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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

US General to visit Pakistan

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior U.S. military commander will visit Pakistan this month in what could be an important step in healing the rift between the two nations, officials said Tuesday.

Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, will meet with Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to talk about the U.S. investigation into airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a Nov. 26 exchange of fire at the border with Afghanistan.

Mattis would be the first high-ranking official to visit since the strikes that sent relations between Washington and Islamabad to a new low and prompted Pakistan to close its border to NATO war supplies headed for Afghanistan, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive matter publicly. News of the planned visit came as Pakistan's defense minister said Tuesday the country should reopen its Afghan border crossings to NATO troop supplies after negotiating a better deal with the coalition.

Without providing details, Pakistan Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar told the private Geo TV that the government should negotiate new "terms and conditions" with NATO, then reopen the border.

Mattis will be presenting the Central Command investigation that found a combination of mistrust and bad maps led to the airstrikes on two Pakistani outposts in the November incident. The Defense Department said the investigation found U.S. forces — given what information they had available to them at the time — reacted in self-defense and with appropriate force after being fired upon from the direction of the Pakistani border.

Pakistan refused to participate in the investigation and has rejected its conclusions. The U.S. expressed regret, but did not apologize, despite the embarrassing series of communications and coordination errors. The State Department is supporting a proposal circulating in the administration to issue a formal apology for the Pakistan soldiers' deaths, according to the New York Times, which first reported the planned Mattis visit in Tuesday editions.

Often difficult U.S.-Pakistani relations have taken a number of especially hard hits in the past year, including fallout from the U.S. military assault in Pakistan last May that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistani leaders have also complained about repeated U.S. drone strikes in their country, largely by the CIA, that have targeted militants who launch attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan. But the final straw was the Nov. 26 cross-border attack.

Islamabad has said it is re-evaluating its relationship with Washington and the Pakistani parliament is working out new guidelines to define the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. The parliament is expected to vote on a revised framework for relations in mid-February. That could pave the way for the government to reopen the supply line.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said last week that she didn't think it would be much of a problem to reopen the route after the parliament vote. And the defense minister Tuesday echoed this view, saying "I think the people who are deciding, who are giving recommendations, will make the right decision."

For most of the 10-year war in Afghanistan, 90 percent of supplies shipped to coalition forces came through Pakistan, via the port of Karachi. But over the past three years, NATO has increased its road and rail shipments through an alternate route that runs through Russia and Central Asia. The northern route is longer and more expensive, but provided a hedge against the riskier Pakistan route.

Before the Nov. 26 airstrikes, about 30 percent of non-lethal supplies for U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan traveled through Pakistan. The U.S. has since increased the amount of supplies running through the north, but the cost is much greater. Pentagon figures provided to the AP show it is now costing about $104 million per month to send supplies. That is $87 million more per month than when the cargo moved through Pakistan.


Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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Egypt officials see end to U.S. NGO stand-off

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's government will back down in a stand-off with Washington over U.S. funding for civil society groups because allowing the dispute to drag on could jeopardize aid worth billions of dollars, two Egyptian officials said.

Nineteen Americans are among 40 foreign and local activists banned from leaving Egypt and referred to a criminal court, accused of managing unlicensed non-governmental organizations and receiving foreign funds without official approval.

Some of the U.S. citizens, belonging to the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI), sought refuge in the American Embassy.

Washington has asked Egypt to drop the travel bans and allow the groups targeted in the investigation to resume their work. Both Congress and the White House have warned that the crackdown could threaten its yearly $1.3 billion U.S. military support.

Egypt's government has thrown up its hands, saying it cannot interfere in judicial business, and reacted with indignation to U.S. criticism of the crackdown. One minister said Egypt does "not accept threats from the United States."

Washington is unlikely to accept the government's claim of impartiality in the case, which underscores tensions between the two long-standing allies since the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last February.

But two officials involved in Egypt's diplomatic strategy said the army rulers want to ease the tension to ensure the aid keeps flowing and get American help to ensure favorable terms for an International Monetary Fund support package for Egypt.

"The travel ban will be lifted and the escalation will cease," one of the officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "Egypt needs the loans and the IMF funds to come through, but better terms are needed."

He said army leaders believed the U.S. government can help Egypt secure the IMF money on favorable terms.

The second official said: "A more manageable IMF deal and maintaining the military aid are high priorities for the generals."

An Egyptian military delegation to Washington abruptly cancelled meetings with civilian U.S. lawmakers to return to Cairo on Monday.

It had met military counterparts at the Defense Department, President Barack Obama's security team and top diplomats covering the Middle East and military affairs.

On Tuesday a leading member of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces told Reuters he would travel to Washington within the next two days for a follow-up visit.


The row has also exposed tension between the U.S. Congress and defense officials, who want the dispute over the NGOs to be resolved without threatening the strong military relationship with Egypt.

"It's our sense that much of the NGO issue in Egypt has a lot to do with internal politics. The Egyptian military leadership is watching that trend very closely, and thus may not want to act too hastily to intervene," a U.S. official told Reuters.

"The linkage to continued U.S. financial assistance is a possibility, too. But American aid wasn't really in major jeopardy to begin with, and the Egyptians have to know that the NGO issue is only making it easier for critics of the Egyptian government to call for halting aid - especially on Capitol Hill," the U.S. official said.

Egypt's government believes its U.S. ties can return quickly to normal given its status as guarantor of a peace treaty with Egypt's neighbor Israel, Washington's closest ally in the Middle East, the officials said.

But Washington, which supported Mubarak until the uprising against his three-decade rule became an unstoppable force, is struggling to find a comfortable relationship with the men who replaced him in power.

The military has overseen Egypt's fairest election in six decades, has urged a swift move to a presidential election - a final step before they step aside as promised by mid-2012. Critics say the army leadership will resist civilian control of the defense budget and their business interests.

Crackdowns on protests against military rule have left dozens dead since November and a pledge to lift an emergency law has only been partially met.

The investigation of foreign-funded NGOs has fuelled accusations from rights groups that the army is obstructing Egypt's democratic transition.

The U.S. Congress now wants to make U.S. aid to Egypt's military conditional on its steps towards democratization.

Yet a Pentagon official said ties with Egypt were "too strategically important to be broken" and the Pentagon backed "a controlled handover to civilian rule."

The head of Egypt's military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, spoke on the phone to U.S. President Barack Obama on January 20 and discussed Egypt's foreign funding needs and the NGO crackdown, said two people with knowledge of the call.

Obama told Tantawi the U.S. had no control over the IMF deal or other loans. Tantawi responded that his military council had no control over the Egyptian investigation on NGOs, they said.

The call ended with a mutual promise to find areas of agreement.

Military aid to Egypt began flowing after it became the first Arab nation to sign the peace deal with Israel in 1979.

The army receives $1.3 billion annually, about 25 percent of Egypt's defense spending per year. The defense budget was $4.56 billion in 2010 - the third-largest in the Middle East after Israel and Saudi Arabia - according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Egyptian think tank.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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Court to rule on California gay marriage ban

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court is set to rule on Tuesday whether California's ban on gay marriage is constitutional in a case that is likely to lead to a showdown on the issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.

California joined the vast majority of U.S. states in outlawing same-sex marriage in 2008, when voters passed the ban known as Proposition 8.

The socially conservative vote by a state more known for hippies and Hollywood was seen as a watershed by both sides of the so-called culture wars, and two gay couples responded by filing the legal challenge currently making its way through the federal courts.

A federal judge in San Francisco struck down Proposition 8 in 2010, and gay marriage opponents appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Regardless of how the 9th Circuit decides on Tuesday, opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage both have said they are ready to appeal the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The three-judge 9th Circuit panel plans to release its decision at about 10 a.m. (1 p.m. EDT) on Tuesday. Even if the 9th circuit finds that gay marriage is legal in California, judges likely will put their ruling on hold pending further appeal.

The losing side could ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to hear the matter, or decide to appeal directly to the Supreme Court.

About 40 of the 50 U.S. states had outlawed gay marriage before a California state court ruled in 2008 that a ban was unconstitutional, leading to a summer of gay marriages. But California voters that November by decided to change the state constitution to limit marriage to a man and woman.

It provoked some gay rights activists to take a matter that had been waged on a state-by-state basis to federal court, essentially staking the entire agenda on one case. Republican Ted Olson and Democrat David Boies - attorneys who represented George W. Bush and Al Gore, respectively, in the legal case that decided the 2000 presidential election - joined forces to take on Proposition 8 in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen as a more conservative body than the lower courts that have been considering the case. Should the high court eventually decide to hear the case, much may depend on Anthony Kennedy, a Republican-appointed justice who has written important pro-gay rights decisions but has not explicitly endorsed gay marriage.

Six states - New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa - allow gay marriage, as does Washington, D.C.

In addition, New Jersey and Washington state are considering legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, and gay rights activists in Maine say they plan to bring the issue to voters in a referendum in that state.

(Reporting By Peter Henderson and Dan Levine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Key Washington state gay marriage vote Wednesday

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Washington state Senate is set to take a crucial vote Wednesday on a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage.

The bill has narrow support in the Senate, but is expected to pass because supporters have secured 25 "yes" votes — the minimum required for approval. Five senators, two Democrats and three Republicans, have not indicated how they will vote.

If passed by the Senate, the measure moves to the House, which has enough votes to pass the bill by a more comfortable margin. Also, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire supports the measure and said she will sign it into law, which would make Washington state the seventh state to approve gay marriage.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle, still cautioned, "Nothing is done until it is actually voted on."

The Senate vote Wednesday is expected to come in the late afternoon or early evening.

The Senate Rules Committee voted Tuesday to advance the measure for a vote by the full chamber with Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, president of the Senate, saying that he has emphasized tolerance and diversity at state schools for decades, which would make it "hypocritical for me to not support this bill."

"For me, this is not a religious question," said Owen, a Democrat. "It's a legal question."

The committee advanced the bill on a 14-7 vote, with seven of the eight Republicans on the committee in opposition. Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, voted to advance it. She is one of two Republican senators who have said they will support the measure.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have already promised a referendum battle at the ballot if the measure becomes law.

Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia.

Lawmakers in New Jersey and Maryland are expected to debate gay marriage this year, and Maine is likely to see a gay marriage proposal on the November ballot.

A referendum can't be filed until after the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gregoire. Opponents then must turn in 120,577 signatures by June 6.

Washington state has had a domestic partnership law since 2007 and an "everything but marriage" expansion of the domestic partnership law since 2009. Gay marriage bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate this year, and received their first public hearings this month.


The gay marriage bills are Senate Bill 6239 and House Bill 2516.


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Football mad fan arrested for bomb threats

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A Michigan man has discovered that taking football too seriously can have heavy consequences.

Shawn Payton, of Jackson, Michigan, was arrested on Monday and charged with phoning bomb threats to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on January 7, when about 70,000 people were watching the New Orleans Saints pummel the Detroit Lions in an NFL playoff game.

Lions fan Payton, 34 - not to be confused with Saints head coach Sean Payton - was watching the game on television from his home when the lopsided second half of the game became too much for him.

He called the Superdome and told a receptionist that there was a bomb in the stadium, according to a statement from U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's office in New Orleans. A second call came in about 45 minutes later, Letten's statement said.

The FBI later obtained a recording of the call from the Superdome Information Technology Department in which a male caller stated: "Hi, I want you to relay a message to the sideline, if your stupid Southern team keeps winning, there will be reper ... severe consequences, okay?"

The Saints went on to beat the Lions 45-28.

The FBI was able to track the calls to Payton, who made his initial appearance before a federal magistrate in Detroit on Monday. He was released on bond and ordered to appear in federal court in New Orleans on February 14.

A phone number for Payton was not working on Tuesday.

If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

(Reporting By Kathy Finn; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan)

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First Canada lynx in 15 years found in Idaho

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A Canada lynx has been documented in Idaho for the first time in over 15 years when the imperiled cat was inadvertently caught in a foot-hold trap in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, state wildlife officials said on Tuesday.

"It's a very rare occurrence," Tom Keegan, regional manager with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said about the incidental capture last week of the high-elevation, forest-dwelling cat.

He said a man walking his dogs spotted the lynx on Thursday in the rugged mountains of east central Idaho in a legal trap set for bobcat and notified state wildlife officials. They released the animal unharmed.

The last lynx confirmed in the 4.3 million-acre forest surrounding Salmon was in 1991, when one was accidentally trapped. The cats were documented elsewhere in Idaho during the 1995-1996 trapping season, after which trapping lynx was outlawed.

Lynx were designated in 2000 as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species in the lower 48 states, where they roam the high country from Maine to Washington and south through the Rocky Mountains.

The animals have long legs and large, well-furred paws, making them highly adapted for hunting in deep snow for preferred prey like snowshoe hares, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lynx are infrequently sighted. Biologists mostly rely on tracks and scat to document the reclusive animal's presence.

Fewer than 100 lynx are believed to roam the mid- and high-elevation forests of Idaho, where they are classified as a "species of greatest conservation need."

Just 40 lynx have been recorded in east central Idaho since the late 1800s, according to Fish and Game.

A DNA sample collected from the recently captured cat will be analyzed to verify it is a wild lynx and to gain knowledge about its possible origins, Keegan said.

Like wolverines and other elusive forest carnivores, lynx can travel long distances, even hundreds of miles, he said.

Keegan said it was too early to say whether the lynx found in the Salmon-Challis forest was a sign of the animal's return to its historic range or if it was a random event.

"There's all kinds of speculation. It may be a transient animal or a resident animal," he said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)

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