six months," Abe, who campaigned heavily for the local vote, told reporters. "We would like to do our very best so people can feel that the economy is recovering as soon as possible."

All of the LDP's 59 candidates won seats in the 127-member Tokyo assembly to regain the top spot. It was the party's biggest victory in the metropolis since 2001, when it was buoyed by the popularity of charismatic leader Junichiro Koizumi.

 

All of the New Komeito's 23 candidates also won, though with fewer votes than four years ago.

In the latest sign of its faltering fortunes, the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan slid to 15 seats, fewer than the Japan Communist Party's 17 seats.

Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto's right-leaning Japan Restoration Party won just two seats, reflecting his waning popularity after remarks that seemed to justify Japan's wartime military brothels. That could spell trouble for any LDP hopes of allying with Hashimoto to push constitutional reform, although another small conservative party, the Your Party, won seven seats.

THE "TINA" EFFECT

Voter turnout, however, was a near record low at 43.50 percent. Calculations by the Tokyo Shimbun daily showed the LDP won 46.5 percent of the seats with 15 percent of all eligible votes.

"This tells us that the LDP is likely to win the upper house primarily because the opposition is divided and there is no alternative," said Chuo University political science professor Steven Reed.

Some pundits are calling that the "TINA" effect, borrowing a slogan of Margaret Thatcher of which Abe is also said to be fond.

Pledging to revive growth in the world's third-biggest economy, bolster its defense posture and revise Japan's pacifist constitution, Abe returned to Japan's top job after the LDP's lower house election win in December. But the LDP and New Komeito lack a majority in the upper house, which can block legislation.

That "twisted parliament" has been foiling policy implementation since the LDP's massive defeat in a July 2007 upper house election during Abe's first troubled 12-month term, which ended with his abrupt resignation two months later.

Some analysts said the solid victory in Japan's capital spelled good news for Abe's pledges to implement structural reforms including deregulation, the so-called "Third Arrow" of his "Abenomics" prescription to end stagnation. The first two "Arrows" are hyper-easy monetary policy and spending.

"The election result proves that the LDP can win big in the cities. This proof gives PM Abe an alternative to relying on agriculture and other non-urban vested interest groups," said a report by Morgan Stanley MUFG in Tokyo.

Others, however, worry that too big an LDP victory in the upper house could mean ballooning ranks of lawmakers with close ties to vested interests that oppose structural reforms.

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Surveys of voter preferences for the upper house vote show the LDP has a hefty lead over the demoralized opposition.

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A June 21-23 Nikkei business daily survey showed 47 percent plan to vote for the LDP versus 7 percent for the Democrats.

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Abe's support rates slipped marginally to 66 percent in the Nikkei poll, in line with recent declines that mirror a fall in Tokyo share prices reflecting concern over whether his "Abenomics" policy prescription to end stagnation will succeed.

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Financial markets applauded the first two "Arrows" in Abe's policy quiver but have grown skeptical about whether he means to keep pledges of structural reforms including deregulation.

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Steep falls in share prices or verbal gaffes by Abe could erode support ahead of the national vote. Even so, analysts say it would be almost impossible for the ruling bloc to lose.

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(Reporting by Linda Sieg; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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Australia PM hits out at critics amid leadership turmoil

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard hit out at critics of her record on Monday as speculation intensified of a fresh challenge to her leadership and opinion polls showed her divided Labor Party headed for a catastrophic September election defeat.

With Labor on track for a record low vote following months of tensions between Gillard and her main rival, Kevin Rudd, senior backers of the prime minister called for an end to the impasse.

 

"We certainly can't have this go on. It's just got to be resolved," said Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, one of Gillard's most senior ministers, calling for opponents to come clean and mount a party leadership ballot this week.

"We can't have this kind of speculation continuing on through the election."

A Newspoll in the Australian newspaper was the latest to show conservative opponents leading the government, with 57 percent support compared to 43 percent for Labor.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has also overtaken Gillard as preferred leader with promises to curb government spending if he wins power, as well as scrap a controversial carbon emissions tax and 30 percent profits tax on coal and iron ore mines.

Abbott also pledged to introduce tougher border security laws to block thousands of asylum seekers arriving from Sri Lanka and transit points in Indonesia, straining ties with Jakarta but winning over many Australians.

"GLARING MIS-STATEMENTS"

Gillard, addressing an economic conference ahead of the last week of parliament before the September 14 election, said critics of her government had made "glaring mis-statements" about Australia's economic health, worrying voters and raising the possibility of the first recession for more than two decades.

"The most irresponsible pessimists have tossed around the 'r' word," Gillard said. "The effect on confidence can only be negative and, on all the facts, is clearly not justified."

She said she wanted her government to be judged on its record of having steered growth of around 2.5 percent in the face of a global downturn, and delivering relatively low unemployment of 5.5 percent.

Gillard said the leadership issue was "settled" in March, when she won a surprise vote against Rudd unopposed, the third such ballot she has carried.

"What I want to leave this week having achieved is better schools for our nation, which means a better future for our nation," she told reporters.

Any return of Rudd as prime minister could force Australia's governor-general, the titular head of state, to intervene. Options could include calling an immediate election as Rudd does not have agreed support from independent lawmakers who wield the balance of power in parliament.

Gillard, 51, has struggled to win support from Australian voters since she toppled Rudd to become prime minister in a Labor party coup in June 2010.

She led the party to dead-heat elections in August 2010, and held onto power by one seat after striking deals to ensure the support of independents and the Greens.

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Rudd, 55, led Labor to an election victory after almost 12 years of conservative rule, but he was dumped in favor of Gillard in June 2010 after his government become embroiled in a damaging fight with the mining industry over a planned new tax.

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(Editing by Ron Popeski)

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Analysis: Electing the EU Commission chief - a dumb bright idea?

It seemed like a bright idea at the time.

By linking the choice of president of the executive European Commission to the European Parliament elections in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, EU leaders hoped to reverse rising abstentionism and overcome Europe's widely bemoaned "democratic deficit".

 

If voters around the soon-to-be-28-nation European Union were given a real policy choice personified by a single candidate, they would identify more easily with "Europe" and vote in greater numbers, the theory went.

That in turn would give greater legitimacy to the European Commission, which proposes and enforces EU laws but which critics often denigrate as unelected and undemocratic.

"For the first time these could be genuine 'European' elections, the outcome of which will shape European politics for at least the next five years," said Simon Hix, professor of European governance at the London School of Economics.

"It will be the first time we, as European citizens, can choose who holds the most powerful executive office in the EU."

Well maybe, but maybe not.

With less than a year to go until the May vote, the pitfalls of the new system are becoming clear as Europe seeks a successor to Jose Manuel Barroso, the center-right former Portuguese Prime Minister who has been in the hot seat since 2005.

For one thing, an election traditionally used to register a protest vote against national governments may for the first time be used to deliver an almighty kicking to Europe itself.

EU leaders are anxious at the prospect of an unprecedented wave of Euroskeptical lawmakers being swept into the unloved parliament on a tide of anger over mass unemployment, economic stagnation and austerity measures.

As Mark Leonard and Jose Ignacio Torreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations argued in a paper on the rise of continental Euroskepticism, many voters feel the EU's increasing dominance of national economic policy in the crisis means they can change government but they can't change policy any more.

"To an increasing number of citizens in southern European countries, the EU looks like the International Monetary Fund did in Latin America: a golden straitjacket that is squeezing the space for national politics and emptying their national democracies of content," they wrote.

In countries such as France, Britain, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands, opinion polls suggest as much as a third of the vote may go to anti-EU populists and parties of the nationalist far right or the hard left.

That could make it harder to assemble an absolute majority to elect the next Commission president, who will be proposed by EU leaders "taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations".

It may also be deterring top talents from seeking the job. So far, there is little sign of A-list European leaders stepping forward to vie for their political family's nomination.

Three prime ministers seen as potential candidates for the center-right European People's Party, the biggest bloc in the current EU legislature, have taken themselves out of the race.

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Donald Tusk of Poland, Jyrki Katainen of Finland and Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden all opted to stay in national politics.

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One serving national leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, outlined why the new system makes it unattractive for incumbents to seek the Commission presidency.

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"I imagine the parties will decide on their candidates in January/February. What happens if the candidate is a prime minister? Can he go on running his country as normal while waging a Europe-wide campaign?" he asked.

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"What happens then if his party is not the biggest? Can he simply carry on as prime minister?"

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That may leave Europe's largest political family having to nominate a second-ranking figure as its candidate.

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Among those mentioned are two serving European commissioners - Viviane Reding of Luxembourg and Michel Barnier of France - and one former member, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. None is a crowd-pulling household name.

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One big name touted by some is International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde, a French conservative. But it's not clear that a Socialist French government would nominate her and she is involved in a legal case that may cloud her future.

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The Socialists, the second biggest grouping, seem likely to make European Parliament President Martin Schulz, 57, a German Social Democrat, their champion. Schulz has been campaigning for months and no serious rival has arisen so far.

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But while the bearded former bookshop owner is a familiar figure in Brussels, having spent almost his entire political career in the EU legislature, he lacks government or economic experience.

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Not widely known even at home, his main claim to fame was a public clash in 2003 with then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who caused offence by comparing him to a Nazi concentration camp "kapo".

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Although Schulz speaks fluent French and English, his nationality may be a handicap with voters in France, Britain and the peripheral countries of the euro zone, where Germany is associated with harsh austerity policies.

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If the German Social Democrats end up in a grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives after a September general election, it will be hard for Schulz to campaign as an alternative to her policies. f Merkel's center-right coalition is re-elected, Berlin may not wish to nominate him as its candidate for the European Commission, barring his path.

_12">

Other Socialist names whispered in the corridors include outgoing World Trade Organisation chief Pascal Lamy and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Neither seems likely to be nominated.

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The center-right liberals, the third largest parliamentary group, seem set to pick former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, 60, whose Franco-German-backed bid to be Commission president in 2004 was torpedoed by Britain and its allies. Many EU governments see him as too much of a federalist.

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The Greens are to hold an online ballot to pick a standard-bearer, having lost their most charismatic leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 67, who is standing down from the European Parliament.

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One intriguing outsider whose name is on many lips is former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, 70, the ultimate EU insider.

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A respected economist who has been European commissioner for competition and the internal market, Monti led a technocratic government that pulled Italy back from the brink of collapse in 2011. He enacted some tough reforms and austerity measures but was heavily defeated in a general election in February.

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Moreover, his centrist Civic Choice party is not a member of any EU political family, and Berlusconi, who toppled his government, might try to block an EPP move to draft him.

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So while the notion of introducing more democracy into the choice of the European Commission chief was seductive, it may turn out to be what the French call "une fause bonne idee" - a dumb bright idea.

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(Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Ron Askew)

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Israeli air strikes hit Gaza after Palestinian rocket fire

Israel carried out air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Monday in response to Palestinian militant rocket fire that broke weeks of relative calm along the frontier.

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No casualties were reported in the incidents.

Six rockets were fired into Israel overnight, causing no damage, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Two of them were shot down by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, the military said.

 

Israeli aircraft later struck targets in the Gaza Strip, including two weapons storage facilities, the military said, and Israel closed one of its the crossings with the coastal territory, which is controlled by the Islamist movement Hamas.

No group claimed responsibility for the Palestinian rocket fire. Officials in Gaza said two of six Israeli air strikes struck training camps for the militant group Islamic Jihad.

In a separate incident, tires were slashed on 21 cars in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem in what appeared to be another in a series of "Price Tag" attacks by suspected Jewish militants. Police opened an investigation.

The term refers to the price the militants say they will exact for Palestinian attacks or any Israeli government curbs on Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Russia defiant as U.S. raises pressure over Snowden

The United States on Monday increased pressure on Russia to hand over Edward Snowden, the American charged with disclosing secret U.S. surveillance programs, and said it believed he was still in Moscow despite reports he was leaving for Cuba.

Earlier Snowden, until recently a contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency, had been expected to fly to Havana from Moscow, perhaps on the way to Ecuador, but he was not seen on the plane and Russian officials declined to say where he was.

 

The U.S. State Department said diplomats and Justice Department officials were engaged in discussions with Russia, suggesting they were looking for a deal to secure his return.

"Given our intensified cooperation working with Russia on law enforcement matters ... we hope that the Russian government will look at all available options to return Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged," spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.

Snowden flew to Moscow after being allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday, even though Washington had asked the Chinese territory to detain him pending his possible extradition on espionage charges.

White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the administration's attempts to bring Snowden into U.S. custody and blamed China for assisting in his departure from Hong Kong. He said it would damage U.S. China relations.

Sources at the Russian airline Aeroflot had said on Sunday that Snowden would be on a flight on Monday morning that arrived in Havana at 6.45 p.m./2245 GMT, but reporters who took the flight said another person occupied seat 17A, which had been set aside for him.

"He didn't take the flight (to Havana)," a source at Aeroflot told Reuters.

However, before the plane left for Cuba, a white van for VIPs approached it on the tarmac. Police stood by as a single man in a white shirt climbed the stairs on to the plane soon afterwards but he could not be identified by reporters watching in the transit area. It was not clear whether the plane had a section in which Snowden could have been concealed.

Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks which is assisting Snowden, said the 30-year-old had fled to Moscow en route to Ecuador and was in good health in a "safe place" but did not say where he was now.

Ecuador, like Cuba and Venezuela, is a member of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America that pride themselves on their "anti-imperialist" credentials. The Quito government has been sheltering Assange at its London embassy for the past year.

Washington was stung by the defiance from Russia, with which President Barack Obama has sought improved relations, and China's apparent compliance in letting Snowden leave Hong Kong. Obama has met the leaders of the two powers in recent months.

One of three high-powered lawyers representing Snowden in Hong Kong said they had warned him he might be stuck in legal limbo for years - and possibly detained - if he stayed put and requested asylum in the city-state.

Carney, speaking several hours after the Moscow-Havana flight took off, said it was the U.S. assumption that Snowden was still in Russia and pressed Russia to use all options to expel him to the United States.

President Barack Obama said his government was "following all the appropriate legal channels working with various other countries to make sure the rule of law is observed."

U.S.-RUSSIA DISCUSSIONS

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Carney slammed those countries from which Snowden had chosen to seek protection, saying his choice belied his claim that he was focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and individuals' rights.

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He sharply criticized Hong Kong. "This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship," he said.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN Snowden's activities could threaten the security of China as well as that of the United States.

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"People may die as a consequence to what this man did," he said. "It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn't know before. This is a very dangerous act."

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To his supporters, however, Snowden is a whistleblowing hero who exposed the extent of U.S. surveillance activities.

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A petition initiated by his supporters and posted on the White House website described him as "a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs."

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The petitihere had garnered more than 113,000 signatures by 2030 GMT, above the 100,000 needed to oblige a White House response within 30 days.

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China, which itself has been accused of widespread hacking abroad, took the high ground, expressing "grave concern" over Snowden's allegations that the United States had hacked Chinese computers. It said it had taken up the issue with Washington.

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RUSSIA SEES U.S. HYPOCRISY

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Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary denied any knowledge of Snowden's movements. Asked if Snowden had spoken to the Russian authorities, Dmitry Peskov said: "Overall, we have no information about him."

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Other Russian officials said Moscow had no obligation to cooperate with Washington, citing legislation passed in the United States to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russians accused of violating human rights.

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The Russian news agency Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying Moscow could not arrest or deport Snowden because he had not actually entered Russian territory - suggesting he had remained in the transit area at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

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Putin has missed few chances to champion public figures who challenge Western governments and to portray Washington as an overzealous global policeman.

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WikiLeaks said Snowden was supplied with a refugee document of passage by Ecuador and that a British legal researcher working for the anti-secrecy group had accompanied him.

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Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said during a trip to Vietnam that Quito would take into account a U.S. request about Snowden and was in contact with Russia about him. He gave no details of the U.S. request.

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Snowden, who worked as a systems administrator at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii for about three months, had been hiding in Hong Kong, since leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programs to news media.

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He said in an interview published by Hong Kong's South China Morning Post on Monday that he took a job at U.S. contractor Booz Allen Hamilton deliberately to gain access to details of the NSA's surveillance programs.

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"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," Snowden said, according to the article.

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Booz Allen Hamilton fired Snowden on June 10, a day after he went public about his role in revealing details of the NSA programs in a video posted by the Guardian newspaper in London. It had no comment about Snowden's latest comments.

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U.S. officials said intelligence agencies were worried they do not know how much sensitive material Snowden had in his possession and he may have taken more documents than initially estimated. They were concerned that his links with WikiLeaks would increase the likelihood of their being published.

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Snowden has been charged with theft of federal government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. The last two charges fall under the U.S. Espionage Act.

_5">

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Martin Petty in Hanoi, Sui-Lee Weein in Beijing,; Andrew Cawthorne, Mario Naranjo and Daniel Wallis in Caracas, Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Mark Felsenthal, Paul Eckert and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Timothy Heritage, Elizabeth Piper, and David Brunnstrom; Editing by David Storey)

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Russia's Putin switches economy minister to the Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Andrei Belousov as his top economic adviser on Monday, beefing up his Kremlin staff with an advocate of a big state role in the economy as part of a wider rotation of his policy team.

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As economy minister, Belousov came under fire from Russia's liberal policy establishment by calling for the state to determine bank lending rates, which he argues would unblock the flow of affordable credit to the economy.

 

Belousov will be replaced by Alexei Ulyukayev, who is moving from the central bank after being beaten to the top job there by Elvira Nabiullina, who formally assumed her role on Monday after a year as the Kremlin's 'chief economist'.

The job moves, which had been flagged in advance, set the scene for a shift towards a more activist approach to managing Russia's economy as policymakers seek to engineer a recovery at a time of still-high inflation.

"This is all being done to embark on a dynamic stimulus of economic growth," said Julia Tsepliaeva, a Russia economist at BNP Paribas in Moscow.

(Reporting by Maya Dyakina; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by John Stonestreet)

White House expects Russia to look at all options to expel Snowden back to U.S.

The White House on Monday said it expects the Russian government to "look at all options available" to expel former government contractor Edward Snowden back to the United States to face espionage charges.

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The White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the United States also registered strong objections to authorities in Hong Kong and China through diplomatic channels at the decision to let Snowden flee.

 

And "noted that such behavior is detrimental to U.S.-Hong Kong and U.S.-China bilateral relations," Hayden said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

South Africans resigned over 'critical' Mandela

South Africans adopted a mood of sombre resignation on Monday to the inevitability of saying goodbye to former president Nelson Mandela after the 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader's condition in hospital deteriorated to critical.

Madiba, as he is affectionately known, is revered among most of South Africa's 53 million people as the architect of the 1994 transition to multi-racial democracy after three centuries of white domination.

 

However, his latest hospitalization - his fourth in six months - has reinforced a realization that the father of the post-apartheid "Rainbow Nation" will not be around for ever.

President Jacob Zuma, who visited Mandela late on Sunday with African National Congress (ANC) Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, reflected the national mood when he told a news conference that Mandela remained critical.

"All of us in the country must accept that Madiba is now old. As he ages, his health will trouble him," Zuma said, declining to give specific details about Mandela's medical condition or other information from his hospital visit.

"Given the hour, he was already asleep. We saw him, looked at him and then we had a bit of a discussion with the doctors and his wife," Zuma said. "I don't think I'm a position to give further details. I'm not a doctor."

U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit South Africa this week as part of a three-country Africa tour but Zuma said Mandela's worsening state of health should not affect the trip.

"Nothing is going to stop the visit because Madiba is sick," Zuma said.

Mandela's daughter Makaziwe said the family was taking each day as it came and enjoying as much time as possible with a man who, to them, is simply a father, grandfather or great-grandfather.

"He is at peace with himself," she told CNN. "He has given so much to the world. I believe he is at peace."

"WE WILL MISS HIM"

Mandela's deterioration this weekend, two weeks after being admitted in a serious but stable condition with a lung infection, has caused a perceptible switch in mood from prayers for recovery to preparations for a fond farewell.

"If it's his time to go, he can go. I wish God can look after him," said nurse Petunia Mafuyeka, as she headed to work in Johannesburg.

"We will miss him very much. He fought for us to give us freedom. We will remember him every day. When he goes I will cry."

There was some concern among the public about doctors trying to prolong the life of South Africa's first black president, one of the 20th Century's most influential figures.

"I'm worried that they're keeping him alive. I feel they should let him go," said Doris Lekalakala, a claims manager. "The man is old. Let nature take its course. He must just rest."

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Since stepping down in 1999 after one term as president, Mandela has stayed out of active politics in a country with the continent's biggest and most important economy. His passing is expected to have little political impact.

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His last public appearance was waving to fans from the back of a golf cart before the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium in July 2010.

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During his retirement, he has divided his time between his home in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, and Qunu, the village in the poor Eastern Cape province where he was born.

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The public's last glimpse of him was a brief clip aired by state television in April during a visit to his home by Zuma and other senior ANC officials.

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At the time, the 101-year-old liberation movement, which led the fight against white-minority rule, assured the public Mandela was "in good shape", although the footage showed a thin and frail old man sitting expressionless in an armchair.

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(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Alison Williams)

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Tiger mauls worker at exotic feline sanctuary in Indiana

A tiger kept at an Indiana sanctuary for abused and neglected felines mauled a caretaker who was cleaning the animal's pen on Friday, gripping the woman's head in its mouth at one point in an attack that left the victim in critical condition, authorities said.

Co-workers at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center broke off the attack by the 18-year-old tiger by spraying the animal in the face with water, then luring it away from the woman with food, the Clay County Sheriff's Department said in a statement.

 

The caretaker, Marrisa Dub, 21, was flown by helicopter to Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis, 65 miles southwest of the sanctuary, authorities said.

A fellow worker was alerted to the midday attack by Dub's screams and ran to the tiger's cage to find the tiger grasping Dub by her head with its jaws, facility director Joe Taft told investigators.

It was then that the tiger, named Raja, was doused with water and lured away to allow Dub to be rescued from the pen. The tiger, whose gender and size were not disclosed, was unhurt in the incident, the sheriff said.

Investigators said the door that separates the holding cage, where the tiger is kept during cleaning and maintenance, and its main habitat enclosure had not been closed while Dub was inside.

Officials at the sanctuary declined to comment on the incident, which was under investigation by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The center, which opened in 1991, is home to more than 230 exotic felines that have been abused or neglected, according to its website. The facility was open for tours, but no visitors witnessed the incident, authorities said .

The attack in Indiana came three months after a 24-year-old wildlife sanctuary worker in California was killed by an African lion that had slipped out of its holding pen while the employee was cleaning its enclosure.

(Reporting and writing by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)

Crews break ground on largest California dam removal

Demolition crews on Friday began work on the biggest dam removal in California, a project aimed at protecting homes threatened by the aging, obsolete structure and restoring spawning grounds for native trout.

Plans call for the 94-year-old San Clemente Dam, built on the Carmel River about 120 miles south of San Francisco, to be torn down in stages over three years, followed by rerouting of the river around the dam site and wildlife restoration.

 

"In 10 years, when you come to the site, you won't be able to tell there was a dam there," said Jeff Szytel, founder of contractor Water Systems Consulting, who is overseeing the project.

The demolition is part of a larger safety and restoration effort that will include removal of a smaller dam downstream from San Clemente and recycling of sediment that has built up in the reservoir behind the dam.

The dam was designed to divert Carmel River water to the Monterey Peninsula, but with the reservoir nearly filled with silt that purpose is now carried out through groundwater pumping.

The 106-foot-tall (32-metre-tall) concrete arch dam was deemed seismically unsafe in the early 1990s by the California Department of Water Resources, which concluded that roughly 1,500 homes and public buildings downstream were vulnerable in the event of a major flood or earthquake.

The San Clemente is roughly twice as high as the 55-foot-tall (17-metre-tall) dam dismantled in the early 1970s near the northern California coastal town of Eureka, the largest previously removed in the state, Szytel said.

Tearing down the San Clemente Dam will enable the reopening of 25 miles of creeks and tributaries in the Carmel River watershed, allowing Central California Coast steelhead trout, listed as a threatened species, to return to native spawning areas.

The project's cost, estimated at $84 million including wildlife restoration, will be shared between the dam's current owners, the state and federal government.

Groundbreaking on the San Clemente removal follows federal recommendations to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California to resolve water allocation disputes and restore habitats for Coho salmon and other fish.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Mohammad Zargham)

Snowden extradition battle in Hong Kong could go on for years

A former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor charged with spying by the United States and in hiding in Hong Kong is expected to be the subject of a formal extradition request at any time in what could drag into a legal battle lasting years.

Since making his revelations about massive U.S. surveillance programs, legal sources in Hong Kong say Edward Snowden, 30, has sought legal representation from human rights lawyers as he prepares to fight U.S. attempts to force him home for trial.

 

U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges coming under the U.S. Espionage Act.

The United States and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty which came into effect in 1998, a year after Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule. Scores of Americans have been sent back home for trial since then.

While espionage and theft of state secrets are not cited specifically in the treaty, equivalent charges could be pressed against Snowden under Hong Kong's Official Secrets Ordinance, legal experts said.

If Hong Kong authorities did not charge Snowden with an equivalent crime, authorities could not extradite him, lawyers said. In the absence of charges, Snowden was also theoretically free to leave the city, one legal expert said.

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that while the first charge involving theft might readily find equivalence in Hong Kong, the latter two spying offences will likely attract "litigation and dispute" in the courts.

The timeframe for such proceedings remains unclear, but Hectar Pun, a lawyer with human rights expertise, was quoted as saying such an extradition could take three to five years.

Under Hong Kong's extradition mechanism, a request first goes through diplomatic channels to Hong Kong's leader, who decides whether to issue an "authority to proceed". If granted, a magistrate issues a formal warrant for the arrest of Snowden.

Once brought before the court, the judge would decide whether there was sufficient evidence to commit Snowden to trial or dismiss the case, though any decision could be appealed in a higher court.

Snowden could claim political asylum in Hong Kong, arguing he would face torture back home. Article six of the treaty states extradition should be refused for "an offence of a political character".

"The unfairness of his trial at home and his likely treatment in custody" were important factors to consider for Snowden, said Young, the law professor, on Snowden's chances of claiming political immunity from extradition.

Should a Hong Kong court eventually call for Snowden's extradition, Hong Kong's leader and China could, however, still veto the decision on national security or defense grounds.

Snowden has admitted leaking secrets about classified U.S. surveillance programs, which he said he did in the public interest. Supporters say he is a whistleblower, while critics call him a criminal and perhaps even a traitor.

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

Pentagon flash drive ban has many exceptions

The Pentagon has granted many exceptions, possibly numbering in the thousands, to allow staff members who administer secure computer networks to use flash drives and other portable storage devices, department spokesmen say.

The exceptions to policies barring the use of such devices could make it easier for rogue employees to remove sensitive documents. But officials say waivers go to people who update software and run helpdesk services for the Pentagon's vast computer network and are needed to run the system efficiently.

 

The U.S. government's handling of sensitive documents has come under scrutiny since Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for a contractor with the National Security Administration, copied classified materials at a Hawaii installation and leaked them to the news media.

Snowden used a simple flash drive to store the materials, according to a government source close to the investigation.

Storage devices have been a concern at the Defense Department since the 2008 Buckshot Yankee incident, in which a malicious software worm known as agent.btz was uploaded to military networks by a thumb drive.

Then-Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn declassified the incident in 2010 and U.S. Cyber Command, which was established in the wake of Buckshot Yankee, banned the devices.

About that same time, according to prosecutors, Private Bradley Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, copied thousands of documents onto CDs and a digital camera card and leaked them to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

Since then, the Pentagon has bolstered efforts to prevent removal of classified data, Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory said. The department is in 100 percent compliance with directives to disable or tightly control use of removable media devices on the Pentagon's secure network, he said.

That means most users have restricted profiles and their computers do not recognize flash drives and other devices, like BlackBerrys, that may be plugged into USB ports, Pentagon spokesmen say.

The different military branches also have established programs to control and track personnel authorized to download data from the secure network, they say. Automatic systems instantly report if someone connects an unauthorized device, or inappropriately uses credentials for accessing the system.

While use of flash drives is largely barred, exceptions are granted to systems administrators who install software and manage helpdesk services for the department's millions of computers and nearly 600,000 mobile devices in some 15,000 networked groups.

Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman, said the department was unable to specify how many exceptions had been given because authority is delegated to smaller units within the service and is not tracked at the department level.

Given the size of the system, it could be in the thousands, he said.

Steven Bucci, a former Pentagon official and now a cyber security expert for the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank, said a computer network the size of the Pentagon's needed a large number of administrators at different levels to run efficiently.

Concentrating access and control in the hands of a small number of people could create even bigger risks if one of the trusted few decided to divulge information, he added, because they would have been exposed to a wider array of information.

"There is a certain point where you have to start trusting people and that becomes a very imperfect system," he said. "If you have a malicious insider - someone who has the authority to do stuff but then decides to violate the rules - you've got a problem, and there's ... very little you can do to stop that."

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Decisions on who gets waivers are made by colonels or generals who have been granted that authority for their installations, brigades or other units, Pentagon officials said.

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The Pentagon declined to comment on Snowden's case, citing an ongoing criminal investigation.

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Bucci said that after the Manning case, the Pentagon tightened network security about as far as it could.

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"What it comes down to then is the leadership, trying to watch your people, listen for those signals," he said. "But, heck, I mean even if you've got the best, most competent leaders and supervisors in the world, sometimes you're still going to miss those people."

_4">

(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Claudia Parsons)

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Southwest flights delayed, canceled after computer glitch

Southwest Airlines Co canceled or delayed about 250 flights overnight and early on Saturday due to a system-wide outage of computers used to dispatch aircraft, said a spokeswoman for the airline.

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The Dallas-based airline said 43 overnight flights were canceled as a result of the outage, which began around 11 p.m. EDT on Friday (0300 GMT on Saturday) and lasted until about 3 a.m. on Saturday (0700 GMT), said Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Michelle Agnew.

 

Another 14 morning flights were canceled due to "flight crew availability and aircraft positioning" after the outage ended, she said.

Most of the cancellations affected routes in the western United States, Agnew said. Flights that were already airborne were not affected by the outage, while planes on the ground were held back, she said, adding that the cause of the computer failure was unknown.

Southwest, which operates some 3,400 flights daily, said in a statement on its website that its "systems are working at full capacity."

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Scott Malone and Paul Simao)

Miami pet-rescue plan seeks unusual property tax funding

Rather than euthanize unwanted cats and dogs, politicians in Florida's Miami-Dade County are proposing a special property tax that would pay for saving the animals for possible adoption.

Lawmakers gave initial approval this week to a plan that would raise $20 million annually for the pet fund, amounting to about $20 per homeowner per year.

 

The money would be used to fund a variety of programs to make the county a "no kill" zone, where at least 90 percent of abandoned animals would be protected until new homes are found. Last year the county euthanized almost 12,000 animals.

Each year, about 8 million stray and unwanted animals are taken in by shelters across the United States, with almost half being euthanized when homes can't be found for them, according to the American Humane Association.

The Miami-Dade County plan would include expanding free and low-cost spay and neutering services to reduce the homeless population on the streets, adding veterinarians and nurses to the county's Animal Services Department and hosting more adoption events to find homes for stray dogs and cats.

The proposal could be finalized later this summer when the county commission sets its budget for the coming fiscal year.

Creating or expanding taxes to bolster animal services is uncommon, according to Nathan Winograd, director of the California-based No Kill Advocacy Center.

"There are communities that found a way to do it through the existing budget," he said. Most cities' animal services departments are funded through a combination of private fundraising, general fund taxes and pet license fees.

In 2006 Washoe County, Nevada, which includes Reno, opened an animal shelter after voters approved a $10.7 million bond issue, along with a three-cent property tax increase to operate it.

Miami-Dade's plan doesn't include new shelters, but it could use some of the added money to provide grants to non-profit organizations that work with stray pets and potential owners.

Sixty-five percent of Miami-Dade voters - about 500,000 - supported increasing property taxes in a November 2012 non-binding vote.

Miami's overcrowded shelters take in nearly 40,000 animals annually while the total pet population is estimated at more than 400,000. The county is Florida's largest, home to 2.6 million human residents, including the city of Miami.

In 2012, some 33,000 animals were received at Miami area shelters with 11,900 euthanized and 7,300 adopted, said Luis Salgado, spokesman for the county's Animal Services Department.

"Our goal is to save as many animals as we can, sometimes we have two in a cage," Salgado said. "If in one month we receive 600 animals, obviously we don't have room. The reality is some are going to have to be euthanized for space."

A top official with animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said she wished more communities would try the approach Miami-Dade is considering.

"This is probably one of the first times I've seen a jurisdiction, especially one the size of Miami, tackle what's really a nationwide crisis," said Daphna Nachminovitch, a senior vice president at Norfolk, Virginia-based PETA.

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Despite the broad support, some county commissioners have raised concerns about whether the money should be dedicated to other needy groups such as the elderly or homeless.

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Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, the plan's sponsor, defended the pet adoption proposal at a public meeting this week. "This is a separate issue from children and the elderly (where) every year there is a crisis," he said.

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(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)

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