BP Agrees to $20B Fund for Oil Spill Compensation Claims

The oil giant BP has agreed to President Obama’s demand to finance a $20 billion fund that will pay out claims for damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. President Obama announced the agreement after meeting top BP executives at the White House.

President Obama: "This $20 billion will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored. It’s also important to emphasize this is not a cap. The people of the Gulf have my commitment that BP will meet its obligations to them. BP has publicly pledged to make good on the claims that it owes to the people in the Gulf. And so, the agreement we reached sets up a financial and legal framework to do it."

BP also agreed for the first time to suspend dividend payments to shareholders this year. In a statement apparently designed to reassure BP shareholders, President Obama also called BP "a strong and viable company," adding, "it is in all of our interests that it remain so."

BP Chair Apologizes for "Small People" Remark

After the meeting, BP chair Carl-Henric Svanberg said BP would meet what he called the company’s "legitimate responsibilities."

Carl-Henric Svanberg: "BP, we have always met our obligations and responsibilities, and we have made clear, from the first moment of this tragedy, that we will live up to all our legitimate responsibilities. We have agreed today with the President a framework that should assure the American people that we mean — we mean what we say. We will look after the people affected, and we will repair the damage to this region, the environmental damage to this region and to the economy."

In remarks that immediately drew criticism, Svanberg went on to say that, like President Obama, BP cares about what he called the "small people."

Carl-Henric Svanberg: "He comes across as a — he is frustrated because he cares about the small people, and we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies who don’t care, but that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people."

Svanberg later apologized for his remarks, saying he misspoke.

BP Privately Estimated Higher Spill Rate Than It Publicly Disclosed

Newly disclosed documents, meanwhile, show BP has maintained higher estimates of the spill gushing in the Gulf than it’s publicly disclosed. According to the Associated Press, BP secretly made a worst-case estimate of 60,000 barrels a day sometime last month. The figure is far higher than BP had said until this week.

Israel Alters Gaza Siege; Maintains Naval Blockade and Ban on Building Materials

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Israeli cabinet has approved a proposal to alter its blockade of the Gaza Strip following international outcry over its deadly assault on an aid flotilla last month. More items will be allowed to enter Gaza, including food supplies, toys, mattresses and towels. But Israel will still control the flow of goods and maintain both the sea blockade and the ban on private importation of building materials that Gaza needs to rebuild from Israel’s wide-scale destruction of Gaza in the assault ending in January 2009. The Hamas government in Gaza dismissed the move as "media propaganda." Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat meanwhile said Israel should lift the entire blockade.

Saeb Erekat: "If the Israelis think that their public relations require from them to speak about easing the situation, that’s one story. But using medical supplies and food supplies as swords against 1.5 million people living in Gaza is against international law and must stop immediately. There is no such thing as easing the siege. This siege must be totally and completely lifted."

Top Military Leaders Urge Patience on Afghanistan

Senior military officials appeared before Congress on Wednesday to urge patience and support for their operations in Afghanistan. Discussing the military’s plans to capture the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Appropriations Committee, "As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan." Meanwhile, the top US commander overseeing the Afghan war, General David Petraeus, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the US is on track to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan by next summer. Petraeus said the Obama administration’s July 2011 withdrawal deadline would mark the beginning of a pullback, not its completion.

Gen. David Petraeus: "What I have tried to explain today is my understanding of what July 2011 means and how it is important again that people do realize, especially our partners, especially our comrades-in-arms in Afghanistan and in the region, that that is not the date when we look for the door and try to turn off the light, but rather a date at which a process begins."

4 Soldiers Charged in Afghan Civilian Deaths

In other Afghan war news, the Pentagon says four more soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state have now been charged with premeditated murder in the killing of three Afghan civilians earlier this year. Another soldier was charged with premeditated murder in the case earlier this month.

US Unveils New Iran Sanctions

The US has imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran. The move marks the first set of measures to implement the UN Security Council sanctions on Iran approved last week. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner unveiled the new sanctions in Washington.

US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: "We are adding to our list of sanctioned entities a number of institutions and individuals who are helping Iran finance nuclear and missile programs and to evade international sanctions. Our actions today are designed to deter other governments and foreign financial institutions from dealing with these entities and thereby supporting Iran’s illicit activities."

Univ. of Puerto Rico Students Declare Victory in 2-Month Strike

Students at the University of Puerto Rico have declared victory in their two-month strike against massive budget cuts at their school. The students and the university’s Board of Regents have signed an agreement that includes an extension of tuition waivers, the cancellation of a fee that would have drastically raised education costs, and a commitment not to arbitrarily punish strike participants. The students also say the University of Puerto Rico has agreed to reject a series of initiatives that would have increased privatization of the school. The students will hold a general assembly on Monday to seek campus-wide approval for the agreement.

US Citizen Barred from Returning Following Yemen Visit

A US citizen says he’s been prevented from returning to the United States after ending an eighteen-month stay in Yemen. Twenty-six year-old Yahya Wehelie of Fairfax, Virginia, has been stuck in Egypt for the past six weeks after US officials told him he is on the no-fly list because of people he met in Yemen during his time there. Wehelie is a Muslim of Somali descent. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he’s in limbo.

Yahya Wehelie: "Why is the US government not letting me go back home? I’m a US citizen. There’s no way I can — I can’t fly on any US planes. I can’t fly in US airspace. How would I be able to get home?"

Yahya Wehelie was traveling with his brother Yusuf, who was also detained before ultimately being allowed to return home. At a news conference in Washington, Yusuf Wehelie said he was interrogated by a man claiming to work for the CIA before being sent to an Egyptian prison for three days.

Yusuf Wehelie: "I was taken before an Egyptian judge, who allowed me to be released. But I wasn’t released. Instead, I was put into the back of an Egyptian police car, handcuffed, blindfolded, and driven to what I believe to be the Police Ministry. I was there, and I was placed in a corridor with other prisoners shackled to the wall."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says the no-fly list is being used as a form of "extraordinary rendition" and is calling on the Obama administration to intervene.

Dems Help Defeat Jobless Benefits Extension

The Senate has defeated a measure to extend unemployment benefits to long-term jobless Americans and extend billions in aid to cash-strapped states. A dozen Democrats joined with Republicans to vote against the proposal. Democrats are considering a provision to reduce unemployment checks by $25 week in a bid to win bipartisan support.

Former Mortgage Exec Indicted for Alleged Fraud Scheme

The former chair of one of the nation’s largest mortgage firms has been arrested and charged for his alleged role in a massive fraud against investors and the US government. Lee Bentley Farkas of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker is accused of orchestrating a $1.9 billion scheme that brought down one of the nation’s largest regional banks, Colonial Bank in Alabama. It’s said to be the biggest criminal case to come out of the nation’s financial crisis.

Prop 8 Trial Concludes in California

And in California, a trial on whether to overturn the state’s gay marriage ban has wrapped up after six months. The case is expected to ultimately reach the Supreme Court no matter how the district judge rules in the case.

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