Category: International Affairs

BBC’s Jim Muir: “Unverified video showed large numbers of government troops”

The UN Security Council has urged Syria to implement “urgently and visibly” a peace plan requiring a 10 April deadline for ending a military offensive against the opposition.

Envoy Kofi Annan’s plan calls for Damascus to pull back troops and heavy weaponry by that date, and for a full ceasefire by 48 hours later.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict was getting worse.

Mr Annan urged both sides to seize the moment and end the violence.

“Let us stop the killing and start a serious political dialogue,” he told the UN General Assembly.

He said he expected a full ceasefire to take effect by 06:00 (03:00 GMT) on 12 April.

Kofi Annan: “There is an urgent need to stop the killing”

Fresh violenceMr Annan is expected travel to Iran on 11 April, the day after the partial ceasefire is due, to try to win further regional support for his peace plan.

The UN statement requested that Mr Annan provide proposals for a mechanism to supervise the ceasefire and update the Security Council on the cessation of violence and implementation of the peace plan.

The Security Council said it would consider further steps depending on the outcome of these reports.

Speaking later to the General Assembly by video link from Geneva, Mr Annan said he was urging the government and opposition to “issue clear instructions so that the message reaches across the country, down to the fighter and soldier at the local level”.

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Annan’s six-point peace plan

1. Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people

2. UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians

3. All parties to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and implement a daily two-hour humanitarian pause

4. Authorities to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons

5. Authorities to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists

6. Authorities to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully

He said that if the ceasefire was successful a small mobile UN monitoring mission of some 200-250 observers could be brought into Syria.

Syria had already reported some troop withdrawals from three cities, Mr Annan said, but the violence was still continuing.

“Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily. Military operations in civilian population centres have not stopped.”

Activists reported on Thursday that government forces had been shelling several towns, including Homs, Deraa and the Douma suburb of Damascus.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says the activists are giving the clear impression that the Syrian regime is having a final crack at rebels before the ceasefire deadline.

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Ceasefire timetable

  • 10 April: Government must withdraw troops and heavy weapons such as tanks from towns, cities and villages
  • Following 48 hours: Ceasefire to be implemented on the ground with the onus on the opposition to follow the government’s lead
  • 06:00 local time on 12 April: All forms of violence must be stopped on all sides
  • Next step: All parties to hold talks on a political solution

Earlier Mr Ban urged members of the General Assembly to deepen their support for Mr Annan’s efforts because of the deteriorating situation on the ground.

“Despite the Syrian government’s acceptance of the joint special envoy’s plan of initial proposals to resolve the crisis, the violence and assaults in civilian areas have not stopped,” he said.

“The situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.”

Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that Syrian officials had agreed to it having an “expanded presence” in the country.

The UN says the conflict has cost more than 9,000 lives since it began a year ago. The Syrian government blames violence on “terrorist gangs” and says some 3,000 members of the security forces have been killed.

Foreign media face severe restrictions on reporting in Syria, and it is hard to verify the claims of either side.


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Job centre, Burgos, Spain

At 23.6%, Spain has the highest level of unemployment in

the eurozone

Unemployment across countries that use the euro edged higher in February to 10.8%.

That’s up from 10.7% in January and the highest level since the introduction of the single currency in 1999. Spain has the highest rate of 23.6%.

Meanwhile, a separate report confirmed that manufacturing activity in Europe shrank in February.

It is the eighth month in a row that the Purchasing Manager’s Index has been below 50, which indicates contraction.

‘Miserable March’

France was particularly weak, with manufacturing activity falling to the lowest level in almost three years.

“Eurozone manufacturers suffered a miserable March, with a renewed downturn in production wiping out marginal gains seen in the first two months of the year,” said Markit chief economist Chris Williamson.

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February unemployment rates

  • Spain 23.6%
  • Portugal 15.0%
  • France 10.0%
  • Italy 9.3%
  • Germany 5.7%

“Manufacturing is therefore likely to have acted as a drag on economic growth in the eurozone in the first quarter, falling to a lesser extent than in the final quarter of last year but nevertheless failing to prevent the economy sliding back into recession,” he said.

Other economists agree that the euro area is probably in recession.

“It looks odds-on that eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012, thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.

“And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”

The slowdown is creating a tough environment for job seekers. Italy saw unemployment hit 9.3% in February, the highest level since the country started collecting monthly figures in 2004.

For those aged between 15 and 24 the rate was 31.9%.

Prime Minister Mario Monti is trying to push through reform of the labour market, which he says will boost employment.

The lowest unemployment rates among countries that use the euro are to be found in Austria (4.2%), the Netherlands (4.9%) and Germany (5.7%).

Confidence among European business leaders has been undermined by Europe’s debt crisis.

Finance ministers will hope that an agreement to increase the size of the eurozone’s rescue fund will help bolster sentiment.

They agreed to boost the joint lending power of the “firewall” from 500bn euros ($668bn; £416bn) to 800bn euros ($1.1tn; £667bn).

The firewall is the permanent mechanism to bail out troubled euro zone nations.


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Mastercard and Visa logoThe card companies said customers would not be responsible for fraudulent purchases

Visa, Mastercard and Discover have warned that credit card holders’ personal information could be at risk after a security breach.

The firms said there had been “no breach” of its own system, instead blaming a third party.

Security blog KrebsOnSecurity, which first reported the story, said industry sources believed more than 10 million cards may have been compromised.

Reports suggested the stolen details had been obtained in New York.

The Wall Street Journal quoted its own industry sources as saying card-processing firm Global Payments was the company that suffered the breach. Shares in the company fell by more than 9% on Friday.

Global Payments has not responded to requests for comment.


None of the three companies, which are the three of the largest credit card processors would confirm how many customers were affected.

Visa and Mastercard, also used for debit cards of major US banks, said they had notified banks of the breach.

Discover Financial Services said it was monitoring accounts and would reissue cards if necessary.

In a statement, Mastercard said: “[We are] concerned whenever there is any possibility that cardholders could be inconvenienced and we continue to both monitor this event and take steps to safeguard account information.

“If cardholders have any concerns about their individual accounts, they should contact their issuing financial institution.”

Visa echoed Mastercard’s statement, emphasising that its customers are not responsible for fraudulent purchases.

Gartner analyst Avivah Litan said she believed the breach was related to a taxi garage in New York City.

“So if you’ve paid a NYC cab in the last few months with your credit or debit card – be sure to check your card statements for possible fraud,” she said.


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First deputy prime minister, government spokeswoman and minister of the prime minister"s office Soraya Saenz de Santamaria (C), Spain"s Minister of Industry, Energy and Tourism Jose Manuel Soria (R) and Spain"s Minister of Treasury and Civil Services Cristobal Montoro Romero

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said “serious efforts” were needed

Spain is cutting 27bn euros ($36bn; £22.5bn) from its budget this year as part of one of the toughest austerity drives in its history.

Changes will include freezing public sector workers’ salaries and reducing departmental budgets by 16.9%.

The government says it will raise 12.3bn euros this year, aided by an increase in tax for large companies.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said the nation was in an “extreme situation”.

“Our top priority is to clean up public accounts,” she said.

“This is a moment that demands serious efforts to reduce spending but also structural reforms to cause the economy to grow and create jobs.”

But economists are questioning whether the cuts will be enough to satisfy Spain’s European partners.

‘Insufficient’ cuts

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Key points

  • Ministries’ budgets cut by up to 50%
  • Civil servants’ wages frozen
  • Electricity bills up 7% and gas up 5%
  • Unemployment benefit frozen
  • No rise in VAT
  • Pensions to rise in line with inflation
  • Corporation tax revenue to rise by reducing deductions companies can make
  • Amnesty on tax evasion in return for 10% fee

Last month Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed with the European Commission to reduce Spain’s deficit from 8.5% to 5.3% of GDP in 2012.

Javier Diaz Gimenez, professor of economics at IESE Business School in Madrid, said: “This [budget] seems to be non-credible.

“They will not be making the 5.3% target agreed with Brussels, because the cuts are insufficient given the growth forecast,” he told BBC News.

This could mean further cuts are needed before long.

“I suspect that the government could be forced to implement further austerity measures later this year, with lingering economic downturn set to place additional strains on an already perilous budget deficit reduction plan,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Global Insight.

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“You have the Greek model, or the Irish model. You can either go kicking or screaming, or you can bite the bullet, like people have done in Ireland.””

Gayle AllardEconomist

The main risk is that the government’s tax revenue projections for 2012 look too optimistic,” he said.

There are concerns, however, that even the latest spending cuts could further damage the chances of getting the Spanish economy growing again. It is in recession and is expected to shrink by 1.7% this year.

Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said this would not happen.

“Our obligation towards Spanish people and the rest of the EU citizens is to get public accounts into shape,” she said.

“Not at any cost, but with measures that support those citizens who need it the most and not paralysing a possible recovery or job creation.”

Budgets slashedUnder the 2012 budget the unemployed will see their benefits maintained and pensions will continue to rise.

Consumers have also been spared some pain as VAT will remain at its current level.

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image of Gavin HewittAnalysisGavin HewittEurope editor

A government minister said Spain needed to tighten up its finances to meet EU targets for reducing deficits without stifling economic growth and job creation.

That is the challenge.

Privately some in government accept these calculations involve a risk.

The economy is in recession and some predict it will shrink by around 2% this year – even before these savings are made.

The fear is that Spain could be tipped into a downward spiral.

But they can expect higher living costs as Energy Minister Jose Manuel Soria announced a 7% rise in electricity bills and 5% rise gas bills from 1 April.

The government is also going ahead with a previously-announced increase in income tax by 1.9%.

The 27bn euros of cuts is equivalent to 2.5% of the country’s economic output.

Amongst government ministries, the big losers are the foreign office, whose budget has been halved. Industry, energy and tourism will get a 32% cut, while the public works budget will be slashed by 34%.

More details will be published next Tuesday when the budget goes before Parliament. It is expected to be passed formally in June.

‘Not yielding’On Thursday, police clashed with demonstrators as hundreds of thousands swamped the streets in Barcelona and other cities.

Unions said 800,000 people joined the protest in Barcelona. Police put the number at 80,000.

Spanish protestersPlanned labour market reforms have proved deeply unpopular in Spain

Some marchers in the city smashed windows and set rubbish bins alight. Police fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets at the ground, TV pictures showed.

In the capital, Madrid, unions said about 900,000 people took part. The government did not give a figure.

The BBC’s Europe editor, Gavin Hewitt, says the size of the demonstrations on Thursday were an indication that many are losing patience with austerity.

Unemployment in Spain is currently the highest in the EU at 24%. Nearly half of Spain’s under-25s are out of work.

The general strike was the government’s first big challenge since Mariano Rajoy took office after elections last November.

Despite the opposition, the government says it is committed to reining in its spending.

“The question here is not whether the strike is honoured by many or few, but rather whether we get out of the crisis,” Mr Montoro said.

“That is what is at stake, and the government is not going to yield.”

Bailout fearsSeparately, eurozone ministers have agreed the expansion of Europe’s bailout reserves.

The ministers, meeting in Copenhagen, have decided to boost the joint lending power of the “firewall” to 800bn euros.

Investors – worried about a bailout for Spain or Italy – wanted the fund to increase from its current size of about 500bn euros to closer to 1 trillion euros. But there was resistance from Germany to an increase of that scale.


George Zimmerman’s father told an Orlando television station that Trayvon Martin threatened to kill his son, then beat him before he shot and killed the 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26.

“It’s my understanding that Trayvon Martin got on top of him and just started beating him,” Robert Zimmerman told WOFL. “Martin said something to the effect of, ‘You’re going to die now’ or ‘You’re going to die tonight.’ He continued to beat George. At some point, George pulled his pistol. Did what he did.”

“He was punched in the nose. His nose was broken,” the 64-year-old Zimmerman continued. “He was knocked to the concrete. Trayvon Martin got on top of him and just started beating him. In the face. In his nose, hitting his head on the concrete.”

Only a shadow of the elder Zimmerman’s face is shown in the televised interview, because of fears for his and his 28-year-old son’s safety.

The comments came on the same day a surveillance video, taken at police headquarters the night of the killing, was broadcast by ABC News.

The tape shows Zimmerman, with his hands cuffed, exit a patrol car, with an officer inspecting the back of his head. Zimmerman does not appear to have any substantial injuries, though the video does not show a close-up of the neighborhood watchman.

“The injuries that made it sound as though he really should have been on a stretcher are not apparent in this tape at all,” Marcia Clark, special prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, told CNN. “He moves freely. He moves fluidly, not like someone who has just been through a beating in any way, shape or form, someone whose head has been pounded on the pavement as hard as described, someone whose nose was broken and bleeding. That tells you a great deal.

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

    • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband …

    LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) – Little Rock, Arkansas renamed its airport to honor two of its most famous citizens — former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the airport commission said on Tuesday.

    The seven-member Little Rock Municipal Airport Commissionvoted unanimously to honor the Clintons, citing their numerous accomplishments.

    Bill Clinton, a native of Arkansas, served as governor before winning the presidency in 1992 and serving two terms. Hillary Rodham Clinton was raised in Illinois but moved to Arkansas after marrying Bill. She was elected a senator from New York State after her husband’s second term finished and was appointed Secretary of State after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.

    “The Clintons continue to have a major impact on our state and our local economy, and we believe renaming our airport in their honor is a fitting way to recognize their service and their position in Arkansas and our nation’s history,” said Commission Chairman Jim Dailey in a news release.

    The Little Rock National Airport is the state’s largest commercial service airport. It serves 2.2 million passengers annually. The commission is currently working on a plan to make the airport international by 2020.

    When Hillary Clinton worked at the city’s Rose Law Firm, she served as legal counsel for the airport and the commission.

    Bill Clinton said in a statement, “Hillary and I are humbled by the Little Rock Airport Commission’s decision … We are grateful for this honor and for all that the people of Arkansas have done for us. And we look forward to many happy landings at the airport in the years ahead.”

    The Federal Aviation Administration will have to approve the commission’s decision. The airport’s three-letter identifying code “LIT” will not change.

    The commission said that it will redesign the signs entering the airport.

    Little Rock is also home to the $165 million dollar William J. Clinton Presidential Center, which includes a library and park and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

    (Editing by Greg McCcune)


James Murdoch James Murdoch remains in his job at parent company News Corporation

James Murdoch has stepped down as executive chairman of News International, the UK newspaper business that owns the Sun and the Times titles.

The newspaper publisher has been tainted by phone-hacking allegations.

The scandal led the company to close its News of the World title in July last year.

Mr Murdoch will remain as deputy chief operating officer of parent group News Corporation, run by his father Rupert.

‘Too big’

James Murdoch, 39, said: “I deeply appreciate the dedication of my many talented colleagues at News International who work tirelessly to inform the public.”

He added that the launch of a new Sunday edition of the Sun and “new business practices” put the company in a “strong position” for the future.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband said it was “right” that James Murdoch had resigned.

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It implies that 81-year-old Rupert Murdoch isn’t planning to retire or step aside in favour of his son any time soon”

image of Robert Peston Robert Peston Business editor, BBC News

“News International thought it was too big to be challenged, including by politicians. That’s why we need new rules in place at the end of all this process so that one organisation cannot control that much of the newspaper and television market,” Mr Miliband said.

Last year, James Murdoch twice appeared before the UK Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee to answer questions as part of its inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, joined his son at one of the hearings.

Paul Connew, a former News of the World deputy editor, said he was not surprised that James Murdoch had stood down.

“I think you’ve got to look at the bigger picture here,” said Mr Connew.

“Quite clearly there’s going to be criticism of James Murdoch in the culture and media select committee report, which presumably will be coming out in the not too distant future, and I think essentially he’s been moved out of the firing line.”

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The Labour leader Ed Miliband says it is now time to introduce new rules on media ownership.

James Murdoch’s departure also comes as the separate Leveson Inquiry continues to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press as a result of the phone-hacking allegations.

This is continuing to throw a spotlight on activities at both the News of the World and the Sun.

Earlier this week, Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers told the inquiry that evidence suggested there was a “culture of illegal payments” at the Sun.

‘Nothing more to offer’

BBC business editor Robert Peston said he had been told by a senior News Corporation executive that the company’s UK newspaper business “did not need more than one Murdoch in charge”.

“What he meant is that Rupert Murdoch, with the launch of the Sun on Sunday, is showing that he is back overseeing the group’s British newspapers,” said our business editor.

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Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman: ”James Murdoch had to go”

“So James Murdoch can concentrate on what he is said to enjoy most, which is running News Corporation’s television interests outside the US.”

The journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, a former editor at News International’s the Sunday Times, agreed.

“His father was very unhappy that he had to close News of the World. He did so at James’s urging – James was the guy on the spot and he decided to follow his son’s advice,” Mr Neil told the BBC.

“My understanding is he very much regrets that now, hence the steeling up with the launch of the Sun on Sunday.

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image of Hugh Pym Hugh Pym Chief economics correspondent, BBC News

Pulled out of the firing line to concentrate on pay TV in other parts of the Murdoch area?

Or fall guy for the series of increasingly damaging revelations about News International’s past conduct?

The interpretations of James Murdoch’s departure from the chairmanship of News International will range between those poles.

Supporters of James Murdoch will argue that he has always been more interested in television than newspapers and that his move to New York is a natural progression.

But critics will say that the timing of his departure, with the Murdoch empire on the back foot in the UK, is no coincidence.

“I think Rupert, who can be just as robust with his family as he can be with editors and executives who don’t have the Murdoch gene in them, has decided James has nothing more to offer here in London.”

In a statement, Rupert Murdoch said: “We are all grateful for James’ leadership at News International and across Europe and Asia, where he has made lasting contributions to the group’s strategy in paid digital content and its efforts to improve and enhance governance programs.”

He added that James would now “continue to assume a variety of essential corporate leadership mandates, with particular focus on pay-TV businesses and broader international operations”.

James Murdoch also remains chairman at satellite broadcaster BSkyB, of which News Corporation owns 39%.

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Aer Lingus planes Aer Lingus is continuing to turnaround its fortunes

Irish airline Aer Lingus has seen its annual profits more than double, as it continues to benefit from extensive cost-cutting.

The carrier made a pre-tax profit of 84.4m euros ($113m; £72m) in 2011, up from 27.2m euros a year earlier.

Its revenues rose 6% to 1.3bn euros, while its average income per passenger increased by 4.8% to 112.27 euros.

Aer Lingus said the results demonstrated “the success of the changes we have made to our business”.

Christoph Mueller, Aer Lingus’ chief executive, added that the increased profits had been achieved “against a difficult backdrop of non-controllable fuel price inflation, increased airport charges and challenging demand conditions in our primary markets”.

Brazil's Finance Minister Guido Mantega Guido Mantega wants eurozone nations to put forward more of their own funds

Brazil has said that developing nations would be happy to provide more money to ease the eurozone’s debt crisis, in return for more power within the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The comments were made by Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega as he met with his opposite numbers at a G20 meeting in Mexico.

He also called on eurozone countries to contribute more of their own funds.

This position was echoed by UK Chancellor George Osborne.

Mr Mantega said: “Emerging countries will only help under two conditions; first that they strengthen their firewall and second for the IMF [voting rights] reform be implemented.

“I see most countries sharing a similar opinion that the Europeans have to strengthen their firewall.”

Mr Mantega, and other G20 finance ministers, want eurozone nations to put more funds into the European Stability Mechanism, the fund set up to bail out nations struggling with their sovereign debt.

‘Colour of money’

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said eurozone nations would look next month at increasing the size of the ESM.

Mr Osborne, speaking to Sky News, said the UK was waiting for this to happen.

“We are prepared to consider [increasing] IMF resources but only once we see colour of eurozone money and we have not seen this,” he said.

“While at this G20 conference there are a lot of things to discuss, I don’t think you’re going to see any extra resources committed here because eurozone countries have not committed additional resources themselves, and I think that quid pro quo will be clearly established here in Mexico City.”

Chief IAEA inspector Herman Nackaerts talks to reporters at Vienna airport on 20 February 2012
Chief IAEA inspector Herman Nackaerts said he hoped for “some concrete results” from the trip

UN nuclear inspectors have arrived in Tehran for the second time in a month to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.

Chief inspector Herman Nackaerts said his team’s “highest priority” was to clarify the “possible military dimensions” of the nuclear programme.

But he cautioned that progress “may take a while”.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment work is peaceful in purpose, but Western nations believe the programme is geared towards making weapons.

Tensions have risen over speculation that Israel may carry out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon arrived in Israel at the weekend for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials.

But the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, warned on Sunday that it was still unclear whether Iran was at a stage to assemble a nuclear bomb.

“On that basis, I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us,” Gen Dempsey said.

‘New developments’

Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took part in an elaborate ceremony to unveil new developments in his country’s nuclear programme.

Tehran said it had used domestically-made nuclear fuel in a reactor for the first time, as well as developing faster, more efficient uranium enrichment centrifuges.

State TV showed the president inspecting the fuel rods as they were loaded into a reactor.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) during a tour of Tehran's research reactor (February 15, 2012)Iranian media showed President Ahmadinejad (at right) at a ceremony to unveil “new developments” in Tehran’s nuclear programme

The IAEA inspectors described their last visit, in January, as positive, and said Iran was “committed” to “resolving all outstanding issues”.

Mr Nackaerts said on Sunday that he hoped to have a “couple of good and constructive days in Tehran”.

“Importantly we hope for some concrete results from the trip. The highest priority remains of course the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, but we want to tackle all outstanding issues,” he said.

“This is of course a very complex issue that may take a while. But we hope it can be constructive”.

The inspectors’ evaluation of their visits may form part of the next written report on Iran’s nuclear programme, expected later in February.

Tehran says its nuclear activities are simply for electricity generation.

But last November, the IAEA said it had information suggesting Iran had carried out tests “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.

That information led to a decision by the US and the European Union to tighten sanctions against Iran, including measures targeting the country’s lucrative oil industry.

Iran said on Sunday it had halted oil sales to British and French companies, ahead of a European Union oil embargo set to begin on 1 July. Analysts say this gesture of retaliation is largely symbolic, as neither the UK nor France import a large proportion of their oil from Iran.

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