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Briefly: Europe

- - Sunday, December 11, 2011

BRITAIN

London Olympics chief approves Dow sponsorship

BEIJING — The chairman of London's 2012 Olympic organizing committee said Sunday that he is comfortable with having Dow Chemical participate as a sponsor of the games despite criticism over its links to a gas leak in India that killed thousands.

An estimated 15,000 people died in 1984, when gas leaked out of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001 and says legal claims from the disaster have been resolved.

Victims of the accident, as well as former Indian Olympians and officials, have been pressuring Olympic organizers to drop Dow as a sponsor. Protesters in Bhopal recently burned an effigy of the head of the Olympic organizing committee, Sebastian Coe.

On Sunday, Mr. Coe defended Dow's involvement.

"Of course I understand the human scale of that suffering, but these are two very different issues," he said.

The U.S.-based chemical manufacturer will pay for a curtain-style wrap to encircle the Olympic Stadium in East London under a deal announced in August.

In India, survivors and their advocates say the wrap project with Dow ignores the pain they have suffered since Dec. 3, 1984, when gas and chemicals leaked out of the pesticide plant, which was owned and operated by an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide.

The world's worst industrial accident killed 15,000 people and injured 500,000, according to the Indian government, and is being blamed for major local health problems 27 years later.

Union Carbide paid $470 million as compensation for those killed or injured. The Indian government is seeking an additional $1.7 billion for the victims.

ITALY

Pope: Christmas will be tough this year

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI says he knows Christmas this year will be difficult, in an acknowledgment of the economic crisis gripping much of the West.

But he is urging the faithful to remember there is more to the holiday than buying gifts.

Benedict spoke Sunday while visiting a parish in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. Italians are facing new and higher taxes as the country struggles with a government debt crisis.

The pope told parishioners he knows that Christmas will be "very difficult" but that he wanted to wish all happy holidays. Benedict said that preparing for Christmas "doesn't only mean buying" gifts.

Later, greeting pilgrims in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, he said real joy is linked to something deeper.

GERMANY

Afghan troops to begin pulling out in February

BERLIN — Germany, which has 5,350 troops in Afghanistan, will withdraw 200 soldiers at the start of February, a German weekly reported Sunday.

Germany plans to whittle its forces in Afghanistan to 4,900 next year. The NATO-led forces are scheduled to be pulled out in 2014.

Berlin is drawing up plans for withdrawal, which will start Feb. 1 and involve 200 troops, Bild am Sonntag said without naming any sources.

Germany, which has the third-biggest force in Afghanistan, behind the United States and Britain, said at the start of this year that it aimed to begin pulling its military forces out, eyeing 2014 for complete withdrawal.

BULGARIA

EU's poorest region teeters on the brink

YAKIMOVO — The bare fields, the empty roads, the ruined houses and the shuttered schools say it all.

Welcome to Bulgaria's rural northwest, officially the poorest region in the European Union.

"There is almost no socioeconomic indicator on which this region does not come last, both in Bulgaria and the EU," Deputy Regional Minister Nikolay Nankov said. "It's not a rosy picture out there."

In the 1970s and 1980s, the region saw massive industrialization, making goods solely for the communist-era Comecon market.

But when the Iron Curtain was eliminated two decades ago, the factories closed.

Since then, people have become a rarity, with depopulation and aging taking a grim toll on the small towns, and notably the villages, leaving the once-buzzing schools, stately churches and huge cooperative farms in ruins.

"Oh, this was a big village of 9,000 people, but it all went to hell," Nikola Georgiev, 77, said in the village of Yakimovo, at the heart of Bulgaria's northwest, some 60 miles north of the capital, Sofia.

Now the village has just 2,000 people. Unemployment in the local area, where the population is 4,300, hit 54.6 percent in September, the highest in the country, according to media reports.

From wire dispatches and staff reports