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Syria nears Arab League deadline

BBC: Violence is continuing in Syria, as deadline set by the Arab League approaches for the government to end its crackdown on protesters.
A Syrian diplomatic source said Damascus would accept observers to monitor implementation of a peace deal, but with conditions.
The Arab League formally suspended Syria on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the British Foreign Secretary announced that he would meet Syrian opposition members.
William Hague will meet members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change in London on Monday, his office said.
At least 11 people died in clashes on Friday, activists said, amid growing fears of civil war.
The League says Syria will face sanctions unless it stops its bloody suppression of anti-government protests.
A Syrian diplomatic source told the BBC on Friday that Damascus had informed the League of its offer to allow monitors in, and that a few details were being worked out. Officials do not want it to be called an observer mission, but say calling it an Arab League mission would be acceptable, says our Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. However, reports suggest Damascus has said it will accept a delegation of 40 observers - a much smaller number than the 500 initially proposed by the League. The Arab League plan, drawn up earlier this month, calls on Syria to withdraw tanks from restive cities, cease its attacks on protesters and engage in dialogue with the opposition within two weeks.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the plan at the time, but has so far failed to implement it.
Correspondents say the invitation for League officials to visit Syria is a significant concession by Damascus. Syria is aware that Libya’s suspension from the Arab League helped persuade the UN Security Council to authorise the military action which helped topple Col Muammar Gaddafi.
On Friday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for restraint over Syria, after a meeting with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.
“We are calling for restraint and caution. This is our position,” Putin told a Moscow news conference, according to AFP news agency.
Hague’s decision to meet opposition members comes amid mounting pressure on Damascus. Both the US and Turkey have warned that the situation could escalate into a civil war. King Abdullah of Jordan urged Assad to stand down.
But the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said she did not expect there to be an international intervention like in Libya. Some 400 people have been killed since the announcement of the Arab League initiative on 2 November, activists in Syria said. The UN says at least 3,500 people have died since the unrest began in March, while many others have disappeared or been jailed.


Suu Kyi’s party to rejoin Burma politics

BBC: The party of Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has agreed to re-enter the political process and contest parliamentary elections.
On Friday her National League for Democracy said it would register to run in the as yet unscheduled by-elections.
The party boycotted the last polls in November 2010, the first in 20 years.
Meanwhile the US is to send Hillary Clinton to Burma next month, amid what President Barack Obama called “flickers of progress” in the nation.
Mr Obama spoke to Aung San Suu Kyi before deciding to send Mrs Clinton, who will be the first US secretary of state to visit in 50 years.
BBC South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey says the developments are being seen as endorsements of the steps taken by the military-backed but civilian-led government towards political reform.
The announcement followed a meeting of 100 senior NLD leaders in Rangoon. But this regulation has since been dropped, and Aung San Suu Kyi said she now wanted the party to contest all 48 seats left vacant in parliament by the appointment of ministers. A spokesman for the NLD said it was likely that Aung San Suu Kyi would run for office. And the pro-democracy leader herself said she would do what she thought was necessary.
“If I think I should take part in the election, I will. Some people are worried that taking part could harm my dignity. Frankly, if you do politics, you should not be thinking about your dignity,” AFP news agency quoted her as saying. “I stand for the re-registration of the NLD party. I would like to work effectively towards amending the constitution. So we have to do what we need to do.” The NLD won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power. Aung San Suu Kyi spent years under house arrest but was freed a year ago by the new government.
Since then it has entered into dialogue with her and freed some - but by no means all - political prisoners.
Aung San Suu Kyi has given a cautious welcome to the moves, but says more progress is needed.


Dalai Lama questions wisdom of self-immolations

BBC: The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, says he is very worried about the growing number of monks and nuns setting themselves on fire to protest against Chinese rule in Tibet.
He told the BBC he was not encouraging such actions - saying there was no doubt they required courage, but questioning how effective they were.
There have been 11 cases of self-immolation so far this year.
Most have resulted in death - the latest a 35-year-old nun two weeks ago.
The BBC has obtained graphic footage of the moment she set herself alight, prompting horrified cries from onlookers. Later, Chinese security forces flooded the area.
The shocking video footage was smuggled across the border to India and shown to the BBC.
Tibetan monks and nuns are using self-immolation as the latest tactic in their struggle against 60 years of Chinese rule, says the BBC’s Andrew North.
But it is a sensitive issue for the man they are dying for - the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.
In an interview with our correspondent, he said he was not encouraging his followers to sacrifice themselves - as alleged by China.
“The question is how much effect” the self-immolations have, the Dalai Lama said.
“That’s the question. There is courage - very strong courage. But how much effect?
“Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilise your
Asked whether he feared the actions could make life worse for people in Tibet, he said: “Many Tibetans sacrifice their lives.
“Nobody knows how many people killed and tortured - I mean death through torture. Nobody knows.
“But a lot of people suffer. But how much effect? The Chinese respond harder.”
China has condemned the self-immolation campaign as immoral and inhuman, saying it will never succeed.
The growing number of monks and nuns prepared to set themselves on fire is a sign of increasing desperation in Tibet, our correspondent says.
They know while the West has backed the Arab Spring, with China it talks with a much quieter voice, he says.
That leaves Tibetans with few options to shine a light on their struggle.
From inside Tibet, the word is that more monks are preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice, our correspondent adds


Protesting Egyptians back in Tahrir Square

BBC: Tens of thousands of Egyptians are holding a rally in Cairo to protest against Egypt’s military rulers.
Demonstrators from across the political spectrum have gathered in Tahrir Square after the military council proposed controversial constitutional changes.
Many Egyptians fear the military is trying to entrench its power.
Egypt has been ruled by a military council since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February. Parliamentary elections are due this month.
The protest, and another in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria, are demanding the withdrawal of proposals for constitutional change by the military authorities.
The cabinet wants to declare the military the guardian of “constitutional legitimacy”. Critics say the wording suggests the armed forces could have the final word on major policies even after a new president is elected.
The document also introduces clauses that would shield the military from civilian oversight.
Our correspondent says there is also widespread frustration in Egypt that, despite the overthrow of Mubarak, life for the majority is not improving.
However, it is the conservative Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood who are most vocal in these demonstrations rather than the young people using social networks who led the protests earlier this year, he says.
Witnesses say that Tahrir Square was split between the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the more hardline Islamist Salafi rivals, represented by several political parties.
The two set up separate stages and organised their own speeches and chants, only joining forces for Friday prayers.


Pope arrives in Benin, ‘home of Voodoo’

BBC: Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Benin, on his second visit to Africa which has the world’s fastest-growing Roman Catholic population.
Huge crowds welcomed the pontiff at the airport in the city of Cotonou.
Although the number of Catholics in Benin is rising quickly, the majority of the population follow Voodoo, which was taken by slaves to the Caribbean.
Upon arrival, the Pope urged Africans to avoid the “unconditional surrender to the law of the market and finance”.
“Modernity must not cause fear, but it cannot be built by forgetting the past,” he said.
The pontiff also spoke of avoiding “exacerbated and useless nationalism or tribalism that can become deadly, extreme politicisation, inter-religious tensions to the detriment of the common good or finally the erosion of human, cultural, ethical and religious values”.
During his visit, the Pope is also likely to face questions about condoms.
On his 2009 visit to Africa, he sparked outrage among Aids activists by saying that handing out condoms could speed up the spread of HIV in the continent worst hit by the virus.
Pope Benedict was greeted by a 21-gun salute after he landed in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city, where he was met by President Thomas Yayi Boni.
Among those waiting for the pontiff at the airport were several hundred women, wearing dresses adorned with images of the Pope’s face. Many others had blue, green, red and yellow headscarves, representing different parishes.
“It’s a joy for us, we are happy and there will be a big celebration, which should bring a lot of faith to all faithful people in Benin,” city resident Noelle Agboton was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.
Friday has been declared a public holiday, Cotonou’s streets have been cleaned and buildings are adorned with posters welcoming the Pope.
The BBC’s Tomi Oladipo in Cotonou says there is huge excitement across the country.
Pope Benedict is to visit the city of Ouidah on Saturday, where there is a Voodoo museum.
Benin is widely seen as the home of Voodoo, and the religion is followed by some 40% of the country’s population.
Some 27% classify themselves as Christians and 22% Muslims, but correspondents say many of these people combine Voodoo practices with either Christianity or Islam.
However, local people say their religion has nothing to do with sorcery or black magic, or the depiction of Voodoo in Western films.
Catholic missionaries first arrived in Ouidah 150 years ago and the city boasts the largest Catholic seminary in West Africa.
The city’s cathedral was built on land which was originally a Voodoo “sacred bush” - where offerings are made to the gods. It now overlooks a temple where the snake-god is worshipped.
High-ranking Voodoo priests have been invited to meet the Pope.
One of the Voodoo leaders, Dah Aligbonon, said he hoped the pontiff would urge Roman Catholics to be more tolerant of Africa’s traditional religions.
“I invite the Pope to tell his followers to stop acts of provocation against the Voodoo culture,” he said, Reuters reports.
Some 10,000 pilgrims are expected to travel from neighbouring countries in the hope of seeing the pontiff.
The Pope is expected to address the questions of human rights, justice and reconciliation on the conflict-ridden continent.
On Saturday, he is to sign a formal apostolic exhortation entitled The Pledge for Africa (Africae Munus in Latin), which covers these subjects.
“May this document fall into the ground and take root, grow and bear much fruit,” the Pope said upon his arrival.