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Volkswagen plans to fill a big hole in its US portfolio by launching a midsized sport utility vehicle in 2016 and will expand its manufacturing presence in the region, the German automaker said.

The new seven-seater is part of a $7 billion investment in North American operations over the next five years, VW chief Martin Winterkorn said at a reception held on the eve of the Detroit auto show.

"The US is a cornerstone of our 2018 strategy," Winterkorn told reporters Sunday.

"We have set our goal: Volkswagen group of America aims to sell one million Volkswagen and Audi cars per year in the US by 2018," he added. "We are taking up the challenge with confidence, total commitment and the necessary staying power."

The largest European automaker had previously announced plans to invest $5 billion by 2015. Winterkorn did not specify how the additional funds will be spent.

The VW group -- which also includes the Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini brands -- has managed to nearly double its US sales since 2008, setting a new record of 611,700 delivers in 2013.

 

Pope Francis said Sunday he will make his first trip to the Holy Land, visiting Amman, Bethlehem and Jerusalem from May 24 to 26.

"In the climate of joy typical of this Christmas period, I would like to announce that from May 24 to 26, God willing, I will carry out a pilgrimage to the Holy Land," Francis told crowds gathered in St Peter's Square for the traditional Angelus prayer.

Francis said the date of the announcement -- January 5 -- was significant because it "commemorates the historic meeting between pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople", 50 years ago.

Their meeting in 1964 in Jerusalem led to the rescinding of the excommunications of 1054 that caused the Great Schism between the churches of the East and West.

During the visit, the pontiff said he would hold an "ecumenical meeting with all the representatives of the Christian Churches in Jerusalem" at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, venerated as the place where Jesus was buried.

 

 

Angela Merkel is due to be sworn in on Tuesday for a rare third term as German chancellor, capping months of political uncertainty as she bartered with her rivals to help govern Europe's top economy.

Eighty-six days after Merkel, 59, swept to victory in elections but failed to grab an outright majority, the Bundestag lower house of parliament will vote on handing her another four-year term.

The ballot is secret but the outcome likely holds little surprise.

With a whopping 504 of the 631 seats, Merkel's conservatives and their new centre-left partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), hold a comfortable majority under their hard-fought 'grand coalition' deal.

Afterwards she must be confirmed by President Joachim Gauck at the presidential palace before returning to the Bundestag to be sworn in as Germany's only third post-war chancellor to win a third mandate.

The ceremony and later swearing-in of ministers followed by the first cabinet meeting will enable Merkel to finally get back down to business in earnest after the longest government-building period since World War II.

 

Merkel is then due to address parliament Wednesday and travel to Paris for talks with President Francois Hollande the same day, ahead of an EU summit at the end of the week.

A parliament debate after Wednesday's address will be the first opportunity for a face-off across the floor since the SPD moved off the opposition benches.

Merkel has defended the time spent haggling over policy and posts with an initially reluctant SPD as time well spent, voicing appreciation on signing the coalition pact Monday "that we listened to each other".

 

 

 

 

Construction began on Sunday for the Serbian stretch of Russia's South Stream pipeline which will bring Russian gas directly to Europe, making it less vulnerable to price disputes.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Alexei Miller, the chief executive of Russian gas giant Gazprom, watched a live broadcast of two giant pipes being welded together near the northern Serb village of Sajkas.

"This is a historic project... which will eliminate transit risks and secure gas supplies to Serbia and Europe," Miller said at the ceremony.

The launch was praised by Vladimir Putin, who said in a statement the new pipeline would "allow consumers in southeastern Europe to take advantage of large Russian gas wells, thus reducing the risks of transit by third parties".

"It will help consolidate international energy security," said the Russian president.

Gazprom signed a deal with Serbia in October 2012 to construct the 421-kilometre (261-mile) stretch of the pipeline, worth some 1.9 billion euros ($2.57 billion).

The works are planned to be completed within two years, with the first gas shipments expected to flow in early 2016.

Dacic told AFP in an interview on Saturday that the South Stream project "is undoubtedly of very high importance" for Serbia.

"It is one of the biggest investments in Serbia in the past few decades... The value of works done here are estimated at two billion euros," Dacic said.

Serbia hopes to profit with around 100 million euros annually from income of gas transit through its territory, he said.

 

 

 

 

Toronto's crack-smoking mayor faced new embarrassment Thursday when video footage was published showing him in an agitated drunken state, staggering and making foul-mouthed threats.

Rob Ford, who admitted earlier this week that he had smoked crack cocaine while on a drunken binge, said he had been "extremely, extremely inebriated" when the video was shot.

"It's extremely embarrassing and I don't know what to say," Ford told reporters outside his office, after seeing the one minute 17 second clip.

"The whole world is going to see it. You know what? I don't have a problem with that," he added.

The video was purchased and released by the daily Toronto Star. It shows Ford staggering around an unknown living room, ranting and making punching gestures.

"I'll rip his fucking throat out. I'll poke his eyes out... I'll make sure that motherfucker's dead," Ford says, in a tirade apparently secretly videotaped by someone in the room.

"I'm gonna kill that fucking guy. I'm telling you, it's first-degree murder," he says.

This video's release comes after Ford on Tuesday admitted that he once smoked crack "probably in one of my drunken stupors."

The admission by the 44-year-old came after repeated denials, and six months after another video surfaced that allegedly showed him consuming the illicit drug.

The crack video is now in police hands part of an investigation of Ford's longtime friend Alexander Lisi for extortion, related to Lisi's attempts to recover that video.

Police are also expected to soon release possibly damning wiretaps in the Lisi case, after a court ordered authorities to do so.

But Toronto's police chief has refused to release the crack video, saying it is part of the Lisi criminal investigation.

Toronto's police chief, however, has refused to release the crack video as it is part of a criminal investigation of a Ford friend.

"This is very disturbing and very upsetting," city Councillor James Pasternak said of the latest Ford video controversy.

"It is very sad, and it's conduct unbecoming of a chief magistrate, and it's just another disappointment."

Later Toronto City Council is expected to vote on a motion asking for the provincial government of Ontario to step in and remove Ford from office if he does not heed urging to step aside.

The province's premier however has already said she would not step in, preferring to let police and the courts deal with the matter for now.

Pasternak, while generally supportive of attempts to oust the mayor, cautioned fellow councillors that having the province "come in and run the country's largest city is a dangerous and risky precedent.

 

 

The euro rebounded in Asia trade on Wednesday on hopes for fresh European Central Bank easing policies after officials downgraded their eurozone growth forecasts for next year.

The pick-up follows days of selling pressure for the unit, which began falling last week after data showed inflation at a four-year low.

After suffering early selling pressure the single currency climbed to $1.3501 and 133.04 yen in Tokyo afternoon trade, up from $1.3474 and 132.76 yen in New York Tuesday. The currency is well down from the $1.3787 and 134.40 yen before last week's inflation data.

The dollar was at 98.54 yen, from 98.53 yen in New York where it had won support from better-than-expected US services sector data.

On Tuesday, European officials said the eurozone economy would grow 1.1 percent next year, slower than the 1.2 percent it forecast in May. They also kept their estimate of a 0.4 percent contraction this year.

The figures -- along with data showing inflation surprisingly fell to just 0.7 percent -- dented hopes about a strong recovery in the debt-wracked bloc but fuelled speculation the ECB would cut already record-low interest rates at its policy meeting Thursday. Lower interest rates tend to weigh on currencies.

"Since the ECB looks uncomfortable with a recent rally in the euro above $1.38, the ECB President Mario Draghi is unlikely to say something that can be taken as denying the odds of a future rate cut," Marito Ueda, managing director at FX Prime Corp., told Dow Jones Newswires.

The dollar advanced in late Asian trade Wednesday after reports on Toyota's upgrading outlook for the annual operating profit boosted the stock prices and encouraged buying of the US unit.

Dollar trading was focused on upbeat US services sector figures on Tuesday, which pointed to a pickup in the world's biggest economy.

 

 

Easing pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme at this stage would be a "historic mistake," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday.

"It would be a historic mistake to ease the pressure on Iran a moment before the sanctions achieve their objective," he said at the opening of the Israeli parliament's winter session.

In remarks a day before world powers hold a fresh round of talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, which Israel and much of the West believes is a front for building a weapons capacity, Netanyahu issued a stark warning over any move to ease sanctions.

"Particularly at this moment we must not give up on them, we must keep up the pressure," he said.

 

 

Toyota on Friday unveiled the next generation of cars featuring an auto pilot system that will swerve to avoid collisions and also keep to the middle of the road, all without drivers touching the wheel.

The Japanese giant autos using the self-driving technology could be available on the market in just a few years' time.

"These advanced driving support technologies prevent human errors, reduce driving stress and help drivers avert accidents, which has a big potential to reduce the number of traffic deaths," Toyota managing director Moritaka Yoshida said at a presentation in Tokyo.

Leading automakers and technology firms, including Toyota, rival Nissan and Internet giant Google, have been working on self-driving and assisted-driving technology for years.

Toyota, the world's biggest automaker, said that while drivers would still need to be alert and take part in the driving process, it essentially lets them put the vehicle on auto-pilot, leaving most of the work to the computer system.

 

 

 

 

Russian investigators on Wednesday formally charged two of 30 Greenpeace campaigners detained for two months over an open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling with piracy, an activist said.

"The first two activists have been charged with piracy," Mikhail Kreindlin, a representative of Greenpeace, told AFP. "These activists are from Brazil and Britain."

President Vladimir Putin last week raised hopes that the activists would face lesser charges when he said that they "are not pirates", but had nonetheless broken international law by protesting close to a Russian oil rig.

 

 

 

European stock markets slid Monday after heavy falls in Tokyo, as investors reacted to a budgetary impasse in Washington and political unease in Italy, sending the country's bank shares crashing.

London's benchmark FTSE 100 index dropped 0.67 percent to 6,468.75 points in morning deals, the CAC 40 in Paris shed 0.87 percent to 4,150.44 points and Frankfurt's DAX 30 declined 0.64 percent to 8,606.18.

In Italy, the FTSE Mib lost 1.56 percent to 17,371.47 points compared with Friday's closing value.

The rate of return demanded by investors on 10-year Italian government bonds meanwhile rose to 4.598 percent from 4.416 percent on Friday.

"On the continent, the real story centres around the heavyweight Italian banks, with Unicredit and Intesa Sanpaolo dropping more than four percent at the open as the farcical political situation causes further wobbles for the Italian markets," said CMC Markets trader Nick Dale-Lace.

Recession-hit Italy is braced for a showdown between Prime Minister Enrico Letta and billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

After weeks of bickering, Berlusconi on Saturday said he was pulling his party's five ministers out of a fragile coalition government with the left and called for early elections as soon as possible for the embattled eurozone nation.

In reaction, the euro was down to $1.3498 from $1.3519 late on Friday in New York. The dollar slid to 97.81 yen from 98.24 Friday.

Tokyo's stock market dived 2.06 percent on Monday as the dollar dropped sharply against the yen on concerns about a budgetary stand-off in Washington that threatens to shut down parts of the government.