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Pakistan mourns for the victims of Taliban massacre

A nation was in mourning yesterday as funerals were held for 142 people, most of them children, killed in a massacre by the Taliban at a military-run school in Pakistan.

Prayer vigils were held across the nation, and in other schools students spoke of their shock at the carnage in the city of Peshawar, where seven Taliban gunmen, explosives strapped to their bodies, scaled a back wall to get into the Army Public School and College on Tuesday morning.

Students were gunned down and some of the female teachers were burned alive. The attack was the deadliest slaughter of innocents in the country and horrified a nation already weary of unending terrorist assaults.

Army commandos fought the Taliban in a day-long battle until the school was cleared and all the attackers dead. The government has declared a three-day mourning period, starting today. Overnight, the body of the school head, Tahira Qazi, was found among the debris from the rampage. Her death raised the earlier reported death toll of 141.

Some of the funerals were held overnight, but most of the 132 children and 10 staff members killed in the attack will be buried today. Another 121 students and three staff members were wounded.

"They finished in minutes what I had lived my whole life for, my son," said laborer Akhtar Hussain, tears streaming down his face as he buried his 14-year-old, Fahad.

The Taliban said the attack was revenge for a military offensive against their safe havens in the north west, along the border with Afghanistan, which began in June. Analysts said the school siege showed that even diminished, the militant group could still inflict horrific carnage.

35 years minimum for double killer

London: A man has been found guilty of battering his ex-partner to death with a hammer and slashing his baby daughter’s throat weeks after he was reported to police for making threats.

Roland McKoy inflicted horrific injuries on Valerie Forde before killing 22-month-old Real Jahzara in a fit of “anger and resentment” at being told to leave the family home in Hackney, east London.

The 54-year-old handyman attacked Mrs Forde as she got ready to leave for work on March 31 this year — the deadline she had set for him to move out of the three-bedroom terrace. Afterwards, he drank bleach and left a note on Mrs Forde’s face which was stained with Jahzara’s blood, blaming her for what happened.

It read: “Valerie Forde you never stop playing derty ticks (sic) for many years on all people places and things you targets. Now the world must see the sudden destru..tions you creates in our families, our home and on yourself. Our fame in history. Roland.”

McKoy was jailed for life, serving a minimum of 35 years.

US man’s release to herald new era?

Cuba: American Alan Gross has been released from a prison after five years in a surprise move that could pave the way for a major shift in US policy toward the communist island nation.

The 65-year-old was on an American plane bound for the US after being released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban authorities at the request of President Obama’s administration.

As part of the secret negotiations to secure his release, the US was releasing three Cubans jailed in Florida in 2001 on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the US.

Obama administration officials have considered Mr Gross’s imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba.

Bonnie Rubinstein, Mr Gross’s sister, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television. “We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Texas.

Mr Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up internet access as a subcontractor for the US government’s Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country.

Couples dance a mass tango  for Pope on his 78th birthday 

Rome: Pope Francis is being treated to a cake, cards and a tango demonstration for his 78th birthday and 800kg of chicken meat — for the poor.

The Vatican said the meat, from a Spanish producer, would be distributed to soup kitchens.

Francis also greeted eight homeless people bearing sunflowers during his general audience in St Peter’s Square.

As he drove around in an open-air Jeep to greet the crowds, children handed up birthday cards they had made for him. Francis asked one: “Did you make this? It’s good!”

Outside the square, dozens of couples danced the tango, the Argentine Pope’s favourite.

The Pope quipped: “It looks like a two-by-four” — a reference to the tango.

Bookmaker suspends bets on the Queen’s abdication

London: A bookmaker said yesterday it had stopped taking bets on the Queen announcing her abdication in her Christmas Day message after receiving “a rush of bets”.

Coral — which also suspended betting on the Queen standing down in January — insisted it was not a marketing stunt: “These gambles tend to resurface, especially around the royal family.”

It was offering odds of 10-1 on the Queen announcing her abdication in the Christmas broadcast and said it received bets including one of £200.

Russians rush to shops as economy concerns grow

Russia: Consumers have flocked to stores, frantically buying a range of big-ticket items as they looked to pre-empt price rises following the staggering recent fall in the value of the rouble.

Many Russians were buying cars and home appliances before prices for these imported goods shoot higher.

In light of the currency’s slide, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev hosted a meeting with the heads of Russia’s largest exporters and pledged to implement a “package of measures” to stop the decline of the rouble.

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