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

China, Japan engage in new invective over disputed isles

BEIJING (Reuters) - China and Japan engaged on Friday in a fresh round of invective over military movements near a disputed group of uninhabited islands, fuelling tension that for months has bedeviled relations between the Asian powers.

An increasingly muscular China has been repeatedly at odds with others in the region over rival claims to small clusters of islands, most recently with fellow economic giant Japan which accused a Chinese navy vessel of locking radar normally used to aim weapons on a Japanese naval ship in the East China Sea.

China's Defence Ministry rejected Japan's complaint about the radar, its first comment on the January 30 incident. It said Japan's intrusive tracking of Chinese vessels was the "root cause" of the renewed tension.

A Japanese official dismissed the Chinese explanation for incident saying China's actions could be dangerous in the waters around the islets, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, believed to be rich in oil and gas.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led his conservative party to a landslide election victory in December, promising to beef up the military and stand tough in territorial disputes.

On Thursday, another border problem was brought into focus when Japan said two Russian fighter jets briefly entered its air space near long-disputed northern islands, prompting Japan to scramble combat fighters. Russia denied the accusation.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific said the squabble between Japan and China underlined the pressing need for rules to prevent such incidents turning into serious conflict.

"What we need in the South China Sea is a mechanism that prevents us turning our diplomacy over to young majors and young (naval) commanders ... to make decisions at sea that cause a problem (that escalates) into a military conflict that we might not be able to control," Admiral Samuel Locklear told a conference in the Indonesian capital.

China is in dispute with several Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines and Vietnam over parts of the South China Sea, which is potentially rich in natural resources.

Locklear said governments and their leaders had to understand the potential for things to get out of hand.

"In this case, I think that point has been made pretty clear," he said in reference to international reaction to the dispute between China and Japan.


China's Defence Ministry, in a faxed statement late on Thursday, said Japan's complaints did not "match the facts". The Chinese ship's radar, it said, had maintained regular alerting operations and the ship "did not use fire control radar".

The ministry said the Chinese ship was tracked by a Japanese destroyer during routine training exercises. Fire control radar pinpoints the location of a target for missiles or shells and its use can be considered a step short of actual firing.

Japan, the ministry said, had "made irresponsible remarks that hyped up a so-called China threat, recklessly created tension and misled international public opinion".

"Japanese warships and airplanes have often conducted long periods of close-range tracking and surveillance of China's naval ships and airplanes," the Chinese Defence Ministry said.

"This is the root cause of air and maritime security issues between China and Japan."

In Tokyo, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Japan could not accept China's explanation and Japan's accusation came after careful analysis.

"We urge China to take sincere measures to prevent dangerous actions which could cause a contingency situation," Suga said.

Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera said this week that the radar incident could have become very dangerous very quickly, and it could have been seen as a threat of military force under U.N. rules.

Hopes had been rising recently for an easing of the tension, which was sparked, in part, by Japan's nationalization of three of the privately owned islets last September.

Fears that encounters between aircraft and ships could bring an unintended clash have given impetus to efforts to improve links, including a possible summit between Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who takes over as head of state in March.

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in TOKYO, Joathan Thatcher in JAKARTA; Editing by Ron Popeski and Robert Birsel)

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Iran's Khamenei rebuffs U.S. offer of direct talks

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Thursday slapped down an offer of direct talks made by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week, saying they would not solve the problem between them.

"Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problem," Khamenei said in a speech to officials and members of Iran's air force carried on his official website.

"If some people want American rule to be established again in Iran, the nation will rise up to face them," he said.

"American policy in the Middle East has been destroyed and Americans now need to play a new card. That card is dragging Iran into negotiations."

Khamenei made his comments just days after Biden said the United States was prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership. "That offer stands but it must be real and tangible," Biden said in Munich on Saturday.

With traditional fiery rhetoric, Khamenei lambasted Biden's offer, saying that since the 1979 revolution the United States had gravely insulted Iran and continued to do so with its threat of military action.

"You take up arms against the nation of Iran and say: 'negotiate or we fire'. But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated by these actions," he added.

Relations between Iran and the United States were severed after the overthrow of Iran's pro-Western monarchy in 1979 and diplomatic meetings between officials have since been very rare.


Currently U.S.-Iran contact is limited to talks between Tehran and a so-called P5+1 group of powers on Iran's disputed nuclear program which are to resume on February 26 in Kazakhstan.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland brushed off Khamenei's remarks and urged Iran to show up in Almaty "prepared to discuss real substance" either in a group setting or in bilateral talks.

"As the Iranians well know, the ball is in the Iranians' own court," she told reporters.

"We've always said that action on the Iranian side would be matched by action on our side, so it's really up to Iran to engage if it wants to see sanctions eased," said Nuland, adding that failure to address the nuclear concerns would bring more pressure on Tehran.

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said he was skeptical the negotiations in Almaty could yield a result, telling Israel Radio that the United States needed to demonstrate to Iran that "all options were still on the table".

Israel, widely recognized to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, has warned it could mount a pre-emptive strike on Iranian atomic sites. Israel says the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran threatens its existence, given Tehran's refusal to recognize the Jewish state.

"The final option, this is the phrasing we have used, should remain in place and be serious," said Meridor.

"The fact that the Iranians have not yet come down from the path they are on means that talks ... are liable to bring about only a stalling for time," he said.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is entirely peaceful but Western powers are concerned it is intent on developing a weapons program.

Many believe a deal on settling the nuclear issue is impossible without a U.S.-Iranian thaw. But any rapprochement would require direct talks addressing many sources of mutual mistrust that have lingered since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent U.S. embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.

Moreover, although his November re-election may give President Barack Obama a freer hand to pursue direct negotiations, analysts say Iran's own presidential election in June may prove an additional obstacle to progress being made.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, and Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by William Maclean, Jon Boyle and Mohammad Zargham)

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Tunisian government out after critic's killing causes fury

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's ruling Islamists dissolved the government on Wednesday and promised rapid elections in a bid to calm the biggest street protests since the revolution two years ago, sparked by the killing of an opposition leader.

The prime minister's announcement that an interim cabinet of technocrats would replace his Islamist-led coalition came at the end of a day which had begun with the gunning down of Chokri Belaid, a left-wing lawyer with a modest political following but who spoke for many who fear religious radicals are stifling freedoms won in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

During the day, protesters battled police in the streets of the capital and other cities, including Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Jasmine Revolution that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

In Tunis, the crowd set fire to the headquarters of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party which won the most seats in an legislative election 16 months ago.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda spoke on television in the evening to declare that weeks of talks among the various political parties on reshaping the government had failed and that he would replace his entire cabinet with non-partisan technocrats until elections could be held as soon as possible.

It followed weeks of deadlock in the three-party coalition. The small, secular Congress for the Republic, whose leader Moncef Marzouki has served as Tunisia's president, threatened to withdraw unless Ennahda replaced some of its ministers.

Wednesday's events, in which the Interior Ministry said one police officer was killed, appeared to have moved Jebali, who will stay on as premier, to take action.

"After the failure of negotiations between parties on a cabinet reshuffle, I have decided to form a small technocrat government," he said.

"The murder of Belaid is a political assassination and the assassination of the Tunisian revolution," he said earlier.

It was not clear whom he might appoint but the move seemed to be widely welcomed and streets were mostly calm after dark.

A leader in the secular Republican Party gave Jebali's move a cautious welcome.

"The prime minister's decision is a response to the opposition's aspirations," Mouldi Fahem told Reuters. "We welcome it principle. We are waiting for details."

Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of the secular party Nida Touns, who was premier after the uprising, told Reuters: "The decision to form a small cabinet is a belated move but an important one."


The widespread protests following Belaid's assassination showed the depth of division between Islamists and secular movements fearful that freedoms of expression, cultural liberty and women's rights were under threat just two years after the popular uprising ended decades of Western-backed dictatorship.

"This is a black day in the history of modern Tunisia. Today we say to the Islamists, 'get out', enough is enough," said Souad, a 40-year-old schoolteacher outside the ministry.

"Tunisia will sink in the blood if you stay in power."

Calls for a general strike on Thursday could bring more trouble though Belaid's family said his funeral, another possible flashpoint, might not be held until Friday.

Ennahda, like its fellow Islamists in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, benefited from a solid organization that survived repression by the old regime, to win 42 of seats in the assembly elected in October 2011 to draft a new constitution.

And as in Egypt, the Islamists have faced criticism from secular leaders that they are trying to entrench religious ideas in the new state. A constitution is still due to be agreed before a parliamentary election which had been expected by June.

Belaid, 48, was shot at close range as he left for work by a gunmen who fled on the back of a motorcycle. Within hours, crowds were battling police, hurling rocks amid volleys of teargas in scenes reminiscent of clashes in Egypt last month.

World powers, increasingly alarmed at the extent of radical Islamist influence and the bitterness of the political stalemate, urged Tunisians to reject violence and see through the move to democracy they began two years ago, when their revolution ended decades of dictatorship and inspired fellow Arabs in Egypt and across North Africa and the Middle East.

As in Egypt, the rise to power of political Islam through the ballot box has prompted a backlash among less organized, more secular political movements in Tunisia. Belaid, who made a name for himself by criticizing Ben Ali, led a party with little electoral support but his vocal opinions had a wide audience.

The day before his death he was publicly lambasting a "climate of systematic violence". He had blamed tolerance shown by Ennahda and its two, smaller secularist allies in the coalition government toward hardline Salafists for allowing the spread of groups hostile to modern culture and liberal ideas.

On Wednesday, thousands demonstrated in cities including Mahdia, Sousse, Monastir and Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the revolution, where police fired teargas and warning shots at protesters who set cars and a police station on fire.

While Belaid's nine-party Popular Front bloc has only three seats in the constituent assembly, the opposition jointly agreed to pull its 90 or so members out of the body, which is acting as parliament and writing the new post-revolution charter. Ennahda and its fellow ruling parties have some 120 seats.

Since the uprising, Tunisia's new leaders have faced many protests over economic hardship and political ideas; many have complained that hardline Salafists may hijack the revolution.

Last year, Salafist groups prevented several concerts and plays from taking place in Tunisian cities, saying they violated Islamic principles. Salafists also ransacked the U.S. Embassy in September, during international protests over an Internet video.

The embassy issued a statement condemning Belaid's killing and urging justice for his killers: "There is no justification for this heinous and cowardly act," it said. "Political violence has no place in the democratic transition in Tunisia."


Declining trade with the crisis-hit euro zone has left the 11 million Tunisians struggling to achieve the better living standards many had hoped for following Ben Ali's departure.

Its compact size, relatively skilled workforce and close ties with former colonial power France and other European neighbors across the Mediterranean has raised hopes that Tunisia can set an example of economic progress for the region.

Lacking the huge oil and gas resources of North African neighbors Libya and Algeria, Tunisia counts tourism as a major currency earner and further unrest could scare off visitors vital to an industry only just recovering from the revolution.

Jobless graduate Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 in the city, 300 km (180 miles) southwest of Tunis, after police confiscated his unlicensed fruit cart, triggering the uprising that forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia less than a month later, on January 14, 2011.

President Moncef Marzouki, who last month warned the tension between secularists and Islamists might lead to "civil war", cancelled a visit to Egypt scheduled for Thursday and cut short a trip to France, where he addressed the European Parliament.

"There are political forces inside Tunisia that don't want this transition to succeed," Marzouki said in Strasbourg. "When one has a revolution, the counter revolution immediately sets in because those who lose power - it's not only Ben Ali and his family - are the hundreds of thousands of people with many interests who see themselves threatened by this revolution."

Belaid, who died in hospital, said this week dozens of people close to the government had attacked a Popular Front group meeting in Kef, northern Tunisia, on Sunday. He had been a constant critic of the government, accusing it of being a puppet of the rulers of wealthy Gulf emirate Qatar.


Human Rights Watch called his murder "the gravest incident yet in a climate of mounting violence".

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi denied any involvement by his party in the killing.

"Is it possible that the ruling party could carry out this assassination when it would disrupt investment and tourism?" Ghannouchi told Reuters.

He blamed those seeking to derail Tunisia's democratic transition: "Tunisia today is in the biggest political stalemate since the revolution. We should be quiet and not fall into a spiral of violence. We need unity more than ever," he said.

He accused opponents of stirring up sentiment against his party following Belaid's death. "The result is burning and attacking the headquarters of our party in many areas," he said.

Witnesses said crowds had also attacked Ennahda offices in Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia and Sfax.

French President Francois Hollande said he was concerned by the rise of violence in Paris's former dominion, where the government says al Qaeda-linked militants linked to those in neighboring countries have been accumulating weapons with the aim of creating an Islamic state across North Africa.

"This murder deprives Tunisia of one of its most courageous and free voices," Hollande's office said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Alison Williams and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Iran's Ahmadinejad kissed and scolded in Egypt

CAIRO (Reuters) - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was both kissed and scolded on Tuesday when he began the first visit to Egypt by an Iranian president since Tehran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

The trip was meant to underline a thaw in relations since Egyptians elected an Islamist head of state, President Mohamed Mursi, last June. But it also highlighted deep theological and geopolitical differences.

Mursi, a member of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, kissed Ahmadinejad after he landed at Cairo airport and gave him a red carpet reception with military honors. Ahmadinejad beamed as he shook hands with waiting dignitaries.

But the Shi'ite Iranian leader received a stiff rebuke when he met Egypt's leading Sunni Muslim scholar later at Cairo's historic al-Azhar mosque and university.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, head of the 1,000-year-old seat of religious learning, urged Iran to refrain from interfering in Gulf Arab states, to recognize Bahrain as a "sisterly Arab nation" and rejected the extension of Shi'ite Muslim influence in Sunni countries, a statement from al-Azhar said.

Visiting Cairo to attend an Islamic summit that begins on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad told a news conference he hoped his trip would be "a new starting point in relations between us".

However, a senior cleric from the Egyptian seminary, Hassan al-Shafai, who appeared alongside him, said the meeting had degenerated into an exchange of theological differences.

"There ensued some misunderstandings on certain issues that could have an effect on the cultural, political and social climate of both countries," Shafai said.

"The issues were such that the grand sheikh saw that the meeting ... did not serve the desired purpose."

The visit would have been unthinkable during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the military-backed autocrat who preserved Egypt's peace treaty with Israel during his 30 years in power and deepened ties between Cairo and the West.

"The political geography of the region will change if Iran and Egypt take a unified position on the Palestinian question," Ahmadinejad said in an interview with Al Mayadeen, a Beirut-based TV station, on the eve of his trip.

He said he wanted to visit the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory which neighbors Egypt to the east and is run by the Islamist movement Hamas. "If they allow it, I would go to Gaza to visit the people," Ahmadinejad said.

Analysts doubt that the historic changes that brought Mursi to power will result in a full restoration of diplomatic ties between states whose relations were broken off after the conclusion of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1979.


At the airport the two leaders discussed ways of improving relations and resolving the Syrian crisis "without resorting to military intervention", Egyptian state media reported.

Egypt is concerned by Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush an uprising inspired by the revolt that swept Mubarak from power two years ago. Egypt's overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is broadly supportive of the uprising against Assad's Alawite-led administration.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr sought to reassure Gulf Arab allies - that are supporting Cairo's battered state finances and are deeply suspicious of Iran - that Egypt would not jeopardize their security.

"The security of the Gulf states is the security of Egypt," he said in remarks reported by the official MENA news agency.

Mursi wants to preserve ties with the United States, the source of $1.3 billion in aid each year to the influential Egyptian military.

"The restoration of full relations with Iran in this period is difficult, despite the warmth in ties ... because of many problems including the Syrian crisis and Cairo's links with the Gulf states, Israel and the United States," said one former Egyptian diplomat.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he was optimistic that ties could grow closer.

"We are gradually improving. We have to be a little bit patient. I'm very hopeful about the expansion of the bilateral relationship," he told Reuters. Asked where he saw room for closer ties, he said: "Trade and economics."

Egypt and Iran have taken opposite courses since the late 1970s. Egypt, under Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and became a close ally of the United States and Europe. Iran from 1979 turned into a center of opposition to Western influence in the Middle East.

Symbolically, Iran named a street in Tehran after the Islamist who led the 1981 assassination of Sadat.

Egypt gave asylum and a state funeral to Iran's exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution. He is buried in a mosque beside Cairo's mediaeval Citadel alongside his ex-brother-in-law, Egypt's last king, Farouk.

(Additional reporting by Ayman Samir, Marwa Awad and Alexander Diadosz; Writing by Paul Taylor and Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy)

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Syrian opposition chief says offers Assad peaceful exit

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government on Monday to start talks for its departure from power and save the country from greater ruin after almost two years of bloodshed.

Seeking to step up pressure on Assad to respond to his offer of talks - which dismayed some in his own opposition coalition, Alkhatib said he would be ready to meet the president's deputy.

"I ask the regime to send Farouq al-Shara - if it accepts the idea - and we can sit with him," he said, referring to Syria's vice president who has implicitly distanced himself from Assad's crackdown on mass unrest that became an armed revolt.

Speaking after meeting senior Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials, Alkhatib said none of them had an answer to the 22-month-old crisis and Syrians must solve it themselves.

"The issue is now in the state's accept negotiations for departure, with fewer losses," the Syrian National Coalition leader told Al Arabiya television.

The moderate Islamist preacher announced last week he was prepared to talk to Assad's representatives. Although he set several conditions, the move broke a taboo on opposition contacts with Damascus and angered many in its ranks who insist on Assad's departure as a precondition for negotiation.

Alkhatib said it was not "treachery" to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.

"The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully," he said in separate comments to Al Jazeera television.

Assad announced last month what he said were plans for reconciliation talks to end the violence but - in a speech described by U.N. Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as narrow and uncompromising - he said there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or "puppets made by the West".

Syria's defense minister said the army had proved it would not be defeated in its confrontation with rebels but declined to say whether it would respond to an Israeli air strike last week.

Security sources said the Israelis bombed a convoy of arms destined for Assad's ally Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel, in neighboring Lebanon. Syria said the attack struck vehicles and buildings at a military research center near Lebanon's border.

Syria's uprising erupted in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests, escalating into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, who is from Syria's Alawite minority. His family has ruled Syria for 42 years.


The violence has divided major powers, with Russia and China blocking U.N. Security Council draft resolutions backed by the United States, European Union and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states that could have led to U.N. sanctions isolating Assad. Shi'ite Iran has remained his strongest regional supporter.

Alkhatib met Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at a security conference in Germany at the weekend.

"Iran's stance is unacceptable and I mentioned to the foreign minister that we are very angry with Iran's support for the regime," Alkhatib said.

He said he asked Salehi to pass on his offer of negotiations - based on the acceptance of the Assad government's departure - to Damascus. The two men also discussed the need to prevent Syria's crisis spreading into a regional conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, he said.

"We will find a solution, there are many keys. If the regime wants to solve (the crisis), it can take part in it. If it wants to get out and get the people out of this crisis, we will all work together for the interest of the people and the departure of the regime."

One proposal under discussion was the formation of a transitional government, Alkhatib said, without specifying how he thought that could come about. World powers agreed a similar formula seven months ago but then disagreed over whether that could allow Assad to stay on as head of state.

Activists reported clashes between the army and rebel fighters to the east of Damascus on Monday and heavy shelling of rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs. The Jobar neighborhood, on the southwestern edge of Homs, was hit by more than 100 rockets on Monday morning, an opposition activist said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 people were killed by dusk on Monday.

It said 180 people were killed across the country on Sunday, including 114 rebel fighters and soldiers. Sunday's death toll included 28 people killed in the bombardment of a building in the Ansari district of the northern city of Aleppo.

Assad has described the rebels as foreign-backed Islamist terrorists and said a precondition for any solution is that Turkey and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states stop funding, sheltering and arming his foes.

The majority of the insurgents are Islamists but those affiliated with al Qaeda are smaller in number, although their influence is growing. For that reason, Western states have been loath to arm the rebels despite their calls for Assad's ouster.

Rebels and activists say that Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant movement Hezbollah have sent fighters to reinforce Assad's army - an accusation that both deny.


"The army of Syria is big enough, they do not need fighters from outside," Iran's Salehi said in Berlin on Monday.

"We are giving them economic support, we are sending gasoline, we are sending wheat. We are trying to send electricity to them through Iraq; we have not been successful."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said later on Monday that Syria's crisis could not be solved by military means and he called for a national accord leading to elections.

"War is not the solution...A government that rules through war - its work will be very difficult. A sectarian war should not be launched in Syria," he told Al Mayadeen television.

"We believe that (deciding) whoever stays or goes is the right of the Syrian people. How can we interfere in that? We must strive to achieve national understanding, and free elections."

Another Iranian official, speaking in Damascus after talks with Assad, said Israel would regret an air strike against Syria last week, without spelling out whether Iran or its ally planned a military response.

Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden all met Alkhatib in Munich at the weekend and portrayed his willingness to talk with Syrian authorities as a major step towards resolving the war.

But Alkhatib is under pressure from other members of the exiled leadership in Cairo for saying he would be willing to talk to Assad. Walid al-Bunni, a member of the Coalition's 12-member politburo, dismissed Alkhatib's meeting with Salehi.

"It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution," Bunni, a former political prisoner, told Reuters from Budapest.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Iran hedges on nuclear talks with six powers or U.S.

MUNICH (Reuters) - Iran said on Sunday it was open to a U.S. offer of direct talks on its nuclear program and that six world powers had suggested a new round of nuclear negotiations this month, but without committing itself to either proposal.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve a dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful but the West suspects is intended to give Iran the capability to build a nuclear bomb, have been all but deadlocked for years, while Iran has continued to announce advances in the program.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said a suggestion on Saturday by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that Washington was ready for direct talks with Iran if Tehran was serious about negotiations was a "step forward".

"We take these statements with positive consideration. I think this is a step forward but ... each time we have come and negotiated it was the other side unfortunately who did not heed ... its commitment," Salehi said at the Munich Security Conference where Biden made his overture a day earlier.

He also complained to Iran's English-language Press TV of "other contradictory signals", pointing to the rhetoric of "keeping all options on the table" used by U.S. officials to indicate they are willing to use force to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

"This does not go along with this gesture (of talks) so we will have to wait a little bit longer and see if they are really faithful this time," Salehi said.

Iran is under a tightening web of sanctions. Israel has also hinted it may strike if diplomacy and international sanctions fail to curb Iran's nuclear drive.

In Washington, Army General Martin Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that the United States has the capability to stop any Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons, but Iranian "intentions have to be influenced through other means."

Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made his comments on NBC's program "Meet the Press," speaking alongside outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Panetta said current U.S. intelligence indicated that Iranian leaders have not made a decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.

"But every indication is they want to continue to increase their nuclear capability," he said. "And that's a concern. And that's what we're asking them to stop doing."

The new U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, has said he will give diplomacy every chance of solving the Iran standoff.


With six-power talks making little progress, some experts say talks between Tehran and Washington could be the best chance, perhaps after Iran has elected a new president in June.

Negotiations between Iran and the six powers - Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany - have been deadlocked since a meeting last June.

EU officials have accused Iran of dragging its feet in weeks of haggling over the date and venue for new talks.

Salehi said he had "good news", having heard that the six powers would meet in Kazakhstan on February 25.

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates the efforts of the six powers, confirmed that she had proposed talks in the week of February 25 but noted that Iran had not yet accepted.

Kazakhstan said it was ready to host the talks in either Astana or Almaty.

Salehi said Iran had "never pulled back" from the stuttering negotiations with the six powers. "We still are very hopeful. There are two packages, one package from Iran with five steps and the other package from the (six powers) with three steps."

Iran raised international concern last week by announcing plans to install and operate advanced uranium enrichment machines. The EU said the move, potentially shortening the path to weapons-grade material, could deepen doubts about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel's mission to stop its arch-enemy from acquiring nuclear weapons was "becoming more complex, since the Iranians are equipping themselves with cutting-edge centrifuges that shorten the time of (uranium) enrichment".

"We must not accept this process," said Netanyahu, who is trying to form a new government after winning an election last month. Israel is generally believed to be the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons.

(Additional reporting by Myra MacDonald and Stephen Brown in Munich, Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty, Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Will Dunham)

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Turkey says tests confirm leftist bombed U.S. embassy

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A member of a Turkish leftist group that accuses Washington of using Turkey as its "slave" carried out a suicide bomb attack on the U.S. embassy, the Ankara governor's office cited DNA tests as showing on Saturday.

Ecevit Sanli, a member of the leftist Revolutionary People's Liberation Army-Front (DHKP-C), blew himself up in a perimeter gatehouse on Friday as he tried to enter the embassy, also killing a Turkish security guard.

The DHKP-C, virulently anti-American and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and Turkey, claimed responsibility in a statement on the internet in which it said Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was a U.S. "puppet".

"Murderer America! You will not run away from people's rage," the statement on "The People's Cry" website said, next to a picture of Sanli wearing a black beret and military-style clothes and with an explosives belt around his waist.

It warned Erdogan that he too was a target.

Turkey is an important U.S. ally in the Middle East with common interests ranging from energy security to counter-terrorism. Leftist groups including the DHKP-C strongly oppose what they see as imperialist U.S. influence over their nation.

DNA tests confirmed that Sanli was the bomber, the Ankara governor's office said. It said he had fled Turkey a decade ago and was wanted by the authorities.

Born in 1973 in the Black Sea port city of Ordu, Sanli was jailed in 1997 for attacks on a police station and a military staff college in Istanbul, but his sentence was deferred after he fell sick during a hunger strike. He was never re-jailed.

Condemned to life in prison in 2002, he fled the country a year later, officials said. Interior Minister Muammer Guler said he had re-entered Turkey using false documents.

Erdogan, who said hours after the attack that the DHKP-C were responsible, met his interior and foreign ministers as well as the head of the army and state security service in Istanbul on Saturday to discuss the bombing.

Three people were detained in Istanbul and Ankara in connection with the attack, state broadcaster TRT said.

The White House condemned the bombing as an "act of terror", while the U.N. Security Council described it as a heinous act. U.S. officials said on Friday the DHKP-C were the main suspects but did not exclude other possibilities.

Islamist radicals, extreme left-wing groups, ultra-nationalists and Kurdish militants have all carried out attacks in Turkey in the past.


The DHKP-C statement called on Washington to remove Patriot missiles, due to go operational on Monday as part of a NATO defense system, from Turkish soil.

The missiles are being deployed alongside systems from Germany and the Netherlands to guard Turkey, a NATO member, against a spillover of the war in neighboring Syria.

"Our action is for the independence of our country, which has become a new slave of America," the statement said.

Turkey has been one of the leading advocates of foreign intervention to end the civil war in Syria and has become one of President Bashar al-Assad's harshest critics, a stance groups such as the DHKP-C view as submission to an imperialist agenda.

"Organizations of the sectarian sort like the DHKP-C have been gaining ground as a result of circumstances surrounding the Syrian civil war," security analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan wrote in a column in Turkey's Daily News.

The Ankara attack was the second on a U.S. mission in four months. On September 11, 2012, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American personnel were killed in an Islamist militant attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The DHKP-C was responsible for the assassination of two U.S. military contractors in the early 1990s in protest against the first Gulf War, and it fired rockets at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in 1992, according to the U.S. State Department.

It has been blamed for previous suicide attacks, including one in 2001 that killed two police officers and a tourist in Istanbul's central Taksim Square. It has carried out a series of deadly attacks on police stations in the last six months.

Friday's attack may have come in retaliation for an operation against the DHKP-C last month in which Turkish police detained 85 people. A court subsequently remanded 38 of them in custody over links to the group.

(Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Suicide bomber kills guard at U.S. embassy in Turkey

ANKARA (Reuters) - A far-leftist suicide bomber killed a Turkish security guard at the U.S. embassy in Ankara on Friday, officials said, blowing open an entrance and sending debris flying through the air.

The attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body after entering an embassy gatehouse. The blast could be heard a mile away. A lower leg and other human remains lay on the street.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the bomber was a member of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a far-left group which is virulently anti-U.S. and anti-NATO and is listed as a terrorist organization by Washington.

The White House said the suicide attack was an "act of terror" but that the motivation was unclear. U.S. officials said the DHKP-C were the main suspects but did not exclude other possibilities.

Islamist radicals, extreme left-wing groups, ultra-nationalists and Kurdish militants have all carried out attacks in Turkey in the past. There was no claim of responsibility.

"The suicide bomber was ripped apart and one or two citizens from the special security team passed away," said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

"This event shows that we need to fight together everywhere in the world against these terrorist elements," he said.

Turkish media reports identified the bomber as DHKP-C member Ecevit Sanli, who was involved in attacks on a police station and a military staff college in Istanbul in 1997.


Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East with common interests ranging from energy security to counter-terrorism and has been one of the leading advocates of foreign intervention to end the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Around 400 U.S. soldiers have arrived in Turkey over the past few weeks to operate Patriot anti-missile batteries meant to defend against any spillover of Syria's civil war, part of a NATO deployment due to be fully operational in the coming days.

The DHKP-C was responsible for the assassination of two U.S. military contractors in the early 1990s in protest against the first Gulf War and launched rockets at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in 1992, according to the U.S. State Department.

Deemed a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, the DHKP-C has been blamed for suicide attacks in the past, including one in 2001 that killed two police officers and a tourist in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

The group, formed in 1978, has carried out a series of deadly attacks on police stations in the last six months.

The attack may have come in retaliation for an operation against the DHKP-C last month in which Turkish police detained 85 people. A court subsequently remanded 38 of them in custody over links to the group.


U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone emerged through the main gate of the embassy shortly after the explosion to address reporters, flanked by a security detail as a Turkish police helicopter hovered overhead.

"We're very sad of course that we lost one of our Turkish guards at the gate," Ricciardone said, describing the victim as a "hero" and thanking Turkish authorities for a prompt response.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the attack on the checkpoint on the perimeter of the embassy and said several U.S. and Turkish staff were injured by debris.

"The level of security protection at our facility in Ankara ensured that there were not significantly more deaths and injuries than there could have been," she told reporters.

It was the second attack on a U.S. mission in four months. On September 11, 2012, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American personnel were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The attack in Benghazi, blamed on al Qaeda-affiliated militants, sparked a political furor in Washington over accusations that U.S. missions were not adequately safeguarded.

A well-known Turkish journalist, Didem Tuncay, who was on her way in to the embassy to meet Ricciardone when the attack took place, was in a critical condition in hospital.

"It was a huge explosion. I was sitting in my shop when it happened. I saw what looked like a body part on the ground," said travel agent Kamiyar Barnos, whose shop window was shattered around 100 meters away from the blast.


The U.S. consulate in Istanbul warned its citizens to be vigilant and to avoid large gatherings, while the British mission in Istanbul called on British businesses to tighten security after what it called a "suspected terrorist attack".

In 2008, Turkish gunmen with suspected links to al Qaeda, opened fire on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, killing three Turkish policemen. The gunmen died in the subsequent firefight.

The most serious bombings in Turkey occurred in November 2003, when car bombs shattered two synagogues, killing 30 people and wounding 146. Part of the HSBC Bank headquarters was destroyed and the British consulate was damaged in two more explosions that killed 32 people less than a week later. Authorities said those attacks bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Mohammed Arshad and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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Syria protests over Israel attack, warns of "surprise"

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria protested to the United Nations on Thursday over an Israeli air strike on its territory and warned of a possible "surprise" response.

The foreign ministry summoned the head of the U.N. force in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to deliver the protest a day after Israel hit what Syria said was a military research centre and diplomats said was a weapons convoy heading for Lebanon.

"Syria holds Israel and those who protect it in the Security Council fully responsible for the results of this aggression and affirms its right to defend itself, its land and sovereignty," Syrian television quoted it as saying.

The ministry said it considered Wednesday's Israeli attack to be a violation of a 1974 military disengagement agreement which followed their last major war, and demanded the U.N. Security Council condemn it unequivocally.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed "grave concern". "The Secretary-General calls on all concerned to prevent tensions or their escalation," his office said, adding that international law and sovereignty should be respected.

Israel has maintained total silence over the attack, as it did in 2007 when it bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site - an attack which passed without Syrian military retaliation.

In Beirut on Thursday Syria's ambassador said Damascus could take "a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes". He gave no details but said Syria was "defending its sovereignty and its land".

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target was a military research centre northwest of Damascus and 8 miles from the border.

Hezbollah, which has supported Assad as he battles an armed uprising in which 60,000 people have been killed, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

"Hezbollah expresses its full solidarity with Syria's leadership, army and people," said the group which fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Russia, which has blocked Western efforts to put pressure on Syria at the United Nations, said any Israeli air strike would amount to unacceptable military interference.

"If this information is confirmed, we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the U.N. Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives," Russia's foreign ministry said.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian said the attack "demonstrates the shared goals of terrorists and the Zionist regime", Fars news agency reported. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad portrays the rebels fighting him as foreign-backed, Islamist terrorists, with the same agenda as Israel.

An aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday Iran would consider any attack on Syria as an attack on itself.

In battle-torn Damascus, residents doubted Syria would fight back. One mother of five said she had heard retaliation would come later. "They always say that. They'll retaliate, but later, not now. Always later," she said, and laughed.

"The last thing we need now is Israeli fighter jets to add to our daily routine. As if we don't have enough noise and firing keeping us awake at night."


Details of Wednesday's strike remain sketchy and, in parts, contradictory. Syria said Israeli warplanes, flying low to avoid detection by radar, crossed into its airspace from Lebanon and struck the Jamraya military research centre.

But the diplomats and rebels said the jets hit a weapons convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon and the rebels said they - not Israel - attacked Jamraya with mortars.

One former Western envoy to Damascus said the discrepancy between the accounts might be explained by Jamraya's proximity to the border and the fact that Israeli jets hit vehicles inside the complex as well as a building.

The force of the dawn attack shook the ground, waking nearby residents from their slumber with up to a dozen blasts, two sources in the area said.

"We were sleeping. Then we started hearing rockets hitting the complex and the ground started shaking and we ran into the basement," said a woman who lives adjacent to the Jamraya site.

The resident, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity over the strike, said she could not tell whether the explosions which woke her were the result of an aerial attack.

Another source who has a relative working inside Jamraya said a building inside the complex had been cordoned off and flames were seen rising from the area after the attack.

"It appears that there were about a dozen rockets that appeared to hit one building in the complex," the source, who also asked not to be identified, told Reuters. "The facility is closed today."

Israeli newspapers quoted foreign media on Thursday for reports on the attack. Journalists in Israel are required to submit articles on security and military issues to the censor, which has the power to block any publication of material it deems could compromise state security.

Syrian state television said two people were killed in the raid on Jamraya, which lies in the 25-km (15-mile) strip between Damascus and the Lebanese border. It described it as a scientific research centre "aimed at raising the level of resistance and self-defense".

Diplomatic sources from three countries told Reuters that chemical weapons were believed to be stored at Jamraya, and that it was possible that the convoy was near the large site when it came under attack. However, there was no suggestion that the vehicles themselves had been carrying chemical weapons.

"The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon," said one Western diplomat, echoing others who said the convoy's load may have included anti-aircraft missiles or long-range rockets.

The raid followed warnings from Israel that it was ready to act to prevent the revolt against Assad leading to Syria's chemical weapons and modern rockets reaching either his Hezbollah allies or his Islamist enemies.

A regional security source said Israel's target was weaponry given by Assad's military to fellow Iranian ally Hezbollah.

Such a strike or strikes would fit Israel's policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of the Assad family's rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.

Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, but its officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Marcus George in Dubai; editing by David Stamp and Philippa Fletcher)

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Egypt curfew scaled back as Mursi seeks end to bloodshed

CAIRO/BERLIN (Reuters) - Egyptian authorities scaled back a curfew imposed by President Mohamed Mursi, and the Islamist leader cut short a visit to Europe on Wednesday to deal with the deadliest violence in the seven months since he took power.

Two more protesters were shot dead before dawn near Cairo's central Tahrir Square on Wednesday, a day after the army chief warned that the state was on the brink of collapse if Mursi's opponents and supporters did not end street battles.

More than 50 people have been killed in the past seven days of protests by Mursi's opponents marking the second anniversary of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Mursi imposed a curfew and a state of emergency on three Suez Canal cities on Sunday - Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. That only seemed to further provoke crowds. However, violence has mainly subsided in those towns since Tuesday.

Local authorities pushed back the start of the curfew from 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. in Ismailia and to 1:00 a.m. in Port Said and Suez.

"There has been progress in the security situation since Monday. Calm has returned," Suez Governor Samir Aglan said.

Mursi, speaking in Berlin before hurrying home to deal with the crisis, called for dialogue with opponents but would not commit to their demand that he first agree to include them in a unity government.

He sidestepped a question about a possible unity government, saying the next cabinet would be formed after parliamentary elections in April.

Egypt was on its way to becoming "a civilian state that is not a military state or a theocratic state", Mursi said.

The violence at home forced Mursi to scale back his European visit, billed as a chance to promote Egypt as a destination for foreign investment. He flew to Berlin but called off a trip to Paris and was due back home after only a few hours in Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met him, echoed other Western leaders who have called on him to give his opponents a voice.

"One thing that is important for us is that the line for dialogue is always open to all political forces in Egypt, that the different political forces can make their contribution, that human rights are adhered to in Egypt and that of course religious freedom can be experienced," she said at a joint news conference with Mursi.


Mursi's critics accuse him of betraying the spirit of the revolution by keeping too much power in his own hands and those of his Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement banned under Mubarak which won repeated elections since the 2011 uprising.

Mursi's supporters say the protesters want to overthrow Egypt's first democratically elected leader. The current unrest has deepened an economic crisis that saw the pound currency tumble in recent weeks.

Near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday morning, dozens of protesters threw stones at police who fired back teargas, although the scuffles were brief.

"Our demand is simply that Mursi goes, and leaves the country alone. He is just like Mubarak and his crowd who are now in prison," said Ahmed Mustafa, 28, a youth who had goggles on his head to protect his eyes from teargas.

Opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei called for a meeting of the president, ministers, the ruling party and the opposition to halt the violence. But he also restated the precondition that Mursi first commit to seeking a national unity government.

The worst violence has been in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, where rage was fuelled by death sentences passed against soccer fans for roles in deadly riots last year.

After decades in which the West backed Mubarak's military rule of Egypt, the emergence of an elected Islamist leader in Cairo is probably the single most important change brought about by the wave of Arab revolts over the past two years.

Mursi won backing from the West last year for his role in helping to establish a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians that ended a conflict in Gaza. But he then followed that with an effort to fast-track a constitution that reignited dissent at home and raised global concern over Egypt's future.

Western countries were alarmed this month by video that emerged showing Mursi making vitriolic remarks against Jews and Zionists in 2010 when he was a senior Brotherhood official.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said ahead of Mursi's visit that the remarks, in which Mursi referred to Zionists as "descendants of apes and pigs" were "unacceptable".


Asked about those remarks at the news conference with Merkel, Mursi repeated earlier explanations that they had been taken out of context.

"I am not against the Jewish faith," he said. "I was talking about the practices and behavior of believers of any religion who shed blood or who attack innocent people or civilians. That's behavior that I condemn."

"I am a Muslim. I'm a believer and my religion obliges me to believe in all prophets, to respect all religions and to respect the right of people to their own faith," he added.

Egypt's main liberal and secularist bloc, the National Salvation Front, has so far refused talks with Mursi unless he promises a unity government including opposition figures.

"Stopping the violence is the priority, and starting a serious dialogue requires committing to guarantees demanded by the National Salvation Front, at the forefront of which are a national salvation government and a committee to amend the constitution," ElBaradei said on Twitter.

Those calls have also been backed by the hardline Islamist Nour party - rivals of Mursi's Brotherhood. Nour and the Front were due to meet on Wednesday, signaling an unlikely alliance of Mursi's critics from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagy dismissed the unity government proposal as a ploy for the Front to take power despite having lost elections. On his Facebook page he ridiculed "the leaders of the Salvation Front, who seem to know more about the people's interests than the people themselves".

In a sign of the toll the unrest is having on Egypt's economy, ratings agency Fitch downgraded its sovereign rating by one notch to B on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad in Cairo, Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Stephen Brown and Gernot Heller in Berlin; Writing by Peter Graff)

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Sixty-five found executed in Syria's Aleppo: activists

BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 65 people were found shot dead with their hands bound in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday in a "new massacre" in the near two-year revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, activists said.

Opposition campaigners blamed the government but it was impossible to confirm who was responsible. Assad's forces and rebels have been battling in Syria's commercial hub since July and both have been accused of carrying out summary executions.

More than 60,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, the longest and deadliest of the revolts that began throughout the Arab world two years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday the fighting had forced more than 700,000 people to flee. World powers fear the conflict could increasingly envelop Syria's neighbors including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, further destabilizing an already explosive region.

Opposition activists posted a video of a man filming at least 51 muddied male bodies alongside what they said was the Queiq River in Aleppo's rebel-held Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood.

The bodies had bullet wounds in their heads and some of the victims appeared to be young, possibly teenagers, dressed in jeans, shirts and trainers.

Aleppo-based opposition activists who asked not to be named for security reasons blamed pro-Assad militia fighters.

They said the men had been executed and dumped in the river before floating downstream into the rebel area. State media did not mention the incident.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which says it provides objective information about casualties on both sides of Syria's war from a network of monitors, said the footage was evidence of a new massacre and the death toll could rise as high as 80.

"They were killed only because they are Muslims," said a bearded man in another video said to have been filmed in central Bustan al-Qasr after the bodies were removed from the river. A pickup truck with a pile of corpses was parked behind him.


It is hard for Reuters to verify such reports from inside Syria because of restrictions on independent media.

Rebels are stuck in a stalemate with government forces in Aleppo - Syria's most populous city which is divided roughly in half between the two sides.

The revolt started as a peaceful protest movement against more than four decades of rule by Assad and his family, but turned into an armed rebellion after a government crackdown.

About 712,000 Syrian refugees have registered in other countries in the region or are awaiting processing as of Tuesday, the U.N. refugee agency Said on Tuesday.

"We have seen an unrelenting flow of refugees across all borders. We are running double shifts to register people," Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters in Geneva.

On Monday, the United Nations warned it would not be able to help millions of Syrians affected by the fighting without more money and appealed for donations at an aid conference this week in Kuwait to meet its $1.5 billion target.

Speaking ahead of that conference, Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah said on Tuesday there was concern Syria could turn into a failed state and put the entire region at risk.

Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières said the bulk of the current aid was going to government-controlled areas and called on donors in Kuwait to make sure they were even-handed.


In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, insurgents including al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters captured a security agency after days of heavy fighting, according to an activist video issued on Tuesday.

Some of the fighters were shown carrying a black flag with the Islamic declaration of faith and the name of the al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.

The war has become heavily sectarian, with rebels who mostly come from the Sunni Muslim majority fighting an army whose top generals are mostly from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Assad has framed the revolt as a foreign-backed conspiracy and blames the West and Sunni Gulf states.

Fighting also took place in the northern town of Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, between rebels and Kurdish militants, the Observatory said.

In Turkey, a second pair of Patriot missile batteries being sent by NATO countries are now operational, a German security official said on Tuesday.

The United States, Germany and the Netherlands each committed to sending two batteries and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked for help to bolster its air defenses against possible missile attack from Syria.

(Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Kuwait, Sabine Siebold in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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Egypt protesters defy curfew after emergency rule imposed

CAIRO/ISMAILIA, Egypt (Reuters) - Egyptian protesters defied a nighttime curfew in restive towns along the Suez Canal, attacking police stations and ignoring emergency rule imposed by Islamist President Mohamed Mursi to end days of clashes that have killed at least 52 people.

At least two men died in overnight fighting in the canal city of Port Said in the latest outbreak of violence unleashed last week on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 revolt that brought down autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Political opponents spurned a call by Mursi for talks on Monday to try to end the violence.

Instead, huge crowds of protesters took to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and in the three Suez Canal cities - Port Said, Ismailia and Suez - where Mursi imposed emergency rule and a curfew on Sunday.

"Down, down with Mohamed Mursi! Down, down with the state of emergency!" crowds shouted in Ismailia. In Cairo, flames lit up the night sky as protesters set police vehicles ablaze.

In Port Said, men attacked police stations after dark. A security source said some police and troops were injured. A medical source said two men were killed and 12 injured in the clashes, including 10 with gunshot wounds.

"The people want to bring down the regime," crowds chanted in Alexandria. "Leave means go, and don't say no!"

The demonstrators accuse Mubarak's successor Mursi of betraying the two-year-old revolution. Mursi and his supporters accuse the protesters of seeking to overthrow Egypt's first ever democratically elected leader through undemocratic means.

Since Mubarak was toppled, Islamists have won two referendums, two parliamentary elections and a presidential vote. But that legitimacy has been challenged by an opposition that accuses Mursi of imposing a new form of authoritarianism, and punctuated by repeated waves of unrest that have prevented a return to stability in the most populous Arab state.


The army has already been deployed in Port Said and Suez and the government agreed a measure to let soldiers arrest civilians as part of the state of emergency.

The instability unnerves Western capitals, where officials worry about the direction of powerful regional player that has a peace deal with Israel. The United States condemned the bloodshed and called on Egyptian leaders to make clear violence is not acceptable. ID:nW1E8MD01C].

In Cairo on Monday, police fired volleys of teargas at stone-throwing protesters near Tahrir Square, cauldron of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Demonstrators stormed into the downtown Semiramis Intercontinental hotel and burned two police vehicles.

A 46-year-old bystander was killed by a gunshot early on Monday, a security source said. It was not clear who fired.

"We want to bring down the regime and end the state that is run by the Muslim Brotherhood," said Ibrahim Eissa, a 26-year-old cook, protecting his face from teargas wafting towards him.

The political unrest in the Suez Canal cities has been exacerbated by street violence linked to death penalties imposed on soccer supporters convicted of involvement in stadium rioting in Port Said a year ago.

Mursi's invitation to opponents to hold a national dialogue with Islamists on Monday was spurned by the main opposition National Salvation Front coalition, which rejected the offer as "cosmetic and not substantive".

The only liberal politician who attended, Ayman Nour, told Egypt's al-Hayat channel after the meeting ended late on Monday that attendees agreed to meet again in a week.

He said Mursi had promised to look at changes to the constitution requested by the opposition but did not consider the opposition's request for a government of national unity.

The president announced the emergency measures on television on Sunday: "The protection of the nation is the responsibility of everyone. We will confront any threat to its security with force and firmness within the remit of the law," Mursi said.

His demeanor in the address infuriated his opponents, not least when he wagged a finger at the camera.

Some activists said Mursi's measures to try to impose control on the turbulent streets could backfire.

"Martial law, state of emergency and army arrests of civilians are not a solution to the crisis," said Ahmed Maher of the April 6 movement that helped galvanize the 2011 uprising. "All this will do is further provoke the youth. The solution has to be a political one that addresses the roots of the problem."

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo and Abdelrahman Youssef in Alexandria; Writing by Edmund Blair, Yasmine Saleh and Peter Graff)

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Nightclub fire kills 233 in Brazil

SANTA MARIA, Brazil (Reuters) - A nightclub fire killed at least 233 people in southern Brazil early on Sunday when a band's pyrotechnics show set the building ablaze and fleeing partygoers stampeded toward blocked and overcrowded exits in the ensuing panic, officials said.

The blaze in the university town of Santa Maria was ignited by sparks from pyrotechnics used by the band for visual effects. They set fire to soundproofing on the ceiling and the club rapidly filled with toxic smoke, local fire officials said.

Most of those who died were suffocated by fumes, fire brigade Sergeant Robson Muller told Reuters. Others were crushed in the stampede.

"Smoke filled the place instantly, the heat became unbearable," survivor Murilo Tiescher, a medical student, told GloboNews TV. "People could not find the only exit. They went to the toilet thinking it was the exit and many died there."

Fire officials said at least one exit was locked and that club bouncers, who at first thought those fleeing were trying to skip out on bar tabs, initially blocked patrons from leaving. The security staff relented only when they saw flames engulfing the ceiling.

The tragedy, in a packed venue in one of Brazil's most prosperous states, comes as the country scrambles to improve safety, security and logistical shortfalls ahead of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics, both intended to showcase the economic advances and first-world ambitions of Latin America's largest nation.

In Santa Maria, a city of more than 275,000 people, rescue workers and weary officials wept alongside family and friends of the victims at a local gymnasium being used as a makeshift morgue.

"It's the saddest, saddest day of my life," said Neusa Soares, the mother of one of those killed, 22-year-old Viviane Tolio Soares. "I never thought I would have to live to see my girl go away."

President Dilma Rousseff cut short an official visit to Chile and flew to Santa Maria, where she wept as she spoke to relatives of the victims at the gym.

"All I can say at the moment is that my feelings are of deep sorrow," said Rousseff, who began her political career in Rio Grande do Sul, the state where the fire occurred.

News of the fire broke on Sunday morning, when local news broadcast images of shocked people outside the nightclub called Boate Kiss. Gradually, grisly details emerged.


"We ran into a barrier of the dead at the exit," Colonel Guido Pedroso de Melo, commander of the fire brigade in Rio Grande do Sul, said of the scene that firefighters found on arrival. "We had to clear a path to get to the rest of those that were inside."

Officials said more than 1,000 people may have been in the club, possibly exceeding its legal capacity. Though Internet postings about the venue suggested as many as 2,000 people at times have crammed into the club, Pedroso de Melo said no more than half that should have been inside.

He said the club was authorized to be open but its permit was in the process of being renewed.

However, Pedroso de Melo did point to several egregious safety violations - from the flare that went off during the show to the locked door that kept people from leaving.

The club's management said in a statement that its staff was trained and prepared to deal with any emergency. It said it would help authorities with their investigation.

When the fire began at about 2:30 a.m., many revelers were unable to find their way out in the chaos.

"It all happened so fast," survivor Taynne Vendrusculo told GloboNews TV. "Both the panic and the fire spread rapidly, in seconds."

Once security guards realized the building was on fire, they tried in vain to control the blaze with a fire extinguisher, according to a televised interview with one of the guards, Rodrigo Moura. He said patrons were getting trampled as they rushed for the doors, describing it as "a horror film."

Band member Rodrigo Martins said the fire started after the fourth or fifth song and the extinguisher did not work.

"It could have been a short circuit, there were many cables there," Martins told Porto Alegre's Radio Gaucha station. He said there was only one door and it was locked. A band member died in the fire.


One of the club's owners has surrendered to police for questioning, GloboNews reported.

TV footage showed people sobbing outside the club before dawn, while shirtless firefighters used sledge hammers and axes to knock down an exterior wall to open up an exit.

Rescue officials moved the bodies to the local gym and separated them by gender. Male victims were easier to identify because most had identification on them, unlike the women, whose purses were left scattered in the devastated nightclub. Local authorities said 120 men and 113 women died in the fire.

Piles of shoes remained in the burnt out club, along with tufts of hair pulled out by people fleeing desperately. Firemen who removed bodies said victims' cell phones were still ringing.

The disaster recalls other incidents including a 2003 fire at a nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 100 people [ID:nL1N0AW2NR], and a Buenos Aires nightclub blaze in 2004 that killed nearly 200. In both incidents, a band or members of the audience ignited fires that set the establishment ablaze.

The Rhode Island fire shocked local and federal officials because of the rarity of such incidents in the United States, where enforcement of safety codes is considered to be relatively strict. After the Buenos Aires blaze, Argentine officials closed many nightclubs and other venues and ultimately forced the city's mayor from office because of poor oversight of municipal codes.

The fire early on Sunday occurred in one of the wealthiest, most industrious and culturally distinct regions of Brazil. Santa Maria is about 186 miles west of Porto Alegre, the capital of a state settled by Germans and other immigrants from northern Europe.

Local clichés paint the region as stricter and more organized than the rest of Brazil, where most residents are a mix descended from native tribes, Portuguese colonists, African slaves, and later influxes of immigrants from southern Europe.

Rio Grande do Sul state's health secretary, Ciro Simoni, said emergency medical supplies from all over the state were being sent to the scene. States from all over Brazil offered support, and messages of sympathy poured in from foreign leaders.

(Additional reporting by Guillermo Parra-Bernal, Gustavo Bonato, Jeferson Ribeiro, Eduardo Simões, Brian Winter and Guido Nejamkis.; Writing by Paulo Prada and Anthony Boadle; Editing by Todd Benson, Kieran Murray and Christopher Wilson)

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Riots over Egyptian death sentences kill at least 32

PORT SAID, Egypt/CAIRO (Reuters) - At least 32 people were killed on Saturday when Egyptians rampaged in protest at the sentencing of 21 people to death over a soccer stadium disaster, violence that compounds a political crisis facing Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Armored vehicles and military police fanned through the streets of Port Said, where gunshots rang out and protesters burned tires in anger that people from their city had been blamed for the deaths of 74 people at a match last year.

The rioting in Port Said, one of the most deadly spasms of violence since Hosni Mubarak's ouster two years ago, followed a day of anti-Mursi demonstrations on Friday, when nine people were killed. The toll over the past two days stands at 41.

The flare-ups make it even tougher for Mursi, who drew fire last year for expanding his powers and pushing through an Islamist-tinged constitution, to fix the creaking economy and cool tempers enough to ensure a smooth parliamentary election.

That vote is expected in the next few months and is meant to cement a democratic transition that has been blighted from the outset by political rows and street clashes.

The National Defense Council, which is led by Mursi and includes the defense minister who commands the army, called for "a broad national dialogue that would be attended by independent national characters" to discuss political differences and ensure a "fair and transparent" parliamentary poll.

The National Salvation Front of liberal-minded groups and other Mursi opponents cautiously welcomed the call.


Clashes in Port Said erupted after a judge sentenced 21 men to die for involvement in the deaths at the soccer match on February 1, 2012. Many were fans of the visiting team, Cairo's Al Ahly.

Al Ahly fans had threatened violence if the court had not meted out the death penalty. They cheered outside their Cairo club when the verdict was announced. But in Port Said, residents were furious that people from their city were held responsible.

Protesters ran wildly through the streets of the Mediterranean port, lighting tires in the street and storming two police stations, witnesses said. Gunshots were reported near the prison where most of the defendants were being held.

A security source in Port Said said 32 people were killed there, many dying from gunshot wounds. He said 312 were wounded and the ministry of defense had allocated a military plane to transfer the injured to military hospitals.

Inside the court in Cairo, families of victims danced, applauded and some broke down in tears of joy when they heard Judge Sobhy Abdel Maguid declare that the 21 men would be "referred to the Mufti", a phrase used to denote execution, as all death sentences must be reviewed by Egypt's top religious authority.

There were 73 defendants on trial. Those not sentenced on Saturday would face a verdict on March 9, the judge said.

At the Port Said soccer stadium a year ago, many spectators were crushed and witnesses saw some thrown off balconies after the match between Al Ahly and local team al-Masri. Al Ahly fans accused the police of being complicit in the deaths.

Among those killed on Saturday were a former player for al-Masri and a soccer player in another Port Said team, the website of the state broadcaster reported.


On Friday, protesters angry at Mursi's rule had taken to the streets for the second anniversary of the uprising that erupted on January 25, 2011 and brought Mubarak down 18 days later.

Police fired teargas and protesters hurled stones and petrol bombs. Nine people were killed, mainly in the port city of Suez, and hundreds more were injured across the nation.

Reflecting international concern at the two days of clashes, British Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said: "This cannot help the process of dialogue which we encourage as vital for Egypt today, and we must condemn the violence in the strongest terms."

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged the Egyptian authorities to restore calm and order and called on all sides to show restraint, her spokesperson said.

On Saturday, some protesters again clashed and scuffled with police in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. In the capital, youths pelted police lines with rocks near Tahrir Square.

In Suez, police fired teargas when protesters angry at Friday's deaths hurled petrol bombs and stormed a police post and other governmental buildings including the agriculture and social solidarity units.

Around 18 prisoners in Suez police stations managed to escape during the violence, a security source there said, and some 30 police weapons were stolen.

"We want to change the president and the government. We are tired of this regime. Nothing has changed," said Mahmoud Suleiman, 22, in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the cauldron of the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolt.

Mursi's opponents say he has failed to deliver on economic pledges or to be a president representing the full political and communal diversity of Egyptians, as he promised.

"Egypt will not regain its balance except by a political solution that is transparent and credible, by a government of national salvation to restore order and heal the economy and with a constitution for all Egyptians," prominent opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter.

The opposition National Salvation Front, responding to the Defense Council's call for dialogue, said there must be a clear agenda and guarantees that any deal would be implemented, spokesman Khaled Dawoud told Reuters.

The Front earlier on Saturday threatened an election boycott and to call for more protests on Friday if demands were not met. Its demands included picking a national unity government to restore order and holding an early presidential poll.

Mursi's supporters say the opposition does not respect the democracy that has given Egypt its first freely elected leader.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which propelled Mursi to office, said in a statement that "corrupt people" and media who were biased against the president had stirred up fury on the streets.

The frequent violence and political schism between Islamists and secular Egyptians have hurt Mursi's efforts to revive an economy in crisis as investors and tourists have stayed away, taking a heavy toll on Egypt's currency.

(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy, Peter Griffiths in London and Claire Davenport in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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North Korea threatens war with South over U.N. sanctions

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea threatened to attack rival South Korea if Seoul joined a new round of tightened U.N. sanctions, as Washington unveiled more of its own economic restrictions following Pyongyang's rocket launch last month.

In a third straight day of fiery rhetoric, the North directed its verbal onslaught at its neighbor on Friday, saying: "'Sanctions' mean a war and a declaration of war against us."

The reclusive North this week declared a boycott of all dialogue aimed at ending its nuclear program and vowed to conduct more rocket and nuclear tests after the U.N. Security Council censured it for a December long-range missile launch.

"If the puppet group of traitors takes a direct part in the U.N. 'sanctions,' the DPRK will take strong physical counter-measures against it," the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said, referring to the South.

The committee is the North's front for dealings with the South. The North's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Speaking in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies said he found North Korea's rhetoric "troubling and counterproductive," and that he and his Chinese counterparts had agreed a new nuclear test would be harmful.

"We will judge North Korea by its actions, not its words. These types of inflammatory statements by North Korea do nothing to contribute to peace and stability on the peninsula," he said.

"What North Korea has done through its actions, in particular through the launch on December 12 of a rocket in contravention of Security Council resolutions, is they have made it that much more difficult to contemplate getting back to a diplomatic process."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un to choose a different path, rather than "continue to waste what little money the country has on missile technologies and things while his people go hungry."

The U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned North Korea's December rocket launch on Tuesday and expanded existing U.N. sanctions.

On Thursday, the United States slapped economic sanctions on two North Korean bank officials and a Hong Kong trading company that it accused of supporting Pyongyang's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The company, Leader (Hong Kong) International Trading Ltd, was separately blacklisted by the United Nations on Wednesday.

Seoul has said it will look at whether there are any further sanctions that it can implement alongside the United States, but said the focus for now is to follow Security Council resolutions.

The resolution said the council "deplores the violations" by North Korea of its previous resolutions, which banned Pyongyang from conducting further ballistic missile and nuclear tests and from importing materials and technology for those programs. It does not impose new sanctions on Pyongyang.

The United States had wanted to punish North Korea for the rocket launch with a Security Council resolution that imposed entirely new sanctions against Pyongyang, but Beijing rejected that option. China agreed to U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang after North Korea's 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

Nuland declined to speculate whether the United States thinks the U.N. steps would change North Korea's behavior.

"What's been important to us is strong unity among the six-party talks countries; strong unity in the region about a positive course forward; and the fact that there will be consequences if they keep making bad choices," she said.

Long-dormant six-nation talks brought together the United States, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas in negotiations to try to induce Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arms quest in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic normalization.


North Korea's rhetoric this week amounted to some of the angriest outbursts against the outside world coming under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011.

On Thursday, the North said it would carry out further rocket launches and a nuclear test, directing its ire at the United States, a country it called its "sworn enemy".

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the comments were worrying.

"We are very concerned with North Korea's continuing provocative behavior," he said at a Pentagon news conference.

"We are fully prepared ... to deal with any kind of provocation from the North Koreans. But I hope in the end that they determine that it is better to make a choice to become part of the international family."

North Korea is not believed to have the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the continental United States, although its December launch showed it had the capacity to deliver a rocket that could travel 10,000 km (6,200 miles), potentially putting San Francisco in range, according to an intelligence assessment by South Korea.

South Korea and others who have been closely observing activities at the North's known nuclear test grounds believe Pyongyang is technically ready to go ahead with its third atomic test and awaiting the political decision of its leader.

The North's committee also declared on Friday that a landmark agreement it signed with the South in 1992 on eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula was invalid, repeating its long-standing accusation that Seoul was colluding with Washington.

The foreign ministry of China, the North's sole remaining major diplomatic and economic benefactor, repeated its call for calm on the Korean peninsula at its daily briefing earlier on Friday.

"The current situation on the Korea peninsula is complicated and sensitive," spokesman Hong Lei said.

"We hope all relevant parties can see the big picture, maintain calm and restraint, further maintain contact and dialogue, and improve relations, while not taking actions to further complicate and escalate the situation," Hong said.

But unusually prickly comments in Chinese state media on Friday hinted at Beijing's exasperation.

"It seems that North Korea does not appreciate China's efforts," said the Global Times in an editorial, a sister publication of the official People's Daily.

"Just let North Korea be 'angry' ... China hopes for a stable peninsula, but it's not the end of the world if there's trouble there. This should be the baseline of China's position."

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and Arshad Mohammed and Paul Eckert in WASHINGTON; Editing by Jonathan Standing, Myra MacDonald and Jackie Frank)

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