Ballet Director Subject to Acid Attack

Posted January 18th, 2013 at 4:55 am (UTC-5)
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The artistic director of Russia's famed Bolshoi Ballet troupe was injured in an acid attack late Thursday by an unknown assailant.

A spokeswoman for the Bolshoi told reporters Sergei Filin suffered severe burns to his face and eyes after a masked attacker splashed concentrated acid on him as he approached his home late at night.

The spokeswoman said Filin is in a Moscow hospital where doctors are trying to save his eyesight.

This is the most severe of a string of attacks on Filin, a former Bolshoi dancer who won the coveted job of artistic director in 2011. In recent months, he has received threatening phone calls, the tires of his car have been punctured, and his social media accounts have been hacked.

Investigators say the attacks could be linked to internal politics at the Bolshoi.

IAEA, Iran Fail to Reach Deal on Nuclear Inspections

Posted January 18th, 2013 at 4:30 am (UTC-5)
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The chief United Nations nuclear inspector says no deal has been reached with Iran to investigate that nation's controversial nuclear program, but that a meeting will take place next month on the issue.

International Atomic Energy Agency team leader Herman Nackaerts said Friday that two days of “intensive discussions” in Tehran failed to produce an agreement on access to Iranian nuclear facilities.

Citing unspecified “differences,” Nackaerts said the two sides could not agree on a structured approach to resolve outstanding issues. He said another round of talks will take place February 12 in Tehran.

The IAEA had hoped to gain access to the Parchin military site, which Western nations suspect is related to nuclear weapons development. Iran says it is a conventional military site and that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday that a religious decree issued by Iran's supreme leader banning nuclear weapons is binding on the Iranian government.

The IAEA visit comes as international diplomats are again setting the stage for separate negotiations with Tehran over curbs to its nuclear ambitions.

Iran and the so-called P5+1 contact group – the United States, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany – are expected to try to open talks in the coming weeks after a seven-month hiatus.

The last time Iran's nuclear negotiators met with their foreign counterparts, in Moscow in June, the talks did not go well. Both sides wanted their maximum demands met, and they offered little in return.

China Reveals Economic Gap Between Rich and Poor

Posted January 18th, 2013 at 3:20 am (UTC-5)
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China has released statistics on the income gap between rich and poor after keeping the figures secret since 2000.

Ma Jiantang, chief of the National Bureau of Statistics, told a news conference Friday that figures from 2003 to the present showed “the income gap was rather big.”

The NBS used the “Gini coefficient” – a standard measure of economic inequality to measure the gap. The index ranges from 0 – perfect equality, to 1 – total inequality. Jiantang told reporters that China's coefficient stood at 0.474 last year, placing the country among some of the world's most unequal societies.

China's economic boom has made billionaires out of some entrepreneurs, and Communist Party officials seem to live in luxury. However, the majority of China's people have experienced little growth in income.

Narrowing the economic gap is one of the most pressing issues issues facing the government, which fears that civil unrest could topple the ruling party.

US Sundance Festival Showcases International Film, Documentaries

Posted January 18th, 2013 at 2:00 am (UTC-5)
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The annual Sundance Film Festival has opened in Park City, Utah, bringing 119 films from 32 different countries to a snow-covered ski town, in what has become known as Hollywood's winter vacation.

This 35-year-old festival was started by actor and director Robert Redford as a way to help independent filmmakers promote their work. Now, it has become one of the most prominent film festivals in the world, with a reputation for showcasing low-budget films that later go on to win big awards — even Academy Awards .

Movies shown at the 10-day film festival are selected from thousands of submissions — about 4,000 feature-length movies and more than 8,000 short films.

Many films made outside the United States get their first widespread exposure in the U.S. through Sundance. This year's festival opened with a screening of “May in the Summer,” about the identity crisis of a Jordanian woman who lives in the United States but goes to Jordan to prepare for her wedding.

Documentaries and short films also are showcased at the festival, with topics including former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney, the history of suicide in the family of author Ernest Hemingway, and the everyday lives of backup dancers for famous singers.

In addition to the hundreds of film screenings taking place in Park City, a dozen short films selected for the festival will be viewable online, on the Screening Room YouTube channel.

Cherien Dabis wrote, directed and starred in “May in the Summer.” Speaking at the festival, she told reporters it was a way to share her heritage.

“It was very important to me because it is my heritage and I did grow up very aware of the fact that Middle Easterners are very misrepresented and underrepresented. And I just wanted to tell a universal story in the Middle East so that we could see the context in the Middle East and yet a story that has nothing to do with the things that we see every day on the news. Because the Middle East is in the news every day, it's so important that we widen our perceptions of what it is.''

While the festival helps promote unknown talent, it also is a place where celebrity actors and directors come to promote their latest work, filling an otherwise quiet resort town with the glamour of the U.S. movie industry.

David O. Russell, who wrote and directed the award winning “Silver Linings Playbook,” told reporters at an event in California that the Sundance Festival helped launch his career.

“Sundance gave me a destination when I was a bartender, when I had a day job. I would make my short films and that was my goal: to get them to Sundance. It gave me a destination, and I thank Robert Redford for that. I thank Sundance for that. It saved my life. I went there. I worked as a ticket taker. I'd bring my short films there. I'd go there. And after I went there with my first feature, that we made for $80,000, I was able to stop being a bartender for the first time in my mid-30s. Yes, it was a big deal. It changed my life.”

The festival runs through January 27.

China Breaks Decline in Economic Growth

Posted January 18th, 2013 at 12:35 am (UTC-5)
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Chinese officials say the country's economic growth rose to 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, ending seven straight quarters of slowing down.

The National Bureau of Statistics Friday said the growth rate for the period October through December was up from 7.4 percent the previous quarter. It said this brought the growth rate for the year to 7.8 percent, China's weakest since the 1990s.

The bureau said China's gross national product reached the equivalent of $8.28 trillion last year, cementing the country's position as the second-largest economy in the world, behind the United States.

In its statement, the bureau said China's overall economic performance is “getting stabilized,” and analysts say they expect the country's recovery to be sustained through 2014.

Cyclist Armstrong Admits on Television to Illegal Doping

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 9:55 pm (UTC-5)
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Retired star U.S. Cyclist Lance Armstrong has appeared on American television to admit using performance-enhancing drugs in all seven of his Tour de France victories from 1999 through 2005.

The 41-year-old cancer survivor, who has repeatedly denied doping accusations, told interviewer Oprah Winfrey that he could not have won the seven titles without the banned substances. The interview was taped on Monday.

Armstrong opened the interview by answering a series of “yes” or “no” questions, saying he used testosterone, cortisone, blood transfusions and human growth hormone to boost his chances of winning the prestigious races. He said all “fault and blame” for the scandal that nearly wrecked international cycling competition “falls on me.”

Late Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee asked Armstrong to the return the bronze medal he won in the road time trial at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Armstrong was stripped of his record seven consecutive Tour de France victories last year when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced it had proof of his involvement in a complex illegal doping program.

On Monday, Armstrong apologized for the scandal in an emotional visit to the staff of his cancer charity Livestrong. Witnesses say Armstrong fought back tears as he spoke, but that he did not discuss specifics of the allegations against him.

Also this week, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told Reuters Armstrong's confession could jeopardize cycling in future Olympic games.

Pound said such action could be taken if it can be proven that the International Cycling Union (UCI) acted improperly in the Armstrong case.

The chief of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, has said the UCI, cycling's governing body, wrongfully accepted a $100,000 gift from Armstrong. Pound, a Canadian, suggested that could be seen as a cover-up of Armstrong's illegal drug use.

‘Dear Abby’ Advice Columnist Dies at 94

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 5:30 pm (UTC-5)
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Long-time American newspaper columnist Pauline Friedman Phillips, who for decades wrote the syndicated advice column “Dear Abby,” has died. She was 94.

Phillips' publicist said she died Wednesday in Minnesota after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Phillips' column — seen by millions of readers — competed for decades with another widely circulated advice column, “Ann Landers,” authored by Phillips' twin sister Esther Friedman Lederer.

“Abby” appeared in 1,000 newspapers, as far away as Brazil and Thailand. It addressed queries ranging from marriage and relationships to illness, aging, sex, dying and equal rights.

The first Dear Abby column appeared in 1956, and Phillips continued writing the advice feature until 2000, when she and daughter Jeanne began sharing the byline.

Jeanne Phillips took over the column full time in 2002 when the family announced that Pauline Phillips had Alzheimer's.

In 2003, Phillips' family and an anonymous donor gave $10 million to the Mayo Clinic medical center to boost Alzheimer's research.

Pakistani Terrorist Sentenced in Chicago

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 2:10 pm (UTC-5)
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Pakistani-born Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana has been sentenced to 14 years in jail for helping a terrorist group plot an attack on a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The defense says Rana was unwittingly lured into the plot by his lifelong friend, David Coleman Headley, an American of Pakistani origin who was employed at a Chicago-based business Rana owned.

A jury found there was insufficient evidence to prove Rana was involved with the helping the group carry out a 2008 attack in Mumbai, India that killed more than 160 people. But Headley has pleaded guilty to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attacks.

The prosecution says Rana gave Headley a job to facilitate his terrorist activities, while Rana's lawyers say he employed Headley merely as a favor to a friend and did not know the extent of his plots.

Headley testified against Rana as part of a plea-bargain agreement to avoid the death penalty. Headley is to be sentenced next week.

Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency has long been suspected of involvement in the Mumbai attacks, and three ISI agents were named as co-conspirators by U.S. prosecutors. Headley testified the ISI's involvement in the Mumbai plot was limited to a handful of rogue agents.

Transplanted Feces Cures Drug-Resistant Gut Infection

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 1:45 pm (UTC-5)
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A Dutch research team says transplanting human feces from a healthy person to a sick person can cure a common and severe intestinal infection that antibiotics cannot control.

The human gut is filled with billions of useful and protective bacteria. But those bacteria can be wiped out when people with infections are treated with a long course of antibiotics. That can leave them vulnerable to new and potentially more dangerous infections. Many hospital patients in this condition become infected with a potent bacterium called Clostridium difficile. Symptoms of diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting frequently return after treatment with more medicine.

In the first controlled trial using donor stool to restore the gut's normal balance of bacteria, gastroenterologist Josbert Keller, in The Hague, was able to cure 13 of the 16 study participants infected with C. difficile, with just one infusion of the fecal mixture. Two others were cured with a follow-up treatment. Use of antibiotics alone cured only seven of the 26 infected patients in two comparison groups.

The healthy donor stool, mixed into a saline solution that Keller says resembles chocolate milk, can be introduced to the sick person's intestinal tract through a colonoscopy, through a nasal tube into the lower stomach, or by enema.

Fecal therapy is often used to treat livestock, and there are references to it in ancient Chinese medical texts. Keller calls it “the most powerful probiotic you can imagine.” His study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

U.S. Set to Recognize Somali Government

Posted January 17th, 2013 at 1:00 pm (UTC-5)
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The United States is set to officially recognize the government in Somalia, opening formal diplomatic relations for the first time since 1993.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are set to exchange diplomatic notes Thursday to confirm the new relationship.

In an interview Thursday with VOA's Somali Service, President Mohamud says the recognition is a “step forward” and a “diplomatic achievement” for his government and for the Somali people in general.

He adds that it will pave the way for Somalia to rejoin international bodies, and facilitate the rebuilding of the country.

Somalia has not had a stable central government since warlords overthrew President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The country endured 20 years of conflict and lawlessness until U.N.-backed efforts to form a new government bore fruit last year.

Thursday's meeting will be the first between Clinton and Mr. Mohamud since his election to office last year.

A new parliament sworn in six months ago elected Mr. Mohamud president, ending eight years of an ineffective and often chaotic transitional government.

The top U.S. diplomat for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, said the new Somali government has made significant progress in stabilizing the country and defeating al-Shabab Islamic militants.

He says U.S.-Somali relations are a long way from where they were when militants shot down two American helicopters in October 1993. Scenes of dead U.S. solders being dragged through the streets of the Somali capital were broadcast worldwide, arousing anger and revulsion in the U.S. and elsewhere.