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World Briefs: N. Korea to go ahead with rocket launch

- - Sunday, March 18, 2012

PYONGYANG — North Korea vowed Sunday to go ahead with plans to launch a long-range rocket, rejecting criticism in the West that it would scuttle recent diplomacy.

North Korea said Friday that it would fire an observation satellite into space on a new rocket as part of celebrations next month of the 100th anniversary of late President Kim Il-sung's birth.

The announcement came about two weeks after the North agreed to suspend long-range missile tests and make nuclear concessions in exchange for much-needed food aid from the United States. The agreement was seen as a promising step toward improved relations between the two wartime enemies.

The U.S., Japan, Britain and others have urged North Korea to cancel the planned launch, calling it a threat to diplomatic efforts and warning that it would violate a U.N. ban on nuclear and missile activity because the same rocket technology can be used for long-range missiles.

IRAN

Sanctions-hit Iran alters currency exchange rate

TEHRAN — Iran's Central Bank is moving to bring part of its official foreign currency exchange rate into line with the much higher rate on the streets.

The bank announced Sunday that it would allow authorized money changers to trade dollars at 19,000 rials per dollar, while the official rate remains at 12,260.

The Iranian currency has lost much of its value because of Western sanctions to halt Iran's nuclear development program.

Iran has a burgeoning black market in currencies because of the wide gap between the official and street exchange rates.

It was not clear whether the central bank would continue adjusting its market rate to reflect the unofficial street price.

GERMANY

German-Afghan man accused of al Qaeda membership

BERLIN — A German-Afghan man whose information helped prompt terrorism warnings across Europe in 2010 goes on trial Monday on charges that he is a member of al Qaeda and another terrorist group.

Ahmad Wali Siddiqui was captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July 2010 and while in custody provided details on alleged al Qaeda plots supposedly targeting European cities. No attacks materialized.

Attorney Michael Rosenthal, who represents Mr. Siddiqui, said the indictment is based largely on statements made by his client to authorities and that Mr. Siddiqui plans to address the court as the trial opens in Koblenz state court. He would not give details.

The 37-year-old Mr. Siddiqui faces a possible 10 years in prison if convicted of membership in al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

CUBA

Dozens of dissidents detained as Pope Benedict's visit nears

HAVANA — Cuban authorities detained a prominent dissident and dozens of her colleagues early Sunday, then arrested more activists while they staged a weekly protest march through Havana.

Police took away Bertha Soler and three dozen supporters of the Ladies in White dissident group hours before they were to take part in a regular march down Quinta Avenida in the leafy Miramar neighborhood of Havana. About 20 other Ladies in White supporters did make it to the march, but state security agents moved in when the group tried to extend the protest into streets they don't normally enter.

Sunday's detentions came just over a week ahead of a March 26-28 visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

GUINEA-BISSAU

Voters head to polls to elect new president

BISSAU — Voters in Guinea-Bissau on Sunday chose among nine presidential candidates in the small, coup-prone nation, and citizens said they hoped the winner would finally bring stability and much-needed development after years of turmoil.

Besides numerous coups, this former Portuguese colony has been destabilized by a booming drug trade.

Cocaine is smuggled across the Atlantic Ocean from South America in boats and planes that dock on Guinea-Bissau's archipelago of virgin islands.

The drugs are carried north to Europe by boat as well as by human drug "mules," who ingest the cocaine before boarding commercial flights.

Sunday's vote closely followed the death of President Malam Bacai Sanha, who won office in 2009 in an emergency election after the assassination of longtime President Joao Bernardo "Nino" Vieira.

From wire dispatches and staff reports