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Key Senator Leahy drops patent reform bill for now

By Diane Bartz WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday a controversial patent bill backed by major technology companies was being taken off the committee's agenda for now. The committee had been attempting to reach agreement on changes to a bill aimed at reducing patent litigation brought by patent assertion entities, often called "patent trolls" by their critics. The measure is similar to legislation passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives in December. "Because there is not sufficient support behind any comprehensive deal, I am taking the patent bill off the Senate Judiciary Committee agenda," Leahy said in a statement.

Jihadists seek Islamic state on Syria-Iraq border

"Their name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Their goal is to link together the two areas (Syria, Iraq) to set up their state and then to continue spreading," said activist and citizen journalist Abdel Salam Hussein. Speaking from Albu Kamal on the Iraq border, Hussein said ISIL seeks to crush Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, and control the eastern, energy-rich province of Deir Ezzor bordering Iraq.

Tense calm after Malawi election riots as voting extended

Blantyre (Malawi) (AFP) - Voting was extended into an unscheduled second day in Malawi's riot-tainted election Wednesday, as the country waited to see if a massive corruption scandal would scupper Joyce Banda's bid for a second term. In Blantyre's volatile Ndirande township, camouflage-clad riot police clutched automatic rifles as they helped direct as many as 15,000 voters queing at a polling centre to cast their late ballots.

Senate backs Fischer for Fed board

By Howard Schneider and Richard Cowan WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved Stanley Fischer's nomination to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, adding a potentially influential voice to the developing debate over Fed policy in the post-crisis era. Fischer, 70, was approved on a 68-27 vote, with all the opposition coming from Republicans. The Senate could have considered both nominations back-to-back, but Republicans blocked the more rapid procedure to protest a rules change that allows Democrats to more easily move President Barack Obama's nominees, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likely will move this week to set a vote on Fischer's vice chairmanship for when the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess the week of June 1.

Mali crisis: UN's Ban demands ceasefire in Kidal

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate ceasefire on Wednesday after a deadly new outbreak of fighting in Mali around the former rebel stronghold of Kidal. The secretary general made the call even as a UN source on the ground in Mali told AFP that Tuareg militants had killed or captured a number of government soldiers in the town. "The secretary general is deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating situation in Kidal," Ban's spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Soldiers killed, taken prisoner by rebels in Mali

Tuareg militants killed several Malian soldiers during clashes in the rebel bastion of Kidal on Wednesday, a United Nations source told AFP, as the insurgents claimed to have taken control of the town. The fighting shattered an uneasy calm which had held since the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) took 32 civil servants hostage during a battle which left eight Malian soldiers and 28 rebels dead. "The noise of gunfire has stopped... There are prisoners and deaths among the Malian army's ranks," a source from the MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, told AFP, adding that the rebels appeared to have the upper hand. Mohamed Ag Rhissa, one of the leaders of the separatist MNLA, told AFP by telephone his group had taken "control the whole town of Kidal", adding that "we have prisoners".

China and Russia sign '$400 bn' gas deal

Shanghai (China) (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday oversaw a vast gas deal with China said to be worth $400 billion as the Ukraine crisis threatens Russian energy exports to Europe and his country faces Western sanctions. The signing in Shanghai was witnessed by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Chinese energy giant CNPC, the country's largest oil and gas producer and a party to the contract. "This is another major milestone achievement in China-Russia strategic energy cooperation," CNPC said in a statement. Russia has been seeking more Asian markets, and its gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine are currently under threat because of unpaid bills by Kiev.

UN nuclear watchdog, Iran agree new transparency measures

The UN atomic watchdog said Wednesday it has agreed with Iran five new transparency measures, including two concerning a long-stalled probe into Tehran's alleged past efforts to develop atomic weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran, which denies seeking or ever having sought nuclear weapons, has undertaken to provide information on the new steps "by August 25". The announcement comes after a fourth round of talks between Iran and six world powers in Vienna last week that both sides indicated made no progress towards a comprehensive deal over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Radicals in red shake up S.Africa parliament opening

South African President Jacob Zuma was elected for a second five-year term by parliament on Wednesday, as radical lawmakers shook up the normally staid proceedings. An attempt by the opposition to have Zuma declared unfit for office because of alleged graft that was deemed to be in conflict with the constitution was brushed aside and he was elected unopposed. Zuma, who heads liberation leader Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), had seen his personal image battered by a scandal over the spending of some $23 million dollars (17 million euros) of state funds on his rural home. The expected formality of the re-election was disturbed only by new lawmakers from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who turned up at parliament in bright red overalls, red hardhats and Wellington boots.

Tymoshenko: Divisive diva now a longshot in Ukraine vote

Ukraine's glamorous but polarising ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko was triumphantly released from prison during the pro-Western uprising in Kiev but is now a longshot in Sunday's presidential ballot due to mistrust of the corruption-stained old guard. The most influential female politician to have emerged from the former Soviet Union appears to retain an unquenched thirst for office despite nearly three years behind bars on abuse of power charges drawn up by allies of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian who narrowly beat her in the 2010 vote and whose regime was toppled after bloody street fighting in February. Her desire to see Ukraine folded more tightly into Europe has won her the sympathies of such world leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and successive administrations in the White House. Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to only confirm suspicions of Tymoshenko's most bitter detractors by describing his supposed rival in March as the one politician in Kiev with whom he could engage in "constructive work".

Russia faces tougher sanctions if Ukraine polls undermined: Biden

US Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday threatened Russia with tougher sanctions if it undermines a crucial presidential election in Ukraine this weekend. "If Russia undermines these elections on Sunday, we must remain resolute in imposing greater costs," Biden told reporters in Bucharest after meeting with Romanian president Traian Basescu. The vice president's comments come ahead of his trip to Cyprus later Wednesday, a country belonging to the European Union reluctant to impose stronger sanctions on Moscow. "We need to ensure that Russia can no longer continue to use its energy resources as a weapon against anyone in the region", he stressed during a press briefing with Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta.

UK politicians say Charles 'free to speak' after Putin-Hitler row

British politicians defended the right of Prince Charles to speak his mind on Wednesday after he reportedly compared the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine to those of Adolf Hitler. The heir to the throne made the apparently unguarded comment during a trip to a museum in Canada, in private conversation with a Polish-born woman who had fled the Nazis as a child. "I had finished showing him the exhibit and talked with him about my own family background and how I came to Canada," 78-year-old Marienne Ferguson told the Daily Mail newspaper. "The prince then said: 'And now Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler'."

Dutch Syria fighter arrested planning 'jihad heist'

Dutch police have arrested a 21-year-old man who fought in Syria as he was allegedly about to commit an armed robbery "to finance jihad", the public prosecutor said on Wednesday. The man spent six months in Syria last year "taking part in jihad" fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the prosecutor said in a statement. Spokesman Wim de Bruin told AFP that he wanted the money "for the fight in Syria". More than 100 young Dutch citizens have so far travelled to Syria to fight against Assad's forces in the three-year conflict in which more than 162,000 people have died, according to NGO estimates.

Thousands rally for south Yemen independence

Thousands of separatists rallied in Yemen's main southern city Aden Wednesday demanding renewed independence for the region on the 20th anniversary of a secession bid that was crushed by northern troops. The demonstrators waved the flag of the formerly independent south and pictures of exiled separatist leader Ali Salem al-Baid as they commemorated the short-lived Democratic Republic of Yemen that was crushed in the 1994 civil war. Southern leaders proclaimed their abortive breakaway state on May 21, 1994, just four years after the south merged with the north, ending 23 years of independence in a union that rapidly turned sour. The civil war ended with the occupation of the south by northern troops and the dismissal of thousands of southerners from their jobs, sowing grievances that have festered ever since.

5 Lessons Learned From Tuesday's Primaries

Six states held primaries on Tuesday — Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Oregon, and Pennsylvania — in what turned out to be a Super Tuesday “lite” of the 2014 midterm election cycle. Here are our top takeaways from the key contests: 1. The Tea Party is...

Analysis: GOP avoids past mistakes in Senate picks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tuesday's elections are the best evidence yet that Republicans are avoiding previous mistakes and improving their chances of controlling the Senate during President Barack Obama's final two years in office.

With Ukraine, Russia drives wedge between EU, US

WASHINGTON (AP) — The crisis in Ukraine is giving Russia an opening to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe just as Western powers try to repair a struggling trade deal and decide how to bolster a cash-strapped NATO.