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Briefly: Justice minister says corruption growing

- - Sunday, October 14, 2012

ITALY

ROME — Italy's justice minister is warning that rampant corruption by politicians' pilfering public funds is reaching unprecedented levels, just as the government is demanding sacrifices from its citizens to keep the country from succumbing to the European debt crisis.

Minister Paola Severino says corruption is worse than during the kickback probes in the 1990s, nicknamed "Bribesville," that brought down an entire ruling class.

In an interview Sunday with Sky TG-24 TV, Mr. Severino said corruption is "extremely widespread in a context of great political weakness."

The non-elected technocrat government of economist Prime Minister Mario Monti has slashed public spending, raised taxes and made Italians work longer for their pensions.

Corruption probes have rocked regional governments in Rome, the financial capital of Milan and elsewhere.

Several political parties hit by corruption scandals face elections in the spring.

SCOTLAND

U.K., Scotland to set terms for independence vote

EDINBURGH — The British and Scottish governments are set to announce the terms of a referendum that could result in the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Officials from London and Edinburgh have been meeting to finalize details of a vote on Scottish independence.

A deal is expected to be approved Monday by Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.

It is likely to call for a referendum in autumn 2014, with a single yes-no question on independence.

Scotland and England united in 1707 to form Great Britain, with a common monarch, currency and London-based government.

Scotland now has significant autonomy, including an Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament.

But some Scots want to go further and make the nation of 5 million people an independent country within the European Union.

RUSSIA

Opposition aims for headway in local elections

KHIMKI — Opposition activists hoped to make gains in thousands of local elections held in Russia on Sunday, but supporters of President Vladimir Putin appeared likely to retain their hold on the positions despite somewhat looser election rules.

The Kremlin eased stiff election laws in response to massive winter protests against Mr. Putin's rule, but it introduced new restrictions after the demonstrations abated.

As things stand, Kremlin-approved governors and mayors are expected to preserve their seats, and the ruling United Russia party will likely keep dominating local legislatures.

In one of the most visible races Sunday, opposition activist Yevgeniya Chirikova was challenging the Kremlin-backed mayor of Khimki, a town just outside Moscow.

Ms. Chirikova, an organizer of the anti-Putin protests, has complained that authorities tried to thwart her meetings with voters, among other obstacles.

Her campaign reflected challenges also faced by opposition candidates in nearly 5,000 local elections held Sunday in 77 of Russia's 83 regions.

The lack of real competition has contributed to public apathy, and voter turnout was expected to be low in many regions.

UNITED KINGDOM

Thousands of troops to exit Afghanistan in 2013

LONDON — Britain's defense secretary says thousands of troops will leave Afghanistan next year, a major reduction in U.K. forces there.

Britain has said 500 of its 9,500 troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn this year, and all will be brought home by the end of 2014, when international troops are scheduled to hand security over to Afghan forces.

But it has not announced exactly how many will come home in 2013.

Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said Sunday that he plans "a significant reduction in force numbers by the end of next year."

He told the BBC that "thousands, not hundreds" of troops would be withdrawn late next year, "but I would not expect it to be the majority of our forces."

Since 2001, 433 British troops have died in Afghanistan.

LITHUANIA

Exit polls: Ruling coalition ahead in parliamentary vote

VILNIUS — Lithuania's conservative ruling government appeared on course to win the country's parliamentary elections Sunday, according to an exit poll, with the much-maligned coalition mustering about 25.2 percent of the vote.

The exit poll caught Lithuanians by surprise because the ruling coalition had weak showings in all pre-election surveys and has been hammered with criticism for four years of austerity measures meant to prevent the Baltic state from going bankrupt.

But only half the seats will be determined by party lists, while the other half consists of single mandates, many of which will require a run-off in two weeks. Only then will a clear picture emerge about who could form the next government.

The populist Labor Party was expected to finish first, with 19.8 percent, while the Social Democrats, also in the opposition, were poised to finish second, with 17.8 percent, according to the exit poll conducted by the BNS news agency and the RAIT market research company.

The conservative Homeland Union, led by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, was third in the poll, with 16.7 percent of the vote, while its coalition partners, the Liberal Movement, was fourth, with 8.5 percent.

Only two other parties, the upstart Way of Courage and Order and Justice -- both populist -- would pass the 5 percent barrier needed to win seats in the 141-seat Parliament.

The poll surveyed 3,786 voters, and had a 1.2 percent margin of error.

Lithuanians also voted in a referendum on whether to build a new nuclear power plant, which the ruling coalition claims will help establish the country's energy independence.

Opposition Social Democrats say the project is too expensive for the small country of 3 million people.

• From wire dispatches and staff reports