Karzai's U.S. visit a time for tough talk

The last time Presidents Obama and Karzai met was in May in Kabul, when they signed a pact regarding U.S. troop withdrawal.


  • Afghan President Karzai meeting with President Obama in Washington this week

  • Felbab-Brown: Afghan politics are corrupt; army not ready for 2014 troop pullout

  • She says Taliban, insurgents, splintered army, corrupt officials are all jockeying for power

  • U.S. needs to commit to helping Afghan security, she says, and insist corruption be wiped out

Editor's note: Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Her latest book is "Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan."

(CNN) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is meeting this week with President Obama in Washington amid increasing ambivalence in the United States about what to do about the war in Afghanistan.

Americans are tired of the war. Too much blood and treasure has been spent. The White House is grappling with troop numbers for 2013 and with the nature and scope of any U.S. mission after 2014. With the persisting corruption and poor governance of the Afghan government and Karzai's fear that the United States is preparing to abandon him, the relationship between Kabul and Washington has steadily deteriorated.

As the United States radically reduces its mission in Afghanistan, it will leave behind a stalled and perilous security situation and a likely severe economic downturn. Many Afghans expect a collapse into civil war, and few see their political system as legitimate.

Karzai and Obama face thorny issues such as the stalled negotiations with the Taliban. Recently, Kabul has persuaded Pakistan to release some Taliban prisoners to jump-start the negotiations, relegating the United States to the back seat. Much to the displeasure of the International Security Assistance Force, the Afghan government also plans to release several hundred Taliban-linked prisoners, although any real momentum in the negotiations is yet to take place.

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Washington needs to be careful that negotiations are structured in a way that enhances Afghanistan's stability and is not merely a fig leaf for U.S. and NATO troop departure. Countering terrorism will be an important U.S. interest after 2014. The Taliban may have soured on al Qaeda, but fully breaking with the terror group is not in the Taliban's best interest. If negotiations give the insurgents de facto control of parts of the country, the Taliban will at best play it both ways: with the jihadists and with the United States.

Negotiations of a status-of-forces agreement after 2014 will also be on the table between Karzai and Obama. Immunity of U.S. soldiers from Afghan prosecution and control over detainees previously have been major sticking points, and any Afghan release of Taliban-linked prisoners will complicate that discussion.

Karzai has seemed determined to secure commitments from Washington to deliver military enablers until Afghan support forces have built up. The Afghan National Security Forces have improved but cannot function without international enablers -- in areas such as air support, medevac, intelligence and logistical assets and maintenance -- for several years to come. But Washington has signaled that it is contemplating very small troop levels after 2014, as low as 3,000. CNN reports that withdrawing all troops might even be considered.

Everyone is hedging their bets in light of the transition uncertainties and the real possibility of a major security meltdown after 2014. Afghan army commanders are leaking intelligence and weapons to insurgents; Afghan families are sending one son to join the army, one to the Taliban and one to the local warlord's militia.

Patronage networks pervade the Afghan forces, and a crucial question is whether they can avoid splintering along ethnic and patronage lines after 2014. If security forces do fall apart, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are much greater. Obama can use the summit to announce concrete measures -- such as providing enablers -- to demonstrate U.S. commitment to heading off a security meltdown. The United States and international security forces also need to strongly focus on countering the rifts within the Afghan army.

Assisting the Afghan army after 2014 is important. But even with better security, it is doubtful that Afghanistan can be stable without improvements in its government.

Afghanistan's political system is preoccupied with the 2014 elections. Corruption, serious crime, land theft and other usurpation of resources, nepotism, a lack of rule of law and exclusionary patronage networks afflict governance. Afghans crave accountability and justice and resent the current mafia-like rule. Whether the 2014 elections will usher in better leaders or trigger violent conflict is another huge question mark.

Emphasizing good governance, not sacrificing it to short-term military expediencies by embracing thuggish government officials, is as important as leaving Afghanistan in a measured and unrushed way -- one that doesn't jeopardize the fledgling institutional and security capacity that the country has managed to build up.

Karzai has been deaf and blind to the reality that reducing corruption, improving governance and allowing for a more pluralistic political system are essential for Afghanistan's stability. His visit provides an opportunity to deliver the message again -- and strongly.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Vanda Felbab-Brown.

Read More..

Illinois' pension problem punted to incoming lawmakers


State lawmakers on Tuesday bequeathed the government worker pension problem to the next General Assembly, rejecting Gov. Pat Quinn's roundly criticized "Hail Mary" plan to ask a committee to fix the worst-in-the-nation retirement system.

The failure of the Democratic governor and legislators to start reducing a $96.8 billion pension debt threatens to divert more and more money away from education and social services toward retirement benefits. Leaders also braced for a possible downgrade of Illinois' credit rating, which could make it more expensive for the state to borrow money to keep government afloat.

The dynamic of a legislature in action was replaced with legislative inaction. The complex problems of pension funding gave way to a host of political concerns and a governor scrambling for ways to save face after once declaring that he was "put on Earth" to solve Illinois' pension mess by Tuesday.

Now, with the inauguration of a new General Assembly at noon Wednesday, it will fall to a House and Senate with ever-greater Democratic dominance to try to find a plan to cope with pension benefits paid to a core Democratic constituency — members of organized labor. The new House and Senate each will have veto-proof Democratic majorities over Republicans as a result of the Nov. 6 general election.

"I think (resolving the pension issue) would be incumbent upon the Democrats, since the people of Illinois spoke, gave them supermajorities and said, 'We want you to lead, so lead,'" said Rep. Dennis Reboletti of Elmhurst, a member of the House GOP leadership.

Though many incoming Democratic lawmakers campaigned on the need to address Illinois' growing pension problems, several veteran legislators said they saw no quick fixes. They pointed instead to the next deadline facing the General Assembly: The scheduled spring session adjournment May 31.

Still, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, pledged to try to move quickly in the new Legislature to build support for pension changes that, while testing constitutional boundaries, could give the courts options after an inevitable lawsuit that union workers have vowed. The Illinois Constitution's prohibition against diminishing or impairing public worker pensions has been a major stumbling block.

On Tuesday, a comprehensive House pension plan proposed by Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, and backed by House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, failed to gain traction. The plan would have frozen cost-of-living increases for retirees for six years, limit the amount of salary upon which pensions are based and forced workers to pay more for their retirement.

That led Quinn to try to salvage a pension resolution by offering a plan to create an eight-member pension commission that would have submitted a report to the Legislature by April 30 proposing ways to fully fund the system by 2045. A majority of lawmakers would have had to disapprove of the report or it would become law, according to the governor's approach.

One labor leader called it a "desperate, Hail Mary" plan, while other union representatives suggested it was a back-door way to enact major cuts to worker pensions.

House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said she was surprised that Quinn floated his plan because she thought some progress had been made in pension negotiations.

"I have a concern that your proposal in fact will be taking us three steps back," Currie, D-Chicago, told Quinn at the committee meeting. "I think we were going places, and it doesn't seem to me at all clear that punting to a commission, delaying things, is in fact going to get us to the goal line."

The measure got out of a House committee, mainly as a favor to Quinn. But it was quickly shot down in private meetings of House lawmakers and never was called for a vote. Many lawmakers contended it was an unconstitutional delegation of authority to an unelected panel, though Quinn maintained it was constitutional — citing an Illinois Supreme Court case in which he had lost as a plaintiff.

The prospect of creating a supercommittee to dictate pension reform was unpalatable to several lawmakers. Though Quinn's plan was geared toward putting some non-lawmaker members on the panel, there also were unpleasant thoughts of how a congressional supercommittee failed in its federal deficit reduction task. That led to the federal "fiscal cliff" that narrowly was avoided with a deal trading higher taxes on wealthier incomes to a two-month delay in automatic spending cuts.

Cullerton stood behind his analysis that a Senate-passed plan for state workers and legislators, which traded access to state health care for altering pension benefits, was the only plan that would pass constitutional muster. That plan never faced a House vote.

The Senate president said he once again would work with Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont to try to pass the measure. At the same time, Cullerton said he was willing to try to pass the Nekritz plan — as long as his own proposal was tied to it as a backup. Cullerton maintained the Nekritz proposal is unconstitutional because it "unilaterally" takes away benefits.

Though he will start the new session Wednesday with a new supermajority of 40 Democrats out of 59 senators, Cullerton said he still will seek Republican support because there are opponents to the pension legislation on both sides of the aisle. "We really are one bill away from solving this problem," Cullerton said.

Radogno was skeptical.

"Well, quite frankly, I share the concern that nothing will get accomplished because when you look at the dynamics of the General Assembly, the Democrats have had clear, clear majorities now for 10 years," she said. "The problem is the Democrat majorities do not agree on pension reform and frankly, I'm not sure they want it.

"(House Speaker Michael) Madigan and Cullerton don't agree on a framework, and that's a huge problem. And, of course, we have a governor who is unable to bring people together," she said. "I don't know if it's doable with the current cast of characters."

Rep. David Leitch, a Peoria Republican and former banker, said it was a "gross mistake" to end the session without calling the Nekritz plan for a House vote and added that it might be more difficult to advance the measure in the new General Assembly.

Leitch said the lame-duck session would have been the "ideal time" to move the bill because lawmakers who had one foot out the door could have been persuaded to take difficult votes because they won't have to face voters again.

"Typically, that's when you do tough things," Leitch said. "This is a tough thing. Unfortunately, we didn't do it."



Twitter @rap30

Read More..

Exhausted Egyptians count cost of political turmoil

ZAGAZIG, Egypt (Reuters) - These days, craftsmen, shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the Egyptian Delta town of Zagazig are often too busy making ends meet to ponder why life seems to be getting harder every day.

But when, exhausted, they finally come home and sit down to their evening meal, conversations inevitably turn to growing hardship and the frightening prospect of cuts in food subsidies as the economy slides further into crisis.

With their patience already stretched after years of upheaval, Egyptians - from the capital Cairo to smaller towns like Zagazig - appear to be nearing the point where discontent could explode into a new wave of unrest.

"There is no security. There is nothing," said Soheir Abdel Moneim, a retired school teacher, as she hurried through an open-air market in Zagazig in search of vegetables she could afford.

"The pound is falling. Everything is more expensive. Is there anything that has not become more expensive?" she asked with a shrug, as traders on bicycles loaded with their wares dodged through the chaos of the market.

Nearby, a torn poster of President Mohamed Mursi beams from the wall of a crumbling brick house, with the words "Liars! Liars!" scrawled over his face.

The mood of growing nervousness is bad news for Mursi, who faces a parliamentary election in coming months, and a new round of political feuding that could pitch Egypt back into civil strife.

Egypt's economy, once strong and popular among investors, has been in tatters since the revolt of 2011 that ousted Hosni Mubarak and shook the country to its foundations.

Disagreements over a new national constitution late last year triggered violent protests, dealing another blow to the economy and eroding trust in Mursi's government.

A country where cuts in food subsidies have caused riots in the past now faces the risk of further upheaval as Mursi prepares to impose austerity measures in order to obtain a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In Zagazig, people worry about the future.

Farouk Sarhan, the 74-year-old manager of a shop selling women's clothes, said sales were already down by almost 50 percent from just a few weeks ago.

"No one is selling or buying. I had more activity last year," he said, stubbing out a cigarette with a deep sigh in his tiny store lined with mannequins of veiled women.

"Customers are not buying as much as before because of the economic situation."

The price of fresh food often goes up in winter but shoppers in the Zagazig market said recent increases had been steep, with tomatoes and cauliflower about 50 percent dearer than at the start of the year.


Egypt has been on the ropes since investors and tourists fled after the revolt, when people rose up to demand their freedom and also an end to economic policies they said simply lined the pockets of the rich.

On the economic front, the picture remains grim, although Qatar's decision to lend Egypt another $2 billion has offered some respite.

Foreign reserves are dwindling and the pound has been hitting new lows daily. Food and raw materials from abroad have become more expensive, hurting businesses and families in a desert nation which relies on imports to feed itself.

As in other parts of Egypt, people in Zagazig see complex economic trends in terms of the daily hardships they must endure, and it is Mursi's government and his Muslim Brotherhood allies who get the blame.

"Mursi doesn't feel our grievances," said Emad, a man in his late 30s who sells traditional Egyptian clothes by the side of a dusty street. He said he had been forced to raise prices to cover rising costs, upsetting his customers.

Pointing to one of the black embroidered gowns, Emad said: "We used to sell this for 35 pounds ($5.40). Now it's 45 pounds. We didn't raise the prices. Traders did.

"Very few people are buying. I used to sell 50 pieces a day, and now I sell 15 or 20. Today I still haven't sold anything."

Reliable opinion polls are unavailable in Egypt and it is hard to gauge how widespread people's views are. But in Zagazig, most of those interviewed by Reuters echoed Emad's feelings.

Economists worry that continued turmoil could prompt people and businesses to convert their savings into dollars en masse - a risky process known as dollarisation which has caused trouble in many emerging market crises before.

But in Zagazig, people laughed at the idea, saying only the rich could afford to buy foreign currency. "Dollars?" asked Nabil, a local trader, as others burst into laughter. "Give me some dollars! Of course we don't have any!"


But some were prepared to give Mursi a chance.

In the nearby village of al-Adwa, where the future president grew up in the family of a local farmer, brick walls and fences were plastered with posters of Mursi.

A crowd of farmers standing by the side of a dirt track cutting through the village shook their fists and shouted "Mursi! Mursi!" when asked about their political views.

But even in Adwa, where Mursi appeared to enjoy rock-solid support, locals said sudden increase in taxes or abrupt cuts to fuel or food subsidies would cost him dearly.

"If that happens that would be the worst thing. What am I going to do as a farmer?" said Said Youssef, his hands black from working the land. "Where are we going to get the money?"

Another man, Aly Saber, 65, said fertilizer prices had gone up by 50 Egyptian pounds in the past year alone, making his business less profitable.

"Things are tough here in the rural areas," he said as others nodded in agreement. "Everything is becoming more expensive."

Mohamed Gamal, the 42-year-old owner of a tiny shop selling kitchen appliances, said business was so bad that he would sometimes go for days without a single customer.

"I import goods all the time. Prices have gone up by 10-40 percent since the revolution. It's gone up even more in recent weeks," said Gamal, who, Like Mursi, grew up in Adwa.

He said his neighbors were suspicious about why he had to keep raising his prices.

"People just don't believe me," he said, hunched over his desk, cigarette smoke swirling above stacks of unsold trays, cups and ironing boards. "They are not convinced why things are getting more expensive. I buy them, and they stack up."

($1 = 6.4809 Egyptian pounds)

(Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Read More..

Stock futures flat as earnings season begins

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were set to tick lower at the open on Tuesday as an earnings season expected to show sluggish corporate growth gets under way.

Profits in the fourth quarter are seen above the previous quarter's lackluster results, but analysts' current estimates are down sharply from where they were in October. Quarterly earnings are expected to grow by 2.8 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

German data showed industrial orders fell more than forecast in November due to a sharp drop in demand from abroad, reinforcing concerns that Europe's largest economy may have contracted in the fourth quarter of 2012.

"I'm surprised futures are holding up, given the relative disappointment that German data showed, but I think all eyes are on the beginning of earnings season," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

Monsanto Co shares rose 4 percent to $99.81 in premarket trading after the world's largest seed company raised its earnings outlook for fiscal 2013 and posted strong first-quarter results.

Education provider Apollo Group and Dow component Alcoa Inc , the largest U.S. aluminum producer, round out the start of earnings season after the closing bell.

"Alcoa is not a huge bellwether," Fort Pitt Capital's Forrest said, adding investors are focused more on companies' performance than on macroeconomic factors, so "we should be kind of flat until we get some company-oriented news."

S&P 500 futures were off 2.5 points and below 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 were off 20 points and Nasdaq 100 futures dropped 1 point.

Shares of restaurant-chain operator Yum Brands Inc fell 4.3 percent to $65 a day after the KFC parent warned sales in China, its largest market, shrank more than expected in the fourth quarter.

London-traded Vodafone shares rose almost 3 percent after its partner in U.S. joint venture Verizon Wireless said it would be "feasible" to buy out the British group. U.S.-traded Vodafone stock dipped 0.8 percent.

Sears Holdings shares rose 2.5 percent to $44 in premarket trading a day after the company said its chief executive will step down for family health reasons. The U.S. retailer also reported a 1.8 percent decline in quarter-to-date sales at stores open at least a year.

GameStop shares fell 8.1 percent to $22.75 before the open after it reported sales for the holiday season and cut its guidance.

ConAgra Foods Inc priced a public offering of 8.1 million common shares at $29.75 per share, the foodmaker said on Monday. ConAgra closed at $30.17 during regular Monday trading.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

Read More..

'Bama bashes Notre Dame 42-14 in BCS title game

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Barely taking time to celebrate their latest national championship, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide are ready to get back to work.

That's how they make it look so easy.

In what must be an increasingly frustrating scene for the rest of college football, another season ended with Saban and his players frolicking in the middle of a confetti-strewn field. Eddie Lacy ran all over Notre Dame, AJ McCarron turned in another dazzling performance through the air, and the Tide defense shut down the Fighting Irish until it was no longer in doubt.

The result was a 42-14 blowout in the BCS title game Monday night, not only making Alabama a back-to-back champion, but a full-fledged dynasty with three crowns in four years.

This one was especially satisfying to Saban.

"People talk about how the most difficult thing is to win your first championship," he said. "Really, the most difficult one to win is the next one, because there's always a feeling of entitlement."

Rest assured, that feeling won't last long in Tuscaloosa.

While Saban insisted he was "happy as hell" and "has never been prouder of a group of young men," it was hard to tell. He was already talking about reporting to the office Wednesday morning and getting started on next season.

"One of these days, when I'm sitting on the side of the hill watching the stream go by, I'll probably figure it out even more," Saban said. "But what about next year's team? You've got to think about that, too."

So, in short order, he'll be talking with underclassmen about entering the NFL draft, making sure everyone goes back to class on schedule, and getting started on that next depth chart.

"The Process," as he calls it, never stops.

"We're going to enjoy it for 24 hours or so," Saban said.

No. 2 Alabama quieted the top-ranked Irish on the very first drive — so much for waking up the echoes — and could've started the celebration at halftime, heading to the locker room with a commanding 28-0 lead.

The Tide (13-1) pushed it out to 35-0 midway through the third quarter on the third of McCarron's four touchdown passes, a 34-yarder to Amari Cooper with a defender nowhere in sight.

At that point, Alabama was on a 69-0 blitz in national title games, having scored the last 13 points in its 2010 triumph over Texas and blanked LSU 21-0 for last year's BCS crown.

When Everett Golson finally scored for Notre Dame (12-1) with about 4 minutes remaining in the third, it snapped a scoreless stretch of nearly two full games — 108 minutes and 7 seconds — by the Tide.

"It was just a complete game by the offense, defense and special teams," said Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, the defensive MVP with eight tackles, one of them behind the line.

Despite the dazzling numbers by McCarron — 20 of 28 for 264 yards — he was denied a second straight offensive MVP award in the title game. That went to Lacy, who finished with 140 yards rushing on 20 carries and scored two TDs. Not a bad finish for the junior, who surely helped his status in the NFL draft should he decide to turn pro.

Lacy also was MVP of the Southeastern Conference championship game, rushing for a career-best 181 yards in the thrilling victory over Georgia that gave Alabama a chance to repeat as champion.

The Tide will have some big holes to fill, no matter who decides to leave school early, with offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and cornerback Dee Milliner also pondering their draft prospects. There's not a lot of seniors on the roster, but All-America linemen Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack and safety Robert Lester are among those who definitely won't be back.

But Alabama had some huge holes to fill a year ago, too, with five players drafted in the first 35 picks.

That worked out just fine.

The Crimson Tide wrapped up its ninth Associated Press national title, breaking a tie with Notre Dame for the most by any school and gaining a measure of redemption for a bitter loss to the Irish almost four decades ago: the epic 1973 Sugar Bowl in which Ara Parseghian's team edged Bear Bryant's powerhouse 24-23.

"The process is ongoing," said Saban, tightlipped as ever and showing little emotion after the fourth BCS national title of his coaching career. "We have a 24-hour rule around here. We enjoy everything for 24 hours."

Notre Dame went from unranked in the preseason to the top spot in the rankings by the end of the regular season, winning two games in overtime and three other times by seven points or less.

But the long wait for a championship — the Irish haven't finished No. 1 since 1988 — will have to wait at least one more year.

"They just did what Alabama does," moaned Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker and Heisman Trophy finalist, trying to digest an embarrassing loss in his final college game.

Golson will be back.

He completed his first season as the starter by going 21 of 36 for 270 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. But the young quarterback got no help from the running game, which was held to 32 yards — 170 below its season average.

"We've got to get physically stronger, continue close the gap there," said Brian Kelly, the Irish's third-year coach. "Just overall, we need to see what it looks like. Our guys clearly know what it looks like now — a championship football team. That's back-to-back national champions. That's what it looks like. That's what you measure yourself against there. It's pretty clear across the board what we have to do."

Kelly vowed this was only beginning, insisting the bar has been raised in South Bend no matter what the outcome.

"We made incredible strides to get to this point," he said. "Now it's pretty clear what we've got to do to get over the top."

Alabama is already there but still longing for more, not content even after the second-biggest rout of the BCS era that began in 1999. The only title game that was more of a blowout was USC's 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl, a title that was later vacated because of NCAA violations.

You could almost hear television sets around the country flipping to other channels as Alabama poured it on, a hugely anticipated matchup between two of the nation's most storied programs reduced to a laugher when the Tide scored on its first three possessions.

"We're going for it next year again," said offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandijo, only a sophomore and already the owner of two rings. "And again. And again. And again. I love to win. That's why I came here."


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

Read More..

Maine gas prices up 2 cents

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The cost of gas in Maine is on the rise again.

Price-monitoring website MaineGasPrices.com reports Monday that the average retail price of a gallon of gas in Maine rose more than two cents in the past week to $ 3.54. The site surveys more than 1,200 Maine gas stations.

The price of gas in Maine remains 28 cents above the national average, which was unchanged in the past week.

Prices in Maine are now nine cents per gallon higher than the same day a year ago and less than a penny higher than a month ago.

Energy News Headlines – Yahoo! News

Title Post: Maine gas prices up 2 cents
Url Post: http://www.news.fluser.com/maine-gas-prices-up-2-cents/
Link To Post : Maine gas prices up 2 cents

based on 99998 ratings.
5 user reviews.
Author: Fluser SeoLink
Thanks for visiting the blog, If any criticism and suggestions please leave a comment

Read More..

Australian firefighters battle bush blazes, intense heat


  • NEW: Federal government steps in with fuel, personnel to help NSW fire effort

  • More than 130 fires are burning across NSW during one of the hottest days on record

  • 90% of the Australian state is under "severe" or higher fire warnings

  • High temperatures and dry conditions have combined to create "dangerous day"

Editor's note: Are you there? Send your stories, images to iReport

(CNN) -- Soaring temperatures and strong winds have combined to create a "catastrophic" fire threat across the southeast Australian state of New South Wales.

Residents have been warned to remain vigilant as temperatures rise towards a predicted high of 43 degrees (109 degrees Fahrenheit) in the state capital of Sydney.

In some areas of the state, winds of more than 70 kilometers an hour (43 mph) were threatening to fan the flames of fires already burning. However, a change in wind direction had caused temperatures in certain parts of the state to fall, offering some relief.

A "catastrophic" fire risk has been declared in four areas of NSW, although the risk across 90% of the state is "severe" or above. A "catastrophic" warning carries the risk of significant loss of life and the destruction of many homes, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).

"I cannot say it more plainly: the risk is real and potentially deadly. People need to act now," the service's Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

The "catastrophic" fire threat had led many to fear a repeat of "Black Saturday" in 2009, when soaring temperatures and high winds fanned the flames of a series of bushfires across the state of Victoria, leaving 173 people dead and 500 injured, and destroying thousands of homes.

Australia battles bush blazes, intense heat


















On Tuesday afternoon, the Australian government announced that the state fire service would be granted access to Defence Force bases, fuel and personnel as part of the federal government disaster response plan.

Earlier, Prime Minister Julia Gillard warned it was "dangerous" day and urged people to "stay focused."

"The word catastrophic is being used for good reason," Gillard told CNN affiliate the Seven Network.

"It is very important that people keep themselves safe, that they listen to local authorities and local warnings."

Total fire bans were place in the states of NSW, Victoria and across the whole of Tasmania, the southern island state ravaged by fire in recent days.

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 130 fires were burning throughout NSW, with over 40 of those yet to be controlled, according to NSW RFS.

There were no reports of any homes having being destroyed but authorities warned that the dry, hot conditions were expected to stretch into the night.

"It's a long way ahead -- we've got a lot of daylight left and a lot of nighttime left under these conditions," Fitzsimmons said.

Thousands of firefighters were battling blazes on the ground, and more than 40 aircraft and 250 fire trucks had been deployed, a fire service spokeswoman said.

Thousands more firefighters were on standby in high risk areas, including 21 "strike teams," each consisting of five tankers to assist local brigades.

The fire service said it was relying on people to report fires in their areas, but that surveillance flights were also monitoring the landscape for smoke and flames.

Authorities said residents and tourists had responded well to early warnings to abandon properties under threat.

"If you are in a bushfire risk area -- if you are an at risk location, leaving early is the safest option," Fitzsimmons said.

Record high temperatures and the delayed state of the Australian monsoon season have created a tinderbox out of large swathes of bush and scrub land across the state.

The last four months of 2012 were "abnormally hot" across Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Meterology. Average maximum temperatures were the highest since records began in 1910.

In the first days of the new year, extreme heat contributed to the spread of fires across Tasmania.

Firefighters are still on alert, tackling a number of blazes, as residents who were in the path of the earlier fires returned to the charred rubble of their homes. More than 100 properties were destroyed or damaged, though authorities warn more may be at risk.

Rescue workers are continuing to search for human remains as around 100 people have still not contacted friends or family, according to Tasmania police.

"It's vitally important that all people who were in the area at the time, and are OK, self-register their details with the National Registration and Inquiry Service operated by the Red Cross," said Acting Deputy Commissioner Donna Adams.

Meanwhile, police have charged a 31-year-old man for allegedly causing one of the worst of the fires by leaving a campfire unattended that was not completely extinguished.

Read More..

1 killed, 8 wounded in overnight shootings

A 24-year-old man was killed and at least eight others were wounded in overnight gun violence on the city's West and South Sides, according to police.

In the latest attack, a 24-year-old man was shot multiple times about 6:10 a.m. in the 4000 block of West Wilcox Street, Chicago Police Department News Affairs Officer Laura Kubiak said. He was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

No further details were immediately available about the shooting, which happened in the West Garfield Park neighborhood.

Shots rang out as the man was standing on the sidewalk in the 4600 block of South California Avenue, striking the man in the bicep and lower back, News Affairs Officer Hector Alfaro said.

The man managed to drive 15 blocks to the 3100 block of South California, where he was found by first responders. Paramedics transported the man to Mount Sinai Hospital, where his condition was stabilized.

About 2:30 a.m. in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, a 24-year-old man was shot in both thighs while walking in an alley, authorities said.

The shooting happened in the 900 block of West 53rd Street, Alfaro said. The man was taken to John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County, where his condition was stabilized.

About 9:50 p.m., a 17-year-old boy was shot multiple times near the intersection of 30th Street and South Tripp Avenue in the Little Village neighborhood, police said.

Two males exited a black SUV and approached the teenager as he walked down the sidewalk, shooting him multiple times, Alfaro said.

The teen was taken to Stroger, where he was listed in critical condition, Alfaro said.

Police officers found a vehicle matching the description of the suspects' SUV, and after a brief pursuit, the SUV struck a light pole in the 3900 block of West Cermak Road, Alfaro said.

Three occupants were taken into custody and were regarded as possible suspects. No injuries were reported.

Police described the shooting as gang-related, a description shared by a close family friend of the teenager, who asked to remain anonymous when interviewed near the crime scene.

About 8:30 p.m., two men and a woman were shot in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood. Two men emerged from a gangway in the 6200 block of South Rockwell Street and fired shots into a parked vehicle where the three people were sitting, Alfaro said.

A 19-year-old woman who was struck in the chest was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, Alfaro said. A 22-year-old man struck in the thigh and 23-year-old man shot in the chest and buttocks were both taken to Holy Cross Hospital, Alfaro said.

The conditions of all three were stabilized, Alfaro said.

About 7:45 p.m., a 31-year-old man was shot in Marquette Park neighborhood, News Affairs Officer Joshua Purkiss said. The man suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in the 7100 block of South Campbell Avenue and his condition was stabilized on the scene, said Purkiss.

About 6:30 p.m. in the Washington Park neighborhood, another 31-year-old man was shot in the left arm in the 6000 block of South Indiana Avenue, Purkiss said. His condition was stabilized on the scene, said Purkiss.

Purkiss had no hospital information or information on circumstances in the Marquette Park and Washington Park shootings. Fire department officials did not respond to attempts to contact them.

lford@tribune.com, asege@tribune.com

Twitter: @ChicagoBreaking

Read More..

Tunisia frees man held over attack on U.S. consulate in Libya

Tunis (Reuters) - Tunisia has freed, for lack of evidence, a Tunisian man who had been suspected of involvement in an Islamist militant attack in Libya last year in which the U.S. ambassador was killed, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

Ali Harzi was one of two Tunisians named in October by the Daily Beast website as having been detained in Turkey over the violence in which Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other American officials were killed.

"The judge decided to free Harzi and he is free now," lawyer Anouar Awled Ali told Reuters. "The release came in response to our request to free him for lack of evidence and after he underwent the hearing with American investigators as a witness in the case."

A Tunisian justice ministry spokesman confirmed the release of Harzi but declined to elaborate.

A month ago, Harzi refused to be interviewed by visiting U.S. FBI investigators over the September 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

The Daily Beast reported that shortly after the attacks began, Harzi posted an update on an unspecified social media site about the fighting.

It said Harzi was on his way to Syria when he was detained in Turkey at the behest of U.S. authorities, and that he was affiliated with a militant group in North Africa.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Read More..

Wall Street set to slip after five-year high, before earnings

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks were set to fall at the open on Monday as markets are seen consolidating after the S&P 500 closed Friday at a five-year high and before this week's start of earnings season.

Last week was the best for U.S. stocks in more than a year as a budget deal and economic data boosted investor confidence.

Investors will likely turn their attention to the fourth-quarter earnings season that kicks off this week. Earnings are expected to be only slightly better than the third-quarter's lackluster results and analysts' current estimates are down sharply from what they were in October.

"We have a cautious market entering fourth-quarter earnings season," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York. "I think it's going to be a disappointing one this time around."

Financial shares will be in focus a day after global regulators known as the Basel Committee gave banks four more years and greater flexibility to build up cash buffers, scaling back moves that aimed to help prevent another financial crisis.

By spurring credit, the easing of the bank rules may help support growth, potentially boosting investments in equities and other relatively risky assets.

"Basel giving banks four more years to get their act together will be good" for stocks, Cardillo said.

Separately, Bank of America shares added more than 2 percent before the market opened after it reached a settlement with Fannie Mae to resolve agency mortgage repurchase claims.

S&P 500 futures dipped 2.5 points and were below 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 17 points, and Nasdaq 100 futures fell 4 points.

Walt Disney Co started an internal cost cutting review several weeks ago that may include layoffs at its studio and other units, three people with knowledge of the effort told Reuters.

Video-streaming service Netflix Inc said it will carry previous seasons of some popular shows produced by Time Warner's Warner Bros Television.

Major U.S. technology companies could miss estimates for fourth-quarter earnings as budget worries likely led some corporate clients to tighten their belts last month.

Amazon shares rose 1.8 percent $263.70 in premarket trading after Morgan Stanley raised its rating on the stock to "overweight" from "equal weight."

Roche's chairman was quoted saying the Swiss pharmaceutical group is no longer considering a bid for the U.S. gene-sequencing company Illumina . Illumina shares were off 8 percent at $50.20 in premarket trading.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Kenneth Barry)

Read More..