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Pope may change conclave rules before leaving: Vatican

Written By Bersemangat on Kamis, 21 Februari 2013 | 00.42

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict may change Church rules governing the conclave where cardinals from around the world will meet next month to secretly elect his successor, the Vatican said on Wednesday.

Benedict was studying the possibility of making changes to two laws established by his predecessor Pope John Paul before he abdicates on February 28, a spokesman said.

The changes may affect the timing of the start of the conclave.

Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict was considering making changes that would "harmonize" two documents approved by his predecessor.

One governs the period while the papacy is vacant, known as the "Sede Vacante," and another is more specific about the running of the conclave after it begins.

A 1996 apostolic constitution by Pope John Paul, called "Universi Dominici Gregis," stipulates that a conclave must start between 15 and 20 days after the papacy becomes vacant, meaning it cannot begin before March 15 under the current rules.

Some cardinals believe a conclave should start sooner in order to reduce the time in which the Roman Catholic Church will be without a leader.

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.

Some 117 cardinals under the age of 80 will be eligible to enter the conclave, which is held in the Sistine Chapel.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella and Naomi O'Leary)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The WHO had no confirmed reports of deaths so far.


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

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

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

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

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

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

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

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

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

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

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

(Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Jason Webb)

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Analysis: Berlusconi surge evokes recurring nightmare for Italy's left

ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's remarkable fightback ahead of Italy's election has revived a recurring nightmare for the country's center-left - that they can throw away a commanding lead in the final days before the weekend vote.

Little more than two months ago, the center-left led by Pier Luigi Bersani was riding high with an apparently unassailable lead of 10 points against a demoralized center-right, which looked close to disintegration.

But in December a rejuvenated Berlusconi stormed back into the race with an extraordinary media blitz in which he rushed from political rallies to television studios, adopted a homeless puppy, told off-color jokes and promised to abolish a hated new property tax.

This week he outraged his opponents by mailing official-looking letters to millions of Italians promising to reimburse payments already made under the levy.

Between December and February 8, when a pre-election ban on publishing opinion polls took effect, the 76-year-old billionaire had halved the gap with the center-left. The colorless Bersani seems to have been stuck in his tracks, unable or unwilling to respond to the crowd-wooing tactics of his opponent, a born showman.

His mockery of what he calls impossible election stunts by Berlusconi have been low key and delivered in his familiar deadpan voice, failing to hit home with many voters.

Most pollsters nevertheless believe the center-left is still on course to win by 5-6 points, although a big surge by anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo is adding to uncertainty, raising chances of an inconclusive result that could destabilize the euro zone.

The most likely result, pollsters say, is that Bersani will have to form a governing pact with outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, although there are concerns the economics professor's own lackluster electoral performance will fall short of enough votes for this scenario.

Leading elections expert Roberto D'Alimonte also says polls underestimate Berlusconi's support because people are reluctant to admit they will vote for him, given his reputation for scandal and allegations of sex parties that offend conservative and religious voters who otherwise like his policies.

All this is putting nerves on edge among center-left supporters, frustrated that Bersani has not led a more dynamic campaign and tormented by memories dating back to the 2006 election which is burned into their collective psyche.

Berlusconi, who learned to work crowds as a singer on a cruise liner on his youth, used the same showmanship to close a 10-point gap then, forcing the left's Romano Prodi to form a weak government that collapsed two years later. Berlusconi returned to power for his fourth term with a record majority.


"I have good news. We are ahead and we will win," Berlusconi told ecstatic fans at a rally in Milan on Monday, a claim that cannot be verified because of the pre-election polling blackout.[ID:nL6N0BJ91R]

Bersani, the son of an auto mechanic, is a famously bland if worthy candidate with a good track record as a minister under Prodi. Although his spontaneous remarks, delivered in a distinctive accent from the northern Emilia region, can be sharp and humorous, his scripted speeches are often sleep-inducing.

In contrast the livewire, wisecracking Berlusconi has outclassed both him and Monti in the charisma stakes and shown remarkable energy and dynamism for his age.

In addition, the center-left appears to have thought that their best tactic was to sit tight on their lead and leave the other candidates to make mistakes in a bitter campaign.

Another mistake seems to have been to leave it until the last minute to roll out Matteo Renzi, the youthful mayor of Florence, a lively orator who mounted a credible challenge to Bersani for the party leadership in December.

The suspicion is that the formerly communist left wing of Bersani's Democratic Party dislike Renzi, who is considered too much to the social democrat right.

However, Renzi has recently made appearances, perhaps reflecting party alarm about the polls, and will share the stage with Bersani at a rally in Palermo later on Wednesday.

"We have to make a final push," Bersani told supporters on Saturday as he heightened the urgency of his tone in the southern city of Lecce. "The right must not be underestimated."


The resurgence of Berlusconi was a surprise to many.

Weakened by a lurid sex scandal, he was forced from power and replaced by Monti in November 2011 as Italy slid towards a major debt crisis. He spent the next year in the shadows, demoralized and depressed, before surging back in December.

He has been hounded by magistrates for two decades on a string of fraud and corruption charges and is currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute at "bunga bunga" parties in his villa outside Milan.

However, Berlusconi, backed by an immense personal fortune and a media empire including three TV channels and a magazine publisher, skillfully exploits his image as a flamboyant joker and lovable rogue that still attracts many ordinary Italians.

The center-left says it has learned its lessons and will avoid the disunity which tore it apart in the 2008 election.

Then, Prodi was betrayed by members of his unwieldy 11-party coalition, but this time Bersani leads effectively a two-party alliance and leftist SEL party leader Nichi Vendola, the junior partner, has signed a pact to abide by joint decisions.

"The center-left is no longer the same as it was under Prodi," Bersani said this week. "In Prodi's time, there were a dozen parties in the center-left.

"I predict our coalition is solid and will last a very, very long time," he told a rally in Calabria in the south.

Prodi, now a U.N. envoy in Africa, told a rally in Milan on Sunday: "This is a different team from the past and it will remain united because it has learned its lesson.

"It is made up of different men."

(Editing by Barry Moody and Alastair Macdonald)

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Witness heard "non-stop shouting" before Pistorius shooting

PRETORIA (Reuters) - A witness heard "non-stop shouting" in the home of South African athletics star Oscar Pistorius shortly before his girlfriend was shot dead, the detective leading the murder investigation said on Wednesday.

Warrant officer Hilton Botha, a detective with 24 years on the force, also told the Pretoria magistrates court in a bail hearing that police had found two containers of testosterone and needles in Pistorius' bedroom.

The athlete's defense team disputed the finding.

Pistorius, a double amputee dubbed "Blade Runner" because of his carbon fiber racing blades, sobbed uncontrollably as Botha presented his testimony about the death of Reeva Steenkamp, 29.

The law graduate and model was in the toilet of the athlete's home when she was shot dead in the early hours of February 14 - Valentine's Day. She was hit in the head, arm and hip.

The shooting and allegations that have emerged at the hearing have stunned South Africa and millions of people around the world who regarded Pistorius, who has no lower legs, as the epitome of triumph over adversity.

"One of our witnesses heard a fight, two people talking loudly at each other ... from two in the morning to three," Botha told the court. Pistorius' first call after the incident was to the manager of his high security complex at 3.19 am, Botha said.

In an affidavit delivered on Tuesday, Pistorius said he woke in the middle of the night and thought an intruder had climbed through his bathroom window and entered the adjoining toilet.

The 26-year-old said he grabbed a 9-mm pistol from under his bed and went into the bathroom.

Pistorius - the highest-profile athlete in the history of the Paralympics - then described how he fired into the locked toilet door in a blind panic in the mistaken belief the intruder was lurking inside.

After four hours of testimony, the hearing was adjourned until Thursday. The hearing is expected to conclude this week, after the defense and prosecution have outlined their central arguments. It may then be several months before a trial. If convicted of premeditated murder, Pistorius faces life in jail.


Botha, who arrived on the scene an hour after the shooting, challenged Pistorius' affidavit.

"I believe he knew she was in the bathroom and he shot four shots through the door," the detective said, adding the angle at which the rounds were fired suggested they were aimed at somebody on the toilet.

Pistorius had said he moved into the bathroom on his stumps - the reason he felt so vulnerable - but Botha said the shots went in a "top to bottom" trajectory, suggesting Pistorius was wearing his artificial legs when he pulled the trigger.

"It seems to me it was fired down," he said.

One of the spent rounds was recovered from the toilet bowl, Botha said.

He also cited a witness on the upscale gated community near Pretoria where Pistorius lived as saying he heard a shot, followed 17 minutes later by more shots. Another witness spoke of a shot, followed by screams, followed by more shots, he said.

After vigorous questioning from Pistorius' defense team, Botha estimated the distance between the witnesses and Pistorius' home at 300 metres.

Lead defense counsel Barry Roux also disputed Botha's reference to "testosterone", saying the substance was a legitimate herbal remedy called "test-composutim co-enzyme".

Details on the makeup of testo-composutim co-enzyme were not immediately available but administering testosterone as an anabolic agent is banned at all times under World Anti-Doping Agency rules for sports people.


The case has drawn further attention to endemic violence against women in South Africa after the gang-rape, mutilation and murder of a 17-year-old near Cape Town this month.

Members of the Women's League of the ruling African National Congress protested outside the Pretoria court on Tuesday, waving placards saying: "No Bail for Pistorius" and "Rot in jail".

The arrest of Pistorius stunned the millions who had watched in awe last year as the Olympic and Paralympic sprinter reached the semi-final of the 400 metres in the London Olympics.

But the impact has been greatest in sports-mad South Africa, where Pistorius was seen as a rare hero who had transcended the racial divides that persist 19 years after the end of apartheid.

He carried South Africa's flag at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, and U.S. magazine Sports Illustrated named him as one of the most inspiring figures of the year.

"Many questions are being asked, but we have no answers," Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula said in a statement.

The sprinter's endorsements and sponsorships included sportswear giant Nike, British telecoms firm BT, sunglasses maker Oakley and French designer Thierry Mugler and were thought to be worth as much as $2 million a year.

In his affidavit, Pistorius said he earned 5.6 million rand ($630,500) a year and owned properties worth nearly $1 million.

However, Nike and Mugler both said they had dropped Pistorius from advertising campaigns, while cosmetics firm Clarins said it was recalling its "A Man" perfume range out of "respect and compassion towards the families involved".

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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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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Sudan rebels launch attack to retake border town

JUBA/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Rebels in a Sudanese border state say they have occupied an airport and are fighting with government troops to retake a town that became a flashpoint during the civil war, but the army denied it had lost any territory.

The SPLM-North, rebels from the south who were left in Sudan after South Sudan seceded, said their fighters had reached Kurmuk, which they lost to the Sudanese army in late 2011.

The clashes undermine African Union efforts secure a border still disputed nearly two years after South Sudan became independent, set up a military-free buffer zone and restart oil production, which the countries' economies desperately need.

Kurmuk changed hands several times during two decades of north-south civil war and its capture would be a setback for Sudan, which has been trying to develop Blue Nile. The state is rich in chrome and also a production site for gum arabic, a gum gained from trees used as stabilizer in soft drinks.

"Now we are fighting inside Kurmuk now and we occupy the Kurmuk airport," Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) leader Yasir Arman told Reuters by phone on Wednesday.

"The Sudan air force is bombarding the whole southern Blue Nile every hour."

Sudan's military spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid denied rebels had reached Kurmuk, which is also near the border with Ethiopia.

"It is not true at all that rebels are inside Kurmuk," Khalid said. He said SPLM-North troops had launched an attack on Muffa, some 20 km (12 miles) from Kurmuk, but the army had repulsed the fighters.

Events are difficult to verify independently because of government restrictions on media, and the two sides often give conflicting versions of the fighting

The conflict in Blue Nile started in September 2011, a few months after South Sudan seceded under the 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war in which some 2 million people died.

More than 1 million people have been severely affected by the fighting, the United Nations said in a report last week. More than 200,000 have fled to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Khartoum accuses South Sudan of backing the rebels in Blue Nile and another border state South Kordofan. Juba denies this.

Both countries agreed in September to defuse tension by setting up a demilitarized border zone after coming close to war in April. But neither side has withdrawn their army.

Arman said the SPLM-North was willing to help create the buffer zone in areas under its control but was first asking for a cessation of hostilities to allow in humanitarian relief.

"(The Sudanese army) are not welcome in our areas but we can find a formula that will achieve the directives of the demilitarized buffer zone," he said.

Sudan signed a deal with the United Nations and Arab League in August to allow food into rebel-held areas but has not implemented it.

(Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Thousands protest in Armenia after president re-elected

YEREVAN (Reuters) - About 5,000 flag-waving protesters rallied on Wednesday against Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan's re-election, saying his victory was tainted by fraud.

Supporters of Sarksyan's second-placed rival Raffi Hovannisian filled Freedom Square in the center of the capital Yerevan to condemn what they said were uncounted ballots and other violations.

"Are you ready to stay here long?" Hovannisian asked the crowd. "Are you ready to stay here until victory? I'm ready."

"The constitution should win over fraud," he said, raising a first above his head after kneeling to kiss the national flag.

Many of Hovannisian's supporters vowed to continue their protests until Sarksyan quits, but the crowd dispersed quietly after three hours and there was no violence.

Some protesters said they would gather again in the square on Thursday.

Hovannisian did not make clear whether he would formally challenge the result of Monday's election, which showed Sarksyan won 58.6 percent of votes, far ahead of Hovannisian, a U.S.-born former foreign minister, on nearly 37 percent.

International observers found an improvement in the conduct of the election compared to the last presidential vote in 2008 but said the vote lacked real competition.

Some of Sarksyan's most popular political rivals did not take part, saying the vote would be skewed in his favor. Police said they had received reports of voting irregularities which they were looking into.

Hayrabet Hovannisian, a musician who joined the protest on Wednesday, said he voted for a different opposition candidate but wanted to show his anger over the allegations of fraud.

"Today I came here to be together with the people, to return to the people their stolen votes," he said.

Foreign governments and investors fret at any hint of violence in the country of 3.2 million in the South Caucasus because it lies in a volatile region that carries Caspian oil and natural gas to Europe.

Landlocked Armenia's relations are tense with neighboring Azerbaijan over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inside Azeri territory but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians since a war in the 1990s.

After the 2008 election, eight protesters and two police were killed in clashes. But there was no violence during Monday's voting.

(Reporting by Hasmik Mkrtchyan, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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U.S. congressional delegation leaves Cuba empty-handed

HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional delegation left Cuba on Wednesday after meetings with President Raul Castro and other top officials, but no sign the countries had resolved their latest dispute: the fate of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross.

Delegation members and their staff said they were encouraged by the relaxed tone of their meetings and indications the Cuban side wanted the dialogue to continue.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont canceled a news conference scheduled for Wednesday morning before taking a stroll with his wife in downtown Havana then leaving for Haiti.

"We met with President Raul Castro and discussed the continuing obstacles and the need to improve relations between our two countries," he said in a brief statement.

Leahy said upon arrival in Cuba on Monday that he had spoken with President Barack Obama about the trip and would report back to his administration.

He said the delegation hoped the imprisoned U.S. contractor would fly home with them, but added it was a long shot.

Leahy and U.S. Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Gross' district in Maryland, visited the American contractor on Tuesday at a Havana military hospital where he is being held, a U.S. diplomat told Reuters.

They had no comment on the visit.

Other members of the delegation included Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.

Leahy led a similar delegation to Cuba a year ago.

Gross, 63, was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for installing Internet networks under a secretive U.S. program the Cuban government considers subversive.

The United States insists Gross was merely helping the local population get connected as part of a democracy-building project.

The case halted a brief detente in long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations that marked the first months of Obama's presidency.

Cuba has linked Gross' fate to that of five Cuban agents imprisoned in the late 1990s for infiltrating Miami exile organizations and U.S. military bases.

The agents, known as the Cuban Five, were sentenced to long terms, ranging from 15 years to life.

They are considered heroes in Cuba, where more than a dozen exile-orchestrated attacks on international tourism facilities occurred in the 1990s.

The U.S. delegation was the first since Obama was re-elected and came just days before Castro was expected to be named for a second term on Sunday.

Castro replaced his ailing brother, Fidel, as president in 2008.

Despite political tensions that have led to the suspension of immigration and other talks, the two leaders have presided over an improvement in people-to-people contact, increased flows of cash remittances from Cuban Americans and continued U.S. food sales for cash.

Between 450,000 and 500,000 Cuban Americans and Americans visited Cuba last year, according to tourism industry sources, and food sales increased by $100 million to $457 million, making the United States one of Cuba's top 10 trading partners and its second-largest provider of tourists after Canada.

This week's visit by the U.S. lawmakers represented the latest failed effort to obtain Gross' release.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, when he was a senator from Massachusetts, met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in New York in 2010 to discuss the Gross case, according to Foreign Affairs magazine. Former President Jimmy Carter also met with Raul Castro on the matter during a visit to Havana in 2011.

The Obama administration has said relations will not improve while Gross remains in custody. Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, U.S. sanctions cannot be lifted until Cuba's one-party Communist political system is changed, a demand rejected by the Cuban government.

(Reporting By Marc Frank; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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Thousands of Greeks rally in anti-austerity strike

ATHENS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Athens on Wednesday as part of a nationwide strike against austerity that confined ferries to ports, shut schools and left hospitals with only emergency staff.

Beating drums, blowing whistles and chanting "Robbers, robbers!" more than 60,000 people angry at wage cuts and tax rises marched to parliament in the biggest protest for months over austerity policies required by international lenders.

In the capital, riot police fired tear gas at hooded youths hurling rocks and bottles during a demonstration, mostly of students and pensioners, which ended peacefully.

The two biggest labor unions brought much of crisis-hit Greece to a standstill with a 24-hour protest strike against policies which they say deepen the hardship of people struggling through the country's worst peacetime downturn.

Representing 2.5 million workers, the unions have gone on strike repeatedly since a debt crisis erupted in late 2009, testing the government's will to impose the painful conditions of an international bailout in the face of growing public anger.

"Today's strike is a new effort to get rid of the bailout deal and those who take advantage of the people and bring only misery," said Ilias Iliopoulos, secretary general of the ADEDY public sector union, which organized the walkout along with private sector union GSEE.

"A social explosion is very near," he told Reuters from a rally in a central Athens square as police helicopters clattered overhead.

The eight-month-old coalition of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has been eager to show it will implement reforms promised to the European Union and International Monetary Fund, which have bailed Athens out twice with over 200 billion euros.

The government has cracked down on striking workers, invoking emergency laws twice this year to get seamen and subway workers back to work after week-long walkouts that paralyzed public transport in Athens and led to food shortages on islands.

Demonstrations were also held in Greece's second-biggest city, Thessaloniki, and on the island of Crete where dozens of protesters hit the streets waving black flags.

In Athens, crowds began to disperse from Syntagma Square outside parliament, but minor clashes between riot police and hooded youths moved to sidestreets.

Labor unrest has picked up in recent weeks. A visit by French President Francois Hollande in Athens on Tuesday went largely unreported because Greek journalists were on strike.

"The period of virtual euphoria is over," said opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, whose Syriza party has regained a narrow opinion poll lead over the governing conservatives.

"Those who thought Samaras would renegotiate the terms of the bailout ... are now faced with the harsh reality of unpaid bills, closed shops and lost jobs," he said.


Anger at politicians and the wealthy elite has been boiling during the crisis, with many accusing the government of making deep cuts to wages and pensions while doing too little to spread the burden or go after rich tax evaders.

"This government needs to look out for us poor people as well because we can't take it any more," said Niki Lambopoulou, a 43-year-old insurance broker and single mother.

"I work night and day to make ends meet and the government is killing our children's dreams."

In a sign it may be buckling under pressure, the government announced on Monday it would not fire almost 1,900 civil servants earmarked for possible dismissal, despite promising foreign lenders it would seek to cut the public payroll.

"The strike highlights the growing gap between the plight of ordinary Greeks and the demands of Greece's international creditors," said Martin Koehring, analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, forecasting more social unrest this year.

Greece secured bailout funds in December, ending months of uncertainty over the country's future in the euro zone, and analysts said this had created expectations among Greeks that things would improve for them personally.

"If these expectations are not satisfied by the summer, then whatever is left of the working class will respond with more protests," said Costas Panagopoulos, head of Alco pollsters.

Six years of recession and three of austerity have tripled the rate of unemployment to 27 percent. More than 60 percent of young workers are jobless.

Most business and public sector activity came to a halt with schoolteachers, train drivers and doctors among those joining the strike. Banks pulled down their shutters and ships stayed docked as seamen defied government orders to return to work.

"I'm on the brink of going hungry. My life is misery," said Eleni Nikolaou, 60, a civil servant who supports her unemployed brother on her reduced wage. "If this government had any dignity it would resign. I want them to leave, leave, leave."

(Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos; Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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French special forces in Cameroon helping hostage probe

YAOUNDE (Reuters) - French special forces have arrived in northern Cameroon to help locate a French family who were kidnapped on Tuesday and moved to Nigeria, a local governor said on Wednesday.

The abduction of three adults and four children highlights the risk to French nationals and interests in Africa since Paris sent forces to Mali to oust Islamist rebels.

"French special forces came in yesterday from N'Djamena to help with the investigation. They left yesterday and came back today," Augustine Fonka Awa, governor of Cameroon's Far North Region, told Reuters by telephone.

He declined to say how many French military arrived from their regional base in Chad's capital, which is about 40 miles from where the French tourists were taken.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Wednesday evidence pointed to Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram, but there did not appear to be a direct link to France's intervention in Mali.

"We believe it's the Boko Haram group that carried out the kidnapping, but we don't know for sure. Unfortunately, terror breeds terror," Le Drian told France 2 television.

Asked to confirm or deny whether France had sent special forces, a spokesman at the Defense Ministry in Paris said only that their presence was an unfounded rumor.

"French gendarmes visited the site of the kidnapping yesterday in coordination with Cameroonian police to assess the situation and were protected by French military," he said.

Two Yaounde-based agents from the French DGSE foreign intelligence agency were dispatched to the kidnap zone to work with Cameroon's secret service and a French army helicopter was sent to help look for the hostages, French BFM TV reported without citing sources.

Joseph Dion Ngute, a junior minister at Cameroon's foreign ministry, told French television the kidnappers put the hostages on motorcycles and stole another car before heading to Nigeria.

"Our forces and the Nigerian forces were alerted, but before they reacted the kidnappers had vanished."

Security in the Dabanga area where they were taken, six miles from the Nigerian border, has been reinforced and "urgent measures" to locate the family put in place, he said.


It was the first case of foreigners being seized in the mostly Muslim north of Cameroon, a former French colony. But the region - like others in West and North Africa with typically porous borders - is considered within the operational sphere of Boko Haram and fellow Nigerian Islamist militants Ansaru.

The father of the family, which included children aged between 5 and 12, worked for utility GDF Suez and French television reported he was from a family of winemakers in the Burgundy region.

"It is expected that French forces will engage in resolving this issue from within Cameroonian borders, with the support of the Cameroon government," said Nadia Ahidjo of africapractice, an Africa-focused consulting firm.

Nigerian army spokesman Colonel Sagir Musa said "the armed forces were on alert ... ready to apprehend any criminal elements or terrorist that come into our areas."

France has about 6,000 nationals in Cameroon. It issued a travel warning on Tuesday advising its citizens not to travel to the extreme north and for those already there to leave.

Cameroon is a largely secular state where 70 percent are Christian. About 24 percent are Muslim and mainly live in the three northern regions of the country. Until now there have been no known links between with Islamists in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram poses a big threat to stability in Nigeria, Africa's top oil-producing state. Western governments worry they could link up with other Islamist groups in the region.

France intervened in Mali last month after Islamists seized the north and pushed south towards the capital Bamako.

French-led forces have since driven the Islamists from north Mali towns into remote desert and mountains.

"It's these groups that are calling for the same fundamentalism, whether it's in Mali or in Somalia or in Nigeria. These groups threaten our security," Le Drian said.

French President Francois Hollande said the kidnappings would not stop France from pursuing its operation in Mali.

The kidnapping brought the number of French held hostage in isolated regions of west and north Africa to 15, including one abducted by Nigerian al Qaeda-linked Ansaru in December.

(Reporting by Bate Felix; Additional reporting by John Irish in Dakar, Alexandria Sage and Leigh Thomas in Paris and Joe Brock in Abuja; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Jason Webb)

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