Majority of Moroccans vote yes for new constitution

U.S., Europe welcomes results of “historic” referendum

Gaddafi’s son offers concessions for ceasefire but opposition says no alternative for Gaddafi’s departure

Ben Ali trial in Tunisia

Egypt control natural gas pipeline fire in Sinai

A new constitution curbing the powers of Morocco's King Mohammed VI was approved by 98 percent of voters in a referendum Friday, with 94 percent of polling stations reporting, the interior minister said.

Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui said voter turnout had been 72.65 percent in the 94 percent of stations reporting from the referendum, called by the king after he faced pro-democracy protests inspired by uprisings throughout the Arab world.

"The referendum went ahead in a normal atmosphere, and showed the degree of interaction between the people and the content of the constitutional project," he said.

In a clear bid to show the vote was supported by the young, Cherkaoui also noted that 30 percent of voters were under the age of 35.

Faced with protests modeled on the Arab Spring uprisings, the king announced the referendum on a new constitution last month to devolve some of his powers to the prime minister and parliament of the north African country.

Under the draft constitution, the king would remain head of state, the military, and the Islamic faith in Morocco, but the prime minister, chosen from the largest party elected to parliament, would take over as head of government.

The reforms fall short of the full constitutional monarchy many protesters were demanding and the youth-based February 20 Movement, which organized weeks of protests that brought thousands to the streets to call for more democracy, had urged its supporters to boycott Friday's vote.

Along with changes granting the prime minister more executive authority, the new constitution would reinforce the independence of the judiciary and enlarge parliament's role.

It would also remove a reference to the king as "sacred", though he would remain "Commander of the Faithful" and "inviolable".

The new constitution would also guarantee more rights to women and make Berber an official language along with Arabic -- the first time a north African country has granted official status to the region's indigenous language.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed Morocco's referendum on curbing the king's near-absolute powers, saying it helped promote democratic reforms in the North African country.

More than 98 percent of voters endorsed on Friday the reforms offered in a bid to quiet protests inspired by uprisings roiling North Africa and the Middle East, preliminary results showed.

"The United States welcomes Morocco's July 1 constitutional referendum," Clinton said in a statement.

"We support the Moroccan people and leaders in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law, raise human rights standards, promote good governance and work toward long-term democratic reform that incorporates checks and balances," she continued. "We look forward to the full implementation of the new constitution as a step toward the fulfillment of the aspirations and rights of all Moroccans."

Faced with demonstrations modeled on those that ousted long-serving leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, Morocco's King Mohammed VI announced the referendum last month to devolve some of his powers to the prime minister and parliament.

Mohammed VI, who in 1999 took over the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty, offered the reforms after the February 20 Movement organized weeks of protests that brought thousands to the streets. They were calling for greater democracy, better economic prospects and an end to corruption.

As praise from world leaders continues for Morocco's historic July 1 vote approving its Constitutional reforms, His Majesty King Mohammed VI sent a message to President Barack Obama expressing July 4th congratulations and pride in the 'long-standing friendship' and 'strategic partnership' that has defined the two nations' relations for more than two centuries.

In 1777, Morocco was the first nation to recognize U.S. independence and in 1787 it signed America's longest "Treaty of Friendship and Peace."

In his message, King Mohammed VI reiterated "the strong commitment of Morocco to the principles of democracy" and "the fight against all forms of extremism" and "violence," as well as supporting the "values of tolerance" the two nations share.

He noted "the permanent consultation and coordination between the two countries" and Morocco's continued support for US initiatives "to achieve peace and stability in the world and bring just and peaceful solutions to long-lasting conflicts, notably in the Middle East and Africa."

The King's message comes as final votes cast by voters living abroad indicated that more than 73 percent of Morocco's 13 million registered voters turned out for the referendum on Morocco's landmark reforms to strengthen its democratic institutions and establish it as a Constitutional monarchy.

According to provisional results, 98 percent of those voting approved the reforms. It is significant that regional voter breakouts show broad support across Morocco, with turnout exceeding 80 percent in six of 16 voting regions, highest in the three.

The European Union praised "the positive outcome of the referendum" on Constitutional reforms and pledged to "fully support Morocco" in its implementation. EU leadership called Morocco's reforms "important commitments to enhancing democracy and respect for human rights, strengthening separation of powers" with a stronger parliament and independent judiciary, and "advancing regionalization" and "gender equality."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy committed "France's full support for the exemplary process through which Morocco is resolutely and peacefully pursuing its deepening of democracy." Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called the vote a "clear and historic decision," saying "Morocco has succeeded in four months, peacefully and with dialogue, to take a decisive step," in contrast with a region shaken by "confrontation, sometimes violent."

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero also hailed Morocco's vote, saying "The commitment shown by His Majesty to bring about these changes is becoming a reference point for many other countries."

Meanwhile, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi is willing to hold elections and step aside if he lost, his son said, an offer unlikely to placate his opponents but which could test the unity of the Western alliance trying to force him out.

The proposal - which follows a string of concessions offered by the Libyan leader that Western powers have dismissed as ploys - comes at a time when frustration is mounting in some NATO states at the progress of the military campaign.

Four months into Libya's conflict, rebel advances towards Tripoli are slow at best, while weeks of NATO air strikes pounding Gaddafi's compound and other targets have failed to end his 41-year-old rule over the oil-producing country.

A series of explosions was heard from Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli in the early hours of Thursday and plumes of smoke rose into the sky.

"They (elections) could be held within three months. At the maximum by the end of the year, and the guarantee of transparency could be the presence of international observers," Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

He said his father, who came to power in the same year that man first set foot on the moon, would be ready to step aside if he lost the election but would not go into exile.

"I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Libyans stand with my father and sees the rebels as fanatical Islamist fundamentalists, terrorists stirred up from abroad," the newspaper quoted Saif al-Islam as saying.

The offer was made as Mikhail Margelov, the envoy leading Russia's efforts to end the conflict, arrived in Tripoli for talks with Gaddafi's government.

The Kremlin, which says Gaddafi should quit but opposes NATO's action in Libya, has said it is ready to help negotiate the Libyan leader's departure.

"Clearly the talks in Tripoli will not be easy," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Margelov as saying before he left for Tripoli.

"In the Arab world there is a tradition of forgiveness and conciliation, and many formerly odious leaders of regimes in the region continue to live in their countries ... despite having been overthrown," he was quoted as saying.

On the other hand, ousted Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was to be tried in absentia Monday on drugs and weapon charges described as "irrational" by his lawyer who wants more time to defend his client.

The trial, the second involving the ex-leader, had been scheduled to take place last week but was postponed due to a judges strike.

Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi have already been sentenced to 35 years in prison for misappropriating public funds after large sums of cash and jewelery were discovered in a police search of their palace.

The trial took place without the couple who fled to Saudi Arabia following January's popular uprising.

A Tunis court also imposed a 45 million euro ($65.3 million) fine in the June 20 conviction, handed down after only six hours' deliberation.

Ben Ali alone is accused of harboring drugs and weapons at his palace in the Carthage neighborhood north of Tunis. He also faces a drug trafficking charge.

His lawyer Hosni Beji said the pending charges were "irrational."

"How can we imagine that a president holding power can have two kilograms of cannabis resin of mediocre quality (with intentions) of selling it," he told AFP.

Beji also said most of the weapons found at the palace were personal gifts from high-ranking international officials.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz were among those who gave Ben Ali the tokens, he said.

The lawyer added that he has a list of witnesses that should be able to prove Ben Ali "never owned or kept drugs" and intends to ask for an adjournment to allow him more time to meet with Ben Ali and prepare his defense.

The former ruler and his wife have been living in exile since January 14, with Riyadh ignoring, at least publicly, Tunisian demands for their extradition.

Ben Ali denounced his conviction as a "parody of justice" and "political liquidation," in a statement issued after the trial.

In addition to Monday's hearing, he and his entourage face possible legal proceedings in no less than 182 other cases.

In one, a military court is expected to consider charges relating to the 300 people killed during the uprising.

They also face trial on charges of torture, money laundering and trafficking of archaeological artifacts.

Many Tunisians have questioned the value of prosecuting Ben Ali in his absence, with some commentators deeming it a "show trial".

A joint statement issued by the International Federation of Human Rights and the Tunisian League of Human Rights welcomed the convictions but said all efforts were not made to secure Ben Ali's extradition before the trial.

Meanwhile, Saboteurs bombed an Egyptian gas pipeline in the Sinai peninsula on Monday for the third time since February, cutting supplies to Israel and Jordan.

Officials said a car had parked near the pipeline in the Bir al-Abd area, 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) from the northern Sinai town of El-Arish, shortly before the explosion.

They said the bomb was activated remotely, without reports of casualties.

North Sinai governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk condemned the bombing as a "terrorist act meant to jeopardize the stability and security of Sinai," the official MENA news agency quoted him as saying.

A second device was found near the bomb blast "but the army has dealt with it before it exploded", said Magdi Tawfiq, head of the Egyptian Natural Gas Company (GASCO).

He told MENA that emergency services brought the fire under control and a committee was formed to investigate. "The company will work to fix the pipeline in Sinai as soon as the fire is completely out," he said.

Witnesses said the flames at their peak reached as high as 10 meters (32 feet).

It was the third attack on the gas pipeline since February, a time of political upheaval when an uprising toppled former president Hosni Mubarak and saw power handed over to a military council.

An April 27 attack on the pipeline in Al-Sabil area of north Sinai cut off international gas supplies. In February, attackers blew up a sector of the pipeline in the town of Lihfren, also in north Sinai, near the Gaza Strip.

Another attempt to attack the pipeline in March failed.

An Israeli official dismissed fears of domestic power cuts following the latest blast. "At the moment there is no supply of gas from Egypt," national infrastructures ministry spokeswoman Maya Etzioni told AFP.

But "we are prepared, as always, with alternative solutions, with alternative supplies. There's gas from Yam Thetis," she said in reference to an Israeli offshore gas field.

Egypt supplies about 40 percent of Israel's natural gas which is used to produce electricity.

Israeli security sources said they received intelligence about 10 days ago that a global Jihadist group was planning to hit the Sinai pipeline, but added it was too early to say if the unnamed organization was behind Monday's attack.

Jordanian officials have also been in talks with their Egyptian counterparts "to determine the damage and discuss solutions," Jordan's state-run Petra news agency said.

"Jordan will face unusual problems this summer if this issue continues," Abdul Fattah Nsur, director of Jordan Central Electricity Generation Co, told Petra.

Jordan, which buys 95 percent of its energy needs, imports about 240 million cubic feet (6.8 million cubic meters) of Egyptian gas a day, or 80 percent of its electricity requirements.

In April, Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf asked for the revision of all contracts to supply gas abroad, including to Israel.

Sharaf said the contracts would be revisited so the gas "would be sold with deserved prices that achieve the highest returns for Egypt."

The controversial gas deal with Israel has been repeatedly challenged in Egyptian courts due to its secretive clauses and over prices, and because it was sealed without parliamentary consultation.

In May, Jordan said Egypt was withholding its contracted gas supply to energy-poor Jordan unless a new deal was signed at a higher price.

Under a 14-year deal signed in 2002, Egypt used to sell gas to Jordan at a discounted price -- half of the market price, or $3 (2.16 euros) per million British Thermal Units (1,000 cubic feet of gas equals 1.027 million BTU).