Explosion at Mexican oil giant Pemex offices kills 14

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A powerful explosion rocked the Mexico City headquarters of state-owned oil giant Pemex on Thursday, killing at least 14 people, injuring 100 and trapping others inside.

The blast battered the lower floors of the downtown tower, throwing debris into the streets and sending frightened workers running outside.

It was not yet clear what caused the explosion, the latest in a series of safety problems to hit Mexico's national oil monopoly. Media reports said the incident occurred when machinery apparently exploded. An ambulance service official at the scene, who asked not to be named, said it was caused by a gas leak.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said the blast killed at least 14 people and injured 100. As evening fell, dozens of employees were believed to be still trapped inside, and rescue workers at the scene said the death toll at the Pemex skyscraper could keep rising.

Mauricio Parra, a paramedic at the scene, said he believed at least 20 had died and that 100 could be trapped inside.

Police quickly cordoned off the building, and television images showed the explosion caused serious damage to the ground floor and blew out windows on the lower floors of the tower.

"The place shook, we lost power and suddenly there was debris everywhere. Colleagues were helping us out of the building," witness Cristian Obele told Mexican television.

Some people at the scene said the blast came from a neighboring building, also part of the Pemex facilities.

Pemex said initially its headquarters had been evacuated because of a problem with its electricity supply. It then said there had been an explosion, but did not say what caused it.

Helicopters buzzed around the building and lines of fire trucks sped to the entrance, while emergency workers ferried injured people through wreckage strewn on the street.

"Now we are in rescue mode and looking for people and for bodies," Osorio Chong said.

Search-and-rescue dogs were sent into the skyscraper, a Mexico City landmark more than 50 floors high and sporting a distinctive "hat" on top.


President Enrique Pena Nieto said via Twitter he "deeply regretted" the deaths and he headed to the scene of the blast.

Gloria Garcia, 53, a Pemex worker not in the building during the explosion, came to see if she could track down her son, who works in one of the floors hit.

"I'm calling his phone and he's not answering," Garcia said, weeping as she called repeatedly on her phone. "Nobody knows anything. They won't let me through. I want to see my son whatever state he's in."

Plaster fell from the ceiling of the basement, and the situation at the Pemex tower was dangerous, a spokesman for local emergency services said.

Pemex has experienced a number of deadly accidents in recent years and lesser safety problems have been a regular occurrence. In September, 30 people died after an explosion at a Pemex natural gas facility in northern Mexico.

More than 300 were killed when a Pemex natural gas plant on the outskirts of Mexico City exploded in 1984.

Eight years later, about 200 people were killed and 1,500 injured after a series of underground gas explosions in Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city. An official investigation found Pemex was partly to blame.

Alberto Islas, a security analyst at consultancy Risk Evaluation, said the explosion at the Pemex offices was another blot against the company's safety record.

"We've seen this time and again at Pemex. They don't have a well-integrated policy," Islas said, noting it would probably take several hours before investigators would be able to determine the cause of the explosion.

Pemex, a symbol of Mexican self-sufficiency since the oil industry was nationalized in 1938, has been held back by inefficiency and corruption and by the burden it shoulders of providing about a third of federal tax revenues.

Pena Nieto has pledged to open up the company to more private investment to improve its performance.

(Additional reporting by Krista Hughes, Cyntia Barrera, Gabriel Stargardter and Liz Diaz; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney)

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Brees wants to bury bounty probe, help New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees wore gray sneakers to his first full day of Super Bowl-related appearances — a wise move for an ambassador of a city who had to walk briskly from end to end of a sprawling convention center to make all of his scheduled stops.

Not only was the Saints' star quarterback a man on the move, but also ready to move on from the bitterness of the bounty scandal, which may have undermined his team's chances of playing for a title on its home field.

"We're professionals and we've moved past that in the sense that there's nothing that can be done other than, 'Let's move on and let's find a way to be better next year inspite of it,'" Brees said. "It would be easy to sit here and be angry, but it is what it is."

Coming off a 13-3 campaign in 2011 and a narrow loss to San Francisco in that season's playoffs, the Saints went into the offseason figuring they would be contenders again this season.

Then came the NFL's probe of the Saints' cash-for-hits program and numerous sanctions, the most severe of which was the full-season suspension of coach Sean Payton. New Orleans went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and now the team practicing at the Saints' suburban training center is the NFC champion 49ers.

Throughout the community, displeasure with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's handling of the matter has been on display for months, from T-shirts reading "Free Payton" (he is now reinstated) to signs in bars and eateries showing Goodell's photo and reading: "Do not serve this man."

During the season, Brees offered his own criticism of what he thought was a faulty investigation and overly heavy-handed disciplinary process. But when the topic came up Wednesday, Brees said it was time to "put this thing to bed."

"We've said what needed to be said," Brees said. "Sean's back, all the pieces are in place, and now it's time for us to put ourselves in a position to make a run."

Brees has been one of New Orleans' most prominent public faces and leading promoters since he arrived in the Big Easy in 2006, when much of the area was still in a state of devastation from Hurricane Katrina's August 2005 landfall. Now his team is the official host of the Super Bowl, and Brees is once again stepping up to highlight his adopted hometown's resurgence as it hosts the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002 — also the first time since Katrina.

He also sought to stamp out the notion that there is some kind of undercurrent of tension between his club, its fans and all of the high-ranking NFL executives in town for the league's biggest single event.

"I know the city is going to be a great host regardless," Brees said. "The city wants to put their best foot forward, they want everybody to have a great experience. I don't like the fact that we've got the NFC team practicing in our facility, but we're going to be gracious hosts and hope that it pays us back in the future."

Brees' stops Wednesday included a talk with area high school kids about the importance of managing one's money. He even revealed that he graduated Purdue with an unpaid $2,000 mobile phone bill, and later regretted it when it damaged his credit score and pushed up the interest rate he had to pay on the first house he bought in San Diego, shortly after being drafted by the Chargers in 2001.

Later, he hosted a news conference in which his foundation donated $1 million to businesses teaming up with charities in the metro area. He also made several radio appearances and lent his support to an event hosted by former Saints special teams standout Steve Gleason, who has the debilitating and incurable neuro-muscular disease ALS.

As an organization, the Saints' approach has mirrored that of their quarterback. Owner Tom Benson spoke at an NFL event promoting the importance of children doing more physical activity on Wednesday. He has invited Goodell to the team party in New Orleans' City Park on Thursday night, and he will attend Goodell's main media event Friday and has even invited the commissioner to watch the game from his suite in the Superdome.

"We're making this the best Super Bowl ever and what that means is we're going to get another Super Bowl to come back in a few years," said Benson with a nod to the city's intent to bid on the 2018 Super Bowl. "We've rolled out the red carpet for everybody."

Frank Supovitz, the NFL's vice president for events, called the Saints "outstanding hosts."

"We've been working on the Super Bowl together with the Saints the last three years. ... The level of partnership has never wavered for a moment," he said. "The NFL and Super Bowl have had a long and deep relationship with the city and with the team and one of the pleasures of my career has been working with the team on the reopening of the dome (after Katrina). We've been very, very close partners with the city and the team and I don't expect that to change."

Dennis Lauscha, who serves as the president of both the Saints and NBA's Hornets — which Benson bought last spring — scoffed at the idea that any animosity lingered between the Saints and the league.

"What we're absolutely concerned about is making sure we put on the best possible show and make a great bid on the next one. We want to put our best foot forward," Lauscha said. "No question we wanted to be the first team to host and play on our own field in the same year. We had an unbelievable experience down in Miami when we won the Super Bowl and we kept on saying how great it would be if we could do that back in New Orleans for our fans, so there is a bit of disappointment in that, but look, we're looking forward to next year and winning the Super Bowl in New York."

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Asian shares off highs, Fed's stance underpins markets

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares took a breather from recent rallies on Thursday though sentiment was underpinned by the U.S. Federal Reserve's pledge to retain its stimulus policy and on signs of stabilization in the euro zone.

Positive economic reports from Asia failed to lift markets as investors continued to assess regional earnings results and ahead of key data such as China's official manufacturing PMI and U.S. monthly nonfarm payrolls on Friday.

The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> fell 0.4 percent after rising 1.3 percent over the past two sessions to nearly an 18-month high. The index was set for a monthly gain of about 2.4 percent.

Australian shares <.axjo> eased 0.4 percent, taking a breather from their 10-day winning streak, the longest in more than nine years, which hoisted local shares to 21-month highs.

"Certainly 2013 has started with an air of optimism. U.S. politicians show some willingness to deal with problems, no fresh issues have emerged in Europe and the Chinese economy is exhibiting firmer growth. Volatility has receded with investors keen to put cash to work in other asset classes," said Craig James, a strategist at CommSec in Sydney.

Southeast Asian stock markets were generally softer but remained near their highs. The Philippines <.psi> hit a record high for the third day running on Wednesday and Thailand's <.seti> market surged to a more than 18-year high on Wednesday.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday kept in place its monthly $85 billion bond-buying stimulus plan, arguing the support was needed to lower unemployment.

Underscoring the Fed's cautious view, data on Wednesday showed the U.S. economy unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter. Still, a lot of that weakness came from a plunge in defense spending, suggesting the underlying fundamentals were not as bad as the headline figures indicated.

In Asia, the data on Thursday provided cause for optimism. Taiwan raised its economic growth forecast for 2013, after the fourth quarter expanded faster than expected and posted its best growth in five quarters on improved demand for the island's electronics exports and stronger consumption.

"Taiwan's economic growth will be better this year as Europe's outlook is becoming positive, it will have a bigger rebound as an export-oriented economy," said Scott Chen, economist at Sinopac Commercial Bank in Taipei.

The Philippines said on Thursday its economy grew 1.5 percent in the December quarter from the previous three months, better than market forecasts.


Japan's benchmark Nikkei stock average <.n225> shed 0.6 percent after soaring 2.3 percent to a 33-month high the day before, taking its cue from the yen firming from fresh lows hit on Wednesday. <.t/>

"It's too early to take profit," a trader at a foreign bank said. "People should look for names which are still undervalued, still haven't moved (in line with the rally in the Nikkei) and could outperform."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's approach of revitalizing Japan's economy through an aggressive mix of fiscal steps and monetary easing is expected to keep the yen on a weakening path.

The dollar eased 0.3 percent to 90.81 yen after reaching 91.41 yen on Wednesday, its highest since June 2010. The euro also fell 0.3 percent to 123.24 yen, after hitting 123.87 on Wednesday, its peak since May 2010.

Japan's December factory output rose at the fastest pace in a year and a half and firms expect further gains, raising hopes that stabilizing global demand and exports will help pull the economy from its slump.


The euro held near a 14-month high of $1.3588 scaled on Wednesday.

Reports from the euro zone on Wednesday underscored views that the debt crisis-hit region may be overcoming the worst, with economic sentiment improving more than expected across all sectors in January and a gauge for the phase of the business cycle also rising this month.

"The rise in the EUR is a sign of the success of the European Central Bank on the credit front, which matters far more than a short term rise in EUR/USD. Money is flowing into Europe and from North back to the South or from ECB funding to money market funding," Sebastien Galy, strategist at Societe Generale, said in a note to clients.

Spot gold hovered near its one-week high of $1,683.39 an ounce reached on Wednesday.

U.S. crude futures steadied around $97.93 a barrel and Brent crude was up 0.2 percent to $115.09.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Lau in Tokyo and Miranda Maxwell in Melbourne; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Shri Navaratnam)

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Green thumb? Wash. state looks for pot consultant

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Wanted: A green thumb with extensive knowledge of the black, or at least gray, market.

As Washington state tries to figure out how to regulate its newly legal marijuana, officials are hiring an adviser on all things weed: how it’s best grown, dried, tested, labeled, packaged and cooked into brownies.

Sporting a mix of flannel, ponytails and suits, dozens of those angling for the job turned out Wednesday for a forum in Tacoma, several of them from out of state. The Liquor Control Board, the agency charged with developing rules for the marijuana industry, reserved a convention center hall for a state bidding expert to take questions about the position and the hiring process.

“Since it’s not unlikely with this audience, would a felony conviction preclude you from this contract?” asked Rose Habib, an analytical chemist from a marijuana testing lab in Missoula, Mont.

The answer: It depends. A pot-related conviction is probably fine, but a “heinous felony,” not so much, responded John Farley, a procurement coordinator with the Liquor Control Board.

Washington and Colorado this fall became the first states to pass laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and setting up systems of state-licensed growers, processors and retail stores where adults over 21 can walk in and buy up to an ounce of heavily taxed cannabis.

Both states are working to develop rules for the emerging pot industry. Up in the air is everything from how many growers and stores there should be, to how the marijuana should be tested to ensure people don’t get sick.

Sales are due to begin in Washington state in December.

Washington’s Liquor Control Board has a long and “very good” history with licensing and regulation, spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said.

“But there are some technical aspects with marijuana we could use a consultant to help us with,” Carpenter said.

The board has advertised for consulting services in four categories. The first is “product and industry knowledge” and requires “at least three years of consulting experience relating to the knowledge of the cannabis industry, including but not limited to product growth, harvesting, packaging, product infusion and product safety.”

Other categories cover quality testing, including how to test for levels of THC, the compound that gets marijuana users high; statistical analysis of how much marijuana the state’s licensed growers should produce; and the development of regulations, a category that requires a “strong understanding of state, local or federal government processes,” with a law degree preferred.

Farley said the state hopes to award a single contract covering all four categories, but if no bidder or team of bidders has expertise in all fields— regulatory law, statistical analysis and pot growing — multiple contracts could be awarded. Or bidders who are strong in one category could team up with those who are strong in another. Bids are due Feb. 15, with the contract awarded in March.

Habib, the chemist, said she’s part of a team of marijuana and regulatory experts from Montana who are bidding for the contract. They’re fed up with federal raids on medical dispensaries there.

“We want to move here and make it work. We want to be somewhere this is moving forward and being embraced socially,” she said.

Khurshid Khoja, a corporate lawyer from San Francisco, wore a suit and sat beside a balding, ponytailed man in a gray sweatshirt — Ed Rosenthal, a co-founder of High Times magazine and a recognized expert on marijuana cultivation. They’re on a team bidding for the contract.

“I’ve seen the effect of regulation of marijuana all my life,” Khoja said. “I’d like to see a more rational, scientific approach to it.”

Several people asked whether winning the contract, or even subcontracting with the winning bidder, would preclude them from getting state licenses to grow, process or sell cannabis. Farley said yes: It would pose a conflict of interest to have the consultant helping develop the regulations being subject to those rules. But once the contract has expired, they could apply for state marijuana licenses, he said.

After the questions ended, the bidders mingled, exchanging business cards and talking about how they might team up. One Seattle-area marijuana grower, a college student who declined to give his name after noting that a dispensary he worked with had been raided by federal authorities in 2011, approached Rosenthal.

“It would be my dream to smoke a bowl with you after this,” he said.


Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle

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BlackBerry must remember strengths


  • BlackBerry sales have slumped in the U.S. but is still strong in emerging markets

  • New models launched should remember why they are popular in developing world

  • In places like Brazil and South Africa, the 10 is the update to their current phone

  • in Sub-Saharan Africa there is expected to be 175 million new customers in the next 3 years

Watch Jim Clancy on CNN International's "The Brief" at 4p.m. ET GMT Friday.

(CNN) -- BlackBerry's loss of market share in the U.S. is the stuff of legends. Last fall, it was estimated only about 2% of American phone users were still carrying their BlackBerry mobile with its iconic keypad.

But consider this: sub-Saharan Africa is expected to add 175 million new mobile users in just the coming 3 years. That's according to the GSMA, which represents the world's mobile operators.

"Mobile has already revolutionized African society and yet demand still continues to grow by almost 50 percent a year," said Tom Phillips, Chief Government and Regulatory Affairs Officer, GSMA.

That could be good news indeed for BlackBerry. Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, estimates it holds a 70% market share in countries like South Africa.

The company's new phones, announced this week, are not the ones some of its best customers in emerging markets would like to buy. They're too expensive. But Research in Motion -- which also this week changed its company name to BlackBerry -- is pledging some of its six new models will address that.

While millions in China, Europe and the U.S. have adopted Android or iOS smartphones with a vengeance, millions more users in emerging markets are enthused about what's in store for the new BlackBerry 10. It's the update for what many of them are already using.

They live in countries like Brazil, Malaysia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. They have embraced the BlackBerry for a combination of factors that all point to the different way mobile devices are used.

Unlike their counterparts in Europe and America, the mobile in their pocket is more likely to be their primary link to the internet.

BlackBerry Messenger is the connection that allows these users unlimited conversations without paying charges for SMS data. While young, brand-conscious Chinese may be willing to part with several months' salary to buy the latest iPhone, African users are looking for more practical (and cheaper) connections.

What separates developed countries from their developing counterparts at street level can be summed up in a single word: infrastructure.

Isobel Coleman, senior fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations, says mobile technology has proved it can bridge the gap where infrastructure is lacking.

"It's a culture, it's an economy, it's innovation, education, healthcare, it's all of these things," says Coleman.

You can take that to the bank. For many Africans, their cell phone account is the first bank account they've ever owned.

In emerging markets, mobile phone banking is growing because of the lack of infrastructure. Fewer bank branches often mean long distances to travel and long lines once you've arrived.

Africans are expected to transfer more than $200 billion per year or 18% of the continent's GDP by 2015.

Oh, and that keyboard. No matter where you are in the world, there will always be a demand for a keyboard that clicks. The company appears to understand that as BlackBerry 10 models come with both soft keypads and the traditional BlackBerry buttons.

I asked some of my Twitter followers to weigh in on the BlackBerry 10 roll out. While some said Android or Apple's iOS were in their future plans, many others expressed continued enthusiasm for the BlackBerry.

Soji, a pianist and teacher in Nigeria tweeted back "I'm falling in love with this BB. Cheaper to own."

From Kuala Lumpur, Amir wrote "I need a physical keyboard to type while also having a touch-screen for photos etc. Security factor also important."

Hans-Eric from South Africa reinforced the sentiments of many mobile users in emerging markets: "The cost of data is simply too high without it (BlackBerry.)"

The voices from emerging markets couldn't have been clearer. What they expect from BlackBerry 10 is a stronger, longer lasting battery, durability and continued low cost connectivity.

CFR's Coleman agrees that BlackBerry (and anyone else) trying to win and hold this mobile device sector has to understand how these devices are being used and give the customers what they want.

"Cheap. Rugged. Not too many bells and whistles. Practical."

There is little doubt smartphones are changing the way people use the internet, how they bank, shop and interact socially.

But it's worth keeping in perspective that in a world where there are now an estimated 1 billion smartphones, there are 5 billion feature phone users. That's a lot of upside growth potential for BlackBerry and all the other players out there.

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George Ryan returns home to finish sentence under house arrest

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was let out of a federal prison in Indiana in the dead of night early Wednesday and checked briefly into a Chicago halfway house before he was released — in a surprise decision — to his home to finish out his 61/2-year sentence on home confinement.

The quick turn of events allowed Ryan, who turns 79 next month, to elude a horde of media gathered at the prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and then slip from the halfway house on the Near West Side undetected several hours later.

By 10:30 a.m., Ryan had an emotional reunion with 17 of his children and grandchildren at his longtime Kankakee home, according to his attorney, former Gov. Jim Thompson. Later in the day, Ryan's daughter, Jeanette, smiled as she left through a rear entrance. "We are very happy he's home," she said.

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  • Maps

  • 4700 Bureau Road North, Terre Haute, IN 47802, USA

  • 912 South Greenwood Avenue, Kankakee, IL 60901, USA

  • 105 South Ashland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60607, USA

Home confinement for Ryan means he won't have to face weeks or months at the Salvation Army halfway house where many of the state's other disgraced politicians have had to take up residence.

The move struck some as one more backroom deal cut by a longtime political insider, but Thompson and U.S. Bureau of Prisons officials denied that Ryan received special treatment.

Thompson said he was surprised by the accommodation and that he didn't know it was being planned for Ryan until Wednesday morning.

"It's not something I asked for, it's not something he (Ryan) asked for, so it is in no way preferential treatment," Thompson said.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesman in Washington declined to say how many inmates like Ryan go directly to home confinement in the final months of their sentences, but the agency's website made it clear that the ordinary route would be to go first to a halfway house.

The Bureau of Prisons won't discuss specific inmates, but spokesman Chris Burke said officials decide each inmate's placement on an individual basis after assessing everything from financial stability and family ties to any emotional or medical issues such as drug or alcohol addiction.

As for the overnight departure, Burke said prisons officials consider the disruption to the prison as well as inmate safety.

"These issues are considered with any inmate — that he get safely from point A to point B," Burke said.

At least one other well-known defendant, convicted insurance broker Michael Segal, 69, was allowed last year to skip the halfway house.

Court records in Segal's case revealed that officials at the prison in Oxford, Wis., where he was held, recommended he be released directly to home confinement because he "has few re-entry needs."

Several veteran attorneys who spoke to the Tribune on Wednesday said that at his age, Ryan doesn't need help transitioning back to life on the outside either. Among the classes offered at the halfway house are how to write a check and what to wear on a job interview.

"For someone like George Ryan, who's (almost) 79 years old, he's not a person who needs to find a job or needs help transitioning," attorney Marc Martin said. "He's essentially retired."

The attorneys also said the Salvation Army's halfway house has limited resources and that inmates of Ryan's age and stable background make good candidates for home release to alleviate crowding there.

"I do not know the Bureau of Prisons to ever make deals with anyone, I don't care who they are or who their lawyer is," said attorney Jeffrey Steinback.

Yet that doesn't always explain why other older high-profile inmates — including William Hanhardt, a former Chicago police chief of detectives in his 80s — recently had to serve time at the halfway house. However, former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, 75, who also spent time in the halfway house, was mandated to serve time there in a judge's sentencing order.

While Ryan will awaken Thursday at his Kankakee home, he clearly will be under more restrictions than when he left for prison more than five years ago.

He can't leave without permission. He can't enjoy a drink. He will be subject to overnight calls from prison officials. He will have to submit to random tests for drugs and alcohol. Though he is out of prison, Ryan is still a federal inmate.

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French troops deployed in last Mali rebel strongholds

DOUENTZA, Mali/PARIS (Reuters) - French troops seized the airport in Mali's northern town of Kidal, the last urban stronghold held by Islamist insurgents, as they moved to wrap up the first phase of a military operation to wrest northern Mali from rebel hands.

France has deployed some 4,500 troops in a three-week ground and air offensive to break the Islamist rebels' 10-month grip on major northern towns. The mission is aimed at heading off the risk of Mali being used as a springboard for jihadist attacks in the wider region or Europe.

The French military plans to gradually hand over to a larger African force, tasked with rooting out insurgents in their mountain redoubts near Algeria's border.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces using planes and helicopters defied a sandstorm late on Tuesday to capture the airport but had been prevented by the bad weather from entering the town itself.

"The terrorist forces are pulling back to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains which are difficult to access," Le Drian told a news conference. "There is support from Chadian and Nigerian troops coming from the south."

The deployment of French troops to remote Kidal puts them in direct contact with pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA rebels, whose rebellion last year was hijacked by the Islamist radicals. Le Drian said France had established good relations with local Tuareg chieftains before sending in troops.

MNLA leaders say they are ready to fight al Qaeda but many Malians, including the powerful military top brass in the capital Bamako, blame them for the division of the country. They view Paris' liaisons with the Tuaregs with suspicion.

French and Malian troops retook the major Saharan trading towns of Gao and Timbuktu at the weekend.

There were fears that many thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts held in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, might have been lost during the rebel occupation, but experts said the bulk of the texts were safe.

The United States and European governments strongly support the Mali intervention and are providing logistical and surveillance backing but do not intend to send combat troops.

The MNLA rebels, who want greater autonomy for the desert north, said they had moved fighters into Kidal after Islamists left the town earlier this week.

"For the moment, there is a coordination with the French troops," said Moussa Ag Assarid, the MNLA spokesman in Paris.

A spokesman for the Malian army said its soldiers were securing Gao and Timbuktu and were not heading to Kidal.

The MNLA took up arms against the Bamako government a year ago, seeking to carve out a new independent desert state.

After initially fighting alongside the Islamists, by June they had been forced out by their better armed and financed former allies, who include al Qaeda North Africa's wing, AQIM, a splinter wing called MUJWA and Ansar Dine, a Malian group.


As the French wind up the first phase of their offensive, doubts remain about just how quickly the U.N.-backed African intervention force can be fully deployed in Mali to hunt down the retreating al Qaeda-allied insurgents. Known as AFISMA, the force is now expected to exceed 8,000 troops.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said France's military operation, codenamed Serval (Wildcat), was planned as a lightning mission lasting a few weeks.

"Liberating Gao and Timbuktu very quickly was part of the plan. Now it's up to the African countries to take over," he told the Le Parisien daily. "We decided to put in the means and the necessary number of soldiers to strike hard. But the French contingent will not stay like this. We will leave very quickly."

One French soldier has been killed in the mission, and Fabius warned that things could now get more difficult, as the offensive seeks to flush out insurgents with experience of fighting in the desert from their wilderness hideouts.

"We have to be careful. We are entering a complicated phase where the risks of attacks or kidnappings are extremely high. French interests are threatened throughout the entire Sahel."

An attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria earlier this month by Islamist fighters opposing the French intervention in Mali led to the deaths of dozens of foreign hostages and raised fears of similar reprisal strikes across North and West Africa.


The French operation has destroyed the Islamists' training camps and logistics bases but analysts say a long term solution for Mali hinges on finding a political settlement between the northern communities and the southern capital Bamako.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore said on Tuesday his government would aim to hold national elections on July 31. Paris is pushing strongly for Traore's government to hold talks with the MNLA, which has dropped its claims for independence.

"The Malian authorities must begin without delay talks with the legitimate representatives of the northern population and non-terrorist armed groups that recognize Mali's integrity," French Foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said.

After months of being kept on the political sidelines, the MNLA said they were in contact with West African mediators who are trying to forge a national settlement to reunite Mali.

"We reiterate that we are ready to talk with Bamako and to find a political solution. We want self-determination, but all that will be up to negotiations which will determine at what level both parties can go," Ag Assarid said.

There have been cases in Gao and Timbuktu and other recaptured towns of reprisal attacks and looting of shops and residences belonging to Malian Tuaregs and Arabs suspected of sympathizing with the MNLA and the Islamist rebels.

(Additional reporting John Irish and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by David Lewis and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Rosalind Russell)

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Asian shares gain on global recovery outlook, eyes Fed

TOKYO (Reuters) - Asian shares rose to their highest level in nearly 18 months on Wednesday as strong U.S. data further boosted investor confidence in global economic outlook, ahead of the U.S. Federal Reserve's monetary policy decision due later in the session.

Optimism over economic recovery on strong U.S. housing market and China's economic growth forecast for 2013 raised expectations for stronger demand for fuel and industrial commodities, underpinning oil prices and lifting copper.

The MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan <.miapj0000pus> rose 0.6 percent, building on the previous day's 1 percent rally which snapped a four-day losing streak. Gains were led by a 1 percent rise in the energy sector <.miapjen00pus>.

London copper added 0.6 percent to $8,153.25 a tonne while U.S. crude oil held steady around $97.58 a barrel after rising more than 1 percent on Tuesday on expectations of higher demand. Brent also was steady around $114.35.

"Sentiment has changed this year, with signs of stabilization in the euro zone, a U.S. economic recovery and a shift to a new Chinese political regime removing obstacles which had stood in the way of investors taking risks last year," said Xiao Minjie, an independent economist based in Tokyo.

"Domestic demand holds key this year. Beijing's drive to urbanise inner China will boost infrastructure spending while Southeast Asia will also likely see expansion in domestic demand accelerating," he said.

Global stock markets rose on Tuesday as earnings from U.S. companies have generally beaten forecasts so far, with the latest upbeat results from Amazon boosting the company's stock 10 percent, while European equities scaled fresh two-year highs.

Commodity-reliant Australian shares <.axjo> inched up 0.2 percent after hitting a fresh 21-month high as top miners climbed on firmer copper prices.

"Shares are probably the most attractive asset," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital. "Despite the rebound over the last year, Australian shares are offering relatively attractive starting-point dividend yields."

Hong Kong shares <.hsi> jumped 1 percent and Shanghai shares <.ssec> rose 0.3 percent.

Japan's Nikkei stock average <.n225> advanced 1.1 percent. <.t/>


The Fed ends a two-day policy meeting on Wednesday, and few market watchers expect any near-term shift in its current, very accommodative stance.

But investors will focus on the statement for any clues to the Fed's thinking on if and when it might pull back from its aggressive easing stimulus. The minutes from the December meeting, released earlier this month, hinted at uneasiness within the Fed around its asset-buying program and sparked a sell-off in Treasuries and lifted yields up out of ranges.

"We see a prospect for sustained asset-price reflation in coming months, the result of G3 stimulus efforts and structural reallocation flows," said Morgan Stanley said in a research note.

"This has three implications: Reflation would lend support to higher-yielding emerging markets assets, safe-haven assets would continue to weaken, and expectations about emerging markets policy would likely shift."

The yen remained under pressure with the Bank of Japan set to pursue strong monetary easing as the Abe administration pushes for radical reflationary policies to end stubborn deflation.

The dollar rose 0.3 percent to 90.98 yen, near Monday's 91.32, its highest level since June 2010. The euro also gained 0.3 percent to 122.78 yen, not far from 122.91 also touched on Monday, its highest point since April.

The prospect of continued weakness in the yen and rising risk appetite lifted the Australian to four-year highs on the yen on Wednesday, while New Zealand dollars hovered near its highest against the yen in four years.

Aussie rose as high as 95.29 yen while Kiwi rose as high 76.26 yen, close to 76.37 set Friday, its strongest since 2008.

The euro traded at $1.3493, after scaling a 14-month high of $1.3498 on Tuesday.

Spot gold was nearly flat at $1,664.11 an ounce, above the key 200-day moving average at $1,662.92.

(Additional reporting by Miranda Maxwell in Melbourne; Editing by Eric Meijer & Kim Coghill)

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A-Rod implicated in PED use again as MLB probes

NEW YORK (AP) — Alex Rodriguez was ensnared in a doping investigation once again Tuesday when an alternative weekly newspaper reported baseball's highest-paid star was among a half-dozen players listed in records of a Florida clinic the paper said sold performance-enhancing drugs.

The Miami New Times said the three-time AL MVP bought human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing substances during 2009-12 from Biogenesis of America LLC, a now-closed anti-aging clinic in Coral Cables, Fla., near Rodriguez's offseason home.

The new public relations firm for the New York Yankees third baseman issued a statement denying the allegations.

The newspaper said it obtained records detailing purchases by Rodriguez, 2012 All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera, 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon and 2011 AL championship series MVP Nelson Cruz of Texas.

Cabrera left San Francisco after the season to sign with Toronto, while Oakland re-signed Colon.

Other baseball players the newspaper said appeared in the records include Washington pitcher Gio Gonzalez, who finished third in last year's NL Cy Young Award voting, and San Diego catcher Yasmani Grandal.

Biogenesis, which the New Times said was run by Anthony Bosch, was located in a beige, nondescript office park. The former clinic is no longer listed as a business in its directory,

"There was a flier put out by the building management a couple weeks ago. It was put on all the doors and windows of all the offices," said Brad Nickel, who works in a group cruise planning company on the floor above where the clinic was located. "It just said this guy's not really a doctor, he doesn't belong here, he's no longer allowed here, call the police or the building management if you see him."

David Sierra, who works in his aunt's real estate office in the same building, kept a picture of the flier on his iPhone. He recognized the doctor in the picture from passing him in the hallway.

Sierra said while he never recognized any of the clients at the clinic, "there were always really nice cars in front — I'm not talking just Mercedes. Range Rovers, Bentleys."

The New Times posted copies of what it said were Bosch's handwritten records, obtained through a former Biogenesis employee it did not identify.

Bosch's lawyer, Susy Ribero-Ayala, said in a statement the New Times report "is filled with inaccuracies, innuendo and misstatements of fact."

"Mr. Bosch vehemently denies the assertions that MLB players such as Alex Rodriguez and Gio Gonzalez were treated by or associated with him," she said.

Rodriguez appears 16 times in the documents New Times received, the paper said, either as "Alex Rodriguez," ''Alex Rod" or the nickname "Cacique," a pre-Columbian Caribbean chief.

Rodriguez admitted four years ago that he used PEDs from 2001-03. Cabrera, Colon and Grandal were suspended for 50 games each last year by MLB following tests for elevated testosterone. Responding to the testosterone use, MLB and the players' union said Jan. 10 they were authorizing the World Anti-Doping Agency laboratory outside Montreal to store each major leaguer's baseline testosterone/epitestosterone (T/E) ratio in order to detect abnormalities.

"We are always extremely disappointed to learn of potential links between players and the use of performance-enhancing substances," MLB said in a statement. "Only law enforcement officials have the capacity to reach those outside the game who are involved in the distribution of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. ... We are in the midst of an active investigation and are gathering and reviewing information."

A baseball official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements, said Monday that MLB did not have any documentation regarding the allegations. If MLB does obtain evidence, the players could be subject to discipline. First offenses result in a 50-game suspension and second infractions in 100-game penalties. A third violation results in a lifetime ban.

Rodriguez is sidelined for at least the first half of the season after hip surgery Jan. 16. A 50-game suspension would cost him $7.65 million of his $28 million salary.

"The news report about a purported relationship between Alex Rodriguez and Anthony Bosch are not true," Rodriguez said in a statement issued by a publicist. "He was not Mr. Bosch's patient, he was never treated by him and he was never advised by him. The purported documents referenced in the story — at least as they relate to Alex Rodriguez — are not legitimate."

Jay Reisinger, a lawyer who has represented Rodriguez in recent years, said the three-time AL MVP had retained Roy Black, an attorney from Rodriguez's hometown of Miami. Black's clients have included Rush Limbaugh and William Kennedy Smith.

Bosch did not return a phone message seeking comment.

MLB hopes to gain the cooperation of Bosch and others connected with the clinic, another baseball official said, also on condition of anonymity because no public statements on the matter were authorized. In order to successfully discipline players based on the records, witnesses would be needed to authenticate them, the official said.

Players could be asked to appear before MLB for interviews, but the official said MLB would be reluctant to request interviews before it has more evidence.

Rodriguez spent years denying he used PEDs before Sports Illustrated reported in February 2009 that he tested positive for two steroids in MLB's anonymous survey while with the Texas Rangers in 2003. Two days later, he admitted in an ESPN interview that he used PEDs over a three-year period. He has denied using PEDs after 2003.

If the new allegations were true, the Yankees would face high hurdles to get out of the final five years and $114 million of Rodriguez's record $275 million, 10-year contract. Because management and the players' union have a joint drug agreement, an arbitrator could determine that any action taken by the team amounted to multiple punishments for the same offense.

But if Rodriguez were to end his career because of the injury, about 85 percent of the money owed by the Yankees would be covered by insurance, one of the baseball officials said.

The Yankees said "this matter is now in the hands of the commissioner's office" and said they will not comment further until MLB's investigation ends.

Gonzalez, 21-8 for the Washington Nationals last season, posted on his Twitter feed: "I've never used performance enhancing drugs of any kind and I never will, I've never met or spoken with tony Bosch or used any substance provided by him. anything said to the contrary is a lie."

Colon was not issuing a statement, agent Adam Katz said through spokeswoman Lisa Cohen.

"We are aware of certain allegations and inferences," Cruz's law firm, Farrell & Reisinger, said in a statement. "To the extent these allegations and inferences refer to Nelson, they are denied."

Sam and Seth Levinson, the agents for Cabrera, Cruz and Gonzalez, did not respond to emails seeking comment. Greg Genske, Grandal's agent, also did not reply to an email.

Cruz and Gonzalez had not previously been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Cruz hit 24 home runs last year for the Texas Rangers, who says they notified MLB last week after being contacted by the New Times.

The New Times report said it obtained notes by Bosch listing the players' names and the substances they received. Several unidentified employees and clients confirmed to the publication that the clinic distributed the substances, the paper said. The employees said that Bosch bragged of supplying drugs to professional athletes but that they never saw the sports stars in the office.

The paper said the records list that Rodriguez paid for HGH; testosterone cream; IGF-1, a substance banned by baseball that stimulates insulin production; and GHRP, which releases growth hormones.

Rodriguez's cousin, Yuri Sucart, also is listed as having purchased HGH. Sucart was banned from the Yankees clubhouse, charter flights, bus and other team-related activities by MLB in 2009 after Rodriguez said Sucart obtained and injected PEDs for him.

Also listed among the records, according to the New Times, are tennis player Wayne Odesnik, Cuban boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jimmy Goins, the strength and conditioning coach of the University of Miami baseball team.

Odesnik, who lost in the first round of qualifying for this year's Australian Open, is a former top-100 player who was suspended by the International Tennis Federation after Australian customs officers found eight vials containing HGH in his luggage when he arrived in that country ahead of a January 2010 tournament. He denied using HGH and never tested positive for it. What originally was a two-year ban was cut in half because the ITF said Odesnik cooperated with its anti-doping program.

"The statement about Wayne's relationship with Mr. Bosch is completely false, and Wayne has contacted the reporter and newspaper for a retraction," the tennis player's mother, Janice Odesnik, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

Mia Ro, a spokeswoman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami, said she could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into Bosch or the clinic.

The University of Miami said it was conducting "an intensive review" of the matter but did not identify Goins by name.

Goins was "very surprised" to learn of the allegations raised by the New Times, according to a statement from Michelle A. White, of the Coral Gables law firm of Fenderson & Hampton, which said it was representing him.

White would not comment on whether Goins was a patient of Bosch but added that Goins "has done nothing improper either personally or as a representative of the University of Miami," and denies any allegation or inference of wrongdoing.


Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay in Coral Cables, Fla., and Curt Anderson in Miami, and AP Sports Writers Howard Fendrich and Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.

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Babies Start ‘Mind Reading’ Earlier Than Thought

Even babies as young as a year-and-a-half can guess what other people are thinking, new research suggests.

The results, published today (Jan. 29) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: B, come from a study of children spanning the globe, from rural China to the more remote islands of Fiji. Previously, scientists thought this ability to understand other people’s perspectives emerged much later in children.

The findings may shed light on the social abilities that differentiate us from our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, said study author H. Clark Barrett, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The study used a form of the false-belief test, one of the few cognitive tasks that young children, but not primates, can do.

Humans are “very good at inferring other people’s mental states: their emotions, their desires and, in this case, their knowledge,” Barrett said. “So it could play an important role in cultural transmission and social learning.” [That's Incredible! 9 Brainy Baby Abilities]

Classic test

In the classic test of children’s understanding called the false-belief task, one person comes into a room and puts an object (such as a pair of scissors) into a hiding place. A second person then comes in and puts the scissors into his pocket, unbeknownst to the first individual. When that first person returns, someone will ask the child, “Where do you think the first person will look for the scissors?”

The task is tricky because the children need to have a theory of mind, or an ability to understand other people’s perspectives, in this case that of the individual who didn’t see the scissors being retrieved by another.

By ages 4 to 7, most children in Western countries can answer that the first person will look in the original hiding place, because the individual doesn’t know the scissors have moved. But children across the globe tend to give that answer at different ages.

However, past work showed that if researchers don’t ask babies the question, but instead follow the infants’ eye movements, the children seem to understand the concept much earlier. Barrett and his colleagues wondered whether cultural differences in dealing with adults could be obscuring the amazing cognitive leap children were taking. 

Universal understanding

To find out, the researchers studied almost all of the available children in three communities in China, Fiji and Ecuador from ages 19 months to about 5 years (about 91 children in total).

The team created a live-action play with a very similar set-up to the classic false-belief test: A man leaves some scissors hidden in a box, while another person comes in and puts them into his pocket.

During the play, as he is pocketing the scissors, the second person pauses, “chin in hand, looking at the ceiling and says, ‘Hmm, I wonder where they’ll look for the scissors,’” Barrett told LiveScience.

The researchers then video recorded the children’s reactions to the play.

The youngsters consistently looked at the box, showing that the little ones expected the first man to search for the scissors where he had left them. Understanding what the first person believes, and also what he doesn’t know, required the children to make sophisticated inferences about other people’s knowledge.

Early development

The findings show that children develop this mind-reading ability of sorts years earlier than previously thought, and that this development looks the same across many different cultures.

The finding suggests that the skill itself is universal and that other cultural differences may have muddied previous experiments.

For instance, in many societies, parents don’t make a habit of asking children rhetorical questions like, “What is the cow doing?” when the adults already know the answer.

Children in those cultures may be confused by those questions and might think, “Why are you asking me, you should know it?” Barrett said.

Follow LiveScience on Twitter @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+

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