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March 23, 2013 at 10:00 PM
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Cyprus reports progress on bailout

NICOSIA, Cyprus, March 23 (UPI) -- Cypriot officials said Saturday the country has made "significant progress" on an agreement to resolve its financial crisis with an international bailout.

Finance Minister Michael Sarris and President Nicos Anastasiades were in Brussels to discuss parameters for raising $7.5 billion, which the so-called troika -- the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank -- mandated Cyprus raise to secure a $13 billion international bailout, the BBC reported.

Cyprus has until Monday to raise $7.5 billion to secure the bailout funds.

"Significant progress has been made toward an agreement at least with the troika which will report to the Eurogroup," Sarris said. "Two or three issues need further work."

Sarris said Cyprus was considering a 25 percent tax on bank deposits of more than 100,000 euros ($130,000) in its biggest bank.

The process was thrown into disarray Tuesday when members of Parliament in Nicosia overwhelmingly rejected a tax on bank deposits. Since then, Cyprus has explored alternative funding sources, including turning to Russia for help.

Russia said Cyprus must first reach a deal with the troika, the BBC reported.

More than 1,000 Cypriot bank workers demonstrated Saturday at the Cypriot finance ministry, carrying signs that read "No to the bankruptcy of Cyprus" and chanting "United we cannot be defeated," the BBC said.

Germany has rejected a plan under discussion in which Cyprus would nationalize the pension funds of its state-run companies, a plan that included holding an emergency government bond auction. Germany also rejected the concept of ever again accepting a nation known as a tax haven into the European Union.

The tax on bank deposits in Cyprus as part of the bailout came about because of the reputation of the nation as a tax haven for criminal groups, especially for organized crime from Russia. International lenders were reluctant to provide aid for Cypriot banks because of concern it might appear they were bailing out organized crime.

Cypriot banks were heavily exposed to investments in Greece, which has helped put them in crisis.

Banks in Cyprus have been closed since Monday and are expected to remain closed until a solution to the bank crisis is found.

If there is no viable solution, Cypriot banks could fail, which could push Cyprus out of the eurozone in an exit that many believe will be severely disruptive to the eurzone's financial system.

Cyprus is also working under a deadline. The European Central Bank has said it would cut off low interest loans to Cypriot banks Monday if a solution has not been found by then. That would essentially force Cypriot banks into bankruptcy, analysts have said.

Lawmakers in Nicosia passed nine bills Friday, including one that would ban large withdrawals from the nation's banks and one that would split bank assets by creating a so-called good bank/bad bank system, which would put toxic assets into one bank that would be wound down over time.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that would allow for a tax levy on bank accounts valued at over $130,000.

That option would spare owners of smaller accounts from paying the new tax, the BBC said.

Obama back in D.C. after Middle East trip

WASHINGTON, March 23 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Washington Saturday evening, hours after wrapping up a visit to Jordan with a quick tour of the ancient city of Petra.

Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland just after 8 p.m. EDT and Marine One brought the president back to the White House just after 8:30.

King Abdullah II accompanied U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh to the airport in Amman. The king and president chatted briefly on the tarmac as Obama transferred from the helicopter that took him to Petra to Air Force One.

Obama arrived in Jordan late Friday after three days in Israel, his first visit to the country as president. He was scheduled to fly directly back to Washington from Amman.

While most of his trip involved talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Obama spent several hours Saturday at Jordan's most popular tourist destination. Petra, a 2,000-year-old city carved from rock, was cleared of other visitors.

Dr. Suleiman A.D. Al Farajat, a tourism professor at the University of Jordan, led Obama on the tour.

His casual tour contrasted with his hectic schedule of the previous days. While most of the time was spent in Israel, where the president talked to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he also traveled to the West Bank to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

At a joint news conference Friday, Abdullah welcomed the president to Jordan, telling Obama he was looking forward to an "Arab Summer." The king said Jordan would continue to provide shelter for Syrian refugees and to do whatever it can to facilitate talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama pledged the United States would provide another $200 million in aid to help those who have fled the nearly two-year-old conflict.

Abdullah spoke of the strain recent events are putting on Jordan, describing the Zaatari refugee camp as the country's fifth-largest city.

But he said there is a "window of opportunity" to reshape the Middle East that could close quickly.

"This is the Jordanian moment. What we're seeing is the third way in the Middle East -- we are seeing that the Arab Spring is behind us; we in Jordan are looking now at the Arab Summer for us all, which means that we all have to roll our sleeves," he said. "It's going to be a bumpy and difficult road, but I am very encouraged with the process and I am very excited about the future."

Obama described Jordan as an "invaluable ally" and a "great friend."

Former Russian oligarch dies

LONDON, March 23 (UPI) -- Police are investigating the death of Boris Berezovsky, 67, one of Russia's richest oligarchs, after his lawyer said he may have taken his own life Saturday.

Police said the death, at Berezovsky's home near London, was officially being treated as unexplained, the BBC reported.

Berezovsky was among a small group of rich men who dominated post-Soviet Russia. He was a close ally of Boris Yeltsin -- who served from 1991-99 as the first president of the Russian Federation -- and helped install Vladimir Putin as president.

He later became a Putin enemy and called for Putin's ouster, The New York Times reported.

Berezovsky, who moved to Britain in 2000, lost a $5.1 billion lawsuit in 2012 against another Russian oligarch, Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, and ended up with $250 million in legal and other costs, the Times said.

The dispute involved the sale of shares in a Russian oil company. Berezovsky claimed he had been strong-armed into selling the shares for a "fraction of their true worth," but a British court ruled against Berezovsky, with a judge calling him an "inherently unreliable" witness, the BBC said.

Citing sources, the BBC said Berezovsky had been depressed after losing the lawsuit and was feeling financial pressure.

The Times said Berezovsky recently had begun to sell off his personal assets, including an Andy Warhol painting and a yacht.

The Times said Berezovsky's death was first reported on Facebook by his son-in-law, and confirmed by a lawyer, Alexander Dobrovinsky.

Dobrovinsky said Berezovsky may have committed suicide.

Berezovsky was a leading Soviet mathematician who went into business and figured out how to skim profits from Russian's largest state-owned carmaker, the Times said.

Blizzard triggers fiery crash near Denver

DENVER, March 23 (UPI) -- Snow tapered off Saturday in Colorado, where police said blinding snow triggered a crash involving as many as 50 vehicles on Interstate 25 north of Denver.

At least four tractor trailers went off the road and a gasoline tanker was engulfed in flames following the crash, which was reported about 11 a.m. MDT. I-25 northbound was closed in both directions but has been reopened, The Denver Post said.

No fatalities were reported in the massive crash but several motorists were taken to area hospitals with various injuries, the Colorado State Patrol said in a release.

Forecasters cautioned people to avoid travel as heavy snow and high winds hindered visibility and made roads treacherous. Interstate 70 was also closed early Saturday, though it had reopened as of midday.

"Travel is going to be tough, with icy and snow-packed roads," said Kyle Fredin, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Boulder, Colo.

Roads were not expected to clear until Sunday, when winds are forecast to die down in the area.

More than 200 flights were canceled at Denver International Airport as of midday Saturday and many others were delayed by 4 hours.

Parts of Colorado have received a foot of snow during the storm. Boulder received more than 9 inches.

Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Mindy Crane said "the worst of the storm" is headed for the eastern Plains, which was already getting wind gusts of about 40 mph and receiving an inch of snow per hour.

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