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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Afghan handover to start late July: top official (AFP)

KABUL (AFP) – The process of handing control from foreign to Afghan security forces and officials in seven areas of Afghanistan will start from late July, a senior official said Thursday.

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister who is now in charge of the transition process, said that the much-heralded transition process would start between July 14 and 21.

President Hamid Karzai had previously indicated that transition would start at some point during the Afghan solar month of Saratan which ends on July 22 but Ghani's comments give the most precise timing yet.

"The exact date of transition is from 23 to 30 of Saratan (July 14 to 21)," he said.

Under the transition process Afghan forces and officials will take more responsibility for security and their own affairs, allowing a gradual withdrawal of foreign troops.

Some 10,000 US troops will leave Afghanistan this year and 33,000 will go by next summer, President Barack Obama said this month.

All foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. There are around 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, nearly 100,000 of which are from the US, battling a near ten-year Taliban-led insurgency.

Ghani spoke after a conference attended by the governors of the seven safer areas of Afghanistan which are in the first wave of transition, plus the country's defence and interior ministers and head of the intelligence service.

He said that transition in the seven areas would be "simultaneous."

Western officials say the whole process in these areas -- which include the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat and Lashkar Gah in the volatile southern province of Helmand -- could take up to 18 months to implement.

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Rhode Island lawmakers OK civil union bill

NEW: Senate passes bill that permits civil unions between gay and lesbian couplesNEW: If signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the law would take effect on July 1Civil unions are currently permitted in New Jersey, Illinois, Delaware and Hawaii

(CNN) -- Less than a week after New York became the nation's sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, Rhode Island state lawmakers on Wednesday voted in favor of a bill that permits civil unions between gay and lesbian couples.

The measure, which passed the state Senate by a count of 21-16, is widely seen as a compromise intended to provide same-sex couples with added rights and benefits, while also preventing an expanded legal definition of marriage.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent, is expected to sign the bill into law, according to his spokesman, Michael Trainor.

If signed, the law would take effect on July 1, making Rhode Island the fifth state in the union to allow civil unions between same-sex couples.

Such unions are currently permitted in New Jersey and Illinois, and will be allowed in Delaware and Hawaii beginning January 1, 2012.

Three West Coast states -- California, Oregon and Washington -- plus Nevada, also allow for "comprehensive domestic partnerships," largely considered an equivalent to their civil union counterparts.

Despite robust opposition to the measure, Rhode Island's Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill by a vote of 7-4, sending it to the Democrat-controlled Senate floor where lawmakers voted in its favor, according to Senate spokesman, Greg Pare.

The legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in the state's lower house on May 19, affords same-sex couples a host of new state tax breaks, health-care benefits and greater ease of inheritance.

But it also drew sharp criticism from religious leaders and opposition groups who say it will lead to court-ordered action that would eventually legalize same-sex marriage.

Similar legal action in Connecticut and Massachusetts resulted in those states adopting same-sex marriage laws, noted Christopher Plante, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage's Rhode Island chapter.

Chafee -- who is supportive of potential legislation that legalizes same-sex marriage -- says civil unions are "a step in the right direction," according to Trainor.

Meanwhile, gay rights activists -- like Marriage Equality Rhode Island -- say that while they support the civil union bill, they would prefer legislation that permits same-sex couples to wed.

The group urged Chafee not to sign the measure if it includes a House amendment that permits groups with religious affiliations to refuse certain legal rights provided to civil unions.

For instance, a hospital with a religious affiliation could refuse a civil union partner from being involved in the emergency medical care decisions of their spouse if it chose to do so, said Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the activist group.

Chafee is "very aware of the concerns that have been expressed," Trainor said, but will likely sign the bill into law, which passed the Senate with the controversial amendment included.

House spokesman Larry Berman called the issue a "red herring," pursued by the state's more radical activists.

The exemption, he said, is meant to provide religious protections against potential litigation.

"It's a small exception," Berman said, when compared to the slew of new rights and benefits same-sex couples would enjoy should the measure be signed into law.

Currently, Rhode Island and Maine are the only states in New England that do not permit same-sex marriage.

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo a signed a bill that legalizes same-sex marriage, more than doubling the number of Americans living in states that permit such unions.

The measure will take effect on July 24, providing gay and lesbian couples with new rights that include employer health benefits, easier inheritance and a host of state tax breaks.

Federal recognition, however, was not a part of Friday's vote, leaving benefits like Social Security and ease of immigration largely out of reach for same-sex couples.

The controversial bill passed New York's Republican-controlled Senate before reaching Cuomo's desk, in an extended legislative session that left many skeptical over whether lawmakers would bring the measure to a vote.

Iowa and the District of Columbia also allow gay and lesbian couples to wed.


NATO air strike kills fighter linked to Afghan hotel attack (Reuters)

KABUL (Reuters) – NATO aircraft killed an insurgent leader linked to a deadly hotel attack in the Afghan capital this week, the coalition said on Thursday, a raid that raised questions about whether Afghan forces are ready for the looming security transition.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Intercontinental, one of two major hotels used by foreigners and Afghan government officials, a rare night-time raid that began on Tuesday and ended five hours later with 12 killed.

However, the NATO-led Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network had also been involved in the assault by nine suicide bombers and gunmen.

ISAF identified the Haqqani network leader killed in an air strike as Ismail Jan, who it described as a deputy to the senior Haqqani commander in Afghanistan, Haji Mali Khan.

It said he and "several Haqqani fighters" were killed in the air strike in the Gardez district of Paktia province south of Kabul on Wednesday.

"The Haqqani network, in conjunction with Taliban operatives, was responsible for the Tuesday night attack on the Kabul Intercontinental hotel which killed 12 people, including a provincial judge," ISAF said in a statement.

The brazen raid came only a week after President Barack Obama announced a phased withdrawal of combat troops, with 10,000 to leave by the end of this year and another 23,000 by the end September 2012.

Obama's announcement preceded the start of a gradual transition of responsibility to Afghan forces from next month that will end with all foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

With that transition process to begin in seven areas next month, the hotel raid raised serious questions about whether Afghan forces, particularly the police, were ready to take over.

"It shows one of the concerns is that the Afghan security forces are growing in quantity, not in quality," said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.


The attack ended when snipers on board a NATO helicopter killed the last three attackers fighting from the roof of the hotel. Earlier television footage showed Afghan forces firing wildly into the air.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that some police had refused to fight back.

ISAF has been training members of the 126,000-strong Afghan National Police since 2009.

Afghan police, who will be at the front line of the security transition in villages and towns across Afghanistan, have long been viewed as inept and lagging behind the training of the better-equipped army, which had been the focus of training efforts since the Taliban were toppled in late 2001.

Violence has risen to record levels across Afghanistan over the past 18 months as NATO troops, especially U.S. forces, hit back against a growing insurgency, especially in the Taliban heartland in the south.

A quarterly report by the United Nations secretary-general to the Security Council about Afghanistan found that the number of security incidents since March had risen 51 percent on the same period in 2010, with suicide attacks rising sharply.

Attacks in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar were especially worrying. "The city of Kandahar and its surroundings registered the majority of the incidents during the reporting period, with a quarter of the overall attacks and more than half of all assassinations recorded countrywide," the report said.

But Ruttig said the attack also highlighted other problems confronting Afghanistan before the transition process, which also includes handing the running of civil institutions and projects over to Afghans, begins.

Not the least of those is the political paralysis that has gripped the country for months.

"The fact that neither NATO nor the Afghans were able to prevent it says something -- that transition needs to be something more than just security," Ruttig said of the hotel attack.

"Security forces are only part of transition. There also needs to be a strengthening of political institutions and, at the moment, the parliamentary crisis has brought politics to a standstill," he told Reuters.

Last week, a special poll court set up by a decree by President Hamid Karzai overturned the results for a quarter of the seats in parliament from elections last year, effectively throwing out 62 MPs who had been declared winners.

The move, and the court itself, have been branded unconstitutional and illegal by Afghan and Western officials and observers. Critics have said the court was set up by Karzai to further his own political agenda and silence opposition.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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Book 'em: Brazil cuts prison time for studies (AP)

SAO PAULO – Brazil is cutting prison terms for inmates who hit the books behind bars.

A law published Thursday in the official gazette says prisoners will get one day knocked off their sentences for every 12 hours in the classroom.

Justice Ministry spokesman Marcos Vinicius says it applies to all inmates regardless of the crime they have committed. The law also cuts prison sentences by one day for every three that inmates work behind bars or in work-release programs.

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Striking workers march across UK

London (CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of British teachers, air traffic controllers, customs officers and other public sector workers went on strike Thursday, causing potential chaos for schoolchildren and travelers.

Workers are demonstrating in many British cities, including London, where thousands of strikers marched peacefully in the center of the city, their route taking them near the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street.

"We've paid into our pensions, we've paid our taxes," striking adult education tutor Annie Holder said, adding that she was "really angry about the government's politically motivated attempt to steal our pensions."

She blamed "the banking sector" for the country's budget woes.

And she rejected rhetoric from opponents of the strike about the public sector's "gold-plated pensions."

"Our pension will be about 60 pounds ($96) a week. It's hardly gold-plated. We'll have to work much harder and pay more," Holder said.

Police in London said they had made 24 arrests in total as of mid-afternoon.

Since Thursday morning, 18 had been arrested for offenses including possession of drugs, criminal damage and breach of the peace, the police said, with six others detained overnight in Trafalgar Square.

Police declined to estimate the size of the crowd, but one union said it was in the tens of thousands in London.

CNN reporters in the central Whitehall area said there were more police and media present than protesters, and that there were minor scuffles earlier. Some demonstrators continued to sit in the street in Whitehall in protest, but the public had been allowed back into Trafalgar Square.

Four unions have told their members to stop work over planned government changes to the pension system.

Perhaps ironically, state pension staff are among those on strike, as members of the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Three teachers' unions are also on strike -- the National Union of Teachers, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and the University and College Union -- which together have more than 350,000 members.

The PCS, Britain's fifth biggest union, boasted it had 84% participation from its 300,000 members.

Some 80% of schools across the country are closed or partially closed as a result of the strike, the National Union of Teachers said, and there are fears that airports and ports will be snarled as well.

Nine out of ten police staff who answer calls from the public were on strike, London's Metropolitan Police said.

The National Union of Teachers said the strike is because "the government is planning to cut your pension. They want you to pay more, work longer and get less," arguing that because pensions are "deferred pay ... you are effectively being asked to take a pay cut."

The government, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is trying desperately to slash government spending in the face of huge deficits.

Danny Alexander, the No. 2 official in the British Treasury, argued earlier this month that "it is unjustifiable that other taxpayers should work longer and pay more tax so public service workers can retire earlier and get more than them."

"It is the employees who are benefiting from longer life and generous pensions, but it is the taxpayer who is picking up the tab," he said.

Alexander, a Liberal Democrat, said the changes the government was proposing aimed to ensure that "public service workers continue to receive among the best, if not the best, pensions available."

Holder, the striking teacher, said the government's explanations for planned changes to the pension system were "nonsense."

The government's Cabinet Office said less than half of PCS workers went on strike Thursday.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, a Conservative, said Wednesday that the strike was "premature" while negotiations between the government and unions were still going on.

He argued that only a minority of civil servants and teachers had voted to strike.

Feelings were strong, however, among many of the workers involved.

Jenny Adams, a teacher from Croydon, said, "We've got a situation where young people are not going to want to stay in this profession.

"It's about who's being asked to foot the bill for a mess that was made by others. We're in a profession that is not kind when it comes to age. It's inconceivable to be in a classroom in (one's) late 60s."

Union leader Dave Prentis warned last week that if the government does not change course on pension reform, the country could face the biggest strikes since 1926. Between 1.5 million and 1.75 million workers participated in a general strike lasting nine days that year.

Prentis, the head of Britain's largest public-sector union, Unison, issued a similar warning in 2005.

Unison is not participating in Thursday's strike but has not ruled out holding one in the autumn if the government presses ahead with its plans.

CNN's Dan Rivers, Jonathan Wald, Antonia Mortensen and Per Nyberg contributed to this report.


Hezbollah pair indicted for Hariri plot

(CNN) -- Four members of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah have been indicted in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a high-placed source in the Lebanese Army confirmed on Thursday.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon issued the indictments, and a U.N. source familiar with the body said the people include alleged perpetrators on the ground.

Multiple sources in the region said they include Mustafa Badreddine.

Badreddine -- who is the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, a former Hezbollah commander who was assassinated in Syria in 2008 -- is reported to be a member of Hezbollah's advisory council. The other names on the list are Hasan Oneisa, Salim Ayyah and Asad Sabra.

Two additional lists of indictments are expected later this summer and are expected to include the organizers and planners of the attack, the U.N. source said. The United Nations and the Lebanese Republic negotiated an agreement on the establishment of the tribunal, based at The Hague.

Many Lebanese believe the killing revolved around the controversies over Syria's role in Lebanon, occupied at the time by Syrian troops, and the Damascus government's strong political influence in Lebanon.

People believe Hariri wanted the Syrians to withdraw from Lebanon and lessen Syria's influence, and many suspect that Syria and its ally Hezbollah went after Hariri because of his stance on this issue.

Those suspected connections of Hezbollah and the Syrian government to the killing have raised tensions in the country, stoking fears of sectarian conflict erupting in the ethnically and religiously diverse nation, which endured a civil war from 1975 to 1990.

Besides being prime minister of Lebanon for 10 years between 1992 and 2004, Rafik Hariri was the driving force behind Beirut's renaissance as a Mediterranean jewel, investing in the restoration of a city center that not so long before had been the frontline in Lebanon's civil war.

Rafik Hariri was 60 when he was killed, a self-made Sunni billionaire of humble origins. His son Saad, 40, leads a political bloc known as "March 14," which includes prominent Christian leaders. The group's adversaries include Hezbollah and other factions.

Syria had thousands of troops in Lebanon and great influence in the country until mass protests after Hariri's assassination forced their withdrawal. Syria has denied any involvement in the assassination.

But six years later, the shadow cast by that day still hangs over Lebanon, which finds itself in a political crisis -- in part caused by the bitter divide over the country's special tribunal that is tasked with investigating Hariri's assassination.

Hezbollah is a political faction in Lebanon and provides social services to Shiites, but it has long been regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and as an ally of Iran. It has had longstanding animosity toward the tribunal, based on the expectation that some of its members would be indicted as conspirators in Hariri's assassination.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has accused the group's arch-enemy Israel of the assassination. The movement, which fought a war on Lebanese soil against Israel five years ago, claims the tribunal is a plot involving the United States, Israel and France. Ibrahim Mousawi, a Hezbollah media relations officer, said it had no immediate reaction to the indictments.

Rafik Hariri and 22 others were killed on February 14, 2005, when a bomb went off as his motorcade passed by. Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri's son and a former Lebanese prime minister, said on Thursday the indictments were issued after years "of patience and waiting and a constant national struggle."

Saad Hariri called on all factions to accept Lebanon's "obligations" to the tribunal and said on Thursday "there is no excuse for anyone to escape from this responsibility."

"Today, we witness a distinctive historic moment in the life of Lebanon's political, judicial security, and ethical systems. And I feel in the beat of my heart, the embrace of all the hearts of the Lebanese who defended the cause of justice and refused to bargain on the blood of the martyrs," Saad Hariri said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Hezbollah brought down Saad Hariri's government. His replacement is Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni political independent who was backed by Hezbollah and its allies.

Nasrallah said in January that Hezbollah nominated Mikati to form "a national salvation government in which parties from across the political spectrum would take part." He disputed the view that Mikati is a Hezbollah figure. He said Mikati is a consensus candidate and "we will not lead the new government and it will not be the government of Hezbollah."

Speaking on TV on Friday, Mikati said the "delicate situation" Lebanon is experiencing "requires us to be wise" and avert civil strife. He stressed that the "indictments -- no matter what their source is -- are not sentences, and that charges need to have compelling evidence, away from any doubt, and that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty."

"This is not a verdict of guilt and any accused person is presumed innocent unless his or her guilt is established at trial," the Special Tribunal said in a statement.

"At this time, the STL has no comment on the identity or identities of the person or persons named in the indictment. Indeed, Judge (Daniel) Fransen has ruled that the indictment shall remain confidential in order to assist the Lebanese authorities in fulfilling their obligations to arrest the accused."

The tribunal says arrest warrants have been submitted to the Lebanese authorities, and that they must inform the tribunal president "within 30 days after the confirmation of the indictment of the measures the state has taken to arrest the person(s) named in the indictment."

CNN's Jenifer Fenton contributed to this report


Nigeria's main unions warn of pay strike (AFP)

ABUJA (AFP) – Nigeria's main labour unions Thursday gave the government a two-week ultimatum to pay workers a minimum wage agreed to a year ago, or face a nationwide strike, including in the key oil sector.

"Organised labour under the auspices of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) hereby issued a two-week ultimatum for full implementation of the minimum wage across the country," NLC leader Abdulwahed Omar told reporters.

Omar told unions in both public and private sectors to start "mobilisation of Nigerians for a nationwide strike action at the expiration of this ultimatum."

In July last year, after months of negotiations, unions settled for a 240 percent pay hike to 18,000 naira ($118) from 7,500 ($49) per month that had been paid for over a decade. They had initially demanded an almost 700 percent rise.

Just before the April general election, President Goodluck Jonathan in March signed into law, a bill for the application of the new national minimum wage.

But now some of the country's 36 state governments are saying they are unable to pay the new wage because their revenue cannot support it.

In Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and leading oil exporter, some of the continent's richest people live in luxury on a scale unimaginable to the impoverished masses.

The powerful blue-collar oil workers National Union of Petroleum and Gas Union (NUPENG), an affiliate of the NLC, said it will also down tools.

"NUPENG workers have agreed to join in the strike," its general secretary, Owei Lakemfa, told AFP.

The NLC claims to have 42 affiliate unions and a membership of around five million workers.

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Libyan fallout hits Chad (

DAKAR, 29 June 2011 (IRIN) - Chadian families are facing worsening food insecurity, becoming more indebted, and selling off personal possessions as they try to cope with the loss of remittances from relatives who have returned home from Libya.

Remittances, which half of the households in Chad's western and southwestern regions of Kanem and Bahr el Ghazal used to receive, are down by 57 percent, according to a survey by NGOs Oxfam and Action Against Hunger (ACF). Households on average were sent US$220 per month.

Most families in the two regions have reduced the number of meals they eat; 70 percent are eating less nutritious foods, while just under a third are resorting to wild foods such as leaves and berries.

One in five households interviewed had sold possessions to raise money; while most said they had taken out loans to get by.

At the same time, families are struggling to feed returning members: Some 43,000 migrants have returned in trucks from Libya to Chad over the past three months, according to Craig Murphy, operations officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In Bahr el Ghazal family size has increased by as many as 13 people, according to the Oxfam/ACF survey.

"These people are going home to zones which already experience food insecurity even when there is no `crisis', said Philippe Conraud, head of humanitarian operations at Oxfam in West Africa. "They need food, water - the basics, to get by."

Chronic hunger

People in the Sahel are chronically food insecure: In 2010 some 10 million people were at risk of hunger due to prolonged drought and poor harvests; almost one in five children were chronically malnourished, and 5 percent severely, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

A minority of families are looking to new income sources: begging, sending children out to work, travelling to other towns and cities in search of work, or harvesting their crops early, according to ACF and Oxfam.

Many returnees are determined to find any work they can. Seventeen-year-old Moussa (not his real name), who just returned home to Faya, the largest city in northern Chad, after working on a farm in Libya, told IOM he would try to find work in a salt mine now that he is home

Agencies - including IOM, the World Health Organization (WHO), WFP, UNICEF, and NGOs including Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) - have been helping provide returnees with food, medicine and water at transit centres and in major destination towns such as Faya. Nutritional support, which is urgently needed, will soon be put in place, said WHO programme coordinator Thomas Karengera.


Many migrants arrived with measles, leading IRC, WHO and UNICEF to launch vaccination campaigns for children aged six months to 15 years. A national measles vaccination campaign will soon be launched to contain the spread of the disease. As of 19 June some 5,311 people had contracted the disease across 20 of Chad's 22 regions since the beginning of the year, with 63 deaths thus far, according to Chad's Health Ministry.

"We are vaccinating children as soon as they arrive at transit centres, so the disease should not spread further," Felix Leger, IRC Chad country director, told IRIN. Many migrants are arriving run-down, malnourished and dehydrated, he said, increasing their receptiveness to the disease.


Oxfam is considering cash distributions to vulnerable families but first needs to ascertain if traders have enough capacity to supply the markets.

Cash in fragile markets will not work. "We don't want to be in a situation where cash distributions cause prices to rise, so those without cash cannot afford the high prices. That could have a harmful impact," Conraud told IRIN. Only 46 percent of traders in Kanem and Bahr el Ghazal had over two months of stocks, according to their research.

Prices of some basic foods have risen: In Kanem's capital, Mao, imported wheat was 43 percent higher in April 2011 compared to April 2010; peanut oil was up by 44 percent, and rice 6 percent; millet prices had dropped.

It is still unclear how many Chadians are likely to return from Libya said IOM's Murphy, who estimates tens of thousands remain. The number of arrivals has declined in recent weeks, "but this could just be a lull," he said.


Migrants who had recently arrived told IOM they are being driven out not only by ongoing fighting and instability but also the loss of employment and fear of being persecuted. Fighters from the Sahel were reportedly hired early on to support Col Gaddafi, leading to fears among migrants that they will be targeted.

Some migrants may plan to return to Libya as soon as fighting stops, said Murphy. This may be the reason why migrants were left stranded on the road by trucks in Zourake near the Niger border, he said.

Donors and aid agencies need to step up, warned Conraud. "If more migrants need to leave Libya, and arrive in the vulnerable Sahelian zone, then households' ability to get by will be seriously compromised. Very few actors from the international community are aware of this situation; everyone is looking at the Libyan side of the border, but more need to look at the Mali, Niger and Chad sides," he said.

*More from OneWorld

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Day of the Dead (

This is how Mexican investigators believe gangsters murdered business student Juan Francisco Sicilia: Two of his friends had been assaulted in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City, by a pair of policemen moonlighting as muggers for the PacIfico Sur drug cartel. The friends reported the criminal cops, who panicked and asked their mafia bosses for help. On March 27, eight PacIfico Sur thugs, including a crazed psychopath called El PelOn (Baldy), abducted the two accusers, as well as Juan Francisco and four other buddies, from a bar. They were bound with packing tape, tortured in a safe house and suffocated to death. Their bodies were found the next day outside the city.

Both the cops and the killers likely expected the massacre to go unnoticed: in Mexico, gangland homicides have claimed nearly 40,000 lives in the past five years, up from less than 7,000 from 2001 to 2005. But Juan Francisco was not destined to be a statistic. He was the son of Javier Sicilia, one of the nation's best-known authors and poets, who has turned the young man's murder into a national movement of outrage over the unchecked violence of drug cartels, known as los narcos, and the government's inability to put an end to their reign of terror.

With the rallying cry "Estamos hasta la madre!" (a Mexican colloquialism that means "We've had it up to here!"), Sicilia has helped organize large protest marches in Cuernavaca, Mexico City and more than 30 other towns. In June he led a bus caravan to the border city of JuArez, where 3,200 were killed last year - a murder rate of more than 200 per 100,000 residents, which makes it the most dangerous city not just in Mexico but the world - and where hundreds of families met Sicilia holding pictures of slain relatives. (See photos of a Mexican meth gang that waged a holy drug war.)

Sicilia has at least achieved some poignant literary symbolism. In one of Mexico's most celebrated novels, Pedro PAramo by Juan Rulfo, the victims of murder clamor for rule of law in their lawless land, and the poet hears those voices now. "We're finally articulating names for the drug war's dead," Sicilia tells me. "We're letting their voices rise above ours and be more than just numbers and abstractions in this demoniacal tragedy."

Mexico's national horror story is often told as a gangster epic full of lurid detail of the lives and deaths of drug kingpins. Or it's reduced to dry figures: the cartels make $30 billion a year, equal to the economy of a midsize Central American nation, moving marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the U.S. At home they earn extra from activities like kidnapping, a crime that's up 317% in Mexico since 2005. Protests led by a bereaved poet are giving the tragedy a human face, as are the heroic acts of civilians like teacher Martha Rivera, who in late May became an Internet star because of a YouTube video showing her calming her kindergarten class as hit men executed five people with assault rifles outside her school in the northern city of Monterrey.

For 22 years, I've covered the rise of Mexico's drug gangs, charting their evolution from trafficking mules for Colombian cartels to the dominant players of the narcotics trade in the western hemisphere. They've morphed from mafiosi who once killed only one another - I remember the national trauma when a Roman Catholic cardinal was caught in their cross fire in 1993 - into monsters who routinely slaughter innocents. Last August, Los Zetas, a bloodthirsty gang led by former army commandos, executed 72 migrant workers on a ranch in northern Tamaulipas state just because they couldn't pay the extortion money the gangsters demanded. (See photos from a murder by the Arizona Mexico border.)

The violence is so pervasive, so constant, that only the most egregious episodes remain in the memory. Like last year's massacre of 15 teenagers at a JuArez party by narcos who mistook them for rivals. Or the eight people killed in 2008, when thugs tossed grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence day in western MichoacAn, President Felipe CalderOn's home state. Or what happened in 2009 after Mexican marines killed drug lord Arturo BeltrAn Leyva: his gunmen went to southern Tabasco state, to the funeral of a marine killed in the shoot-out, and gunned down the man's mother and three relatives.

On June 23, CalderOn started a formal dialogue with victims' groups designed to lead to the kind of police, judicial and social reforms Mexico desperately needs. Inside Mexico City's ChapUltepec Castle, Sicilia and CalderOn butted heads, but they know they are in this together. "I join your outcry," said CalderOn. "I'm willing to make changes."

See photos inside Mexico's drug tunnels.

A Criminal Insurgency
It has been more than four years since CalderOn started a military campaign against spiraling drug savagery, backed by a $1.5 billion pledge of U.S. aid. The cartels - there are at least six major gangs and several smaller outfits - reacted by unleashing a wave of violence, fighting for turf. CalderOn insists this shows the gangs are rattled, but his critics say his strategy has often made matters worse. Drug lords are now engaged in an arms race, firing everything from assault rifles to rocket-propelled grenades at the army, police, rival gangsters and any civilians who get in their way. The military has scored some victories, taking out the leaders of a few cartels, but even those successes usually spawn new, more vicious power struggles. The carnage now threatens the fledgling democracy and growing economy of one of the U.S.'s most important trade and security partners. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has gone so far as to describe the cartels as a criminal "insurgency" that seeks not to overthrow the Mexican government but rather to keep it under its blood-soaked thumb.

The U.S. helped create this beast. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans consume $65 billion worth of illegal drugs annually, roughly what they spend on higher education, and most of those drugs are either produced in Mexico or transit through it. The U.S. is also a primary source of the weapons the cartels use to unleash their mayhem: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives estimates that 70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years were smuggled from north of the border. "The current flow of weapons," Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo SarukhAn, charged last year, "provides the drug syndicates with their firepower." (See pictures of Culiac[a {a}]n, the home of Mexico's drug-trafficking industry.)

CalderOn's war against the cartels may have been poorly thought through, but a succession of U.S. Presidents has pursued equally ineffectual policies. Since President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs" 40 years ago this summer, Washington has opted for a sweeping policy of incarcerating drug offenders at home and eradicating drug sources abroad. The Obama Administration has begun to balance law enforcement with more drug-rehab-oriented policies that reduce demand, but it dismisses the recent suggestion of several Latin American leaders to legalize arguably less harmful drugs like marijuana. Such a move might put a serious crimp in drug-cartel finances, but the White House says it would "make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe." However the legalization debate goes, the U.S. could at the very least do more to help Mexico develop modern investigative police forces in addition to sending high-tech helicopters to CalderOn's army.

Mexicans don't hold out much hope for constructive help from their northern neighbor. They realize that making their communities safe again means pressuring their politicians to get serious for once about the rule of law - about ensuring that powerful criminals and the officials who protect them are brought to justice in a timely way in a legal system that has a broad measure of public confidence. That is far from the case now. The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

There are plenty of examples of governments that have driven out, or at least greatly diminished, once dominant criminal gangs. Perhaps the most appropriate example is Colombia, where powerful cartels have been cut down in the past two decades thanks largely to the professionalization of the police and judiciary. CalderOn himself knows his military campaign is not enough. In May he repeated his long-term goal of "judicial institutions that Mexico has too long lacked and without which the advance of criminals is understandable - and a future for Mexico is incomprehensible." (See "Crusaders of Meth: Mexico's Deadly Knights Templer.")

But the time for lofty rhetoric is long past. Measured in lives claimed, the level of violence in Mexico now surpasses that in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And the drug lords are engaged in a macabre competition to ratchet up the gore. Groups like the Zetas are fond of posting Internet videos of the prolonged torture and murder of their enemies. One top investigator tells me that the cartels wage bidding wars for the services of the best butchers and surgeons to perform beheadings of murdered rivals. The craniums are triumphantly displayed in town plazas like Halloween decorations.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in JuArez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen.

See the top 10 notorious Mexican drug lords.

It isn't just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot's license, for example, you're useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs. A few years ago in CuliacAn - the capital of northern Sinaloa state, the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking - I arrived at the scene of the murder of pilot Manuel LOpez, 29, just as paramedics loaded his bullet-riddled body into an ambulance. Gunmen had shredded him and his Jeep Sahara in front of his home and relatives - who told me, in tear-stained shock, that they had no idea he was airlifting drugs.

A Slaughter of Innocents
I've seen too many scenes like that. But even the most hardened souls were shaken by the discovery in recent weeks of fosas, or mass graves, in several locations across northern Mexico. So far, close to 500 corpses have been recovered. Many were innocent victims, ordinary Mexicans grabbed at roadblocks erected by gunmen who shake them down and then, in many cases, murder them. Perhaps most depressing of all is the fact that the culprits include policemen: 17 cops were recently arrested in connection with massacres in Tamaulipas. In fact, police in Mexico, who are usually miserably paid and poorly trained, often join up precisely because the force is a recruiting pool for the cartels. (See why it's time to scrap the drug war.)

Human-rights advocates say the fosas recall the killing fields of the Balkans in the 1990s or Central America in the 1980s. "I think the world should be as worried about what's happening here as they are about what's happening in North Africa," says Carlos GarcIa, president of the human rights commission in the northern desert state of Durango, where seven mass graves have been found, many in middle-class neighborhoods or near schools. When I arrived with forensics officials last month at a newly located fosa in the eponymous state capital, I thought we'd gotten bad directions: the site was the backyard garden of a house in the upper-crust Jardines de Durango neighborhood. State officials wouldn't permit me a records search to identify the property's owner because they feared it could get them - and the records clerks - killed.

One of those buried in Durango may be Victor Camacho, or so his family believes. They're among some 350 families who've come to the state attorney general's compound to offer DNA samples, hoping to identify a relative among the 238 corpses exhumed there so far. Camacho, a successful tortilla-restaurant owner in TorreOn, northeast of Durango, was 39 when thugs nabbed him off the street in broad daylight three years ago, in front of his wife. Despite the fear that criminal spies known as halcones, or hawks, were listening in on us - "We don't know who's friend or enemy around here anymore," a Durango official says - Camacho's son Victor Jr., 24, wanted to talk. "Anybody can be caught in this now," he told me, "and we're tired of being quiet about it."

While Victor Jr.'s mother wept softly behind us, covering her nose from the stench of decomposing bodies arriving at refrigerated trailers nearby, he spoke of having to leave law school to support her and his two sisters after his father vanished. A fierce turf battle is raging in TorreOn between the Zetas and Mexico's most powerful narco-group, the Sinaloa Cartel, led by JoaquIn GuzmAn, known as Chapo (Shorty). "Every part of your life is affected," said Victor Jr. "Economically, morally, physically, you live with a daily fear of losing your family, your livelihood, everything. And the authorities don't raise a hand." (See Mexico's "Caravan of Solace.")

Putting the Economy at Risk
Mexican authorities are prey themselves, sometimes because they are in the pay of a cartel, but sometimes because they refuse to be co-opted. That seems to be the case with Minerva Bautista, who until last summer was the security director in MichoacAn, which is also the base of a bizarre "narco-Evangelical" cartel, La Familia. After I interviewed Bautista in April 2010 - she had just laid out stricter police recruitment guidelines in defiance of La Familia - I started to walk her to her car. A Mexican journalist gently stopped me. "She's a target now," he whispered. A few days later, Bautista's SUV was ambushed by gunmen who fired 2,700 high-caliber rounds at the vehicle. Miraculously, she survived; her two bodyguards were killed.

Despite the high-profile successes of CalderOn's campaign - it has since killed or captured La Familia's top leaders, for example, including Nazario Moreno, a.k.a. El Mas Loco (The Craziest One), who wrote his own "bible" - most Mexicans feel abandoned by law enforcement in this conflict. Perhaps the most painful stop during Sicilia's recent bus caravan was the northern city of Chihuahua. Marisela Escobedo's 16-year-old daughter RubI was murdered in 2008 by a member of the Zetas, Sergio Barraza. He confessed, but judges acquitted him for lack of convincing evidence, a chronic problem in Mexico. Critics said the judges feared reprisal. A higher court convicted Barraza last year. By then, however, he was on the lam.

Infuriated, Escobedo stood vigil for weeks last year on the steps of the Chihuahua state government palace to protest. Just before Christmas, a gunman chased her down and shot her. The murder was caught on a security camera, but no one has been arrested. Escobedo's terrified family is seeking asylum in the U.S. "We want to be as courageous as Marisela," a relative, who asks not to be identified, tells me. "But how can we not feel that it gets you nothing in the end?"

See pictures of Mexico City's police fighting crime.

Not surprisingly, this is all taking a political and economic as well as human toll. Mexico is far from being a failed state. Traditionally an inward-looking economy, it started to open to the world in the 1980s, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, wrote trade pacts with 42 other countries and is now Latin America's biggest importer and exporter. After a sharp contraction following the financial crisis, it enjoyed one of the fastest economic recoveries among Latin American countries last year, growing 5.5%. Mexico is not a BRIC - the now ubiquitous acronym for top emerging markets Brazil, Russia, India and China, coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill. But it is part of O'Neill's latest catchy acronym, MIST, which brings together up-and-coming economies Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey.

The unchecked violence could undermine all that. In Tamaulipas, the Zetas are, in effect, the law; they're the top suspects in last year's assassination of gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre. In once booming JuArez, from where thousands have fled across the Rio Grande to El Paso, Texas, the commercial tax base has shrunk 40% since 2008, and many business owners refuse to pay taxes since they already fork over extortion "tolls." (See Durango's "Killing Fields: The Grave in the Garden.")

Drug violence also harrows Monterrey, long Mexico's business capital, where kindergarten teacher Rivera soothed her students amid gunfire and where victims have been found hanging from bridges and overpasses. Commuters in Monterrey can find themselves trapped between roadblocks during rush hour, at the mercy of gangsters who storm through the paralyzed traffic to steal money or cars at gunpoint.

The gangsters' impact on civil society is just as significant. Garish music and fashion celebrating the drug lords are popular. Almost 70 Mexican journalists have been murdered by the gangs since 2007 - most recently Veracruz newspaper editor Miguel Angel LOpez, 55, gunned down with his wife and son on June 20. Many in the media now self-censor their drug coverage. The Catholic Church, too, has been linked to the cartels: Zetas leader Heriberto Lazcano, known as El Verdugo (the Executioner), funded construction of a chapel in his home state of Hidalgo, complete with his name on a bronze plaque.

Solving the Problem of Impunity
Can Mexico pull itself out of this living hell? Much depends on its ability to modernize the police and judicial system. As part of CalderOn's reform package, federal and state courts are beginning to conduct oral trials, in which lawyers have to argue before the bench rather than simply push papers across a clerk's desk. It is hoped that the change will force police and prosecutors to improve their methods of gathering and presenting evidence. Mexico's Congress is considering CalderOn's proposal to incorporate all the police into a more unified national network, similar to the one Colombia reconstituted to great effect in the 1990s. The belief is that a centralized police force will be better able to weed out corrupt members and ensure a coordinated offensive against the Hydra-like cartels. In April lawmakers passed a bill granting new powers and resources for money-laundering investigations: it's aimed at the web of corrupt politicians and businessmen who abet the cartels. And in early June, CalderOn pushed through a change in Mexico's criminal-appeals system that makes it harder for the accused to frivolously block or delay prosecutions. (See pictures of the fence between the United States and Mexico.)

The harder task is changing a culture that was centuries in the making. "Mexico's biggest problem," says Sicilia's lawyer, Julio HernAndez, "is still the problem that leads to all its other problems: impunity." Mexico's lawlessness is often thought to be a legacy of the Spanish conquistadors, who were more interested in pillaging than policing and who left the country with the warped sense that law enforcement is a private rather than a public concern. That civic negligence was a boon for the drug mafias that emerged after World War II. Their brutality was regulated only by the venal, authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled for 71 years and was the cartels' tacit partner. When CalderOn's National Action Party toppled the PRI in 2000, the cartels splintered and embarked on an orgy of violence that spawned soulless killing machines.

Tackling them will take a sustained commitment by governments on both sides of the border. But for all the horror, there are some reasons for hope. The homicide rate in JuArez is down this year. And the military recently arrested JesUs "El Negro" Radilla, the alleged leader of the gang that murdered Juan Francisco Sicilia and his friends. Juan Bosco, the police director in Morelos state, which includes Cuernavaca, was also collared for his alleged ties to the PacIfico Sur cartel.

That is not enough for Javier Sicilia, who had hoped to watch his son receive a business degree this month. Known to readers for his Catholic mysticism, he has given up writing poetry. "They choked it out of me when they choked Juanelo," he tells me. He's thrown himself fully into his movement against the drug gangs. "I'm doing this," he says, "because I believe it's the dead who are going to lead Mexico to the light." If so, his son, and the countless others in pictures being held up across Mexico, will not have died in vain.

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Suspects on trial over Morocco cafe bombing (AP)

RABAT, Morocco – Seven people went on trial in Morocco Thursday for the bombing of a Marrakech tourist cafe that killed 17, one of the worst terrorist acts to hit the North African kingdom.

The proceedings were postponed until Aug. 18 to allow lawyers for both the victims and the defense more time to prepare. Both sides pleaded their cases on Thursday's opening day.

The April 28 explosion tore through the Argana cafe in Marrakech's old town, a popular tourist destination. Several of those killed were foreigners.

Defense lawyers asked that the suspects be released pending the next court session, but the court refused.

The defense lawyers also complained about the conditions of detention, comparing them to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo. The prosecutor responded angrily that the claim was exaggerated.

The chief suspect, Adel Othmani, appeared relaxed in the courtroom, and turned several times to wave and smile at family members. He was arrested three days after the explosion, and Moroccan police say he has loyalties to al-Qaida and tried to travel to Iraq and Chechnya.

Families of the suspects staged a protests in front of the court, complaining that they had not been able to visit their loved ones behind bars.

Among the charges facing the suspects are premeditated murder, explosives possession, and membership in a banned religious group, according to the state news agency MAP.

The dead included Moroccan, French, British, Swiss and Portuguese victims.

The attack shook relatively peaceful Morocco, a staunch U.S. ally that drew nearly 10 million tourists last year to its sandy beaches, desert and mountain landscapes, and historic sites.

The blast came several weeks after King Mohamed VI promised constitutional reforms to shepherd in more democracy amid a push across the Arab world. Moroccans vote in a referendum on the reforms Friday.

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Libya opposition says need more weapons (AP)

By DAVID STRINGER and GEORGE JAHN, Associated Press David Stringer And George Jahn, Associated Press – 9 mins ago

LONDON – Libya's opposition leader said Thursday that rebels needed more weapons and funding, as China and Russia raised concerns over revelations that France had supplied arms to civilians fighting Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Mahmoud Jibril, of Libya's Transitional National Council, said foreign deliveries of military hardware would give the rebels a chance to "decide this battle quickly (and) to spill as little blood as possible."

French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said Wednesday that France had airlifted weapons to Libyan civilians in a mountain region south of Tripoli. The deliveries of guns, rocket-propelled grenades and munitions took place in early June in the western Nafusa mountains, when Gadhafi's troops had encircled civilians.

Gadhafi's Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi predicted that France "will suffer for this," saying that the weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists.

"Many more French citizens will die because of these acts," al-Mahmoudi told a small group of reporters in Tripoli, according to a partial transcript of his remarks obtained by The Associated Press.

China and Russia have both questioned whether or not the supplying of weapons breached the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution that authorizes international action in Libya.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said his ministry had asked France for further details. "We are awaiting a response. If it is confirmed, it's a flagrant violation," of the resolution, he said.

Russia abstained in the U.N. vote on Libya and has voiced concern about civilian casualties and excessive use of force during the NATO-led aircampaign which began in March.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not mention France by name, but told reporters that nations should not overstep the remit of the U.N. resolutions.

"China calls on the international community to strictly follow the spirit of the relevant resolution of the U.N. Security Council and avoid taking any action that goes beyond the mandate of the resolution," he said.

Britain's government has insisted that the French decision to supply weapons fell within the terms of the U.N. resolutions.

Jalal el-Gallal, spokesman for Libya's opposition council, also said he believed France had acted correctly. "China has the right to disagree but the U.N. resolution stipulates whatever means necessary to protect civilians," he said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced Thursday the U.K. was sending 5,000 sets of body armor, 6,650 uniforms, 5,000 high-visibility vests and communications equipment to police officers in rebel-held areas.

He said the new supplies would help Libya's opposition protect civilians and the growing community of diplomats and aid workers in eastern Libya.

Police will be able to "better protect Transitional National Council representatives and the significant international and NGO communities in Benghazi, Misrata and other areas of Libya" under opposition control, Hague said.

In Austria, where Jibril was meeting with Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, the rebel leader warned that unless the opposition council receives large amounts of foreign money, schools will not be able to open later this year. It follows warnings from the rebels that hospitals are also running short on cash and supplies.

Earlier this week, the opposition was handed an initial $100 million in donor money to pay for salaries and fuel. The international contact group on Libya has already pledged to supply more than $1.3 billion for Libya's opposition.

Austrian officials, who asked for anonymity because their information was sensitive, said the government was ready to unfreeze some of the billions of dollars frozen in Austrian accounts and funnel them to the rebels but only after making sure that such a move did not violate laws prohibiting the rights of the account holders, many of them private citizens.


Jahn reported from Vienna. David Nowak in Moscow, Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya and Adam Schreck in Tripoli contributed to this report.


David Stringer can be reached at

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Canada Day celebrated with Prince William and Kate [VIDEO] (The Christian Science Monitor)

New York – Canada Day will be celebrated across Canada, Friday, but in the capital of Ottawa, special guests are expected to garner more attention than usual. Prince William and Kate Middleton start their 11-day whirlwind tour of Canada and the US in Ottawa, Thursday.

The holiday celebrates Canada's 144th birthday, recognizing the unification of three previously separate British colonies into what is now Canada. Celebrations in Ottawa regularly include fireworks, concerts, and a parade, but this year Ottawa expects record-breaking crowds due to the royal couple's visit.

Gallery: Royal wedding day

Last year, Queen Elizabeth visited Ottawa on Canada Day as well, but did not attract the crowds William and Kate are expected to attract this week. The increased interest in the royal couple and their visit is expected to generate proportional media coverage as well.

Canadian Heritage minister James Moore told the CBC, "When [Queen Elizabeth] visited Canada last summer, there were 18 international journalists on the trip. On this trip, 274 international journalists are coming. It is by far the largest and most covered royal visit Canada has ever seen."

After spending the long Canada Day weekend in Ottawa, William and Kate will make their way across the country with stops in Montreal, Quebec City, Prince Edward Island, Yellowknife, and Calgary. In the US, the royal couple will stop in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara where William will play a charity polo match.

On their tour the royal couple is trying to save British taxpayers wherever possible, staying at the British consul general's residence in Los Angeles instead of lavish hotels and even flying with regular passengers on a standard British Airways flight out of Los Angeles.

Gallery: Royal wedding day

Watch highlights from the Queen’s visit to Ottawa on Canada Day in 2010:


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Weightlifting body changes dress code, benefits Muslim woman

Kulsoom Abdullah wants to keep her body covered during official competitionsThe International Weightlifting Federation modifies its rulesRules now specify outfits can be full-body, tight-fitted unitard

Atlanta (CNN) -- The International Weightlifting Federation has modified its rules and will allow athletes to wear a full-body, tight-fitted unitard during competition, the group said.

Wednesday's rule change was prompted by an Atlanta woman, who wanted to take part in competitions governed by IWF rules but still adhere to the modest dress of her Muslim faith.

"Weightlifting is an Olympic Sport open for all athletes to participate without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin in accordance with the principles of the Olympic Charter and values," Tamas Ajan, IWF president, said Wednesday. "This rule modification has been considered in the spirit of fairness, equality and inclusion."

Before the change, the IWF's technical and competition rules said weightlifting outfits -- officially called "costumes" -- had to be collarless and not cover the elbows or knees.

Abdullah, a 35-year-old with a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, is not an Olympic athlete, but enjoys lifting weights.

She generally wears loose, long pants past the ankles, a long-sleeve, fitted shirt with a loose T-shirt over it, and a hijab, or head scarf, covering her hair.

"It's what I believe in. It's what I've chosen to do," Abdullah told CNN this month about her decision to wear modest garb. "I've always dressed this way publicly."

She can deadlift 245 pounds (111 kg) and get up 105 pounds (47.5 kg) in the snatch, in which the competitor lifts the barbell from the floor to over her head in a single motion. She likes to compete with other women in her weight class -- she generally weighs in the 106-pound (48 kg) or 117-pound (53 kg) classifications.

"It guess it's empowering," she says. "There's a lot of technique involved, so someone who's this big muscular person -- it's possible I could lift more than they do. There's speed and timing to it -- you have to be explosive. I think it's great just for confidence building ... I guess I got hooked."

The review was prompted by the Atlanta resident wanting to take part in tournaments in the United States, including one coming up in July. But USA Weightlifting informed her that those events are governed by IWF rules, which at that time precluded her dressing in keeping with her beliefs.

Abdullah says she understands the need to make sure she isn't wearing anything under her clothes to give her a competitive advantage. She says judges could check to make sure she is not wearing something on her elbows, for example, that might help her.

Numerous athletic agencies have faced similar questions in the past and, in some cases, have determined that allowing special clothing violates fairness or equality among all contestants.

FIFA, the international federation governing soccer, recently refused to allow Iran's women's soccer team to wear headscarves while playing in an Olympic qualifying round in Amman, Jordan.

Abdullah told CNN her effort is not just about herself. "I should at least try," she said, "if not for me then maybe for other women who -- if they have my faith or another faith -- dress a certain way."

CNN's Josh Levs contributed to this report


Auto sector slump stalls economy in April (Reuters)

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada's economy stalled in April, setting the stage for weak second-quarter growth, as supply disruptions caused by Japan's earthquake and tsunami triggered a slump in the key auto manufacturing sector.

Gross domestic product (GDP) was unchanged in April following 0.3 percent growth in March, Statistics Canada said on Thursday. Analysts surveyed by Reuters, on average, forecast a 0.1 percent decline in April GDP.

Mining sector strength contributed to the slightly stronger-than-expected number. But it was still the second worst monthly performance since September 2010, slightly better than the 0.1 percent contraction in February.

"There was an outsized gain in mining that helped cushion against declines in manufacturing, wholesaling, and financial services," Avery Shenfeld, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, wrote in a note to clients.

"Overall, better than expected but obviously not a good reading in absolute terms, and we expect May to show similar softness."

The slightly stronger-then-expected reading helped the Canadian dollar extend gains against the greenback. The currency firmed to its strongest level in six weeks, boosted primarily by a rally in oil prices and relief that the Greek parliament approved an austerity package.

The Canadian data showed manufacturing production fell 0.7 percent in April following a robust 1.6 percent increase in March, with most of the weakness stemming from the auto sector.

Mining and oil and gas extraction jumped 1 percent and even construction edged up, offsetting the manufacturing declines so that overall goods-producing industries were flat in April.

Service-producing industries remained flat as strong consumer spending offset declines in wholesale, finance and insurance.

"This data point confirms the well-known belief that the second quarter of the year will be quite weak. Our most recent forecast pegs the expenditure-based measure of annualized quarterly growth at just 1.3 percent," David Tulk, chief Canada macro strategist at TD Securities, wrote in a research note.

"Looking further into the future, the real story will be the magnitude of the rebound over the second half of the year."

A separate report showing Canadian consumer confidence fell for the second straight month in June provided further evidence second-quarter annualized growth will slow from the first-quarter's robust 3.9 percent pace.

The Conference Board of Canada said its consumer confidence index fell 2.5 points to 83.1 in June.

"The deterioration in consumer confidence this month was caused by increased uncertainty about future income and job prospects. Sentiment dropped across the country, with the exception of Quebec," the not-for-profit research group said in a statement.

"Canadians continue to report that their current financial situation is worse now than it was six months ago."

The survey was conducted between June 5 and June 13.

(With additional reporting Howaida Sorour and writing by Jeffrey Hodgson; editing by Peter Galloway)

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'Whitey' Bulger wants public defender, FBI leaks stopped

Boston (CNN) -- An attorney for James "Whitey'' Bulger has petitioned a U.S. District judge to combine two pending racketeering charges against the reputed mobster, rather than allow prosecutors to drop the less severe charge against him, according to court documents acquired Thursday.

The move, prosecutors say, is meant to complicate the case against Bulger for racketeering and 19 murder charges he faces.

U.S. District judge Judge Mark Wolf is expected to decide whether the two indictments should be merged at the first of two hearings at Thursday afternoon in Boston.

Defense attorney Peter Krupp has accused federal prosecutors of dropping the less serious charge in order to "game the system" and allow a different judge to hear the case. "Having encountered difficult questions from this court in lengthy hearings in the late 1990s, the government chose to have the newest allegations returned in a separate indictment, so that it might be assigned a different docket and drawn to different judge," said Krupp.

The racketeering indictment, filed in 1995, was assigned to Wolf. The murder charges are part of a case brought in 2000 and assigned to a different judge.

"The government's apparent forum shopping is contrary to the public interest and undermines public confidence in the judicial process," Krupp argued. "The government's actions, choosing to pursue a new indictment, rather than a superseding indictment before this Court, reflect a manipulation of the case ..."

The racketeering charges would slow down their murder case, government prosecutors said.

Wolf is also expected to consider who should pick up Bulger's legal tab and how leaks from federal agents in the case can be stopped.

Bulger's attorneys have argued that the leaks about the case endanger the former fugitive's right to a fair trial on murder charges.

"If it is now possible -- and Mr. Bulger seriously questions whether it will be possible -- for Mr. Bulger to receive a fair trial, law enforcement leaks of non-public information must end, with disclosures of information limited to the judicial process," Krupp wrote.

Prosecutors say the 81-year-old Bulger was the boss of South Boston's Irish mob before he fled an impending racketeering indictment in 1995. At the same time, he was an FBI informant whose handler tipped him off about the charges -- a tale that became the basis for the Oscar-winning crime drama "The Departed."

Bulger was arrested last week in California, along with his longtime girlfriend, 60-year-old Catherine Elizabeth Greig. She has been charged with harboring a fugitive.

He has asked for a public defender, but prosecutors -- who said FBI agents seized more than $822,000 in cash from Bulger's Santa Monica apartment -- say he should pick up his own legal tab.

"He has every incentive to lie and stick the taxpayers with the bill for his defense," prosecutors wrote in court papers filed Tuesday. They said Bulger has admitted to stashing more money away with "people he trusted" but would not name, and suggested that Bulger's brother William could pay for a lawyer.

William Bulger is a former president of the University of Massachusetts and a state Senate leader. He was forced to step down from his university job after then-Gov. Mitt Romney, now a Republican presidential candidate, accused him of being evasive during congressional testimony about "Whitey's" whereabouts.

Prosecutors asked Wolf to require both William Bulger and a third Bulger brother, John Bulger, to submit affidavits before a decision is made.

Whitey Bulger also asked the judge to order federal agents to turn over notes of their interviews with him following his capture, arguing the documents are needed to defend himself against charges that he has hidden assets and will assist his defense.

Bulger lived "a relatively comfortable lifestyle" for the 16 years he was a fugitive, taking numerous gambling trips to Las Vegas, according to a government document filed in his case. Prosecutors say Bulger waived his Miranda rights after his arrest and told agents who were taking him back to Boston that he had been "a frequent traveler as a fugitive," according to the government.

"Bulger acknowledged visiting Las Vegas on numerous occasions to play the slots and claimed he won more than he lost," the filing said. "Bulger also admitted traveling to San Diego and then crossing over into Tijuana to purchase medicines."

Bulger also told the feds that he traveled back to Boston "on several occasions while 'armed to the teeth' because he 'had to take care of some unfinished business,'" the document said. Bulger refused to tell the agents any details of his Boston visits, it said.

CNN's Sheila Steffen and Jason Kessler contributed to this report.


Gadhafi training women for Libya war

Women in Libya are training to defend Moammar Gadhafi's regimeWomen training with weapons is not an uncommon sight in LibyaMasoud: "I liked training and defending my country"

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is calling for fresh volunteers in a months-long war with rebels attempting to bring about an end to his 42-year rule -- and women of all ages are answering, CNN has learned.

Women from in and around Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli have been traveling south to a training facility in Bani Walid to practice with weapons, a common sight in a country where young girls receive military training in schools.

As NATO's airstrikes crossed the 100-day mark and rebels continue to fight to oust Gadhafi, he is tapping everything and everyone in his arsenal to hold on to power.

At the training facility in Bani Walid, women are training to "defend Moammar and the country," said Sgt. Faraj Ramadan, a woman who is training other women to properly handle weapons.

"They train to use it, assemble it and take it apart, and to shoot," she told CNN recently. "They were trained and got excellent scores."

At a recent graduation at the facility, 40-year-old Fatima Masoud said she liked the training. She said she left her textile job every day at 4 p.m. to train.

"I liked training and defending my country, and now I'm am training women from all ages to use weapons," she said.

It is unclear how many have answered Gadhafi's call or how many had graduated from the program at Bani Walid.

But women are fighting alongside government forces.

A woman, who did not want to identified, fresh from the frontlines, attended the graduation. She was still wearing a cannula in her wrist.

"Do not underestimate any woman in Libya, whether old or young," the woman said. "The woman is still able to perform more than you think."

Gadhafi's government claims it has handed out more than a million weapons to civilians since the uprising began. CNN cannot independently verify the claim.


Report: 870 hurt in Egypt protests

Protesters throw stones at riot police during clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, during the early hours of June 29.NEW: Forty-eight arrested, an Egyptian official saysGroup forms fact-finding committee to determine what led to the violenceThe government says the violence had been "planned"Tahrir Square was the heart of the revolt against then-President Hosni Mubarak

(CNN) -- Eight hundred and seventy people were hurt earlier this week when a planned memorial for people killed in Egypt's revolution turned into an angry demonstration against the country's interim military government, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said Thursday.

Clashes began Tuesday afternoon and continued into Wednesday, with intense confrontations between relatives of victims on one side and security forces on the other.

The human rights group said it has formed a fact-finding committee to interview witnesses and the injured and determine what led to the violence.

Another Cairo-based human rights group, the National Council for Human Rights, issued a statement Thursday condemning the security forces' use of violence against protesters.

For its part, the government said the violence appeared to have been "planned and not organized by the martyr families."

Authorities arrested 48 people in the clashes, said Lt. Col. Yaser Atia with Egypt's National Security.

"There is a conspiracy against Egypt and we will fight it," he said.

An investigation is under way, Atia said.

Many Egyptians are angry at the slow pace of change since President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11 after protests.

A group called the January 25 Coalition issued a range of demands Wednesday night, a day after the demonstrations began.

They called for the "speedy trial of snipers and killers of protesters, the removal of Cairo's head of security and the official spokesman of the Ministry of Interior" and "an immediate investigation in the events of last night."

The group, named for the day anti-government protests began this year, also called for the release of detainees held overnight and the "immediate expulsion of security officers who continue to butcher and kill Egyptian people," among other demands.

Protesters burned tires and threw Molotov cocktails, and police responded with tear gas, bullets and pellets in the biggest demonstrations in Cairo in months.

But despite the efforts of police, demonstrators maintained their positions in Cairo's Tahrir Square, increasing their numbers to about 2,000.

Several thousand protesters chanted against Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The council has been running the country since Mubarak was forced to step down.

The human rights group Amnesty International has estimated at least 840 people were killed and more than 6,000 wounded during the 18-day revolution that began in late January.

The military-led government that took over when Mubarak resigned has been prosecuting several former officials accused of ordering security forces to fire on protesters.

A police officer accused of killing 20 protesters during a January 28 demonstration has been sentenced to death.

Former Interior Minister Habib El Adly has been sentenced to 12 years for corruption charges but still awaits the verdict for the charge of killing protesters.

Mubarak is scheduled to face the Cairo Criminal Court on August 3 on charges of corruption and deaths of protesters, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

Egypt's military rulers have set parliamentary elections for September.

Journalist Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.


Private companies key to space travel

Sierra County, New Mexico (CNN) -- There are no roller coasters near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. No Ferris wheels, either.

Yet this desert town could soon be a hot destination for thrill-seekers from around the world.

That's because nearby, within New Mexico's high desert valley, is the future home of Spaceport America -- the world's first commercial spaceport.

And it's the first stop for those who want to travel into space.

The $207 million facility, paid for by New Mexico's taxpayers, is based on the dream of a British billionaire.

"People used to tell me it would be impossible to build your own spaceship and your own spaceship company and take people into space," says Richard Branson, who heads Virgin Galactic.

"That's the sort of challenge that I love: to prove them wrong."

So far, 500 people have signed up to be among the first space tourists. The cost of the first flights: $200,000 per person.

When they fly, the tourist astronauts' craft will be attached to a mother ship called WhiteKnight 2. It will climb high into the sky, and will then release the spacecraft, called SpaceShip 2, which will roar above the Earth, reaching an altitude of about 350,000 feet.

They will experience weightlessness for about four minutes.

Branson says the $200,000 price tag will come down as flying into space becomes more commonplace -- just like the first airliners.

Branson's family holds tickets for the inaugural flight.

"We've got extensive tests over the next 15 months before myself and my children go into space," he told CNN in May. "And my wife won't forgive me if I don't bring the kids back."

Space travel is no small feat. It's expensive and risky. And now, companies like Virgin Galactic are trying to do what only governments have been able to achieve -- and they have a wallet thick enough to try.

While Branson's company is geared toward tourism, other companies are trying to win contracts to carry supplies and people to the International Space Station.

It's all part of NASA's plan to help these companies succeed and to continue U.S. access to the space station, once the shuttle program ends in July.

"Ideally, we'd like to have multiple competitors who come down to at least two that we can use so that we always have an alternative should one falter or fail," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

NASA has already paid out about $1 billion to several companies to help them develop cargo- and crew-carrying ability.

In the meantime, the United States will be paying Russia more than $63 million per astronaut to get to the International Space Station.

NASA says this will allow it to concentrate its money on missions to the moon, Mars, or to an steroid.

If all goes, as planned, one company, SpaceX, will begin delivering cargo to the International Space Station next year and eventually carry astronauts to and from the station. SpaceX can receive up to $400 million in NASA money if it succeeds.

"We've been sending astronauts to Earth orbit, for geez, it's like, almost five decades, almost half a century. It's not the cutting edge," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said. "It's time for NASA to hand that over to commercial industry, who can then optimize the technology and make it more reliable, make it much lower-cost, and make it much more routine, as happened with the aircraft business."

Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, has already had two successful flights with his spacecraft, called Dragon, launched aboard his Falcon 9 rocket.

Last year, Dragon orbited the Earth twice and splashed down successfully in the Pacific Ocean. Dragon may dock with the International Space Station this year.

Musk says the transition to the private sector brings the future a lot closer a lot faster.

"I think our rocket is the most advanced in the world and is the only one designed in the 21st century to see flight," he told CNN. "You don't make progress by trying to hang on to the past. ... Can you imagine how much difficulty people went through and how scared they were in the transition from horses to cars?

"But you've got to make this transition; otherwise, society doesn't move forward."

The end to the space shuttle program -- without another viable space vehicle ready to fly -- raises some concerns.

There's no doubt that spaceflight will always be risky. However, many in the industry wonder if the transition to the private sector should have been more gradual, while the space shuttle was still flying.

"Personally, I tend to think that it happened a little abruptly," said Atlantis space shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, who will lead the final shuttle mission, which is scheduled to launch on July 8. "Does that mean it was wrong? I don't believe it was wrong. I believe it was a big risk."

And, Ferguson says, "with big risks -- it's like investments -- come big rewards."

But, he says, "We could also lose."

It's a reminder of the early, experimental days, when failure and tragedy were part of the learning process, when flight was in its infancy.

"There's going to be some failures along the way, just like we did in the days of barnstorming. Lots of wreckage left on the ground," said Alvin Drew, a space shuttle mission specialist.

"I'm worried about when those wrecks occur, what effect that's going to have on the public's confidence in our ability to get to Earth orbit ... what it's going to cost, and not just dollars -- but possibly in lives and in aspirations."

George Musser, a space science editor at Scientific American magazine, believes that having a fleet of specialized space vehicles -- and multiple private companies -- is the best way to conduct a space program.

"Eventually, everyone's dream is that we'll have Hilton hotels and Hertz taxis in space, and go up there and have a great time," he said.

Yet he acknowledges the risk of ending the space shuttle program without having another viable space vehicle ready to fly.

"It's definitely a roll of the dice," Musser said. It's a question of whether it's a better roll of the dice than continuing the shuttle would be."

Entrepreneurs, like Branson and Musk, will press forward on their dreams of space travel, driven by competition from other teams vying for the same dollars in this new space economy.

"That's what competition does: It brings out the best in people," Musk said. "That's why we have the Super Bowl. That's why we have the World Series.

"It'd be kind of boring if there was one team."


Defense may rest in Casey Anthony trial

(CNN) -- The alleged mistress of Casey Anthony's father took the stand Thursday in Casey Anthony's capital murder trial, testifying that George Anthony once told her the death of his 2-year-old granddaughter Caylee was "an accident that snowballed out of control."

"I was in shock," Krystal Holloway told jurors. "By the time I looked up, his eyes were filled with tears. I didn't elaborate. I didn't ask anything further."

As she testified, George and Cindy Anthony, Casey Anthony's parents, sat stoically in the gallery.

Holloway said she met the Anthonys at their tent -- headquarters in the search for Caylee -- in July or August 2008. She said her relationship with George Anthony lasted for months, but she was also in a relationship at the time with someone else.

George Anthony has denied having an affair with Holloway. He did testify that he visited her, but said that she had told him and his wife that she had a brain tumor and was dying, and since she had donated her time to help his family find Caylee, he felt comforting her was "the least I could do."

Casey Anthony, 25, is charged with seven counts, including first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and misleading police, in Caylee's 2008 death. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against her. She has pleaded not guilty.

Anthony's defense team is trying to discredit the prosecution theory that the Orlando woman rendered Caylee unconscious with chloroform, duct-taped her mouth and nose, and stored the child's body in her car trunk for a few days before dumping it in the woods.

The defense says Caylee accidentally drowned in the family pool and that Anthony and her father panicked and covered it up. George Anthony has denied those claims.

Caylee was last seen June 16, 2008, although she was not reported missing until 31 days later, on July 15. The little girl's skeletal remains were found in December of the same year near the Anthony home, with duct tape still attached to the mouth portion.

Defense attorney Jose Baez introduced into evidence a text message sent by George Anthony to Holloway on December 16, 2008, which said, "Just thinking about you. I need you in my life."

Holloway, who also uses the name River Cruz, testified that after the relationship ended, she had to instruct the guard at her apartment complex not to let George Anthony in anymore.

She said she kept quiet about the relationship for years, and when police first approached her and confronted her with text messages, she denied the relationship at first but later set the record straight.

On cross-examination, she acknowledged to prosecutor Jeff Ashton that she was paid $4,000 for an interview with the National Enquirer about the time she admitted the alleged affair to police. Holloway grew defensive after Ashton asked how the interview related to the change in her story, saying, "I had no choice but to tell the truth."

She said she was being "trashed" in the media and wanted to speak to the Enquirer because she felt other media would selectively edit her story.

She also acknowledged that, in another part of her statement to police, she said that George Anthony told her, "I really believe that it was an accident that just went wrong and (Casey Anthony) tried to cover it up."

Holloway hotly maintained that George Anthony did not actually say that, but Ashton pointed it out in her statement.

"He didn't tell you that he was present when this occurred, did he?" Ashton asked. "No," Holloway said.

"He never told you that he knew it himself, that he knew it to be the case?" the prosecutor questioned her.

"I just told you what he said," she replied.

Ashton asked her to read her statement, and asked her if it wasn't true that George Anthony made it clear he had no firsthand knowledge of what happened to Caylee. She admitted that was true.

Ashton also pointed out that in a letter to Holloway from George Anthony, he writes that he has been trying to send messages to her through her daughter, the security guard and her husband. Holloway said she was not married and did not believe George Anthony thought she was. George Anthony said in the letter how much Holloway's friendship meant to him and his wife, she admitted, and signed the letter with both of their names.

She also acknowledged George Anthony sent the text message five days after Caylee's remains were found.

Holloway is one of the defense's final witnesses as they present their case. The defense may rest as early as Thursday.

After Holloway's testimony, Orange County Chief Judge Belvin Perry Jr. told jurors her testimony may be used to impeach George Anthony's credibility, but told them that her testimony is not proof of how Caylee died and is not evidence of Casey Anthony's guilt or innocence.

George Anthony, who offered some of the trial's most dramatic testimony on Wednesday, was recalled to the stand along with his wife and son Thursday to answer questions about the manner in which various pets of the family were buried over the years.

Some of them, they testified, were buried with blankets in a black plastic bag and secured with tape. Cindy Anthony noted that some of the pets were secured that way by the veterinarian after they died. She said she didn't think it was duct tape, but Lee Anthony recalled using duct tape to secure a plastic bag on one occasion.

"I take it that you did not euthanize your own pets with chloroform?" prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick asked Cindy Anthony. She also asked whether duct tape was put on the animals' faces and Cindy Anthony said no.

"Have you ever taken a dead pet and thrown it in a swamp?" Ashton asked George Anthony, who said no.

Private investigator Dominic Casey was also recalled to the stand to answer brief questions about where he searched for Caylee in the same area where her remains later were found in November 2008.

On Wednesday, George Anthony bristled at Baez's questions and at one point broke down and sobbed on the stand as he was questioned about his granddaughter and his suicide attempt that followed the discovery of her remains.

On January 22, 2009, the date of his attempt at suicide by drinking and taking pills, "It just felt like the right time to go and be with Caylee," George Anthony told prosecutor Jeff Ashton, his voice breaking. "... I just decided it was time for me to get away from all this, to spend time with Caylee."

Under Baez's questioning, George Anthony agreed that he told police in a July 24, 2008 statement that his daughter's trunk smelled like human decomposition -- a smell he was familiar with from his own law enforcement experience in Ohio. He testified Wednesday he was 100% sure he had recognized that smell.

"I could smell it 3 feet away on the passenger side," he told Baez about the odor from his daughter's car. "When I opened up that door, it smelled like decomposition. Human decomposition ... not the garbage that was in it."

The defense has suggested a bag of garbage left in Casey Anthony's trunk for weeks during a hot Florida summer may have been the source of the odor, although a cadaver dog alerted to it and several witnesses have identified it as the odor of human decomposition.

Numerous prosecution witnesses, including Casey Anthony's former boyfriend, acquaintances and friends, testified that during the month her daughter was missing, she was attending parties, nightclubs and shopping, but never mentioned her missing daughter, and they noticed nothing different in her demeanor.

Baez said in his opening statement that Casey Anthony behaved as she did because years of sexual abuse by her father had conditioned her to conceal the truth and hide her pain.

George Anthony has denied abusing his daughter, and did so again Wednesday. "I would never do anything like that to my daughter," he said. "... I would never do anything to harm my daughter in that way."

Later in the day, Casey Anthony wiped away tears as a grief expert testified that the reactions to grief vary widely, and that sometimes young mothers who lose their children engage in "risky behavior."

Young people, in particular, are "reluctant grievers," Sally Karioth said. Their risky behavior in response to grief could include visiting bars or getting a tattoo, as Casey Anthony did. "They might say nothing has happened," she said.

Denial is one type of coping mechanism, she said, and people can develop "magical thinking" and convince themselves of something else.

Karioth, who never interviewed Casey Anthony, testified over prosecutors' objections. Under questioning by Ashton, she acknowledged, "I have to say anything could happen when someone has a great grief."

Asked by Ashton if it would be unusual for a mother to tell no one her child has died and tell different stories about the child's whereabouts for a month -- including telling her parents that she is in another city with the child -- Karioth said, "I would agree that's a young woman in crisis who is unable to figure out how to make things better." Casey Anthony nodded.

Baez also asked George Anthony about his suicide attempt, suggesting that he had left a note that "expressed some guilt." Ashton objected, saying the document itself should be entered into evidence, but instead Baez withdrew the question.

As her father testified, Casey Anthony scribbled notes and occasionally shook her head angrily or whispered to her attorneys. No expression was visible on her face as she watched her father cry on the witness stand.

After lunch, Baez asked George Anthony whether the suicide attempt came because "the pressure was getting to you ... you knew you were being investigated." George Anthony answered that a lot of people were investigated in connection with the case, not just him, and maintained it was a "tumultuous time in my life," along with that of his wife, son and others.

This is the sixth week of testimony in the trial. Opening statements began on May 24. Perry originally told jurors, who are being housed in an Orlando hotel shielded from media coverage of the trial, that it could last six to eight weeks.

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Officials hopeful as Los Alamos fires rage

(CNN) -- While firefighters haven't gotten the upper hand in a stubborn wildfire burning near Los Alamos, New Mexico, a sense of accomplishment was evident as the battle headed into Thursday.

"We're in the best shape since this thing started," said Fire Chief Doug Tucker, who told reporters that Wednesday was make-it-or-break-it day.

Even with the progress, the nearby flames will keep the Los Alamos National Laboratory closed through at least Friday, a statement on the lab's website said.

"What I witnessed today was an incredibly professional job by men and women who are risking their lives to save our community and this laboratory," Charles McMillan, the lab director, said. "I could feel the heat of the fire on my face as I watched from the roof of our Emergency Operations Center."

The Los Alamos fire, which is officially called the Las Conchas fire, has forced nearly 10,000 people from their homes in the town. Officials estimated the fire consumed an additional 15,000 to 20,000 acres Wednesday -- bringing the total to about 70,000 acres -- but they remained optimistic.

Jerome MacDonald, operations section chief for the multi-state southwest area incident management team, said fire officials plan to flank the fire on the east side Thursday in an attempt to curb high winds predicted from the southwest.

Concerns were raised that the wildfire could put the Los Alamos lab at risk, as well as waste or other toxic materials stored at the site.

But Tucker said that the waste is stored in drums that are kept on a blacktop with no vegetation around and are safe from fire. If the fire should get too close to the drums, firefighters were ready to use foam to ensure that nothing would be released into the environment, he said.

The Las Conchas fire began on private land Sunday and expanded into the Santa Fe National Forest and Jemez Ranger District, according to InciWeb, an online database that keeps track of natural disasters such as fires and floods.

In a news statement released Wednesday, the Santa Fe National Forest and Valles Caldera National Preserve said that parts of both preserves would close to the public until the fire is more controlled.

Parts of the national forest have been placed under "stage III" fire restrictions, meaning all areas are off-limits for use unless otherwise posted.

The Las Conchas Fire touches the south border of the lab's 40-square-mile facility and comes close to the west border, according to Tucker.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez warned citizens to avoid using fireworks on the July Fourth holiday and the rest of the season.

The Las Conchas fire is one of several burning in the region.

The Donaldson and Game fires south of the town of Hondo and U.S. Highway 70 have merged into one fire that has consumed an estimated 43,290 acres and is 0% contained, according to the New Mexico Fire Information website.

Evacuations were ordered for Alamo Canyon Wednesday as the Donaldson fire continues to threaten parts of Lincoln County.

The Pacheco fire continues to burn in the Pecos Wilderness, two miles north of the Santa Fe Ski Basin. It has scorched 10,000 acres since it began June 18.

The blaze was 24% contained early Thursday, with the potential for growth considered low, according to InciWeb.

CNN's Ed Payne, Molly Green and Craig Bell contributed to this report