Afghanistan conference eyes Taliban plan

London plays host Thursday to a crucial day-long international conference to chart the future of war-torn Afghanistan.

A central focus of the summit is a $500 million pay-for-peace proposal to bring Taliban fighters into the civilian fold if they promise to renounce violence.

The conference, which gathers more than 60 countries and organizations, reflects the urgency of international powers to find ways to strengthen the Afghan government in the face of a persistent Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency.

It is co-hosted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Sworn in after a fraud-marred presidential election last year, Karzai vowed to tackle corruption and said he expected the country's security to be wholly in the hands of Afghan army and police by 2014.

The United States has said it wants to start bringing American troops home by 2011.

"Tomorrow's conference on Afghanistan comes at a critical moment," Ban told reporters Wednesday at U.N. headquarters in New York before leaving for London.

"The Afghan people want a larger say in their future. ... At the same time, Afghans need to know that the international community will support them, over the long term, in building their institutions of government."

Ban has named a veteran Swedish diplomat, Staffan de Mistura, as the new top U.N. official in Afghanistan. De Mistura, who begins his stint on March 1, was a former U.N. representative in Iraq.

At Thursday's summit, Karzai is expected to ask for $500 million for an initiative to offer jobs and homes to moderate Taliban fighters, helping them return to civilian life.

Ban has said he supports the plan, and Afghanistan's major international donors are expected to pledge the money.

A "thing to watch is whether or not President Karzai and we can come up with a program for reintegration of those lower-level Taliban, which will chip away at the power of the Taliban and help to support the efforts of the Afghan security forces," said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who just returned from Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders acknowledge the need to bring at least some lower-level Taliban leaders into the political and social fabric of Afghanistan.

When asked whether the Taliban could play a role in the future of Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander there, said, "I think any Afghans can play a role if they focus on the future, and not the past."

U.S. military intelligence estimates that the Taliban now has shadow governments in 33 of 34 provinces, raising questions about whether insurgents will be motivated to reintegrate.

In a statement addressing the conference, the Taliban said the West has held conferences in the past to discuss Afghanistan's future, but there is only one solution to end the conflict: withdrawal.

"It is a matter of great sorrow that the invaders led by U.S.A. are bent on sticking to the military approach of the issue," the statement said.

"We want to say clearly, if the invaders want to save themselves from further financial and life losses, they should not deceive their people by illusory plans and strategies, nor they should waste time on them, or make our people face further sufferings and problems. They should accept the solution put forward by the Islamic Emirate, which is the full withdrawal of the invading forces from our country."

A second major gathering is expected to take place in a few months in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

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Sri Lankan president leads in early results

Sri Lanka's president took a strong lead in early returns on Wednesday, but his main challenger said he feared arrest after troops surrounded the hotel where he and other opposition leaders were staying.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa led with 1.51 million votes against 983,022 for his former army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, with results from about a quarter of the votes cast in Sri Lanka's first post-war presidential poll officially released.

The two war victors turned to foes in a bloody campaign that culminated in a largely peaceful election on Tuesday, with independent observers putting turnout at between 70 and 80 percent of the Indian Ocean island's 14 million registered voters.

Fonseka, a political neophyte, delivered an election day shock by admitting he was not registered to vote. Rajapaksa's camp said it would challenge his eligibility after the Election Commission said that it did not disqualify him.

"The legal people are looking at it, but it may be only of academic interest if he loses," Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal told Reuters.

As the results came in, Rajapaksa's supporters lit celebratory firecrackers in the capital, Colombo.

The military intrigue built after a surprisingly close and bitter contest between two estranged allies who led Sri Lanka to victory over the Tamil Tiger separatists in May, after a 25-year civil war many had deemed unwinnable.


Early on Wednesday, Fonseka said soldiers had surrounded the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel in Colombo where he was staying with former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the official opposition leader, and other opposition party heads.

"These people have surrounded the hotel with military and threatened my security people," Fonseka told Reuters by phone. "They had a plan to surround us and take us into custody and I don't know if this is that phase of that particular operation."

A Reuters reporter saw several hundred soldiers including commandos posted outside the hotel after blocking the road in front.

A military spokesman had no comment, but a senior military source and a top presidential aide said Fonseka had been put under watch to ensure he did not attempt to organise a coup with loyalists from an army he commanded just eight months ago. Fonseka in the final days of the campaign said the government had plans to either steal the vote or arrest him should he win. The government laughed it off, saying Rajapaksa would win the race cleanly and had no need to cheat.

The general on Tuesday said he expected to win by a million votes, but he did not even win his home electorate of Ambalangoda, tallying just 35.9 percent to Rajapaksa's 62.7 percent.

Rajapaksa called the poll two years early, hoping to capitalise on his post-war popularity to win a second six-year term to cement his legacy.

Fonseka as army commander ran a relentless counterinsurgency campaign to crush the Tigers, while Rajapaksa deflected an international push for a ceasefire and criticism over civilian deaths that prompted calls for a war crimes probe.

Whoever wins will take the reins of a $40 billion economy which has enjoyed a partial peace dividend, and is on the path to recovery with big Chinese and Indian investments into infrastructure and plans to put $4 billion into development.

Foreign investors have put more than $1.5 billion into government securities, and the Colombo Stock Exchange .CSE, turned in one of 2009's best returns at 125 percent.

Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka have pledged to dole out costly subsidies and public sector pay rises, which economists say will make it hard for Sri Lanka to meet its cost-cutting obligations under a $2.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

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Doctors: Haiti medical situation shameful

New York City -- Four years ago, the devastating Hurricane Katrina affected millions in the United States. The initial medical response was ill-equipped, understaffed, poorly coordinated and delayed. Criticism was fierce.

The response to Haiti has been the same. The point no one seems to remember is this: Medical response to these situations cannot be delayed. Immediate access to emergency equipment is also crucial.

Within 24 hours of the earthquake, Dr. David Helfet put together a 13-member team of surgeons, anesthesiologists and operating room nurses, with a massive amount of orthopedic operating room equipment, ready to be flown directly to Port-au-Prince on a private plane.

We also had a plan to replace physicians and equipment -- within 24 hours, we could bring in whatever was necessary on a private jet. We believe we had a reasonably comprehensive orthopedic trauma service; as trauma surgeons, we planned to provide acute care in the midst of an orthopedic disaster.

We expected many amputations. But we thought we could save limbs that were salvageable, particularly those of children. We recognized that in an underdeveloped country, a limb amputation may be a death sentence. It does not have to be so.

We thought our plan was a good one, but we soon learned we were incredibly naive. Disaster management in Haiti was nonexistent.

The difficulties in getting in -- despite the intelligence we had from people on the ground and Dr. Helfet's connections with Partners in Health and Bill and Hillary Clinton -- only hinted at the difficulties we would have once we arrived.

We started out Friday morning and got a slot to get into Port-au-Prince on Friday. That was canceled when we were on the runway and was rescheduled for the next day. We were diverted to the Dominican Republic and planned on arriving in Port-au-Prince on Saturday.

That Saturday morning slot also was canceled and postponed until the afternoon. The airport had one runway and hundreds of planes trying to land. But nobody was prioritizing the flights.

Once we finally landed, we were taken to the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince with our medical supplies. We had been told that this hospital was up and running with two functioning operating rooms.

Once we arrived, we saw a severely damaged hospital with no running water and only limited electrical power, supplied by a generator. Surgeries were being performed in the equivalent of a large storage closet, where amputations were performed with hacksaws.

This facility could not nearly accommodate our equipment nor our expertise to treat the volume of injuries we saw.

We quickly took our second option: Community Hospital of Haiti, about two miles away. There, we found about 750 patients lying on the floor. But the facility had running water, electricity and two functional operating rooms.

We found scores of patients with pus dripping out of open extremity fractures and crush injuries. Some wounds were already ridden with maggots.

About a third of these victims were children. The entire hospital smelled of infected, rotting limbs and death. Later on, we would judge our surgical progress by the diminishment of the stench.

In our naïveté, we didn't expect that the two anesthesia machines would not work; that there would be only one cautery available in the entire hospital to stop bleeding; that an operating room sterilizer fit only instruments the size of a cigar box; that there would be no sterile saline, no functioning fluoroscopy machine, no blood for transfusions, no ability to do lab work; and the only local staff was a ragtag group of voluntary health providers who, like us, had made it there on their own.

As we got up and running and organized the patients for surgery, we told our contacts in the United States what we needed. More supplies were loaded for a second trip. Those included a battery-operated pulse lavage, a huge supply of sterile saline and the soft goods we needed desperately in the operating room.

The plane landed as planned Sunday night, and the new equipment was loaded onto a truck. Then that truck, loaded with life-saving equipment, was hijacked somewhere between the airport and the hospital.

We had planned to run a marathon round-the-clock operation and leave at 11 p.m. Tuesday. We worked for 60-plus hours without stopping. The plane that would take us home would bring with it not only a new medical staff, but also equipment that was nonexistent in the hospital, or even the country.

These pieces of equipment, two of each, were urgently needed: portable anesthesiology machines; electrocautery machines to stop bleeding after amputations; portable monitors for the recovery room; autoclaves to sterilize equipment; and a lot of orthopedic equipment, which we were quickly using up. The other items were those that were on the previous flight and had been hijacked.

Officials at the Port-au-Prince airport canceled that plane's 6 a.m. Tuesday slot, and the plane never made it to us on time.

We had started to see daylight Monday night, having performed about 100 surgeries, which were mainly amputations, fixing broken limbs and soft tissue debridements. Many of the patients were children and babies.

But on Tuesday morning, a huge number of new patients arrived. The Haitians had heard we were trying to save limbs, and families were bringing their injured loved ones to us.

The hospital was forced to lock down, closing its gates to the angry and frustrated crowd outside. On Tuesday morning, we saw that many of the patients we had operated on were becoming septic and would require additional surgeries.

We finished operating at noon Tuesday, our last surgery assisting an obstetrician on a Caesarean section and helping to resuscitate a newborn who was not breathing.

We decided the situation was untenable. Our supplies were running out, our team was past exhaustion, safety was rapidly becoming a concern, and we had no firm plan to leave or resupply.

A hospital benefactor helped us get to the airport. First, Jamaican soldiers with M-16s escorted us out of the building as the crowd outside saw us abandoning the hospital. We made it to the airport on the back of a pickup, got onto the tarmac, hailed a commercial plane that had carried cargo to Haiti and was returning to Montreal, Canada, and had a private jet pick us up from there.

We were unprepared for what we saw in Haiti -- the vast amount of human devastation, the complete lack of medical infrastructure, the lack of support from the Haitian medical community, the lack of organization on the ground.

No one was in charge. We had the first hospital in the Port-au-Prince area with functioning operating rooms, yet no one came to the hospital to assess how we did it or offer help.

The fact that the military could not or would not protect the critical resupply medical equipment on Sunday, or allow the Tuesday flight to come in, is devastating and merits intense investigation.

There was no security at the hospital. We needed a much higher level of security with strong and clear support of the military from the very beginning.

The lack of support for our operation by the United States is shocking and embarrassing and shows how woefully unprepared we are for the realities of disasters. We came to understand that our isolated operation may work in a mission, but not in a disaster.

We first thought we would support those at the helm but soon realized we were almost the only early responders with the critical expertise and equipment to treat an orthopedic disaster such as this.

Still, nobody with a clear plan is in charge, and care is chaotic at best. Doctors are coming into the country with no plan of what they are going to do, and nobody directing them how to do it.

Surgeons who expect to show up and operate will be mistaken. Without a complement of support staff and supplies, they are of limited to no value.

We left feeling as if we abandoned these patients, the country and its people, and we feel terrible.

Our role back in New York is to expose the inadequacies of the system in the hopes of effecting change immediately. Patients who are alive and still have their arms and legs remain in jeopardy unless an urgent response is implemented.

The quickest and most efficient way to really help now and support the medical staff on the ground is to assess needs, provide equipment and personnel in necessary quantities, and bring them safely and expeditiously into the country and to the hospital units caring for patients.

Upon our departure, we witnessed pallets of Cheerios and dry goods sitting on the tarmac helping nobody. Yet our flight of critical medical equipment and personnel had been canceled, and the equipment that did get through was hijacked.

We implore an official organization to step up and take charge of the massive ongoing medical effort that will be necessary to care for the people of Haiti and their children. And to do it now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Drs. Dean Lorich, Soumitra Eachempati and David L. Helfet.

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Trapped father survives with help of phone app

Alone in the darkness beneath layers of rubble, Dan Woolley felt blood streaming from his head and leg.

Then he remembered -- he had an app for that.

Woolley, an aid worker, husband, and father of two boys, followed instructions on his cell phone to survive the January 12 earthquake in Haiti.

"I had an app that had pre-downloaded all this information about treating wounds. So I looked up excessive bleeding and I looked up compound fracture," Woolley told CNN.

The application on his iPhone is filled with information about first aid and CPR from the American Heart Association. "So I knew I wasn't making mistakes," Woolley said. "That gave me confidence to treat my wounds properly."

Trapped in the ruins of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, he used his shirt to bandage his leg, and tied his belt around the wound. To stop the bleeding on his head, he firmly pressed a sock to it.

Concerned he might have been experiencing shock, Woolley used the app to look up what to do. It warned him not to sleep. So he set his phone alarm to go off every 20 minutes.

Once the battery got down to less than 20 percent of its power, Woolley turned it off. By then, he says, he had trained his body not to sleep for long periods, drifting off only to wake up within minutes.

Woolley's job keeps him tech savvy. He oversees interactive projects for the Christian child advocacy organization Compassion International in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

With his injuries tended to, he wrote a note to his family in his journal: "I was in a big accident, an earthquake. Don't be upset at God. He always provides for his children even in hard times. I'm still praying that God will get me out, but he may not. But even so he will always take care of you."

The journal is stained with his blood.

After more than 60 hours, Woolley was pulled from the rubble.

"Those guys are rescue heroes," he said of the crew that pulled him out.

Interactive map of where to find aid, hospitals in Haiti

His colleague David Hames has not been found. The two had been standing together when the earthquake struck and the Hotel Montana crumbled. They were making a film about poverty in Haiti and had just gotten back to the hotel, heading to the elevator in the lobby.

"Then all of a sudden just all craziness broke loose," Woolley said. "Convulsions of the ground around us, the walls started rippling and then falling on us. [Hames] yelled out, 'I think it's an earthquake!' I looked for someplace safe to jump to and there was no safe place."

When the shaking stopped, Woolley couldn't see. And his friend was not with him.

He turned on the focus light of a camera he was wearing around his neck, but he didn't have his glasses. "So I actually took some pictures and would look at the back of the lens of the camera and saw in one of those pictures the elevator that I ended up hobbling over to. And that became my safe place."

Once in the elevator, he used the app -- called "Pocket First Aid & CPR" from Jive Media -- to tend to his injuries. Woolley said his phone "was like a high-tech version of a Swiss Army knife that enabled me to treat my own injuries, track time, stay awake and stay alive."

Woolley heard voices of some other people trapped nearby, and they spoke with each other.

"About a day, maybe day and a half in, we heard rescuers, and they had a list of our names at that point, because they were able to talk to one of the people we were talking with. And so then it seemed like, OK, this is going to happen, we're actually going to get rescued.

"But then it just took a long time and there were times where I didn't hear anything or I'd hear drilling in a far part of the building and just didn't get any reassurance they were still coming for me," Woolley said.

"The scene outside was a lot more chaotic and less simple than I imagined in my head. ... But eventually they came for me and did an amazing rescue."

Back home now in Colorado Springs with his wife Christina and children Josh, 6, and Nathan, 3, Woolley said he's grateful to God for getting him through the ordeal.

"Happiness is a morning with ... family, filled with Legos, kissing boo-boos and normalcy."
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Sri Lankans vote in historic election

Sri Lankans went to the polls on Tuesday in the island nation's first peacetime presidential election in 26 years, despite explosions and mortar fire in the capital of Northern Province hours before polls opened.

Once a stronghold for the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Northern Province city of Jaffna was a frequent battleground for the rebels and Sri Lankan government troops until a government offensive last year crushed the Tigers.

While it wasn't clear what the explosions were, they were nothing new for Jaffnans, who have lived under military control for decades.

More than 14 million Sri Lankans are expected to elect their sixth executive president to a six-year term.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seeking a fresh mandate for his government, but he faces a tough challenge from his one-time confidante and former Army commander, retired General Sarath Fonseka.

Rajapaksa cast his vote in his ancestral town of Medamulana, near the southern town of Tangalle. "I am very confident of victory," he told journalists.

Fonseka was expected to visit a polling booth in Colombo.

Queues were large outside most polling booths in Colombo and principal towns, election officials said.

"I waited in a queue for 45 minutes before I could cast my ballot," said Damayantha Perera of the Colombo suburb of Maharagama.

"I also had to wait for almost an hour," said W. Ramiah, a resident of Nugegoda, also of Colombo.

Fonseka, who won wide acclaim for leading troops to military victory against the rebels, broke ranks with the Rajapaksa administration after he was elevated to the largely ceremonial post of chief of defense staff in July after retiring as Army commander.

After Fonseka announced his presidential bid, the main opposition parties -- with widely diverse political ideologies -- closed ranks behind him to make him their common candidate.

"There has been abuse of power, corruption and nepotism. We want to abolish the executive presidency and make the parliament more answerable to the people. The best person to do this is the one who defeated terrorism," Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, told CNN.

Many of Rajapaksa's family members, including his brothers, hold key positions in the government: Chamal is a Cabinet minister, Gotabhaya is Defense Secretary, and Basil is a member of parliament and senior presidential adviser. Other members of the family hold important positions locally and in Sri Lanka's diplomatic missions abroad.

The coalition of parties backing Fonseka includes a main opposition right wing party and a leftist Marxist outfit, as well as the Tamil National Alliance.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a branch of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, said the situation in Sri Lanka, however, is "a picture of dysfunction and breakdown."

There have been allegations of interference with mail-in ballots, according to the group. Most of the complaints have been against members of Rajapaksa's government, it said.

There have been more than 700 reports of violence ahead of the election, with at least four deaths reported, Saravanamuttu said.

Sri Lankans are casting their ballots in more than 11,000 voting booths across the nation. Local leaders have urged a peaceful voting day amid the escalating violence, including the shooting deaths of two people -- one a supporter of the opposition and the other of the government.

A contingent of 85,000 police officers have been deployed to maintain law and order, said Mahinda Balasooriya, the inspector general of police. Each polling station has two to three police officers on duty, he said.

The spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week that the U.N. chief was "concerned about the growing violence in the lead-up to the presidential election."

"The peaceful conduct of the first post-conflict national election is of the highest importance for long-term peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka," he added.
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France moves closer to ban on burqas

Paris, France -- French lawJustify Fullmakers could recommend Tuesday that the fiercely secular country ban the burqa, the full-body covering worn by some Muslim women.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy controversially told lawmakers in June that the traditional Muslim garment was "not welcome" in France.

"The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman's freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France," Sarkozy said.

A day later, the French National Assembly announced the creation of an inquiry into whether women in France should be allowed to wear the covering.

A cross-party panel of 32 lawmakers has been studying whether the burqa poses a threat to France's constitutionally-mandated secularism. A ban could make it impossible for women who wear the burqa to receive any public services, from buying a bus ticket to picking up a child at school.

Some members of parliament want to go even further with a law that might make wearing a full veil subject to a $1,000 fine.

"You know, it is not only an article of clothing to hide your face," said parliamentary majority leader Jean-Francois Cope. "I am sorry, it's a choice which is not compatible with the rules of the republic."

Within days of Sarkozy's announcement, al Qaeda threatened to "take revenge" on France "by every means and wherever we can reach them," according to a statement posted on radical Islamist Web sites.

Connect the World: Is it right to ban the burqa?

"We will not tolerate such provocations and injustices, and we will take our revenge from France," said the statement, signed by Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, calling himself "commander of al Qaeda in North Africa [Islamic Maghreb]."

But more than half of French people support the ban, according to a recent opinion poll. The Ipsos poll for Le Point magazine found 57 percent of French people said it should be illegal to appear in public wearing clothes that cover the face, like the burqa.

That's despite government estimates that less than 2,000 women in the country actually wear the full Islamic veil.

France has about 3.5 million Muslims, representing about 6 percent of the population, according to research by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The country does not collect its own statistics on religion in accordance with laws enshrining France's status as a secular state.

French lawmakers believe the burqa is a growing phenomenon beneath which lies a not-so-subtle message of fundamentalism.

Those who advocate the ban say women are often forced to wear full veils by the men around them -- husbands, fathers or brothers -- and that it is a sign of subjugation.

However, women who actually wear the veils deny that.

"You are going to isolate these women and then you can't say that it is Islam that has denied them freedom, but that the law has," said Mabrouka Boujnah, a language teacher of Tunisian origin.

Boujnah, who at 28 is about to have her first child, says she came to wearing a full veil gradually, after wearing headscarves as an teenager. She believes a law like the one being discussed will take away fundamental rights of Muslim women.

She and her friend Oumkheyr say they prefer to cover their faces out of piety.

Oumkheyr, in her 40s and unmarried, says she even has friends who wear full veils against the wishes of their husbands. Oumkheyr, who is from Algeria, would not give her last name.

The women, both French citizens, say they are only following their religious beliefs and France should respect that.

But even some Muslims here think the full veil goes too far.

There is nothing in Quran that directs women to cover their faces, said Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who runs the Islamic center in Drancy, a Paris suburb. He said it is ridiculous to do so in France.

While French lawmakers from both left- and right-wing parties seem ready to pass at least a resolution discouraging the full veil in public places, it's a choice Boujnah and Oumkheyr say they will continue to make. They pair say they will willingly show their faces for identification purposes -- but if it comes to it, they will break any law that runs contrary to their religious beliefs..

At the very least any law directed at full veils is likely to be challenged in the courts both here and at the European level. What's more, even police find it hard to imagine how they could -- or would -- enforce such a ban.

In 2004, the French parliament passed legislation banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in state schools, prompting widespread Muslim protests. The law also banned other conspicuous religious symbols including Sikh turbans, large Christian crucifixes and Jewish skull caps.

In 2008, France's top court denied a Moroccan woman's naturalization request on the grounds that she wore a burqa.

France is not the only European Union country to consider banning the burqa. Dutch lawmakers voted in favor of a ban in 2005, although the government at the time left office before legislation could be passed.
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'Chemical Ali' executed, Iraqi government spokesman says

Baghdad, Iraq -- Saddam Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majeed -- also known as Chemical Ali -- was executed Monday, an Iraqi government spokesman said.

He was hanged after having been convicted on 13 counts of killings and genocide, Ali al-Dabagh said.

Al-Majeed had been sentenced to death in four separate trials, including one that focused on his involvement in a poison gas attack against Iraqi Kurds that killed about 5,000 people.

His execution had been delayed for political rather than legal reasons. It is not clear what change, if any, led to the reported execution.

Al-Majeed had been held in United States custody since his capture in 2003. But he was handed over to the Iraqi authorities in the 24 hours before his execution, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill told CNN's Diana Magnay on Monday.

The 1988 poison gas attack on the village of Halabja, which earned al-Majeed his nickname, was part of the Anfal campaign, in which the Hussein regime killed at least 100,000 Iraqi Kurds. The campaign is believed to be worst poison gas attack on civilians ever.

Al-Majeed was sentenced to death separately for his role in putting down a Shiite uprising against Hussein in 1991, and for his part in putting down a Baghdad revolt in 1999.

Estimates of the Shiite death toll in the 1991 rebellion range from 20,000 to 100,000. Al-Majeed was convicted of playing a key part in the slaughter during the revolt in southern Iraq that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

One of his co-defendants in the Anfal case, Sultan Hashem, is a prominent Sunni leader who is considered a key player in efforts to reconcile the country's once-dominant Sunni community with the Shiite majority that now wields political power.

Hashem was also sentenced to death, but Iraq's Sunni Arab Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi has long refused to sign his execution order. That delayed the execution of al-Majeed and another defendant as well.

Iraqi law requires all three members of the Iraqi presidency council -- the president and two vice-presidents -- to sign execution orders. It does not say what happens if they do not sign.
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Former Guatemalan president charged in U.S. with money-laundering

Former President Alfonso Portillo of Guatemala faces money-laundering charges in the United States, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday.

The indictment charges Portillo with embezzling tens of millions of dollars in public funds, "a portion of which he then laundered through bank accounts located, among other places, in the United States and Europe," the indictment says.

A grand jury indicted Portillo in U.S. District Court in New York.

Portillo engineered an embezzlement with co-conspirators that occurred from about 2000 through about 2003, the indictment says. Prosecutors allege the money-laundering took place through at least 2006.

Portillo was the president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004.

Authorities in Guatemala started searching for him after the United States requested his extradition, a spokesman for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala told CNN en Español on Sunday.

They executed search warrants in four locations but had not found him as of Sunday night, officials said.

Portillo came into power promising to clean up corruption, but found his own government mired in the same accusations as his predecessors.

According to the indictment, in one instance in 2000, Portillo funneled $1.5 million worth of donations for a literacy project from Taiwan into accounts in Europe controlled by his ex-wife and daughter.

In that case, the indictment alleges, Portillo endorsed three $500,000 checks destined for a program to purchase books for libraries, but diverted the funds into a bank in Miami, Florida. That money was eventually laundered into his family's accounts in Europe, the court document states.

In short, "this money was diverted, in a series of transactions and transfers designed to conceal the sources and origin of the funds," the indictment states.

There was a second instance where Portillo allegedly embezzled money given to Guatemala by the Taiwanese, according to the document.

In addition, Portillo is accused of embezzling money from his defense ministry in 2001. With the help of others, Portillo made large cash transactions that ended up in accounts belonging to him and his co-conspirators, the document says.

Some of the money that Portillo took went to buy expensive watches and cars, the indictment says.
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New Japanese mayor opposes U.S. base

Tokyo, Japan -- A Japanese city elected a mayor Sunday who opposes plans to host an American base, complicating the nation's commitment to work with the United States.

Residents of Nago, Okinawa, voted in Mayor Susumu Inamine, a vocal opponent of relocating the U.S. Marine Corp's Futenma base to Nago.

Voters ousted the incumbent who was willing to support a possible move of the military base to Nago. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government, which stormed into power on a pledge to give voters a stronger voice, moved carefully in congratulating the new mayor.

"The result of the election is one of the manifestations of the will of the Nago citizens. We have been saying that the government is looking at the issue from a 'zero-base' and will responsibly reach a conclusion by the end of May," said the prime minister, who during his campaign advocated moving the facility out of Okinawa or out of Japan altogether.

But the chief Cabinet secretary was more blunt, saying the election of one mayor has little bearing on where the base will be moved.

"The election of the mayor was one of the manifestations of the popular will," said Hirofumi Hirano, the Cabinet secretary. "But when the committee is deciding the venue of the relocation, there's no reason to take the election result into consideration."

Nago is one city where a U.S. Marine base may move. A panel of representatives from both countries is aiming to solve the base relocation issue by May.

The Futenma relocation is part of a 2006 agreement between the two countries to reconfigure U.S. forces in Japan. Japan's delay in moving the base has strained the 50 year alliance between the two nations.

U.S. Secretary Robert Gates and the White House have publicly asked Japan to move forward on the base relocation, which is tied to moving 8,000 U.S. troops to Guam. Hatoyama has said the plan needs to be reconsidered as opposition from Okinawa residents grows.

Nago's mayor-elect wasted no time in mounting pressure on the prime minister and calling for a city resolution against the base move.

"There should be no option to relocate the base in Okinawa," he said. "The election result clearly shows that to the central government."
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India apologizes for ad gaffe

New Delhi, India -- India apologized to its citizens for a government advertisement, aimed at promoting female children, that showed a former Pakistani air force chief.

The office of the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, ordered a probe into what it called a lapse, but television statements branded a faux pas.

"While an internal inquiry has been instituted, the PMO (prime minister's office) apologizes to the public for this lapse," an official statement read.

The full-page newspaper advertisement in the Sunday Times of India was put out by India's woman and child development ministry to mark National Girl-Child Day. The day is aimed at promoting and protecting female children and raising awareness of female feticide -- sex-selective abortions blamed for a skewed ratio of males to females in India.

The ad showed several well-known Indian citizens -- cricketer Virender Sehwag, former cricket captain Kapil Dev and musician Amjad Ali Khan with his two sons playing the sarod, a stringed instrument -- along with the former air force chief, identified by the Times of India as Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed.

"Where would you be if your mother was not allowed to be born?" the ad says.

Relations between India and Pakistan have been tense for decades, and the two nations have fought three wars.

Krishna Tirath, minister for women and child development, told the Times of India that the "message is more important than the image. The photograph is only symbolic. The message for the girl child is more important. She should be protected."

In a quick statement after the media outcry, the Indian government said it regretted that the ad showed a "foreign national."

The same paper also had another government advertisement featuring NASA astronaut Sunita Williams. Although born and raised in the United States, Williams was welcomed to India as a symbol of national pride when she visited the home of her father's side of the family in 2007.

India froze a fragile peace dialogue with Pakistan after the 2008 terror attacks on its financial capital of Mumbai. Indian authorities blamed Pakistan-based militants for the assault.

In their latest row, the two South Asian archrivals exchanged diplomatic barbs after club owners of the Indian Premier League cricket tournament shunned all Pakistani players in a multi-million dollar auction in Mumbai on Tuesday.
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Ethiopian plane crashes off Beirut, 21 bodies found

Flight took off in stormy weather in Lebanon

An Ethiopian Airlines with 90 people on board crashed into the sea minutes after taking off from Beirut in stormy weather early on Monday and the airline's chief executive said there was no word of survivors.
Flight ET409, a Boeing (BA.N) 737-800, heading for Addis Ababa, disappeared off the radar some five minutes after taking off at 2:37 a.m. (0037 GMT) during a thunderstorm and rough seas. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said he did not think the plane had been brought down deliberately.
"As of now, a sabotage act is unlikely. The investigation will uncover the cause," Suleiman told a news conference.
Twenty-one bodies have so far been recovered near the crash site three-and-a-half km (two miles) west of the coastal village of Na'ameh. Eighty-three passengers and seven crew were on the flight, Transport Minister Ghazi al-Aridi said at the airport.
Ethiopian Airlines CEO Girma Wake said he had spoken with Lebanese authorities who had no word of survivors.
Television footage showed the remains of mangled airplane seats and luggage washed up on the shore south of Beirut where the airport's main runway is located. Lebanese army patrol boats, helicopters and divers were searching frantically in a small area off Na'ameh, 10 km (six miles) south of the capital.
According to one source, residents on the coast saw a "ball of fire" crashing off Na'ameh.
Fifty-four of those on board were Lebanese, 22 were Ethiopian, two were British and there were also Canadian, Russian, French, Iraqi and Syrian nationals.
Marla Pietton, wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon Denis Pietton, was on the plane, the French embassy said.


The Lebanese government declared a day of mourning. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri visited the airport to meet distraught relatives waiting for news of survivors, some of whom were angry that the plane was allowed to take off in bad weather.
"They should have delayed the flight for an hour or two to protect the passengers. There had been strong lightning bolts and we hear that lighting strikes at planes especially during take-offs," a relative of one of the passengers told a local television station.
Wake said he did not think the crew would have taken off in dangerous weather conditions.
"There was bad weather. How bad it is, I will not be able to say. But, from what I see, probably it was manageable weather otherwise the crew would not have taken off," he told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
The U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon, Cypriot police, the British military stationed in Cyprus and the U.S. navy provided helicopters, ships and divers to aid search and rescue.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines has positioned itself as a major player in international air traffic in Africa and has recently expanded its Asian network.
Wake said the plane, built in 2002, last underwent a maintenance check on Dec. 25 and no technical problems were found. It had been leased by Ethiopian Airlines in September 2009 from CIT Aerospace.
The last incident involving Ethiopian Airlines was in Nov. 1996 when 125 of
the 175 passengers and crew died after a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed off the Comoros Islands. Bookmark and Share

TV channel critical of Chavez is dropped

Caracas, Venezuela (CNN) -- Venezuelan cable television providers dropped a channel Sunday that has been critical of President Hugo Chavez, citing violation of broadcast laws.

Radio Caracas Television, which lost its broadcasting license in 2007 and became a cable-only channel, disappeared shortly after midnight on Saturday.

RCTV was the only station that did not air the entire speech of Chavez during pro-government marches earlier on Saturday.

Diosdado Cabello, director of the national agency regulating electronic media, had called on cable and satellite providers to stop offering channels deemed to be in violation of the law.

Cabello said RCTV did not broadcast the Venezuelan national anthem as required and failed to provide warnings before programs featuring violence.

The channel denied the violations in a news release Sunday. It said the move to drop it was illegal and questioned the National Commission of Telecommunications' authority to regulate subscription-based TV.

The government "illegally targeted the subscription services by asking them to exclude RCTV International's signal," according to the statement from RCTV.

The action by the regulatory agency is illegal because "if the government believes that RCTV International has committed an infraction, what follows is to open an administrative complaint against the channel, giving RCTV International the opportunity to defend itself, as the constitution mandates and guarantees," RCTV said.

Five other channels were also taken off the air, according to the Venezuelan Chamber of Subscription Television. They were Ritmo Son, America TV, Momentum, American Network, and TV Chile.

The chamber's president, Mario Seijas, said the organization's position was to comply with the telecommunication rules that are in place in Venezuela.

Chavez has accused RCTV of violating broadcast laws and supporting a botched coup against him in 2002. Before it lost its license in 2007, it had been on the air for 53 years and was one of several private broadcast stations that openly criticized the government.

Relations between Chavez's government and private broadcasters have been tense.

Last year, Chavez closed 32 privately-owned radio stations and threatened to close more than 200 others for a variety of infractions, including working with expired permits and operation by unauthorized personnel.

The Venezuelan government says the closures are an effort to get all broadcasters to abide by regulations that are on the books, while station owners say the closures are politically motivated.

The moves against the media have worried organizations that defend freedom of the press, as Chavez has also expressed support for legislation that would mandate prison sentences for people who commit "media crimes."
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N. Korea responds angrily to South's talk of pre-emptive strike

North Korea will consider any pre-emptive strike that the South takes against its nuclear facilities as a declaration of war, its state media said Sunday.

The North was responding to recent remarks by the South Korean defense minister.

Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said last week that his country could launch a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang's nuclear facilities if it confirmed that the communist nation was preparing a nuclear attack.

The minister said that his country would have no choice but to strike first in such a situation.

On Sunday, the North Korean military angrily lashed out, saying the "reckless" remarks were an indication that its neighbor was not serious about improving inter-Korean relations.

"Our revolutionary armed forces will regard the scenario for 'pre-emptive strike' which the south Korean puppet authorities adopted as a 'state policy' as an open declaration of war," a North Korean military spokesman was quoted as saying by North Korea's official news agency.

The two countries have technically remained in a state of war since the Korean War ended in 1953, although relations had warmed somewhat in the last few years. The Korean conflict ended in a truce, but no formal peace treaty was ever signed.

But rapprochement talks between the two sides hit a wall after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a tough stance toward the North.

Tensions rose further after North Korea abandoned the six-party talks last April, declaring them "dead", in anger over international criticism of its nuclear and missile tests.

The six-party talks, which bring together the U.S., North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, aim to negotiate a deal for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid.
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Four bodies found from Ethiopian Airlines crash

Beirut, Lebanon -- Rescue crews searched feverishly in poor weather conditions Monday for passengers from an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea minutes after takeoff with 90 people aboard.

By Monday morning, crews had found four bodies, but no survivors, off the Lebanese coast where the Boeing aircraft had gone down, the Lebanese government said.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409 left Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut about 2:30 a.m. and was headed to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

It disappeared from radar a few minutes after takeoff, said Ghazi El Aridi, Lebanon's minister of public works and transportation.

Authorities did not immediately know the cause of the crash.

"We don't believe that there is any indication for sabotage or foul play," Lebanese President Michel Sulayman said.

The Boeing 737-800 had seven crew members and 82 passengers -- 51 Lebanese nationals, 23 Ethiopians, two Britons, an Iraqi, a Turk, a Syrian, a Canadian, a Russian and a person from France, the airline said.

An earlier tally provided by the Lebanese government varied slightly.

Among the passengers was the wife of the French ambassador to Lebanon, said Anne Charlotte of the French embassy.

Authorities did not immediately know the cause of the crash.

The plane crashed about 3.5 km (2.1 miles) west of the town of Na'ameh. Na'ameh is 15 km (9 miles) south of Beirut.

As worried family members gathered at the Beirut airport for news, the army and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon continued to scour the crash site for survivors.

"We hope that we will be able to rescue as many survivors, but the weather conditions are very bad," Sulayman said.

Government-owned Ethiopian Airlines is one of the largest in Africa.

Unlike several African carriers that are not allowed in European air space because of shoddy safety records, Ethiopian Airlines serves Europe. It serves three other continents as well, for a total of 56 destinations.

The airline has such a commendable safety record that some expanding airlines in Asia have lured away its pilots at high pay, The New York Times reported in 2006.

The airline has experienced two fatal crashes since 1980.

In November 1996, a flight bound for Ivory Coast, also known as Cote D'Ivoire, was hijacked by three men who demanded that the pilot fly to Australia. The pilot attempted an emergency landing near the Comoros Islands off Africa as the plane ran out of fuel, but crashed. About 130 of the 172 people aboard died, according to published reports.

And in September 1988, a flight struck a flock of birds during takeoff. During the crash landing that followed, 31 people of the 105 people aboard died.
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Haiti quake toll tops 110,000

Haitian officials have confirmed that the death toll from the January 12 earthquake now stands at over 110,000, with 193,000 more people wounded and another 609,000 forced into temporary shelters.
Following the toll revision, the US Geographical Survey said on Saturday that the 7.0 magnitude quake that devastated the Caribbean nation was possibly the most destructive on record in the region.
"It's probably accurate [to say] that this is the most deadly quake to occur in this part of the world," Dale Grant, a geophysicist at the Geographic Survey told the AFP news agency.
"I don't think we've seen anything like it in this area."

Survivors found
Meanwhile, search and resuce teams continued to look for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, pulling out two barely alive survivors 10 days after they were buried.
An Israeli rescue team freed a 22-year-old man from the rubble, who even managed to limp away despite suffering from dehydration. An 84-year old woman was the second survivor pulled alive.
"They pulled her out early this morning. She was barely responding, she had wounds all over her body, and maggots," Vladimir Larouche, a Haitian-American doctor from New York who treated her, said.
"I treated her and made her stable. The (US) Army evacuated her to a boat."
But thousands of other survivors across Port-au-Prince were continuing to wait for food, water and medicines. Though international aid efforts have gathered momentum after the intial chaos and bottlenecks, many victims are yet to be reached.
Thousands of them are fleeing the capital, fearful of aftershocks and concerned at the bleak prospects for work and normal life.
Tony Birtley, Al Jazeera's correspondent reporting from a port near the Haitian capital, said that the initial trickle of refugees has "become a flood".
"The Haitian government is providing free buses for people to leave Port-au-Prince, others use any means of transportation they can", Birtley said.
"And the harbour is operating at full capacity, up to seven thousand people a day are leaving by sea."

'Trying to survive'
Vinnie Filibert, a refugee, explained why so many are choosing to leave.
“Everyone is trying to survive but I know tomorrow there is going to be another stage it’s going to be the reality.
They are going to have to face the reality of no job, no house, no prospects and they are going to have to fight to stay honest.”
Haiti's government is attempting to move 400,000 homeless people to new temporary villages being built outside Port-au-Prince.
Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, Haiti's interior minister, said that in the first phase the government would move 100,000 refugees to tent villages of 10,000 each near the town of Croix Des Bouquets, north of Port-au-Prince.
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China economy shows strong growth

China says its economy expanded by 8.7% in 2009, exceeding even the government's own initial expectations.

The pace of change increased as the year went on, with growth in the final quarter of 2009 increasing by 10.7% from the same period a year earlier. China is now on course to overtake Japan and become the world's second-biggest economy.

Japan announces its latest GDP figures next month. Its economy is likely to have contracted by about 6% in 2009. He said China had faced "severe difficulties" in 2009, but its economy has now recovered and is moving in the right direction.

Annual growth was only slightly down on 2008. But Mr Ma played down speculation that China's economy had now overtaken Japan's. "According to the UN standard - that is $1 a day - there are still 150 million poor people in China. That is China's reality," he said.

"So despite the increase in our GDP and economic strength, we still have to recognize that China is still a developing country." These latest GDP figures have exceeded the target set by the Chinese government.

This is a turnaround because China, like other countries across the world, was hit by the economic crisis during late 2008 and early 2009. Factories closed and workers were laid off.

China's economy recovered with the help of a massive government stimulus package and now there are signs it is expanding too quickly.

Inflation is picking up, with Mr Ma saying consumer prices increased by 1.9% in December from a year earlier. "It reminds us to be fully aware of following the trend of price changes," he said at a press conference to announce the economic data.

Mr Ma said price rises were "mild and under control", but over recent days the government has tried to limit the amount of loans made by the country's banks.

However, some economists have questioned the reliability of China's economic data, with some accusing the government of overstating economic growth for political reasons.

Meanwhile, the World Bank has said that the global economic recovery will slow later this year as the impact of government stimulus policies wanes.

The Bank has forecast growth of 2.7% this year after a contraction in 2009. However, its predictions for Japan are slightly less pessimistic than other forecasters. It estimates that Japan's economy shrunk by 5.4% last year.

It added that the poorest countries - those that rely on grants or subsidised lending - may require an additional $35bn to $50bn in funding just to sustain pre-crisis social programmes.

China is expected to become the world's biggest economy in 2030. Bookmark and Share

Violence in Nigerian city of Jos - 200 killed

January 20 2010 : At least 200 people have been killed in violence between Christians and Muslims in the Nigerian city of Jos, says the monitoring group, Human Rights Watch.

Troops ordered by Nigeria's vice-president to help police restore order have arrived and are patrolling the streets, enforcing a 24-hour curfew. The fighting, which broke out on Sunday, has prompted thousands of people to flee the city.

Houses, mosques and churches have been burnt down and many people arrested. It is believed to be the first time Goodluck Jonathan has used executive powers since President Umaru Yar'Adua left Nigeria for hospital treatment in Saudi Arabia in November.

Lt Col Shekari Galadima, a spokesman for the 3rd Division of the Nigerian Army, told the BBC's Network Africa programme the streets were calm and the troops in control of the situation.

The area has seen several bouts of deadly violence in recent years. At least 200 people were killed in an outbreak of fighting between Muslims and Christians in 2008, while some 1,000 died in a riot in 2001.

The current violence has forced at least 3,000 people from their homes. On Tuesday the violence spread beyond the city boundaries to neighbouring areas.

The death toll has not been verified independently and it is not known how many Christians have died. Human Rights Watch say at least 200 have died in the latest outbreak of violence.

Balarabe Dawud, head of the Central Mosque in Jos, told AFP news agency he had counted 192 bodies since Sunday. Muhammad Tanko Shittu, a mosque worker who was helping to prepare mass burials, told Reuters he had counted 149 bodies.

Jos is in Nigeria's volatile Middle Belt - between the mainly Muslim north and the south where the majority is Christian or follow traditional religions.

Correspondents say such clashes in Nigeria are often blamed on sectarianism. However, poverty and access to resources such as land often lie at the root of the violence.

It is unclear what the trigger was for the latest bout of violence. Plateau State spokesman Dan Manjang told Network Africa there were reports that it may have started after a football match.

But he said it would be surprising if football was the reason. Reuters quoted residents as saying the violence started after an argument over the rebuilding of homes destroyed in the 2008 clashes.
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Our view on capitalism vs. censorship: Google’s threat to leave puts China on notice

Our view on capitalism vs. censorship: Google’s threat to leave puts China on notice
Ultimatum shines harsh spotlight on restrictions, theft of technology.

It's about time somebody stood up to the Chinese government, and Google, inventor of the world's top search engine, might be powerful enough to make a difference.

Google's threat to pull out of China, made in a feisty blog announcement this week, is revolutionary, which is why it's so important. For years, Western companies, from automakers to aircraft manufacturers, have put up with outrageous Chinese demands in return for access to the enormous, fast-growing market.

Web giants were no exception. Their willingness to kowtow to China, however, has had a uniquely dangerous result: It has helped a totalitarian regime muzzle free expression, hold back human rights and punish the brave Chinese citizens who tried to promote both., a Chinese version of its search engine launched four years ago, omitted results the Chinese government found objectionable, such as references to Tiananmen Square. Microsoft agreed to block certain words — democracy, freedom and human rights, for example — by users on its Chinese Internet portal. Most shamefully, Yahoo turned over data to Chinese officials that helped convict journalist Shi Tao for leaking a propaganda directive. Shi was sent to prison for 10 years.

Now, Google has finally drawn a line in cyberspace. Good!

The last straws, the company said, were cyber attacks, originating in China, that stole company secrets and targeted the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. Google said that if China won't allow uncensored searches, it will pull out.

The Chinese government isn't expected to quake at Google's threat. The first official response Thursday said Web companies must obey Chinese law and gave no hint of compromise. But the ultimatum already has done some good by putting censorship and its consequences on center stage.

On a Chinese blog this week, thousands of citizens expressed their anger — some of it aimed at the government — at the prospect of Google leaving. This could inspire them to seek to jump the "Great Firewall" in search of uncensored information.

The showdown has also exposed a little-known, but serious, U.S. vulnerability: suspected Chinese cyber attacks that have stolen data from the Pentagon, national laboratories and companies that hold some of America's most advanced technology. The publicity might prompt companies and the U.S. government to stop being played for saps.

If Google's threat inspires other companies to show some spine, China would have less clout to impose its demands on U.S. interests.

Critics of Google's threat to pull out argue that no one can win a fight against censorship by leaving. Perhaps. But Google and other Web giants have tried the other approach for years, figuring that it's better to be in China than leave the huge market, with 338 million Internet users, to Chinese companies under Beijing's thumb. Now that they've gotten a foothold, the leverage cuts both ways.

Lots of words were wasted this week on whether Google's decision was inspired more by its "don't be evil" motto or by a view to its bottom line. Google's share of business is less than half of its Chinese rival, Baidu. But motivations don't really matter.

China has shown itself to be a thug when it comes to the free flow of information. If that pushes one of the world's most successful and popular companies out the door, the Chinese people will notice.
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California readies for onslaught of storms

Residents of canyons and foothills braced for possible mudslides as a series of powerful storms is forecast to begin pounding the West Coast today with heavy rain and snow, strong winds and high surf.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jamie Meier said the foothills and mountain areas around Los Angeles could receive 8 to 16 inches of rain this week.

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies went door-to-door Sunday, warning residents in the most vulnerable areas that they should leave for safer ground when the rains start and before mandatory evacuations are issued, Lt. Angela Shepherd said. Those homes are in areas stripped of vegetation and left susceptible to slides of mud, ash, rock and debris by massive wildfires last year.

She said roads into forest and mountain areas would close to traffic. The county has put in place sandbags and concrete barriers to try to divert slides away from homes.

Bob Spencer, spokesman for the county Department of Public Works, said the department has advised more than 500 homeowners to erect barriers that could protect their homes.

"There are certainly hundreds of residences that could be vulnerable," he said.

High surf and big swells were forecast to accompany the storms, and in Northern California, the Coast Guard and state officials urged boaters to avoid the water this week. Waves reaching 25 feet were predicted. Inland, heavy snow was forecast for higher elevations, and forecasters said coastal and urban flooding was possible in parts of Southern California.

The weather service is predicting that this will likely be the wettest week in Southern California since early 2005.

In addition to the heavy rain, winds could howl up to 70 mph in the mountains around Los Angeles.

Farther north, the worry is snow, and lots of it. According to Weather Channel meteorologist Tom Moore, the series of storms could dump up to 6 to 8 feet of snow on the Sierra Nevada this week.

The Weather Channel also reports that the rain and snow this week will spread across the interior West, with especially heavy precipitation forecast in Arizona, southern Nevada, southern Utah and southwestern Colorado.

Meier says this weather is typical of El Niño, a cyclical climate pattern in which surface water temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal. A strong El Niño usually results in a stormy winter along the West Coast, a wet winter across the South, and a warmer-than-average winter for parts of the North, according to the Climate Prediction Center.
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Stocks make a fresh run at earnings

After a rocky start to the earnings reporting season rattled U.S stocks, results from big banks, Google, Inc. and bellwethers such as General Electric Co. will help determine if markets find a smoother path next week.

Five members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average [$INDU] and 57 components of the S&P 500 [$SPX] report quarterly results during the week, which is shortened by the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday on Monday.

It's the start of two peak weeks of earnings, says Thomson Reuters, and by the end of it, investors should have a far better read of whether companies are able to deliver expectations built into the steep rebound in stock prices since early March.

As they have for the last few quarters, investors are focused on whether companies are increasing sales, not just raising profits by cuttings costs.

"The market is probably counting on at least some earnings leverage to become evident," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist of PNC Wealth Management.

"Some sign of increasing revenues will likely be crucial," he said.

The quarterly reports start flying before the opening bell Tuesday, when Citigroup is expected to report a narrower loss. Releases from General Electric [GE] and McDonald's Corp. [MCD] cap the week Friday.

In between, investors will wade through a sea of results from regional banks, investment banks Goldman Sachs Group Inc. [GS] and Morgan Stanley [MS] , and technology heavyweights International Business Machines [IBM] , Advanced Micro Devices Inc. [AMD] , Google [GOOG] .

In general, earnings are expected to show a fantastic recovery from the hard-hit fourth-quarter of 2008. That's particularly true for banks.

Analysts expected S&P 500 earnings rebounded 186% in the December quarter from the year-earlier period. Any growth would mark the first earnings expansion for the index of large U.S. companies since the second quarter of 2007.

The financial sector's return to profit, after a year-ago loss, accounts for much of the triple-digit estimate for S&P 500 earnings growth.

Because financials have such a heavy weighting in the index, accounting for about 14% of the S&P 500's market value, stock investors are particularly sensitive to their performance.

"A powerful recovery is built into expectations," said Milton Ezrati, market strategist at Lord Abbett.

Plus, economists want to hear banks are lending more and curtailing bad loans as affirmation the economy is on firm ground.

Results in the past week showed that even some positive results, such as Intel Corp.'s [INTC] 's profit and sales gains, have a hard time offsetting a drip of disappointing data and reports.

Weekly wrap: tough start

Alcoa Inc. [AA] shares ended the week down 8.2%, their worse week since late October, after the aluminum producer kicked off the earnings reporting season late Monday with operating profits that fell short of Wall Street forecasts.

Then on Friday, financial stocks led the Dow average to its steepest one-day drop of the year after J.P. Morgan Chase's [JPM] revenue fell short of forecasts and its chief executive offered a glum outlook, citing still-high credit costs.

The Dow industrials ended the week 0.1% lower, the S&P 500 edged back 0.8% for the week and the Nasdaq Composite [COMP] slipped 1.3%.

Plus a handful of economic reports failed to deliver the punch many were expecting.

Jobless claims, retail sales and consumer sentiment readings all came in worse than economists had forecast.

Healthcare, utilities and consumer staples -- three sectors that tend to attract interest when investors start to get worried about the market - outperformed the broader market. They were the only sectors among the 10 S&P 500 industry groups to post weekly gains.

The bar has been set high for stocks this earnings season. Since its March lows, the S&P 500 has vaulted 70%, with prices bid up in anticipation an economic recovery would drive better earnings in the quarters ahead.

"We had a very good run in the market and we had a lot of expectations," said Ezrati. "People say --maybe we're a little more ahead of ourselves, maybe we should go more defensive."

Focus on the hill

Events in Washington could also sway investors. On Friday, top Democrats returned to the White House for another round of talks aimed at wrapping up health-care legislation.

Progress toward legislation hasn't been bad for the sector in recent months.

As of Friday, the stocks of 90% of 51 health-care companies in the S&P 500 were within 10% of 52-week highs, while more than four-fifths within 5% of that mark..

Financial stocks could also feel the pressure from legislators. Last week, President Barack Obama proposed a special 10-year fee on large financial companies and a federal commission harshly criticized the heads of the nation's biggest banks for their role in the 2008 financial crisis.

In the week ahead, investors will get a new round of data on the housing sector. Housing starts in December likely slipped while a homebuilders sentiment index probably stayed flat, MarketWatch's poll of economists forecasts.

The Philadelphia Fed's January report on manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic region is expected to show a drop from the prior month.
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Democrats consider backup plan for health care reform

Faced with the once-unthinkable prospect of losing the Massachusetts Senate race, Democratic officials on Capitol Hill are quietly talking about options for passing health care reform without that critical 60th Senate vote.

Top White House aides insist they are not engaging in any talk of contingency plans, because they believe Democrat Martha Coakley will beat Republican Scott Brown in Tuesday's crucial Senate battle.

"We are not having any discussions like that," White House spokesman Bill Burton told CNN. "We believe she is going to win."

Asked about potential contingency plans as Air Force One returned to the Washington area after President Obama's Sunday campaign rally for Coakley in Boston, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted to reporters the plan is to still pass health care reform with 60 votes. "We think Coakley will win this race," Gibbs said.

But Democratic sources on Capitol Hill say "what-if" discussions are taking place about how they could proceed with health care if Coakley is defeated, and they privately admit none of their alternatives is very good. According to senior Democratic congressional officials, here are options under discussion:

Pass health care reform before Scott Brown is seated.

But multiple Democratic sources say this is unlikely. Even if House and Senate Democrats could reach a deal to meld their bills and pass them in the next couple of weeks -- a big if -- there would be a huge outcry from not only Republicans, but also an increasingly distrustful public.

For that reason, one senior Democratic source says some Democratic lawmakers who voted yes last time have already warned they would vote no if health care is voted on in advance of any swearing in of Brown.

The House passes the Senate health care bill.

Democratic sources also call this extremely unlikely, because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi likely wouldn't have the votes to pass it. Many House Democrats have major differences with several provisions in the Senate bill, especially the way the Senate structured a tax on high-cost insurance plans.

Revisit the idea of trying to push health care through the Senate with only 51 votes, a simple majority.

But to do that, Democrats would have to use a process known as reconciliation, which presents technical and procedural issues that would delay the process for a long time, and Democrats are eager to put the health care debate behind them and move onto economic issues such as job creation as soon as possible this election year.

Try once again to get moderate Maine Republican Olympia Snowe's vote. They could try for a compromise health reform plan with the independent-minded Republican, but multiple Democratic sources say they believe that is unlikely now.

Their health care overhaul dies.

Although some Democrats are not ruling out this possibility, numerous top Democrats say not passing a health care bill for the president to sign is unthinkable after he put so much political capital into passing a reform bill, and congressional Democrats spent much of last year working on it.
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Cocaine discovered in NASA shuttle hangar

American space agency NASA has launched a full investigation into how a bag of cocaine got into the hangar housing the space shuttle Discovery.

According to a NASA spokesman, the plastic bag was found in a secure part of the hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Agency began testing about 200 shuttle workers following the discovery of the drug.

The substance was found on the floor outside two bathrooms and a janitor's closet, in an area where workers swipe their identification cards, said Space Center Spokeswoman Lisa Malone.

She further pointed out that the amount discovered in the bag was small. "I understand it was residue," she said.

"We do not tolerate the use of illegal substances for people who work on the orbiter," Kennedy Space Center director, Bob Cabana, told reporters.

"This is a rare and isolated incident, and I'm disappointed that it happened, but it should not detract from the outstanding work that is being done by a dedicated team on a daily basis," he noted.

The shuttle Discovery is being prepared for a March launch to the International Space Station (ISS).
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NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope Discovers its First Five Exoplanets

NASA's Kepler space telescope, designed to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars, has discovered its first five new exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system.

Kepler's high sensitivity to both small and large planets enabled the discovery of the exoplanets, named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b. The discoveries were announced Monday, Jan. 4, by the members of the Kepler science team during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington.

"These observations contribute to our understanding of how planetary systems form and evolve from the gas and dust disks that give rise to both the stars and their planets," said William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Borucki is the mission's science principal investigator. "The discoveries also show that our science instrument is working well. Indications are that Kepler will meet all its science goals."

Known as "hot Jupiters" because of their high masses and extreme temperatures, the new exoplanets range in size from similar to Neptune to larger than Jupiter. They have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days. Estimated temperatures of the planets range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and much too hot for life as we know it. All five of the exoplanets orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.

"It's gratifying to see the first Kepler discoveries rolling off the assembly line," said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect. It's only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog."

Launched on March 6, 2009, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the Kepler mission continuously and simultaneously observes more than 150,000 stars. Kepler's science instrument, or photometer, already has measured hundreds of possible planet signatures that are being analyzed.

While many of these signatures are likely to be something other than a planet, such as small stars orbiting larger stars, ground-based observatories have confirmed the existence of the five exoplanets. The discoveries are based on approximately six weeks' worth of data collected since science operations began on May 12, 2009.

Kepler looks for the signatures of planets by measuring dips in the brightness of stars. When planets cross in front of, or transit, their stars as seen from Earth, they periodically block the starlight. The size of the planet can be derived from the size of the dip. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.

Kepler will continue science operations until at least November 2012. It will search for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in a warm habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.

According to Borucki, Kepler's continuous and long-duration search should greatly improve scientists' ability to determine the distributions of planet size and orbital period in the future. "Today's discoveries are a significant contribution to that goal," Borucki said. "The Kepler observations will tell us whether there are many stars with planets that could harbor life, or whether we might be alone in our galaxy."

Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system. Ball and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder are supporting mission operations.

Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted with ground-based telescopes the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona; and Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.
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NASA Extends Chandra Science and Operations Support Contract

NASA has extended a contract with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., to provide science and operational support for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a powerful tool used to better understand the structure and evolution of the universe.

The contract extension with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory provides continued science and operations support to Chandra. This approximately $172 million modification brings the total value of the contract to approximately $545 million for the base effort. The base effort period of performance will continue through Sept. 30, 2013, except for the work associated with the administration of scientific research grants, which will extend through Feb. 28, 2016. The contract type is cost reimbursement with no fee.

In addition to the base effort, the contract includes two options for three years each to extend the period of performance for an additional six years. Option 1 is priced at approximately $177 million and Option 2 at approximately $191 million, for a total possible contract value of about $913 million.

The contract covers mission operations and data analysis, which includes observatory operations, science data processing and astronomer support. The operations tasks include monitoring the health and status of the observatory and developing and uplinking the observation sequences during Chandra's communication coverage periods. The science data processing tasks include the competitive selection, planning and coordination of science observations and processing and delivery of the resulting scientific data.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, manages the Chandra program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

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