After decent rally, perhaps time for a pause

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks could struggle to extend their seven-week winning streak as the quarterly earnings period draws to a close and the market bumps into strong technical resistance.


Many analysts say the market could spend the next few weeks consolidating gains that have lifted the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 <.spx> by 6.6 percent since the start of the year.


The S&P 500 ended up 0.1 percent for the week, recovering from a late sell-off on Friday after a Bloomberg report about slow February sales at Wal-Mart triggered a slide in the retailer's shares. It was the index's seventh week of gains.


Odds of a pullback are increasing, with the market in slightly overbought territory, said Bruce Zaro, chief technical strategist at Delta Global Asset Management in Boston.


"I do suspect the closing of the earnings season will lead to at least a pause and possibly a pullback," Zaro said. The S&P 500 could shave 3 to 5 percent between now and early April, he said.


Fourth-quarter earnings have mostly beaten expectations. Year-over-year profit growth for S&P 500 companies is now estimated at 5.6 percent, up from a January 1 forecast for 2.9 percent growth, and 70 percent of companies are exceeding analyst profit expectations, above the 62 percent long-term average, according to Thomson Reuters data.


On Thursday, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is due to report results, unofficially closing out the earnings period. Investors will be keen to see its quarterly numbers, especially after the Friday's news report that rattled investors.


The S&P 500 has gained 4.3 percent since Alcoa kicked off the earnings season on January 8.


The approaching March 1 deadline for across-the-board federal budget cuts unless Congress reaches a compromise adds another reason for caution, especially with recent economic data indicating the recovery remains bumpy.


Manufacturing output fell 0.4 percent last month, the Federal Reserve said on Friday, but production in November and December was much stronger than previously thought.


TESTING RESISTANCE


The S&P 500 has been trading near five-year highs, and it notched its highest level since November 2007 this week. But the gains have pushed the benchmark index almost as far as it is likely to go in the near term, with strong resistance hovering around 1,525 and 1,540, one analyst said.


As a result, the index is set to move sideways, said Dave Chojnacki, market technician at Street One Financial in Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. "We just don't have the volume or the catalyst right now" to go above those levels, he said.


At the same time, other analysts say, the market has not shown significant signs of slowing, including a break below 15- and 30-day moving averages.


Such moves would be needed to show that momentum is slowing or that the market is at risk of a correction, said Todd Salamone, director of research for Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, Ohio. The S&P 500's 14-day moving average is at 1,511 while the 30-day is at 1,494. The index closed Friday at 1,519.


Recent M&A activity, including news this week of a merger between American Airlines and US Airways Group , helped provide some strength for the market this week and optimism that more deals may be on the way.


In the coming days, the market will focus on minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting, due to be released on Wednesday, which could provide support if they suggest the Fed will remain on its current course of aggressive monetary easing.


The Fed minutes released in January spooked markets a bit when they revealed that some Fed officials thought it would be appropriate to consider ending asset purchases later in 2013. U.S. Treasury yields rose on that news, though market worries about a near-term end to quantitative easing have since faded.


Among other companies expected to report earnings next week are Nordstrom , Hewlett-Packard and Marriott International


(Reporting By Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Leslie Adler)



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No. 2 Duke falls to Maryland 83-81


COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — As the final horn sounded and Maryland fans rushed the court to celebrate a rare victory over its bitter rival, weary Duke had just enough energy left to escape the mayhem for the safety of its locker room.


Seth Allen broke a tie by making two free throws with 2.8 seconds left, and the Terrapins stunned the second-ranked Blue Devils 83-81 Saturday night to end a six-game skid in the series.


Coming off a five-day break, Maryland notched its most significant win of the season at the expense of a tired Duke playing its fourth game in 10 days.


The Blue Devils were worn out, and it showed.


Duke was outrebounded 40-20, never led in the second half and got only four points and three rebounds from 6-foot-10 senior center Mason Plumlee.


"This has been an exhausting schedule for our team," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're playing on fumes and I think you could tell that with Mason. I thought he looked exhausted the whole game. He's been great. Obviously not good tonight."


The Terrapins (18-7, 6-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) did not trail after halftime but never could pull away.


Duke (22-3, 9-3) was down by 10 with 3:39 left but pulled even when Rasheed Sulaimon made three foul shots with 16.7 seconds to go. Quinn Cook then fouled Allen as the freshman guard drove through the lane, and Allen made both shots.


After a Duke timeout, Cook's desperation 30-footer bounced off the back rim. Chaos ensued as the fans immediately rushed the court.


"I thought it was in when I got it off," Cook said of his final attempt.


Alex Len had 19 points and nine rebounds for Maryland, and Allen scored 16. The Terrapins had lost 12 of 13 against Duke, including a 20-point embarrassment last month.


"I told our players before the game, there's a lot of pride in Maryland basketball," coach Mark Turgeon said. "There's also a lot of passion about Maryland basketball. We talked about playing with those two things for us and for our fans. Our fans were just tremendous."


From the end of the Star Spangled Banner to the final buzzer, the crowd never stopped shouting for the Terps, who rewarded their fans with a memorable victory in a rivalry that appears destined to end when Maryland leaves for the Big Ten in 2014.


"I have a great deal of respect for Maryland," Krzyzewski said. "If it was such a rivalry they'd still be in the ACC. Obviously they don't think it's that important or else they wouldn't be in the Big Ten."


Oh, but it's very important to Maryland and its coach.


"This win was for my family and the fans," Turgeon said. "I know what this win means for our fan base, and I really wanted to beat Duke."


The Blue Devils had their six-game winning streak end. Seth Curry scored 25 and Cook added 18. But Plumlee was completely outplayed by the 7-1 Len, who went 6 for 8 from the field and 7 for 8 at the foul line.


"There's so much pressure for Mason to play outstanding," Krzyzewski said. "That wears on you as the season goes on. He just didn't look fresh tonight."


Said Plumlee: "I didn't show up to play today and I let my teammates down. It's all on me."


Maryland committed a whopping 26 turnovers, eight by Allen. The Terrapins shot an impressive 60 percent from the floor and finished with a 40-20 rebounding advantage.


Maryland played without reserve guard Pe'Shon Howard, who was suspended for violating team rules. Despite being demoted from his starting role last month, Howard still leads the Terrapins in assists.


Maryland led 66-63 before Allen scored on a drive. Dez Wells then stole the ball from Cook and went in for a dunk for a seven-point lead with 5:20 left. After the Blue Devils closed to 71-63, James Padgett made a layup for Maryland and Wells made two foul shots for a 10-point cushion.


The crowd increased its volume with every subsequent basket by the Terrapins, whose previous win over Duke came in March 2010, when Greivis Vasquez celebrated Senior Night with a 20-point performance.


In this one, it was 80-72 before Curry made two straight 3-pointers to bring Duke to 80-78 with just under a minute left. After Wells was called for a charge, Curry had a 15-footer bounce in and out of the basket.


It was that kind of night for the Blue Devils.


This score was 39 all before Allen hit a 3-pointer to spark a 10-2 run that included five points from freshman Shaquille Cleare. It was 53-43 before Curry bagged a 3-pointer, Alex Murphy made a layup and Curry drove the lane following Maryland's third turnover in a 60-second span.


That cut the gap to three points, and seconds after a 3-pointer by Cook got the Blue Devils to 55-53.


After the Terrapins went up by six, they committed turnovers on three straight possessions. That enabled Duke to close to 59-57 on a dunk by Murphy, but four straight free throws by Len gave Maryland a 64-59 advantage with 7:20 remaining.


The first half featured two ties, 10 lead changes and ended with the Terrapins up 35-34. Curry (14 points) was one of only four Duke players to score before halftime.


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Afghanistan's future: Five questions






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • President Obama has revealed new details about the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan

  • But there are several key issues that still must be resolved in the coming months

  • The Afghan military has its critics, but the U.S. has praised its progress

  • There are fears that Afghanistan's advancements might be at risk after 2014




(CNN) -- In his State of the Union address, President Obama reaffirmed that the country's war in Afghanistan would be over by the end of 2014.


He also laid out more specifics.


Of the approximately 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, more than half -- 34,000 -- will come home in the next year, Obama said.


At the same time, Afghan troops will assume most of the responsibility for combat missions.


"This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead," Obama said.


It was previously expected that Afghan forces would take the lead in combat missions by the middle of this year. But a U.S. official told CNN that the military transition has accelerated and that Afghans will lead all security operations by March.


What does this news mean for Afghanistan and America's longest war? Here are some key questions that will be asked in the coming months:


1. Are the Afghan troops up to the task?


There are certainly doubts.


A Pentagon review in December claimed that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades was capable of functioning on its own.










Meanwhile, literacy rates are low, desertion rates are high, and many deserters have joined the insurgency. There also have been a troubling number of "green-on-blue" attacks: Afghan troops attacking their American comrades.


But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken positively about the progress Afghans have made in growing their army, reducing violence and becoming more self-sufficient. Afghan forces now lead nearly 90% of operations across the country.


"We're on the right path to give (Afghanistan) the opportunity to govern itself," Panetta said earlier this month.


Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he welcomes the U.S. troop withdrawal and insists his army can defend the country against the Taliban.


"It is exactly our job to deal with it, and we are capable of dealing with it," Karzai said during an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.


What the army needs now, Karzai says, is more equipment and firepower. He came to the Pentagon last month with a wish list asking for more helicopters, drones and other hardware, according to a senior defense official.


"We need an air force. We need air mobility," Karzai told Amanpour. "We need proper mechanized forces. We need, you know, armored vehicles and tanks and all that."


2. What presence will the U.S. have after 2014?


The plan is to withdraw all combat troops but keep a residual force in the country to help train Afghans and carry out counterterrorism operations when needed.


The size of that force is still being discussed.


Gen. John Allen, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, recommended between 6,000 and 15,000 troops. But that figure was lowered to a range between 2,500 and 9,000, according to a defense official.


There might not be any U.S. troops at all if the United States cannot come to an agreement over immunity with Afghanistan. There was no American presence in Iraq at the end of that war because the Iraqi government refused to extend legal protections to U.S. troops.


Karzai, who's in favor of a residual force, said he would put the immunity decision in the hands of Afghan elders, and he expressed confidence that he could persuade the elders to see things his way.


Leaving no U.S. troops at all would be a major misstep, said Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst. He said the U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan already, in 1989, and the decision left America with little understanding of the power vacuum that led to the Taliban's rise in the first place.


"The current public discussion of zero U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan ... will encourage those hardliner elements of the Taliban who have no interest in a negotiated settlement and believe they can simply wait the Americans out," Bergen wrote in an op-ed for CNN.com. "It also discourages the many millions of Afghans who see a longtime U.S. presence as the best guarantor that the Taliban won't come back in any meaningful way."


3. What's at stake?


The main fear among the Afghan people is that the country could revert to another civil war once the United States withdraws its combat troops. The Taliban are still "resilient and determined," according to a recent Pentagon report, and insurgents continue to carry out attacks and pose a major security threat.


"Some people we've spoken to sort of take it for granted that there's going to be a civil war when the United States leaves," said CNN's Erin Burnett on a recent trip to Afghanistan. "It happened before when the Soviet Union left (in 1989)."










For all the violence Afghanistan has seen in the past decade, it has also seen major advancements in human rights and quality of life.


"During the Taliban, basically there were thousands of girls going to school in Afghanistan. Now you have millions of girls going to school," Burnett said. "So there's been real progress on women's rights. Obviously there remain a lot of problems -- honor killings, forced marriages, domestic violence -- but there has been real progress."


Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, once America's top commander in Afghanistan, said the Afghan people are "terrified."


"They're terrified because they think they have something to lose," McChrystal said. "There has been progress made. There is a better life. There are girls in school. There are things that are better than they were and opportunities potentially ahead.


"But they're afraid that if we completely abandon them in 2014, as they perceive we did in 1989, (things) would all go back."


And in Washington, there are worries that the wrong move could put the United States right back where it started, with nothing to show for a bloody conflict that started in 2001.


Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-California, expressed concern last week that a hasty withdrawal could be "needlessly fraught with risk."


"Since the president took the commendable step of deploying a surge to Afghanistan in 2009, we have known that our hard-fought gains are fragile and reversible," McKeon said. "That isn't my assessment, but the consistent opinion of experts both military and civilian."


4. Who will lead after Karzai?


Afghanistan's only president of this century won't be in charge for much longer.


Elections are scheduled for April 2014, and Karzai has reached the term limit set by his country's constitution. He told Amanpour it's "absolutely time to go."


"A new president will come to this country. A new government will come to this country. And I'll be a happily retired civil servant," he said.


So while Afghanistan oversees a major military transition, it also will have to make a political transition.


Who will lead the country during this critical moment in its history? Will the vote go smoothly, without violence and without controversy? There were reports of ballot tampering and other violations in the last one.


The answers might be just as important to Afghanistan's security as the readiness of its troops.


"The single biggest challenge for us is the political transition, the elections of 2014," said Saad Mohseni, the media mogul behind Afghanistan's Tolo Television. "(If) we have credible elections, I think we'll be OK for the next five, six years. (If) we don't, there is a real danger that we'll see instability, especially in 2014 as the U.S. troops withdraw."


5. What part will the Taliban play?


Despite the ongoing insurgency, Karzai seems eager to resume stalled peace talks with the Taliban and include them in the political process.


The Taliban pulled out of talks last year, but Karzai said last month they "are very much conveying to us that they want to have peace talks. They're also people. They're also families. They also suffer, like the rest of Afghans are suffering."


Javid Ahmad, a Kabul native now with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, believes revitalized peace talks are essential to Afghanistan's future and to the legacy of America's war.


"If withdrawing responsibly in 2014 is indeed high on President Obama's agenda, then he has little choice but to prioritize and accelerate the peace talks, negotiate a cease-fire between all sides, and reach a settlement that ensures that the Taliban lay down their weapons," Ahmad wrote in a recent column.


But will the Taliban be willing to cooperate? And if they enter negotiations, how much of an influence would they have on an Afghan society that has seen so many changes in the past decade?


"There have to be some red lines," said Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's deputy foreign minister for political affairs. "Some of the achievements that we've had in the last 10 years can't be negotiated."


Karzai sounded confident that most of the Taliban would acknowledge this.


"I think there is now a critical mass in Afghanistan of the educated, of the Afghan people who want a future of progress and stability," he said. "And I think also that the Taliban recognize that this corner has been turned, the majority of them. Some may be there among them who would not -- who would remain, you know, in the darkest of the mindset possible. But those are a few."


CNN's Chris Lawrence, Mike Mount and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.






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Rev. Jesse Jackson: 'This has been a difficult, painful ordeal'









Members of Jesse Jackson Jr.'s family said this morning they are struggling in the aftermath of Jackson being charged with misusing $750,000 in campaign funds.


"We felt the impact of this court," said Jonathan Jackson today outside the Rainbow PUSH Coalition's Saturday Morning Forum at the group's Chicago headquarters. "The gravity has affected our family."


He said his brother is still following a medical regime from his illness. He said his brother, mother and father are in Washington D.C. and Jonathan Jackson said he planned to join them.








Jackson's sister Santita said, "We love our brother very much."


They said Sandi and Jesse Jackson Jr.'s children were aware of the developments involving their parents.


"They are part of the Jackson family. We will take care of them," said Santita Jackson.


The family said they were thankful for the public's prayers, and Jonathan Jackson said he hoped people would remember the good things his brother had done during his political career.


Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife Sandi intend to plead guilty to federal charges alleging the former congressman misused $750,000 in campaign funds while she understated their income on tax returns for six years, their lawyers say.


Jackson Jr., 47, a Democrat from Chicago, was charged in a criminal information Friday with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and false statements. He faces up to five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and other penalties.


Sandi Jackson was charged with one count of filing false tax returns. She faces up to three years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and other penalties.


Jackson Jr. is accused of diverting $750,000 in campaign funds for personal use.


Federal authorities allege that Jackson Jr. used campaign funds to purchase a $43,350 men's gold-plated Rolex watch, $5,150 worth of fur capes and parkas, and $9,588 in children's furniture. The purchases were made between 2007 and 2009, according to the criminal information, which authorities noted is not evidence of guilt.


Other expenditures listed by prosecutors include $10,105 on Bruce Lee memorabilia, $11,130 on Martin Luther King memorabilia and $22,700 on Michael Jackson items, including $4,600 for a "Michael Jackson fedora."


The government also alleged that Jackson Jr. made false statements to the House of Representatives because he did not report approximately $28,500 in loans and gifts he received.


"He has accepted responsibility for his actions and I can confirm that he intends to plead guilty to the charge in the information," Jackson Jr.'s attorney Brian Heberlig said.


Sandi Jackson is accused of filing incorrect joint tax returns with her husband for calendar years 2006 through 2011, reporting income "substantially less than the amount of income she and her husband received in each of the calendar years," with a substantial additional tax due.


Her attorneys released a statement saying she has "reached an agreement with the U.S. attorney' office to plead guilty to one count of tax fraud."


Jackson Jr. stepped down from the House of Representatives on Nov. 21, citing both his poor health and an ongoing federal probe of his activities. In a statement then, he said he was doing his best to cooperate with federal investigators and to accept responsibility for his "mistakes."


In a statement, Jackson Jr. said:


"Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties. Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made. To that end I want to offer my sincerest apologies to my family, my friends and all of my supporters for my errors in judgment and while my journey is not yet complete, it is my hope that I am remembered for the things that I did right."


Sandi Jackson's attorneys released a statement saying she "has accepted responsibility for her conduct, is deeply sorry for her actions, and looks forward to putting this matter behind her and her family. She is thankful for the support of her family and friends during this very difficult time."


Jackson's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., said he wanted to attend President Barack Obama's speech Friday at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago but traveled to Washington, D.C., instead, to be with family members while they waited for the federal charges to come down.


"This has been a difficult and painful ordeal for our family," the civil rights leader said.


The Rev. Jesse Jackson said he would "leave it up to the courts system" to determine his son's fate.


"We express our love for him as a family," he said.


nnix@tribune.com


Twitter: @nsnix87





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Bomb kills 64 in Pakistan's Quetta


QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Sixty-four people including school children died on Saturday in a bomb attack carried out by extremists from Pakistan's Sunni Muslim majority, police said.


A spokesman for Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni group, claimed responsibility for the bomb in Quetta, which caused casualties in the town's main bazaar, a school and a computer center. Police said most of the victims were Shi'ites.


Burned school bags and books were strewn around.


"The explosion was caused by an improvised explosive device fitted to a motorcycle," said Wazir Khan Nasir, deputy inspector general of police in Quetta.


"This is a continuation of terrorism against Shi'ites."


"I saw many bodies of women and children," said an eyewitness at a hospital. "At least a dozen people were burned to death by the blast."


Most Western intelligence agencies have regarded the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as the gravest threat to nuclear-armed Pakistan, a strategic U.S. ally.


But Pakistani law enforcement officials say Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has become a formidable force.


TENSIONS


Last month the group said it carried out a bombing in Quetta that killed nearly 100 people, one of Pakistan's worst sectarian attacks. Thousands of Shi'ites protested in several cities after that attack.


Pakistani intelligence officials say extremist groups, led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have escalated their bombings and shootings of Shi'ites to trigger violence that would pave the way for a Sunni theocracy in U.S.-allied Pakistan.


More than 400 Shi'ites were killed in Pakistan last year, many by hitmen or bombs, and the perpetrators are almost never caught. Some hardline Shi'ite groups have hit back by killing Sunni clerics.


The growing sectarian violence has hurt the credibility of the government, which has already faced criticism ahead of elections due in May for its inability to tackle corruption and economic stagnation.


The schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites developed after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 when his followers could not agree on a successor.


Emotions over the issue are highly potent even today, pushing some countries, including Iraq five years ago, to the brink of civil war.


Pakistan is nowhere near that stage but officials worry that Sunni extremist groups have succeeded in dramatically ratcheting up tensions and provoking revenge attacks in their bid to destabilize the country.


(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Stephen Powell)



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After decent rally, perhaps time for a pause

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Stocks could struggle to extend their seven-week winning streak as the quarterly earnings period draws to a close and the market bumps into strong technical resistance.


Many analysts say the market could spend the next few weeks consolidating gains that have lifted the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 <.spx> by 6.6 percent since the start of the year.


The S&P 500 ended up 0.1 percent for the week, recovering from a late sell-off on Friday after a Bloomberg report about slow February sales at Wal-Mart triggered a slide in the retailer's shares. It was the index's seventh week of gains.


Odds of a pullback are increasing, with the market in slightly overbought territory, said Bruce Zaro, chief technical strategist at Delta Global Asset Management in Boston.


"I do suspect the closing of the earnings season will lead to at least a pause and possibly a pullback," Zaro said. The S&P 500 could shave 3 to 5 percent between now and early April, he said.


Fourth-quarter earnings have mostly beaten expectations. Year-over-year profit growth for S&P 500 companies is now estimated at 5.6 percent, up from a January 1 forecast for 2.9 percent growth, and 70 percent of companies are exceeding analyst profit expectations, above the 62 percent long-term average, according to Thomson Reuters data.


On Thursday, Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is due to report results, unofficially closing out the earnings period. Investors will be keen to see its quarterly numbers, especially after the Friday's news report that rattled investors.


The S&P 500 has gained 4.3 percent since Alcoa kicked off the earnings season on January 8.


The approaching March 1 deadline for across-the-board federal budget cuts unless Congress reaches a compromise adds another reason for caution, especially with recent economic data indicating the recovery remains bumpy.


Manufacturing output fell 0.4 percent last month, the Federal Reserve said on Friday, but production in November and December was much stronger than previously thought.


TESTING RESISTANCE


The S&P 500 has been trading near five-year highs, and it notched its highest level since November 2007 this week. But the gains have pushed the benchmark index almost as far as it is likely to go in the near term, with strong resistance hovering around 1,525 and 1,540, one analyst said.


As a result, the index is set to move sideways, said Dave Chojnacki, market technician at Street One Financial in Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. "We just don't have the volume or the catalyst right now" to go above those levels, he said.


At the same time, other analysts say, the market has not shown significant signs of slowing, including a break below 15- and 30-day moving averages.


Such moves would be needed to show that momentum is slowing or that the market is at risk of a correction, said Todd Salamone, director of research for Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, Ohio. The S&P 500's 14-day moving average is at 1,511 while the 30-day is at 1,494. The index closed Friday at 1,519.


Recent M&A activity, including news this week of a merger between American Airlines and US Airways Group , helped provide some strength for the market this week and optimism that more deals may be on the way.


In the coming days, the market will focus on minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting, due to be released on Wednesday, which could provide support if they suggest the Fed will remain on its current course of aggressive monetary easing.


The Fed minutes released in January spooked markets a bit when they revealed that some Fed officials thought it would be appropriate to consider ending asset purchases later in 2013. U.S. Treasury yields rose on that news, though market worries about a near-term end to quantitative easing have since faded.


Among other companies expected to report earnings next week are Nordstrom , Hewlett-Packard and Marriott International


(Reporting By Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Leslie Adler)



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Different looks for Heat, Lakers at All-Star break


HOUSTON (AP) — If Kobe Bryant's season seems tough, imagine what Dwyane Wade went through five years ago.


"I came to All-Star weekend one year, I think we had won nine games. Seriously," Wade said Friday. "I was looking for my 10th win at the All-Star game."


Things sure have changed for his Miami Heat.


Back where they first teamed up as All-Stars in 2006, Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh return as NBA champions who will start together for the Eastern Conference on Sunday night.


Now the misery belongs to Bryant, Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers, whose season has been so disappointing that Bryant was asked Friday if the All-Star weekend was a "retreat" for him.


"I don't know if it's a retreat, it's just more of an opportunity to get some rest, regroup, put the first half of the season behind us and move on," he said.


As Wade knows, the All-Star break can be just that — a break — from a forgettable season.


He arrived for the 2008 All-Star game with a 9-43 record after the Heat lost on Valentine's Day to the Chicago Bulls, on their way to a 15-win debacle just two years after they won the NBA title.


"I put all that aside though, and I came and I enjoyed the weekend, and when I went back to Miami, it was like, 'Oh my God, we're back in it,'" Wade said. "But All-Star weekend, you just enjoy being an All-Star. You enjoy being around the guys. You can kind of forget about that a little bit, unless you have the cameras and the microphones in front of you asking you questions about it, but besides that you try to enjoy it."


This time, the Heat celebrated Valentine's Day in Oklahoma City with a 110-100 victory over the Thunder, the team they beat in five games last summer for the title. They have won seven in a row, James is playing arguably the best basketball of his career, and they can relax and reminisce as they return to Houston.


"It's really indescribable," Bosh said, "just to not only win a championship with great guys, be in a great locker room, and just to have fun doing it, but just to be an All-Star every year, play with great teammates, I mean to play in front of a lot people in arenas every night. I don't take those things for granted."


James, Wade and Bosh were in their third NBA seasons when they were chosen for the 2006 game, which turned out like so many Heat games these days. James was voted MVP after scoring 29 points and leading a huge East comeback that was wrapped up when Wade made the go-ahead basket with 16 seconds left.


Think about that: James was already the best player that night, and he was nowhere near the player he is today.


"I'm a better player. At that point in time, I wasn't a complete basketball player. I couldn't shoot as well as I can now, I never posted up back then," James said. "More games, more playoff games, more knowledge. You continue to learn each and every day, it makes you a better player. That's what you want, to become a better player. That's what I want. I want to be the greatest of all-time. I try to do whatever it takes to get me in that position.


"Seven years, I've tried to improve each and every year."


He's gotten to the point now where he ran off an NBA-record six straight games with at least 30 points and 60 percent shooting from the field, and seems to be distancing himself from anyone else that can take the MVP award he won last year for the third time in four years.


"He's doing well," Bosh said in a Texas-sized understatement. "That's the best way to put it."


Bosh was chosen as a starter Friday by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who will lead the East. He replaces Boston guard Rajon Rondo, who pulled out with a torn ACL.


Bryant and Howard are still here, away from a Los Angeles season that's been anything but a Hollywood story.


Considered a title contender after acquiring Howard and Steve Nash in the summer, the Lakers fell to 25-29 after they were blown out Wednesday by the rival Clippers, who opened a 13-game lead over them in the Pacific Division standings.


Smiling as he sat with his daughter, Natalia, Bryant laughed that he wished the All-Star break was a chance for the Lakers to "hit the reset button" on what he's said has been a most difficult season.


"Hopefully there's an easy button like in the commercial when we come back in the second half of the season and things are a little easier for us," he said.


Howard has battled injuries to his back and shoulder and has been nothing like the player who has been the NBA's dominant big man in recent years. He said at times he hasn't been having fun and has tried to ignore all the bad news around the team.


"You just try to stay away from the tube and do as much as I can to rehab my back and my shoulder and my mind, and really just get away from everything when I'm not playing basketball," he said.


If he's looking for a chance to enjoy himself this season, it may get no better than the next few days.


"It's a great weekend, it's an unbelievable weekend for the fans to be able to put all their favorite players together in one venue," James said. "We have a great time with it."


___


Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney


Read More..

Meteor shows need to keep eye on sky








By Colin Stuart, special for CNN


February 15, 2013 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)


















Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia


Meteor explodes over Russia








STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Meteor explosion above Russia left hundreds of people injured

  • Meteor came on day asteroid expected to pass 27,000 kilometers from Earth

  • Earth is sprinkled with around 170 craters also caused by debris falling from space

  • Stuart says unexpected meteor shows importance of monitoring space for potential threats




Editor's note: Colin Stuart is an astronomy and science writer, who also works as a Freelance Astronomer for the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London. His first book is due to be published by Carlton Books in September 2013. Follow @skyponderer on Twitter.


London (CNN) -- Reports coming from Russia suggest that hundreds of people have been injured by a meteor falling from space. The force of the fireball, which seems to have crashed into a lake near the town of Chebarkul in the Ural Mountains, roared through the sky early on Friday morning local time, blowing out windows and damaging buildings. This comes on the same day that astronomers and news reporters alike were turning their attention to a 40 meter asteroid -- known as 2012 DA14 -- which is due for a close approach with Earth on Friday evening. The asteroid will skirt around our planet, however, missing by some 27,000 kilometers (16,777 miles). Based on early reports, there is no reason to believe the two events are connected.


Read more: Russian meteor injures hundreds



Colin Stuart

Colin Stuart



And yet it just goes to show how much space debris exists up there above our heads. It is easy to think of a serene solar system, with the eight planets quietly orbiting around the Sun and only a few moons for company. The reality is that we also share our cosmic neighborhood with millions of other, much smaller bodies: asteroids. Made of rock and metal, they range in size from a few meters across, up to the largest -- Ceres -- which is 1000 kilometers wide. They are left over rubble from the chaotic birth of our solar system around 5000 million years ago and, for the most part, are found in a "belt" between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. But some are known to move away from this region, either due to collisions with other asteroids or the gravitational pull of a planet. And that can bring them into close proximity to the Earth.


Read more: Saving Earth from asteroids










Once a piece of space-rock enters our atmosphere, it becomes known as a meteor. Traveling through the sky at a few kilometers per second, friction with the air can cause the meteor to break up into several pieces. Eyewitnesses have described seeing a burst of light and hearing loud, thunderous noises. This, too, is due to the object tearing through the gases above our heads. If any of the fragments make it to the ground, only then are they called meteorites.


Such events are rare, but not unprecedented. An object entered Earth's atmosphere in 1908 before breaking up over Siberia. The force of the explosion laid waste to a dense area of forest covering more than 2000 square kilometers. It is not hard to imagine the devastation of such an event over a more highly populated region. The Earth is sprinkled with around 170 craters also caused by debris falling from space. The largest is found near the town of Vredefort in South Africa. The impact of a much larger asteroid -- perhaps as big as 15 kilometers across -- is famously thought to have finished off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.


Opinion: Don't count 'doomsday asteroid' out yet


It is easy to see why, then, that astronomers are keen to discover the position and trajectory of as many asteroids as possible. That way they can work out where they are heading and when, if at all, they might pose a threat to us on Earth. It is precisely this sort of work that led to the discovery of asteroid 2012 DA14 last February by a team of Spanish astronomers. However, today's meteor strike shows that it is not currently possible to pick up everything.


A non-profit foundation, led by former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, wants to send a dedicated asteroid-hunting telescope into space that can scan the solar system for any potential threats. For now, astronomers will use Friday's fly-by to bounce radar beams off 2012 DA14's surface, hoping to learn more about its motion and structure. One day this information could be used to help move an asteroid out of an Earth-impacting orbit. This latest meteor over Russia just goes to show how important such work is and how crucial it is that we keep our eye on the sky.


Read more: NASA estimates 4,700 'potentially hazardous' asteroids


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Colin Stuart.











Part of complete coverage on







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Read More..

1 dead, 3 wounded in 90 minutes Friday night








Chicago police were flagged down by a man on the street as they responded to a shots fired call Friday night and found a woman lying on the ground, bleeding from a gunshot wound to her upper body.


She and three others were wounded between about 5:55 p.m. and 7:20 p.m. on the South and West sides, according to Chicago police.

The woman, whose age wasn't available, was shot in the 1100 block of North Pulaski Road, just a bit south of Division Street in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood about 7:05 p.m. She was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition and was pronounced dead there.

About 7:20 p.m., two people were shot in the 7800 block of South Merrill Avenue in the South Shore neighborhood. One was shot in the knee and the other suffered a graze wound. Police didn't have any other details about that incident.

About 5:55 p.m., a man sitting in his car near his home was shot in the leg by one of three guys who approached him on foot, police said. The 29-year-old was taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center, where his condition had stabilized.

Earlier Friday, a 17-year-old was shot in the hand in the 7800 block of South Morgan Street in the Gresham neighborhood.

Check back for more information.

pnickeas@tribune.com
Twitter: @peternickeas

lford@tribune.com
Twitter: @ltaford






Read More..

Exclusive: North Korea tells China of preparations for fresh nuclear test - source


BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea has told its key ally, China, that it is prepared to stage one or even two more nuclear tests this year in an effort to force the United States into diplomatic talks, said a source with direct knowledge of the message.


Further tests could also be accompanied this year by another rocket launch, said the source, who has direct access to the top levels of government in both Beijing and Pyongyang.


North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday, drawing global condemnation and a stern warning from the United States that it was a threat and a provocation.


"It's all ready. A fourth and fifth nuclear test and a rocket launch could be conducted soon, possibly this year," the source said, adding that the fourth nuclear test would be much larger than the third, at an equivalent of 10 kilotons of TNT.


The tests will be undertaken, the source said, unless Washington holds talks with North Korea and abandons its policy of what Pyongyang sees as attempts at regime change.


North Korea also reiterated its long-standing desire for the United States to sign a final peace agreement with it and establish diplomatic relations, he said. North Korea remains technically at war with both the United States and South Korea after the Korean war ended in 1953 with a truce.


In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland urged North Korea to "refrain from additional provocative actions that would violate its international obligations" under three different sets of U.N. Security Council resolutions that prohibit nuclear and missile tests.


North Korea "is not going to achieve anything in terms of the health, welfare, safety, future of its own people by these kinds of continued provocative actions. It's just going to lead to more isolation," Nuland told reporters.


The Pentagon also weighed in, calling North Korea's missile and nuclear programs "a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace and security."


"The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and steadfast in our defense commitments to allies in the region," said Pentagon spokeswoman Major Catherine Wilkinson.


Initial estimates of this week's test from South Korea's military put its yield at the equivalent of 6-7 kilotons, although a final assessment of yield and what material was used in the explosion may be weeks away.


North Korea's latest test, its third since 2006, prompted warnings from Washington and others that more sanctions would be imposed on the isolated state. The U.N. Security Council has only just tightened sanctions on Pyongyang after it launched a long-range rocket in December.


Pyongyang is banned under U.N. sanctions from developing missile or nuclear technology after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.


North Korea worked to ready its nuclear test site, about 100 km (60 miles) from its border with China, throughout last year, according to commercially available satellite imagery. The images show that it may have already prepared for at least one more test, beyond Tuesday's subterranean explosion.


"Based on satellite imagery that showed there were the same activities in two tunnels, they have one tunnel left after the latest test," said Kune Y. Suh, a nuclear engineering professor at Seoul National University in South Korea.


Analysis of satellite imagery released on Friday by specialist North Korea website 38North showed activity at a rocket site that appeared to indicate it was being prepared for a launch (http://38north.org/2013/02/tonghae021413/).


NORTH 'NOT AFRAID' OF SANCTIONS


President Barack Obama pledged after this week's nuclear test "to lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats" and diplomats at the U.N. Security Council have already started discussing potential new sanctions.


North Korea has said the test was a reaction to "U.S. hostility" following its December rocket launch. Critics say the rocket launch was aimed at developing technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile.


"(North) Korea is not afraid of (further) sanctions," the source said. "It is confident agricultural and economic reforms will boost grain harvests this year, reducing its food reliance on China."


North Korea's isolated and small economy has few links with the outside world apart from China, its major trading partner and sole influential diplomatic ally.


China signed up for international sanctions against North Korea after the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and for a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in January to condemn the latest rocket launch. However, Beijing has stopped short of abandoning all support for Pyongyang.


Sanctions have so far not discouraged North Korea from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.


"It is like watching the same movie over and over again," said Lee Woo-young, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "The idea that stronger sanctions make North Korea stop developing nuclear programs isn't effective in my view."


The source with ties to Beijing and Pyongyang said China would again support U.N. sanctions. He declined to comment on what level of sanctions Beijing would be willing to endorse.


"When China supported U.N. sanctions ... (North) Korea angrily called China a puppet of the United States," he said. "There will be new sanctions which will be harsh. China is likely to agree to it," he said, without elaborating.


He said however that Beijing would not cut food and fuel supplies to North Korea, a measure it reportedly took after a previous nuclear test.


He said North Korea's actions were a distraction for China's leadership, which was concerned that the escalations could inflame public opinion in China and hasten military build-ups in the region.


The source said he saw little room for compromise under North Korea's youthful new leader, Kim Jong-un. The third Kim to rule North Korea is just 30 years old and took over from his father in December 2011.


He appears to have followed his father, Kim Jong-il, in the "military first" strategy that has pushed North Korea ever closer to a workable nuclear missile at the expense of economic development.


"He is much tougher than his father," the source said.


(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Phillip Stewart in WASHINGTON; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, David Brunnstrom and Jackie Frank)



Read More..

Yen jittery as G20 eyed, weak Europe dampens mood

TOKYO (Reuters) - Weak euro zone growth data dampened sentiment in markets from Asian shares to copper to gold, while the yen was jittery as the G20's Moscow meeting gets underway and speculation builds over candidates to be the next Bank of Japan governor.


Japanese shares extended losses and by far underperformed Asian equities on news that a conservative, former finance ministry bureaucrat is the leading candidate to head the Bank of Japan, which faces heightening market expectations of and political pressure to take dramatic steps to reflate Japan's economy.


The absence of Chinese investors, major buyers of commodities such as copper and gold, sapped trading incentives and capped prices as markets in China and Taiwan remained shut for the Lunar New Year holiday.


"The recent rally in global stocks shows investors are chasing after risk assets and the risk-on sentiment has been turned on, capping assets which are not favored under these circumstances, such as gold," said Yuichi Ikemizu, branch manager for Standard Bank in Tokyo .


"The G20's impact on markets, if any, will come through reactions in currency markets. There will be more incentive next week when Chinese investors, big buyers, return," Ikemizu said.


The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> traded in a wafer-thin range, rising 0.1 percent and falling 0.1 percent. It briefly hit a fresh 18-1/2-month high earlier in the session.


The index, however, was set for a weekly gain of 1.3 percent for its best such performance since the week to January 6. Receding risks from the euro zone debt crisis and evidence that global growth remains on a recovery trend, even if fragile, have generally underpinned risk assets broadly despite day-to-day gyrations.


Stocks in the Philippines <.psi> and Indonesia <.jkse> hovered near records hit the day before while Australian and South Korea shares consolidated from their recent strong gains.


Australian shares ended flat after touching a 4-1/2 year high on Thursday, compounded by weak euro zone data and a $3 billion annual loss from miner Rio Tinto Ltd . South Korean shares <.ks11> also ended nearly flat after Thursday's three-week closing high on the back of a firmer yen.


The Nikkei stock average <.n225> closed down 1.2 percent. <.t/>


European markets will likely pause, with financial spreadbetters predicting London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> would open little changed. U.S. stock futures were down 0.2 percent to suggest a softer Wall Street start. <.l><.eu><.n/>


BOJ CHOICE EYED


The yen firmed against other major currencies as investors cut back yen short positions amid speculation that Japan might be singled out because of the yen's steady drop over the past three months.


Many traders and analysts say currencies will be discussed, but yen weakness is unlikely to top the agenda so long as Japan convinces delegates it is pursuing strong monetary easing to reflate the economy, and yen devaluation is a side-effect.


Discussions on drafting a Group of 20 communique are proving "difficult" but the passage on currencies will not single out Japan's expansionist policies, a Russian official said on Friday.


"The prevailing sense from all of the official commentary on currencies this week is that the international community is willing to tolerate a weaker yen so long as Japan continues to focus on domestic policies and probably moderates its rhetoric on the currency," JPMorgan said in a note.


The yen's depreciation has been largely based on expectations for much bolder easing steps to be taken by the new BOJ regime starting next month, and news that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is close to selecting his nominee for BOJ governor. News that Toshiro Muto was seen as the leading candidate was taken negatively by Japanese stock market.


"Muto is considered to only follow traditional ways such as expanding asset purchase programs. It would merely be an 'enhanced version of the conventional way'," said Norihiro Fujito, senior investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.


The dollar fell 0.3 percent to 92.54 yen. It marked its highest since May 2010 of 94.465 on Monday. The euro also eased 0.3 percent to 123.59 yen, after scaling its peak since April 2010 of 127.71 yen last week.


London copper was flat but set to log its largest weekly loss this year.


Spot gold fell to a six-week low below $1,630 an ounce.


The euro steadied around $1.3356 after falling to a three-week low of $1.3315 on Thursday as a report showed the 17-nation euro zone economy shrank by 0.6 percent in the last three months of 2012. The bloc's two largest economies, Germany and France, also contracted by more than expected.


With Japanese stocks rising on the yen's weakness, Japanese mutual funds saw the biggest monthly net inflow in 21 months in January as retail investors poured into money reserve funds after locking in profits from rising domestic stocks and equity funds, the Investment Trusts Association said on Thursday.


U.S. crude steadied around $97.27 a barrel and Brent edged down 0.1 percent to $117.86.


(Additional reporting by Ian Chua in Sydney and Ayai Tomisawa in Tokyo; Editing by Eric Meijer)



Read More..

Amputee Olympic star Pistorius charged in slaying


PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter dubbed the Blade Runner, was charged Thursday in the Valentine's Day slaying of his girlfriend at his upscale home in South Africa, a shocking twist to one of the feel-good stories of last summer's Olympics.


Pistorius buried his face in the hood of his workout jacket as officers escorted him from a police station after his arrest in the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp, a 30-year-old model who had spoken out on Twitter against rape and abuse of women.


Police said she was shot four times in the pre-dawn hours at Pistorius' villa in a gated community in the capital, Pretoria. Officers found a 9 mm pistol inside the home and arrested Pistorius on a murder charge.


What sparked the shooting remained unclear, but police said they had received calls in the past about domestic altercations at the home of the 26-year-old athlete, who has spoken publicly about his love of firearms.


A police spokeswoman, Brigadier Denise Beukes, said the incidents included "allegations of a domestic nature."


"I'm not going to elaborate on it, but there have been incidents," Beukes said. She said Pistorius was home at the time of Steenkamp's death and "there is no other suspect involved."


Pistorius made history in the London Games when he became the first double-amputee track athlete to compete in the Olympics. He didn't win a medal but did make the semifinals of the 400 meters and became an international star.


Thursday, companies quickly removed billboards and advertising featuring Pistorius, a national hero in South Africa who also inspired fans worldwide with the image of his high-tech carbon-fiber blades whipping through the air.


Kenny Oldwage, Pistorius' lawyer, told reporters the athlete was "emotional" after his arrest, "but he is keeping up." He said he planned to seek bail for Pistorius at a preliminary hearing Friday.


Pistorius has had troubles in the past in his personal life, which often featured fast cars, cage fighters and women.


In February 2009, he crashed a speedboat on South Africa's Vaal River, breaking his nose, jaw and several ribs and damaging an eye socket. He required 180 stitches to his face. Witnesses said he had been drinking, and officers found alcoholic beverages in the wreckage, though they did not do blood tests.


In November, Pistorius was involved in an altercation over a woman with a local coal mining millionaire, South African media reported. The two men involved the South African Police Service's elite Hawks investigative unit before settling the matter.


Pistorius' father, Henke Pistorius, said Thursday: "We all pray for guidance and strength for Oscar and the lady's parents."


A spokeswoman for Pistorius at Fast Track, an international sports marketing agency in London, said the athlete was assisting with the investigation and there would be no further comment "until matters become clearer."


The sprinter's former coach, Andrea Giannini, said he hoped the shooting was "just a tragic accident."


"No matter how bad the situation was, Oscar always stayed calm and positive," Giannini told The Associated Press in Italy. "Whenever he was tired or nervous, he was still extremely nice to people. I never saw him violent."


Firearms captivated Pistorius, the subject of an online Nike advertisement that featured him with the caption: "I am a bullet in the chamber." In November 2011, he posted a photograph on Twitter of himself at a shooting range, bragging about his score. "Had a 96% headshot over 300m from 50shots! Bam!" he wrote.


Linked to a number of women by the South African media, Pistorius and Steenkamp were first seen together publicly in November. She was named one of the world's 100 Sexiest Women for two years running by the men's magazine FHM.


The leggy blonde with a law degree also appeared in international and South African ads and was a celebrity contestant on "Tropika Island of Treasure," a South African reality show filmed in Jamaica.


While known for her bikini-clad, vamping photo spreads, she tweeted messages urging women to stand up against rape. Her tweets also focused on Pistorius, with one of her last messages noting her excitement over Valentine's Day.


"What do you have up your sleeve for your love tomorrow?" she wrote. "It should be a day of love for everyone."


Police have not publicly named Steenkamp as the victim, saying only that a 30-year-old woman was killed. Steenkamp's publicist, however, confirmed in a statement that the model had died.


"Everyone is simply devastated," the publicist, Sarit Tomlinson, said. "She was the kindest, sweetest human being; an angel on earth and will be sorely missed."


Police arrived at Pistorius' home after 3 a.m., and paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive Steenkamp, police spokeswoman Lt. Col. Katlego Mogale said.


Officers later took Pistorius to a hospital so doctors could collect samples for DNA testing and check his blood alcohol content.


Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee before his first birthday because of a congenital condition, and campaigned for years to be allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes.


He was initially banned because of his carbon fiber blades — which critics said gave him an unfair advantage — before being cleared by sport's highest court in 2008.


He was a last-minute selection to South Africa's Olympic team, competing in the 400 meters and the 4x400 relay. He later retained his Paralympic title in the 400 meters.


South Africa's Sports Confederation, its Olympic committee and the International Paralympic Committee all had no comment on the shooting.


Shock rippled across South Africa, a nation of 50 million where nearly 50 people are killed each day, one of the world's highest murder rates. U.N. statistics say South Africa also has the second highest rate of shooting deaths in the world, behind only Colombia.


"The question is: Why does this story make the news? Yes, because they are both celebrities, but this is happening on every single day in South Africa," said Adele Kirsten, a member of Gun Free South Africa.


"We have thousands of people killed annually by gun violence in our country. So the anger is about that it is preventable."


___


Gerald Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa. Associated Press writers Michelle Faul and Ed Brown in Johannesburg contributed to this report.


___


Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.


Read More..

Don't drop wrestling from Olympics




U.S. wrestler Jacob Stephen Varner, right, celebrates victory over Ukraine's Valerii Andriitsev at the 2012 London Games.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Mike Downey: Committee proposes dropping wrestling from 2020 Summer Games

  • He says wrestlers have had lives raised up and have exalted their nations at the Olympics

  • He says wrestling goes back to the very first games in 708 B.C.

  • Downey: Young wrestlers will lose important goal; Olympic committee should reconsider




Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist.


(CNN) -- Been thinking about wrestlers.


No, not about Hulk Hogan or Andre the Giant or The Rock. I mean real wrestlers. Wrestlers who wrestle for real.


Wrestlers who won't wrestle in the 2020 Olympic Games if the International Olympic Committee drop kicks their sport. It was revealed Tuesday that the IOC is giving serious thought to the elimination of wrestling from Olympic competition.


Been thinking about Steve Fraser.



Mike Downey

Mike Downey



He was a deputy sheriff from Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I watched him in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics on the night he became the first American ever to win a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling. It was shiny. It was gold.


"Knowing me," he said, "I'll probably have it bronzed."


Been thinking about Joe Williams.


Wrestling may be cut from Olympic Games


He was a high school and college wrestling champion from Harvey, Illinois, who was 29 when he finally made it to an Olympic Games. He went to Athens in 2004. He dedicated it to his older brother Steve, a former wrestler who died of heart failure right outside Joe's house in 2003. Joe did his best but did not win a medal.


"I don't care. It was still worth it," he told me. "Every long, hard minute from Day 1."


Been thinking about Clarissa Chun.


She -- yes, she -- is a wrestler. A mere 4 feet, 11 inches tall. (Women's wrestling became an Olympic sport in 2004.) Chun was a kindergarten teacher from Honolulu, the daughter of a Japanese-American mom and a Chinese-American dad. She defeated a seven-time national champion in the U.S. trials in 2008. Then she went to the 2012 London Olympics and got herself a bronze medal.


Also been thinking a little bigger. Been thinking about Rulon Gardner, of course.


He bulked up to 475 pounds before NBC's "The Biggest Loser" invited him to be a contestant. But before that, he stunned the 11-time world champion, Aleksandr Karelin, to become the super-sized Cinderella of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.



I was in Indianapolis on the 2004 day when ol' Rulon qualified for the Olympics once more ... after a motorcycle crash, after dislocating a wrist in a pick-up basketball game and after a snowmobile misadventure led to a case of frostbite and the loss of a toe.


Why keep wrestling?


"To be able to represent us in the greatest sport in the world ... the oldest sport in the world?" Rulon replied. "To get to do that? Wow."


Wow, for sure.


That was my reaction Tuesday and the reaction from wrestlers everywhere -- a "nightmare," the former collegiate king of the mat, Dan Gable, described it in one interview -- at the IOC's proposal (not yet a done deal) that certain sports are to be abandoned by 2020, with wrestling among those on the hit list.


Somewhere among the gods, Hercules weeps.


You might not know your Greco from your Roman, but it was 708 B.C. when wrestling was a part of the first Olympics, historians tell us. And it was 1896 when the so-called "Modern Olympics" were born ... and, yes, wrestling was there in Athens that summer as well.


It is hand-to-hand combat in its essence. A fight with civility.


It is global activity. Afghanistan and Austria have competed in Olympic wrestling, as have Belgium and Bolivia, and Cambodia and Cameroon, and Macedonia and Mongolia, and so many more.




Do you have any idea how many Olympic wrestling medals have been won by athletes from Finland and Sweden? Take a guess. Six? 10? Try 167.


Bulgaria has won 68 Olympic medals in this sport. Bulgarians don't wait around much to see how their athletes do in Olympic figure-skating or tennis or synchronized swimming. But in wrestling, Bulgarians kick butt.


The Olympic Games aren't just for sports superpowers, not just for Russia and China and the USA, USA! Egypt has won golds in Olympic wrestling. I'll bet an Egyptian today would say, hey, if you want to drop something, drop badminton, drop beach volleyball. Leave wrestling be.


As for these United States of America, well, you can prattle on about Michael Phelps or Bruce Jenner or Muhammad Ali or any other famed Olympian we have produced, but keep in mind this: Our wrestlers have won 50 golds. And 125 medals in all.


That mat meant every bit as much to them as that pool did to Ryan Lochte, as that gym apparatus did to Gabby Douglas, as that hardwood floor did to Kobe Bryant. Wrestlers are human, man. If you pin them, do they not bleed?


I am thinking of scholastic wrestlers all over the globe who starve themselves to make weight, devote countless hours to training for a match, learn every hold and every escape. Most don't dream of selling out Madison Square Garden some day. They do often fantasize about ducking their heads to have a necklace with a medallion draped around their necks.


High school wrestling has been the stuff of literature and cinema, from "The World According to Garp" to "Win Win." It has been a part of many a young man's formative years. It has now become part of a 21st century young woman's world as well.


Without it, we don't have young Jeff Blatnick of Niskayuna, New York, growing up to beat cancer and beat his opponent in the 1984 super-heavyweight gold-medal match, quite a feat for a kid who had his spleen and appendix taken out.


We don't have Steve Fraser, a night earlier, caressing his gold medal with one hand, his pregnant wife with the other, and inviting a reporter (me), "Hey, come on over to the hotel. We'll be partying all night!"


Because there won't be any Olympic wrestlers any more. Not if the IOC goes through with this preposterous proposition.


Can't we talk these people out of it? Grant them some 2020 hindsight? I do think we can convince them, and I'm pretty sure that I know how. Twist their arms.


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.






Read More..

Stricken cruise ship docks








MOBILE, Alabama—





A crippled cruise ship that lost power for more than four days in the Gulf of Mexico was pulled into a port in Mobile, Alabama, late on Thursday as passengers cheered the end of a "hellish" voyage marked by overflowing toilets and stinking cabins.

Tugboats pulled the Carnival Triumph into port in a drama that played out live on U.S. cable news stations, creating another public relations nightmare for cruise giant Carnival Corp. Last year, its Costa Concordia luxury ship grounded off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.


Exhausted passengers lined the ship's decks, waving towels and flashlights and cheering as it pulled into dock, while hundreds of people watched from the shore.

Carnival officials said it could take up to five hours for the more than 4,200 people on board to disembark the ship, which has only one working elevator.

Once on solid ground, many passengers still had a lengthy journey ahead. More than 100 buses were lined up waiting to carry passengers on a seven-hour bus ride to Galveston, Texas, while others had elected to stay overnight in hotels in Mobile before flying home, Carnival said.

An engine fire on Sunday knocked out power and plumbing across most of the 893-foot vessel and left it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, which went into service in 1999, was on a four-day cruise and on its way back from a stop in Cozumel, Mexico.

Over the last four days, passengers described an overpowering stench on parts of the ship and complained to relatives and media by cellphone that toilets and drainpipes overflowed, soaking many cabins and interior passages in sewage and turning the vessel into what some have described as a giant Petri dish.

"The thing I'm looking forward to most is having a working toilet and not having to breathe in the smell of fecal matter," said Jacob Combs, an Austin, Texas-based sales executive with a healthcare and hospice company.

Combs, 30, who said he had been traveling with friends and family on the Triumph, had nothing but praise for its crew members, saying they had gone through "hell" cleaning up after some of the passengers on the sea cruise.

"Just imagine the filth," Combs told Reuters. "People were doing crazy things and going to the bathroom in sinks and showers. It was inhuman. The stewards would go in and clean it all up. They were constantly cleaning," he said.

Officials greeted passengers with warm food and blankets and cell phones. Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Executive Gerry Cahill told reporters he planned to board the ship and personally apologize to passengers for their ordeal.

"I know the conditions on board were very poor," he said. "I know it was difficult. I want to apologize for subjecting our guests to that," he said.

"We pride ourselves with providing our guests with a great vacation experience and clearly we failed in this particular case."

Operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, the flagship brand of Carnival Corp, the ship left Galveston a week ago carrying 3,143 passengers and 1,086 crew. It was supposed to return there on Monday.

A Coast Guard cutter escorted the Triumph on its long voyage into port since Monday, and a Coast Guard helicopter ferried about 3,000 lbs of equipment including a generator to the stricken ship late on Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, some passengers reported on the poor conditions on the Triumph. They said people were getting sick and passengers had been told to use plastic "biohazard" bags as makeshift toilets.

Smoke from the engine fire was so thick that passengers on the lower decks in the rear of the ship had to be permanently evacuated and slept the rest of the voyage on the decks under sheets, passengers said.

'VERY CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCES'

Cahill has issued several apologies and Carnival, the world's largest cruise company, says passengers will receive a full credit for the cruise plus transportation expenses, a future cruise credit equal to the amount paid for this voyage, plus a payment of $500 a person to help compensate for the "very challenging circumstances" aboard the ship.

Mary Poret, who spoke to her 12-year-old daughter aboard the Triumph on Monday, rejected Cahill's apology in comments to CNN on Thursday, as she waited anxiously in Mobile with a friend for the Triumph's arrival.

"Seeing urine and feces sloshing in the halls, sleeping on the floor, nothing to eat, people fighting over food, $500? What's the emotional cost? You can't put money on that," Poret said.

Some passengers said conditions onboard improved on Thursday after the generator was delivered to the ship, providing power for a grill to cook hot food.

Carnival Corp Chairman and CEO Micky Arison faced criticism in January 2012 for failing to travel to Italy and take personal charge of the Costa Concordia crisis after the luxury cruise ship operated by Carnival's Costa Cruises brand grounded on rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio. The tragedy unleashed numerous lawsuits against his company.

The cruise ship mogul has taken a low-key approach to the Triumph situation as well, even as it grabbed a growing share of the U.S. media spotlight. His only known public appearance since Sunday was courtside on Tuesday at a game played by his Miami Heat championship professional basketball team.

"I think they really are trying to do the right thing, but I don't think they have been able to communicate it effectively," said Marcia Horowitz, an executive who handles crisis management at Rubenstein Associates, a New York-based public relations firm.

"Most of all, you really need a face for Carnival," she added. "You can do all the right things. But unless you communicate it effectively, it will not see the light of day."

Carnival Corp shares closed down 11 cents at $37.35 in trading on Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares closed down 4 percent at $37.46 on Wednesday after the company said voyage disruptions and repair costs related to Carnival Triumph could shave up to 10 cents a share off its second-half earnings.

The Triumph is a Bahamian-flagged vessel and the Bahamas Maritime Authority will be the primary agency investigating the cause of its engine room fire.

Earlier this month, Carnival repaired an electrical issue on one of the Triumph's alternators. The company said there was no evidence of any connection between the repair and the fire.

For all the passengers' grievances, they will likely find it difficult to sue the cruise operator for any damages, legal sources said. Over the years, the cruise industry has put in place a legal structure that shields operators from big-money lawsuits.

(Additional reporting by David Adams and Kevin Gray in Miami, Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)






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Key U.S. general backs keeping Afghan forces at peak strength


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. general nominated to oversee a vast region that includes Afghanistan on Thursday backed keeping Afghan forces at a peak strength of 352,000, contrary to current plans to shrink them after NATO declares the war over next year.


General Lloyd Austin, nominated to lead the U.S. military's Central Command, said at his Senate confirmation hearing that a more robust Afghan force, while more costly, would "hedge against any Taliban mischief" following America's longest war.


"Keeping the larger-size force would certainly reassure the Afghans, it would also reassure our NATO allies that we remain committed," Austin said.


The comments came two days after President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that 34,000 U.S. troops - roughly half of the current U.S. force in Afghanistan - would be withdrawn by early 2014.


Obama reassured Americans that the costly, unpopular war was coming to an end, but he left unanswered bigger questions about America's exit strategy, including how many U.S. troops would stay in the country beyond 2014 to help train and advise the Afghans and to battle remnants of al Qaeda.


Obama also did not discuss the future size of the Afghan forces, although a White House fact sheet sent out after his address noted they would remain at 352,000 until "at least" early 2015.


Austin warned the Taliban would be waiting to test them.


"You could reasonably expect that an enemy that's been that determined, that agile, will very soon after we transition begin to try to test the Afghan security forces," Austin said.


Under current plans, the United States and its NATO allies will help build up the Afghan armed forces to 352,000 personnel, a number they are approaching, but the size of the force - which the allies will continue to fund - will be trimmed to 230,000 after 2015.


ECHOES OF IRAQ


The hearing frequently moved away from questions about the Afghan war and other current events to questions about Austin's past role as commander in Iraq, when a failure to strike an immunity deal for U.S. troops led to their total withdrawal in 2011.


Obama administration officials have warned that failure to strike an immunity deal with Afghanistan would also result in a pullout, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials have expressed confidence a deal can be reached.


Republicans, who have criticized Obama's drawdown strategy in Afghanistan, noted that the president would have left a much smaller force in Iraq than Austin recommended, even if a deal had been struck.


Senator John McCain of Arizona lamented the lack of a U.S. presence in Iraq.


Pressed by Republicans, Austin acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was trending in a "problematic" direction, and agreed that a continued U.S. role would have helped bolster Iraqi forces.


When it came to Afghanistan, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina warned Austin that if Obama sought an insufficient force for the post-2014 mission, he would refuse to vote for funding the war effort.


"It can be as low as 9 or 10,000, that I will stand with them," Graham said.


"If they overrule the commanders and create a force that cannot in my view be successful, I cannot in good conscience vote to continue this operation."


Graham said he would vote for Austin's confirmation once Austin spoke with the former commander of the Afghan mission, General John Allen, about his recommendations to Obama and reported back to the committee about his opinion.


(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Brunnstrom)



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Asian shares gain on improving sentiment, G20 eyed

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares rose on improving risk sentiment while the yen steadied ahead of the weekend meeting of G20 finance and central bank officials, whose views on global growth and differences over currencies will be scrutinized by investors.


"Asian markets have extended gains with risk sentiment remaining resilient as markets continue to push to new highs. Ahead of the European open, we are calling the major bourses relatively flat with GDP numbers in focus," Stan Shamu, market strategist at IG Markets, said in a note.


Financial spreadbetters were predicting London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> would open little changed ahead of European gross domestic data. U.S. stock futures were also steady, suggesting a similarly quiet Wall Street open. <.l><.eu><.n/>


The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> extended gains, rising 0.6 percent as its materials sector <.mispjmt00pous> outperformed with a 1.6 percent increase partly on a jump in shares of top miners ahead of earnings news from Rio Tinto .


Australian shares rose 0.7 percent to their highest since September 2008, as a strong earnings season and receding fears about European and U.S. debt woes bolstered investor sentiment.


South Korean shares <.ks11> were flat after Wednesday's three-week closing high and biggest daily percentage gain since January 2 when investors cheered a pause in the yen's decline.


Market reaction was muted after monetary policy decisions from South Korea and Japan during Thursday's sessions.


The Bank of Korea held interest rates steady for a fourth straight month as expected, as global economies show signs of improvement and domestic inflation remains low. But the decision was not unanimous, its governor told a news conference.


The Bank of Japan also kept monetary policy steady and upgraded its economic assessment, as recent falls in the yen and signs of a pick-up in global growth give it some breathing space after expanding stimulus just a month ago.


A pause in the yen's rebound positively affected Japanese equities on Thursday, with the Nikkei average <.n225> advancing 0.7 percent after Wednesday's 1 percent slump when the firming yen prompted investors to take profits on exporters. <.t/>


"Usually the BOJ doing nothing causes a bit of disappointment, but since there are concerns about the flak Japan might get at the G20 this weekend for the weakening yen, standing pat will actually be a relief to the market," said Masayuki Doshida, senior market analyst at Rakuten Securities.


Markets in China and Taiwan remain shut for the Lunar New Year holiday but Hong Kong resumed trading on Thursday.


YEN IN SPOTLIGHT


The dollar recouped earlier losses to inch up 0.1 percent to 93.49 yen after marking its highest level since May 2010 of 94.465 on Monday. The euro steadied at 125.60 yen, below its peak since April 2010 of 127.71 yen touched last week.


The yen lost nearly 20 percent against the dollar between November and early February, and more than 20 percent against the euro.


The yen began its steady fall in mid-November as expectations built for a new government to take aggressive steps to bring Japan out of years of slump. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for strong reflationary steps, pressuring the BOJ to take unprecedented expansionary measures.


The yen's rapid depreciation, after years of sharp appreciation, has drawn some criticism from overseas, with rhetoric heating up ahead of the Group of 20 nations meeting on Friday and Saturday in Moscow.


Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told reporters on Wednesday in Moscow that the yen was "definitely overvalued" and that "there are no signs" that Japan's monetary authorities were intervening on the foreign exchanges.


Yuji Saito, director of foreign exchange at Credit Agricole in Tokyo, said various interpretations this week over what the G20 may say about Japan's policy and a weak yen trend "have been used as an excuse to adjust positions ahead of the meeting, and I expect forex to be in ranges."


"Currency will be discussed but I think Russia wants the meeting to focus on broader economic issues involving emerging markets as it is the G20 gathering," he said.


Traders and analysts say 90-95 yen to the dollar appeared to be a comfortable range for now, unless upside surprises emerge in the U.S. economy or Japan quickly implements unexpectedly drastic reflationary policies, both of which will swing the dollar higher above the range.


They said the yen's upside was also capped around 87 yen, halfway between its slump from mid-November to early February.


Market reaction was muted to comments from Jack Lew, President Barack Obama's pick to run the Treasury Department, who on Wednesday said he would support a strong U.S. dollar, in line with longstanding U.S. policy.


Data published on Thursday showed Japan's economy shrank 0.1 percent in October-December from the previous quarter, falling for a third straight quarter.


U.S. crude was up 0.1 percent to $97.13 a barrel and Brent added 0.1 percent to $117.98.


London copper rose 0.2 percent to $8,240.50 a metric ton (1.1023 tons).


Gold regained some strength as recent losses attracted buying interest from Asian jewellers after the Lunar New Year break, but firmer equities could limit gains.


(Additional reporting by Joyce Lee in Seoul and Tomo Uetake in Tokyo; Editing by Eric Meijer and Richard Borsuk)



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