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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reports: Juarez cartel armed wing leader nabbed (AP)

By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press Adriana Gomez Licon, Associated Press – Sat Jul 30, 7:23 pm ET

MEXICO CITY – Federal police have captured the alleged leader of a ruthless gang of killers who work for a drug cartel in the violent border of Ciudad Juarez, Mexican news media said Saturday.

The suspect, Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, is wanted by the U.S. government on charges of murdering a U.S. consulate employee and her husband last year in Ciudad Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The newspaper El Universal and Milenio television said the 33-year-old Acosta was arrested Friday in the northern city of Chihuahua, capital of the state where Ciudad Juarez is. Mexican authorities have identified Acosta as the head of La Linea, a gang of hit men and corrupt police officers who act as enforcers for the Juarez Cartel.

Federal officials said they could not confirm the arrest, but federal police spokesman Juan Carlos Buenrostro said a suspect would be flown from northern Mexico to Mexico City to be shown before news media by Sunday.

The federal Attorney General's Office offered a 15 million peso ($1.2 million) reward last October for information leading to Acosta's arrest. A woman answering the reward phone line advertised on Acosta's wanted posters said he had been detained Friday but refused to give her name.

U.S. prosecutors seek to try Acosta in the killings of an employee of the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, her husband and the husband of another consulate employee in March 2010. The slayings are among the highest profile attacks in the city that has been plagued with violence.

A U.S. federal indictment accuses 10 people, including Acosta, of conspiring to kill the three. Acosta and seven others are now in Mexican custody. Two others, including one of the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives, Eduardo Ravelo, are still at large.

Besides the consulate killings, Acosta is blamed for two other notorious crimes in the Mexican government's 4 1/2-year-old offensive against drug cartels.

Chihuahua state officials allege Acosta ordered the massacre of 15 people, mostly teenagers, in January 2010 and was involved in a July 2010 car bombing, the first used by a cartel in recent history. Both attacks occurred in Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.3 million people that recorded 3,097 homicides in 2010 and more than 1,300 so far this year.

Mexico's government says at least 35,000 people have died in drug-related violence across the country since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office and launched a crackdown on organized crime. Other sources, including local media, put the number closer to 40,000. The federal government has not released an update of its numbers since December.

Other cities near the U.S.-Mexico border have been hit hard with violence while rival drug cartels battle over control of smuggling corridors.

In the northern state of Durango, federal officials said Saturday they burned 50 metric tons of marijuana that were found earlier in the week inside a large warehouse in black plastic bags.

The warehouse was in Santa Maria del Oro in Mexico's "golden triangle" region. The area, known for drug cultivation and trafficking, is also where soldiers a week ago found marijuana fields covering 148 acres (60 hectares) with a processing lab and five camps.

In Sonora state, Mexico's military said Saturday that troops seized five metric tons of marijuana near the U.S. border in Puerto Penasco, a beach city popular with visitors from Arizona.

Soldiers found three tons of the marijuana more than a mile (2 kilometers) from the port Thursday, a statement said. Officials earlier reported finding two metric tons of marijuana elsewhere in the same town the same day.

U.S. authorities earlier this year urged tourists to "exercise caution" about visiting Puerto Penasco due to rising drug violence in the city.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

US Marines to visit New Zealand next year (AP)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – U.S. Marines will visit New Zealand next year for the first time in at least 25 years, a sign of continuing thawing in the countries' military relations.

Prime Minister John Key made the announcement after visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in Washington on Thursday.

The Marines' visit will mark the 70th anniversary of their arrival in New Zealand to offer military support during World War II in case of an attack in the South Pacific. Key has also invited the U.S. Coast Guard to send a ship.

Military relations between the countries soured 25 years ago when New Zealand banned nuclear weapons from the country, preventing U.S. warships from visiting. Relations have improved in recent years, and New Zealand special forces have been active in Afghanistan.

The nuclear weapons ban is popular among the general public in New Zealand but remains a sticking point for the U.S. in resuming a full military relationship.

Among the details yet to be worked out for next year's visit are the number of Marines, how many will be veterans and how many active service, and whether they will arrive by plane or ship.

Stephen Hoadley, an associate professor of political studies and a foreign policy specialist at the University of Auckland, said the visit will "resonate very favorably" with older New Zealanders, some of whom remember the Marines' arrival in 1942.

"It was a tremendous emotional event," said Hoadley, noting that New Zealanders felt an enormous sense of relief at the U.S. presence.

Even then there were tensions, however, and in 1943 a riot involving more than 1,000 troops broke out in Wellington between American and New Zealand servicemen.

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U.S. debt plan heads to Senate

Washington (CNN) -- Top administration and congressional officials are expected to continue talks Friday on a potential deal tying roughly $3 trillion in new savings over the next decade to an increase in the debt ceiling.

The negotiations -- necessary to stave off an unprecedented national default that could prove economically devastating -- are testing the ability of leaders on both sides of the aisle to legislate effectively in an era of increasingly shrill and unyielding partisanship.

Republicans, feeling the pressure of tea party populism, remain staunchly opposed to any tax increases. Democrats are desperately trying to protect one of their party's primary legacies -- entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, programs forged at the height of the New Deal and Great Society.

What, if anything, either side is prepared to yield remains an open question.

"Neither party is blameless for the decisions that led to this debt, but both parties have a responsibility to come together and solve the problem," President Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed appearing in Friday's USA Today. "That's what the American people expect of us."

Some congressional Democrats appeared to be on the verge of open revolt against their own president Thursday night after hearing some of the details in the $3 trillion plan -- a package many of them contend does not do nearly enough to ensure wealthier Americans share in the burden of stemming the tide of Washington's red ink.

The talks have now become a race against the clock. If Congress fails to raise the $14.3 trillion limit by August 2, Americans could face rising interest rates, a declining dollar and increasingly jittery financial markets, among other problems.

The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to cast aside the House GOP's so-called "cut, cap, and balance" plan Friday -- a plan that would tie a debt ceiling increase to sweeping reductions in federal spending, caps on future expenditures, and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

Voting on the measure allows Republicans to demonstrate their preference for steps favored by many in the tea party movement even as GOP leaders try to find a middle ground with Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, dismissed the vote Friday morning as a waste of time.

"There is simply no more time to waste debating and voting on measures that have no hopes of becoming law," Reid said. There is "no more time to waste playing partisan games."

Reid's remarks triggered any angry response from Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, who accused the Democratic leader of obstructing a resolution.

"The well gets poisoned last evening by the majority leader and gets poisoned again this morning," Coats said. "Those of us who have worked our tails off to try to get something done are told that this is a piece of crap."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is set to meet behind closed doors Friday with House Republicans. Boehner told reporters Thursday that while some members of his caucus wouldn't compromise, he didn't believe they "would be anywhere close the majority."

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden huddled with top congressional Democrats on Thursday night. The president is scheduled to take his call for compromise on the road Friday, holding a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland.

Spokesmen for Obama and Boehner have denied that any deal is imminent.

Regardless, attention continue to swirl around the prospects of the $3 trillion compromise. The possible deal remains in limbo over a disagreement on whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year, according to congressional aides who spoke on condition of not being identified.

Nothing has been agreed to yet, they noted.

The possible deal would include spending cuts expected to total $1 trillion or more agreed to in earlier negotiations led by Biden, the sources said. It would reform entitlement programs by changing the eligibility age for Medicare over time, and using a more restrictive inflation index for Social Security benefits, according to the sources.

On taxes, it would permanently extend the Bush tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 while allowing the cuts to expire at the end of 2012 for those with income above that, the aides said. At the same time, the deal would include a commitment to reform the tax code next year, which is expected to lower all tax rates and eliminate loopholes and subsidies, the sources said.

Boehner, however, wants the deal to make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent while keeping the commitment to tax reform, the sources said. Republicans oppose any tax increases, and their resistance has been a major obstacle to any deal in the negotiations so far.

Some sources said the deal would work in two stages, with spending cuts and a debt ceiling increase occurring right away while entitlement reforms and tax reforms would occur later.

It is unclear -- even if a deal is reached -- that any sweeping package can be approved by the August 2 deadline.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney signaled to reporters earlier in the week that the president may now be willing to sign a short-term debt limit extension if Democratic and Republican leaders are close to agreement on a broad plan that includes both tax hikes and spending reforms.

Obama previously indicated he would veto any short-term extension.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are also continuing discussions focused on the $3.7 trillion debt reduction blueprint put forward by the "Gang of Six," a group of three Democratic and three Republican senators.

Under the group's proposal, $500 billion in budget savings would be immediately imposed, with marginal income tax rates reduced and the controversial alternative minimum tax ultimately abolished.

The plan would create three tax brackets with rates from 8% to 12%, 14% to 22%, and 23% to 29% -- part of a new structure designed to generate an additional $1 trillion in revenue. It would require cost changes to Medicare's growth rate formula as well as $80 billion in Pentagon cuts.

Obama has praised the plan, calling it "broadly consistent" with his approach to debt reduction because it mixes tax changes, entitlement reforms and spending reductions.

The proposal, however, has been hit with a barrage of criticism from both the right and the left. Conservatives have complained about some of the plan's tax changes, while liberals have warned it would cut entitlement benefits too deeply.

If all else fails, party leaders could still turn to a fallback plan initially put forward by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. The measure would give Obama the power to raise the borrowing limit by a total of $2.5 trillion, but also require three congressional votes on the issue before the 2012 general election.

Specifically, Obama would be required to submit three requests for debt ceiling hikes -- a $700 billion increase and two $900 billion increases. Along with each request, the president would have to submit a list of recommended spending cuts exceeding the debt ceiling increase. The cuts would not need to be enacted in order for the ceiling to rise.

Congress would vote on -- and presumably pass -- "resolutions of disapproval" for each request. Obama would likely veto each resolution. Unless Congress manages to override the president's vetoes -- considered highly unlikely -- the debt ceiling would increase.

The unusual scheme would allow most Republicans and some more conservative Democrats to vote against any debt ceiling hike while still allowing it to clear.

McConnell and Reid are also working on two critical additions to the plan, according to congressional aides in both parties. One would add up to roughly $1.5 trillion in spending cuts agreed to in earlier talks led by Vice President Joe Biden; the other would create a commission meant to find more major spending cuts, tax increases and entitlement reforms.

Changes agreed to by the commission -- composed of an equal number of House and Senate Democrats and Republicans -- would be subject to a strict up-or-down vote by Congress. No amendments would be allowed.

Sources say the panel would be modeled after the Base Closing and Realignment Commission, which managed to close hundreds of military bases that Congress could not otherwise bring itself to shut down.

CNN's Ted Barrett, Kevin Bohn, Kate Bolduan, Tom Cohen, Lisa Desjardins, Deirdre Walsh and Jessica Yellin contributed to this report


41 feared dead in China bus fire

Beijing (CNN) -- Forty-one passengers are feared dead in a bus fire in central China, state media reported Friday.

Six people including the driver were rescued and hospitalized, Sun Jun, deputy director of the local government information office, told CNN.

The number of fatalities is an initial report, according to state-run CCTV.

"The fire was so big that some bodies were burned beyond recognition -- and the death toll is being tallied," Sun said.

It was unclear what caused the fire and an investigation is under way.

The bus was on a highway in Xinyang city in Henan province.

CNN's Eve Bower and Haolan Hong contributed to this report.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New York crash kills 5, injures at least 8

After the crash Tuesday in western New York, eight people were taken to area hospitals, though more may have been hurt.Helicopters and ambulances arrive to assistThe accident involved a farm tractor and two automobilesThe cause of the crash is not immediately clear

New York (CNN) -- Five people were killed and at least eight injured Tuesday in an accident involving a farm tractor and two automobiles in western New York, the Yates County Sheriff's Office said.

Several helicopters and at least 10 ambulances were in the town of Benton to assist, according to a Sheriff's Office statement.

Eight people were taken to area hospitals, though more may have been hurt.

In an earlier statement, the Yates County Sheriff's Office said that between four and five people were caught in the wreckage. The Sheriff's Office made no mention of whether people were still trapped in a later statement.

The cause of the crash was not immediately clear.


Tear gas fired in Australian immigration riots (AFP)

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian police fired tear gas, sound and flash weapons and "bean bag" bullets to quell overnight riots at the troubled Christmas Island immigration detention centre.

Immigration authorities said about 50 detainees were involved in the disturbance, which saw fires lit and police threatened with makeshift weapons at the centre, some 2,600 kilometres (1,600 miles) from Australia's mainland.

"(Police) members made a number of attempts to defuse and de-escalate the situation, but these were not successful," a police spokeswoman told AFP Wednesday.

"Members had cause to deploy a range of use of force options, including less-lethal munitions (such as) bean bag rounds, (tear) gas, and sound and flash distraction devices."

"Bean bag" bullets are small cushions filled with lead shot that are fired from a shotgun, designed to temporarily disable targets.

It is the second time in as many months serious riots have rocked the remote centre, which is the cornerstone of Australia's mandatory detention policy for refugees and home to 600 boat arrivals.

Some of the group escaped their compounds but an immigration spokesman said there was "no breach of the perimeter fence" and police had brought the incident under control without any injuries.

One detainee was arrested and another was still staging a rooftop protest, with police remaining on site, the spokesman added.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said computers in the centre's medical clinic were destroyed and said anyone found guilty of crimes in detention could be shipped home under strict new character laws on visas.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard echoed his warnings.

"If you commit a criminal offence it will count against you," Gillard said.

"You don't get any changes to the process and treatment of your claims by misbehaving."

Australia's immigration facilities are under strain from a record influx of boatpeople last year -- almost 6,900 -- and tensions have run high in crowded centres on both Christmas Island and at Villawood, in Sydney.

Up to 100 detainees rioted on the Indian Ocean island last month, and another 250 were involved in violent protests there in March over the slow processing of asylum claims, with some locked up for 18 months or more.

Nine buildings were torched in wild riots the following month at Villawood that involved up to 100 detainees.

Bowen said 30 people had been charged over those disturbances.

Australia's mandatory detention policy has been criticised by human rights groups and the UN's refugee agency, with depression and suicide major concerns.

Refugees are a thorny issue in Australia, despite their relatively small numbers and the fact that many who arrive in leaky boats from Asia have fled strife in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

Canberra has announced a controversial refugee swap with Malaysia in a bid to slow the flow of boats, and Bowen said it had been an effective deterrent though the "operational finer details" were still being hammered out.

"We've already seen a substantial reduction in the number of boat arrivals to Australia in recent times," said Bowen.

"I don't say that the announcement of the Malaysia arrangement is entirely responsible for that (but) clearly our very clear message through the region has had some impact."

Boats fell from 134 last year to 28 in the six months to June 30, carrying 1,675 arrivals.

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France condemns Iran nuclear move

The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran on October 26.NEW: Tehran insists that its nuclear program is peacefulThe French Foreign Ministry says Tuesday's announcement by Iran flouts U.N. resolutionsParis is calling on Tehran to "suspend its sensitive activities"British official said last month Iran is secretly testing missiles

Tehran, Iran (CNN) -- The French Foreign Ministry condemned Tuesday the Iranian government's announcement that it was installing a new generation of centrifuges in its nuclear facilities, describing it as "a new wave of provocation" that flouts United Nations resolutions.

"This is yet another violation of the six Security Council resolutions and the 10 IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Board of Governors resolutions," the ministry said in a statement. "On top of the announcements that it plans to triple the production of uranium enriched to 20%, it clearly confirms the suspicions of the IAEA and the international community regarding the purpose of a program without any credible civilian objective."

The French Foreign Ministry called on Tehran to "suspend its sensitive activities."

The ministry was reacting to the announcement earlier in the day by a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, who said the country is installing a new generation of centrifuges in its nuclear facilities. The announcement was reported by the state-run IRNA news agency.

The spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, "stressed the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities, saying that all Iran's nuclear activities were carried out under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency," IRNA said.

Iran has been carrying out covert tests of missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload, in contravention of a U.N. resolution, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last month.

It has also said it wants to enrich uranium to "levels far greater than is needed for peaceful nuclear energy," Hague said.

Iran's development of missile and nuclear fuel technology has led to U.N. sanctions and accusations from the United States that the clerical regime is trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran says it has a right to peaceful nuclear technology, but the IAEA has said it cannot verify whether the intent of Tehran's nuclear program remains peaceful.

Enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear purposes, but also to make atomic weapons.

The IAEA raised concerns in February that Iran was not engaging with the agency on claims that it was developing a nuclear payload for its missiles.

The IAEA report discussed possible nuclear activities tied to Iran's military "including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."

The United States imposed new sanctions on Iran last month, targeting the country's national airline, Iran Air, other companies and international business executives accused of illicitly building up Tehran's military.

Iran has condemned those sanctions in a letter to the United Nations, saying the international body had a responsibility to look out for "nations who are merely endeavoring to attain their legitimate and undeniable rights under international law."

The United Nations passed a fourth round of sanctions against Iran in June 2010, aimed at pressuring it to suspend its nuclear program.

Journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No doubt Chavez will run in 2012 vote, aide says (AP)

CARACAS, Venezuela – An aide to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez said Monday that there is no doubt the president will run for re-election next year despite his struggle with cancer.

The remark by Finance Minister Jorge Giordani came as Chavez was in Cuba undergoing cancer treatment.

"There's no doubt he's going to be there in the 2012 elections, and afterward for many more years," Giordani said in an interview on state television.

The 56-year-old Chavez, who has been in office more than 12 years, has indicated he intends to continue with his re-election campaign next year despite his illness.

Chavez has not been seen on television since he arrived in Cuba on Saturday night. He said before leaving that he would begin chemotherapy right away.

A message posted on Chavez's Twitter account Monday night said: "Good night fellow citizens! Closing another day of this battle for life here. With unbeatable optimism! Fidel came again!"

Fidel Castro has often been at Chavez's side during the Venezuelan leader's treatment in Cuba.

Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba on June 20 to remove a cancerous tumor, which he has said was the size of a baseball. He hasn't said what type of cancer has been diagnosed or specified where exactly it was located, saying only that it was in his pelvic region.

Chavez has said the chemotherapy is aimed at ensuring cancer cells don't reappear. He hasn't said how long the treatment is likely to last.

When asked how long Chavez could be away, Vice President Elias Jaua told state television in an interview Monday night: "I don't know. That will depend on his treatment."

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Israeli navy challenges Gaza-bound yacht (Reuters)

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli naval vessels on Tuesday told a French yacht carrying pro-Palestinian activists intending to sail to Gaza, which is under an Israeli naval blockade, to leave the area, the military said.

"A short while ago, initial contact was made between the Israel Navy and the lone vessel Al-Karame," the statement said.

It added that the yacht was told that "it is on a route leading to an area under a maritime security blockade off the coast of Gaza, and (the navy) reminded them any supplies they may have on board may be transferred, legally, through the existing land crossings and the Ashdod Port," it added.

A military spokeswoman declined to say where in the eastern Mediterranean contact was made with the yacht.

The 17-passenger "Dignite-AlKarama" had declared an Egyptian port as its destination when it left Greek waters on Sunday but then said it was redirecting toward the Palestinian enclave and was hoping to arrive by Tuesday afternoon.

Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television reported that its correspondent on the yacht said a communication from an Israeli vessel told the yacht that marines would take control of the boat if it did not heed their instructions.

Israel, whose marines killed nine Turkish activists when they stormed a Gaza-bound flotilla in the Mediterranean last year, has vowed to stop any new attempt to breach a naval blockade it deems necessary to prevent arms from reaching Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.

Palestinians and their supporters consider the Gaza blockade illegal and say it stunts the economic development of the territory, most of whose 1.5 million residents rely on aid to survive.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Gbagbo loyalists 'no longer a threat' in Ivory Coast (AFP)

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – Elements loyal to former Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo are no longer a threat to peace and order in the West African nation, the UN mission chief said on Monday.

"By and large, the ex pro-Gbagbo elements and their supporters are not likely to mount substantial challenges to law and order -- a painful chapter of history in Cote d'Ivoire has been closed," said Choi Young-Jin, who heads the UN mission known as UNOCI.

Choi told the Security Council that the meltdown of Gbagbo supporters "augurs well for the achievement of reconciliation in the country."

The diplomat said that despite the fading of Gbagbo forces, there remains "a need for a rapid restoration of law and order" as a precondition of reconciliation and economic recovery.

He added that in the western part "we see a certain deficit of security" but that "most experts are of the view that there is a positive (economic) recovery in the country."

Choi said the United Nations would work with Ivory Coast on organizing legislative elections set for later this year.

Separately, the Ivory Coast ambassador to the UN, Youssoufou Bamba, indicated that the country "is progressively returning to normal."

Of the estimated 200,000 people displaced by the conflict before the installation of elected President Alassane Ouattara, 60,000 have returned home, while 140,000 are still refugees, many in camps along the Liberian border, according to Bamba.

An estimated 3,000 people died during the standoff after Gbagbo refused to cede power after elections in November won by Ouattara, who was finally inaugurated May 21.

Gbagbo was captured in an underground bunker in Abidjan on April 11 by forces loyal to Ouattara, backed by France and the UN.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Chavez in Cuba for cancer treatment

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves Saturday as he leaves Caracas to go to Cuba for chemotherapy.Hugo Chavez is met by Raul Castro at the airport, a report saysDoctors found no more malignant cells after surgery, says ChavezHe has not said what type of cancer he has

(CNN) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has arrived in Cuba, where he is expected to continue cancer treatment.

The president was met by his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, at the airport in Havana on Saturday night, according to Cuban state media. The Cubadebate website published a photo of the two men shaking hands amid a group of photographers.

Chavez returned to the Caribbean nation less than a month after he left, following treatment for an undisclosed type of cancer.

It is not clear how long he plans to stay in Cuba, where he has said he will begin chemotherapy.

"It's not time to die. It's time to live," the president said before boarding his plane in Venezuela.

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Earlier Saturday, the ailing leader said that doctors, in the aftermath of surgery, have not found malignant cells in any other part of his body. He underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor last month.

Still, he said there is always the risk that cancer cells could reappear and so it is necessary that doctors take an aggressive approach.

Hours before Chavez left Venezuela, the president delegated some of his powers to his vice president and finance minister -- marking the first time in his more than 12 years in office that he ceded authority.

The president signed a decree allowing Vice President Elias Jaua and Finance Minister Jorge Giordani to make "some decisions that up to now depended on me." He resisted calls from the opposition to hand over the presidency to Jaua during his time abroad.

"Within the dynamic of this deep reflection, and this scenario that we are in, it will be very useful to make changes," Chavez said as he announced the delegations of power.

Still, Chavez's critics and some analysts have questioned his ability to carry out his duties, particularly given that he is up for re-election next year. They have also complained about the lack of information available on his health. Chavez's absence from Venezuela will likely heighten those concerns.


Thousands rally for democracy in Morocco (AFP)

CASABLANCA, Morocco (AFP) – Thousands of demonstrators, including Islamists, held peaceful rallies in Rabat, Casablanca and Tangiers Sunday to demand greater political reforms and social justice in Morocco.

The latest protests were organised by the youth-based February 20 Movement behind months of demonstrations calling for reforms in the Arab world's oldest reigning monarchy.

In Casablanca's Sidi Othmane suburb, several thousand protesters shouted slogans to demand "a democratic constitution" and "greater social justice", AFP reporters witnessed.

Militants of the Islamist Justice and Charity Group, banned but tolerated by the government, were among the group.

Hundreds of pro-government protesters also gathered in Sidi Othmane, waving flags and portraits of King Mohammed VI, chanting: "Long live the King" and singing the antional anthem.

The two groups were kept apart by the security forces, out in large numbers.

At the same time, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the capital Rabat and several thousand in Tangiers.

The protests are inspired by similar movements that have toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and by popular uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.

They continue despite a referendum in which 98 percent of voters approved reforms proposed by the king, but boycotted by the February 20 Movement, which curbs the monarch's near-absolute powers.

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Residents: Syrian forces in border city

Lebanese and Syrian anti-Assad demonstrators protest in the Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday.Zabadani residents had held protests calling for Assad's ousterResident: Troops round up people indiscriminatelyOn Saturday, hundreds of Syrian exiles gathered in Turkey to show unityHillary Clinton expresses support for the opposition

(CNN) -- Syrian forces moved into a city near the Lebanese border Sunday, detaining dozens of people, residents said.

Tanks rumbled in before dawn into Zabadani, about 25 miles north of Damascus.Residents of the city had called for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in several demonstrations since anti-government protests took hold of the country four months ago.

One resident, who did not want his name used for fear of reprisal, said troops rounded up people indiscriminately -- including several who were waiting by the side of a street to go to work.

The troops then set up checkpoints around the city. People, he said, are afraid to leave their homes.

Another said phone services and electricity to the city has been cut off. He too confirmed the raids and the detentions.

On Saturday, hundreds of exiled Syrian activists met in Istanbul and elected a 25-member council as they sought to declare unity in their intention to oust Assad.

The National Salvation Council, composed of independents, liberals, Islamists and members of other parties, will serve as an umbrella organization representing various factions of the Syrian opposition -- sometimes seen as fractured in their demands.

"Bashar al-Assad is finished," said Haitham al-Maleh, a political prisoner who was released from jail in March in an attempt to appease protesters. "He must leave the country, leave the power. We want to build our government, our regime, without them.

"We will move together to be one opposition ... because you know we spent 50 years under a dictatorship," he said. "The civil society in Syria is finished. Now we are building ourselves for the future."

The Syrian National Salvation conference -- attended by about 350 opposition members -- unfolded as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was also in Istanbul for meetings with Turkish officials, expressed support for the opposition.

"What's happening in Syria is very uncertain and troubling, because many of us had hoped that President Assad would make the reforms that were necessary without seeing what we're now seeing in the streets of Syria, which are government tanks and soldiers shooting peaceful demonstrators," she said.

"There must be a legitimate, sincere effort with the opposition to try to make changes," she said. "I don't know whether that will happen or not."

Some opposition members were frustrated at what they perceived as a lack of response from the international community and hoped that a united Syrian opposition would ratchet up pressure on al-Assad.

"The international community seems to be still dancing around the issue of the Assad regime losing legitimacy and that could be due to a number of reasons," said M. Yaser Tabbara, a Syrian-American human rights lawyer.

"I think what we're trying to do is send these reassurances to the international community that a credible, competent council or body is being formed, and that we do not have to worry anymore about a vacuum of power or a vacuum for an alternative."

He said the Syrian opposition wants world powers to choke the regime economically, politically and diplomatically "to achieve a point of no return."

A similar opposition meeting was to have taken place in Damascus but because of violence Friday, the meeting was canceled. However, two prominent activists were able to connect to Istanbul via Skype and telephone.

But despite efforts to maintain a united front, there was disagreement still over whether to push for the ouster of al-Assad or to work to promote reforms within the current framework. And a banner that read the "Syrian Arab Republic" drew the ire of the Kurdish delegation for the inclusion of the word, Arab.

Also Saturday, at least one person was killed when Syrian security forces opened fire on protesters in the eastern town of Albu Kamal, according to the activist group Local Coordination Committees in Syria.

State television said, however, that "armed groups" attacked a police station, a mayor's home and other government sites in Albu Kamal and that two policeman was killed. It said a number of guards were injured.

At least 21 civilians and one soldier were killed Friday in demonstrations. Sixteen of the fatalities occurred in Damascus and its suburbs, one in Homs, three in Idlib and one in Daraa, said Rami Abelrahman, director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Videos that allegedly showed the funeral processions for those killed were posted Saturday on Facebook pages belonging to Syrian activists. They showed people marching on the streets, carrying coffins and chanting slogans against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Protesters echoed the demands for reforms that they have voiced for months.

CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali, Yesim Comert and Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report.


Jordan probes attacks on protesters

Riot police beat protesters with sticks Friday on the streets of Amman, Jordan.A Jordanian official promises to probe "a police attack on a pro-reform march"4 police officers suspected of attacking protesters have already been detainedVideo shows police beating, punching and kicking people, some of them journalists

(CNN) -- A Jordanian official ordered an investigation Saturday to look into police officers' attacks on pro-reform demonstrators in Amman, state-run media reported.

Riot police punched, kicked and beat protesters with sticks Friday on the streets of Amman, according to CNN reporters on the scene. Several journalists were among those caught up in the violence, in some instances attacked by police.

Police Capt. Mahmoud El-Khatib initially said that authorities only used "appropriate force" to prevent even worse bloodshed among what he called two groups of protesters -- one backing the government, the other calling for reform.

But witnesses said there were no such rival groups, blaming police using batons and other means to beat back protesters.

Lt. Gen. Hussein Majali, the head of Jordan's public security department, on Saturday described the incident as a "police attack on a pro-reform march in Amman," according to the Petra news agency. This same report said the demonstration was organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and youth groups, which is distinct from its account the previous day.

Majali called for the creation of a panel of "senior officers" to investigate, a probe that began Friday night. This investigation, which will use "video material available to the committee," is expected to be done within 72 hours, followed by possible criminal trials.

Already, four policemen have been detained as suspects for their involvement in the violence, according to Petra, which was citing a statement from the Middle Eastern nation's public security department.

While there have been demonstrations in Jordan, as elsewhere in the Arab world, they have been largely peaceful and few have called for the ouster of its ruler, King Abdullah II.

Still, the violence Friday was at times stark.

One man lay on the ground, covered with blood-soaked tissues after a witness said he was hit in the head. Another man had a big gash on his arm. A woman, part of a group of 20 huddled together, said she felt shaky after being knocked in the head.

The state-run news report did not offer a casualty count, beyond claiming that 17 police officers were injured in the clashes.

There were "light to medium injuries to a number of journalists," Petra reported.

Mohammed Hanoun, a photographer, said he was attacked by police -- arguing with an official press liaison, who denied the media was being targeted.

"This is the moment I was hit," said Hanoun, showing a picture. "Do you see it? This is the last picture I took; he hit me with the shield."

Journalists typically wear orange vests in Jordan so they can be identified from protesters or police. Many media members took off their orange vests in solidarity with attacked journalists on Friday.

Salman Al Masaed, who was in the front row of the pro-reform demonstration, said he had no doubt that it was police -- and not rival protesters -- waging the offensive.

"We did not see a single person attack us," he said. "The only people that attacked us were the security forces, with their batons."


Saturday, July 16, 2011

9 killed in Shiite holy city in Iraq

Many Shiite pilgrims have started walking to Karbala, home to a shrine honoring the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.An additional 70 people are woundedIn one attack, a motorcycle rigged with explosives detonatesIn another attack, two car bombs explode

Baghdad (CNN) -- Separate blasts in Iraq killed nine people and left dozens wounded in attacks targeting pilgrims near the Shiite holy city of Karbala, authorities said Saturday.

An additional 70 people were wounded in the three blasts between Friday and Saturday, the Interior Ministry officials said.

A motorcycle rigged with explosives detonated in southern Karbala Saturday morning, killing one and wounding 27 others.

In a second attack, two car bombs exploded Friday afternoon within a few seconds in the Awan district north of Karbala. Two died and 15 were injured.

A third car bomb exploded Friday night in Twareej district north of Karbala, killing six people and wounding 28 others.

All the attacks targeted Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala to mark the Shabaniya, the birthday of the 12th and last Imam, Mohammed Ibn Hassan al-Mahdi. Since 2003, thousands of Shiite pilgrims have been killed and wounded in explosions and assassinations.

Shabaniya falls on Sunday but many pilgrims have already started walking to Karbala, about 100km (62 miles) south of Baghdad.

No group claimed responsibility, but such attacks bear the hallmark of al-Qaeda in Iraq, said an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to media.


Clinton chides NATO ally Turkey on rights curbs (AP)

ISTANBUL – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, chiding a NATO ally whose support is critical to American goals in the Mideast, said Saturday that Turkey must act on concerns about backsliding on human rights and its secular traditions

Speaking politely but firmly about the moderate Muslim nation, Clinton said the recent arrests of dozens of journalists and curbs placed on religious freedom were "inconsistent" with Turkey's economic and political progress.

She said Turkey should recommit itself to the course of modernization and embrace the democratic institutions of statehood. By doing so, Turkey could serve as a model for Arab nations now in the midst of revolt or transition, America's top diplomat said.

"Across the region, people in the Middle East and North Africa are seeking to draw lessons from Turkey's experience," she told reporters at a news conference with Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. "Turkey's history serves as a reminder that democratic development also depends on responsible leadership."

She called on the Turkish people to use their constitutional reform process to "address concerns ... about recent restrictions on freedom of expression and religion" and boost protection for the rights of minorities.

Those concerns have stalled Turkey's bid to join the European Union and further cement ties with the West. Clinton noted that the U.S. long has backed Turkey's EU membership.

At a town hall event earlier where she took questions from young Turks, Clinton criticized the arrests of journalists. She said the detentions have fed fears about threats to press freedom in the majority Muslim nation.

"I do not think it is necessary or in Turkey's interests to be cracking down. It seems to me inconsistent with all the other advances Turkey has made," she said.

Turkey's institutions should be able to withstand the scrutiny and debate that a free press brings, Clinton said.

Turkish media groups say more than 60 journalists are in jail. The groups accuse authorities of using flimsy evidence to bring the charges.

Government officials said in April there were 26 journalists jail in Turkey for activities unrelated to journalism. Officials have cited the role of some media sectors over the decades in fanning support for coups led by the Turkish military, a staunch supporter of the secular system.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Turkey is a member, says 57 journalists are in jail in Turkey, mostly on anti-terror charges. That includes people with alleged ties to Kurdish rebels and extremists.

Clinton's comments were likely to encourage more liberal Turks but irritate Turkey's leaders, including Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A small group protested Clinton's visit outside the U.S. Embassy. In Istanbul, one man holding a Turkish flag staged a protest as Clinton met Orthodox Patriarchate Bartholomew, accusing Washington of "killing millions of Muslims."

Erdogan, long seen as a vital bridge between East and West, has worried some by taking steps at odds with U.S. and Western policies.

He insists that his ruling party, which has Islamist roots, is committed to secularism. But since President Barack Obama took office, Erdogan has clashed with Israel and opposed U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

During George W. Bush's administration, Turkey opposed the war in Iraq and refused to allow troops to enter Iraq from its territory, creating additional divisions over the conflict within NATO.

At the coffee house, Clinton also urged Turks to continue to embrace inclusive traditions and serve as the East-West bridge, without choosing one or the other.

"I don't think there is any reason for Turkey to shift from West to East," she said. "As an outsider, I have always thought the debate is a debate without real meaning to it because why would you give up one for another? You can look both ways and to me that is an incredible advantage."

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Yemen protesters set up transitional council (Reuters)

SANAA (Reuters) – Yemeni protesters formed a transitional council of opposition figures on Saturday to lead efforts to try to force President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.

Youth groups, which have been at the forefront of more than five months of protests against Saleh's three decade rule, told a news conference that the 17 member council would include former Yemeni President Ali Nasser Mohammed and leaders of several opposition groups, including exiles.

They named General Abdullah Ali Aleiwa, a former defense minister, as their choice for armed forces commander.

An official from an anti-Saleh coalition of mainstream opposition parties, said the Joint Meeting would not support the new council. The coalition has also called for a transitional body.

"This council does not reflect (the views) of the Joint Meeting, because we have a different plan. It only represents those who set it up," Hamid Assim, deputy secretary-general of an Arab nationalist opposition party, told Reuters.

Saleh, who is in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following an assassination attempt in June, has backed out three times from a Gulf-brokered plan to ease him from power.

Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim absolute monarchy, does not want to see people power bring political change on its borders. It has long been Saleh's main financial backer, and Saleh may not stand down until Riyadh demands it.

Separately, a Yemeni deputy minister said on Saturday that the United Arab Emirates had pledged 3 million barrels of oil to Yemen, which faces a fuel crisis due to attacks on a pipeline during the widespread political unrest.

(Reporting by Mohammed Ghobari; writing by Firouz Sedarat; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Australia PM hails coal deal amid poll slump (AFP)

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday hailed a record coal mining bid as proof the key resources sector would thrive, shrugging off a slump in the polls over her plans for a pollution tax.

Gillard said the joint Aus$4.68 billion (US$5.0 billion) bid for Macarthur Coal from European steelmaking giant ArcelorMittal and US mining firm Peabody defied industry claims that a new carbon emissions tax would hurt the sector.

"We are seeing the biggest takeover bid in Australian history for a coal company," she told public broadcaster ABC.

"You couldn't get a better indication that business people see a good future in coal mining in this country."

Gillard unveiled a controversial new Aus$23-per-tonne levy on the nation's top 500 polluters on Sunday in a bid to reduce carbon emissions blamed for global warming, starting July 1 next year.

Australia is one of the world's worst per capita polluters due to its reliance on mining exports and coal-fired power, and the heavyweight coal industry says the new tax will shut mines and cost thousands of jobs.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the Macarthur takeover, which will be the biggest ever of an Australian coal miner if it goes ahead, showed offshore companies stood ready to move in on firms left vulnerable by the carbon levy.

Coal industry chief Ralph Hillman said "internal dynamics" of the bid had dictated its timing, not the tax, which he said would cause high-cost operations to shut and other projects to be put aside.

But Gillard said it underscored the prospects of the coal sector, which has been promised an Aus$1.3 billion buffer package to ensure no jobs are lost as the tax comes in.

"You have to track where the money is going... it's going into buying an Australian mining business," Gillard said. "People would only do that if they thought it had a great future."

Gillard is blitzing the nation with an election-style campaign hoping to win support for her plan from a sceptical public, with a poll published Tuesday showing just 30 percent of voters were in favour and 59 percent against.

The Newspoll survey of 1,203 Australians, taken ahead of Gillard's unveiling of the tax's full details Sunday, put her ruling Labor party's first preference vote at just 27 percent, the lowest in the poll's history.

Abbott's Liberal/National Coalition rose three points to 49 percent compared with the last survey two weeks ago, and Abbott led Gillard as preferred prime minister, 43 percent to 38 percent.

If an election were held today Abbott would storm into government with a landslide, according to the Newspoll, which was published alongside dire predictions for the already embattled aviation and tourism industries.

Natural disasters in the country's north and the rallying Australian dollar has hammered domestic tourism, and industry experts said operators such as fuel-dependent dive boats on the Great Barrier Reef would suffer from the plan.

"This tax may well be the straw that breaks the camel's back," said the Australian Tourism Export Council.

Gillard insisted she was not shaken by the polls and denied losing the public's confidence.

"Reform is difficult and this nation is a better place today because hard reforms were faced up to yesterday," she said.

"I will be leading this country to a clean energy future, that's what I'm determined to do."

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Bin Laden was in on 2005 and 2006 London plots (Reuters)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Osama bin Laden was aware of the plot in which al Qaeda militants bombed London transport facilities on July 7, 2005, but it was the last successful operation he played a role in, U.S. government experts have concluded.

Circumstantial evidence, including information gathered from the Abbotabad, Pakistan, hide-out where U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden on May 2, also suggests that bin Laden had advance knowledge of an unsuccessful London-based 2006 plot to simultaneously bomb U.S.-bound transatlantic flights, several U.S. national security officials said.

"Bin Laden was absolutely a detail guy. We have every reason to believe that he was aware of al Qaeda's major plots during the planning phase, including the airline plot in 2006 and the London '7-7' attacks," one of the U.S. officials told Reuters. This official and others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss counter-terrorism matters.

Some of the confidence U.S. officials expressed about bin Laden's involvement in the London attacks is based on analytical judgment rather than ironclad proof. Two of the officials said that there was no "smoking gun" evidence proving that he orchestrated the plots.

However, they and other U.S. officials said there is strong evidence, including material collected from bin Laden's lair, indicating that, as the London-based plots unfolded, bin Laden was in close contact with other al Qaeda militants. One official said bin Laden was "immersed in operational details" of the group's activities.

"We believe he was aware of these plots ahead of time," one of the officials said.

Fifty-two civilians, and four suicide bombers, died in the July 7, 2005, attacks on three London underground trains and a double-decker bus. Hundreds were injured. It was "the last successful operation Osama bin Laden oversaw," a second official said.

The latest assessments from U.S. and other Western officials support assertions by the Obama administration that, despite years of apparent isolation in Abbotabad, bin Laden still managed to keep in touch with activities -- sometimes in considerable detail -- of his followers around the world.


By the same token, the cache of evidence found in bin Laden's lair does not offer new indications about any specific current plots he was involved in directed at U.S. or other Western targets.

Investigations by British authorities, with support from the United States and other allies, established some time ago that elements of al Qaeda's core leadership had played a role in the 2005 London transport attacks.

Investigators found evidence that Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the four-man militant cell who carried out the bombings, and another cell member had traveled to Pakistan for paramilitary training before the attacks.

Until recently, however, investigators had not linked bin Laden personally to the July 7, 2005, attacks. Two weeks after those bombings, a cell of militants attempted a second round of attacks on London transport facilities but their bombs failed to go off.

A Western official said there was also reason to believe that al Qaeda's core leadership was involved in orchestrating subsequent failed plots against European and U.S. targets.

One of the plots that U.S. officials believe bin Laden was at least aware of was a 2006 plot to bomb multiple U.S.-bound transatlantic airline flights using home-made liquid explosives.

The plot was disrupted when British authorities launched a major roundup of suspects. Flights to and from Britain were severely disrupted and tight new restrictions were placed on passenger carry-on items such as liquids and gels.

U.S. and European officials also believe that al Qaeda "senior leadership" supervised a 2009 plot, led by an Afghan immigrant, to bomb New York's subway system. That plot was disrupted when U.S. authorities arrested the alleged mastermind, Najibullah Zazi, and a handful of associates.

Since bin Laden was killed, evidence has emerged that he was personally involved in plots against European targets last year, one U.S. official said. Intelligence about these plots led to the issuing of public travel warnings by European and U.S. government agencies beginning late September.

Counter-terrorism officials warned at the time that militants might be targeting cities in European countries, including Germany, France and Britain, for strikes similar to the commando attacks in Mumbai, India, which a group of Pakistan-based militants carried out in November 2008.

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)

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Monday, July 11, 2011

NASA watches for space junk that may threaten shuttle, space station

The space debris is potentially headed toward the space stationAtlantis docks with the International Space StationThe mission is the last of the 30-year space shuttle programNASA official says U.S. won't cede space race

Kennedy Space Center (CNN) -- NASA is tracking a piece of space debris that could come close to the space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station this week, the agency said.

Data indicates that the point of closest approach would occur about midday Tuesday, the same day as a scheduled space walk by shuttle crew members, according to Leroy Cain, deputy manager of the shuttle program.

"However, we don't really have a good (probability of collision) on it yet," said Cain, who cautioned that the size of the object is still not known.

The debris, part of satellite COSMOS 375, is one of more than 500,000 pieces of debris tracked in Earth's orbit, according to NASA.

A space-debris incident nearly two weeks ago prompted the crew of the International Space Station to take shelter inside two Soyuz capsules when it came within 1,100 feet of the station.

Atlantis docked with the International Space Station on Sunday for a week-long rendezvous, two days after blasting off on a historic flight marking the final liftoff of the U.S. shuttle program.

The shuttle crew will deliver supplies and spare parts to the space station and pick up a broken pump and transport it back to Earth for inspection, NASA said on its website. The shuttle docked at 11:07 a.m. ET in an "absolutely flawless" operation, according Cain.

Atlantis' docking with the space station was done by executing a "back flip" maneuver that leaves the shuttle's underbelly facing the space station, where crew members can investigate its condition, NASA said.

After checking for leaks, the crew opened the hatches between the two vehicles shortly after 12 p.m. ET.

"It was really moving to see the final docking of the shuttle to the space station," Cain said, adding that it was the 12th such time Atlantis has done so.

The crews of Atlantis and the space station also will research the potential for a space refueling system.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, speaking to CNN's Candy Crowley on Sunday, said the conclusion of the American space shuttle program doesn't mean the United States is ceding the space race to Russia.

"American leadership will persist for the foreseeable future, I can guarantee you that," Bolden said. In addition to taking cargo to orbit next year, NASA is working to partner with commercial interests in developing a crew vehicle, he said.

"We are hopeful in starting to ask for proposals from industry (in the) early part of next year," he said.

A recent call from President Barack Obama re-emphasized aggressive goals for NASA, including exploration beyond lower orbit and into deep space, Bolden said.

"He wants to have humans on or near an asteroid in 2025, and he wants us to be in Martian orbit with the intent of landing in the 2030s. Those are two very well defined destinations that we're really working hard on," Bolden said.

When crew members conclude their mission and exit the space station, it will break an uninterrupted human presence in space that has lasted more than a decade.

The International Space Station's first expedition began in November 2000. The current expedition, the 28th, is manned by Cmdr. Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Sergei Volkov of Russia; Satoshi Furukawa of Japan; and NASA's Ronald Garan and Michael Fossum.

The four astronauts aboard the Atlantis are Cmdr. Chris Ferguson, Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

President Richard Nixon commissioned the space shuttle program in 1972, three years after the Apollo program put a man on the moon.

The first shuttle, Columbia, blasted off in April 1981. Since then, space shuttle crews have fixed satellites, performed scientific studies, and ferried materials and people to International Space Station Alpha, a football field-sized construction project in orbit.

In 134 missions, the five space shuttles have ferried 355 astronauts half a billion miles in space, turning heroic feats into the routine.

When Atlantis lands, it will leave the United States with no way to lift humans into space for the first time in decades.

NASA will rely on the Russian space agency to ferry U.S. astronauts to orbit.

CNN's Jim Spellman, Rich Brooks, Rich Phillips, Ben Brumfield and journalist Craig Johnson contributed to this report.


Funeral Monday for Rangers fan

Shannon Stone died after falling over railing at Rangers StadiumSports anchor: Accident a reminder of "how fragile human life can be"Outfielder had heard Stone's son ask for ball and pitched one toward himRangers have set up account in Stone's nameRead more about this story from CNN affiliate WFAA.

(CNN) -- Funeral services will be held Monday for a Texas man who died at a baseball game last week.

Shannon Stone will be buried in his hometown of Brownwood, Texas. The 39-year-old firefighter fell to his death Thursday while trying to catch a ball at a Texas Rangers game.

Ronnie Hargis was seated in the stands near Stone and tried unsuccessfully to save him.

"Your first instinct is to reach out and grab him," Hargis told CNN's Don Lemon. "I tried to grab him. I couldn't catch him. He went down. As he went by me I tried to grab him again and I missed and ... it looked like he was in slow motion as he was going to the ground. There was nothing I could do but watch him fall."

In the second inning of the ill-fated game, star outfielder Josh Hamilton tossed a souvenir ball into the stands after a batter hit a foul ball. Stone stuck out his glove and reached for the ball, but lost his balance and flipped over the railing of the outfield seats. He fell about 20 feet and crashed head-first into a scoreboard, suffering fatal injuries. Stone died of blunt-force trauma, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner.

His 6-year-old son, Cooper, witnessed the tragic accident.

"It's just the cruelest of reminders of just how fragile human life can be," said Joe Trahan, sports anchor at CNN-affiliate WFAA. "The mind-boggling thing about this is that everyone's intent was right."

Trahan provided details of the incident for Lemon.

"Josh Hamilton flipped a foul ball up to a little girl an inning or so earlier," Trahan said. "And he heard at that point Cooper Stone ask for a ball. Most of the time, big-leaguers wouldn't even hear that, but he made a note of it, he's trying to do the right thing."

Rangers president Nolan Ryan, a Hall of Fame pitcher, said earlier that the club would review the height of railings at the stadium, even though they currently exceed the city's code limits.

Trahan told Lemon that club management is already working on making changes at their stadium.

"I've spoken to Rangers officials, and they tell me that there are meetings that have already taken place with city leaders, meetings with architects at the ballpark, contractors. They're trying to find a permanent solution, not a stop-gap one."

But fan-awareness also plays a crucial role at stadiums, according to Trahan.

"This is a stark and cruel reminder that (safety) is everyone's responsibility when you go to the ballpark," he said, adding that he was surprised that injuries didn't happen more often, especially "down the first and third base lines ... those are rocket shots coming off those bats."

But Trahan also said that the accident should be kept in perspective.

"We go back to the unexplainable issue of why this happened, because there have been thousands and thousands of balls hit in that area, people with gloves trying to get balls and nothing has happened until now."

The Rangers held a moment of silence before Friday night's game against the Oakland A's. Members of both teams wore black ribbons.

Flags at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington have flown at half-mast all weekend.

The team has set up an account accepting donations in Stone's honor with the Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation. Donated money has been earmarked to help the Stone family. The Rangers have donated an undisclosed sum, according to the team's website, and the A's donated $5,000.

Funeral services will be held at noon ET at the First United Methodist Church in Brownwood.

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Six killed at Pakistan political rally

The blast occurs in Butgram, about 80 miles north of IslamabadThe suicide attacker detonates explosives when he is stopped at the entrance to the rallyThe lawmaker who was scheduled to speak was not present, an official says

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- At least six people were killed and 15 wounded in a suicide attack targeting a political rally in northwest Pakistan on Monday, officials said.

The blast took place in Butgram, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Islamabad in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province. The province was formerly known as the North West Frontier Province.

Amir Muqam, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q), was scheduled to address the rally, said senior government official Khalid Umarzai.

The lawmaker had not yet arrived when security personnel stopped the alleged bomber at the entrance to the event, Umarzai said.

The bomber then detonated explosives, he said.

Among those killed were two police officers, two women and a child, Umarzai said.

Journalist Nasir Habib contributed to this report.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Panetta in Iraq to see officials, commanders (AP)

BAGHDAD – From one war front to another Sunday, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta hopped from a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan's southern desert to Baghdad, where he sought to encourage Iraqi leaders to decide soon whether they want a residual American military force beyond year's end.

He refused to say whether the Obama administration wants the extension, but he expressed concern at a spike in U.S. deaths caused by what American officials believe are sophisticated explosive devices made in Iran.

Panetta prepared for talks Monday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other senior members of a government politically divided more than a year after national elections. Iraq has gone that long without defense or interior ministers, whose departments are responsible for the military and police.

The approximately 46,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq are to depart by the end of 2011 under an agreement negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration, which went to war in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein's government.

Asking even a few thousand to stay longer carries political risk leaders in both countries.

A signature pledge of President Barack Obama 2008 election campaign was to get the U.S. out of Iraq. For Iraqis fed up with violence, a longer U.S. presence looks like a formula for further strife.

The Associated Press reported on July 5 that the White House is offering to keep up to 10,000 troops in Iraq next year, despite opposition from key Democrats who demand that Obama bring home the troops as promised.

Panetta spent Sunday afternoon at Camp Dwyer, a dust-choked U.S. outpost in southern Afghanistan. He pinned Purple Heart medals on two Marines, had lunch with young officers, got a glimpse at an Army Black Hawk medevac unit and quizzed an Afghan army officer on commanding a unit that specializes in detecting land mines and roadside bombs.

The 73-year-old Panetta, on the job since July 1 after 2 1/2 years heading the CIA, appeared to hold up well under the intense heat. But at one point he seemed to lose track of his latest job switch. In a pep talk to a group of Marines, he said he has always valued public service, from his time in the Army in the 1960s to eight terms as a congressman and his years in the Clinton White House, "and now as director of the CIA."

At issue in Baghdad is whether the Iraqi government will request that the U.S. negotiate a troop extension. The scheduled departure of virtually all U.S. troops by Dec. 31 will leave the country with significant gaps in its ability to defend its own airspace and borders.

Panetta's predecessor at the Pentagon, Robert Gates, visited Iraq in April to push for an early decision and make clear that Washington believes an extension is in both countries' interest.

Panetta, however, seemed less willing to commit to a residual force.

Speaking to reporters before boarding his plane for the flight to Iraq from Camp Dwyer in southern Afghanistan, Panetta was asked whether he intended to encourage the Iraqis to request an extension.

"I'll encourage them to make a decision" about what they want, he replied, leaving open the question of what the White House would accept.

Panetta said he thinks U.S. should consider any Iraqi request and he said Obama "feels we ought to consider it as well." Obama has said repeatedly over the past year that he is responsibly ending the Iraq war and bringing U.S. troops home this year.

Panetta said he also intended to urge Iraqi leaders to do more to go after Shiite militia groups that are using Iranian-supplied weapons to step up attacks on U.S. troops. The U.S. death toll of 15 in June was the highest for any month in the past two years, Panetta said.

"That has concerned us," he said, adding that Iraqi Shiite militiamen using Iranian weapons need to be targeted more aggressively. Pentagon officials believe the Iranians are providing more arms, such as airborne makeshift "lob bombs" and explosively formed projectiles, to give the impression of driving U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Panetta came to his new job with links to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he was not directly involved in military strategy.

He visited both countries during his CIA tenure. Both wars have an unusually heavy intelligence component, with U.S. special operations teams taking on al-Qaida and other insurgents.

One concern about the plan to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of this year is that Iraq's intelligence services are not yet up to the task of adequately supporting counterterrorism forces.

Panetta was a member of the Iraq Study Group, created by Congress in 2006 to consider a better way forward in a war that was spiraling out of control at the time. Coincidentally, Panetta served on the group with Gates until Gates quit because he was picked to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

Panetta signed off on the group's final report, which concluded that it was time to get all U.S. ground combat brigades out of Iraq, leaving troops to train the Iraqi army and to undertake strikes against al-Qaida cells.

President George W. Bush took a decidedly different course, ordering troop reinforcements to Iraq as part of a new strategy that is widely credited for turning around the war.

The U.S. military reported that a service member was killed Sunday in southern Iraq and that the matter was under investigation.


Robert Burns can be reached at

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Report: Dozens of Yemeni civilians dead

Yemeni anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally in Sanaa on July 8.Human Rights Watch says Yemeni forces may have killed dozens of civilians It says witnesses report indiscriminate attacks with no visible fighting nearbyA spokesman for the ruling party calls the report 100% inaccurateHe says "only al-Qaeda targets are killed by the government"

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- Dozens of civilians may have been killed by Yemeni forces since May while fighting an armed Islamist group in Abyan province, the activist group Human Rights Watch said in a report released Saturday. But a spokesman for Yemen's ruling party disputed the findings.

"As Yemeni government forces battle armed militants in Abyan, civilians are paying the price," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the report. "Both sides need to be doing much more to protect civilians from harm, and the government should be investigating possible laws-of-war violations by its forces in Abyan."

Human Rights Watch said it did not visit Abyan province because of security concerns but received accounts of attacks from 30 witnesses who fled the clashes. The group cited several reported incidents, including what some described as indiscriminate attacks on civilians with "artillery shrapnel or small arms with no visible fighting or military targets nearby."

But the ruling party in Yemen refuted the report.

"The Yemeni government insists that the Human Rights Watch report is 100(%) inaccurate," said Tareq Shami, spokesman for the ruling General People's Congress party.

"Only al Qaeda targets are killed by the government, and there is no proof of the government being involved in the killing of civilians in Abyan."

He added, "Foreign fighters are also involved killing and attacking civilians in Abyan, not the government. We are defending the people and will continue doing so."

Abdu Ganadi, spokesman for the Yemeni government, said "all wars have casualties."

"Yemen is trying to limit the civilian deaths," Ganadi said. "Our condolence(s) to the families who lost a loved one."

Yemen has been consumed by unrest for months as protesters have demanded an end to the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule. Saleh and other senior officials were wounded June 3 in an attack on the mosque at the presidential palace. Saleh is being treated in Saudi Arabia. Officials have said he will return when he has recovered.

In recent weeks, government troops have battled both tribal forces and Islamic militants, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.


Ten feared dead in India train crash

13 cars derail in Uttar Pradesh state, a spokesman saysIndia's large rail network has a poor safety record

New Delhi, India (CNN) -- At least 10 people were feared dead and 50 others injured as a train jumped tracks in northern India Sunday, authorities said.

"It's a rough figure. We are awaiting more details," Indian railway spokesman Anil Kumar Saxena told CNN.

He said 13 cars of the Kalka Mail train derailed in Uttar Pradesh state at 12:20 p.m.

India's massive rail network, used by hundreds of thousands of passengers daily, has a poor safety record.

On Thursday, more than 30 people were killed when a train collided with a bus trying to cross an unguarded railroad, also in Uttar Pradesh. The victims were all bus passengers.

Official figures show 100 train accidents occurred in India in the 2009-10 fiscal year and 115 in 2008-09.


Strong earthquake strikes off Japan

(CNN) -- A major earthquake struck off Japan's northeastern coast Sunday, prompting tsunami advisories that were later canceled, the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) said.

Small tsunamis were observed along the coast, measuring between 10 and 20 centimeters, said the JMA.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage, according to the Japanese news agency Kyodo.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck at 10:57 a.m. at the epicenter, about 130 miles east of Sendai.

The earthquake was more than 20 miles deep and had a magnitude of 7.0, the USGS said.

The JMA measured the magnitude of the quake at 7.1.

Tsunami advisories were issued -- and then canceled --for the coastal regions of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima. The areas were among the hardest hit by this year's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Officials in Ofunato, a city in Iwate, advised residents to evacuate.

The JMA, immediately after the quake, forecast the height of the tsunami could reach half a meter (about 20 inches).

No immediate abnormalities were reported at nearby nuclear facilities, according to Kyodo.

Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered meltdowns after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan. The tsunami swamped the plant and knocked out cooling systems that kept the three operating reactors from overheating, leading to the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

Tremors from Sunday's quake were felt as far away as Tokyo.

"It's just a continuing of the aftershocks of that devastating 9.0," said Dale Grant, a geophysicist with the USGS, referring to the March quake. "These kinds of aftershocks are likely to occur for some time."

CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki contributed to this report.


Libyan rebel fighters' eyes on Tripoli

Rebels say they ousted Gadhafi's forces from Qawalish several days agoThe small village is 90 miles south of Tripoli The fighters appear spirited, flashing victory signs and posing for photosAided by NATO strikes, they are hoping to unseat the longtime Libyan leader

Qawalish, Libya (CNN) -- Almost all civilians have fled the western Libya area around Qawalish, hoping to avoid the worst of the violence wracking the nation.

Yet there is a buzz around this village, which is in the hands of rebel fighters eager to defeat forces loyal to longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Their optimism and energy are matched, in many ways, by their inexperience.

When spotters on a rooftop spy vehicles they believe belong to the Libyan army, a rebel rocket team wipes off desert grit from their weapon, oils it up and fires -- their aim, at best, approximate.

The group's commander, Fahti, knows the opposition forces are in many ways overmatched.

"They have tanks. You hear that? Rockets," Fahti said. "They have mortars, all the heavy weapons."

Dressed in everything from military fatigues to polo shirts to T-shirts, the rebels are not the stereotypical picture of a modern fighting force. But despite their challenges, the rebels here have had success.

That includes, they say, driving Libyan forces several days ago out of the village 45 kilometers (90 miles) south of Tripoli, a key north-south route in the North African nation.

One fighter said Gadhafi's men are "very afraid" that rebels will soon take another big step forward by taking his home city of Gharyan, which is 45 kilometers to the north and just 100 kilometers south of the Libyan capital.

While strongest in the east near Benghazi, the opposition remains active around much of Libya.

A fighter named Mahmoud told CNN on Saturday that his comrades had conducted night raids and ambushes, for instance, around his native Zamiya, a coastal city still in the government's hands about 50 kilometers from Tripoli.

"But on the coast Gadhafi is strong, he has his people everywhere," Mahmoud said.

The opposition continues to get help in the form of NATO strikes. The alliance announced in a statement Saturday that it had struck a missile-firing position near Tawhurgha, south of Misrata, that it claims was tucked within a set of farm buildings.

Libyan forces used this area to attack civilians in nearby Misrata through missile strikes and as a staging area for attacks, NATO said.

In Qawalish, the rebels had some good fortune after coming upon an abandoned army base, and its boxes stacked almost to the ceiling with mortar and artillery rounds. The find was a welcome one for a force that, until recently, was struggling to muster the weaponry to keep up the fight.

Those rolling through checkpoints around the village are almost exclusively rebel fighters, drawn to the battlefront by their commitment to a common cause. Their enthusiasm appears strong as they drive by, crammed into the back of pickup trucks, smiling broadly and flashing victory signs.

And even with the sounds of war in the distance, some rebels pose for pictures -- victory photos, they hope, in their quest to end Gadhafi's 42 years in power.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Syria slams U.S. diplomat's trip to Hama

U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited Hama Thursday, stayed overnight, and left on Friday.NEW: State Department spokeswoman calls the incitement claims "rubbish"Ambassador Robert Ford visits a hospital and meets with residentsThe Syrian regime says Ford didn't get proper permission for the tripBut the U.S. Embassy says it got the OK for a delegation to go to Hama

(CNN) -- The embattled Syrian regime is accusing the U.S. ambassador of inciting protests in the restive city of Hama, but a State Department official called that claim "absolute rubbish" Friday.

The state-run Syrian media says U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford also met with "saboteurs" and undermined its national dialogue initiative during a visit to that city.

The government said Ford did not ask for proper permission to travel there, where thousands of people have taken to the streets for anti-government protests in recent days, including a huge turnout on Friday.

''This U.S. conduct is also aimed at obstructing dialogue and political solutions undertaken by the leadership in Syria,'' according to a media source quoted by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency on Friday.

But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a blunt rebuttal, calling the claims of incitement "absolute rubbish" and saying she was "dismayed" by the Syrian government reaction. Nuland stressed that the U.S. Embassy notified the Syrian Defense Ministry before the visit and that Ford's car was waved through a security checkpoint.

In a visit meant to show solidarity with the Syrian citizenry, Ford journeyed to the city on Thursday -- when he visited a hospital -- stayed overnight and left on Friday.

Nuland, who called the visit "bold," said Ford met with many "average folk" in the streets of Hama on Thursday, and Friday morning he drove through the city to do the same thing.

People were starting to gather in a city square at that time, and his car was immediately surrounded by friendly protesters who put flowers and olive branches on the car and cheered "down with regime."

"It was quite a scene," Nuland said, noting video of the incident is on YouTube.

Ford left Hama around 1:30 p.m., before Friday prayers and in advance of the demonstrations, in order to ensure his presence would not cause a distraction, according to a State Department official.

Nuland said Ford decided to leave because the United States would become the story If he got out of the car. He wanted to "make clear this was not about us; this was about the rights of the Syrian citizens," Nuland said.

Ford was escorted out of town by group of friendly young men on motorcycles.

Syrian-run media on Friday slammed Ford for his activities. A State TV banner accused Ford of inciting and participating in the protests in Hama.

Another TV report said he met with "saboteurs in Hama," urging them to protest and reject the government-backed national dialogue process.

The process is designed to generate society-wide participation on issues, the government has said. A "consultative meeting" of the National Dialogue Committee is scheduled this weekend.

But opposition to that process is the theme of today's nationwide turnouts, dubbed "No Dialogue."

SANA reported that a Foreign Ministry source accused Ford of going to Hama without obtaining permission from the government.

According to the report, the Foreign Ministry official said Ford's visit was "clear evidence of the U.S. involvement in the ongoing events in Syria and its bids to aggravate the situations which destabilize Syria.''

Nuland on Thursday said U.S. officials notified the Syrian government that an embassy team was traveling to Hama.

"The embassy informed Syrian officials that an embassy delegation, without specifying whom, would be heading to Hama. And they then proceeded to make their way there and were allowed to proceed," Nuland said.

Ford's delegation did not include any official Syrian "handlers," Nuland said, adding that Syrian authorities allowed him through check points to reach the town.

"For him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think, expresses in physical terms -- not to mention political terms -- our view that the people of Hama have the right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken," Nuland said.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, called the visit "an escalation on the part of the U.S. ambassador. Never before an ambassador visited a city with a problem like the case of Hama without permission."

Speaking to BBC Arabic in an interview reported by SANA, Shaaban said Ford's visit was inauspicious, coming at the "moment when a meeting is prepared between the residents, mosque imams and the civil authorities in the city aimed at finding a solution to the problem."

She said his arrival undermines efforts to solve the problem.

"By whose help was he able to reach al-Sreijeh Mosque without being encountered by any of the gunmen in the streets who have blocked employees in Hama from reaching their jobs for the fourth day in a row." she asked.

"Syria doesn't want to cut the thinnest thread with the U.S. administration, but there is great protest and resentment among the Syrian people about the U.S. State Department's statement that the ambassador is in Hama and intends to stay till Friday on the eve of the national dialogue due to be held among all spectrums of the Syrian society. ... This gives us a message that the U.S. says 'No' to dialogue," Shaaban said.

She asked why the United States hasn't backed the regime's dialogue initiative despite its talk of the need for reform in Syria.

"There are enough national opposition members from all the spectrums who will attend this dialogue. But we haven't heard one word from the West that encourages dialogue among the Syrian people," she said.

The media source quoted by SANA said Ford's presence represented "flagrant interference in the internal affairs of an independent and sovereign state" and was reminiscent of the colonial era. Syria was once under a French mandate.

''This conduct is tied to meetings which took place, the latest of which was Saint Germain meeting in Paris, which was organized by Zionist circles against Syria, as it comes ahead of the consultative meeting due on July 10, with the participation of all the spectrums of the Syrian society and its political and intellectual movements in the run up to the national dialogue conference," the source said.

Eric Chevallier, the French ambassador to Syria, also visited Hama, arriving on Thursday and spending the night. He met with medical staff and the wounded and their families.

"France reiterates its concern about the fate of the inhabitants of the city of Hama and condemns the violence perpetrated by the authorities in Syria against the demonstrators and civilians," the French Foreign Ministry said.

Last month, Hama was the site of violent crackdowns by security forces that killed 60 protesters.

The city is a sensitive spot for Syrian authorities. In 1982, it was the scene of a brutal military crackdown targeting Sunni Muslims by the Alawite-dominated government of Hafez al-Assad, the current president's late father. Thousands were killed, with Human Rights Watch putting the toll at 10,000.

CNN's Elise Labott and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report


Berlusconi: I won't seek new term

Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has been fighting against declining approval ratings.The embattled premier is facing financial corruption chargesHe is also on trial on charges of abuse of powerHis party has suffered local election lossesLawmakers have approved a vote of confidence on his economic reform package

(CNN) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Friday he will not run again when his term expires in 2013.

He made the remarks in an interview with the Italian daily newspaper, La Repubblica.

The embattled Italian premier is fighting financial corruption charges and is on trial on charges of abuse of power and prostitution with an underage teenager.

The financial corruptial case is related to alleged fraud in the sale of movie and television rights by Mediaset, Berlusconi's broadcasting company.

The case has been in and out of court for years, with a judge ordering Berlusconi in 2006 to stand trial on charges of false accounting, embezzlement, and tax fraud.

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Berlusconi later passed a law shielding top government officials from prosecution while they're in office, then saw it struck down by judges.

The case is not related to the headline-grabbing allegations that he paid for sex repeatedly with an underage prostitute and later tried to pull strings to get her out of jail when she was arrested for theft.

He denies all charges.

Berlusconi has also been fighting against declining approval ratings, and his party has had major local election and referendum losses.

But in June, Italian lawmakers approved a vote of confidence for his economic reform package.

The measure -- which aims to boost growth in Italy, particularly in the southern regions -- showed that Berlusconi has a stronger majority in the lower house than his critics have estimated.


Prince William, Catherine head to CA

(CNN) -- Prince William and his wife, Catherine, will land in Los Angeles on Friday evening for the last leg of their whirlwind North American tour that started in Canada last week.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his wife will welcome the royal couple.

Before they left for the United States, William and Catherine kicked off the Calgary Stampede in Canada, where parade-goers got a glimpse of the royal couple.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge donned cowboy hats and watched as musicians and dancers performed at the annual event.

The Alberta government later hosted a reception for the royal couple at the Calgary zoo.

Finally, they attended a departure ceremony, complete with full military honors and a 21-gun salute.

William and Catherine are headed to Los Angeles for a three-day visit of California.

After arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport, the couple will make their way to their first event at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.

The conference draws British and American venture capitalists, and leaders from the technology industry looking for new investment opportunities and ways to create jobs in both countries.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge started their Canadian tour last week in Ottawa, Ontario.

CNN's Max Foster contributed to this report.


Egyptians rally to demand faster reforms (Reuters)

CAIRO (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Egyptians packed city centers across the country on Friday to demand faster reforms and voice frustration at what they regard as foot-dragging by military rulers and government officials.

Anger has been building among ordinary Egyptians and activists over the time taken to prosecute Hosni Mubarak and former officials charged with corruption and killing demonstrators during the uprising that toppled the president.

Most political organisations including the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organised grouping, backed calls for the protest, called "The Revolution First," which took aim at Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling army council.

Cairo's Tahrir Square, center of the uprising in February, was decked with red, white and black Egyptian colors in one of the biggest rallies since Mubarak's downfall.

"We want to change the government and those in charge," said Ehab Mohamed Mahmoud, 36, who checked those entering the square.

"The Field Marshal as well. He is an integral part of the old regime," he added, referring to Tantawi who was Mubarak's defense minister for two decades.

Muslim Brotherhood members voiced more cautious demands.

"The enemies of the revolution are many. But the army and the people are one hand. We ask the army to speed up the legal procedures to try the corrupt," said Mohamed Ali, a Brotherhood member in Tahrir.

Analysts say the political group, harassed and repressed under Mubarak, is best positioned to benefit from the timetable for transition outlined by the army, with a parliamentary election in September.

Presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. diplomat, told CNN there were some "unrealistic expectations" as Egyptians shook off decades of repression and he said it would take time to deliver wholesale change.

"But definitely there is no going back. At least people now are still poor, but they are free," he said. "They can go by the millions in the streets to demonstrate, and demonstrate peacefully ... It's a feeling that they are being empowered."

Former Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa, another presidential hopeful, joined the protesters in Tahrir.

Activists handed out surveys and one question read: "How do you assess the performance of the military council?" Some protesters showed off their forms where they had ticked a box saying: "Performance getting worse."

As with previous protests since Mubarak was ousted, activism combined with a festive mood. Children with faces painted in the Egyptian flag's colors joined their parents. As evening fell, numbers dwindled but some in Tahrir vowed to stay overnight.

There was no visible police or army presence.


Many Egyptians believe the health problems reportedly afflicting Mubarak are a ploy by army generals to avoid bringing the former air force commander to trial.

Public frustration has also been fueled by court rulings this week clearing three former ministers of graft charges and another court decision to free on bail 10 policemen charged with killing demonstrators.

"Punishment for the killers of the martyrs," read one banner in Tahrir Square, referring to the killing during the 18-day uprising of more than 840 people, now known as "martyrs."

"Down with the Field Marshal," the crowd repeated as they were spurred on by one speaker.

Thousands of Egyptians gathered in other cities, including the Suez Canal cities of Suez and Ismailia, Alexandria on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh where Mubarak has been detained in a hospital since suffering heart problems during questioning in April.

"We oppose the military council and we demand Field Marshal Tantawi steps down immediately. The army is doing Mubarak's bidding and the revolution is faltering," said Mohamed Fahmy, leader from the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution.

Gun shots rang out near Tahrir square and in Suez, witnesses said. A witness in Tahrir said it was not clear where the shots came from. In Suez, one of the most violent spots during the uprising, one protester was shot by a person who was caught shortly afterwards by protesters, a Reuters eyewitness said.

(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi, Marwa Awad, Patrick Werr and Ashraf Fahim in Cairo, Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria and Yusri Mohamed in Suez; editing by Edmund Blair, Sami Aboudi and Jon Hemming)

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