- - Sunday, December 23, 2012

ITALY

ROME — Caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti said Sunday he won’t run in February elections, but if political parties that back his anti-crisis agenda ask him to head the next government, he would consider the offer.

Mr. Monti ruled out heading any ticket himself, saying, “I have no sympathy for ‘personal’ parties.”

At a news conference, Mr. Monti made clear he was spurning an offer from predecessor Silvio Berlusconi to run on a center-right election ticket backed by the media mogul, citing Berlusconi’s heavy criticism of his economic policies.

Mr. Monti’s decision ended weeks of speculation that dominated Italian politics and preoccupied Europe, which is eager to see Mr. Monti’s financial reforms continue.

The premier, an economist who has spent 13 months tasked with trying to right Italy’s troubled economy, said Berlusconi’s flipping between condemning the government’s economic policies and then praising the premier convinced him that “I couldn’t accept his offer.”

Mr. Monti was tapped by Italy’s president to lead the country after Berlusconi was forced to resign, having lost the confidence of international markets.

He stepped down Friday after Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support from his technical government, but has been asked stay on in a caretaker capacity in the run-up to Feb. 24-25 elections.

Other centrist parties in Parliament have been urging him to run for another stint as premier. Mr. Monti said “I won’t line up with anyone,” but made clear he would be available to head the next government.

RUSSIA

Putin to focus one conomy on trip to India

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin arrives Monday in India on a visit intended to help cement Russia’s position in the growing Indian market and reinvigorate political ties.

Following Mr. Putin’s talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Indian officials Monday, Moscow and New Delhi will sign agreements on trade, science, education and law enforcement.

While the volume of Russian-Indian trade has risen sixfold since 2000 and is expected to reach $10 billion this year, the growth has slowed in recent years.

And even though India remains the No. 1 customer for Russia’s arms industries, Moscow recently has lost several multibillion-dollar contracts to Western weapons-makers.

Russia and India have shared close ties since the Cold War, when Moscow was a key ally and the principal arms supplier to New Delhi.

The ties slackened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but grew stronger again after Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, seeking to revive Moscow’s global clout and restore ties with old allies.

Russia has maintained its strong positions in the Indian market with $30 billion worth of arms contracts with India signed from 2000 to 2010 that envisaged supplies of hundreds of fighter jets, missiles, tanks and other weapons, a large part of which were license-produced in India.

The countries have cooperated on building an advanced fighter plane and a new transport aircraft, and have jointly developed a supersonic cruise missile for the Indian navy.

But the military cooperation has hit snags in recent years, as New Delhi shops increasingly for Western weapons. The Indians also haven’t been always happy with the quality of Russian weapons and their rising prices.

GREECE

Greece: Eco-cruise NGOin fraud probe

ATHENS — Fourteen people have been charged with fraud in Greece in a major investigation into a nonprofit group that organized a series of environmental conferences on cruise ships attended by religious leaders and renowned experts.

Police and judicial authorities said Friday that 10 former executives of the now-disbanded Greek-based organization “Cycle of Patmos” and four of the suspects’ relatives were charged with multiple counts of fraud and money laundering after $4 million was not accounted for in the group’s financial records.

The group received state funding from Greece, and organized a series of major environmental events from the Arctic to the Mississippi, between 1997 and 2009, under an environmental interfaith initiative led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul, Turkey-based spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.

The conferences attended by high-profile groups of religious leaders, scientists and activists served as a platform for dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches that agreed to work together on environmental issues a decade ago.

Police on Friday did not identify the 14 suspects.

“Sums of money were transferred from the bank account of the non-governmental organization to accounts of its members for the payment of personal loans, the operation of off-shore companies and property refurbishment,” police said in a statement.

It said the suspects also allegedly charged the organizations with bogus and personal expenses, used its facilities as private property, and assigned projects to close associates without holding tenders.

A prosecutor heading the investigation recommended that further judicial action be taken to seize property owned by the suspects if they are convicted.

ROMANIA

Parliament approves new government

BUCHAREST — Romania’s parliament has approved a center-left government, putting an end to concerns that a bitter feud between the president and prime minister could lead to a political standoff.

Lawmakers voted 402-120 on Friday to approve the Cabinet of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, whose alliance won 68 percent of seats in Dec. 9 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Ponta said: “I want to show that social injustice can be remedied. I want to tell the retirees, those who were fired and the poor that the fight against poverty is a priority for the Romanian government.”

Mr. Ponta is an archrival of center-right President Traian Basescu, whom Mr. Ponta moved to impeach this year.

The bid failed, but Mr. Basescu said he was reluctant to reappoint the 40-year-old Mr. Ponta. He later relented after pressure from EU leaders.

GREECE

2 Greeks jailed for life over illegal antiquities

THESSALONIKI — A Greek court has imposed life sentences on two men convicted of dealing in ancient treasure worth an estimated $15.85 million, which had been illegally excavated from a cemetery in northern Greece.

The court in the northern city of Thessaloniki jailed two other men for 20 and 16 years, respectively, after finding them guilty of digging up and transporting the antiquities.

The severity of Friday’s sentences was due to the high market value of the loot — more than 70 artifacts from the sixth century B.C.

These included gold masks, four helmets, a glass perfume bottle, small clay statues, part of a gold diadem and parts of an iron sword decorated with gold leaf.

Archaeologists are currently excavating an ancient cemetery near Thessaloniki where the finds came from.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports