World briefs March 28

The Obama administration says the Libyan government’s claims of civilians killed in airstrikes are unproven.

Gates says no proof Libyan strikes killed civilians

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration says the Libyan government’s claims of civilians killed in airstrikes are unproven.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates says “the truth of the matter is we have trouble coming up with proof of any civilian casualties that we have been responsible for.”

Gates said there were numerous intelligence reports suggesting Moammar Gadhafi’s regime was taking bodies of people killed by the pro-government forces and placing them at sites attacked by U.S. planes.

Gates said the American forces and those of other countries enforcing the U.N. resolution to protect Libyan civilians have been “extremely careful.”

Gates spoke Saturday in an interview pre-taped for CBS News’ Face The Nation to be aired Sunday.

Swiss avalanche kills at least four

GENEVA — An avalanche buried a group of French skiers in southern Switzerland Sunday, killing four people and leaving one missing, Swiss police said.

The death toll climbed from three after one person died at a local hospital, the Swiss news agency SDA quoted police as saying. Five others were injured.

The search for the missing victim was called off for the night due to dangerous conditions, police said.

The incident happened on the 12,200-foot (3,730-meter) Mont Velan in the Pennine Alps near the Swiss-Italian border.

All members of the group of 11 on a back-country ski trip were French, nine equipped with snowshoes and two with cross-country skis.

Local police spokesman Jean-Marie Bornet said earlier that at least three of the dead were buried by the avalanche.

Rescuers were alerted shortly after noon by one member of the group who was able to free himself, Bornet said. A vast search operation that included helicopters was launched.

Switzerland’s National Avalanche Center warned of a “considerable” risk of snowslides in the region Saturday.

In January 2010, six people died in an avalanche in another region, Diemtigtal, and a doctor who went to help was swept away in a second avalanche.

Record sale for Myanmar gems

YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar earned more than $2.8 billion from the sale of jade, gems and pearls at its annual gems auction this month, a report said Saturday.

The weekly Voice news magazine said 16,939 lots of jade, 206 lots of gems and 255 lots of pearls were sold through competitive bidding to fetch the record-high revenue. It said 8,719 local and foreign gem merchants took part in the 48th annual event, held in the capital, Naypyitaw, according to an official from the Union of Myanmar Federation of Commerce and Industry.

The March 11-22 auction, held under the auspices of the Mines Ministry, is a major foreign exchange earner for the military-dominated government, which faces economic and political sanctions from the West because of its poor human rights record.

Myanmar is one of the world’s biggest producers of jade as well as the source of up to 90 per cent of its rubies, and gems from the country are specifically targeted by U.S. sanctions.

in 2008, the United States enacted legislation banning the import of gems from Myanmar, which already was the voluntary policy of retailers such as Tiffany’s and Bulgari.

U.S. officials said at that time that Myanmar had evaded earlier gem-targeting sanctions by laundering stones in other countries before they were shipped to the United States.

Myanmar gem sellers say the sanctions have little impact on their business because they rely on Chinese and Thai gem merchants, who are the major buyers.

Thousands protest British budget cuts

LONDON — Tens of thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators streamed into central London on Saturday to march against government budget cuts, with a small breakaway group smashing its way into a bank, breaking windows and spray painting logos on the walls.

Another group of black-clad protesters hurled paint bombs and ammonia-filled light bulbs at police.

Organizers of the march estimated that at least 250,000 people from across the country were peacefully joining in the demonstration, the biggest protest in London since a series of rallies against the Iraq war in 2003.

Police said they were not giving out crowd estimates.

They said one group of a few hundred people broke away from the main march, scuffling with police officers and attempting to smash shop windows on two of London’s main shopping streets. Others threw objects at the posh Ritz Hotel in nearby Piccadilly. At least one person was arrested for carrying equipment that could cause criminal damage, police said.

Another group pulled a giant model of a Trojan horse and said they planned to burn it.

But, the protests otherwise had a carnival feel. School teachers, nurses and students all marched through central London toward Hyde Park, one of London’s biggest public gardens, with banners, balloons and whistles.

Britain is facing 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) of public spending cuts from Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government as it struggles to get the country’s large budget deficit under control. The government has already raised sales tax, but Britons are bracing for deep cuts on services.

The TUC union says it believes the cuts will threaten the country’s economic recovery, and has urged the government to create new taxes for banks and to close loopholes that allow some companies to pay less tax.

Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, likened the march to the suffragette movement in Britain and the civil rights movement in America. “Our causes may be different but we come together to realize our voice. We stand on the shoulders of those who have marched and have struggled in the past,” he told protesters at the rally.

The Metropolitan police have been criticized for adopting heavy handed tactics when dealing with demonstrations in the area. In particular, they have been criticized for penning demonstrators up in a small area for several hours without allowing them to leave. Police have said the so-called “kettling” procedure will only be used as a last resort.

The TUC has called for a peaceful protest during which people walk along official routes that have already been cleared with police. But leaflets scattered around central London by other groups have asked demonstrators to leave the official route and stay in central London after the event officially ends in the afternoon.