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John Kerry arrives in Kabul unannounced

US Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived unannounced in Kabul to try to advance troubled negotiations on some US troops staying in Afghanistan after 2014.

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President Hamid Karzai said this week he was prepared to walk away from the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) talks if Afghanistan was not happy with its conditions.

But the United States has repeatedly pressed for the pact to be signed by the end of this month so the US-led NATO military coalition can schedule its withdrawal of 87,000 combat troops by December 2014.

“President Obama and President Karzai reaffirmed both back in January that the goal here was to complete the BSA in October,” a state department official travelling with Kerry told reporters on Friday.

“We continue to believe that is both preferable and doable. It is only October 11 at this point and obviously it is desirable.

“Uncertainty about an incomplete BSA could erode the resolve among NATO allies: makes (it) more difficult to plan for the US, makes (it) more difficult to plan for our NATO allies. The goal has not changed and that is what we continue to press for.”

Karzai said he refused to be rushed into signing the deal and would first seek approval from a traditional grand assembly to be convened in about month’s time.

“If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them, then naturally we will go separate ways,” Karzai said in a BBC interview in Kabul broadcast on Monday.

The agreement would see a few thousand US troops remain in Afghanistan to train local forces and target al-Qaeda remnants.

According to the Afghan government, talks ground to a halt over US demands for the right to conduct unilateral military operations, and on how the US would protect Afghanistan.

The collapse of a similar agreement with Iraq in 2011 led to the US pulling troops out of the country, which is currently suffering its worst sectarian violence since 2008.

But Kabul has dismissed the possibility the US may enact the “zero option” of a complete pull-out after its troops have fought the Taliban for 13 years since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

“The BSA negotiations have been going on for 11 months. We are at a pivotal period,” the US official with Kerry said.

“We will be discussing where we are and see to continue to make progress. Negotiations were ongoing before we arrived and will be ongoing after we depart from Kabul. So that is not the expectation in terms of conclusion.”

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Exorcism lands four in jail in France

A French court has sentenced four people to between three and six years in jail over a violent, crucifixion-style exorcism carried out on a 19-year-old woman.

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The three men and a woman, members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, tied up the Cameroonian teenager in the position of Christ on the cross and kept her bound to a mattress for seven days in May 2011.

When police discovered the woman at a housing estate in Grigny in the southern Paris suburbs, she was emaciated, dehydrated, in a state of shock and showed signs of having been beaten.

The four, who are all of French Caribbean origin, insisted throughout the trial that the victim, named as Antoinette, had consented to the exorcism.

The court on Friday found them guilty of kidnap, but dismissed charges of torture and barbarism, and the sentences were lower than the eight to 12 years that the prosecution had called for.

Antoinette’s former boyfriend, Eric Derond, was considered the instigator of the assault, and was given the longest sentence of six years.

Reacting to the verdict, Antoinette, now 21, said she had hoped for tougher sentences against the four, who she called “dangerous people”.

Antoinette was 16 when she met her assailants through the Seventh Day Adventists, a US-based millennialist Protestant church which has millions of followers worldwide but only 13,000 in France.

During the trial, she said she had been “brain-washed”, becoming convinced that Derond was God. Her father told the court he believed she would have died within two days if police had not found her when they did.

The church says the people involved in the case were all expelled a year before the attack and has stressed that exorcism of this kind cannot be justified by any of its teachings.

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Israeli settler bludgeoned to death

Suspected Palestinian militants have bludgeoned to death a settler in the third killing of Israelis in the West Bank in as many weeks, police say.

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The wife of the murdered man, a retired army colonel, was also injured in the night-time attack on their home at the settlement of Brosh in the northern Jordan Valley on Friday.

The attack was followed by calls from rightwing Israeli MPs for the suspension of low profile peace talks between the two sides and of the expected release of more Palestinian prisoners.

Army radio named the dead man as Sarya Ofer, a former commander of Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip and of various special forces units.

Police said Ofer’s wife had suffered minor injuries.

They also said the killing was “definitely” the work of Palestinian militants, but an army spokeswoman said it was still too early to say what the motive was.

Public radio said the couple had been in their home when they heard a noise outside and dogs barking.

Ofer went to investigate and was attacked with iron bars and axes by two Palestinians, the station said. His wife Monique was also injured but escaped and raised the alarm.

The radio station said the couple lived alone at the isolated property, which they ran as a village guest house. There were no visitors at the time of the attack.

Police said later that a number of people had been detained for questioning, although they were not necessarily murder suspects.

Army radio said five Palestinians were being interrogated, and an AFP photographer saw soldiers leading away handcuffed men.

“No-one will rest until the murderers are brought to justice,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a statement.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a settler from the far-right Jewish Home party, called for action against the Palestinians in response.

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Children forced to rob, says French court

A French court has convicted 26 members of three Croatian Roma families of forcing children as young as 10 to carry out more than 100 robberies in European countries.

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The court in the eastern city of Nancy on Friday convicted all but one of the 27 accused, sentencing them to between two and eight years’ jail.

Police had testified during the trial that the gang traded in women and used children like conscripts in a criminal army.

Judges did not however follow prosecutors’ recommendations for some of the accused to face the maximum sentence of 10 years.

The court also dismissed charges of human trafficking against all but one of the accused, despite testimony brides were being bought then renounced when they did not bring in enough money to the gang.

“The judges dismissed the shameful charges of human trafficking and we welcome this decision to prevent stigmatisation,” said one of the defendants’ lawyers, Alain Behr.

The defence had contested the people trafficking charges, saying the financial transactions were part of traditional dowry arrangements.

The case was heard against the tense background of a debate in France over the treatment of Roma migrants from eastern Europe.

Police had testified at the trial that the group was behind more than 100 robberies carried out in 2011 alone in France and neighbouring parts of Belgium and Germany.

Most of the thefts were carried out by children as young as 10.

The evidence against the families was based on the tapped phone calls of 120 suspects which police said had revealed a Mafia-style structure in which clan chiefs were supported by a network of subordinate captains and lieutenants, who in turn ran the children at the bottom of the pyramid.

The suspected head of the operation – a 66-year-old woman – is to be tried separately.

Defence lawyers had questioned whether their clients could expect a fair trial in light of the atmosphere of hostility towards Roma amid ongoing controversy over a claim by Interior Minister Manuel Valls that most of them will never assimilate into French society and should be deported.

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Dutch record breaker Van Persie hits treble in 8-1 win

Van Persie took his tally to 41 in 80 appearances, passing Patrick Kluivert’s record on a night of clinical efficiency from the Dutch, who had already qualified for next year’s finals in Brazil and racked up their eighth win of the campaign.

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The Manchester United striker opened the scoring with a 15th minute header and equalled the national scoring record soon after as the Dutch dominated and went into the break 4-0 ahead.

Kevin Strootman and Jeremain Lens profited from defensive errors to increase the tally before halftime with Van Persie breaking the record with his third in the 52nd minute before being taken off to a standing ovation at the Amsterdam Arena.

There were also poignant sideline celebrations with Kluivert, now an assistant to Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal. But a toe injury almost kept Van Persie from playing.

“It was a gamble but it worked out well,” said the 30-year-old forward with some understatement.

A bizarre own goal from Szilard Devecseri in the 64th added to the Dutch total before late goals from free kicks by Rafael van der Vaart and Arjen Robben rounded off a high tempo performance.

“We put the opponent under pressure for the full 90 minutes,” said Van Gaal. “The effort and the willingness was enormous. It’s a difficult process to squeeze right from the start and then to sustain it.”

On Van Persie’s record-breaking night, Van Gaal told reporters: “It’s a great achievement, but ultimately is all about the way the team puts him in contention.”

Hungary’s goal came from a penalty converted by Balazs Dzsudzsak after a Jeffrey Bruma handball just after the break.

Netherlands have 25 points from nine games, with their final match against Turkey in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Turkey and Romania, who each have 16 points with one match remaining, are fighting it out for a playoff spot.

(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Mitch Phillips and Ken Ferris)