No launch from N. Korea; no backing down, either
PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea's first chance at a rocket launch passed Thursday with no word of a liftoff, but also with no sign that Pyongyang intends to abandon what the U.S. and its allies consider an attempt to test long-range missile technology.
The launch window for what North Korea says is an observation satellite opened during a week aimed at celebrating Sunday's centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder. Events also include high-level meetings where new leader Kim Jong-Un has received at least three new titles to further cement his rule.
North Korea has said it will launch the rocket between Thursday and Monday, between 7 a.m. and noon local time. Space officials showed foreign journalists the launch control center Wednesday and said fueling was under way, but they did not comment further on the timing.
The United States, Japan, Britain and others say the launch would be a provocation and would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs. Experts say the Unha-3 carrier is similar to the type of rocket that could be used to fire a missile mounted with a nuclear warhead to strike the U.S. or other targets.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said it was prepared to shoot down any rocket that strays into its territory.
North Korea denies that the launch is anything but a peaceful civilian bid to send a satellite into space. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is designed to send back images and data that will be used for weather forecasts and agricultural surveys.
Syria mostly calm after UN truce deadline
BEIRUT — A fragile cease-fire brokered by the U.N. took hold in Syria on Thursday with regime forces apparently halting widespread attacks on the opposition. But there were reports of scattered violence and the government defied demands to pull troops back to barracks.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the onus was on President Bashar al-Assad's regime to keep the peace.
"As of this moment, the situation looks calmer," he told reporters in Geneva. But the cease-fire is "very fragile" and a single gunshot could derail the process, he added.
Ban will now ask the U.N. Security Council for speedy deployment of an observer mission, said special envoy Kofi Annan, who brokered the truce.
In the hours after the 6 a.m. deadline, a civilian was reported killed and the state-run news agency said "terrorist groups" launched a roadside bomb that killed a soldier. But there was no sign of the heavy shelling, rocket attacks and sniper fire that have become routine.
If the truce holds, it would be the first time the regime has observed an internationally brokered cease-fire since Assad's regime launched a brutal crackdown 13 months ago on mass protests calling for his ouster.
Afghan president may call early elections
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai raised the prospect Thursday of holding presidential elections a year early to lessen the strain that could be caused by foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan at the same time he ends more than a decade as leader of a nation at war.
Karzai, who assumed the helm of the country shortly after the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban rulers, has been the face of a years long international drive to transform the country and end the insurgency. Recently, however, his relations with the United States and other international partners have become heavily strained by his anti-Western verbal assaults.
The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2014 and the majority of NATO combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of that same year. At that time, Karzai will be at the end of his second five-year term and the constitution bars him from running for a third term.
That has raised concerns that insurgents could try to take advantage of any chaos as Afghan security forces try to protect the country without foreign combat assistance.
The prospect of an early departure for the controversial leader would please Afghans and others who are ready for a fresh start because they don't think Karzai has not done enough to battle corruption or improve daily life in the impoverished country.
Electing a new leader in 2013 also would clear the slate as the international community looks for a smooth transfer of power before most of the foreign troops go home or move into support roles.
Swiss confirm seized painting is stolen Cezanne
GENEVA — Swiss prosecutors say a painting seized in Serbia has been confirmed as a stolen masterpiece by French impressionist Paul Cezanne.
Zurich prosecutors said Thursday that the E.G. Buehrle Foundation certified that the painting is Cezanne's "The Boy in the Red Vest."
The painting was worth 100 million Swiss francs ($109.6 million) when it was stolen along with three other works from the private Buehrle collection in 2008.
Two paintings by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh were recovered shortly after the heist. The whereabouts of the fourth, by Edgar Degas, is still unknown.
Serbian police said Thursday three people were arrested in connection with the robbery.