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China Earthquake Toll Tops 21,500

The death toll from this week’s earthquake in China’s Sichuan province has risen to 21,500 people. The number is up 3,000 from yesterday amidst warnings it could end up surpassing 50,000 dead. Ongoing aftershocks continue to cause landslides, hampering efforts to reach victims trapped beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings and roads.

California Supreme Court Overrules Gay Marriage Ban

In California, the State Supreme Court has overturned a ban on gay marriage. In a five-to-four ruling, the court said state restrictions on same-sex marriages are unconstitutional. Beth Teper of Colage, a group for the children of gay couples, welcomed the ruling.

Beth Teper: "Children with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) parents deserve our families to be respected, validated and protected legally and culturally. The Supreme Court ought to be applauded for their decision
today."

The decision came out of a challenge to hundreds of gay marriages performed in San Francisco in 2004. The California Supreme Court had intervened to stop the weddings and later invalidated the documents. On Thursday, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the court’s new decision could have national implications.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom: "And by the way, as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. It’s inevitable. This door is wide open now. It’s going to happen, whether you like it or not. This is the future, and it’s now."

California joins Massachusetts as the only states extending marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

House OKs Iraq Withdrawal Measure

On Capitol Hill, the House has approved a measure calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq to be completed by December 2009. The resolution passed by a 227-to-196 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a White House veto. The House also approved measures including an extension to unemployment benefits, blocking of Bush administration restrictions on Medicaid, and the funding of veterans education through a half-a-percentage-point tax on wealthy Americans making over $500,000. The resolution came about after the House failed to pass a $196 billion war funding bill. Dozens of Republicans withheld their support in opposition to Democratic handling of the measure.

McCain Predicts US in Iraq Until 2013

On the campaign trail, John McCain is predicting it will take at least five years for the US to achieve what he calls “victory” in Iraq. McCain spoke Thursday in Columbus, Ohio.

Sen. John McCain: “By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom. The Iraq War has been won. Iraq is a functioning democracy, although still suffering from the lingering effects of decades of tyranny and centuries of sectarian tension.”

Chiding Obama, Bush Likens Iran Talks to Hitler Appeasement

Meanwhile in Israel, a visiting President Bush continued to take part in Israel’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations. Speaking before the Israeli parliament, Bush took a swipe at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama,comparing his call to negotiate with Iran to the appeasement of Hitler before the Second World War.

President Bush: "Some seem to believe we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, ’Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

In a statement, Obama’s campaign denounced Bush’s remarks, calling them an “unprecedented political attack on foreign soil.”

Palestinians Denounce Bush Visit to Israel

Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to protest Bush’s visit. Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri condemned Bush’s support for Israeli settlement expansion and rejection of a ceasefire in Gaza.

Sami Abu Zuhri: "We believe that Bush’s visit to the region and his speech represented a slap on the face of all those who bet on the project of compromise. The American administration is a partner in the aggression against
our people by supporting the Israeli side."

Palestinians are marking the sixtieth anniversary of what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes during the war around Israel’s creation in 1948.

Residents: US Attack Kills 18 in Pakistan

In Pakistan, local residents say eighteen people have been killed in a US attack in the Bajaur region. The dead included several civilians and foreign militants. Taliban spokesperson Maulvi Omar said he’s certain the strike came from a US drone.

Maulvi Omar: "We are absolutely certain that these aircraft were US drones, the ones that NATO forces use in Afghanistan. It is a shame that our boundaries are being crossed and foreign aircraft violate our airspace. But
God willing, we will avenge this brutality very soon."

The attack would be at least the fourth by a US drone in Pakistan this year. The Pakistani government is currently negotiating with militant groups on a peace agreement. The Bush administration has opposed the talks.

US: 2,500 Youths Jailed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gitmo

The US government has disclosed it’s imprisoned around 2,500 youths below the age of eighteen as "illegal combatants" in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay since 2002. In a filing with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Bush administration says most of the youths were imprisoned in Iraq. 500 juveniles remain in US prisons there. Ten juvenile prisoners are still being held at the Bagram base in Afghanistan. Eight juveniles have been brought to Guantanamo Bay. Two of them remain: Omar Khadr, now twenty-one years old, and Mohammed Jawad, now twenty-three.

CIA Kidnap Trial Begins in Italy

In Italy, the long-delayed trial over the CIA kidnapping of the Egyptian cleric Abu Omar has begun. Twenty-six Americans are being tried in absentia along with several former Italian intelligence officials. Omar was seized on the streets of Milan in 2003 and taken to US bases in Italy and Germany before being sent to Egypt. There he says he was tortured during a four-year imprisonment. Omar’s wife, Ghali Nabila, opened the trial, testifying her husband was tied, beaten and electrocuted during his ordeal.

Burger King Fires Exec, Investigator for Targeting Tomato Pickers

The fast-food giant Burger King has fired an executive for making derogatory online comments about a group seeking higher pay for tomato pickers. Burger King Vice President Steven Grover was found to have used his daughter’s online alias to make false and defamatory comments about the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. The Coalition has waged a campaign to lobby Burger King to raise its tomato payments by a penny a pound. Burger King also says it’s cut ties with a private investigative firm that spied on a coalition ally. The firm, Diplomatic Tactical Services, infiltrated the Student Farmworker Alliance to monitor its activities. Burger King’s actions came to light after an expose by the Southwest Florida News-Press.

Admin Promotes GMO Crops in Food Aid Package

The Bush administration is trying to use the global food crisis to push the controversial use of genetically-modified crops in food-starved countries. The White House food package proposes one hundred fifty million dollars for development farming which would include GMO crops.

HIV-Positive Man Sentenced to 35 Years for Spitting at Officers

In Dallas, Texas, an HIV-positive homeless man has been sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for spitting in the mouth and eye of a Dallas police officer. The man, Willie Campbell, was found guilty of harassing a public servant with a deadly weapon — his saliva. None of the three officers contracted HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are no known cases of contact with saliva, tears or sweat transmitting HIV. Campbell will not be eligible for parole until serving at least seventeen years behind bars.

Wheelchair-Bound Scholar Dies in US Jail

In Washington State, a renowned Asian antiquities expert has died in a federal jail. Sixty-two-year-old Roxana Brown was the director of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum at Bangkok University in Thailand. Brown had been arrested in connection with a probe into illegal art trafficking. She was detained in Seattle as she prepared to speak before an academic conference. Her family says she died of an apparent heart attack brought about by the stress of her arrest. She had been confined to a wheelchair after losing her leg in the 1980s.

May 16 is Bike to Work Day

And today is Bike to Work Day. On Thursday, bicycle activists in San Francisco held a rally ahead of the occasion. Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition addressed a rally on the steps of City Hall.

Leah Shahum: “We have grave challenges facing us individually and as a society, everything from the shrinking oil supply and rising gas prices to rising sea levels through global warming, to rising obesity rates. These are big challenges, and they’re a little overwhelming. Bicycling is booming today, because the bicycle is an elegant and, I think, a particularly joyful solution to so many of these challenges.”


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