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March 20, 2013 at 12:00 PM
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Peres to Obama: '2 state solution' a goal

TEL AVIV, Israel, March 20 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama, after declaring an "unbreakable bond" between the two countries, met privately Wednesday with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

After the meeting, Peres said he and Obama share a common view -- that the "two state solution," a Palestinian state alongside Israel, is the goal.

"We share a common vision; we mustn't let the skeptics win," Peres said, Haaretz reported. "We agree that the goal is a two-state solution. We consider Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president] as our partner in the effort to stop terror and bring peace. Hamas remains a terror organization that targets innocent people. In the north, Hezbollah targets innocent people across the world. Hezbollah is destroying Lebanon and sponsoring massacres in Syria. We cannot allow chemical weapons to fall in terrorist's hands. There is an attempt to bring spring; it is an Arab initiative, which might bring peace. If realized, it will bring a better tomorrow. There is a division between skeptics and those who bring peace. Your voice is of optimism."

Obama thanked Peres for a warm welcome, adding, " I am especially thankful for the time you allowed me to share with the Israeli boys and girls. They want to be safe, free from rockets; they want a world where science and technology are used for peace, for learning."

During their closed door meeting, which included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Peres was expected to thank Obama for the U.S. investment in the Iron Dome anti-missile system, tell him Israel and the United States are united in facing down Iranian development of a nuclear weapon, and demand the United States cooperate with Israeli efforts to contain Syria's chemical weapons caches, Haaretz reported from Jerusalem.

Before the meeting, Obama, shovel in hand, and Peres walked through the presidential garden to plant a magnolia tree brought from the White House as a gift.

"A magnolia tree, just like what we have outside the White House," Obama told reporters. "I want everyone to know, this was on Air Force One."

Earlier in the day, Obama said he considers his first visit to Israel as president a chance to reiterate the "unbreakable bond" between the two nations.

Talk about sequester impact not there

WASHINGTON, March 20 (UPI) -- U.S. congressional Republicans say they haven't felt pressure from their constituents to do anything about the across-the-board spending cuts in effect.

Republicans said they expect the $85 billion in cuts, known as the sequester, to stay in place until Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, Roll Call reported Wednesday.

Before the sequester went into effect March 1, Obama administration officials spoke of how the cuts would hurt a host of departments and agencies beginning in April -- including furloughs in the Pentagon and closing air traffic control towers at smaller airports -- but even those discussions have faded.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he believes the country will "live with the sequester between now and Sept. 30."

"I think, generally speaking, people haven't noticed," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.

There was one exception, he said, the cancellation of White House tours.

"I'm not hearing anything at home, really," said Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said administration officials still hope the sequester will be eliminated in a broader budget deal, but that likely won't happen for months.

"We would obviously welcome a change of heart by Republicans, but there's no indication from Republicans that a change of heart is forthcoming," Carney said Tuesday.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., told Roll Call he hasn't been getting any calls about the sequester.

"I was at two dinners over the weekend," Shimkus said. "I asked large groups who felt the impact; not a single hand was raised. It's pretty quiet."

Al-Qaida affiliate says it killed hostage

HOMBORI, Mali, March 20 (UPI) -- French President Francois Hollande met with defense leaders Wednesday after an al-Qaida group said it killed a French hostage because of French troops in Mali.

Meanwhile, the French Defense Ministry tried to confirm al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb's claim it beheaded Philippe Verdon last week in retaliation to France sending troops to Mali to fight insurgents in the north, Radio France Internationale reported.

An al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb representative told ANI news agency Tuesday it had executed Verdon, whom the spokesman called a French "spy."

"The French President Hollande is responsible for the life of the other French hostages," he said.

RFI said 15 French citizens were being held hostage in Africa. The al-Qaida affiliate claimed to be holding six of them, including Verdon.

Verdon's father, Jean-Pierre Verdon, said he was told about the claim that his son was executed Wednesday and was awaiting confirmation.

Verdon's family have denied any connections with the French secret services.

Verdon was one of two French citizens kidnapped in Hombori in northern Mali in November 2011.

French and Chadian troops have been fighting a coalition of militants and rebels in northern Mali since January.

The militants had seized control of major cities and imposed strict Islamic law following a coup in March 2012. Since the intervention began, the territory has been recaptured but fighting still occurs in the mountains.

Pakistan may sign prisoner swap pact

KARACHI, Pakistan, March 20 (UPI) -- A Pakistani official says the country is seeking to sign an international agreement that would allow an exchange of prisoners with the United States.

Additional Interior Secretary Saud Mirza said the ministry had requested permission from the Foreign Office to sign the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, The Express Tribune reported Wednesday.

The decision came after the United States said it was willing to cooperate in a prisoner exchange, Mirza said.

Some 64 countries have signed and ratified the convention since the Council of Europe created it in 1985.

Pakistan may also sign the Inter-American Convention on Serving Criminal Sentences Abroad, Mirza said.

Signing the documents does not guarantee any prisoner exchanges will take place, another ministry official, Usman Ghani Khattak said in a January letter to a U.S. embassy official in Karachi.

Pakistan is negotiating the signings of prisoner transfer agreements with 22 countries and trying to sign extradition agreements with 18 countries.

U.S.-Afghan Special Op pullout deal struck

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 20 (UPI) -- U.S. Special Operations forces will begin leaving Afghanistan's Wardak province to meet President Hamid Karzai's demand that they go, officials said.

Under an agreement reached Wednesday between Karzai and U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force commander, the pullout will begin in Nerkh district, where many residents alleged U.S. Special Operations forces and their Afghan allies tortured and killed locals, which the United States has denied, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Coalition spokesman Thomas Collins said the Afghan government will determine the timing of the U.S. pullout and influx of Afghan troops.

Karzai originally demanded all U.S. special operations forces be withdrawn from Wardak by March 11, a deadline the United States ignored.

U.S. commanders argued that pulling special op forces from Wardak, a Taliban stronghold, would allow the insurgents to infiltrate nearby Kabul.

In a statement, Dunford said Wednesday's agreement "continues the transition of this critical province and meets the security needs of the people and the requirements of our mission."

The deal directs that Afghan forces will deploy into Nerkh district "soon" and the remainder of the province "will transition over time," the coalition said.

"The Special Forces are withdrawing from Nerkh, and the Afghans are taking over," Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said. "Our security forces are fully capable of providing internal security to Afghans throughout the country."

The future of the Afghan Local Police -- village self-defense units trained by the special ops forces -- in the province was unclear, the Journal said. The coalition statement said the regular Afghan security forces' arrival "will preclude the need for ALP and coalition forces in this area," but an Afghan Interior Ministry official said he wasn't aware of any decision to disband the units in Wardak.

Virus eyed in S. Korean computer outages

SEOUL, March 20 (UPI) -- A virus and not a cyber-attack caused computer outages at several South Korean banks and TV stations Wednesday, an official says.

The unnamed official, who is close to the investigation, blamed the system failure on "malicious" code, the BBC reported. The virus is being analyzed, he said.

South Korea's Communications Commission initially suspected the outages were caused by the latest in a recent series of denial-of-service attacks.

During the outage, skulls popped up on some computer screens, which the Korean Internet Security Agency said indicated hackers had installed malicious code in the networks.

The South Korean National Police Agency said three broadcasters -- KBS, MBC and YTN -- three banks -- Shinhan, Nonghyup and Jeju -- and two insurance firms had reported their computer systems suddenly stopped around 2 p.m., the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The South Korean defense ministry's computer networks reportedly were operating normally as of late afternoon.

The National Computing and Information Agency, which oversees computer networks at government organizations, also said their systems were working normally.

CNN reported Shinhan Bank was able to get its system back to normal after about 90 minutes.

Woori Bank also reportedly came under an apparent cyber attack about the same time but was able to restore computer operations with the help of an internal system, Yonhap said.

CNN said Nonghyup Bank managed to disconnect some of its virus-infected computers and its main server was functioning, allowing Internet transactions to be carried out.

Yonhap, quoting officials, reported the broadcast networks and some stations remained out of service as of late Wednesday afternoon but live broadcasting was proceeding.

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