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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Free Internet Press Newsletter - Sunday February 22 2009 - (813)

Sunday February 22 2009 edition
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Taliban, Pakistan Agree To Permanent Ceasefire In SWAT Region
2009-02-21 18:19:07

Taliban fighters and Pakistani government officials Saturday agreed a controversial deal that will lead to a "permanent ceasefire" in the troubled northwestern Swat valley, potentially creating a haven for terrorists 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

The agreement, between the militant commander Maulana Fazlullah and local administrators, builds on a previous temporary deal. "They have made commitment that they will observe a permanent ceasefire and we'll do the same," Syed Mohammad Javed, the commissioner of Malakand and the local representative of the Pakistani government, told reporters.

Around 1,200 people have been killed and between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled Swat in 18 months of fierce fighting over the beautiful valley, once a tourist center. Three thousand militants have been battling up to 12,000 troops.

Western governments, and many Pakistanis, have been alarmed by the provincial government's offer to reinstate Islamic sharia law in Malakand if the Taliban agreed to peace. Last week, Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, contacted Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, who has yet to ratify the deal, to express American concern.

The U.S. and Britain fear a ceasefire could result in another sanctuary in Pakistan where al-Qaeda and Taliban militants could move freely, and also worry that Taliban fighters elsewhere in the region will be encouraged by the government's move.

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U.N.: Bird Flu Remains A Threat To Humans
2009-02-21 18:18:48
A handful of new human fatalities from bird flu underscore that the H5N1 virus has become entrenched in some countries, such as China, and that it still could mutate and flare into a global pandemic, U.N. officials said Wednesday.

China has reported five deaths from eight cases of bird flu so far this year.

U.N. advisers said that the victims had come into contact with infected poultry in scattered areas of China, and that the virus still wasn't contagious among humans. They cautioned against dismissing the H5N1 virus as a threat to humanity, however.

"We really shouldn't be complacent," said Vincent Martin, a senior technical adviser on avian influenza in China for the Food and Agriculture Organization, a U.N. group based in Rome, Italy. "If it happens, it will be really scary for everybody. The attention has been sort of waning during the years. ... Infection is still going on. Today, we are seeing people dying of the disease."

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Schwarzenegger's Rift With Republicans Grows Wider
2009-02-21 14:59:49
After five years as governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger came full circle on Friday: The film star who promised to rescue California from its fiscal wreckage without raising taxes signed into law $12.5 billion in tax hikes.

With that, the Republican governor broke one of the few bonds left between his shrunken party and California's mainstream voters, marring its hard-won image as a guardian against higher taxes.

"Their last gasp has been taken from them," said Larry N. Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State, citing the unpopularity among most California voters of the party's conservative stands on abortion, illegal immigration and other touchstone issues. "It puts them in a very precarious position."

By repudiating the thrust of his candidacy in the 2003 recall - "I will not raise taxes," Schwarzenegger stated flatly the day after he won - the governor has also enraged the conservatives who dominate the party.

For Republicans convening at a state party convention this weekend in Sacramento, it is a wrenching moment. Schwarzenegger is skipping the event to attend a governors' conference in Washington; but his turnaround on taxes has darkened the mood of the hundreds of party loyalists venting their frustration in a hotel where the governor often stays in a penthouse suite.

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Arrest In Chandra Levy Case Imminent
2009-02-21 14:59:13

The parents of slain intern Chandra Levy said Saturday morning that Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier told them late Friday night that an arrest warrant in the eight-year old unsolved murder case is "imminent in the next couple of days."

Susan Levy, Chandra's mother, in an interview with the Washington Post Saturday said that she was told that police made a breakthrough in the case.

Levy said Lanier told her "in all her 19 years of police work this is really big, 'We really came down with a break.' They're very proud."

Susan said that she and her husband, Robert, were still processing the information.

"It's a bittersweet relief," she said. "Not that we'll ever get our daughter back but we need the truth."

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Abramhoff Scandal Yields More Charges
2009-02-21 14:58:44

A former aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi) was accused Friday of accepting more than $25,000 worth of meals and event tickets from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for helping his clients.

Ann M. Copland, 52, was charged in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., with one count of conspiracy to commit honest-services fraud. The charge came in a criminal information, a document typically filed by prosecutors when a defendant has agreed to plead guilty.

Prosecutors alleged that Copland, who worked for Cochran for 29 years until last year, used her position to try to persuade unidentified members of the legislative and executive branches to take actions, including "inserting, protecting, removing" items in spending bills. At the time, Cochran was a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he is now the ranking Republican.

Court documents filed yesterday and last month contain e-mails between Copland and the Abramoff team, including with lobbyist and former legislative staffer Todd Boulanger, who has pleaded guilty in the influence-peddling case. Copland had been dubbed "Staffer E" in papers filed with Boulanger's plea.

Discussion of tickets often accompanied requests for official action or information on legislation. In 2002, Copland requested tickets to Paul McCartney and Green Day concerts and Washington Capitals games. She also asked for the circus, but wrote, "I'm only interested in the floor for that event."

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Experts: Bottom For Investors Not Yet In Sight
2009-02-21 03:35:14
With the Dow Jones industrial average plunging past its lowest point since the financial crisis began, panicked investors are asking: How much uglier can it get?

Many market analysts and technicians armed with reams of historical data say that even though the Dow has given back all its gains - and more - from the five-year bull market that ended in 2007, it is unlikely the market has hit bottom.

Mark Arbeter, chief technical strategist at Standard & Poor's Equity Research, said the current market environment is showing few of the signs that have characterized previous lows - high price volatility, high volumes of trading and even higher levels of fear.

"Bear market bottoms tend to be violent affairs," he said. "You sell hard, you rally hard, you go down hard and then you're off to the races. And that's not what were seeing right now. Until this week, the market was really drifting sideways."

For all the jitteriness out there, Arbeter added, the options market, where investors trade contracts that bet on the future direction of the stock market, is not showing the fear that signals that true capitulation has arrived. Many market participants think capitulation - when investors take their losses and get out of the market altogether - must precede a major market recovery.

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Obama Widens Missile Strikes Inside Pakistan
2009-02-21 03:34:19
With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan,attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government.

The missile strikes on training camps run by Baitullah Mehsud represent a broadening of the American campaign inside Pakistan, which has been largely carried out by drone aircraft. Under President Bush, the United States frequently attacked militants from al-Qaeda and the Taliban involved in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but had stopped short of raids aimed at Mehsud and his followers, who have played less of a direct role in attacks on American troops.

The strikes are another sign that President Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy in using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign. At the same time, Obama has begun to scale back some of the Bush policies on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, which he has criticized as counterproductive.

Mehsud was identified early last year by both American and Pakistani officials as the man who had orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and the wife of Pakistan’s current president, Asif Ali Zardari. Bush included Mehsud’s name in a classified list of militant leaders whom the C.I.A. and American commandos were authorized to capture or kill.

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Economy, Political Turmoil Cause Latvia's Government To Fall
2009-02-21 03:33:57
Lativia's center-right coalition government collapsed Friday, a victim of the country’s growing economic and political turmoil. It was the second European government, after Iceland, to disintegrate because of the international financial crisis.

The government in Riga, faced with forecasts of a severe drop in the economy this year, was the first in Eastern Europe to succumb to turmoil caused by the crisis. Its collapse rounded out a week in which worries about feeble investment and output and shaky banks in Central and Eastern Europe coursed through international markets.

Latvia has had a history of revolving-door politics and complex coalitions since pulling free of the Soviet Union in 1991. Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis, who presented his resignation to President Valdis Zatlers on Friday, had been in power only since December 2007. But the precipitous plunge of Latvia’s economy, which helped provoke riots last month that were the country’s worst since 1991, played a major part in the government’s downfall.

Godmanis said he would continue to govern until a new coalition was formed.

His departure comes at a critical juncture for Latvia, a country of 2.2 million people. After entering the European Union in 2004, Latvia and its neighbors Estonia and Lithuania posted Europe’s highest growth figures, earning the moniker the Baltic Tigers. Now Latvia shows the Continent’s biggest losses.

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NASA To Launch CO2 Tracking Satellite
2009-02-21 18:18:57

The world's first satellite designed to map concentrations of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere will be launched by NASA on Monday.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) will collect precise measurements of the greenhouse gas in the Earth's atmosphere, identifying where it is coming from, where it is absorbed and what happens to it in between.

This improved tracking of CO2 will help scientists develop maps how the gas is concentrated around the world and give a better picture of how it affects the Earth's climate. Policymakers and governments will be able to use the data when setting and monitoring CO2 emissions targets designed to tackle climate change.

"It's critical that we understand the processes controlling carbon dioxide in our atmosphere today so we can predict how fast it will build up in the future and how quickly we'll have to adapt to climate change," said David Crisp, principal investigator for the OCO, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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Clinton Targets Environment, Economic Recovery In Talks With China
2009-02-21 15:00:02
China and the United States agreed Saturday to begin high-level consultations on combating the global economic crisis and climate change, with China's poor human-rights record relegated as a lesser priority.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held extensive talks with a panoply of Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, and toured a new low-emissions power plant using General Electric technology to highlight the Obama's administration's determination to form a partnership with Beijing on reducing harmful emissions.

Clinton said the exact form of a "strategic dialogue" - apparently an upgrading of exchanges on economics and politics previously conducted by the Treasury secretary and deputy secretary of state - will be announced by Hu and President Obama when they meet on the sidelines of a economic summit in London, England, in April.

Clinton, who on Sunday will complete a one-week tour of Asia, infuriated human-rights organizations when she told reporters on Friday that human rights concerns "can't interfere" with pressing China for greater cooperation on economics, the environment and the impasse over North Korea's nuclear programs. Many advocates were especially upset because Clinton, as first lady, in 1995 achieved renown for making a tough speech in Beijing about China's human rights record.

Clinton on Saturday shrugged off the criticism. "The promotion of human rights is an essential aspect of U.S. global policy," she told reporters at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

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In California, Drought Adds To Hardships
2009-02-21 14:59:34
The country’s biggest agricultural engine, California's sprawling Central Valley, is being battered by the recession like farmland most everywhere; but, in an unlucky strike of nature, the downturn is being deepened by a severe drought that threatens to drive up joblessness, increase food prices and cripple farms and towns.

Across the valley, towns are already seeing some of the worst unemployment in the country, with rates three and four times the national average, as well as reported increases in all manner of social ills: drug use, excessive drinking and rises in hunger and domestic violence.

With fewer checks to cash, even check-cashing businesses have failed, as have thrift stores, ice cream parlors and hardware shops. The state has put the 2008 drought losses at more than $300 million, and economists predict that this year’s losses could swell past $2 billion, with as many as 80,000 jobs lost.

“People are saying, ‘Are you a third world country?’ â€ said Robert Silva, the mayor of Mendota, which has a 35 percent unemployment rate, up from the more typical seasonal average of about 20 percent. “My community is dying on the vine.”

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Funeral Suicide Bomber Fuels Sectarian Strife In Pakistan
2009-02-21 14:58:59
A suicide bomber infiltrated a funeral procession for a slain Shiite Muslim cleric Friday morning in the northwest Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan, killing at least 30 people and wounding scores more, said  police and witnesses.

It was the latest in a string of deadly terrorist attacks against Shiite mosques and communities in northwest Pakistan,  where sectarian antagonism between minority Shiites and majority Sunnis has been inflamed by the growing aggression and ambition of the Sunni extremist Taliban movement.

The suicide bombing, which turned a solemn mourning procession into a scene of strewed limbs and bloody clothing, provoked a frenzy of retaliatory violence against local Sunnis, police and witnesses said. Dozens of Sunni-owned houses and shops were burned, and security forces imposed a curfew on the area.

Residents reached by telephone Friday afternoon said the atmosphere was tense and confused, with most people hiding in their homes and large numbers of police and paramilitary forces patrolling the streets.

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A Common Future For Saab And Opel?
2009-02-21 14:58:26
Swedish car maker Saab filed for creditor protection on Friday and is seeking to become independent of its U.S. parent General Motors. The Swedish government has rejected a bailout for the company, but one solution could be closer cooperation with the German GM subsidiary Opel.

Saab filed for insolvency protection on Friday morning, just days after American parent company General Motors signaled it would seek to divest itself of the Swedish car maker. The development was only the latest in what has become an existential crisis for GM's European units, which include Sweden's Saab and Germany's Opel - firms that are deeply ingrained in the national identity of both countries.

"We explored and will continue to explore all available options for funding and/or selling Saab, and it was determined a formal reorganization would be the best way to create a truly independent entity that is ready for investment," Saab Managing Director Jan-Ake Jonsson said in a statement released Friday morning.

GM is currently seeking as much as $13.4 billion in emergency bridge loans from the US government to save it from bankruptcy, and on Tuesday it presented a restructuring plan in which it said it planned to phase out Saab by 2010. GM said it would cut 47,000 jobs worldwide, including 26,000 outside the United States. In addition to Opel in Germany and Vauxhall in Britain, Saab is one of GM's main businesses in Europe.

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Bank Shares Topple On Talk Of Nationalization
2009-02-21 03:34:33

The specter of bank nationalization is driving a historic fire sale of stocks including Citigroup and Bank of America,  making it harder for those firms to survive and imperiling the efforts of the Obama administration to keep banks in private hands.

A burgeoning chorus of prominent economists and members of Congress has concluded that some banks lack the money to solve their own problems and charges that the government has not yet announced an effective plan to help and that time is running short.

The administration has publicly and repeatedly denied that the banking system will be nationalized; but some experts and lawmakers say the government may be forced to take temporary control of the most crippled firms to scrub their books of troubled assets.

"I don't welcome that at all, but I could see how it's possible it may happen," Christopher J. Dodd (D-Connecticut), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said on Bloomberg Television Friday. "I'm concerned that we may end up having to do that, at least for a short time."

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Agencies Form Task Force In Maryland On Mortgage Fraud
2009-02-21 03:34:10

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein Friday announced the formation of a task force linking federal, state and local agencies in the fight against mortgage fraud, a group whose goals will include seizing assets from scam artists and paying restitution to victims.

"None of our agencies alone has the resources to be able to confront this crisis," Rosenstein said at a news conference in Baltimore. "But working together, we think we've been very effective at targeting some of the significant offenders in the mortgage fraud industry here in Maryland."

Such frauds come in many forms; a common scheme targets homeowners who are facing foreclosure by falsely promising to help them keep their homes. Prince George's County has the largest number of foreclosures in the state, said officials.

The task force aims to fight a "tide of misery that's been brought upon homeowners" across the state, said Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney for Prince George's.

"The American dream has been under assault for some time now," he said. "This task force represents the counteroffensive, the coordinated counteroffensive to that attack."

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