Republican star Mia Love gets second chance to make political history

Utah's Mia Love, a Republican darling who could become the first conservative black woman elected to U.S. Congress, is getting a second, and likely better, chance to make history after narrowly losing to a popular incumbent Democrat in 2012.

Love, 39, is a Mormon mother of three who is upending stereotypes about the state and its predominant faith. She locked up her party's nomination to vie for an open seat in Utah's 4th District at a state convention last month with an overwhelming 78 percent of the vote.

The seat became available when Jim Matheson retired after seven terms in Congress as the heavily conservative state's lone Democrat in Washington. Two years ago, the politically savvy son of a beloved Utah governor beat Love by fewer than 800 votes.

If Love wins this time, she would become an unlikely champion in Washington of staunchly conservative views - limited government, fiscal discipline and state's rights. The daughter of Haitian immigrants is pro-life, pro-gun and holds a concealed weapons permit.

She also supports Utah's effort to reclaim public land from federal agency controls, a hot issue in the U.S. West among conservatives, and has said she would vote against regulations she believes would restrict economic development.

"I love the story of David and Goliath, because in that story, David runs toward Goliath. He ran toward a seemingly impossible challenge," Love said during a testy debate this week with her opponent, Doug Owens, a Democrat and first-time candidate.

"That's the type of confidence we need to have as we take on the Goliaths of our debt, out-of-control spending, Obamacare and that Godzilla we call the federal government," she said.

In November, Love will face Owens in a conservative district created after the 2010 Census that encompasses parts of Democratic-leaning Salt Lake City, then runs south along the Wasatch Front into parts of rural Utah that are typically Republican strongholds.

Her competitor, a 50-year-old attorney, is the son of former Utah U.S. Representative Wayne Owens, also a Democrat.

WAR CHEST

Despite her 2012 loss, Love has never left the political scene. The former mayor of Saratoga Springs has continued to speak at state and local Republican and community events, and has been tapped as a conservative commentator by numerous conservative national media programs.

Federal Election Commission records show that, as of April 6, Love had amassed a campaign war chest of more than $2 million. The 2012 Love-Matheson contest, with candidates chalking up more than $10 million in spending, was the most expensive House race in Utah's history.

Her exposure and experience should put Love in a stronger position than previously, said Chris Karpowitz, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

But Love, who was named one of the Republican party's "Young Guns" to watch and given a speaking slot at the 2012 national convention, appears to have toned down some of the Tea Party-style rhetoric, he said.

"She is in a good position in the sense that she has run already, so people know her name," Karpowitz said. "And she seems to be running a campaign that is a little more focused on the kind of voters that Jim Matheson traditionally won."

A spokeswoman for Love did not respond to questions about how the 2014 campaign would differ from her earlier run.

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Owens, viewed as the underdog, told Reuters by email that he believes voters have tired of partisan rancor and extreme viewpoints.

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"I will beat Mia Love the same way that Jim Matheson did," said Owens, a self-described pragmatist. "By focusing on the issues that are important to Utahns and not on national partisan ideology."

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(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)

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Magnitude 6.4 earthquake shakes Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria

An earthquake of 6.4 magnitude struck off the coast of northern class="mandelbrot_refrag">Greece on Saturday, sending panicked residents into the streets in Greece, class="mandelbrot_refrag">Turkey and Bulgaria, officials said.

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In class="mandelbrot_refrag">Turkey, about about 270 people were hospitalized, most with minor injuries, as a tremor shook buildings, the government disaster and emergency department (AFAD) said.

The quake also rattled Turkey's most populous city, Istanbul, as well as the Aegean coastal city of Izmir and the popular tourism province of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast.

One person was in critical condition after jumping from a balcony in the western Turkish town of Canakkale, AFAD said.

 
 
 

Hurriyet Daily News reported 30 people injured jumping out of apartments in the town and patients in one hospital were evacuated after cracks emerged in the building.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake occurred 69 km (42 miles) south-southwest of the Greek city of Alexandroupolis, between the islands of Lemnos and Samothrace, at a depth of 10 km (6 miles).

"It lasted very long and it was very intense. We haven't got the full picture of the damage caused yet," the mayor of Lemnos, Antonis Chatzidiamantis, told Mega TV.

One woman British tourist was slightly injured at the Aegean island's airport when part of the ceiling collapsed, Chatzidiamantis said.

"It was very strong - cupboards, glasses, coffee cups, they all broke," an elderly Lemnos resident told Greek radio.

Greek police said the quake had caused minor damage to shops and houses on the two islands.

Seismologists described the quake, which was felt across class="mandelbrot_refrag">Greece, as "severe" and warned that aftershocks measuring over 5.0 magnitude were likely.

"It will certainly have a very rich aftershock activity," seismologist Costas Papazachos told Ant1 TV. "There is obviously some reason for concern...we could easily have aftershocks of 5, 5.5 or 6 magnitude," he said.

Greece is often buffeted by earthquakes. Most cause no serious damage but a 5.9 magnitude quake in 1999 killed 143 people.

In Turkey, more than 600 people died in October 2011 in the eastern province of Van after a quake of 7.2 magnitude and powerful aftershocks. In 1999, two massive earthquakes killed about 20,000 people in Turkey's densely populated northwest.

Saturday's tremor was also felt throughout Bulgaria, where two women in the southwestern cities of Smolian and Petrich collapsed under stress, the government said in a statement.

"The whole house was shaking. It was scary," a resident in Bulgaria's second biggest city Plovdiv, Gergana Petrova, told Focus News agency.

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Renee Maltezou in Athens, Asli Kandemir and Nick Tattersall in Istanbul, Jonny Hogg in Ankara and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia)

U.S. may act to keep Chinese hackers out of Def Con hacker event

Washington is considering using visa restrictions to prevent Chinese nationals from attending popular summer hacking conferences in Las Vegas as part of a broader effort to curb Chinese cyber espionage, a senior administration official said Saturday.

The official said that Washington could use such visa restrictions and other measures to keep Chinese from attending the August Def Con and Black Hat events to maintain pressure on class="mandelbrot_refrag">China after the United States this week charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secrets.

class="mandelbrot_refrag">China has denied the charges, saying they were "made up."

 
 
 

Organizers of the two conferences said they knew nothing about any efforts under consideration by Washington, but that they believed limiting participation from China was a bad idea.

Jeff Moss, founder of both Def Con and Black Hat, could not be reached, although he posted his thoughts on Twitter: "First I have heard of it, boarding flight to D.C. now. I don't think it helps build positive community."

Chris Wysopal, a Black Hat review board member, said restricting access would have little impact. Hacking talks from both conferences are videotaped and sold on DVDs or posted on the web.

Members of the community of hackers and security professionals who present at Def Con and Black weighed in on Twitter. Responses ranged from bemusement to anger.

"That is terrible," said Richard Westmoreland.

"Racism by the U.S: No Chinese people allowed at Defcon," tweeted Valdes Nzalli.

"Something tells me that the Chinese hackers who the U.S. gov are worried about don't go to defcon anyways," said Steve Manzuik.

Def Con's official Twitter feed posted a tongue-in-cheek response: "If you are going to speak at or attend #DEFCON & you need a visa to enter U.S. please contact us for invite letter to help your app."

At Black Hat, an employee of Chinese security class="mandelbrot_refrag">software maker Qihoo 360 is scheduled to speak on software vulnerabilities while two researchers with Chinese University of Hong Kong are set to talk on hacking social media. Def Con does not have any Chinese nationals on its roster.

It would be tough to prevent Chinese from attending Def Con because its privacy-conscious organizers only take cash and badges have no names.

U.S. agencies are weighing a range of options if China does not a curb its cyber espionage, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

"We've tried to have a constructive dialogue. The State Department and the Defense Department have traveled to China to share evidence of hacking by the (People's Liberation Army), but those types of interchanges have not sparked a lot of progress or reciprocity," said the official.

The possible visa restrictions were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. It said other options for increasing pressure include releasing new evidence about the alleged hacking operations.

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Ten to 12 Chinese citizens were unexpectedly denied visas last week to attend a space and cyber conference hosted by the Space Foundation in Colorado this week, the organizers said.

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Speakers included Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and other high-ranking U.S. intelligence and military officials.

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State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said visa applications were confidential, but cautioned against drawing a connection between the denials and indictments of the hackers.

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(Additional reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Stephen Powell, David Evans and Gunna Dickson)

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Ukraine defends vote despite unrest, Putin pledges 'respect'

Vladimir Putin promised that class="mandelbrot_refrag">Russia would work with the new Ukrainian administration formed after a presidential election on Sunday that the Kiev government said on Saturday would anchor the ex-Soviet state to the West.

In the eastern region where at least 20 people were killed in recent days, there was less violence, though in fighting near Slaviansk between pro-Moscow rebels and Ukrainian paratroopers, unconfirmed local media reports spoke of up to four deaths.

The separatists reject an election run by a fascist "junta" in Kiev and national electoral officials said few ballot papers had yet been issued in two eastern regions with over 12 percent of the electorate, implying most there will be denied a vote.

 
 
 

Denouncing an "atmosphere of terror" directed against local electoral officials in the east, Europe's OSCE democracy agency pulled out most of the dozens of international monitors it had posted to Donetsk region out of fears for their security.

Polls point to a resounding win for a pro-Western candidate and a heavy turnout elsewhere in the country of 45 million.

President Putin's verbal olive branch after months of East-West feuding and his annexation of Crimea, came at an economic forum where, having earlier acknowledged U.S. and EU sanctions were hurting the Russian class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy, he played down talk of a new Cold War and denied a desire to rebuild Moscow's Soviet empire.

Though he renewed criticism of Western powers for backing what he called a coup in February against the last elected president, his ally Viktor Yanukovich, Putin said: "We will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and will be working with the authorities formed on the basis of this election."

Ukraine's government and its Western allies, however, view the actions of pro-Moscow militants in disrupting voting in the heavily populated, Russian-speaking east as supported by the Kremlin to deny the new president legitimacy and give class="mandelbrot_refrag">Russia perpetual leverage to exert its influence over its neighbor.

Putin again protested Russia's innocence and its desire to see class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ukraine stable after months of worsening national divisions.

His assurances were welcomed by the leaders of class="mandelbrot_refrag">France and class="mandelbrot_refrag">Germany who spoke to Putin in a three-way telephone call that underlined the importance of class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ukraine and Russia to a European Union that holds elections to its own EU parliament on Sunday.

A statement from the office of French President Francois Hollande in Paris said he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had "taken note" of Putin's comments on working with Kiev's new leaders and that all three backed a national dialogue with OSCE support to resolve the crisis and amend Ukraine's constitution.

The interim Kiev leadership, who held a pre-election prayer meeting with religious leaders on Saturday seeking divine aid for the country's recovery, have offered greater autonomy for the east. But they reject Moscow's call for a looser federation and its claims of discrimination against Russian speakers.

PRO-WEST FRONTRUNNERS

Polls point to a resounding victory for pro-Western allies of the interim government on a turnout expected to be high, even allowing for the absence of Crimea and two big eastern regions.

Billionaire businessman and former minister Petro Poroshenko could win outright by passing 50 percent in Sunday's first round. But with 20 other candidates he may be forced into a runoff with former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, a distant runner-up in polls.

Though both have been involved in a feuding political and class="mandelbrot_refrag">business elite that has failed to break a cycle of epic-scale corruption and national impoverishment and disunity since the Soviet collapse 23 years ago, the leading candidates carry the hopes of many Ukrainians desperate for a fresh start after rising up against their leaders for the second time in a decade.

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Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said in a televised address urging people to take their responsibility to vote and show "we cannot be intimidated" that the new president would make a first foreign visit to Brussels. There they would sign a free trade deal with the EU, whose rejection by Yanukovich in November triggered protests in Kiev that ended when he fled to Russia:

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"The newly elected president will receive from the Ukrainian people a mandate for a determined and unstoppable movement away from the grey zone of lawlessness and dark forces that dream of suffocating us, and into an area of free people rallied around common values - to a place where it is easier to breathe."

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Many Ukrainians, especially in the east, where businesses trade with Russia and fear competition from the EU, are wary of opening up the class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy. Millions, however, and not only in more nationalistic, Ukrainian-speaking areas in the west, are keen on the prospect of travelling freely in Europe without a visa.

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VIOLENCE, ANGER

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Yatseniuk assured those in the east whose ability to vote, he said, was being infringed by "the war against Ukraine" that they would soon be free of "bandits". Tensions among rival armed forces continue to run high, however, and government forces, long starved of resources, show little capacity to take charge.

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Ukrainian government officials said their forces fought off attempts by militants to break an encirclement of the rebel-held city of Slaviansk, in the north of Donetsk region, on Saturday. Reuters journalists watched rebels and paratroopers exchange mortar fire for nearly two hours in the afternoon.

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Interfax-Ukraine news agency quoted separatists saying that two media workers had been killed and a pro-Kiev blogger saying that two Ukrainian soldiers died. The reports could not be confirmed. On Thursday, 17 Ukrainian troops were killed in an ambush and on Friday at least two pro-Kiev militiamen died.

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Keeping up a war of words with Moscow against a background of Russian and NATO buildups around Ukraine's borders, the Ukrainian foreign ministry issued a statement on Saturday saying border guards had seized armed men in several vehicles trying to cross the frontier from Russia illegally overnight.

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"The penetration onto Ukrainian territory of armed terrorist groups, organized by the Russian authorities, is nothing other than the latest act of aggression against our state," it said.

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Away from the restive east, Ukraine's defense ministry said an anti-aircraft battery facing Crimea fired warning shots at two Russian helicopter gunships approaching the mainland.

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"ATMOSPHERE OF TERROR"

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A civic group that supports the holding of elections said the head of a local polling station on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk was briefly kidnapped by armed men. And other electoral officials spoke of their fear of running the ballot.

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"There's an atmosphere of terror," an OSCE source said of conditions facing Donetsk officials from opponents of the poll. "We've found many officials sending us terrified SMSs."

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Most of the dozens of foreigners due to monitor voting across Donetsk region were being pulled out, he said. Ukrainian officials said many polling stations in Donetsk and Luhansk regions would not open and that ballot papers had yet to be distributed for fear of militants trying to seize them.

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The regions account for over a tenth of the electorate.

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Nationwide, over 1,000 OSCE observers will check polling stations and counts. Voting will run for 12 hours until 8 p.m. (1700 GMT). Exit polls will give a rapid indication of the result, but a definitive outcome will only be known on Monday.

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Holding the election would itself be a national victory, Prime Minister Yatseniuk said. "Remember, tomorrow, with our ballot papers, we will be defending Ukraine, investing in its prosperity and in the future of our children and grandchildren.

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"We will vote, and that means we will triumph."

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In Donetsk, capital of the Russian-speaking industrial Donbass area, people are deeply divided, with many keen to vote and remain in Ukraine and others hoping that a makeshift referendum held by rebels two weeks ago will let them follow Crimea into union with the much wealthier Russia.

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Calling the Kiev authorities "worse than the Nazis", a pensioner who gave his name as Dmitry said outside the rebel-occupied regional administration building: "We are living under occupation ... Of course I'm not going to vote."

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But nearby, 74-year-old Anatoly was equally contemptuous of those who have turned the building into the headquarters of their self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk. Glaring at the barricades and rebel flags, he said:

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"This is all nonsense, absolute nonsense. I'm against all of this - I can't believe they are acting against the Ukrainian state. They are Ukrainian fascists."

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Saying he would not be able to cast a ballot, he added: "I have a right to vote. But they have taken away my right."

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In the port of Mariupol, in the south of Donetsk region, a local electoral official, Viktor Kovba, said at least 10 of the city's 100 stations would not open and more might be affected.

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"There's a risk the election will be disrupted. It wouldn't take much," he said. "If they target three stations, the whole city will know immediately and people won't go to vote."

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An official at one polling station, who gave her name as Viktoria, was frank. She said: "People are afraid."

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(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Mariupol and Paul Ingrassia and Alexei Anishchuk in St. Petersburg; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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EU set for election 'Super Sunday,' with far-right vote in spotlight

European elections reach their culmination on "Super Sunday" when the remaining 20 of the EU's 28 countries go to the polls, with the vote expected to confirm the dominance of pro-European centrists despite a rise in support for the far-right and left.

class="mandelbrot_refrag">Germany, class="mandelbrot_refrag">France, class="mandelbrot_refrag">Spain and Poland are among the major EU member states voting on Sunday, representing the bulk of the 388 million Europeans eligible to cast ballots and elect the 751 deputies to sit in the European Parliament from 2014-2019.

After years of economic crisis, rising unemployment and poor growth, many Europeans have come to question the wisdom of ever-closer EU integration and are expected to vote for Eurosceptic parties on the right or left promising radical changes.

 
 
 

Opinion polls suggest at least a quarter of seats in the parliament will go to anti-EU or protest groups, but at least 70 percent will remain with the four mainstream, pro-EU blocs: the center-left, center-right, liberals and Greens.

Turnout - the most basic measure of citizens' engagement with Europe - is expected to fall again, dropping to just over 40 percent, marginally down from 43 percent in 2009. That would continue the trend of declining participation at every European election since the first direct poll was held in 1979.

While expectations ahead of the vote were that far-right groups would record historic victories in countries such as class="mandelbrot_refrag">France, the Netherlands and Britain, exit polls from the Netherlands, which voted on Thursday, were a surprise.

Geert Wilders' anti-EU and anti-Islam Freedom Party came fourth rather than first, according to exit polls from Ipsos, with the majority voting for pro-EU parties. That has left centrists hoping for a wider surprise.

"At the end of the campaign, and after reflection, the Dutch have drawn the conclusion that the European Union means strength and extreme nationalism is a danger," said Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal alliance and a former prime minister of Belgium whose group may win up to 70 seats in parliament.

"On Sunday, the only alternative is to vote for candidates with strong liberal and democratic values."

The European Parliament has said it will announce preliminary results shortly after 2100 GMT on Sunday, although officials caution that Italy's decision to keep polls open until the same time may well delay any announcement.

Final results and the precise allotment of seats in parliament is expected to be announced by the end of Monday.

COMMISSION PRESIDENT

As well as determining the makeup of the next European Parliament, these elections will for the first time influence who becomes president of the European Commission, a powerful role overseeing pan-EU legislation.

Each of the main party groups in Europe has nominated a "Spitzenkandidat" - German for a leading candidate or front runner - who will be their nominee for Commission president if that group should win the election.

Polls are predicting that the center-right European People's Party will secure around 220 seats, putting it 15 to 20 seats ahead of the center-left Socialists & Democrats.

That would position the EPP's top candidate, former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, to replace Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso as Commission president.

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But it is far from an open and shut case. The Socialists & Democrats may well get support from other parties on the left and claim they have a broader mandate for their front-runner, Germany's Martin Schulz, the current parliament president.

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Ultimately, it is up to EU heads of state and government to nominate a candidate for the Commission post, which must then be approved by a simple majority in parliament.

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While the "Spitzenkandidat" process has increased the pressure on EU leaders to choose the candidate from the party that wins the most seats, they may well have to look elsewhere for a nominee. Britain is staunchly opposed to either Juncker or Schulz, and other member states have quietly expressed reservations.

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Parliament leaders will meet on the morning of May 27 to discuss the election results and the Commission presidency, and EU leaders will do the same at a summit on the evening of the same day. But it is expected to take several weeks before leaders decide on a name to put to a parliamentary vote.

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(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Opposition to Thai coup simmers, ex-PM in 'safe place'

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was in a "safe place" on Saturday after being held by the army following a coup, an aide said, as opposition to the takeover grew among her supporters and pro-democracy activists.

The army moved on Thursday after failing to forge a compromise in a power struggle between Yingluck's populist government and the royalist establishment, which brought months of sometimes violent unrest to Bangkok's streets.

Consolidating its grip, the military dissolved the Senate on Saturday, the only legislative assembly still functioning in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Thailand. It also sacked three senior security officials who were seen as close to the ousted government.

 
 
 

The military detained Yingluck on Friday when she and about 150 other people, most of them political associates, were summoned to an army facility in Bangkok.

More people were summoned over the weekend, including some outspoken academics and journalists. The bosses of 18 newspapers and private and public sector economic administrators were also called to meetings with the military.

A senior officer told Reuters Yingluck could be held for up to a week and media reported she had been taken to an army base in Saraburi province north of Bangkok, but an aide denied that.

"Now she's in a safe place ... She has not been detained in any military camp. That's all I can say at this moment," said the aide, who declined to be identified.

Thailand's political woes are the latest chapter in a nearly decade-long clash between the Bangkok-based establishment and Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications tycoon who broke the mould of Thai politics with pro-poor policies that won him huge support and repeated electoral victories.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and left the country after a 2008 graft conviction, but he remains Thailand's most influential politician and was the guiding hand behind the government of Yingluck, his sister.

The military also detained Thaksin's adult son, and Yingluck's nephew, Panthongtae Shinawatra, according to posts on social media, but his sister later said that was not true.

Army deputy spokesman Winthai Suvaree told a news conference that anyone being held would not be detained for more than seven days. He did not mention Yingluck.

The military also issued an order to financial institutions to freeze dealings with two former ministers in Yingluck's cabinet who had not responded to a military summons.

The army also said King Bhumibol Adulyadej had acknowledged the military takeover, a significant formality in a country where the monarchy is the most important institution.

An undercurrent of the crisis is anxiety over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is 86 and spent the years from 2009 to 2013 in hospital.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, but some Thaksin supporters have recently been making a point of their loyalty to the prince.

"REFORMS BEFORE ELECTION"

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Despite international calls for the restoration of democratic government, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has not promised a swift return to civilian rule, insisting there must be broad reforms and stability first.

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"We must have economic, social and political reforms before elections," Prayuth told civil servants on Friday in his first comments on his plans since the coup. "If the situation is peaceful, we are ready to return power to the people."

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But reforms could take many months and stability could be elusive.

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Many countries have issued travel warnings for class="mandelbrot_refrag">Thailand.

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The United States swiftly condemned the coup and the State Department suspended about $3.5 million in military aid.

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The Pentagon said on Saturday it was cancelling training and readiness exercises with Thailand, as well as a visit to Thailand by U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris, and one by a top Thai commander to the U.S. Pacific Command.

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Human Rights Watch said rights in Thailand were in "free fall". But in what appeared to be a quick move to win over some of Thaksin's core supporters, Prayuth said on Friday paying farmers money owed under a failed subsidy scheme organized by Yingluck's government was a priority.

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STIRRINGS OF OPPOSITION

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The military has banned gatherings of more than five people, censored the media and imposed a 10 p.m to 5 a.m. curfew, but that has not stopped some from showing their disapproval.

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About 200 people gathered outside a mall complex in north Bangkok early on Saturday, holding up handwritten slogans such as "Anti the Coup" and "Get out Dictators".

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Police tried to move them on, a Reuters reporter said. The crowd then moved to the Victory Monument but police tried to block them. There was some pushing and plastic water bottles were thrown.

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About 100 people gathered in a nearby shopping area before soldiers dispersed them, detaining several, a Reuters photographer said.

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About 200 people gathered for a second day in Chiang Mai, Thaksin's hometown, and soldiers detained at least six people, a Reuters reporter said.

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Such small protests appear spontaneous and leaderless but the real danger for the military would be a sustained mass campaign by Thaksin's "red shirt" loyalists.

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Thaksin has not commented publicly since the coup.

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The use of force to put down protesters could squander any legitimacy the military leaders may have after saying they took power in the first place to end violence and restore order.

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A 2010 crackdown on Thaksin's supporters ended in serious bloodshed and damage to the army's image. Just over a year later a pro-Thaksin government was back in power after Yingluck's sweeping election victory.

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(Writing by Robert Birsel and Alan Raybould; Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Gunman kills six in drive-by shooting in California college town

A gunman killed six people and wounded seven others in a drive-by shooting in a Southern California college town, spraying bullets from his car until it crashed and he was found dead inside, authorities said on Saturday.

Authorities were investigating a possible link between the Friday night shooting in the town of Isla Vista near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara and a threatening video posted online.

In the YouTube video, which Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown said appears to have been made by the suspected gunman, a young man bitterly complains of loneliness and rejection by women and says he plans to kill people.

 
 
 

Witnesses to the violence reported seeing someone driving a black BMW through the streets and shooting at people in Isla Vista, a beachside community where many college students live.

"It's obviously the work of a madman," Brown told a news conference. "There's going to be a lot more information that will come out that will give a clearer picture of just how disturbed this individual was."

Seven people died in the rampage, including the suspect, Brown said. Brown has not publicly named the suspect but a lawyer for the suspected gunman's family tentatively identified him as Elliot Rodger, son of a Hollywood director.

"I cannot confirm that but we believe it," the attorney, Alan Shifman, told reporters outside the family home in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. "But the police would not give us 100 percent (certainty)."

"We offer our deepest, compassionate sympathy to the families involved in this terrible tragedy," Shifman told reporters, reading from a prepared statement on behalf of the family. "We are experiencing the most inconceivable pain and our hearts go out to everyone involved."

The suspected gunman's father was Peter Rodger, an assistant director on 2012 film "The Hunger class="mandelbrot_refrag">Games."

The New York Times quoted Shifman as saying that Rodger's parents had called the police about a month ago to class="mandelbrot_refrag">express concerns about his YouTube videos "regarding suicide and the killing of people." The newspaper quoted Shifman as saying police officers had interviewed Rodger but concluded he posed no danger. Shifman said they had found him to be a "perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human," the Times said.

Brown said deputies had twice exchanged fire with the suspected gunman on Friday night before his vehicle crashed and the suspect was found dead inside of a gunshot wound to the head. Brown could not say if he was killed by deputies or died of a self-inflicted wound.

A semi-automatic handgun was recovered from the scene, Brown said.

California's KEYT-TV reported that the suspected gunman's apartment complex was also a crime scene and that three bodies had been removed from the site. Authorities could not immediately confirm the report and there was no immediate word whether the bodies were included in the existing death toll.

POPULAR KIDS

The YouTube video police were studying showed a young man who identified himself as Elliot Rodger pouring out his hatred of women who have rejected him and "popular kids," and threatening to kill people out of loneliness and sexual frustration.

"You girls have never been attracted to me. I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. It's an injustice, a crime," he said in the video, his speech punctuated by bursts of laughter.

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The video appeared to have been uploaded to YouTube on Friday night, shortly before the shooting. "It would appear that is connected," Brown said.

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YouTube has since removed the video, posting in its place a notice saying it violated its terms of service. A spokeswoman for class="mandelbrot_refrag">Google, which owns YouTube, was not available for comment.

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The identities of those killed in the rampage were withheld pending notification of their families, and there was no immediate word on the condition of the wounded.

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But Richard Martinez told reporters that his 20-year-old son Christopher, a UCSB English major who wanted to go to law school, was killed while buying his dinner in a deli store that came under fire by the gunman.

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"Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA," an emotional Martinez told reporters outside the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office. "They talk about gun rights, what about Chris' right to live? When will this insanity stop?"

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"POPPING NOISES"

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Robert Johnson, a 21-year-old UCSB student, said he first noticed trouble after a car drove past him at a busy Isla Vista intersection and he then heard "popping noises" that he originally mistook for firecrackers or the car backfiring.

_7">

"Then the sound came again, and by that point it had pulled up in front of a convenience store deli, and someone in the car was firing into a crowd of about eight, 10 people that were gathered in front of the store," he said.

_8">

"Everyone that was being fired upon, they all jumped and scrambled to run inside the store," he said.

_9">

The car had darkly tinted windows and the occupant was not visible, Johnson said.

_10">

College student Brad Martin told a UCSB student newspaper that his girlfriend was "absolutely hysterical" after being approached by the gunman with a weapon she initially was not sure was real.

_11">

"She said the next second he raised it up to her face ... and she turned around and started running," Martin told the Daily Nexus. "That's when she heard 'bang, bang, bang' right behind her as she was running."

_12">

University of California President Janet Napolitano, formerly U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, said she was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the shooting near the campus.

_13">

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy, their families and the entire Santa Barbara community," she said in a statement.

_14">

The incident was the latest mass shooting in the United States, where schools, shopping malls and military bases have been scenes of such crimes.

_15">

Last month, a gunman killed three people and himself at the Fort Hood U.S. Army base in Texas, where another gunman killed 13 people in 2009.

_0">

In December 2012, 20 children and six adults were killed in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Six months before that, a gunman killed 14 people in a Denver-area movie theater.

_1">

The deadliest U.S. mass shooting in modern times was in 2007, when a student at Virginia Tech killed 32 people in a shooting spree.

_2">

Some 23,000 people live in Isla Vista. Many are students at UCSB, which has an enrollment of about 22,000, or at Santa Barbara City College.

_3">

(Additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston, Peter Cooney, Jonathan Allen and Jonathan Alcorn, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Frances Kerry and Bill Trott)

_4">

Authorities checked on suspected California gunman's welfare last month: sheriff

Authorities last month checked on the welfare of the suspected gunman in the Isla Vista, California, shootings, making the visit at his family's request, and found him polite and courteous, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters on Saturday.

_0">

The gunman drove through Isla Vista in a black BMW on Friday night, shooting at people in the beachside community where many college students live. Seven people died in the rampage, including the suspect who was found dead inside of a crashed vehicle with a gunshot wound to the head, authorities said.

(Reporting by Bill Trott, Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

 
 
 

A bitter pill as China crackdowns squeeze pharma margins

A crackdown on corruption and pricing in China's fast-growing pharmaceutical market has squeezed profits and margins, raising a red flag to global Big Pharma that the days of easy growth in the country may be over.

A Reuters' analysis of more than 60 listed Chinese healthcare firms shows average profit margins declined to around 10 percent last year from 15 percent in 2012. Average net profits fell 2.1 percent, down from close to 20 percent growth in previous years.

class="mandelbrot_refrag">China has been a magnet for the big global pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare firms as growth slows in Europe and the United States. It is the largest emerging drugs market and is set to be the global number two overall within three years, according to consultancy IMS Health.

 
 
 

While global drugmakers withhold their class="mandelbrot_refrag">China profit figures, the analysis suggests profit growth is harder to come by - a concern as many global firms look to China as a future growth driver.

"Most companies, local and foreign, have enjoyed an easy growth phase for 5-6 years as money was thrown at the healthcare system to improve access," said Alexander Ng, Hong Kong-based associate principal at McKinsey & Co. "Now China is more into cost containment mode... and the squeeze on pricing and margins is a lot more apparent."

Over the past year, China has cracked down on high prices and corruption in the healthcare sector. Authorities probed drugmakers over pricing in July, while a high-profile investigation into British drugmaker class="mandelbrot_refrag">GlaxoSmithKline Plc led to executives at the company being charged with bribery earlier this month.

Industry and legal sources said the investigations into the sector are likely to grow more intense, meaning downward pressure on profits is likely to remain.

Graphic: Reuters survey r.reuters.com/nuw59v

SALES DRAG

The climate of investigation has stymied sales growth, with some doctors saying they are worried to meet pharmaceutical reps, fearing being caught in the glare of China's watchdogs.

In 2013, Chinese authorities visited global drugmakers including class="mandelbrot_refrag">Novartis AG, AstraZeneca Plc, class="mandelbrot_refrag">Sanofi SA, class="mandelbrot_refrag">Eli Lilly & Co and Bayer AG as part of a broad investigation into the sector.

GSK, which saw its China revenues plunge 61 percent in the third quarter last year, has since overhauled its management structure in China, stopped payments to healthcare professionals and changed its incentive systems for drug reps.

"Of course there will be an impact on sales. The pattern of selling through bribing definitely won't work anymore," said a Shanghai-based sales executive at another global drugmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Reuters' analysis showed combined revenue growth in the sector fell to 17.9 percent last year, from 22.6 percent in 2012 and more than 28.8 percent in 2011.

PRICING PRESSURE

Price cuts are also putting a strain on profits and margins as China's leaders look to cut a healthcare bill that is set to hit $1 trillion by 2020, according to McKinsey & Co. Combined profit growth dropped to around 5.2 percent last year from 23.9 percent in 2011, according to the Reuters' analysis.

_0">

While authorities have made some moves to step back on price caps, Chinese healthcare procurement still puts the main emphasis on cost, creating an incentive for firms to push prices lower to beat rivals to contracts.

_1">

"The industry is in a very competitive stage, where firms want to take market share to stay in the game, but at the same time can't deal with the low prices," said Yu Mingde, president of the Chinese Pharmaceutical Enterprises Association, an organization supervised by China's cabinet.

_2">

The crackdown on pricing has pushed some Chinese firms out of class="mandelbrot_refrag">business and forced global drugmakers to rethink their China strategy, industry sources and analysts said, putting greater emphasis on high-tech drugs which command greater pricing power.

_3">

International drugmakers have long banked on being able to charge a steep premium in emerging class="mandelbrot_refrag">markets for branded generic drugs that have gone off patent in their home market.

_4">

Generics specialist Actavis Plc pulled out of China this year, saying the market was too risky and not a business-friendly environment.

_5">

"When you have 5,000 competitors you have to be special, and being a foreign company is no longer enough," said Guillaume Demarne, Shanghai-based business development manager at healthcare research body Institut Pasteur.

_6">

M&A DRIVER

_7">

Rising competition in the market will also likely spur a round of consolidation as firms look to strengthen in terms of scale or technology to stay ahead of rivals, analysts said.

_8">

Bayer said in February it would buy Chinese traditional medicine maker Dihon Pharmaceutical, while Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd said last month it plans to take U.S.-listed Chindex International Inc private in a $461 million deal with equity firm TPG.

_9">

"The level of industrial concentration will rapidly increase by way of acquisitions and reorganizations," Fosun Pharmaceutical said in a statement with its annual earnings.

_10">

M&A activity this year has so far outstripped 2013, said Phil Leung, China healthcare head and Asia Pacific M&A head for consultancy Bain & Co, noting that local and global firms were looking at acquisitions, joint ventures and other tie-ups.

_11">

Drugmakers with advantages of scale, low-cost production or unique, in-demand products should hold their own, he said, while others would struggle to survive.

_12">

"In this environment, the strong will get stronger and the stragglers will be more exposed."

_13">

(Additional reporting by Li Hui in BEIJING and SHANGHAI newsroom; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

_14">

Two Israelis killed in Saturday Brussels shooting

Belgian police on Sunday were hunting a gunman who shot dead two Israelis and a French woman at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, in an attack French President Francois Hollande said was without doubt motivated by anti-Semitism.

Security around all Jewish institutions in Belgium was raised to the highest level following Saturday's shooting, while French authorities stepped up security after two Jews were attacked near a Paris synagogue.

Belgian officials released a 30-second video clip from the museum's security cameras showing a man wearing a dark cap and a blue jacket enter the building, take a Kalashnikov rifle out of a bag, and shoot into a room, before walking out.

 
 
 

"From the images we have seen, we can deduce that the perpetrator probably acted alone and was well prepared," said Ine Van Wymersch, a spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor's office.

"It's still too early to confirm whether it's a terrorist or an anti-Semitic attack; all lines of investigation are still open," she told a news conference.

Officials appealed for witnesses to the attack in the busy tourist district which is filled with class="mandelbrot_refrag">restaurants and antique shops. The entrance to the Jewish Museum was lined with flowers and candles, and will remain closed to the public on Monday.

"The anti-Semitic nature of the act - a shooting, with intent to kill, in the Jewish Museum of Brussels - cannot be denied," said Hollande, speaking about the Brussels attack.

"We must do everything to fight against anti-Semitism and racism," he told news channel I-Tele on Sunday.

Hours after the Brussels shootings, two Jews were attacked and beaten in Paris as they left a synagogue in the suburb of Creteil wearing traditional Jewish clothing.

POPE CONDEMNS 'SAVAGE ATTACK'

The two Israelis, Emmanuel and Miriam Riva, both in their 50s, were described by friends as former Israeli civil servants who were in Belgium on vacation.

A Belgian man who was also injured in the shooting remained in critical condition in hospital, authorities said.

Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo spoke by telephone with Hollande and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and held talks with the Jewish community in Belgium.

Netanyahu, in a statement from his office, strongly condemned the Brussels killings. They were, he said, "the result of endless incitement against the Jews and their state". He offered Israeli cooperation in the Belgian investigation.

An Israeli official said Emmanuel Riva had formerly worked for Nativ, a government agency that played a covert role in fostering Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union.

Along with the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence services, the agency was under the authority of the prime minister's office.

_0">

Miriam Riva also formerly worked for the prime minister's office, the official said without elaborating.

_1">

Friends of the couple interviewed by Israeli media said they both worked as accountants in government service.

_2">

Pope Francis, in Tel Aviv on Sunday, condemned the attack in Brussels, where about half of Belgium's 42,000-strong Jewish community lives.

_3">

"With a deeply saddened heart, I think of all of those who lost their lives in yesterday's savage attack in Brussels," he said.

_4">

"In renewing my deep sorrow for this criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred, I commend to our merciful God the victims and pray for the healing of those wounded."

_5">

At some 550,000, France's Jewish community is the largest in Europe, though violence such as the 2012 murders of three Jewish children and a rabbi by Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah have prompted higher emigration to class="mandelbrot_refrag">Israel or elsewhere.

_6">

France's Agence Juive, which tracks Jewish emigration, says 1,407 Jews left class="mandelbrot_refrag">France for class="mandelbrot_refrag">Israel in the first three months of this year, putting 2014 on track to mark the biggest exodus of French Jews to Israel since the country was founded in 1948.

_7">

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Leila Abboud in Paris, Justyna Pawlak and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Lynne O'Donnell, Sophie Hares and Eric Walsh)

_8">

China, Japan exchange barbs over action by warplanes in East China Sea

class="mandelbrot_refrag">Japan and class="mandelbrot_refrag">China on Sunday accused each other's air forces of dangerous behavior over the East China Sea, with Japan saying Chinese aircraft had come within a few dozen meters of its warplanes.

_0">

Japan's defense minister accused Beijing of going "over the top" in its approach to disputed territory. China's defense ministry said Japanese planes had carried out "dangerous" actions during its joint maritime exercises with class="mandelbrot_refrag">Russia.

Tensions have been running high between class="mandelbrot_refrag">China and its neighbors over Beijing's assertive stance on claiming land and sea territory.

 
 
 

Japan's defense ministry said Chinese SU-27 fighters came as close as 50 meters (170 feet) to a Japanese OP-3C surveillance plane near disputed islets on Saturday and within 30 meters of a YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft.

"Closing in while flying normally over the high seas is impossible," Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters in comments broadcast on TV Asahi.

"This is a close encounter that is outright over the top."

Onodera said class="mandelbrot_refrag">Japan conveyed its concerns to the Chinese side through diplomatic channels. He also said the Chinese planes were carrying missiles.

A ministry official said it was the closest Chinese warplanes had come to aircraft of Japan's Self-Defense Force.

China's defense ministry said jets were scrambled in the East China Sea on Saturday after Japanese aircraft entered its air defense zone during maritime exercises with class="mandelbrot_refrag">Russia.

The ministry said the Japanese aircraft had entered the zone

despite "no fly" notices being issued ahead of the exercises. China declared its air defense zone last year despite protests by Japan and the United States.

"Japanese military planes intruded on the exercise's airspace without permission and carried out dangerous actions, in a serious violation of international laws and standards, which could have easily caused a misunderstanding and even led to a mid-air accident," the statement said.

China had proposed urgent talks, it said, and demanded that Japan "respect the lawful rights of China's and Russia's navies ... and stop all reconnaissance and interference activities. Otherwise Japan will bear any and all consequences from this".

CHINESE CLAIMS

China lays claim to Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. It is also pressing its claim to almost all the South China Sea, brushing aside claims by several southeast Asian states.

China's proclamation last November of an air defense zone covering disputed islands and areas in the South China Sea has raised concerns that a minor incident could quickly escalate.

Sino-Japanese ties have long been strained by allegations in China that Japan has not properly atoned for its wartime aggression and by the spat over the uninhabited islands.

_0">

Japan scrambled fighter jets against Chinese planes 415 times in the year ended in March, up 36 percent on the year, while in waters near the disputed islands, patrol ships from both countries have been playing cat-and-mouse, raising fears of an accidental clash.

_1">

Japanese land, sea and air forces joined last week to simulate the recapture of a remote island, underscoring Tokyo's concerns about the security of the islets.

_2">

Tensions between China and its neighbors have also risen sharply in the South China Sea in recent weeks, following the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam. The deployment sparked anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

_3">

The Philippine foreign ministry this month accused China of reclaiming land on a disputed reef in the South China Sea and said it appeared to be building an airstrip.

_4">

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Osamu Tsukimori and Paul Carsten in Beijing; Editing by Ron Popeski)

_5">

At dinner with Putin, menu of Crimean flounder and Russian grievances

You can't say Vladimir Putin lacks a pointed sense of humor. The entrée at the Russian president's dinner for news agency editors on Saturday night was "Crimean flounder." No kidding.

As dinner was ending in the ornate Konstantinovsky Palace, Putin was asked whether he speaks regularly with U.S. president class="mandelbrot_refrag">Barack Obama.

"We have some contacts," he shrugged. "But now I have to go speak with Mr. (Francois) Hollande and Mrs. (Angela) Merkel," the French president and the German chancellor, respectively.

 
 
 

With that he gave a champagne toast, and left.

But before that he spoke at length on many topics during a three-hour interview before and during a seven-course dinner that included "soft smoked sturgeon salad" and "white asparagus soup with black caviar" as well as the recently Russified flounder.

The topics ranged from the over-arching ( class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ukraine and the prospect of a new Cold War) to the less well-known (the status of four islands disputed by class="mandelbrot_refrag">Japan and class="mandelbrot_refrag">Russia, in response to a Japanese editor's query).

The former communist quoted the Bible several times, dismissed suggestions that he wants to recreate the former Soviet Union, and said he doesn't want a new Cold War.

He also declared himself "liberal" on social and sexual mores, but added that people should not be "aggressive" in foisting their values on others.

Speaking in Russian, with simultaneous translation into seven other languages, Putin came across as a clever, articulate man, with a grasp of the intricacies of issues, big and small. But the strongest impression, which emerged time and again, was of Putin's strong sense of aggrievement over the West's relegation of Russia, in his view, to second-tier status. It's bitter. And it's personal.

"I always treat our partners with due respect," he said at one point, "and I hope others treat Russia and me, personally, in the same way." Regarding Obama's denunciation of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Putin snapped: "No one should talk like that to Russia."

At another point during dinner he declared: "If Russia is only allowed to sit next to someone and listen to what others say" at international conclaves, "that is not the rightful role for Russia."

He also decried "rude, forceful action against Russian interests" that might have led to class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ukraine joining NATO and deploying missiles within easy range of Russia. He added: "(The West) should have considered the consequences" of encouraging such behavior.

When an Italian editor asked about his reaction to rising nationalism and right-wing radicalism in Western Europe, Putin replied: "I hope you are not blaming us for that!"

The editor hadn't suggested, even indirectly, that Russia was to blame. And the notion that he is trying to re-create the old Soviet Union, Putin declared, was "a tool in the information war" fomented by Western media.

The dinner for journalists culminated the three-day St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a discussion and networking event, patterned after the annual talkfest in class="mandelbrot_refrag">Davos. The forum's aim was to attract foreign investment, which Russia badly needs. Its class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy is teetering on recession, and the Ukraine crisis has helped spark what the central bank put at almost $64 billion in net capital flight in the first three months in the year, almost as much as in the whole of last year.

Putin pointed repeatedly to a recent commercial success: his new deal to provide class="mandelbrot_refrag">China with $400 billion of natural gas over three decades. But most American chief executives stayed away from the forum, at the urging of the Obama administration. And despite Putin's desire to focus the conference on investment opportunities, the discussion kept returning to Ukraine.

_0">

After his speech to the conference's plenary session on Friday, for example, Putin sat for an on-stage interview with CNBC Europe anchor Geoff Cutmore. At one point, when Cutmore kept pressing Putin on Ukraine, the president snapped: "Oh, come on, really. You are a difficult man to deal with!"

_1">

During the dinner with journalists he declined to name the national leader, past or present, he admires the most. "There is a saying in the Bible, ‘Thou shall not make a graven image," he explained. "That said, I love history and read it a lot, and I surf the web a lot. I often ask myself what other leaders would do in my situation."

_2">

But Putin expansively answered most questions, including one from a German journalist about widespread Russian revulsion at the recent winner of the annual Eurovision song contest: an Austrian bearded male drag artist wearing a dress.

_3">

"The Bible talks about the two genders, man and woman, and the main purpose of union between them is to produce children," Putin explained. "For us it is important to reaffirm traditional values.... I personally am very liberal (on matters of personal morality). People have the right to live their lives the way they want. But they should not be aggressive, or put it up for show."

_4">

On the sidelines of the economic forum there was lots of talk about moving past politics - as if the Ukraine crisis was akin to an everyday spat between Tories and Liberals, Democrats and Republicans, or Social Democrats and Christian Democrats - and getting on with business. The head of the Russian subsidiary of a major American manufacturer expressed hope that the current East-West crisis would pass within months. And a Russian journalist said he expected that the Russian-American tensions would ease after Obama leaves office.

_5">

But asked for evidence to support their views, neither the businessman nor the journalist had much to offer. And the war of rhetoric shows little sign of abating.

_6">

Commenting on Britain's Prince Charles, who compared Russia's seizure of Crimea to Hitler's aggression, Putin said: "It reminds me of a proverb: If you are angry, that means you are wrong.... This comparison is not acceptable. It is not what monarchs do."

_7">

And at another point, the Russian president observed: "We have a saying: 'You cannot make other people like you'."

_8">

(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

_9">

Armed Ukraine rebels rally outside home of richest man

Scores of armed pro-Russian separatists gathered for several hours outside the gated home of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, in the eastern city of Donetsk on Sunday as Ukrainians voted for a new president.

_0">

class="mandelbrot_refrag">Coal and class="mandelbrot_refrag">steel billionaire Akhmetov, whose factories and mines employ about 300,000 people, denounced the rebels last week, accusing them of "genocide", and urged people to vote on Sunday despite intimidation and threats from the separatists.

The rebels have prevented voting in parts of Russian-speaking eastern class="mandelbrot_refrag">Ukraine where they have declared "people's republics" outside Kiev's control. No polling stations opened in Donetsk, a city of a million people.

 
 
 

The 47-year-old Akhmetov, who also owns Ukraine's most successful soccer club Shakhtar Donetsk, was in the capital Kiev when about 200-300 separatists and supporters advanced on his residence, a spokesman said.

"Mr. Akhmetov is today in Kiev. He had intended to return to Donetsk to vote but as you can see from what is happening there and on the streets this has not been possible," said Jock Mendoza-Wilson at Akhmetov's company, System Capital Management.

Some of the men were masked and were aggressive towards journalists as they gathered by the high walls of Akhmetov's suburban residence, which is protected by armed security guards.

But after several hours tempers calmed and most people left.

A leader of one group of about 30 heavily armed fighters, Alexander Timofeyev, said they had come only to keep order after a crowd of demonstrators had gathered to confront Akhmetov.

Alexander Boroday, one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" said negotiations had begun with Akhmetov and a picket would be maintained outside his residence until there had been a "positive result".

He did not say what demands they were making on the multi-billionaire but earlier separatist representatives said they were insisting he make tax payments into the Donetsk People's Republic's budget, Interfax news agency said.

(Reporting by Sabina Zawadzki, Gabriela Baczynska and Lina Kushch; Writing by Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald)

Thai protesters test military's resolve

Thailand's military tightened its grip on power on Sunday as it moved to quell growing protests, saying anyone violating its orders would be tried in military court.

It also took its first steps to revitalize a battered class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy, saying nearly a million farmers owned money under the previous government's failed rice-subsidy scheme would be paid within a month.

The military overthrew the government on Thursday after months of debilitating and at times violent confrontation between the populist government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the royalist establishment.

 
 
 

Critics say the coup will not end the conflict between the rival power networks: the Bangkok-based elite dominated by the military and the bureaucracy, and an upstart clique led by Yingluck's brother and former telecommunication mogul Thaksin Shinawatra. The Shinawatras draw much of their influence from the provinces.

The military detained numerous people including Yingluck and many of her ministers, party officials and supporters. Leaders of anti-government protests against Yingluck were also held.

The military said anyone detained would be freed in a week and on Sunday it relaxed restrictions on Yingluck, allowing her to go home though she remained under military supervision, a senior military official said.

"She is free to come and go as she pleases but will have to inform us as a sign of mutual respect and we will have soldiers guarding her home," said the officer, who declined to be identified.

The military has thrown out the constitution, censored the media and dismissed the upper house Senate, the last functioning legislature. On Sunday, it said anyone accused of insulting the monarchy or violating its orders would face military court.

Power lies in the hands of army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta and their priorities are stamping out dissent and tending to the class="mandelbrot_refrag">economy.

An army spokesman warned against protests and told the media to be careful in its reporting too.

"For those who use social media to provoke, please stop because it's not good for anyone," deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a televised statement.

Despite the warnings, a small crowd of protesters, some holding handwritten signs such as "Get out Dictators", formed outside a Bangkok shopping center and grew through the day.

Hundreds of soldiers, most with riot shields, lined up to contain the crowd and there was some shouting and pushing and at least two people were detained, a Reuters reporter said.

By late afternoon about 1,000 people had gathered at the Victory Monument, a central city hub, confronting soldiers at times but there were no clashes.

In his first public comments since the coup, Thaksin said on Twitter he was saddened and he called on the army to treat everyone fairly. Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup and has lived in self-exile since a 2008 graft conviction.

"QUICK SOLUTIONS"

_0">

The military on Sunday met leaders of state and private commercial agencies, economic ministry officials, central bank and stock market officials and class="mandelbrot_refrag">business leaders.

_1">

"The economy needs to recover. If there is something wrong, we have to find quick solutions," Thawatchai Yongkittikul, secretary general of the Thai Bankers' Association, told reporters, citing General Prayuth.

_2">

"The burning issues that need to be solved are the rice-buying scheme and the budget plan for the 2015 fiscal year."

_3">

A rice-subsidy scheme organized by Yingluck's government failed, leaving huge stockpiles of the grain and farmers owed more than $2.5 billion. The military said all farmers should be paid in a month.

_4">

The military also said King Bhumibol Adulyadej will on Monday endorse Prayuth as leader of the ruling military council, an important formality in a country where the monarchy is the most important institution. On Saturday, the army said the king had acknowledged the takeover.

_5">

An undercurrent of the crisis is anxiety over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is 86 and spent the years from 2009 to 2013 in hospital.

_6">

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, but some Thaksin supporters have been making a point of showing their loyalty to the prince.

_7">

PROTESTS

_8">

The military, which has launched 19 successful or attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, has banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed a 10 p.m to 5 a.m. curfew.

_9">

But that has not deterred critics who since Friday have held small protests, not just in Bangkok but in the north and northeast, Thaksin's main strongholds.

_10">

But former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, who is now in hiding, told Reuters by telephone that he doubted the ability of Thaksin's loyalists to oppose the takeover.

_11">

"This is very serious indeed, it's very bad," Chaturon said. "It seems they'll detain a lot of people and we don't know for how long. It's going to be very oppressive."

_12">

The latest turmoil in a nearly decade-long clash between the establishment and Thaksin has hurt Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy. In the first quarter, the economy shrank 2.1 percent.

_13">

Many countries have issued travel warnings for class="mandelbrot_refrag">Thailand, damaging tourism which accounts for about 10 percent of the economy.

_14">

The United States condemned the coup and suspended about $3.5 million in military aid and various training exercises and visits by commanders.

_15">

(Additional reporting by Paul Mooney, Erik De Castro, Martin Petty; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alison Williams)

Three shot dead at South Carolina oceanfront hotel

Three people were killed and a fourth wounded in a shooting at a oceanfront hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the U.S. Southeast, police said on Sunday.

Officers responded to a call of shots fired at the Bermuda Sands resort on the Myrtle Beach boardwalk around 11 p.m. EDT on Saturday, according to the Myrtle Beach Police Department.

Two men and one woman were pronounced dead at the scene and the fourth was transported to a local hospital in unknown condition, he said.

 
 
 

The shooting came on a weekend when Myrtle Beach was packed with visitors for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the unofficial start of the summer season, and for an annual sports rally called the Atlantic Beach Bikefest.

"We certainly don't like to see any type of incident where somebody dies during this event, or any event that Myrtle Beach has," Myrtle Beach Police Captain David Knipes told WISTV. "To have three people (killed) in one night is kind of a big thing; we only had two homicides for a total last year," he said.

Two of the victims were gunned down in the hotel's breezeway, authorities said.

There was no immediate word on a motive and there had not been any arrests by early Sunday, police said.

Witnesses told the Sun News they heard fighting on a sidewalk outside the hotel before gunshots were fired.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere, editing by G Crosse)