Italy votes in referendum with PM Renzi's future at stake
ROME Italians were voting on Sunday in a referendum on constitutional reform that will decide the political future of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has promised to resign if he loses.
BEIJING Leaders of a bloc grouping China, Russia and Central Asian states called on Thursday for dialogue to address the violence in Syria, all but guaranteeing that there will be no end to the deadlock in discussions at the U.N. Security Council.
Russia and China - permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with the power to veto resolutions - have stymied efforts by Western powers to condemn or call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces, the U.N. says, have killed at least 10,000 people in more than a year of unrest.
Troops and militiamen loyal to Assad were accused by opponents on Thursday of the massacre of at least 78 people at Mazraat al-Qabeer, near Hama, following the killing of 108 people, mostly women and children, in Houla last month.
"The Shanghai group member states are against military interference in the affairs of this region (Middle East and North Africa), enforced 'handover of power', unilateral sanctions," a joint statement from leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) said.
"Member states stress the need to stop any violence on the territory of Syria wherever it is coming from, they respect broad nationwide dialogue, based on independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria."
U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, is to brief the Security Council in New York on Thursday. U.N. diplomats said they expected Annan to present a new proposal to rescue his failing peace plan by creating a "contact group" of world and regional powers.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping repeatedly stressed that Beijing and Moscow both oppose what he called "neo-interventionism" in Syria and other countries.
Cheng told reporters that, despite the Houla deaths, "we still believe that this is an internal matter for Syria". He did not refer to the latest massacre accusations.
China and Russia agreed that "the Syrian issue should be resolved based on envoy Annan's six-point proposal within the U.N. framework", Cheng said.
"You can't say that because you dislike a country's system, you can then think of ways to overturn its government," he said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a briefing China "has a positive attitude towards any efforts to ameliorate the situation in Syria" when asked about Russia's plan for an expanded meeting on Syria, including Iran.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov floated the idea on Wednesday in what could be the first step towards the creation of Annan's contact group.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, reacted coolly to including Iran, which she said was "stage-managing" the Syrian government assault.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, have urged international support for Annan's peace plan, despite calls from Arab and Western states for a tougher response.
IRAN AND AFGHANISTAN
The joint statement was issued on the last day of the two-day annual summit of the SCO, made up of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Iran, India, Pakistan and others attend the summits, but not as full members.
The six leaders also warned that "any attempts to solve the Iranian problem by force are not acceptable and lead to unpredictable consequences, threatening stability and security in the region and in the world as a whole".
Iran is at the centre of a standoff over its disputed nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran says its aim is the peaceful production of electricity.
The SCO leaders called for settling "the Iran nuclear problem through political and diplomatic means".
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday that China opposed any Middle East country acquiring nuclear weapons, state news agency Xinhua reported.
China and Iran have close energy and trade ties, and Beijing has repeatedly resisted U.S.-led demands to impose tougher economic sanctions on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
The joint statement also said "the national reconciliation in Afghanistan should happen under the leadership of Afghans and by Afghans themselves".
Hu said in an interview with state media on Wednesday that the SCO wants to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. The future of Afghanistan, struggling to end a Taliban-led insurgency despite the presence of NATO-led forces for more than a decade, was one of the meeting's main issues.
Cheng said China was not looking to fill the security gap left when most foreign combat troops leave by the end of 2014.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Thatcher)
SANTIAGO, Cuba Fidel Castro's ashes were placed in the niche of a boulder on Sunday, capping nine days of official mourning when hundreds of thousands of Cubans said farewell with a combination of tears, Castro-like defiance and choruses of "I am Fidel!"
VIENNA The candidate vying to become Europe's first freely elected far-right head of state since World War Two conceded defeat in Austria's presidential election soon after polls closed on Sunday evening.