‘Star Trek’ Beams Into Oscar Night

Star Trek” fans got quite a treat last night during the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24).

Actors who portray major characters from the film and television versions of the iconic science fiction series made cameo appearances during the three-hour-long ceremony celebrating the best movies of 2012.

William Shatner, the actor that played Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in original series helped open the awards show with host, Seth McFarlane.

“I’ve come back in time from the 23rd century to stop you from destroying the Academy Awards,” joked Shatner to McFarlane.

Actors Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana also had a part to play in the festivities. Pine, who plays Kirk in 2009′s “Star Trek” and its sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness “ being released later this year, and Saldana, who plays the Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura, recapped an earlier event they co-hosted on Feb. 10 called the “Sci-Tech Oscars.”

The smaller ceremony is designed to showcase the technical achievements of designers and technicians on movie sets.

The newest movie in the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is set to be released on May 17.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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U.S. evolves on same-sex marriage


  • The president and the nation have shifted perspectives on same-sex marriage

  • Supreme Court ruling on California's same-sex marriage ban a critical test

  • Growing public support for gay marriage give proponents hope for change

Washington (CNN) -- The nation's growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has happened in slow and painstaking moves, eventually building into a momentum that is sweeping even the most unlikely of converts.

Even though he said in 2008 that he could only support civil unions for same-sex couples, President Barack Obama nonetheless enjoyed strong support among the gay community. He disappointed many with his conspicuously subdued first-term response to the same-sex marriage debate.

Last year, after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support, the president then said his position had evolved and he, too, supported same-sex marriage.

So it was no small matter when on Thursday the Obama administration formally expressed its support of same-sex marriage in a court brief weighing in on California's Proposition 8, which bans same-sex weddings. The administration's effort was matched by at least 100 high-profile Republicans — some of whom in elections past depended on gay marriage as a wedge issue guaranteed to rally the base — who signed onto a brief supporting gay couples to legally wed.

Obama on same-sex marriage: Everyone is equal

Then there are the polls that show that an increasing number of Americans now support same-sex marriage. These polls show that nearly half of the nation's Catholics and white, mainstream Protestants and more than half of the nation's women, liberals and political moderates all support same-sex marriage.

According to Pew Research Center polling, 48% of Americans support same-sex marriage with 43% opposed. Back in 2001, 57% opposed same-sex marriage while 35% supported it.

In last year's presidential election, same-sex marriage scarcely raised a ripple. That sea change is not lost on the president.

"The same evolution I've gone through is the same evolution the country as a whole has gone through," Obama told reporters on Friday.

Craig Rimmerman, professor of public policy and political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges says there is history at work here and the administration is wise to get on the right side.

"There is no doubt that President Obama's shifting position on Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage more broadly is due to his desire to situate himself on the right side of history with respect to the fight over same-sex marriage," said Rimmerman, author of "From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States."

"I also think that broader changes in public opinion showing greater support for same-sex marriage, especially among young people, but in the country at large as well, has created a cultural context for Obama to alter his views."

For years, Obama had frustrated many in the gay community by not offering full-throated support of same-sex marriage. However, the president's revelation last year that conversations with his daughters and friends led him to change his mind gave many in that community hope.

Last year, the Obama administration criticized a measure in North Carolina that banned same-sex marriage and made civil unions illegal. The president took the same position on a similar Minnesota proposal.

Obama administration officials point to what they see as the administration's biggest accomplishment in the gay rights cause: repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian members serving in the forces.

Then there was the president's inaugural address which placed the gay community's struggle for equality alongside similar civil rights fights by women and African-Americans.

"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well," Obama said in his address after being sworn in.

In offering its support and asserting in the brief that "prejudice may not be the basis for differential treatment under the law," the Obama administration is setting up a high stakes political and constitutional showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court over a fast-evolving and contentious issue.

The justices will hear California's Proposition 8 case in March. That case and another appeal over the federal Defense of Marriage Act will produce blockbuster rulings from the justices in coming months.

Beyond the legal wranglings there is a strong social and historic component, one that has helped open the way for the administration to push what could prove to be a social issue that defines Obama's second term legacy, Rimmerman said.

The nation is redefining itself on this issue, as well.

Pew survey: Changing attitudes on gay marriage

The changes are due, in part, to generational shifts. Younger people show a higher level of support than their older peers, according to Pew polling "Millennials are almost twice as likely as the Silent Generation to support same-sex marriage."

"As people have grown up with people having the right to marry the generational momentum has been very, very strong," said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a gay rights organization.

That is not to say that there isn't still opposition.

Pew polling found that most Republicans and conservatives remain opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2001, 21% of Republicans were supportive; in 2012 that number nudged slightly to 25%.

Conservative groups expressed dismay at the administration's same-sex marriage support.

"President Obama, who was against same-sex 'marriage' before he was for it, and his administration, which said the Defense of Marriage Act was constitutional before they said it was unconstitutional, has now flip-flopped again on the issue of same-sex 'marriage,' putting allegiance to extreme liberal social policies ahead of constitutional principle," Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.

But there are signs of movement even among some high profile Republican leaders

Top Republicans sign brief supporting same-sex marriage

The Republican-penned friend of the court brief, which is designed to influence conservative justices on the high court, includes a number of top officials from the George W. Bush administration, Mitt Romney's former campaign manager and former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.

It is also at odds with the Republican Party's platform, which opposes same-sex marriage and defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Still, with White House and high-profile Republican support, legal and legislative victories in a number of states and polls that show an increasing number of Americans support same sex-marriage, proponents feel that the winds of history are with them.

"What we've seen is accelerating and irrefutable momentum as Americans have come to understand who gay people are and why marriage matters," Wolfson said. "We now have a solid national majority and growing support across every demographic. We have leaders across the spectrum, including Republicans, all saying it's time to end marriage discrimination."

CNN's Peter Hamby, Ashley Killough and Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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Man slain on way to dialysis treatment: police

South Side shooting

Police at the scene of a fatal shooting early Saturday at Homicide at Eberhart and 95th Streets.
(Peter Nickeas / Chicago Tribune / March 2, 2013)

A 72-year-old man was shot and killed in his gangway on the Far South Side early Saturday morning as he left a home for dialysis treatment. 

The man's grandson was inside and heard the shots that killed his grandfather.

The man was shot about 3:30 a.m. and pronounced dead about 4 a.m., according to authorities.

The motive appears to be robbery, police said, but detectives are still investigating. 

Detectives remained at the scene, across from Chicago State University, into the morning.  

Police taped off the northeast corner of 95th Street and Eberhart Avenue, surrounding the two houses between which the man was killed. 

Check back for more information. 

Twitter: @peternickeas 

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Leaving NKorea, Rodman calls Kims 'great leaders'

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong Un an "awesome guy" and said his father and grandfather were "great leaders."

Rodman, the highest-profile American to meet Kim since he inherited power from father Kim Jong Il in 2011, watched a basketball game with the authoritarian leader Thursday and later drank and dined on sushi with him.

At Pyongyang's Sunan airport on his way to Beijing, Rodman said it was "amazing" that the North Koreans were "so honest." He added that Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder, "were great leaders."

"He's proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him," Rodman said of Kim Jong Un. "Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."

At Beijing's airport, Rodman pushed past waiting journalists without saying anything.

Rodman's visit to North Korea began Monday and took place amid tension between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test just two weeks ago, making clear the provocative act was a warning to the United States to drop what it considers a "hostile" policy toward the North.

Rodman traveled to Pyongyang with three members of the professional Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy and a production crew to shoot an episode on North Korea for a new weekly HBO series.

Kim, a diehard basketball fan, told the former Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls star that he hoped the visit would break the ice between the United States and North Korea, said Shane Smith, founder of the New York-based VICE media company.

Dressed in a blue Mao suit, Kim laughed and slapped his hands on a table during the game at Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium as he sat nearly knee to knee with Rodman. Rodman, the man who once turned up in a wedding dress to promote his autobiography, wore a dark suit and dark sunglasses, but still had on his nose rings and other piercings. A can of Coca-Cola sat on the table before him in photos shared with AP by VICE.

Smith, after speaking to the VICE crew in Pyongyang, said Kim and Rodman "bonded" and chatted in English, though Kim primarily spoke in Korean through a translator.

Thursday's game ended in a 110-110 tie, with two Americans playing on each team alongside North Koreans. After the game, Rodman addressed Kim in a speech before a crowd of tens of thousands of North Koreans and told him, "You have a friend for life," VICE spokesman Alex Detrick told AP.

At an "epic feast" later, the leader plied the group with food and drinks and round after round of toasts were made, Duffy said in an email to AP.

Duffy said he invited Kim to visit the United States, a proposal met with hearty laughter from the North Korean leader.

Kim said he hoped sports exchanges would promote "mutual understanding between the people of the two countries," the official Korean Central News Agency said.

North Korea and the U.S. fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953. The foes never signed a peace treaty, and do not have diplomatic relations.

Rodman's trip is the second attention-grabbing American visit this year to North Korea. Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, made a four-day trip in January to Pyongyang, but did not meet the North Korean leader.

The Obama administration had frowned on the trip by Schmidt, who was accompanied by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, but has avoided criticizing Rodman's outing, saying it's about sports.

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Syria war is everybody's problem

Syrians search for survivors and bodies after the Syrian regime attacked the city of Aleppo with missiles on February 23.


  • Frida Ghitis: We are standing by as Syria rips itself apart, thinking it's not our problem

  • Beyond the tragedy in human terms, she says, the war damages global stability

  • Ghitis: Syria getting more and more radical, jeopardizing forces of democracy

  • Ghitis: Peace counts on moderates, whom we must back with diplomacy, training arms

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Last week, a huge explosion rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing more than 50 people and injuring hundreds. The victims of the blast in a busy downtown street were mostly civilians, including schoolchildren. Each side in the Syrian civil war blamed the other.

In the northern city of Aleppo, about 58 people -- 36 of them children -- died in a missile attack last week. Washington condemned the regime of Bashar al-Assad; the world looked at the awful images and moved on.

Syria is ripping itself to pieces. The extent of human suffering is beyond comprehension. That alone should be reason enough to encourage a determined effort to bring this conflict to a quick resolution. But if humanitarian reasons were not enough, the international community -- including the U.S. and its allies -- should weigh the potential implications of allowing this calamity to continue.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

We've all heard the argument: It's not our problem. We're not the world's policeman. We would only make it worse.

This is not a plea to send American or European troops to fight in this conflict. Nobody wants that.

But before we allow this mostly hands-off approach to continue, we would do well to consider the potential toll of continuing with a failed policy, one that has focused in vain over the past two years searching for a diplomatic solution.

U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just announced that the U.S. will provide an additional $60 million in non-lethal assistance to the opposition. He has hinted that President Obama, after rejecting suggestions from the CIA and previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm Syrian rebels, might be ready to change course. And not a day too soon.

The war is taking longer than anyone expected. The longer it lasts, the more Syria is radicalized and the region is destabilized.

If you think the Syrian war is the concern of Syrians alone, think about other countries that have torn themselves apart over a long time. Consider Lebanon, Afghanistan or Somalia; each with unique circumstances, but with one thing in common: Their wars created enormous suffering at home, and the destructiveness eventually spilled beyond their borders. All of those wars triggered lengthy, costly refugee crises. They all spawned international terrorism and eventually direct international -- including U.S. -- intervention.

The uprising against al-Assad started two years ago in the spirit of what was then referred to -- without a hint of irony -- as the Arab Spring. Young Syrians marched, chanting for freedom and democracy. The ideals of equality, rule of law and human rights wafted in the air.

Al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with gunfire. Syrians started dying by the hundreds each day. Gradually the nonviolent protesters started fighting back. Members of the Syrian army started defecting.

The opposition's Free Syrian Army came together. Factions within the Syrian opposition took up arms and the political contest became a brutal civil war. The death toll has climbed to as many as 90,000, according to Kerry. About 2 million people have left their homes, and the killing continues with no end in sight.

In fairness to Washington, Europe and the rest of the international community, there were never easy choices in this war. Opposition leaders bickered, and their clashing views scared away would-be supporters. Western nations rejected the idea of arming the opposition, saying Syria already has too many weapons. They were also concerned about who would control the weaponry, including an existing arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, after al-Assad's fall.

These are all legitimate concerns. But inaction is producing the worst possible outcome.

The moderates, whose views most closely align with the West, are losing out to the better-armed Islamists and, especially, to the extremists. Moderates are losing the ideological debate and the battle for the future character of a Syria after al-Assad.

Radical Islamist groups have taken the lead. Young people are losing faith in moderation, lured by disciplined, devout extremists. Reporters on the ground have seen young democracy advocates turn into fervent supporters of dangerous groups such as the Nusra Front, which has scored impressive victories.

The U.S. State Department recently listed the Nusra Front, which has close ties to al Qaeda in Iraq and a strong anti-Western ideology, as a terrorist organization.

Meantime, countries bordering Syria are experiencing repercussions. And these are likely to become more dangerous.

Jordan, an important American ally, is struggling with a flood of refugees, as many as 10,000 each week since the start of the year. The government estimates 380,000 Syrians are in Jordan, a country whose government is under pressure from its own restive population and still dealing with huge refugee populations from other wars.

Turkey is also burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees and occasional Syrian fire. Israel has warned about chemical weapons transfers from al-Assad to Hezbollah in Lebanon and may have already fired on a Syrian convoy attempting the move.

Lebanon, always perched precariously on the edge of crisis, lives with growing fears that Syria's war will enter its borders. Despite denials, there is evidence that Lebanon's Hezbollah, a close ally of al-Assad and of Iran, has joined the fighting on the side of the Syrian president. The Free Syrian Army has threatened to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if it doesn't leave Syria.

The possible outcomes in Syria include the emergence of a failed state, stirring unrest throughout the region. If al-Assad wins, Syria will become an even more repressive country.

Al-Assad's survival would fortify Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Western forces. If the extremists inside the opposition win, Syria could see factional fighting for many years, followed by anti-democratic, anti-Western policies.

The only good outcome is victory for the opposition's moderate forces. They may not be easy to identify with complete certainty. But to the extent that it is possible, these forces need Western support.

They need training, funding, careful arming and strong political and diplomatic backing. The people of Syria should know that support for human rights, democracy and pluralism will lead toward a peaceful, prosperous future.

Democratic nations should not avert their eyes from the killings in Syria which are, after all, a warning to the world.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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Washington stares down start of sequester cuts

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government hurtled on Friday toward deep spending cuts that threaten to hinder the nation's economic recovery, after Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan.

Locked in during a bout of deficit-reduction fever in 2011, the time-released “automatic” cuts can only be halted by agreement between Republican lawmakers and the White House.

That has proved elusive so far.

Both sides still hope the other will either be blamed by voters for the cuts or cave in before the worst effects - like air traffic chaos or furloughs for tens of thousands of federal employees - start to bite in the coming weeks.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, all but killed any hopes that President Barack Obama and top leaders of Congress can hammer out a deal in talks that begin shortly after 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT).

“I'm happy to discuss other ideas to keep our commitment to reducing Washington spending at today's meeting. But there will be no last-minute, back-room deal and absolutely no agreement to increase taxes,” McConnell said.

Barring any breakthroughs, across-the-board cuts totaling $85 billion will begin to come into force at some time before midnight on Friday night.

Obama will huddle at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

The full brunt of the belt tightening, known in Washington as “sequestration,” will take effect over seven months so it is not clear if there will be an immediate disruption to public services.

Democrats insist tax increases be part of a solution to ending the automatic cuts, an idea Republicans reject.

Congress can stop the cuts at any time after they start on Friday if the parties agree to that. In the absence of any deal at all, the Pentagon will be forced to slice 13 percent of its budget between now and Sept. 30. Most non-defense programs, from NASA space exploration to federally backed education and law enforcement, face a 9 percent reduction.

The International Monetary Fund warns that the cutbacks could knock at least 0.5 percentage point off U.S. economic growth this year and slow the global economy.

If the cuts were to stay in place through September, the administration predicts significant air travel delays due to layoffs of airport security workers and air traffic controllers.


Some Pentagon weapons production could grind to a halt and the budget cuts would ripple through the sprawling defense contracting industry.

Meat inspections could get hung up, medical research projects on cancer and Alzheimer's disease canceled or curtailed and thousands of teachers laid off.

Instead of these indiscriminate cuts, Obama and Democrats in Congress urge a mix of targeted spending cuts and tax increases on the rich to help tame the growth of a $16.6 trillion national debt.

Republicans want to cut the cost of huge social safety nets, including Social Security and Medicare, that are becoming more expensive in a country with an aging population.

By midnight, Obama is required to issue an order to federal agencies to reduce their budgets and the White House budget office must send a report to Congress detailing the spending cuts. In coming days, federal agencies are likely to issue 30-day notices to workers who will be laid off.

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‘Star Trek’ Beams Into Oscar Night

Star Trek” fans got quite a treat last night during the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24).

Actors who portray major characters from the film and television versions of the iconic science fiction series made cameo appearances during the three-hour-long ceremony celebrating the best movies of 2012.

William Shatner, the actor that played Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in original series helped open the awards show with host, Seth McFarlane.

“I’ve come back in time from the 23rd century to stop you from destroying the Academy Awards,” joked Shatner to McFarlane.

Actors Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana also had a part to play in the festivities. Pine, who plays Kirk in 2009′s “Star Trek” and its sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness “ being released later this year, and Saldana, who plays the Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura, recapped an earlier event they co-hosted on Feb. 10 called the “Sci-Tech Oscars.”

The smaller ceremony is designed to showcase the technical achievements of designers and technicians on movie sets.

The newest movie in the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is set to be released on May 17.

Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Low-key departure as Pope Benedict steps down

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict slips quietly from the world stage on Thursday after a private last goodbye to his cardinals and a short flight to a country palace to enter the final phase of his life "hidden from the world".

In keeping with his shy and modest ways, there will be no public ceremony to mark the first papal resignation in six centuries and no solemn declaration ending his nearly eight-year reign at the head of the world's largest church.

His last public appearance will be a short greeting to residents and well-wishers at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence south of Rome, in the late afternoon after his 15-minute helicopter hop from the Vatican.

When the resignation becomes official at 8 p.m. Rome time (02.00 p.m. EST), Benedict will be relaxing inside the 17th century palace. Swiss Guards on duty at the main gate to indicate the pope's presence within will simply quit their posts and return to Rome to await their next pontiff.

Avoiding any special ceremony, Benedict used his weekly general audience on Wednesday to bid an emotional farewell to more than 150,000 people who packed St Peter's Square to cheer for him and wave signs of support.

With a slight smile, his often stern-looking face seemed content and relaxed as he acknowledged the loud applause from the crowd.

"Thank you, I am very moved," he said in Italian. His unusually personal remarks included an admission that "there were moments ... when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping".


Once the chair of St Peter is vacant, cardinals who have assembled from around the world for Benedict's farewell will begin planning the closed-door conclave that will elect his successor.

One of the first questions facing these "princes of the Church" is when the 115 cardinal electors should enter the Sistine Chapel for the voting. They will hold a first meeting on Friday but a decision may not come until next week.

The Vatican seems to be aiming for an election by mid-March so the new pope can be installed in office before Palm Sunday on March 24 and lead the Holy Week services that culminate in Easter on the following Sunday.

In the meantime, the cardinals will hold daily consultations at the Vatican at which they discuss issues facing the Church, get to know each other better and size up potential candidates for the 2,000-year-old post of pope.

There are no official candidates, no open campaigning and no clear front runner for the job. Cardinals tipped as favorites by Vatican watchers include Brazil's Odilo Scherer, Canadian Marc Ouellet, Ghanaian Peter Turkson, Italy's Angelo Scola and Timothy Dolan of the United States.


Benedict, a bookish man who did not seek the papacy and did not enjoy the global glare it brought, proved to be an energetic teacher of Catholic doctrine but a poor manager of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that became mired in scandal during his reign.

He leaves his successor a top secret report on rivalries and scandals within the Curia, prompted by leaks of internal files last year that documented the problems hidden behind the Vatican's thick walls and the Church's traditional secrecy.

After about two months at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict plans to move into a refurbished convent in the Vatican Gardens, where he will live out his life in prayer and study, "hidden to the world", as he put it.

Having both a retired and a serving pope at the same time proved such a novelty that the Vatican took nearly two weeks to decide his title and form of clerical dress.

He will be known as the "pope emeritus," wear a simple white cassock rather than his white papal clothes and retire his famous red "shoes of the fisherman," a symbol of the blood of the early Christian martyrs, for more pedestrian brown ones.

(Reporting By Tom Heneghan; editing by Philip Pullella and Giles Elgood)

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U.S. to give Syrian rebels medical, food aid, not arms

ROME (Reuters) - The United States will send non-lethal aid directly to Syrian rebels for the first time, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday, disappointing opponents of President Bashar al-Assad who are clamoring for Western weapons.

But in a change of emphasis, the mainly Western and Arab "Friends of Syria" group meeting in Rome "underlined the need to change the balance of power on the ground".

A final communique said participants would "coordinate their efforts closely so as to best empower the Syrian people and support the Supreme Military Command of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its efforts to help them exercise self-defense".

More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed in a fierce conflict that began with peaceful anti-Assad protests nearly two years ago. Some 860,000 have fled abroad and several million are displaced within the country or need humanitarian assistance.

Kerry, after the talks in Rome, said Washington would more than double its aid to the Syrian civilian opposition, giving it an extra $60 million to help provide food, sanitation and medical care to devastated communities.

The United States would now "extend food and medical supplies to the opposition, including to the Syrian opposition's Supreme Military (Council)", Kerry said.

In their communique, the "Friends of Syria" pledged more political and material support to the Syrian National Coalition, a fractious Cairo-based group that has struggled to gain traction inside Syria, especially among disparate rebel forces.

Riad Seif, a coalition leader, said before the Rome meeting that the opposition would demand "qualitative military support".

Another coalition official welcomed the result of the talks. "We move forward with a great deal of cautious optimism. We heard today a different kind of discourse," Yasser Tabbara said.

But the continued U.S. refusal to send weapons may compound the frustration that prompted the coalition to say last week it would shun the Rome talks. It attended only under U.S. pressure.

Many in the coalition say Western reluctance to arm rebels only plays into the hands of Islamist militants now widely seen as the most effective forces in the struggle to topple Assad.

However, a European diplomat held out the possibility of Western military support, saying the coalition and its Western and Arab backers would meet in Istanbul next week to discuss military and humanitarian support to the insurgents.


Kerry's offer of medical aid and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the U.S. army's basic ration, fell far short of rebel demands for sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help turn the tables against Assad's mostly Russian-supplied forces.

It also stopped short of providing other forms of non-lethal assistance such as bullet-proof vests, armored personnel vehicles and military training to the insurgents.

Last week the European Union opened the way for direct aid to Syrian rebels, but did not lift an arms embargo on Syria.

The Rome talks again signaled the lack of appetite among the United States and its allies for direct military intervention in Syria, after the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Iraq and the drawdown under way in Afghanistan.

The communique called for an immediate halt to "unabated" arms supplies to Damascus by third countries, referring mostly to Assad's allies Russia and Iran.

It also said Syria must immediately stop indiscriminate bombardment of populated areas, which it described as crimes against humanity. NATO officials say Assad's military has fired ballistic missiles within Syria, which the government denies.

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 171 civilians were killed in four Scud missile strikes last week.

The "Friends of Syria" pledged "more political and material support to the coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people and to get more concrete assistance inside Syria", but gave no details on exactly what would be provided.

Kerry said earlier this week he would not leave the Syrian opposition "dangling in the wind", unsure of getting support.

But the White House continues to resist providing weaponry to the rebel forces, arguing there is no way to guarantee the arms might not fall into the hands of Islamist militants who might eventually use them against Western or Israeli targets.


U.S. officials have said that the U.S. Defense and State departments, under former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, privately recommended that the White House arm the rebels, but were overruled.

"It's a huge debate inside the administration between those that have to deal with Syria on an everyday basis, the State Department and DoD (Defense) particularly, and the White House, which ... until now has vetoed any kind of outreach to the armed groups," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank.

The United States says it has already provided more than $50 million in non-lethal assistance such as communications gear and governance training to Syria's civilian opposition.

A source in the Syrian coalition, however, said even the extra $60 million promised by Washington was a pittance compared to what he said was the $40 million a day in humanitarian aid needed for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons.

The United States has provided some $365 million in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and for internally displaced people, channeling this money through non-governmental organizations.

More than 40,000 people a week are fleeing Syria and the total number of refugees will likely pass 1 million in less than a month, far sooner than the United Nations had forecast, a senior U.N. official told the Security Council on Wednesday.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said his agency had registered 936,000 Syrians across the Middle East and North Africa, nearly 30 times as many as in April last year.

"We expected to have 1.1 million Syrian refugees by June. If things continue to accelerate like this, it will take less than a month to reach that number," he told the 15-member council.

(Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Stock futures little changed as market awaits Bernanke, data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stock index futures were little changed on Wednesday as investors awaited a second round of testimony in Congress by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for signs of whether the Fed will continue its economic stimulus program.

Economic data was also in focus with U.S. durables goods and homes data due out at 8:30 a.m. ET (1330) GMT and 10:00 a.m. ET (1500 GMT), respectively.

Bernanke will make his second appearance before the Financial Services Committee at 10:00 a.m. ET (1500 GMT).

"Of course, Bernanke is in the spotlight again but I don't expect him to vary from his comments from yesterday," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York.

A day earlier, Bernanke strongly defended the Fed's monetary stimulus efforts before Congress, easing financial market worries over an early retreat from the Fed's bond buying program, which had been triggered by minutes of the Fed's January meeting released a week ago.

His remarks, along with data showing sales of new homes hit a 4 1/2-year high, helped U.S. stocks rebound Tuesday from their worst decline since November.

Despite the bounce, the S&P 500 was unable to move back above 1,500, a closely watched level that had been technical support until recently, but may now prove a resistance point.

The benchmark S&P 500, up 6 percent for the year, was within reach of record highs a week ago before the minutes from the Fed's January meeting were released. Since then, the index has shed 1 percent as the minutes raised questions about the longevity of the Fed's economy-stimulating measures.

S&P 500 futures rose 2.1 points and were in line with fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures fell 1 points while Nasdaq 100 futures added 4 points.

In earnings news, Target Corp posted a lower quarterly profit as sales of food and value-priced items only partially mitigated weakness in holiday spending. The stock fell 1.7 percent to $62.99 in premarket trading.

Dollar Tree Inc reported a higher quarterly profit as the chain controlled costs and as consumer spending improved. The stock rose 4.5 percent to $42.91 in premarket trading.

In Europe, shares rose, steadying after the previous session's sharp losses, though jitters over the euro zone kept a lid on gains.

Italy's 10-year debt costs rose more than half a percentage point at the first longer-term auction since an inconclusive parliamentary election, although they remained below the psychologically important level of 5 percent.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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