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Swiss voters have narrowly backed curbs on immigration from the European Union, with 50.4 percent in favour in a referendum on Sunday, a polling agency said.



US Attorney General Eric Holder will expand government recognition of same-sex marriages in all federal courtrooms and prisons Monday, and ensure they receive the same benefits as heterosexual ones.

The move, which Holder announced Saturday at a gay rights dinner gala in New York, marks a major gain for advocates of same-sex couples after the Supreme Court issued two rulings expanding gay marriage rights last year.

Under the new policy, same-sex couples will enjoy the privileges even in states that do not recognize their marriages, so long as they legally wed in another state.

Among the key benefits the Justice Department will now ensure are extended to same-sex couples are the compensation fund for the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as death and educational benefits for the surviving spouses of police officers and firefighters injured or killed in the line of duty.





Afghanistan's presidential candidates held major rallies in Kabul on Sunday marking the start of an election campaign to appoint Hamid Karzai's successor, as the killing of a frontrunner's aides highlighted the security threat surrounding the poll.

Gunmen shot dead two aides of Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in the western city of Herat on Saturday, officials said.

The attack comes as the country prepares for its first democratic transfer of power, with the April 5 election viewed as a key test of the effectiveness of the 350,000-strong Afghan security force as foreign troops prepare to exit the country.

A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of US soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the campaign.

In the capital on Sunday, thousands of people, mostly men, gathered in giant wedding halls where candidates delivered speeches and called on war-weary Afghans to vote for them.


Ashraf Ghani, a 64-year-old academic and internationally known intellectual, told one packed hall: "Reforms will begin with us: myself, Mr Dostum and Mr Danish."


He was referring to his running mates, the former Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Hazara tribal chieftain Sarwar Danish.

Security was tight at the rallies, which were guarded by the Afghan national army.

But despite the army's presence, the killing of Abdullah's aides weighed heavily on some people's minds.

Voters 'concerned'

Arefa Alizada, an 18-year-old Abdullah supporter who attended one of the rallies, said: "I am concerned about security of the election, especially after I heard that two campaigners were killed yesterday. If it worsens, me and many other people won't be able to vote."




Afghanistan has been gripped by a deadly insurgency for the past 12 years. Most US and NATO troops are set to leave at the end of this year, leaving Afghans in charge of their own security.

A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of US soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the campaign.

Karzai was expected to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) late last year, which would allow about 10,000 US troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December.

But he has stalled and said his successor might now complete negotiations -- plunging relations with the US, Afghanistan's key donor, to a fresh low.

Karzai has ruled the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, surviving assassination attempts and the treacherous currents of Afghan political life as billions of dollars of military and development aid poured into the country.

He is barred from seeking a third term, leaving an open field to compete in the April 5 vote, which is likely to trigger a second-round run-off in late May between the two strongest candidates.





An emotional Dennis Rodman appeared to break down Monday as he apologised on his return from a controversial trip to North Korea, where he sang "Happy Birthday" to regime leader Kim Jong-Un.

The former NBA star was widely criticised for refusing to bring up human rights abuses or the plight of a US missionary detained in North Korea during his week-long visit.

The former Chicago Bulls player was also accused of pandering to North Korean authorities during the trip, which featured an exhibition basketball match involving other NBA stars to mark Kim's birthday.

"I love my country, America, I love it and I will never trade it for nothing in the world," the pierced and heavily tattooed Rodman told reporters at Beijing airport.


Former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson has described Rodman's actions as "treason".

Rodman said he wanted to "show people that no matter what is going on in the world, for one day... not politics, not all this stuff..." before launching into an apology.

"I am sorry. I am not the president. I am not an ambassador. I am Dennis Rodman. Just an individual, just showing the world the fact that we can actually get along and be happy for one day," Rodman said, before his voice broke and he put his hands to his face.

He was ushered through a heavy media presence by security and his entourage, which includes Joseph Terwilliger, a bearded tuba-playing neuroscience professor from Columbia University in New York.

Rodman has developed an unlikely relationship with the young North Korean leader since making his first trip there in February, when he declared Kim a "friend for life".

The former power forward, who was wearing dark glasses, a blue tracksuit top and orange scarf, was asked whether he raised the issue of Kenneth Bae, who was detained by North Korean authorities.






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.