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Briefly: Netherlands finance minister returns to talk austerity

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NETHERLANDS

AMSTERDAM | The Dutch finance minister flew home early Sunday from International Monetary Fund meetings to discuss the future of austerity measures torpedoed by euro-skeptic lawmakers and to reassure ratings agencies that he wants to put his country's budget back on track.

Jan Kees de Jager arrived home a day after anti-EU lawmaker Geert Wilders walked out of austerity talks with the ruling minority coalition, saying he would not cave in to budget demands from "dictators in Brussels" to bring the Dutch deficit back within the EU limit of 3 percent of GDP.

Mr. de Jager said he still plans to submit a 2013 budget to the European Union by April 30, despite expectations that the Dutch government will resign in coming days and call elections later this year, making it the latest European government forced out of office by the continent's financial crisis.

Mr. de Jager told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that the AAA-rated Netherlands has a reputation for fiscal prudence and discipline and he wants to keep it that way. Mr. de Jager said he is repeating that message "to everyone, including the ratings bureaus."

With the failure of the talks, chances of the Dutch deficit falling below 3 percent in 2013 have receded dramatically.

That's a bitter pill for Mr. de Jager and Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who have been vocal critics of nations that failed to adhere to the 3 percent rule.

The Dutch economy is in recession and the government is expected to run a 4.6 percent deficit this year - better than Spain's, but worse than Italy's.

SPAIN

Women visit town to ease bride shortage

CANDELEDA — Country boy, meet city girl.

Inspired by a Hollywood western, a Spanish dating association is trying to slow a population drain from the country's beleaguered central villages, introducing bachelors to women bused in from the big city of Madrid with hopes of ending a bride shortage.

Candeleda, a town of 6,000 on the banks of the picturesque Lobera River, hosted a weekend fiesta to welcome 68 women for a meet-and-greet with the village's single men.

Ancient cave paintings show Candeleda has been inhabited for some 5,000 years, and resident Jose Miguel, 67, said he would hate to see its population dwindle after such a long history.

"I've checked out the few widows and single women here," said Mr. Miguel. "I signed up for this to meet new ladies and to hopefully show them the beauty of my town."

The group, Asocamu, was set up in 1995 to promote rural repopulation by organizing parties for single men and woman, but Spain's painful financial crisis and the lure of city jobs has made the need more pressing than ever, Manuel Gozalo, one of the organizers, said Sunday.

Many villages are falling into ruin, with national statistics showing that of Spain's 5,000 villages up to 100 are under imminent threat of abandonment.

RUSSIA

Tens of thousands pray for Russia's church

MOSCOW — Tens of thousands prayed outside Moscow's main cathedral on Sunday to show their support for the Russian Orthodox Church in a controversy over a punk rock political protest.

Christ the Savior Cathedral was the scene of a brief surprise performance in February by a female punk rock group protesting Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency. Three members of the band remain in police custody and face up to seven years in jail on charges of hooliganism.

Their harsh treatment has provoked a public outcry and contributed to growing criticism of the church, a powerful institution with close ties to the Kremlin.

Patriarch Kirill has portrayed the punk performance as part of a broader attack on the church, considered by many Russians to be part of their national identity and an intrinsic part of a powerful state.

He had called on believers to attend Sunday's service to pray "for our faith, our church, our sacred objects and our fatherland."

The church maintains that desecration of icons and other acts of vandalism have become more frequent since the punk protest. As the patriarch led a procession around the cathedral, priests carried a crucifix and an icon that had been damaged in attacks elsewhere in Russia this spring.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports

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