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The Star Online: World Updates

Tunisian parties agree on new premier to lead until elections


TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's ruling Islamists and opposition parties agreed on Saturday to name the country's current industry minister as prime minister of a caretaker technocrat cabinet to govern until elections next year.

The appointment is the first step in an agreement that will see moderate Islamist party Ennahda hand over power in the next few weeks to end a crisis that threatened Tunisia's transition to democracy after its 2011 uprising.

Three years after its protests against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali inspired Arab uprisings elsewhere, Tunisia has been struggling to overcome disputes over the role of Islam in one of the Arab world's most secular countries.

After weeks of wrangling, parties agreed to name Mehdi Jomaa, an aerospace engineer by training, as premier in a deal between Islamist party Ennahda and a coalition of secular parties led by a former Ben Ali official.

"Despite the difficulties, we have managed to reach an agreement over the name of Mehdi Jomaa," Hussein Abassi, head of the UGTT union movement that brokered the talks, told reporters. "The next government should be independent and nonpartisan to led the country to elections."

Ennahda won the most seats in a national assembly selected in the first elections after the fall of Ben Ali, but the country struggled with a widening gap between Islamists and secular leaders.

Months of protests erupted after the assassination of two opposition leaders this year by Islamist militant gunmen, and secular opposition parties formed a broad coalition demanding Ennahda's resignation.

Under a union-brokered agreement, Ennahda accepted that the coalition government would step down once politicians decided on a caretaker cabinet, completed a new constitution and set a date for elections.

Tunisia's crisis has hurt its economy and prospects of generating prosperity in the nation where a street vendor set himself on fire nearly three years ago in a gesture of despair that ignited a flame of revolt across the Arab world.

The first suicide bombing in a decade earlier this year highlighted the growing threat from militant Islamists who have been able to use the chaos in neighbouring Libya to gain arms and training.

However, Tunisia has fared better than both Libya and another North African neighbour, Egypt, that also toppled their leaders. Egypt's elected Islamist president is in jail after the military ousted him, and Libya is struggling to control militias that fought Muammar Gaddafi.

France says "pessimistic" on Syria, has doubts about peace talks


MONACO (Reuters) - France's foreign minister said on Saturday he was "pessimistic" about the situation in Syria and had great doubts about the success of a proposed peace conference to be held in Switzerland next month.

"In Syria, I am sadly quite pessimistic," Laurent Fabius told delegates at the World Policy Conference in Monaco.

France, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fiercest critics, was the first Western power to provided non-lethal military aid to the Free Syrian Army, while it was also the first Western state to recognise the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

"We are working on the success of (the Geneva talks), but we can have a great deal of doubt on that. If sadly it isn't successful, that would mean this martyred country will continue to suffer as will its neighbours," Fabius said.

About 30 ministers from big powers, regional countries and others are due to gather in the Swiss resort of Montreux on January 22 to give their blessing to the negotiations between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and rebels fighting to oust him.

The stated goal is to agree on a transitional government with full powers to end a 1,000-day-old conflict that has killed well over 100,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

Fabius dampened expectations on the Swiss talks and acknowledged for the first time that Syria's moderate opposition was in trouble.

"Bashar al-Assad says he will send representatives to Geneva. While Mr Assad has a lot of faults, he is not an idiot ... we can't see why he would hand over all his powers. As for the opposition that we support, it is in great difficulty," Fabius said.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Cooney)

Sombre remembrances mark anniversary of Sandy Hook shooting


NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of the 6-year-olds was so sweet his teacher said he should have come to school wrapped in a bow.

Another loved princess tea parties, Justin Bieber and trips to New York. Still another, who rode horses, was hoping for a cowgirl hat and boots for Christmas.

One year later, the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, still evokes raw emotion and sadness. On Saturday, a day after another school shooting, this time at a Colorado high school where one student was wounded, the United States paused to remember the tragedy and revisit the contentious issue of guns in America.

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, shot his way into the school he had once attended and murdered 20 first-graders, all aged 6 and 7, and six adults. Before heading to the school, Lanza killed his mother, who had legally purchased the guns he used that day.

Newtown officials said the town wanted to be left alone on the anniversary. Some of the victims' families have encouraged those moved by the shooting to mark the day by performing an act of kindness in their own communities.

At the White House, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observed a moment of silence after lighting 26 candles to honour those lost at the school.

In Newtown, at the Washington National Cathedral in the nation's capital and elsewhere around the country, bells tolled in remembrance of those who died.

Some of the bells were rung by advocates of stricter gun control who see Newtown as a rallying call for action and refuse to let up despite setbacks. The group Mayors Against Illegal Guns says there have been 28 school shootings since Newtown.

A fierce snow storm blew through Newtown, where a flag was flown at half-mast on Main Street. There was also a heavy police presence, including near the site of the recently demolished school.

Wreaths of fresh flowers were placed near the spot where a large sign once stood announcing the Sandy Hook school. The area has been a popular location for people to leave flowers, stuffed animals and other tokens of remembrance.

On a frozen pond near the town centre, a group of young skaters, some wearing "We are Newtown" sweatshirts, played a game of hockey. After a goal, one player threw down his hockey stick and shouted: "O.K. guys, that's for Sandy Hook." Then the game continued.


On that deadly Friday last year, teachers were in the midst of their morning meetings or starting the day's first lesson when gunfire was heard in the hallways and over the intercom system.

Eleven minutes after blasting his way in, Lanza ended his rampage with suicide. The aftershocks live on.

"There's no guidebook for this, not at all," said Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a first-grade teacher who survived the attack by hiding with her students in a tiny bathroom adjacent to a room where other children and adults lost their lives.

For months after the shooting, Roig-DeBellis said she struggled to understand why it had happened and why she was still alive.

"For me, I have moved forward. But I will never move on," she said. Roig-DeBellis, and many of the families who lost loved ones on that day, plan to be out of town for the anniversary.

In Newtown, about 70 miles (112 km) northeast of New York City, officials vowed to enforce a sense of normalcy as this Connecticut town of about 28,000 began a day of quiet, if still anguished, reflection.

"The community needs time to be alone and to reflect on our past year in personal ways, without a camera or a microphone," First Selectman Pat Llodra told a news conference this week.

The group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America has announced 50 events, including a "communal bell-ringing," as a symbol of their resolve not to let up in advocating for change they believe will prevent gun violence in America.

About 120 protesters calling for new gun control legislation braved freezing rain to attended a rally outside the Virginia headquarters of the National Rifle Association.

"We're not going away," said Joanna Simon, a founding member of the Reston-Herndon Alliance to End Gun Violence, organizers of the protest."We're coming back every month until we pass some meaningful legislation and get it funded."

A representative from the NRA, which opposes new gun control measures as unfair and onerous for responsible gun owners, did not respond to a request for comment. The NRA has called for better school security and the presence of armed guards.

After the Newtown tragedy, Connecticut passed several new gun control and mental health measures, but a similar effort pushed by President Barack Obama failed in the U.S. Senate.


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