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Former leader to head regional bloc

Former Argentine President, Nestor Kirchner, has been named as the first secretary general of a new union of 12 South American nations.

The Unasur bloc was formed nearly two years ago to act as a counterpoint to regional organisations dominated by the United States.

Member states, which include Chile, Paraguay and Venezuela, hope the bloc can consolidate into a regional force for unity, development and democracy-building. Unasur's headquarters near Ecuador's capital, and a parliament building planned for Cochabamba, Bolivia, remain on the drawing-board. According to Unasur's founding treaty, the secretary general must focus solely on regional matters during his two-year term. That may be problematic for Mr Kirchner, a leader of his political party who has all but declared himself to be a candidate to succeed his wife, Cristina Fernandez, in Argentina's presidential elections next year. He will also have to give up his job as a deputy in Argentina's Congress.

Some of the main issues on the Unasur agenda include a declaration about democracy in Honduras, help for earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile, and a condemnation of Arizona's immigration law as a violation of human rights.