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Libyan weapons depot blasts kill 19
BENGHAZI, Libya (AFP) - Explosions minutes apart at a Libyan military weapons depot killed 19 people and wounded dozens more outside the main rebel-held city of Benghazi on Friday, doctors said.
Residents living up to 10 kilometres (six miles) from the main weapons warehouse southeast of Benghazi, said windows shook and an inferno lit up the night sky, as ambulances raced to bring the casualties to hospital.
The cause of the explosions was not immediately clear, although most local residents ruled out an air strike by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi in an intensifying battle with eastern rebels fighting for his ouster.
Resident Abdallah Bubakr told AFP rebels turned up at the military base, demanding weapons to take to the front at Raslanuf, an oil town further west that rebels later Friday claimed to have captured from Kadhafi’s forces.
“Two cars rode up with people at the place and said they wanted weapons to take to Raslanuf. They entered the store and just after they left Rajma, there was the first explosion, followed five minutes later by another,” he said.
“The first explosion was mild and the second big,” he added.
Mourners and panicked relatives crowded into Al-Jala hospital, crying, shouting, pushing and shoving from the gate to the morgue. “The blood of the martyrs will not be spilled in vain,” chanted young in the hospital courtyard.
Doctor Mustafa Saleh al-Orfali said 17 people had been killed and another hospital official registered 26 wounded.
Doctor Idriss Ghazali said two dead had been brought to the Houari hospital and 14 others had been wounded after witnesses reported the explosions at the Al-Rajma military base, southeast of Benghazi.
“The two explosions took place at 6:30 pm (1630 GMT). The casualties started to arrive at hospital an hour later,” he said.
Witness Anwar Mahmud al-Tajuri said a fire had broken out in one warehouse, which spread to the second in about five minutes.
“After the first explosion, we left. When the firefighters arrived, they were caught in the second blast.”
An AFP journalist who visited the hospital saw 11 bodies in the morgue, some of them horrifically disfigured and burnt. The corpses were wrapped in blankets and lined up on the floor, as medics rushed to treat the wounded.
“I saw fire exploding in the distance,” said Salem Saad, 36, who was brought in suffering from shock.
Fuad al-Masri, who works in the morgue, said another six dead bodies had been taken to another hospital, but there was no immediate confirmation.
Walid Werfelly, 32, whose family lives in the Al-Rajma area said he saw two women dead at another hospital, after their poorly built homes collapsed from the force of the blast.
“My parents live in the area and heard two loud, simultaneous explosions. I was at another hospital and saw two dead women. He said the women died because their homes collapsed on top of them,” he said.
“We have a huge explosion in a weapons depot,” Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebels’ self-declared national council set up in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. He said “sabotage” could have been the cause.
“The whole town shook,” he added.
Residents say the military base, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city, is the main warehouse for weapons in the area.
Rebels against Kadhafi following revolutions in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, control much of eastern Libya and have made Benghazi their de facto capital in the fight against regime loyalists.
Although witnesses ruled out an air strike as the cause of Friday’s blast, Kadhafi’s warplanes have targeted military bases overrun by rebels in the fight to reclaim fallen territory. Most of the strikes have reportedly missed.
 
Kadhafi regime demands UN suspend sanctions
UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Moamer Kadhafi’s regime on Friday demanded that the UN Security Council suspend sanctions taken against the Libyan leader over his crackdown on opposition protests.
A letter sent to the UN Security Council said that only “a modicum” of force has been used against opposition demonstrators and that the government was “taken aback” by the sanctions.
The regime called for the travel ban and assets freeze ordered again Kadhafi and his entourage “to be suspended until such time as the truth is established.”
It demanded that the Security Council “stand up to the states that are threatening force against it.”
The letter, sent to the UN Security Council by Musa Mohammad Kusa, head of the Libyan People’s Committee for External Relations, was the first official reaction communicated to the United Nations.
Rights groups say 6,000 people have been killed since protests against Kadhafi erupted on February 15. The United Nations says that more than 1,000 have died.
A Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s just another example of the regime’s refusal to accept the consequences of their actions.
“However, it also shows that they are rattled by the firm and united action taken by the international community.”
The letter said “no opposition has been raised to peaceful unarmed demonstrators,” and security forces had only acted against “subversive acts.”
“Where a modicum of force has been used, it has been against law-breakers that have included extremist elements who have exploited others in order to commit acts of destruction and terrorism,” said the letter.
The regime’s foreign policy chief said opponents aimed to “spread anarchy and attack and burn security locations and police stations, seize weapons and kill soldiers and civilians.”
Kusa went on: “We believed that the Security Council would understand that the measures that have been taken are consistent with the duty of a state to maintain security and were consequently taken aback by the adoption” of sanctions.
He added that the regime had instructed that “greatest restraint” be used and that “full respect” be shown for human rights.
Authorities have ordered that medical and food supplies must reach all parts of the country, Kusa said. UN emergency aid coordinator Valerie Amos said earlier there are unconfirmed reports that relief supplies are being blocked in Tripoli.
The Security Council also ordered a crimes against humanity investigation into the crackdown. The regime said that Libya is not a member of the International Criminal Court and it would only cooperate on “the principle of the primacy of national courts.”
The letter said an independent judicial committee had already been set up to investigate “events.”
Kusa said that military action against Libya would be “inconsistent” with the UN charter and international law and “compromise a threat to peace and security in the region and indeed the whole world.”
Western powers say they are studying a no-fly zone against Libya to prevent attacks on civilians. But diplomats say that no official request for such action has been made to the Security Council.
 
Italy PM Silvio Berlusconi back on trial
BBC - Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi goes back on trial on Saturday in a case involving alleged corruption.
Berlusconi is accused of fraud and embezzlement over the acquisition of television rights involving one of his media companies.
It is one of four trials Berlusconi is currently linked to, including one where he is accused of paying an underage prostitute for sex.
The prime minister denies all the allegations against him.
He had his immunity from prosecution largely withdrawn in January.
In this latest trial it is claimed that with his son and others Berlusconi overpaid for television rights and then avoided paying tax on the transaction.
The case is related to another fraud trial involving the prime minister that began a week ago.
A third trial where Berlusconi is accused of bribery is due to begin later this month.
The fourth trial is scheduled for next month in which the prime minister has been indicted for paying an underage prostitute for sex and abusing his powers.
The 74-year-old leader recently said that he had undergone more trials than anyone in the history of the universe, claiming he had been a defendant in more than 50 cases.
The prime minister also revealed that he had given up his mobile phone because he feared he might be the target of wire tapping by prosecutors who have been investigating him.
Berlusconi is not obliged to turn up in court and he has only rarely appeared in person.
 
Clinton calls for ‘immediate end’ to ICoast violence
WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday condemned Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo and his forces for violence in the African nation and for a “callous disregard” for life.
“The United States calls for an immediate end to the violence,” Clinton said in a statement that took aim at Gbagbo, who is resisting calls from the world community to hand the presidency to recognized November election winner Alassane Ouattara.
She said the “United States strongly condemns” attacks by Gbagbo’s forces on his own people, including one Thursday on unarmed women demonstrators that left seven dead. His forces denied responsibility.
“Gbagbo and his forces have shown a callous disregard for human life and the rule of law, preying on the unarmed and the innocent. He should step aside immediately in the name of peace,” she said.
“Gbabgo’s selfish effort to cling to power despite losing the election has elevated tensions and eroded the fundamental rights of Ivoirian civilians,” the chief US diplomat said.
“Since December, Gbagbo has used security forces to attack the very people he claims to represent, and deprived Ivorian citizens of access to water and electricity,” said the secretary.
In calling for an end to the violence, she said: “Military leaders, regime officials, and others responsible for directing or committing violent acts against civilians will have to answer for their actions.”
 
Recap of developments in Middle East, North Africa
LIBYA: Libyan rebels said they had seized the key oil refinery town of Rasnaluf in some of the heaviest fighting of the rebellion that left “many dead, a claim denied by a senior government official.
Explosions minutes apart at a weapons depot killed 19 people and wounded dozens more outside the main rebel-held city of Benghazi on Friday, doctors said.
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi were battling rebels on Friday for control of the town of Zawiyah, near Tripoli, in heavy fighting that has left “many dead,” witnesses said.
Western Libya is totally in government hands but the east is “problematic,” a regime official said, admitting that the town of Brega was in rebel hands and that fighting was going on at Raslanuf further west.
Police fired tear gas at protesters demonstrating against Moamer Kadhafi’s regime in Tripoli as rebel fighters in eastern Libya tried to push the front line nearer to the capital.
Protesters demanding Kadhafi’s ouster came to blows with loyalists in a street near Tripoli’s landmark Green Square
Libya has given Venezuela the green light to form a mission to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis shaking the North African country, Venezuela’s foreign minister said.
The European Union warned it could deploy warships to enforce an arms embargo on Libya, while urging humanitarian workers be allowed in the country.
The international Red Cross slammed attacks on its ambulances in Libya and called for $25.7 million (18.4 million euros) to help those hit by the crisis.
The Netherlands is using “every diplomatic angle” to obtain the release of three Dutch soldiers captured in Libya while attempting to rescue civilians.
Britain seized £100 million ($160 million, 117 million euros) of Libyan currency found on a Libya-bound ship and escorted the vessel back to England.
Interpol has issued a global alert against Kadhafi and 15 others, including members of his family and close associates.
EGYPT: Egypt’s new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf vowed to respond to demands for democratic change as he addressed thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square a day after his appointment.
A popular referendum on constitutional changes in Egypt has been set for March 19, an army source told.
YEMEN: Yemeni troops killed four demonstrators and wounded seven others when they fired on an anti-regime rally in the north, officials and Shiite rebels said, as protests raged across the country.
BAHRAIN: A Bahraini Shiite opposition leader called for Sunni-Shiite harmony as thousands of protesters marched in Manama, a day after residents of a town south of the capital reported sectarian clashes.
IRAQ: Thousands of protesters massed in cities and towns across Iraq after streaming in on foot in defiance of vehicle bans for rallies over corruption, unemployment and poor public services.
JORDAN: Thousands of Jordanians demonstrated in Amman to demand “regime reforms,” a day after Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit rejected calls for a constitutional monarchy.
SAUDI ARABIA: Several hundred people protested in the Shiite-majority east of Saudi Arabia, calling for the release of an arrested cleric and other detainees, witnesses said.
TUNISIA: New Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi accused toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of “high treason” during his first public appearance.
Tunisia will hold an election on July 24 to choose an assembly to write a new post-revolution constitution, which was a key demand of government critics.
DJIBOUTI: The interior ministry on Thursday asked the opposition to postpone a demonstration scheduled for Friday, with presidential elections a month away.
MOROCCO: King Mohammed VI of Morocco on Thursday set up a new body to defend human rights, replacing an existing organisation that had a purely consultative role.
Young activists are using Facebook to call for new demonstrations on March 20 “for dignity and large scale political reforms.
ALGERIA: A major opposition party, the Socialist Forces Front, urged Algerians on Friday to engage in a “peaceful struggle” for change in the nation a day ahead of a planned anti-government demonstration in the capital.
SYRIA: Activists are demanding political reforms be made a top priority as revolts rattle regimes across the Middle East, toppling Egypt’s and Tunisia’s leaders in less than a month.
 
African leaders urge end to killing, siege in Ivory Coast
NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added her voice to calls for an end to the violence in Ivory Coast, accusing strongman Laurent Gbagbo and his forces of a “callous disregard” for life.
She spoke soon after five African leaders mediating in the crisis called for an end to the killings and for Gbagbo’s siege on Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised president, to be lifted.
Earlier Friday, aid agencies warned that the deteriorating situation in Ivory Coast was stopping refugee workers and medical staff from helping those worst hit by the crisis.
The “United States strongly condemns” attacks by Gbagbo’s forces on his own people, she said, including one Thursday on unarmed women demonstrators that left seven dead.
“Gbagbo and his forces have shown a callous disregard for human life and the rule of law, preying on the unarmed and the innocent. He should step aside immediately in the name of peace,” she said.
“Gbagbo’s selfish effort to cling to power despite losing the election has elevated tensions and eroded the fundamental rights of Ivorian civilians,” the chief US diplomat said. His forces have denied responsibility.
Earlier Friday, Ouatarra also condemned Gbagbo’s forces for their “unspeakable barbarism” in the attack on the demonstrators during a demonstration in Abidjan.
The demonstration had been “bloodily repressed, with disproportionate means, including combat tanks used by the militia and mercenaries in the pay of Monsieur Laurent Gbagbo,” he said in a statement.
Tens of people had been killed, including a child, and more than 110 wounded, he added.
Gbagbo’s Defence and Security Forces (FDS) on Friday denied accusations from Abobo residents that they had shot dead the women, but the UN mission confirmed the allegations.
 
China’s Premier Wen Jiabao targets ‘social stability’
BBC -China must ensure social stability by reducing inflation and corruption, Premier Wen Jiabao has told the parliament’s annual session.
Mr Wen has been addressing about 3,000 delegates to open the National People’s Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
He says the government aims to keep inflation to within 4% and hit economic growth of 8%.
Mr Wen accepted that uneven economic development was a “serious problem”.
The focus on social stability was echoed in an editorial in the Communist Party-run Beijing Daily that coincided with the opening of the Congress and which warned against any Middle East-inspired pro-democracy protests.
The speech is the most important of the year delivered by a Chinese politician, correspondents say, similar in status to the State of the Union address in the US.
“Recently, prices have risen fairly quickly and inflation expectations have increased,” Mr Wen says.
“This problem concerns the people’s well-being, bears on overall interests and affects social stability. We must, therefore, make it our top priority in macroeconomic control to keep overall price levels stable.”
Inflation in China is at 4.9%, and has continued to accelerate despite three recent interest rate hikes. Analysts say it has yet to peak.
Rising prices are a concern because poor families spend up to half their incomes on food.
This year’s National People’s Congress, which meets for 10 days, is to approve China’s five-year plan for 2011-2015.
The plan, the country’s 12th since the Communist Party took power in 1949, aims to create more sustainable growth and even out growing disparities in wealth between rich and poor.