Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Analysis: US leery of direct talks with NKorea

Analysis: US leery of direct talks with North Korea

WASHINGTON — North Korea's suggestion that it may return to nuclear negotiations could open the way to its first talks with the Obama administration, but there are warning signs that the North has no intention of fully disarming.

The administration is eager to get North Korea on track toward giving up its nuclear weapons capability even though the White House remains leery of the regime's pattern of progress followed by provocation.

The North agreed in 2007 to dismantle its nuclear arms program but then reversed course. Last April and May it conducted nuclear and missile tests, coupled with a declaration that negotiations were dead, then reversed course again, reaching out to the U.S. after former President Bill Clinton met in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The former president was there to win the freedom of two American journalists held in prison.

The State Department on Tuesday declined to comment on news reports that Kim told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on Monday that he might be prepared to resume so-called six party negotiations with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Kim was reported to have said a resumption depended on progress in talks with the U.S.

But a State Department official said Tuesday that the U.S. will not agree to one-on-one talks unless it is given assurances in advance that the outcome will be a deal to resume six-party negotiations.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, said the U.S. hopes to hear from China on Wednesday whether Kim gave such an assurance in Monday's meeting with Wen, who was in Pyongyang for the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The Obama administration has said it is willing to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea so long as it leads to a return to the six-party effort, which Washington sees as a more effective way of applying diplomatic leverage. The last six-party talks were held in December 2008; in April the North Koreans announced that they would never return to that format and that they were expanding their nuclear force.

Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, said it's unclear whether the administration would be wise to go ahead with either one-on-one or multiparty talks.

"Without North Korea's recommitment to complete denuclearization, neither form of dialogue can achieve U.S. objectives," Snyder said.

Bruce Bennett, a North Korea watcher at the RAND Corp. think tank, said it appears the North Koreans are trying to "bait" the Americans into negotiations that have no realistic chance of achieving disarmament.

"I don't think North Korea at this stage is willing to give up its nuclear weapons," Bennett said in an interview. "It would appear the North Korean objective is to be recognized as a nuclear power, not to denuclearize."

In anticipation of a North Korean assurance that the one-one-talks could lead to the return of six-party negotiations, the administration has been laying the groundwork for a one-on-one dialogue. That preparation has included sorting out who would participate and where the talks would be held, according to another State Department official who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Richard C. Bush III, an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. government intelligence officer, said the administration may send Stephen Bosworth, its special envoy on North Korea, to Pyongyang for any one-on-one talks.

The purpose, he said, should be to assess the North Korean attitude and to emphasize the importance of denuclearization, but not to negotiate one-on-one.

"But I don't really see much in what Kim Jong Il reportedly said (Monday) to indicate that the situation has really changed," Bush said, adding that the Koreans' apparent aim is to negotiate over what they perceive to be a hostile U.S. policy, not to negotiate an airtight elimination of their nuclear weapons.

"Until there is credible evidence that North Korea again might be willing to give up its nuclear weapons in a complete and verifiable way, it's not clear that the six-party talks — or any venue, for that matter — is an appropriate way to reach that goal," Bush said.

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reid rakes in campaign cash, even without opponent

Reid rakes in campaign cash, even without opponent

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, vulnerable in home-state polls but without a big-name opponent so far, takes the stage Tuesday with President Barack Obama at a Las Vegas-style fundraiser billed as "The Good Fight."

But the big-dollar bash begs the question: Where's the fight?

Despite months of promising to target Reid for ousting in 2010, Republicans have yet to land a major candidate deemed capable of raising the money and enthusiasm needed to unseat a sitting majority leader.
A recent newspaper poll showing Reid's vulnerability highlighted the GOP's dilemma. In a survey for the Las Vegas Review-Journal published last week, 45 percent of Nevada voters told pollsters they would definitely vote to unseat Reid. Another 17 percent said they would consider another candidate.

Finding that candidate, while the four-term Democratic senator is calling in chits and racking up campaign money, is proving difficult.

"He's the majority leader and he's going to raise a ton of money. That's intimidating to run against," Nevada's other senator, Republican John Ensign, said of his party's search. A viable candidate would need to get in the race "in the next few months, certainly," Ensign said.

Intimidation has been no small part of Reid's early strategy.

A year and a half from Election Day, the senator has raised a whopping $7.5 million, already half a million more that he spent on his 2004 campaign.

He also has secured the public support of some high-profile Republican donors in Nevada and is believed to have locked up funding from the state's powerful gambling industry.

Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall said the senator is merely responding to Republican promises to target his seat.

"That is why we are starting early and will be prepared to run an aggressive campaign no matter who our opponent will be," Hall said.

Tuesday's fundraiser features headliners Sheryl Crow and Bette Midler. Tickets start at $50 for the concert, but a $29,600 contribution that will be split between Reid's campaign and the Nevada Democratic Party gives donors access to the senator and president.

"This fundraiser is just another show of his strength," said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It's a message to any opponent: If you want to compete, this is the kind of game you're going to have to play."

GOP officials insist they will play.

Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden said she is vetting candidates, "some of whom are well-known in the state and some of whom are not as well-known but could self-fund."

Lowden was quick to note Reid's rocky poll numbers in Nevada, as well as his unpopularity outside the state. As a symbol of Democrats' control of Congress, Reid is seen as a polarizing figure but one nevertheless capable of shaking dollars loose from Republican donors from Mississippi to Wyoming.

Outside groups have promised to pour in millions of dollars in independent television and direct mail campaigns. One, the Sacramento-based Our Country Deserves Better PAC, promised to spend $100,000 on anti-Reid radio and television ads timed to Obama's visit.

Nevada GOP officials also will launch a national fundraising mail campaign this week, said Las Vegas-based Republican consultant Ryan Erwin, a party adviser.

"Every month that somebody's not raising the money is a missed opportunity," Erwin said.

Fundraising isn't Republicans' only struggle. The state party was hobbled by a Democratic organizing effort that yielded a 12-point victory for Obama last year. Along with a nearly 100,000-Democratic voter advantage, Nevada Republicans are suffering from a leadership vacuum as Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons continues to be dogged by scandals since taking office in 2006.

With the clock ticking, pressure is mounting on the few GOP candidates viewed as viable.

Rep. Dean Heller has emerged as the party's top pick. As a former secretary of state in Nevada, Heller has run successful statewide races. He's popular in northern and rural Nevada, places where Reid struggles.
But, Heller, 49, also holds an increasingly safe congressional seat. He also recently won a powerful perch on the tax-writing House Ways and Mean Committee, raising the stakes on what he could lose by challenging Reid.

Heller's spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Other names in consideration include U.S. Attorney Greg Brower, a former state assemblyman, and Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who remains hamstrung by criminal charges that he mishandled state funds. Krolicki has denied wrongdoing, called the charges political and is seeking to have them dismissed.

The longer Republicans go without an anointed challenger to Reid, the more lesser-known contenders flirt with running.

Anti-tax activist and former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle has said she is exploring getting in the race. Angle is a favorite among fiscally conservative Republicans, and may be able to raise outside money.

But Angle said she has not been embraced by the GOP's recruiting arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"They're standing back. Everybody is standing back waiting to see what happens," she said.

source : http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5j7JEfH6pStorz75RU2Y8QTGO5k_QD98DCVBG0

Cyclone floods east India, Bangladesh, kills 73

Cyclone floods east India, Bangladesh, kills 73

 CALCUTTA, India (AP) — Cyclone Aila lashed low-lying areas in eastern India and Bangladesh, destroying thousands of homes, stranding tens of thousands of people in flooded villages and killing at least 73 before it began to ease Tuesday.

Conservationists expressed concern over the fate of one of the world's largest tiger populations, which was in the path of the storm.

Aila tore down nearly 3,000 thatched and mud houses and uprooted a large number of trees in nearly 300 villages across India's West Bengal state, said Kanti Ganguly, a state minister. He said 34 people were killed in West Bengal.

Storm surges hit coastal areas in neighboring Bangladesh, killing at least 39 people, according to Food and Disaster Management Ministry in Dhaka. It said most victims drowned or were washed away by the waves.
The country's leading newspaper, Prothom Alo, said tens of thousands of people were stranded as waters submerged their homes. It said 6-foot- (2-meter-) high waves crashed into the area, breaching dozens of flood protection embankments across the coastal region about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southwest of Dhaka.
News reports indicated the death toll could be as high as 123 in the two countries.

With the storm weakening overnight, authorities restored train and air services and reopened schools in most parts of West Bengal state on Tuesday, Indian officials said. Ganguly said soldiers were deployed on Monday night to evacuate stranded villagers.

During the height of the storm, several rivers burst their banks inside the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, said Khalil Ahmed, the area's district magistrate. It is believed about 250 tigers live on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, a tangle of mangrove forests, and another 250 live on the Bangladeshi side.

It was difficult to assess the damage because water levels were too high for ecologists and forest officials to go into the area, said Mrinal Chatterjee, project director of the Institute of Nature Lovers and Climbers, an environmental group that works in the Sundarbans. But he said tigers were likely affected because flooding had contaminated their supplies of fresh water.

Thousands of residents were evacuated from the reserve.

The wave of rain began to hit India's northeast on Tuesday, but the Indian Meteorological Department expected the storm to weaken into a deep depression.

Associated Press writer Farid Hossain contributed to this story.

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World stocks drop in wake of NKorea missile tests

World stocks drop in wake of North Korea missile tests
LONDON (AP) — World stocks fell Tuesday as investors worried that the recent rally may be overdone and were unsettled by the geopolitical tensions in Asia, where North Korea test-fired two missiles just a day after its nuclear test.

In European afternoon trading Germany's DAX 30 was 1.4 percent lower at 4,849.37 and Britain's FTSE 100 was down 0.9 percent at 4,325.09. France's CAC 40 fell 1.4 percent at 3,192.40.

Futures markets forecast a drop on the U.S. open. Dow industrial average futures were down 40 points at 8,220.00 while Standard & Poor's 500 futures were down 3.9 points at 881.00.

European shares followed Asia lower after North Korea, defying international criticism, followed up Monday's test of a nuclear bomb by firing two short-range missiles from its east coast.

The move came after the U.N. Security Council condemned the country's nuclear test as a "clear violation" of international bans.

Mitul Kotecha, head of global forex strategy at Calyon, said the news of the missile tests "reverberated through markets overnight." Although its impact has been relatively limited so far, "reports that North Korea is preparing to launch more missiles over coming days may keep markets nervous," he said.

Beyond the geopolitical incident, the market selloff was also due to investors taking a breather from the weeks-long rally which had been fueled by hopes that the worst of the economic recession is past.
With more downbeat economic news in recent days — including fears of credit ratings downgrades on major economies like the U.S. and U.K. — traders' optimism has become clouded and markets have been looking for direction.

"We seem to be stuck at the current levels," said Winson Fong, managing director at SG Asset Management in Hong Kong, which oversees about $2 billion in equities in Asia. "The market has rebounded so much we're going to need major good news to go higher or major bad news to persuade people to take some profits."
The most prominent victim of the credit ratings fears for the U.S. has been the dollar, which has slumped in value, particularly against the pound and euro, hurting prospects for European company profits.

After jumping from $1.34 in mid-May to above $1.40 on Monday, the euro traded at $1.3893 on Tuesday. During the same period, the pound rose from $1.51 to $1.5845 on Tuesday after trading at $1.5710 on Monday. The dollar managed to eke out gains against the yen, however, to 94.99 yen from 94.84 on Monday.

In Germany, consumer confidence figures failed to boost markets. The GfK research group said its forward-looking consumer climate index for June remained at 2.5 points, unchanged from May and April levels, as anxiety over job security weighed on broader hopes that the economy may be improving.

Shares in Danone, the maker of Evian mineral water and Activia yogurt, fell as much as 7.6 percent in Paris after the company announced it would raise euro3 billion ($4.2 billion) in new capital to pay down debt in the face of what it expects will be a long-lasting economic downturn.

Looking ahead, the market was awaiting reports on U.S. home prices and consumer confidence. The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index is expected to show a slightly smaller drop in March than in February, while the Conference Board's consumer confidence index is anticipated to indicate a rise in May.
In Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average closed down 36.19 points, or 0.4 percent, to 9,310.81, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng lost 130.26 points, or 0.8 percent, to 16,991.56.

In South Korea, the Kospi shed 2.1 percent at 1,372.04. The benchmark dived over 6 percent Monday on news of North Korea's nuclear test before recovering nearly all its losses.

Shanghai's index lost 0.8 percent, while Taiwan and Singapore markets dropped almost 1 percent and India's Sensex fell 1.5 percent. The only major gainer was Australia, where the key index rose 1.4 percent.
Oil prices fell in European trade ahead of OPEC's meeting this week, with benchmark crude for July delivery trading at $60.30 a barrel, down $1.37 from overnight trade.

Associated Press writer Jeremiah Marquez in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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Obama picks Sotomayor for high court

Obama picks Sotomayor for high court

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama tapped federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, officials said, making her the first Hispanic in history picked to wear the robes of a justice.

If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor, 54, would succeed retiring Justice David Souter. Two officials described Obama's decision on condition of anonymity because no formal announcement had been made.
Administration officials say Sotomayor would bring more judicial experience to the Supreme Court than any justice confirmed in the past 70 years.

A formal announcement was expected at midmorning.

Obama had said publicly he wanted a justice who combined intellect and empathy — the ability to understand the troubles of everyday Americans.

Democrats hold a large majority in the Senate, and barring the unexpected, Sotomayor's confirmation should be assured.

If approved, she would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current court.
Sotomayor is a self-described "Newyorkrican" who grew up in a Bronx housing project after her parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. She has dealt with diabetes since age 8 and lost her father at age 9, growing up under the care of her mother in humble surroundings. As a girl, inspired by the Perry Mason television show, she knew she wanted to be a judge.

A graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School, a former prosecutor and private attorney, Sotomayor became a federal judge for the Southern District of New York in 1992.

As a judge, she has a bipartisan pedigree. She was first appointed by a Republican, President George H.W. Bush, then named an appeals judge by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

At her Senate confirmation hearing more than a decade ago, she said, "I don't believe we should bend the Constitution under any circumstance. It says what it says. We should do honor to it."

In one of her most memorable rulings as federal district judge, Sotomayor essentially salvaged baseball in 1995, ruling with players over owners in a labor strike that had led to the cancellation of the World Series.
As an appellate judge, she sided with the city of New Haven, Conn., in a discrimination case brought by white firefighters after the city threw out results of a promotion exam because two few minorities scored high enough. Ironically, that case is now before the Supreme Court.

Obama's nomination is the first by a Democratic president in 15 years.

His announcement also leaves the Senate four months — more than enough by traditional standards — to complete confirmation proceedings before the Court begins its next term in the fall.

Republicans have issued conflicting signals about their intentions. While some have threatened filibusters if they deemed Obama's pick too liberal, others have said that is unlikely.

Given Sotomayor's selection, any decision to filibuster would presumably carry political risks — Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population and an increasingly important one politically.

Abortion rights have been a flashpoint in several recent Supreme Court confirmations, although Sotomayor has not authored any controversial rulings on the subject.

Sotomayor's elevation to the appeals court was delayed by Republicans, in part out of concerns she might someday be selected for the Supreme Court. She was ultimately confirmed for the appeals court in 1998 on a 68-28 vote, gathering some Republican support.

Among those voting against her was Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee that will hold sway over her confirmation.

Now, more than a decade later, Sotomayor possesses credentials Sessions said he wanted in a pick for the high court — years of experience on the bench. Obama had talked openly about the upside of choosing someone outside the judiciary — every single current justice is a former federal appeals court judge — but passed on at least two serious candidates who had never been judges.

Sotomayor has spoken openly about her pride in being Latina, and that personal experiences "affect the facts that judges choose to see."

"I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging," she said in a speech in 2002. "But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage."

From the moment Souter announced his resignation, it was widely assumed Obama would select a woman to replace him, and perhaps a Hispanic as well.

Others known to have been considered included federal appeals judge Diane Wood, who was a colleague of the president's at the University of Chicago law school, as well as two members of his administration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Solicitor General-nominee Elena Kagan.
If confirmed, Sotomayor is unlikely to alter the ideological balance of the court, since Souter generally sides with the so-called liberals on key 5-4 rulings.

But at 54, she is a generation younger that Souter, and liberal outside groups hope she would provide a counterpoint to some of the sharply worded conservative rulings.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

China remembers deadly Sichuan earthquake

China remembers deadly Sichuan earthquake

BEICHUAN, China (AFP) — Chinese President Hu Jintao led the nation in a minute's silence on Tuesday at the epicentre of the powerful Sichuan earthquake that flattened homes and communities one year ago.
At 2:28 pm (0628 GMT), the exact moment the disaster struck this southwest province, a grim-faced Hu presided over the ceremony broadcast live on state television from the town of Yingxiu.

He and other leaders laid a white chrysanthemum -- a symbol of mourning -- at a commemorative wall near a massive sculpture of a clock, its hands forever frozen at that fateful minute.

Nearly 87,000 people died in the 8.0-magnitude earthquake or remain missing after a disaster that galvanised the nation but left deep emotional scars.

"Gradually, the reconstruction efforts have had important results, and the people in the disaster-hit areas are striding toward a new life," Hu said in a speech after the Chinese flag was hoisted over the ruins of Yingxiu.
Across the mountainous region, mourners wept as they knelt before collapsed buildings and set off firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. Many lit incense or burned paper money as offerings to the dead.
Roads to the town of Beichuan, which was one of the worst hit, were jammed with vehicles as survivors and tourists alike arrived to remember the lost.

"I have come to mourn the loss of my two brothers and their wives," said Wu Guangjun, a stocky 46-year-old construction worker.

"They are still in the rubble. We have not found their bodies."

Police said it was hard to calculate how many people had come to Beichuan on Tuesday, although one official estimated up to 100,000 were walking among the ruins of the town which is to be preserved as an earthquake museum.

The quake zone remains an area of unmarked graves with nearly 18,000 people still listed as missing -- presumably buried under the rubble of China's worst natural disaster in three decades.
"One year may be long enough for the most serious wounds to recover but not for broken hearts," the official China Daily said in an editorial.

Life is slowly returning to normal as new homes, schools and factories are being built at a feverish rate at construction sites across Sichuan, although entire communities have been relocated.

The consequences are likely to be felt for years to come. Some 1.5 million homes have yet to be completely rebuilt, while 200,000 people made jobless are still unable to find employment, according to government data.
For many survivors, notably parents, the most controversial aspect remains the way schools crumbled to the ground -- testimony to sloppy construction.

The government has told local people that tourism could help them recover from the tragedy.
In Beichuan, stalls and shops lined the road outside the city gate, where vendors sold quake souvenirs, ethnic Qiang minority arts and crafts and local specialities such as wild mushrooms, fruits and nuts.
Among the survivors, stories abounded of lucky escapes.

Li Kaifu, a 40-year-old worker at the Hongda Chemical Factory, recalled he was at the doorway of the plant in Deyang city when the earthquake hit.

"When it started I thought for sure I was a goner," he told AFP.

"I remember all the buildings started to crumble. All around me they were falling.

"My mind was racing, I panicked and ran outside. Everywhere buildings were collapsing. It was incredible."
Others lingered over the first days and weeks after the disaster, when aid streamed in from the rest of China, some of it provided outside state control by volunteers -- especially from the nation's growing middle classes.
"The deepest memory for me was a few days after the quake, we had no water and were really thirsty," said Yang Lizhen, a 30-year-old tour guide.

"I was out near the main road and we saw truckload after truckload bringing in supplies. I felt so relieved."
Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

As Oracle readies takeover, Sun's loss widens

As Oracle readies takeover, Sun's loss widens
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Sun Microsystems Inc.'s loss ballooned in the latest quarter as restructuring charges and a 20 percent drop in sales compounded the financial woes Oracle Corp. is set to inherit by acquiring Sun for $7.4 billion.
Sun, a server and software maker whose wobbly performance for most of the last decade pushed it into Oracle's clutches, said after the market closed Tuesday that it lost $201 million, or 27 cents per share, in the three months ended March 29. A year ago, Sun lost $34 million, or 4 cents per share.
Stripping out one-time charges, including $46 million for a restructuring that has cost thousands of workers their jobs, the latest quarter's loss amounted to 7 cents per share. Analysts were expecting a loss of 19 cents per share, but the numbers don't directly compare because Sun subtracted out charges that analysts didn't.
When both sides use the same metric, Sun says its loss was 5 cents per share wider than estimates.
Sun's sales of $2.61 billion were short of Wall Street's forecasts. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters were expecting $2.86 billion.
Sun didn't provide color on the quarter and did not hold its customary conference call with analysts, probably because of the pending acquisition by Oracle, which is expected to close this summer.
The deal, announced last week, was a surprise because Oracle hasn't made hardware. More than half of Sun's sales come from its hardware division, primarily servers and data storage machines. And Sun's software properties, like the Java programming language and Solaris operating system, haven't been big moneymakers. Oracle thinks it can change that.
A key measure of how well Sun controlled its costs was off.
Sun's gross profit margin was 42.7 percent of the company's total revenue in the latest period. That measures how much money Sun made on each dollar of revenue, once manufacturing costs are stripped out. It was down 2.2 percentage points from the same quarter last year, indicating that Sun's deep cost-cutting wasn't enough to offset its rapid sales decline.
Sun's sales are suffering because of the recession — companies aren't forking out as much for computing infrastructure — and because of a shift in the industry away from the high-end, specialty servers that have long been Sun's own specialty.
Server sales in general are at their weakest point in seven years, according to market research firm IDC, chewing into the hardware numbers for Sun and bigger rivals like IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. Sun's takeover by Oracle came about after talks with IBM broke apart on a standoff over price and other terms.
Sun's product revenue was $1.52 billion, down 24 percent from last year. Services revenue, which consists of things like technical support, was $1.10 billion, down 13 percent.

White House will probe presidential plane PR stunt

 White House will probe presidential plane PR stunt
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House plans an inquiry into a low-flying photo shoot by a presidential plane that panicked New Yorkers and cost taxpayers $328,835. President Barack Obama said Tuesday it won't happen again.
But the origins of the government public relations stunt that went awry remained an engrossing mystery — and a potential political problem for Obama. The White House military office approved the photo-op, which cost $35,000 in fuel alone for the plane and two jet fighter escorts.
"I think this is one of those rare cases where we can all agree it was a mistake," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said of Monday's "unfortunate" flight low over the Hudson River that for many on the ground evoked chilling memories of 9/11.
The sight of the huge passenger jet and an F-16 fighter plane whizzing past the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan financial district sent panicked office workers streaming into the streets.
"It was a mistake, as was stated ... and it will not happen again," Obama said.
White House officials did not say why new photos were needed of the plane that is sometimes used as Air Force One — Obama wasn't aboard the flight — or who the presumed audience of the planned photographs were.
Air Force officials began to provide basic information Tuesday about the cost of the flights, but did not disclose how long the public has paid for similar photo op flights.
And public officials from the White House to New York still had not explained why they acceded to a plan that informed several dozen officials about the impending flight but kept the public in the dark.
"I think we've all learned something from it and now it's time to make sure our procedures are better and to get on with other things," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "It does seem like it was a waste of money, but that's up to the federal government."
Air Force officials said Tuesday the cost of the three-hour trip from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and back was $328,835 for the flight of the Boeing VC-25 presidential jet and the two accompanying F-16 fighters flown by D.C. Air National Guard pilots. The large jet — a Boeing 747 — carried only military personnel, the White House said.
Roughly $35,000 of the total flight cost was fuel for the VC-25 and F-16s. Other expenses that are factored into hourly flight costs include fuel for ground support equipment, spare parts and other maintenance items needed to keep the aircraft ready. Overall, the cost per flying hour for the VC-25 is $100,219, according to the Air Force. The F-16s cost just under $8,000 an hour to operate.
The Air Force said the photo op flight was run as a regular training mission, so that the costs of the aircraft were considered training costs and were handled under the operations and maintenance budget of the 89th Airlift Wing.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that there would be an inquiry into how the decision was made to make the flight. He made no move to defend the midlevel White House civilian who had accepted blame for it on Monday.
"The president will look at that review and take any appropriate steps after that," Gibbs said. The inquiry would be led by Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, Gibbs said.
White House officials said Obama was fuming mad and thinks Air Force One didn't need a new publicity photo anyway.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates "did not know in advance about this flying photo op," Morrell said. "Once he found out, suffice it to say he was surprised and not very pleased."
The presidential air fleet answers to the White House military office, whose director, Louis Caldera, issued a mea culpa on Monday.
"While federal authorities took the proper steps to notify state and local authorities in New York and New Jersey, it's clear that the mission created confusion and disruption," Caldera's statement said. "I apologize and take responsibility for any distress that flight caused."
For a half-hour, the Boeing 747 and one of the F-16s circled the Statue of Liberty and the financial district near the World Trade Center site. Offices emptied. Dispatchers were inundated with calls. Witnesses thought the planes were flying dangerously low.
A White House official has said the New York City mayor's office and other New York and New Jersey police agencies were told about the Boeing 747's flight. The official said the FAA, at the military's request, told local agencies that the information was classified and asked them not to publicize it.
Bloomberg initially lambasted the government for failing to notify him, then criticized one of his own aides after learning that the aide had not relayed notification that the flight was coming.
New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said Tuesday he also received no warning ahead of time that the back-up Air Force One jet and military fighters would be flying low around the Statute of Liberty.
Corzine said he had yet to find a New Jersey official who was told in advance about the Monday morning fly-over.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the Obama administration should have been more careful about alerting New Yorkers to the photo-op.
"There should have been better communication," Levin said Tuesday. "They've expressed their regrets for not having a better communications line to New York, and I think New York people should have known about it."
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner, Philip Elliott and Lara Jakes in Washington, Sara Kugler in New York and Beth DeFalco in New Jersey contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

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Swine flu's ground zero? Townspeople are convinced

Swine flu's ground zero? Townspeople are convinced
LA GLORIA, Mexico (AP) — Everyone told Maria del Carmen Hernandez that her kindergartner's illness was just a regular cold. But it seemed like the whole town of 3,000 was getting sick.
As early as February, neighbors all around her were coming down with unusually strong flu symptoms — and the caseload kept growing. When state health workers came to investigate March 23, some 1,300 people sought their medical help. About 450 were diagnosed with acute respiratory infections and sent home with antibiotics and surgical masks.
Five-year-old Edgar Hernandez was still healthy then. Hernandez wanted to keep him home from school so he wouldn't get sick, but her husband said, "We can't be afraid of what might or might not happen."
Then he came home with a fever and a headache so bad his eyes hurt. She took him to a clinic, and after a few days of antibiotics, he too recovered.
No one told Hernandez that her son had become Mexico's earliest confirmed case of swine flu until the Veracruz governor helicoptered in on Monday. But Edgar's case confirmed for residents what they already believed: their hillside town is ground zero in the epidemic.
Local health officials and Federal Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova downplay claims that the swine flu epidemic could have started in La Gloria, noting that of 35 mucous samples taken from respiratory patients there, only Edgar's came back positive.
Confirmation that the boy was infected with H1N1 — a strange new mix of pig, bird and human flu virus that has killed as many as 152 people in Mexico and now spread across the world — wasn't made until last week, when signs of the outbreak elsewhere prompted a second look at his sample.
"If the people who are supposed to be familiar with this didn't know what it was, how will we ever know how my son got it?" Hernandez said Tuesday.
Hernandez said doctors came from Jalapa, the state capital, and Veracruz city to see Edgar in the weeks after he was tested. But they said nothing, "they just wanted to see him." A team came again last weekend, after federal officials confirmed the swine flu cases late Thursday and started closing schools and canceling events in Mexico City.
Again, they left without saying anything, she said.
Cordova insists the rest of the community had suffered from H2N3, a common flu, based on other 34 samples. While Mexican authorities haven't determined how or where the swine flu outbreak began, Gov. Fidel Herrera said Tuesday that "there is not a single indicator" suggesting it started in La Gloria.
But Jose Luis Martinez, a 34-year-old resident of the town, made the swine flu connection the minute he heard a description of the symptoms on the news: fever, coughing, joint aches, severe headache and, in some cases, vomiting and diarrhea.
"When we saw it on the television, we said to ourselves, 'This is what we had,'" he said Monday. "It all came from here. ... The symptoms they are suffering are the same that we had here."
Two infants died of pneumonia during the La Gloria outbreak. They were buried without testing.
Townspeople blame their ills on pig waste from farms that lie upwind, five miles (8.5 kilometers) to the north. The toxins blow through other towns, only to get trapped by mountains in La Gloria, they say. They suspect their water and air has been contaminated by waste.
Granjas Carroll de Mexico, half-owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, Inc., has 72 farms in the surrounding area. Smithfield spokeswoman Keira Ullrich said the company has found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico.
Animal health expert Peter Roeder, a consultant to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, said many possibilities exist for how the virus first jumped to humans, and that it could have happened months or even a year ago.
Roeder said it's possible someone tending the pigs could have passed a human influenza virus to a pig already infected with another type of swine flu, and then that pig could have also come into contact with a bird virus. Then, the new H1N1 virus formed could have been transmitted back to the workers.
But that's just a theory — and no one has any evidence that it happened in La Gloria.
"It's all surmise," Roeder said by phone from the Philippines. "The only thing that we know is that we have a virus that is transmitting between people and it is causing some concern."
But residents say they have been bothered for years by the fetid smell of the farms. Local health workers intervened in early April, sealing off the town of La Gloria and spraying to kill flies people said were swarming around their homes.
When Associated Press journalists on Monday entered a Granjas Carroll farm that has been the focus of community complaints, the cars were sprayed with water. Victor Ochoa, the general director, required the visitors to shower and don white overalls, rubber boots, goggles and masks and step through disinfectant before entering any of the 18 warehouses where 15,000 pigs are kept.
Ochoa showed the journalists a black plastic lid that covered a swimming pool-size cement container of pig feces to prevent exposure to the outside air.
"All of our pigs have been adequately vaccinated and they are all taken care of according to current sanitation rules," Ochoa said. "What happened in La Gloria was an unfortunate coincidence with a big and serious problem that is happening now with this new flu virus."
Mexican Agriculture Department inspectors found no sign of swine flu among pigs around the farm in Veracruz, and say that no infected pigs have been found yet anywhere in Mexico.
Martinez and Bertha Crisostomo, a liaison between the villagers and the municipal government of Perote to which La Gloria belongs, say half of the people from the town live and work in Mexico City most of the week, and could easily have spread the swine flu in the capital, where most of the swine flu cases have been confirmed.
Edgar, however, has never left the Perote valley. The family doesn't own pigs or work near them. Edgar's father, a bricklayer also named Edgar, only works in the area — not Mexico City.
Residents here are certain Edgar was not the only swine flu victim in their town.
Juan Rodriguez died of pneumonia Feb. 9 at age 7 months. His grandmother, Josefina Mendoza, 71, said doctors have come to interview the infant's parents.
Irene Bonilla, 23, said her 2-month-old boy, Yovanni Apolinar, died March 12. No one has interviewed her but reporters.
Neither family wants the children's bodies exhumed for testing.
"Why?" Mendoza said. "It's been months since he died. The child has made his peace with God. He's with the Virgin now."
AP Medical Writer Margie Mason and AP writers Mark Stevenson and Lisa J. Adams in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

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Mexico death toll stabilizes as epidemic spreads

Mexico death toll stabilizes as epidemic spreads
MEXICO CITY (AP) — The toll from the swine flu epidemic appears to be stabilizing in Mexico, the health secretary said late Tuesday, with only seven more suspected deaths. But health officials said they "fully expect" to see U.S. deaths as the virus keeps spreading around the world.
The new virus is suspected in 159 deaths and 2,498 illnesses across Mexico, said Health Secretary Jose Cordova, who called the death toll "more or less stable" even as hospitals are swamped with people who think they have swine flu. And he said only 1,311 suspected swine flu patients remain hospitalized, a sign that treatment works for people who get medical care quickly.
The positive news came as the swine flu appeared to spread from hundreds of students at a New York school who fell ill after a small group's spring break trip to Mexico, and confirmed cases were reported in New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain.
The United States stepped up surveillance at its borders and warned Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Mexico. Canada, Israel and France issued similar travel advisories.
Cuba became the first country to impose an outright ban on travel to the epicenter of the epidemic. Argentina soon followed with its own ban, and ordered 60,000 visitors who arrived from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. in the past 20 days to contact the Health Ministry.
Meanwhile, Mexico was eliminating reasons for tourists to visit. On Tuesday, the pyramids and all other archaeological sites were put off limits nationwide and restaurants in the capital were closed for all but take-out food in an aggressive bid to stop gatherings where the virus can spread.
Experts on epidemics said these kinds of government interventions are ineffective, since this flu — a never-before-seen blend of genetic material from pigs, birds and humans to which people have no natural immunity — is already showing up in too many places for containment efforts to make a difference.
Outside Mexico, confirmed cases were reported for the first time as far away as New Zealand and Israel, joining the United States, Canada, Britain and Spain. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.S. has 66 confirmed cases in five states, with 45 in New York, one in Ohio, one in Indiana, two in Kansas, six in Texas and 11 in California.
"Border controls do not work. Travel restrictions do not work," said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl, recalling the SARS epidemic earlier in the decade that killed 774 people, mostly in Asia, and slowed the global economy.
Instead, they say, governments should do more to provide medical help to people with swine flu symptoms, since the virus is proving to be treatable if diagnosed early.
U.S. officials stressed there is no need for panic, noting that flu outbreaks are quite common every year. The CDC estimates about 36,000 people in the U.S. alone died of flu-related causes each year, on average, in the 1990s.
Cordova said many of the people crowding hospital waiting rooms complaining of swine flu symptoms actually suffered from other ailments — and many of those suspected of having the virus were treated and sent home.
"You can see the total of new cases," Cordova said, pointing to bar charts that showed a rise and fall. "In the last days there has been a drop."
Only 26 cases, including seven deaths, have been definitively confirmed to be swine flu, Cordova said.
Cordova said that with U.S. help, new testing facilities in Mexico will soon have the capacity to test 150 samples a day for the new strain of swine flu. Currently, it must send samples to the CDC or Canadian labs.
Meanwhile, Cordova said health workers have begun using a less specific quick test, and will immediately administer anti-viral medicine to anyone with the general class of flu that includes the new strain.
Another focus is preventing people from gathering in groups where mass contagion could result. Mexico City's mayor ordered restaurants to limit service to takeouts and deliveries, and closed gyms and swimming pools and restricted access to many government buildings.
The economic toll also spread. Even before the restaurant closings, the capital has lost 777 million pesos ($56 million) a day since the outbreak began, said Arturo Mendicuti, president of the city's Chamber of Trade, Services and Tourism.
"Of course we don't like these measures," he said. "We hope they don't last."
In the U.S., President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funds to fight the illness.
"I fully expect we will see deaths from this infection," said Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC.
In New York, there were growing signs that the virus was moving beyond St. Francis Preparatory school, where sick students started lining up at the nurse's office days after some students returned from Cancun.
At the 2,700-student school, the largest Roman Catholic high school in the nation, "many hundreds of students were ill with symptoms that are most likely swine flu," said Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden. A teacher was one of 28 confirmed cases. And a nearby school with siblings at St. Francis was shut down as well after more than 80 students called in sick.
"It is here and it is spreading," Frieden said.
Rachel Mele, a 16-year-old at the school, saw her fever break Tuesday for the first time in five days. It had been hovering around 101 since the terrifying night when her parents rushed her to the hospital.
"I could barely even catch my breath. I've never felt a pain like that before," Mele said. "My throat, it was burning, like, it was the worst burning sensation I ever got before. I couldn't even swallow. I couldn't even let up air. I could barely breathe through my mouth."
It is significant that some of confirmed New York cases passed swine flu to others who had not traveled — this suggests the virus can jump from human to human to human, spreading through other countries, said Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the World Health Organization.
"There is definitely the possibility that this virus can establish that kind of community-wide outbreak capacity in multiple countries, and it's something we're looking for very closely," Fukuda said. So-called "community" transmissions are a key test for gauging whether the spread of the virus has reached pandemic proportions.
Scientists hope to have a key ingredient for a vaccine ready in early May, but it still will take months before any shots are available for the first required safety testing. Using samples of the flu taken from people who fell ill in Mexico and the U.S., scientists are engineering a strain that could trigger the immune system without causing illness.
"We're about a third of the way" to that goal, said Dr. Ruben Donis of the CDC.
U.S. officials said they may abandon the term "swine flu" since the virus blends genetic material from three species, and because many people mistakenly fear they can get it from meat. The outbreak has been a public relations nightmare for the pork industry, and China, Russia and Ukraine are among the countries who have banned imports from Mexico and parts of the U.S.
"It's killing our markets," said Francis Gilmore, 72, who runs a 600-hog operation in Perry, Iowa, outside Des Moines, and worries his small business could be ruined by the crisis. "Where they got the name, I just don't know."
Associated Press Writers Sara Kugler, Cristian Salazar, Marcus Franklin and Samantha Gross in New York; Istra Pacheco, Peter Orsi, Julie Watson and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City; Mike Stobbe in Atlanta; Mary Clare Jalonick, David Espo, Philip Elliott and Matthew Lee in Washington; Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva, Maria Cheng in London and Pan Pylas in London contributed to this report.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Indonesians vote for new parliament

Indonesians vote for new parliament

AKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesians began voting Thursday in parliamentary elections that could determine if President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will have enough support to win a second five-year term needed to push through aggressive economic and institutional reforms. The vote will also test the role of Islamic parties in politics.

Violence flared hours before the first polling stations opened in the easternmost province of Papua, the scene of a decades-long insurgency, killing at least six people, said local police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto.
But by midmorning the situation appeared calm, with long lines forming as people waited to cast ballots.
The vote for a new 560-member legislature is being closely watched because it will determine who will qualify to run for president in July.

Parties or coalitions that win a fifth of the seats — or 25 percent of the popular vote — can nominate a candidate for that race.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party is expected to come out on top, but with more than 171 million eligible voters and dozens of parties to choose from, nothing is certain.

Second-time voter Rivaldi Aswin, a 25-year-old bank employee, was confused casting four votes for municipal, provincial and national candidates, most of whom he didn't know.

"It is very complicated this time. There were too many ballot papers and we didn't recognize the faces or candidates," he said in the capital, Jakarta. He declined to say who he picked.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, emerged from 32 years of dictatorship when Gen. Suharto was swept from power in 1998, leading to reforms that freed the media, struck down repressive laws and for the first time allowed citizens to vote for president.

It has since become a relatively stable democracy compared to many of its Asian neighbors, despite some concerns about vote-rigging, fraud and tensions in far-flung provinces like Papua in the east and Aceh in the west.

If Yudhoyono's party wins 26 percent of the popular vote, as some opinion polls predict, he will not have to cobble together an alliance with others seen to be less willing to tackle corruption, overhaul the judiciary and streamline bureaucracy.

"At this moment, it looks like he's going to make it," said Dede Oetomo, a political analyst from Airlangga University in the city of Surabaya.

Last time around, the Democrats won just 7 percent of the vote, forcing Yudhoyono, eventually, to partner up with Suharto's Golkar and a handful of Islamic parties that tried to push through laws governing everything from the way women dressed to the types of magazines that could be hawked on street corners.

Analysts say these elections could see the popularity of religious parties, which did well in 2004, waning. Most of the secular country's 210 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith.

"As long as these parties try to push through Islamic-based laws, they are going to keep losing support," said Syafiie Maarif, an Islamic scholar. "They need to come up with a broader, policy-based platform, like fighting poverty."

Campaigns across the board were largely personality driven and policies have been broad and ill-defined, focusing on issues like the effect the global slowdown has had on the economy or the need to root out pervasive corruption.

Unlike 2004, security is no longer a big issue, something many credit to Yudhoyono.
Indonesia was last hit by an al-Qaida-linked terrorist attack four years ago and, thanks to a 2005 peace deal, guns have largely fallen silent in formerly war-torn Aceh province, on the country's northwestern tip.
Tensions there and in Papua were high after a series of fatal shootings in recent months, but few expect the situation to spiral out of control.

Papuan police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto said more than 80 suspected rebels attacked a police post in the provincial capital, Jayapura, with machetes and spears at around 1 a.m. Thursday, prompting a clash that killed one separatist.

Elsewhere, he said, rebels who want Papua to break from Indonesia stabbed several motorcycle taxi drivers, burned an oil depot and property at a state university, leaving five others dead.

Voters, who had been told to boycott the vote, refused to be intimidated.
"I think everything should be solved in a peaceful way, that's why I'm out here today," said Leonard Tuilan.
The Indonesian Survey Institute poll indicated that the Democratic Party would win 26 percent of the popular vote; the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri 14 percent; and Golkar 13 percent. The four Islamic-based parties each came in at around 4 percent. The survey, based on interviews with 2,486 people, had a margin of error of 2.3 percent.

Associated Press Writers Zakki Hakim, Niniek Karmini and Ali Kotarumalos contributed to this report from Jakarta.

McCain urges China to get tough on North Korea

McCain urges China to get tough on North Korea

BEIJING (AP) — U.S. Senator John McCain urged China on Thursday to take a firmer stand against North Korea following Pyongyang's latest rocket firing, saying Beijing had more leverage than any other country to influence the North's behavior.

The Arizona Republican said stronger measures were needed in response to Sunday's launch, including sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. Both Beijing and Washington are veto-wielding permanent members of the body.

"I want to say very frankly what we all know, and that the nation that has true influence over North Korea" is China, McCain said in remarks to reporters following meetings with China's foreign and defense ministers and the head of the national legislature.

"And we have urged the Chinese to exercise that responsibility as quickly as possible and as strongly as possible, which in my view, they have not done enough of in the past," McCain said.

China is Pyongyang's strongest ally and has offered a muted response to Sunday's rocket firing, in contrast to the stern expressions of concern from the U.S., Japan and South Korea — who say they believe the launch was a test of a long-range ballistic missile, not a satellite launch as Pyongyang insists. Beijing has yet to weigh in on the argument.

McCain also expressed disappointment at the lack of progress in six-nation talks aimed at shutting down Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

The negotiations, hosted by China and involving the U.S., Japan, Russia and North and South Korea, are currently stalled after five years of on-again, off-again meetings. The deadlock centers on Pyongyang's refusal of a verification process that would confirm it had dismantled its nuclear programs.

"I don't think the talks have been very productive," said McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee for president. He said his disappointment was heightened by allegations that North Korea has "at least exported some (atomic) technologies," pointing to claims of North Korean involvement in the Iranian and Syrian nuclear programs.

While China is believed to be North Korea's biggest supplier of food and fuel aid, it has appeared to have limited sway with the isolated regime in Pyongyang. China may be unwilling to take a hard stand against Pyongyang for fear of further eroding that influence.


Analysis: Amid NATO celebration, concern on future

Analysis: Amid NATO celebration, concern on future

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — NATO's reluctance to match the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan may not undercut President Barack Obama's new war strategy so long as the allies carry through on pledges to contribute more nonmilitary assistance.

But in the longer run, an uneven sharing of the combat load in Afghanistan could doom U.S. hopes for relying on NATO as a partner in future conflicts. While the alliance celebrated its 60th anniversary and Obama hailed its more cohesive spirit, none of the leaders inside the Strasbourg castle alluded openly to the hard prospect that NATO troops may stay largely shielded while American soldiers are exposed to most of the battles and casualties.

The summit over the weekend ended with NATO's agreement to contribute 5,000 more troops to bolster the intensified U.S. push for more security in Afghanistan's cities and training for beleaguered Afghan soldiers and police.

The NATO additions are not insubstantial. But they pale beside Obama's decision to send 21,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines this year to buttress 38,000 American troops fighting the Taliban. The new NATO contingent — adding to the alliance's 35,000 troops in Afghanistan — would even be outstripped by the 10,000 more troops that senior American commanders are urging Obama to deploy to the conflict next year.
Left unsettled is how a NATO that was built on the principle of sharing security burdens can continue to play a role in the global effort to defeat Islamic extremism if it is unwilling to assume more of the risks in tight corners like Afghanistan.

"That's a significant problem for the alliance, going forward," said Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO who is now a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"We all agreed to go into Afghanistan. The essence of the alliance is that we share responsibility and we share commitments," Burns said. "And for some of the countries to essentially refuse to send their troops to combat areas, I still think, is an important issue that cannot be forgotten."

U.S. congressional leaders have been vocal in bringing up reminders. At a hearing last week on U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the allies' stance in Afghanistan was "nothing short of pitiful."

But generally the Americans have taken on the bulk of the fight against the Taliban and against terrorists like al-Qaida.

With the first U.S. surge troops soon expected to arrive, a delegation of senior U.S. officials visited Kabul on Sunday to deal with the knotty issue of Afghanistan's approaching election. U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen met much of the day with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other candidates and government officials.

High on the agenda is settling the question of who will serve as president after Karzai's term expires in May, since the presidential election will not be held until August. Holbrooke said Sunday it appears that Karzai will remain in office in that interim period. But the diplomat carefully added that the U.S. is taking no position on Karzai's re-election effort.

Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, also welcomed Iran to join Afghan stabilization talks in "whatever forums work for them."

The American willingness to include Iran in talks on Afghanistan's future is indicative of the new administration's tack to broaden the world's involvement in what was mostly a U.S. enterprise during the Bush years.

But the uneasy outlook for NATO's role in Afghanistan is central to a still-unsettled debate about whether the alliance should return to its focus on preventing conflict within its own borders. NATO was created in April 1949 as a bulwark against a Soviet land invasion to conquer western Europe, but since the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, NATO has been an alliance in search of a reason for being.

Obama's strategy for Afghanistan contains themes that the Europeans have been preaching for years. They include the need to more closely integrate the roles of combat and nonmilitary activities such as developing the Afghan economy, promoting reconciliation with some insurgents, and finding more effective ways of strengthening the credibility of the Afghan government.

Mullen said Obama's new war strategy makes clear that the U.S. needs help from allies to build a firmer foundation for stabilizing Afghanistan.

"Probably the most important part is to create governance in the country at every level — not just the national level but also at the district level, the provincial level," he said in a speech in New York on Thursday before flying to the NATO summit.

But without real harmony, Mullen added, "it won't make any difference how many more troops we send it — it's not going to work."

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.

Obama looking at cooling air to fight warming

Obama looking at cooling air to fight warming

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tinkering with Earth's climate to chill runaway global warming — a radical idea once dismissed out of hand — is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option, the president's new science adviser said Wednesday.

That's because global warming is happening so rapidly, John Holdren told The Associated Press in his first interview since being confirmed last month.

The concept of using technology to purposely cool the climate is called geoengineering. One option raised by Holdren and proposed by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist includes shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays.

Using such an experimental measure is only being thought of as a last resort, Holdren said.
"It's got to be looked at," he said. "We don't have the luxury ... of ruling any approach off the table."
His concern is that the United States and other nations won't slow global warming fast enough and that several "tipping points" could be fast approaching. Once such milestones are reached, such as complete loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, it increases chances of "really intolerable consequences," he said.
Twice in a half-hour interview, Holdren compared global warming to being "in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog."

He and many experts believe that warming of a few degrees more would lead to disastrous drought conditions and food shortages in some regions, rising seas and more powerful coastal storms in others.
At first, Holdren characterized the potential need to technologically tinker with the climate as just his personal view. However, he went on to say he has raised it in administration discussions.

"We're talking about all these issues in the White House," Holdren said. "There's a very vigorous process going on of discussing all the options for addressing the energy climate challenge."

Holdren said discussions include Cabinet officials and heads of sub-Cabinet level agencies, such as NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 65-year-old physicist is far from alone in taking geoengineering seriously. The National Academy of Sciences is making it the subject of the first workshop in its new climate challenges program for policymakers, scientists and the public. The British Parliament has also discussed the idea. At an international meeting of climate scientists last month in Copenhagen, 15 talks dealt with different aspects of geoengineering.
The American Meteorological Society is crafting a policy statement that says "it is prudent to consider geoengineering's potential, to understand its limits and to avoid rash deployment."

Last week, Princeton scientist Robert Socolow told the National Academy that geoengineering should be an available option in case climate worsens dramatically.

Holdren, a 1981 winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, outlined these possible geoengineering options:

_ Shooting sulfur particles (like those produced by power plants and volcanoes, for example) into the upper atmosphere, an idea that gained steam when it was proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen in 2006. It would be "basically mimicking the effect of volcanoes in screening out the incoming sunlight," Holdren said.
_ Creating artificial "trees" — giant towers that suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it.
The first approach would "try to produce a cooling effect to offset the heating effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases," Holdren said.

But he said there could be grave side effects. Studies suggest that might include eating away a large chunk of the ozone layer above the poles and causing the Mediterranean and the Mideast to be much drier.
And those are just the predicted problems. Scientists say they worry about side effects that they don't anticipate.

While the idea could strike some people as too risky, the Obama administration could get unusual support on the idea from groups that have often denied the harm of global warming in the past.

The conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute has its own geoengineering project, saying it could be "feasible and cost-effective." And Cato Institute scholar Jerry Taylor said Wednesday: "Very few people would rule out geoengineering on its face."

Holdren didn't spell out under what circumstances such extreme measures might ever be called for. And he emphasized they are not something to rely on.

"It would be preferable by far," he said, "to solve this problem by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases."
Yet there is already significant opposition building to the House Democratic leaders' bill aimed at achieving President Barack Obama's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
Holdren said temperatures should be kept from rising more than 3.6 degrees. To get there, he said the U.S. and other industrial nations have to begin permanent dramatic cuts in carbon dioxide pollution by 2015, with developing countries following suit within a decade.

Those efforts are racing against three tipping points he cited: Earth could be as close as six years away from the loss of Arctic summer sea ice, he said, and that has the potential of altering the climate in unforeseen ways. Other elements that could dramatically speed up climate change include the release of frozen methane from thawing permafrost in Siberia, and more and bigger wildfires worldwide.

The trouble is that no one knows when these things are coming, he said.
Holdren also addressed other topics during the interview:

_ The U.S. anti-ballistic missile program is not ready to work and shouldn't be used unless it is 100 percent effective. The system, which would be used to shoot down missiles from countries like North Korea or Iran "needs to be essentially perfect ... that's going to be hard to achieve."

_ Holdren said NASA needs some changes. He said the Bush administration's plan to return astronauts to the moon was underfunded so money was taken from science and aeronautics. Those areas, including climate change research, were "decimated," he said.

The administration will "rebalance NASA's programs so that we have in space exploration, a suitable mix of manned activities and robotic activities," Holdren said. Doing that "will only get under way in earnest when a new administrator is in place."

Holdren, who advises the president on such decisions, said he hopes Obama will pick a new NASA boss soon.


Obama launches effort to reduce nuclear arms

Obama launches effort to reduce nuclear arms

PRAGUE (AP) — President Barack Obama on Sunday launched an effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons, calling them "the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War" and saying the U.S. has a moral responsibility to lead as the only nation to ever use one.

In a speech driven with fresh urgency by North Korea's rocket launch just hours earlier, Obama said the U.S. would "immediately and aggressively" seek ratification of a comprehensive ban on testing nuclear weapons. He said the U.S. would host a summit within the next year on reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons, and he called for a global effort to secure nuclear material.

"Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction," Obama said to a bustling crowd of more than 20,000 in an old square outside the Prague Castle gates.

"This fatalism is a deadly adversary," he said. "For if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable."
Obama targeted his comments at one point directly at North Korea, which launched a rocket late Saturday night in defiance of the international community. The president was awoken by an aide and told of the news, which occurred in the early morning hours in Prague.

"North Korea broke the rules once more by testing a rocket that could be used for a long range missile," Obama said. "This provocation underscores the need for action — not just this afternoon at the UN Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons."

At a summit with leaders of the European Union later in the day, Obama called for a swift, joint statement condemning North Korea's actions, and said the foreign ministers from the countries were in the process of crafting one.

North Korea declared the missile launch a success. But the U.S. military said "no object entered orbit," with the first stage of the rocket falling into the waters between Korea and Japan, and the two other stages and its payload landing in the Pacific Ocean.

Addressing another potential nuclear foe, Obama said in his speech the U.S. will present Iran with "a clear choice" to join the community of nations by ceasing its nuclear and ballistic missile activity or face increased isolation.

He said the U.S. will proceed with development of a missile defense system in Europe as long as there is an Iranian threat of developing nuclear weapons. If that threat is removed, he said, "The driving force for missile defense in Europe will be removed."

The choice of Prague for such a speech carried large symbolism, and Obama didn't ignore it. Decades of communism were toppled in Czechoslovakia through the 1989 Velvet Revolution, so named because it was one of the few peaceful overthrows of communism in the Iron Curtain. The Czech Republic split from Slovakia in 1993.

Obama praised the Czechs for helping "bring down a nuclear-armed empire without firing a shot."
Obama coupled his call for a nuclear-free world with an assurance that America would not unilaterally give up nuclear weapons. It must be a one-for-all, all-for-one endeavor, he said, and until that is possible, the U.S. will maintain a big enough arsenal to serve as a deterrent.

Few experts think it's possible to completely eradicate nuclear weapons, and many say it wouldn't be a good idea even if it could be done. But a program to drastically cut the world atomic arsenal carries support from scientists and lions of the foreign policy world.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by former President Bill Clinton but rejected by the Senate in 1999. Over 140 nations have ratified the ban, but 44 states that possess nuclear technology need to both sign and ratify it before it can take effect and only 35 have do so. The United States is among the key holdouts, along with China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Ratification of the test ban was one of several "concrete steps" Obama outlined as necessary to move toward a nuclear-free world, He also called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in American national security strategy, negotiating a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, and seeking a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons.

Obama also said the U.S. will seek to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation treaty by providing more resources and authority for international inspections and mandating "real and immediate consequences" for countries that violate the treaty.

Obama spoke after conferring with Czech leaders. He is nearing the end of a sweep through five nations in Europe, pivoting from the global economic swoon to the war in Afghanistan to, now, the crisis in North Korea and the fate of the nuclear world.

AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven contributed to this story from Prague.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Flying car takes off on first test flight

Flying car takes off on first test flight

Maiden flight: Prototype of the Transition 'roadable aircraft' gets off the ground

Logging 37 seconds in the air, a prototype of a flying car completed its first test flight earlier this month in upstate New York.

Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia Inc., founded four years ago by MIT graduates, reported today that its Transition "roadable" aircraft completed its first flight at Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y. on March 5 with retired U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Meteer at the controls. The short flight was confined to the expanse of the runway, but it was enough to allow the company to test the Transition's stability and controllability.

The flight comes after six months of ground testing -- the flying car has been driven under its own power in on-road test drives and in tests of its taxiing capability.

"This flight is a symbol of a new freedom in aviation. It's what enthusiasts have been striving for since 1918," said Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich in a statement.

The two-seater vehicle fits into the light sport aircraft category and has an anticipated price tag of $148,000. Richard Gersh, a vice president at Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia, told Computerworld in January that the company already has received more than 40 orders for the Transition. He hopes the first one will be in a customer's hands by next year.

"We're not going to have a flying car, as people think of it, for a while," said Anna Dietrich, Terrafugia's chief operating officer, in an earlier interview. "I would never say it's not going to happen, but today the infrastructure is not there, nor is the training, nor are the avionics that would make the training unnecessary. What makes sense right now is a 'roadable' aircraft."

Dietrich said the idea of a such a vehicle is what fired up the imaginations of Terrafugia's founders and pushed them to launch the company. The problem, however, is that the U.S. doesn't have the infrastructure to support vehicles that both fly in the air and travel on surface roads regularly. Unlike runways, roads pass in front of houses, grocery stores and office buildings. And a sky filled with small planes piloted by people who don't have pilot's licenses could be problematic, to say the least.

Dietrich noted that there are about 6,000 public airports in the U.S., and most people are, on average, within 20 miles of one. The idea, she said, is to take advantage of this underutilized infrastructure. With a drivable aircraft, a pilot could fly into a small airport and, instead of getting a rental car or waiting for a taxi, simply fold up the plane's wings and drive off.

source : http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9129931&intsrc=news_ts_head

Natasha Richardson dies after ski fall

Natasha Richardson dies after ski fall

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Natasha Richardson, a film star, Tony-winning stage actress and member of the famed Redgrave acting family, died Wednesday after suffering injuries in a ski accident, according to a family statement. She was 45.

Richardson, wife of actor Liam Neeson, was injured Monday in a fall on a ski slope at a Quebec resort about 80 miles northwest of Montreal.

Richardson's family released a statement saying, "Liam Neeson, his sons, and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha. They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time."

According to a statement from Mont Tremblant Ski Resort, Richardson fell during a lesson on a beginners' trail.

"She did not show any visible sign of injury, but the ski patrol followed strict procedures and brought her back to the bottom of the slope and insisted she should see a doctor," the statement said.

Richardson, accompanied by her instructor, returned to her hotel, but about an hour after the fall was "not feeling good," the statement said. An ambulance was called, and Richardson was taken to a local hospital before being transferred to Hopital du Sacre-Coeur in Montreal. From there she was transferred to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Richardson was practically born to perform. Her grandfather, Sir Michael Redgrave, was a famed British actor. Her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, is an Oscar-winning actress, and her father, the late director Tony Richardson, helmed such films as "Look Back in Anger," "The Entertainer" and the Oscar-winning "Tom Jones."

Natasha Richardson's uncle Corin Redgrave, aunt Lynn Redgrave, and sister Joely Richardson are also noted performers.

But being part of a family of actors wasn't always easy for Richardson. Her parents divorced when she was 4 and her mother, involved in controversial political causes, gave away a lot of money, putting the family in financial straits, according to the BBC.

Then there was the family heritage, of which Richardson once said, "Though my name opened doors it didn't get me work, and a lot of pressure comes from having a mother who is considered one of the greatest actresses of her generation," the BBC reported.

Richardson's first film role was a bit part in her father's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968), made when she was 4. After a handful of roles through her teens and early 20s, she broke through as Mary Shelley in Ken Russell's film "Gothic," and followed that up as Patty Hearst in Paul Schrader's 1988 film of the same name.

Richardson's other notable films included "The Handmaid's Tale" (1990); the TV movie "Zelda" (1993); "Nell" (1994), alongside Neeson, whom she married in 1994; the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap"; and "Wild Child" (2008).

But some of Richardson's greatest successes were on the stage. At 22, she played opposite her mother and Jonathan Pryce in a London production of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull"; the performance earned her the London Drama Critics' most promising newcomer award.

She won a Tony for her performance as Sally Bowles in the 1998 revival of "Cabaret" and earned raves for her Blanche DuBois in a 2005 production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." She was scheduled to perform in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" this year, following a January benefit performance of the show.

source : http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Movies/03/18/obit.richardson/?iref=mpstoryview

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Natasha Richardson Flown to New York With Ski Injuries

Natasha Richardson Flown to New York With Ski Injuries
Natasha Richardson Accident

The Tony-award winning actress Natasha Richardson was flown from Canada to New York City on Tuesday afternoon in serious condition with head injuries suffered the day before in a skiing accident north of Montreal, according to two people close to her family.

The people, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, declined to describe Ms. Richardson’s condition before or during the flight, other than to say it was very serious and that her family was highly distressed. They said the plane had arrived in New York by Tuesday evening, but declined to say where Ms. Richardson was being treated.

Ms. Richardson, 45, is married to the actor Liam Neeson and is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the director Tony Richardson, who died in 1991. Mr. Neeson was seen crouched inside an ambulance beside his wife on Tuesday afternoon at Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, as she lay heavily wrapped in blankets with tubes around her face.

Throughout the day on Tuesday, there were conflicting reports about Ms. Richardson’s medical condition, and by evening, the precise nature and gravity of Ms. Richardson’s condition could not be officially confirmed.

At 8:40 p.m. Tuesday, Ms. Redgrave was seen walking into Lenox Hill Hospital wearing a scarf and looking somber; representatives of Ms. Richardson would not confirm that she was a patient there.

Her business representatives and a spokesman for the family said they did not have any information to make public. Officials of the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal declined to discuss her condition, citing privacy rules.

Lyne Lortie, a spokeswoman for the Mont Tremblant ski resort in the Laurentian Hills north of Montreal, said Ms. Richardson had fallen during a beginner’s lesson. She was not wearing a helmet at the time, she said.

“It was a normal fall; she didn’t hit anyone or anything,” Ms. Lortie said. “She didn’t show any signs of injury; she was talking and she seemed all right.”

As a precaution, when she left the slopes, Ms. Richardson was accompanied by a member of the resort’s ski patrol and her instructor, who then remained with her at a hotel.

When she started having headaches about an hour later, she was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Ste. Agathe, Quebec, about 20 minutes from the resort. Ms. Lortie said that Ms. Richardson was transferred to the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal later in the afternoon.

Ms. Richardson won a Tony in 1998 for her performance in “Cabaret.” Her film performances include roles in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Parent Trap.” She and Mr. Neeson married in 1994 and have two children.

Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.

source :http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/18/theater/18richardson.html?ref=nyregion

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Madoff sent to jail as furious victims applaud

Madoff sent to jail as furious victims applaud

NEW YORK (AP) — Careful to blame only himself, a "deeply sorry and ashamed" Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty Thursday to pulling off what could be the biggest, most spectacular swindle Wall Street has even seen, and was sent off to jail in handcuffs to the applause of his furious victims.

"I realized that my arrest and this day would inevitably come," Madoff said in a courtroom crammed with many of the investors he cheated out of billions of dollars.

The 70-year-old financier could get up to 150 years in prison at sentencing June 16 on 11 counts, including securities fraud and perjury. He could also be fined and ordered to pay restitution to his victims and forfeit any ill-gotten gains.

In a long, detailed statement delivered in a soft but steady voice, Madoff implicated no one but himself in the vast Ponzi scheme. He said he started it as a short-term way to weather the early-1990s recession and was unable to extricate himself as the years went by.

"I am actually grateful for this opportunity to publicly comment about my crimes, for which I am deeply sorry and ashamed," Madoff said in his first public comments about his crimes since the $65 billion scandal broke in early December.

The scandal turned a well-respected investment professional — Madoff was once chairman of the Nasdaq exchange — into a symbol of Wall Street greed amid the economic meltdown. The public fury toward him was so great that he was known to wear a bulletproof vest to court.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin promptly revoked the $10 million bail that had allowed Madoff to remain free since he confessed to his sons three months ago. In ordering him jailed, the judge said Madoff had the means to flee and an incentive to do so because of his age.

The court appearance came as a disappointment to many of Madoff's investors, who hoped to hear him say who might have helped him pull off the scam, and where the money went.

Because Madoff pleaded guilty as charged, without any kind of deal with prosecutors, he is under no obligation to cooperate with them. As a result, some legal experts and others have speculated that he is sacrificing himself to protect his wife, his family and friends.

"He's trying to save the rest of his family," said investor Judith Welling. "We need to find out who else was involved, and we need, obviously, to freeze the assets of all those people involved to help the victims."

There was a smattering of applause after the judge announced Madoff would go directly to jail — the drab, windowless high-rise Metropolitan Correctional Center next door to the courthouse to await sentencing. But that did not lessen his victims' anger or satisfy their desire for retribution.

"So he spends the rest of his life in jail — is that justice? People's lives are ruined," said Adriane Biondo of Los Angeles, one of five members of her family who lost money with Madoff. "He's sitting in jail? That's awesome," she said sarcastically. "Where's the money, Bernie?"

DeWitt Baker, an investor who attended the hearing and said he lost more than $1 million with Madoff, said: "I'd stone him to death."

Prosecutors gave assurances they are investigating Madoff's wife and other family members and employees to determine what role, if any, they played in the scam.

"A lot of resources and effort are being expended, both to find assets and to find anyone else who may be responsible for this fraud," federal prosecutor Marc Litt said.

In court documents, prosecutors put the amount of the fraud at $64.8 billion. However, experts said that the actual loss was probably much less and that the higher number reflects the false profits Madoff told investors they were making. So far, authorities have located only about $1 billion for investors.

Prosecutors have already said low-level employees in Madoff's New York offices participated by mailing out tens of thousands of phony monthly statements and trading confirmations to make it look as if customers were making money in the market.

Some investors suspect their money ended up in the hands of Madoff's wife, Ruth. She was not in court. But the mere mention of her name drew jeers and laughter.

In one instance, defense lawyer Ira Sorkin was describing how Madoff had, "at his wife's own expense," paid for security at his $7 million penthouse in Manhattan. Loud laughter erupted among some of the more than 100 spectators crammed into the courtroom on the 24th floor of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. There was more snickering when Sorkin mentioned Mrs. Madoff's "small residence in France."

Madoff's thousands of victims included individuals, trusts, pension funds, hedge funds and nonprofit organizations. The scheme wiped out people's life savings, ruined charities and foundations, and apparently pushed at least two investors to commit suicide.

Investors big and small were swindled, from Florida retirees to celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. Many of Madoff's victims were Jews and Jewish charities, which trusted him because he is Jewish. Those cheated included Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

In court Thursday, Madoff — a dapper figure, dressed in a charcoal-gray suit, with swept-back, wavy gray hair — said he began the scheme during the last recession, when "I felt compelled to satisfy my clients' expectations, at any cost." He did not put his investors' money into the market, as he claimed. Instead, it was a Ponzi scheme, or a pyramid, in which early investors are paid off with money taken in from later ones.

"When I began the Ponzi scheme I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients from the scheme," he said. "However, this proved difficult, and ultimately impossible, and as the years went by I realized that my arrest and this day would inevitably come."

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "The president is glad that swift justice will happen."

Gibbs said the Obama administration will do everything possible to ensure strict enforcement of securities regulations "and hope that through those actions that that kind of greed and irresponsibility and that kind of criminal activity never happens again."

Before the court hearing, helicopters circled above the courthouse, and federal officers with automatic weapons stood outside. Investors signed in before entering the courtroom.

"I wanted him to see some of the faces of the people he lied to and destroyed," said Cynthia Friedman, 59, of Jericho, N.Y. She and her husband, Richard, said Madoff defrauded them of their life savings of $3 million. They learned it was gone months before Richard Friedman was supposed to retire — a plan now on hold.

Madoff did not look at any of the three investors who spoke at the hearing, even when one of them turned in his direction and tried to address him. At the hint of a confrontation, a marshal sitting behind Madoff stood up, and the judge directed the investor to speak directly to the bench.

Madoff told the court that he falsely told investors he was employing a "split strike conversion strategy": He claimed he invested their money in a batch of stocks from the Standard & Poor's 100 that closely tracked the price movements of the index. He also told investors that he would periodically pull their money out of the market and put it in Treasury bills. And he claimed he bought stock options to hedge against losses. All of that was false.

Madoff also said that to fool his clients into thinking he was buying and selling stocks, he transferred money from his fraudulent operations into his wholesale stock-trading firm, which he otherwise described as an honest, legitimate business.

Afterward, Burt Ross, a lawyer from Englewood, N.J., who lost $5 million in Madoff's swindle, said: "It's a little bit like seeing the devil."

Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and David B. Caruso contributed to this report.

source : http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hnkPe640MG8WMCAvAwv5GqtqxsOAD96SOT5O1?index=0

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