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June 7, 2012 at 10:00 PM

Ban Ki-moon: 'Syria at pivotal moment'

UNITED NATIONS, June 7 (UPI) -- U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Thursday condemned recent violence in Syria and called on the country's government and opposition to end the bloodshed.

"Syria is at a pivotal moment. And so are we," Ban told the U.N. General Assembly Thursday. "Syria and the region can quickly move from tipping point to breaking point. The dangers of full-scale civil war are imminent and real."

The secretary-general said despite accepting U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, the government of President Bashar Assad was not honoring or implementing the plan. He urged the world community to unify to end the carnage in Syria.

"Today's meeting comes in the wake of the recent massacre in Houla, where 108 people, including 49 children, many of whom were under age 10, were killed, as well as reports of large-scale killings in Maazratt al-Qubeir, near Hama, which the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria is currently trying to verify."

"We condemn this unspeakable barbarity and renew our determination to bring those responsible to account, said Ban. "The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. Each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalogue of atrocities."

The White House press office issued a statement on Syria Thursday deploring the targeted killing of civilians and said the country's future will be determined by the Syrian people.

"There is no justification for this regime's continued defiance of its obligations under the Annan Plan, and Assad's continued abdication of responsibility for these horrific acts has no credibility and only further underscores the illegitimate and immoral nature of his rule," the statement said.

Ban said the Annan plan and international support for it was key to ending the violence. "We must continue to support it with stronger steps to ensure compliance," he said. "No one can predict how the situation in Syria will evolve."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out Thursday against violence in Syria, saying, "The regime-sponsored violence that we witnessed again in Hama [Wednesday] is simply unconscionable. Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable or certainly democratic until Assad goes."

In Syria, U.N. observers were blocked in their attempts to reach the site of the reported massacre.

Syrian activists have claimed government troops and militiamen massacred at least 78 villagers near the city of Hama, a report the Syrian government denied.

The U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, which is monitoring an all-but-ignored cease-fire, sent observers to the village early Thursday.

"Their mission is being obstructed by three factors: First, they are being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back; second, some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area; third, we are receiving information from residents of the area that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter the village," Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said in a statement.

Activists also said Syrian forces, backed by militias, slaughtered civilians in the town of Heffe, although no other information about this incident has been made available.


Blast kill 15 at Pakistan madrassa

QUETTA, Pakistan, June 7 (UPI) -- Police said a bomb hidden in a bicycle decorated with flowers exploded at a religious school in Pakistan Thursday, killing at least 15 people.

The blast shook a madrassa in Quetta, where the students had just concluded a certificate ceremony.

The students killed were ages 6 to 8, Police Deputy Inspector General Qazi Wahid told reporters at the scene.

Wahid said the bomb was apparently hidden in a bicycle parked outside the school. The bike was decorated with flower garlands, which apparently fooled security guards into believing it was part of the promotion ceremony.

Nearly 50 people were injured in the blast, and police said the toll could have been higher if the bomb-laden bike had been wheeled inside the school.

The Pakistan Daily Times said there were no immediate claims of responsibility for the bombing. Madrassas have not been the targets of any threats in the city despite an ongoing crime problem, a city police official told the newspaper.


Obama to push 'immediate' euro rescue plan

BERLIN, June 7 (UPI) -- Europe has weeks to save the euro and must create an "immediate" rescue plan, the United States and Britain plan to tell Germany Thursday, Britain said.

Such a rescue plan could involve Germany pledging to underwrite struggling countries' debt, officials said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was to tell German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin Thursday he and U.S. President Barack Obama believe an authoritative agreement that fully gets the job done must be reached this month -- and there are two crucial summits in which to do it, officials said.

Those meetings are the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18-19 -- when Obama, Cameron, Merkel and other leaders of 19 major-economy countries and the European Union get together -- and an EU leaders summit in Brussels June 28-29.

The United Nations weighed in on the crisis Thursday, issuing a report that said the austerity budgets across the continent meant to reign in government debt "are backfiring."

"An escalation of the crisis could result in severe turmoil in financial markets and a sharp rise in global risk aversion, leading to a further weakening of global growth," said the U.N. World Economic Situation and Prospects 2012 mid-year update.

"The severe fiscal austerity programs implemented in many European countries, combined with mildly contractionary policies in others, such as Germany and France, carry the risk of creating a vicious downward spiral with enormous economic and social costs," the U.N. report said.

Critically, the G20 summit will take place a day after Greek elections that could push Greece closer to dropping out of the eurozone if voters choose a government that repudiates Greece's debts or is unwilling to accept international lenders' further austerity measures to qualify for more aid, analysts say.

Downing Street said Cameron and Obama agreed in a phone call Tuesday on the critical need for direct action.

"They agreed on the need for an immediate plan to tackle the crisis and to restore market confidence as well as a longer-term strategy to ensure a strong single currency," a Cameron spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Cameron has caused some irritation in Berlin and Paris by appearing to lecture eurozone leaders on actions he says they need to take to save the single currency, the British newspaper The Guardian reported.

Britain is an EU member but is not part of the 17-country eurozone and does not use the euro as its currency.


Obama to Congress: Get moving

LAS VEGAS, June 7 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama, in a speech Thursday at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, pressed Congress to act on jobs legislation to boost the economy.

Obama, winding up a West Coast fundraising tour, said now is a "make-or-break" moment for the U.S. middle class and warned lawmakers not to take the next five months off.

The general election is scheduled for Nov. 6.

"Instead of just talking about job creators, Congress should put their money where their mouth is," Obama said, adding, "It's past time for Congress to stop giving tax breaks that ship jobs overseas. Give tax breaks to companies that are bringing jobs back to the United States of America, that are investing right here."

Obama urged Congress to act to keep interest rates on student loans from doubling July 1. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on how to pay for the interest rate cap.

"You've got to tell Congress, don't double my rate," Obama told students. "Call them up, e-mail them, post on their Facebook wall, tweet them. We've got a hashtag -- #dontdoublemyrate."

At a fundraiser in Los Angeles Thursday morning, Obama touted his record, saying he had "to make a bunch of decisions that weren't always popular. But we made the right decisions." At the same time, he sounded the theme, "We've got more work to do."

Obama warned the budget offered by Republicans would wipe out spending on everything except defense, Social Security, Medicare and interest payments on the debt.

"Everything else would be fundamentally wiped out. Now we think deficits and debt are important. But we think that the way to do it is, yes, eliminate programs that don't work, reform our health system not by shifting costs to seniors, but by reducing costs and improving quality of care, but also, let's ask those of us who can do a little bit more to do a little bit more," he said.

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