Syria's Western-backed opposition elects new president

Syria's Western-backed opposition, the National Coalition, elected Hadi al-Bahra, chief negotiator at the Geneva peace talks, as its new president on Wednesday after a three-day meeting in Istanbul.


The United States and other key powers have designated the National Coalition as the main body representing the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it has little power inside Syria where disparate militant groups outside its control hold ground.

Bahra, a U.S-trained industrial engineer, has close ties to regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, as did his predecessor Ahmad Jarba, who stood down after serving the maximum two six-month terms.

"We will not give up the fundamentals of the revolution and our demands are freedom and human dignity," Bahra told a news conference in Istanbul on Wednesday evening.

Bahra's election is unlikely to have any impact on the situation in Syria or within opposition ranks for now, though France - the first Western country to back the Coalition - welcomed his appointment and said it was still striving for a political resolution of the conflict.

The United States also applauded Bahra's selection. "We look to President-elect Bahra and other new leaders to reach out to all Syrian communities and to strengthen unity amongst moderate opposition institutions," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Infighting within the opposition coalition has undermined rebel efforts to take on forces loyal to Assad, playing into the hands of rival, more hardline groups that include foreign militants, such as the Islamic State.

Talks sponsored by the United States and Russia in Switzerland to end the three-year-old civil war stalled after two rounds in January and February, when the coalition and Assad's representatives failed to make substantive progress.

Bahra, born in Damascus in 1959, has worked in Saudi Arabia as a businessman running hospitals and a Jeddah-based media and software distribution company, a biography on the National Coalition's website said.

While welcoming Bahra's election, the French Foreign Ministry said Paris would not change its stance of providing civilian and non-lethal military aid. The rebels say they need heavy weaponry to change the balance on the ground in Syria.

"We will continue to provide support to help (the Coalition) fight oppression and terrorism," spokesman Romain Nadal said in a daily online briefing.

"This aid aims to help the moderate opposition protect the population against attacks by the regime and terrorists and provide basic public services in liberated zones."

A French diplomatic source said there was no real political will in Paris to increase military support and that the French wanted to focus on humanitarian efforts.

(Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, John Irish in Paris and Missy Ryan in Washington; Editing by Gareth Jones, G Crosse and Mohammad Zargham)

Mexican train derails, stranding 1,300 migrants headed toward U.S.

A cargo train used by Mexicans and Central Americans to travel toward the U.S. border derailed in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca on Wednesday, stranding about 1,300 migrants, emergency services said.


Many of the migrants aboard were young people and nobody was injured when the train nicknamed "the Beast" came off the tracks, a spokesman for local emergency services said.

Since last October, more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors, most from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, have been caught illegally crossing the southwest border of the United States.

Children say that they are fleeing violence at home and hope that they will be able to stay in the United States.

Several days of heavy rain in southern Mexico may have caused the train to derail, authorities said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

China's top prosecutor orders more transparency in corruption cases

China's top prosecutor has ordered greater transparency in publicising corruption cases involving senior officials, state media reported, as the government steps up efforts to win the public's confidence in its battle on pervasive graft.


Such information should be released in a timely way rather than on a case-by-case basis as tends to happen now, the official Xinhua news agency said late on Wednesday, citing an order from the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

"The public will be informed in a timely manner of cases such as suspected duty-related violations by provincial-level officials and those behind serious accidents or major food and drug safety scandals," it cited the notice as saying.

"Information to be published should include the suspects' identities, the crimes they are suspected of, basic facts and latest developments in cases during investigation, arrest and prosecution," Xinhua added.

Pictures and videos will also be released in some cases, it said.

But underscoring the limits of the transparency push in a country whose government has a track record of covering up bad or embarrassing news, information about "state secrets or personal privacy" will not be released, Xinhua added.

Those definitions have traditionally been broadly interpreted in China, and in the case of state secrets can be applied retroactively.

The Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping has been publicising efforts to crack down on wasteful government spending and corruption to shore up its mandate to rule, which has been shaken by suspicion that officials waste taxpayers' money on extravagances even as economic growth slows.

While the ruling Communist Party's main anti-corruption body publishes names on an almost daily basis of people caught up in its probes, generally only the most basic details are released.

The party announced last week that Xu Caihou, who retired as vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission in 2013, had been expelled from the party and would be court-martialled after being accused of corruption.

Xu is the most senior person to date to have been felled.

But little information about his case has been released to the public.

A juicier scandal is brewing though, that of the powerful former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, who has been put under virtual house arrest, sources have told Reuters.

Many of Zhou's associates have been held in custody or interrogated about suspected corruption, with the probe focused on the southwestern province of Sichuan, where Zhou was party boss from 1999 to 2002.

The party's graft watchdog said on Thursday that Fu Yi, the deputy head of a parliamentary advisory body in the provincial capital Chengdu, was being investigated on suspicion of serious breaches of discipline, the usual euphemism for corruption.

Fu was a senior official at a Chengdu economic zone when Zhou worked in Sichuan, his official resume shows.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)

Japan denies report on North Korea's abduction survivor list

Japan on Thursday denied as "sheer misreporting" a front page newspaper story that North Korea had provided a list of some 30 Japanese survivors still living in the isolated country, including known victims of state-sponsored kidnapping.


The Nikkei business daily said North Korea produced the list at a July 1 meeting in Beijing to discuss North Korea's plan to resume investigations into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s.

North Korea agreed in May to reopen the probe, prompting Japan to ease some sanctions.

"I'm aware of the report, but nothing like that happened during the meeting or during a recess," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a regular news conference.

"It's sheer misreporting."

The Nikkei, citing sources, said Tokyo had matched about two-thirds of the names on the list with domestic records of missing persons.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made the abductees' fate a focus of his political career, and proof that some of them are alive would almost certainly boost his popularity.

Some of those on the list are among the 12 victims of North Korean abductions recognized by Tokyo who have yet to return to Japan, the Nikkei reported.

Pyongyang admitted in 2002 to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens, and five of those abductees and their families later returned to Japan. North Korea said that the remaining eight were dead and that the issue was closed.

The North promised to reopen the investigation in 2008, but never followed through. It also reneged on promises made in multilateral talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program and declared the negotiations had ended.

(Reporting by Hugh Lawson and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Ron Popeski)

Pakistan army seizes control of key city from Taliban

The Pakistani military has seized control of 80 percent of Miranshah, the capital of the remote tribal region of North Waziristan, where the military launched an operation against Islamist militants last month, a general said on Wednesday.

Previously, the city was largely under the control of the Taliban and militants used it as a base to prepare bombs and plan attacks, said General Zafarullah Khan, the top commander in rugged North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.

"North Waziristan had transformed into a hub and safe haven for terrorists of all colors and creeds," he said during a media trip to Miranshah. "But with the operation, 80 percent of Miranshah and the adjoining areas has been cleared."

The offensive in North Waziristan began on June 15, following months of failed negotiations between the government and the militants. Taliban attacks continued during the talks. A brazen assault last month on the airport in the southern city of Karachi killed 34.

Following that attack, the army sent fighter jets to bomb suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan, the base of some of the country's most feared al Qaeda linked terrorists.

The army then ordered the entire civilian population of North Waziristan - estimated to be around half-a-million people - to leave. The ground offensive was launched on June 30.

The powerful Pakistan army had previously operated exclusively within its sprawling headquarters in Miranshah. The rest of the city, including homes, schools, shops and even hospitals, was under Taliban control.

Since the air operation began, 400 militants have been killed and 130 injured, the military's public relations wing said. Twenty four soldiers had been killed and 19 injured. The extent of civilian casualties is unclear.

North Waziristan has been sealed off from outsiders and there is no way to verify the military's figures.

During Wednesday's trip arranged by the army, journalists toured underground tunnels and facilities that the army said were bomb-making factories and camps to train suicide bombers.

The insurgents, many of them ethnic Uzbeks and Chinese Uighurs as well as indigenous fighters, were completely on the defensive, Gen. Khan said.

"We have set up 250 military checkposts to seal off their movements," he said. "We have found 11 IED (bomb) factories in Miranshah alone and 23,000 kg of explosive material. The militants' communications and operational capabilities have been greatly reduced."

However, reports from local residents suggest that many militants moved out of the area before it was secured.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

China dismisses planned Macau democracy vote as meaningless

China has dismissed as meaningless a proposed referendum on democracy in its southern gambling hub of Macau, a poll that would follow in the footsteps of a similar informal vote in nearby Hong Kong.


Three activist groups said on Monday they would stage a referendum among Macau's 600,000 residents to coincide with the widely expected re-election by a local council of local leader Fernando Chui in August.

China denounced the June poll in Hong Kong, underscored by a march by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding the right to freely elect their local leader in 2017. Five student leaders were arrested after a later sit-in.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, followed two years later by the Portuguese-run enclave of Macau, now the world's biggest gambling center. Both enjoy wide-ranging autonomy and free speech not permitted on the mainland.

"An administrative region has no authority to establish a system of referendum or organize any activity relating to a referendum," China's Liaison Office, which oversees affairs in Macau, said in a statement posted on local media websites.

The statement, issued on Tuesday, said the office supported the position of Macau authorities, who are subservient to Beijing.

An official body of 400 elects Macau's leader, similar to Hong Kong where a small committee of largely pro-Beijing loyalists chooses who gets on the ballot, effectively rendering the ability to vote meaningless.

Macau's government earlier said the referendum "had no constitutional legal basis, does not have any legal basis, is illegal and invalid".

Residents of Macau, home to 35 casinos and the only place in China where casino gambling is legal, adopted a passive attitude to politics during years of rapid economic growth.

But over the past year, soaring inequality and deteriorating quality of life sparked an unprecedented 20,000-strong rally to denounce a bill providing lavish perks for senior civil servants. The legislation was withdrawn.

Chinese authorities, who consistently crack down on dissent on the mainland, reasserted their authority over Hong Kong in a white paper issued before the vote there, a move that triggered fears of future intervention.

(Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Nikki Sun; Editing by Ron Popeski and Nick Macfie)

Son of local hero bids to lead Slovenia to limited makeover

Miro Cerar may be a newcomer to politics, but he is already a household name to the 2 million people of Slovenia, the euro zone state whose fragile economy he will have to nurture if he wins an election on Sunday.

The son of one of his country's greatest sportsmen is front runner to become prime minister and take on the task of dragging Slovenia, once seen as a model for post-Communist prosperity, out of financial crisis and economic malaise.

Slovenia narrowly avoided having to seek an international bailout for its banks late last year.

Sunday's parliamentary election is rattling investors' nerves again, this time over the fate of measures the outgoing government agreed with its EU partners to steady Slovenia's finances and remake an economy roughly 50-percent controlled by the state.

A bespectacled law professor and adviser to parliament, Cerar, 50, takes his celebrity from his father Miroslav Cerar, a two-time Olympic pommel horse champion in the 1960s when Slovenia was part of socialist Yugoslavia.

His late mother was a politician, state prosecutor and justice minister.

Cerar formed his party - the Party of Miro Cerar - just five weeks ago. He has already shot to the top of opinion polls, testimony to the trust that traditional parties have squandered as Slovenia's crisis exposed an ingrained culture of politically-connected lending and mismanagement.

Cerar supports liberalizing the economy and labor market rules, cutting red tape and selling off smaller state firms. But he has come out against the major slated sales of Slovenia's telecoms operator and international airport.

"I'm entering politics because I know that the situation in Slovenia is so bad that ... we need new people, new ideas, new practices," he told Reuters last week.

Cerar has offered few details, however. While his lukewarm embrace of privatization might endear him to many traditionally leftist Slovenians, it will worry investors and Brussels.

Analysts see Cerar's center SMC party entering coalition government with the Social Democrats (SD) and the Desus pensioners' party. Both were junior partners in the outgoing coalition, when the SD in particular barely disguised its distaste for privatization and public sector spending cuts.


"Cerar leads in opinion polls because he is not tainted with corruption and has credibility," said Borut Hocevar, an analyst at the Slovenian daily Finance.

"However, privatization will slow under his rule and will probably only happen because Brussels will insist on it."

When Slovenia joined the euro zone in 2007, it was the bloc's fastest growing economy. But the collapse of its export sector with the onset of the global crisis exposed the rot, and the outgoing government of Alenka Bratusek had to pour 3.3 billion euros ($4.5 billion) into local banks to keep them afloat.


Cerar's late mother, Zdenka, was once deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, which ruled Slovenia for more than a decade until 2004, when Slovenia became the first ex-Yugoslav republic to join the European Union.


The Liberal Democrats, like other parties in power before and after, kept foreign investors at bay. Cerar, however, rejects any comparison with his own politics.


"I have the same basic values as my mother, that politicians must be honest, fight for their values and work for the benefit of Slovenia," he said. "But my professional and political career is entirely independent."


That he is challenging at all owes everything to a twist of fate in 1981, when Cerar's parents canceled a family trip to Corsica because Miro's baby sister had fallen ill. The plane crashed into Corsica's San Pietro mountain, killing all 180 people on board.


"When we heard about the crash we had the feeling we had been reborn, that it was not yet time for us to go. Every day I'm grateful for that," Cerar said.


His party is scoring as much as 38 percent in some polls, but he will have to marshal disparate allies. Politicking toppled Bratusek's government and forced Sunday's early election.($1 = 0.7331 Euros)



(Editing by Matt Robinson/Ruth Pitchford)


Three Ukrainian soldiers killed in further clashes in the east

Three Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 27 wounded in clashes with pro-Russian separatist rebels in the east of the country, the military said on Thursday.


Government forces have recently gained the upper hand in the three-month conflict against separatists in the Russian-speaking eastern regions in which more than 200 government troops have been killed as well as hundreds of civilians and rebel fighters.

But though government forces pushed the rebels out of a stronghold in Slaviansk at the weekend, the heavily armed separatists have dug in in Donetsk, a city of 900,000 people, and remain active in and around Luhansk on the Russian border.

The government's "anti-terrorist operation" said that one soldier was killed late on Wednesday when rebels fired machine-guns at a truck carrying soldiers at Muratova near Luhansk.

"The vehicle was ambushed. In the course of the fighting one serviceman was killed and three were wounded," it said in a statement.

Separately, two soldiers were killed and six wounded when their armored vehicle was blown up by a landmine near Chervona Zorya, near Donetsk, it said.

Buoyed by the success in Slaviansk, President Petro Poroshenko is pressing forward with a military offensive against the rebels who are appealing, apparently in vain, for help from Russia, though they say they are recruiting new fighters from among the local population.

Poroshenko has ruled out air strikes and artillery bombardment because of the large civilian population in Donetsk.

His military nonetheless say they have a plan to deliver a "nasty surprise" to the rebels and "liberate" Donetsk and Luhansk. The separatists are occupying administrative buildings in the two cities and have dug into positions on the outskirts of Donetsk.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Louise Ireland)

China, U.S. will cooperate on counter-terrorism, military: Chinese official

China and the United States have agreed to enhance cooperation on counter-terrorism and military-to-military relations, China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi said on Thursday.


Yang was speaking at the end of annual high-level talks between the two countries.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Dean Yates)

Britain says to pass emergency phone and email data law

Britain said on Thursday it would rush through emergency legislation to force telecoms firms to retain customer data for a year, calling the move vital for national security following a decision by Europe's top court.

Communication companies had been required to retain data for 12 months under a 2006 European Union directive but this was thrown out in April by the European Court of Justice on the grounds that it infringed human rights.

Britain's coalition government said the scrapping of that directive could deprive police and intelligence agencies of access to information about who customers contacted by phone, text or email, and where and when.

Prime Minister David Cameron said it was vital these powers were not compromised at a time of growing concern over Britons travelling to Iraq and Syria to join militant Islamist groups.

Those concerns prompted the government to take the unusual step of announcing fast-track legislation which, under a deal brokered behind closed doors between Britain's three major political parties, could become law as soon as next week.

"This is at the heart of our entire criminal justice system," Cameron told a news conference. "It is used in 95 percent of all serious organised crime cases ... It has been used in every major security service counter-terrorism investigation over the last decade and it is the foundation of prosecution of pedophiles, drug dealers and fraudsters."

In an effort to deflect criticism that collecting communications data flouted civil liberties, Cameron stressed the emergency law would not grant new powers and would only enshrine existing capabilities in law.

He said the new legislation would also clarify the grounds under which authorities could request service providers provide the content of calls, emails and text messages, even if the companies holding that data were based overseas.

"There is now a real risk that legal uncertainty will reduce companies' willingness to comply with UK law, even where they would wish to support us," the Conservative prime minister said. "Some companies are already saying they can no longer work with us unless UK law is clarified immediately."

The biggest Internet Service Providers in Britain are BT, BSkyB, TalkTalk and Virgin Media. The four main mobile providers who would be affected include EE, O2, Vodafone and Three.


Britain is the first EU country to seek to rewrite its law to continue data retention since the European court decision, and the government said it was in close contact with other European states on the issue.

Denmark said in June that it would no longer enforce part of a local law that requires "session logging" - or data retention - by telecom operators while in Sweden, telecom operators simply stopped collecting the data.

Britain's new measures come in the wake of revelations by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden about British spying on private communications, and privacy campaigners said they were worried about the implications of the legislation.

"We need to get back to a point where the police monitor people who are actually suspected of wrongdoing and rather than wasting millions every year requiring data to be stored on an indiscriminate basis," Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, said in a statement.


The government said the law would establish a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, based on a U.S. model, to ensure civil liberties were properly taken into account.


It also said the number of bodies that could approach telecoms and internet firms for data would be restricted, and there would be an annual transparency report to make information more widely available on surveillance powers used by the state.


The emergency legislation will include a termination clause meaning it will expire in 2016, forcing lawmakers to look at the measures in detail again before then.


Last year, the government failed to bring in a Communications Data bill, which critics dubbed a "snoopers charter" and would have secured the West's most far-reaching surveillance powers in the face of widespread opposition.


Senior police and security chiefs had argued that unless they were given new powers to monitor online activities, militants and criminals would exploit new forms of communication technology such as Facebook and Skype.


But the centre-left Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Cameron's government, blocked those plans saying they were not proportionate or workable.



(Additional reporting by Leila Abboud; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)


Fifty-three blindfolded bodies found in Iraq as political leaders bicker

Iraqi security forces found 53 corpses, blindfolded and handcuffed, south of Baghdad on Wednesday as Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders traded accusations over an Islamist insurgency raging in the country's Sunni provinces.

Officials said dozens of bodies were discovered near the mainly Shi'ite Muslim village of Khamissiya, with bullets to the chest and head, the latest mass killing since Sunni insurgents swept through northern Iraq.

"Fifty-three unidentified corpses were found, all of them blindfolded and handcuffed," Sadeq Madloul, governor of the mainly Shi'ite southern province of Babil, told reporters.

He said the victims appeared to have been killed overnight after being brought by car to an area near the main highway running from Baghdad to the southern provinces, about 25 km (15 miles) southeast of the city of Hilla.

The identity and sectarian affiliation of the dead people was not immediately clear, he said.

Sunni militants have been carrying out attacks around the southern rim of Baghdad since spring. In response, Shi'ite militias have been active in rural districts of Baghdad, abducting Sunnis they suspect of terrorism, many of whom later turn up dead.

The tit-for-tat attacks have escalated dramatically since Sunni Islamist fighters seized control of large parts of northern and western Iraq last month, sweeping towards Baghdad in the most serious challenge to the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011.

Mass killings of scores of victims have become a regular occurrence in Iraq for the first time since the worst days of sectarian and ethnic cleansing in 2006-2007.

The Sunni insurgents, led by the group known as the Islamic State which considers all Shi'ites heretics who must repent or die, boasted of killing hundreds of captive Shi'ite army troops after capturing the city of Tikrit on June 12. They put footage on the Internet of their fighters shooting prisoners.

In the following weeks more than 100 Sunni prisoners died in two mass killings while in government custody. The Shi'ite-led government officially says they were killed in crossfire when their guards came under attack, first in a jail in Baquba north of Baghdad and then in a convoy moving prisoners from Hilla. Sunni leaders say the prisoners were executed by their guards.

Amnesty International and the United Nations have reported several other suspected incidents of mass killings of prisoners in government custody.

The fighting between the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, backed by other armed Sunni groups, and the army backed by Shi'ite militias, threatens to split the country.

The renewed sectarian war has brought violence to levels unseen since the very worst few months of the fighting that followed the U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Abductions have also increased. On Friday, 17 Sunni Muslims were taken from the Musayyib area and briefly held by security forces and Shi'ite militia, a local tribal leader said, while a prominent sheikh was also kidnapped by unidentified men.



Sunnis have backed the Islamic State's offensive because of the widespread view that they have been oppressed under Maliki's government.


The United States and other countries have called for politicians to set up a more inclusive government in Baghdad following a parliamentary election in April. But the new legislature has so far failed to agree on leadership for the country, leaving Maliki in power as a caretaker.


Sunnis and Kurds demand he leave office, but he shows no sign of agreeing to step aside. The Kurds are now closer than ever to abandoning Iraq altogether, with Massoud Barzani, leader of their autonomous region, calling last week for his parliament to ready a referendum on independence.


In a statement late on Tuesday, Barzani launched a withering attack on Maliki, saying his eight years in office had brought disaster to Iraq and set the stage for its latest conflict.


Kurdish forces have exploited the turmoil to seize control of the city of Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves a month ago, achieving a long-held dream. They regard the city, just outside their autonomous region, as their historical capital, while its oil could provide ample revenue for an independent state.


"We have said we are not prepared under any circumstances to accept for our will to be bent, and go back to square one and face what reminds us of the policies that drowned Kurdistan in seas of the blood of its civilians and turned their homeland to ruins and mass graves," Barzani said, referring to years of oppression under Saddam.


"That is what we have clearly faced throughout the period of abuse of power during the two disappointing terms of the prime minister."


Maliki hit back in a weekly address on Wednesday, accusing Kurds of allowing their provincial capital Arbil to become a haven for the Islamic State and other militants, including former members of Saddam's now-banned Baath Party.


"We will never be silent about Arbil becoming a base for the operations of the Islamic State and Baathists and al Qaeda and the terrorists," he said.


Many Sunni Muslims who fled the mostly Sunni northern city of Mosul during the militants' offensive have ended up in Arbil.


Medical sources and eyewitnesses said seven people were killed and 18 wounded in an air raid on Mosul on Wednesday.


In Falluja, in the mainly Sunni western Anbar province that borders Syria, the general hospital said nine civilians died and 44 were wounded on Wednesday from aerial shelling and what residents call "barrel bombs". In fighting northeast of Baghdad, militants took control of the town of Sudor as well as a local dam in fighting which killed four soldiers and wounded six others, a source at the local al-Zahra hospital said.


Sudor lies in Diyala province about 90 km (55 miles) from the capital, another area where the army and Shi'ite militias have clashed with the Sunni insurgents, with both sides gaining and losing territory.


Also in Diyala, nine soldiers were killed and 38 were wounded as they repulsed an attack by the Islamic State fighters on the Mansuriya military base on Wednesday, police and hospital sources said.


In the Zaiyouna district of eastern Baghdad, gunmen stormed the house of a government official, beheading his son and shooting dead his wife, a security source and a source in the Baghdad morgue said.


(Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Arbil, Ned Parker and Maggie Fick in Baghdad and a reporter in Hilla; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood)

Iran nuclear talks sides far apart: UK's Hague tells paper

Significant differences remain between six world powers and Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program, an Austrian newspaper quoted British Foreign Minister William Hague as saying.


Wiener Zeitung said a spokesperson for Hague had provided his remarks via email on Wednesday and they were published on Thursday. The quotes appeared identical to a statement Hague made on July 2 about the Iran nuclear negotiations, which resumed last week and continued in Vienna on Thursday.

Hague said a deal was far from certain but that all possibilities should be exhausted in a final round of talks now taking place in Vienna, according to Wiener Zeitung.

Iran and the powers - the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China - aim to reach a long-term deal to end the decade-old standoff by a self-imposed July 20 deadline. Some diplomats and analysts believe an extension may be needed in view of the still-wide gaps in negotiating positions.

"Achieving an agreement is far from certain," Hague said. "Significant differences remain...which are yet to be bridged. But I am convinced that the current negotiations are the best opportunity we have had in years to resolve this issue."

The West fears that Iran has been seeking to develop nuclear capability to make stomic bombs. Iran says its nuclear program is an entirely peaceful project to generate electricity. The powers want Iran to significantly scale back its activities.

(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Fredrik Dahl/Mark Heinrich)

Kerry faces uphill battle to defuse Afghan election standoff

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive to a sceptical audience in Afghanistan this week to try to resolve a deepening crisis over a disputed presidential election which has stirred ethnic tensions in the fragile country.

Afghanistan has plunged into political chaos in recent months as a protracted election process to pick a successor to President Hamid Karzai has run into a deadlock between two leading candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

Preliminary results from the June 14 second-round run-off put Ghani, a former World Bank official, in the lead with 56.4 percent of the vote, but Abdullah has rejected the count and his aides have threatened to set up an alternative administration.

Kerry is expected to arrive in the Afghan capital Kabul on Friday to try to mediate between the feuding camps, according to Abdullah, although U.S. officials have not confirmed the trip. Kerry is currently in neighbouring China.

Ghani's camp, confident in its victory, is wary of Kerry's mediation efforts, while Abdullah, who has alleged widespread fraud in the vote, welcomes the initiative.

"I don’t know what he can do," said Abbas Noyan, a spokesman for Ghani’s camp. "Secretary Kerry will come and talk with both candidates and see what he can do. I don’t think he has a road plan for this. Without a road map it is very difficult to solve this problem."

The United States, Afghanistan's biggest foreign donor, is in the process of withdrawing its forces from the country after 12 years of fighting Taliban insurgents, and it is unclear what leverage Kerry would have in resolving deep-seated rivalries.

Abdullah's camp, angry with Ghani's lead in the vote, has threatened to announce its own parallel government, a dangerous prospect for Afghanistan, already split along ethnic lines.

In a clear warning to Abdullah, Kerry said this week Washington would withdraw financial and security support if anyone tried to take power illegally. That would be a massive blow given about 90 percent of the Afghan budget comes from foreign aid.

Speaking to reporters at the end of annual high-level U.S.-China talks, Kerry made no mention of the Kabul trip but said he had discussed the situation with all sides.

"I have been in touch several times with both candidates, as well as President Karzai," he said in Beijing.

"We would encourage both for them to not raise expectations with their supporters, to publicly demonstrate respect for the accountability process and also to show critical statesmanship and leadership at a time when Afghanistan obviously needs it." 

Abdullah has put off announcing his government until after Kerry's visit, and his camp welcomes U.S. involvement because it hopes it could help pressure election officials into throwing out suspicious votes and thus change the outcome of the vote.

Abdullah has accused the outgoing president, who has an uneasy relationship with the United States, of backing Ghani and playing a role in rigging the vote in his favour.

"His Excellency John Kerry is coming ... so we welcome any effort to differentiate between clean votes and invalid votes," said Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdullah's second vice president and the leader of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara minority.

"I don't say that they should interfere but they should cooperate in transparency. They should provide us political and technical support," he told Reuters at his vast house in Kabul.





U.S. support is crucial for Afghanistan because it depends on foreign donors to fund everything from road-building to schoolteachers' salaries and security, with Washington paying the lion's share of the bill.


U.S. President Barack Obama and Kerry have spoken to both candidates to encourage them to find a compromise and stop the country sliding into further political chaos.


"The goal is to help the parties find a way forward that ensures that the next president of Afghanistan has a credible mandate to lead a unified Afghanistan," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Reuters.


"The United States has made clear that our preference is to continue our strong support and assistance to Afghanistan and the Afghan people, but if the leaders of Afghanistan are unwilling to abide by their own constitution, that could impact the kind of financial and security assistance the United States provides."


The White House has added, however, it expects "a thorough review of all reasonable allegations of fraud to ensure a credible electoral process".


Former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan James Dobbins, in an address to the Asia Society in Washington on Wednesday, said Obama had spoken to both candidates. "On the one hand assured them that Secretary Kerry would be arriving for discussions with them at the end of this week; and cautioned in particular Dr. Abdullah about moving pre-emptively in an unconstitutional fashion."


Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter, draws his support mainly from the Tajik minority in northern Afghanistan while Ghani, a former World Bank economist, represents Pashtun tribes in the south and east of the country.


Abdullah's refusal to accept the outcome of the vote has created a deadlock in Afghanistan, threatening to split the country along ethnic lines and setting the stage for a possibly bloody standoff or even secession in parts of the country.


The lack of political unity in Afghanistan has prompted observers to draw parallels with Iraq, where a one-sided government has failed to represent all parts of the political spectrum, weakening the country and allowing an al Qaeda offshoot to capture large swathes of Iraq in recent weeks.


Mohaqiq from Abdullah's camp blamed any possible repeat of Iraq's scenario in Afghanistan on the Karzai administration.


"We don't want Afghanistan to repeat Iraq but all parties have to think about it. It is not only our responsibility. The government has been here for 13 years ... and still they do not want to leave the power democratically," he said.


"If anything bad happens to Afghanistan the responsibility will be on President Karzai’s monopolistic team."



(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Missy Ryan; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Nick Macfie)

'Prime Evil' apartheid killer up for parole in South Africa

Apartheid death-squad leader Eugene de Kock, dubbed 'Prime Evil' for his role in the torture and murder of black South African activists in the 1980s and early 1990s, will learn on Thursday whether he will be released on parole after 20 years in prison.


Justice Minister Michael Masutha is due to announce his decision on de Kock's application for parole at 0530 ET at a news conference in Pretoria.

Whatever his ruling, it is likely to be highly contentious in a country still dealing with the legacy of repression and brutality meted out by the white-minority administration that prevailed from 1948 to 1994.

As head of an apartheid counter-insurgency unit at Vlakplaas, a farm 20 km (15 miles) west of Pretoria, de Kock is believed to have been responsible for more atrocities than any other man in the efforts to preserve white rule.

Arrested in 1994, the year Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) came to power, he was sentenced two years later to 212 years in prison on charges ranging from murder and attempted murder to kidnapping and fraud.

However, at a Truth and Reconiliation Commission set up in 1995 to try to unearth - and, in some cases, forgive - crimes committed by both sides, de Kock came clean about the killing of many ANC activists.

The information allowed police to recover the remains of victims and allowed them to receive a proper burial.

Even from behind bars in Pretoria's C-Max high security prison, de Kock has continued to cast his shadow over the post-apartheid South Africa.

In a 2007 radio interview, he accused FW de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, of having hands "soaked in blood" for ordering political killings. De Klerk, who won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Mandela, has denied the allegations.

De Kok has also expressed sorrow at his actions, fuelling a belief among some that he is remorseful - an important factor in any parole decision.

Two years ago, he wrote to the mother of ANC lawyer Bheki Mlangeni, who was killed by a bomb in 1991, asking for her forgiveness.

"Your forgiveness will mean a lot to me, but it can in no way wash away the pain I have caused," he said in the letter, which appeared in South African newspapers.

In the same year, he met Marcia Khoza, the daughter of ANC activist Portia Shabangu, whom de Kock executed after an ambush in Swaziland in 1989.

"We greeted each other and shook hands. His handshake was firm," she said after the meeting, at which de Kock described how he shot Khoza's mother twice in the head before pushing the vehicle in which she was traveling down a slope.

"I thought I would cry but strangely enough had the courage to continue to listen to him. I was not jolted because I had long forgiven him and have since learnt that resentment and bitterness will blur my vision on life," she said.

However, many other callers to radio stations - in particular black South Africans - have questioned de Kock's remorse and said that his crimes were so extreme he should die behind bars.

(Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Australian minister under fire for not meeting Tamil groups on Sri Lanka trip

A Tamil group criticised Australia's immigration minister on Thursday for visiting northern Sri Lanka without meeting Tamil leaders, days after Australia returned a boat of asylum seekers, including Tamils, under its hardline border security policy.

Some of the 41 Sri Lankans intercepted and sent home by Australia said on Tuesday they had been mistreated by Australian Customs, accusations Immigration Minister Scott Morrison denied.

A second boat carrying 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers remained in legal limbo as the Australian High Court considered whether their interception was legal.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power last September partly because of his tough stance on asylum seekers. His government has touted its success in blocking such boats, saying there have been no illegal arrivals since last December.

During a visit on Wednesday to the northern city of Jaffna, Morrison met the governor of the Northern Province, G.A. Chandrasiri, a presidential appointee.

Tamil groups were upset Morrison did not meet the province's chief minister, C.V. Vigneswaran, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, the party that finished first in last year's regional election.

"He did not meet any single Tamil representative or civil society group," Tamil National Alliance spokesman Suresh Premachandran told Reuters. "I still don't know the intention of his brief visit. He may want to show that he visited Jaffna. But he did not speak to any Tamils."

Most of the group returned to Sri Lanka are members of the majority Sinhalese community and not minority Tamils, who have alleged persecution by Sri Lankan authorities since the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists in the north in 2009.

Morrison's schedule was organised by the Sri Lankan government, a spokesman for the minister said, adding that he has previously visited the north with members of the Tamil community.

He was visiting Sri Lanka to hand over two patrol boats to strengthen the island nation's surveillance against people smuggling.

"The purpose was to hand over the boats on the invitation of defence ministry. The date was fixed long before the people tried to enter Australia," Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign Minister Neomal Perera said. "It was unfortunate the visit came during these days."


The United Nations has launched an inquiry into war crimes allegedly committed by both Sri Lankan state forces and Tamil rebels in the final months of the civil war, saying the government has failed to investigate properly. Sri Lanka rejects such allegations as interference in its internal affairs.

While Sri Lanka says many asylum seekers are economic migrants, rights groups say Tamils seek asylum to prevent torture, rape and other violence at the hands of the military. They say some Sinhalese who criticise the government are also at risk.

The 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils on the first boat were returned to Sri Lanka over the weekend and appeared in court in the port city of Galle. Five people suspected of being the ringleaders of a people-smuggling operation were detained and 27 released on bail. Children were released without charge.


Daluwattage Don Ranjith, one of the five people detained, told Reuters through his lawyer that he was on board the vessel as an asylum seeker, not an organiser.


"What we are saying is we were under persecution in this country ... We fled as refugees," Ranjith, who is Sinhalese, said in a statement issued via his lawyer Lakshan Dias.


Dias said he could not share information on how or why Ranjith was being persecuted without his client's permission.


Other passengers told Reuters they had been trying to reach New Zealand, not Australia, to seek jobs for a "better life".


Asked by reporters in Colombo if he was concerned the 41 would be mistreated by Sri Lankan authorities, Morrison said: "No, I'm not."



(Additional reporting by Jane Wardell in SYDNEY; Writing by Shyamantha Asokan in NEW DELHI; Editing by Douglas Busvine)


Drone kills six in NW Pakistan, army seizes most of key city from Taliban

Missiles from a U.S. drone slammed into a mud house and killed six suspected militants in Pakistan's rugged northwest on Thursday, officials said, as the Pakistani military said it had seized control of 80 percent of a key city from the Taliban.

Drone strikes in Pakistan resumed after a six-month hiatus, days before the military launched an air campaign on June 15 to drive Pakistani Taliban militants out of the remote border region of North Waziristan.

Thursday's strike in the Datta Khel district killed six militants and injured two, security officials said. The site of the strike was about 45 km (28 miles) west of the regional capital of Miranshah, near the Afghan border.

A senior officer took reporters on a tour of the region on Wednesday to underscore what the military says is a successful offensive to bring under control 80 percent of Miranshah, North Waziristan's main town.

The region, the base of some of the country's most feared al Qaeda linked terrorists, has been sealed off and there is no way to verify the military's accounts or casualty figures. But the presence of many senior officers during the tour suggested that the army had secured broad control over the area.

Reporters were led through sites ranging from dingy two-room shops to large buildings piled high with cylinders and explosives, all described as workplaces to manufacture bombs.

Also on display was a complex of a couple of dozen rooms with a courtyard, described as a training site for suicide bombers.

"North Waziristan had transformed into a hub and safe haven for terrorists of all colors and creeds," General Zafarullah Khan, the region's commander, said the military's sprawling headquarters.

"But with the operation, 80 percent of Miranshah and the adjoining areas has been cleared."


The army launched the offensive after months of failed negotiations between the government and the militants, puntuated by Taliban attacks. A brazen assault last month on the airport in the southern city of Karachi killed 34.

The army responded by dispatching fighters to bomb suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan. It ordered the region's entire civilian population - estimated at about half a million - to leave and pushed on with a ground offensive on June 30.

Pakistan's army had previously operated strictly within its Miranshah headquarters. The rest of the city, including homes, schools, shops and even hospitals, was under Taliban control.

Since the air operation began, 400 militants have been killed and 130 injured, the military's public relations wing said. Twenty-four soldiers had been killed and 19 injured. The extent of civilian casualties is unclear.

Khan said the insurgents, many of them ethnic Uzbeks and Chinese Uighurs as well as indigenous fighters, were on the defensive.


"We have set up 250 military checkposts to seal off their movements," he said. "We have found 11 (bomb) factories in Miranshah alone and 23,000 kg of explosive material. The militants' communications and operational capabilities have been greatly reduced."


Residents, however, suggest that many militants moved out of the area before it was secured and Khan agreed some fighters may have escaped the onslaught.


"It’s not militarily possible to create airtight security from where individual terrorists can’t escape," he said.


"It will be wrong to say some leaders didn’t escape. They smelt the operation and left. But their exodus on a large scale was denied."



(Additional reporting by Haji Mujtaba in Bannu and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ron Popeski)


Special Report: All work and no pay for thousands in the Balkans

Complaining they had worked without pay for months late last year, employees of the Serbian farming company Agroziv staged a short strike in January. Why should they work for no money, they said. The company, a poultry producer in the north of the country, was short of cash and pleaded for more time to pay wages, workers said.

"The management told us, 'Please be patient for another two weeks,’” said Vesna Srdic, a packaging worker with the firm. “We waited and nothing happened. Some workers grew so desperate they were buying bread on credit from local bakers. But after some months even bakers refused to give them bread for nothing."

Patience ran out on June 4. Using chains and padlocks, Agroziv employees locked every door and gate they could find on company property. Then they blocked a main road leading to the border with Romania for two hours.

"My salary is 29,000 dinars ($343) a month and I haven't received a penny since January. I'm drowning in debt," Milica Milkovic, 52, said last month. The mother of two, dressed in a faded red T-shirt was waving a banner that read, "We want answers." Agroziv did not respond to requests for comment.

Such scenes are surprisingly common in the Balkans, where wages are often the first expense companies freeze when times are tough. Legal loopholes, inefficient courts and poor financial supervision allow struggling firms to skip paying wages, sometimes for months on end.

Since jobs are scarce, thousands of workers in the countries spawned by Yugoslavia's bloody breakup in the 1990s regularly work for nothing - in the hope that employers will eventually pay up. The phenomenon is growing in some places and contributing to social unrest in the region. Earlier this year protesters in Bosnia torched government buildings up and down the country. Protests in Croatia and Serbia have also become common, though not violent.


Most former Yugoslav republics, including European Union members Slovenia and Croatia, have yet to overcome problems born of the business practices they inherited in the 1990s.

In socialist Yugoslavia, the state owned all medium-sized and large companies and controlled salaries through a central payments system. With the federation's collapse, new and newly privatized companies tried to expand without much capital. Short of cash, some began delaying payments to suppliers, tax offices and workers. State-owned firms and institutions began doing the same, exploiting a lack of financial oversight to pick and choose their obligations.

In Croatia, the authorities are now trying to enforce more financial discipline. Finance Minister Boris Lalovac, speaking at a conference in April, said employers were failing to pay mandatory health and pension contributions for more than 200,000 workers among the country's 4.4 million people.

Kresimir Sever, a union leader in Croatia, estimates some 70,000 workers in Croatia are facing delays in wages. "In most cases workers wait too long before filing for bankruptcy (of their company), figuring they are better off having any kind of job and no salary rather than losing everything," said Sever. "In time, the company's assets melt and when the bankruptcy process begins, they (the workers) really do end up with nothing."

The situation is similar in Serbia, the most populous country to emerge from Yugoslavia with 7.2 million people. Ranka Savic of Serbia's Association of Free and Independent Unions said that at least 70,000 workers have not received wages for six months or more.

The country, which this year began talks on joining the EU, still has 153 state companies, partly kept afloat by annual subsidies worth more than $1 billion.

In February, some 1,400 workers at the state-owned Jumko clothing manufacturer from the southern city of Vranje protested about unpaid wages by blocking Serbia's main north-south highway for a day. They claimed they were owed seven months' wages and mandatory health contributions.

Two months later the Jumko workers received 5,000 dinars ($59) each, the government said. In May the workers again blocked the highway to demand all overdue wages and social benefits, as well as direct talks with the government. There has been no progress since then. Officials at Jumko did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.


Serbia's new government, which took office in April, has vowed to reform laws on labor, bankruptcy and privatization to improve the business climate and attract investors. It has also pledged to end subsidies for state-owned enterprises. Draft laws are being debated; the government says it hopes to adopt them by the end of July.


Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2004 and the euro zone in 2007, has seen the number of workers not receiving salaries rise steadily over the past five years. There were 3,601 cases of delays, partial payment or non-payment of wages in 2013, up from 843 in 2008, according to state Labour Inspectorate data provided to Reuters in June by the trade union ZSSS.


Goran Lukic, a spokesman for ZSSS, said “several thousand people” are not receiving their salaries, or receiving them with a delay, and the number is on the rise. He said the problem of unpaid wages was particularly common in construction and services such as office cleaning.


The plight of most unpaid employees goes undetected until they go on strike. Workers still prefer to keep turning up, despite not being paid, rather than lose their jobs, said Belgrade sociology professor Zoran Stojiljkovic. "A common feature of the entire Western Balkans is the people's capacity to put up with a lot of things for a long time. The limit of endurance is breached only when one can no longer pay the bills," he said.





The problem is not confined to the region’s smaller countries. In Bulgaria, a nation of 7.3 million which joined the EU in 2007 and has a $50 billion economy, businesses at the end of May owed 77.2 million levs ($53.9 million) in delayed salary payments, the labor ministry told Reuters. Trade unions dispute the figure, saying the true amount is higher.


“I can assure you that we check any complaint (for unpaid salaries) received at the inspectorate,” said the state labor inspectorate’s spokeswoman Dina Hristova.


Nikolay Nenkov, the vice president of Bulgaria’s largest trade union CITUB, said his organization calculates unpaid wages are around $83 million or more. He said one company that had struggled to pay salaries was Remotex, a privately-owned industrial machinery repairer.


Based in the southern town of Radnevo, Remotex used to be one of Bulgaria’s largest repairers of equipment for heavy mining, transport and energy industries. According to local union official Boyka Boeva, unpaid wages at the firm amount to 5 million levs ($3.48 million). Officials at Remotex, which was bought in June by a Greek investor, were not available to comment. Boeva said: "We really hope, after the arrival of the new owner, to see a favorable outcome because this enterprise is of great importance for this town."


Luca Visentini of the Brussels-based European Trade Unions Confederation said non-payment of employees had been relatively rare in EU countries, but that instances were now cropping up in crisis-hit southern states such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.





One of the key problems in the Balkans is that workers have little bargaining power. Unemployment in Croatia reached a 12-year high in March, with 380,000 people of working age without a job and an unemployment rate of nearly 23 percent. It has since fallen to under 20 percent, in part thanks to seasonal employment in the summer tourism industry. In Serbia, the unemployment rate stood at 20.8 percent for the first quarter, the last available data.


At the same time, tax collection is dysfunctional, with some companies not paying dues for months or even years. Payment for goods is also far slower than in the West.


"It's almost impossible to explain to someone from the West," said Ante Babic, secretary-general of the Foreign Investors Council in Croatia. "But it's not surprising that companies are not paying workers when you see that they can afford not to pay taxes or for the goods they bought. Control over salary payments is even looser."


Predrag Bejakovic of the Institute of Public Finances, an economic think-tank in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, said that not paying taxes is still seen as "resourceful rather than immoral."


Struggling private employers also know that commercial and administrative courts are painfully slow. Recent EU data ranked Croatia's judiciary last out of the bloc’s 28 members in terms of effectiveness.


Croatian textile businessman Nikola Mikic, who owns Estare Culto, a well-established brand from Zagreb, said his company is owed 14 million kuna ($2.5 million) by various retailers and other private companies – but is struggling to collect it. That has left him unable to pay suppliers or his own workers regularly, although he says he is still "trying to pay salaries every month, in several installments."


He said that even after taking legal action he would be unlikely to recover the money. "In this system you are more likely to retire before you get justice through legal channels."





Some progress is being made. After it joined the EU last July, Croatia published a "name and shame" list of firms that it said owed tax payments. The government also wants to create a system electronically linking tax, health and pension data, and is starting to tackle legal loopholes.


Until recently, companies registered as “limited” could not be prosecuted if they continued operating while insolvent instead of filing for bankruptcy. A change to company law now makes it possible to take action against errant managers and members of supervisory boards.


"You can see a strong wish to introduce order, but there has been so much neglect, so much abuse that changes are very slow," said a state labor inspector who declined to be named.


The lingering problems are illustrated by Arena Modna Kuca, a company from the Croatian city of Pula that ran into trouble after the Yugoslav market fragmented and European customers turned increasingly to China. Workers saw their wages, in the region of $470 to $540 per month, begin to dry up in 2013; but many worked on.


In May that year, the workers used a new legal avenue to claim unpaid salaries through FINA, the national financial supervisory body. After that, salaries were paid over the next few months, but then the tax authority blocked Arena's accounts over unpaid taxes and welfare contributions.


Employees say a little-known local firm named Istra Jadran Consulting is the biggest shareholder in Arena with 20 percent. Arena and Istra did not respond to requests for comment.


A caretaker management has been appointed to liquidate Arena, where a few workers still remain.


“We now come here to clean up and prepare the premises for sale,” said 53-year-old Ana Ostoni, who said her income was irregular for almost a year. She hopes that, once the liquidation is settled in court, she will get three months’ salary, but says she is owed much more.   


(The story is refiled to add dateline)




(Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Marja Novak in Ljubljana,; Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Angel Krasimirov in Sofia, Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Editing By Richard Woods and Matt Robinson)


German language rule for immigrant spouses invalid: European court

Germany cannot insist the spouses of Turkish nationals living in the country speak basic German when they apply for a family reunification visa, Europe's highest court ruled on Thursday.


Since 2007, Germany has demanded basic German language skills from those wishing to join their partner in Germany from outside the European Union, in an effort to prevent forced marriage and promote integration.

In the case of a Turkish national who lived in Germany since 1998 and whose wife was refused a visa in 2012 because she did not speak German, the European Court of Justice said that the rule ran counter to European Union (EU) law.

The court said this was because of an agreement the European Union made with Turkey in the 1970s to prohibit new restrictions on the freedom to settle in the EU.

Some three million people of Turkish origin live in Germany, about a half of them German citizens.

While the case itself dealt with Turkish nationals only, the court added that the language measure in general was disproportionate.

"(Even) on the assumption that the grounds set out by the German Government (prevention of forced marriages)can constitute overriding reasons in the public interest, it remains the case that a national provision such as the language requirement at issue goes beyond what is necessary," the ECJ said.

Authorities would need to assess the whole picture, rather than automatically not granting a family reunification visa if the applicant did not speak German, the court said.

Rulings of the European Court of Justice cannot be appealed.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Seized nuclear material in Iraq 'low grade': IAEA

The U.N. atomic agency said on Thursday it believed nuclear material which Iraq said had fallen into the hands of insurgents was "low grade" and did not pose a significant security risk.

Iraq told the United Nations that the material was used for scientific research at a university in the northern town of Mosul and appealed for help to "stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad".

Iraq's U.N. envoy this week also said that the government had lost control of a former chemical weapons facility to "armed terrorist groups" and was unable to fulfil its international obligations to destroy toxins kept there.

An al Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took over swathes of Syria and Iraq before renaming itself Islamic State in June and declaring its leader caliph - a title held by successors of the Prophet Mohammad.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) "is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details", IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.

"On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk," she said. "Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern."

Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a July 8 letter that nearly 40 kg (88 pounds) of uranium compounds were kept at the university.

"Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state," he said.

However, a U.S. government source said it was not believed to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a nuclear weapon.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported seizure likely posed no direct threat. But, he said: "The sheer fact that the terrorists ... show unmistakeable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming".


Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or other types of radioactive material is potentially serious as militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a "dirty bomb", experts say.

Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, said that if the material came from a university it could be laboratory chemicals or radiation shielding, consisting of natural or depleted uranium.

"You cannot make a nuclear explosive from this amount, but all uranium compounds are poisonous," Heinonen told Reuters. "This material is also not 'good' enough for a dirty bomb."

In a so-called "dirty bomb", radioactive material such as might be found in a hospital or factory is combined with conventional explosives that disperse the hazardous radiation.


Citing U.N. investigations dating back ten years or more, Heinonen said there should be no enriched uranium in Mosul. The Vienna-based IAEA helped dismantle Iraq's clandestine nuclear programme in the 1990s - during Heinonen's three decades there.


"Iraq should not have any nuclear installation left which uses nuclear material in these quantities," he said.


Another proliferation expert, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said: "The Mosul region and several university departments were scoured again and again by U.N. inspectors for a decade after the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and they know what materials were stored there."


"These included tons of uranium liquid wastes, sources, uranium oxides, and uranium tetrafluoride. Some of these items are still there, but there’s no enriched uranium," he said.


Iraq's Foreign Ministry said atomic material samples were used at Mosul university laboratories in "very limited quantities" for scientific study and research only. Iraqi authorities had started to prepare a plan to get rid of them but the security situation had prevented the work, it added.



(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations)


Taliban kill six de-miners in western Afghanistan

The Taliban shot and killed six people working for a demining company in western Afghanistan, police said on Thursday, a day after the United Nations said the number of civilian casualties in the country jumped by a quarter in the first half of 2014.


"The Taliban killed six de-miners from the Halo Trust landmine clearance organization while they were on an operation in Kohsan district of Herat. They abducted three people," said Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial police chief.

"The de-miners started their trip very early in the morning and hadn't informed the police," Ahmadi said, adding that a manhunt was under way to rescue the three abducted workers.

The United Nations has documented 4,853 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, including 1,564 civilian deaths and 3,289 injuries, in the period between Jan. 1 to June 30.

In southern Zabul province, four policemen were killed by three of their colleagues overnight. The rogue policemen have since defected to the Taliban with guns and a police vehicle.

"The incident took place in Jaldak district of Zabul. An investigation is under way," Zabul deputy governor, Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar, told Reuters.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Zabul attack.

Earlier on Thursday, Taliban militants entered a house in Shahjoi district of Zabul and killed a woman, accusing her of cooperating with the government, police said.

(Reporting by Jalil Ahmad Rezaee in Herat and Ismael Sameem in Kandahar; Writing by Mirwais Harooni, Editing by Maria Golovnina and Ron Popeski)

Likely new Indonesian leader warns against tampering with vote

Indonesia's likely next president, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, warned on Thursday against tampering with ballots ahead of a final count of votes from a disputed election.

Both Jokowi and his rival, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed victory in Wednesday's election, the closest ever in the world's third biggest democracy and biggest Muslim nation with a history of deadly political violence.

The Elections Commission is to announce the official result around July 22.

"We ask everyone's cooperation to now safeguard the election result from yesterday until the official result by (the Elections Commission)...," Jokowi, who was named the election winner by several non-partisan pollsters who have been accurate in the past, told a news conference.

"I would ask everyone not to taint the sincerity of Indonesian society's aspirations in the election," he said, a clear reference to fears of doctoring votes that were cast.

Prabowo has accused his opponent of jumping the gun by claiming victory before the final count. His side has cited other unnamed quick counts which show him ahead.

Speaking to foreign reporters, his tycoon brother and chief political aide Hashim Djojohadikusumo, accused the Jokowi camp of being "highly irresponsible and highly provocative" in announcing victory so soon after polls had closed.

"We feel democracy is in serious, serious danger of being hijacked by the other side," he said, adding he was worried by possible violence and cheating during the official vote count.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia's biggest economy and a member of the G-20 group of nations, was swept by bloodshed in which hundreds of people were killed when strongman ruler Suharto was ousted in 1998 after more than three decades in power. It has since made a slow transition to full democracy, with this only its third direct presidential election.

The quick vote counts are done by private agencies approved by the Elections Commission which collate actual vote tallies as they come out of each district. But the results are unofficial.

On Wednesday night, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged both candidates to keep their supporters in check during the agonizing wait for the official result.

About 250,000 police were on alert across the sprawling archipelago, the world's fourth-most populous nation, but there were no reports of violence.

Home to the world's largest Muslim population, much of Indonesia is engaged in the Ramadan fasting month when followers of the religion are exhorted to focus on spiritual matters.

"In my opinion the country is now divided into two camps .... We leave it to the Election Commission now to announce the results. I don't expect to see violence because we've been told to keep calm," said Johan, 45, in the West Java capital Bandung.

West Java, Indonesia's most populous province, was seen as a key battleground for the election and where conservative Islamic parties backing Prabowo hold much sway. But some quick counts showed that Prabowo only won the province by a narrow margin.




Indonesian financial markets surged in the belief that the unassuming Jokowi, who is seen as a representative of the common man and the face of reform, had won.


His opponent Prabowo is seen as a last gasp of the old guard and his nationalist rhetoric and suggestions of a greater state role in the economy has worried many investors.


Jakarta stocks rose to a one-year high on expectations and the rupiah also strengthened against the dollar.


"We expect investors (particularly foreign) to start pricing in a Jokowi win immediately and both bond and equity markets along with the rupiah should do well," Jakarta-based brokerage Trimegah Securities said in a research note.


The Jakarta Stock Exchange climbed more than 2 percent to an intraday high of 5,165.42 by 0234 GMT, the highest since May 30, 2013. The market is up nearly 20 percent so far this year.


The rupiah also rose, climbing to a seven-week high against the dollar at 11,520 despite the uncertainty.


"It seems like the market will rise in the next couple of days, but it may not sustain the gain until there is an official result from the KPU," said Jeffrosenberg Tan, a director at Sinar Mas Asset Management, referring to Indonesia's Elections Commission.


The latest presidential race was the dirtiest and most confrontational in a country which traditionally holds up the value of consensus politics.


Jokowi took an early step onto the international political stage by condemning Israel's offensive in Gaza. Indonesia has long supported the Palestinian cause and does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.


"Israel's attack on the Gaza a violation of human rights," he said.




(Additional reporting by Lewa Pardomuan in Bandung and Jonathan Thatcher; Writing by Randy Fabi; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Mark Heinrich)


China agrees to reduce FX intervention 'as conditions permit'

U.S. and Chinese leaders have agreed that China will reduce its intervention in the currency market when conditions are ripe, reaching an understanding on a prickly issue that has hurt ties between the world's two biggest economies for years.

China's Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan said on the sidelines of annual high-level talks between the two nations that China will "significantly" reduce its yuan intervention when some prerequisites are met. He did not give further details.

Analysts said Zhou's unusual candour about China's currency intervention, which was echoed earlier on Wednesday by the Chinese finance minister, suggested that China may be ready to let the yuan rise again once its economy stabilises.

Indeed, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told reporters at the end of talks on Thursday that China was committed to reducing its interference with the yuan, "as conditions permit". China will also increase the transparency of its currency policy, he said, describing the agreements as "major" changes.

"The direction of our reforms is clear: we hope that the exchange rate can be kept basically stable, at a reasonable and balanced level through reforms," Zhou said at a briefing on the sidelines of the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

"At the same time, we will allow market supply-and-demand to play a bigger role in determining the exchange rate, expand the floating range of the exchange rate, and increase the exchange rate's flexibility."

"This means that as the goals are being achieved and when conditions are ready, the central bank will significantly reduce its intervention in the foreign-exchange market."

The value of the yuan has long strained bilateral relations between China and the United States. In June, the International Monetary Fund judged the currency to be "moderately undervalued".

U.S. officials say China deliberately holds down its currency to boost its exports, an accusation China denies.

Instead, Chinese authorities weld their currency policy to the idea of stability, a stance that analysts say stems from China's fear of reliving Japan's experience in the 1980s, when a sharp rise in the yen hobbled the Japanese economy.

The yuan has fallen 2.4 percent so far this year as China's economic growth ground to an 18-month low in the first quarter. There are signs that activity is picking up again, though not as quickly as some had hoped.

"It feels like there was a fairly concrete discussion this time," said Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS Bank in Hong Kong. "This is not just a repetition of the policy line that lay on the policy shelf.

"I think in the eyes of Beijing, once the concerns of economic growth are convincingly removed, there would be less resistance to letting the exchange rate appreciate."


As had been the case in recent years, the yuan was a matter of contention at this year's Sino-U.S. talks. Lew told his counterparts from the start that a move to a market-determined exchange rate was a "crucial step" for China.


In response, Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said on Wednesday that Washington constantly raises the issue of whether Beijing can stop its yuan intervention. But Lou said it was difficult for China to be hands off given its unsteady economy and abnormal capital inflows.


Whether Thursday's agreement will be supported by action remains to be seen, a point noted by Lew who said he will be monitoring the renminbi's exchange rate in coming months.


"The experience of the next few months will tell us a lot about what the real impact is," he said.


Statements issued by both governments at the end of Thursday said policymakers on both sides agreed to avoid "competitive devaluation" of their currencies under a broader G20 deal.


The ninth-most traded currency in the world, the yuan is kept on a tight leash by China compared with its peers. The central bank sets a midpoint value every day, from which the yuan is allowed to rise or fall 2 percent in the spot market.


Before the yuan's retreat this year, China had denied it was intervening in the currency market. The central bank repeatedly said that it had ceased its interventions, and that the yuan was near its equilibrium level, even though traders said they still saw the central bank buying or selling the yuan on the market through state banks.


"China is sending a clearer message: it's unlikely for China to completely stop (yuan) intervention under the managed float regime," said Zhang Yongjun, a senior economist at China Centre for International Economic Exchange, a well-connected think tank in Beijing.


China's Central Bank Governor Zhou also signalled that it was not feasible for Chinese authorities to remain entirely on the sidelines of the foreign exchange market.


"If short-term market volatility or speculative forces are too big, we should take appropriate measures," he said in reference to gyrations in the foreign exchange market.


Apart from the yuan, the two sides agreed to try to wrap up talks on a bilateral investment treaty by the end of the year, and begin more contentious negotiations over a "negative list" of sectors that are off-limits to U.S. investment.


Washington wants to narrow the list to open up access to more areas of China’s strictly controlled economy, a process it argues will help drive China’s economic reforms.


China acceded as well to allowing U.S. firms that are being investigated by its anti-trust regulators to contest evidence presented against them by Chinese agencies.


The U.S. business community had pushed Washington to add China's antitrust regime to the agenda, as companies had privately voiced concerns that Beijing was using its anti-monopoly law to drive industrial policy.



(Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Writing by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Catherine Evans)


Utah to appeal gay marriage ruling to U.S. Supreme Court

Utah's attorney general will appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court over last month's ruling by a federal appeals court that backed gay marriage in the conservative, heavily Mormon state, his office said on Wednesday.

An appeal by Utah was widely expected after the June 25 decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver that the state could not prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. That ruling was put on hold pending Utah's appeal.

The office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he would petition the Supreme Court in the coming week, and that the state's measure banning gay marriage was presumed to be constitutional "unless the highest courts deem otherwise."

Utah had the option of asking the entire 10th Circuit appeals court to review the ruling or taking the case directly to the nation's top court.

The June 25 decision was the first time a regional federal appeals court had made such a ruling in the year since the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to extend benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

The Supreme Court is in recess and will not consider petitions filed this summer until the fall. If the justices take up Utah's case, it would likely be heard in early 2015 with a decision by the end of next June.

Gay marriage briefly was legal in Utah after a federal judge ruled in December that a state ban on gay matrimony violated the Constitution. That decision was put on hold by the Supreme Court pending appeals but not before more than 1,300 same-sex couples married. Their status remains in limbo.

There are now 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal. In another nine states, including Utah, federal judges have struck down bans on same-sex marriage but the rulings have been put on hold pending appeal.

Several other same-sex marriage lawsuits are moving toward the Supreme Court's justices and two others, testing bans in Oklahoma and Virginia, already have been heard by appeals courts.

Rulings in those are expected any day, and the Supreme Court could wait to decide whether to take up the Utah case until other appeals come in.

The Mormon church, which wields big political and social influence in Utah, says it has always supported traditional marriage and a culture of respect, and it hopes the nation's highest court will uphold that view.

Reyes' announcement came after gay marriage supporters delivered a petition signed by nearly 4,000 Utahns to Governor Gary Herbert's Salt Lake City mansion demanding that the state drop any appeals.

Billie Christiansen attended with her 11-year-old daughter and said that if she could, she would ask Herbert not use state tax dollars to hurt innocent people.

"These families have just as much love, just as much hope as every other family," said Christensen, who also has a gay son.

In a separate case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Wednesday denied a request from a Pennsylvania county clerk who was seeking a stay of a district court decision that allowed gay marriage to go into effect in the state. In that case, the state declined to appeal the lower court's decision.

(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Will Dunham)

Police shoot knife-wielding woman dead outside Idaho hospital

Police shot and killed a woman brandishing a knife outside a regional medical center in northern Idaho that had been locked down amid reports of a weapons threat, authorities said Wednesday.


Officers investigating the threat late on Tuesday at Bonner General Hospital in Sandpoint said they found a knife-wielding woman who ignored their demands to drop the weapon.

An altercation ensued and officers opened fire and killed the 35-year-old woman, Gary Johnston, detective sergeant with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement.

"A preliminary investigation indicates the female aggressed the officers while refusing to comply with commands to drop the knife. The officers responded to the threat using lethal force," Johnston said.

Authorities declined to release further details, including the number of officers involved, pending an investigation by the sheriff's office and other law enforcement agencies in Idaho.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Walsh)

Florida cat owners call 911 after Russian blue 'freaked out'

Kush the cat was quarantined in central Florida after her owner called 911 over the weekend for help, saying the ferocious feline had her trapped in her home.

"I can’t get out. She’s got us trapped in our bedroom,” Teresa Gregory, 50, told the emergency police dispatcher, according to the record of the call.

'She’s just sitting outside my bedroom door right now. We don’t know what to do.”

Gregory told the dispatcher that Kush, a 4-year-old Russian Blue, began behaving badly earlier in the day so her husband James locked the cat in the bathroom for a while.

Gregory said she might have accidentally stepped on the cat, sparking the aggressive behavior.

When the cat was released, “she freaked out on us,” hissing, scratching and scaring them, Gregory said.

Gregory said both she and her husband were bleeding from scratches to their arms and legs but both later declined treatment.

"I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I love this cat to death,” Gregory told the dispatcher.

When an officer arrived at her home in Deland, near Orlando, Gregory can be heard on the tape calling out, “We’re trapped,” and warning the officer, “She’s just looking at you. I don’t know what she’s going to do.”

The July 5 police incident report lists Kush as a victim/witness, and also as "Cat who attacked owners." The officer wrote that Deland’s animal control service took possession of Kush and quarantined her for 10 days to check for rabies.

The Gregorys told the officer that Kush had never had any shots or vaccinations.

The cat so far had shown no signs of rabies, according to Michelle Realander at the Deland animal control office, adding that the Gregorys have indicated they might want to find it a new home.

(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Eric Walsh)

Exclusive: U.S. grills suspects in new strategy to build bank laundering cases

U.S. prosecutors are using a new tactic to crack down on banks that fail to fight money laundering: systematically asking suspects in a wide range of criminal cases to help them follow the money back to their bankers.

The efforts are paying off in probes of banks and other financial institutions now filling the prosecution pipeline, according to Jonathan Lopez, who last month left his post as deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Bank Integrity Unit (MLBIU).

"Asking criminals the simple question 'Who is moving your money?' can lead the Department of Justice to a financial institution's doorstep," said Lopez, who declined to identify specific targets.

The department confirmed the stepped up reliance on criminal informants in anti-money laundering investigations, but also declined to discuss probes underway.

The four-year-old MLBIU, which includes a dozen prosecutors, is responsible for insuring that financial institutions adhere to U.S. laws including the main U.S. anti-money laundering law, the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). It has filled in an enforcement gap among federal financial regulators who lack the capacity or expertise to aggressively pursue money-laundering cases.

The Justice Department has begun seeking banking information not only from perpetrators of fraud and drug traffickers, but also from suspects linked to the full range of criminal activity, said Lopez, who is now an attorney at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in Washington. Many criminals seeking reduced punishment have pointed fingers at banks, casinos, money transfer businesses, check cashers, broker-dealers and other financial institutions, he said. 

"Essentially any criminal who moves money can be a potential gateway to a financial institution," he said.


The money-laundering unit has worked with Justice Department prosecutors and investigators around the country to ensure that grilling suspects for money-laundering leads is a routine part of every investigation, Lopez said.

"We have been telling prosecutors and agents that this is a priority for us," said Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr.

The unit has worked on high-profile cases, including one resolved in 2012 against HSBC, which entered into a $1.9 billion settlement and admitted anti-money laundering failures that allowed drug cartels to wash hundreds of millions of dollars.

In another case, payment transfer company MoneyGram International Inc agreed in November 2012 to forfeit $100 million and admitted it aided in wire fraud and failed to maintain an effective anti-money laundering program in violation of the BSA.

The anti-money laundering unit has also successfully pursued smaller targets, including check-cashing firms in New York.

Some of these cases involved informants. Others drew on leads, such as documents subpoenaed directly from financial institutions during probes of criminal schemes, Lopez said.

He declined to link specific tactics to individual cases, other than to say the charges against the check-cashing firms were the result of information provided by those committing fraud against the government's Medicare health benefits system.


The unit is also deep into a probe into Citigroup's Banamex USA over possible failures to police money transfers across the U.S.-Mexico border, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters last week. It is not known whether informants led prosecutors to the bank.


Citigroup declined to comment other than to refer to a filing in March in which the bank said it had received grand jury subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Massachusetts concerning compliance with the BSA and federal anti-money laundering requirements. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp has also subpoenaed Banamex USA concerning BSA and anti-money laundering issues. Citigroup said then that it is cooperating fully with these inquiries.


Authorities in the United States and other nations have cracked down on money laundering as part of their fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime. The effort is distinct from the sanctions-violation probes that have led to large fines against foreign banks such as BNP Paribas.


Among the requirements of the BSA, financial institutions must report to authorities transactions that are suspicious or involve large amounts of cash.


As borne out by the details of numerous enforcement cases, some institutions have simply ignored their reporting obligations while others balk at the costs of meeting them. Such institutions are attractive to those who want to evade scrutiny of their financial transactions. 


Yet federal regulators have failed to identify many such firms during routine institutional exams by teams that are too small or lack experience in detecting specific BSA compliance lapses, industry consultants say.


Before the bank integrity unit was created, criminal investigations only occasionally led to cases against financial institutions for anti-money laundering failures that were considered "willful."


The new unit has sought to “breathe new life into BSA enforcement,” Lopez said.



(Reporting by Brett Wolf of the Compliance Complete service of Thomson Reuters Accelus in St. Louis; Editing by Randall Mikkelsen and Martin Howell)


Texas robbery suspect sets himself on fire, then is shot by police

Police in a Dallas suburb shot a suspected burglar after he poured a flammable material on his clothing and set himself on fire on Wednesday outside a chicken wing restaurant, a city official said.


Three officers also suffered severe burns including one who had to be airlifted to a hospital for emergency care, said Corky Brown, a spokesman for Cedar Hill, the suburb southwest of Dallas where the incident took place.

There were no reports immediately available on the condition of the suspect or the officers, Brown said.

The officers were pursuing the man, a suspect in an apartment robbery, and confronted him outside the restaurant in the shopping center, Brown said.

The suspect, who was brandishing a bottle of what appeared to be gasoline, entered the restaurant and then quickly exited engulfed in flames, witness Robert Gonzales told Dallas broadcaster WFAA.

"He looked like a human torch. He had no facial features," Gonzales said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Eric Walsh)