- Three bodies found at Mexico Pemex blast site, toll reaches 36
- French planes pound Islamist camps in north Mali desert
- Fidel Castro votes, chats in Cuban election
Posted: 03 Feb 2013 08:31 PM PST
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican rescue workers found three more bodies over the weekend amid the rubble of a deadly blast that tore through state oil firm Pemex's main office complex, the government said, as search efforts appeared to near a close.
The death toll from Thursday's explosion stands at 36, Pemex said via Twitter. Rescue workers had been digging through the last sections of the building's basement and could soon call off their search. One person was reported still missing.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo said on Friday that it was too early to say if the explosion was due to an attack, an accident or negligence, but he promised results of an investigation in the coming days.
Murillo toured the site on Sunday, but did not publicly comment on the progress of the investigation. Officials have communicated details through social media about the disaster, which struck just before a long holiday weekend.
The investigation will test confidence in President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico for most of the last century but lost power in 2000, when it was accused of fostering widespread corruption.
Local media reported the three bodies were maintenance workers. A woman who worked as a secretary was still missing, but she was unlikely to be found so deep in the wreckage.
The blast occurred two months into Pena Nieto's presidency, just as Congress was preparing to discuss his plans to open up the state-run energy industry to more private investment.
Hobbled by heavy state taxation, Pemex saw production slump in the last decade and its safety record has been stained by a series of deadly accidents, including an explosion that killed about 30 at a gas facility last year.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 03 Feb 2013 07:50 PM PST
PARIS/BAMAKO (Reuters) - French warplanes pounded Islamist rebel camps in the far north of Mali on Sunday, military sources said, a day after French President Francois Hollande was hailed as a saviour during a visit to the West African country.
Thierry Burkhard, spokesman for the French army in Paris, said the overnight raids targeted logistics bases and training camps used by the al Qaeda-linked rebels near the town of Tessalit, close to the Algerian border.
"These were important air strikes," Burkhard told Reuters.
Tessalit, some 200 km (125 miles) north of the regional capital Kidal, is one of the main gateways into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains where the rebels have sought refuge after fleeing major towns.
France says the rebels are also holding hostage in these mountains seven of its citizens, seized in recent years in the Sahara region.
Malian military sources said French and Chadian troops had clashed with members of the Ansar Dine militant group in the region around Kidal on Saturday.
French attack helicopters and transport planes carrying special forces left the city of Gao to reinforce the French and Chadian contingent stationed at the airport in Kidal.
The town of Kidal itself is under the control of the pro-autonomy MNLA Tuareg rebel group, which occupied it after Ansar Dine fighters fled six days ago.
France has deployed 3,500 ground troops, fighter jets and armoured vehicles in the three-week-old Operation Serval (Wildcat) which has broken the Islamists' 10-month grip on the towns of northern Mali, where they violently imposed sharia law.
"Never has a foreign intervention in Africa been as popular as the French one in Mali," the president of neighbouring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, told Radio France International on Sunday, asking France to maintain its military presence.
"The object of this war should be not just to liberate Mali but to free the whole Sahel from this menace, which threatens not just us but also Europe, France and the world."
MALIANS MOB HOLLANDE
Cheering, grateful Malians mobbed Hollande during his one-day visit to Mali on Saturday, when he congratulated French forces and pledged that they would finish the job of restoring government control in the Sahel region state.
Thousands of residents in the capital shouted "Thank you France!" as Hollande addressed the crowd. "Hollande Our Saviour" read one banner.
"There are risks of terrorism, so we have not finished our mission yet," Hollande told a news conference at the French ambassador's residence in the capital Bamako.
He said France would withdraw its troops from Mali once the West African country had restored sovereignty over all its national territory and a U.N.-backed African military force, which is being deployed, could take over from the French.
"We do not foresee staying indefinitely," he said, but he spelled out no specific timeframe for the French mission.
The United States and the European Union are backing the Mali intervention to counter the threat of Islamist jihadists using the Sahara as a launch pad for attacks.
They are providing training, logistical and intelligence support, but have ruled out sending their own ground troops.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview published on the website of French daily Le Figaro that his country would support efforts to ensure Mali's long-term stability and the establishment of an elected government.
"It's important that we cooperate to help participating countries set up the African-led International Support Mission to Mali," said Biden, who meets Hollande in Paris on Monday.
The United States has contributed air transport and logistics support to armed forces arriving in Bamako.
Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly welcomed the success of France's military operation and added his voice to those urging the former colonial power not to scale back its mission.
"Faced with hardened fighters whose arsenals must be destroyed, we want this mission to continue. Especially as the aerial dimension is very important," he told France's Journal Du Dimanche newspaper.
Paris has pressed Bamako to open negotiations with the MNLA, whose uprising last year triggered a military coup in Bamako in March, as a step toward political reunification of north and south Mali.
The MNLA seized north Mali in April, before being pushed aside by a better-armed Islamist alliance composed of al Qaeda's north African wing AQIM, splinter group MUJWA and Ansar Dine.
Coulibaly played down the possibility of direct talks with the MNLA but said it was clear that there needed to be a greater devolution of power from the mainly black African south to northern Mali, an underdeveloped region home to many lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs.
He called for northern armed groups to lay down their weapons before peace negotiations could begin and said Mali would press ahead with national elections scheduled for July 31.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Timbuktu and Daniel Flynn in Dakar; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Stephen Powell and Jason Webb)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 03 Feb 2013 06:50 PM PST
HAVANA (Reuters) - Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro voted in Cuba's general election on Sunday and chatted with well wishers and Cuban reporters in Havana for more than an hour, in his first extended public appearance since 2010.
Castro had voted from his home in three previous elections since taking ill in 2006 and ceding power to his brother Raul two years later.
A stooped, snow white bearded Castro, 86, was seen on state-run television as he cast his ballot in the late afternoon, wearing a blue plaid shirt and light blue jacket.
The announcer said Castro talked about efforts to reform the economy, Latin American integration, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other matters.
He was heard in a weak voice praising popular participation in Sunday's election.
"The people are truly revolutionary, they have really sacrificed. We don't have to prove it, history will. Fifty years of the blockade and they haven't given in," he said.
Cubans went to the polls to elect a Communist Party-selected slate of 612 deputies to the National Assembly and more than 1,000 delegates to provincial assemblies, at a time of change in how they live and work, but not in how they vote.
President Raul Castro and other leaders were also shown on television casting their ballots and commenting on the importance of the election as a show of support for reforms and independence from the United States.
Raul Castro is decentralizing the state-dominated economy, allowing more space for private initiative in agriculture and retail services and has lifted many restrictions on personal freedoms, such as travel and buying and selling homes and cars.
He has also introduced term limits (two five-year stints) for top government posts, but has drawn the line at legalizing other political parties and contested elections.
"Renouncing the principle of a single party would be equal to legalizing one or more imperialist parties," Castro said at a Party conference last year.
He insisted critics, and even some friends, did not take into account the "abnormal state of siege" the country is experiencing.
"The one-party elections in Cuba, alongside steady but slow progress on opening the economy, represent how the current regime intends to manage change on the island - giving the people more space to participate in the economy while controlling their role in politics and civic life," said Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Some 95 percent of Cuba's 8.7 million residents over 16 years of age were expected to cast ballots with polling stations on just about every block and where abstention is frowned on.
Reuters talked with more than half a dozen voters before they entered the polls in Havana. None of them knew the candidates on the national slate from their districts.
"What's certain is they are all revolutionaries and that's what matters," said retiree Eduardo Sanchez.
"I vote because I feel I have to, and it doesn't really matter because the deputies have no power anyway," said one young woman, who declined to give her name.
The curious read biographies of candidates posted at the polls, then cast paper ballots in cardboard voting boxes guarded by school students.
Others simply entered the polls and checked a box for the entire slate.
The candidates were equal to the number of positions up for a vote, the only choice being to not vote for a certain candidate or leave blank or spoil one's ballot.
The deputies are elected for five-year terms.
The new assembly will meet this month to approve a party-proposed slate for the Council of State, which Raul Castro is expected to head for his second term. Council of State members must be deputies.
The general election cycle began last year with the election of more than 15,000 ward delegates in the only vote in which residents choose between two or more candidates.
Party-controlled commissions then selected candidates for provincial assemblies and the single-chamber national assembly, at least 50 percent of whom must be ward delegates and the remainder officials and personalities from the arts, sports and other sectors.
The National Assembly usually meets just twice a year for a week of committee and plenary meetings, though deputies remain engaged between sessions while working their normal jobs and can be relieved from work for assembly tasks.
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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