Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Stirring Mexican volcano closes schools, raises alert

Stirring-Mexican-volcano-closes-schools-raises-alert A powerful plume of steam and ash rose from the Popocatepetl volcano in central Mexico on Tuesday, prompting local schools to cancel classes and emergency teams to prepare for evacuations.

The volcano's lava dome started to expand on Friday, suggesting fresh magma may be pushing upwards. It spewed red-hot fragments and lightly dusted cars and streets in some small towns in the state of Puebla, television images showed.

Popocatepetl, which lies some 50 miles to the southeast of Mexico City, pumped out a cloud of hot air and particles in an emission lasting about 20 minutes on Tuesday.

"It sounded like a loud cauldron releasing steam," said Reuters cameraman Roberto Ramirez.

Schools in at least five small towns near the volcano called off classes after Mexico's National Center for Disaster Prevention raised the alert level for the 5,450-meter (17,900-foot) Popocatepetl late on Monday.

Carlos Gutierrez, head of operations at the center, told Reuters that the current alert could remains for several weeks or months until the activity decreases.

The volcano, known by locals as "El Popo" or "Don Goyo," is clearly visible from the capital on a clear day.

For locals in San Pedro Benito Juarez, a small town with population of just over 4,000 on the flanks of the volcano, people were still able to move about as usual on Tuesday.

"For the elderly, this is normal. Whatever the volcano wants to do is fine. But younger people, like myself, are always alert," said Jaime Romero, a construction worker in San Pedro.

Emergency crews, which readied locals for potential evacuations, patrolled the area on Tuesday.

The volcano has spewed smoke and ash sporadically over the last few years. A major eruption in 2000 forced the evacuation of nearly 50,000 residents in three states surrounding the peak.

Every March, an indigenous leader from the area leads a celebration to honor Popocatepetl, bringing food, incense and music offerings as the agricultural season kicks off.

(Additional reporting by Liz Diaz; Writing by Cyntia Barrera Diaz; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

UK foreign minister welcomes Chinese probe of British man's death

bo-xilai-story-top UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Tuesday that news of a Chinese investigation into the death of a British businessman in China followed repeated British requests for an inquiry.

Forty-one-year-old Neil Heywood was found dead in a hotel room in Chongqing, China's biggest metropolis, last November. His death was initially attributed to alcohol poisoning but foul play is now suspected.

On April 10, Chinese authorities made the unexpected announcement that Gu Kailai -- the wife of the region's former Communist Party chief, Bo Xilai -- was being investigated on suspicion of murder, along with a family aide, Zhang Xiaojun.

Hague said in a written statement that he welcomes the Chinese commitment to probe the death fully.

"We now wish to see the conclusion of a full investigation that observes due process, is free from political interference, exposes the truth behind this tragic case, and ensures that justice is done," he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron met visiting Chinese official Li Changchun in London Tuesday afternoon, and Hague was scheduled to meet him later.

Conspiracy theories, political skullduggery and poisoning have blossomed as the scandal unfolds around Heywood's death and Bo's fall from grace.

Bo was suspended from the Communist party's Central Committee on the same day the murder investigation into his wife was announced. "Comrade Bo Xilai is suspected of being involved in serious disciplinary violations," said the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Hague said Foreign Office officials were first made aware on January 18 of rumors within China's British expat community of possible suspicious circumstances in Heywood's death.

Allegations about Heywood's death were then made by former Chongqing vice-mayor and chief of police Wang Lijun during a visit to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on February 6, Hague said.

The foreign secretary said he was informed of the claims the next day and immediately instructed British officials to ask the Chinese authorities to investigate.

In mid-February, a senior British diplomat met Chinese counterparts, Hague said. "He informed them of our concerns about Mr. Heywood's death and the suspicion that he had been murdered, and conveyed our formal request that the Chinese authorities investigate."

That request was conveyed to Chinese officials twice more, once in February and again in March, Hague said. Announcing the investigation on April 10, the Chinese assured Britain's envoy to Beijing that "proper judicial process" would be followed, he said.

Taking questions from lawmakers in the Commons Tuesday, Hague rejected a suggestion that the Foreign Office had been too slow to act.

"We are pursuing this extremely carefully but vigorously," he said, adding that British officials are supporting Heywood's family.

A commentary piece published by Xinhua on Monday said the case was being "handled according to Party regulation and discipline, reflecting the Party's resolution to strictly govern itself. It does not indicate a political struggle within the Party."


March housing starts fall, new permits surge

March-housing-starts-fall Groundbreaking on homes fell unexpectedly in March but permits for future construction rose to their highest level in 3-1/2 years, giving a mixed message for one of the economy's weaker sectors.

Housing starts slipped 5.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 654,000 units, the Commerce Department said on Tuesday.

The long-moribund housing sector has showed signs of an incipient recovery in recent months, and homebuilding could add to economic growth this year for the first time since 2005.

Despite the drop in starts, the data suggests housing construction could still add to gross domestic product during the first quarter, said Millan Mulraine, a macro strategist at TD Securities.

But an oversupply of unsold homes is depressing prices, creating a big hurdle for the sector, said Gregory Miller, an economist at Suntrust Banks in Atlanta.

"It's going to be rocky for a while," Miller said, adding the data pointed at best to a tentative recovery.

Some analysts speculated that a mild winter in the United States led homebuilders to start new projects ahead of schedule, and that March's decline amounted to a payback.

"Weather was so mild earlier in the year we might have pulled some of the starts forward," said Mark Foster, who helps manage $500 million at Kirr Marbach & Co in Columbus, Indiana.

"But the trend looks good, it feels like the housing market is trying to form a bottom."

February's starts were revised down to a 694,000-unit pace from a previously reported 698,000 unit rate.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast housing starts little changed at a 705,000-unit rate.

Stock futures pared gains after the data was published, while prices on government debt trimmed losses.

March's decline in housing starts was the biggest percentage drop since April of last year, although most of the fall was in the volatile multi-unit category, which declined 16.9 percent.

Starts for single-family homes eased 0.2 percent.

And brightening the report's message on the economy, new permits for home construction surged.

Permits rose 4.5 percent to a 747,000-unit pace last month, the highest since September 2008 and beating economists' expectations for a 710,000-unit pace.

"The rise in permits kind of offsets the disappointing data," said Omer Esiner, a market analyst at Commonwealth Foreign Exchange in Washington.

Sentiment among home builders ebbed in April for the first time in seven months, a survey showed on Monday.

(Additional reporting by Julie Haviv, Ryan Vlastelica and Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

French Sarkozy denies hawking nuclear reactor to Gaddafi

Nicolas-Sarkozy President Nicolas Sarkozy denied on Tuesday an allegation by the former head of French nuclear group Areva that he had sought to sell a nuclear reactor to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi until mid-2010.

"There was never any question of selling a reactor to Mr. Gaddafi," Sarkozy told France Inter radio, a week after Anne Lauvergeon, Areva's chief executive until 2011, made the claim in an interview on the website of L'Express last Tuesday.

Lauvergeon, known as "Atomic Anne", was a top aide to late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and has been tipped as a possible minister in a future Socialist government under Francois Hollande.

Her allegation has been read as a political salvo coming as the conservative Sarkozy battles in vain to narrow Hollande's double-digit lead for a May 6 presidential runoff that will follow a first-round vote on Sunday.

"Allow me to tell you that if there is one head of state in the world who has not associated with Mr. Gaddafi and who is responsible for his departure and his fate then that is me," Sarkozy told France Inter.

Sarkozy led the West's intervention in Libya that helped rebels end Gaddafi's 42-year rule. But in 2007 he welcomed the late dictator to Paris. A nuclear cooperation agreement between the two nations signed in December that year and made available to the media at the time provides for the supply of reactors.

Sarkozy's aides have said Lauvergeon was trying to settle scores and said that if she had been witness to any misconduct in her former post, she should have reported it at the time.

Sarkozy has been pounding Hollande for months over his agreement with the Greens party to reduce France's dependency on nuclear power if the left wins the election and has visited nuclear sites to underline his support for the industry.

Relations between Sarkozy and Lauvergeon have soured to the point where he blocked her reappointment as chief executive last year and Areva initially withheld her 1.5 million euro ($2 million) severance pay in a dispute over a botched takeover of Canadian uranium mining start-up UraMin.

(Corrected year of nuclear cooperation agreement to 2007)

(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Johnny Depp Hit With Lawsuit After Bodyguards Tackled Disabled Woman at Concert

johnny-depp-premiere-the-rum-diary05 An alleged incident involving Johnny Depp's bodyguards and a disabled woman at an Iggy Pop concert back in December 2011 has resulted in a lawsuit against the Hollywood actor. Claiming to have suffered "injuries to the extreme and outrageous humiliation" because of the incident, the woman identified as Jane Doe filed the suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Monday, April 16.

In the court documents, the woman dished that she attended the concert with her husband and was in her VIP seat when she was forcibly moved by Depp's bodyguards. She alleged that the guards were so rough in removing her from the VIP section that her shoes came off and her clothes became disheveled.

The woman, who claimed to be a medical professor at UC Irvine, went on to detail that the bodyguards also restrained her wrists and tried to rip her iPhone from her hands one finger at a time. The situation got worse when they handcuffed her and dragged her through the venue, causing her pants to fall off and "exposing her buttocks to the other Hollywood Palladium Theater patrons."

According to the woman, Depp was fully aware of what his security team was doing. In fact, she alleged that the Captain Jack Sparrow of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film franchise was "supplying direct supervision and management of his security guards and directing their current and future actions."

Because of the scuffle, the woman claimed to have suffered severe injuries, including dislocated elbow, "cuts, bruising, scrapes, swelling, hyper-pigmentation and bleeding." She also said that the incident exacerbated her pre-existing condition. She allegedly has spondyloarthritis and fibromyalgia.

The woman is now seeking unspecified damages from Depp and the Hollywood Palladium for 12 causes of action, including negligence, assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and discriminatory practices in public accommodations.


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