The front-runner in the race to become the next leader of Canada's Conservatives dropped out on Wednesday mere hours before the final televised debate, stunning party insiders and throwing the contest open to two remaining favorites.




Reality TV star and venture capitalist Kevin O'Leary said he was withdrawing from the 14-way contest to replace former Prime Minister Stephen Harper because he had not gained enough support in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where elections are often decided.

"I worked really hard and I couldn't move the needle" in Quebec, O'Leary told reporters, standing next to Maxime Bernier, a former foreign minister whose candidacy O'Leary said he would support.

The Conservative Party of Canada will decide its new leader by May 27 to face Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the 2019 national election.

"We are going to bring our forces together now so that we can win this race and then beat Justin Trudeau in 2019," said Bernier, a Quebec libertarian who was neck-and-neck with O'Leary for much of the race.

O'Leary, who gained fame as a brusque dealmaker on the reality show "Shark Tank," had no political experience and tenuous ties to the party but stole the spotlight because of an outsized media profile and the support of Canadians who saw the businessman as a breath of fresh air.

Bernier, by contrast, is a second-generation politician and free-market champion whose previous brush with fame came when he was dumped from Harper's cabinet after leaving confidential documents at the house of a girlfriend with links to organized crime.

The endorsement by O'Leary will boost Bernier's chances, with populist immigrant-skeptic Kellie Leitch and current members of Parliament Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole representing Bernier's biggest threat.

All four held their ground late on Wednesday at the final debate of the year-long contest, with Bernier arguing he was the best positioned to negotiate trade with U.S. President Donald Trump because they both want to end the supply management system of Canada's dairy sector.

"I'm the only one who can make a deal with him," Bernier said during the debate in Toronto. "But if you want a deal with us, you must open the border to softwood lumber and other products. That is the only way to have free trade in North America."

Trump is considering issuing an executive order to pull the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, a senior official in his administration said on Wednesday. The move could unravel one of the world's biggest trading blocs.

Canada's Conservative vote will be decided by a preferential ballot that redistributes second-place votes until there is a winner.

With 13 candidates, analysts have been wary of predicting a winner because even internal opinion polls have a hard time figuring out how preferences will shake out on the third, fourth, or fifth ballot that may be required for one candidate to win a majority of votes.-reuters-

Venezuelan security forces fired scores of tear gas volleys and turned water cannons on rock-throwing protesters on a bridge in Caracas on Wednesday as the death toll from this month's anti-government unrest hit at least 29.




A 20-year-old male demonstrator died in those latest clashes in the capital after being hit by a gas canister, said officials of the city's eastern Chacao district.

Authorities also announced two new fatalities from clashes earlier this week: a 22-year-old who received various gunshot wounds at a protest in the city of Valencia, and a 28-year-old government supporter shot in the stomach in Tachira state.

The wave of protests since early April against socialist President Nicolas Maduro have sparked Venezuela's worst violence since 2014. Demonstrators want elections to end the socialists' two-decade rule, but the South American nation's brutal economic crisis is also fueling anger.

"I want everything to end: the hunger, the murders, the corruption, all the ills we are suffering. We have to stay in the street until there is change. We are the majority," said student Ricardo Ropero, 20, at a march in Caracas.

Red-shirted supporters of Maduro, the 54-year-old former bus driver who succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013, also rallied on the streets of the capital, punching their fists in the air and denouncing opposition "terrorists."

Maduro says his foes are seeking a violent coup, with U.S. connivance, like a short-lived 2002 putsch against Chavez.




Amid another day of nationwide opposition rallies, the worst trouble in Caracas on Wednesday occurred when National Guard troops and police blocked off a highway where several thousand demonstrators were marching downtown.

On a bridge in east Caracas, masked youths picked up tear gas canisters fired at them to hurl back at security forces or into a nearby trash-strewn river.

Traffic once again ground to a standstill as the zone resounded to the familiar sounds of the near-daily clashes. When water cannons were turned on the marchers, they fell back and skirmishes spread to surrounding streets through the afternoon.

Opposition leaders accuse Maduro of seizing dictatorial powers and unleashing repression on peaceful protesters, but the opposition's ranks also include groups of youths who hunt for trouble, hurling Molotov cocktails or burning property.

As well as wanting a general election, Maduro's opponents are demanding the release of jailed activists, humanitarian aid to help offset shortages of food and medicine, and autonomy for the opposition-led legislature.

International pressure on Maduro has grown too, with 19 members of the 34-nation Organization of American States (OAS) bloc voting on Wednesday to hold a special meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the Venezuelan crisis.

Venezuela had threatened to walk from the group if that meeting went ahead, and Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that she would soon announce the president's instructions.

Maduro narrowly won election in 2013 against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, but the economic crisis has battered his public approval ratings since then.

The latest data from pollster Datanalisis, cited by a client, showed Maduro's popularity edged up a couple of points to 24.1 percent in March, possibly due to the impact of subsidized food distribution bags known as CLAPs.

He has called for local state elections, postponed from 2016, to be held soon, but has shown no sign of supporting an early presidential election. The opposition now has majority support and the ruling Socialists would likely lose any vote.

During this month's protests, more than 1,500 people have been arrested, with 800 still detained, according to rights group Penal Forum.-reuters-

The Trump administration said on Wednesday it aimed to push North Korea into dismantling its nuclear and missile programs through tougher international sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and remained open to negotiations to bring this about.




The U.S. stance, which appeared to signal a willingness to exhaust non-military options in spite of repeated warnings that "all options are on the table," came in a statement following an unusual White House-hosted briefing for the entire Senate.

The statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats described North Korea as "an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority".

Graphic - Carl Vinson strike group

Graphic - North Korea's nuclear program:

North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threat is perhaps the most serious security challenge confronting U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump has vowed to prevent North Korea from being able to hit the United States with a nuclear missile, a capability experts say it could have some time after 2020.

"The President’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners," it said.

"The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However, we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies."

U.S. lawmakers have been seeking a clear White House strategy following repeated North Korean missile tests and fears that it could conduct a sixth nuclear bomb test.-reuters-

A strong earthquake of magnitude 6.9 struck off the west coast of Chile on Monday, rocking the capital Santiago and briefly causing alarm along the Pacific Coast but sparing the quake-prone nation of any serious damage.

Gunmen killed two more people during political unrest in Venezuela on Monday, bringing the total number of deaths to 12 this month, as anti-government protests entered a fourth week with mass "sit-ins" to press for early elections.