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Atlanta, GA Weather from Weather Underground

Saturday, September 24, 2005

CBS 46 Atlanta - Perdue tells schools to close, save gas

CBS 46 Atlanta - Perdue tells schools to close, save gasPerdue tells schools to close, save gas
Sep 23, 2005, 06:01 PM

ATLANTA (AP) -- Governor Perdue asked the state's schools to take two "early snow days" and cancel classes Monday and Tuesday to help conserve gasoline as Hurricane Rita threatens the nation's fuel supply line.

If all of Georgia's schools close, the governor estimated about 250-thousand gallons of diesel fuel would be saved each day by keeping buses off the road.

The governor also said an undetermined amount of regular gasoline also would be saved by allowing teachers, other school staff members and some parents to stay home those days. Electricity also would be conserved by keeping the schools closed.

It's up to each school superintendent to decide whether to call off classes.

Perdue said -- quote -- "If Georgians stick together, work together and conserve together we can weather whatever problems Rita brings our way with the least possible inconvenience."

As he did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Perdue asked the state's residents to limit nonessential travel and look for commute alternatives including telecommuting, car pooling and four-day work weeks.

He said if people reduce demand, -- quote -- "we will have enough market power to hold prices down. All together, we can influence demand within our state."

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 61-thousand-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he worried Perdue's announcement would only prompt panic-buying at the pumps in the days ahead.

Callahan said -- quote -- "I wonder if it's going to create the type of panic that we saw a few weeks back that drove prices over three dollars." Callahan was referring to the long gas lines and record-high prices that came in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

When gas prices jumped back after Hurricane Katrina, Perdue suspended the state's gas tax -- about 15 cents per gallon -- and the state's Legislature quickly approved the measure in a special session.

While several other states had considered taking similar action, Georgia was the only state to suspend its gas tax. The state's monthlong gas-tax holiday expires September 30th.

CBS 46 Atlanta - Perdue tells schools to close, save gas

CBS 46 Atlanta - Perdue tells schools to close, save gasPerdue tells schools to close, save gas
Sep 23, 2005, 06:01 PM

ATLANTA (AP) -- Governor Perdue asked the state's schools to take two "early snow days" and cancel classes Monday and Tuesday to help conserve gasoline as Hurricane Rita threatens the nation's fuel supply line.

If all of Georgia's schools close, the governor estimated about 250-thousand gallons of diesel fuel would be saved each day by keeping buses off the road.

The governor also said an undetermined amount of regular gasoline also would be saved by allowing teachers, other school staff members and some parents to stay home those days. Electricity also would be conserved by keeping the schools closed.

It's up to each school superintendent to decide whether to call off classes.

Perdue said -- quote -- "If Georgians stick together, work together and conserve together we can weather whatever problems Rita brings our way with the least possible inconvenience."

As he did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Perdue asked the state's residents to limit nonessential travel and look for commute alternatives including telecommuting, car pooling and four-day work weeks.

He said if people reduce demand, -- quote -- "we will have enough market power to hold prices down. All together, we can influence demand within our state."

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 61-thousand-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he worried Perdue's announcement would only prompt panic-buying at the pumps in the days ahead.

Callahan said -- quote -- "I wonder if it's going to create the type of panic that we saw a few weeks back that drove prices over three dollars." Callahan was referring to the long gas lines and record-high prices that came in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

When gas prices jumped back after Hurricane Katrina, Perdue suspended the state's gas tax -- about 15 cents per gallon -- and the state's Legislature quickly approved the measure in a special session.

While several other states had considered taking similar action, Georgia was the only state to suspend its gas tax. The state's monthlong gas-tax holiday expires September 30th.

3 in 82nd Airborne Say Beating Iraqi Prisoners Was Routine - New York Times

3 in 82nd Airborne Say Beating Iraqi Prisoners Was Routine - New York TimesSeptember 24, 2005
3 in 82nd Airborne Say Beating Iraqi Prisoners Was Routine
By ERIC SCHMITT

WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 - Three former members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division say soldiers in their battalion in Iraq routinely beat and abused prisoners in 2003 and 2004 to help gather intelligence on the insurgency and to amuse themselves.

The new allegations, the first involving members of the elite 82nd Airborne, are contained in a report by Human Rights Watch. The 30-page report does not identify the troops, but one is Capt. Ian Fishback, who has presented some of his allegations in letters this month to top aides of two senior Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner of Virginia, the chairman, and John McCain of Arizona. Captain Fishback approached the Senators' offices only after he tried to report the allegations to his superiors for 17 months, the aides said. The aides also said they found the captain's accusations credible enough to warrant investigation.

An Army spokesman, Paul Boyce, said Friday that Captain Fishback's allegations first came to the Army's attention earlier this month, and that the Army had opened a criminal investigation into the matter, focusing on the division's First Brigade, 504th Parachute Infantry. The Army has begun speaking with Captain Fishback, and is seeking the names of the two other soldiers.

In separate statements to the human rights organization, Captain Fishback and two sergeants described systematic abuses of Iraqi prisoners, including beatings, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, stacking in human pyramids and sleep deprivation at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base near Falluja. Falluja was the site of the major uprising against the American-led occupation in April 2004. The report describes the soldiers' positions in the unit, but not their names.

The abuses reportedly took place between September 2003 and April 2004, before and during the investigations into the notorious misconduct at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Senior Pentagon officials initially sought to characterize the scandal there as the work of a rogue group of military police soldiers on the prison's night shift. Since then, the Army has opened more than 400 inquiries into detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, and punished 230 enlisted soldiers and officers.

The trial of a soldier charged in an investigation into Abu Ghraib, Pfc. Lynndie R. England, continued Friday in Fort Hood, Tex. [Page A16.]

In the newest case, the human rights organization interviewed three soldiers: one sergeant who said he was a guard and acknowledged abusing some prisoners at the direction of military intelligence personnel; another sergeant who was an infantry squad leader who said he had witnessed some detainees' being beaten; and the captain who said he had seen several interrogations and received regular reports from noncommissioned officers on the ill treatment of detainees.

In one incident, the Human Rights Watch report states, an off-duty cook broke a detainee's leg with a metal baseball bat. Detainees were also stacked, fully clothed, in human pyramids and forced to hold five-gallon water jugs with arms outstretched or do jumping jacks until they passed out, the report says. "We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, and pull them down, kick dirt on them," one sergeant told Human Rights Watch researchers during one of four interviews in July and August. "This happened every day."

The sergeant continued: "Some days we would just get bored, so we would have everyone sit in a corner and then make them get in a pyramid. This was before Abu Ghraib but just like it. We did it for amusement."

He said he had acted under orders from military intelligence personnel to soften up detainees, whom the unit called persons under control, or PUC's, to make them more cooperative during formal interviews.

"They wanted intel," said the sergeant, an infantry fire-team leader who served as a guard when no military police soldiers were available. "As long as no PUC's came up dead, it happened." He added, "We kept it to broken arms and legs."

The soldiers told Human Rights Watch that while they were serving in Afghanistan, they learned the stress techniques from watching Central Intelligence Agency operatives interrogating prisoners.

Captain Fishback, who has served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave Human Rights Watch and Senate aides his long account only after his efforts to report the abuses to his superiors were rebuffed or ignored over 17 months, according to Senate aides and John Sifton, one of the Human Rights Watch researchers who conducted the interviews. Moreover, Captain Fishback has expressed frustration at his civilian and military leaders for not providing clear guidelines for the proper treatment of prisoners.

In a Sept. 16 letter to the senators, Captain Fishback, wrote, "Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment."

Reached by telephone Friday night, Captain Fishback, who is currently in Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, N.C., referred all questions to an Army spokesman, adding only that, "I have a duty as an officer to do this through certain channels, and I've attempted to do that."

The two sergeants, both of whom served in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave statements to the human rights organization out of "regret" for what they had done themselves at the direction of military intelligence personnel or witnessed but did not report, Mr. Sifton said. They asked not to be identified, he said, out of fear they could be prosecuted for their actions. They did not contact Senate staff members, aides said.

One of the sergeants has left the Army, while the other is no longer with the 82nd, Mr. Sifton said. Both declined to talk to reporters, he said.

A spokeswoman for the 82nd Airborne, Maj. Amy Hannah, said the division's inspector general was working closely with Army officials in Washington to investigate the matter, including the captain's assertion that he tried to alert his chain of command months ago.

John Ullyot, a spokesman for Senator Warner, said Captain Fishback had spoken by telephone with a senior committee aide in the last 10 days, and that his allegations were deemed credible enough that the aide recommended he report them to his new unit's inspector general.

While they also witnessed some abuses at another forward base near the Iraqi border with Syria, the three said most of the misconduct they witnessed took place at Camp Mercury, where prisoners captured on the battlefield or in raids were held for up to 72 hours before being released or transferred to Abu Ghraib.

Interrogators pressed guards to beat up prisoners, and one sergeant recalled watching a particular interrogator who was a former Special Forces soldier beating the detainee himself. "He would always say to us, 'You didn't see anything, right?' " the sergeant said. "And we would always say, 'No, sergeant.' "

One of the sergeants told Human Rights Watch that he had seen a soldier break open a chemical light stick and beat the detainees with it. "That made them glow in the dark, which was real funny, but it burned their eyes, and their skin was irritated real bad," he said.

A second sergeant, identified as an infantry squad leader and interviewed twice in August by Human Rights Watch, said, "As far as abuse goes, I saw hard hitting." He also said he had witnessed how guards would force the detainees "to physically exert themselves to the limit."

Some soldiers beat prisoners to vent their frustrations, one sergeant said, recalling an instance when an off-duty cook showed up at the detention area and ordered a prisoner to grab a metal pole and bend over. "He told him to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a mini-Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat."

Even after the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, one of the sergeants said, the abuses continued. "We still did it, but we were careful," he told the human rights group.

Hurricane Lashes Texas and Louisiana Coastlines - New York Times

Hurricane Lashes Texas and Louisiana Coastlines - New York TimesSeptember 24, 2005
Hurricane Lashes Texas and Louisiana Coastlines
By SIMON ROMERO
and JERE LONGMAN

BEAUMONT, Tex., Sept. 24 - Hurricane Rita made landfall this morning near the Texas-Louisiana border, raking the region with up to 120-mile-per-hour winds, dumping more than two feet of rain and sending 20-foot storm surges crashing onto coastal areas.

Officials at the National Hurricane Center said that Rita officially made landfall about 3:40 a.m. EST with the storm's eye hitting just east of Sabine Pass, Tex., about 32 miles southeast of Beaumont.

As the eye of the storm came ashore, the winds blew out windows at the hurricane command center here, ripped up trees and brought down power lines, leaving at least 250,000 customers without power. The storm was blamed for at least three fires in Beaumont - one in the north end of town and two in the port area.

Officials said that they would make a full assessment of the storm damage at daylight.

Rita blew through the region with sustained winds of 85 m.p.h., with gusts topping 100 m.p.h. As it approached, the storm prompted a mass evacuation in Texas, breached levees in New Orleans and sparked fires in Galveston. The storm is already blamed for the deaths of 24 elderly passengers who died early Friday in a bus fire accident near Dallas as they tried to flee to safety.

Rita, once a catastrophic Category 5 with top wind speeds of 175 m.p.h., weakened to a Category 3, with winds at 120 m.p.h. as it neared landfall. But officials warned that it was still a dangerous storm and was still capable of widespread destruction. By 7 a.m. the hurricane had weakened to Category 2 as it continued to move inland.

As of 6 a.m. this morning, the center of the hurricane was located 25 miles northwest of the city of Orange, near Buna, Tex., in southern Jasper County. Rita was moving northwest near 12 miles per hour with maximum sustained winds near 100 m.p.h. and higher gusts. The core of the hurricane was expected to move inland near the cities of Lufkin and Nacogdoches this afternoon.

Residents who had not evacuated were warned by the National Hurricane Center to remain in place until Rita moves farther inland, because travel, especially in cars, will be dangerous. Forecasters also warned that the greatest damage could come from an unrelenting rainfall that could hang over the region for days and from flood tides of up to 15 feet high that could inundate stretches of the Gulf Coast across Texas and Louisiana.

Rainfall will continue to affect mainly the eastern half of southeast Texas this morning, with the heaviest rains pounding Liberty and Chambers counties, where forecasters said flooding of low-lying areas was expected.

Early this morning, water levels were receding in the upper and middle portions of Galveston Bay as strong winds were pushing the water southward, causing it to pile up across bayside locations of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. Forecasters said the flooding further west along Galveston Island, along the north facing bay shores, was expected to subside by midday.

In Galveston late Friday night, firefighters were called out to battle a fire that burned at least three buildings on the edge of the downtown district. Despite winds of 60 to 70 m.p.h. that fanned the flames and set off showers of sparks, firefighters were able to contain the blaze. The immediate cause of the fire was not known.

Earlier on Friday, a storm surge of seven feet pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain through the Industrial Canal and over a repaired levee into New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, which had been devastated nearly a month earlier by Hurricane Katrina and submerged under as much as 20 feet of water.

The damage in New Orleans heightened fears over Hurricane Rita, which forced a chaotic exodus of more than two million residents from the Gulf Coast this week.

For a while, as Rita churned across the Gulf of Mexico, it appeared that the storm would make a direct hit on Galveston. But the city was spared. Instead, an area that includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, two cities with large oil and chemical complexes, bore the brunt of the storm.

The death toll began hours before Rita reached land. A bus carrying 38 nursing home residents and six employees from the Houston area caught fire and exploded on Friday morning on a highway just south of Dallas, killing at least 24 passengers in the bus, said Don Peritz, a spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

The storm also prompted preparations far from the region. Georgia announced that it would close all public schools on Monday and Tuesday to conserve fuel and to help avoid the lines for gasoline that grew after Hurricane Katrina.

Energy markets, frantic with the possibility that Hurricane Rita might wreak havoc on refineries and petrochemical plants, were relieved somewhat at the close of trading on Friday when it appeared that the storm might veer from the largest complexes along the Gulf Coast. Oil prices fell $2.31 to $64.19 a barrel.

In Washington, where the Bush administration had been criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, the president visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday. But he canceled a planned trip to Texas to avoid interfering with emergency preparations. He monitored the storm from the United States Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"We're now facing another big storm," Mr. Bush said while at FEMA headquarters on Friday. "Our job is to prepare for and assist state and local people to save lives and help these people get back on their feet."

Federal officials declared a public health emergency for Texas and Louisiana. By evening, it had become clear that the cities along the border of Texas and Louisiana were in the storm's direct path. Entire communities were evacuated, and residents found refuge in shelters.

Port Arthur, normally a town of 60,000 protected by a seawall built to sustain a 16-foot storm surge, was vacant but for a few who refused to leave. Lake Charles, La., a city of about 72,000 just east of the Texas line, was also effectively empty, from the casino boats floating at the docks downtown to the rooms at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, which evacuated 132 patients on Friday, most on planes departing from the former Chennault Air Force Base.

And in San Augustine Park, 90 miles north of Beaumont, hundreds of people from southeast Texas set up camp in recreational vehicles and tents in the densely forested park run by the Army Corps of Engineers despite warnings of tornadoes, falling trees and rising lake waters. "There aren't any hotels, and we couldn't get gas to go any farther north," said one camper, Dennis Cargill of Orangefield.

In New Orleans, water also topped a levee on the other side of the Industrial Canal, inundating the Upper Ninth Ward, an industrial and residential area where homes were already marked with the stains of Hurricane Katrina. But officials said no additional loss of life or property was expected in these areas, previously pumped dry, that had been abandoned since the earlier storm.

"This is very dramatic, but I don't consider it an emergency situation," said Stephen Browning, a programs director for the Corps of Engineers, as he inspected the breeches from atop a nearby bridge.

Still, the repeat flooding was disheartening for evacuated residents and for some local and state officials, dramatically pointing to the need to shore up the city's levee system in the rebuilding process.

"We have to think about building a safe New Orleans," Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said at a news conference in Baton Rouge. "Our plans include building stronger and higher levees to protect all of the city's neighborhoods."

By noon Friday, water had nearly reached the window level of some homes in the Lower Ninth Ward as far as three blocks from the topped levee between Claiborne and Florida Avenues.

Early gusts from Hurricane Rita brought winds of 25 m.p.h. to 35 m.p.h. to New Orleans through Friday afternoon. Rain fell intermittently. Sometimes it drizzled; other times it blew sideways in stinging blasts.

The Army Corps of Engineers said that levee repairs at the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal were holding and were expected to provide protection against storm surges as high as 10 to 12 feet. Metal pilings, rocks and sandbags were used to temporarily seal breaches made by Hurricane Katrina.

But, some seepage was expected, the corps said, and in the Gentilly and Mirabeau Gardens sections along the London Avenue Canal, water could be seen rising to the tops of tires of cars on some streets. Officials in St. Bernard Parish said it might take two weeks to pump out all the new water.

In Texas, fuel shortages and the closing of airports in Houston added to problems for residents trying to flee from the storm. The Texas National Guard sent 5,000 trucks with gasoline to supply stranded vehicles along the highways leading out of Houston, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Galveston.

Coast Guard helicopters also transported fuel to 11 locations of the Texas Department of Transportation to assist in refueling the gasoline trucks. In Houston, commercial flights from the city's two main airports ceased operations at noon on Friday, with stranded passengers told to seek refuge in shelters around the city.

As the skies darkened over Houston Friday afternoon, the city grew eerily still, with the normally congested streets and highways empty of traffic.

Although the hurricane looked like it would spare the city a direct hit, Mayor Bill White said at a news briefing, "Winds of 50, 60 miles per hour may be better news than 120 miles per hour, but a lot of glass can be broken."

He warned residents against going close to windows to observe the hurricane because the windows could blow out. "There'll be plenty of time to watch on TV rather than get close to the window," Mr. White said.

In the face of recriminations over the massive traffic tie-ups that clogged escape routes for hundreds of miles into Friday, the mayor said he took pride in the effort that had spirited about 2.5 million people out of harm's way.

"I hate traffic more than anybody I've ever met," Mr. White said, but he defended the turmoil as worthwhile in the end. The ghostly streets were a welcome sight on Friday, he said, "that is exactly what we wanted to see at this time."

By early evening police officers were making their last rounds and looking for any signs of looting. Capt. Dwayne Readdy of the Houston Police Department said, "Right now people are being told to shelter in place." He added, "At this point, everybody is beginning to hunker down, even those with less than honorable intentions."

Throughout the day coastal Texas also frantically tried to ready itself for the storm. In Galveston, with the city emptied of most residents, officials moved emergency response operations to the conference center built atop a bunker that was once part of an old coastal defense installation, Fort Crockett. The conference center, part of the San Luis Resort complex, was thought to be the best location in Galveston to ride out the storm, said Mr. LeBlanc, the city manager.

"I'm an engineer myself and I have confidence this is the sturdiest, safest place to be," Mr. LeBlanc said in an interview.

About 150 police officers, 60 firefighters, 25 public works officials and 25 city administration officials began filing into the conference center early Friday evening as winds began to lash the city.

With dozens of residents still in Galveston despite a mandatory evacuation, Mayor Thomas said the city had set up a refuge for about 100 residents at the Alamo Elementary School. "There are no doctors, no nurses, no triage," Ms. Thomas said. "It's just a refuge, and I would like to make that clear."

Less than a dozen people had shown up at the refuge by late Friday afternoon. Sitting on a cot as he cried, Miguel Rincon said he had terminal colon rectal cancer and less than two years to live. He came to the school with his sister, Angelina Rincon, 63, and a brother, Raul Rincon, 73, who recently suffered from heat stroke.

"I'd rather be walking on the beach, anything instead of just possibly dying in the storm," said Miguel Rincon, 60, a retired road maintenance worker. "I don't want to die."

Mr. Rincon said his roommate took him and his siblings to the school after they heard about the refuge center on television. "This was our last resort," Mr. Rincon said. "We couldn't get off the island. The only car we had didn't have air conditioning. We didn't even have enough gas to get out of here."

In Louisiana, Governor Blanco said in Baton Rouge that at least 90 percent of residents had complied with areas under a mandatory evacuation order, and 98 percent in Cameron Parish, in the southwestern corner of the state.

"Rita remains a very dangerous storm; her winds are strong; the storm surge will be high," Mrs. Blanco said. "We've already seen what the edges of this storm are doing to New Orleans. Rita is driving waters over or through one of the levees damaged by Katrina."

Simon Romero reported from Galveston, Tex., for this article, and Jere Longman from New Orleans. Reporting was also contributed by Shaila Dewan in Beaumont, Tex.; Michael Brick in New Orleans; Thayer Evans in Galveston; Ralph Blumenthal and Maureen Balleza in Houston; William Yardley in Hackberry, La.; Sewell Chan in Baton Rouge, La.; Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Shadi Rahimi from New York.

Taipei Times - archives

Taipei Times - archivesKim Jong-il orders high-level meeting with US officials
LET'S TALK TURKEY: The reclusive North Korean dictator has reportedly instructed aides to invite US President George W. Bush to visit Pyongyang

AP , SEOUL
Saturday, Sep 24, 2005,Page 5

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has ordered his officials to arrange a meeting with a high-ranking US official, possibly with President George W. Bush, a news report said yesterday.

Kim told his Foreign Ministry to make arrangements for a visit to the North by a prominent US figure, personally mentioning Bush, former President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as possible visitors, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported, citing an anonymous source familiar with North Korean affairs.

Officials at South Korea's Unification Ministry and Foreign Ministry couldn't confirm the report.

The latest round of international talks on North Korea's nuclear program in Beijing produced a landmark accord Monday where Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid, security assurances and improved ties with the US.

After the talks, chief US negotiator Christopher Hill said he was willing to visit North Korea to keep channels of communication open, but many factors would determine whether such a visit could be made.

North Korea has long tried to engage the US in bilateral talks, believing such meetings would boost its international status and help it win bigger concessions at the nuclear talks also involving China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

In October 2000, then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and met the North Korean leader.

Pyongyang said that US envoy Christopher Hill was welcome to visit and that no conditions would be attached.

"If Christopher Hill is willing to visit my country with an intention of resolving the nuclear issue, then we would always welcome him," North Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Su-hon told a group of reporters, including China's Xinhua news agency.

"There will be no condition if he is willing to come to my country with a view to resolving the nuclear issue and other issues of his concern," he said at the North Korean mission to the UN in New York.

On Tuesday the Stalinist nation warned it would not dismantle its nuclear weapons until the US delivered light-water reactors to allow it to generate power, casting doubt on its commitments.

Washington says the reactors would be discussed only after North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons in a verifiable manner.

Despite the rhetoric, Choe said his government had noticed that the US attitude towards North Korea had changed recently, highlighted by the joint statement in which the US pledged to recognize North Korea's sovereignty.

"This is different from what the United States has been saying [in past years]," he said.

CNN.com - Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts - Sep 24, 2005

CNN.com - Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts - Sep 24, 2005Rita batters Louisiana, Texas coasts
Category 3 storm nears early morning landfall

BEAUMONT, Texas (CNN) -- Hurricane Rita, packing winds of 120 mph, neared the Texas and Louisiana coasts early Saturday, lashing the region with strong winds and heavy rains as its storm surge caused renewed flooding in Katrina-soaked New Orleans.

Forecasters said they expect Rita to make landfall early Saturday along the southwest Louisiana coast and upper Texas coasts as a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 111 mph to 130 mph.

At 1 a.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center placed the eye of the storm 40 miles southeast of Sabine Pass, along the state line between Texas and Louisiana. Rita was moving northwest at near 11 mph -- a path it was expected to follow until landfall.

Rita has weakened in intensity from its peak Category 5 status, when the massive storm had maximum sustained winds of 165 mph as it moved through the Gulf of Mexico. But forecasters and officials warned residents to take the storm seriously.

Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, whose city is in the direct line of the projected path, said: "I'm afraid we're going to get it real bad."

Nearly everyone in the city of roughly 57,000 has evacuated. Ortiz said he is extremely concerned about Rita moving across Sabine Pass, pushing a large surge of water toward the city.

"If that's true, it will be under water," he said. "I hate to see what my city's getting right now."
Buildings burn in Galveston

In downtown Galveston, video showed heavy smoke and a blizzard of blowing embers as firefighters tried to control large fires in two historic residences and a commercial building, according to CNN's Sean Callebs. One of the buildings was destroyed. It was unclear whether anyone was inside them. (Watch crews fight winds, flames -- 1:15)

Firefighters were hindered by gusty winds of up to 70 mph, which fanned the flames. Callebs said the winds blew off sections of a multi-story downtown hotel.

Ninety percent of the city, where it was raining Friday night, was evacuated in anticipation of Rita, officials said earlier.

In Houston, where more than 2 million people evacuated, creating a traffic nightmare, the streets and highways were largely empty. About the only vehicles on Interstate 10 were a convoy of 18-wheelers carrying aid and other items into the city.

The Houston Astrodome, which only recently served as a shelter for thousands of Katrina evacuees, was being used as a staging ground for first responders, with hundreds of ambulances, fire engines and other emergency vehicles poised to respond to anything the storm brings.

"We are ready for Rita," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, told reporters at a joint news conference with local officials.

State officials said an estimated 2.7 million people evacuated throughout the state -- at times clogging the highways where roads turned into parking lots. (Watch: "A graveyard of getaway vehicles" -- 1:48)

The traffic chaos took a tragic turn early in the day. A bus carrying elderly evacuees from a Houston nursing home caught fire on Interstate 45 near Dallas, killing 24 people when the blaze caused their oxygen canisters to explode. (Full story)

"It's obviously a horrific event," Dallas Mayor Laura Miller said. "We've handled two waves of evacuees now. We've never had anything this horrible happen. So, it's really a tragedy." (Watch law enforcement official explain bus tragedy -- 3:38)

The National Hurricane Center said hurricane-force winds extended about 85 miles from the eye of the storm, and tropical storm-force winds extended about 205 miles from the center. (Watch how warm waters fuel monster storms -- 3:16)
Storm surge fears

At Sea Rim State Park, Texas, a wind gust of 83 mph was reported early Saturday. A gust of 98 mph was recorded at Calcasieu Pass, Louisiana. Forecasters said that once the center of Rita comes ashore, hurricane-force winds are expected to reach more than 100 miles inland.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Friday night that if Rita stays on track, there likely will be 15 feet of storm surge on the coastline to the east, forcing, for example, the Calcasieu River to rise dramatically and overflow into the Lake Charles area.

He also said that just because wind speeds have been moving up and down, that doesn't mean Rita isn't a dangerous threat.

"We don't have to have hurricane-force winds to cause trees to come down and power outages," Mayfield said.

In Louisiana, Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- whose state was savaged by Katrina three weeks ago -- struck a beleaguered note.

"Now, we're getting pummeled by the storm in many regions of the state. Our entire coast has been affected by these two storms," she said.
More flooding in New Orleans

In New Orleans, fears of more flooding came to fruition earlier than expected after the Army Corps of Engineers said an 8-foot storm surge from Rita pushed water over patched levees.

"This nightmare just continues for us," Mayor Ray Nagin told CNN.

He said 3 to 4 feet of water covered the Lower 9th Ward, which suffered massive flooding from Katrina. (Full story)

"Our concern is a storm surge. We really can't take anything more than about a 6- or 7-foot storm surge," Nagin said.

As of 9 p.m., Lake Pontchartrain was experiencing a surge of nearly 6 feet -- a surge that is expected to grow as the night progresses, according to CNN Weather.

The National Hurricane Center said "large swells generated by Rita will likely affect most portions of the Gulf Coast."

It said areas in Rita's direct path could be soaked with 8 to 12 inches of rain, with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches over southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana as it moves inland.

Rainfall amounts in New Orleans of 3 to 5 inches are possible, with some areas getting more than that, the hurricane center said.

Several refineries, which process about 3 million barrels of oil each day, could be threatened by Rita, but appeared to be in less danger as the storm shifted north. Some energy analysts predict disruption from the storm could trigger a surge in gas prices. (Watch Rita's threat to refineries -- 2:43)

Oil prices closed at $64.19 a barrel Friday -- down more than $2 a barrel -- after Rita lost some of its intensity. At its peak, the storm was a Category 5 with 175 mph winds.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Japan Today - News - Mahathir undaunted by Anwar's defamation suit over 'gay' remarks - Japan's Leading International News Network

Japan Today - News - Mahathir undaunted by Anwar's defamation suit over 'gay' remarks - Japan's Leading International News NetworkMahathir undaunted by Anwar's defamation suit over 'gay' remarks

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Thursday, September 22, 2005 at 07:17 JST
KUALA LUMPUR — Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday stood by his decision to sack his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim over alleged sexual misconduct and was undaunted by Anwar's threat to sue him for 100 million ringgit ($26.7 million) over his remarks that Anwar was a gay.

"If he wants to do it, he can do so. He can sue me or whatever, that's his right," the official news agency Bernama quoted him saying.

New Vatican Rule Said to Bar Gays as New Priests - New York Times

New Vatican Rule Said to Bar Gays as New Priests - New York TimesSeptember 22, 2005
New Vatican Rule Said to Bar Gays as New Priests
By IAN FISHER and LAURIE GOODSTEIN

ROME, Sept. 21 - Homosexuals, even those who are celibate, will be barred from becoming Roman Catholic priests, a church official said Wednesday, under stricter rules soon to be released on one of the most sensitive issues facing the church.

The official, said the question was not "if it will be published, but when," referring to the new ruling about homosexuality in Catholic seminaries, a topic that has stirred much recent rumor and worry in the church. The official, who has authoritative knowledge of the new rules, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the church's policy of not commenting on unpublished reports.

He said that while Pope Benedict XVI had not yet signed the document, it would probably be released in the next six weeks.

In addition to the new document, which will apply to the church worldwide, Vatican investigators have been instructed to visit each of the 229 seminaries in the United States.

Although work on the document began years ago under Pope John Paul II, who died in April, its release will be a defining act in the young papacy of Benedict, a conservative who said last spring that there was a need to "purify" the church after the deeply damaging sex scandals of the last several years.

The church official said the ban would pertain only to candidates for the priesthood, not to those already ordained. He also said the document did not represent any theological shift for the church, whose catechism considers homosexuality "objectively disordered."

Although the document has not been released, hints of what it will say are already drawing praise from some Catholics, who contend that such a move is necessary to restore the church's credibility and who note that church teaching bars homosexuals, active or not, from the priesthood.

Other Catholics say, though, that the test should be celibacy, not innate sexuality, and they predict resignations from the priesthood that can worsen the church's deep shortage of clergy.

"I'm hearing that some men will choose to leave, because if they don't, it would be like living a lie," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the American National Federation of Priests' Councils, who opposes a ban because it would be "extremely hurtful" to chaste gay priests who are serving the church.

But the church official who discussed the expected new rules said the document called for barring even celibate men who considered themselves homosexual because of what he contended were the specific temptations of seminaries.

"The difference is in the special atmosphere of the seminary," he said. "In the seminary, you are surrounded by males, not females."

The issue of homosexuality in the priesthood and seminaries has long been a difficult one, which the Vatican appears to be addressing, particularly in the United States, on two apparently connected fronts.

The visits to the American seminaries cover a wide range of concerns, but among those the investigators will be looking for is "evidence of homosexuality" and whether seminarians are being properly prepared to live celibately. Both the document and the investigation come under the authority of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education.

Taken together, the document and visits seem aimed at imposing a stricter standard on both the atmosphere at seminaries and on whom they accept as candidates for the priesthood. Archbishop J. Michael Miller, the congregation's secretary, noted at a meeting in Baltimore last week with more than 100 bishops, priests and lay people that the new rules would come as no surprise because there was an existing Vatican document barring homosexuals from the priesthood, according to two church officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they felt there might be repercussions if they spoke for attribution.

Archbishop Miller appeared to be referring to a 1961 document that recommended against ordaining anyone who has "perverse inclinations to homosexuality or pederasty."

But that document has been overlooked by seminaries in the United States for many years. Although practices vary, most American seminaries in recent years have not uniformly rejected candidates with a homosexual orientation, seminary officials say.

Instead, they try to ascertain case by case whether the candidate is capable of living in a chaste and celibate manner, often rejecting candidates who have been sexually active in the years before deciding to join the priesthood.

Many gay men have entered the priesthood, though, and they are increasingly open with their colleagues, their bishops and in some cases, even with their parishioners, about their sexual orientation. The Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former American seminary rector, contended five years ago in his book "The Changing Face of the Priesthood" that "the priesthood is or is becoming a gay profession."

James Hitchcock, a conservative Catholic and a professor of history at St. Louis University, said some seminaries had reached the point of being "openly welcoming of homosexuals" and "don't even regard chastity necessary. "

"In that environment - and then you add to that the pedophilia scandals - probably the Vatican thinks that strong medicine is necessary for a serious disorder," said Mr. Hitchcock, who said he would nonetheless favor a system that allows for rare cases to be decided individually.

In fact, the degree to which the new rules would allow some slack appears to be a major question. It seems clear that the rules will be far more restrictive than current practice.

In what many church experts saw as a hint of the new rules, the archbishop leading the seminary visits was quoted last week by The National Catholic Register as saying even homosexuals not sexually active for a decade or more should not be accepted into seminaries.

But the church official said the rules were not absolute. The very definition of homosexuality, he said, is not fixed. And there may be rare cases in which a prospective seminarian who is confused about his sexuality might be accepted if the church decided he would still make a suitable, celibate priest.

"There is room for this," he said.

Still, Father Silva of the Federation of Priests' Councils and three other church officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared they would lose their jobs if they revealed dissension within church ranks, said several influential American church leaders had tried to persuade Vatican officials not to release a document about gay seminarians because it would create more problems in the priesthood than it would solve.

"People would do what they used to do, which is not be honest," said a gay American priest and professor at a Catholic college who did not want to be identified because he fears he could lose his church position if his sexual orientation was known.

"The irony is, if you look at the exact ages and seminary graduating classes of those priests who were convicted of sexual abuse in the past few years, they were not on the whole people who entered seminaries in the 1980's, when there began to be more openness about homosexuality," he said. "These were people from the old closeted days.

"So what the church is doing is repeating, in a weird way, the conditions they had before that gave rise to the abuse crisis."

But any move to ban or limit gay men from serving as priests would probably be popular among conservative Catholics, some of whom contend that heterosexuals hesitate to enter the priesthood because they have heard it is predominantly gay.

Mike Sullivan, of Catholics United for the Faith, a conservative advocacy group, said his group would favor a ban because putting a homosexual in an all-male seminary environment subjects that person to too much temptation, and increases his likelihood for failure.

"It's not appropriate to put an alcoholic in a bar either," he said.

On the general issue of homosexuality, official Catholic teaching, as explained in the catechism, says that while some people appear to have a predilection toward same-sex attraction, homosexual acts are impermissible and that homosexuals should remain chaste. But the church has also counseled understanding, and in 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, denounced the "unfounded and demeaning assumption" that homosexuals could not control their sexual behavior.

The church official said, however, that the church was entitled to make its own decisions, based on theology, about who is allowed to be a priest, comparing the issue to that of women, who are barred from the priesthood as well.

"Being a priest is not a right," he said. "The Catholic Church never ordains anyone on the conception of human rights."

Ian Fisher reported from Rome for this article, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.

Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas - New York Times

Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas - New York TimesSeptember 22, 2005
Gulf Hurricane of Top Strength Menaces Texas
By SIMON ROMERO

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 21 - Hurricane Rita attained the strongest storm designation on Wednesday as it barreled toward the Texas coastline, forcing the evacuation of as many as a million people from this island city and other Gulf Coast communities along an arc from Corpus Christi to New Orleans.

Heeding the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, the authorities in Galveston ordered all residents to leave the city immediately and tried to evacuate the city's hospitals and nursing homes with buses, ambulances and helicopters. Businesses and public buildings covered windows with plywood, and the Strand, the central business district, was virtually empty by Wednesday afternoon.

"Coastal Texans should not wait until late Thursday or early Friday to leave," Gov. Rick Perry said. "Homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot."

Over little more than 24 hours, Hurricane Rita strengthened into a Category 5 storm as it cleared the Florida Keys and passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Rita had winds near 175 miles per hour, putting it at the highest measurable level.

Hurricane Katrina had briefly reached Category 5 strength as it approached the Gulf Coast, but it weakened a notch before slamming into Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29. The death toll from that storm passed the 1,000 mark on Wednesday. [Page A28.]

Forecasters say Hurricane Rita will pass over cooler waters on Thursday and Friday, potentially weakening it to a Category 4 storm before it makes landfall, which is predicted early Saturday north of Matagorda Bay. Winds of 130 m.p.h. in parts of Texas should be expected, said Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority in Texas.

"This is going to be one very nasty, mean hurricane when it strikes land," Mr. Rose said.

The approaching storm provoked fear in Houston and along a broad swath of the Texas coast, where a nuclear plant and huge petrochemical refineries pose special hazards. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced that operators of the nuclear plant the South Texas Project in Bay City, a few miles from Matagorda Bay, were working to shut down both of its reactors.

Officials of the state's environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said Wednesday that they were receiving numerous reports from plant operators along the length of the coast that they were shutting down their industrial processes or minimizing operations as a precaution.

"In the wake of Katrina, people are being more vigilant and more conservative in their approach," especially in light of that hurricane's economic and environmental impacts resulting from damage at similar facilities in Louisiana, said David Bower, the assistant director for field operations of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Mr. Bower described the shutdowns and other actions as "absolutely comprehensive" at locations along the Texas coast.

The possibility of the storm hitting anywhere on the Texas coastline drove oil prices higher on concern that the storm might shut down refineries or tear apart pipelines. Companies evacuated workers from at least three refineries around Houston, which has the nation's highest concentration of refining capacity. Oil prices climbed 60 cents, or 1 percent, to $66.80 a barrel.

In Washington, where President Bush declared a state of emergency in Texas and Louisiana, officials tried to show that they were prepared for Hurricane Rita after the government's missteps in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

"I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities and follow them," President Bush said in a speech Wednesday to the Republican Jewish Coalition. "We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst."

Many of the 13,000 active-duty troops in Louisiana, Mississippi and off the Gulf Coast, including marines and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, were on standby Wednesday, to deploy to Texas if state officials there requested federal military assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, officials at the Pentagon said.

Ten Navy ships, including the hospital ship Comfort, have moved to the northeastern part of the gulf to avoid the storm, but would be ready to steam in quickly behind the hurricane to offer relief. Twenty helicopters at Fort Hood, Tex., have also been placed on standby in case they are needed for search and rescue, transport or Medivac missions in support of FEMA, said Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the Northern Command.

About 25,000 members of the National Guard are on duty in Louisiana and 10,500 in Mississippi. According to the National Guard Bureau, nearly 2,000 National Guards troops are on state-active duty preparing for Hurricane Rita, and Governor Perry has authorized the activation of up to 5,000 of the more than 10,000 National Guard troops currently available in the state. The Air National Guard has also moved several of its aircraft to Austin from Houston as a precaution.

The American Red Cross was moving supplies and equipment into staging areas in Dallas and San Antonio and opening shelters according to Texas's disaster preparedness plans. Its Disaster Operations Center in Washington was a beehive of activity, as its staff and volunteers mustered supplies, vehicles and other necessities.

In Florida, Hurricane Rita caused no major structural damage in Key West, but some flooding was reported. About 7,000 customers in the Florida Keys lost power and crews were working to restore it by the end of the day Wednesday. Residents who evacuated Key West were being allowed back Wednesday, while tourists were scheduled to return Friday.

Meanwhile in New Orleans, Mayor C. Ray Nagin had a mandatory evacuation order in effect Wednesday for the most of the city, including the French Quarter, the central business district and Uptown. But on Wednesday, the city remained filled with contractors, cleaners and military personnel driving down streets without working traffic lights.

The mayor said Tuesday that as many as 500 buses were ready to evacuate the few thousand citizens who may remain. About two dozen people who were evacuating because of Hurricane Rita arrived Wednesday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where tens of thousands of people were stranded for days after Hurricane Katrina.

On Wednesday, each person was welcomed by six military troops who offered water and ready-to-eat meals. Then they were checked for weapons, asked whether they needed medical assistance and put on a bus, idling with air-conditioning and television until it was full enough to depart, either to Baton Rouge or elsewhere. Several people said they were evacuating for a second time, some after returning to find their homes damaged and without power.

Still, after days of worry that Hurricane Rita would strike New Orleans, there was some sense of relief that it was heading west, reducing the potential damage to the city.

"We're watching Rita," said Sally Forman, a spokeswoman for the mayor. "We don't have a huge population in our city, but I think that the mandatory evacuation is working."

While New Orleans braced for the possibility more disruption, communities in Texas were also on edge Wednesday. South of Galveston in Matagorda County, Sheriff James Mitchell said that his office would not respond to calls in evacuated areas and that parents would be subject to criminal charges for endangerment of a child if they did not remove their children from the path of the storm.

Longtime residents in Houston remembered the ravages of the last hurricane to strike the city, Hurricane Alicia, in August 1983. Although barely a Category 3 storm, it was responsible for six deaths and devastated the downtown skyline with 80 m.p.h. winds, shattering hundreds of windows and leaving the streets ankle-deep in glass.

Throughout Wednesday, emergency measures were widely and hurriedly put into effect in Houston and along the coast. Schools, colleges, museums and other public institutions announced shutdowns starting Thursday. Prison inmates, hospital patients, nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations were evacuated from low-lying areas, and stores were stripped of bottled water, batteries and other emergency supplies. Long lines formed at banks, some of which restricted withdrawals to $500 at a time.

Galveston was perhaps more nervous than any other city, having just marked the 105th anniversary of the great storm of 1900, which killed more than 6,000 residents and remains the deadliest natural disaster in the nation's history. Although Galveston largely rebuilt itself and raised the elevation of parts of the island, the storm contributed to the city's decline from a bustling center for shipping and finance to a somewhat sleepy tourist destination.

"This one could be bigger than 1900, which was just a Category 3," said Tom Weaver, 60, as workers boarded windows of his business, Scratch and Dent Furniture. "If it hits us, mark my words, there will be looting. There's two types of people in this world, those that work and those that steal from those that work."

Most of Galveston was eerily empty by early Wednesday evening, with even a team of nine officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration leaving the city. The FEMA officials, who had been assisting evacuees from Louisiana, said they had been ordered by their managers to leave Galveston.

At the University of Texas Medical Branch, a complex consisting of six hospitals, 320 of its 370 patients had been evacuated by early Wednesday evening, Marsha Canright, a spokeswoman, said. The state corrections department Wednesday also evacuated another 70 inmates from the medical center's prison hospital, Ms. Canright said. She said it was the first time in the hospital's 114-year history that it had been evacuated.

In a span of four hours Wednesday morning, the 175 residents of Edgewater Retirement Community, which sits along the city's seawall, were evacuated on chartered buses and ambulances, said Barbara Williams, the residence's assistant administrator.

"This is not something that is a reactionary thing to Katrina," Ms. Williams said. "We just simply have always had a plan for evacuation for a hurricane."

Some people in Galveston said they had no idea when they might be able to return to the city, which has 60,000 residents. Saúl Aucancela, the owner of a market selling products from Mexico, said he was planning to drive to Reynosa, a border city in northern Mexico some eight hours to the south, to escape the storm.

"I'm placing my fate in God's hands," Mr. Aucancela, 55, said in Spanish as he finished nailing plywood on the wall of his store to protect his windows. His 18 employees had already left Galveston for refuge inland. "I want to go to a place that isn't too expensive if I have to stay there a while," he said.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Ralph Blumenthal and Maureen Balleza in Houston, Thayer Evans in Galveston, William Yardley in New Orleans, Andrew C. Revkin in New York, Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Terry Aguayo in Miami.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas - New York Times

Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas - New York TimesSeptember 21, 2005
Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL

HOUSTON, Sept. 20 - Hurricane Rita prompted a mandatory evacuation of this city's public shelters on Tuesday, emptying them as quickly as they had filled just three weeks ago and sending still-dazed survivors of Hurricane Katrina packing off to Arkansas, to the bus terminal, to the airport and, for some who considered themselves lucky, to paid and furnished apartments here in the Houston area.

Clustered in the hot sun and with all they had salvaged spilling from black garbage bags, shopping carts and suitcases tied with cords, evacuees set to leave one of the shelters, at Reliant Arena, seemed largely resigned to this new flight, although there were some flashes of temper.

Leading a circle of 10 with hands clasped in prayer as buses and taxicabs filled around them, Johnny Jeremiah, minister of the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church here, intoned, "God, this day, right now, this place, with this foolishness going on, we need you."

City and county officials, who had moved a vast bureaucracy to house more than 27,000 survivors in four public shelters quickly after the New Orleans disaster, said none of those now leaving the shelters would be put in housing that could be at risk from the approaching storm. But they said they might have to relocate people who had earlier been placed at hotels and motels in low-lying areas.

With the new storm's path uncertain, Galveston, which still bears scars from the great hurricane of September 1900 - the nation's deadliest disaster, with at least 6,000 killed - ordered a mandatory evacuation to begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Mayor Bill White of Houston said that this city of two million would make its own decision Wednesday and that as much as half the population could be called upon to evacuate.

In recent days, the dwindling thousands of storm survivors who had been sheltered in the Astrodome and Reliant Arena, as well as the adjacent Reliant Center exhibition hall and the George R. Brown Convention Center, were concentrated largely in the arena, which was finally emptied Tuesday night.

For the last hundreds in the arena, the day was particularly trying. Families sat on bundles of possessions like war refugees. Pregnant women and the injured waited in wheelchairs. Red Cross volunteers weaved through the throngs, passing out cold water and pastries.

With her month-old daughter asleep in a stroller, Monique Davis scooped up diapers that had spilled over the ground. Nearby lay a trash bag with stuffed animals poking out. A boy rocked solemnly on a wooden hobbyhorse.

About 500 people who had applied for apartments and been promised them lined up for buses and taxicabs to get there. Others boarded tour buses to Ellington Field for flights to new shelter at Fort Chaffee, Ark. - some chose to make the entire trip by bus - or to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where Continental Airlines was offering free tickets out. Still others got rides to the Greyhound terminal, where free tickets also awaited.

Steve Freeman, an oyster shucker with an injured leg infected from walking through floodwaters, said he planned to take up Continental on the free flight to reach Norfolk, Va., where he heard there were lots of oysters. But he was suspicious of the official motives for the evacuation.

"They've been trying to get us out early," Mr. Freeman said. "We're the working people. They don't want us here."

Paul Horton, driver of a produce truck, said he would use his airline ticket to fly to Atlanta to join his wife and two children, who had evacuated there with a neighbor. He has been separated from them since the hurricane, Mr. Horton said, when they got out after the water reached chest-high. He was later rescued and evacuated by bus to Dallas, then Arizona, Arkansas and finally the Reliant sports and entertainment complex in Houston.

Rohonor R. Randall, in a wheelchair with a bandaged foot ailing from exposure to polluted water, said she was bound for Fort Chaffee, but by bus.

"I'm not afraid of planes, I just like to be on the ground," Ms. Randall said.

She called for her newfound friend, the Rev. Hugh Hairston, pastor of Loveland Church in Ontario, Calif., a leader of a group of volunteer clerics called Operation Compassion. He offered a prayer for her foot.

Ms. Randall gripped his hand and said: "You never know where life leads you. Life changes in an instant, like God is showing you life is valuable."

Maureen Balleza and Bill Dawson contributed reporting from Houston for this article, and Christie Taylor from Galveston.

Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas - New York Times

Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas - New York TimesSeptember 21, 2005
Evacuees of One Storm Flee Another in Texas
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL

HOUSTON, Sept. 20 - Hurricane Rita prompted a mandatory evacuation of this city's public shelters on Tuesday, emptying them as quickly as they had filled just three weeks ago and sending still-dazed survivors of Hurricane Katrina packing off to Arkansas, to the bus terminal, to the airport and, for some who considered themselves lucky, to paid and furnished apartments here in the Houston area.

Clustered in the hot sun and with all they had salvaged spilling from black garbage bags, shopping carts and suitcases tied with cords, evacuees set to leave one of the shelters, at Reliant Arena, seemed largely resigned to this new flight, although there were some flashes of temper.

Leading a circle of 10 with hands clasped in prayer as buses and taxicabs filled around them, Johnny Jeremiah, minister of the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church here, intoned, "God, this day, right now, this place, with this foolishness going on, we need you."

City and county officials, who had moved a vast bureaucracy to house more than 27,000 survivors in four public shelters quickly after the New Orleans disaster, said none of those now leaving the shelters would be put in housing that could be at risk from the approaching storm. But they said they might have to relocate people who had earlier been placed at hotels and motels in low-lying areas.

With the new storm's path uncertain, Galveston, which still bears scars from the great hurricane of September 1900 - the nation's deadliest disaster, with at least 6,000 killed - ordered a mandatory evacuation to begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Mayor Bill White of Houston said that this city of two million would make its own decision Wednesday and that as much as half the population could be called upon to evacuate.

In recent days, the dwindling thousands of storm survivors who had been sheltered in the Astrodome and Reliant Arena, as well as the adjacent Reliant Center exhibition hall and the George R. Brown Convention Center, were concentrated largely in the arena, which was finally emptied Tuesday night.

For the last hundreds in the arena, the day was particularly trying. Families sat on bundles of possessions like war refugees. Pregnant women and the injured waited in wheelchairs. Red Cross volunteers weaved through the throngs, passing out cold water and pastries.

With her month-old daughter asleep in a stroller, Monique Davis scooped up diapers that had spilled over the ground. Nearby lay a trash bag with stuffed animals poking out. A boy rocked solemnly on a wooden hobbyhorse.

About 500 people who had applied for apartments and been promised them lined up for buses and taxicabs to get there. Others boarded tour buses to Ellington Field for flights to new shelter at Fort Chaffee, Ark. - some chose to make the entire trip by bus - or to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where Continental Airlines was offering free tickets out. Still others got rides to the Greyhound terminal, where free tickets also awaited.

Steve Freeman, an oyster shucker with an injured leg infected from walking through floodwaters, said he planned to take up Continental on the free flight to reach Norfolk, Va., where he heard there were lots of oysters. But he was suspicious of the official motives for the evacuation.

"They've been trying to get us out early," Mr. Freeman said. "We're the working people. They don't want us here."

Paul Horton, driver of a produce truck, said he would use his airline ticket to fly to Atlanta to join his wife and two children, who had evacuated there with a neighbor. He has been separated from them since the hurricane, Mr. Horton said, when they got out after the water reached chest-high. He was later rescued and evacuated by bus to Dallas, then Arizona, Arkansas and finally the Reliant sports and entertainment complex in Houston.

Rohonor R. Randall, in a wheelchair with a bandaged foot ailing from exposure to polluted water, said she was bound for Fort Chaffee, but by bus.

"I'm not afraid of planes, I just like to be on the ground," Ms. Randall said.

She called for her newfound friend, the Rev. Hugh Hairston, pastor of Loveland Church in Ontario, Calif., a leader of a group of volunteer clerics called Operation Compassion. He offered a prayer for her foot.

Ms. Randall gripped his hand and said: "You never know where life leads you. Life changes in an instant, like God is showing you life is valuable."

Maureen Balleza and Bill Dawson contributed reporting from Houston for this article, and Christie Taylor from Galveston.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Japan Today - News - Taiwan president Chen to visit U.S., Central America - Japan's Leading International News Network

Japan Today - News - Taiwan president Chen to visit U.S., Central America - Japan's Leading International News NetworkTaiwan president Chen to visit U.S., Central America

Wednesday, September 21, 2005 at 07:16 JST
TAIPEI — Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian embarked Tuesday on a journey to Central American and Caribbean allies during which he will make two stopovers in the United States, the island's closest ally and main arms supplier.

"The trip is aimed at further promoting economic and trade diplomacy and also to strengthen the bilateral ties," Chen told reporters at the airport in Taipei.

About.com:

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Hmong immigrant convicted of murdering 6 deer hunters
Case exposed racial tensions in Wisconsin

Saturday, September 17, 2005; Posted: 9:59 a.m. EDT (13:59 GMT)

vert.vang.ap.jpg
Chai Soua Vang reacts after the defense rested their case in his murder trial Thursday.

HAYWARD, Wisconsin (AP) -- A jury on Friday convicted an immigrant truck driver of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of six deer hunters during a confrontation over trespassing.

The jury rejected his claims that he fired in self-defense after one hunter used racial slurs and another shot at him.

Chai Soua Vang, 36, faces mandatory life in prison. Wisconsin does not have a death penalty.

Jurors deliberated about three hours before convicting Vang on six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and three counts of attempted homicide. In addition to the six dead, two hunters were wounded in the shootings November 21 that began when the group of hunters confronted Vang for being on private land.

Vang, dressed in a business suit with family members seated behind him, showed no visible emotion as the judge read the verdict.

The crime rocked Wisconsin's north woods in part because four of the victims were shot in the back and all but one were unarmed, according to testimony.

The slayings also occurred during the state's beloved deer hunting season and exposed racial tension between the predominantly white north woods residents and immigrants from the Hmong ethnic group of Southeast Asia.

Outside court, one of Vang's friends questioned the all-white jury's makeup and maintained Vang was innocent.

"All Caucasian, all American. Why can't there be one Hmong? Why can't there be one minority in there?" Pofwmyeh Yang said. "I believe only one person can judge, and that's God. But God didn't judge today."

Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said in her closing argument that Vang ambushed some of the victims and chased down one of them. But the defense said the confrontation was all about racial prejudice.

Vang's attorney, Steven Kohn, told jurors the prosecution cannot prove who fired the first shot. Vang had testified he started firing only after one of the hunters shot at him first.

"In the courtroom, the tie goes to the defendant," Kohn said.

Lautenschlager reminded jurors Vang testified he felt two of the victims deserved to die because they called him names. "The physical evidence and the witness statements speak for themselves," she said.

Kohn said Friday the hunters' anger at Vang was driven by racial prejudice.

"It really is the straw that stirs the drink. It is the catalyst," he said. He told jurors the trial was not about the Hmong community or Wisconsin's hunting culture, but about what happened when specific individuals confronted each other in the woods.

The judge had given jurors the option of finding Vang guilty on lesser charges of second-degree murder or attempted murder.

Vang testified Thursday that he fired at the group of hunters because he feared for his life. At one point, he pretended to hold a rifle as he told jurors how he gunned down the victims -- but he claimed it was only after a shot was fired at him.

Vang, a truck driver from St. Paul, Minnesota, came to the United States more than 20 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand.

He said the shootings happened after one of the white hunters used profanities and racial slurs when angrily confronting him for trespassing in a tree stand used to hunt deer last fall.

Two survivors of the shootings testified that only one shot was fired at Vang, and that was after he had shot the victims.

Cross-examined by Lautenschlager, Vang was asked if each victim deserved to die. Vang answered "no" in some cases and "yes" in others.

He told jurors he was on the rifle team in high school in California and later served in the National Guard, where he was trained to shoot to kill. He also described himself as an experienced hunter.

CBS 46 Atlanta - Georgia photo ID law attacked in court

CBS 46 Atlanta - Georgia photo ID law attacked in courtGeorgia photo ID law attacked in court
Sep 20, 2005, 12:07 PM

ATLANTA (AP) -- A group of voter and civil rights organizations filed suit in federal court Monday seeking to overturn a new state law requiring voters to show photo IDs to vote.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in northwest Georgia's Rome on the same day that a commission co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter, a Georgia native, recommended a national requirement for voters to show photo IDs.

"Photographic identification as a requirement for voting is antidemocratic and prevents people from exercising their fundamental right to vote whether proposed by the General Assembly of the state of Georgia or the Carter-Baker commission," said Daniel Levitas of the American Civil Liberties Union's voting rights project.

The new Georgia law was approved this year by the first Legislature since Reconstruction under complete Republican control and after fierce opposition, including a brief walkout, by Democrats.

It eliminated the use of several previously accepted forms of identification to vote, including Social Security cards, birth certificates and utility bills, and required voters to produce a picture ID such as a driver's license, military identification or state-issued identification card.

The Justice Department, required to review election law changes in Georgia and other states with a history of racial discrimination, gave Georgia the go-ahead to implement the law.

The suit, filed by organizations including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, contends the law violates provisions of both the state and national Constitutions.

In addition, the suit claims the law effectively imposes an illegal poll tax on those without state-issued ID cards such as a driver's license who now must pay $20 for a five-year state-issued photo ID card or $35 for a 10-year card.

The state says it is issuing free ID cards to those who can't pay the fee, but the suit argues those people still incur transportation expenses in traveling to a site where they can obtain a card.

Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the law is intended to deter voter fraud.

"Requiring an ID to vote is common sense and has been instituted in other states," he said. "Under the old system, you could pluck a utility bill out of somebody's trash can and cast a vote."

House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, called the law "a common sense measure" and denounced the suit as "liberal special interests using unconscionable scare tactics to frighten Georgia voters."

Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat who hopes to challenge Perdue for re-election next year, said she continues to view the new requirement as unnecessary and unwise.

"This provision will make it harder for many Georgians to vote, especially the elderly and those who live in rural areas," she said.

Carter, who chaired an election reform commission along with former Secretary of State James Baker, said in Washington Monday that requiring photo IDs was one of the most important and most difficult of his group's recommendations.

"We addressed this with a great deal of hesitancy," he said, adding that "24 states already require photo ID and 12 others are considering it." Carter said a national approach would prevent states from putting in laws that are discriminatory.

Another former Democratic president, Bill Clinton, has called Georgia's law "just wrong."

"They're cutting lots of folks out of that vote," Clinton said during an appearance in August as a guest on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's syndicated radio show.

Georgia's requirement is unique, said Tim Storey, senior fellow at the National Council of State Legislatures.

He said that of the states that require voters to show identification, only five besides Georgia request photo ID. Those states -- Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, South Carolina and South Dakota -- allow voters without a photo ID to use other forms of identification or sign an affidavit of identity.

Other states that require voters to present IDs are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, Storey said. In some cases, a voter registration card or birth certificate is sufficient.

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Insurgents 'inside Iraqi police'

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Insurgents 'inside Iraqi police' Insurgents 'inside Iraqi police'
Iraq's National Security Adviser Muwafaq al-Rubaie has admitted the country's security forces have been infiltrated by insurgents.

Speaking on the BBC's Newsnight programme, he said he had no idea how far they have already been undermined.

It comes after the British Army said it was forced to take action to free two UK soldiers after learning Iraqi police had handed them to a militia group.

The Pentagon warned in July that Iraq's police force was recruiting insurgents.

'Clean up police'

The Iraqi government has launched an inquiry into events surrounding the arrest of the British soldiers on Monday, both thought to be members of the SAS elite special forces.

Iraq's interior ministry ordered the police force in the southern city of Basra to release the soldiers - but that order was ignored.

The British Army confirmed the troops had been handed over by police to a Shia militia group.

Mr Rubaie told Newsnight: "Our Iraqi security forces in general, and these in particular and in many parts of Iraq, I have to admit that they have been penetrated by some of the insurgents, some of the terrorists as well, so I can't deny this."

He said Iraq now had "a very scrupulous, very meticulous vetting procedure" to "clean our security forces, as well as stop any penetration in future from the insurgents or the terrorists".

He admitted he did not know to what extent the security forces were already infiltrated by insurgents.

Criminals in ranks

However, Mr Rubaie criticised the British military's use of force instead of negotiation in freeing its troops on Monday.

"They could have been freed in a much more peaceful, much more friendly and amicable way than that," he said.

Lessons would be learned so that similar incidents could be avoided in the future, he said.

A report released by the US defence department in July said Iraq's police force was recruiting insurgents and former criminals to its ranks.

It blamed poor vetting procedures and recommended that the quality of records at Iraq's interior ministry be checked.
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Monday, September 19, 2005

Clinton Levels Sharp Criticism at the President's Relief Effort - New York Times

Clinton Levels Sharp Criticism at the President's Relief Effort - New York TimesSeptember 19, 2005
Clinton Levels Sharp Criticism at the President's Relief Effort
By PHILIP SHENON

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 - Former President Bill Clinton, asked by President Bush to help raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, offered harsh criticism of the administration's disaster-relief effort on Sunday, saying "you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up."

Mr. Clinton's comments in an interview on the ABC News program "This Week" could prove awkward for the White House, given President Bush's eagerness to involve his Democratic predecessor in a high-profile role to raise money for the hurricane's victims. His remarks came days after the president gave a televised speech from New Orleans, trying to seize the momentum amid other attacks on the administration's performance.

The White House has been under siege from critics, assailed first for the effectiveness of its response to the storm, and challenged more recently by questions about the long-term fiscal implications of its plans for rebuilding in the Gulf states.

Mr. Clinton argued that lower-income Americans had done better under the economic policies of his administration than they are doing now, saying the storm highlighted class divisions in the country that often played out along racial lines.

"It's like when they issued the evacuation order," he said. "That affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. A lot of them who had cars had kinfolk they had to take care of. They didn't have cars, so they couldn't take them out."

"This is a matter of public policy," he said. "And whether it's race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made. That's what they did in the 80's; that's what they've done in this decade. In the middle, we had a different policy."

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, did not respond directly to Mr. Clinton's remarks about the hurricane-relief effort or mention the former president by name. But in a statement on Sunday, Mr. McClellan suggested it was unfair to link the plight of low-income victims of the hurricane to the economic policies of the Bush administration.

"There is a deep history of injustice that has led to poverty and inequality, and it will not be overcome instantly," he said, adding that President Bush "from Day 1 has been acting boldly to achieve real results for all Americans."

He added, "Do we think in new and bold ways by focusing on innovative programs that work for all Americans, or do we embrace failed policies of the past which have resulted in too many being left behind?"

Throughout Mr. Bush's presidency, Mr. Clinton has often been critical of his successor, and he repeated many of those criticisms in the Sunday interview in discussing the invasion of Iraq, the growing federal deficit and other issues. But it was the directness of his criticism of President Bush's policies related to domestic disaster relief that appeared most likely to cause aggravation at the White House.

Noting statistics that showed a significant drop in poverty during his presidency, Mr. Clinton said, "You can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up, and when you tell people to go do something they don't have the means to do, you're going to leave the poor out."

Mr. Clinton has reunited with President Bush's father, former President George H. W. Bush, in a fund-raising campaign for Katrina victims, much as they worked together to raise millions of dollars for relief efforts after the Asian tsunami last year. Mr. Clinton said the two had raised $90 million to $100 million so far for hurricane victims.

Mr. Clinton drew a sharp distinction between the performance of the government's disaster-relief agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in his administration and today. "I think we did a good job of disaster management," he said.

While not using the name of Michael D. Brown, the FEMA director who resigned last Monday after criticism of his performance in the Katrina disaster, Mr. Clinton praised the performance of his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, and said Mr. Witt had been especially sensitive to the needs of low-income people because "both of us came out of environments with a disproportionate number of poor people."

Mr. Clinton said he was especially disturbed that many of the people who lost homes in the hurricane had no property insurance.

"Everything they owned was in their little home," he said. "And if we really wanted to do it right, we would have had lots of buses lined up to take them out and also lots of empty vans" to save the belongings of those with no home or flood insurance.

North Korea Says It Will Abandon Nuclear Efforts - New York Times

North Korea Says It Will Abandon Nuclear Efforts - New York TimesSeptember 19, 2005
North Korea Says It Will Abandon Nuclear Efforts
By JOSEPH KAHN

BEIJING, Monday, Sept. 19 - North Korea agreed Monday to end its nuclear weapons program in return for security, economic and energy benefits, potentially easing tensions with the United States after a two-year standoff over the North's efforts to build atomic bombs.

The United States, North Korea and four other nations participating in negotiations in Beijing signed a draft accord in which the North promised to abandon efforts to produce nuclear weapons and re-admit international inspectors to its nuclear facilities.

Foreign powers said they would provide aid, diplomatic assurances and security guarantees and consider North Korea's demands for a light-water nuclear reactor.

The agreement is preliminary and will require more rounds of negotiations to flesh out because it does not address a range of issues like timing and implementation that are likely to prove contentious. China announced that the nations taking part in the talks would reconvene in November to continue ironing out the details.

Even so, the agreement marks the first time since the United States accused North Korea violating a previous accord in 2002 that the two countries have drawn up a road map for ending their dispute through peaceful means.

It also appears to rescue a diplomatic process that appeared to be on the verge of collapse after multiple rounds of negotiations failed to produce even a joint statement of principles. The Bush administration had said it was prepared to take tougher measures, including freezing North Korean assets abroad and pushing for international sanctions, if the latest round of talks collapsed.

Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator, had said before the agreement was announced that he was determined to end the discussions and return to Washington. The breakthrough came at the last minute, after American officials had prepared to wrap up the negotiations without an accord.

Progress in the talks may also give the United States and European countries some diplomatic momentum in their negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, which is not considered as advanced as the North Korean one.

More generally, it would appear to boost support for people inside the Bush administration who favored pursuing laborious negotiations with the North Koreans. Hard-liners in the administration and in Congress had raised questions about the usefulness of negotiations with the North, which they argued had no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons.

The draft accord commits North Korea to scrap all of its existing nuclear weapons and nuclear production facilities, to rejoin the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and to readmit international nuclear inspectors. North Korea withdrew from the treaty and expelled inspectors in 2002, after the United States accused it of violating a previous agreement to end its nuclear program.

The United States and North Korea also pledged to respect each other's sovereignty and right to peaceful coexistence and to work toward normalization of relations. The two countries have no full diplomatic relations and did not sign a peace treaty after the Korean War.

Washington declared as part of the agreement that it does not have any nuclear weapons at its bases in South Korea and that it "has no intention to attack or invade the D.P.R.K. with nuclear or conventional weapons." The D.P.R.K. stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's formal name.

The accord finessed what had been the biggest sticking point in the latest round of talks - the light-water nuclear reactor - by leaving it to be resolved in future discussions. North Korea demanded throughout the week-long session that the international community agree to provide it with a light-water reactor before it took steps to dismantle its nuclear program.

The United States firmly rejected that demand, though it did not rule out the possibility that the North could retain some kind of civilian nuclear program down the road if it abandoned its weapons program.

The statement said North Korea claimed the right to pursue "peaceful uses of nuclear energy." Mr. Hill said he expected that a light-water reactor would cost $2 billion to $3 billion and would take a decade to build. While a light-water reactor does not produce fuel for atomic weapons the way the North's existing modified-graphite reactors do, American officials have said it still raises proliferation risks and cannot be a first step in arranging the nuclear disarmament of the country.

North Korea has said it requires the new nuclear plant to provide electricity. But Mr. Hill said building a new nuclear plant would be an inefficient way of boosting electricity supplies. He said the North considers a civilian nuclear plant a "trophy."

The draft agreement includes a commitment by South Korea to build power plants and transmission lines to provide the North with two thousand megawatts of electricity, enough to roughly double to total supply of electrical power for its northern neighbor.

Although many details remain unresolved, the accord appears to be a significant victory for China. Beijing brokered the agreement after being the host for multiple rounds of difficult and inclusive talks. It cajoled both the United States and North Korea to continue meeting each other despite repeated threats by both sides to discontinue negotiations.

China has long argued that North Korea's nuclear problems cannot be dealt with through pressure or military force and must be addressed through comprehensive negotiations aimed at addressing the North's full range of concerns.

The Bush administration also overhauled the substance and the style of its approach to North Korea. Officials stopped using the accusatory language President Bush once used when he called North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and called the nation's leader, Kim Jong Il, a tyrant.

Instead, the Americans have worked closely with South Korea and China to address the North's security and economic concerns and have reassured the North that the United States recognizes it as sovereign. Officials relaxed their stand on the North retaining some kind of peaceful nuclear program, and offered the prospect of normalizing relations with country.

Ultimately, the agreement will still face hurdles, including the degree of intrusiveness of inspections in the closed North Korean state, as well as to scope and nature of any peaceful nuclear program the North is allowed to retain.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

BBC NEWS | Europe | No clear winner after German vote

BBC NEWS | Europe | No clear winner after German vote No clear winner after German vote
Early projections show a tight finish to Germany's election, with both main parties claiming victory.

Challenger Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) won only the slimmest of leads, early results suggest.

Some predictions give the CDU the same number of seats as Gerhard Schroeder's centre-left Social Democrats (SDP).

Mrs Merkel, the pre-poll favourite to become chancellor, looks unlikely to be able to form her preferred coalition and may have to join with the SPD.


PROJECTED ELECTION RESULTS
CDU/CSU: 35.4%
SPD: 34.2%
Free Democrats: 10%
Greens: 8.1%
Left Party: 8.5%
Source: ARD television
But Mr Schroeder has insisted that he has enough votes to remain as chancellor.

He said he could envisage a grand coalition of the two largest parties, but only if he was its leader.

Projections based on early results and exit polls put the CDU and its sister CSU party in the lead with about 35% of the vote, against about 34% for the SPD.

Opinions polls before the election had suggested the CDU would get more than than 40% of the vote.

Their intended coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, did well with 10%, estimates said - but apparently not well enough to secure a joint majority.

Both the new Left party and the Greens are credited with about 8%.

Supporters subdued

After the unofficial exit polls were released, Mrs Merkel said she had "a clear mandate" to be the next chancellor - although she admitted the CDU "probably" did not have enough votes for a coalition with the Free Democrats.


The mood among her supporters was subdued. The CDU has fallen back from a lead of around 20% in the polls when Mr Schroeder called an early election.

She said that she would hold talks "with all parties" except the Left Party about forming a new coalition.

However Mr Schroeder refused to admit defeat, raising his hands like a champion amid joyful scenes among his supporters.

"I do not understand how the [Christian Democratic] Union, which started off so confidently and arrogantly, takes a claim to political leadership from a disastrous election result," he said.

"The result today shows that the country will have Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor," he said to cheers.

Deep split

The BBC's William Horsley in Berlin says the result may well bring political confusion and an unstable government.

Weeks of tough talks lie ahead before the country gets a new government, he adds.

Germany has shown itself deeply split between East and West and between reformers and those unwilling to face change, he says.

With sluggish growth and unemployment remaining above 11%, the two sides have argued ferociously over the nature of economic reforms they both say are necessary.

Mr Schroeder defended the labour and welfare changes he has set in motion, saying Mrs Merkel's more liberal proposals on tax and labour reform go too far.

They also differ on Germany's direction in the world.

Mr Schroeder has joined France in trying to counter US global dominance, while Mrs Merkel said if she won she would mend fences with Washington.
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BBC NEWS | Africa | Mugabe defends urban demolitions

BBC NEWS | Africa | Mugabe defends urban demolitions Mugabe defends urban demolitions
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has denied his country is in the grip of an avoidable famine, and defended his controversial slum clearance policy.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, Mr Mugabe said the demolition of vast urban areas was an effort to boost law and order and development.

He insisted that the slum clearances were followed by well-planned building projects designed to rehouse the poor.

Some accuse him of bulldozing slums housing opposition supporters.

Mr Mugabe defended the demolitions, insisting that Zimbabwe must move forward, rather than tolerate poverty and haphazard urban development.

He said Zimbabwe would not lower its urban living standards to allow for mud huts and bush latrines, and did not need "development in reverse".

Humanitarian concerns

"We find it strange and anomalous that the government of Zimbabwe should be maligned and condemned for restoring order and the rule of law in its municipal areas," he told the UN in New York.

We pride ourselves as being top, really, on the African ladder
Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwe President
"Our detractors fail to acknowledge that Operation Restore Order soon gave way to a well-planned, vast reconstruction programme.

"Properly planned accommodation, factory shells and vending stalls are being constructed in many areas of our country for our people."

An estimated 700,000 people lost their homes during the slum clearances, which were described as a humanitarian crisis by the United Nations and heavily criticised by Human Rights Watch.

Zimbabweans 'happy'

In an interview with the Associated Press news agency, Mr Mugabe denied that Zimbabwe was in the grip of a famine.

He said that the country has ample stocks of potatoes and rice, yet the population insists on eating corn, a traditional staple.

The people of Zimbabwe are "very, very happy," Mr Mugabe said, blaming corn shortages on years of "continuous drought".

"We pride ourselves as being top, really, on the African ladder," Mr Mugabe told AP.

"We feel that we have actually been advancing rather than going backwards."
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