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The death toll in Southern California’s wildfires has hit seven as evacuees begin returning to their homes. Late Thursday, border agents found the remains of four people near the Mexican border. The victims are believed to be undocumented workers attempting a dangerous cross-border trek. President Bush briefly toured the region with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger yesterday and pledged federal assistance to victims affected by the blaze. The fire has destroyed 1,775 homes so far.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders: "We’ve got to be cautious and make sure it’s safe for people to return. But these firefighters are out there trying to do a myriad of things, including getting fires under of control, and we’ll work with residents to get you back in as soon as possible. But we need to remember, it has to be safe for you, so that we don’t have to come in and re-evacuate or come in and get you out."
The Bush administration has intensified its campaign against Iran with a new round of sanctions against its military and leading companies. On Thursday, the U.S. designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and its elite Quds Force a supporter of terrorism. Sanctions were also imposed on more than 20 firms and individuals. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced the move in Washington.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson: "Iran exports its global financial ties to pursue nuclear capabilities to build ballistic missiles and fund terrorism. Today we are taking additional steps to combat Iran’s dangerous conduct and to engage financial institutions worldwide to make the most informed decisions about those with whom they choose to do business. The Iranian regime’s ability to pursue nuclear and ballistic missile programs in defiance of Security Council resolutions depends on its access to international commercial and financial systems."
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are questioning whether a nearly $90 million request to fit B-2 bombers with "bunker-buster" bombs is part of preparations for an attack on Iran. Many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are believed to be underground. The Bush administration’s official request says the bombs are required "in response to an urgent operational need from theater commanders." It gave no further details.
Iraqi officials are in the Turkish capital of Ankara today to stave off a threatened invasion to thwart Kurdish rebels. Turkey has held back from a full-scale incursion but has bombed northern Iraqi areas.
Unidentified Kurdish villager: "Turkey is hurting us so much. Their warplanes are attacking us. They attack our villages. We are families, and we are afraid of the attacks."
In the Netherlands, hundreds of people gathered outside a NATO summit Thursday to protest the occupation of Afghanistan. The demonstrators took part in a mock-death action outside the hotel where NATO military officials are meeting.
Protester Bart Griffioen: "It’s symbolic that NATO leaders are hiding behind these walls to meet and decide to move on with the mission in Afghanistan, while the majority of the Dutch population, and I see the same in the United States and Canada, are against the war."
The sixth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan passed earlier this month. Tens of thousands are expected to turn out in 11 cities across the United States Saturday for a national mobilization against the war in Iraq. Organizers United for Peace and Justice have dubbed it "Fall Out Against the War."
Newly disclosed court documents reveal an innocent Egyptian national falsely confessed to a crime after FBI agents threatened to torture his family. Abdallah Higazy was jailed for a month as a suspected accomplice to the 9/11 attacks. FBI agents wanted him to admit to having a special pilot’s radio near the World Trade Center on 9/11. An interrogator told him his family would face "torture" and "hell" if he didn’t confess. Higazy later said: "I knew I couldn’t prove my innocence, and I knew my family was in danger. ... If I say this device is mine, I’m screwed and my family is going to be safe. If I say this device is not mine, I’m screwed and my family’s in danger." The details were included in an appeals court ruling reinstating Higazy’s civil case against the FBI over his mistreatment. But within minutes of that ruling, the court withdrew its opinion and removed Higazy’s account of his ordeal. Higazy’s interrogator, Michael Templeton, has not contested that the confession was coerced.
The oil giant BP has been ordered to pay a $373 million fine to settle three separate charges. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds were injured in a massive explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery in 2005.
Acting Attorney General Peter Keisler: "Under the agreement, the company will plead guilty to a one count information charging it with felony violation of the Clean Air Act. BP will pay a fine of $50 million and will serve a three-year period of probation. This is the largest fine ever assessed to a single entity under the Clean Air Act, and this is the first criminal prosecution under the section of the act specifically created to prevent accidental releases that result in death or injury."
BP will also pay $20 million for a pipeline spill at an Alaska oilfield last year and a record $303 million to settle market price-fixing charges from 2004.
An Italian court has dismissed the absentia trial of the U.S. soldier accused of killing the Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari. Mario Lozano allegedly shot Calipari as he escorted the then-newly freed Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena to the airport. Italian ballistics experts have concluded that their car was driving at a normal speed and that U.S. soldiers gave no warnings before opening fire. The Bush administration has refused to hand Lozano over for trial. Lawyers say the court dismissed the case because it agreed with defense arguments to not having jurisdiction.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has approved new sanctions on the Gaza Strip including severe disruptions to its power supply. Israel provides 60 percent of the electricity for Gaza’s one-and-a-half million Palestinians. Israel has argued it’s no longer bound by international law governing treatment of occupied populations following its designation of Gaza as a "hostile" territory last month. Israel says it’s taking the steps to counter Palestinian rocket fire. But the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is reporting top Israeli defense officials believe the new measures will actually intensify rocket attacks from Palestinian militants. The power cuts are seen as a way to lay ground for both a major military assault on Gaza as well as further isolation that limits Israel’s humanitarian obligations.
In the Philippines, former President Joseph Estrada has been pardoned following a six-and-a-half-year sentence on corruption charges. Estrada has spent most of that time under house arrest.
In environmental news, a new U.N. report is warning human waste and abuse of the environment is nearing "a point of no return" that puts the planet’s survival at risk. The fourth Global Environment Outlook, or GEO-4, from the United Nations Environment Programme is based on the conclusions of nearly 400 scientists. It comes 20 years after the publication of Our Commom Future, the U.N.’s first review of human-impacted climate change.
UNEP Deputy Director Marion Cheatle: "We’ve used the best scientific evidence we’ve got available and the best information, and we’ve found that although there are many problems that we’ve known about for years and years. They tended not to get better, in many cases to get worse, so that’s a very depressing issue."
On Capitol Hill, the House has approved a revised measure of a $35 billion expansion to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as S-CHIP. President Bush vetoed the first bill earlier this month. The House fell short of the two-thirds needed to override the veto. Democrats had tried to win Republican support by stressing the expanded health care would exclude undocumented immigrants.
An American peace activist denied entry into Canada earlier this month has again been detained by Canadian authorities on her first attempt to return. Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat, was scheduled to speak at an antiwar news conference Thursday with Canadian lawmakers in the capital of Ottawa. Wright and the CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin were denied entry earlier this month after their names appeared on an FBI criminal database that the Canadian government is using at its borders. Wright and Benjamin have nine convictions between them — all involving civil disobedience while protesting the war in Iraq.
The chair of the Federal Communications Commission is being criticized for announcing a major public input hearing on media consolidation just five days before it’s set to take place. FCC Chair Kevin Martin is already under scrutiny for backing measures that would eliminate limits on media ownership. Josh Silver, executive director of the watchdog group Free Press, said: "The chairman is ignoring the undeniable evidence that media consolidation has a devastating impact on local news and diversity. ... He may not want to listen to the countless Americans who are sick and tired of a broken media system — but they will be heard."