Wednesday, April 6, 2011

WASHINGTON — Unemployment rates are falling in most metro areas across the country, suggesting that recent nationwide gains in hiring are widespread and not limited to a few healthy regions.
More than three-quarters of the nation’s 372 largest metro areas reported lower unemployment rates in February than the previous month, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That’s the most to report a decline since September.

And more than 300 areas added jobs in February compared to the previous month. That’s a much better showing than January, when most metro areas lost jobs.

The gains “are definitely becoming a lot more broad-based,” said Marisa DiNatale, a regional economist at Moody’s Analytics.

INTERACTIVE: 2011 jobs forecast
STORY: Why aren't the biggest U.S. companies hiring?
STORY: Recession inspires people to start own businesses

The metro areas that posted the biggest job gains in February, compared with the previous month, are: Los Angeles-Long Beach, with a gain of 53,600; New York City-Northern New Jersey, a gain of 18,500; and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, up 16,800.

January’s data was distorted by seasonal trends, such as the layoff of temporary retail employees after the holidays. The metro data is not seasonally adjusted, and therefore is more volatile from one month to the next.

More than 300 cities have seen their unemployment rates decline in the past year, the best showing since the recession ended in June 2009.

And 284 metro areas reported job gains in the past year, also the most since the recession ended.

Nationwide, private employers added more than 200,000 jobs in both February and March, the best two-month pace since 2006. The local data is one month behind the national figures.

Many of the cities that posted job losses were state capitals. State governments around the country are laying off workers in an effort to reduce huge budget deficits. The Sacramento, Calif., metro area posted the largest job loss over the past year, shedding 13,600 jobs. The Albany, N.Y., region reported the fifth-biggest loss, with 4,900.

Embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi reached out to the U.S. on Wednesday, sending a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to halt the NATO military campaign in his country.

NATO has been on a mission to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians from attack by pro-Gadhafi forces. NATO jets have destroyed much of the Libyan air force's firepower.

In Gadhafi's three-page letter, he calls the U.S. president "our son" and describes the mission as an "unjust war against a small people of a developing country."

The rambling communique, which was sent to the State Department and forwarded to the White House, also wishes Obama good luck in next year's presidential election and strikes a conciliatory tone.

"To serving world peace ... Friendship between our peoples ... and for the sake of economic, and security co-operation against terror, you are in a position to keep NATO off the Libyan affair for good," Gadhafi writes in the letter, obtained by The Associated Press.

While the White House confirmed that the letter had been received, an official said the ceasefire request could not be met at this time.

"The conditions the president laid out are clear," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

The news Wednesday came on the same day a former U.S. congressman arrived in Libya for talks with Gadhafi. Curt Weldon, who was personally invited by Gadhafi, described the trip as a private mission to urge the longtime leader to step down.

He said he had informed the White House about the trip as well as some members of Congress. It wasn't clear whether Gadhafi's letter to Obama was linked to Weldon's visit.

Fast-moving chunks of space debris zipped uncomfortably close to the International Space Station twice in the past week — cosmic close calls that will likely become more common over the next several years, experts predict.

For one thing, after 50 years of spaceflight there is just more junk up there than there used to be, sharing space with vehicles and their human crews. And this debris can snowball — as when satellites collide, spawning thousands of new pieces of orbiting junk.

The sun is also entering an active period, which puffs up Earth's atmosphere and increases orbital drag — causing higher-altitude space debris to rain down on spacecraft below. Solar activity shouldn't hit its peak until 2012 or 2013, so orbiting astronauts may experience some more close shaves soon.

"I think that over the next two or three years, this is going to happen more often," NASA's Gene Stansbery told Stansbery is the program manager of NASA's Orbital Debris Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Recent space junk scares
The recent debris flybys at the space station are just the latest encounters between crewed spacecraft and space junk.

On Tuesday, a piece of debris spawned by a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test threatened the station and its three-person crew. It takes about three days' notice to move the station out of the way in a so-called "debris avoidance maneuver," NASA officials said. This piece wasn't detected in time.

So astronauts prepared to take shelter in their attached Soyuz spacecraft, which can serve as a sort of lifeboat. Spaceflyers have resorted to this strategy four or five times in the station's history, Stansbery said.

NIH study finds progesterone benefits women with short cervix

A National Institutes of Health study has found that progesterone, a naturally occurring hormone, reduced the rate of preterm birth before the 33rd week of pregnancy by 45 percent among one category of at risk women.

The women in the study had a short cervix, which is known to increase the risk for preterm birth. The cervix is the part of the uterus that opens and shortens during labor. 

The study also found that infants born to women who had received progesterone were less likely to develop respiratory distress syndrome, a breathing complication occurring in preterm infants.

The study was published online in Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Infants born preterm are at high risk of early death and long term health and developmental problems. In 2005, there were 12.9 million preterm births worldwide ( In the United States, 12.8 percent of infants were born preterm in 2008 ( Preterm infants are at increased risk for death in the first year of life, and breathing difficulties, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, blindness and deafness (

The study was undertaken by physicians of the Perinatology Research Branch at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) along with 44 medical centers around the world (including Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America). The study was a collaboration between the NIH and Columbia Laboratories, Inc., in Livingston, N.J.

The study found that a vaginal gel progesterone preparation could reduce the rate of early preterm birth in women at risk for early labor because of a short cervix. 

More than 6,000 migrants from North Africa are likely to flood into Europe after Silvio Berlusconi pledged to remove them from a tiny Italian island that has been overwhelmed with an influx of refugees.

Most of the 18,000 migrants who have landed on Lampedusa since the beginning of the year are Tunisian, but Italy fears a far bigger exodus if the situation in Libya deteriorates further.

An Italian assault ship and five ferries will remove the migrants from the island, a speck of land which lies closer to Tunisia than Italy, within the next two days.

They will be taken to tented camps and converted barracks on the Italian mainland but it is expected that most will escape and head for other countries, including France.

Migrants who were transferred to the camps in the past few days were filmed and photographed vaulting wire fences, evading security guards.

Italy faced a diplomatic confrontation with France after an estimated 3,500 Tunisians, most of whom had arrived in Europe via Lampedusa and then escaped from detention centres in recent weeks, massed at the Franco-Italian border yesterday, demanding to be allowed in.

Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister, accused Paris of showing "a grave lack of solidarity" in refusing to permit the Tunisians to enter French territory from the border town of Ventimiglia.

Just this week, a group of Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians who had been living and working in Libya reached the wind-swept island, which in summer is a popular holiday destination for Italians.

Ministers have warned of a "biblical exodus", saying Italy cannot handle the crisis alone and calling for urgent EU assistance.

Ron Wurzer for The New York TimesAndrea LaCroix of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle
found that estrogen lowers breast cancer risk in some women.
In a finding that challenges the conventional wisdom about the risks of some hormones used in menopause, a major government study has found that years after using estrogen-only therapy, certain women had a markedly reduced risk of breast cancer and heart attack.

The research, part of the landmark Women’s Health Initiative study, is likely to surprise women and their doctors, who for years have heard frightening news about the risks of hormone therapy. But most of those fears are related to the use of a combination of two hormones, estrogen and progestin, which are prescribed to relieve hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause, and have been shown to increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

The new findings, reported Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, come from 10,739 women in the Women’s Health Initiative study who had previously had a hysterectomy, the surgical removal of the uterus. Nationwide, about one-third of women in their 50s have had a hysterectomy.

The Women’s Health Initiative was begun in 1991 by the National Institutes of Health as a sweeping investigation of hormone use and other health issues of postmenopausal women.

While most women in the hormone study were taking combination hormone therapy, women without a uterus took estrogen alone or a placebo for about six years and were followed for nearly 11 years. The estrogen-only group was not given progestin, which is prescribed only to protect the uterus from the harmful effects of estrogen. Although all the women in the estrogen study stopped using the treatment in 2004, the investigators have continued to monitor their health, as is typical in large clinical trials.

The most surprising new finding relates to breast cancer. The women with hysterectomies who used estrogen alone had a 23 percent lower risk for breast cancer compared with those who had taken a placebo. This is in stark contrast to the higher risk of breast cancer shown in the estrogen-progestin part of the trial.

“The decreased risk of breast cancer in this group is something we totally didn’t expect when we started the W.H.I. hormone therapy trials,” said Andrea Z. LaCroix, the study’s lead author and a professor of epidemiology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “This study differentiates estrogen alone from estrogen and progestin in a very big way. I hope it gets across to women, because we are not reversing ourselves.”

WASHINGTON — A federal government shutdown came one day closer to reality Tuesday, as a White House meeting with leaders in Congress failed to produce a compromise spending plan.

Since the Republican House and the Democratic Senate remain divided, the government is days away from having its legal authority to spend money expire. Congress must pass a bill by midnight Friday to avert a shutdown of most federal agencies.

GOP: Party seeking dramatic changes in Medicare and Medicaid

BUDGET: House GOP proposes nearly $6 trillion in cuts

After the White House meeting, the participants gave simultaneous — if different — accounts:

•President Obama. "We are now closer than we have ever been to getting an agreement," he said in a surprise briefing. "The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown."

•Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The Tea Party is driving the House of Representatives. It's not a matter of a number. We can get them their number. It's ideological with them."

•House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We're going to fight for the largest cuts possible — real cuts, not more smoke and mirrors," he said.

Reid and Obama object to GOP proposals to cut funding for Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The race for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court that has become a proxy for the state’s fight over public sector unions was too close to call as of early Wednesday morning, and the vote appears headed for a recount.

With all but one precinct reporting, challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg led conservative Justice David Prosser by 336 votes early Wednesday afternoon, out of nearly 1.5 million cast.

Just two months ago, Prosser’s easy win of a second 10-year term on the high court would have been a foregone conclusion. In a nonpartisan primary in February, Prosser won 55 percent of the vote, while Kloppenburg, an assistant state attorney general, came in second with 28 percent.

But Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions reframed the race as a referendum on the controversial law, which he signed in March after the Republican majority in the state Senate forced a vote with no Democrats present.

The law is on hold as a lower state court examines it, and appeals could reach the state Supreme Court. The law’s opponents see Kloppenburg’s place on the court as shifting the majority on the seven-judge panel to the left and more likely to strike down the law, while the law’s backers see Prosser as likely to keep it in place.

More than $5 million in outside money from both sides has been poured into the race, from labor unions, progressive activists, tea party groups and businesses. Blogs across the political spectrum have been abuzz and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin weighed in to voice her support for Prosser. Election officials in Madison, Milwaukee and throughout much of the rest of the state observed higher-than-usual voter turnout for the kind of election that typically brings out only the most dedicated of voters.

With so much riding on the results of the race, neither candidate was ready to declare victory.

Nato says forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are using human shields in the war-torn town of Misrata.

The coalition says Col Gaddafi's troops are using civilian vehicles and hiding their heavy armour in civilian areas.

Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told the BBC: "Misrata remains our number one priority... but [Gaddafi's troops] are using human shields to protect themselves."

Earlier a rebel urged Nato must do more to help the besieged western town.

Gen Abdul Fattah Younis of the anti-Gaddafi forces complained that bureaucracy was causing Nato to take hours to respond to calls for air strikes.

"[Nato] is letting the people of Misrata die every day," he said.

In a separate development, a former US Republican congressman is now in Tripoli to hold talks with Col Gaddafi.

Curt Weldon said his aim was to persuade Col Gaddafi to "step aside".

Mr Weldon said he was visiting the Libyan capital in a personal capacity at the invitation of Col Gaddafi's chief of staff and that the administration of Barack Obama was aware of the trip.

Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a politically risky 2012 proposal that aims to bring down huge budget deficits by cutting healthcare benefits for the poor and elderly.

The 2012 budget blueprint from Paul Ryan, chairman of the House of Representatives's budget committee, builds on the Republican Party's campaign promise to scale back the size of the federal government.

His plan for the fiscal year that begins October 1 would achieve nearly $6 trillion in savings over the next decade, chipping away at a budget deficit that this year is expected to hit $1.4 trillion.

"This is a budget that creates economic growth. It is a budget to pay off our national debt. It is a budget to get our fiscal track on the right track," Ryan said.

But the plan drew harsh criticism.

"While we agree with his ultimate goal, we strongly disagree with his approach," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. The House Republican plan, Carney added, "cuts taxes for millionaires and special interests while placing a greater burden" on the elderly, children with disabilities, students and workers who have lost their health coverage.

Dish Network Corp.'s agreement to buy Blockbuster Inc.'s assets out of bankruptcy could keep the movie-rental chain and its blue-and-gold logo from disappearing.

But whether the No. 3 pay TV company can use Blockbuster's brand, stores and streaming-video capabilities to create a service more relevant to today's quickly evolving viewer habits remains to be seen.

Dish, headed by billionaire Charles Ergen, won a two-day auction for Blockbuster that stretched into the early hours of Wednesday morning with a bid valued at $228 million in cash.

Dish beat out billionaire investor Carl Icahn and a group of debt holders for the Dallas movie-rental chain, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September.

Icahn had teamed with a group of liquidators. Analysts say it was likely he would have liquidated the company. Dish has more of a vested interest in keeping Blockbuster a going concern.

But analysts are split about whether Dish will keep the stores themselves open.

"Dish has zero retail capability at present, and therefore lacks the scale or synergies to benefit from the operation of Blockbuster retail stores," Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said.

He said the company might just want Blockbuster's movie-streaming service and was likely emboldened by the $290 million initial bid from debt holders that started the auction.

"(Dish) decided that rather than buying the streaming capability and the Blockbuster brand name from another party, it could bid for the entire company and offer the store inventory to another bidder at a later date," he said.

Pachter thinks that Dish will liquidate stores by the end of the year. But others thought Dish might keep at least some stores open.

"In order to get the most from the investment, Dish Network needs to keep the Blockbuster brand top of mind with consumers, and that means in kiosks in drug stores and physical store locations," Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said.

Either way, Dish and Ergen, who also chairs former Dish parent EchoStar, is gambling the deal can help reinvent Dish as consumers' TV and movie-watching habits evolve.

The company, with 14.1 million subscribers, is facing a maturing pay-TV industry as more TV and movie watchers go online or subscribe to services like Hulu and Netflix.

In 2010 new Dish subscribers fell 2 percent, hurt by aggressive discounts by competitors as satellite TV players duke it out for subscribers.

Dish offers an online service at with 150,000 movies, TV shows, clips and trailers. It also offers video-on-demand and pay-per-view services. It could use Dallas-based Blockbuster's streaming service to expand its online offerings.

Whatever its plans, Dish is taking on a company that is a shadow of its former self.

When Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection, it was down to 3,000 stores, less than a third of the peak of 9,100 in 2004. There are about 2,400 currently open with plans to close about 700 more by mid-April.

Blockbuster used to dominate the U.S. movie rental business. But it lost money for years as that business declined because customers shifted to Netflix Inc., video on demand and DVD rental kiosks.

In a statement about its Blockbuster bid, Dish Executive Vice President Tom Cullen made specific mention of Blockbuster's stores.

"With its more than 1,700 store locations, a highly recognizable brand and multiple methods of delivery, Blockbuster will complement our existing video offerings while presenting cross-marketing and service extension opportunities for Dish Network," Cullen said.

But Dish has not yet laid out specific plan for the company. Dish spokeswoman Francie Bauer said the Englewood, Colo.-based company would not comment further since the deal must receive bankruptcy court approval.

A hearing for that approval is set for Thursday, and Dish expects the deal to close in the second quarter.

The nuclear power company in charge of the earthquake-hit Fukushima Daiichi plant submitted plans for the construction of two new plants at the site 11 days after the disaster struck.

The proposal to start work on the new reactors in the spring of 2012 was filed with the Fukushima Prefectural government the day after the death toll in the natural disasters surpassed the 10,000 figure and an advisory panel to the government first stated that the No. 3 reactor was leaking radiation into the atmosphere.

The plan was than incorporated in a report on future power consumption and generation capabilities submitted to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on March 31.

“Yes, this is correct, but we are required to submit a report on our annual electricity plan for the next fiscal year by law,” Hiro Hasegawa, a spokesman for Tepco, told The Daily Telegraph.

“We had prepared the report before March 11 and did not have time to change the information it contained,” he said. “People ask why we did not just drop the report, but it’s not as easy as that. we are required by law to produce it and we did not have time to reassess the plans.”

Senior Tepco officials have stated that it will not be possible to build the planned new plants at the facility, although that opinion has not been formalised at a board meeting, Hasegawa said. 

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — This year will be an above-average Atlantic hurricane season, with a forecast of 16 named storms forming between June 1 and Nov. 30, Colorado State University researchers predicted Wednesday.

That’s one storm less than what the team forecast in its early December prediction.

Nine of the storms are expected to turn into hurricanes, with five developing into major hurricanes with sustained winds of 111 mph or greater, CSU forecasters said.

"We expect that anomalously warm tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures combined with neutral tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures will contribute to an active season," said Phil Klotzbach of the CSU Tropical Meteorology Project. "We have reduced our forecast slightly from early December due to a combination of recent ocean warming in the eastern and central tropical Pacific and recent cooling in the tropical Atlantic."

A normal season, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has nine to 12 named storms, of which five to seven reach hurricane strength and one to three become major hurricanes.

The International Criminal Court prosecutor said on Tuesday Libyan authorities had decided they were ready to kill unarmed protestors opposed to Muammar Gaddafi's rule even before unrest spread from Tunisia and Egypt.

ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said the plan, which the government of Gaddafi began developing in January, authorized the use of tear gas and, if necessary, killings.

His comments mark the first time since Libya was referred to The Hague-based institution in February that a senior international legal official has said evidence exists the Gaddafi government planned to kill its own people, although Western political leaders have previously alluded to this.

"We have evidence that after the Tunisia and Egypt conflicts in January, people in the regime were planning how to control demonstrations inside Libya," Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters.

"They were hiding that from people outside and they were planning how to manage the crowds ... the evidence we have is that the shooting of civilians was a pre-determined plan."

"The planning at the beginning was to use tear gas and (if that failed to work)..., shooting," he added.

Legislators continue to negotiate a budget deal to avoid a federal government shutdown. Most everyone in Washington assumes that the public would be angry if the bureaucrats were sent home. But a new Rasmussen poll indicates that 57% of Americans like the idea if it is the only way to get deeper budget cuts.

No doubt, the budget needs to be pared. Uncle Sam will spend about $3.8 trillion this year. The deficit will run a record $1.65 trillion.

But the Democratic leadership has decided to stand fast on behalf of Big (Really, Really Big) Government. The budget plan released by President Barack Obama earlier this year relied on the usual “rosy scenarios” to understate future outlays and overstate future revenues, yet still predicted that the annual deficit will remain above $600 billion throughout the coming decade. More realistically, the red ink over that period is likely to approach $10 trillion. Congressional Democrats are acting like there is no program, no expenditure in the entire federal Leviathan that is not essential.

Republicans have taken up the cause of the taxpayers. Of course, their conversion to the cause of fiscal responsibility came late: President George W. Bush and his GOP Congress squandered money on virtually every program known to man — and some previously unknown ones too. Republicans share the blame for today’s fiscal mess. But at least they are now using the phrase “budget cuts” in polite company.

The F-word is here to haunt Google again since a survey published by Fortune stated that 56 percent of Android developers found that the Android fragmentation was a meaningful but huge problem.

Baird research survey which was picked up by Fortune suggests that developers expressed concerns over Android OS fragmentation, app store fragmentation and number of junk apps in Android ecosystem. Baird research surveyed 250 developers.

Fragmentation has been Android's Achilles heel since Google launched its first Android device G1 in conjunction with HTC. Since then Google has released multiple versions of Android (1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.3.3, 3.0) with the latest being Android 3.0 or Honeycomb for tablets.

Artstechnica defines platform fragmentation as "the proliferation of diverging variants-a situation in which many custom versions of the software platform emerge and coexist with the original. Platform fragmentation can weaken interoperability because applications that are built for one variant might not work on others."

The pace at which Android has been growing has resulted in multiple Android versions and multiple devices in the market. This proliferation has caused developers to call Android a mess compared to Apple's unified iOS experience for developers and users.

However, Android fragmentation has different implications for end-users, developers and manufacturers. Key issues arising out of Android fragmentation are:

MENTON, FRANCE — The train from Ventimiglia in Italy takes only a few minutes to crawl across the frontier into Menton Garavan, the first stop in France along the Côte d’Azur railroad. But it was enough time to dash the dreams of four young migrants.

Awaiting their arrival, a half dozen police officers swiftly took them off the train — part of France’s efforts to make its border impenetrable to the thousands of migrants, mostly Tunisian right now, who have slowly made their way up from the southern Italian island of Lampedusa off Sicily since a wave of rebellion began sweeping across North Africa in January.

President Nicolas Sarkozy early in his term of office championed a vision of a “Union for the Mediterranean,” a grouping of the countries that border the sea. Last month he took a lead in pulling more reluctant Western powers into the military intervention in Libya.

But unpopular at home, and seeking to attract far-right nationalist voters with tough anti-immigrant policies before the presidential election next year, Mr. Sarkozy has set a clear limit to his ideas of Mediterranean solidarity, and has infuriated his southern neighbor, Italy, by keeping the border closed to the migrants fleeing political and economic turmoil in North Africa.

Between Feb. 23 and March 28, 2,800 Tunisian migrants were intercepted in France and 1,700 were expelled, most of them to Italy, Interior Minister Claude Guéant told the French National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, on Tuesday.

In Ventimiglia, a small town popular for its Friday street market, migrants huddle in groups outside the train station, in the park or on the beach, contemplating their attempt to enter France. Police officers quietly patrol the station, where the waiting rooms and toilets are now left open at night at the request of the local authorities.

A center for migrants has been set up on the outskirts of the town, but with the number arriving each day continuing to swell, space is limited and food is in short supply.

Giuseppe Fama, president of ARCI, an anti-racism association based farther down the coast in Imperia, organized a demonstration outside the station in support of the migrants and against the war in Libya. He said the migrant men were sleeping outdoors most nights, “under cardboard boxes near the station or in the park.”

Imed Seroual is one of them. The 27-year-old Tunisian said he had barely slept in five days. Despite it all, he was upbeat and spoke favorably of the Italians.

Hormone therapy has been one of the most confusing issues in women's health over the last decade. Now, a study from the Women's Health Initiative shows the increased risk of stroke found among women who take estrogen-only hormone therapy disappears after they stop the pills but the reduced risk of breast cancer -- believed by some to result from hormone use after natural menopause -- is maintained.

The findings should help women who have had a hysterectomy better weigh their risks and benefits of taking estrogen based on their age and symptoms. Here's the study in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and the Los AngelesTimes article: "Estrogen-only therapy less risky than first thought."

Experts in women's health and menopause made a number of additional points regarding the new paper. Among them:

-- The new study, which follows women four years after they have stopped therapy, is unusual. Typically, studies examine participants while they undergo treatment with, perhaps, a brief follow-up period.

"It's important to follow women in clinical trials some time after we stop; that goes for benefits and risks. And that hardly ever happens in studies," said Andrea LaCroix, the lead author of Tuesday's paper and an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Several members of Moammar Gadhafi's inner circle want to defect but are too scared about the safety of their families and friends to do so, Libya's former energy minister said Wednesday.

Omar Fathi bin Shatwan, who also served as Libya's industry minister, told The Associated Press that he had fled by fishing boat to Malta on Friday from the western Libyan city of Misrata.

Shatwan, who left the government in 2007, said he still was in contact with some top government figures. He explained that many feared for their safety if they flee — in some cases, their families are under siege, he said.

"Those whose families are outside Libya will flee if they get a chance," Shatwan said in a telephone interview from Malta. "But many can't leave, and all the families of ministers are under siege."

Shatwan said he last had contact with Gadhafi in 2006, and had not spoken with the tyrant's sons. "Ministers who are friends of mine, I have spoken to them," he said.

He said he spent 40 days bunkered down at his home in the central port of Misrata before escaping from Libya, and witnessed Gadhafi's forces pounding the city with heavy artillery and relentlessly shooting civilians.

WASHINGTON: Expressing apprehension that the United States is being "taken for suckers" and "looked at as patsies" by Pakistan, two American lawmakers on Tuesday called for strengthening ties with India even as a White House report gave a harshly critical assessment of Islamabad's effort to defeat extremism.

While administration officials defended Washington's support for Pakistan using the same logic as London is doing on UK Prime Minister David Cameron's ongoing visit to Islamabad ("a difficult partnership with Pakistan is far better than having a hostile Pakistan," one U.S official testified), lawmakers wanted a major reappraisal of U.S outlook for the region. They expressed doubts if any good would come out of the current U.S policy of coddling Islamabad in the face of Pakistani duplicity in combating extremism. Instead, they pushed for even closer ties with India.

"After 10 years of hearing the same sales pitch I tend to doubt it. I doubt that our money is buying anything that's deep or durable," New York Congressman Gary Ackerman said at a hearing. "I doubt the leaders in the Afghan government and the Pakistani government are going to do anything except pursue their own narrow, venal self interests. I doubt the ISI will ever stop working with us during the day and going to see their not-so-secret friends in the Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e Mohammed and other terrorist groups at night."

  •  Saudi, Gulf allies stepping in with deal for Saleh to go
  •   Proposal would hand power to interim council
  •   Several leading figures proposed to chair caretaker body
  •   Saleh wrangles, no certainty of striking deal

LONDON/DUBAI, April 6 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are trying to broker a deal to have Yemen's president step down and hand over power, possibly to an interim council of tribal and political leaders, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.

Ali Abdullah's Saleh's at times bloody response to protests, inspired by those in Egypt and Tunisia, against his 32-year rule has tried the patience of his U.S. and Saudi backers.

A variety of official sources say they are now ready to push aside a long-time ally against Yemen-based al Qaeda in the hope of staving off a chaotic collapse of the poorest Arab state.

 Though diplomats familiar with the negotiations question whether a deal is anywhere close to being struck, the proposal by the Gulf Arabs involves Saleh finally agreeing to stand down and handing his powers for a short time to a national council.

For nearly a week residents of Ivory Coast's main city of Abidjan have been sheltering indoors as forces battle each other in the city.

Troops opposed to incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo have launched a final assault on his presidential residence.

Mr Gbagbo insists he won November's run-off vote, but election officials found that his rival Alassane Ouattara was the winner.

A man living in the centre of Abidjan told the BBC's Focus on Africa about events on Wednesday as he went out to look for supplies.

I took a walk and we found three dead bodies on the floor.
A couple of minutes later there was a convoy of armed men, some of them had AK-47s, bazookas, double barrels, knives, swords; others had Uzis.

The dead bodies were men with lots of bizarre things on them - like juju and charms”
There were 25 cars - four-by-fours - with about seven men per car. It [the convoy] kept on surveying the area.

Pakistan's limited overs captain Shahid Afridi should return to Test cricket and skipper the national team in all three formats of the sport, former captain Imran Khan said.

Afridi pulled out of a Test series against Australia last year in England after losing the first Test at Lord's as captain.

Since then he has only captained Pakistan in one-day internationals and T20 matches. Senior batsman Misbah-ul-Haq led Pakistan in their last two Test series against South Africa and New Zealand.

Afridi, who led Pakistan to the semifinals of the World Cup that ended on Saturday, has made himself available for this month's tour to the West Indies after previously planning on missing the series.

"There should be just one captain for all three formats of the game," Imran told reporters at a function held in Lahore to honour Pakistan's World Cup umpire Aleem Dar.

"The main reason for India winning the World Cup is that their captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni leads them in Tests, ODIs and T20 cricket," the cricketer turned politician said.

Imran, who led Pakistan to their only World Cup title in 1992, said that Dhoni had matured quicker as a captain because he had developed the temperament to handle the different pressures of the three formats.

"Afridi must also be captain in all three formats of the sport. My belief is that unless you captain in Test cricket you can't really be at the top of your game," he said.

Afridi withdrew from Test cricket after claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family and focus on the limited overs game.