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Stermer, artist who redesigned Olympic medal, dies

SAN FRANCISCO  — Dugald Stermer, who served as art director of the left-leaning magazine Ramparts and redesigned the Olympic medals for the 1984 Los Angeles games, has died. He was 74.

Megan Stermer, the artist's daughter, told The Associated Press on Saturday that her father died from respiratory and cardiac failure on Dec. 2 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Stermer worked at Ramparts in the 1960s. The San Francisco-based political and cultural magazine was critical of the war in Vietnam and included pieces by Noam Chomsky and other left-leaning writers.

A 1967 cover reflective of the magazine's political temperament showed the hands of Stermer and three of the magazine's editors burning their draft cards. Ramparts's typographical style under Stermer is credited with influencing the early design of Rolling Stone.

Stermer's career also included work as an illustrator for such publications as the The New Yorker and for companies including BMW and Jaguar. He served as chairman of the illustration department at California College of the Arts from 1994 until his death.

Stermer's redesign of the Olympic medals added depth and definition to the figure of Lady Liberty on the front of the medals, according to The Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/vxWsXy). It also restored the original design on the back of the medal although Stermer modified the faces of the male athletes carrying the victor to reflect the ethnic diversity of Olympic competitors.

Megan Stermer, 49, of San Francisco, recalled her father calling her in London, where she was studying at the time, to share the news that he had been asked to redesign the medals.

"He was very proud to have been asked to do that because it is something that is lasting and significant," she said.

In addition to Megan, Stermer is survived by four other children: Dugald of Sherman Oaks, Christopher of Sacramento, Colin of Alameda, and Crystal of San Francisco.

Calif. man to get medal for World War II actions

SAN FRANCISCO  — A Northern California congresswoman says a black Navy veteran credited with saving the lives of some of his shipmates during a battle in World War II will be getting a long-awaited medal for his heroism.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo said Thursday that after a delay of 66 years, Carl Clark of Menlo Park will be awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguished Device in January.

Clark was serving as a steward aboard the USS Aaron Ward in May 1945 when Japanese kamikazes attacked near Okinawa.

Though he suffered a broken collarbone in the attack, Clark was credited with dragging men to safety and dousing a fire in an ammunition locker that could have sunk the ship.

The congresswoman and the 95-year-old Clark both say the recognition took so long because of racism.

Patriots secure first-round bye in playoffs

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey  - Tom Brady led the New England Patriots back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Miami Dolphins 27-24 on Saturday and clinch a first-round bye in the National Football League (NFL) playoffs.

Brady rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another as the Patriots clawed their way back after trailing 17-0 at halftime to improve to 12-3 with just one week of the regular season to go.

The win ensured New England would get a rest in the first week of next month's playoffs and a home game in the second week, though the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens could overtake them for the top seeding in the AFC if the Patriots lose their last game at home next week to the Buffalo Bills.

The Steelers and the Ravens, who are already assured of their spots in the playoffs, both won on Christmas Eve to improve to 11-4.

Pittsburgh, last season's Super Bowl runners-up, thrashed the struggling St. Louis Rams 27-0 despite resting their injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Baltimore, who hold the tie-breaker on the Steelers in the AFC North division, raced away to a 20-0 lead then survived a late comeback from the Cleveland Browns to win 20-14.

Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos (8-7) missed their chance to secure a spot in the postseason when they were beaten 40-14 by the Bills and were then joined at the top of the AFC West standings by the Oakland Raiders after Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 36-yard field goal in overtime to seal a 16-13 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Giants (8-7) won their New York showdown against the Jets 29-14 to set up a sudden-death clash with the Dallas Cowboys next week for the top spot in the NFC East division after Eli Manning's 99-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz.

The loss all but ended the Jets' prospects of making the playoffs when they fell one game behind Cincinnati (9-6) in the race for the AFC wildcard after the Bengals beat the Arizona Cardinals 23-16.

Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck passed for 350 yards in the Titan's 23-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that kept alive their playoff hopes, while Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton broke Peyton Manning's NFL record for the most passing yards in a rookie season.

The 22-year-old Newton surpassed Manning's mark of 3,379 yards, set in 1998, in his team's 48-16 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, adding yet another record to his impressive start in the NFL.

NC women face charges after newborn's death

CHARLOTTE, N.C.  — Two women have been charged with practicing midwifery without a license in North Carolina after a newborn died following an underwater home birth.

Charlotte police arrested 43-year-old Mary Barhite and 45-year-old Jacqueline Proffit on Friday. Practicing midwifery without a license is a misdemeanor charge.

Barhite and Profitt were both released on bond. It couldn't be immediately determined Saturday if either has a lawyer.

In North Carolina, midwives must be registered nurses who are certified by the state.

Charlotte police say the women were at a private home last week assisting with an underwater birth, in which the baby is delivered in a tub of warm water. Police say there were complications with the delivery, and the newborn died after being rushed to a local hospital.

Italian man enraged over laundromat fumes kills 3

ROME  — An elderly man has shot and killed three members of a family who owned a laundromat in southern Italy, apparently incensed by a years-long battle over the smoke and fumes emitted by the washing machines.

The ANSA news agency reports that the suspect used an automatic weapon to shoot and kill the mother in front of the laundromat and two adult children as they tried to flee. He also seriously wounded the father, who was at home, in a Christmas Eve massacre Saturday in the tiny town of Genzano Di Lucania, near Potenza and southeast of Naples, ANSA says.

The suspect, Ettore Bruscella, 77, was immediately taken into custody.

ANSA reports that Bruscella and the Menchise family had a long-running legal feud over the laundromat's chimney.

American Airlines jet forced to return to Reno

RENO, Nev.  — An American Airlines jetliner with 134 passengers aboard was forced to return to Reno-Tahoe International Airport shortly after takeoff because of an electrical malfunction.

American Airlines spokeswoman Dori Alvarez says the plane en route to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport took off at 7:37 a.m. on Saturday and landed about 25 minutes later. She says passengers were being rebooked on other flights, and the cause of the problem was not immediately known.

Alvarez says maintenance crews were examining the MD-80 aircraft, and its flight was canceled.

The pilot decided to return to the Reno airport after a light went off indicating an electrical malfunction.

2 dead, 1 hurt after small plane crash in Ohio

McARTHUR, Ohio — Authorities say two people were killed and a third was flown to a hospital after a single-engine plane crashed near a small airport in rural southeastern Ohio.

Elizabeth Isham Cory of the Federal Aviation Administration said the crash occurred around 1:50 p.m. Saturday near the Vinton County Airport, about 50 miles southeast of Columbus.

Vinton County coroner's investigator Steve Huston said two women on the plane were apparently killed in the crash and the male pilot was flown to a hospital. He said authorities were working to confirm the victims' identities. At least two of the three were from Ohio.

He said the plane apparently was approaching the runway but ended up along a road parallel to the airport. The FAA was gathering details on the plane's route.

Protesters take to Moscow streets, calling for fair elections

Moscow  -- Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Saturday in Moscow, braving bitterly cold weather to demand fair elections after what they claim were rigged results earlier this month that returned Vladimir Putin's party to power.

The protest, organized primarily through social media and word of mouth, comes on the heels of an announcement by President Dmitry Medvedev of sweeping political reforms, an effort to address discontent following the December 4 parliamentary elections.

The latest mass protest follows one earlier this month, when tens of thousands of people across Russia turned out to protest the election results that kept Putin's ruling United Russia party in power, albeit with a smaller majority. Police estimated crowds in Moscow at 25,000, while organizers said at least twice as many participated.

The protests were considered -- among analysts and political observers -- the largest in Russia in the past two decades.

Turnout at Saturday's protests was even greater, organizers said.

Besides blasting election results, demonstrators spoke about the presidential vote scheduled next year, repeating a popular refrain: "Russia without Putin."

Dozens of protesters were detained across Russia on Saturday, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. Ten activists were held in St. Petersburg, 22 in Nizhny Novgorod, and about 20 in Barnaul, it said.

Police put the number of protesters in central Moscow at 29,000, but organizers and RIA Novosti correspondents estimated the real number was several times higher, the news agency reported.

Speaking this week before the newly elected parliament members in the Kremlin's St. George Hall, Medvedev proposed that Russia return to direct elections of regional governors; simplify the registration of political parties and presidential candidates; and establish a new editorially independent national public TV channel.

Medvedev also called for lifting many of the political restrictions imposed in the past several years by his predecessor, Putin, Russia's current prime minister and a candidate in the March 2012 presidential elections.

He also announced a number of new anti-corruption measures and called for the redistribution of power and financial resources from the federal government to local governments across the country.

At the same time, he rejected widespread public criticism of the parliamentary elections, which critics say were marred by fraud and other irregularities, and blamed anti-Kremlin opposition figures for their "attempts to manipulate the people and foment social discord."

"We will not allow instigators and extremists to involve society in their reckless schemes, nor will we tolerate interference in our internal affairs from the outside," Medvedev said.

"Russia needs democracy, not chaos. We need to have a faith for the future and justice. It is a good sign that society is changing, and citizens are expressing their position more actively, setting legitimate demands to the authorities. It is a sign that our democracy is growing more mature."

Protest organizers said Medvedev, who announced the reforms during his fourth and final state-of-the-nation speech Thursday, failed to address what authorities are planning to do about the recent alleged voting fraud, as well as whether fair and free elections are guaranteed in the future.

Networking sites get Feb 6 deadline

NEW DELHI: A trial court on Saturday set a deadline for 22 social networking sites including Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to remove "anti-religious" or "anti-social" content from their websites and directed the companies to file compliance reports by February 6.

Additional Civil Judge Mukesh Kumar, who had on December 20 in an ex-parte order issued summons to the social networking websites, granted around one and half month for compliance of his order. The court was hearing a petition filed by Mufti Aijaz Arshad Qasmi through advocate Santosh Pandey who had also submitted the printouts of the contents and the court asked the websites to remove the content which has been found objectionable by the petitioner.

During the hearing, the representatives of two websites, Yahoo India Pvt Ltd and Microsoft, Out of the 22 websites summoned appeared in court on Saturday and submitted that they have not got the copies of court order and complaint against them and pleaded the judge to provide the same. Pandey assured the court that he would provide the companies with the copy of complaint and other related documents.

Pandey, after the court proceedings, told the reporters that the websites have to submit a compliance report to the court by February 6 detailing what action they have taken to remove the objectionable and derogatory contents from the websites. The court had on December 20 asked the social networking websites to remove the objectionable content in the form of photographs, videos or text which might hurt religious sentiments.

On the last day of hearing on December 20, the court after going through the several printouts of the objectionable contents, CD and other documents, found them defamatory and derogatory and ordered to take them off from the sites.

"I have gone through the record carefully wherein the plaintiff has also filed a CD containing all the defamatory articles and photographs. In my considered opinion, the photographs shown by the plaintiff having content of defamation and derogation against the sentiments of every community.

"Moreover, if the defendant will not be directed to remove the defamatory articles and contents from the social networking websites, not only the plaintiff but every individual who is having religious sentiments would suffer irreparable loss and injury and cannot be compensated in terms of money," the judge had said.

'The websites who have been asked to remove objectionable contents includes Facebook India, Facebook, Google India Pvt Ltd, Google Orkut, Youtube, Blogspot, Microsoft India Pvt Ltd, Microsoft, Zombie Time, Exboii, Boardreader, IMC India, My Lot, Shyni Blog and Topix.

London protesters and church in harmony at Christmas

Anti-capitalist protesters camped outside London's St Paul's Cathedral on Saturday prepared to ring in Christmas along with the church as previous squabbles were put firmly to one side.

Spirits within the Occupy Londoon camp were "perfect" after a High Court judge hearing the case for their removal said Friday he would not reach a verdict until next year.

The protesters and the Church of England (CoE) have not always sung from the same hymn sheet, but the two camps have now found a common message.

Worshippers filing out of St Paul's after a Christmas Eve carol service largely ignored the rag-tag collection of tents on the iconic cathedral's doorstep, but protesters spoke of a new-found bond with the clergy.

"We're working together very well," demonstrator Michael Bell told AFP.

"They performed a service for us on the steps with the clergy singing as the choir," he added. "I'm not religious at all, but I really enjoyed it and so did other people who were there.

"They invited us to Midnight Mass and I will most certainly be attending."

Bell added that their shared values of "community and supporting one another" resonated particularly strongly at Christmas, and explained there had been a spike in numbers of people visiting to pledge support over the festive period.

Also resonating strongly were the booming bass and distorted guitars that entertained a handful of party-minded campers late Saturday, offering a stark contrast to the angelic melodies performed at the earlier church carol service.

On top of impromptu live music events, Occupy London also plans a New Year's Eve concert, a special performance of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and ukulele jamming.

One protester, who wished not to be named, said the "vibe was perfect" after judge Keith Lindblom announced he would not rule on an eviction request from The City of London Corporation -- the local authority in London's financial district -- before January 11.

"It'll take months," the protester predicted. "We're going to stay here until March or April."

Those involved in the case were "all over the place" with happiness, according to Bell.

Up to 200 demonstrators are based at the makeshift camp, which sprang up on October 15 in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street action in New York.

David Forsdick, the counsel for the City of London Corporation, called on Lindblom to issue immediate eviction orders, saying the camp had become a "magnet" for crime, drunks and drug addicts.

The accusations "didn't surprise us," said the unnamed demonstrator, adding that Lindblom had been to the site himself and found no evidence to support the claims.

If eviction orders are issued, demonstrators said they would remain until forcibly removed, and then would "move together, somewhere else."

Cruz, Bradshaw lead Giants past Jets 29-14

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — As far as bragging rights go, this was far from one to boast about.

Neither the Giants nor Jets looked much like playoff material after a week of trash talk about who ruled New York football. But the Giants kept their postseason hopes alive by winning 29-14 on Saturday, with Victor Cruz setting two franchise receiving records and Ahmad Bradshaw running for two touchdowns.

The Giants (8-7) are now in position to win the NFC East with a victory next week against Dallas. Meanwhile, the Jets' playoff hopes took a serious hit, and at 8-7 they'll need to win at Miami next week and get some help from several other teams.

Cruz, who had three catches for 164 yards, broke Amani Toomer's single-season mark for yards receiving — and the team's record for longest touchdown reception, a 99-yarder that gave the Giants the lead for good in the second quarter.

Jets coach Rex Ryan set the tone early in the week, saying he believed his club was the better team in the area. Tom Coughlin responded by saying, "Talk is cheap. Play the game."

It was the Giants who did.

"They were the better team today, and they're the better team this year," Ryan said. "Clearly, I was wrong."

The back-and-forth continued even before the game, when Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes and running back Brandon Jacobs both removed black curtains placed by the Jets over the Giants' Super Bowl logos. The Jets said it was simply their standard practice to cover those logos for every one of the team's home games, regardless of opponent, because it is the players' entrance.

It was a brutal game at times, with both offenses sluggish and prone to mistakes. The Jets were also penalized 10 times, including a late hit call on Aaron Maybin, who plowed into D.J. Ware in the fourth quarter — a play on which Coughlin was injured out of bounds.

The Giants coach needed to be checked out on the bench briefly before limping back to the sideline.

Eli Manning finished just 9 of 27 for 225 yards. Mark Sanchez completed 30 passes on a career-high 59 attempts but put up only 258 yards and was intercepted twice

The sloppiest stretch came midway through the fourth quarter with wild swings of momentum. The Jets got new life after an incompletion on fourth-and-1 from the 47 when Deon Grant was called for pass interference.

Two plays later, Plaxico Burress — playing against the Giants for the first time since they cut him in 2009 and he served a 20-month prison sentence on a gun charge — was called for offensive pass interference to negate a touchdown pass.

On the next snap, Jason Pierre-Paul sacked Sanchez, who lost the ball, and it was recovered by Justin Tuck. Ryan challenged the play, and officials reversed the call, saying Sanchez's arm was going forward.

The Giants got their turnover moments later, though, when Sanchez fumbled the snap from center Nick Mangold in the end zone.

The ball changed hands again when David Harris intercepted Manning's toss that tipped off Hakeem Nicks' hands. The Jets got yet another break after Sanchez was ruled to have been sacked by Linval Joseph, who forced a fumble that the Jets recovered. Ryan challenged again, and the play was reversed, with officials saying it was incomplete.

On third-and-12 from the 13, Sanchez scrambled for 11 yards — and Antrel Rolle was called for holding, putting the ball at the 1. Sanchez rolled right on the next play and dived into the end zone, making it 20-14 with 7:17 left.

But the Jets wouldn't get any closer. Chris Canty sacked Sanchez for a safety, and after an onside free kick by the Jets was recovered by the Giants, Bradshaw had a 19-yard TD run with 2:04 left.

Cruz's 99-yard catch — the longest scoring pass in team history — came with the Giants in dire straits facing third-and-10 from the 1. Manning, standing in the back of the end zone, zipped a pass to Cruz, who dodged tackle attempts by Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson and took off down the right sideline. Eric Smith was the only one with a chance to get him, but Cruz outran him to give the Giants a 10-7 lead with 2:12 left in the opening half.

It was also the longest offensive play against the Jets in team history.

The Giants nearly had another huge play moments later when Sanchez completed a short pass to Jeremy Kerley, who was spun down by Rolle and lost the ball. Aaron Ross picked it up and raced into the end zone. But the play went to video review and officials reversed the call, saying Kerley's elbow was down — although it looked as if the ball might have come out when the receiver's elbow hit Rolle's shoe.

With a second chance, Sanchez marched the Jets down the field to the 19, but the Giants' defense stiffened and Pierre-Paul got a sack on third down. Nick Folk then missed an opportunity to tie it, hooking a 44-yard attempt wide right as the first half ended.

Vikings' Peterson to have MRI on sprained knee

LANDOVER, Md. — Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was scheduled for an MRI late Saturday after taking a direct hit to his left knee in Saturday's 33-26 win over the Washington Redskins.

Coach Leslie Frazier said Peterson had a sprained knee and would be evaluated after the team returned to Minnesota.

Peterson said he knew "it was something bad" the moment he was hit and that he was in "severe pain" on he lay on the field. He was hurt on a tackle by Redskins safety DeJon Gomes on a 3-yard gain on the first offensive play of the second half.

On the next play, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was hurt when sacked by Adam Carriker and London Fletcher. Frazier said Ponder had "concussion-like symptoms" and will be reevaluated in the coming days.

Death toll rises to 13 in Colombia pipeline blast

Thirteen people were confirmed dead and nearly 100 injured in a pipeline explosion in western Colombia, officials said Saturday at the conclusion of a two-day rescue and recovery mission.

The pre-dawn blast Friday ripped through a section of the pipeline near the city of Dosquebradas, creating an inferno that destroyed 35 shantytown homes and damaged 50 more.

"The search operation has ended with a total of 13 people killed and 99 injured, of whom 49 are still in medical centers," an official of the National Risk Management Office told AFP, raising Friday's death toll by two and the number of injured by about 20.

Authorities initially blamed the blast on fuel thieves, but later backtracked to say the pipeline was likely fractured during a ground tremor brought on by heavy rains in recent weeks.

Most of Colombia is on alert over the intense downpours which have been blamed for at least 177 deaths since September and have left thousands homeless, according to the latest report from Risk Management.

Raiders stay alive with 16-13 OT win over Chiefs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 36-yard field goal 2:13 into overtime Saturday, giving the Oakland Raiders a 16-13 victory over Kansas City that eliminated the Chiefs from the playoff race and kept their own AFC West hopes alive.

Carson Palmer threw for 237 yards and a touchdown for the Raiders (8-7). His perfectly thrown 53-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey early in overtime set up Janikowski's winning kick, allowing Oakland to avoid a second straight late-game meltdown.

Kyle Orton threw for 300 yards for Kansas City, his only touchdown pass going to Dwayne Bowe with 1:02 left in regulation to tie the game. The Raiders went three-and-out, giving Kansas City the ball back with little time on the clock, and Orton hit Bowe for 25 yards and Terrance Copper for 11 more to set up Ryan Succop for a potential winning field goal on the final play of the game.

Succop's 49-yard try was blocked by Trevor Scott to send the game to overtime.

Boston student re-united with $170,000 violin

Christmas came early for a Boston music student who was reunited with the $170,000 violin she forgot in the overhead compartment of a regional commuter bus she rode this week, police said on Saturday.

Muchen Hsieh, a student at the New England Conservatory in Boston, had traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, arriving at roughly 11 p.m. on Tuesday.

Christine O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia police, who helped Hsieh track down the missing instrument, said then came a moment of sheer panic for the student.

O'Brien said Hsieh realized she had forgotten the instrument after she was picked up from the bus station. She blamed her absent-mindedness on travel fatigue.

Hsieh called the bus company, Megabus, roughly 30 minutes after she arrived but the bus had already left the Philadelphia station, O'Brien said. Hsieh also notified police, making a plea for the instrument's recovery, O'Brien said.

The 176-year-old instrument, on loan to Hsieh from a Taiwanese cultural foundation, was found by bus cleaners in the same compartment in which Hsieh left it. They put it in storage, and police returned it to Hsieh on Friday.

Hsieh joins the ranks of esteemed musicians who have mislaid or forgotten their valuable and sometimes priceless instruments. World renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma once left his in a cab.

One German string player required medical attention from the stress caused when he left his violin, worth roughly $1.4 million, on a commuter train in 2010.

It is not unusual for students at Hsieh's school to have such valuable instruments, Ellen Pfeifer, spokeswoman for the New England Conservatory, told the Boston Globe.

"Most of our string players, whether violinists, cellists, or violists, have pretty expensive, old, rare, instruments," Pfeifer said. "They frequently get them on loan from wealthy foundations."

The violin, which is in pristine condition, was made in 1835 by Vincenzo Jorio in Naples.

"This is certainly one of the most expensive items I have ever heard of and we were so relieved to get it back to the owner," said Megabus spokesman Bryony Chamberlain, adding that people often forget stowed-away items after long trips.

Hsieh had traveled from Boston to New York City and then to Philadelphia, Chamberlain said, a trip that could have taken more than six and a half hours.

"Each division has incidents of lost items that rare -- but this is probably one of the most unique," police spokeswoman O'Brien said, adding that Hsieh put on a mini-concert for the officers who organized the recovery.

"She is very talented," O'Brien said.

Flacco leads Ravens to 20-14 win over Browns

BALTIMORE (iBBC News) — Joe Flacco threw two touchdown passes, and the Baltimore Ravens beat the Cleveland Browns 20-14 on Saturday to move one step closer to winning the AFC North.

Ray Rice ran for 87 yards and caught a TD pass for the Ravens (11-4), who led 17-0 at halftime and held on against the bumbling Browns. Baltimore completed its first unbeaten season at home (8-0).

The Ravens would win the AFC North by defeating Cincinnati on the road next week. That would also give them a first-round bye and a home playoff game.

Josh Cribbs had a career-high 84-yard punt return for Cleveland (4-11). But the Browns generated very little offense and were victimized by questionable play calling, bad clock management and untimely penalties in their fifth straight loss.

Stores see busy, but not bang-up Christmas Eve

NEW YORK/LAS VEGAS  - Retailers saw a steady flow of last-minute shoppers on Saturday, the day before Christmas, putting a moderate cap on a pre-holiday season that started with a bang and has since waned.

Industry watchers are forecasting a stronger holiday shopping season than expected, fueled by deep discounts at the start of the season, unusually warm and dry weather, a late Hanukkah, and an extra shopping day.

On the last shopping day before Christmas, the scene at several malls in different parts of the country was busy, but neither shoppers nor retailers seemed overwhelmed.

"The last-minute Charlies have come out," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group. "Stores are busy, but not bustling."

The fact that Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday is good for retailers like Wal-Mart Stores, Best Buy and Gap Inc. So is the fact that the day after Christmas is a Monday, instead of a Sunday like last year, when many people stayed home and watched American football, said Ramesh Swamy, an analyst in Deloitte's retail practice.

"The calendar is working in our favor," Swamy said.

So is the fact that there was no blizzard this year, like there was last year.

Many stores around the country saw brisk traffic in the past week, and Friday was the busiest shopping day of the season, according to a survey of stores done by mall operator Taubman Centers Inc.

Sales at surveyed stores were trending up at a mid-single-digit rate for the week, on average, Taubman said, though luxury goods stores were trending up at high-single to double-digit rates.

Saturday caps a key week in the retail calendar that saw a handful of major U.S. store chains staying open around the clock to cater to consumers' late-night shopping craves, from Toys R Us Inc to Macy's Inc, a decision hailed by shoppers and industry watchers alike.

The National Retail Federation raised its forecast for holiday retail sales to a 3.8 percent increase from an October forecast of a 2.8 percent increase.

And ShopperTrak, which monitors traffic at shopping malls, now expects sales in November and December to rise 3.7 percent, up from its September forecast of 3 percent.

NOTHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT

The Thanksgiving weekend, which marks the unofficial start to holiday shopping, saw sales soar 16.4 percent to $52.4 billion this year, the NRF said. The number of transactions at merchants jumped 17 percent on Black Friday alone, dwarfing the 5 percent gains seen in the prior two years, according to data from MasterCard Inc's network.

The binge was spurred by deep discounts, but they have since moderated, thanks to tighter inventory management by retailers who often would rather sell fewer items at full price than more items at profit-sapping markdowns.

"It isn't how much you sell but how well you sell it," said NPD's Cohen. "Retailers would rather sell out than sell off."

As a result, inventory on key gift items, such as sweaters, was quite low in many stores on Saturday, Cohen said, and the discounts were not that extreme.

One shopper, who only wanted to be identified as 67-year-old Bill V., was finishing up his holiday shopping at a Las Vegas-area Macy's store early Saturday morning.

Armed with several bags filled with gifts for his wife, daughter and grandson, he said the deals were not much to write home about.

"They were OK. They could have been better," he said.

Vickie Hoffman, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom, bought some perfume and lotions at Victoria's Secret and an engraved snow globe for some last-minute gifts on Saturday.

"I didn't think so much of the sales this year," Hoffman said. "I didn't think there were many great deals. I just didn't see them."

Most of the steepest discounts on clothing on Saturday were for cold-weather coats, due to the mild weather this season.

A Macy's in suburban Las Vegas was offering 50 percent to 60 percent off women's winter coats, 60 percent off sweaters, 50 percent off slippers and fuzzy socks and 40 percent to 70 percent off purses.

Children's clothing chain Gymboree was selling all its merchandise, in stores and online, for $15.99 or less. Guess Inc had 50 percent off sweaters, outerwear and boots and teen clothing chain Aeropostale Inc had women's fleeces, originally $49.50, on sale for $18 and men's and women's jeans, originally $54.50, on sale for $25.

All retailers offer discounts to draw shoppers as part of their holiday strategy. But unplanned markdowns, as a result of poor sales, is what hurts profit margins.

On balance, margins are expected to be better this year than last, Cohen said, but January will be the key. That is when shoppers head to stores with returns or gift cards, often spending 16 percent more than the value of their credit, he said.

Some retailers' tactics included offering people store credit that they can use starting next week, as a way to get them back in the stores once the full-priced, spring merchandise hits shelves, Swamy said.

The weak economy has put a damper on consumer confidence, but shoppers' resilience has surprised the industry.

"There are still a lot of issues out there, including uncertainty in the economy," Swamy said. "But for whatever reason it didn't dampen people's holiday spirit.

Gingrich fails to qualify for Va. primary ballot

WASHINGTON  — Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for Virginia's Super Tuesday primary ballot, the latest setback for a candidate whose standing in polls has been slipping. Gingrich's campaign said he would pursue an aggressive write-in campaign, though state law prohibits write-ins on primary ballots.

The state party said early Saturday that Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry had failed to submit the required 10,000 signatures to appear on the March 6 ballot.

Failing to get on the ballot in Virginia, where Gingrich lives, underscores the difficulty first-time national candidates have in preparing for the long haul of a presidential campaign.

And it illustrates the advantage held by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who has essentially been running for president for five years. Romney's team, larger than those of most of his opponents, has paid close attention to filing requirements in each state. He will appear on the Virginia ballot along with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who also has run a national campaign before.

Ironically, Gingrich had a slight lead over Romney in a Quinnipiac poll of Virginia Republicans released earlier in the week.

The former House speaker surged in popularity in early December and tried to use that momentum to make up for a stalled campaign organization. But his standing in polls has slipped in recent days amid a barrage of negative ads in Iowa, where the Jan. 3 caucuses begin the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

Three other candidates — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — did not submit signatures before Virginia's deadline of 5 p.m. Thursday.

Gingrich's campaign attacked Virginia's primary system on Saturday, saying that "only a failed system" would disqualify Gingrich and other candidates and vowing to run a write-in campaign.

"Voters deserve the right to vote for any top contender, especially leading candidates," Gingrich campaign director Michael Krull said in a statement. "We will work with the Republican Party of Virginia to pursue an aggressive write-in campaign to make sure that all the voters of Virginia are able to vote for the candidate of their choice."

However, according to state law, "No write-in shall be permitted on ballots in primary elections."

"Virginia code prohibits write-ins in primaries. He can't do it," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at University of Richmond.

Tobias said Gingrich may have had trouble meeting a requirement that he must submit 400 signatures from each of Virginia's 11 congressional districts.

Gingrich's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Gingrich had been concerned enough to deliver his signatures personally. Rushing Wednesday from New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Jan. 10, he had supporters sign petitions before entering a rally in Arlington, Va.

Virginia GOP spokesman Garren Shipley said in a statement that volunteers spent Friday validating signatures on petitions that Romney, Paul, Perry and Gingrich had submitted. "After verification, RPV has determined that Newt Gingrich did not submit required 10k signatures and has not qualified for the VA primary," the party announced early Saturday on its Twitter feed. Shipley did not respond to telephone calls Saturday seeking comment.

Forty-six delegates will be at stake in Virginia's Super Tuesday primary. That's a small fraction of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. But they could prove pivotal in a close race, especially for a candidate like Gingrich, who expects to do well in Southern contests.

Gingrich already missed the deadline to appear on the ballot in Missouri's Feb. 7 primary, though he insists it doesn't matter because the state awards delegates based not on the primary but on a Republican caucus held in March.

Meanwhile, Virginia's Democrats said President Barack Obama's re-election campaign gathered enough signatures to get him on the state's primary ballot though he was the only candidate who qualified.

Iraq Sunni leader says charges could reignite sectarian war

QALACHOWLAN, Iraq  - Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, wanted on charges he led death squads, called the case a plot to destroy opponents of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that could reignite the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07.

Iraq has been plunged into a political crisis in the week since the final U.S. troops withdrew, after Maliki's Shi'ite-led government unveiled an arrest warrant for Hashemi, who left Baghdad for the semi-autonomous Kurdish north of the country.

Maliki also asked parliament to fire his Sunni deputy prime minister, sidelining Iraq's two most powerful Sunni Arab leaders and potentially undoing a shaky power-sharing deal that Washington hoped would keep peace after nine years of war.

"Today the outcome of this crisis, which was unfortunately blown up by the prime minister, is very dangerous," Hashemi told Reuters in an interview at a guesthouse of Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, in the Kurdish north's Sulaimaniya province.

"Today Iraqis live under the atmosphere of sectarian tension that we lived through in the hard years of 2005-2007," he said.

Speaking about himself and his Sunni Arab community, Hashemi added: "Mr Maliki knows the supporters of Tareq al-Hashemi and which community he belongs to, and therefore he should have thought about the negative consequences of these issues."

Violence in Iraq has subsided since the sectarian civil war of 2006-07, when Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militia killed thousands of civilians each month, but without U.S. troops to act as a buffer, many Iraqis now fear a return to those days.

At least 72 people were killed in bombings across Baghdad in mainly Shi'ite neighborhoods on Thursday, in the first sign of a possible violent backlash against Maliki's moves.

The main goal of U.S. policymakers in the final years of the war was to prevent a recurrence of that bloodshed by ensuring that Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds all remained represented in the government in Baghdad.

A power-sharing deal reached a year ago kept Maliki in office at the helm of a fragile unity coalition. But that appears to have unraveled just as the final U.S. troops pulled out a week ago. Hashemi's Iraqiya bloc, the main Sunni-backed group has suspended its participation in parliament.

"POLITICAL HIT"

Hashemi said the timing of the accusations against him to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal was "deliberate."

"The target is clear, a political hit for Tareq al-Hashemi... The political dimension for this is to get rid of all those who oppose Nuri al-Maliki, it is clear. So Iraq can stay in the grip of one-man rule and one-party rule."

Shi'ite leaders say the case against Hashemi is criminal and not motivated by politics. It cannot be negotiated because it is now with the courts.

Iraq's interior ministry broadcast taped confessions it said were from Hashemi's security detail, talking about payments Hashemi made to them to carry out assassinations and bombings.

Hashemi denied all charges which he said were "fabricated." He said the three bodyguards worked for him but the confessions showed on Iraqi TV were "taken by force."

Hashemi said he had no plans to seek political asylum or flee Iraq, but had requested that the case against him be moved to a court in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, rather than Baghdad where "the executive power controls the judiciary."

"If they are seeking justice, let them agree to my request and I will stand trial and will accept any verdict by Kurdistan's courts," he said. "They are not part of Maliki's project and they are not part of Hashemi's project. Kurdistan will be the fair judge in this issue."

Asked if he would consider leaving Iraq or seeking asylum, he said: "This is my country, these are not my thoughts and not in my plans... I will not run from justice."

Looking weary during the interview, Hashemi said he had initially come to Sulaimaniya with a small suitcase and two suits - and had told his wife he would be back in Baghdad after 48 hours.

He planned to stay in the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone for now, and his family had left Iraq after a wave of raids by security forces on his house and office and arrests of his staff, he said.

NH parents: Sick son ordered out of safety seat

BEDFORD, N.H.  — A New Hampshire couple says Southwest Airlines flight attendants put the couple's terminally ill son at risk by ordering him out of a safety seat and into a regular passenger seat.

Chris Dainiak of Bedford said he and his wife were told to remove 8-year-old Nicholas from his protective travel seat for a Friday flight home from Florida. Nicholas suffers from a rare illness and can't walk, talk, or hold his head up.

Dainiak told The iBBC News the attendants agreed Nicholas would be safer in his special seat but didn't know if it was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. He said he wants Southwest to develop a policy to ensure other people with disabled children aren't put in similar situations.

Southwest said it was looking into Dainiak's concern.

United won't be forced into signings, says Fergie

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will not be forced by public opinion into making rash buys in the January transfer window.

Ashley Young has joined an extensive injury list that includes the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Anderson, Michael Owen and Tom Cleverley, while Darren Fletcher is also sidelined with a bowel condition.

But the United manager, writing in his programme notes for Monday's Premier League game against Wigan, said: "All things being equal I am perfectly happy with the strength of our squad.

"I will not be swayed by the endless tweets and blogs urging the club to get busy in the transfer market.

"As far as I am concerned I am marching perfectly in step, true to my beliefs and principles.

"While recruiting some of the world's leading players can lift you into contention for honours, it doesn't necessarily take you all the way, as I hope we will be able to demonstrate before the end of the season as other factors come into play.

"You can never say never in football, of course, because fortunes can fluctuate wildly. If a really top-class player became available, then we would go for him, or if we picked up any further serious injuries, it might be important to add to our squad."

In 2012 race, both sides seek middle-class voters

WASHINGTON  — Fighting to win over unhappy American voters, President Barack Obama and his Republican challengers are seizing on one of the most potent issues this election season: the struggling middle class and the widening gap between rich and poor.
Highlighted by the Occupy movement and fanned by record profits on Wall Street at a time of stubborn unemployment, economic inequality is now taking center stage in the 2012 presidential campaign, emphasized by Obama and offering opportunities and risks for him and his GOP opponents as both sides battle for the allegiance of the angst-ridden electorate.
For Obama, who calls boosting middle-class opportunity "the defining issue of our time," the question is whether he can bring voters along — while parrying GOP accusations of class warfare — even though he's failed to solve the country's economic woes during his first term in office.
For Republicans, Obama's potential vulnerability gives them an opening, but they also must battle perceptions that their policies favor the wealthy at a time when voters support Obama's call to raise taxes on the very rich. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has already made clear he'll resist Obama's attempts to capitalize on the issue, adopting the language of Occupy Wall Street in an interview with the Washington Post this month where he called the president "a member of the 1 percent."
For both sides, the question is how to find political advantage in light of a weak economy with unemployment above 8 percent. Since Obama is expected to run for re-election with higher unemployment than any recent president even if the economy continues to show signs of improvement, he must aim to set the terms of the debate in a way that helps him and hurts the GOP — while Republicans will be working just as hard to deny him any advantage.
The president won a year-end victory Friday with the passage of a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut that had bipartisan support in the Senate.
The measure will keep in place a 2 percentage point cut in the Social Security payroll tax — worth about $20 a week for a typical worker making $50,000 a year — and prevent almost 2 million unemployed people from losing jobless benefits averaging $300 a week.
House Republicans had unsuccessfully attempted to push for further negotiations toward a yearlong extension, which allowed Obama to argue for the two-month extension of the tax cuts and prevention of a pending tax increase. The two sides resume discussions on the payroll tax cut early next year.
Obama's campaign pressed its economic argument Friday in an op-ed by Vice President Joe Biden in The Des Moines Register where Biden, taking direct aim at Romney, wrote that the former Massachusetts governor "would actually double down on the policies that caused the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression and accelerated a decades-long assault on the middle class."
Romney, campaigning in New Hampshire, quickly countered that it's Obama who is hurting the country and expressed astonishment that Biden would have the "chutzpah ... the delusion" to write such a piece. "This president and his policies have made it harder on the American people and on the middle class," Romney said.
It was a preview of an argument certain to carry through the 2012 race, as the Obama campaign, viewing Romney as the likely GOP nominee even before any votes have been cast, works vigorously to define him early on, and Romney does everything he can to resist.
And the dispute taps into a striking reality. After-tax income grew by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007 for the top 1 percent of the population, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found in a report this fall. But for the 20 percent of the population making the least money, income growth over the same period was only 18 percent.
Obama "is viewed as more likely to help the middle class than is the GOP, so he can capitalize on this by playing on concerns about inequality and contrasting his positions and the GOP's on issues like tax cuts for the wealthy," John Sides, political science professor at George Washington University, said by email. "However," Sides added, "it's an open question whether that strategy would enable him to overcome a weak economy and win."
Aides say Obama has long been concerned with economic inequality given his background in community organizing. But he brought the issue into much sharper focus in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., earlier this month, where he reprised a populist message delivered in the same town by Theodore Roosevelt decades ago, and decried a growing inequality between chief executives and their workers.
"This kind of inequality — a level that we haven't seen since the Great Depression — hurts us all," Obama said at the time.
"This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that's at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try."
The issue has become a rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement that's swept the country, with activists proclaiming "We are the 99 percent" — as opposed to the "1 percent" at the top. And Obama advisers have identified this sense of inequality as the strongest current running through politics, one that they will be focusing on through Election Day.
But some polling suggests a note of caution for Obama in pressing the inequality argument. Gallup found this month that a majority of Americans don't view the country as divided into haves and have-nots. The polling also found that more people thought it was important for the government to focus on growing and expanding the economy, (82 percent) and increasing equality of opportunity (70 percent) than on reducing the income and wealth gap between the rich and poor (46 percent).
"The middle class certainly believes that it's in trouble and rightly so, because it is," said Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser now at the Brookings Institution. "But they are yet to be convinced that going after the rich will go to the heart of the problems that now afflict them."
That may suggest an opening for some GOP attacks against Obama. Romney charged in a speech in New Hampshire this month that Obama is pursuing an "entitlement society," versus the "opportunity society" that the former Massachusetts governor said he wants to offer the country. Newt Gingrich, Romney and other Republicans also regularly accuse Obama of "class warfare."
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod called such criticism the "Republican cartoon" of Obama's argument.
"In some ways the race will be different depending on who the nominee is but in some ways the same because they largely subscribe to the same economic theory" of cutting taxes for the wealthy and paring back regulations, said Axelrod. He added that Obama's speech in Osawatomie, Kan., "was a very, very good statement of his values and vision and will help frame much of what comes in the next year."

Nonprofits aiding Paul blur a line

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The passionate support of an eclectic group of libertarians and young people has Ron Paul in contention to win the Iowa caucus. So has the work of two well-funded nonprofits that for the past three years have kept his aides employed, his volunteers organized and his ideas afloat.

Those nonprofits, including Paul's flagship Campaign for Liberty, blur the line between his presidential campaign and issue advocacy in a way experts say runs afoul of the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of federal tax and campaign finance law.

But unlike a political campaign organization, whose finances are tightly regulated and made public, such advocacy nonprofits can raise unlimited sums of money and aren't required to disclose where it came from or all the details about how it was spent.

"It sounds like it was a way to maintain a permanent campaign," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "These groups were never supposed to be political organizations, but more and more, we're seeing them used that way. All of this is leading to our elections getting more and more out of control with fewer regulations."

Paul, a 76-year-old Texas congressman, finished fifth in the 2008 Iowa caucus and abandoned his long-shot presidential campaign that summer. As he left the race, he urged his supporters to continue their fight for libertarian principles by joining his new group, the Campaign for Liberty. He called the transformation of his presidential campaign into the nonprofit a "legal formality" that would allow him to continue building his famously energetic network of volunteers, online activists and college students.

The Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, a separate group formed to spread his message to high school and college students, were organized as "social welfare organizations" under U.S. tax law. That means they cannot make politics and promoting candidates their primary activities.

The groups quickly found a home in the tea party movement, hosting conferences, training activists and distributing petitions asking members of Congress to support one of Paul's signature policies — a plan to audit the Federal Reserve. The Campaign for Liberty raised more than $13 million between 2008 and 2010 that paid for direct mail, telemarketing, staff salaries and other expenses. The group claims more than 600,000 members and more than 170 chapters of Young Americans for Liberty at high schools and colleges.

Drew Ivers, who founded the Iowa chapter of Campaign for Liberty, said the nonprofit's goal was never to lay the groundwork for Paul's 2012 presidential campaign. Organizers were careful to separate political work from the work of advocating Paul's ideas, he added. But he acknowledged the organization has helped Paul in Iowa, which will hold its first-in-the-nation presidential nominating caucuses on Jan. 3.

"It kept the ideas alive. And as people who were involved in the Campaign for Liberty liked the idea of limited government, they look at the field of presidential candidates and say, 'You know, I think Ron Paul is serious about this idea,'" Ivers said.

The other candidates from 2008 who are again running in 2012 also took steps between campaigns to build their political clout. President Barack Obama formed his "Organizing for America" group at the Democratic National Committee, while Republican Mitt Romney used a political action committee to raise money, shower donations on lawmakers and pay for his travel to key states. Paul had a PAC, too.

But the finances of both the DNC and political action committees such as Romney's Free and Strong America PAC — unlike Paul's nonprofits — are regulated by the Federal Election Commission and subject to financial disclosure rules.

Paul's presidential campaign is thoroughly intertwined with the nonprofits. The Campaign for Liberty calls itself a lobbying group for "individual liberty, constitutional government, sound money, free markets and a noninterventionist foreign policy" — a tidy summation of Paul's campaign platform. Young Americans for Liberty's support of Paul is even more explicit, calling itself the continuation of the Students for Ron Paul wing of his 2008 campaign, coordinating his visits to campuses and publishing a magazine in which he laid out his "agenda for a freedom president."

Between the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, both nonprofits were stocked with Paul aides and relatives. Ivers served as Paul's Iowa campaign chairman in 2008 and holds the same position again this year. The Campaign for Liberty's president, John Tate, was paid a total of $338,000 by the group in 2009 and 2010. He is now Paul's national campaign manager. The nonprofit's senior vice president was Jesse Benton, who is now Paul's campaign chairman; its vice president was Debbie Hopper, who is now Paul's assistant campaign manager.

Lori Pyeatt, Paul's daughter, served until recently as the Campaign for Liberty's part-time secretary and treasurer, earning $34,000 for her work last year. Her daughter is married to Benton. Paul's son Ronnie is the group's unpaid chairman.

In all, nine out of the 16 staff members at the Campaign for Liberty are on leaves of absence from the group to work for Paul's campaign. The nonprofit's executive director, Matthew Hawes, said the group is still able to function and is an active advocate on state and federal issues unrelated to Paul's presidential campaign.

Paul campaign spokesman Gary Howard — who for 18 months served as the Campaign for Liberty's spokesman — said Paul resigned as Campaign for Liberty's honorary chairman when he joined the presidential race and believes the nonprofits complied with Internal Revenue Service rules. Still, like Ivers, he acknowledged the nonprofits have indirectly aided the campaign by training activists and raising his issues.

Paul isn't the first to use such a strategy to keep his name in the public's view between bids for the White House. Democrat John Edwards did the same between the 2004 and 2008 campaigns by founding a nonprofit center dedicated to fighting poverty, his central campaign issue.

Federal investigators later issued a subpoena for information about Edwards' nonprofit, according to details previously provided to The Associated Press. An attorney for Edwards has said the nonprofit paid money to Edwards' mistress' video production firm, and the former senator from North Carolina was later indicted on campaign finance charges related to payments from wealthy donors that were used to help hide the woman.

Marcus Owens, a Washington lawyer who headed the exempt organizations division at the IRS from 1990 to 2000, questions whether such nonprofits were truly designed to serve the "social welfare purpose" as required by law.

In Paul's case, the groups also helped his son's political career. At least two aides from the Campaign for Liberty left to help Rand Paul win election to the U.S. Senate in Kentucky last year.

"Any family campaign seems to draw them out. It's not conclusive, but it tends to suggest a private, not a public, purpose behind the organization," Owens said. "It's not a social welfare purpose to keep a campaign staff together and to promote the personal ideas of one individual."

Vikings' Peterson, Ponder out vs. Redskins

LANDOVER, Md.  — Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson injured his left knee, and Christian Ponder suffered a concussion on back-to-back plays Saturday against the Washington Redskins.

Peterson took a direct hit to the knee from Redskins safety DeJon Gomes on a 3-yard gain on the first offensive play of the second half.

Peterson lay on the ground for a couple of minutes and did not put any weight on his left leg as he was helped off the field. He was later taken on a cart to the Vikings locker room.

On the next play, Ponder was sacked by Adam Carriker and London Fletcher. Ponder remained in the game for one more play — a third-down incomplete pass — before heading to the locker room.

The Vikings said neither player would return.

Peterson had 12 carries for 38 yards when he left the game. He also had a 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

Ponder had completed 8 of 13 passes for 68 yards. He was replaced by Joe Webb, who scored on a 9-yard run on the next series to give the Vikings the lead.

U.S. regrets Cuba failure to free American citizen

WASHINGTON - The State Department said on Saturday it deplored Cuba's failure to free Alan Gross - a U.S. citizen serving a 15-year prison term in a case that has stalled progress in U.S.-Cuba relations - as part of an announced humanitarian release of some 2,900 prisoners.

"If this is correct, we are deeply disappointed and deplore the fact that the Cuban government has decided not to take this opportunity to extend this humanitarian release to Mr. Gross this holiday season, especially in light of his deteriorating health, and to put an end to the Gross family's long plight," Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said Saturday.

The Cuban government said on Friday it would free 2,900 prisoners in coming days for humanitarian reasons ahead of a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI.

Those to be pardoned do not include Gross, a government spokesman said in Havana. He was imprisoned after setting up Internet equipment as a subcontractor in a U.S.-funded program promoting political change in Cuba.

The Cuban government considered his work subversive. His arrest halted a brief warming in U.S.-Cuba relations that have been hostile since Fidel Castro embraced Soviet Communism after his 1959 revolution.

In a statement, Toner reiterated a U.S. call on Cuban authorities to release Gross "and return him to his family, where he belongs." The State Department has said in the past that Gross was merely providing Internet access for Jewish groups in Cuba and should be released immediately.

Unprovoked attacks at heart of 'Knockout King'

ST. LOUIS — Matthew Quain still struggles to piece together what happened after a trip to the grocery store nearly turned deadly. He remembers a group of loitering young people, a dimly lit street — then nothing. The next thing he knew he was waking up with blood pouring out of his head.

The 51-year-old pizza kitchen worker's surreal experience happened just before midnight earlier this year, when he became another victim of what is generally known as "Knockout King" or simply "Knock Out," a so-called game of unprovoked violence that targets random victims.

Scattered reports of the game have come from around the country including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Chicago. In St. Louis, the game has become almost contagious, with tragic consequences. An elderly immigrant from Vietnam died in an attack last spring.

The rules of the game are as simple as they are brutal. A group — usually young men or even boys as young as 12, and teenage girls in some cases — chooses a lead attacker, then seeks out a victim. Unlike typical gang violence or other street crime, the goal is not revenge, nor is it robbery. The victim is chosen at random, often a person unlikely to put up a fight. Many of the victims have been elderly. Most were alone.

The attacker charges at the victim and begins punching. If the victim goes down, the group usually scatters. If not, others join in, punching and kicking the person, often until he or she is unconscious or at least badly hurt. Sometimes the attacks are captured on cellphone video that is posted on websites.

"These individuals have absolutely no respect for human life," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.

Slay knows firsthand. He was on his way home from a theater around 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 21 when he saw perhaps a dozen young people casually crossing a street. He looked to the curb and saw Quain sprawled on the pavement.

Slay told his driver to pull over. They found Quain unconscious, blood pouring from his head and mouth.

Quain was hospitalized for two days with a broken jaw, a cracked skull and nasal cavity injuries. He still has headaches and memory problems but was finally able to return to work earlier this month. Hundreds gathered in November for a fundraiser at the restaurant where he works, Joanie's Pizza, but he still doesn't know how he'll pay the medical bills.

"I don't remember much of what happened," Quain said. "I was hanging out with a friend, celebrating the Cardinals in the World Series. I went to the store and saw a group of kids who looked out of place, suspicious, but I shrugged it off. I got around to the library, and the next thing I remember is waking up on the corner with the mayor standing next to me. I tried to say 'hi' but my jaw was broken."

It isn't clear how long Knockout King has been around, nor is the exact number of attacks known. The FBI doesn't track it separately, but Slay said he has heard from several mayors about similar attacks and criminologists agree versions of the game are going on in many places.

St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom said the city has had about 10 Knockout King attacks over the past 15 months.

Experts say it is a grab for attention.

"We know that juveniles don't think out consequences clearly," said Beth Huebner, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "They see something on YouTube and say, 'I want to get that sort of attention, too.' They don't think about the person they're attacking maybe hitting their head."

Scott Decker, a criminologist at Arizona State, said the attacks are a modern extension of gang-like behavior — instead of painting over another gang's graffiti as a show of toughness, they beat someone up and post a video on social media sites. The postings spur copycat crimes.

"It's adolescent and early adults, largely male, showing how tough they are. It's done to show off," Decker said.

Earlier this year in Chicago, a group of teens followed an elderly homeless man at a train station. One of the teens walked up to him and punched him in the face, knocking him out as the teen's friends laughed and mocked the man. The exchange was captured on video and posted on a hip-hop site, where it got about a quarter of a million views within two days. The teen was not arrested because police couldn't locate the homeless man to see if he wanted to press charges.

The crimes aren't limited to big cities. In 2009, Adam Taylor had just entered a parking garage in Columbia, Mo. Surveillance footage from the garage showed a group of teens following him. One of the teens attacked, punching Taylor and sending him crashing into a brick wall. A few seconds later, the others joined in, punching and kicking him as he lay on the ground. Taylor suffered bruising on the brain, whiplash and internal bleeding but survived.

Hoang Nguyen wasn't as fortunate.

The 72-year-old retired schoolteacher immigrated to St. Louis from Vietnam with his wife less than four years earlier to be near their daughter. The couple was returning to their apartment after walking to a grocery store on an April morning in broad daylight.

They took a shortcut through an alley, where they saw a group of young people approaching. Suddenly, one of them charged. Hoang was attacked as he stepped in front of his wife to protect her. The attack went on as he begged for mercy, she told police.

Hoang died of massive injuries. Elex Murphy, 18, was charged with first-degree murder and allegedly told police the attack was part of the Knockout King game. His attorney declined to comment.

St. Louis authorities are going to the source to combat further attacks. A special police squad has been assigned to focus on Knockout King, and a city prosecutor is designated for the attacks. But Isom said equally important is an outreach effort to talk to students.

"Certainly we take this very seriously and we're making every effort to stop it," Isom said.

New York City taps Donald Trump to run golf course

NEW YORK  — New York City has chosen Donald Trump's company to run a new public golf course in the Bronx.

Trump says he hopes to bring prestigious tournaments to the Ferry Point Golf Course. The city plans to open the golf course in 2014 on 222 acres of parkland near the Whitestone Bridge.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe (BEHN'-uh-pee) says the Trump Organization has a good record of running golf courses nationwide. It has granted the company a 20-year license agreement to operate the course. The company will build a $10 million clubhouse as part of the deal.

The Trump Organization holds other concessions with the city's parks department. It operates the Central Park Carousel and the Wollman and Lasker ice skating rings, also in Central Park.

Venezuelan opposition politician freed from prison

CARACAS, Venezuela  — A Venezuelan opposition politician who has prostate cancer has been freed after four years in prison.

Jose Sanchez Montiel was sentenced last year to 19 years in prison after being convicted of complicity in the killing of a military intelligence official in 2007.

His lawyer Theresly Malave says a court granted Sanchez conditional humanitarian release on Friday because of the cancer.

Sanchez was elected to the National Assembly last year. He maintains he is innocent.

Some opposition politicians have described him as a political prisoner. Sanchez is one of four jailed opponents of President Hugo Chavez who have been paroled this year due to health problems.

Last combat troops out of Iraq back at Fort Hood

FORT HOOD, Texas  — Soldiers in the last U.S. combat brigade to leave Iraq have arrived home in time for Christmas.

Nearly 200 soldiers arrived at Fort Hood on Saturday, while others arrived earlier in the week. The drizzling rain and chilling wind didn't dampen the excitement of relatives who had waited two hours, some wrapped in blankets and holding signs decorated with ornaments and candy canes.

They screamed upon seeing the troops from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division arrive in buses and march onto a field at the Texas Army post. Then the wives, children and parents ran toward the soldiers, hugging and kissing them, after the announcer ended a brief ceremony by yelling, "Charge!"

1st Sgt. Scott Dawson, who scooped up his two young daughters and kissed his wife, Jessica, said he was glad to be home from his fourth deployment.

"In the future I'm sure this will really hit me," he said, referring to the significance of his being in the last brigade to leave Iraq.

The troops rolled across the Iraq border into neighboring Kuwait a week ago as the nearly nine-year war came to an end. Only about a dozen soldiers in the brigade are still overseas, as are some troops in another brigade that also was part of the convoy of heavily armored personnel carriers that slipped out of Iraq under cover of darkness and in strict secrecy to prevent any final attacks.

"The biggest thing is that he made it," said Capt. Jessica Dawson, who deployed with her husband in 2009. "Like I told the kids, even if he doesn't get back in time, this will be the best Christmas ever because he's out of Iraq."

The 3rd Brigade's commander, Col. Douglas Crissman, said it was a privilege that the brigade was the last to leave Iraq. Preparing for the final exit took a year, he said.

"Fort Hood has given a lot — blood, treasure, time and sacrifice — like many Army installations, so being part of the closing days in Iraq is fitting," he said Saturday as he watched soldiers hug their families. "It's great to be part of the end. There's closure. We were the last vehicles to roll out, and that was a privilege."

Fort Hood has about 46,500 active-duty soldiers. Since 2003, more than 565 have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to officials at the Army post.

Kim son called 'supreme leader' of NKorea military

PYONGYANG, North Korea  — North Korea hailed Kim Jong Il's son as "supreme leader" of the 1.2-million strong military, ramping up its campaign to install the young man as the nation's next leader even as millions continue mourning the father a week after his death.

Kim Jong Un made a third visit Saturday to 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 the official Korean Central News Agency.

The new title and public show of support from the military leadership sent a strong signal that the nation will maintain Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy for the time being.

Earlier Saturday, the newspaper Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, 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, 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. His father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on the grandson.

Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948, retains the title of "eternal president" even after his death in 1994.

Son Kim Jong Il ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission, supreme commander of the Korean People's Army and general secretary of the Workers' Party.

Kim Jong Un was promoted 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 Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday.

North Korea has emphasized the Kim family legacy during the sped-up succession movement for Kim Jong Un. State media invoked Kim Il Sung in declaring the people's support for the next leader, comparing the occasion to Kim Jong Il's ascension to "supreme commander" exactly 20 years ago Saturday.

At the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Jong Un and senior commanders paid silent tribute to Kim Jong Il, "praying for his immortality," KCNA said. The military also pledged its loyalty to Kim Jong Un, the report said.

"Let the whole army remain true to the leadership of Kim Jong Un over the army," KCNA reported — a pledge reminiscent of those made when Kim Jong Il was named supreme commander.

The call 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, comes amid displays of grief across North Korea. The official mourning period lasts until after Kim's funeral Wednesday and a memorial Thursday.

In Pyongyang, mourners waited in line Saturday to bow and lay flowers at Kim's portrait at plazas and government buildings, including the Pyongyang Circus Theater and the April 25 People's Army House of Culture, even as temperatures dropped to 14 degrees below Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Workers at beverage kiosks handed steaming cups of water to shivering mourners, including children bundled up in colorful thick parkas. A sign urged mourners to thaw out inside a heated bus. The order to provide food and warming huts for mourners came from Kim Jong Un, officials said.

Earlier, a throng of North Koreans climbed steps and placed flowers and wreaths in a neat row below a portrait of Kim Jong Il as solemn music filled the air and young uniformed soldiers, their heads shaved, bowed before his picture.

A sobbing Jong Myong Hui, a Pyongyang citizen taking a break from shoveling snow, told AP Television News that she came out voluntarily to "clear the way for Kim Jong Il's last journey."

For days, life in Pyongyang had come to a standstill, with shops and restaurants closed. Downtown Koryo Hotel, one of several in Pyongyang catering to foreigners, was nearly empty.

But there are signs that the country is beginning to move on.

"Streets, buses and the metro are all crowded with people going to their work. They are not giving way simply to sorrow," KCNA said. "They are getting over the demise of their leader, promoted by a strong will to closely rally around respected Comrade Kim Jong Un."

Among the mourners Saturday was a son of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the South Korean-based Unification Church, which has longstanding ties with North Korea. The Rev. Hyung-jin Moon helped carry a wreath to the main mourning site at Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang.

The Korean peninsula has remained in a technical state of war since the Koreas' 1950-53 conflict, but two groups from South Korea have permission from the South Korean government to visit the North to pay their respects, Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon said Saturday in Seoul.

One group will be led by the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and the other by the wife of a late businessman with ties to the North.

Citizens in Pyongyang, meanwhile, received a last gift from the late Kim Jong Il: fish. State-run media said Kim was worried about the supply of fish and had looked into the matter the day before he died.

Rodong Sinmun showed a photo of a woman covering her mouth as she watched herring and walleye being distributed at a crowded grocery store where they were piled up in baskets.

First freely elected Tunisian govt sworn in

TUNIS, Tunisia  — Tunisia's first freely elected government has been sworn in following a popular uprising earlier this year.

The new government led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda received a vote of confidence in parliament Friday and was sworn in Saturday.

Tunisia threw off decades of authoritarian rule in January and held widely praised elections, but Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali warned the country faces many challenges: high unemployment, pockets of unrest and a stagnating economy.

Tunisia's democratic transition is being closely watched since its revolt led to a rash of similar uprisings across the Arab world.

Its new government is still only temporary, running the country until a new constitution is written and another round of elections held.

City's Johnson targets Euro 2012 spot

Manchester City winger Adam Johnson is desperate to cement a regular place in Roberto Mancini's side to guarantee his spot in England's Euro 2012 squad.

His stunning strike in the midweek win over Stoke, which kept City clear at the top of the English Premier League, should ensure he starts Monday's match at West Brom.

"Obviously I?m disappointed I haven?t played as many games as I would like, everyone wants to play games," said the 24-year-old.

"But I think that was my fifth Premier League goal so it?s all I can keep doing, scoring goals and getting goals and playing well, then hopefully force my way in.

"The players we have, it?s packed in areas, obviously the manager rotates certain players around, but I have to keep working hard and keep trying to play.

"When I found out I was starting against Stoke I was happy and I don?t mind the rotation system as long as it is fair, hopefully that?s going to continue. I understand I?m at a massive club and I am happy with that."

Johnson believes strong performances against West Brom and Sunderland on New Year's Day will help push his case with England boss Fabio Capello.

"It?s on the back of my mind because Fabio Capello likes players that play every week, that?s a major thing for me to try and go there after missing out on the World Cup, I want to play in these major tournaments, I need to keep trying to play well and think about it when the time comes," the winger told mcfc.com.

"I wouldn?t say I?m worried but I would be gutted if I didn?t go. There is a lot of competition and people playing well week in week out, so I just want to try and play week in and week out and have a place on that plane."

Review: Alagna as a cartwheeling 'Faust' at Met

NEW YORK  — A debuting Swedish soprano and a cartwheeling Roberto Alagna took over leading roles as Des McAnuff's atomic-scientist production of Gounod's "Faust" continued its run at the Metropolitan Opera.

As Marguerite, the maiden seduced and abandoned by Faust, Malin Bystrom got off to a slow start Friday night with a muted "King of Thule" song and a jewel aria that was too soft-grained to sparkle.

But she improved as the evening wore on, bringing pathos to the spinning song, desperation to the church scene and gleaming tone to the heavenly trio that ends the opera. Bystrom attacked a few of her top notes too aggressively for comfort, but overall she sounded like an artist with a lot to offer. And she acted with sensitivity, giving poignant shape to the opera's only three-dimensional character.

Alagna, who has now sung in three different production of "Faust" at the Met, didn't bother much with acting, relying on boyish charm rather than subtlety. He began the evening his usual exuberant self, even — somewhat inappropriately — performing his acrobatic stunt just after Mephistopheles restores his youth.

His bright, focused tenor sounded in decent shape, except for some stress in the upper register. It was a surprise when a Met official came out between scenes in the last act to announce that Alagna was not feeling well, but he made it through to the end.

A third newcomer to the production was baritone Brian Mulligan as Marguerite's unforgiving brother, Valentin. He brought burnished tone and deep feeling to his famous aria, "Avant de quitter ses lieux," then came close to stealing the entire show with a death scene that was riveting in its raw intensity.

All three fit with ease into McAnuff's staging, which is well thought-out in its details, even if the notion of Faust as inventor of the atom bomb seems as contrived as ever.

Still in the cast from opening night were bass Rene Pape as the most debonair Mephistopheles imaginable and mezzo-soprano Michele Losier as an ardent Siebel. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin again worked magic by making Gounod's sentimental score sound fresh and even, at times, profound.

An iBBC News Entertainment Review

Libya marks 1st independence day in 42 years

TRIPOLI, Libya  — For the first time in more than four decades, Libyans on Saturday celebrated the 60th anniversary of the country's independence from Italy and France.

Under Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year rule, the celebration was scrapped and instead, only the 1969 date of his coup was marked.

"Today we begin the building of Libya as our forefathers have done," Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib said during the celebration. "We call on our sons to build Libya after its destruction."

His remarks were part of an official ceremony in the capital Tripoli.

Libya was occupied for decades by various nations, and it was not until 1947 that both Italy and France relinquished claims to parts of the country. The United Libyan Kingdom was announced with U.N. backing in late 1951 under King Idris.

On the sidelines of the ceremony, el-Keib told reporters that the Economy Minister Taher Sharkas had resigned due to health reasons.

The resignation comes after protests demanding that officials of the former regime be barred from serving in government.

Sharkas had been appointed to the same post by Gadhafi just two months before the longtime leader's capture and killing in October, a few three days before rebel fighters took over the capital, Tripoli.

Protesters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, where the anti-Gadhafi uprising broke out in February, have been protesting for nearly two weeks, demanding transparency and justice from the country's new leaders. They also called for Sharkas' ouster after it was discovered that Gadhafi appointed as a minister on Aug. 18

The new government has said it is open to some reconciliation with former regime officials, but protesters are opposed.

According to an NTC official, who wished to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to disclose internal policy, the prime minister is the one who chose Sharkas for the post. The official said it was a "sloppy" mistake and that el-Keib had not done enough research on Sharkas' background.

Disappointment as Cubans await migration reform

Cubans vented disappointment Saturday after waiting fruitlessly for President Raul Castro to reform a moribund migration system and allow them to travel abroad freely for the first time in 50 years.

"There is no disappointment, just renewed disappointment," Twitter user Rey wrote on the micro-blogging service. Rey was among hundreds of Cubans who followed the opening session of the National Assembly on Friday, at which Castro had been expected to finally unveil the much-awaited migration reforms.

Instead, the ex-defense chief who took over from his brother, revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, in July 2006 said he reaffirmed his "unswerving will to gradually introduce the changes required in this complicated area."

Many people "consider a new migratory policy an urgent issue, forgetting the exceptional circumstances that Cuba is going through," he added.

Castro referred to the US trade embargo on the island and Washington's alleged "subversive" policy, "always on the lookout for any opportunity to reach its known purposes."

Neither the communist government nor the state-run media have given details of the migration reforms being considered.

Local experts say Castro intends to end the requirement of exit visas for Cubans on the island, entrance visas for Cubans living overseas who return home and the legal status of "permanent emigrant."

The policies are especially controversial in the United States, home to about 80 percent of the two million Cubans who have left the island since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

"Of course, many of us wish he would have kept his promise, but you have to understand that the issues is complex, there are many sides to it and we must go slowly," bookseller Enrique Martinez told AFP.

Cubans usually can only leave the country when they have received a letter of invitation from overseas. Then they have to file a request for an exit visa, just at the start of a maze-like bureaucratic process that costs about $500.

The price is near unaffordable in Cuba, where doctors and street cleaners alike make about $20 a month.

They also need entry visas from the countries to which they travel.

Expectations for a change grew after the usually well-informed blogger Yohandry warned Thursday of an "imminent announcement of changes" to the migration system.

"Yohandry, you'd be better off giving the weather forecast, because there's nothing on migration reform," scoffed disenchanted Twitter user Jacob.

Study Shows How Busy Reindeer Keep Their Cool

SATURDAY, Dec. 24  -- Reindeer have lots to do this time of year -- from playing their reindeer games to dragging heavy sleighs -- but despite all their frenzied activity they manage to keep cool under luxurious winter coats without getting dangerously overheated, researchers have found.

Now, Norwegian scientists have gained insight into how they do it by monitoring the brains of reindeer as they exercised on solid ground.

In the study, the reindeer trotted at speeds of 6 miles per hour on a treadmill in temperatures from 50 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Reindeer are the best animals to work with; once they trust the trainer they will do anything for you," study author Arnoldus Blix, a biologist at the University of Tromso, said in a news release from The Company of Biologists.

Blix and colleagues found that reindeer pant with their mouths either closed or open, allowing them to evaporate water from either the nose or the tongue. Evaporating water helps the reindeer to cool blood in their nasal sinuses; the cooled blood then goes back to the rest of their bodies.

The researchers also discovered that the reindeer turn to another strategy when their temperatures get too high: they cool their brains through a heat-exchange system. They do this by diverting the blood that had been cooled by going through the nose to the brain and away from the body. This protects the brain from overheating.

The findings were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Reindeer are unique in other ways. For one, they've lost almost all signs of the circadian clocks that humans and other animals have because the day/night cycle at Arctic latitudes is so irregular.

Reindeer are also extremely energy-efficient animals, a fact that allows them to travel great distances -- more than 3,100 miles a year, at least in American herds.

And, of course, they're able to fly around the world every Christmas Eve, although they appear to get a big boost from the powers of imagination.

Bahrain says to drop free-speech cases after protests

DUBAI  - Bahrain said on Saturday it would drop charges against 343 people whose offences were linked to free speech, but the opposition said that was just a portion of those detained on such accusations during pro-democracy protests this year.

The Sunni-led Gulf kingdom, under pressure to improve its rights record to secure a U.S. arms deal, has said it would follow the recommendations of a state-appointed commission which found evidence of widespread abuse in the crackdown against the protests by majority Shi'ite Muslims.

The measure, part of a review of action by military courts set up after Bahrain announced martial law in March, applies to 43 cases and 343 defendants, public prosecutor Ali al-Buainain told the state news agency BNA.

"However, other cases will remain pending because they involve crimes of violence and sabotage against people and property," Buainain said.

An official at the largest Shi'ite opposition group, Wefaq, said about 85 percent of the cases it studied were linked to freedom of speech and assembly.

"Of the 1,200 cases we have reported about, 1,000 include charges such as illegal assembly, spreading false news and spreading hatred of the regime," Matar Matar, a former parliament member for Wefaq, told Reuters.

Matar also said the measure should allow those charged to seek compensation.

"These people were imprisoned and there was no justification for what happened to them. So there should be compensation and an investigation of those responsible," Matar said by telephone.

Bahrain is important to Western interests in the Middle East because it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and faces Shi'ite giant Iran on the other side of the Gulf. Iran has denied Bahraini government accusations that it had incited the protests.

Inspired by "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of mainly Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination.

The broader pro-democracy movement was suppressed with the help of military forces brought in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But small, low-level protests have persisted on an almost daily basis.

American Airlines jet forced to return to Reno

RENO, Nev.  — An American Airlines jetliner with 134 passengers aboard was forced to return to Reno-Tahoe International Airport shortly after takeoff because of an electrical malfunction.

American Airlines spokeswoman Dori Alvarez says the plane en route to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport took off at 7:37 a.m. on Saturday and landed about 25 minutes later. She says passengers were being rebooked on other flights, and the cause of the problem was not immediately known.

Alvarez says maintenance crews were examining the MD-80 aircraft, and it still might be able to take passengers to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport later Saturday.

The pilot decided to return to the Reno airport after a light indicating an electrical malfunction went off.

NKorean heir called 'supreme leader' of military

PYONGYANG, North Korea  — North Korea hailed Kim Jong Il's son as "supreme leader" of the 1.2-million strong military, ramping up its campaign to install the young man as the next leader of the communist nation even as millions continue mourning the father a week after his death.

Kim Jong Un made a third visit Saturday to 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 the official Korean Central News Agency.

The new title and public show of support from the military leadership sent a strong signal that the nation will maintain Kim Jong Il's "military first" policy for the time being.

Earlier Saturday, the newspaper Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party, also recognized the young man's authority over the military by calling him "supreme commander" of the armed forces.

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. His father and grandfather led the country under different titles, and it remains unclear which other titles will be bestowed on the grandson.

Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948, retains the title of "eternal president" even after his death in 1994.

Son Kim Jong Il ruled as chairman of the National Defense Commission, supreme commander of the Korean People's Army and general secretary of the Workers' Party.

Kim Jong Un was promoted 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 negotiations with the U.S. on restarting talks to dismantle the North's nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid, and had been preparing for 2012 celebrations marking Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday. Suffering from a shortfall in basic staples after several harsh seasons, officials also had been asking for help feeding its people.

North Korea has emphasized the Kim family legacy during the sped-up succession movement for Kim Jong Un. State media invoked Kim Il Sung in declaring the people's support for the next leader, comparing the occasion to Kim Jong Il's ascension to "supreme commander" exactly 20 years ago Saturday.

At the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Jong Un and senior commanders paid silent tribute to the late leader, "praying for his immortality," KCNA said. The military also pledged its loyalty to Kim Jong Un, the report said.

"Let the whole army remain true to the leadership of Kim Jong Un over the army," KCNA reported — a pledge reminiscent of those made when Kim Jong Il was named supreme commander.

The call 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, comes amid displays of grief across North Korea. The country is to remain in an official state of mourning until after Kim's funeral Wednesday and a memorial Thursday.

In Pyongyang, mourners continued Saturday to bow and lay flowers at Kim's portrait at plazas and government buildings, including the Pyongyang Circus Theater and Kim Il Sung Square, even as temperatures dropped to 14 degrees below Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit).

At the April 25 People's Army House of Culture, workers at beverage kiosks handed steaming cups of water to shivering mourners, including children bundled up in colorful thick parkas. A sign urged mourners to thaw out inside a heated bus.

The order to provide food and warming huts for mourners came from Kim Jong Un, officials said.

Earlier, a throng of North Koreans climbed stairs and placed flowers and wreaths neatly in a row below a portrait of Kim Jong Il as solemn music filled the air and young uniformed soldiers, their heads shaved, bowed before his picture.

A sobbing Jong Myong Hui, a Pyongyang citizen taking a break from shoveling snow, told AP Television News that she came out voluntarily to "clear the way for Kim Jong Il's last journey."

For days, life in Pyongyang has come to a standstill, with shops and restaurants closed. Downtown Koryo Hotel, one of several in Pyongyang catering to foreigners, was nearly empty.

But there are signs that the country is beginning to move on.

"Streets, buses and the metro are all crowded with people going to their work. They are not giving way simply to sorrow," KCNA said. "They are getting over the demise of their leader, promoted by a strong will to closely rally around respected Comrade Kim Jong Un."

Among the mourners in Pyongyang was the youngest son of Unification Church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who is expected to take over the multibillion-dollar religious and business empire founded by his father in South Korea.

The Rev. Hyung-jin Moon helped carry a wreath to the main mourning site at Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang. The American-born Moon had been in North Korea earlier in the month. The church has several business interests in North Korea.

The Korean peninsula has remained in a technical state of war since the Koreas' 1950-53 conflict, but two groups from South Korea have received permission from the South Korean government to visit the North to pay their respects, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon said Saturday.

One group will be led by the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, who held a landmark summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000, and the other by the wife of a late businessman with ties to the North.

Citizens in Pyongyang, meanwhile, received a special gift from the late Kim Jong Il: loads of fish. State-run media said Kim was worried about the supply of fish in Pyongyang and had looked into the matter the day before he died.

Rodong Sinmun showed a photo of a woman covering her mouth in sadness and gratitude as she watched loads of herring and walleye pollack being distributed at a crowded grocery store where they were piled up in baskets.
 
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