Police kill 7 gunmen in central Mexico shootout

Written By Ivan Kolev on Monday, January 16, 2012 | 11:37 PM

Monday, January 16, 2012

MEXICO CITY –  Seven gunmen are dead following a pre-dawn shootout with police on a highway in the city of Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City.


A federal police officer is recovering from a gunshot wound to the foot following the confrontation.


The prosecutors office in the central Mexican state of Morelos says the gunmen belonged to an organized crime gang, but did not say which gang.


"Organized crime" in Mexico generally refers to drug cartels, and remnants of the Beltran Leyva cartel have been fighting for control of Cuernavaca.


Prosecutors said the gunmen were traveling in three stolen vehicles when police confronted them early Monday.


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Car bombs kill 11 in Iraq

BAGHDAD –  Car bombs ripped through two Iraqi cities on Monday, killing at least 11 people, Iraq officials said, in the latest attacks targeting the country's Shiites a month after the U.S. military withdrawal.

Violence has surged across Iraq since the last American troops left the country. A string of bombings has left at least 150 people dead since the beginning of the year. Most of the attacks appear aimed at Iraq's Shiite majority, suggesting Sunni insurgents are seeking to undermine the Shiite-dominated government.

Iraq is also facing a sectarian political crisis after the Shiite-dominated government charged Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi with running death squads, issuing an arrest warrant against him just as the last U.S. soldiers crossed into neighboring Kuwait last month.

The first blast on Monday morning struck a Shiite district outside of Mosul, a predominantly Sunni city some 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, police and health officials at Mosul's Al-Jomhouri hospital said. Six people were wounded.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.

A few hours later, an explosives-laden car detonated inside an industrial zone of the predominantly Shiite town of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad , killing three people and wounding 15, according to a local police spokesman, Muthana Khalid.

A member of the Mosul local council, Qusai Abbas, said the car bomb blew up near a group of houses where members of the Shabak minority have settled since being driven out of Mosul by Sunni militants during fierce sectarian fighting a few years ago.

The Shabaks are ethnic Turkomen and Shiite Muslims. Most of them live in villages east of Mosul, the provincial capital of the ethnically mixed Ninevah province that is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

Mosul has been a hub for Al Qaeda in Iraq in past years. Other Sunni insurgent groups have battled Kurdish militias for control over the city, Iraq's third largest, killing thousands of civilians in suicide bombings and shootings.

Hundreds of Christians, Yazeedis and members of other minority groups have been driven out Mosul in recent years as militants used violence and intimidation to tip the ethnic and religious balance into their group's favor.

Abbas, who represents the Shabak community in the local council, said three children and four women were among those killed in Monday's attack. He said Iraqi security forces have failed to protect people from violence and blamed politicians "who want to stir up sectarian fighting again."

"Some politicians are trying to use sectarian hatred to make political gains," Abbas said.

The government crisis taps into the resentments that have remained raw in the country, despite years of efforts to overcome them. Minority Sunnis fear the Shiite majority is squeezing them out of any political input, and Shiites suspect Sunnis of links to insurgency and terrorism.

Al-Hashemi denied charges against him and fled to the autonomous Kurdish region, out of reach of authorities in Baghdad.

On Sunday, a court in Baghdad ruled that al-Hashemi must stand trial on terror charges in Baghdad, rejecting his request to be tried in the ethnically mixed city in Kirkuk, where he believes he could get a fair trial, but would be in danger in Baghdad.


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Egypt's transition to democracy grows messier

CAIRO –  Reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei's surprise pullout from the presidential race has laid bare the messiness of Egypt's transition to democracy with less than six months left for the ruling generals to hand over power.

In less than two weeks on Jan. 25, Egyptians will mark a year since the start of the popular uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak out of office. But there is no longer much talk about the revolution's lofty goals of bringing democracy, freedom and social justice.

Instead, the buzz now is about new alliances that could allow the ruling military to maintain its long-standing domination over government and Islamists to flex their muscles after their big victory in parliamentary elections.

ElBaradei's announcement Saturday that he would not run for president dealt another severe blow to the liberal and leftist groups behind the fall of Mubarak after their defeat at the ballots and the military's escalating crackdown on the movement. ElBaradei said a fair election will be impossible under the military's tight grip.

"We feel that elections now are not the best framework toward democratic rule," prominent activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said about the presidential vote that the ruling military has promised will take place by the end of June.

The young revolutionaries who engineered Mubarak's ouster on February 11 have since been divided and embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute with the ruling generals over their handling of the transition, the killing of scores of protesters by troops, human rights violations and the trial of thousands of civilians before military tribunals.

However, Harb, an icon of last year's uprising, sees some hope in ElBaradei's pullout.

"He is not withdrawing and leaving a void in his trail," said Harb. "He will be back doing grass roots work and that may help unite the youth to effect change."

The military's timeline for the transition speaks to the messiness of its management of the country.

Egyptians went to the polls in staggered parliamentary elections that began Nov. 28 and ended last week. Between now and the end of June, when the generals have promised to transfer power, there are elections for parliament's upper house, or Shura Council, the drafting of a new constitution, a nationwide referendum on the document and then a presidential election.

Late Sunday, the military announced that nominations for president would open in mid-April, and the election would take place in mid-June.

Pro-democracy activists charge that the packed timetable is creating a climate that allows the better organized and more well-known Islamists led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to dominate at the expense of the liberal and leftist groups. Many of those groups were born out of the uprising and did not have much time or experience to organize themselves for the competition with Islamists. The Brotherhood, for example, was established more than 80 years ago and was already a well-known political force before the uprising.

But ElBaradei's decision to drop out may have been a calculated move.

Realizing that it would be impossible to win the election without the support of the Islamists who have kept him at arm's length, he opted to pull out and publicly discredit the entire political process as messy and disorderly.

"He may never be president, but now he stands a chance of being our Gandhi," said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer and an activist.

ElBaradei did not mention by name the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF -- the official body of the ruling military -- but the Saturday announcement of his withdrawal contained some of the harshest criticism the Nobel Peace laureate has leveled against the generals.

He compared the military to a ship captain struggling to steer his vessel in the middle of a storm.

"Under his leadership, the ship is being rocked by waves. ... We offer him all kinds of help, but he declines, insisting on taking the old route as if no revolution had taken place and no regime had fallen," he wrote in his withdrawal statement.

"My decision does not mean I am leaving the arena, but continuing to serve this nation more effectively from outside authority and free of all shackles," he wrote in the statement.

A Brotherhood-led alliance has won close to 50 percent of parliament's 498 seats in the recent elections, which were deemed the freest and fairest in Egypt's modern history. Another Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, won about 20 percent, while the remainder was shared by leftist and liberal parties. The Brotherhood has yet to say who it would support for president, but it is likely to be someone who meets the approval of the generals.

A candidate who enjoys the support of both the brotherhood and the military would most likely be beholden to the military, according to another prominent activist, Hossam el-Hamalawy of the Revolutionary Socialists group.

"I am not a fan of ElBaradei's, but his decision to quit puts the other candidates in a very awkward position. He understands that, at the end of the day, the next president is going to be a stooge of the military."

Of all political forces in Egypt, the Brotherhood has worked the most closely with the military. Empowered by Mubarak's ouster after nearly 60 years as an outlawed organization, the Brotherhood has been mostly driven by a desire for power that prompted rivals to accuse it of political opportunism.

Its supporters stayed away from the uprising, only joining when it became clear that the protest movement gained irreversible momentum. More recently, it stayed away from anti-military protests, contending that it was time for elections not street demonstrations.

Its willingness to accommodate the military comes in large part from its realization that the generals wield massive powers and could derail the process that benefited the Islamist group the most. Its election victory made it possible for the Brotherhood to promise the military something in return.

The generals may want to secure the Brotherhood's support for them to win immunity from prosecution for their role in the death of at least 100 protesters since they assumed power.

The new parliament is supposed to play a key role in the drafting of a new constitution. And the military wants language in the next constitution that would spare the army any civilian oversight over its budget, its arms deals, its vast business interests and the pay scale for its top brass.

The generals insist they will not field a presidential candidate from within their ranks, but many believe they will give their nod to a candidate who is either military-friendly or a civilian who hails from military background.

"We are trying to see the best among those (presidential hopefuls) out there. So far, all the candidates don't cut it for us, but if the time comes and no one new appears, we will have to make a decision to support one of them," said Sobhi Saleh, a leader of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood's political arm.

Asked if the presidential candidate supported by the Brotherhood must also win the military's backing, he said:

"We were the first people to talk about conciliatory figures. This is our choice. We hope to find a president who wins the consensus of everyone to steer the ship in this critical period."


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Pakistan Taliban Leader Reportedly Killed in U.S. Drone Strike

ISLAMABAD –  Intercepted militant radio communications indicate the leader of the Pakistani Taliban may have been killed in a recent U.S. drone strike, Pakistani intelligence officials said Sunday. A Taliban official denied that.


The report coincided with sectarian violence — a bomb blast in eastern Pakistan that killed 14 people in a Shiite religious procession.


The claim that the Pakistani Taliban chief was killed came from officials who said they intercepted a number of Taliban radio conversations. In about a half a dozen intercepts, the militants discussed whether their chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed on Jan. 12 in the North Waziristan tribal area. Some militants confirmed Mehsud was dead, and one criticized others for talking about the issue over the radio.


The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.


Pakistani Taliban spokesman Asimullah Mehsud denied the group's leader was killed and said he was not in the area where the drone strike occurred.


In early 2010, both Pakistani and American officials said they believed a missile strike had killed Hakimullah Mehsud along the border of North and South Waziristan. They were proved wrong when videos appeared showing him still alive.


The Pakistani Taliban is linked to attacks against U.S. targets. They trained the Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in New York City's Times Square in 2010 and is tied to a suicide bombing that killed seven CIA agents at an Afghan base in 2009.


There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday's bombing that killed 14 people during a Shiite observance in Punjab province in the east — the latest of a series of sectarian attacks in volatile Pakistan.


Hundreds of Pakistani Shiites gathered in the town of Khanpur in Punjab province for a traditional procession to mark the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered seventh-century figure.


The explosion went off as the mourners left a mosque, said District Police Chief Sohail Chatta. The bomb appeared to have been planted ahead of time in the path of the procession, he said.


The Pakistani Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups have in the past claimed responsibility for the bombings of Shiite religious sites and ceremonies. Many Sunni extremists in Pakistan regard Shiites as heretics.


The Taliban and other groups have carried out hundreds of bombings over the last five years that have killed thousands of Pakistani troops and civilians as part of a campaign to install a hard-line Islamist government.


The attacks are so common that the country's interior minister in December actually thanked the Taliban for acting on what he said was a "request" not to stage attacks during the Shiite rituals of Ashoura that month.


Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah said police investigators were still examining the area of Sunday's bombing for clues. Security was provided for the procession, but it was breached, Sanaullah said.


The continuing strikes by presumed religious extremists come during a political crisis that pits the Pakistani civilian government against the military, sparking rumors of an impending coup.


Last week the military warned the government of possible "grievous consequences" ahead, and President Asif Ali Zardari took a one-day trip to Dubai that renewed speculation that he might flee the country.


Analysts say the military may be looking for the Supreme Court to push out Zardari rather than risk an outright takeover.


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Iran warns Arabs not to replace Iranian oil if it's embargoed

TEHRAN, Iran –  An Iranian pro-reform newspaper says the country's OPEC governor has warned the country's Arab neighbors that Tehran will view any increase in crude production to counterbalance a potential embargo on Iranian oil as an unfriendly act.


A Sunday report by Shargh daily quotes Mohammad Ali Khatibi as saying that Arab nations will be an "accomplice in the consequences," if they raise output to offset any potential loss of Iranian crude exports due to an embargo.


New U.S. sanctions against Iran approved last month target the country's central bank and, by extension, its ability to sell petroleum abroad. The U.S. has delayed implementing the sanctions for at least six months. The EU is also contemplating an embargo.


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Several suspects in custody in killing of Iranian nuclear scientist

TEHRAN, Iran –  An Iranian news website is reporting several suspects are in custody over last week's killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist.


Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, said the suspects are being interrogated, and the investigation is continuing. He talked to Iran's state Arabic language TV channel Al-Alam, and his comments were carried on the Tabnak.ir site.


Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an official in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, was killed in an explosion Wednesday after attackers attached a bomb to his car in Tehran.


Iran accused the U.S., Britain and Israel of involvement.


Washington denied any role in the assassination, and London condemned the killing of civilians. Israel has not commented publicly.


The West believes Iran is building nuclear weapons. Iran denies that.


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Nigeria labor says no agreement to end fuel strike

ABUJA, Nigeria –  Nigeria's government and labor unions failed Saturday night to end a paralyzing nationwide strike over high gasoline costs, potentially sparking an oil production shutdown in a nation vital to U.S. oil supplies.


It was not immediately clear early Sunday whether a major oil workers' union had gone ahead with its threat to have its members walk off their jobs starting at midnight in an effort to halt oil production.


Nigeria, which produces 2.4 milion barrels of oil a day, is the fifth-largest oil exporter to the United States. Any disruption to oil production could roil the oil futures market at a time traders remain concerned about world supply.


President Goodluck Jonathan did not show up for a meeting with union representatives held Saturday night at the presidential villa in Nigeria's capital Abuja, nor did Vice President Namadi Sambo. Instead, the nation's Senate president and its House speaker represented the government along with other officials.


After the meeting, Nigeria Labor Congress President Abdulwaheed Omar told waiting journalists: "We have not reached a compromise."


Asked whether oil production would immediately halt, Omar said: "We are taking these things gradually."


Nigeria has been gripped by a paralyzing strike since Monday when labor unions called the nationwide work stoppage in response to a government decision to remove subsidies, causing fuel prices to more than double in Africa's most populous nation. However, oil workers mostly remained on the job.


On Thursday, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria threatened to stop all oil production in Nigeria at midnight Saturday. President Babatunde Ogun and other union officials were not immediately available to confirm whether its members had left their posts.


The union's ability to enforce a shutdown across the swamps of Nigeria's southern delta to its massive offshore oil fields remains in question. But the threat of a strike caused jitters on global oil markets Friday.


The strike began Monday, paralyzing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: President Goodluck Jonathan's government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low on Jan. 1, causing prices to spike from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter). The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.


Anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from being an oil-rich country, as well as disgust over government corruption, have led to demonstrations across this nation and violence that has killed at least 10 people. Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured in protests since the strike began, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday.


Even if strikers are only partially successful, fears of tightened global supplies could raise oil prices by $5-$10 per barrel on futures markets next week. Gasoline prices would follow, rising by as much as 10 cents per gallon and forcing U.S. drivers to spend an additional $36 million a day at the pump.


Experts predict the national average in the U.S. could rise as high as $4.25 per gallon ($1.12 a liter) in 2012.


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Afghan official: 3 killed in helicopter crash

KABUL, Afghanistan –  A civilian helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan on Monday, killing all three people on board, an Afghan official said.

Marjan Haqmal, police chief of Nad Ali district in Helmand province, said the Russian-made aircraft probably went down because of a technical malfunction.

NATO confirmed that a civilian helicopter crashed Monday in southern Afghanistan. It said the site of the crash has been secured and that coalition forces are trying to gather more information about what happened.

The alliance did not provide information about casualties.

Dozens of Russian-built cargo helicopters are used by contractors working for the NATO-led coalition.

The coalition relies heavily on helicopters or airdrops to deliver food and other supplies to remote outposts in order to avoid using roads that are frequently mined by the insurgents. Transport aircraft are also frequently used for airdrops to isolated bases.

The Taliban have few dedicated anti-aircraft weapons, but they have damaged or destroyed dozens of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft using automatic rifles and other infantry weapons. In August, militants shot down a U.S. Chinook transport helicopter, killing 30 U.S. special operation troops, a translator and seven Afghan commandos.

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Bomb targeting religious procession kills 13 in Pakistan

MULTAN, Pakistan –  A bomb blast ripped through a religious procession in eastern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 13 people and wounding at least 20 in the latest sectarian attack in the country, police said.


Hundreds of Pakistani Shiites had gathered in the town of Khanpur in Punjab province for a traditional procession to mark the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered seventh-century figure.


The explosion went off as the mourners came out of a mosque, said District Police Chief Sohail Chatta. The bomb appeared to have been planted ahead of time in the path of the procession, he said.


No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.


The Pakistani Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups have in the past claimed responsibility for the bombings of Shiite religious sites and ceremonies. Many Sunni extremists in Pakistan regard Shiites as heretics.


The Taliban and other groups have carried out hundreds of bombings over the last five years that have killed thousands of Pakistani troops and civilians as part of a campaign to install a hard-line Islamist government.


Police officer Ghazanfer Ali said the crowd of mourners started throwing rocks at police after the blast. and officers had to lob tear gas canisters into the crowd to control them.


Officials had originally thought the explosion came from a malfunctioning electric cable, but later found that there had been a bomb, he said.


Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah said police investigators were still examining the area for clues. Security had been provided for the procession, but it had been breached, Sanaullah said.


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India reports new TB strain resistant to all drugs

Indian doctors are reporting the country's first cases of "totally drug-resistant tuberculosis," a long-feared and virtually untreatable form of the killer lung disease.


It's not the first time highly resistant cases like this have been seen. Since 2003, patients have been documented in Italy and Iran. It has mostly been limited to impoverished areas, and has not spread widely. But experts believe there could be many undocumented cases.


No one expects the Indian TB strains to rapidly spread elsewhere. The airborne disease is mainly transmitted through close personal contact and isn't nearly as contagious as the flu. Indeed, most of the cases of this kind of TB were not from person-to-person infection but were mutations that occurred in poorly treated patients.


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Death toll in Beirut building collapse rises to 20

BEIRUT –  Using cranes, bulldozers and their bare hands, Lebanese rescue workers searched the rubble Monday of a five-story residential building that collapsed after days of heavy rains, killing at least 20 people.

Most of the dead were foreign workers living in Lebanon. The owner of the building was arrested Monday, a day after the collapse.

"The ground shook like an earthquake, that's what we all thought," said Mazen Farhat, 46, who lives in the area and was passing by when the building collapsed. "I heard screams, and then the dust was everywhere, and I ran," he said as he stood among dozens of people watching the rescue efforts.

Building collapses in Lebanon are rare, and officials said the cause was not yet clear. It is possible that cracks in the old building were made worse by heavy rain or the effects of several nearby construction sites. Some residents reported hearing a small blast earlier this week, which turned out to be the snap of a pillar in the building.

Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said the building's owner, Michel Saadeh, was arrested and was being questioned.

Red Cross and civil defense workers in bright orange uniforms pulled out several bodies on stretchers Monday, rushing them away as relatives gasped and cried softly.

Rescue efforts were complicated Sunday by heavy rains and a thunderstorm.

Some 50 tenants lived in the building in Beirut's Fassouh district of Ashrafieh. It collapsed at around 6 p.m. Sunday as residents were returning home from work, increasing the number casualties, officials said.

The victims included eight Sudanese, two Filipinos, two Egyptians and two Jordanians, according to the security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Six Lebanese, including 15-year-old Anne Marie Abdel Karim, also died.

"I was asleep, I woke up and felt everything shaking and then something fell on me and I started screaming," said Antonella, Anne Marie's twin sister. She spoke to local reporters from her hospital bed, not knowing her sister had died. "Thank God it was just this, and nothing more," she said.

Among those presumed dead were also three brothers from the Farhat family who stayed on the ground floor after the building started to shake, trying to try and save their elderly father, Tanios Farhat, who was trapped inside. By afternoon Monday, the body of only one of the brothers Jihad Tanios, had been found.

Red Cross head of operations George Kattaneh confirmed the number of deaths and said 12 others were injured and were being treated in hospitals.

Several others were still missing, but officials said they did not expect to find any survivors. No survivors have been pulled out since late Sunday night.


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Third person found alive after search for survivors of deadly shipwreck resumes

PORTO SANTO STEFANO, Italy –  Firefighters worked Sunday to rescue a crew member with a suspected broken leg from the overturned hulk of the luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia, 36 hours after it ran aground while carrying more than 4,200 people.

Spokesman Luca Cari told The Associated Press that rescuers had spoken to the person inside the ship, an Italian working in cabin service. Late Saturday a South Korean couple on their honeymoon were rescued when firefighters in the unsubmerged part of the ship heard their screams.

Three people are confirmed dead after the huge cruise ship ran aground on Friday night.

Tuscany's regional president Enrico Rossi said that there were now six crew members and 11 passengers who haven't been located out of the 4,200-plus people who were aboard the Costa Concordia.

Police divers and rescue crews on Sunday circled around the wreckage of ship off the coast of the island of Giglio. Crews in dinghies were touching the hull with their hands, near the site of the 160-foot-long gash where water flooded in and caused the ship to fall on its side.

Coast guard officials have said divers will try to enter the belly of the ship in case anyone is still inside.

Coast guard spokesman Capt. Filippo Marini told Sky Italia TV that Coast Guard divers have recovered the so-called "black box" with the recording of the navigational details from a compartment now under water.

Late Saturday, firefighters who had been searching the Costa Concordia heard distinct shouts, "one in a male voice, other in a female voice" coming from the cruiser liner, Coast guard officer Marcello Fertitta said.

They turned out to be a honeymooning South Korean couple, who were brought out in good condition, Prato fire Cmdr. Vincenzo Bennardo told The Associated Press from the scene.

The terrifying, chaotic escape from the luxury liner was straight out of a scene from "Titanic" for many of the 4,000-plus passengers and crew on the ship, which ran aground off the Italian coast late Friday and flipped on its side.

Many passengers complained the crew didn't give them good directions on how to evacuate and once the emergency became clear, delayed lowering the lifeboats until the ship was listing too heavily for many to be released.

Several other passengers said crew members told passengers for 45 minutes that there was a simple "technical problem" that had caused the lights to go off.

Passengers said they had never participated in an evacuation drill, although one had been scheduled for Saturday. The cruise began on Jan. 7.

Costa Crociera SpA, which is owned by the U.S.-based cruise giant Carnival Corp., defended the actions of its crew and said it was cooperating with the investigation. Carnival Corp. issued a statement expressing sympathy that didn't address the allegations of delayed evacuation.

The captain, Francesco Schettino, was detained for questioning by prosecutors, investigating him for suspected manslaughter, abandoning ship before all others, and causing a shipwreck, state TV and Sky TV said. Prosecutor Francesco Verusio was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying Schettino deliberately chose a route that was too close to shore.

France said two of the confirmed victims were Frenchmen; a Peruvian diplomat identified the third victim as Tomas Alberto Costilla Mendoza, 49, a crewman from Peru. Some 30 people were injured, at least two seriously.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said some 300 of the crew members were Filipinos and that three of them were injured.

Anello Fiorentino, captain of a ferry that runs between Giglio and the mainland, said he makes the crossing every day without encountering problems.

"Yes, if you get near the coast there are reefs, but this is a stretch of sea where all the ships can safely pass," he said.

Islanders on Giglio opened up their homes and businesses to accommodate the sudden rush of survivors.

Rossana Bafigi, who runs a newsstand, said she was really moved by the reaction of the passengers.

She showed a note left by one Italian family that said, "We want to repay you for the disturbance. Please call us, we took milk and biscuits for the children. Claudia."


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Israeli PM: Palestinians not interested in peace talks

JERUSALEM –  Israel's prime minister says the Palestinians have no interest in restarting peace negotiations.


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's observation comes just days after negotiators met for the first time in more than a year.


Netanyahu told Israeli lawmakers Monday that the Palestinians are trying to impose preconditions for talks, instead of engaging in them.


Israeli-Palestinian talks have been stalled for more than three years over the issue of Israeli settlement construction. On Jan. 3, negotiators began meeting in hopes of finding a formula to restart formal negotiations.


Netanyahu said he is ready to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at any time, but Abbas refuses.


There was no immediate Palestinian comment.


Netanyahu's comments were relayed by a meeting participant who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was closed.


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Large-scale Israeli-US war games postponed

JERUSALEM –  The Israeli and U.S. militaries have postponed large-scale war games, in part to avoid aggravating mounting tensions between the international community and Iran over its disputed nuclear program, Israeli defense officials said Monday.


The missile defense exercise, dubbed "Austere Challenge 12," was scheduled for April to improve defense systems and cooperation between U.S. and Israeli forces. The Israeli military confirmed in a one-line statement that the drill would be rescheduled for the second half of 2012, but did not disclose reasons for the postponement or any other details.


The defense officials who linked the deferral to Iran spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the decision-making process. They offered no other reasons for the delay.


Thousands of American and Israeli soldiers were to take part in the exercise, which was designed to test multiple Israeli and U.S. air defense systems against incoming missiles and rockets from places as far away as Iran.


U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month that the drill exemplified unprecedented levels of defense cooperation between the two countries meant to back up Washington's "unshakable" commitment to Israel's security.


On Thursday, the top U.S. military commander is due to arrive in Israel for his first official trip since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sept. 30. Iran is expected to be at the top of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey's agenda for talks with the Israelis.


Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat to its survival and repeatedly has hinted it could take military action against the Islamic Republic should international sanctions fail to stop Iran's nuclear development.


The Obama administration is concerned that Iran's recent claim that it is expanding nuclear operations might prod Israel closer to a strike.


Iran, which denies it is trying to develop nuclear weapons, has shown no sign it would willingly give up a project that has become a point of national pride.


Tehran insists its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not bombs. It has threatened to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the passage for one-sixth of the world's oil, should international sanctions block Iran's petroleum exports.


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Pakistan's Supreme Court begins contempt proceedings against Prime Minister

Pakistan's top court initiated contempt proceedings Monday against the prime minister for failing to carry out the court's order to open a corruption probe into the president, ramping up the pressure on the beleaguered civilian government.


The Supreme Court ruling open up the possibility that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani could be prosecuted and dismissed at the hands of the judges. That could happen as soon as Thursday, when the court ordered Gilani to appear before the bench.


The judges have ordered the government to open a corruption probe into President Asif Ali Zardari dating back to the 1990s. The government has refused, saying Zardari has immunity. Its supporters say the court is pursuing a vendetta against the country's civilian leadership.


The court order is the latest development in an ongoing political crisis in Pakistan that pits the civilian government against the army, which has three times seized power in a coup. Many observers say the spike in tensions between those two can't be separated from the maneuvering of the Supreme Court, which has sanctioned past coups.


The fault line in the country is the same one that has plagued Pakistan since its creation in 1947: an army that can't stomach taking orders from elected politicians, and which has three times seized power in coups. The government has given the generals control over foreign and security policy, but the civilian leadership and the top brass have never seen eye-to-eye since Zardari and Gilani took office in 2008.


Confrontation between the army and the government broke out last week over an unsigned memo delivered to Washington last year offering the U.S. a raft of favorable security policies in exchange for its help in thwarting a supposed army coup.


The Supreme Court formed a commission to investigate the affair. Gilani criticized the army for cooperating with the probe, and has said the standoff is nothing less than a choice between "democracy and dictatorship." Gilani's comments followed a warning from the generals -- who were infuriated by the memo -- of possible "grievous consequences" ahead.


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Syria's President Assad grants amnesty for crimes committed during unrest

BEIRUT –  Syria's state news agency says President Bashar Assad has granted a general amnesty for crimes committed during the unrest of the past 10 months.

SANA says the amnesty issued Sunday covers those who have peacefully demonstrated, those who have carried unlicensed weapons and those who hand over their weapons to authorities before the end of January.

It also applies to army deserters who fled military service if they turn themselves in before Jan. 31.

It was not clear how many prisoners would be affected by Sunday's pardon.

Since the outbreak of the uprising against Assad's rule in March, Assad has freed 3,952 prisoners, according to SANA.

The opposition claims there are thousands more in Syrian prisons.

Assad's action comes after the U.N. Secretary General demanded Sunday that he stop killing his own people, saying the "old order" of one-man rule and family dynasties is over in the Middle East.

In a keynote address at a conference on democracy in the Arab world, Ban Ki-moon said the revolutions of the Arab Spring show that people will no longer accept tyranny.

"Today, I say again to President (Bashar) Assad of Syria: Stop the violence. Stop killing your people," Ban said during the conference in Beirut.

Thousands of people have been killed in the Syrian government's crackdown on a 10-month-old uprising, which has turned increasingly violent in recent months. The Syrian regime blames the revolt on terrorists and armed gangs -- not protesters seeking an end to nearly four decades of Assad family rule.

Arab League observers began work in Syria on Dec. 27 to verify whether the government is abiding by its agreement to end the military crackdown on dissent, but the bloodshed has only increased. The U.N. says about 400 people have been killed in the last three weeks alone, on top of an earlier estimate of more than 5,000 killed since March.

Opposition and army defectors meanwhile have increasingly been taking up arms to fight back against government forces.

Ban acknowledged challenges facing Arab states in the wake of the uprisings sweeping the Arab world, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.

"Democracy is not easy," he said. "It takes time and effort to build. It does not come into being with one or two elections. Yet there is no going back."

He encouraged Arab countries to usher in real reforms and dialogue, and to respect the role of women and the young.

"The old way, the old order, is crumbling," Ban said. "One-man rule and the perpetuation of family dynasties, monopolies of wealth and power, the silencing of the media, the deprivation of fundamental freedoms that are the birthright of every man, woman and child on this planet -- to all of this, the people say: Enough!"

The U.N. chief also urged an end to "Israeli occupation of Arab and Palestinian territories ... Settlements, new and old, are illegal. They work against the emergence of a viable Palestinian state."

On Saturday, the leader of Qatar was quoted as saying that Arab troops should be sent to Syria to stop a deadly crackdown on anti-government protests.

Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's comments to CBS' "60 Minutes," which will be aired Sunday, are the first statements by an Arab leader calling for the deployment of troops inside Syria.

Asked whether he is in favor of Arab nations intervening in Syria, Sheik Hamad said that "for such a situation to stop the killing some troops should go to stop the killing."

Excerpts of the interview were sent to The Associated Press by CBS a day before it was to be aired.

Qatar, which once had close relations with Damascus, has been a harsh critic of the 10-month crackdown by President Bashar Assad's regime. The wealthy and influential Gulf state withdrew its ambassador to Syria in the summer to protest the killings.

Since the Arab Spring began more than a year ago, Qatar has taken an aggressive role, raising its influence in the region. It contributed war planes to the NATO air campaign in Libya, tried to negotiate an exit for Yemen's protest-battered president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and has taken the lead in Arab countries pressuring Assad.


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Nigeria labor announces suspension of fuel strike

LAGOS, Nigeria –  Unions suspended their nationwide strike on Monday, hours after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan partially reinstated subsidies to keep gasoline prices low and deployed soldiers in the streets to halt widening demonstrations.

Union leaders described their decision as a victory for labor, allowing its leaders to guide the country's policy on fuel subsidies in the future while having gas prices drop to about $2.27 a gallon.

However, many protesters joined the demonstrations with hopes of seeing gas return to its previous price of about $1.70 per gallon, while also speaking out against a culture of government corruption in Africa's most populous nation. Deploying soldiers to the streets stopped demonstrators from gathering on Monday. At one point soldiers fired over the heads of marchers. But Jonathan may still have to deal with populist rage that swept the country in recent days, and the use of the military in a nation with a history of military coups stoked immediate controversy.

"This is a clear case of intolerance and shutting of the democratic space against the people of Nigeria which must be condemned by all democracy-loving people around the world," read a statement from the Save Nigeria Group, which has organized massive demonstrations in Lagos.

The Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress told journalists on Monday in Nigeria's capital Abuja they applauded the government's recent promise to explore corruption in the country's oil sector. They described the six-day strike a success.

"We are sure that no government or institution will take Nigerians for granted again," said Abdulwaheed Omar, the president of the Nigeria Labor Congress.

But while Jonathan offered an olive branch to unions with the gas price relief, he used military power to make sure no one protested against the government Monday. In a rare display of military might, soldiers took over major highways and road junctions throughout Lagos, home to 15 million people, and Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city.

In an early Monday morning address aired on state-run television, Jonathan warned that provocateurs were using the gas-price protest to cause instability.

"It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest. ... These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy and insecurity to the detriment of public peace," Jonathan said.

Labor organizers had urged workers to stay home on Monday after Jonathan appealed to them over the possibility of insecurity in the country. At the Lagos headquarters of the Nigeria Labor Congress, some 50 protesters gathered anyway. Lawyer Bamidele Aturu led the crowd in chants and cheers, comparing the president to military rulers of the past who used soldiers to suppress dissent.

"It's very clear the revolution has begun!" Aturu shouted. However, those gathered looked warily at passing pickup trucks filled with soldiers.

On Monday, hundreds of people started marching toward Lagos' Ojota neighborhood, where tens of thousands of protesters had gathered in recent days. However, soldiers had already taken positions there overnight, waving away would-be demonstrators. Two military armored personnel carriers were parked near an empty stage.

The crowd passed soldiers who slung their assault rifles over their shoulders, allowing them to pass. But as they drew closer to Ojota, around 20 soldiers arrived in two pickup trucks to cut them off, bayonets affixed to their assault rifles. They told the protesters to go back and some of them began to turn around.

Soldiers fired into the air and tear gassed the crowd to disperse it, leaving protesters running through the stinging gas as gunshots echoed down the highway.

Meanwhile, authorities also targeted some foreign media outlets in Lagos. Officers of the State Security Service, Nigeria's secret police, raided an office compound Monday used by the BBC and CNN, witnesses said. Marilyn Ogar, a secret police spokeswoman, said she had no information about the raid.

The strike began Jan. 9, paralyzing the nation of more than 160 million people. Tens of thousands of people protested in cities across Nigeria. At least 10 people were killed. Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured in protests since the strike began, officials said.

Though an oil workers association threatened to cut Nigeria's production of 2.4 million barrels of crude a day, they held off on shutdown onshore and offshore oil fields. Such a shutdown could have shaken oil futures, as Nigeria is the fifth-largest crude supplier to the U.S.

An offshore rig being run for a Chevron Corp. subsidiary near Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta caught fire and officials tried to account for all the workers there, the oil company said. Chevron spokesman Scott Walker said the fire started early Monday morning. There was no indication that the fire was related to Nigeria's unrest.


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Series of suicide attacks strike western Iraq

RAMADI, Iraq –  A series of car and suicide attacks struck the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on Sunday as gunmen stormed a police building.


Four car bombs were detonated at a mosque and police building in the city, 60 miles west of Baghdad, and two suicide bombers struck inside the police building.


Gunmen then stormed the police facility, triggering clashes, according to two police officers.


The first two car bombs exploded at around 11:30am local time near the Dawlah Kabir Mosque in central Ramadi, followed by a third car bomb also in the city center.


A short while later, a fourth car bomb went off near a police building in Ramadi, followed quickly thereafter by two suicide bombers blowing themselves up inside the building.


Armed insurgents then stormed the building and clashes were ongoing as of 1:00pm local time.


The number of casualties was not immediately clear.


The attacks come a day after a suicide bomber killed 53 people in an apparent sectarian attack in southern Iraq. The attack -- on the outskirts of the port city of Basra -- left another 137 people wounded.


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Rescue team resumes search of stricken Italian cruise ship

GIGLIO, Italy –  The rescue operation on the cruise liner shipwrecked off the Italian coast resumed Monday afternoon after a brief suspension, as fears grew for the 16 people -- including an American couple and a five-year-old child -- who remained missing.

The Costa Concordia, which crashed Friday killing six and injuring at least 42, moved 3.5 inches vertically and 0.6 inches horizontally from where it was stranded, due to rough seas, prompting search teams and divers to be evacuated Monday morning, Sky Italia TG24 reported.

But the search resumed later Monday as wind and sea conditions improved.

"We have resumed operations after checking that the ship has stabilized," emergency services spokesman Luca Cari said.

Meanwhile, Italy's environment minister Corrado Clini said the environmental risk from the stricken Costa Concordia, which has 2,623 short tons of fuel on board, was very high, and called for urgent action to be taken to prevent the fuel leaking.

Experts from two ship salvage companies, US-based Titan Salvage and Netherlands-based Smit are on site waiting to assess the ship.

The death toll from the disaster rose to six earlier Monday morning as rescuers found a sixth body -- a male passenger wearing a lifevest -- on the second deck in the unsubmerged part of the ship, ANSA news agency reported.

The grim discovery came as friends and family prayed for the safe return of Minnesota couple Gerald and Barbara Heil, aged 69 and 70.

Relatives told myFOXtwincities.com that the pair, from White Bear Lake north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, were among those missing after the cruise ship crashed. They say they still have not heard from the couple.

The US Embassy in Rome said 120 Americans were estimated on board the cruise liner but two have not been accounted for.

Italian investigators launched a probe into what caused the cruise ship to run aground off the Tuscan shore as it passed the island of Giglio with 4,234 people on board.

The Costa Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, was detained for questioning by police and could face multiple homicide charges. The ship's operator Costa Crociere admitted Sunday that "there may have been significant human error" by Schettino that led to the disaster.

Speaking Monday, Costa Crociere chairman and CEO Pier Luigi Foschi said that based on initial assessments, it appeared that the ship was following a pre-programmed route before it crashed.

He told a news conference that, "this route was put in correctly. The fact that it left from this course is due solely to a maneuver by the commander that was unapproved, unauthorized and unknown to Costa."

The captain allegedly sailed the ship close to the rocky shores of Giglio to please his head waiter who comes from the island, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported Monday.

Officials and witnesses said earlier that the disaster may have been caused by a risky practice of close-passing the island of Giglio in a foghorn-blasting salute to the local population.

The captain defended himself Sunday, telling Sky Italia TG24 that the ship struck a rock that was not shown on nautical charts.

Passengers, including a 72-year-old former Argentinean judge Maria Ines Lona, maintained Monday that Schettino was to blame.

"Passengers who had been on the ship for days said he was partying, he was spending his time with women and drinking," she told reporters as she arrived at Buenos Aires airport.


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Mexico police back down after impounding toy motorcycle, arresting 6-year-old driver

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico –  Police in this border city repented over ticketing a 6-year-old boy for reckless driving, driving without a license and not having his vehicle registered after he drove his miniature motorcycle into an SUV.


The boy's mother, Karla Noriega, said police impounded the miniature gasoline-powered motorbike that her son got for Christmas after he crashed into an SUV on Dec. 27.


Noriega decided to go to the media and make the case public after finding out she would have to pay what she called a "ridiculous" $183 in fines to recover the toy motorbike.


City council Secretary Hector Arceluz said Thursday that authorities had dropped the fines, released the motorbike and would punish the police officers for having acted improperly.


Noriega's son Gael was happy to get his minibike back, but said it no longer works after the accident.


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Al Qaeda in Yemen captures town south of capital

SANAA, Yemen –  A band of Al Qaeda militants seized full control of a town 100 miles south of the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday, overrunning army positions, storming the local prison and freeing at least 150 inmates, security officials said.

The capture of Radda expanded already significant territorial conquests by the militants, who have taken advantage of the weak central government and political turmoil roiling the nation for the past year during an uprising inspired by Arab Spring revolts. Authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh recently agreed to step down, but he remains a powerful force within the country and a spark for ongoing unrest.

The group had previously taken control of a string of towns in the mostly lawless south. But its capture of Radda is particularly important because it gives the militants a territorial foothold closer than ever before to the capital, where many sleeper cells of the terror network are thought to be located.

An Associated Press photographer who visited Radda on Sunday said the militants were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles and other weapons. He quoted residents as saying the black Al Qaeda banner has been raised atop the mosque they captured over the weekend.

The opposition accused Saleh, who is to step down this month in line with a power transfer deal, of allowing the militants to overrun Radda along with two other towns in southern Abyan province captured previously -- Zinjibar and Jaar -- to bolster his claims that he must remain in power to secure the country against the rising power of Islamist militants.

Some tribal leaders also accused Saleh of giving the "green light" to the militants to overrun the city.

"We are surprised by the silence of the security forces," said opposition activist Abdel-Rahman al-Rashid, who lives in Radda. "They have not moved, which only means that this is all arranged to spark chaos."

The United States and its western and Gulf Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia long considered Saleh a pivotal ally in the fight against Yemen's active Al Qaeda branch, which has been linked to terror attacks on U.S. soil and is believed to be one of the international terror organization's most dangerous franchises. The U.S. withdrew its support last summer and said Saleh should step down.

According to security officials, a band of about 200 militants pushed into Radda on Monday from several points they had captured over the weekend, including an ancient castle that overlooks the town, a school and a mosque. They stormed the local jail and freed 150-200 inmates, including an unspecified number of militants loyal to Al Qaeda.

Some of the freed inmates joined the militants after they were given arms, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

The officials said the Al Qaeda fighters were led by Tariq Al-Zahab, a Yemeni whose sister was married to U.S.-born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a U.S. airstrike last September.

The fighters later threw up a security ring around Radda, preventing residents from leaving or entering, and killed two soldiers and wounded a third in clashes with army troops. They also seized weapon caches and vehicles from the security headquarters.

In midday, clashes erupted between Al Qaeda militants and armed tribesmen, leaving one dead and two wounded, according to a member of al-Qayfa tribe which took part in the clashes. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Monday's attack prompted stores and schools in Radda to close. Thousands demonstrated in the provincial capital of Bayda to protest the perceived failure of security forces to protect the town, which has a population of about 40,000.

Radda is part of Bayda province, a key transit route between the capital and Yemen's southern provinces where Al Qaeda-linked militants have already seized control of a swath of territory and towns in Abyan province. Radda is only about 16 miles away from a main road that links Sanaa to eight provinces, raising the specter that taking the town could be a prelude to isolating the capital.

Al Qaeda-linked militants began seizing territory in the southern Abyan province last spring, solidifying their control over the town of Jaar in April before taking the provincial capital, Zinjibar, in May. Abyan borders Bayda.

Yemeni security forces have been trying unsuccessfully to push them out since then in fierce fighting that has caused many casualties on both sides. The conflict has forced tens of thousands of civilians from Zinjibar and the surrounding area to flee, many to the port city of Aden.


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Protesters gather for fourth straight day in Romania

 Romanian police take position in the center of Bucharest on January 15, 2012 during a demonstration against the government's austerity program and Romanian President Traian Basescu.


Romanian police take position in the center of Bucharest on January 15, 2012 during a demonstration against the government's austerity program and Romanian President Traian Basescu.Protesters gather in Bucharest and 18 other Romanian citiesIt was the fourth day of protests against government austerity measuresClashes between police and protesters left 17 injured Saturday in BucharestThe demonstrations are the largest against President Basescu since his 2004 election


Bucharest, Romania (CNN) -- Protesters seeking the ouster of Romanian President Traian Basescu and early elections gathered for a fourth straight day Sunday in a main square of Bucharest, the capital, and 18 other cities in the Eastern European nation.


The demonstrations, which included clashes between police and protesters Saturday in University Square that injured 17 people, are the most serious since Basescu's election in 2004.


See images from the protests


Some of the hundreds who showed up at the square on Sunday demanded justice and blamed the government and austerity measures for their poor living standards.


"We have no financial security. My husband and I are retired but we are sharing our modest income with our children because they are jobless," said Rodica Ganea, who described being asked during hospital visits to pay for "medicines, syringes, bandages, everything."


"I can't afford it," Ganea said. Another woman, 64-year-old Marilena Salan, described similar circumstances.


"My kids are university graduates but they are jobless," Salan said. "They are forced to break up their families, leave their kids home and go abroad to work. My nephews are growing up without their parents. This is unacceptable."


On Saturday, police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters gathered in University Square to demonstrate against government austerity cuts.


The protesters blocked traffic, waving flags with the centers ripped out to symbolize the 1989 communist revolution. Others carried signs reading "Liberty" and "Down with President Basescu."


Police fired tear gas in an attempt to calm the crowd, and 17 people were hospitalized in the ensuing chaos with 50 fined for disturbing public peace. The injured included a local journalist and five police officers, one severely injured when demonstrators stoned him.


The protests broke out Thursday after the resignation of Deputy Health Minister Raed Arafat, an opponent of health care reforms proposed by the government.


Facing public pressure, Basescu decided to scrap the reforms Friday, saying he made the decision after realizing that a majority of those in the medical system opposed the change.


"The hospitals don't want the change, the (doctors) don't want the change and neither does the emergency health care system," Basescu said.


Critics had argued that the proposal favored the private health care system by allowing access to government funds while the state-funded system lacks financial aid.


The protests follow several unpopular measures taken by the government over the past two years. After receiving a loan of 20 billion euros from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in 2009, the government cut salaries in the public sector by 25% a year later to enforce austerity measures recommended by the IMF.


Prime Minister Emil Boc said on Sunday that a new series of debates on the health care issue will start Monday, with the intention of creating a new health care law.


Over the past three days, protesters also held demonstrations in other cities including Cluj, Timisoara, Iasi and Targu Mures.


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Rescuers brave elements to scour ship

Divers inspect the Costa Concordia on Sunday. The death toll from the disaster off the Tuscan island stands at five.

Divers inspect the Costa Concordia on Sunday. The death toll from the disaster off the Tuscan island stands at five.

NEW: Rescue work is temporarily suspendedSix are dead, about 16 are still missing, officials sayWater has become rescuers' biggest obstacle The Concordia is practically a skyscraper in two directions: 17 decks high and 951 feet long

(CNN) -- Mammoth cruise ships can be difficult to get around, even in the best of circumstances. In the worst -- which is how one might describe the situation aboard the listing Costa Concordia -- they are near impossible.

Yet even before the sun rose Monday morning, about 120 rescue personnel were out in or around the liner that hit rocks near Tuscany and rolled spectacularly on its side.

They were in a race against time, and in a battle with numerous challenges, to try to save or at least recover the bodies of the passengers and crew members who are still missing.

By noon, the search was temporarily suspended. The vessel had begun to sway and move, making it dangerous for the crews, authorities said.

"(They are) working in very, very bad conditions," said Luciano Roncalli of Italy's national fire service. "It's cold, of course. It's dark during the day and the night... It's really, really dangerous."

Authorities have said that at least six people died after the Concordia hit rocks Friday night off the tiny island of Giglio, where nighttime temperatures have recently dipped below freezing.

Authorities are reviewing passenger lists to confirm the exact number of missing people, but about 16 are believed still unaccounted for.

Among them are two of the 120 Americans who were aboard the ship, the U.S. Embassy in Italy said.

Water, which makes many cruises serene and unique, has become rescuers' biggest obstacle.

Now turned on its side, the ship is roughly half submerged.

The hope is that a survivor has found refuge in a part that is not underwater, or perhaps in an air pocket, and can be brought out alive

In its current state, the Costa Concordia resembles a dark, convoluted cave -- with its countless nooks and crannies and few ways to easily escape for air.

Rescue personnel working off the coast of Tuscany include about six underwater cave rescue divers.

They are likely equipped with twice as much oxygen as regular scuba divers, have a guideline nearby in case they need help finding a way back to safety, and have knives and whatever lights they can carry or wear, said Robert Laird, a co-founder of the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery group.

Still, whatever equipment and precautions they take, "what they are doing is extremely difficult," he said.

"If you do not have the right frame of mind to deal with being in the dark and in tight closed spaces, then you're (in trouble)," said Laird, who has himself dived in many caves and ships, though neither he nor his group are involved in the Italian operation.

Unlike open water divers, these divers don't have the luxury of simply coming up for air anytime they want. Nor can they count on sunshine beaming down, to give them some semblance of light.

Laird said he expects that, besides being pitch-black, the water in the ship is riddled with debris.

"They could swim right by a dead body, and not even see it," Laird said.

Rescuers are navigating a seeming labyrinth.

The Concordia is practically a skyscraper in two directions: 17 decks high and 951 feet long.

Emergency personnel are aiming to look into 1,500 cabins and all around the ship's many other public spaces, including eight bars, five restaurants, four swimming pools, a casino and more.

"It's enormous," said Richard Bordoni, another member of the Italian national fire corps. "They have to stay safe, and it takes them a long time to go down a corridor."

Late Sunday, the cruise line said the ship's captain may have made "significant" errors that led to the wreck.

The Costa Concordia, owned by Genoa-based Costa Cruises, ran aground on a sand bank off the island of Giglio on Friday, January 13.

The Costa Concordia, owned by Genoa-based Costa Cruises, ran aground on a sand bank off the island of Giglio on Friday, Firemen search for missing people in and around the partially submerged Costa Concordia cruise ship on Monday, January 16.

Firemen search for missing people in and around the partially submerged Costa Concordia cruise ship on Monday, January 16.

Firemen work on the Costa Concordia cruise ship on Monday. The captain may have made "significant" errors that led to wreck, the cruise line said late Sunday.

Firemen work on the Costa Concordia cruise ship on Monday. The captain may have made "significant" errors that led to wreck, the cruise line said late Sunday.

Military rescuers patrol next to the listing Costa Concordia on Sunday January 15. A spiraling water slide can be seen on the deck.

Military rescuers patrol next to the listing Costa Concordia on Sunday January 15. A spiraling water slide can be seen on the deck.

Boats patrol near the Costa Concordia on Sunday. Divers searched for people who were still missing after Friday's accident.

Boats patrol near the Costa Concordia on Sunday. Divers searched for people who were still missing after Friday's accident. Rescuers search the Costa Concordia on Sunday.

Rescuers search the Costa Concordia on Sunday.

Emergency services work from the island of Giglio on Sunday, near where the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground.

Emergency services work from the island of Giglio on Sunday, near where the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground.

The ship has a breach on the hull about 90 meters (300 feet) long, according to Officer Emilio Del Santo of the Coastal Authorities of Livorno.

The ship has a breach on the hull about 90 meters (300 feet) long, according to Officer Emilio Del Santo of the Coastal Authorities of Livorno.

On Saturday, January 14, crowds prepare to leave the island of Giglio, where passengers were staying after the ship ran aground.

On Saturday, January 14, crowds prepare to leave the island of Giglio, where passengers were staying after the ship ran aground.

The Concordia, built in 2006, was on a Mediterranean cruise from Rome with stops in Savona, Cagliari and Palermo, Italy; Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and Marseille, France.

The Concordia, built in 2006, was on a Mediterranean cruise from Rome with stops in Savona, Cagliari and Palermo, Italy; Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and Marseille, France. Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano, Italy, on Saturday after being evacuated from the ship.

Passengers arrive at Porto Santo Stefano, Italy, on Saturday after being evacuated from the ship.Costa says the emergency operation continues and that it is helping passengers and crew return home.

Costa says the emergency operation continues and that it is helping passengers and crew return home.Italian police assist in the rescue after the cruise ship ran aground near the Italian island of Giglio.

Italian police assist in the rescue after the cruise ship ran aground near the Italian island of Giglio.The huge ship, which which is now lying on its side in shallow water, was carrying about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members when it ran aground at about dinner time.

The huge ship, which which is now lying on its side in shallow water, was carrying about 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members when it ran aground at about dinner time. Passengers arrive on land after they were rescued. There was chaos as passengers scrambled to get off the ship.

Passengers arrive on land after they were rescued. There was chaos as passengers scrambled to get off the ship. Evacuation efforts started promptly but were made "extremely difficult" by the position of the listing ship.

Evacuation efforts started promptly but were made "extremely difficult" by the position of the listing ship.The Costa Concordia cruise ship is pictured in March 2009 in Civitavecchia, Rome's tourist port.

The Costa Concordia cruise ship is pictured in March 2009 in Civitavecchia, Rome's tourist port.Cruise ship runs aground off Italy

Cruise ship runs aground off Italy Event.Map shows location of disaster

Map shows location of disaster

"The route of the vessel appears to have been too close to the shore, and the captain's judgment in handling the emergency appears to have not followed standard Costa procedures," Costa Cruises said in a statement.

Authorities told Italy's ANSA news agency the captain, Francesco Schettino, has been detained for alleged manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, while passengers were still on board.

Speaking on Italian television, Schettino insisted the rocks were not marked on his map.

"On the nautical chart, it was marked just as water," Schettino said, adding that the ship was about 300 meters (1,000 feet) from shore.

But the Italian coast guard insisted that the waters where the ship ran aground were well-mapped. Local fishermen say the island coast of Giglio is known for its rocky sea floor.

"Every danger in this area is on the nautical chart," Coast Guard Capt. Cosimo Nicastro said. "This is a place where a lot of people come for diving and sailing. ... All the dangers are known."

Italian prosecutors seized the ship's data recorders Saturday, and expect to analyze them within days.

Survivors recounted a frantic rush by passengers to get on lifeboats, while the crew appeared helpless and overwhelmed to cope.

"There wasn't anybody to help you," passenger Vivian Shafer said. "I mean, the passengers were loading the lifeboats by themselves."

Compounding the evacuation problems was that only one side of the boat's lifeboats was available, as the ship was listing.

Passenger Laurie Willits, from Ontario, Canada, said some lifeboats on the higher side got stuck, leaving people suspended in mid-air amid the sounds of children crying and screaming.

"It was so crowded, and there was no room for us," said Brandon Warrick, who was sailing with his siblings. "It was just bad, like mad scrambles to get into the lifeboats. Nobody followed any procedure."

Passenger Benji Smith on Saturday recounted making his own rope ladder to save himself and his wife.

"It was the Marx brothers, watching these guys trying to figure out how to work the boat," he said. "I felt like the disaster itself was manageable, but I felt like the crew was going to kill us."

Costa Cruises is owned by Carnival Corporation. Carnival issued a statement Saturday saying it was "deeply saddened" by the "terrible tragedy."

"We are working to fully understand the cause of what occurred," the statement said.

Many questions remain: Why was the ship -- with 3,200 passengers and 1,000 crew members -- so close in to shore in an area where the sea bed is pockmarked with rocks? What happened in the minutes after the ship ran aground? Why was no "mayday" distress signal sent?

"Looking at the pictures of the damage, it almost looks as if they saw it at the last minute, and they tried to swing the ship to the right to miss," said Chris McKesson, professor of naval architecture at the University of New Orleans.

"But just like when you're driving an R.V. or something, when you swing the nose to the right, the tail swings little to the left. If you look at the photos of the ship, you can see that the rock embedded in the side of the ship's left port side... as if exactly that happened. She swung her tail over and kissed that rock."

Once the rescue efforts resume, the rescue crew will have to deal with not just logistical difficulties but also physical and mental challenges.

Emergency personnel in the open-air part of the ship need ropes to get around, because they can't walk around. Whether they are rappelling or swimming, doors may have to be opened upwards, not the standard way, given the awkward position of the ship.

"The doors are very heavy, and the windows are very thick, so it's quite difficult to break them," said Roncalli of the fire service.

Making one's way around such a surreal place, without light and where everything is literally turned on its side, can test even the toughest person's mental makeup.

Laird, of the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery group, notes that many cave diver deaths "are attributed to panic." Even those not above water are in a situation unlike any other they have experienced, with even a small slip-up being potentially life threatening, he said.

Despite such challenges, Roncalli vowed that rescue personnel were prepared and intent on continuing their mission as long as necessary.

"They keep on working until we are sure that no person is missing," he said. "The conditions are very tough, but we can manage it."

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The Mexico drug war: Bodies for billions

To understand the drug war, accept that it's impossible to keep track of all its players. Accept that there are no white hats or black hats. There's only grey. Fog.


There is, however, agreement among experts about when war was declared: In late 2004 in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, 10 minutes from Laredo, Texas.


The Sinaloa wanted this golden smuggling route.


Every year, more than 5 million cars, 1.5 million commercial trucks and 3.8 million pedestrians cross northbound from Mexico into the United States here, bringing with them a ton of hidden narcotics.


In 2004, Nuevo Laredo was controlled by the Gulf cartel, which was just as old and Corleone-esque as Sinaloa.


For help defending their turf, the Gulf hired a group of former Mexican special forces soldiers who called themselves Zetas after the federal police code for high-ranking officers, "Z1."


The Sinaloa clan hired their own protection, a gang named Los Negros led by a blond-haired, blue-eyed American from Laredo. The man's cohorts called him La Barbie.


The Zetas battled Los Negros with tactics befitting an elite military. They fired automatic weapons, launched RPGs and grenades. They shot at each other for more than a year. Local gangs jumped in. Civilians dropped.


Emboldened by their Nuevo Laredo victory, the Zetas formed their own cartel. As they went after other cartels throughout Mexico, the Zetas honed a reputation for sickening brutality, seeming to kill just because they can. They have been blamed for setting fire to a casino killing 52 people, shooting dead 72 migrants on a Tamaulipas farm in 2010, murdering and tossing into mass graves women and children and killing bloggers. In April 2011, the bodies of 190 people, some of them migrant workers, were found in a mass grave in the desert of Tamaulipas.


Officials say the Zetas have lobbed grenades into celebrating crowds and blown up a pipeline that sent "rivers of fire" into residential streets. They have terrorized cities that once seemed untouchable by the violence, including the port city of Veracruz and Mexico's richest city, Monterrey, home to many international companies.


As the Zetas enacted their terror, that blond-haired, blue-eyed American leading Los Negros got angrier. La Barbie was Edgar Valdez, a Texas high school football star who worked his way into the Mexican underworld as a pot dealer. In 2005, the Dallas Morning News reported on a video showing four bound and bloody men, suspected to be Zetas, being interrogated off camera by a man believed to be Valdez.


A pistol comes into the frame, goes off and one of the men slumps. The video went viral. People around the globe started asking what was really going on in Mexico.


Journalist Ioan Grillo has been to more murder scenes than he can recall. His new book, "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," includes interviews with hit men, gang members, government and law enforcement officials and people caught in the crossfire.


Grillo repeatedly returns to a single idea. Wars occur because people cannot feed their families. They happen because groups of people feel unimportant, disenfranchised, angry and broke. They want a piece of life. It only takes a few people with particularly hollow morals, capable of shutting off or suppressing guilt, to convince many that killing and dying in spectacular ways is tantamount to glory.


Jihadist groups, kamikaze squadrons, American street gangs, cartels. Their members were all kids at one point. Grillo writes that he has seen teenagers show up at murder scenes showing no grief. It has become routine. They pick up shell casings scattered on the ground and debate whether they've been fired from AK47s or M4s.


There are very few counselors in Mexico to help, and there is very little quality education outside the circles of the comparatively privileged few, he wrote.


Why wouldn't a kid take 50 pesos to be a lookout, or 1,000 pesos to kill someone?


"I would love to see more money spent on these concerns," Grillo said, "than on more military helicopters and soldiers gunning it out with the cartels."


Fighting back


After he was elected president in 2006, the PAN's Felipe Calderon took a page out of his predecessor's playbook and declared war on the cartels. He had the Mexican military fan out across the country and fired hundreds of corrupt police officers. He even disarmed an entire town, saying that most of its police force was working for the cartels.


Plenty of narcos were arrested, and some extradited to the United States, but many thousands of people died. They included cartel members, police and civilians who were caught in the middle of a gruesome war.


Calderon and President George W. Bush reached an unprecedented agreement to fight the cartels. The Merida Initiative (named after the Mexican city where the two met) included a U.S. pledge of $1.5 billion between 2008 and 2010. President Obama requested millions more for 2011 for the program. The program provides aircraft, inspection tools and other sophisticated drug-detecting technology to the Mexicans. It also funds drug counseling and prison rehabilitation programs.


To fight corruption, the United States has also pledged to give money to help train police in Mexico.


For its part, the Mexican government has passed legislation aimed at bolstering its judicial system, and in October 2010, Calderon formally requested a total reshaping of the police force in Mexico. The reform he proposed would create unified state police forces and eliminate municipal police, who federal officials have said are very susceptible to corruption because of their low salaries.


Observers say Calderon underestimated how many police and other law enforcement officers were on the cartels' payroll when he came to power. As of March 2008, 150,000 soldiers had deserted. Traffickers, experts say, spent the Fox administration hunkering down, ingratiating themselves to communities, buying food and paying for medical bills, offering restless young people a sense of identity and hard cash.


And as Grillo has written, many people didn't trust the police and the soldiers as they once did. Authorities were accused of widespread human rights abuses while on anti-cartel missions. Jose Luis Soberanes, president of the Mexican Human Rights Commission, testified in 2008 that his office had received complaints that police and soldiers had entered towns to rape and torture and kill, including shooting dead two women and three children in Sinaloa state.


The cartels had become Robin Hood to many, similar to Colombia kingpin Escobar. In his impoverished Medellin, Escobar built a soccer field and a school. He died in a gunbattle with agents in 1993. At the church Escobar built, some Colombians still come to worship him like a saint.


A Barbie, a fox and some piggies


"La Barbie" was arrested in August 2010 in Mexico, and smiled as he was paraded in front of the press. The green Ralph Lauren polo shirt he wore inspired an international fashion trend.


Calderon's administration trumpets his arrest and others, and vows to keep fighting the cartels. But the president is a lame duck. Term limits prohibit him from running again in 2012.


Many expect the PRI, Mexico's founding party that ruled for seven decades, to return to power in July's elections.


Whoever wins the election will have to answer a critical question: whether to appease the cartels and try to negotiate with them or continue the all-out assault that Calderon launched.


Negotiating with traffickers played a role in Colombia, where religious figures and former guerillas led the talks, experts said.


But they also stress that Mexico is not Colombia, and this is not the late 1980s. Crime syndicates operate differently. Key players on both sides of the border have considerations unlike those during the Colombian crisis. Mexico, they contend, is far less likely to welcome close foreign involvement than Colombia did.


A solution also cannot come from only one side of the border. Former President Fox and other experienced leaders in Latin America have advocated legalizing the consumption of marijuana, saying it would cut the value of the cartels' product. In 2011, the U.N.'s Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included Fox, recommended that governments experiment with drug legalization, especially marijuana.


Last fall, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, said he thought the drug war violence had become so dire that U.S. troops could be sent into Mexico. Drug trafficking in Mexico, he and others have said, fuels criminal organizations around the globe and feeds human and arms trafficking.


Perry had barely finished his thought before being pounced on by critics, many within his own party and especially his opponents: How would a limping U.S. economy pay for that? The United States was already involved in two wars.


Mexico has historically been highly averse to allowing a foreign force to fight on its soil, experts said. The idea of Team America swooping into its sovereign neighbor is offensive to many Mexicans. Consider the country's national anthem, written after the 1840s Mexican-American War in which Mexico lost half its territory.


If some enemy outlander should dare


to profane your ground with his sole,


think, oh beloved Fatherland, that heaven has given you a soldier in every son


In 2009, the group Los Tigres del Norte were banned from performing a popular song titled "La Granja" at an awards ceremony in Mexico City.


The lyrics blast the Mexican government's strategy against the cartels, a "Fox" who came to break plates on a farm. The animals got out "to create a big mess."


The lyrics also suggest that America, Mexico's No. 1 drug customer, is just as dirty.


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Egypt's transition to democracy grows messier

Reform leader Mohammed ElBaradei's surprise pullout from the presidential race has laid bare the messiness of Egypt's transition to democracy with less than six months left for the ruling generals to hand over power.



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Americans rise in rank inside Somalia jihadi group

The October Al Qaeda video shows a light-skinned man handing out food to families displaced by famine in Somalia. But the masked man is not Somali, or even African -- he's a Wisconsin native who grew up in San Diego.



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Bomb targeting religious procession kills 13 in Pakistan

Police say a bomb has struck a religious procession, killing 13 people in eastern Pakistan.



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Luxury cruise ship's captain being held for questioning

A top Costa executive, Gianni Onorato, said Saturday the Concordia's captain had the liner on its regular, weekly route when it struck a reef.



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Taiwan's China-friendly president wins re-election

Taiwan's president won re-election Saturday, paving the way for a continuation of the China-friendly policies that have delighted Beijing and Washington, and caused consternation among some in Taiwan worried about the durability of their de facto independence



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Iraq: Death toll from attack on pilgrims now 53

A bomb killed at least 53 Shiite pilgrims near the southern port city of Basrah on Saturday, an Iraqi official said. It was the latest in a series of attacks during Shiite religious commemorations that have killed scores of people and threaten to further increase sectarian tensions just weeks after the U.S. withdrawal.



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Egypt's ElBaradei pulls out of presidential race

Egypt's reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei said Saturday he is pulling out of the country's presidential race to protest the military's failure to put the country on the path to democracy.



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Series of suicide attacks strike western Iraq

A series of car and suicide attacks struck the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on Sunday as gunmen stormed a police building.



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