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Feb. 2, 2013 at 12:10 PM
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Biden sets conditions for talks with Iran

MUNICH, Germany, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- The United States is willing to hold direct talks with Iran under specific conditions, Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday in Munich, Germany.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Biden said the United States is ready to meet "bilaterally" with Iranian leaders, CNN reported.

Observing there is a standing offer for talks, the vice president said "there has to be an agenda that they are prepared to speak to. We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise."

Indirect talks with Iran through the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany have been stalled for months.

Iran has expressed optimism that incoming U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will work toward softening Washington's toward Iran.

New U.S. sanctions imposed on Tehran last month targeted companies and individuals the United States says are supplying materials and technology to Iran.

Western nations have put an embargo on purchases of Iranian oil and placed sanctions on the country's banks and many of its businesses.

French president greeted as hero in Mali

TIMBUKTU, Mali, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- French President Francois Hollande arrived in Timbuktu to a hero's welcome Saturday as French troops pushed into the militants' last stronghold, officials said.

Hollande last month ordered French troops into Mali to help fight al-Qaida-linked forces that had taken control of the country's northern region, Radio France Internationale reported.

Hundreds of people greeted Hollande in Timbuktu's square after he flew into Sevare, where he was met by interim President Dioncounda Traore.

Later, he and Traore were to travel to the capital Bamako to discuss Mali's future, but not before Hollande met with French and Malian troops.

While in Timbuktu, the French president was to visit a historic mosque and a center where some historic books, documents and manuscripts had been burned by fleeing militants.

He is joined on the trip by Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canfin.

As Hollande toured Timbuktu to cries of "Vive la France," French and Malian troops who captured the airport in Kidal were trying to secure their hold on the city in northeastern Mali that is considered the last stronghold of the Islamic militants, the BBC reported.

On Friday, Human Rights Watch charged that Malian troops had summarily executed 13 people last month suspected of being supporters of the militants and forcibly disappeared five others, CNN reported.

Both French and Malian officials have repeatedly called on their forces to respect international law and human rights.

Five plead not guilty to Indian gang rape

NEW DELHI, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Five men pleaded not guilty Saturday to the rape and murder a woman on a bus in a case that has stirred protests across India.

Police charge the men lured the victim -- a 23-year-old physiotherapist -- onto a bus in December, where they assaulted and beat her with a metal bar before throwing her on to a highway. She died two weeks after the attack.

The trial is scheduled to start Tuesday, and the prosecution is expected to call three witnesses, A.P. Singh, an attorney representing two of the defendants.

He says one of his clients, Vinay Sharma, was not on the bus at the time. The other client, Akshay Thakur, was hiding under a seat on the bus and never took part in the attack, Singh said.

The prosecution claims to have strong evidence against all the men, including bloody clothing, DNA, mobile phone records, confessions and eyewitness testimony, The Times of India reported.

In the aftermath of the attack, thousands of protesters demonstrated across the nation.

The government fast-tracked legislation Friday that would make gang rapes resulting in death punishable by execution. Minimum penalties would be raised to 20 years for gang rape and rape of a minor.

'Accident' believed cause of Pemex blast

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- An explosion that blew apart the Pemex headquarters in Mexico City, killing dozens, most likely was an accident, the director of Mexico's oil monopoly said.

Emilio Lozoya said, "It appears from what one can observe that this is part of what the experts view as an accident," the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

He said no line of investigation had been ruled out.

At least 33 people have been reported killed and more than 120 injured by a blast that ripped through four floors of the company's building Thursday. An undetermined number of people were missing.

There was no fire after the blast, which occurred in an underground parking garage, senior officials said.

Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam warned that emergency workers had entered the most dangerous phase of the work because of the risk of structural collapse in the last two of the 39 areas damaged by the blast, CNN reported.

Russia observes WWII victory at Stalingrad

VOLGOGRAD, Russia, Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Russia Saturday commemorated the 70th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad, considered a turning point of World War II, officials said.

Speaking in the city now called Volgograd, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin emphasized Russia's role in defeating the Nazis, RIA Novosti reported.

"In Europe I've seen cities which were not touched by the war," Rogozin said at the ceremony. "But we are not like them. Our grandfathers and fathers were fighting here for every building and every street."

Hundreds of soldiers paraded in present-day and Soviet-era uniforms. About 200 veterans of the battle attended the ceremony.

President Vladimir Putin was not present, but he was expected to visit Volgograd's main war memorial later in the day and meet soldiers who fought in the battle.

The Soviets defeated the Nazis in the six-month battle at a cost of 1 million lives, the BBC reported.

Historians consider the battle of Stalingrad to be the moment the tide turned in favor of the Allies.

Phil says early spring on its way

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa., Feb. 2 (UPI) -- Spring is on the way, at least according to that famous furry forecaster, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog in Pennsylvania.

Phil did not see his shadow during the annual Feb. 2 ritual early Saturday, CNN reported.

Traditional interpretations of that unshaded vision by some residents of the groundhog's hometown in Punxsutawney, Pa., means that warmer weather will soon arrive.

Phil's more urban cousin, Staten Island Chuck, agreed with that forecast. He didn't see his shadow either at his man cave at the Staten Island Zoo.

Lots of less prescient Americans may have been hoping for such an optimistic forecast. Unseasonably high temperatures in recent weeks have seesawed with extreme lows, causing folks to alternate between shorts and T-shirts to heavy coats and gloves.

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