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

Iran upbeat on nuclear talks, West still wary

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

The United States, China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany offered to ease sanctions slightly in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive work, but had made clear they expected no breakthrough in the talks in Kazakhstan, the first in eight months.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Iran had previously indicated that 20-percent enrichment was up for negotiation if it received the fuel from abroad instead.

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

Western officials were aware that the closeness of Iran's presidential election in June is raising political tensions in Tehran and made rapid progress unlikely.

One diplomat in Almaty said the Iranians appeared to be suggesting at the negotiations that they were opening new avenues, but that it was not clear if this was really the case.

"Everyone is saying Iran was more positive and portrayed the talks as a win," said Iran expert Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "I reckon the reason for that is that they are saving face internally while buying time with the West until after the elections."

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

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

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Italy parties seek way out of election stalemate

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's stunned political parties looked for a way forward on Tuesday after an election that gave none of them a parliamentary majority, posing the threat of prolonged instability and European financial crisis.

The results, notably by the dramatic surge of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo, left the center-left bloc with a majority in the lower house but without the numbers to control the powerful upper chamber, the Senate.

Financial markets fell sharply at the prospect of a stalemate that reawakened memories of the crisis that pushed Italy's borrowing costs toward unsustainably high levels and brought the euro zone to the brink of collapse in 2011.

"The winner is: Ingovernability," ran the headline in Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, reflecting the deadlock the country will have to confront in the next few weeks as sworn enemies are forced to work together to form a government.

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has the difficult task of trying to agree a "grand coalition" with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the man he blames for ruining Italy, or striking a deal with Grillo, a completely unknown quantity in conventional politics.

The alternative is new elections either immediately or within a few months, although both Berlusconi and Bersani have indicated that they want to avoid a return to the polls if possible: "Italy cannot be ungoverned and we have to reflect," Berlusconi said in an interview on his own television station.

For his part, Grillo, whose "non-party" movement won the most votes of any single party, has indicated that he believes the next government will last no more than six months.

"They won't be able to govern," he told reporters on Tuesday. "Whether I'm there or not, they won't be able govern."

He said he would work with anyone who supported his policy proposals, which range from anti-corruption measures to green-tinted energy measures but rejected suggestions of entering a formal coalition: "It's not time to talk of alliances... the system has already fallen," he said.

The election, a massive rejection of the austerity policies applied by Prime Minister Mario Monti with the backing of international leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caused consternation across Europe.

"This is a jump to nowhere that does not bode well either for Italy or Europe," said Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo.

In a sign of worry at the top over what effect the elections could have on the economy, Monti, whose austerity policies were repudiated by voters who shunned his centrist bloc, met the governor of the central bank, the economy minister and the European affairs minister to discuss the situation on Tuesday.

The former EU commissioner and his team of technocrats, who were brought in to govern when Berlusconi was consumed by crisis and scandal, will stay on until a new administration is formed.


Projections for the Senate by the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies indicated that the center-left would have 121 seats, against 117 for the center-right alliance of Berlusconi's PDL and the regionalist Northern League. Grillo would take 54.

That leaves no party with the majority in a chamber which a government must control to pass legislation and opened up the prospect of previously inconceivable partnerships that will test the sometimes fragile internal unity of the main parties.

"The idea of a majority without Grillo is unthinkable. I don't know if anyone in the PD is considering it but I'm against it," said Matteo Orfini, a member of Bersani's PD secretariat.

"The idea of a PD-PDL government, even if it's backed by Monti, doesn't make any sense," he said.

Berlusconi, a media magnate whose campaigning all but wiped out Bersani's once commanding opinion poll lead, hinted in a telephone call to a morning television show that he would be open to a deal with the center-left - but not with Monti, the economics professor who replaced him 15 months ago.

"Italy must be governed," Berlusconi said, adding that he "must reflect" on a possible deal with the center-left. "Everyone must be prepared to make sacrifices," he said of the groups which now have a share of the legislature.

The Milan bourse was down almost 4 percent and the premium Italy pays over Germany to borrow on 10-year widened to a yield spread of 338 basis points, the highest since December 10 and more than 80 points above the level seen earlier on Monday.

At an auction of six-month Treasury bills, Italy's borrowing costs jumped by more than two thirds with the yield reaching 1.237 percent, the highest since October and compared to just 0.730 percent in a similar sale a month ago.

The euro dropped to an almost seven-week low against the dollar in Asia on fears of a revival of the euro zone crisis. It fell as far as $1.3042, its lowest since January 10.

"What is crucial now is that a stable functioning government can be built as swiftly as possible," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "This is not only in the interests of Italy but in the interests of all Europe."

However the view from some voters, weary of the mainstream parties, was unrepentant: "It's good," said Roger Manica, 28, a security guard in Rome, who voted for the center-left PD.

"Next time I'll vote 5-Star. I like that they are changing things, even if it means uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn't matter to me, for me what's important is a good person who gets things done," he said. "Look how well they've done."

A long recession and growing disillusionment with mainstream parties and tax-raising austerity fed the bitter public mood and contributed to the massive rejection of Monti, whose centrist coalition was relegated to the sidelines.

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

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

Monti was widely credited with tightening Italy's public finances and restoring its international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, who is currently on trial for having sex with an under-age prostitute.

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

For Italian business, with an illustrious history of export success, the election result brought dismay that there would be no quick change to what they see as a regulatory sclerosis that has kept the economy virtually stagnant for a decade.

"This is probably the worst possible scenario," said Francesco Divella, whose family began selling pasta under its eponymous brand in 1890 in the southern region of Puglia.

"We are very concerned about the uncertainty and apparent ungovernability," said Silvio Pietro Angori, chief executive of Pininfarina, which has designed Ferrari sportscars since 1950. "A company competing on the global markets like Pininfarina needs the support of a stable government that inspires trust."

One of the country's leading bankers summed up his personal reaction: "I'm in shock," he told Reuters. "What a mess!"

(Additional reporting by Barry Moody, Gavin Jones, Lisa Jucca, Steven Jewkes, Steve Scherer Writing by Philip Pullella and James Mackenzie; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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Italy election forecasts point to political gridlock

ROME (Reuters) - Conflicting early forecasts of the result of Italy's election on Monday raised the specter of deadlock in parliament that could paralyze a new government and re-ignite the euro zone crisis.

Officials from both centre and left warned that such gridlock could make Italy ungovernable and force new elections.

Opinion polls have long pointed to the center-left of Pier Luigi Bersani winning the lower house, but projections from RAI state television showed Silvio Berlusconi's center right in front in the Senate - which has equal lawmaking power - but unable to form a majority.

RAI showed the center-left well short of a majority in the Senate even in coalition with Monti, who was seen slumping to only 19 out of 315 elected Senators against a massive 65 for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo.

Senate votes are counted before the lower house.

The latest projections ran counter to earlier telephone polls that showed the center left taking a strong lead in the Senate as well as the lower house.

Italian financial markets took fright after rising earlier on hopes for a stable and strong center-left led government, probably backed by outgoing technocrat premier Mario Monti.

Such government is seen by investors as the best guarantee of measures to combat a deep recession and stagnant growth in the euro zone's third largest economy, which is pivotal to stability in the currency union.

Berlusconi's declared aim is to win enough power in the Senate to paralyze a center-left administration.

The benchmark spread between Italian 10-year bonds and their German equivalent widened from below 260 basis points to above 280 and the Italian share index lost all its previous gains.

"These projections suggest that we are heading for an ungovernable situation", said Mario Secchi, a candidate for Monti's centrist movement.

Stefano Fassina, chief economic official for Bersani's center-left, said: "The scenario from the projections we have seen so far suggest there will be no stable government and we would need to return to the polls."

The earlier telephone polls on Sky and Rai television after voting ended at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT/9 a.m. ET) had shown the center left 5-6 points ahead of the center right in both Senate and lower house, with Grillo taking third place.

Adding to the confusion, official results from more than 50 percent of polling stations showed the center-left ahead with 32.7 percent against 29.5 for the center-right in the Senate race. The partial official count is often not representative because of the order in which votes are counted regionally.

Italy's electoral laws guarantee a strong majority in the lower house to the party or coalition that wins the biggest share of the national vote.

However the Senate, elected on a region-by-region basis, is more complicated and the result will turn on four key battleground regions. Projections from LA 7 showed Berlusconi winning in three of them: Lombardy, Sicily and Campania.

A Sky television projection showed him strongly ahead in the rich northern region Lombardy, which returns the largest number of Senators, with 38.8 percent against 27.6 for the center left.


A bitter campaign, fought largely over economic issues, has made some investors fear a return of the kind of debt crisis that took the euro zone close to disaster and brought the technocrat Monti to office, replacing the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, in 2011.

Monti helped save Italy from a debt crisis when Rome's borrowing costs were spiraling out of control, but the polls and projections suggested few Italians now see him as the savior of the country, in its longest recession for 20 years.

A surge in protest votes for Grillo's 5-Star Movement had raised uncertainty about the chances of a stable government that could fend off the danger of a renewed euro zone crisis.

Grillo's movement rode a huge wave of voter anger about both the pain of Monti's austerity program and a string of political and corporate scandals. It had particular appeal for a frustrated younger generation shut out of full-time jobs.

"I'm sick of the scandals and the stealing," said Paolo Gentile, a 49-year-old Rome lawyer who voted for 5-Star.

"We need some young, new people in parliament, not the old parties that are totally discredited."

Bad weather, including heavy snow in some areas, was thought to have hampered the turnout in Italy's first post-war election to be held in winter. This could have favored the center left, whose voters tend to be more committed than those on the right, which has strong support among older people.

Berlusconi, a 76-year-old media tycoon, pledged sweeping tax cuts and accused Monti of being a puppet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a media blitz that halved the lead of the center left in opinion polls since the start of the year.

Whatever government emerges will inherit an economy that has been stagnant for much of the past two decades and problems ranging from record youth unemployment to a dysfunctional justice system and a bloated public sector.

(Additional reporting by Stefano Bernabei, Steve Scherer, Gavin Jones and Giuseppe Fonte in Rome and Lisa Jucca in Milan; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Philippa Fletcher)

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Gloomy Italians vote in election crucial for euro zone

ROME (Reuters) - Italy voted on Sunday in one of the most unpredictable elections in years, with many voters expressing rage against a discredited elite and doubt that a government will emerge strong enough to combat a severe economic crisis.

"I am pessimistic. Nothing will change," said Luciana Li Mandri, 37, as she cast a ballot in the Sicilian capital Palermo on the first of two days of voting that continues on Monday.

"The usual thieves will be in government."

Her gloom reflected the mood across Italy, where many voters said they thought the new administration would not last long, just the opposite of what Italy needs to combat the longest slump in 20 years, mounting unemployment and a huge public debt.

The election is being closely watched by investors whose memories are fresh of a debt crisis which forced out scandal-plagued conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago and saw him replaced by economics professor Mario Monti.

"I'm not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems," said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old building tradesman in Milan.

Underlining his disilluion with the established parties, he voted for the 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.

An iconclastic, 64-year-old Genoese, Grillo has screamed himself hoarse with obscenity-laced attacks on politicians that have channeled the anger of Italians, especially a frustrated young generation hit by record unemployment.

"He's the only real new element in a political landscape where we've been seeing the same faces for too long," said Vincenzo Cannizzaro, 48, in Palermo.

Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani a narrow lead but the result has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against Monti's painful austerity measures and rage at a wave of corruption scandals.

A weak government could usher in new instability in the euro zone's third largest economy and cause another crisis of confidence in the European Union's single currency.

Television tycoon Berlusconi, showing off unrivalled media skills and displaying extraordinary energy for a man of 76, has increased uncertainty over the past couple of months by halving the gap between his centre-right and Bersani.

"I am pessimistic. There is such political fragmentation that we will again have the problem of ungovernability" said Marta, a lawyer voting in Rome who did not want to give her family name. "I fear the new government won't last long."

Another Roman voter, lab technician Manila Luce, 34, said: "I am voting Grillo and I hope a lot of people do. Because it's the only way to show how sick to the back teeth we are with the old parties."

Voting continues until 10 p.m. (4 p.m. EST) and resumes on Monday at 7 a.m. Exit polls will be published shortly after polls close at 3 p.m. on Monday. Full official results are expected by early Tuesday.

Snow in the north was expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million eligible voters. Authorities said they were prepared for the weather and in the central city of Bologna roads were cleared of snow before voting started.


Several bare-breasted women protested against Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They were bundled away by police.

The four-time premier, known for off-color jokes and a constant target of feminists, is on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during "bunga bunga" parties at his villa.

Most experts expect a coalition between Bersani and Monti to form the next administration, but whatever government emerges will have to try to reverse years of failure to revitalize one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world.

The widespread despair over the state of the country, where a series of corruption scandals has highlighted the stark divide between a privileged political elite and millions of ordinary Italians struggling to make ends meet, has left deep scars.

"It's our fault, Italian citizens. It's our closed mentality. We're just not Europeans," said voter Li Mandri in Palermo.

"We're all about getting favors when we study, getting a protected job when we work," she said. "That's the way we are and we can only be represented by people like that as well."


Even if Bersani wins as expected, Analysts are divided over whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can force through sweeping economic reforms.

His centre-left is expected to have firm control of the lower house, thanks to rules that give a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally.

But a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate which is elected on a regional basis and which has equal law making powers to the chamber.

Berlusconi has clawed back support by promising to repeal Monti's hated new housing tax, the IMU, and to refund the money. He relentlessly attacked what he called the "Germano-centric" policies of the former European Union commissioner.

Think-tank consultant Mario, 60, said on his way to vote in Bologna that Bersani's Democratic Party was the only group serious enough to repair the economy: "They're not perfect," he said. "But they've got the organization and the union backing that will help them push through structural reforms."

Despite Berlusconi's success, Grillo has tapped into the same public frustration as the conservative tycoon and pollsters say his 5-Star Movement of political novices could overtake the centre-right to take second place in the vote.

Rivals have branded Grillo a threat to democracy - a vivid image in a country ruled by fascists for two decades until World War Two. Several voters who spoke to Reuters said Grillo was not the answer because of his lack of concrete policies and the inexperience of those who will sit in parliament for 5-Star.

"Grillo is a populist and populism doesn't work in a democracy," said retired notary Pasquale Lebanon, 76, as he voted for Bersani's Democratic Party in Milan.

"I'm very worried. There seems to be no way out from a political point of view, or for being able to govern," said Calogero Giallanza, a 45-year-old musician in Rome as he also voted for Bersani.

"There's bound to be a mess in the Senate because, as far as I can see the 5-Star Movement is unstoppable."

(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino, Lisa Jucca, Jennifer Clark, Matthias Baehr, Jennifer Clark and Sara Rossi in Milan, Stephen Jewkes in Bologna, Wladimir Pantaleone in Palermo, Stefano Bernabei and Massimiliano Di Giorgio in Rome; Writing by James Mackenzie and Barry Moody; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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South Africa's Pistorius goes free on $113,000 bail

PRETORIA (Reuters) - A South African court granted bail on Friday to Oscar Pistorius, charged with the murder of his girlfriend on Valentine's Day, after his lawyers successfully argued the "Blade Runner" was too famous to flee justice.

The decision by Magistrate Desmond Nair drew cheers from the Paralympics star's family and supporters. Pistorius himself was unmoved, in marked contrast to the week-long hearing, when he repeatedly broke down in tears.

Nair set bail at 1 million rand ($113,000) and postponed the case until June 4. Pistorius would be released only when the court received 100,000 rand in cash, he added.

Less than an hour later, a silver Land Rover left the court compound, Pistorius visible through the tinted windows sitting in the back seat in the dark suit and tie he wore in court.

The car then sped off through the streets of the capital, pursued by members of the media on motorcycles, before it entered his uncle Arnold's home in the plush Pretoria suburb of Waterkloof.

At least five private security guards stood outside the concrete walls, keeping reporters at bay.

Under the terms of his bail, Pistorius, 26, was also ordered to hand over firearms and his two South African passports, avoid his home and all witnesses, report to a police station twice a week and abstain from drinking alcohol.

The decision followed a week of dramatic testimony about how the athlete shot dead model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp at his luxury home near Pretoria in the early hours of February 14.

Prosecutors said Pistorius committed premeditated murder when he fired four shots into a locked toilet door, hitting his girlfriend cowering on the other side. Steenkamp, 29, suffered gunshot wounds to her head, hip and arm.

Pistorius said the killing was a tragic mistake, saying he had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder - a possibility in crime-ridden South Africa - and opened fire in a blind panic.

However, in delivering his nearly two-hour bail ruling, Nair said there were a number of "improbabilities" in Pistorius's version of events, read out to the court in an affidavit by his lawyer, Barry Roux.

"I have difficulty in appreciating why the accused would not seek to ascertain who exactly was in the toilet," Nair said. "I also have difficulty in appreciating why the deceased would not have screamed back from the toilet."

By local standards, the bail conditions are onerous but it remains to be seen if they appease opposition to the decision from groups campaigning against the violence against women that is endemic in South Africa.

"We are saddened because women are being killed in this country," said Jacqui Mofokeng, a spokeswoman for the ruling African National Congress' Women's League, whose members stood outside the court this week with banners saying "Rot in jail".


However, Nair said he made his decision in the "interests of justice" and argued that the prosecution, who suffered a setback when the lead investigator withered under cross-examination by Roux, failed to show Pistorius was either a flight risk or a threat to the public.

Roux stressed the Olympic and Paralympics runner's global fame made it impossible for him to evade justice by skipping bail and leaving the country.

"He can never go anywhere unnoticed," Roux told the court.

Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated in infancy forcing him to race on carbon fiber "blades", faces life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder.

Prosecutors had portrayed him as a cold-blooded killer and said they were confident that their case, which will have to rely heavily on forensics and witnesses who said they heard shouting before the shots, would stand up to scrutiny at trial.

"We are going to make sure that we get enough evidence to get through this case during trial time," a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority told reporters.

In court, lead prosecutor Gerrie Nel was scornful of Pistorius's inability to contain his emotions. "I shoot and I think my career is over and I cry. I come to court and I cry because I feel sorry for myself," Nel said.


In his affidavit, Pistorius said he was "deeply in love" with Steenkamp, leading Roux to stress his client had no motive for the killing.

Pistorius contends he reached for a 9-mm pistol under his bed because he felt particularly vulnerable without his prosthetic limbs.

According to police, witnesses heard shouting, gunshots and screams from the athlete's home, which sits in the heart of a gated community surrounded by 3-m- (yard-) high stone walls topped with an electric fence.

In a magazine interview a week before her death, published on Friday, Steenkamp spoke about her three-month relationship with the runner, who won global fame last year when he reached the semi-final of the 400 meters in the London Olympics despite having no lower legs.

"I absolutely adore Oscar. I respect and admire him so much," she told celebrity gossip magazine Heat. "I don't want anything to come in the way of his career."

Police pulled their lead detective off the case on Thursday after it was revealed he himself faces attempted murder charges for shooting at a minibus. He has been replaced by South Africa's top detective.

Pistorius's arrest stunned the millions around the world who saw him as an inspiring example of triumph over adversity.

But the impact was greatest in South Africa, where he was seen as a rare hero for both blacks and whites, transcending the racial divides that persist 19 years after the end of apartheid.

(Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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French hostages probably separated, Hollande says

PARIS/MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Seven French hostages abducted by suspected Nigerian Islamist militants have probably been separated into two groups and efforts are continuing to locate them, French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday.

French, Nigerian and Cameroonian officials earlier denied French media reports that the seven family members, who were seized in Cameroon on Tuesday and taken over the border, had been freed.

"It's best to work discreetly for now to identify the exact place where our citizens are being held - most likely in two groups - and work out how we can free them under the best conditions," Hollande told reporters.

Paris was "fully cooperating" with Nigeria and Cameroon, he added, noting that French troops were nearby as their base was in the Chadian capital N'Djamena, 150 km (93 miles) away.

The Nigerian military located the hostages and kidnappers between Dikwa and Ngala in the far northeast, a Nigerian military source in Borno said earlier on Thursday, asking not to be identified.

Dikwa is less than 80 km (50 miles) from the border with Cameroon where the three adults and four children were taken hostage on Tuesday.

A senior Cameroonian military official declined to comment, saying the matter was too sensitive.

French gendarmes backed by special forces arrived in northern Cameroon on Wednesday to help locate the family, a local governor and French defense ministry official said.

Citing a Cameroon army officer, French media reported earlier on Thursday that the hostages had been found alive in a house in northern Nigeria. That was denied by the France, Nigeria and Cameroon.


The abduction was the first case of foreigners being seized in the mostly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony, and highlighted the threat to French interests in West Africa since Paris deployed thousands of troops to Mali to oust al Qaeda-linked Islamists who controlled the country's north.

But the region - like others in West and North Africa with porous borders - is considered within the operational sphere of Boko Haram and fellow Nigerian Islamist militants Ansaru.

On Sunday, seven foreigners were snatched from the compound of Lebanese construction company Setraco in northern Nigeria's Bauchi state, and Ansaru took responsibility.

Northern Nigeria increasingly is afflicted by attacks and kidnappings by Islamist militants. Ansaru, which rose to prominence only in recent months, has claimed the abduction in December of a French national who is still missing.

Three foreigners were killed in two failed rescue attempts last year after being kidnapped in northern Nigeria and Ansaru, blamed for those kidnaps, warned this could happen again.

"Staging a successful rescue is always difficult, but even more so if the kidnappers are waiting for it," said Peter Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria country manager of security firm Drum Cussac.

"After the death of three European hostages in rescue-intervention attempts last year, Nigeria and France will be hoping for a peaceful resolution. The problem could be the kidnappers lack of enthusiasm for negotiation or deals. The fact that four of the hostages are children adds further difficulty to the decision for France and Nigeria."

The kidnapping in Cameroon brought to 15 the number of French citizens being held in West Africa.

(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Tansa Musa in Yaounde, Joe Brock in Abuja and Bate Felix and John Irish in Dakar; Writing by Bate Felix and John Irish; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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Bulgarian government resigns amid growing protests

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria's government resigned on Wednesday after mass protests against high power prices and falling living standards, joining a long list of European administrations felled by austerity during four years of debt crisis.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, an ex-bodyguard who took power in 2009 on pledges to root out graft and raise incomes in the European Union's poorest member, faces a tough task of propping up eroding support ahead of an expected early election.

Wage and pension freezes and tax hikes have bitten deep in a country where earnings are less than half the EU average and tens of thousands of Bulgarians have rallied in protests that have turned violent, chanting "Mafia" and "Resign".

Moves by Borisov on Tuesday to blame foreign utility companies for the rise in the cost of heating homes was to no avail and an eleventh day of marches saw 15 people hospitalized and 25 arrested in clashes with police.

"My decision to resign will not be changed under any circumstances. I do not build roads so that blood is shed on them," said Borisov, who began his career guarding the Black Sea state's communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

A karate black belt, Borisov has cultivated a Putin-like "can-do" image since he entered politics as Sofia mayor in 2005 and would connect with voters by showing up on the capital's rutted streets to oversee the repair of pot-holes.

But critics say he has often skirted due process, sometimes to the benefit of those close to him, and his swift policy U-turns have wounded the public's trust.

The spark for the protests was high electricity bills, after the government raised prices by 13 percent last July. But it quickly spilled over into wider frustration with Borisov and political elites with perceived links to shadowy businesses.

"He made my day," said student Borislav Hadzhiev in central Sofia, commenting on Borisov's resignation. "The truth is that we're living in an extremely poor country."


The prime minister's final desperate moves on Tuesday included cutting power prices and risking a diplomatic row with the Czech Republic by punishing companies including CEZ, moves which conflicted with EU norms on protection of investors and due process.

CEZ officials were hopeful on Wednesday that it would be able to avoid losing its distribution license after all and officials from the Bulgarian regulator said the company would not be punished if it dealt with breaches of procedure.

But shares in what is central Europe's largest publicly-listed company fell another 1 percent on Wednesday.

If pushed through, the fines for CEZ and two other foreign-owned firms will not encourage other investors in Bulgaria, who already have to navigate complicated bureaucracy and widespread corruption and organized crime to take advantage of Bulgaria's 10-percent flat tax rate.

Financial markets reacted negatively to the turbulence on Wednesday. The cost of insuring Bulgaria's debt rose to a three-month high and debt yields rose some 15 basis points, though the country's low deficit of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product means there is little risk to the lev currency's peg against the euro.

Borisov's interior minister indicated that elections originally planned for July would probably be pulled forward by saying that his rightist GERB party would not take part in talks to form a new government.


GERB's woes have echoes in another ex-communist EU member, Slovenia, where demonstrators have taken to the streets and added pressure to a crumbling conservative government.

A small crowd gathered in support of Borisov outside Sofia's parliament, which is expected to approve his resignation on Thursday, while bigger demonstrations against the premier were expected in the evening.

Unemployment in the country of 7.3 million is far from the highs hit in the decade after the end of communism but remains at 11.9 percent. Average salaries are stuck at around 800 levs ($550) a month and millions have emigrated, leaving swathes of the country depopulated and little hope for those who remain.

GERB's popularity has held up well and it still led in the latest polls before protests grew in size last weekend, but analysts say the opposition Socialists should draw strength from the demonstrations.

The leftists, successors to Bulgaria's communist party, have proposed tax cuts and wage hikes and are likely to raise questions about public finances if elected.

(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by Patrick Graham)

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Venezuela's Maduro would win vote if Chavez goes: poll

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro would win a presidential vote should his boss Hugo Chavez's cancer force him out, according to the first survey this year on such a scenario in the South American OPEC nation.

Local pollster Hinterlaces gave Maduro 50 percent of potential votes, compared to 36 percent for opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

Chavez made a surprise return to Venezuela on Monday, more than two months after cancer surgery in Cuba, to continue treatment at home for the disease that is jeopardizing his 14-year socialist rule.

He has named Maduro, 50, a former bus driver and union activist, as his preferred successor.

Capriles, 40, a center-left state governor who lost to Chavez in a presidential vote last year, likely would run again.

Chavez still has not spoken in public since his December 11 operation in Cuba. Venezuelans were debating on Tuesday the various possible scenarios after his homecoming - from full recovery to resignation or even death from the cancer.

There was widespread expectation Chavez would soon be formally sworn in for his new six-year term at the Caracas military hospital where officials said he was staying. The January 10 ceremony was postponed while he was in Cuba.

"The president's timeline is strictly linked to his medical evolution and recovery," said Rodrigo Cabezas, a senior member of Chavez's ruling Socialist Party who, like other officials, would not comment on when he might be sworn in.


Should Chavez be forced out, Venezuela's constitution stipulates an election must be held within 30 days, giving Capriles and the opposition Democratic Unity coalition another chance to end the socialists' lengthy grip on power.

Capriles, who crossed swords with Hinterlaces at various points during the presidential election, again accused its director, Oscar Schemel, of bias in the latest survey.

"That man is not a pollster, he's on the government's payroll," Capriles told local TV.

"He said in December I would lose the Miranda governorship," he added, referring to his defeat of government heavyweight Elias Jaua, now foreign minister, in that local race.

Opinion surveys are notoriously controversial and divergent in Venezuela, with both sides routinely accusing pollsters of being in the pocket of the other. But Hinterlaces successfully forecast Chavez's win with 55 percent of the vote in October.

Its latest poll was of 1,230 people between January 30-February 9.

Polls last year showed Capriles - an energetic basketball-playing lawyer who admires Brazil's centrist mix of free-market economics with strong social welfare policies - as more popular than any of Chavez's senior allies.

But Chavez's personal blessing of Maduro, on the eve of his last cancer surgery, has transformed his status and made him the heir apparent for many of the president's supporters.

As de facto leader since mid-December, Maduro also has built up a stronger public profile, copying the president's techniques of endless live TV appearances, especially to inaugurate new public works or promote popular policies like subsidized food.

He lacks Chavez's charisma, however, and opponents have slammed him as a "poor imitation" and incompetent.


Local analyst Luis Vicente Leon said that should Chavez die, Maduro would benefit from the emotion unleashed among his millions of passionate supporters in Venezuela.

"The funeral wake for Chavez would merge into the election campaign," he told a local newspaper, noting how Argentine President Cristina Fernandez's popularity surged when her husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner died in 2010.

Maduro already has implemented an unpopular devaluation of the local currency and said more economic measures are coming this week in what local economists view as austerity measures after blowout spending prior to last year's election.

In Caracas, the streets were quieter after tumultuous celebrations of Chavez's homecoming by supporters on Monday. A few journalists stood outside the military hospital.

Prayer vigils were planned in various parts of Venezuela.

"We hope Chavez will stay governing because he is a strong man," supporter Cristina Salcedo, 50, said in Caracas.

Student demonstrators who had chained themselves near the Cuban Embassy last week, demanding more information on Chavez's condition, called off their protest after his return.

Until photos were published of him on Friday, the president had not been seen by the public since his six-hour December 11 operation, the fourth since cancer was detected in mid-2011.

The government has said Chavez is breathing through a tracheal tube and struggling to speak.

Bolivian President Evo Morales arrived in Caracas on Tuesday in the hope of visiting his friend and fellow leftist.

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Mario Naranjo, Girish Gupta in Caracas, Carlos Quiroga in La Paz; Editing by Bill Trott)

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Time to refer Syrian war crimes to ICC, U.N. inquiry says

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations investigators said on Monday that Syrian leaders they had identified as suspected war criminals should face the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The investigators urged the U.N. Security Council to "act urgently to ensure accountability" for violations, including murder and torture, committed by both sides in a conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people since a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began in March, 2011.

"Now really it's time...We have a permanent court, the International Criminal Court, who would be ready to take this case," Carla del Ponte, a former ICC chief prosecutor who joined the U.N. team in September, told a news briefing in Geneva.

The inquiry, led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, is tracing the chain of command to establish criminal responsibility and build a case for eventual prosecution.

"Of course we were able to identify high-level perpetrators," del Ponte said, adding that these were people "in command responsibility...deciding, organizing, planning and aiding and abetting the commission of crimes".

She said it was urgent for the Hague-based war crimes tribunal to take up cases of "very high officials", but did not identify them, in line with the inquiry's practice.

"We have crimes committed against children, rape and sexual violence. We have grave concerns. That is also one reason why an international body of justice must act because it is terrible."

Del Ponte, who brought former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the ICC on war crimes charges, said the ICC prosecutor would need to deepen the investigation on Syria before an indictment could be prepared.

Pinheiro, noting that only the Security Council could refer Syria's case to the ICC, said: "We are in very close dialogue with all the five permanent members and with all the members of the Security Council, but we don't have the key that will open the path to cooperation inside the Security Council."

Karen Koning AbuZayd, an American member of the U.N. team, told Reuters it had information pointing to "people who have given instructions and are responsible for government policy, people who are in the leadership of the military, for example".

The inquiry's third list of suspects, building on lists drawn up in the past year, remains secret. It will be entrusted to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, upon expiry of its mandate at the end of March, the report said.

Pillay, a former ICC judge, said on Saturday Assad should be probed for war crimes, and called for outside action on Syria, including possible military intervention.

Pinheiro said the investigators would not speak publicly about "numbers, names or levels" of suspects, adding that it was vital to pursue accountability for international crimes "to counter the pervasive sense of impunity" in Syria.


The investigators' latest report, covering the six months to mid-January, was based on 445 interviews conducted abroad with victims and witnesses, as they have not been allowed into Syria.

"We identified seven massacres during the period, five on the government side, two on the armed opponents side. We need to enter the sites to be able to confirm elements of proof that we have," del Ponte said.

"For example, in the attack on the university of Aleppo, there is information that it came from the government side and from the rebel side. If we had been able to enter and examine the site and carry out a scientific investigation, we would have a definitive answer," she said.

The U.N. report said the ICC was the appropriate institution for the fight against impunity in Syria. "As an established, broadly supported structure, it could immediately initiate investigations against authors of serious crimes in Syria."

Government forces have carried out shelling and air strikes across Syria including Aleppo, Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Idlib, the 131-page report said, citing corroborating satellite images.

"In some incidents, such as in the assault on Harak, indiscriminate shelling was followed by ground operations during which government forces perpetrated mass killing," it said, referring to a town in the southern province of Deraa where residents told them that 500 civilians were killed in August.

"Government forces and affiliated militias have committed extra-judicial executions, breaching international human rights law. This conduct also constitutes the war crime of murder. Where murder was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, with knowledge of that attack, it is a crime against humanity," the U.N. report said.

Those forces have targeted bakery queues and funeral processions to spread "terror among the civilian population".

Rebels fighting to topple Assad have also committed war crimes including murder, torture, hostage-taking and using children under age 15 in hostilities, the U.N. report said.

"They continue to endanger the civilian population by positioning military objectives inside civilian areas" and rebel snipers had caused "considerable civilian casualties", it said.

"The violations and abuses committed by anti-government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by government forces and affiliated militia."

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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Pope, near abdication, says pray "for me and next pope"

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict asked the faithful to pray for him and for the next pope, in his penultimate Sunday address to a crowded St. Peter's Square before becoming the first pontiff in centuries to resign.

The crowd chanted "Long live the pope!," waved banners and broke into sustained applause as he spoke from his window. The 85-year-old Benedict, who will abdicate on February 28, thanked them in several languages.

Speaking in Spanish, he told the crowd which the Vatican said numbered more than 50,000: "I beg you to continue praying for me and for the next pope".

It was not clear why the pope chose Spanish to make the only specific reference to his upcoming resignation in his Sunday address.

A number of cardinals have said they would be open to the possibility of a pope from the developing world, be it Latin America, Africa or Asia, as opposed to another from Europe, where the Church is crisis and polarized.

"I can imagine taking a step towards a black pope, an African pope or a Latin American pope," Cardinal Kurt Koch, a Swiss Vatican official who will enter the conclave to choose the next pope, told Reuters in an interview.

After his address, the pope retired into the Vatican's Apostolic Palace for a scheduled, week-long spiritual retreat and will not make any more public appearances until next Sunday.

Speaking in Italian in part of his address about Lent, the period when Christians reflect on their failings and seek guidance in prayer, the pope spoke of the difficulty of making important decisions.

"In decisive moments of life, or, on closer inspection, at every moment in life, we are at a crossroads: do we want to follow the ‘I', or God? The individual interest, or the real good, that which is really good?" he said.


The pope has said his physical and spiritual forces are no longer strong enough to sustain him in the job of leading the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics at a time of crisis for the Church in a fast-changing world.

Benedict's papacy was rocked by crises over the sex abuse of children by priests in Europe and the United States, most of which preceded his time in office but came to light during it.

His reign also saw Muslim anger after he compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over his rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the Church's business dealings, his butler was convicted of leaking his private papers.

Since his shock announcement last Monday, the pope has said several times that he made the difficult decision to become the first pope in more than six centuries to resign for the good of the Church. Aides said he was at peace with himself.

"In a funny way he is even more peaceful now with this decision, unlike the rest of us, he is not somebody who gets choked up really easily," said Greg Burke, a senior media advisor to the Vatican.

"I think that has a lot to do with his spiritual life and who he is and the fact he is such a prayerful man," Burke told Reuters Television.

People in the crowd said the pope was a shadow of the man he was when elected on April 19, 2005.

"Like always, recently, he seemed tired, moved, perplexed, uncertain and insecure," said Stefan Malabar, an Italian in St. Peter's Square.

"It's something that really has an effect on you because the pope should be a strong and authoritative figure but instead he seems very weak, and that really struck me," he said.

The Vatican has said the conclave to choose his successor could start earlier than originally expected, giving the Roman Catholic Church a new leader by mid-March.

Some 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter the secretive conclave which, according to Church rules, has to start between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, which it will on February 28.

But since the Church is now dealing with an announced resignation and not a sudden death, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Vatican would be "interpreting" the law to see if it could start earlier.


Cardinals around the world have already begun informal consultations by phone and email to construct a profile of the man they think would be best suited to lead the Church in a period of continuing crisis.

The Vatican appears to be aiming to have a new pope elected and then formally installed before Palm Sunday on March 24 so he can preside at Holy Week services leading to Easter.

New details emerged at the weekend about Benedict's health.

Peter Seewald, a German journalist who wrote a book with the pope in 2010 in which Benedict first floated the possibility of resigning, visited him again about 10 weeks ago.

"His hearing had deteriorated. He couldn't see with his left eye. His body had become so thin that the tailors had difficulty in keeping up with newly fitted clothes ... I'd never seen him so exhausted-looking, so worn down," Seewald said.

The pope will say one more Sunday noon prayer on February 24 and hold a final general audience on February 27.

The next day he will take a helicopter to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, where he will stay for around two months before moving to a convent inside the Vatican where he will live out his remaining years.

(Additional reporting by Hanna Rantala; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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NATO air strikes for Afghan security forces must end: Karzai

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan security forces will be banned from calling for NATO air strikes in residential areas to help in their operations, President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday, three days after 10 civilians died in such a strike in the country's east.

NATO air strikes and civilian casualties have become a significant stress point in the relationship between Karzai and his international backers. The issue threatens to further destabilize a precarious international withdrawal, to be completed by the end of 2014.

Addressing a conference at Kabul's National Military Academy, Karzai expressed his anger about the strike and said he would issue a decree on Sunday preventing any resort to such measures by his forces.

"Tomorrow, I will issue an decree stating that under no conditions can Afghan forces request foreign air strikes on Afghan homes or Afghan villages during operations," Karzai told more than 1,000 officers, commandos and students.

If issued, such a decree would for the first time bar Afghan security forces from relying on NATO air strikes, and increase pressure on them as they increasingly assume control of security from international forces.

NATO and its partners are racing against the clock to train Afghanistan's 350,000-strong security forces, though questions remain over how they well the Afghans will be able to tackle the insurgency in the face of intensifying violence.

On Wednesday, a NATO air strike -- requested during an operation in eastern Kunar province involving Afghan and American troops targeting Taliban fighters linked to al Qaeda -- struck two houses in a village in the Shultan valley.

The strike killed 10 people, including five children and four women. Four Taliban fighters, who had links to al Qaeda, according to Afghan officials, were also killed.


Foreign air power is crucial for Afghan forces, particularly in areas like Kunar and Nuristan, which are covered with forests and rough terrain, making ground operations difficult.

Nuristan and Kunar also share a long, porous borders with lawless areas inside Pakistan, known to be home to foreign fighters and al Qaeda members.

Karzai said he had been told that the air strike was requested by the Afghan spy agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

"If this is true, it is very regrettable and it is very shameful. How could they ask foreigners to send planes and bomb our own houses?" he said.

According to Kunar officials one of the dead insurgents was identified as a Pakistani citizen and Taliban leader named Rocketi. A second was identified as a Taliban commander called Shahpour.

A spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said there would be no comment on any presidential decree until it was actually issued.

In June last year, following the deaths of 18 civilians in a NATO air strike in the country's east, the ISAF commander at the time, General John Allen, issued a directive restricting their use against insurgents "within civilian dwellings".

In a meeting with ISAF Commander General Joseph Dunford following Wednesday's bombing, Karzai stressed Allen's 2012 directive and said such attacks must never recur.

Tensions have risen between Karzai and his foreign backers since his comments in October that the United States and its allies should target supporters of terrorism in Pakistan and stop fighting their war in Afghan villages.

The ISAF says it has reduced civilian casualties in recent years, and that insurgents such as the Taliban are now responsible for 84 per cent of all such deaths and injuries.

(Additional Reporting by Mohammad Anwar and Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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Meteor explodes over central Russia, over 1,000 injured

CHELYABINSK, Russia (Reuters) - A meteor streaked across the sky and exploded over central Russia on Friday, raining fireballs over a wide area and causing a shock wave that smashed windows, damaged buildings and injured more than 1,000 people.

People heading to work in Chelyabinsk heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt the shock wave, according to a Reuters correspondent in the industrial city 1,500 km (950 miles) east of Moscow.

The fireball, travelling at a speed of 30 km (19 miles) per second according to Russian space agency Roscosmos, had blazed across the horizon, leaving a long white trail that could be seen as far as 200 km (125 miles) away.

Car alarms went off, thousands of windows shattered and mobile phone networks were disrupted. The Interior Ministry said the meteor explosion, a very rare spectacle, also unleashed a sonic boom.

"I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it were day," said Viktor Prokofiev, 36, a resident of Yekaterinburg in the Urals Mountains.

"I felt like I was blinded by headlights."

The meteor, which weighed about 10 metric tons and may have been made of iron, entered Earth's atmosphere and broke apart 30-50 km (19-31 miles) above ground, according to Russia's Academy of Sciences.

No deaths were reported but the Emergencies Ministry said 20,000 rescue and clean-up workers were sent to the region after President Vladimir Putin told Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to ease the disruption and help the victims.

The Interior Ministry said about 1,200 people had been injured, at least 200 of them children, and most from shards of glass.


The region of Chelyabinsk has long been a hub for the Russian military and defense industry, and it is often the site where artillery shells are decommissioned.

A local Emergencies Ministry official said meteor storms were extremely rare and Friday's incident may have been connected with an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool that was due to pass Earth.

But an astronomer at Russia's Academy of Sciences, Sergei Barabanov, poured doubt on that report. He said there was no evidence to support the theory that the meteor had traveled with the asteroid or had broken off from it.

The European Space Agency, on its Twitter microblog, also said its experts had confirmed there was no link.

The regional governor in Chelyabinsk said the meteorite shower had caused more than $30 million in damage, and the Emergencies Ministry said some 300 buildings had been affected.

One piece of meteorite broke through the ice of nearby Cherbakul Lake, leaving a hole several meters wide.

Despite warnings not to approach any unidentified objects, some enterprising locals were hoping to cash in.

"Selling meteorite that fell on Chelyabinsk!" one prospective seller, Vladimir, said on a popular Russian auction website. He attached a picture of a black piece of stone that on Friday afternoon was priced at 1,488 roubles ($49.46).


The early morning blast and ensuing shock wave blew out windows on Chelyabinsk's central Lenin Street, buckled some shop fronts and rattled apartment buildings in the city center.

"I was standing at a bus stop, seeing off my girlfriend," said Andrei, a local resident who did not give his second name. "Then there was a flash and I saw a trail of smoke across the sky and felt a shock wave that smashed windows."

Chelyabinsk city authorities urged people to stay indoors unless they needed to pick up their children from schools and kindergartens.

A wall was badly damaged at the Chelyabinsk Zinc Plant but a spokeswoman said no environmental threat resulted.

In 1908, a meteorite is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (1,250 miles) in Siberia, breaking windows as far as 200 km (125 miles) from the point of impact.

The Emergencies Ministry described Friday's events as a "meteor shower in the form of fireballs" and said background radiation levels were normal. It urged residents not to panic.

Simon Goodwin, an astrophysics expert from Britain's University of Sheffield, said that roughly 1,000 to 10,000 metric tons of material rained down from space towards the earth every day, but most burned up in the atmosphere.

"While events this big are rare, an impact that could cause damage and death could happen every century or so. Unfortunately there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop impacts."

The meteor struck just as an asteroid known as 2012 DA14, about 46 meters (yards) in diameter, was due to pass closer to Earth - at a distance of 27,520 km (17,100 miles) - than any other known object of its size since scientists began routinely monitoring asteroids about 15 years ago.

($1 = 30.0877 Russian roubles)

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Thomas Grove; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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"Blade Runner" Pistorius charged with murdering girlfriend

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who became one of the biggest names in world athletics, was charged on Thursday with shooting dead his girlfriend at his upscale home in Pretoria.

Police said they opened a murder case after a 30-year-old woman was found dead at the Paralympic and Olympic star's house in the Silverlakes gated complex on the capital's outskirts.

Pistorius, 26, and his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, had been the only people in the house at the time of the shooting, police brigadier Denise Beukes told reporters, adding witnesses had been interviewed about the early morning incident.

"We are talking about neighbors and people that heard things earlier in the evening and when the shooting took place," Beukes said outside the heavily guarded residential complex.

Police said a 9mm pistol had been found at the scene.

Beukes said police were aware of previous incidents at the Pistorius house. "I can confirm that there has previously been incidents at the home of Mr Oscar Pistorious, of allegations of a domestic nature," she said.

Pistorius, who uses carbon fiber prosthetic blades to run, is due to appear in a Pretoria court on Friday.

"He is doing well but very emotional," his lawyer Kenny Oldwage told SABC TV, but gave no further comment.

A sports icon for triumphing over disability to compete with able-bodied athletes at the Olympics, his sponsorship deals, including one with sports apparel group Nike, are thought to be worth $2 million a year.

South Africa's M-Net cable TV channel said it was pulling adverts featuring Pistorius off air immediately after blanket coverage of the arrest in a country more used to honoring Pistorius as a national hero.


Steenkamp's colleagues in the modeling world were distraught. "We are all devastated. Her family is in shock," her agent, Sarita Tomlinson, tearfully told Reuters. "They did have a good relationship. Nobody actually knows what happened."

Pistorius, who was born without a fibula in both legs, was the first double amputee to run in the Olympics and reached the 400-metre semi-finals in London 2012.

In last year's Paralympics he suffered his first loss over 200 meters in nine years. After the race he questioned the legitimacy of Brazilian winner Alan Oliveira's prosthetic blades, though he was quick to express regret for the comments.

South Africa has some of the world's highest rates of violent crime, and many home owners have weapons to defend themselves against intruders, although Pistorius's complex is surrounded by a three-meter high wall and electric fence.

In 2004, Springbok rugby player Rudi Visagie shot dead his 19-year-old daughter after he mistakenly thought she was a robber trying to steal his car in the middle of the night.

Before the murder charge was announced, Johannesburg's Talk Radio 702 said the athlete may have mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar.

Pistorius was arrested in 2009 for assault after slamming a door on a woman and spent a night in police custody. Family and friends said it was just an accident and charges were dropped.


Steenkamp, a regular on the South African social scene, was reported to have been dating Pistorius for several months.

In the social pages of last weekend's Sunday Independent she described him as having "impeccable" taste. "His gifts are always thoughtful," she was quoted as saying.

Some of her last Twitter postings indicated she was looking forward to Valentine's Day on Thursday. "What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow???" she posted.

Pistorius was on Thursday being processed through the police system. "At this stage he is on his way to a district surgeon for medical examination," the police brigadier said.

"When a person has been accused of a crime like murder they look at things like testing under the finger nails, taking a blood alcohol sample and all kinds of other test that are done. They are standard medical tests," Beukes said.

Pistorius is also sponsored by British telecoms firm BT, sunglasses maker Oakley and French designer Thierry Mugler.

"We are shocked by this terrible, tragic news. We await the outcome of the South African police investigation," a BT spokeswoman said before Pistorius was charged.

A Nike spokesman in London said before hearing of the murder charge that the company was "saddened by the news, but we have no further comment to make at this stage".

Pistorius also has a sponsorship deal with Icelandic prosthetics manufacturer Ossur.

"I can only say that our thoughts and prayers are with Oscar and the families involved in the tragedy," Ossur CEO Jon Sigurdsson told Reuters. "It is completely premature to discuss or speculate on our business relationship with him."

Neighbors expressed shock at the arrest of a "good guy".

"It is difficult to imagine an intruder entering this community, but we live in a country where intruders can get in wherever they want to," said one Silverlakes resident, who did not want to be named.

"Oscar is a good guy, an upstanding neighbor, and if he is innocent I feel for this guy deeply," he said.

(Additional reporting by Sherilee Lakmidas, David Dolan, Ed Cropley, Jon Herskovitz, Keith Weir and Kate Holton; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Will Waterman)

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Pope confident his resignation will not hurt Church

ROME (Reuters) - A visibly moved Pope Benedict tried to assure his worldwide flock on Wednesday over his stunning decision to become the first pontiff in centuries to resign, saying he was confident that it would not hurt the Church.

The Vatican, meanwhile, announced that a conclave to elect his successor would start sometime between March 15 and March 20, in keeping with Church rules about the timing of such gatherings after the papal see becomes vacant.

"Continue to pray for me, for the Church and for the future pope," he said in unscripted remarks at the start of his weekly general audience, his first public appearance since his shock decision on Monday that he will step down on February 28.

It was the first time Benedict, 85, who will retire to a convent inside the Vatican, exchanging the splendor of his 16th century Apostolic Palace for a sober modern residence, had uttered the words "future pope" in public.

Church officials are still so stunned by the move that the Vatican experts have yet to decide what his title will be and whether he will continue to wear the white of a pope, the red of a cardinal or the black of an ordinary priest.

His voice sounded strong at the audience but he was clearly moved and his eyes appeared to be watering as he reacted to the thunderous applause in the Vatican's vast, modern audience hall, packed with more than 8,000 people.

In brief remarks in Italian that mirrored those he read in Latin to stunned cardinals on Monday he appeared to try to calm Catholics' fears of the unknown.

He message was that God would continue to guide the Church.


"I took this decision in full freedom for the good of the Church after praying for a long time and examining my conscience before God," he said.

He said he was "well aware of the gravity of such an act," but also aware that he no longer had the strength required to run the 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church, which has been beset by a string of scandals both in Rome and round the world.

Benedict said he was sustained by the "certainty that the Church belongs to Christ, who will never stop guiding it and caring for it" and suggested that the faithful should also feel comforted by this.

He said that he had "felt almost physically" the affection and kindness he had received since he announced the decision.

When Benedict resigned on Monday, the Vatican spokesman said the pontiff did not fear schism in the Church after his decision to step down.

Some 115 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter a secret conclave to elect his successor.

Cardinals around the world have already begun informal consultations by phone and email to construct a profile of the man they think would be best suited to lead the Church in a period of continuing crisis.

The likelihood that the next pope would be a younger man and perhaps a non-Italian, was increasing, particularly because of the many mishaps caused by Benedict's mostly Italian top aides.

Benedict has been faulted for putting too much power in the hands of his friend, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Critics of Bertone, effectively the Vatican's chief administrator, said he should have prevented some papal mishaps and bureaucratic blunders.


"These scandals, these miscommunications, in many cases were caused by Pope Benedict's own top aides and I think a lot of Catholics around the world think that he was perhaps ill-served by some of the cardinals here," said John Thavis, author of a new book The Vatican Diaries.

Benedict's papacy was rocked by crises over sex abuse of children by priests in Europe and the United States, most of which preceded his time in office but came to light during it.

His reign also saw Muslim anger after he compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier. During a scandal over the Church's business dealings, his butler was accused of leaking his private papers.

"When cardinals arrive here for the conclave ... they are going to have this on their mind, they're going to take a good hard look at how Pope Benedict was served, and I think many of them feel that the burden of the papacy that finally weighed so heavy on Benedict was caused in part by some of this in-fighting (among his administration)," Thavis told Reuters.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi urged the faithful to remain confident in the Church and its future.

"Those who may feel a bit disorientated or stunned by this, or have a hard time understanding the Holy Father's decision should look at it in the context of faith and the certainty that Christ will support his Church," Lombardi said.

Lombardi said that on his last day in office, Benedict would receive cardinals in a farewell meeting and after February 28 his ring of office, used to seal official documents, would be destroyed just as if he had died.

Later on Wednesday, an Ash Wednesday Mass that was originally scheduled to have taken place in a small church in Rome, has been moved to St Peter's Basilica so more people can attend.

Unless the Vatican changes the pope's schedule, it will be his last public Mass.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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North Korean nuclear test draws anger, including from China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysts said the test was a major embarrassment to China, which is a permanent member of the Security Council and North Korea's sole major economic and diplomatic ally, because it cast doubt on the extent of Beijing's influence over its ally.

U.S. President Barack Obama called the test a "highly provocative act" that hurt regional stability and pressed for new sanctions.

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

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

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a "grave threat" that could not be tolerated. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the test was a "clear and grave violation" of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear arms program and return to talks. NATO condemned the test as an "irresponsible act" that posed a grave threat to world peace.

South Korea, still technically at war with North Korea after a 1950-53 civil war ended in a mere truce, also denounced the test.


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

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

North Korea often threatens the United States and its "puppet", South Korea, with destruction in colorful terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pope's sudden resignation sends shockwaves through Church

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict stunned the Roman Catholic Church, including his closest advisers on Monday when he announced he would stand down in the first papal abdication in 700 years, saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to run the Church through a period of major crisis.

Church officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence in the running of a 2,000-year-old institution but the decision could lead to one of the most uncertain and unstable periods in centuries for a Church besieged by scandal and defections.

Several popes in the past, including Benedict's predecessor John Paul, refrained from stepping down even when severely ill, precisely because of the confusion and division that could be caused by having an "ex-pope" and a reigning pope living at the same time.

This could create a particularly difficult problem if the next pope is a progressive who influences such teachings as the ban on women priests and artificial birth control and its insistence on a celibate priesthood.

The Church has been rocked during Benedict's nearly eight-year papacy by child sexual abuse crises and Muslim anger after the pope compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier and there was scandal over the leaking of the pope's private papers by his personal butler.

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

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


At a news conference, chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope did not fear a possible "schism" in the Church, with Catholics owing allegiances to a past and present pope in case of differences on Church teachings.

The pope, known for his conservative doctrine, stepped up the Church's opposition to gay marriage, underscored the Church's resistance to a female priesthood and to embryonic stem cell research.

But Lombardi said Benedict, who is expected to go into isolation for at least a while after his resignation, did not intend to influence the decision of the cardinals who will enter a secret conclave to elect a successor.

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

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

The decision shocked many throughout the world, from ordinary believers, to politicians to world religious leaders.

"This is disconcerting, he is leaving his flock," said Alessandra Mussolini, a parliamentarian who is granddaughter of Italy's wartime dictator.

"The pope is not any man. He is the vicar of Christ. He should stay on to the end, go ahead and bear his cross to the end. This is a huge sign of world destabilization that will weaken the Church."


The announcement even caught the pope's elder brother Georg Ratzinger, off guard, indicating just how well-kept a secret it was. Ratzinger told reporters in Germany that he had been "very surprised" and added: "He alone can evaluate his physical and emotional strength."

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

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

Lombardi said Benedict's stepping aside showed "great courage". He ruled out any specific illness or depression and said the decision was made in the last few months "without outside pressure".

Joseph Curran, professor of religious studies at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania, said the modern medicine prolonging the life of people had posed difficulties for institutions whose leaders usually rule for life.

"His resignation is a tremendous act of humility and generosity," he said. "A man who lives up a position of authority because he can no longer adequately exercise that authority, and does so for the good of the Church, is setting a wonderful example," he said.

But Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, secretary to the late Pope John Paul, who suffered through bad health for the last decade of his life, had a thinly veiled criticism of Benedict. John Paul stayed to the end of his life as he believed "you cannot come down from the cross," Dziwisz told reporters in Poland.


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

Elected in 2005 to succeed the enormously popular John Paul, Benedict never appeared to feel comfortable in a job he said he never wanted. He had wished to retire to his native Germany to pursue his theological writings, something which he will now do from a convent inside the Vatican.

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

There has been growing pressure on the Church for the cardinals to shun European contenders and choose a pope from the developing world in order to better reflect parts of the globe where most Catholics live and where the Church is growing.

John Paul was only 58 when he was elected in 1978 - 20 years younger than Benedict when he was elected - and some commentators said the resignation would likely convince the cardinals to elect a younger man.


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

Before he was elected pope, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was known by such critical epithets as "God's rottweiler" because of his stern stand on theological issues.

After a few months, he showed his mild side but he never drew the kind of adulation that had marked the 27-year papacy of his predecessor John Paul.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benedict confronted his own country's past when he visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

Calling himself "a son of Germany", he prayed and asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, most of them Jews, died there during World War Two.

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

(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Barry Moody, Cristiano Corvino, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, and Dagamara Leszkowixa in Poland; editing by Peter Millership, Ralph Boulton, Janet McBride)

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