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Gunfight erupts in Thai south, four rebels dead

YALA, Thailand (iBBC News) - Troops killed four suspected insurgents during a gunfight in Thailand's restive Muslim southernmost provinces, the military said Monday, the latest unrest in a region plagued by years of separatist violence.

The four men were shot dead late Sunday and three others wounded when a gunbattle broke out during an inspection of a pickup truck by soldiers manning a checkpoint in Pattani province, 1055 km (655 miles) south of Bangkok.

As troops approached the truck, a pair of unknown gunmen appeared from behind the vehicle and opened fire before fleeing on a motorcycle, said Akara Thiproj, the regional army spokesman said.

The four suspected insurgents who were killed were in the back of the truck. An assault rifle was also found there.

"This is an area that has been under a lot of insurgent influence. There were similar attacks on military officers in this area in the past," he added.

Relatives of the victims and residents of their villages gathered Monday and voiced their anger at the military for what they said were unlawful shootings, claiming a cover-up and insisting those killed were not insurgents.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since a shadowy, decades-old separatist insurgency resurfaced in January 2004 in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces bordering Malaysia.

The tens of thousands of police and troops based in the region have made little progressing in tackling the near daily shootings and bombings, for which no credible group has publically claimed responsibility for.

The region was part of an ethnic Malay Muslim sultanate before it was annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand in 1909 and tensions have simmered ever since, with resentment running deep among local Muslims about the presence and conduct of the security forces.

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Florida highway pileup kills at least 10 people

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (iBBC News) — The Florida Highway Patrol says 10 people have died in a series of early-morning crashes on a dark highway that was shrouded in haze and smoke.

Officials say at least 18 were injured in crashes on both sides of Interstate 75 south of Gainesville shortly before 4 a.m. Sunday.

Authorities are trying to determine what caused the pileup. The highway had been closed for a time because of the mixture of fog and heavy smoke from a brush fire that may have been intentionally set. At least five cars and six tractor-trailers were involved.

Dr. Timothy Flynn, chief medical officer for Shands Healthcare, says three of the six patients being treated in the trauma center needed surgery. Four patients remain in the hospital's emergency room, and eight people have been treated and released.

Occupy march results in almost 400 arrested, city covered in trasH

(iBBC News) OAKLAND, Calif. —

Oakland officials assessed damage to City Hall caused by Occupy protesters while leaders of the movement claimed Sunday that police acted illegally in arresting hundreds of demonstrators and could face a lawsuit.

Mayor Jean Quan was among those inspecting damage caused after dozens of people broke into City Hall on Saturday, smashing glass display cases, spray-painting graffiti, and burning an American flag.

That break-in culminated a day of clashes between protesters and police. Interim Police Chief Howard Jordan said nearly 400 people were arrested on charges ranging from failure to disperse and vandalism. At least three officers and one protester were injured.

In a news release Sunday, the Occupy Oakland Media Committee criticized the police conduct, saying that most of the arrests were made illegally because police failed to allow protesters to disperse.

"Contrary to their own policy, the OPD gave no option of leaving or instruction on how to depart. These arrests are completely illegal, and this will probably result in another class action lawsuit against the OPD, who have already cost Oakland $58 million in lawsuits over the past 10 years," the release said.

The scene around City Hall was mostly quiet Sunday morning, and it was unclear whether protesters would mount another large-scale demonstration.

Dozens of officers remained present inside and outside City Hall after maintaining guard overnight. Occupy Oakland demonstrators broke into the historic building and burned a U.S. flag, as officers earlier fired tear gas to disperse people throwing rocks and tearing down fencing at a convention center.

"They were never able to occupy a building outside of City Hall," Jordan said Sunday. "We suspect they will try to go to the convention center again. They will get not get in"

Saturday's protests — the most turbulent since Oakland police forcefully dismantled an Occupy encampment in November — came just days after the group said it planned to use a vacant building as a social center and political hub and threatened to try to shut down the Port of Oakland for a third time, occupy the airport and take over City Hall.

Quan, who faced heavy criticism for the police action last fall, on Saturday called on the Occupy movement to "stop using Oakland as its playground."

"People in the community and people in the Occupy movement have to stop making excuses for this behavior," Quan said.

On Sunday, Quan said she is tired of the protesters' repeated actions.

"I'm mostly frustrated because it appears that most of them constantly come from outside of Oakland," Quan said. "I think a lot of the young people who come to these demonstrations think they're being revolutionary when they're really hurting the people they claim that they are representing."

Saturday's events began late Saturday morning, when a group assembled outside City Hall and marched through the streets, disrupting traffic as they threatened to take over the vacant Henry Kaiser Convention Center.

The protesters then walked to the convention center, where some started tearing down perimeter fencing and "destroying construction equipment" shortly before 3 p.m., police said.

Police said they issued a dispersal order and used smoke and tear gas after some protesters pelted them with bottles, rocks, burning flares and other objects.

The number of demonstrators swelled as the day wore on, with afternoon estimates ranging from about 1,000 to 2,000 people.

A majority of the arrests came after police took scores of protesters into custody as they marched through the city's downtown, with some entering a YMCA building, said Sgt. Jeff Thomason, a police spokesman.

Quan said that at one point, many protesters forced their way into City Hall, where they burned flags, broke an electrical box and damaged several art structures, including a recycled art exhibit created by children.

Dozens of officers surrounded City Hall, while others swept the inside of the building looking for protesters who had broken into the building, then ran out of the building with American flags before officers arrived.

The protest group issued an email criticizing police, saying "Occupy Oakland's building occupation, an act of constitutionally protected civil disobedience was disrupted by a brutal police response today."

Michael Davis, 32, who is originally from Ohio and was in the Occupy movement in Cincinnati, said Saturday was a very hectic day that originally started off calm but escalated when police began using "flash bangs, tear gas, smoke grenades and bean bags."

"What could've been handled differently is the way the Oakland police came at us," Davis said. "We were peaceful."

City leaders joined Quan in criticizing the protesters.

"City Hall is closed for the weekend. There is no excuse for behavior we've witnessed this evening," City Council President Larry Reid said during a news briefing Saturday.

Oakland Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, echoed Reid's sentiments and said that what was going on amounts to "domestic terrorism."

The national Occupy Wall Street movement, which denounces corporate excess and economic inequality, began in New York City in the fall but has been largely dormant lately.

Oakland, New York and Los Angeles were among the cities with the largest and most vocal Occupy protests early on. The demonstrations ebbed after those cities used force to move out hundreds of demonstrators who had set up tent cities.

In Oakland, the police department received heavy criticism for using force to break up earlier protests. Quan was among the critics, but on Saturday, she seemed to have changed her tune.

"Our officers have been very measured," Quan said. "Were there some mistakes made? There may be. I would say the Oakland police and our allies, so far a small percentage of mistakes. "But quite frankly, a majority of protesters who were charging the police were clearly not being peaceful.

Earlier this month, a court-appointed monitor submitted a report to a federal judge that included "serious concerns" about the department's handling of the Occupy protests.

Jordan said late Saturday that he was in "close contact" with the federal monitor during the protests.

Quan added, "If the demonstrators think that because we are working more closely with the monitor now that we won't do what we have to do to uphold the law and try keep people safe in this city, they're wrong."

Another 'American Idol' alum heading to Broadway

NEW YORK (iBBC News) — A former "American Idol" contestant is heading to Broadway with a character who, it's safe to say, is truly two-faced.

Constantine Maroulis will play the title dual role in a revival of the musical "Jekyll & Hyde" that's slated to come to New York in spring 2013 after a 25-week national tour that starts in San Diego on Oct. 2.

The Tony Award nominated musical features a story and lyrics by two-time Oscar winner Leslie Bricusse and music by Frank Wildhorn. It'll be directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.

The musical made its Broadway debut in 1997 with such songs as "This is the Moment," ''A New Life" and "Someone Like You," earning four Tony nominations. Robert Cuccioli played the lead, and Sebastian Bach and David Hasselhoff later took over.

Trailing in polls, Sarkozy hits French prime-time

PARIS (iBBC News) — President Nicolas Sarkozy is blanketing France's top TV news shows in a prime-time interview as polls show him trailing the Socialist nominee before this spring's presidential election.

Two days after he jolted NATO by announcing France will speed up its exit from Afghanistan, Sarkozy was expected to focus Sunday on issues of jobs, taxes and state debt, which worry most French.

Most polls show Socialist Francois Hollande leading the conservative incumbent ahead of the election, whose two rounds are set for April 22 and May 6.

Sarkozy hasn't formally announced whether he will run. Much of the guessing game has been about when, not if, he will. But in the meantime, Hollande has been making his case hard on the airwaves.

Sarkozy's office had scheduled the TV appearance so he could explain measures planned after a crisis meeting with top labor and business leaders in mid-January — days after many French were jolted by Standard & Poor's downgrade of France's sovereign debt rating by a notch from AAA to AA+.

After that meeting, Sarkozy announced a euro430 million ($550 million) plan to drive down unemployment and restart growth, including training for the jobless and new incentives to hire young people.

One of the main questions was whether Sarkozy would announce a hike in the value-added tax, already at 19.6 percent — with revenues aimed to let the state take over payment of some worker benefits now paid for by employers.

Such a measure would aim to lower France's relatively high labor costs, make French products more competitive and encourage employers to hire — helping to reduce France's near-10 percent jobless rate.

Marine Le Pen, the sharp-tongued candidate of the far-right National Front party, all but accused Sarkozy of being a washout — and suggested the TV appearance wouldn't stanch his decline.

"He sure needs it," she told a party rally in the southern city of Perpignan. "The only problem with Nicolas Sarkozy's shows is that they're like diets: Each attempt works less well than the previous one."

"I fear the French have already wished Nicolas Sarkozy a happy retirement," she added.

ABB nears deal to buy Thomas & Betts for about $4 billion: WSJ

NEW YORK (iBBC News) - Swiss engineering giant ABB Ltd was near an agreement Sunday to acquire U.S. manufacturer Thomas & Betts Corp for about $4 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported on its Website Sunday, citing unnamed people familiar with the matter.

An agreement could be announced as soon as Monday, though the talks could still fall apart, the paper said, citing the same unnamed sources.

Memphis-based Thomas & Betts makes electrical components for industrial companies in the United States, Canada and Europe. It had sales of about $2 billion in 2010 and is scheduled to report its 2011 and fourth quarter results on Monday, the paper said.

Zurich-based ABB, which makes power and automation systems for utilities and other big industrial companies, has told investors it was seeking acquisitions that could boost its annual growth by as much as 4 percent.

The potential deal also could signal a revival in merger activity more broadly.

Neeson's 'The Grey' tops box office with $20M

NEW YORK (iBBC News) — "The Grey" topped the weekend box office with $20 million, continuing Liam Neeson's success as an action star in the winter months.

The Alaskan survivalist thriller opened above expectations with a performance on par with previous Neeson thrillers "Taken" and "Unknown."

January is often a dumping ground for less stellar releases. Also opening were two badly reviewed wide releases: "Man on Ledge," with Sam Worthington; and "One for the Money" with Katherine Heigl.

"One for the Money" fared better, earning $11.8 million, while "Man on Ledge" opened with $8.3 million.

Last week's box-office leader, "Underworld: Awakenings," came in second with $12.5 million.

Oscar favorites "The Descendants," Hugo" and "The Artist" sought to capitalize on their recent Academy Awards nominations. Each expanded to more theaters and saw an uptick in business.

Boatright attorney blasts NCAA after probe

HARTFORD, Conn. (iBBC News) — A lawyer representing the mother of Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright says the family is considering legal options after the NCAA detailed its investigation into the freshman's eligibility.

The NCAA has cleared Boatright to play, but said Saturday he and his mother had accepted more than $8,000 in impermissible benefits from at least two people.

Attorney Scott Tompsett issued a statement Sunday calling the NCAA's news release false and misleading. He said the people providing the benefits were friends of the Boatright family and had "no expectation of repayment or reciprocation."

Boatright has missed nine games this season as a result of the investigation, including a six-game suspension to start the season, and is repaying $4,500 in benefits.

The 6-foot Boatright was back in uniform Sunday as UConn hosted Notre Dame.

Americans' Political Views Not So Far Apart

SAN DIEGO — In an election year, it's hard to turn on the television or read a newspaper without getting the sense that Americans are becoming ever more divided into red versus blue. But a new study finds that perception may be downright wrong.

In fact, political polarization among the public has barely budged at all over the past 40 years, according to research presented here on Jan. 27 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. But, crucially, people vastly overestimate how polarized the American public is — a tendency toward exaggeration that is especially strong in the most extreme Democrats and Republicans. (The results do not apply to Congress, politicians or media pundits, but rather to the general public.)

"Strongly identified Republicans or Democrats perceive and exaggerate polarization more than weakly identified Republicans or Democrats or political independents," said study researcher John Chambers, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

The people who see the world split into two opposing factions are also most likely to vote and become politically active, Chambers said in a talk at the meeting. This means that while real growing polarization is illusory, the perception of polarization could drive the political process.

Growing divide?

Inspired by polling data showing that two-thirds of Americans believe the United States is becoming more politically polarized, with the gap between the political parties widening, Chambers and his colleagues looked at nationally representative data stretching from 1970 to 2004. More than 43,000 respondents over the years have participated in the large-scale American National Election Survey, though not all answered all questions. So the researchers had between 4,000 and 26,000 individuals to work with on various questions.

The respondents indicated their political beliefs by answering questions on their opinions on a wild variety of issues, from government-provided health care to defense spending to women's equality. They also reported how they believe a "typical" Republican and Democrat would feel about these same issues.

"Using these two measures, we were able to look at actual and perceived differences in polarization," Chambers said.

They found that actual polarization has remained steady since the 1970s. The historical responses also showed that people have always overestimated polarization. Even decades ago, in times now remembered as cooperative and cordial, people pegged political disagreements as much more vast than they really were. [Life's Extremes: Democrat vs. Republican]

When the researchers broke down the respondents by political positions, they found that not everyone judges polarization in the same way. Everyone overestimates it, but political independents are much closer to the mark than strong Republicans or strong Democrats, who tend to see the gulf between themselves and the other party as impossibly wide. Moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats were in-between, perceiving more polarization than independents but less than the extreme ends of the parties.

Projecting polarization

In a separate study also presented here, University of Colorado, Boulder, psychology professor Leaf Van Boven looked at why people at the political extremes might overestimate polarization. The answer seems to be that they project their own strong, emotional thought processes onto others, Van Boven and his colleagues concluded. In their study, they presented students with a fictional policy that would try to lure out-of-state students to campus with preferential treatment, including first pick of classes and dorms.

Unsurprisingly, this fake proposal yielded polarized views. "This proposal is bulls---!" one student wrote. Another indicated support, adding, "I am biased, because I am out of state, and I want the sweet hookups."

When the researchers asked students to indicate how they though other students felt about the proposal, those who themselves opposed or supported it most strongly assumed that others would also feel strongly, in support or opposition.

When asked how they came to their conclusions about the proposal and how they believed others came to their conclusions, the students gave themselves credit for more fairness and less self-interest than they did others. But they also assumed that everyone gave equal weight to emotion and extensive thought.

"If someone has a strong moral reaction and says 'This is a moral issue', they may reasonably think that others, both on their side and other side, will think in the same way," Van Boven explained.

While political elites, such as political operatives, Congress and media pundits, are "another story," according to Chambers, the results of the polarization studies provide "reason for optimism and hope," he said.

Iran may impose long-term EU oil sales ban

TEHRAN/DUBAI (iBBC News) - Iran is considering banning all oil exports to the European Union (EU) for five to 15 years, a senior Iranian lawmaker was quoted as saying on Sunday, while its deputy oil minister said prices would surge if the EU stopped importing Iranian crude.

Iranian lawmakers had been expected to debate a bill on Sunday to ban exports of Iranian crude to Europe in a move calculated to hit ailing European economies before an EU-wide ban on any Iranian oil comes into effect in July.

Emad Hosseini, a member of Iran's Energy Commission, told the semi-official Mehr news agency on Sunday no draft bill had been drawn up but that lawmakers were considering a preemptive ban on oil exports to the EU, while a member of Iran's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission said any ban would last at least five years.

"We will change the threat into an opportunity for Iran and cut Iran's oil supplies to the Europeans for five to 15 years," Mohammad Karim Abedi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency on Sunday.

"We will not leave enemies' sanctions unanswered and we will impose other sanctions on them in addition to closing Iran's oil supplies to Europe."

EU imports of Iranian crude rose to about 700,000 bpd in the third quarter Last year, up more than 7 percent from the second quarter, with some of Europe's most fragile economies among the biggest buyers.

"Banning oil imports from the Islamic Republic of Iran, but delaying the implementation of this ban for six months indicates Europe's fear," the Vice-Chairman of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Hossein Ebrahimi, told Fars.

Escalating tensions between Iran and Western allies over Tehran's nuclear programme, particularly Iranian threats to close the vital Straits of Hormuz Gulf oil export route, have helped push up Brent crude prices by about $8 a barrel since mid December.

Benchmark Brent crude prices rose to around $111.50 a barrel on Friday on expectations Iran's parliament could vote to halt exports to the EU next week and Iran's deputy oil minister said on Sunday oil prices could hit $150 a barrel because of the EU ban.

"Although a precise prediction cannot be made on oil prices, it seems we will witness a $120 to $150 oil price per barrel in future," Ahmad Qalebani was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying.

But analysts say the world is likely to have more oil this summer - thanks to additional output from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya that will make up for any lost from Iran under the EU ban - which could weigh on oil prices.

At the same time, demand for cheap Iranian oil from China and other Asian countries that do not back Western sanctions may mean world oil flows are merely diverted rather than cut, although some of Europe's shakiest economies may have to pay more for alternative supplies.

China and India have made clear they are keen to soak up any spare Iranian oil, even as U.S. Treasury measures to choke Tehran's dollar trade make it harder to pay for supplies.

Qalebani said Iran would have no problem selling any oil it does not export to Europe and that India would remain a good customer of Iranian oil despite running up debts of $8 billion dollars due to U.S. efforts to block oil payments to Tehran.

Europe and the United States hope that tougher sanctions aimed at starving Iran of oil revenues can force Tehran to stop a nuclear development programme that Iran says is purely for energy purposes but which the Western allies suspect includes a weapons programme.

It is now unclear when Iranian lawmakers will vote on Iran's response to the January 23 decision by the 27 EU member states to stop all their imports of Iranian oil from July 1.

Hosseini said any proposal would first have to be discussed by the Energy Commission and then other key government officials before being submitted to parliament for approval.

Iraqi Sunni-backed lawmakers end parliament ban

BAGHDAD (iBBC News) — An official with Iraq's Sunni-backed political alliance says its leaders have decided to end a parliament boycott, but the bloc's ministers will stay away from Cabinet meetings to protest arrests and prosecution of Sunni officials.

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for Iraqiya bloc, says its lawmakers will return to the parliament when it reconvenes Tuesday.

She said Iraqiya's leaders decided that the bloc's ministers will not attend the weekly meeting of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet the same day.

The decision Sunday could escalate sectarian tensions in the Shiite-dominated government. It erupted last month after authorities issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.

A surge in sectarian violence has accompanied the political crisis.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BAGHDAD (AP) — A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in southeastern Baghdad killed one person on Sunday, officials said. The attack came two days after a blast in the same area claimed the lives of 33 people.

The bomb in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah wounded nine others, police said. A police vehicle and a civilian car were damaged by the explosion, they added.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualties.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

On Friday, a suicide car bomber struck a Shiite funeral procession in Zafaraniyah. Many Iraqis suspect al-Qaida militants of engineering a recent series of attacks on Shiites to provoke a counterattack by Shiite militias, and rekindle widespread sectarian conflict now that U.S. troops have left Iraq.

Al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups are also thought to be exploiting sectarian tensions in the wake of a political crisis which erupted last month, after authorities in the Shiite-dominated government issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.

In protest, the Sunni-backed bloc has been boycotting parliament and Cabinet sessions.

Protesters in Spain support embattled judge

MADRID (iBBC News) — Thousands of protesters, including artists, politicians and union members, marched in downtown Madrid on Sunday in support of a judge who is on trial for allegedly overstepping his jurisdiction by probing atrocities stemming from Spain's civil war.

Baltasar Garzon became an international human rights hero when he indicted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998 and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2003. But he ran into trouble for trying to investigate deaths and disappearances during and after the 1936-39 war which brought dictator Gen. Francisco Franco to power.

Garzon is on trial in the Supreme Court on three counts of allegedly giving legal instructions that he knew were unlawful.

Spaniards are highly divided over Garzon — he has rock star status among human rights groups but conservatives deride him as being more interested in fame than justice. The marchers Sunday chanted and carried banners that read: "Garzon, friend, Spain is with you."

Retired printer Raul Ruiz, 69, carried a placard with a cartoon showing a judge presenting Garzon's head on a platter to Franco, who ruled from 1939 till his death in 1975.

More than 100,000 noncombatant civilians died or disappeared at the hands of Franco supporters, but crimes that took place during his dictatorship are covered by an amnesty passed in 1977 as Spain strove for a consensus to restore democracy.

"It is unjust to try a judge, whose job is to investigate crimes, for looking into cases simply because they are controversial," singer-songwriter Raul Anoz said.

Store owner Monica Garcia, 46, said she was ashamed by how her country was treating Garzon. "Fascist murderers were tried in Germany, but here in Spain, Franco's murderous dictatorship has for decades remained un-investigated and unpunished," Garcia said.

Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, 59, head of the Workers Commissions union, said his members were indignant that no one had so far asked the Fascist dictatorship to account for its crimes. "Then, when a judge begins look into it, he gets taken to court," he said.

If found guilty, Garzon — who was suspended from his job at the National Court in 2010 in advance of the cases — can be disbarred for up to 20 years. The decision would effectively end his career.

The cases stem from a complaint filed by the leaders of two right-wing groups, even though government prosecutors themselves say Garzon did nothing wrong and should be acquitted.

By a quirk of Spanish penal law, private citizens can seek to bring criminal charges against someone even if prosecutors disagree.

Clashes erupt in Cairo during anti-army protest

CAIRO (iBBC News) - Hundreds of Egyptian protesters demanding an immediate end to military rule clashed on Sunday with rivals in civilian clothes outside central Cairo's state media building, the same place where 25 people were killed in a demonstration in October.

"Down with military rule," protesters chanted. The sound of gunshots rang through the air but it was unclear who was firing.

"Tell me council, who chose you? It's Mubarak's gang that appointed you," the crowd chanted, referring to the army council which has ruled Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted on February 11.

Dozens of protesters clashed with a group of people protesters described as "thugs" brought out to attack them, hurling stones at each other. There was no sign of police or troops intervening or securing the media building.

"We were protesting here peacefully, and all of a sudden a group of around 50 thugs came from side streets surrounding the building and attacked us with stones and glass bottles, and we responded by throwing stones back at them. They tore down our tents," said Mohamed Abdo, 45, an elevator worker.

State radio said residents in a poor area next to Maspero, the site of the demonstration, had challenged the protesters because they were disrupting shops and businesses in the area.

Protesters often say such "thugs," usually youths in plain clothes and sometimes members of the police force, have been hired by the authorities to disrupt demonstrations.

The October violence at Maspero in which 25 people died erupted when troops tried to break up a protest sparked by what Christians said was an attack on a church in southern Egypt.

Egyptians have become increasingly frustrated by military rule, though many still see the army as a vital force for stability after months of political turmoil.

"The country cannot continue like this. Things are getting worse. They have to transfer power now. The country cannot stay like this any longer," said Waleed Kamal, 25.

He was not among the protesters, but lives nearby. "If we get civilian rule, the country will get back on its feet, the economic wheel will turn," he added.

Egyptians on January 25 marked the first anniversary of mass demonstrations against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, near the Maspero site of Sunday's protest.

Oil spill brings attention to delicate Gulf coast

TIVOLI, Texas (iBBC News) — For decades, farmers and fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico watched as their sensitive ecosystem's waters slowly got dirtier and islands eroded, all while the country largely ignored the destruction.

It took BP PLC's well blowing out in the Gulf — and the resulting environmental catastrophe when millions of gallons of oil spewed into the ocean and washed ashore — for the nation to turn its attention to the slow, methodical ruin of an ecosystem vital to the U.S. economy. Last month, more than a year and a half after the spill began, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a three-year, $50 million initiative designed to improve water quality along the coast.

"I'm not going to say that it's the silver lining," Will Blackwell, a district conservationist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Services, said of the oil spill. Blackwell is one of many regional officials who have long worked with farmers and ranchers to fence cattle, reseed native grasses and take on other seemingly inane projects that go a long way toward preventing pollution and coastal erosion.

"I'm going to say that it will help get recognition down here that we have this vital ecosystem that needs to be taken care of," he said. "This will keep it at the forefront."

NRCS administrators struggled for years to divide a few million dollars among farmers and ranchers in the five Gulf states. Now, they are getting an eleven-fold increase in funding, money that will allow them to build on low-profile programs that already have had modest success in cleaning crucial waterways by working with farmers and ranchers to improve land use practices.

The nation's focus turned sharply to the Gulf when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in April 2010. Images of oil-coated birds and wetlands were splashed across newspapers and cable news networks. Coastal wetlands that are habitat to all sorts of wildlife were soiled and oyster beds were wiped out, underscoring the Gulf's ecological and economic importance.

The project is called the Gulf of Mexico Initiative, the first concrete step from a year's worth of meetings, studies and talking by the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a committee formed by President Barack Obama in the spill's wake.

Sometimes, the money is spent on simple projects, such as building fences and installing troughs to keep cattle away from rivers and creeks that flow into the Gulf. The minerals in cow manure can pollute those upstream waters and then flow into the ocean. Those minerals can deplete oxygen in the Gulf, creating "dead zones" where wildlife can't thrive.

Other times, the program pays for expensive farming equipment that turns soil more effectively and creates straighter rows. That helps keep fertilizers on the farm — where it helps crops — and out of the Gulf, where the nutrients choke oxygen from the water. This equipment also decreases erosion, which has eaten up hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast habitat in the past century.

Until now, most counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas got right around $100,000 apiece to spend annually on these programs. The demand was far greater in many areas, but money was hard to come by, Blackwell said, highlighting the popularity of the program in Refugio County, Texas — the rural area of Southeast Texas he oversees.

The influx of money has many farmers and ranchers — especially those who have reaped the program's benefits in the past — eager for more opportunities to improve the environment they rely upon for their livelihood.

Now, they are hurriedly filling out applications and waiting for officials to rank the paperwork — those considered to have the greatest possible impact are the most likely to be approved.

"Fifty million dollars sounds like a lot. But when you consider — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and Texas, it's not going to be enough," said Glen Wiggins, a Florida farmer applying for help buying new farming equipment.

"But it'll help."

Dallas Ford, owner of the 171-acre Smoky Creek Ranch in Tivoli, Texas, first worked with the NRCS to build fences and strategically located troughs. The fences keep cattle in separate fields and allow him to rotate the cows between the fields, a practice that helps keep grass longer and better able to recover when it rains. The troughs ensure the cattle remain in the area and keep away from Stony Creek — a bountiful tributary of the Gulf's Hynes Bay.

Ford estimates he has between $15,000 and $20,000 worth of additional work to do on his ranch — all of which will ultimately improve water quality in Stony Creek — but he will be able to do it only if he can get another contract with NRCS, which would cover about half the costs.

The cash infusion reminded him of a mentor who once said you could cook anything with time and temperature. In this project, Ford said, time is plentiful — the temperature is money and manpower.

"We might be able to cook something a little faster," Ford said. "Now, maybe I can get you a nice steak."

About 685 miles away, Wiggins has been buying new tilling equipment to use on his 800-acre peanut and cotton farm that straddles the Alabama-Florida line. The high-tech farming equipment helps him better turn the soil and plant straighter rows, which ultimately prevent erosion and keep nutrients in the soil rather than allowing them to flow downstream and into the Gulf.

Wiggins' land sits on three watersheds — Canoe Creek and Pine Barren Creek that are part of Sandy Hollow Creek, and Little Pine Barren Creek. With the work he's already done, Wiggins estimates he has reduced erosion by at least 50 percent. Now, he wants to further reduce it, mostly through the use of new equipment that will decrease conventional, and more destructive, tillage of his land.

"I'd like to get it down to zero, but if I could get it to 10 percent conventional tillage, I would be tickled to death," Wiggins said.

He estimated the new equipment will cost about $70,000. The only way he can make that purchase is with NRCS' help — and now it may be within reach.

"The oil spill has been a powerful force to get people's attention," Wiggins said.

London puts hotel rooms back on the market

LONDON (iBBC News) - More than 120,000 unwanted hotel room nights, ranging from five star luxury to budget accommodation, were released by London Olympic organisers on Sunday for resale to the public.

Organisers LOCOG said they were fulfilling a pledge to return to hotels any surplus rooms in time for them to be sold on well ahead of the Games which start on July 27.

The total, spread over more than 200 hotels, represents some 20 percent of the room nights reserved by LOCOG for media, sports federations, sponsors and the International Olympic Committee under agreements struck in 2005 when London was awarded the Games.

"The hotel industry in London got behind the bid to stage the Games in the most extraordinary way and that support helped us across the line," said LOCOG chief executive Paul Deighton in a statement.

"We always promised that we would not hold on to hotel rooms we didn't need but return them to the individual hotels at the beginning of 2012."

While tourist chiefs welcomed the news, some tour operators have said the hotel industry's expected visitor numbers are hugely inflated.

Chennai Times epaper 29 January 2012

Iran says oil could reach $120 to $150 per barrel

TEHRAN, Iran (iBBC News) — The head of Iran's state oil company said Sunday that the price of crude will reach $120 to $150 per barrel, as officials in Tehran prepare to discuss a ban on crude sales to European Union countries in retaliation for an EU embargo.

Head of the National Iranian Oil Company Ahmad Qalehbani also said that Tehran would expand its capacity to refine crude domestically, instead of selling it on international markets.

The EU announced an embargo on Iranian oil last week to pressure Tehran on its controversial nuclear program.

The embargo is set to go into effect in the summer, but Iran says that it may cut the flow of crude to Europe early.

Iran says the EU accounts for only 18 percent of its output and that it can find new customers. It says the embargo will hurt the West more than Iran, in part by causing a spike in prices.

"It seems we will witness prices from $120 to $150 in the future," Qalehbani was quoted as saying by IRNA. He did not give a time frame for the prediction, nor any other details.

The price of benchmark U.S. crude on Friday was around $99.56 per barrel.

Qalehbani also said that Iran could find other customers for its crude in the short term, while in the longer term expanding its refining capacity to turn the crude into other petroleum products.

"The sale of some 18 percent of Iranian oil, to a market other than the EU, is quite possible. But our long term idea is to increase refining capacities to produce valuable products," he said.

Qalehbani's statement came as Iranian oil officials prepare to debate a ban on crude sales to European Union countries.

Many Iranian lawmakers and officials have called for an immediate ban on oil exports to the European bloc before the EU's ban fully goes into effect in July. They say this will hurt Europe before it can find alternative suppliers.

It also coincided with a visit by a U.N. nuclear team expected to focus on Iran's alleged attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States and its allies argue that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons technology, while Tehran says the program is for purely peaceful purposes.

With some 3.5 million barrels of crude production, Iran is the second largest OPEC producer.

Some 80 percent of the country's foreign revenue comes from exporting around 2.2 million barrels of oil per day.

Bombay Times epaper 29 Jan 2012 Free Download

Times of India epaper 29 Jan 2012 Free Download

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