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US Secretary of State John Kerry raised questions Friday about Russia's commitment to peace in Syria, warning that delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles would be "not helpful."

Kerry's comments at a news conference with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle came ahead of a preparatory meeting in Geneva next week on a US-Russian bid for a peace conference on Syria.

"In Geneva, we will test who is serious. Are Russians serious about pushing for that? I believe they are. President (Vladimir) Putin said they are, (Foreign Minister) Sergei Lavrov has said it and they are trying to organize.


EU and Chinese trade officials will meet informally on Monday amid a series of tit-for-tat disputes, the European Commission said, after news of yet another row, this time over chemicals, surfaced.

The meeting comes as Brussels prepares on June 5 to impose hefty anti-dumping tariffs on imports of Chinese solar panels, just one area of discord that this month alone has included telecoms and steel tubes.

"I can confirm that the Chinese government has requested that Vice Minister Zhong Shan be received by EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht in Brussels on Monday," EU Trade Spokesman John Clancy said.

"The meeting is informal only," Clancy said, adding that the anti-dumping tariff would still come into force under EU procedures before any formal talks to resolve the issue could take place with Beijing.

"As all parties are aware, formal discussions towards a negotiated settlement in the solar panels case can only begin -- as stipulated by the legal trade defence framework -- should a decision be taken to impose provisional measures."

Chinese Vice Minister Zhong was already in Brussels for a regular meeting with his EU counterparts.

Separately, the Commission confirmed that Beijing was investigating a complaint against several European chemical companies for alleged dumping.

This is the second anti-dumping move by China against European industry in less than two weeks after a complaint against European companies making unwelded pipes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were set Tuesday to hold talks on the conflict in Syria amid growing concern about Moscow's arms deliveries to the Damascus regime amid a spiralling death toll.

Netanyahu is just the latest world leader to beat a path to Putin's door for talks on Syria in recent days, after US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron met the Russian strongman last week.

In the wake of the talks with Netanyahu at Putin's vacation residence in the southern resort of Sochi, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also due to travel to Russia later this week.

"The situation (in Syria) unfortunately has a tendency towards a further escalation which can only arouse great concern on the part of Russia... and Israel," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said ahead of the talks with Netanyahu, quoted by Russian news agencies.

The West and Russia have been repeatedly at odds over the Syria conflict, with the United States and Europe accusing Moscow of seeking to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and supplying his regime with military hardware.

The flurry of diplomatic activity indicates some hope on the part of the West that Russia could be persuaded to soften its line over a conflict that according to activists has now killed over 80,000 people.

The West and Israel are particularly concerned about Russia's refusal to rule out further deliveries to Syria of advanced S-300 missile batteries under an existing contract.

Netanhayu is expected to emphatically warn Putin against delivering such weaponry which would severely complicate any future air attacks against the Assad regime.

Finance ministers and central bank chiefs from the Group of Seven leading economies will meet in the English countryside on Friday for talks on spurring growth, amid US-Europe divisions over the scale of austerity.

The G7 -- comprising Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States -- is expected to build on last month's wider Group of 20 meeting, while looking ahead to next month's G8 heads of state summit in Northern Ireland.

Britain is this year president of the G8 -- or G7 plus Russia -- and is using the platform to also push for greater multilateral co-operation in tackling tax evasion.

The foreign exchange market is also likely to feature high on the agenda after the dollar topped 100 yen for the first time in more than four years overnight, as Tokyo's aggressive stimulus efforts to reflate the Japanese economy continue to depress its currency.

Ahead of the two-day G7 meeting at Hartwell House, in Buckinghamshire, north of London, the United States has meanwhile called on Europe to further ease fiscal consolidation to avoid more economic damage.

Europe's leaders have been successful at removing some of the more immediate risks in the eurozone debt crisis, a senior US Treasury official told reporters.

"Now the focus needs to shift to boosting demand and employment, to avoid lasting damage to the economy," the official told a briefing.

"It's important to recalibrate the pace of fiscal consolidation...continued sharp fiscal consolidation risks undermining demand."

The European Union recently granted France two extra years to meet its deficit target on condition that it pursues reforms. But France has made clear that it does not want to go down a path of deep austerity as seen in neighbouring eurozone countries Italy and Spain.

A French source told AFP on Thursday that "it is counter-productive to set (deficit-reduction) targets that are impossible to reach because it will destroy the motor" of the economy.

And the International Monetary Fund, while welcoming efforts by indebted nations to cut state spending, has urged Britain to lessen the pace of its austerity programme to support the country's fragile economic recovery.

"We will be talking about the global economic situation and how to nurture the recovery," said British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who will host the G7 gathering.

He added that participants will also be "talking about the fiscal issues we all face and how we can make sure that our public finances are in good order".

Prime Minister David Cameron insisted Thursday that Britain was not bringing down the deficit "at an irresponsible pace".

He added: "We're doing it at a sensible and measured pace. It absolutely has to be done and it will be done."

Victoria Clarke, an economist at Investec financial group, said that at the meeting Osborne might seek "support from other fiscally cautious members such as Germany, to continue with his fiscal policy plan rather than relax the pace of austerity as some, including the IMF, have been suggesting".

US manufacturer Orbital Sciences launched its first Antares rocket, paving the way for a demonstration flight to the International Space Station within months.

The two-stage launch vehicle blasted off at 5:00 pm (2100 GMT) from the Wallops Flight Facility on an island off the coast of the eastern US state of Virginia.

As this was a test mission, Antares was not transporting the company's Cygnus capsule but rather a simulation of an equivalent payload of 3.8 tons -- filled with electronic equipment -- placed into orbit at an altitude of roughly 160 miles (257 kilometers) 10 minutes after takeoff.

The control room erupted in applause after the simulation payload separated from the rocket, a vehicle measuring 131 feet (40 meters) in height and 12.8 feet in diameter.

"Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

"In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America's newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users."

With the launch a success, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences now plans a demonstration run to the space station with the Cygnus capsule in the coming months.

"Today marked a giant step forward for the Antares program, with a fully successful inaugural flight of the largest and most complex rocket the company has ever developed and flown," said Orbital chairman David Thompson.

"We will now move forward toward completing the full demonstration mission of our system to resupply the International Space Station with essential cargo in just a couple of months."

A $1.9 billion contract requires Orbital Sciences Corporation to deliver freight to the ISS over the course of eight flights by the beginning of 2016. It is one of two private American firms chosen by NASA, the US space agency, to shuttle cargo to the outpost.

German airline Lufthansa said Monday it has cancelled most of its domestic, European and long-haul flights at six German airports due to strike action by ground personnel and some cabin crew.

Out of nearly 1,800 planned flights on Monday, "we will operate 20 short and medium-range flights and 12 long-distance services," a spokesman told AFP.

At Lufthansa's main hub in Frankfurt, Germany's biggest and Europe's third-biggest airport, just six out of a total 50 flights would go ahead, and three from 17 at Munich.

Services union Verdi called the strike after three rounds of pay talks with management ended without any agreement.

Verdi is demanding a 5.2-percent pay increase for 33,000 Lufthansa ground staff, plus employees of various subsidiaries as well as cabin crew members who are Verdi members.

North Korea has suggested to Russia that it should consider evacuating its embassy in Pyongyang due to the upsurge of tensions on the Korean peninsula, a Russian diplomat said Friday.

"A representative of the North Korean foreign ministry suggested that the Russian side examine the question of evacuating the employees of the Russian embassy," embassy spokesman Denis Samsonov told Russian news agencies.

He said the mission had taken note of the information and was working normally. "We are currently in the process of taking the decision," said Samsonov, adding that the current situation in Pyongyang was "absolutely peaceful".

The spokesman said he believed that a similar suggestion had also been made to other diplomatic missions in the capital.

At 93, Nikolai Vasenin, a former Red Army soldier and Gulag prisoner who fought for the French Resistance in World War II, is searching for the love he says he lost 60 years ago in France.

"Her name was Jeanne.... A brunette, nothing special. But I must find her at any cost," he says.

"I am 93, there is no reason to wait any longer."

Vasenin's extraordinary nine decades of life have seen him captured by the Nazis, escape from German captivity, join the French resistance and then be arrested on his return to the Soviet Union.

It is believed that Jeanne -- the daughter of a top Resistance commander -- is still alive but so far Vasenin has been unable to realise his final life's mission of meeting her.

Born in 1919, Vasenin was conscripted into the Red Army soon after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf was flying home on Sunday after more than four years in exile, defying a Taliban death threat to contest historic general elections.

The 69-year-old ex-dictator says he is prepared to risk any danger to stand for election on May 11, billed to mark the first democratic transition of power in the history of a nuclear-armed country dominated by periods of military rule.

He seized power in a bloodless coup as army chief of staff in 1999 and left the country after stepping down in August 2008, when Asif Ali Zardari was elected president after the murder of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Dressed in an off-white shalwa kameez, the traditional dress in Pakistan, Musharraf told reporters before heading to Dubai airport, that he was "not feeling nervous" but admitted to some concerns.

"I am feeling concerned about the unknown... there are a lot of unknown factors of terrorism and extremism, unknown factors of legal issue, unknown factors of how much I will be able to perform (in the elections)," he said.

His official Facebook and Twitter accounts provided live commentary, posting messages and photographs of him boarding the aircraft and sitting in his seat.

His scheduled Emirates flight to Karachi later took off around 10:15 local time (0615 GMT) with supporters on board shouting "long life to Musharraf", annoying some of the regular passengers, said an AFP reporter.

Musharraf is expected to land at the heavily secured airport at around 1:00 pm where he will address a rally, forced to scrap original plans to gather at the tomb of Pakistan's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah because of security fears.

The Pakistani Taliban threatened to dispatch a squad of suicide bombers to assassinate Musharraf and police withdrew permission for the rally.

Karachi, a city of 18 million, is already in the throes of record political and ethnic violence. On March 3, a huge car bomb killed 50 people in a mainly Shiite Muslim area of the city, the worst single attack in the city for years.

Just hours before Musharraf's planned homecoming, a suicide bomber killed 17 Pakistani soldiers by ramming a water tanker packed with explosives into a check post in the notorious tribal district of North Waziristan.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but North Waziristan is a known stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked operatives. Pakistani troops have been fighting homegrown insurgents in the tribal belt for years.

Musharraf told Der Spiegel he wanted to put Pakistan "on the road to prosperity and free it from terrorism" when he returned.

The top US military commander in Europe has said that several Nato countries are working on contingency plans for possible military action to end the two-year civil war in Syria.

The claim came as President Bashar Assad's regime accused US-backed Syrian rebels of using chemical weapons.

The Obama administration rejected the Assad claim as a sign of desperation by a besieged government intent on drawing attention from its war atrocities - some 70,000 dead, more than a million refugees and 2.5 million people internally displaced.

A US official said there was no evidence that either Assad forces or the opposition had used chemical weapons in an attack in northern Syria.

As the war enters its third year, the US military, State Department officials and the UN high commissioner for refugees delivered a dire assessment of a deteriorating situation in Syria and the sober view that even if Assad leaves, the Middle East nation could slip into civil strife similar to the Balkans in the 1990s.