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Friday, December 28, 2007

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Friday December 28 2007 - (813)

Friday December 28 2007 edition
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Mortgage Meltdown, Phase 2
2007-12-28 02:56:40
Delinquencies among holders of risky option ARMs are increasing as their minimum payments climb.

Thought the mortgage meltdown was just a sub-prime affair? Think again. There's another time bomb waiting to explode, experts say: risky loans made to people with good credit.

So-called pay-option adjustable-rate mortgages, or option ARMs, were the easiest and most profitable home loans for lenders and brokers to make for much of this decade. Last year, they accounted for about 9% of the volume of all mortgages made in the U.S. and were especially popular in California, Florida and Nevada - states where home prices rose the most during the housing boom and are now falling most sharply.

An option ARM loan gives a borrower the option of paying less than the interest due, causing the loan balance to rise. If it rises too much - say, by 10% or 15% - the opportunity to make a low payment vanishes and the required payment skyrockets.
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Commentary: 'The Common Defense'
2007-12-28 02:56:15
Intellpuke: The following commentary appeared in the Los Angeles Times edition for Thursday, December 27, 2007. It is one of a series of L.A. Times editorials examining American values and the candidates for president.

From the wreckage of the Bush administration's foreign policies, the next president will inherit many intractable problems. Underlying many of them is a hard fact that some of the candidates recognize, but that none dare speak: Although the United States still leads the world economically, politically and militarily, its power and prestige, and hence its ability to lead, have been sharply eroded. The overwhelming military superiority the U.S. enjoys has not been matched by a comparable ability to master the geopolitical challenges that threaten our peace and prosperity. This relative decline in power predated the Bush administration but has been accelerated by its wars, its antiterrorism policies, its unilateralism and its failure to address domestic woes, notably the twin fiscal and trade deficits. The result of eight years of arrogant and unwise stewardship will be a weaker and more vulnerable America.

The challenge for the presidential candidates is to explain how they plan to defend the United States, particularly how they would combat international terrorist networks and how they would restore American prestige and leadership in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Most are struggling to do so while trying mightily to avoid awkward truths. It's not politic to admitthat the U.S. is weaker than it was a decade ago. And there is no campaign advantage to acknowledging that our current troubles cannot be blamed solely on either the very real failures of President Bush (as the Democrats would prefer to do) or on the very real dangers posed by Islamist terrorists, nuclear proliferators or oil-flush anti-American strongmen (the preferred targets of Republicans).

We believe that the restoration of American leadership amid rising global anti-Americanism requires an explicit repudiation of the exceptionalism that has soured this administration's dealings with other nations, and so hindered the collective defense of the world's democracies.
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Clinton, Obama Seize On Bhutto Assassination
2007-12-28 02:55:40
News of Benazir Bhutto's assassination came just hours before Sen. Barack Obama delivered what his campaign had billed as the "closing argument" in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, forcing his campaign to scramble to incorporate the Pakistani opposition leader into his message of change.

For his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), Bhutto's death helped underscore the line she has been driving home for months - about who is best suited to lead the nation at a time of international peril. In her comments Thursday, Clinton described Bhutto in terms Obama (D-Illinois) could not: as a fellow mother, a pioneering woman following in a man's footsteps, and a longtime peer on the world stage.

The differing reactions of Clinton and Obama to the assassination crystallized the debate between the two just a week before Iowans will decide the first contest in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

While aides said Clinton was anxious not to appear to be politicizing Bhutto's death, they nonetheless saw it as a potential turning point in the race with Obama and former senator John Edwards (D-North Carolina).

"I have known Benazir Bhutto for more than 12 years; she's someone whom I was honored to visit as first lady when she was prime minister," Clinton said at a campaign event in a firehouse in western Iowa. "Certainly on a personal level, for those of us who knew her, who were impressed by her commitment, her dedication, her willingness to pick up the mantle of her father, who was also assassinated, it is a terrible, terrible tragedy," she said.

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Bhutto Assassination Shatters Hopes For Stability In Pakistan
2007-12-28 02:55:05
The nation mourns the former prime minister, slain in Rawalpindi after an election rally. It is unclear whether the vote will proceed; some fear Musharraf may again impose emergency rule.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader who had promised to restore democracy in Pakistan, set off a nationwide wave of grief and fury Thursday and raised the specter of violent unrest that could threaten the government of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.

At least 20 other people died in the assault just outside the main gates of a Rawalpindi park where Pakistan's first prime minister was assassinated in 1951.

The attack occurred with devastating speed, and even witnesses in the vehicle just behind Bhutto's were unsure of the precise sequence of events. Several onlookers said they saw the blurred figure of a wiry-looking gunman dash toward the vehicle, fire at Bhutto and then blow himself up, but others believed there were two assailants.
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U.S. Commission Backs Health Benefit Cut At 65 In Retirement Plans
2007-12-27 15:34:34
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Wednesday that employers could reduce or eliminate health benefits for retirees when they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare.

The policy, set forth in a new regulation, allows employers to establish two classes of retirees, with more comprehensive benefits for those under 65 and more limited benefits - or none at all - for those older.

More than 10 million retirees rely on employer-sponsored health plans as a primary source of coverage or as a supplement to Medicare, and Naomi C. Earp, the commission’s chairwoman, said, “This rule will help employers continue to voluntarily provide and maintain these critically important health benefits.”

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and other advocates for older Americans attacked the rule. “This rule gives employers free rein to use age as a basis for reducing or eliminating health care benefits for retirees 65 and older,” said Christopher G. Mackaronis, a lawyer for AARP, which represents millions of people age 50 or above and which had sued in an effort to block issuance of the final regulation. “Ten million people could be affected -  adversely affected - by the rule.”

The new policy creates an explicit exemption from age-discrimination laws for employers that scale back benefits of retirees 65 and over. Mackaronis asserted that the exemption was “in direct conflict” with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

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Mortgage Ivestigations Face Large Legal Hurdles
2007-12-27 02:56:26
Tangled system of bank regulation and the task of proving that executives intended to break the law could pose significant challenges for investigators.

The nation's largest banks are losing billions of dollars from the mortgage debacle, but will pain from bad housing bets be compounded by government investigations?

As credit woes sparked by the troubled housing market threaten the broader economy, investigators are trying to determine whether Wall Street investment banks bundled risky loans with good ones without properly disclosing such risk to investors.

Law enforcement officials including those at the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York attorney general's office are scrutinizing whether banks and mortgage lenders helped fuel the crisis by misleading investors about dicey housing assets and then covered up losses when the markets turned sour. Government subpoenas are flying, investor lawsuits are mounting, and in the nastiest cases, businesses are pointing the finger of blame at one another.

The tangled system of bank regulation and the challenge of proving that executives intended to break the law when they unloaded bum assets could pose significant hurdles for investigators, current and former government officials say. Many of the assets that tumbled were explicitly marketed as involving borrowers with troubled credit histories, alerting investors that they were high-risk bets.

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Debate Ignites Over New Armored Vehicles In Iraq
2007-12-27 02:55:57
It was just what American soldiers had been longing for - a patrol vehicle designed to withstand the powerful roadside bomb blasts that have killed more service members than any other insurgent weapon in the Iraq war; but just as the Defense Department hits its year-end goal of delivering 1,500 heavily armored, V-hulled "mine resistant ambush protected" trucks to Iraq, the feeling in the Pentagon is far from elation. Instead, an intense debate has broken out over whether the vehicle that is saving lives also could undermine one of the most important lessons of the whole war: How to counter an insurgency.

While offering needed armor, the MRAPs lack the agility vital to urban warfare. "It's very heavy; it's relatively large; it's not maneuverable as you'd like it to be," Gen. William S. Wallace, the officer in charge of Army doctrine and training, said recently. "All of those things should be of concern."

With nearly 12,000 of the trucks on order in a program that has a projected cost of more than $17 billion, the MRAP -  the most expensive new Army weapons systems acquired since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks - is likely to influence how the Army fights future wars.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said MRAPs are an important part of the military's response to the needs of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
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Poor Americans Infected With Worms
2007-12-27 02:55:03
Roundworms may infect close to a quarter of inner city black children, tapeworms are the leading cause of seizures among U.S. Hispanics and other parasitic diseases associated with poor countries are also affecting Americans, said a U.S. expert.

Recent studies show many of the poorest Americans living in the United States carry some of the same parasitic infections that affect the poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, said Dr. Peter Hotez, a tropical disease expert at George Washington University and editor-in-chief of the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Writing in the journal, Hotez said these parasitic infections had been ignored by most health experts in the United States.

"I feel strongly that this is such an important health issue and yet because it only affects the poor it has been ignored," Hotez said via e-mail.

He said the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defend against bio-terrorism threats like anthrax or smallpox or avian flu, which were more a theoretical concern than a real threat at present.

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2 Arrested In Deaths Of 6 In Rural Washington
2007-12-27 02:54:13
Six people, likely three generations of a family, were found dead Wednesday at a rural property east of Seattle, Washington, and a law enforcement official said police arrested the property owners' daughter and her boyfriend.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the names, identified the pair as Michele Anderson, 29, and her boyfriend, Joseph McEnroe. Both were booked into the King County Jail late Wednesday for investigation of six counts of homicide.

A message left at a telephone listing for a Michele Anderson in the Carnation area was not immediately returned.

The victims included a boy about age 3, a girl about age 6, a man and woman in their 30s, and a man and woman in their 50s. Their names were not released, but they were "likely three generations" of one family, said King County sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart.

Autopsies have not been performed on the bodies, but the cause of death was apparently gunshots, Urquhart said. They were likely killed late afternoon or early evening on Christmas Eve, he said.

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Eight Years Hard Labor In Chad For Charity Group In Bogus Orphans Scam
2007-12-27 02:53:26
Six French charity workers were sentenced Wednesday to eight years' hard labor for trying to fly more than 100 children out of Chad to France by claiming they were Darfur war orphans.

The members of Zoe's Ark, a charity set up by a former firefighter, were found guilty of attempted child kidnap and fraud by a court in Chad capital, N'Djamena.

In October, the group, one of them a doctor and another a nurse, illegally attempted to fly out 103 children aged from one to 10 to live with European families who had each paid thousands of euros.

The operation had not been approved by any government. Its discovery created a scandal which threatened diplomatic relations between France and Chad, its former colony and complicated the work of bona fide aid workers in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region.
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Global Warming Brings Busy Year For U.N. Disaster Teams
2007-12-28 02:56:26
The United Nations office that sends expert teams around the world to help governments deal with natural disasters was busier than ever in Latin America this year, a fact it at least partially blames on global warming.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said in a statement that a record nine missions were dispatched to the region during 2007, among 14 sent around the globe, itself a higher than usual number.

Of the 14 global missions, 70% were in response to hurricanes and floods, said the OCHA statement, calling this "possibly a glimpse of the shape of things to come given the reality of climate change".

In Latin America the proportion was even higher.

There were the rains in November that left most of the southern Mexican state of Tabasco under water for weeks, including large parts of the city of Villahermosa.

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Commentary: Plan B For Pakistan
2007-12-28 02:55:58
Intellpuke: The following commentary was written by Paul Cruickshank and appeared in the Guardian edition for Thursday, December 27, 2007. Mr. Cruickshank is a fellow at the center on law and security at New York University’s school of law. He previously worked as an investigative journalist in London, reporting on al-Qaeda and its European affiliates. In his commentary, Mr. Cruickshank writes: "The U.S. had placed its hopes for Pakistan in Benazir Bhutto. Now it must prevent her death from becoming a victory for al-Qaeda." His commentary follows:

The closing scene of Benazir Bhutto's life had a shocking aura of inevitability. The identity of the motorbike-riding assassin that shot her before exploding his suicide vest is not yet known, but the sophistication of the attack on the first day of official campaigning in Pakistan has all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.

Bhutto was Osama bin Laden's nemesis. The idea of the secular, liberal and (worse still) female politician returning to govern Pakistan was an anathema to the terrorists now entrenched in Pakistan's tribal areas. "They don't believe in women governing nations so they will try and plot against me," Bhutto told CNN's Wolf Blitzer before returning to Pakistan this October. "I know the dangers but I'm prepared to take that risk."

Bin Laden has plotted against Bhutto since she first became prime minister of Pakistan. In the fall of 1989, in the lead up to a crunch no-confidence vote in Pakistan's parliament, Bin Laden, based then in Peshawar, tried to sway the outcome by sending money to Islamabad to buy votes. According to testimony in Peter Bergen's 2006 oral history "The Osama bin Laden I Know", Bhutto, on discovering Bin Laden's involvement, personally phoned up King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and demanded the Saudis rein him in. The Saudis called Bin Laden back for consultations and promptly confiscated his passport, cutting him off for a while from the al-Qaeda organization he had founded in Pakistan the year before. The episode presumably did not endear Bhutto to Bin Laden.

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'Fair Tax' Boosts Huckabee Campaign
2007-12-28 02:55:27

To former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, supporting a national retail sales tax is more than a policy proposal. It has provided much-needed muscle for his campaign, filling rallies and events with fervent supporters hoping to replace the entire income and payroll tax system.

There's one problem: A national sales tax won't work, at least not according to tax experts and economists of all political stripes. Even President Bush's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform dedicated a chapter of its 2005 final report to dismissing such proposals.

"After careful evaluation, the Panel decided to reject a complete replacement of the federal income tax system with a retail sales tax," sasid the panel. It concluded that such a move would shift the tax burden from the rich to the poor or create the largest entitlement program in history to mitigate that new burden.

Under the proposal, known to supporters as the FairTax, the Internal Revenue Service and the entire income and payroll tax system would be abolished. Americans would then pay a sales tax on virtually everything: a new home, yard work, food, health care. Only education would be broadly exempted.

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Indian Museum Director Spent Lavishly On Travel
2007-12-28 02:54:20

The founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian spent more than $250,000 in institution funds over the past four years on first-class transportation and plush lodging in hotels around the world, including more than a dozen trips to Paris.

In that time, W. Richard West, Jr., was away from Washington traveling for 576 days on trips that included speaking engagements, fundraising and work for other nonprofit groups, according to a review of travel vouchers for West's trips obtained by the Washington Post.

West's travel often took him far from American Indian culture: Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand; Athens, Greece; Bali, Indonesia; Sydney and Brisbane, Australia; London, England; Singapore; Florence, Rome and Venice, Italy; Paris, France; Gothenburg, Sweden; Seville, Spain; Seoul, South Korea; Vienna, Austria; and Zagreb, Croatia.

At the time, top Smithsonian officials were allowed unlimited leave with pay. "At all times," said West, "my travel authorizations and reimbursements, and their direct connection to NMAI and Smithsonian business, were reviewed and approved fully by my supervisors.

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Benazir Bhutto Assassinated At Political Rally
2007-12-27 15:12:00
Former prime minister killed 12 days before parliamentary elections.

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday at a campaign rally, two months after returning from exile to attempt a political comeback.

Bhutto, 54, was leaving the rally in her bulletproof vehicle when she asked that the rooftop hatch be opened so she could bid supporters farewell, aides who were with her said. She leaned her head through the hatch, and several gunshots rang out, an aide seated next to her said. Just as Bhutto sank into her seat, a large bomb detonated outside the vehicle. The left side of Bhutto's face was badly bloodied, aides said, but it was not clear whether she'd been hit by bullets or shrapnel from the bombing. She lost consciousness, and never regained it.

"Today there is no more Pakistan. The woman who has defended us has died," said Sher Zaman as he beat his chest in mourning, crowding with hundreds of others into a narrow corridor outside the hospital room where Bhutto's body lay. "I'm 70 years old, but today I feel like an orphan."

The explosion, apparently by a suicide bomber, killed at least 20 people outside the car and injured many others. Police were investigating whether the bomber was also the gunman. One possibility was that the assailant fired the shots and then, after being tackled by security officials, detonated the bomb.

Earlier Thursday, at a different political rally in this garrison city south of Islamabad, a rooftop sniper opened fire on supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leaving four people dead and at least five injured.

The violence comes 12 days before national parliamentary elections which have already been marked by enormous political turmoil. President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency in November - a move that he said was to combat terrorism but was widely perceived as an effort to stave off legal challenges to his authority. At a heavily guarded Bhutto rally in Peshawar on Wednesday, police stopped a would-be bomber with explosives around his neck.

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Russia Will Supply New Anti-Aircraft Missiles To Iran
2007-12-27 02:56:09
Russia is to supply Iran with a new and lethal anti-aircraft system capable of shooting down American or Israeli fighter jets in the event of any strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Iran Wednesday confirmed that Russia had agreed to deliver the S-300 air defense system, a move that is likely to irk the Bush administration and gives further proof of Russia and Iran's deepening strategic partnership.

Iran's defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, told Iranian TV that the deal had been agreed under a previous "contract". He did not say when the system would be shipped to Iran.

Russian defense experts Wednesday acknowledged that the missile system, originally designed in the 1970s, would significantly enhance Iran's ability to shoot down enemy aircraft.
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Wars Cost U.S. $15 Billion A Month Says U.S. Sen. Stevens
2007-12-27 02:55:40

The latest estimate of the growing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worldwide battle against terrorism -  nearly $15 billion a month - came last week from one of the Senate's leading proponents of a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.

"This cost of this war is approaching $15 billion a month, with the Army spending $4.2 billion of that every month," Sen. Ted Stevens(Alaska), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, said in a little-noticed floor speech Dec. 18. His remarks came in support of adding $70 billion to the omnibus fiscal 2008 spending legislation to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as well as counterterrorism activities, for the six months from Oct. 1, 2007, through March 31 of next year.

While most of the public focus has been on the political fight over troop levels, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported this month that the Bush administration's request for the 2008 fiscal year of $189.3 billion for Defense Department operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and worldwide counterterrorism activities was 20 percent higher than for fiscal 2007 and 60 percent higher than for fiscal 2006.

Pentagon spokesmen would not comment last week on Stevens's figure but said their latest estimate for monthly spending for Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism was $11.7 billion as of Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2007.

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Commentary: Could You Vote For A Man Who Abides By Moronish Wisdom?
2007-12-27 02:54:30
Intellpuke: The following commentary was written by Timothy Garton Ash and appears in the Guardian edition for Thursday, December 27, 2007. Mr. Ash writes: "The recent contortions of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney show why faith should not trump reason in the public square." His commentary follows:

In this season of goodwill, I have been trying to think of a kinder adjective to describe "of or pertaining to the revelation of the angel Moroni". Moronish? Moronical? The angel Moroni allegedly appeared in the 1820s to a young American treasure hunter called Joseph Smith, and led him to some golden plates buried on a hillside near his home in western New York. Allegedly written in an otherwise unknown language called Reformed Egyptian, and deciphered with the aid of two stones called Urim and Thummim, these texts became the Book of Mormon, regarded by Mormons as divine revelation alongside the Bible. "Mormon", Smith explained in a letter to a newspaper, derives from the Reformed Egyptian word mon, meaning good, "hence with the addition of more, or the contraction mor, we have the word Mormon; which means, literally, more good".

In this holy book, North America was described as "a land which is choice above all other lands" (II Nephi 1:5), and 19th-century Americans were assured, in a kind of retrospective prophecy, that "it shall be a land of liberty" (II Nephi 1:7). What is more, if the Native Americans converted to the true faith, they would have the chance to become again "a white and a delightsome people" (II Nephi 30:6). (The official online version has corrected this to "a pure and a delightsome people".) Adherents of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can, by their own strenuous efforts and good works, themselves aspire to become gods. Failing that, they can aspire to become the next best thing - president of the United States.

The only reason we are recalling this Moronish wisdom is, of course, that one leading Republican contender for the presidency, Mitt Romney, professes to be a devout Mormon, and his religion has become an election issue. According to a profile in the New York Times, Romney's father, George, was born in Mexico "in a colony of Mormons who had fled a crackdown on polygamy ... As a Mormon missionary, he was assigned to proselytize in London from a soapbox in Hyde Park, where he developed a gift for salesmanship that became the hallmark of his career". Mitt Romney did his own Mormon missionary work in France. Romney's Mormonism is a problem for many evangelical Christians from the religious right, who would otherwise be his natural constituency. Instead, they might prefer the Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee, who merely takes the book of Genesis literally.

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Afghanistan Expels U.N., E.U. Diplomats
2007-12-27 02:53:55
United Nations officials were working Wednesday night to prevent the expulsion from Afghanistan of two senior western diplomats who have been accused of holding illegal talks with Taliban leaders in the British theatre of operations in the southern province of Helmand.

The intervention on behalf of a Briton working for the U.N. and an Irishman working as the European Union's acting mission - both due to be deported Thursday - comes amid renewed questioning of military tactics in the region.

Both organizations insisted Wednesday that the row was the result of a "misunderstanding", but there was pressure on the UK government from opposition parties to answer separate claims that talks had been held with Taliban leaders on a number of occasions in the summer.

President Hamid Karzai and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have publicly insisted that there can be no negotiations with the Taliban, while at the same time offering reconciliation to fighters who turn away from the Islamist militants.

The diplomats were ordered to leave by the Afghan president's office, which said they had engaged in activities "that were not their jobs". One western official told the Guardian that the initial complaint had come from the governor of Helmand province, Asadullah Wafa.

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Venezuela's Chavez Says Columbian Hostages Could Be Freed Thursday
2007-12-27 02:53:02
Venezuela had planes and helicopters ready on standby Wednesday night to pick up three hostages from inside Colombia as president Hugo Chavez expressed hope they would be freed by rebels by the end of Thursday.

"The only thing we need is the authorization of the Colombian government," Chavez said at a news conference in the presidential palace. "We are ready to activate the humanitarian operation."

He said the hostages could be freed by the end of Thursday once the Colombians give approval for Venezuelan aircraft to cross the border.

The hostages are former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and Rojas' young son, Emmanuel, reportedly born of a relationship with a guerrilla fighter.
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