Saturday March 9, 2013

Foot-stomping funeral held for Venezuela’s Chavez, as successor awaits swearing in

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez was lauded as a modern-day reincarnation of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar and a disciple of Cuba’s Fidel Castro at a fiery, foot-stomping state funeral on Friday that at times smacked of a political rally as presidents, princes and left-wing glitterati looked on.

Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, emotionally eulogized the fallen leader at the military academy where the funeral was held, his voice booming over Chavez’s flag-draped casket as he pledged eternal loyalty.

"Here we are, Comandante, your men, on their feet," Maduro shouted, government officials rising behind him. "All your men and women ... loyal until beyond death."

"Chavez Lives!" he declared. "Mission Accomplished!"

But all was not peace and harmony in a country deeply divided by Chavez’s 14 years in power. The opposition coalition announced it would boycott Maduro’s swearing-in later Friday, calling it unconstitutional. The dispute foreshadows a bitter presidential campaign to come, with elections mandated within 30 days of Chavez’s death.

Bin Laden spokesman pleads not guilty in NY court to conspiracy to kill Americans

NEW YORK (AP) -- A senior al-Qaida leader and son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, captured in Jordan a week ago, pleaded not guilty Friday in a heavily secured New York courtroom to plotting against Americans before and immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks in his role as the terror network’s top spokesman.

Bearded and balding, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was escorted into the largest courtroom at the federal courthouse in Manhattan, where he entered the plea through a lawyer to one count of conspiracy to kill Americans in a case that marks a legal victory for President Barack Obama’s administration.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John P. Cronan revealed that Abu Ghaith gave an "extensive post-arrest statement" that totaled 22 pages after he was arrested overseas the night of Feb. 28 and arrived in the U.S. March 1. The prosecutor said nothing about the contents of Abu Ghaith’s statement.

A law enforcement official with knowledge of the case said Abu Ghaith initially agreed to be interviewed without an attorney at the FBI office in lower Manhattan immediately after his arrival. Later in the day, he requested an attorney and was interviewed with an attorney present. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case.

Nearly a dozen deputy U.S. marshals guarded the ceremonial courtroom as about 80 spectators, mostly journalists, lawyers and court employees, watched the 15-minute proceeding before U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a no-nonsense judge who promised to set a trial date when Abu Ghaith returns to court on April 8.

Poll shows while most back gov’t cutbacks, they’d also like more spent on pet programs

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As President Barack Obama and lawmakers spar over huge federal deficits, they’re confronted by a classic contradiction: Most Americans want government austerity, a survey shows, but they also want increased spending on a host of popular programs: education, crime fighting, health care, Social Security, the environment and more. Less for defense, space and foreign aid.

The newly released General Social Survey asked people whether they believe spending in specific categories is "too much," "too little" or "about right." It covers the public’s shifting priorities from 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, through 2012 with Obama in the White House.

"Despite a dislike of taxes, more people have always favored increases in spending than cuts," wrote the survey’s director, Tom W. Smith, of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

While people’s priorities shift over the years, they’ve not changed on one category. Foreign aid has been stuck firmly in last place since the survey began. Last year, 65 percent of those surveyed thought there was "too much," 25 percent checked "about right" and a slim 11 percent said "too little." The numbers are not much changed from 1973 -- when 73 percent said too much on foreign aid, 22 percent just right and 5 percent too little.

Various polls have consistently shown the public believes foreign aid is a far bigger slice of the spending pie than it actually is.

Hagel makes 1st trip to Afghanistan as defense sec., focuses on challenges ahead

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Afghanistan Friday for his first visit as Pentagon chief, saying that there are plenty of challenges ahead as NATO hands over the country’s security to the Afghans.

"We are still at war," Hagel said, warning the U.S. and its allies to remain focused on the mission while noting that the U.S. never intended to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

"That transition has to be done right, it has to be done in partnership with the Afghans, with our allies," said Hagel, who took over the Pentagon job a little more than a week ago. "Our country as well as Afghanistan, the region, and the allies have a lot at stake here. And our continued focus and energy and attention on Afghanistan is going to be very important."

He said it was vital to remember why the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the days after the 9/11 attacks, including the need to rid the country of terrorists and a hostile government.

On the day of Hagel’s arrival, there was a fresh reminder of the conflict. Defense officials said three men wearing Afghan army uniforms and driving an Afghan army vehicle forced their way onto a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan at midday and opened fire, killing one civilian contractor and wounding other U.S. troops.

Furious at blame over crackdowns, police spread strikes around Egypt, adding to turmoil

CAIRO (AP) -- Strikes by Egyptian security forces spread swiftly around the country Friday, as police walked off the job or took to the streets, angry at being blamed for crackdowns on protests against the Islamist president and accusing his Muslim Brotherhood of trying to control them.

The wave of police discontent adds a new layer to Egypt’s turmoil and political breakdown. In a sign of the disarray, a powerful hard-line Islamist group said its members would now take over policing a southern province because most security forces in the province were on strike.

The top security official in Assiut province, Gen. Aboul-Kassem Deif, said the announcement by Gamaa Islamiya -- a group that in the 1990s waged an armed Islamic militant uprising but in the past two years entered politics -- was illegal. But he seemed to acknowledge he could not stop it.

"I don’t know what to do," he told The Associated Press.

Strikes by policemen and riot police were reported in at least 10 of Egypt’s 29 provinces, including at several stations in the capital, Cairo. Even as some police went on strike, others were clashing with protesters in Cairo, the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta industrial city of Mahalla el-Kubra. Dozens injured in the fighting, according to security officials and witnesses.

Researchers: Crystal found at bottom of English Channel may be a fabled sunstone

LONDON (AP) -- A rough, whitish block recovered from an Elizabethan shipwreck may be a sunstone, the fabled crystal believed by some to have helped Vikings and other medieval seafarers navigate the high seas, researchers say.

In a paper published earlier this week, a Franco-British group argued that the Alderney Crystal -- a chunk of Icelandic calcite found amid a 16th century wreck at the bottom of the English Channel -- worked as a kind of solar compass, allowing sailors to determine the position of the sun even when it was hidden by heavy cloud, masked by fog, or below the horizon.

That’s because of a property known as birefringence, which splits light beams in a way that can reveal the direction of their source with a high degree of accuracy. Vikings may not have grasped the physics behind the phenomenon, but that wouldn’t present a problem.

"You don’t have to understand how it works," said Albert Le Floch, of the University in Rennes in western France. "Using it is basically easy."

Vikings were expert navigators -- using the sun, stars, mountains and even migratory whales to help guide them across the sea -- but some have wondered at their ability to travel the long stretches of open water between Greenland, Iceland, and Newfoundland in modern-day Canada.