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Bamako, Dubai (Reuters)
France will end its intervention in Mali only once stability has returned to the West African country, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday, raising the prospects of a costly, drawn-out operation against al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Paris has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out air raids since Friday in the northern half of the country, which Western and regional states fear could become a base for attacks by Islamist militants in Africa and Europe.
Thousands of African troops are due to take over the offensive but regional armies are scrambling to accelerate the operation - initially not expected for months and brought forward by France's bombing campaign aimed at stopping a rebel advance on a strategic town last week.
"We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory," Hollande told a news conference during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, accompanying Hollande, said the offensive against the Malian rebels could take some time, and the current French level of involvement could last weeks. Elections, however, would take months to organize.
French aircraft earlier hit rebels with fresh air strikes and a column of dozens of French armored vehicles rumbled into the dusty riverside capital of Bamako overnight, bringing to about 750 the number of French troops in Mali.
Paris has said it plans to deploy 2,500 soldiers in its former colony to bolster the Malian army and work with the intervention force provided by West African states.
West African defense chiefs met in Bamako on Tuesday to approve plans for speeding up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops, foreseen in a United Nations-backed intervention plan to be led by Africans.
Nigeria pledged to deploy soldiers within 24 hours and Belgium said it was sending transport planes and helicopters to help, but West Africa's armies need time to become operational.
Mali's north, a vast and inhospitable area of desert and rugged mountains the size of Texas, was seized last year by an Islamist alliance combining al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM with splinter group MUJWA and the home-grown Ansar Dine rebels.
Any delay in following up on the French air bombardments of Islamist bases and fuel depots with a ground offensive could allow the insurgents to slip away into the desert and mountains, regroup and counter-attack.
The rebels, who French officials say are mobile and well-armed, have shown they can hit back, dislodging government forces from Diabaly, 350 km (220 miles) from Bamako on Monday.
Residents said the town was still under Islamist control on Tuesday despite a number of air strikes that shook houses.
An eye witness near Segou, to the south, told Reuters he had seen 20 French Special Forces soldiers driving toward Diabaly.
Malians have largely welcomed the French intervention, having seen their army suffer a series of defeats by the rebels.
"With the arrival of the French, we have started to see the situation on the front evolve in our favor," said Aba Sanare, a resident of Bamako.
QUESTIONS OVER READINESS
Aboudou Toure Cheaka, a senior regional official in Bamako, said the West African troops would be on the ground in a week.
The original timetable for the 3,300-strong U.N.-sanctioned African force - to be backed by western logistics, money and intelligence services - did not initially foresee full deployment before September due to logistical constraints.
Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Guinea have all offered troops. Col. Mohammed Yerima, spokesman for Nigeria's defense ministry, said the first 190 soldiers would be dispatched within 24 hours.
But Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has already cautioned that even if some troops arrive in Mali soon, their training and equipping will take more time.
Sub-Saharan Africa's top oil producer, which already has peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur and is fighting a bloody and difficult insurgency at home against Islamist sect Boko Haram, could struggle to deliver on its troop commitment of 900 men.
One senior government adviser in Nigeria said the Mali deployment was stretching the country's military.
"The whole thing's a mess. We don't have any troops with experience of those extreme conditions, even of how to keep all that sand from ruining your equipment. And we're facing battle-hardened guys who live in those dunes," the adviser said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
FRENCH LINING UP SUPPORT
France, which has repeatedly said it has abandoned its role as the policeman of its former African colonies, said on Monday that the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Germany had also offered logistical support.
Fabius has said Gulf Arab states would help the Mali campaign while Belgium said on Tuesday it would send two C130 transport planes and two medical helicopters to Mali following a request from Paris.
A meeting of donors for the operation was expected to be held in Addis Ababa at the end of January.
Security experts have warned that the multinational intervention in Mali, couched in terms of a campaign by governments against "terrorism", could provoke a jihadist backlash against France and the West, and African allies.
U.S. officials have warned of links between AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabaab Islamic militants fighting in Somalia.
Al Shabaab, which foiled a French effort at the weekend to rescue a French secret agent it was holding hostage, urged Muslims around the world to rise up against what it called "Christian" attacks against Islam.
"Our brothers in Mali, show patience and tolerance and you will win. War planes never liberate a land," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab's spokesman, said on a rebel-run website.
U.S. officials said Washington was sharing information with French forces in Mali and considering providing logistics, surveillance and airlift capability.
"We have made a commitment that al Qaeda is not going to find any place to hide," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters as he began a visit to Europe. Panetta later said the U.S. had no plans to send troops to Mali.
"I don't know what the French endgame is for this. What is their goal? It reminds me of our initial move into Afghanistan," a U.S. military source told Reuters.
"Air strikes are fine. But pretty soon you run out of easy targets. Then what do you do? What do you do when they head up into the mountains?"
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Felix Onuah in Abuja and Tim Cocks in Lagos; Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Michelle Nichols Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Jan Vermeylen in Brussels; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and David Lewis; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Giles Elgood)
By Bate Felix and Elizabeth Pineau, Reuters, January 15, 2013
Caracas, Venezuela (AFP)
Venezuela's National Assembly is set to meet on Saturday to elect its leadership and likely thrash out the country's political future as President Hugo Chavez battles cancer in Cuba and debate rages over whether he can be sworn in to a new term next week.
The lawmakers' vote will be a key political test for the assembly's current leader Diosdado Cabello, the regime's number three and a perceived rival for power with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor.
Both men have denied persistent reports of a power struggle between them and vowed to maintain party unity.
In convening the session, Cabello called on Chavez supporters to rally outside the parliament building "to exhort revolutionary unity and head off the campaign of rumors."
Cabello was expected to win reelection as president of the assembly, which is controlled by Chavez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
But if he fails to keep his post, it would give credence to the view that a fight for dominance in a post-Chavez Venezuela is already under way.
So far, Chavez has refused to relinquish power despite four rounds of surgery and debilitating complications that have kept him out of public view in Havana for nearly a month, the longest stretch in his 14 years in power.
"The official version of what is happening is unsustainable," the head of the main opposition coalition, Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, said in an interview with AFP and digital news outlet Noticias24.
Aveledo said it would make more sense for the government to acknowledge "the truth" and use it to prepare the country for what is to come. But it "doesn't want to admit that the president is absent."
Maduro, for his part, vehemently rejected that position in a television appearance late Friday, laying out a legal rationale for delaying the president's swearing-in to a new six-year term for an unspecified period of time while keeping Chavez in office.
With a pocket-sized constitution in hand, Maduro argued that the charter provides "a dynamic flexibility" that allows the president to take the oath of office before the Supreme Court at some later date.
It was the clearest signal yet that Chavez, who is fighting off complications from cancer surgery in Cuba, will not be taking the oath of office as scheduled on January 10.
Chavez, 58, was re-elected on October 7 despite his debilitating battle with cancer and the strongest opposition challenge yet to his 14-year rule in Venezuela, an OPEC member with the world's largest proven oil reserves.
He underwent his fourth round of surgery more than four weeks ago and has developed a "severe pulmonary infection" that has raised doubts about his fitness to continue serving.
He has not been seen in public in nearly four weeks, and only his family, a handful of senior officials and his Cuban medical team are known to have seen him as he battles to regain his health in a Havana hospital.
Under Venezuela's constitution, new elections must be held within 30 days if the president dies or is permanently incapacitated either before he takes office or in the first four years of his six-year term.
The rector of the Central University of Venezuela, Cecilia Garcia Arocha, proposed sending a team of medical experts to Havana to assess his condition. Opposition leader Antonio Ledezma said it should include opposition figures.
Cancer was first detected by Cuban doctors in June 2011, but the Venezuelan government has never revealed what form of the disease Chavez is battling.
Beyond the constitutional controversies surrounding his prolonged absence, Venezuelans also are coming to terms with the death or disability of their longtime leader.
AFP, January 5, 2013
The 46-year-old Pena Nieto said the people had been let down since his centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, fell from power in 2000, and pledged a raft of changes to boost growth, create jobs and fight poverty.
"The state has lost ground in important areas. Lawlessness and violence have robbed various parts of the country of peace and freedom," Pena Nieto said in his inaugural speech at a ceremonial palace in the old center of Mexico City. "My government's first aim will be to bring peace to Mexico."
Pena Nieto takes command of a country that was convulsed by the deaths of more than 60,000 people in violence between drug gangs and security forces during the six-year term of his conservative predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
Pena Nieto says he is committed to fighting organized crime, but has also stressed his main goal is to reduce the violence.
He paid tribute to Mexico's armed forces early in his speech and then saluted them on the capital's Field of Mars parade ground.
The torrent of gangland killings in Mexico has worried investors and tourists alike, and voters in the holiday resort of Cancun said they expected Pena Nieto to calm things down.
"I hope security improves, that there are no more decapitated bodies, that the drug gangs don't continue shooting in the streets," said Carlos Madrid, a tourism worker in the eastern city. "It's no good for families, no good for business, no good for the population, it's no good for anyone."
Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, took power in 2000 pledging to reinvigorate Mexico, but it never had a majority in Congress and struggled to push through legislation it wanted to create jobs in Latin America's second-biggest economy.
Memories of the PRI's unbroken 71-year rule are still vivid in Mexico, and the party was a byword for corruption, cronyism and vote-rigging by the time it left office.
"It's like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union making a comeback," said Lorenzo Meyer, a left-leaning political scientist and historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "The PRI should be dead. Its time had passed."
Demonstrators sought to take the shine off Pena Nieto's swearing-in ceremony, and several thousand protesters, mainly from leftist groups that supported Pena Nieto's main rival and oppose his reform plans, massed earlier outside Congress.
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters, who rattled metal barriers in a bid to disrupt the upcoming ceremony. Elsewhere, small groups of protesters threw Molotov cocktails.
"They have imposed an illegitimate president. There's lots of us here, this struggle is just beginning," said a 16-year-old student who identified herself as Frida, her eyes stinging from the gas and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of a guerrilla leader.
Married to a popular actress, Pena Nieto, the telegenic former state of Mexico governor, won the July 1 election with about 38 percent of the vote, more than 6 points ahead of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who refused to accept the result.
Lopez Obrador also rejected the outcome of his narrow election loss in 2006 to Calderon, and the protests on Saturday were slight by comparison with the demonstrations then.
Having helped shepherd a labor reform through Congress since his election victory, Pena Nieto now wants to pass legislation to strengthen Mexico's tax base and allow more private investment in lumbering state oil giant Pemex.
"Mexico has not achieved the advances the people demand and deserve," Pena Nieto said. "We are a country growing at two speeds. There's a Mexico of progress and development. But there's another one too that's been left behind in poverty."
If he is successful, the reforms could help spur stronger growth and create jobs, blunting the allure of organized crime.
Annual economic growth averaged less than 2 percent under the PAN over the past 12 years, far behind many other Latin American countries. That record and the drug war violence opened the door for a PRI comeback under Pena Nieto.
Still, inflation has been kept in check, debt levels are low and growth picked up toward the end of Calderon's term, with the economy outperforming Brazil's in the past two years.
Pena Nieto's inner circle features several ambitious young economists and financial experts eager to prove the PRI can do a better job of managing the economy.
For much of the PRI's rule, Mexico enjoyed stronger growth than the PAN mustered, but memories linger of default on the country's debts in 1982 and a financial crash in 1994 and 1995.
"It's very hard to believe in the PRI. They bankrupted Mexico," said construction worker Jose Luis Mendoza.
By Dave Braham and Michael O'Boyle, Reuters, December 2, 2012
Budapest, Hungary (Reuters)
Hungary's deep political divisions came to the fore on Tuesday at rallies marking its failed 1956 revolution against Soviet rule as the prime minister derided EU policies and a leading opponent announced he would run to unseat him.
Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, speaking to a crowd outside parliament estimated by state news agency MTI at 150,000, rallied support for his maverick economic strategy that has frequently put him at loggerheads with the European Union.
"We accept the rules that apply to all, but we cannot accept that others should tell us what we can and cannot do in our own country," the 49-year-old Orban said in a fiery speech broadcast on state television.
As Orban spoke, former prime minister Gordon Bajnai, who led a government of technocrats backed by the Socialist party in 2009-2010, announced his return to national politics aiming to unseat Orban at an election due in 2014.
"The year 2014 can bring a change of fortune," Bajnai, 44, told about 25,000 opposition demonstrators in central Budapest about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the pro-government rally.
"This government has broken, systematically, vertebra by vertebra the backbone of Hungarian democracy," Bajnai said. "The state has become a tool for corruption."
"This government is a government of failures, therefore, this government must go," he added, laying the foundations of a centrist opposition alliance that he said would formulate an agenda in the period ahead.
Before Bajnai took the stage, several hundred far-right supporters tried to disrupt the opposition gathering, a Reuters photographer said.
Alienated former supporters
Orban's centralizing style and unorthodox policies have alienated many of his former supporters since his 2010 election landslide.
Shunning EU advice from Brussels, which Orban has compared to Hungary's former Soviet overlords, the premier has flagged higher taxes on banks and other big businesses to curb the budget deficit.
Critics say the measures and Orban's reluctance to change his flagship flat-tax policy have prolonged a crisis in the central European country of 10 million people, which is seeking a loan from the EU and IMF to shore up its shrinking economy.
Greeted with a sea of red, white and green national flags by supporters filling a large square and neighboring streets outside parliament on the banks of the Danube river, Orban rejected what he called outside meddling in Hungary's affairs.
"We accept the rules of European cooperation that apply to all. But we do not accept that, using however refined methods, outsiders should govern us," Orban told the crowd, drawing a big round of applause on an unusually warm October afternoon.
Orban's ruling Fidesz and the main opposition Socialists both nudged higher in an opinion poll this month, but more than half of eligible voters had no party preference.
The far-right Jobbik party, which holds 45 of 386 parliament seats and has capitalized on widespread resentment of Hungary's around 700,000 Roma, also staged its own rally, calling for a purge of the current political mainstream from public life, news agency MTI reported.
Hungary's uprising in 1956 was the first serious blow to the Soviet bloc established after Soviet tanks drove out Nazi German troops from Central Europe at the end of World War Two. Though the uprising was crushed, its impact was lasting and it played a role in the collapse of Soviet rule three decades later.
By Marton Dunai and Gergely Szakacs, Reuters, October 23, 2012
(Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by Michael Roddy)
The former soldier, who staged a remarkable recovery from cancer this year, and wants a new six-year term to consolidated his Bolivarian revolution, is in a fight.
His opponent is 40-year-old Henrique Capriles Radonski, an energetic state governor who offers the opposition, for the first time in Mr Chávez's long tenure, hope of overcoming the man who for two decades has been South America's rabble-rouser-in-chief.
Although polls in Venezuela are notoriously unreliable, one of the more respected firms, Datanálisis, puts Mr Chávez 10 points ahead, while another, has them neck and neck.
The 58-year-old has led Venezuela for 13 years, under a banner of 21st Century socialism, with help from his mentor Fidel Castro across the water in Cuba.
The president is able to inspire a quasi-religious fervour among his supporters who know him as El Comandante. Last night in Caracas they were due to sing with him, walk alongside his motorcade for miles and scream his every word.
"I believe in the Revolution; I believe in Chávez," shouted teacher Haydee Nabarro, 51, at a recent rally, echoing many of the thousands that turned up.
Mr Capriles' rallies have also been impressive, bringing in a large part of Venezuela's electorate that has had enough. They have not always gone smoothly though. On Saturday, three opposition activists were killed by gunmen reportedly firing from a government-branded vehicle.
Venezuelans are used to it, however, as they face one of the world's highest murder rates. With figures in Caracas comparable to war zones such as Baghdad, insecurity is the major election theme and many are worried that the president will not go quietly should he lose on Sunday. Much of his support comes from the poor in the barrios, many of whom are armed.
Despite his wealthy background, Mr Capriles has gained much support in the slums. He has worked tirelessly, much like Mr Chávez did before his own election in 1998, travelling around the country meeting with as many people as possible.
Mr Chávez's use of state resources, such as compulsory airtime across television networks, has tipped the balance in the government's favour in what critics describe as an unfair fight. The president rarely calls Mr Capriles by name, often referring to him as the "candidate of the Right" or simply "the loser".
Mr Capriles has suffered attacks by state media. The government television network read out accusations about his sex life and a government website attacked his Jewish roots in an essay titled "The Enemy is Zionism".
With the world's biggest oil reserves, Mr Chávez's government can afford to be combative. The country has floated on high oil prices the past few years, the money funding social projects that critics decry as government vote buying. Those who have been pulled from poverty and given free housing see things differently.
"My life has changed," said Miguel Calanon, 42, who lives in a house given to him by the government just outside Caracas. "No other government has ever helped me."
There are many more waiting, however. "Everyone has a friend of a friend who's been helped by the government," said Yesman Utrera, 24, speaking in his own barrio in the west of Caracas.
Those who receive government aid, shopping at subsidised socialist supermarkets, for example, are insulated from near 25 per cent annual inflation, the highest in the Americas.
As well as rampant crime, an out-of-control economy and regular electricity blackouts, Venezuelans must also consider whether Mr Chávez will survive another six years.
Mr Chávez announced that he was suffering from cancer last June and has spent a number of months since then shuttling between Caracas and Havana for treatment.
While the topic has fallen off the radar in recent months, thanks in part to the immense public relation skills of the Chávez regime, it is still on the minds of investors who have pushed bonds to rally in recent months, hoping for a change of government either in elections or a downturn in Mr Chávez's health.
"The candidate of the government reached office with good intention, but he's no longer interested in change, he's sick with power," Mr Capriles said this week. "This government's time is up."
By Girish Gupta, The Telegraph, October 4, 2012
Washington, United States of America
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a show of unity on Friday on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, seeking to tone down the acrimony between the two leaders that has become an issue in the final stretch of the U.S. presidential race.
Obama, widely seen as having snubbed Netanyahu by not meeting face to face with him during his U.S. visit, spoke instead by phone to the Israeli prime minister amid signs of movement toward a truce in their war of words over how to confront Tehran.
Netanyahu used his U.N. speech a day earlier to keep pressure on Washington to set a "red line" for Tehran, something Obama has refused to do. But in a softening of his approach, the hawkish Israeli premier signaled that no attack on Iran was imminent before the November 6 U.S. presidential election.
With an eye to the close presidential contest, Netanyahu also fielded a call during his New York visit from Obama's Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who has accused the president of being too hard on a close ally and not tough enough on Iran.
Romney has sought to use Obama's differences with Netanyahu to raise doubts with Jewish-American voters about Obama's commitment to Israel's security.
Obama's aides believe, however, that he has played his cards right with Netanyahu, with whom the president has had a notoriously testy relationship.
Netanyahu's strident complaints about U.S. policy on Iran in mid-September plunged U.S.-Israeli relations into crisis, but also spurred a backlash at home and in the U.S. media for seeming to meddle in American politics.
In recent days, the Israelis have sought to dial down the rhetoric, culminating in Netanyahu's speech to the General Assembly, which was seen as sending a message that Israel would not blindside Washington with a unilateral attack on Iran any time soon.
"The two leaders underscored that they are in full agreement on the shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," the White House said in a summary of their 20-minute phone conversation.
The White House said the two agreed to continue their cooperation, but it stopped short of saying Obama had given any ground on his resistance to issuing an ultimatum to Tehran, as Netanyahu has repeatedly demanded.
"I had a very good conversation with President Obama," Netanyahu told Israel television. "Our teams are talking."
An Obama aide went further, saying, "The temperature is lower than it had been."
Toning down differences
Netanyahu dramatically ramped up pressure on Obama earlier this month when he insisted the United States did not have a "moral right" to hold Israel back from taking action against Iran because Washington had not set its own limits on Tehran.
That was followed by word that Obama would not meet Netanyahu during the Israeli leader's visit to address the United Nations. Obama later said pointedly that he would ignore the "noise that's out there" on the Iran issue.
Obama's aides were furious that Netanyahu was trying to put pressure on the president in the midst of the election campaign and refused to budge on the red-line issue, despite the risk of alienating pro-Israel voters in election battleground states like Florida and Ohio.
At the same time, Israeli officials - mindful of the danger of antagonizing the Jewish state's main ally and of poisoning relations with the man who could occupy the White House for another four years - moved into damage-control mode.
Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, flew back to Jerusalem last weekend, during which he urged Netanyahu to tone down public statements that could be construed as interfering in the U.S. election or supporting Romney, according to sources in the Jewish community in Washington.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Chicago and met privately on September 20 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former close Obama aide, raising speculation that Emanuel might be used as a back-channel conduit to mend ties with the president.
The Israeli desire to defuse the crisis may also have reflected an interpretation of recent U.S. opinion polls showing a widening of Obama's lead over Romney, who has suffered a series of political stumbles.
Romney, speaking to reporters on his campaign plane, said he and Netanyahu agreed Iran must be denied nuclear capabilities but did not agree on specific "red lines" to confront Tehran.
"I do not believe in the final analysis we will have to use military action," Romney said. "I certainly hope we don't have to. I can't take that action off the table."
In his U.N. speech, Netanyahu held up a cartoon-like drawing of a bomb with a fuse and literally drew a red line just below a label reading "final stage," in which Iran would supposedly be 90 percent along the path to having weapons-grade material.
Nevertheless, his warning that Iran would be on the brink of developing a nuclear weapon in less than a year was widely interpreted as some giving breathing space to Obama, who has urged more time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.
By referring to a spring or summer 2013 time frame for Iran to complete the next stage of uranium enrichment, the Israeli leader seemed to dispel fears that Israel might strike Iran before the U.S. election.
Iran denies it is seeking to build nuclear weaponry.
Netanyahu's praise for Obama's stern words for Iran in his own U.N. speech on Tuesday - although it lacked any specific ultimatum - was also seen as a sign that the Israeli leader wanted to quell the unusually public dispute with Washington.
"I think we are moving in a direction where the differences that were there, which were always tactical and not strategic, are in fact being managed at this point," Dennis Ross, Obama's former Middle East adviser, told MSNBC.
Still, White House officials were pleased at avoiding an encounter with Netanyahu, who used an Oval Office meeting in 2011 to lecture Obama on Jewish history. Obama instead kept a lower-than-usual profile at this year's U.N. gathering, making a campaign-style appearance on the popular talk show "The View" and then quickly returning to electioneering.
By Matt Spetalnick, Reuters, September 29, 2012
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Jeffrey Heller, Sam Youngman and Ori Lewis; Editing by Peter Cooney)
The world's largest beer festival opened Saturday in Germany as Munich's mayor tapped the first keg to kick off the 16-day Oktoberfest, known for its oompah music and traditional costumes.
With only two blows of his hammer and a cry of "O'zapft is" - "It's Tapped" - Mayor Christian Ude inserted the tap into the first keg, opening the 179th Oktoberfest to the cheering of thousands who were waiting to be served their first beer.
More than 6 million guests from around the world are expected to descend on the beer tents of Munich to celebrate the 16-day Oktoberfest extravaganza.
Last year's visitors consumed almost 8 million 2-pint (1-liter) mugs of beer. This year a mug, called "Mass" in German, of the malty pale beer made exclusively by Munich's breweries sells at up to $12.30.
The Oktoberfest started with a wedding party: Just over 200 years ago, Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig celebrated his royal nuptials with a big public bash that was such a hit it became an annual event.
While the core of the Oktoberfest remains the same, with Dirndl-clad waitresses delivering steins, its flavor has evolved over the years. A local festival with small beer gardens has mushroomed into a major international event featuring about a dozen cavernous beer tents, some seating about 10,000 singing, inebriated revelers at a time.
The fairgrounds of the "Wiesn," as Oktoberfest is locally known, are spread out over about 75 acres and can accommodate hundreds of thousands of people at a time, and German authorities keep security tight.
Many tents were already full at midday, German news agency dapd reported, but rain ensured that there was still enough space in the outdoor beer gardens.
By The Associated Press, 23 September, 2012
The US ambassador in Libya and three other embassy staff were killed in a rocket attack after the diplomat's car was targeted in the eastern city of Benghazi, it was confirmed on Wednesday.
A statement from President Obama "condemned the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens".
The president added: "Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States."
Earlier, Libya's interior ministry confirmed that Stevens died in the attack. "The American ambassador and three staff members were killed when gunmen fired rockets at them," a Libyan official told Reuters.
An unconfirmed photograph posted on Facebook appears to show a mob dragging a lifeless Stevens along the ground, his shirt off. Some reports say he suffocated to death. Libya's deputy prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, said security forces had launched a manhunt to find the killers. "I condemn the cowardly act of attacking the US consulate and the killing of Mr Stevens," he said.
The exact circumstances of the ambassador's death remain unclear. On Tuesday night a group of extremists attacked the US consulate building in Benghazi, setting it on fire, and killing one US diplomatic officer.
On Tuesday the US state department confirmed that one of its employees had been killed by the mob that stormed the US mission in Benghazi, incensed by a US film that they deemed blasphemous to the prophet Muhammad. Libyan officials said Stevens and two security staff were in their car when gunmen fired rockets at it, Reuters reported. The official said the US military had sent a military plane to transport the bodies to Tripoli and to fly them back to the US.
One witness told the Guardian on Wednesday that a mob fired at least one rocket at the US consulate building in Benghazi and then stormed it, setting everything ablaze. "I was there about an hour ago. The place [consulate] is totally destroyed, the whole building is on fire," said Mohammed El Kish, a former press officer with the National Transitional Council, which handed power to an elected parliament last month. He added: "They stole a lot of things."
Kish, who is from Benghazi, blamed the attack on hardline jihadists. He said locals in Benghazi were upset by the activities of Islamist groups and would revolt against them. He also said the US consulate was not well protected, unlike the fortified US embassy in the capital, Tripoli. "It wasn't that much heavily guarded. In Tripoli the embassy is heavily guarded."
The ambassador's killing follows an attack in June on the UK ambassador to Libya, Dominic Asquith. Two British bodyguards were injured after a rocket was fired at Asquith's convoy in Benghazi, hitting his security escort. There have been similar attacks in Benghazi on the Red Cross and the UN. It is not clear why the US ambassador had returned to Benghazi at a time of security concerns.
On Wednesday the British embassy in Tripoli said that after the attack in June UK diplomats were pulled out of Benghazi. "Nobody is based there permanently. We have a villa there and an office, with staff travelling there from time to time," it said. No British staff were injured during Tuesday's attack on the US mission, it added.
Benghazi was the cradle of Libya's revolution last year against Muammar Gaddafi. The rebels' military victory was made possible by a Nato air campaign against regime targets, supported by the US. But in recent months radical Islamist groups have become increasingly active in much of the east of the country, threatening the country's weak civilian government in Tripoli.
According to the Libya Herald, citing local witnesses, those who attacked the US mission included members of the hardline Islamist group Ansar Al-Sharia. It reported that Libyan security forces tried to defend the embassy building but withdrew under heavy fire. The attackers opened fire on the buildings and threw homemade bombs into the compound, setting off small explosions. Fires burned around the compound.
The assault followed a protest in neighbouring Egypt where demonstrates scaled the walls of the US embassy, tore down the US flag, and burned it during a protest over the same film which they said insulted the prophet Muhammad.
Speaking on Tuesday – before the death of the US ambassador was reported – the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said she was heartbroken at the death of a US officer in Benghazi. "I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today," Clinton said in a statement. "We have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack."
She said she had been in contact with Mohamed Magarief, the new president of Libya's General National Congress, which was formed following post-Gaddafi elections in June. Clinton asked him "to co-ordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. President Magarief expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government's full co-operation".
She said that "some have sought to justify this vicious behaviour as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: there is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
The UK foreign secretary, William Hague, condemned the attack on Wednesday. "There is no justification for such an attack and the appalling death of an US official. My thoughts and condolences are with his family and all his colleagues at the State Department," he said.
"It is essential that the Libyan authorities take urgent action to improve security, particularly in Benghazi, and identify those responsible for such attacks."
The attack on the consulate comes two weeks after Salafists used a bulldozer to destroy a key Sufi Islamic shrine in central Tripoli, watched by security forces who did not intervene. It is likely to be the first challenge for Libya's new prime minister, due to be elected on Wednesday by the 200-member national parliament.
By Luke Harding and Chris Stephen, The Guardian, 12 September, 2012
Ecuador has granted political asylum to WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange out of concern that after his extradition to Sweden Assange could be transferred to the United States where he might face the death penalty, the Ecuadorian ambassador to Russia said on Friday.
“We cannot anticipate the U.S. expectations but we do not rule out even the death penalty,” Ambassador Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala said.
“Assange has been persecuted for a crime that has yet to be proven,” he said. “In appealing to our state, he provided the information as to why he needs political asylum.”
He said Assange will not stay at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London forever, adding that it was waiting for permission from the British authorities for Assange’s safe travel to the airport.
“I believe that Britain is a very wise and experienced country and I’m absolutely sure that we will be able eventually to find an acceptable solution,” he said.
Assange has been holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London for two months as he fights extradition to Sweden on sex crime charges, which he denies.
He was granted asylum on Thursday, a day after the British authorities threatened to strip the embassy of diplomatic immunity, allowing them to enter its grounds and arrest Assange.
Ecuador said such an action would be "hostile and intolerable" and called on the Organization of American States and the Union of South American Nations to hold an emergency meeting over Britain's threat.
The Australian national took refuge at the embassy in June after the UK's Supreme Court dismissed his appeal against extradition.
He still faces arrest the minute he steps out of the building.
Foreign Secretary William Hague told a news conference in London Britain will not allow Assange safe passage out of the country.
The world's most famous whistleblower is suspected of sexual assault against two women that allegedly took place in August 2010. He claims the sex was consensual and the accusations against him are politically motivated.
WikiLeaks' publication of U.S. diplomatic cables on November 29, 2010, containing forthright comments from U.S. diplomats about foreign leaders and events, caused an internet sensation and enraged U.S. officials. WikiLeaks previously published tens of thousands of documents about the actions of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By RIA Novosti, August 17, 2012
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he is looking for a successor to Kofi Annan to serve as an envoy to civil-war wracked Syria.
Annan said Thursday he is resigning the position effective Aug. 31. Ban says he is discussing possible successors with the Arab League.
Annan has served as the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. He came up with a six-point peace plan to resolve the crisis there, including a cease-fire that was supposed to take effect in mid-April. But the cease-fire never took hold.
Rights activists say that more than 19,000 people have died in the Syrian crisis since March 2011.
Ban says diplomacy is still the best way to resolve the situation.
By AP, August 2, 2012
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