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Voices from Tucson 1 year after deadly shooting

The Rev. Andrew Ross, speaking about shooting victim and his congregant Phyllis Schneck.

"I remember just shaking and as I shared with my congregation, my immediate response was anger, in fact rage, that someone would once again do this to a member of our flock. And so it's good for us to be honest and admit it's not easy remembering this day. We have to be honest about that."

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Ron Barber, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords staffer who survived two gunshot wounds:

"You have to think about the six people whose loved ones don't have them today."

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Daniel Hernandez, Giffords' former intern who came to her aid after the shooting:

"It's definitely been a really difficult time for all of us. But this time last year, there was a lot of anger. And now it's, 'How can we heal and move forward?'"

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Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who was born and raised in Tucson, speaking at a University of Arizona event to honor those killed, and those who survived:

"You know many of us know the congresswoman as Gabby and it sure stirs in me a great range of emotions to be back here in Tucson. One of them is a sense of pride in her and all of you. And yes, there is a lot of sadness associated on this anniversary, but I also feel a spirit of hope."

"Although Gabby now struggles with her words at times, we know what she's trying to say. It's a simple concept. Words matter, and these days you don't hear our elected officials using words to bring us together. Too often words are used as weapons."

___

Gail Gardiner, 70, who lives about a mile away from the Safeway where the shooting happened:

"This is my backyard and this is where I want to be and show people that we remember this. It just hits so close to home and so many innocent people's lives were taken and changed forever."

"It gave me pause, and to think that we are just another part of all these communities where these tragedies have happened in the United States. There should be no reason for it."

___

Albert Pesqueira, assistant fire chief for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, one of the first responders to the shooting:

"We'll never be the same. We'll never be normal again because of what occurred."

Greece should quit euro unless "massive" funding given: Czech

(iBBC News) - Greece should leave the euro zone and devalue its new currency unless Europe is willing to provide "massive" funding for the indebted country, Czech central bank Governor Miroslav Singer said in a newspaper interview.

Singer told daily Hospodarske Noviny Europeans should focus on helping banks which may need recapitalisation and on issues that can be resolved, rather than devoting attention for years to Greece which represents just two percent of the European economy.

"If there is not the will to give Greece a massive amount of money from European structural funds, I do not see any other solution than its departure from the euro zone and a massive devaluation of the new Greek currency," he said in the interview to be published on Monday.

"So far Greece has been given loans that served mainly for buying time and for rich Greeks to move their money out of the country. This lowers the trustworthiness of Europe and the willingness of non-European countries to lend or provide new capital to the International Monetary Fund for helping Europe."

The Czech Republic is a European Union member but has no plans to adopt the euro in the near future. The country has maintained the ability to refinance its debt on the markets and the banking sector is well capitalised and protected by a domestic deposit base.

Asked about what Europe should do to avert the debt crisis, Singer said European politicians should acknowledge that banks may need more capital.

"We have to stop pretending that we will never recapitalise banks again," he said.

"In connection with the Greek crisis, it will possibly be necessary to pour money even into quite large banks which will suffer losses. It is necessary to immediately focus on banks' problems.

"This is however hitting awful obstacles in large European countries. There are politicians who said strong words - never, never never."

Singer criticised the Austrian central bank for publishing, without consultation, a plan in November to require its banks to cover new loans in central and eastern Europe with local deposits, although he said the plan will not impact lending in the Czech Republic.

Austrian banks are major players on the region's banking market.

"This was not a good way and we do not do such things, because we, myself included, consider it to be a sign of weakness, nervousness or error," he said.

Interior Dept. to ban mining near Grand Canyon

WASHINGTON (iBBC News) — The Interior Department is moving forward with a plan to ban new mining claims on 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon, even as congressional Republicans try to block efforts to limit mining operations in an area known for high-grade uranium ore.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to finalize a 20-year ban on new mining claims on public land surrounding the Grand Canyon at an event Monday in Washington.

Salazar twice imposed temporary bans as officials studied the environmental and economic effects of a longer-term ban.

Conservation groups hailed the 20-year ban, first announced in October, as a crucial protection for an American icon. The mining industry and some Republican members of Congress called the ban detrimental to Arizona's economy and the nation's energy independence.

Six arrested in anti-police march in Oakland, California

SAN FRANCISCO (iBBC News) - Six people were arrested, one for carrying a quarter-stick of dynamite, during a late-night protest march through downtown Oakland, California, marked by various acts of vandalism, police said on Sunday.

The unrest Saturday night followed Twitter messages calling for an anti-police rally by individuals identifying themselves as supporters of Occupy Oakland, a local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations against economic inequality.

Organizers said the march was aimed at protesting what they called excessive force by the Oakland Police Department.

The Twitter posts urged demonstrators to dress in black and to assemble at 8 p.m. local time at Frank Ogawa Plaza, the public square taken over by Occupy Oakland activists last fall before they were evicted in a series of clashes with police.

A former U.S. Marine taking part in those protests was gravely injured when he was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police on October 25 during a confrontation that became a rallying cry for the anti-Wall Street movement nationwide. A second Iraq war veteran was hospitalized for severe injuries sustained in a beating by police who arrested him in another round of clashes with protesters days later.

During Saturday night's disturbances, protesters lit a fire at a downtown intersection, threw bottles at police, smashed windows of police patrol cars and vandalized a media van, Oakland Police Officer Johnna Watson said in a statement.

Six individuals were arrested on suspicion of such offenses as assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and vandalism. One was arrested on a charge of possession of an explosive device after being found carrying a quarter-stick of dynamite, the statement said.

Police did not give a crowd estimate for Saturday's protest, but the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the rally drew a few dozen demonstrators. Police said the march was dispersed before midnight.

Event honors 'heroes' who emerged in Ariz shooting

PHOENIX (iBBC News) — A woman who wrestled a gun magazine from the man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords spoke about everyday heroes to a crowd gathered in Tucson.

Pat Maisch (MAY-sh) spoke Sunday of the men who tackled the shooter, people who comforted 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green as she lay dying, and those who tried their best to tend to the wounded.

She says there was an eerie quiet at the Safeway one year ago Sunday, chaos but no panic after the shooting that killed six and wounded 13, including Giffords.

She says everyone was doing something critically useful, and they were doing it calmly and quietly,

Maisch says the survivors became an extended family that draws on each other for strength and refuses to let the shooting define them.

Investors in Murdoch's News Corp forgive hacking

(iBBC News) - After six months of scandal and crisis management in the wake of the phone-hacking affair at its UK tabloid papers, shares of News Corp have touched new heights as investors say the so-called 'Murdoch discount' has shrunk but cautioned that it won't completely go away.

In the year's first week of trading, News Corp shares rose to a 52-week record, surpassing the highs it hit just before the July 4 story broke of its News of the World tabloid hacking a murdered British schoolgirl's voice mail. That story seemingly turned the world against founder Rupert Murdoch and his family. The media conglomerate lost nearly a quarter of its market capitalization, some $11 billion, in just four weeks.

The fact that all of News Corp's papers account for less than 3 percent of its operating profits did little to allay investors fears at the time.

That attitude has changed now said analysts as News Corp shares are up nearly 30 percent since the lows of last summer.

"The market is reacting to strong fundamentals in this business, they reported pretty strong numbers in their September quarter, and the Murdoch discount is declining," said Collins Stewart analyst Thomas Eagan.

Richard Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG, agrees saying no one owns News Corp for its newspapers, which most on Wall Street see as more trouble than they're worth.

"Investor reaction has been overwhelmed by the how well their core cable networks and TV business are doing."

Indeed the hacking affair, and the manner in which Murdoch initially handled it by sticking by loyal lieutenants who had ultimate responsibility for the issue, appeared to support the idea of a 'Murdoch discount'. The idea is that Murdoch is seen by some to treat the public company which he controls according to his own shareholder-unfriendly whims. Last summer, that growing scepticism led to the widening of the discount, which has always seen News Corp trade at a valuation below peers like Time Warner Inc and Viacom Inc.

"If you can divorce the emotionalism over the hacking thing, this is one hell of a cheap stock," said Lawrence Haverty, fund manager of Gabelli Multimedia Funds, which holds News Corp shares.

News Corp currently trades at around 6.8 times calendar 2012 earnings before interest tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), while its media peers trade between 7.3 to 8.1 times, according to analysts at Collins Stewart. Without the Murdoch discount, News Corp should be trading around 8 times earnings given that it has faster cash flow growth prospects than its peers, said Thomas Eagan at Collins Stewart.

"People are in the process of forgive and forget and saying oh my, here's a wonderful business that's significantly undervalued," said Haverty.

Perhaps one of biggest immediate concerns for News Corp investors at the peak of the hacking scandal last summer was whether the Murdochs would lose control of the company, particularly as Murdoch's younger son James is the top executive at the troubled UK unit.

Ironically, one of the outcomes in the fallout of the scandal is a perception that Murdoch might be voluntarily loosening his grip slightly to allow the rise of his well-respected number two, Chase Carey, something Wall Street and investors have also favored.

The other key concern was whether the scandal would spread to News Corp's U.S. businesses. So far nothing concerning its U.S. companies has come to light.

"It seems the hacking scandal should be compartmentalized, although the Feds were looking into potential infractions on U.S. soil and the possibility that this could fall under the Foreign Corrupt Practices act," said Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce. "I haven't heard anything new on those fronts for months."

However, the key turning point in the wake of the scandal has been News Corp's decision to stand down from its $12 billion bid to buy the 61 percent of the UK satellite TV operator BSkyB which it didn't already own.

That politically expedient decision, in the face of growing UK government opposition, freed up billions of dollars of cash which have now been plowed back into an aggressive $5 billion share buyback program. Since August it has bought back around $2.5 billion of its stock, according to analysts at Miller Tabak.

Investors are already expecting that program to be expanded in fiscal 2013 giving further support to the comeback stock.

Shares closed at $18.30 Friday on the Nasdaq.

GOP rivals target Romney 2 days before NH primary

CONCORD, N.H. (iBBC News) — With the hours slipping away before New Hampshire's presidential primary, Republican rivals fought on multiple fronts Sunday to slow Mitt Romney's march toward his party's nomination.

Their efforts were on display in a combative morning debate and in campaign stops across the state amid the growing belief that the window to stop Romney's momentum was closing. Having narrowly won last week's Iowa caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor is the overwhelming front-runner in New Hampshire's election Tuesday — the first presidential primary election in the nation — and is poised to do well in the subsequent contests.

"The case for the alternative is rapidly disappearing," Romney adviser Tom Rath said.

With that fear in mind, the Republican contenders fanned out across the state Sunday to deliver their closing arguments directly to voters.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, blasted Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate" and warned that a video being released by his allies would attack Romney's business career.

"To quote the governor, you have to have broad shoulders and you have to be able to take the heat to be in the kitchen," Gingrich said.

If Gingrich was Romney's chief critic, he was hardly alone.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum pointedly asked Romney during the debate why he hadn't sought re-election after one term as governor in the neighboring state.

"Why did you bail out?" Santorum asked.

Romney fired back with a reference to Santorum's lucrative career in the six years since he lost his Senate seat. Describing politicians who lose office but stay in Washington "and make money as lobbyists or conducting their businesses," Romney said, "I think it stinks."

Romney won the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday by a scant eight votes over Santorum, but he is so far ahead in New Hampshire polls that his rivals have virtually conceded he will win. But they've also joined with an unlikely ally in fueling an evolving expectations game.

"If Mitt Romney doesn't get over 50 percent on Tuesday here, being a former governor of the state right next door and having a family home here, then there's something seriously wrong," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who spoke to reporters outside the debate hall.

An increasingly confident Romney campaign countered by highlighting the possibility of back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"If Mitt wins, I think the history-making nature of that win will overwhelm all the other coverage of the race to this point," senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. "No non-incumbent Republican has won both Iowa and New Hampshire."

New Hampshire success has traditionally helped shape the outcome of the subsequent contest in South Carolina, which holds the South's first primary on Jan. 21.

While Gingrich, Santorum and the rest of Romney's rivals direly need success in South Carolina, Romney noted that he has been endorsed by that state's governor, Nikki Haley, who visited New Hampshire on his behalf this weekend.

Still, Santorum shifted his focus to South Carolina as he tries to become the favored candidate of social conservatives.

He scheduled a brief visit to upstate South Carolina Sunday to pick up the endorsement of former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. Both Santorum and an outside group supporting him are pumping money into the state for TV ads, starting Monday, after aides said the former Pennsylvania senator pulled in $2 million in the two days after the Iowa caucuses.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa in hopes of a breakout showing in New Hampshire, was mobbed at a coffee shop in Hampstead, where he stood on the counter to ask the crowd to mobilize on his behalf.

Defending his service in the Obama administration, Huntsman said: "I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn't believe in putting country first.

"He's got this bumper sticker that says ... 'Believe in America.' How can you believe in America when you're not willing to serve America? That's just phony nonsense."

Gingrich's jabs at Romney have intensified in recent days despite his recent promise to avoid a negative campaign. He accused Romney of "pious baloney" in the debate and charged him with hiding behind inaccurate attack ads aired by allies.

Gingrich briefly led the pack before his surge was blunted by a series of ads aired in Iowa by a super PAC operated by former Romney aides and supporters. Gingrich has complained bitterly that the attacks were false.

On Sunday, a Gingrich-supporting super PAC launched a website criticizing Romney's leadership of an investment firm. The website says the firm, Bain Capital, eliminated the jobs of thousands of Americans when it took over their companies.

Asked if he was being consistent, Gingrich said, "I'm consistent because I think you ought to have fact-based campaigns."

He demanded Romney say whether the attacks against Gingrich were true.

Romney replied: "I haven't seen them, and as you know, under the law, I can't direct the ads. If there's anything in the ads that are wrong, I hope they take it out."

Yet moments after saying he hadn't seen the commercials, he recited the charges they made and said they were accurate: that Gingrich had been forced to resign as speaker, that he had once talked of finding common ground with House Democrats on climate change and that he had called a House Republican proposal to overhaul Medicare "right-wing social engineering."

Gingrich hedged when he confronted with one of his own campaign leaflets declaring Romney to be unelectable against President Barack Obama. "I think he'll have a very hard time getting elected," was as far as Gingrich would go.

Santorum works to be more than the social conservative choice

Concord, New Hampshire (iBBC News) - Sleeper Republican candidate Rick Santorum wants to show voters he is more than just a social conservative in a sweater vest, and judging by a pair of debate performances this weekend, he might be making headway.

Coming in from the fringes of the presidential nomination process after a stunning second place in Iowa, Santorum has tried to broaden his appeal in areas of foreign policy and the economy while tamping down his past vehemence on social issues like gay rights and abortion.

Although he has his sights firmly set on church-going South Carolina's contest on January 21, the former senator from Pennsylvania and favorite of the religious right still needed to score in more moderate New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday.

He came to the Granite State looking to take libertarian Ron Paul down a few pegs as both men vie for the runner-up spot next to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Santorum ended up attacking both with blistering criticism.

During the second New Hampshire debate, hosted on Sunday by NBC and Facebook, Santorum repeatedly tried to tear down Paul, piling on moderator David Gregory's declaration that despite Paul's long tenure in Washington, the Texas congressman has very few legislative accomplishments to his name.

"He's never really passed anything," Santorum said. "He's never been able to accomplish anything. He has no track record. He's been out there on the margins."

Right out of the gate, he questioned Romney's record in neighboring Massachusetts. "If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for re-election?" He then turned to Romney and said: "If it was that great, why did you bail out?"

Santorum also softened his strident tone on social issues, promising not to discriminate against gays if elected president.

Santorum, who has come under attack for comparing gay relations to both incest and bestiality, said he would always be "respectful" when debating gay rights. Santorum has faced testy crowds, and even been booed on the issue, in New Hampshire where gay marriage is legal.

When asked how he would respond to his son telling him that he was gay, Santorum said: "I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it."

Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said afterward "I think Santorum did well."

Santorum showed his satisfaction with his sudden prominence in the topsy-turvy Republican race.

"We've gone from 3 percent (in the polls) to double digits," Santorum said after the second of the two New Hampshire debates. "I think that's pretty good."

Even if he himself said he has no hope of winning New Hampshire as he headed off to South Carolina to campaign after the debates, Santorum did appear to be getting some traction.

Norman Stuart, 71, of Rochester, New Hampshire, said he was still undecided between Santorum and Romney, with his views more in line with Santorum's while he admired Romney's business background.

"I think it's between Romney and Santorum," said Stuart.

Arizona remembers deadly day with bells, tears

TUCSON, Ariz. (iBBC News) — This time, in the supermarket parking lot, there were softly ringing bells breaking the morning silence instead of the terrible sounds of gunfire and sirens.

More bells tolled later Sunday at Tucson's packed St. Augustine Cathedral as the names of the six people killed in the shooting rampage were read.

With hugs and tears, southern Arizonans remembered the dead, the shattered lives and those who acted heroically after a gunman opened fire at an outdoor meet-and-greet that severely wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and stunned the nation and this close-knit community.

The day of remembrance began with the ringing of church bells and hand-held bells throughout the city at 10:11 a.m., the exact time the gunman shot Giffords in the head and methodically moved down a line of people waiting to talk to her during a public event outside a Safeway supermarket on Jan. 8, 2011.

"Even in the midst of this troubling year, the healing, the courage that we have experienced in our community — each one of us can notice how our cups overflow with the blessings of our lives," said Stephanie Aaron, Giffords' rabbi, who recited the 23rd Psalm at an interfaith service at the cathedral Sunday afternoon.

Relatives of the six dead walked solemnly down the aisle with a single red rose, placing the flowers in a vase in front of a picture of a heart.

Hundreds of people at the cathedral — including Gov. Jan Brewer — stood and chanted, "We remember, we remember, we remember with grateful hearts." Some closed their eyes while others held each other.

Girls in white dresses and red sashes danced down the aisle as a song called "Hero in the Dark" played, and a pastor called on everyone to celebrate those who were lost and those who acted to save lives during the shooting.

Ron Barber, a Giffords staffer who survived two gunshot wounds, said he woke up Sunday dreaming about Giffords, who was severely wounded, and Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, who died.

"You have to think about the six people whose loved ones don't have them today," Barber said before the church service began.

At the Safeway memorial, Bruce Ellis and his wife Kelly Hardesty, both 50, held each other tight and wept as the bells rang.

"It's shocking to have a massacre like this occur in your backyard," Ellis said. "It's something that happens on the news, not in your neighborhood."

About 30 others rang bells, hugged each other and cried as the time of the shooting passed. Many bowed in prayer.

Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, went to the scene of the shooting Saturday. They also visited University Medical Center, where Giffords was treated after the attack, and a trailhead outside Tucson named in honor of Zimmerman.

The couple was to join thousands at an evening candlelight vigil at the University of Arizona, with Kelly expected to speak. At an afternoon event at the University of Arizona, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who was born and raised in Tucson, spoke about Giffords.

He praised Giffords for working for the good of the country, and said other politicians can learn from her and move away from incendiary comments.

"Although Gabby now struggles with her words at times, we know what she's trying to say," Udall said. "It's a simply concept. Words matter, and these days you don't hear our elected officials using words to bring us together. Too often words are used as weapons."

President Barack Obama called Giffords on Sunday to offer his support and tell her he and the first lady are keeping her, the families of those killed and the whole Tucson community in their thoughts and prayers, according to the White House. He said Giffords was an inspiration to all Americans.

Barber said he spent time with Giffords on Friday and Saturday.

"Even though it's a hard weekend for her and all of us, she wanted to be here with her community to remember," he said. "She's sad, we're all sad, and she's glad to be home."

Daniel Hernandez, Giffords' former intern who came to her aid after the shooting and has been hailed as a hero, called Sunday a solemn day of remembrance and an opportunity to allow Tucson and those affected by the shooting heal further.

"It's definitely been a really difficult time for all of us," he said. "But last time this year, there was a lot of anger. And now it's, 'How can we heal and move forward?'"

Giffords, 41, has spent the last year in Houston undergoing intensive physical and speech therapy in a recovery that doctors and family have called miraculous. She is able to walk and talk, vote in Congress and gave a televised interview to ABC's Diane Sawyer in May.

But doctors have said it would take many months to determine the lasting effects of her brain injury. The three-term congresswoman has four months to decide whether to seek re-election.

"She's making a lot of progress. She's doing great," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, a close friend. "She still has a long way to go."

Jared Lee Loughner has pleaded not guilty to 49 charges in the shooting. The 23-year-old, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, is being forcibly medicated at a Missouri prison facility in an effort to make him mentally ready for trial.

Many of the survivors have lobbied for gun legislation in Washington in hopes of preventing similar shootings and started various nonprofits that award scholarships, help needy children and promote awareness about mental illness.

Sunday's events were designed to bring Tucson residents together the way they did a year ago.

On the night of the shootings, more than 100 people showed up outside Giffords' office on a busy street corner in frigid temperatures, holding candles and signs that simply read "Peace" and "Just pray." Strangers hugged, most cried and many sang anthems like "Amazing Grace."

In the days and weeks that followed, thousands of people contributed to makeshift memorials outside the office, the Tucson hospital where Giffords and other shooting victims were treated and the grocery store where it happened.

Others that came later included a 9-foot, 11-inch sculpture of an angel forged from World Trade Center steel in memory of Green.

At the Safeway, Gail Gardiner, 70, who lives about a mile away, tied a balloon Sunday that said, "Thinking of you," to a railing next to a memorial of the shooting that reads: "The Tucson Tragedy ... we shall never forget."

"This is my backyard and this is where I want to be and show people that we remember this," Gardiner said. "It just hits so close to home and so many innocent people's lives were taken and changed forever."

Albert Pesqueira, assistant fire chief for the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, was one of the first responders to the shooting. He came to the Safeway on Sunday to remember and to heal.

His most vivid memories from that day are the sounds of moaning and crying among shooting victims in the aftermath of the attack.

"I can still hear them," Pesqueira said. "We'll never be the same. We'll never be normal again because of what occurred."

Venezuela's Chavez to welcome ally Ahmadinejad

CARACAS (iBBC News) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dismissed a U.S. warning to avoid close ties with Iran on Sunday, denouncing what he said was Washington's attempt to dominate the world as he prepared to welcome the Iranian president to the Latin American nation.

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to arrive at the start of a tour to shore up support from the region's leftist leaders, as tough new Western sanctions aim to isolate the Islamic Republic and target its vital oil exports.

"A spokesman or spokeswoman in Washington from the State Department or the White House said it was not convenient for any country to get close to Iran. Well, the truth is, it made you laugh," Chavez said in a televised speech.

"They're not going to be able to dominate this world. Forget about it (President Barack) Obama, forget about it. It would be better to think about the problems in your country, which are many," he said.

"We are free. The people of Latin America will never again kneel, dominated by the Imperial Yankee. Never again," he said, to applause from his audience at an oil processing facility.

Obama signed new measures into law on New Year's Eve that will make it harder for most countries to buy Iranian oil.

The European Union is also expected to announce some type of ban on Iranian oil by the end of this month, and Washington has said that Ahmadinejad's planned tour of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador showed Iran was "desperate" for friends.

"We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran," a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said on Friday.

The sanctions are aimed at forcing Iran to halt its nuclear work, which the United States and its allies say is aimed at producing bombs. Iran says it is for power generation only.

'A THREAT AGAINST US'

It remains to be seen how far Chavez would go in backing Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world's most important oil shipping lane, or how much he could undermine the sanctions by providing fuel or cash to Tehran.

In the past, Chavez has threatened to stop oil exports to the United States but has never followed through.

Other regional leaders due to receive Ahmadinejad, such as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, have a similar ideological stance to Chavez, but fewer resources.

Ahmadinejad, who is subordinate to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign policy, has said little about the rising tensions with the West, leaving it to Iran's military commanders to issue the most bellicose statements.

Under increasing fire from rival hardliners aiming to stop his supporters making gains at an election in March, Ahmadinejad will hope the foreign tour shows voters he still has international clout and is not, as his critics say, a lame duck.

The increasingly warm relations between Ahmadinejad and Chavez are a growing source of concern for Obama.

Last year, Washington imposed limited sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA after accusing it of violating an earlier set of sanctions by sending at least two shipments of oil products to Iran.

That did nothing to curb PDVSA's crude exports to the United States, which amount to almost a million barrels a day.

Chavez highlighted Venezuela's many energy joint ventures with China during his broadcast from the huge Petromonagas oil facility. And he accused the U.S. government of trying to slow China's advance as a great power of the 21st century.

"The Imperial Yankee is also trying to put the brakes on Russia, as an emerging power again after the fall of the Soviet Union. And the Imperial Yankee is trying to slow the growth of Iran as an intermediate power," he said.

"They are inventing that Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua are preparing attacks against the United States ... You have to watch it carefully. It is a threat against us."

Demolition crews bring down Houston skyscraper

HOUSTON (iBBC News) — It didn't take long — mere seconds, in fact — to create a new hole in the skyline of Houston's medical district.

Demolition crews used high explosives to implode the 20-story former Prudential Building that had been a landmark of the district landscape southwest of downtown Houston since 1952.

The crews had planned initially to touch off the explosives shortly before 8 a.m. Sunday, but dense fog delayed the series of blasts until 11:15 a.m.

The Prudential Insurance Co. of America built the 500,000-square-foot skyscraper to serve as its southwest regional headquarters. The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center bought the building in 1974 and made it the center's main building in 1980 before vacating and closing the building in April 2010.

Government to say if Scots' independence vote result binding

LONDON (iBBC News) - The government will announce soon whether a Scottish vote for independence from Britain would be legally binding, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Sunday.

Cameron told the BBC uncertainty over the timing, result and legal implications of the referendum planned by the party in power in Scotland were damaging the Scottish economy.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority in Scotland's devolved parliament in an election last May - 304 years after the English and Scottish parliaments were united - and pledged to hold a referendum on independence within five years.

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, has said the referendum will be held in the second half of his five-year term, but the date has not yet been decided.

An Ipsos MORI poll last month found that, among Scottish voters certain to vote in a referendum, 38 percent would vote for full independence, three points higher than in August, while 58 percent were opposed.

Some commentators have questioned whether the government would be legally bound to accept a vote for independence in a referendum called by the Scottish government, which has devolved powers in some areas.

"I think it is very unfair on the Scottish people themselves who don't really know when this question is going to be asked, what the question is going to be, who is responsible for asking it, and I think we owe the Scottish people something that is fair, legal and decisive," Cameron said.

"In the coming days we will be setting out clearly what the legal situation is and I think then we need to move forward and say: 'Right, let's settle this issue in a fair and decisive way'," he said.

Cameron gave no further details but a government source said he was referring to the question of whether the planned referendum would be legally binding.

Cameron said he believed it would be better to hold the referendum "sooner rather than later" but said the timing was "a matter for the Scottish people."

Cameron's Conservatives and the other main political parties in parliament want Scotland to remain part of Britain. It would be "desperately sad" if Scotland chose to leave the United Kingdom, Cameron said.

Cameron said he believed Salmond "knows the Scottish people at heart don't want a full separation from the United Kingdom and so he is trying to sort of create a situation where that bubbles up and happens."

A spokesman for Salmond said the position was very clear.

"The Scottish government achieved an overwhelming mandate from the people of Scotland to hold the referendum in the second half of this parliamentary term, and that is exactly what we will do," he said.

"As the prime minister (Cameron) has said ... the referendum is indeed a matter for the Scottish people to decide.

"The only anxiety in these matters seems to be among Westminster-based (British) politicians, who have gone from a position of wanting no referendum to demanding one immediately - with no intervening period whatsoever, and no mandate to do so," he said.

Mexican city worker who wrote for weekly killed

MONTERREY, Mexico (iBBC News) — Gunmen killed a municipal employee in the northern city of Cadereyta who also wrote for a small weekly newspaper, Mexican authorities said Sunday.

Cadereyta is near Monterrey, the country's third-largest city and an area in Nuevo Leon state that has been plagued by drug gang violence.

A spokesman for the state detectives agency said the victim, Raul Garza Quirino, was driving a brand new car when he was shot late Friday.

The spokesman, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said the gunmen may have mistaken him for a rival or wanted the car. Wounded or perhaps already dead, the victim crashed the car into the front of a mechanic's shop owned by relatives.

Garza Quirino worked as Cadereyta city social development secretary. He also wrote for the weekly La Ultima Palabra (The Last Word). The paper's online edition contained no reference to his death, and no one answered phones at the paper Sunday.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says nine journalists were killed in Mexico in 2011, but press groups differ on the definition of who is a journalist in Mexico's homicide figures.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says seven journalists and one media employee were slain in Mexico last year. It says the motives in about half the killings are still unclear.

Ariz. sheriff says few clues in NH couple's death

PHOENIX (iBBC News) — Arizona authorities said Sunday they had few clues in the killing of a New Hampshire man and woman found shot to death in their parked car near the scenic resort town of Sedona.

The killings of 63-year-old James Johnson of Jaffrey and 63-year-old Carol Raynsford of Nelson remain a mystery, and detectives are trying to trace their travels in their efforts to identify suspects.

The couple were apparently vacationing in the area, Yavapai (YAV'-uh-pie) County sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said Sunday. Johnson also may have been considering moving to northern Arizona.

Members of a Jeep club found them in their red older-model Subaru sedan at a remote turnout on Arizona 89A on Friday morning. The winding mountain road through extremely rugged country connects Sedona with Flagstaff, both towns the couple had apparently visited in recent days.

Someone shot them with a .223-caliber rifle while they were parked on a highway turnout, D'Evelyn said. Detectives found numerous casings from the rifle on both sides of the car.

"It doesn't appear it was provoked in any way, that's what makes it so unusual and baffling for our detectives," he said. D'Evelyn said Johnson and Raynsford were not married but he did not know if they were romantically involved or just friends.

Deputies are looking for an older white Chevrolet or Dodge pickup with an older camper shell and red ribbons hanging from the rear-view mirror seen in the area. They have posted a reward and are asking anyone with information to call the sheriff's office or the county's Silent Witness program.

Deputies aren't sure when Johnson and Raynsford were killed, D'Evelyn said. Some callers reported seeing the car parked at the turnout on Thursday, and detectives are using receipts and other items found inside the vehicle to try to trace their steps and establish a timeline.

Israel police question FA chairman in fixing probe

JERUSALEM, Jan 8 (iBBC News) - Israel Football Association chairman Avi Luzon was questioned by police under caution on Sunday on possible involvement in an alleged match fixing probe, police said.

“Luzon was questioned under caution for eight hours by the fraud unit in connection with an ongoing investigation into alleged match fixing and interfering in the placement of officials,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The interrogation came several months after police opened a broad match-fixing inquiry that has included the questioning of a number of club functionaries, mainly from Premier League Hapoel Petah Tikva, and match officials.

Luzon, 56, who serves as an executive committee member of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, was also one of those questioned in the previous round but as a witness.

Rosenfeld added that the suspicions against Luzon related to issues of fraud and breach of trust.

The Israeli FA issued a statement saying Luzon had “cooperated fully with the police so that it could complete its task in the best possible way and finish it’s investigation swiftly.”

But it requested that police carry out inquiries “with consideration in order to prevent public harm … which can be very difficult to repair.”

Ori Shilo, the chief executive of the Israeli FA said in a television interview that Luzon did not intend to suspend himself and would continue working.

“The work of the chairman will continue … not every person who is questioned and required to give answers needs to suspend himself and stop working,” Shilo told Channel 5.

Israel has seen at last one major match-fixing affair in recent years. An investigation begun in 2002 ended with the jailing of six men—three in 2006 and three in 2007—for their involvement in match fixing in 1999 and 2000.

2nd Ga. man dies from wreck on way to BCS game

JACKSON, Miss. (iBBC News) — Authorities say a second man has died from injuries sustained in the crash in southern Mississippi of a motorhome carrying people from Georgia to New Orleans to attend the national college championship football game.

Forrest County, Miss., Coroner Butch Benedict told The Associated Press on Saturday that 66-year-old Alfred Holt Jr. of Lithonia, Ga., the driver of the vehicle, died Sunday. On Saturday evening, 47-year-old Darryl Parker of Riverdale, Ga., died in the wreck.

Authorities said the group was traveling in a rented recreational vehicle from the Atlanta area to New Orleans to attend Monday's Bowl Championship Series national title game.

Mississippi Highway Patrol Cpl. Todd Miller said the motorhome blew a front tire, ran off Interstate 59 in Forrest County and hit a tree. At least 10 people were injured.

Army confines 100 soldiers to base over missing equipment

(iBBC News) - About 100 U.S. Army soldiers are confined to a Washington state base after authorities discovered that optics equipment is missing, a base spokesman said on Sunday.

The infantry unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was placed on lockdown Wednesday after the equipment was discovered missing from a supply area, said Major Chris Ophardt, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's I Corps at the base. The equipment included weapon sights and targeting lasers.

"There are many items missing," Ophardt said, adding that the equipment was "definitely stolen." He said no weapons are missing, and there is no danger to the public.

The base is located about nine miles south of Tacoma.

Lockdown means the soldiers are confined to the barracks and office areas of the unit, so they can't go home if they have families outside of barracks. On Saturday, lockdown was changed to restriction, which means the soldiers' families can visit them, Ophardt said.

A criminal investigation has been launched, and a $10,000 reward offered.

The unit has been home from Iraq since September 2010.

Conservative commentator Tony Blankley dies at 63

WASHINGTON (iBBC News) — Tony Blankley, a conservative author and commentator who served as press secretary to Newt Gingrich during the 1990s, when Republicans took control of Congress, has died. He was 63.

Blankley, who had been suffering from stomach cancer, died Saturday night at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, his wife, Lynda Davis, said Sunday.

In his long career as a political operative and pundit, his most visible role was as a spokesman for and adviser to Gingrich from 1990 to 1997. Gingrich became House Speaker when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives following the 1994 midterm elections.

Earlier, Blankley spent six years in the Reagan administration in a variety of positions, including speechwriter and senior policy analyst.

From 2002 to 2007, he served as editorial page editor of The Washington Times. In recent years, he also wrote a syndicated newspaper column and provided political commentary for CNN, NBC and NPR. He was also a regular panelist on "The McLaughlin Group."

He was the author of two books and a visiting senior fellow in national security communications at the Heritage Foundation.

Born in London, Blankley moved to California with his parents as a child and became a naturalized American citizen. He worked as a child actor in the 1950s, appearing in such TV shows as "Lassie" and "Highway Patrol" and playing Rod Steiger's son in the movie "The Harder They Fall."

Before entering politics, he spent 10 years as a prosecutor with the California attorney general's office.

Blankley and Davis lived in Great Falls, Va. In addition to Davis, he is survived by three children.

Fox to start Saturday night cartoons

PASADENA, Calif. (iBBC News) — Long known for its Sunday night cartoons headlined by "The Simpsons," Fox is planning to offer new animated material late on Saturday nights and on an experimental new digital channel.

The network said Sunday that the new effort will be led by Nick Weidenfeld, the former head of program development for the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim series. The cable network has run a popular series of late-night cartoons on weekdays that has successfully reached a young male audience that TV executives consider valuable and elusive.

Saturday's 90-minute cartoon block would begin at 11 p.m. ET. Fox hasn't programmed aggressively in late nights and hopes the new series will provide some competition for NBC's "Saturday Night Live," said Kevin Reilly, Fox entertainment president. It will start in January 2013.

Reilly, during a news conference, offered hints but left an air of mystery around the future of some popular Fox prime-time shows like "House," ''Glee," ''Fringe" and "Terra Nova."

Fox appreciates its Sunday cartoons like "The Simpsons," which will soon air its 500th episode. But success there left relatively little room for experimentation.

"There has been a lot of talent and a lot of product that we've wanted to pursue over the years that did not fit the prime-time mold," Reilly said.

The digital channel would be available online, through cable on demand, as mobile applications and on game consoles, and it's somewhat experimental, Reilly said. It would allow Fox to take chances on programming of different lengths, he said.

Reilly conceded he's put off some decisions on prime-time shows that have doubts about their future. One is the long-running medical drama "House," which Reilly said months ago was probably in its last year. He said he will meet soon with the show's producers to decide; he did say it's very unlikely any of the show's characters would be spun off into a new series.

He praised producers of "Fringe" for helping Fox drum up some interest in its Friday night schedule. But he noted the show is expensive to produce and at its current ratings, it's a money-loser for the network.

"Please don't start the letter-writing campaign right now," Reilly said. "I can't take that."

The prehistoric adventure series "Terra Nova" is doing moderately well, but Fox had been hoping for more. Reilly said the show has struggled creatively in its first season and will face tough competition for a time slot.

"If we had more holes on our network, we would be thrilled to lock that in," he said. "We're going to decide very soon."

"Glee" will be back next season, despite some early ratings troubles, he said. The current high school students will be graduating, said Reilly, who left unanswered how many of those cast members will be returning.

Yemen proposes immunity law to speed Saleh's exit

SANAA (iBBC News) - Yemen's cabinet proposed an immunity law Sunday to speed President Ali Abdullah Saleh's exit from the Arab state under a Gulf-brokered plan to end months of protests that have paralyzed the impoverished country.

Yemenis angry at the offer of legal immunity to Saleh over the killing of demonstrators have been taking to the streets, calling for him to be put on trial while the United Nations has said the deal would violate international law.

The bill would give immunity "to Saleh ... and those who worked with him in all civilian, military and security state bodies and institutions during his rule," the state news agency Saba reported.

Saleh's sons and nephews hold key posts in military and security units blamed for attacks that killed hundreds of protesters during 11 months of demonstrations against his 33-year rule.

Saleh has repeatedly rejected previous such deals drafted in the wake of protests that have pushed Yemen to the brink of civil war. Islamic militants have exploited the unrest to seize several towns in the south, territory Saleh's opponents say he deliberately lost to justify his claim that his rule keeps al Qaeda in check.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are keen for the plan to work, fearing that a power vacuum in Yemen is giving militants an opportunity to thrive alongside the Red Sea, a key shipping channel.

But U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Friday any guarantee of immunity to Saleh would violate international law.

Officer shot in drug raid released from hospital

SALT LAKE CITY (iBBC News) — One of six officers shot during an Ogden drug raid last week was released from the hospital Sunday, and the condition of another officer has improved.

Weber County sheriff's Sgt. Nate Hutchinson was discharged from McKay-Dee Hospital, and the condition of Ogden Officer Michael Rounkles was upgraded from critical to fair, hospital spokesman Chris Dallin said.

Fellow Ogden officers Kasey Burrell and Shawn Grogan also remained hospitalized Sunday, with Burrell in critical condition and Grogan in fair condition.

Hutchinson's family issued a statement asking for privacy following his release.

"We appreciate all the support of our family," the statement said. "The community support has been amazing."

A funeral service is set for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Ogden's Dee Events Center for Ogden Officer Jared Francom, 30, who was killed while a narcotics strike force served a search warrant at a house in Ogden.

Francom, a seven-year veteran of the department, is survived by his wife, Erin, and two young children.

Matthew Stewart is accused of opening fire after officers knocked on his door and entered the home when they received no response. Stewart remained under guard at a hospital Sunday.

Police have released few details about the shootout, pending an internal investigation and a probe by the Weber County attorney's office.

Phone calls to County Attorney Dee W. Smith's office went unanswered Sunday. He has called the case against Stewart aggravated murder, which can result in the death penalty.

A sixth officer wounded in the shootout, Jason VanderWarf, said it has been "very traumatic for everybody." The Roy officer was released from the hospital Thursday after treatment for a hip wound.

"It will take time to decompress everything," VanderWarf said at a news conference Saturday. "I feel complete devastation that this happened. It is one of those things you always read about and see on the news happening to other departments, not happening to your own."

All Ogden police personnel were given the day off Sunday to help promote healing. The Weber County Sheriff's Department and Utah Highway Patrol will fill in until 6:30 a.m. Monday.

Late last week, Park City philanthropist Tore Steen presented a $25,000 check to Francom's widow and her 3- and 5-year-old daughters, the Deseret News reported.

In 2010, Steen and his wife started a foundation to assist the families of fallen officers by giving them $25,000 so they wouldn't have to worry about immediate expenses.

Steen said Erin Francom seemed stunned when he presented her with the check.

"It was a touching moment for me. I've never done anything like that before," he told the Deseret News.

Giants rout Falcons 24-2 in NFC wild-card game

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (iBBC News) — Eli Manning threw three touchdown passes and the New York Giants ran all over Atlanta in a 24-2 rout of the Falcons in an NFC wild-card game on Sunday.

Manning, having his best pro season, connected with Hakeem Nicks for a 72-yard score and Mario Manningham on a 27-yarder as the Giants (10-7) pulled away from the inept Falcons (10-7) in the second half.

He also threw a 4-yard TD pass to Nicks in the first half, which came after the quarterback scrambled 14 yards to spark the 85-yard drive.

While Manning came through with touchdown passes, the tempo was set by New York's defense, which never allowed Atlanta to get going, and the league's lowest-ranked rushing game, which ran for a season-high 172 yards. Brandon Jacobs led the way with 92 yards on 14 carries.

The Giants travel to Green Bay next Sunday to play the defending Super Bowl champion Packers (15-1), who beat them 38-35 in December.

Judge refuses to give oath to incoming SF sheriff

SAN FRANCISCO (iBBC News) — A San Francisco judge has refused to administer the oath of office to the incoming sheriff, who is the subject of a domestic violence inquiry.

In an email to the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/xbbi16 ), Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein says she didn't want to create a potential future legal conflict, should a case naming Ross Mirkarimi be brought to her court.

Feinstein had been invited to administer the oath Sunday at a ceremony at the city's Herbst Theatre.

A neighbor told police that Mirkarimi had grabbed and bruised wife Eliana Lopez's arm during a heated argument on New Year's Eve. Mirkarimi has denied the allegations.

The district attorney's office is reviewing the case but isn't expected to make any decisions until later this week at the earliest.

Arab League tells Syria again: halt violence

BEIRUT (iBBC News) — The Arab League repeated its demand Sunday for the Syrian government to immediately stop all violence and allow more monitors in, as activists reported at least 10 more civilians killed by regime forces including two teenagers.

Fierce clashes in the south between government troops and military defectors killed 11 soldiers dead, activists said. The Arab League also called on other armed parties to halt all bloodshed, an apparent reference to the defectors.

The ministerial committee called on "the Syrian government and various armed groups to immediately halt all forms of violence and to return to protesting peacefully for the success of the Arab League observers' mission in Syria."

Five foreign ministers from the 22-member Arab League, who met in Cairo, also said the 165 Arab League monitors already on the ground in Syria need greater independence from the regime.

The monitors are supposed to be ensuring Syrian compliance with a plan to end the government's crackdown on dissent. The Arab League plan calls on Syria to remove heavy weaponry, such as tanks, from all cities, free all political prisoners and allow in human rights organizations and foreign journalists. Syria agreed to the plan on Dec. 19.

But opposition activists say around 450 people have been killed by President Bashar Assad's regime since observers began work in Syria nearly two weeks ago. The opposition charges that the regime is misleading the 165 observers and that the mission had done nothing to resolve the crisis.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said observers will continue their monthlong mission in Syria, despite claims by activists that the mission is giving cover to Assad's crackdown on protesters and delaying further action from being taken.

Qatar Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani told reporters after the meeting that the League is aware that the mission has not fulfilled its goal of stopping the bloodshed.

"Is what happened, ideal? We want to do more," he said. "We know that the Syrian people have made a decision, but what we want is to lessen the losses, human losses."

According to the U.N., more than 5,000 people have been killed since March when mostly peaceful anti-government protests began and drew a harsh military response from the government.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 soldiers died in intense fighting in the town of Basr al-Harir in southern Daraa province. More than 20 troops were wounded.

In Homs, seven civilians were killed by troops raiding houses and pro-government snipers on rooftops. A 15-year-old boy was among seven civilians killed, the Observatory said.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network and other activists confirmed the killings of civilians. In the Damascus suburb of Zabadani, two people were killed during raids that followed clashes with defectors, and in the eastern Deir el-Zour province, a 19-year-old was also killed during raids in pursuit of activists, the activists said.

The reports could not be independently confirmed as Syria has barred most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the local media.

At the meeting, the head of the observers issued his first report on the mission, sharing photos, maps and initial findings.

While many of the anti-government protests sweeping the country since March remain peaceful, the Syrian uprising as a whole has become more violent in recent months as frustrated demonstrators take up arms to protect themselves from the steady military assault. An increasing number of army defectors also have launched attacks, killing soldiers and security forces.

The regime's crackdown has led to broad worldwide condemnation and sanctions, weakened the economy and left President Bashar Assad an international pariah just as he was trying to open up his country and modernize the economy.

The government says that the turmoil in Syria is not an uprising but the work of terrorists and foreign-backed armed gangs.

The Arab League said it needs more monitors in Syria, but did not name an exact number. Initially, the League had requested to send 500 monitors, but so far Syria has allowed in just 165.

Chavez resumes program after cancer treatment

CARACAS, Venezuela (iBBC News) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has resumed his Sunday television and radio program after a hiatus of about seven months due to his cancer treatment.

Chavez launched the program in typical style, attacking his political opponents while visiting an oil project in eastern Venezuela.

The leftist president says it seems there are divisions within the opposition.

He also called for a round of applause during Sunday's program for his new defense minister, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva. The U.S. has accused Rangel of aiding drug traffickers and Colombian rebels.

The 57-year-old president had a tumor removed from his pelvic region in June and underwent four rounds of chemotherapy. He has repeatedly said he is now cancer-free.

Alcoa shares could rise 30 percent in 2012: report

(iBBC News) - Alcoa Inc shares could rise by as much as 30 percent in 2012 as weak aluminum prices may have bottomed while demand for the metal remains strong, financial weekly Barron's reported on Sunday.

The paper said Alcoa's fourth-quarter results, due to be released after-the-bell on Monday, are not going to be pretty, saying it could post a "slight operating loss" due to the 20 percent drop in aluminum prices during the second half of 2011.

Alcoa, the word's second-biggest aluminum company, will benefit from being diversified with products from beverage cans and aeroplanes parts to casings for iPad tablets, the paper said.

With a tangible book value of $8 a share, the shares could go as high as $13 according to Morgan Stanley analyst Paretosh Misra, Barron's reported.

Alcoa shares closed at $9.16 on Friday.

Paes-Tipsarevic clinch Chennai Open doubles title

NEW DELHI (iBBC News) Leander Paes won his successive Chennai Open doubles title but this time the Indian tennis great achieved the feat with Serbian Janko Tipsarevic.

Third seeded Indo-Serbian pair of Leander Paes and Janko Tipsarevic defeated Israeli combine of Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich in straight sets 6-4, 6-4.

Horror flick "Devil Inside" leads box office

LOS ANGELES (iBBC News) - Low-budget horror movie "The Devil Inside" topped the weekend box office with a surprising $34.5 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, according to studio estimates released on Sunday.

The strong performance for "Devil" knocked Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol," winner of the past two weekends, to second place. The fourth movie in the action franchise brought in an estimated $20.5 million from Friday through Sunday. Both movies were distributed by Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc.

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," released by Time Warner Inc unit Warner Bros., finished the weekend in third place with $14.1 million.

Deputy shot and killed in Arizona

PHOENIX (iBBC News) — An Arizona sheriff's deputy has been shot and killed while answering a burglary call in the north Phoenix suburb of Anthem.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio tells KTVK-TV that the nearly 20-year veteran deputy found a suspect inside a van as he arrived. The deputy was shot when the suspect opened fire with an assault rifle.

The deputy was taken to a hospital but doctors could not save him. The fate of the suspect is unclear.

Calls to sheriff's officials seeking additional information were not immediately returned.

FACT CHECK: Miscues with numbers in GOP debates

WASHINGTON (iBBC News) — Ron Paul cited a staggering number in the Republican presidential debate Sunday — $15 trillion supposedly spent by the Fed "bailing out their friends." Like Mitt Romney and his claims about creating jobs in the private sector, Paul came up with that shocker by presenting an unbalanced look at balance sheets.

A look at some of the claims in a pair of lively GOP debates on the weekend and how they compare with the facts:

PAUL: "I don't see how we can do well against Obama if we have any candidate that, you know, endorsed, you know, single payer systems and TARP bailouts and don't challenge the Federal Reserve's $15 trillion of injection bailing out their friends."

THE FACTS: First, there are no fans of government-run, single-payer health insurance in the Republican field, despite Paul's suggestion otherwise Sunday. Newt Gingrich once endorsed the idea of requiring everyone to have health insurance, and Romney introduced a mandate for health coverage as Massachusetts governor. But that's a far cry from a Canadian-style health system that makes government the primary payer of people's medical bills.

TARP is the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that was proposed by President George W. Bush and passed by Congress in 2008 to help rescue imperiled financial institutions. Nearly all of the money has been paid back, with interest.

Paul's slam against the Fed ignores the fact that most of the $15 trillion he is talking about involved loans that were quickly repaid, sometimes the next day. And that's if these Fed transactions can even be considered loans in the conventional sense.

When the Fed lends money to banks, it creates the money out of thin air. When the banks pay it back, the money disappears from the system. If a bank borrows $5 billion from the Fed one day, then pays it back the next, and a week later borrows $5 billion more and quickly pays it back, the total would be listed as $10 billion, even though it's just the same money going back and forth and the treasury is in no sense being emptied.

That's how a federal report counted a running total of about $15 trillion in emergency Fed loans to domestic banks and their foreign subsidiaries between 2007 and 2010. The actual loan total, once paybacks are accounted for, is estimated at $1.1 trillion.

___

ROMNEY: "In the business I had, we invested in over 100 different businesses and net ... net, taking out the ones where we lost jobs and those that we added, those businesses have now added over 100,000 jobs."

NEWT GINGRICH: "I'm not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers."

THE FACTS: Romney has never substantiated his frequent claim that he was a creator of more than 100,000 jobs while leading the Bain Capital private equity company. His campaign merely cites success stories without laying out the other side of the ledger — jobs lost at Bain-acquired or Bain-supported firms that closed, trimmed their workforce or shifted employment overseas.

Moreover, his campaign bases its claims on recent employment figures at three companies — Staples, Domino's and Sports Authority — even though Romney's involvement with them ceased years ago.

By that sort of charitable math, President Barack Obama could be credited with creating over 1 million jobs even though employment overall is down about 2 million since he came to office. But Romney accuses Obama of destroying jobs while using a different standard to judge his own performance — cherry-picked examples that leave everything else out.

By its nature, venture capitalism often results in lost jobs because profitability and efficiency are key to investors, not how many people are on the payroll. Bain Capital profited in cases where employment went both up and down.

Staples, now with close to 90,000 employees, and Sports Authority, with about 15,000, were startups supported by Romney. The direct workforce at Domino's has grown by nearly 8,000 since Romney's intervention. But Romney got out of the game in 1999, which has not stopped his campaign from crediting him with jobs created at those companies since then.

Romney toned down the braggadocio in the Saturday debate, saying that of the Bain-supported companies that grew, "we're only a small part of that, by the way." But he insisted his claim of more than 100,000 jobs was a "net net" figure that takes into account job losses elsewhere, even though his campaign has defended the assertion only by reporting on the performance of Sports Authority, Domino's and Staples.

No one has been able to produce a full accounting of job gains and losses from the scores of companies Romney dealt with at Bain. But a Los Angeles Times review of Bain's 10 largest investments under Romney found that four of the big companies declared bankruptcy within a few years, costing thousands of jobs and often pension and severance benefits.

___

PAUL about RICK SANTORUM: "So he's a big government person, along with him being very associated with the lobbyists and taking a lot of funds. And also where did he get — make his living afterward? I mean, he became a high-powered lobbyist in Washington, D.C. And he has done quite well. We checked out Newt, on his income. I think we ought to find out how much money he (Santorum) has made from the lobbyists as well."

SANTORUM: "When I left the United States Senate, I got involved in causes that I believe in.... I was asked by a health care company to be on their board of directors. Now, I don't know whether you think boards of directors are lobbyists. They're not."

THE FACTS: Santorum was not, as Paul suggested, a registered lobbyist after he left the Senate. But Santorum did trade his Washington experience for lucrative work afterward, not unlike Gingrich, who has faced plenty of tough questions about money he earned from the corridors of power despite never being registered as a lobbyist.

Financial disclosure records show that from January 2010 to August 2011, Santorum earned at least $1.3 million working as a corporate consultant, political pundit and board member. Santorum reported that the American Continental Group, a Washington lobbying group, paid him $65,000 in consulting fees. The firm's lengthy client list includes Microsoft Corp., Comcast Corp. and the American Gaming Association.

"The senator did general consulting and provided his advice and opinion on which way the Senate may go, based on his record in the Senate and his history in leadership," said David Urban, president of American Continental Group.

___

ROMNEY: "I was in a state where the Supreme Court stepped in and said, marriage is a relationship required under the Constitution for — for people of the same sex to be able to marry. And John Adams, who wrote the Constitution, would be surprised."

THE FACTS: John Adams would be surprised to hear he wrote the Constitution. He was a minister to Britain at the time, after having been minister to France. He was not a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was, though, an architect of the Declaration of Independence. And he constructed the Massachusetts Constitution.

Conn. law nixing legitimate malpractice lawsuits

HARTFORD, Conn. (iBBC News) — After losing a baby because of an incompetent cervix, Patricia Votre thought she was well prepared when she got pregnant again. She made arrangements with her doctors to consult with high-risk pregnancy experts from Yale University and to have the specialists take over her care.

But when she began having problems including a fever and back pain, her doctors refused to turn over her care to the Yale experts, failed to treat her according to the Yale group's recommendations and even hid the experts' care plan from her, according to a lawsuit she filed in 2006. Her son, Miles, nearly died at birth from an E. coli infection and lived for 51 days before succumbing to a blood infection in 2003.

Despite the serious allegations, Votre was never able to get her case before a jury. A judge dismissed her lawsuit based on a technicality added to the state's medical malpractice law in 2005 as part of the national "tort reform" debate. It requires plaintiffs in all malpractice cases to get an opinion from a medical expert backing up their allegations before they can sue, but legal fights over the credentials of those experts have led to many cases being dismissed.

"It was just not right. It was just not fair," said Votre of Woodbridge, Conn., who's now 41 and the mother of two children ages 7 and 12. "They used the law to manipulate the situation. It wasn't about my baby. It was about me."

Although the law was aimed at preventing frivolous lawsuits and reducing high malpractice insurance rates, it's had the unintended consequence in many cases of keeping seemingly legitimate lawsuits out of Connecticut's court system, an iBBC News review has found. The worst part, plaintiffs say, is that doctors, nurses, dentists and other medical professionals end up not being held accountable for their mistakes.

Since the law took effect, the number of malpractice cases filed in the state has dropped 20 percent to an average of 292 per year from an average of 364 annually, state records show. It's not clear how much of the decrease can be attributed to the opinion letter requirement, but malpractice lawyers believe the mandate has played a big role.

"The argument is made that these (opinion letters) preclude the filing of a frivolous claim," New Haven attorney Joel Faxon said. "It's all just fear-mongering. It's an impediment to bringing a case that gives them (defendants) a leg up."

Faxon said there is already a malpractice lawsuit screening process that's been effective for years. Most lawyers won't file lawsuits unless there is very strong evidence of malpractice because the cases are expensive to litigate, he said.

Similar laws have been declared unconstitutional in several other states including Washington, Arkansas, Ohio and Oklahoma, mainly because the opinion letters can cost thousands of dollars and can prevent people who can't afford them from getting their day in court, according to the Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School. But, lawyers for doctors and hospitals say, plaintiffs' lawyers usually assume the cost of the letter as part of their fees, and plaintiffs will eventually need to pay an expert to testify at trial.

The wording of Connecticut's statute says that experts who write opinions for plaintiffs must have "similar" credentials to those of the medical professionals accused of malpractice, and the opinion letters must be attached to lawsuits when they are filed.

But state judges have interpreted the law to mean that the experts must have credentials that are identical to those of the defendants. Many cases have been dismissed because the opinion writers' certifications didn't match up exactly with those of the defendants.

Both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, who approved the 2005 law under pressure from doctors and hospital officials complaining about high malpractice insurance rates, say that's not what they intended and they tried to ease the opinion letter requirements in the 2011 legislative session. The bill was passed by the House but died in the Senate at the end of the session, under heavy opposition from doctors and hospital officials.

"I don't think anyone should be barred from the courthouse doors before the merits are heard," said Republican state Sen. John Kissel of Enfield. "The party's that's forgotten in all of this is the injured individual who is suffering because of what he or she believes in medical malpractice."

Kissel expects lawmakers in the 2012 session to take up another bill that would relax the opinion letter mandate. And an appeal filed with the state Supreme Court in a malpractice case is challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Lawyers for doctors and hospitals, however, say the law has been effective at weeding out frivolous claims and reducing their clients' litigation costs, and they would continue to oppose any efforts to change the statute.

Eric Stockman, a New Haven attorney who has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in malpractice cases, said state law before 2005 required lawyers who filed malpractice lawsuits to declare in writing that the cases had merit.

"There was really no way to challenge whether that inquiry (by plaintiffs' lawyers) was done," Stockman said.

Since the 2005 opinion letter law took effect, "We really stopped seeing those really bad cases," he said, referring to frivolous claims.

Stockman also said he believes part of the effort to relax the opinion letter requirements is to protect plaintiffs' lawyers from legal malpractice claims that could arise if they don't get the right expert to write the letter and their clients' cases are dismissed.

One malpractice case that was dismissed because of the opinion letter requirement played a prominent role in this year's legislative debate after having led to a landmark state Supreme Court ruling.

Richard Bennett Sr. of New Milford crashed his car while having a diabetic seizure in November 2006. He was brought to the New Milford Hospital, where his blood sugar was stabilized and he was given medication for back pain before being discharged.

But a doctor failed to diagnose the spine and leg fractures Bennett suffered, and Bennett died two months later of a heart condition caused by severe pain from the injuries, according to a lawsuit filed by Bennett's family. The retired machinist was 69.

The lawsuit went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which last January upheld dismissals of the Bennetts' case by lower courts because the author of the Bennetts' opinion letter was a trauma surgeon and the defendant was an emergency room doctor.

But the Supreme Court did allow Bennett's family to refile the lawsuit, which remains pending. The ruling, however, set a landmark precedent that upheld the opinion letter law, including its requirement that cases be dismissed if the opinion letters aren't sufficient.

"It just defied logic," said the Bennett family's lawyer, Andrew Pianka. He added that the 2005 law is "actually being implemented ... in a manner to defeat valid claims."

Doctors and hospital officials insist that tort reforms including the opinion letters, known as "certificates of merit," have helped lower malpractice insurance rates, and they don't believe the measures have created barriers to the courts.

"It makes no sense at all to allow someone to file a medical malpractice lawsuit without the most superficial of investigations," said Dr. David S. Katz, a general surgeon in Milford, Conn., and former president of the Connecticut State Medical Society.

"There has to be a least a basis from a qualified expert as to whether malpractice occurred or not," he said. "There has to be a screening process and I think it's a smart way to go."

But the Center for Justice & Democracy recently released a report, echoing previous studies, saying that certificates of merit and other tort reforms have no effect on malpractice insurance rates. The report says rate levels go up and down based on insurance companies' financial performance and the economy.

"The certificate of merit is weeding out legitimate cases," said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the center.

In Patricia Votre's case, she sued her doctors for alleged breach of contract and infliction of emotional distress — not malpractice. But a judge ruled that her case involved alleged medical malpractice and dismissed her lawsuit because she never filed an opinion letter from a medical expert. The state Appellate Court upheld the ruling, and the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In an ironic twist, Votre said her case set a precedent for dismissing malpractice cases.

"I feel that my son is made a mockery of at this point," she said. "I can't even explain to you what he went through. Now his memory is being trashed."

Edmund Lohnes of Denver said he nearly died in 2007 because of a medical mistake at a New Haven hospital when staff gave him a drug to which he was allergic, despite his wearing a red wristband alerting staff to the allergy. He also sued, but his lawsuit was dismissed because the doctor who wrote his opinion letter was a pulmonologist while the defendant was licensed to practice emergency medicine.

"I'm not going to be able to hold this doctor and the hospital accountable," Lohnes said. "It affects the whole gauntlet of what I thought America was all about."

In seminar, Pa. undergraduates help asylum seekers

PHILADELPHIA (iBBC News) — A few years after leaving Franklin and Marshall College's leafy campus in Lancaster, alumna Kristen Stephen and Morgan Marks reconnected last month at an apartment on a gritty North Philadelphia street.

Inside, a 25-year-old woman from Sierra Leone rocked her new baby and mixed warm tea with cocoa for her 3-year-old as the college friends recalled the life-changing day in 2007 they had met the woman at the York County Prison.

"I was scared out of my mind walking into that prison. And she's in there with women who have actually committed crimes," Marks said. "She was just turning 20, younger than us. ... I couldn't imagine myself reversing roles."

The woman was seeking asylum. Marks, 25, and Stephen, 26, were assigned to help her case as part of a unique seminar at F&M called Human Rights/Human Wrongs.

Dr. Susan Dicklitch, an associate dean, started the class in 2002 to offer students a chance to see the nation's immigration policy play out on the local level, even in Lancaster, a hub of Amish culture that's hardly a cross-cultural hotspot.

Just 25 miles away, 700 immigrants are detained at the prison, along with 1,700 criminal inmates.

In the seminar, pairs of students are matched with asylum-seekers referred by nonprofits or local immigration lawyers. The students meet with the applicants and help lawyers prepare affidavits, briefs and country condition reports.

Dicklitch's students have worked on 63 cases since 2002, and 25 of them were successful, including two this past fall.

Those two cases involve a Coptic Christian teenager from Egypt who was arrested and tortured after distributing Christian literature on his college campus and a teen from Darfur arrested in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, allegedly over regional feuding, and subjected to electric-shock treatment.

Not every case proves successful. Dicklitch recalled the angst of students who work on losing cases or find applicants less than credible.

"You cannot take this class and not be transformed, whether you win or not," said Dicklitch, who believes it's the only undergraduate course of its kind in the U.S. "Sometimes I feel really badly about it. ... I've exposed them to the horrors of the world. But I've also given them the skills and the urgency to make a difference."

Senior Andrew Berg, 21, of Newburgh, N.Y., helped Harrisburg immigration lawyer Craig Shagin on the case of the Coptic Christian teen. While ostensibly a clear case of religious persecution, Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers initially questioned the teen's story.

Shagin had the F&M students dig up YouTube videos of the recent political violence in Egypt to illustrate the country conditions. The students also submitted news articles and helped with the applicant's brief.

"I want to make sure that this doesn't happen anymore," said Berg, who plans to go to law school, like about half of the seminar students over the years.

"There are all these stereotypes about lawyers that I don't want to fulfill. But then (you work on) something like this, where a really good kid wins asylum and can stay in America," Berg said.

Marks and Stephen devoted most of their spring 2007 term to their asylum case. They frequently visited the woman in prison, and pulled all-nighters at Stephen's apartment as they geared up for the court hearings. Stephen persuaded her parents in Glen Rock, N.J., to fund a prison account for the woman's personal items and phone calls to her new friends. The phone bill reached hundreds of dollars a month. But they gave the young woman a lifeline to the America that lay beyond the prison walls.

"It helps the detainees to know there's life outside, even if it just allowed her to hope or dream," Stephen said.

The woman did not want her name published or picture taken because her case remains in limbo five years after her 2006 arrest at Philadelphia Airport. Her asylum claim involves the grim ritual of female genital mutilation.

She had avoided the fate as a girl. But her childhood was shattered by the civil war that broke out in Sierra Leone in 1999, when she was raped by a soldier. Five years later, her mother died of malaria, and she was sent to live with her grandmother, who performed a botched circumcision on her young teenager. At 19, she was forced to perform the crude surgery on a 9-year-old girl, according to her testimony in her asylum case.

Against her will, the granddaughter was being groomed to succeed her grandmother as head of the Sowei, a secret society of women in Sierra Leone, according to her asylum claim. She instead flew to Amsterdam, where a friend met her with a passport and money for a ticket to the United States.

The woman's asylum hearings took place in March and May 2007, and a judge granted her petition in September. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed an immediate appeal on grounds the woman was herself a persecutor, given her role in the girl's circumcision. The woman remained in custody for several more months, before she was released and moved in with Stephen's parents.

Four years later, it's unclear whether her case is being dropped amid a new Obama administration policy to focus deportation efforts on violent criminals.

Dicklitch argues that the woman took part in the circumcision under duress. And her new family circumstances should bolster her case. She is now married to a family friend from Sierra Leone, who came to the U.S. legally. Their two daughters are U.S. citizens. The girls would be separated from their mother if she is deported, or face the risk of forced circumcisions themselves if they go with her to Sierra Leone.

Stephen was in the delivery room for the recent birth of the woman's second daughter.

"I don't think blood defines family," she said. "I didn't know when I walked into that class I would get a sister, two nieces and a brother-in-law. She's changed all of our lives, and I think the class has as well."

Marks joined AmeriCorps after graduating, serving one stint at an inner-city school in Philadelphia and a second building trails in Montana. She recently earned a master's degree in international human rights, and may join the Peace Corps in Africa.

Stephen, by contrast, became disillusioned. She is now studying interior design in a graduate program at Drexel University.

"Initially I wanted to go to law school," Stephen said. "I became jaded of the scenario and a little bit discouraged by what I saw. ... I'm going to let Morgan save the world."

Dicklitch co-teaches the Human Rights seminar with immigration lawyer Megan Breamer of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It's not offered this spring. Instead, Dicklitch will have her international studies class work with local churches on refugee resettlement. Hundreds of sponsored families are settling in the Lancaster area, many from Bhutan and Burma, she said.

She'll also be following the student asylum cases set for hearings this spring, one involving a teen stowaway from the Ivory Coast.

Her F&M students over a decade have worked with asylum-seekers from 35 countries. In her view, colleges should not be "just these ivory towers that don't really do anything."

"Most people think when you teach international politics, you can't do anything locally," Dicklitch said. "You can work locally and make an impact globally, too. Not to mention personally."

Clarification: Russia-Bhagavad Gita story

MOSCOW (iBBC News) — In a Dec. 28 story, iBBC News reported that books distributed by the Scientology movement were among the texts that Russia had put on its Federal List of Extremist Materials, which bans them from distribution in the country. A Russian court ruled in June that certain Scientology texts were extremist and would be placed on the list, but the decision has not yet taken effect due to a still-pending appeal by the Scientologists.

New York City Opera announces musician lockout

NEW YORK (iBBC News) — A bitter contract dispute has led to a lockout of orchestra and chorus members at the New York City Opera.

The opera and the unions have been in mediation talks since mid-December. Those negotiations broke down Saturday night.

Performers were supposed to rehearse Monday.

The musicians have rejected the company's offer, saying it doesn't guarantee work or pay. Under a management contract, the musicians' average annual income would drop from about $40,000 to as little as $5,000 for two productions.

City Opera General Manager George Steel says the company could not enter rehearsals with musicians threatening to strike for performances scheduled in February.

Alan Gordon, head of the union representing the orchestra, calls it "a very sad day for what once was a spectacular cultural icon."

Beyonce gives birth to baby girl in NY

NEW YORK (iBBC News) - Singer Beyonce has given birth to a baby girl in New York, local media reported on Sunday.

The widely anticipated first child of the international star and R&B singer, 30, and rap mogul Jay-Z, 42, whose real name is Shawn Carter, was delivered late on Saturday in a private wing of Lenox Hill Hospital, according to the Daily News.

Spokespersons for the singer did not immediately return comment.

The singer, whose hits include "Beautiful Liar" and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)," showed off her pregnancy on stage earlier in the year at the MTV video awards, performing her song "Love On Top" and telling the audience to stand up. "I want you to feel the love that's growing inside of me," she said then.

Palestinian reconciliation deal faltering

GAZA (iBBC News) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement said on Sunday it would have to re-evaluate its reconciliation pact with the Islamist Hamas group following the rejection of a Fatah visit to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip last week.

In a statement, Fatah's Central Committee said Hamas's behavior showed it was not interested in the implementation of the reconciliation agreement signed in Cairo last year, which included the formation of a unity government and the holding of a parliamentary election on May 4.

Tension between the two Palestinian factions contrasts with the positive atmosphere stressed by both sides in December, when Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal met in Cairo and agreed on steps to end hostility.

Fatah said three of its senior officials had been stopped by Hamas security officers at the entrance to the Israeli-blockaded territory on Friday and had been forced to turn back.

The action by Hamas officers was "inadequate and humiliating," Fatah said in a statement.

Hamas in turn accused Fatah of reneging on the Egyptian-brokered deal to end four years of bitter rivalry that has split the Palestinian national movement.

It said Abbas was putting peace talks with Israel, taking place in Jordan, ahead of Palestinian unity. Negotiators are searching for a way to revive direct negotiations that have been suspended for over a year.

"If Fatah has made a decision to backtrack from reconciliation in favor of returning to negotiation with the Zionist enemy, they should bear full responsibility for the consequences of such a decision before the Palestinian people, and the Egyptian mediator," Hamas said in a statement.

ISRAEL WARNS OVER ENTENTE

While Fatah recognizes Israel and is ready to negotiate a peace deal, Hamas refuses to do so. That has drawn a warning from the Jewish state that any pact between the Palestinian groups would scupper peace efforts.

Hamas forces seized control of Gaza in 2007 after a brief civil war which killed hundreds of Gazans, many of them from the two factions. Political divisions between them have weakened Palestinian aspirations to create an independent state.

The Hamas interior ministry denied it had made a decision to ban visits by Fatah officials and accused Abbas's movement of "exaggerating what happened" as a pretext for getting out of its reconciliation commitments.

It pointed out that senior Fatah official Nabil Shaath had been in Gaza for several days without facing restrictions.

It also accused one of Abbas' envoys, Sakher Bseisso, of "cursing God" when asked by a Hamas officer to wait until he contacted his commanders.

Hamas said Bseisso would have to face a judge on the blasphemy charge if he visited Gaza in future.

Khartoum bourse launches electronic trade

KHARTOUM (iBBC News) - The Khartoum stock exchange on Sunday launched a long-awaited computer trading system that will bring to an end an era of scribbling stock prices on white boards and also marks Sudan's efforts to attract more investment.

But very thin trading in the first session of the electronic system -- a gift from Oman -- highlighted the need to overhaul regulations and transparency.

None of the 40 stocks listed on the display in the new trading room moved in the first 45 minutes. Trading focused as always on government-issued Islamic bonds, known as shahamas, which changed hands for 114,036 Sudanese pounds ($38,000).

"I think the new electronic system will improve transparency and provide more information so volumes will rise much," said Taha Hussein Yousif, General Manager at local broker HH Stock Exchange Co.

"But we also need more regulation and information on companies. We need a new security law," he said.

He said there was interest in large firms such as telecoms Sudatel or Islamic banks such as Faisal Islamic Bank but with little corporate information on other firms overall liquidity was thin.

Altayeb Musawi Shaigoog, legal expert at the Muscat partner bourse, said the new system was a big step forward to give access to other exchanges and allow more cross listings.

"They now need to develop regulations, the primary market with IPOs and have solid companies," he said.

Officials hope the bourse will attract more investment as the country seeks to overcome a severe economic crisis after losing two-thirds of its oil production to South Sudan.

"This is the beginning of new era. God willing, there will be also trading with gold, minerals and real estate," said the stock exchange's general manager Osman Hamad Khair.

The Khartoum bourse is small by international standards with a market capitalization of just around $2.1 billion. Up to 90 percent of trading is in shahamas because they are guaranteed by the central bank.

The government is in the process of overhauling an existing securities law that dates back to 1994 but no decisions have been made yet.
 
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