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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.

 

Foreign executives who moved their company headquarters to Switzerland to get better tax deals for their firms may find themselves paying the price for it this weekend.

A plan to crack down on excessive corporate pay packages is predicted to pass at the ballot box on Sunday.

If the "Rip-off Initiative" succeeds, shareholders will be given the right to hold a binding vote on a company's compensation of executives and directors. This includes both base salary and bonuses.

It would also ban "golden hellos" and "golden goodbyes" - one-time bonuses that senior managers often receive when joining or leaving a company which can run into millions of pounds.

Finally, the proposal pushes greater corporate transparency, for example by requiring that all loans to executives be declared to shareholders.

Breaching the rules could lead to a fine of up to six annual salaries and up to three years in prison.

The measure targets all Swiss-based companies - homegrown and offshore alike - as long as their shares are publicly traded.

Exit polls show Pier Luigi Bersani's centre left coalition leading in an Italian election that is testing the country's resolve to maintain painful economic reforms.

Sky Italia said Mr Bersani's coalition took 35.5% of the vote for the lower house of parliament, ahead of the centre-right coalition under former premier Silvio Berlusconi with 29%.

The poll by Tecne' has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5%.

 

United Airlines said it expected to keep its six Boeing 787s out of service until at least May 12, as the cutting-edge airplane remained grounded worldwide due to battery problems.

United, the only US airline with the 787 Dreamliner, just two days ago announced it would keep them on the ground through March 30.

United has "tentatively" scheduled a 787 on its Denver route to Tokyo's Narita International Airport on May 12, UAL spokeswoman Christen David said in an emailed response to an AFP query.

"We are taking the 787 out of our schedule through June 5, except for Denver-Narita," she said.

A person familiar with the case said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation of overheated lithium-ion batteries on the 787 was ongoing and schedule adjustments were necessary.

All 50 787s in service around the world have been banned from flight since January 16 after a battery fire on a parked plane and battery smoke on another one forced an emergency landing.

US and foreign investigators have reported progress in the probe of the lithium-ion batteries but have yet to pinpoint the cause of the problems.

Boeing is set to propose temporary fixes to the battery problems to US air-safety regulators Friday and could have them back in the air in two months, The New York Times reported.

The Times, citing industry and federal officials, said Boeing had narrowed down the ways in which the lithium-ion batteries could fail, concluding they would be safe to use after making changes such as adding insulation between the battery cells.

Boeing commercial airplane division chief Raymond Conner will unveil the proposals in a meeting Friday with FAA chief Michael Huerta, according to the Times.

Federal officials told the newspaper the aircraft could be back in the air by April if the fixes are approved.

Pope Benedict XVI may issue a decree bringing forward the conclave tasked with electing his successor and which can theoretically begin before March 15, the Vatican said Wednesday.

Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou stoked up his feud with the airline he founded by vowing to vote against the company at its annual meeting.

The entrepreneur, who with his family holds 36% of easyJet's shares, will oppose the re-election of Sir Mike Rake as non-executive chairman, as well as the board's remuneration report.

The meeting in Luton on February 21 will be another showdown in a long-running protest by Sir Stelios, who is unhappy at the company's plans to place a large order for a fleet of more fuel-efficient aircraft.

Sir Stelios, who failed in attempts to oust Sir Mike at meetings in August and last February, believes the new planes are not necessary and will be acquired at the detriment of shareholders.

He is unhappy that Sir Mike is standing for re-election, when he has already announced he will leave the company in the summer because easyJet's expected promotion to the FTSE 100 Index will conflict with his role as chairman of another blue-chip company, BT Group.

Sir Stelios said: "We do not believe directors who have resigned should be allowed to commit any company to a major programme of capital expenditure that will burden the company for 5-7 years after their departure."

The tycoon, who says he has no favourites about who the next chairman should be, believes Sir Mike's other roles, including as deputy chairman of Barclays, mean he is too busy to do justice to all the jobs.

Easyjet said it was encouraged that advisory service ISS has urged shareholders to vote in favour of all resolutions at the AGM.

Five people have been killed and three were injured after a lifeboat fell into the sea off a cruise ship that was tied up at the port of Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands.

Citing the islands' Emergency and Security Coordination Centre, a Spanish government statement said rescue personnel were called to the dockside after "a lifeboat with occupants had fallen overboard from a cruise ship docked at the pier of Santa Cruz port in La Palma".

 

David Cameron will not accept "a deal at any price" on future EU spending, Europe minister David Lidington has warned.

Three days before a second EU summit attempts to break the deadlock, Mr Lidington insisted it would be a mistake for fellow EU leaders to believe the Prime Minister was bluffing when he demanded "at worst a freeze, at best a cut" in the euro-budget proposed for 2014-20.

Talks between EU leaders broke down in November with a frustrated Mr Cameron calling on the EU to start living "in the real world" by recognising the need for financial belt-tightening in line with national cutbacks.

He particularly targeted eurocrats' pay and perks, irritating the European Commission by highlighting the number of its civil servants earning more than the British Prime Minister himself and suggesting their numbers should be cut.

Britain is not alone in warning that the public will not understand if the EU budget - funded by taxpayers - grows for the next seven years. The European Commission's opening bid was an overall budget ceiling of one thousand billion euros (£860 billion), but that was pegged back to £756 billion before the last effort at a deal collapsed.

On Monday afternoon, after pre-summit talks between EU ministers in Brussels, EU administration commissioner Maros Sefcovic said a deal at the summit on Thursday and Friday would send a "positive signal" about the European economy and help restore confidence. But he also made clear that any accord had to be "balanced" - in other words giving the commission a big enough kitty to finance the policies the member states have signed up to.

"I urge member states not to get carried away and break the European engine," said the commissioner.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said the country should be "prepared for the possibility of further bad news" in the hostage crisis in Algeria.

With a confused picture of what is happening on the ground following an Algerian military operation, Mr Cameron has postponed his speech on Europe in the Netherlands that was due on Friday to stay in Downing Street.

One British citizen is known to have died in the crisis and several others have been caught up in it.

Mr Cameron said: "It's a fluid situation, it's ongoing, it's very uncertain. We should be prepared for the possibility of further bad news, very difficult news, in this extremely difficult situation."

The Government has confirmed that there are "several" British nationals among the foreign hostages held by Islamist militants at the gas plant at In Amenas, deep in the Algerian desert.

Mr Cameron said: "We face a very bad situation at this BP gas compound in Algeria. A number of British citizens have been taken hostage. Already we know of one who has died. The Algerian armed forces have now attacked the compound."

He said officials in the Government's Cobra emergency committee, which he chaired twice on Thursday, were "working around the clock to do everything we can to keep in contact with the families, to build the fullest possible picture of the information and the intelligence we have".

David Cameron has vowed to fight to keep the Falklands in the face of mounting Argentinian rhetoric over the future of the islands.

The Prime Minister insisted British resolve was "extremely strong" and pointed out fast jets and troops are stationed on the Falklands.

It comes after Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner accused Britain of colonialism and demanded the islands were handed over.

In an open letter published as an advert in the Guardian she said Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas - the Argentinian name for the islands - in "a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism".

Mr Cameron insisted he was "absolutely clear" that Britain would defend the islands and said the UK was still one of the top five defence budgets in the world despite the raft of recent cuts to the armed forces.