Benedict XVI now "simply a pilgrim"

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Benedict XVI, the 265th successor to St. Peter at the helm of the Catholic Church, left the papacy to become a simple "pilgrim who is starting the last phase of his pilgrimage on this earth."

The German pontiff, who turns 86 in two months, left the Vatican of his own volition and under his own power, boarded a helicopter and was ferried to the papal summer residence in Castel Galdolfo, some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Rome.

Amid tears - including those in the eyes of his secretary Georg Ganswein, who could not contain his emotions - Benedict bade farewell to the Vatican personnel in the Courtyard of San Damaso.

At times, Benedict also appeared to become emotional, but he immediately recovered his smile and his calm demeanor, which he also exhibited when he greeted from the balcony of Castel Gandolfo the some 10,000 faithful who waited for him below.

The erstwhile pontiff will remain at Castel Gandolfo until restoration work has been completed on a monastery within the Vatican that will serve as the retirement home for His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus.

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U.S. will provide $60 mn to Syrian opposition, but no weapons

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The United States will provide $60 million to the Syrian opposition to be used partly for food and medicines, but it will not provide weapons, John Kerry said here on his first foreign trip as secretary of state.

He made the announcement during the meeting in Rome of the so-called Friends of Syria and after talks with the leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib.

Kerry said that U.S. President Barack Obama clearly understands the need to intervene in support of the Syrian opposition, but he emphasized that this will be "direct, non-lethal aid."

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Obama admin. to urge Supremes to back gay marriage in California

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President Barack Obama's administration will urge the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn California's Proposition 8, which barred new same-sex unions in the Golden State, NBC and CNN said.

The Justice Department is planning to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case late on Thursday, the networks said.

Last Friday, Justice delivered to the Supreme Court a legal opinion in which it deemed unconstitutional the federal 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The DOMA is the focus of one of the two cases that the high court will begin reviewing in March, while the other is related to Prop 8, an amendment to the state constitution that was approved in a referendum in 2008, shortly after the state legalized homosexual unions.

In 2010, a federal appeals court declared the amendment unconstitutional, and subsequently Prop 8 supporters decided to take the case to the Supreme Court.

If the Supremes uphold the appellate ruling, gay marriage will once again be legal in California.

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U.S. Congress renews Violence Against Women Act

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The U.S. Congress approved a new version of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act including protections for same-sex couples and Native Americans who are sexually assaulted by non-Indians.

The measure, which was approved by the Senate on Feb. 12, passed in the House of Representatives on Thursday by a vote of 286-138, with many Republicans opposing the bill because of the clauses pertaining to homosexuals.

In a statement, President Barack Obama promised to sign the updated VAWA as soon as it reaches his office.

The new law authorizes $660 million per year over the next five years for domestic violence prevention programs.

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Cuba dissident's daughter says dad's death was no accident

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Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya's death last July in a car crash "was not an accident," his daughter said here.

The Spaniard who was driving the car carrying her father confirmed that "a vehicle hit them from behind," Rosa Maria Paya said at a press conference in Madrid.

Angel Carromero, a leader of the youth wing of Spain's governing Popular Party, was at the wheel of the rental car on July 22 when it crashed near the eastern Cuban city of Bayamo.

Oswaldo Paya and fellow dissident Harold Cepero died, while Carromero and Swedish political activist Jens Aron Modig received minor injuries.

Oswaldo Paya, who would have been 61 on Thursday, emerged as a leading opposition figure in 2002 when he delivered to Cuba's parliament more than 10,000 signed petitions calling for a referendum on democratization.

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Death sentence for Islamist sparks deadly clashes in Bangladesh

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At least 34 people died in disturbances that broke out after the leader of the main Islamist party was sentenced to death for atrocities committed during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence, the official UNB news agency said.

Partisans of Delawar Hossein Sayedi's Jamaat-e-Islami party clashed with security forces and supporters of other parties in incidents across Bangladesh.

JeI militants also attacked members of Bangladesh's minority Hindu community.

Protests have been going on since the start of Sayedi's trial for crimes against humanity during the 1971 conflict that transformed East Pakistan into the independent nation of Bangladesh.

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Pollution in Beijing reaches dangerous levels

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Pollution in Beijing and surrounding areas returned to dangerous levels for the second time in a week, Chinese environmental authorities said.

The air pollution has been aggravated by a sandstorm originating in Inner Mongolia.

The concentration of tiny particulate matter in the air, considered especially dangerous due to its ability to get into the lungs and the bloodstream, exceeded 400 micrograms per cubic meter, according to measurements made by the Environmental Control Center in Beijing.

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EFE