Conflicting information seeps from negotiations

Cyprus officials and international representatives were caught up in tortuous negotiations late into the night Saturday as they sought to forge a plan to raise the money the island nation needs to qualify for a bailout package. Failure would mean Cyprus could declare bankruptcy in just three days and possibly have to exit the eurozone.

It was not clear how far the two sides were getting: The information seeping out was conflicting.

Late in the evening, a finance ministry official said an accord was “very close,” and would likely include a hefty tax of a fifth to a quarter of deposits over 100,000 euros at the country’s troubled largest lender, Bank of Cyprus. But a banking official with knowledge of the talks said no deal was in the offing and wouldn’t likely arrive before Sunday.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing and they were not authorized to release details.

Meanwhile, the state-run Cyprus News Agency quoted an anonymous top official as saying an agreement was not within sight because of the “rigid stance” by the representative of the International Monetary Fund.

Cyprus has been told it must raise 5.8 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in order to secure 10 billion euros in rescue loans from other European countries that use the single currency, as well as from the IMF.

PETRA, Jordan

Obama visits ancient city to cap four days in Mideast

President Obama set aside the Middle East’s tricky politics Saturday to marvel at the beauty of one of the region’s most stunning sites, the fabled ancient city of Petra.

“This is pretty spectacular,” he said, craning his neck to gaze up at the rock faces after emerging from a narrow pathway into a sun-splashed plaza in front of the grand Treasury. The soaring facade is considered the masterpiece of the ancient city carved into the rose-red stone by the Nabataeans more than 2,000 years ago.

Obama’s turn as tourist capped a four-day visit to the Middle East that included stops in Israel and the West Bank, as well Jordan. The White House set low policy expectations for the trip, and the president was returning to Washington with few tangible achievements to show. Aides said his intention instead was to reassure the region’s politicians and people — particularly in Israel — that he is committed to their security and prosperity.

Curious residents and picture-taking tourists lined the streets of modern Petra as Obama’s motorcade wound toward the entrance to the ancient city. The president began his walking tour at the entrance to the Siq, a narrow, winding gorge cutting between two soaring cliffs.

The path opened into a dusty plaza with the massive columned Treasury as its centerpiece. Obama said the monument is “amazing.”

The Nabataeans established Petra as a crucial junction for trade routes linking China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. The city flourished until trade routes were redirected in the seventh century.

Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing more than a half-million visitors yearly since 2007. It may be familiar to many people who saw the 1989 movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Some scenes were filmed in the ancient city.


Pope Francis, Benedict have a private chat, break bread

Pope Francis on Saturday visited Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at his predecessor’s temporary new residence, Castel Gandolfo, outside the Italian capital.

The head of the Catholic Church was taken in the Vatican’s helicopter to the residence south of Rome for a private talk in the former pontiff’s library and to share a meal.

Germany’s Joseph Ratzinger, who stepped down as pope on February 28 at age 85, is staying at Castel Gandolfo ahead of a planned move to a Vatican monastery.

Few details were expected to be released from the conversation between the two men, who have known each other for years and read each others’ books, the Vatican indicated.

Benedict reportedly prepared a personal memorandum for the Argentinian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who must tackle several crises for the church, including the Vatileaks scandal.

BANGUI, Central African Republic

Rebels penetrate capital, threatening Bozize regime

Hundreds of rebels penetrated the capital of Central African Republic on Saturday, posing the gravest threat to President Francois Bozize’s government in a decade. In at least one part of the city, the insurgents faced resistance and were battling their way through, a group monitoring the situation said.

The capital of this desperately poor nation was plunged into darkness after fighters cut power to much of the city. State radio went dead, and fearful residents cowered in their homes Saturday night.

The rebels, who signed a peace agreement in January that was to allow Bozize to stay in power until 2016, have been threatening to overthrow the president unless he meets their demands.

— From news service reports