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A Syrian combat helicopter crashed in Damascus on Monday, state television said, as fierce fighting reportedly gripped the east of the capital a day after the regime was accused of a new massacre.

A series of explosions rocked the city from about dawn and a watchdog reported heavy shelling and fighting between government troops and rebels in several eastern and northeastern districts and nearby towns.

State television said the chopper came down near a mosque in Qaboon, but gave no further information, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it believed it "was hit while it was being used in fighting nearby."

Helicopter gunships were shelling the neighbouring district of Jubar, where anti-regime sentiment is strong, the Observatory said, and reported heavy fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army and government troops.

A rebel Free Syrian Army group claimed responsibility for the attack, with a spokesman saying that the pilot had been killed.

"It was in revenge for the Daraya massacre," Omar al-Qabooni, a spokesman for the Badr Batallion in Damascus told AFP via Skype. He said the rebels had found the body of the pilot after the burning aircraft crashed to the ground. His claims could not be independently verified.

The assault on the northeast of the capital was unleashed a day after opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of gruesome new massacre in the southwestern town of Daraya.

The Observatory said hundreds of bodies had been found in the small Sunni Muslim town after what activists described as brutal five-day onslaught of shelling, summary executions and house-to-house raids by government troops.

It said Sunday that 320 people had been killed and on Monday reported the discovery of another 14 bodies in Daraya after the offensive by troops battling to crush insurgents who have regrouped in the southwestern outskirts of Damascus.

Assad vowed Sunday that he would not change course in the face of what he charged was a "conspiracy" by Western and regional powers against Syria.

"The Syrian people will not allow this conspiracy to achieve its objectives" and will defeat it "at any price," Assad said at a meeting with a top official from Iran, Syria's chief regional ally.

Assad has since March last year been trying through force to smother a popular uprising that has turned into a brutal civil war which has left thousands dead, seen more than 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and 2.5 million in need inside Syria.

But despite their far superior fire power, the government forces are struggling to defeat rebels who have built strongholds in many parts of the country, particularly the northern city of Aleppo.

Human rights groups have accused the regime of committing many atrocities in its attempts to crush the uprising, and a UN panel said earlier this month it was guilty of crimes against humanity.

Grisly videos issued by opposition activists showed dozens of charred and bloodied bodies lined up in broad daylight in a graveyard in Daraya, and others lying wall-to-wall in rooms in a mosque.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground, said many victims had been summarily executed and their bodies burnt by pro-regime shabiha militias that have been transformed into a "killing machine".

"Bodies were found in fields, basements and shelters and in the streets," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that many of the victims had died in shelling or were summarily executed.

Britain said that if confirmed, the Daraya massacre "would be an atrocity on a new scale."

Communities across earthquake-ravaged Haiti are in desperate need of help after the island nation was lashed by Tropical Storm Isaac, according to British aid agencies.

Charity workers are battling to get emergency supplies to the worst-hit islanders after they endured torrential downpours and near hurricane strength winds.

According to reports, a woman and a child died in the town of Souvenance, and a 10-year-old girl died in Thomazeau when a wall fell on her. More than 5,000 people have had to be evacuated from their homes.

Makeshift camps, built after the island was rocked by a massive earthquake in 2010 that claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people, have been destroyed. The storm has also laid waste to crops, knocked down telephone lines and wiped out power supplies in the worst-hit areas, say aid workers. Fears are also mounting over the impact of flooding and disease for the thousands of people living in refugee camps.

According to Oxfam, camps in the capital Port-au-Prince, such as Jean Marie Vincent, have been flooded, as well as towns in the south of the island, including Les Cayes, Jacmel and Nippes. Heavy rainfall is forecast in the wake of the storm, with up to 20 inches of rain predicted in Hispaniola.

The charity said that nearly 400,000 Haitians still living in refugee camps after the earthquake remained "highly vulnerable" to the threat of flooding, landslides and water borne diseases, especially cholera.

Police in Moldova have arrested a 23-year-old man on suspicion of throwing an incendiary device towards the motorcade of visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Interior Ministry said the object flew over the car of Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who was returning to Chisinau after a trip with Mrs Merkel to the country's famous Cricova wine cellars.

Officials have not specified what the device was, but said it did not explode despite being on fire. No-one was injured in the incident on Wednesday.

Eyewitnesses quoted by Prime TV said the device landed "tens of metres" from Mrs Merkel's car, something police refused to comment on.

Police later said that the suspect was not connected to a terrorist organisation. They said he had a previous criminal record but did not provide further details.

 

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras meets Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker in Athens on Wednesday, launching a diplomatic marathon to win better bailout terms for Greece.

In an interview to German daily Bild, Samaras said that Greece needed more time to make spending cuts and reforms that are necessary to unlock the next installment of the country's EU-IMF rescue package on Wednesday.

"All we want is a little 'breathing space' to revive the economy quickly and raise state income," he was quoted as saying.

"Let me be very clear. We are not asking for additional money. We are sticking by our commitments and are meeting all our requirements," he underlined.

Greek daily Kathimerini reported on Wednesday that the Greek prime minister will try to secure Juncker's full support for the government's plans to meet its commitments to its European partners.

Following Juncker's visit, the Greek premier will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday and French President Francois Hollande in Paris on Saturday.

Merkel and Hollande, leaders of the eurozone's top two economies, are set to meet in Berlin on Thursday, with Greece expected to be part of their agenda.

"The aim is to discuss flexibility in return for assurances and the two want to have a common line before the arrival of the Greek prime minister," Claire Demesmay, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, told AFP.

Ulrike Guerot, a political scientist at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said the meeting would be closely watched in view of crucial decisions expected next month.

"The markets want to know if visions are the same in Berlin and Paris," she said.

France is considered more flexible than Germany towards modification of the austerity programme that is part of Greece's rescue deal.

Vokler Kauder, parliamentary head of Merkel's party, told German weekly Der Spiegel on Sunday that Greece had "no room for manoeuvre".

Greece is in the process of finalising a spending cuts programme of about 11.5 billion euros ($14.3 bn) for 2013 and 2014, necessary in order to access the next installment of its bailout package that amounts to nearly 31 billion euros.

Most cuts are reported to come from salaries, pensions and benefits and have caused friction within the conservative-led, three-party coalition government.

A Greek finance ministry source told AFP on Wednesday that an additional 2-2.5 billion euros in spending cuts "cannot be ruled out" because of the reduction in salaries and pensions that will diminish the taxes collected by the state.

The so-called troika of auditors of Greece's international EU, IMF and European Central Bank creditors is expected in Athens in September, to report on the country's progress in implementating its reform programme.

The report will determine whether Greece will receive the next much-needed payment from its rescue package.

The country has fallen behind in the implementation of structural reforms, as back-to-back elections in May and June resulted in a two-month political deadlock.

But in seeking a two-year reprieve Samaras sould be able to invoke a clause in the second bailout package signed in March that allows for an extension to the programme in case of a "deeper than expected recession."

As the country struggles with its fifth year of recession, predictions now are that its economy will contract 7 percent in 2012, considerably more than the initial 4.5 percent estimate.

Last week Juncker played down rumours of a possible Greek exit from the eurozone, which have recently become louder.

Greece's prime minister has insisted ahead of a visit to Germany that Athens does not want more money from creditors, but indicated it would like more time to enact reforms and spending cuts.

Antonis Samaras pledged before coming to power to seek a two-year extension to the deadline for implementing unpopular cuts demanded in exchange for international aid.

But creditors such as Germany are reluctant to grant significant concessions.

Mr Samaras will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday. He was quoted as telling the Bild daily: "We are not asking for extra money."

He added: "All we want is a little 'air to breathe' to get the economy going and increase state income." Mr Samaras said that "more time does not automatically mean more money".

The Greek leader vehemently rejected the suggestion that it might be better for his country to leave the 17-nation euro and bring back its former currency, the drachma. That, he told the Bild, would result in "a catastrophe for Greece" and economic collapse.

Mr Samaras pledged before coming to power to seek a two-year extension to the deadline for implementing unpopular cuts demanded in exchange for two massive international aid packages worth 240 billion euro (£189 billion) that are keeping Greece afloat.

But delays in implementing reforms and austerity measures have fuelled impatience in Germany - the largest single contributor to the bailouts - and other eurozone countries.

Luxembourg's prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs the eurozone finance ministers' meetings, is due to arrive in Athens. Later, Mr Samaras will head to Berlin and Paris on Friday and Saturday for talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande.

 

CME Group, the world's largest futures market operator, said Monday it was seeking British regulatory approval to set up a European exchange based in London.

Chicago-based CME, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade and the New York Mercantile Exchange, said it was applying to Britain's Financial Services Authority to create a London-based market currency futures market in mid-2013.

"We continue to see an increase in business coming from our diverse set of customers in Europe, with more than 20 percent of our volume now originating from the region," said Terry Duffy, CME Group executive chairman and president, in a statement.

"Having an exchange in London that can leverage the central counterparty model of CME Clearing Europe will allow us to align ourselves even more closely with our regional customers in both listed futures and over-the-counter markets, and provide additional opportunities to our expanding non-US customer base."

CME Group chief executive Phupinder Gill said the company was looking at expanding the London market's transactions to other types of futures trading.

 

Augusta National, home of the Masters golf tournament, said Monday the exclusive club has admitted the first women members in its 80-year history.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore have accepted invitations to join the club in Augusta, Georgia, chairman Billy Payne said.

"This is a joyous occasion as we enthusiastically welcome Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members of Augusta National Golf Club," Payne said.

Augusta National has come under increasing pressure to admit women members, with the question of the exclusive policy coming up each year when the club hosts the first major golf tournament of the year, the Masters.

The issue first came to a head in 2003 when Martha Burk, a leader in the National Council of Women's Organizations, conducted a rally across the street from Augusta National, where the first black member was inducted in 1990.

Germany on Monday poured cold water on a reported plan by the European Central Bank to set a cap on the borrowing costs of debt-wracked eurozone countries, terming it "very problematic."

The ECB itself dismissed the report as "absolutely misleading," saying no such decision had yet been taken.

"Purely theoretically and speaking in the abstract, such an instrument would of course be very problematic but I am not aware of any plans in this direction," said Martin Kotthaus, a spokesman for Germany's finance ministry.

"You know that we basically do not comment on the ECB, which is an independent institution, but I can still say that I do not know about these plans," added Kotthaus in a regular government briefing.

Der Spiegel newsweekly reported on Sunday that the ECB was planning to set a limit on the borrowing costs of individual countries and intervene on the markets to maintain this level.

Spain and Italy have seen their borrowing costs shoot up during the eurozone crisis to levels that forced Greece, Portugal and Ireland to seek a bailout.

The so-called spread, or difference, between benchmark German bonds and those issued by debt-wracked countries would be decisive for the proposed rate cap, Spiegel said.

ECB President Mario Draghi announced earlier in August that his institution "may" buy bonds of struggling countries if they first apply for EU bailout funds and accept tough conditions in return.

He said the details would be worked out before the next meeting of the ECB, scheduled for September 6.

Spiegel said that ECB governors would decide then whether to implement the proposed borrowing cost cap.

 

Twin earthquakes that devastated rural villages in northwest Iran at the weekend killed a total of 306 people -- most of them women and children -- and injured 3,037, Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi said on Monday.

 

Kofi Annan has quit as peace envoy to Syria with a blistering attack on world powers, ending a frustrating six-month effort that failed to achieve even a temporary ceasefire as the country plunged into civil war.

Former United Nations secretary general Mr Annan also had harsh words for the Syrian regime, saying it was clear President Bashar Assad "must leave office".

Speaking in Geneva, Switzerland, Mr Annan blamed the Syrian government's intransigence, the growing militancy of the rebels and a divided UN Security Council that failed to forcefully back his effort.

Since he took on the job, Russia and China have twice used their veto power to block strong Western and Arab-backed action against Assad's regime.

The White House said Mr Annan's resignation highlighted the failure of Russia and China to support action against Assad and called the regime's continued violence against its own people "disgusting".

"It is impossible for me or anyone to compel the Syrian government and also the opposition to take the steps to bring about the political process," said Mr Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. "You have to understand, as an envoy, I can't want peace more than the protagonists, more than the security council or the international community for that matter."