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EU Commissioner thanks Abbas for role in freeing Spanish aid worker



BRUSSELS (AFP) - EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner has thanked Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas for his role in securing the release of kidnapped Spanish aid worker Roberto Vila.


The phone call followed the release Monday of Vila, 34, who works for the media department of the Spanish aid group Cooperation Assembly for Peace.


Ferrero-Waldner "thanked President Abbas and the Palestinian security forces for their part in the swift liberation of Mr Villa (sic), who works on a European Commission funded project in Gaza which supports young handicapped Palestinians," the European Union's executive arm said in a statment.


Vila was snatched earlier in the day by four armed men from a car near the town of Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza and bundled into a yellow car.


There was little information on his release.


His seizure was the latest in a string of abductions targeting foreigners in the increasingly lawless Palestinian territory.


The gunmen who kidnapped him released Vila's French female colleague and two Palestinian assistants who had also been in the car with him.


No claim of responsibility for the abduction was made

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Russian nationalists rally against immigration


by Olga Rotenberg



MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian nationalists and neo-fascists have rallied in Moscow and across Russia to mark National Unity Day in what they billed as a show of force by the country's rising anti-immigrant movement.


More than 1,000 people calling for restraints on immigration and special privileges for ethnic-Russians converged on a square near central Moscow's


Park Kultury in the face of a huge police presence.

Some activists gave Nazi-style salutes, while others waved Russian Orthodox church symbols and icons.


"We demand to be rid of illegal immigrants. They are taking our jobs, bringing drugs and terrorism," Irina Saveleva, a parliamentary deputy from the nationalist Rodina party, told the crowd Saturday.


"It is time to rise up!" said Nikolai Kuryanovich, an ultra-nationalist deputy. "This march is a demonstration of the awakening of the national consciousness. The authorities are scared."


Meanwhile, up to 700 liberals and human rights campaigners held an alternative rally in another part of central Moscow, decrying what they described as tacit support from the authorities for ultra-nationalism.


November 4 officially celebrates the liberation of Moscow from Polish invaders in 1612 by groups of Russian volunteers who joined forces in the capital.


President aladimir Putin laid flowers at a monument to the battle on Red Square, while Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II called on the country to show unity.


However, ultra-nationalists seized the occasion to mount protests in several major cities, including the far eastern city of Vladivostok and the country's second city, Saint Petersburg.


Nationalist groups, such as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, appear to be successfully tapping into growing fears that native Russians are losing out, especially economically, to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who come to the country every year.


Human rights monitors and Russia's small number of liberal politicians frequently accuse the authorities of playing the race card to boost loyalty toward the government.


Activists gathered Saturday across the river from the Kremlin in what they described as an "anti-fascist" meeting meant to counter the ultra-nationalist rally.


"We have to protest this ideology of lies and hate," Svetlana Gannushkina, from the Memorial human rights organisation, told the crowd. "Facism is founded with the tacit support of the authorities, which uses it for their own goals. The authorities don't want to take responsiblity, so we will have to."


However, the authorities had made it clear well in advance of Saturday that an openly racist rally, like one that took place on the same day a year ago in Moscow, would not be tolerated.


An application by the especially well-organised Movement Against Illegal Immigration to hold its own rally in Moscow was turned down, while the sanctioned protest near Park Kultury took place under unusually heavy police guard.


Riot police, backed by interior ministry soldiers turned out in force. Dozens of troop trucks were visible, as well as enclosed trucks used for carrying prisoners.


Helmeted riot police surrounded the nearest underground train station and also stood close to the protest itself.



Police could be seen searching dozens of people. The Moscow police department said that 37 people had been arrested, mostly for minor violations, state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.


The nationalist parliamentary deputy Dmitry Rogozin accused riot police of behaving "savagely".


"I think Russians are being abandoned, even though they bear most of the country's economic burden," said one demonstrator, Konstantin Lukin, 39, a computer specialist. "We want to show there're a lot of us and that we know what they're doing -- helping anyone other than ethnic-Russians."


Another demonstrator, Andrei, 21, said he was demonstrating against what he described as "Russophobia" in the media. "Russians should have priority" over other ethnic groups, he added.


In Saint Petersburg, about 200 people gathered, shouting "long live Russia!"

However, police blocked them from staging a march and 12 people were arrested after trying to enter the main Nevsky Prospect. An AFP photographer was also detained while working at the

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Blast at U.S. embassy called 'terrorism'

By NICHOLAS PAPHITIS, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 11 minutes ago



ATHENS, Greece - The U.S. Embassy in Athens came under fire early Friday from a rocket that exploded inside the modern glass-front building but caused no casualties in an attack police suspect was the work of Greek leftists.


Narrowly missing the embassy emblem, the anti-tank shell pierced the building near the front entrance shortly before 6 a.m., damaging a bathroom on the third room, which houses the ambassador's office, and shattering windows in nearby buildings.


"We're treating it as a very serious attack," U.S. Ambassador Charles Ries said.


Greece's Public Order Minister said police were examining the authenticity of anonymous phone calls to a private security company claiming responsibility on behalf of Revolutionary Struggle, a militant left-wing group.


"It is very likely that this is the work of a domestic group," Minister Vyron Polydoras said. "We believe this effort to revive terrorism is deplorable and will not succeed."


Revolutionary Struggle claimed responsibility for a May 2006 bomb attack on Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis, in which nobody was injured.


U.S.-owned banks and companies have often been targeted in small bomb attacks by groups in Greece. But Friday's incident was the most serious since the 2002 break-up of the far-left November 17 group, which was blamed for several attacks against foreign diplomats and military personnel, including the assassination of a CIA station chief in Athens.


Polydoras said Greece "strongly condemns" the attack.


"We believe it is a symbolic act," he said. "It is an attempt to disrupt our country's international relations."


Police cordoned off streets around the heavily guarded building after the explosion, stopping traffic in much of central Athens for more than three hours. Emergency services scrambled to the embassy building, which is a frequent destination for protest groups.


Investigators were examining what they believed was the device used to fire the rocket shell from a construction site near the embassy.


"This is an act of terrorism," Police Chief Asimakis Golfis said. "There was a shell that exploded in the toilets of the building ... It was fired from street level."


Ambassador Ries said the building was not occupied at the time and the damage was minimal. The embassy is now a crime scene and will remain closed until further notice, he said.


"There can be no justification for such a senseless act of violence," said Ries, who added that there had been no warning.


Authorities were searching nearby apartment buildings and a nearby hospital for evidence.


Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis visited the embassy after the blast.

"I came here to express the solidarity of the Greek people following this deplorable action," she said.



"Such actions in the past have had a very heavy cost for the country. ... The Greek government is determined to undertake every effort to not allow such phenomena to be repeated in the future."


Giorgos Yiannoulis runs a kiosk near the embassy. "I heard a loud bang; I didn't realize what was going on," he said.


It was the most serious attack on the mission since 1996, when November 17 carried out a rocket attack against the embassy that caused minor damage and no injuries.


Polydoras said police would set up a special task force, headed by a former counterterrorism chief who eradicated the November 17 group in 2002. The group was blamed for killing 23 people — including U.S., British and Turkish officials — and dozens of bomb attacks.


Several obscure militant groups have appeared since the November 17 members were arrested. Radical groups Revolutionary Struggle and Popular Revolutionary Action have been blamed for the bombings of three government ministries in 2005.

In 2003, a special court gave multiple life sentences to November 17's leader, chief assassin and three other members. Lesser sentences were given to 10 others.

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Euro MPs elect German as speaker


The European parliament has elected a German conservative, Hans-Gert Poettering, as its new president.

_42456323_poetap203body.jpg Mr Poettering is one of the veterans of the European parliament




Mr Poettering, a 61-year-old Christian Democrat, replaces the Spanish Socialist Josep Borrell.


He was elected under a deal by which the Socialist bloc and centre-right bloc took it in turns to share the current five-year term.

He won in the first round, with 450 votes out of the 689 counted. He defeated three rivals.


The other contenders were: Green Italian MEP Monica Frassoni, Danish Eurosceptic Jens-Peter Bonde and Francis Wurtz, a member of the European United Left group.

Mr Poettering has been a member of the parliament since it was first directly elected in 1979.


The parliament in Strasbourg formally welcomed 35 Romanian and 18 Bulgarian MEPs on Monday - bringing its total to 785 - for the first plenary session since they joined the EU on 1 January. The new MEPs have been appointed by their national parliaments and will keep their seats until European elections in the two countries later in the year.

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Don't hold talks with Serbia until Mladic is arrested: Del Ponte urges EU


BRUSSELS (AFP) - Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the UN war crimes court, has urged the EU not to resume talks on closer ties with Serbia until former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is arrested


"The message it would give to Belgrade if they were able to resume the negotiations is that the EU has decided to restart talks while we, Belgrade, have done nothing towards full cooperation" with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), she said.


"That is my worry," Del Ponte told reporters in Brussels after a meeting with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, "that it could happen and jeopardize what we absolutely need now, because it is a crucial time for us in the cooperation with Belgrade".


Last May, the European Union froze negotiations on a Stability and Association Agreement with Serbia, the first step towards EU membership talks, due to a lack of "full cooperation" with the UN court in The Hague.

However the 27-nation bloc wants cooperation with Serbia over the difficult discussions on the future status of the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo, currently under UN control.


Several EU member states want to move the goal posts so that full compliance with the court is not necessary for the association talks to resume but would still be required before they are formally concluded.


Italy, backed by Austria, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia, want to resume discussions as an encouragement to Serbia. Others, including Britain, France and the Netherlands, have insisted that the court's demands should be fulfilled first.


"I hope the EU will continue to support our need because it is now eight years that I have been travelling in Europe asking for the arrest and transfer of Mladic, Karadzic and four other fugitives, but particularly Mladic who is in reach of Belgrade," Del Ponte said.


Mladic is widely believed to be hiding in Serbia, while former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic is thought to spend his time between Bosnia and neighbouring Montenegro.


In 1995, the UN war crimes tribunal indicted Karadzic and Mladic for genocide during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war, notably over the Srebrenica massacre.

Many nationalist Serbs however still consider the pair as heroes.


A new government in Serbia is in the process of being formed following a general election last week. It is crucial to demonstrate to the next government that Mladic must be handed over to The Hague, said Del Ponte.


"It was important to fully inform Mr Solana about the situation because the action plan of Belgrade last year (to arrest Mladic) was just a smokescreen, they have done nothing and since November, December they have done even the contrary, because we didn't receive any info, any report, nothing," Del Ponte told reporters.


Solana's spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said:


"Full cooperation is fundamental for the development of relations between the EU and Serbia".


Del Ponte has embarked on a series of meetings with European officials to put forward her view, with other meetings in Madrid and Rome.

She also turned her attention to the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, which along with the Muslim-Croat Federation makes up Bosnia, saying that one of the six war crimes suspects still at large was living there.



She has previously voiced suspicions that Karadzic was hiding there.

European foreign ministers are set to consider the resumption of talks with Serbia when they next meet on February 12.

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Brown preparing to announce bid to replace Blair: spokesman


LONDON (AFP) - Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is putting the final touches to his bid to succeed Tony Blair as Labour Party leader, his spokesman said Thursday amid reports Blair will soon endorse him.


"There are a few plans in place," Brown's campaign spokesman told AFP, confirming details were being finalised for an announcement.


Blair opened the way for Brown, his former ally turned rival, to succeed him when he announced Thursday that he was resigning as Labour leader and would step down as prime minister on June 27 after just over a decade in power.


The announcement means the governing party will hold an internal leadership campaign. Brown, as the likely winner, will automatically become prime minister as head of the largest party without a general election having to be called.


Though their relationship has often been tense, Blair could for the first time publicly endorse Brown on Friday as his successor, according to The Sun and other newspapers.


Blair was forced to agree to retire mid-term after a political coup last year widely blamed on Brown, who was said to be angry that Blair had not handed over power earlier.


Having won plaudits for his management of the economy, Brown appears to have the widest support of anyone within the Labour Party, though some have openly criticised him of lacking the open and cool temperament needed for leadership.


Under Labour Party rules, the election process begins when its ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) first meets about 72 hours after the leader's announcement of a resignation and sets a timetable for a campaign.

The meeting is scheduled for Sunday.


Prospective candidates each have to secure the signatures of at least 44 (12.5 percent) of the 353 Labour Party members of parliament in the lower House of Commons to have their name on the ballot paper.


After nominations closes, hustings -- election meetings in which candidates stake their claim for the post -- take place across the country. All "validly nominated candidates" -- even if unchallenged -- are expected to attend.


At the moment Brown is the most likely winner, after other potentially strong candidates like Environment Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary John Reid ruled themselves out in recent weeks.


Other minor candidates could stand.


Voting begins after campaigning ends.

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Turkish PM pledges reform after election triumph


by Sibel Utku Bila


ANKARA (AFP) - Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party headed Monday towards a second term pledging deep reforms aimed at EU membership after weekend elections gave it a firmer grip on power.


It was a moment of vindication for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called the snap election after the secularist opposition blocked his Justice and Development (AK) Party from electing one of its own as president.


The crisis in April and May was exacerbated by a menacing military statement and mass anti-government demonstrations accusing the AK party of seeking to erode Turkey's fiercely-guarded secular system.


But on election day, Erdogan's party, which harked back to a now-banned Islamist movement, won 46.4 percent of the vote -- more than double that of its nearest rival, according to unofficial results after all the votes had been counted.


"Our democracy has successfully passed a test.... Our unity, democracy and the republic have emerged stronger from the ballot box," Erdogan told cheering supporters outside party headquarters under a shower of fireworks.


"We will never make concessions from the basic principles of the republic," he said. "We will pursue economic and democracy reforms with determination."


That reform programme was also stressed by the EU, with officials holding out the carrot of membership if it was pursued.


European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the vote came "at an important moment for the people of Turkey as the country moves forward with political and economic reforms."


But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has vocally opposed Turkey joining the EU, showed no indication of changing position, even as he telephoned Erdogan to welcome "his remarkable victory".


He hoped "our relations of trust will continue despite the divergences France and Turkey may have," according to a spokesman.


With the turnout above 80 percent, the AK party's share of the vote was the largest for any single party since 1969 and should translate into 340 seats in Turkey's 550-member parliament.


The official results of the election are expected in a week and the newly elected lawmakers could be sworn in in early August.


The prospect of a new government with a strong mandate for its business- and EU-friendly policies sent Turkish shares to a record high, closing five percent up.


Sunday's polls were largely seen as a litmus test for the future of democracy in the country after botched presidential elections pitted the AK party against the powerful army, which had toppled four governments since 1960.

Turkish newspapers were nearly unanimous in ascribing the AKP's success in large part to a public rejection of military meddling in democratic politics.


Erdogan faced the worst crisis of his career in April when an opposition boycott prevented his closest aide, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, from almost certain election to the presidency.


The crisis climaxed as the powerful army warned in a stiff statement that it stood ready to step in to protect the secular system and millions of Turks took to the streets to demonstrate against the prospect of an AK party president.



"The people do not like governments that quarrel with the soldiers, but the people also do not like military intervention," the mass-circulation Hurriyet said.


The AK party has disowned its Islamist roots, pledged commitment to secularism and carried out far-reaching economic and democratic reforms that ensured the start in 2005 of Turkey's membership talks with the EU.


Erdogan's campaign focused on his party's impressive economic achievements since it swept to power five years ago, such as slashing chronic inflation, sustaining high growth and attracting record investment.


It has also eased access to medical care, provided free textbooks for schoolchildren and built cheap homes for the poor.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) finished second Sunday with 20.8 percent of vote and 111 seats, according to unofficial results.

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Georgia says it was bombed by Russian jets


By Margarita Antidze


TSITELUBANI, Georgia (Reuters) - Jets flown from Russia fired an air-to-surface missile at Georgian territory in an "act of aggression," Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told Reuters on Tuesday.


Russia, which has a long history of tense relations with the former Soviet republic, denied that its airforce had flown missions in Georgian air space.


"Our radars show that these jets flew from Russia and then flew back in the same direction that they had come from ..." Merabishvili said.


"I assess this fact as an act of aggression carried out by planes flown from the territory of another state," he added.


Georgian officials say the ordnance hit the village of Tsitelubani, about 65 km (40 miles) west of the capital, Tbilisi, but did not explode.


Shota Utiashvili, the head of the Georgian interior ministry's public relations department, earlier told Reuters that the Russian jets had dropped a 700 kilo (1,543 lb) bomb.


"Fortunately it didn't explode. If it had exploded it would have been a disaster," he added. He said nobody was hurt.


Russia's airforce denied that it had bombed Georgia, and said it had not violated its airspace.


"Russia's airforce neither on Monday nor Tuesday flew flights over Georgia," Colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky, the aide to the commander of Russia's

airforce, told Reuters.


"Russia has not violated the borders of sovereign Georgia."


The village of Tsitelubani is near the city of Gori, and a few kilometers to the south of Georgia's breakaway South Ossetia region, a long-standing cause of friction between Russia and Tbilisi.


Russia provides moral and financial support for Georgia's rebel Abkhazia and

South Ossetia regions. It has accused Tbilisi of pursuing anti-Russian policies.

Georgia's previous administration, under ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, accused Russia in 2002 of sending fighter jets on sorties over its territory, but Moscow denied any involvement.


At that time, Tbilisi alleged that Russian jets had dropped ordnance on uninhabited areas of the remote Pankisi Gorge in north-east Georgia, near the border with Russia.


Relations between Russia and Georgia deteriorated sharply again last year when Tbilisi deported four Russian army officers, accusing them of spying.

Moscow responded by withdrawing its ambassador from Tbilisi and cutting air, sea and postal links with Georgia. Russia also deported several thousand Georgians, saying they were illegal immigrants.


Tension is still high but there have been tentative signs this year that the crisis was easing. Moscow's ambassador has returned to Tbilisi and the two sides have been in talks -- so far unsuccessful -- to restore air links.

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Georgia says Russia violated it's airspace


TBILISI, Georgia - Georgian officials said Tuesday that two Russian fighter jets violated its airspace and fired a missile which did not explode. Russia denied the claim.


Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Ustiashvili said that that the incident took place late Monday when the aircraft entered Georgia's airspace over the northeastern Gori region and fired a missile which fell near the village of Shavshvebi and didn't explode.


Ustiashvili said that he personally had inspected the missile which landed on the outskirts of the village, just 25 yards away from a house. He said that experts were considering what to do with the weapon.


Russia's air force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky on Tuesday denied the accusations. "Russian aircraft haven't conducted any flights over that area and haven't violated Georgia's airspace," he told The Associated Press.


Relations between the two ex-Soviet nations are tense, and Georgian officials have frequently claimed that Russian military aircraft violated its airspace — accusations Russia has always denied.


Moscow is angry about Georgia's plans to join NATO, while Tbilisi accuses Russia of backing separatists in its breakaway provinces and trying to destabilize Georgia.

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