Saturday, December 31, 2011

Iran delays missile test

Iran delayed promised long-range missile tests in the Gulf on Saturday and Tehran signaled it was ready for fresh talks on its disputed nuclear program.
Iran's state media initially reported early on Saturday that long-range missiles had been launched during naval exercises, a move that may irk the West concerned over threats by Tehran to close off a vital oil shipping route in the Gulf.
But Deputy Navy Commander Mahmoud Mousavi later went on the English language Press TV channel to deny the missiles had in fact been fired.
"The exercise of launching missiles will be carried out in the coming days," he said.
Ten days of Iranian naval drills have coincided with increased tension over Tehran's nuclear program with Washington and its allies. The European Union said it was considering a ban - already in place in the United States - on imports from the major oil producer.
Analysts say the conflicting reports on the missile test aimed to remind the West of the unforeseen consequences it risked if it ratcheted up pressure on Iran over its nuclear work, which the West says is aimed at building nuclear bombs. Tehran denies this.
"The location and the timing of the drill were very shrewd ... then came reports on launching missiles that can target America's bases in the region and Israel," said analyst Hamid Farahvashian.
"One of the messages was that you mess with Iran, then you stand to suffer from economic havoc," he said. "Iranians have always used this method of carrot and stick ... first they used the stick of closing Hormuz and now the carrot is its willingness for talks."
An EU spokesman said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton wrote to Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in October and had not yet had a response. But the European Union was open to meaningful talks with Tehran provided there were no preconditions.
"We continue to pursue our twin-track approach and are open for meaningful discussions on confidence-building measures, without preconditions from the Iranian side," EU foreign policy spokesman, Michael Mann, said in an email.
Tehran threatened on Tuesday to stop the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz if it became the target of an oil embargo over its nuclear ambitions, a move that could trigger military conflict with countries dependent on Gulf oil.
Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi said imposing sanctions on Iran's oil exports would lead to a leap in prices.
"Undoubtedly the price of crude will increase dramatically if sanctions are imposed on our oil ... It will reach at least over $200 per barrel," the Aseman weekly quoted Qasemi on Saturday as saying.
Reports on Iran threatening to close the strait of Hormuz by Iran were enough to send tremors through oil markets and spike the price of oil.
"BERMUDA STRAIT"
Iran's show of military might in the Gulf was reflected in the scale of the exercises, which Iranian media said were greater than previous war games. However, Iran test-fired its surface-to-surface Shahab-3 missile during 2009 exercises. It is thought to be capable of striking Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East.
Washington has expressed concern about Tehran's missiles, which include the Shahab-3 strategic intermediate range ballistic missile with a range of up to 1,000 km (625 miles), the Ghadr-1 with an estimated 1,600 km range and a Shahab-3 variant known as Sajjil-2 with a range of up to 2,400 km.
Iranian media have given a massive coverage to the drill, with state television broadcasting live in an apparent attempt to strike a patriotic chord among ordinary Iranians concerned about a military strike.
The United States and Israel have not ruled out a military option if diplomacy fails to resolve Iran's nuclear dispute.
"I have already witnessed a war with Iraq in 1980s ... I can hear the drum beating of the war. A misfired bullet can spark a serious war," said merchant Mohsen Sanaie, 62, while glancing over newspapers headlines at a central Tehran newsstand.
He warily pointed at the headline of the Sharq newspaper "Power rally in the Strait of Hormuz," and the Vatan-e Emruz daily's "The Bermuda Strait of Hormuz" headline, a reference to the(...)More.

Syrian opposition fears failure of Arab mission


The Syrian opposition is pessimistic about the chances that Arab League monitors now visiting the country can halt President Bashar al-Assad's 9-month crackdown on anti-government protest, activists said on Saturday.
There is little faith in the ability of the small observer team from fellow Arab states to bring about a withdrawal of armed forces from Syria's most turbulent cities and open the way to a peaceful dialogue leading to change, they said.
Some activists fear the country may slip into civil war if the Arab mission fails. An opposition leader in exile predicted the United Nations would have to step in.
"We don't know what to do. But we know Assad and his regime won't give us what we want," said opposition activist Ziad in Douma, a suburb of Damascus that has become a city in revolt. "So why should we wait for them to help us?"
"Assad wants us to raise our weapons and kill each other and he is pushing us towards that every day. We wanted the monitors to help us find a solution, but it won't happen."
The Arab League mission is destined to fail, said the Paris-based head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun.
"If the regime fails to meet the commitments it made, there is no other solution except going to the (U.N.) Security Council and I think we are walking toward the Security Council," he told AL Jazeera television.
"As you saw, the regime is still using snipers and is still using Shabeeha (thugs) and is still preventing people from protesting in public places," said Ghalioun, who is pressing for greater international intervention despite the fact that the West is opposed by Russia and China in the Council on this key issue.
Despite the presence of monitors, which appeared to act as a deterrent on the army in some places, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist network which documents the violence with names and circumstances, said 27 civilians were killed by security forces on Friday.
It said five members of the security forces were shot dead in a clash in the flashpoint city of Homs, where members of the Free Syrian Army made up of army defectors have established no-go zones to protect opposition districts.
Some Syrians fear that unless Assad agrees to peaceful change, continuing violence will ignite a sectarian war between the majority Sunni Muslims who support the revolt and minorities including Assad's Alawite Muslim sect who want no change of regime.
"LIES AND FABRICATIONS"
Assad, 46, has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his troops and heavy weaponry from towns and cities, where they have been trying to crush protests that have raged since March.
Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in major protest cities on Friday to display their determination and hoping the presence of monitors would deter the army from using live ammunition in front of a watching world.
"The army didn't attack people once the monitors arrived," said Ziad. "The army has hidden its weapons and they were stopping people by throwing stones. We haven't seen them do that for six or seven months. They even ran away from us."
The state news agency SANA reported at length on "massive demonstrations" throughout the country on Friday in support of Assad, and against "the plot which Syria is exposed to."
Demonstrators denounced "the pressure and biased campaigns targeting Syria's security and stability" and the "lies and fabrications of the misleading media channels" which caused the shedding of Syrian blood, it said.
Mass rallies in the Damascus region "participated in lighting the 'Homeland Tree' which is decorated with the photos of the army and policemen martyrs," SANA reported.
The Arab League mission which began on Monday has energized the protesters while provoking skepticism in Western countries.
"We are determined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there's bloodshed is not important," said an activist named Abu Khaled in the northern city of Idlib, in a typical comment on Friday.
Amateur video showed teams of monitors in white baseball caps and yellow safety vests being mobbed and harangued in dense crowds of excited protesters. Some rushed at the observers, trying to shout over the thousands chanting "The people want to liberate the country!."
MONITOR TEAM DELAYED
The United Nations estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed across Syria since March - most shot during peaceful anti-government protests but many others were killed in rebel attacks and local defense actions.
In parts of Hama, a city with a history of revolt and savage repression, videos showed protesters fleeing the main streets on Friday as heavy gunfire erupted in the background. In one such segment, a few men rushed back, ducking in the crackle of gunfire, to carry away a man who had fallen limp in the street.
In Zaid's Damascus suburb, Douma, protesters bore away a man whose leg had been shredded by what they said were nail bombs.
The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset over its makeup, its lack of numbers - due to rise from 60 to 150 - and its reliance on government transport.
The United Nations said it was critical that the team's "independence and impartiality be fully preserved."
Spokesman Martin Nesirky urged the Arab League to "take all steps possible to ensure that its observer mission will be able to fulfill its mandate in accordance with international human rights law standards." He said the United Nations was willing to give the League observers training on human rights monitoring.
Ednan Al-Khodeiry, who heads the Arab League mission's operations centre in Cairo, said a group of 22 Iraqi monitors who were due to arrive on Friday were delayed and would arrive mid-week, along with members from Gulf states.
"There will be a weekly report in which we will evaluate the mission's work over the week. The mission hasn't completed a working week in Syria yet," he said.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil ElAraby said at the outset of the mission that it should take only a week to establish if Assad was keeping his promises. It would not take a month, he said.
The commander of the Free Syrian Army told Reuters on Friday he had ordered his fighters to stop offensive operations while the FSA tried to arrange a meeting with the monitors. But in a newspaper interview published on Saturday he said if the Arab mission was "not professional, then we will resume our defense operations."

North Korea names Kim Jong-un army commander

North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-un, has been formally named supreme commander of the country's armed forces, state media said.
Kim Jong-un, who took over after the death of his father Kim Jong-il earlier this month, was appointed at a meeting on Friday, KCNA news agency said.
The move is seen as a clear sign that the young leader is fast consolidating power over North Korea.
Kim Jong-il, who had ruled since 1994, died of a heart attack on 17 December.
On Wednesday, a huge funeral procession was staged for the late leader in the snowy streets of the capital, Pyongyang.
Father's will According to KCNA, Kim Jong-un "assumed supreme commandership of the Korean People's Army" at a Workers' Party meeting on Friday.
The appointment, which puts the young Kim in charge of the world's fourth largest army, was made in accordance with a will written by Kim Jong-il on 8 October, the news agency said.
In a statement, the news agency referred to him for the first time as "Great Leader" - regarded as a clear message of continuity of the regime of his late father.
Kim Jong-il - known in North Korea as the "Dear Leader" - was in the process of formalising Kim Jong-un as his successor when he died.
However, the transition was not complete, leaving regional neighbours fearful of a power struggle in the nuclear-armed pariah state.
On Friday, North Korea told the international community not to "expect any change" in the wake of Kim Jong-il's death.
The message came in a statement carried by state media and attributed to the powerful National Defence Commission.
"We declare solemnly and confidently that the foolish politicians around the world, including the puppet group in South Korea, should not expect any change from us," it said.
Kim Jong-un inherits 1.2 million-strong military and a national policy known as the Songun, that prioritises the welfare of the armed forces over civilians.
During the memorial service on Thursday, head of state Kim Yong-nam said that, under the new leader, the North would "march firmly along the path of Songun taught by great leader Kim Jong-il".
Songun is the phrase used for North Korea's "military first" policy.

Ethiopian troops capture Beledweyne from Somalia militants

Ethiopian forces have captured the central Somali town of Beledweyne from al-Shabab Islamist militants.
Al-Shabab said its forces were surrounding the town after making what it called a planned withdrawal.
Eyewitnesses said armoured vehicles and heavy artillery were used in the attack, which Ethiopia said was made at the request of the Somali government.
Somalia's prime minister meanwhile announced an operation "to liberate the tyranny of... al-Shabab from Somalia".
"Early this morning, the Somali National Army recaptured some al-Shabab-occupied territories engaging the enemies in Hiiraan and other regions of the country," said Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, head of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG)
"We are officially requesting for momentous support from neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and the international community at large to assist the Somali people and its government with this historic operation."
'Planned withdrawal' Al-Shabab fighters withdrew from Beledweyne after a fierce hours-long battle in which local residents had joined "the Mujahideen" to fight against more than 3,000 Ethiopian troops, according to messages posting on a twitter account reportedly run by al-Shabab's press office.
"Sheikh Abu Mus'ab, HSM Military Spokesman, has declared a planned withdrawal from the city and Mujahideen are now surrounding the city," read a tweet posted around 11:30 GMT on Saturday.
Twenty people were killed in the fighting, a BBC Somali reporter said, mostly Ethiopian troops and al-Shabab fighters.
Beledweyne is a strategic town near the Ethiopian border on the road to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.
It was through the town that Ethiopia entered the country during 2006 and from it that its troops were driven in 2008, finally withdrawing back into Ethiopia, says BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut.
An Ethiopian government spokesman, Bereket Simon, told the BBC's Newshour programme: "The TFG has called on neighbouring countries including Ethiopia to assist this operation militarily so that's why we have entered."
Last month, Ethiopia denied that its troops had returned to Somalia - about two years after they withdrew after suffering heavy casualties.
The AU has about 9,000 troops in Mogadishu under a UN Security Council mandate to battle the al-Qaeda-linked group.
Foreign military intervention in Somalia is intended to prevent al-Shabab from overthrowing the weak interim government led by Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed - a moderate Islamist.
Al-Shabab announced a "tactical withdrawal" from Mogadishu in August after fierce fighting with AU forces.
AU commanders in Somalia say they need about 20,000 troops to hold on to territory captured from al-Shabab.
Somalia has not had a functioning central government for more than 20 years and has been wracked by fighting between various militias.

Friday, December 30, 2011

WHO "deeply concerned" by mutated birdflu research

The World Health Organization issued a stern warning on Friday to scientists who have engineered a highly pathogenic form of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, saying their work carries significant risks and must be tightly controlled.
The United Nations health body said it was "deeply concerned about the potential negative consequences" of work by two leading flu research teams who this month said they had found ways to make H5N1 into a easily transmissable form capable of causing lethal human pandemics.
The work by the teams, one in The Netherlands and one in the United States, has already prompted an unprecedented censorship call from U.S. security advisers who fear that publishing details of the research could give potential attackers the know-how to make a bioterror weapon.
The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has asked two journals that want to publish the work to make only redacted versions of studies available, a request to which the journal editors and many leading scientists object.
In its first comment on the controversy, the WHO said: "While it is clear that conducting research to gain such knowledge must continue, it is also clear that certain research, and especially that which can generate more dangerous forms of the virus....has risks."
H5N1 bird flu is extremely deadly in people who are directly exposed to it from infected birds. Since the virus was first detected in 1997, about 600 people have contracted it and more than half of them have died.
But so far it has not yet naturally mutated into a form that can pass easily from person to person, although many scientists fear this kind of mutation is likely to happen at some point and will constitute a major health threat if it does.
MUTATIONS
Flu researchers around the world have been working for many years trying to figure out which mutations would give H5N1 the ability to spread easily from one person to another, while at the same time maintaining its deadly properties.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health funded the two research teams to carry out research into how the virus could become more transmissible in humans, with the aim of gaining insight on how to react if the mutation occurred naturally.
The WHO said such research should be done "only after all important public health risks and benefits have been identified" and "it is certain that the necessary protections to minimize the potential for negative consequences are in place."
The agency also said it was vital that new rules on the sharing of viruses and scientific know-how were enforced to ensure those countries at most immediate risk from H5N1, mainly developing countries in Asia such as Indonesia, Vietnam and others, would benefit from advances in research.
During the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009-2010, many developing countries complained they had no life-saving antivirals or vaccines to combat the new virus, despite having made samples of the virus available to researchers and pharmaceutical companies to develop the medicines.
It is normally laboratories in wealthy developed countries that have the level of scientific expertise needed to work on complex flu viruses, while bird, or avian, flu viruses themselves often come from less well developed Asian countries.
A new Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework was agreed and adopted by all WHO member states in May 2011 to set rules for sharing flu viruses that have pandemic potential, and sharing the benefits of the expertise gained.
"WHO considers it critically important that scientists who undertake research with influenza viruses with pandemic potential samples fully abide by the new requirements," the U.N. agency said in its statement.

Analysis: N.Korea's missile-maker seen in key role in new regime

During the funeral ceremonies for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il this week, the man in charge of the isolated state's missile program and possibly its nuclear plans, paid a quiet visit to the mausoleum where the body lay in state.
Little is known about elderly and silver-haired Ju Kyu-chang, but he appears to be a key member of the North Korean team developing nuclear weapons.
The European Union has named the 73-year-old, who is believed to have trained as a metal alloy specialist and studied in Russia, as one of the individual North Koreans to attract sanctions slapped on the rogue communist state.
He was given two important posts in the regime in recent years, which analysts say were part of Kim Jong-il's moves after he suffered a stroke to set a succession plan in place and ensure safe custody of the nuclear weapons.
"I would equate Ju with General Leslie Groves, who headed the U.S. Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs during World War Two," said Larry Niksch, who has tracked North Korea for the non-partisan U.S. Congressional Research Service for 43 years.
"Ju runs the day-to-day programs to develop missiles and probably nuclear weapons."
Ju was ranked 20th on the list of the national funeral committee for Kim Jong-il, an indicator of his stature. Just above him in 19th position was Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of new leader Kim Jong-un and the man seen as the power behind the throne.
According to the European Union, Ju had oversight of the two tests of North Korea's intermediate-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles in 2006 and 2009. Less is known about his connection to the development of nuclear weapons.
But the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a 2009 report on North Korea that Ju "is believed to be in charge of the nuclear weapons development program."
It said Ju's 2009 promotion to the National Defense Commission (NDC), the supreme leadership council, was probably linked to a move to put him in charge of an independent entity with custody of North Korea's nuclear bombs when they were developed.
Daniel Pinkston, one of the authors of the ICG report, told Reuters there was no information on whether the new "command and control" body for nuclear weapons had been set up.
But he said of Ju: "He is close to the regime leadership because of his political loyalty to the Kim family and the party, in addition to his technical expertise regarding the SLV (space launch vehicle) and satellite programs and the nuclear weapons program."
MACHINE-BUILDING
Officially, Ju is director of the oddly named Korean Workers' Party Machine-Building Industry Department, which he has been associated with since the 1960s. But his power stems from the NDC post and also his being named to the Workers' Party Central Military Commission in 2010.
He accompanied Kim Jong-il on a trip to Russia, according to media reports.
"Ju is in charge of managing the North's ballistic missiles," said Cho Min, at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
"Some people think he may be involved in the North's nuclear programs, but I am less confident about that. But on the other hand, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are inseparable."
Analysts say Kim Jong-un will be in no hurry to make any changes and that Ju should remain in place for some time.
"The fact that he is still there means his father (Kim Jong-il) gave him the seal of approval as others considered threats or not loyal enough were replaced or retired over the past year or two," said Ralph Cossa, president of the U.S. think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.
"Not sure where he fits in the pecking order but he is clearly among the top rung."
But Ju is likely to have not much more than a bit part in any decision on the actual deployment of missiles or nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong-un and the close coterie around him, including his uncle Jang, aunt Kim Kyong-hui and military chief Ri Yong-ho, are likely to call the shots.
Kim Jong-un has already been named the supreme commander of the military, and "should have ultimate command and control of the nuclear arsenal," said the ICG's Pinkston. "I believe that is the case."
The unpredictable state, which threatened on Friday to turn arch rival South Korea into "a sea of revengeful fire," has rattled the region with two nuclear tests in the past five years and its missile program.
It is believed to have about 700 short-range Scud-type missiles and about 320 medium-range Nodongs. It is said to have amassed enough plutonium for about half a dozen bombs but is now believed to be working on producing highly enriched uranium, the other kind of fissile material used in nuclear bombs.
Niksch, the U.S. expert, says the North probably would need as little as one to two years to miniaturize and mount a nuclear warhead atop its medium-range Nodong missile once it has produced enough highly enriched uranium.

Insight: Dark holiday in Detroit as Church downsizes


Emmanuel Miller comes to Saint Leo Catholic Church at least twice a month.
The 52-year-old doesn't often visit the ornate cathedral upstairs. His emphysema, which gives him violent bouts of coughing, could make it difficult to sit through a Mass.
It is the soup kitchen in the basement, which has blossomed into a clinic with a dentist office, that sustains him. There he gets a hot meal and free treatment.
"My son helps me pay my rent, (but) I've been denied social security so I need a little more help than that," Miller said.
The brown brick building at 4860 15th Street is at the center of the next downsizing to hit this failing city: the restructuring of the Archdiocese of Detroit.
St. Leo Catholic Church was built more than 120 years ago as Detroit was developing into a manufacturing powerhouse - first in shipbuilding and later in car making.
Today its neighborhood is one of the most abandoned pockets in one of the nation's most desperate cities. Like many Catholic churches around urban America, it has been hit by a shortage of priests and a dwindling supply of parishioners.
The Church's woes are all the more acute in the Motor City, where St. Leo and the archdiocese are stark examples of the impact of the near-death of the U.S. auto industry. Detroit's population-and the parish's flock-have withered along with the car factories. The Christmas Eve Mass performed this past weekend by 81-year old Bishop Thomas Gumbleton may be among the last ever held here.
Last month, Archbishop Allen Vigneron released a preliminary draft of the Catholic Church's third downsizing in Detroit in little more than a decade. The archdiocese has cut its parish count in Detroit's city limits to 59, down from 79 in 2000.
St. Leo is among nine parishes earmarked for closure in the Detroit area within the next few years. In 2012, its congregation is due to be subsumed by the larger St. Cecilia, about three miles away.
There is still hope for a reprieve. Vigneron is considering a plan to save the charity work in the basement by potentially moving it to a new site, and the pastor currently running both St. Leo and St. Cecilia has proposed keeping it open as a worship center used only occasionally.
But both are prohibitively costly considerations for an archbishop looking to shore up finances. Vigneron will deliver his final plan for the region in February.
"Almost all of us recognize that this world in the 21st century is very different than the 1950s and 1960s," Vigneron said in an interview. "We have to not accept it, but to deal with it."
The closings and mergers, the archbishop's supporters say, offer the promise of more robust parishes and a sounder financial footing as the archdiocese seeks to recruit new clergy and implement other growth plans.
The cuts will hit Detroit particularly hard, however. The city is on the verge of insolvency and is already having a hard time providing basic services, such as functioning streetlights and removal of debris from demolished buildings.
In the absence of government, the Church is among the last institutions keeping neighborhoods afloat.
As lunch was served to dozens in the cafeteria, Miller's doctor - a volunteer who works most days for paying patients in a suburb several miles north - handed him a baggie full of vitamins, baby aspirin and a $35 inhaler cartridge.
"I can't get this from the pharmacy because I can't get a prescription," Miller said. "I can't get a prescription because I have no health insurance."
A few days earlier, a 41-year-old mother named Tlitha Bryant walked several miles down a blighted stretch of Grand River Avenue leading a group of young men, which included her son, to St. Leo.
The soup kitchen they typically went to was closed for maintenance. St. Leo was the only church she knew of serving free food, despite passing several other churches and community centers on the way.
FAILING SERVICE
St. Leo shows how the struggles of so many institutions in the Detroit area are intricately connected: vanishing jobs, a hollowing revenue base, an inability to attract investment.
"What hits the Church here is not a lot different than what's happened to this city," said Edward "Chip" Miller.
Miller (no relation to Emmanuel Miller) is an ex-banking executive who is aiding the attempt to reorganize the archdiocese. He founded Invest Detroit, a firm providing interim financing to investors wanting to start companies or expand in Detroit.
"Not unlike General Motors and Chrysler..., in order to be a vibrant player in the community, we have to do painful things," he said. "GM surely would have preferred to not discontinue Pontiac and GM surely would have preferred not to discontinue Oldsmobile, but they did what they had to do."
As for the Church, Vigneron said there is a point where the buildings and other property go from being assets to liabilities - no matter how sacred they may be.
"I have to make a discernment," he said. "It's never not about finances; we all have to pay our bills."
When a Catholic church closes, the land and buildings go back to the archdiocese. The neighboring parishes can come and take their pick of relics or ecclesiastical equipment. If a new tenant doesn't materialize, criminals sometimes do.
"If a building sits vacant for even a little while it's an excellent candidate for vandalism," said Kevin Messier, who runs Real Estate Professional Services in Southfield, Mich. Thieves often strip the building of copper or pluck out stained glass.
The abandoned Martyrs of Uganda church in Detroit, closed by the Archdiocese in 2006, is an example of this decay.
It is littered with rubble, collapsed confessionals, a broken organ. Moss grows on its floors. The windows are gone and support pillars are crumbling because stones have been removed.
Messier's firm sold about three Michigan churches per month in 2011. The firm currently lists 32 churches for sale in the city of Detroit alone with an average selling price of $337,000.
PERISHING PARISH
Opened in 1889 at the start of Detroit's shipping and manufacturing boom, St. Leo was built to serve a parish in excess of 1,000 families. It still shows signs of an opulent age: massive murals hanging on the ceiling above the alter, towering windows dressed in stained glass.
Now it serves about 170 families. The parish generates $1,800 in weekly giving - not enough to cover an annual budget of at least $100,000 required just for building maintenance, repairs and utilities.
Pews no longer needed have been removed from the back of the church over the years, and the space has been converted to a common area.
St. Leo's struggle with overcapacity mirrors its neighborhood's plight.
The streetlights a block away are wrapped in black plastic bags. Several houses stand vacant and, on a street where new houses were recently built, piles of debris from recent demolitions are uncollected.
Last week, the Detroit Public Library system closed four branches libraries to save on utility bills and librarian salaries. The city recently shut several schools amid declining enrollment.
Detroit's municipal problems have put an enormous strain on city departments that provide basic services, hampering chances for a recovery. Only 60 percent of buses show up(...)More.

Israel kills al Qaeda-linked chief in Gaza strike



Israel killed the leader of an al Qaeda-inspired faction in the Gaza Strip on Friday, accusing him of involvement in firing rockets and a planned attack on the Jewish state from the neighboring Egyptian Sinai.
The deadly air strike was Israel's second against a Salafi Islamist militant this week. Militants identified him as Momen Abu Daf, chief of the Army of Islam, among a loose network of Palestinian groups which profess allegiance to al Qaeda and have been reinforced by volunteers who slip in from the Sinai.
Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers, who have sometimes reined in more radical groups, are seeking an accommodation with secular Palestinian rivals and with an Egypt struggling for order after the fall of U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Abu Daf died when a missile hit Gaza City's Zeitoun district, the Hamas administration's Health Ministry said. Five other Palestinians were wounded and one of them needed hospital treatment.
The Israeli military said its aircraft "targeted a terrorist squad that was identified moments before firing rockets at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip."
Abu Daf, a military statement said, had "orchestrated and executed numerous and varied terror attacks" and "was actively involved in the preparations of the attempted terror attack on the Israel-Egypt border that was thwarted this week."
EYES ON EGYPT
That appeared to refer to Israel's killing on Tuesday of another Salafi fighter, Abdallah Telbani, who the military said had been plotting strikes in which gunmen would circumvent the fortified Gaza border by attacking south Israel from the Sinai.
Israel has been on high alert for such raids since losing eight of its citizens to armed infiltrators on Egypt's porous frontier in August. Israeli troops repelling those gunmen killed five Egyptian border guards, fraying strategic ties with Cairo.
"We shoot when we're being shot at," one Israeli security official said after Friday's air strike in Gaza. "It's clear that Hamas does not have an interest in fanning the flames at this time, but it's not dousing them either."
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, responded: "Our people have the right to defend themselves, and the problem is the (Israeli) occupation which targets the Palestinian resistance."
Though Hamas echoes Salafi calls for Israel's ultimate destruction, its ambitions are framed within Palestinian nationalism, not al Qaeda-style global jihad, and include a possible ceasefire with the militarily superior Jewish state which, with Egyptian help, has tried to isolate Gaza.
Hamas took over the coastal strip in a 2007 civil war against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction, which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and Abbas held rapprochement talks in Cairo last week against a backdrop of political upheaval across the Arab world, including Syria, where Meshaal retains a headquarters that diplomats say Hamas has scaled back.
One official said Meshaal told Abbas he was "in favor of peaceful resistance and a truce in Gaza and the West Bank at this stage," though Hamas would not meet Israel's core demand for recognition.
Two short-range rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel on Thursday and five on Wednesday, the Israeli military said. There were no casualties. The Popular Resistance Committees, an armed Palestinian faction, claimed responsibility.

Exclusive: U.S. mulls transfer of senior Taliban prisoner

The Obama administration is considering transferring to Afghan custody a senior Taliban official suspected of major human rights abuses as part of a long-shot bid to improve the prospects of a peace deal in Afghanistan, Reuters has learned.
The potential hand-over of Mohammed Fazl, a 'high-risk detainee' held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison since early 2002, has set off alarms on Capitol Hill and among some U.S. intelligence officials.
As a senior commander of the Taliban army, Fazl is alleged to be responsible for the killing of thousands of Afghanistan's minority Shi'ite Muslims between 1998 and 2001.
According to U.S. military documents made public by WikiLeaks, he was also on the scene of a November 2001 prison riot that killed CIA operative Johnny Micheal Spann, the first American who died in combat in the Afghan war. There is no evidence, however, that Fazl played any direct role in Spann's death.
Senior U.S. officials have said their 10-month-long effort to set up substantive negotiations between the weak government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban has reached a make-or-break moment. Reuters reported earlier this month that they are proposing an exchange of "confidence-building measures," including the transfer of five detainees from Guantanamo and the establishment of a Taliban office outside of Afghanistan.
Now Reuters has learned from U.S. government sources the identity of one of the five detainees in question.
The detainees, the officials emphasized, would not be set free, but remain in some sort of further custody. It is unclear precisely what conditions they would be held under.
In response to inquiries by Reuters, a senior administration official said that the release of Fazl and four other Taliban members had been requested by the Afghan government and Taliban representatives as far back as 2005.
The debate surrounding the White House's consideration of high-profile prisoners such as Fazl illustrates the delicate course it must tread both at home and abroad as it seeks to move the nascent peace process ahead.
One U.S. intelligence official said there had been intense bipartisan opposition in Congress to the proposed transfer.
"I can tell you that the hair on the back of my neck went up when they walked in with this a month ago, and there's been very, very strong letters fired off to the administration," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The senior administration official confirmed that the White House has received letters from lawmakers on the issue. "We will not characterize classified Congressional correspondence, but what is clear is the President's order to us to continue to discuss these important matters with Congress," the official said.
Even supporters of a controversial deal with the Taliban - a fundamentalist group that refers to Americans as infidels and which is still killing U.S., NATO and Afghan soldiers on the battlefield - say the odds of striking an accord are slim.
Critics of Obama's peace initiative remain deeply skeptical of the Taliban's willingness to negotiate, given that the West's intent to pull out most troops after 2014 could give insurgents a chance to reclaim lost territory or push the weak Kabul government toward collapse.
The politically charged nature of the initiative was on display this month when the Karzai government angrily recalled its ambassador from Doha and complained Kabul was being cut out of U.S.-led efforts to establish a Taliban office in Qatar.
U.S. officials appear to have smoothed things over with Karzai since then. Karzai's High Peace Council is signaling it would accept a liaison office for the Taliban office in Qatar - but also warning foreign powers that they cannot keep the Afghan government on the margins.
The detainee transfer may be even more politically explosive for the White House. In discussing the proposal, U.S. officials have stressed the move would be a 'national decision' made in consultation with the U.S. Congress.
Obama is expected to soon sign into law a defense authorization bill whose provisions would broaden the military's power over terrorist detainees and require the Pentagon to certify in most cases that certain security conditions will be met before Guantanamo prisoners can be sent home.
The mere idea of such a transfer is already raising hackles on Capitol Hill, where one key senator last week cautioned the administration against negotiating with "terrorists."
Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said such detainees would "likely continue to pose a threat to the United States" even once they were transferred.
POTENTIAL MAELSTROM
In February, the Afghan High Peace Council named a half-dozen it wanted released as a goodwill gesture. The list included Fazl; senior Taliban military commander Noorullah Noori; former deputy intelligence minister Abdul Haq Wasiq; and Khairullah Khairkhwa, a former interior minister.
All but Khairkhwa were sent to Guantanamo on January 11, 2002, according to the military documents, meaning they were among the first prisoners sent there.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official, said Fazl was alleged to have been involved in 'very ugly' violence against Shi'ites, including members of the Hazara ethnic minority, beginning in the late 1990s, and the deaths of Iranian diplomats and journalists at the Iranian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998.
Michael Semple, a former UN official with more than two decades of experience in Afghanistan, said Fazl commanded thousands of Taliban soldiers at a time when its army carried out massacres of Shi'ites. "If you're head of an army that carries out a massacre, even if you're not actually there, you are implicated by virtue of command and control responsibility," he said.
He added: "However it does not serve the interests of justice selectively to hold Taliban to account, while so many other figures accused of past crimes are happily reintegrated in Kabul."
Some U.S. military documents - select documents have been released, others were leaked - indicate that Fazl denied being a senior Taliban official and says he only commanded 50 or 60 men. But the overall picture of his role is unclear from the documents which have become public.
Richard Kammen is an Indiana lawyer who has nominally represented Fazl; the detainee did not want an attorney.
"Based upon the public information with which I'm familiar, it would appear his(...)More.

Ten dead as Syrians stage mass protests

Clashes erupted in Syria on Friday as hundreds of thousands filled the streets to demonstrate against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and activists said at least 10 people were shot dead.
Demonstrators determined to show the strength of their movement to Arab League monitors deployed in hotspots across the country threw rocks at security forces in the Damascus suburb of Douma where troops tear-gassed the chanting crowds.
Five people were shot dead in the city of Hama and five in the city of Deraa in the south.
"Five were martyred today and at least 20 wounded when the Syrian security forces opened fire," the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, referring to Hama.
It said security forces fired at tens of thousands of protesters in the northern province of Idlib, wounding 25.
At least two dozen were injured in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activists said. One report said army defectors in Douma were engaged in armed clashes with troops. There were no further details.
Some 250,000 gathered after Friday's Muslim prayer in the northern province of Idlib at 74 different locations, according to the Observatory, an opposition network relaying activist reports.
"This Friday is different from any other Friday. It is a transformative step. People are eager to reach the monitors and tell them about their suffering," said activist Abu Hisham in Hama.
In Homs, the city at the centre of nine months of revolt, Al Jazeera television showed a huge crowd of dancing protesters who appeared to be in the thousands.
"Revolution, revolution Syria, revolution of glory and freedom Syria," they shouted.
In the Damascus suburb of Barzeh, where large crowds had also gathered, protesters held up signs saying "The Monitors are witnesses who don't see anything," and shouted, "Bashar we don't want you, Syrians raise your hands."
Activists in the city of Idlib said the army had put its heavy weapons out of sight.
"Security forces have moved some of their tanks out of the neighborhood streets and have put them behind buildings further out," said Manhal, a member of the local coordination committee. "They have also moved the tanks out of main streets. Some of them they moved into dugouts."
WITHDRAWAL OF FORCES
Assad has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his heavy weaponry and army from turbulent Syrian cities where more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, many shot during peaceful anti-government protests but also many killed in rebel attacks and defense actions.
The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset, over its makeup, its small numbers, its reliance on Syrian government logistics and an initial assessment by its Sudanese chief that the situation was "reassuring."
That comment was met with disbelief in the West on Wednesday but on Friday, Syria's ally Russia accepted the judgment.
"Judging by the public statements made by the chief of the mission (Sudanese general Mustafa) al-Dabi, who in the first of his visits went to the city of Homs ... the situation seems to be reassuring," the Foreign Ministry said on its website.
However on Friday al-Dabi, whom some link to war crimes in Darfur in the 1990s, backed away from his comments. They were "unfounded and not true" a mission statement said, and all future statements would be in writing.
Activist video from Homs over the months has depicted a trail of death and destruction sowed by the military, with hundreds of killings of civilians reported.
"Unfortunately, reports show that the violence has continued in Syria over the past few days," Britain's Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, Alistair Burt, said.
"I urge the Syrian government to meet fully its obligations to the Arab League, including immediately ending the repression and withdrawing security forces from cities. The Syrian government must allow the Arab League mission independent and unrestricted access ..." Burt said.
In Brussels, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU also "urges Syria to comply with the action plan of the Arab league in all its(...)More.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pakistan: PM Gilani denies he is to sack army chief

Pakistani PM Yousuf Raza Gilani has dismissed reports he is planning to sack army and intelligence chiefs.
This follows latest rumours in the Pakistan media about a rift between politicians and the military.
Earlier, the army chief denied reports of plans to oust the civilian government - after the PM spoke of a conspiracy, referring to the army.
Tensions are high in the wake of a leaked memo that allegedly asked for US help to prevent a military coup.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari - who recently spent nearly two weeks in Dubai for medical treatment - denies any role in the memo.
Fools' talk "As far as the rumours that the government wants to remove the DG-ISI [Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence Lt-Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha] and [army chief] General Kayani, this impression is simply a fools' talk,"Mr Gilani told a news conference.
"This utterly wrong impression is being created by some opportunists."
Mr Gilani said Gen Kayani was "pro-democracy" and that he was(...)More.

Texas shooting: Gunman 'dressed as Santa' killed family

The gunman who shot dead six relatives before killing himself at a family Christmas celebration in Texas was dressed as Santa Claus, police say.
Investigators found four women and three men, aged 15 to 59, dead among unwrapped presents and Christmas decorations in the flat's living room.
Two handguns were also recovered at the scene in the city of Grapevine, near Dallas, on Sunday.
Investigators do not know what prompted the killings.
Grapevine police Lieutenant Todd Dearing told the BBC that the suspected shooter was a 56-year-old man.
He said the gunman's victims were aged 15, 19, 22, 55, 58 and 59.
No-one was found alive at the home.
Sgt Robert Eberling: "It's the worst investigation we've had in many years"
Grapevine police spokesman Sergeant Robert Eberling said the shooter had been wearing a Santa outfit.
"By all appearances, they're all part of the same family," he told Reuters news agency.
The identities of the dead will be released after post-mortem examinations.
Mayor William Tate said in a statement: "The fact that it happened on Christmas makes it even more tragic."

Fukushima accident: disaster response failed - report

A lack of preparedness for a disaster and failures in the response to it exacerbated the effects of the nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima plant in March, a new report says.
The government-commissioned study said plant operators and regulators had failed to adequately anticipate a huge tsunami and its likely impact.
The interim findings were issued by an independent panel set up in May.
More than 20,000 people were killed when an earthquake and tsunami struck.
Tens of thousands had to be evacuated as radiation leaked into the atmosphere, sea and food chain.
The six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, with blasts occurring at four reactors after the cooling systems went offline.
Last week, the authorities declared the plant had been stabilised, but said it would take decades to dismantle it completely.
Lack of precautions The panel said its aim was not to apportion blame for the disaster, but to learn why the accident happened in the way it did, AFP news agency reported.
Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the company which operated the plant, did not "take precautionary measures in anticipation that a severe accident could be caused by (a) tsunami such as the one (that) hit... Neither did the regulatory authorities," the report said.
It also accused Tepco of failing to "incorporate measures against tsunamis exceeding the design basis. This indicates the limit of voluntary safety measures".
Further, the government's nuclear regulatory body "did not require Tepco to take specific measures, such as additional construction, after they received simulation results from Tepco in 2008 and early in 2011 regarding the impact of tsunamis on their facilities".
Tepco's own report on the disaster, by contrast, said there was no way it could have been prepared for a 9.0 magnitude quake and huge waves that triggered meltdowns and explosions at the plant.
The panel's report said the situation was also made worse by;
  • delays in relaying information to the public
  • managers' lack of knowledge of procedures to deal with emergencies
  • poor communications - between the workers and the government, among the workers themselves, and between government bodies.
"Collection of accurate and most up-to-date information is a pre-requisite for timely and appropriate decision-making. This issue, together with the need for providing information to the nation, is of a major concern," it said.
It said Tepco staff at the plant were not trained to handle emergencies like the power shutdown that struck when the tsunami destroyed back-up generators, AP news agency reported.
Staff also misunderstood problems that arose with the cooling systems for reactors 1 and 3.
'Unprepared' The 506-page report was based on interviews with more than 450 people, including government officials and plant workers.
The 12-member panel is headed by Yotaro Hatamura - an engineering professor at Tokyo University who specialises in the study of failures - and includes seismologists, former diplomats and judges.
It was set up in May by then prime minister Naoto Kan, and is expected to issue its final report in mid-2012.
In an earlier report, submitted to the UN nuclear watchdog, the Japanese government said it had been unprepared for a nuclear accident on the scale of the one at the Fukushima plant.

Oxford Street stabbing: Teenager dies near sports store

An 18-year-old has been stabbed to death in London, on one of the UK's busiest shopping streets.
The man died outside the Foot Locker sports shop on Oxford Street, near the junction with Stratford Place.
Police said they were called to the scene at about 13:45 GMT. Nine people were arrested and part of the street, near Bond Street Tube, was closed.
Det Ch Insp Mark Dunne said there appeared to have been two groups of young people "opposing each other".
The incident happened as tens of thousands of people hunted for bargains in the area's shops, during what was a busy day for Boxing Day sales across the UK.
Police said there had been a second stabbing on Oxford Street in the evening, in which a 21-year-old man was injured in the thigh, but they said it was too early to confirm whether or not the two incidents were connected.
Weapons recovered However, Insp Bruce Middlemiss, the duty officer for police in Westminster, said: "They are a similar sort of circumstances, youths, possibly from the same south London area."
Det Ch Insp Dunne, of the Metropolitan Police's homicide command, told journalists there was no suggestion the earlier, fatal incident was gang related, but he was "not going to discount it".
He said it appeared a weapon had been involved, which "may well have been a knife", but he could not yet confirm this.
  Det Ch Insp Mark Dunne has urged witnesses to come forward
"A number of weapons have been recovered from that scene, whether I have got the murder weapon I don't know.
"There's an assortment of items but no guns," he said.
He said it was still not clear whether the incident had happened inside or just outside the Foot Locker store.
Police were still trying to work out exactly what had happened, he said.
"This is probably the busiest place in the UK right now, on the busiest shopping day, so it's been difficult for us to piece together what has happened."
He urged witnesses to come forward.
Several shops in the area were forced to shut early because they were inside the police cordon.
An employee at the nearby Disney Store said the company's outlet had been "quite badly affected" and was "unlikely to open again today".
Police said the second stabbing on Monday took place close to the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street at about 18:20 GMT.
Police presence They said the victim was taken to hospital and his condition was not thought to be life-threatening.
Three males have been arrested and are in custody.
Mr Middlemiss said that despite the day's two attacks, the public should not feel unsafe shopping in the West End.
"There is a high police presence here, we have a number of operations in place already for the shopping times because we were aware of the amount of people who would be here.
"We are going to go back and review the intelligence for both incidents and see if we need to increase the police presence here, but at the moment we are not concerned for ordinary members of the public who are shopping."

Syria: 50 Arab monitors arrive as bloodshed continues

A group of 50 Arab League observers has flown into Syria on a mission to monitor an end to violence the UN says has left more than 5,000 people dead.
Ahead of their arrival, gunfire and shelling in the volatile city of Homs claimed 23 lives, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Opposition activists have urged the monitors to visit Homs.
Protests against President Bashar al-Assad began in March. The government says it is fighting armed gangs.
Casualty figures are hard to verify as most foreign media are banned from reporting in Syria.
The latest bloodshed is reported to have taken place largely in the Baba Amr district of Homs, which is reportedly besieged by government forces. The Observatory says that area alone saw 15 deaths on Monday.
A number of people have been killed in the city by mortar shelling and machine gun fire over the last few days, activists say.
Freedom of movement News agencies reported that 50 monitors and 10 officials from the Arab League secretariat flew in from Cairo - several days after a nine-member advance team arrived in Damascus.
The Syrian authorities have pledged to allow the monitors full freedom of movement without interference, as they assess whether Damascus is complying with the agreement it signed.
But the observers will have to depend on the regime to provide security.
Asked whether they could go to Homs, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said:
"They are here to monitor the violence from any side. So if the violence in Homs is generated by armed elements, yes they can. In general they can go anywhere but in co-ordination with the Syrian side. "
The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut says that Homs may well prove to be a test case for the observer mission in terms of(...)More.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Syrian opposition calls for UN role to end crisis


With violence continuing, the leader of Syria's main opposition group is urging the Arab League to push for U.N. involvement in seeking an end to the bloodshed.
Burhan Ghalioun, the Paris-based leader of the Syrian National Council, made the plea in a televised speech marking Christmas.
The Arab League has begun sending observers into Syria to monitor its compliance with a plan demanding an end to the regime's crackdown on political opponents. The 22-member bloc has warned that it could turn to the U.N. Security Council to help stop the violence that began in March.
The Arab League plan demands the government remove its security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Thousands of mourners carrying Syrian flags and pictures of the dead took part in a mass funeral Saturday for 44 people killed in twin suicide bombings that targeted intelligence agency compounds in Damascus.
The government of President Bashar Assad said a preliminary investigation pointed to al-Qaida and that the bloodshed and destruction in the capital bolstered its argument that terrorists, rather than true reform-seekers, were behind the anti-government revolt.
The opposition, meanwhile, grew fearful that the regime was taking advantage of the distraction caused by the bombings to move in military reinforcements and prepare for a massive assault on key activist areas in central Syria. Shelling in the city of Homs on Saturday killed at least three people in the Baba Amr district and set several homes and shops ablaze, activists said.
"We believe this is in preparation for a large-scale attack," said Bassam Ishak, secretary-general of the Syrian National Council opposition group.
In Damascus, mourners carried coffins draped in the red, white and black Syrian flags into the eighth-century Omayyad Mosque, where they were placed on the ground for prayers.
"Martyr after martyr, we want nobody but Assad," they shouted in support of the embattled Syrian president.
The government linked Friday's bombings to the uprising against Assad's autocratic rule. They were the first suicide bombings since the unrest began in mid-March, adding new and ominous dimensions to a conflict that has already brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Striking just moments apart, the attackers used powerful car bombs to target the heavily guarded compounds. The explosions shook the capital, which has been relatively untouched by the uprising, and left mutilated and torn bodies amid rubble, twisted debris and burned cars.
Besides the dead, 166 people were wounded.
The opposition has questioned the government's account and hinted the regime itself could have been behind the attacks, noting they came a day after the arrival of an advance team of Arab League observers investigating Assad's bloody crackdown of the popular revolt.
Ishak said he feared the bombings "were orchestrated to distract attention from a massive assault today in Homs."
He said his group reported the information they got from Homs to the Arab League and urged the monitors to head to Homs. "The regime is keeping them in their hotels and delaying their departure for Homs," he told The Associated Press on the phone from Amman, Jordan.
An Arab League statement from its Cairo headquarters on Saturday said Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby condemned the attacks in Damascus but also expressed particular concern for Homs.
"The secretary-general expresses concern over reports that violent acts are on the rise in Homs city and calls for an immediate cessation of such acts," the statement said, warning that the violence will affect the success of the fuller observer mission set to arrive in Damascus Monday.
The government has long contended that the turmoil in Syria this year is not an uprising by reform-seekers but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.
Sheik Said al-Bouti, a prominent pro-Assad clergyman in Damascus, blamed the opposition squarely for the attacks.
"This gift has been sent to us by Burhan Ghalioun and his friends," he said in his funeral sermon Saturday, referring to the head of the Paris-based Syrian National Council.
Women dressed in black wailed Saturday during the funeral procession, which was aired by state-run Syrian TV. Some blamed the emir of Qatar, seen by supporters of Assad as leading the campaign against the regime.
"Those terrorists are funded by the emir of Qatar to kill innocent people, but they won't succeed," cried Fawakeh Shaqiri, 56, who was dressed in black and carrying a Syrian flag.
All the coffins Saturday held the names of the bombing victims, except for six coffins carrying the remains of people who had not been identified.
Syrian officials said a suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden car as he waited behind a vehicle driven by a retired general who was trying to enter a military intelligence building in Damascus' upscale Kfar Sousa district Friday morning. About a minute later, a second attacker blew up his SUV at the gate of the General Intelligence Agency, the officials said.
Government officials took the Arab League observers to the scene of the explosions and said it supported their accounts of who was behind the violence.
"I wonder, have the covers been removed from the eyes of the Arab League representatives so that they can see who is the real killer and who is the victim?" al-Bouti asked.
The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since March, when the uprising began and the regime responded by deploying tanks and troops to crush protests across Syria.
In addition to the deaths in Baba Amr Saturday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bodies of four people were found dumped on the streets in Houla, also in Homs province. They showed signs of torture on their bodies, it said.
A fifth person was still alive but in critical condition, according to the group.
They had been detained a day earlier by security forces and pro-government thugs.
"The Observatory calls on the Arab League observers to go immediately to the city of Houla to document this flagrant violation of human rights," the group said in a statement.

NKorea pointing to heir's uncle playing key role


North Korea is showing the uncle and key patron of anointed heir Kim Jong Un wearing a military uniform with a general's insignia — a strong sign he'll play a crucial role in helping the young man take over power and uphold the "military-first" policy initiated by his late father, Kim Jong Il.
As North Korea prepares for Kim Jong Il's funeral Wednesday, it is also warning South Korea against barring visits to Pyongyang by civilian groups hoping to pay respects, saying the obstruction will lead to "catastrophic consequences" for relations between the rivals.
While millions continue to mourn Kim Jong Il, North Korea is offering hints about Kim Jong Un's rise and the future composition of his inner circle. North Korea began hailing Kim Jong Un as "supreme leader" of the 1.2-million strong military over the weekend as it ramps up its campaign to install him as ruler.
Kim Jong Un, who is in his late 20s and was unveiled in September 2010 as his father's choice as successor, will be the third-generation Kim to rule the nation of 24 million.
Koreans should become "eternal revolutionary comrades" with Kim Jong Un, "the sun of the 21st century," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Sunday in a commentary carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
State television showed footage Sunday of a uniformed Jang Song Thaek and his nephew Kim Jong Un paying their respects before Kim Jong Il's body, which is lying in state at Kumsusan Memorial Palace. Seoul's Unification Ministry said it was the first time Jang, usually seen in business suits, had been shown wearing a military uniform on state TV.
Jang, a vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, is the husband of Kim Kyong Hui, younger sister of Kim Jong Il and a key Workers' Party official. South Korean lawmakers say intelligence officials have predicted that Jang and his wife will play larger roles supporting Kim Jong Un.
The new titles, a public show of support from top military leadership and the symbolic appearance of Jang in uniform send strong signals that North Korea will maintain Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy for the time being.
North Korea is in official mourning until Kim Jong Il's funeral Wednesday and a memorial Thursday.
South Korea has permitted only two groups with ties to North Korea to visit and pay condolences ahead of the funeral and has rejected demands by several others.
The South Korean groups, led by the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and a business leader whose late husband had ties to the North, plan to cross the heavily fortified border Monday for a two-day trip, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
On Saturday, Kim Jong Un again visited the palace where his father's body is lying in state — this time as "supreme leader of the revolutionary armed forces" and accompanied by North Korea's top military brass, according to KCNA.
Earlier, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper urged Kim Jong Un to accept the top military post: "Comrade Kim Jong Un, please assume the supreme commandership, as wished by the people."
Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on him.
Kim Jong Un was promoted last year to four-star general and appointed a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party. He had been expected to assume a number of other key posts while being groomed to succeed his father.
His father's death comes at a sensitive time for North Korea, which was in the middle of discussions with the U.S. on food aid and restarting talks to dismantle the North's nuclear weapons program. Chronically short of food and suffering from a shortfall in basic staples after several harsh seasons, officials had been asking for help feeding its people even as North Koreans prepared for 2012 celebrations marking the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder and the late father of Kim Jong Il.
Also, animosity with South Korea still lingers after two incidents blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans last year.
Calls to rally behind Kim Jong Un, dubbed the "Great Successor" in the wake of his father's death on Dec. 17 from a heart attack, come amid displays of grief across North Korea.
On Sunday, the North's state TV repeatedly showed footage of(...)More.

Hundreds pack Bethlehem church for Christmas Mass


Hundreds of Christian faithful, defying lashing rains and wind, celebrated Christmas Mass at Jesus' traditional birthplace on Sunday, spirits high despite the gloomy weather.
Worshippers dressed in their holiday best rushed under cover of umbrellas into St. Catherine's Church on Manger Square, leaving the plaza, with its 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) Christmas tree, deserted. The church was packed, and the overflow crowd waited eagerly in an arched corridor for a chance to enter.
Inside, supplicants, some dressed in the traditional attire of foreign lands, raised their voices in prayer, kissed a plaster statue of a baby Jesus and took communion. St. Catherine's is attached to the smaller Church of the Nativity, which is built over a grotto where devout Christians believe Jesus was born.
"Lots of pilgrims from around the world are coming to be here on Christmas," said Don Moore, 41, a psychology professor from Berkeley, Calif., who came to Bethlehem with his family. "We wanted to be part of the action. This is the place, this is where it all started. It doesn't get any more special than that."
With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, had fallen onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000.
Although civil affairs in the biblical town on Jerusalem's southeastern outskirts are run by Palestinian authorities, security control remains in the hands of Israel, which built a barrier around three sides of the town to keep Palestinian attackers out.
Palestinians say the barrier has badly hurt its economy, which depends heavily on tourism, by severely restricting movement in and out of the town.
But as the violence has subsided, tourists have returned in large numbers. An estimated 100,000 visitors streamed into Manger Square on Christmas Eve, up from 70,000 the previous year, according to the Israeli military's count.
With the barrier looming large over the celebrations in Bethlehem, Palestinians have tried to draw attention to their quest for an independent state with this year's Christmas slogan, "Palestine celebrating hope."
Late Saturday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told a meeting of Christian leaders that he is committed to reaching peace with Israel.
"I hope they will come back to their senses and understand that we are seekers of peace, not seekers of war or terrorism," said Abbas, a Muslim like most Palestinians. "The mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side in this Holy Land."
Israel had allowed about 500 members of Gaza's tiny Christian minority to travel through its territory to the West Bank to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. Most of Gaza's 3,000 Christians belong to the Greek Orthodox denomination, which celebrates Christmas next month.

Muslim sect claims Nigeria church attacks; 25 dead

An explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria's capital Sunday, killing at least 25 people, officials said. A radical Muslim sect waging an increasingly sophisticated sectarian fight claimed the attack and another bombing in the restive city of Jos, as explosions also struck the nation's northeast.
The Christmas Day attacks show the growing national ambition of the sect known as Boko Haram, which is responsible for at least 491 killings this year alone, according to an Associated Press count. The assaults come a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded.
The first explosion on Sunday struck St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, a town in Niger state close to the capital, Abuja, authorities said. Rescue workers recovered at least 25 bodies from the church and officials continued to tally those wounded in various hospitals, said Slaku Luguard, a coordinator with Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency.
His agency already has acknowledged it didn't have enough ambulances immediately on hand to help the wounded. Luguard also said an angry crowd that gathered at the blast site hampered rescue efforts as they refused to allow workers inside.
"We're trying to calm the situation," Luguard said. "There are some angry people around trying to cause problems."
In Jos, a second explosion struck near a Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church, government spokesman Pam Ayuba said. Ayuba said gunmen later opened fire on police guarding the area, killing one police officer. Two other locally made explosives were found in a nearby building and disarmed, he said.
"The military are here on ground and have taken control over the entire place," Ayuba said.
The city of Jos is located on the dividing line between Nigeria's predominantly Christian south and Muslim north. Thousands have died in communal clashes there over the last decade.
After the bombings, a Boko Haram spokesman using the nom de guerre Abul-Qaqa claimed responsibility for the attacks in an interview with The Daily Trust, the newspaper of record across Nigeria's Muslim north. The sect has used the newspaper in the past to communicate with public.
The U.S. Embassy in Nigeria's capital of Abuja had issued a warning Friday to citizens to be "particularly vigilant" around churches, large crowds and areas where foreigners congregate.
Several days of fighting in and around the northeastern city of Damaturu between the sect and security forces already had killed at least 61 people, authorities said. On Sunday, local police commissioner Tanko Lawan said two explosions struck Damaturu, including a blast near government offices. He declined to comment further, saying police had begun an operation to attack suspected Boko Haram sect members.
In the last year, Boko Haram has carried out increasingly bloody attacks in its campaign to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a Nov. 4 attack on Damaturu, Yobe state's capital, that killed more than 100 people. The group also claimed the Aug. 24 suicide car bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria's capital that killed 24 people and wounded 116 others.
The sect came to national prominence in 2009, when its members rioted and burned police stations near its base of Maiduguri, a dusty northeastern city on the cusp of the Sahara Desert. Nigeria's military violently put down the attack, crushing the sect's mosque into shards as its leader was arrested and died in police custody. About 700 people died during the violence.
While initially targeting enemies via hit-and-run assassinations from the back of motorbikes after the 2009 riot, violence by Boko Haram now has a new sophistication and apparent planning that includes high-profile attacks with greater casualties.
Boko Haram has splintered into three factions, with one wing increasingly willing to kill as it maintains contact with terror groups in North Africa and Somalia, diplomats and security sources say.
Sect members are scattered throughout northern Nigeria and nearby Cameroon, Chad and Niger.