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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.

 

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.