Argentina priests in drug protest

Hundreds of priests in Argentina have highlighted their concern after two of their number received death threats.

Some 353 Catholic priests in Buenos Aires signed a document in support of the men, who work with addicts in some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.

The Church last month published a report highlighting a huge increase in drug addiction and dealing in the city.

The report said hard drugs, like Paco - a kind of crack cocaine - are sold openly and often near schools.

The report added that there was is a lack of political will to deal with the results.

"The drug trade has been like a tsunami breaking over us," said Padre Pepe de Paola, one of the priests who has received death threats.

"Heavy drug trafficking started in 2001 when the Argentine economy crashed and we haven't been able to cope."

One dose of Paco costs around $1.50 (£1) and children as young as 12 are becoming addicts, taking up to 40 doses a day.

The Church says there is a lack of spending on education and decent schooling where children can develop their own way in life.

It adds that Argentina as a whole has a disregard for the problems of the young and poor.

Most of those who are making money from drug trafficking, the document says, do not live in poor neighbourhoods but in rich ones.

Two years ago, government figures said there were 27,000 addicts in greater Buenos Aires, but recent research estimates this figure has doubled.

"It's going to take a long time, and it's not just one government who will need to work on this, it's got to be a long-term approach," said Padre Pepe de Paola.

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Mexico imposes swine flu measures

Mexico City has banned restaurants and cafes from serving all food except takeaways in a bid to help prevent the spread of the deadly swine flu virus.

Schools across Mexico have closed and public gatherings are restricted, after more than 150 people are believed to have died from swine flu.

The number of cases globally is rising, though no-one outside Mexico has died.

The UN has called on countries to check their contingency plans for a possible global epidemic, or pandemic.

The UN's World Health Organization (WHO) chief Dr Keiji Fukuda said a pandemic was "a very serious possibility, but it is still too early to say that this is inevitable".

As officials in Mexico City announced the latest measures to stop the virus spreading, the city's chamber of trade estimated restrictions in the city were costing businesses there at least 777 million pesos ($57m or £39m) a day.

US cases confirmed

After Mexico - where the outbreak started - the US has the highest number of confirmed swine flu cases with 64.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress for an additional $1.5bn (£1bn) to bolster the US response.

In California, where there have been 11 cases, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency as a precautionary measure but stressed there was "no need for alarm".

In another development, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation is sending a team to investigate claims that industrial pig farms in Mexico were the source of the outbreak in humans.

The agency's chief veterinary officer, Joseph Domenech, told the BBC that the FAO had to act following rumours that people had been falling ill last month near some intensive pig farms .

Other countries around the world to have confirmed swine flu cases are Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Israel and the UK.

Several other countries are investigating suspected cases including Australia, Brazil, France, Chile and Denmark.

The WHO says it is "critical" that travellers from Mexico who might be infected be identified, but it has advised against countries imposing border restrictions or travel bans, saying such measures do no work.

Some countries in Asia, Latin America and Europe are screening airport passengers for symptoms, while tour operators in France and Germany have suspended trips to Mexico.

Flights stopped

Cuba also suspended flights to and from Mexico for 48 hours from Tuesday and a Canadian tour operator, Air Transat, said it was also halting flights to Mexico until 1 June.

The WHO raised its pandemic alert status to level four on Monday - two levels from a full pandemic - after concluding there had been sustained transmission between humans.

Levels five and six are reserved for when there is widespread human infection.

In almost all cases outside Mexico, people have been only mildly ill and have made a full recovery.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday it may abandon the term swine flu because some people wrongly think they can catch it from pork.

Pork producers in the US and Brazil are pushing for the name 'swine' to be changed , saying it is damaging their business.

China, Russia and Ukraine have all banned pork imports from Mexico and parts of the US since the outbreak began.


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Mexico flu 'a potential pandemic'

A new flu virus suspected of killing up to 60 people in Mexico has the potential to become a pandemic, the World Health Organization's chief says.

Margaret Chan said the outbreak was a "serious situation" which needed to be followed closely.

Ms Chan cut short a visit to the US and returned to Geneva for urgent talks.

Health experts say tests so far seem to link the illnesses in Mexico with a new swine flu virus that sickened eight people in the southern US.

The WHO's new emergency committee is now meeting - though health officials say it may be premature to advise against travel to Mexico.

The committee will be discussing whether to declare a public health emergency, and whether to raise the global pandemic alert level.

The WHO says it does not know the full risk yet.

It is advising all member states to be vigilant for seasonally unusual flu or pneumonia-like symptoms among their populations - particularly among young healthy adults, who seem to be the most affected in Mexico.

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Sex row Paraguay leader to stay

Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo says he will not resign over claims by three women that he fathered children with them while he was a Catholic priest.

Mr Lugo said in a televised address that he would see his mandate through to 2013 regardless of "rumours of instability and conspiracy".

He asked for forgiveness from anyone who was offended by the revelations.

Opposition politicians have seized on the controversy to undermine Mr Lugo, who ran on a campaign of honesty.

Released from vows

"It was not my intention to offend anyone," Mr Lugo said in his televised news conference, after cancelling what was regarded as an important trip to Washington due to start on Friday.

"I don't hesitate to ask for forgiveness in recognising that I failed the church, the country, the citizens, those who put their trust in me," he said.

Mr Lugo came to power last August, ousting the right-wing Colorado party that had governed Paraguay for six decades.

The Pope only released him from his vows of chastity last July, two years after Mr Lugo renounced the priesthood.

This month, three women have come forward claiming that the former Roman Catholic bishop is the father of their children.

Mr Lugo, 57, acknowledges a two-year-old boy born to a former parishioner as his own, but has not commented on the paternity of the others, a 14-month-old boy and a 6-year-old boy.

'Lost credibility'

Calling the cases "private" during the news conference, he told journalists he could not keep answering questions without neglecting his duties as president.

He said he would leave the matter in the hands of the justice system.

A Paraguayan bishop, Rogelio Livieres, had called for Mr Lugo to resign.

On Friday, a senator from a party currently aligned with Mr Lugo's also urged him to step down.

"Your current personal situation has made you lose all credibility," Alfredo Jaeggli said in a letter to the presidency and congress. "I beg you to resign."

Sitting alongside the president were a number of ministers who celebrated achievements from the government's first year in office, but critics claim the scandal continues to paralyse his administration, the BBC's Gary Duffy reports from Asuncion.

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High court test for voting rights in Texas case

The community of Canyon Creek was ranchland rich with limestone and cedar trees when Jim Crow held sway in the South. The first house wasn't built until the late 1980s and not even a hint of discrimination attaches to this little slice in suburbia.

President Barack Obama won more than 48 percent of the vote in November in this overwhelmingly white community northwest of the state capital.

Yet Canyon Creek, the heart of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, is the site of a major Supreme Court battle over the federal government's often used and most effective tool in preventing voting discrimination against minorities.

The utility district's elected five-person board manages a local park and pays down bond debt. Because it is in Texas, the board is covered by a section of the Voting Rights Act that requires approval from the Justice Department before any changes can be made in how elections are conducted.

That requirement applies to all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, with a history of preventing blacks, Hispanics and other minorities from voting.

The utility district is challenging that section of the law, which Congress extended in 2006 for 25 years. The Obama administration is defending it.

The Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, opened the polls to millions of black Americans. The law "has been the most important and transformative civil rights act in our country's history," said John Payton, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The federal government has used the provision, known as Section 5, to "stop things that would have perverted our democracy," Payton said. His group represents Texans and organizations seeking to preserve the section.

On the other side are the utility district, an array of conservative legal groups and some Southern Republicans.

Texas and other Southern states once might have deserved to be under federal supervision, but the time for this "unparalleled federal intrusion" on a traditional power of state and local governments has passed, the utility district says in its challenge.

The justices will hear arguments in the case this coming Wednesday.

Much has changed across the South and elsewhere in the country, not least of which is Obama's election, Gregory Coleman, the district's lawyer, has told the court.

If the justices side with Canyon Creek, they could strike down Section 5 entirely, eliminating the need for any jurisdiction to seek prior approval for election changes, or tailor a narrow ruling that applies only to the utility district.

Coleman, a former Texas solicitor general, had been looking for a way to take on Section 5. In Canyon Creek, with its lack of racially charged history and unstinting compliance with the Voting Rights Act, he found a willing partner.

As recently as 2002, voters in Canyon Creek walked up Jack Steuber's driveway to choose their utility district board. Bill Ferguson won a seat on the board, then sought to hold the next election in a school rather than in a neighbor's garage.

But first the board had to seek federal clearance to change the polling location. The community got it, but Canyon Creek's board didn't understand the need to ask Washington to sign off on a change in a tiny neighborhood where there isn't a trace of minority voter discrimination.

The community has about 3,500 residents, 80 percent of whom are white, according to the 2000 census. A number of families settled in Canyon Creek for high-tech jobs. Some work at Dell Inc., whose headquarters is nearby in Round Rock.

Don Zimmerman, the utility district's vice president, spent a recent afternoon installing a security camera to scare away teenage vandals who keep ripping planks off a playground set.

"It's insulting to me to be accused of having a racial bias just because you live in Texas," said Zimmerman, an engineer.

Ferguson, 53, said, "I'm sort of embarrassed that we're still subject to this because it makes us look like dumb crackers. I don't think it's appropriate anymore."

Resounding majorities of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, however, thought it was necessary when they voted in 2006 to extend the advance approval requirement for 25 more years. President George W. Bush, a Texan and a Republican, signed the measure into law.

"Today, we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy," Bush said at the signing ceremony in July 2006. "My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court."

A few Republicans have raised their voice in opposition to the extension of the law, which otherwise would have expired in 2007. Among them are Republican Govs. Sonny Perdue of Georgia and Bob Riley of Alabama.

Their states, the governors said, have worked hard to eradicate the government-sponsored discrimination that resulted in federal supervision. "Georgia has earned the right to be free" of asking the federal government to bless election changes, Perdue said. In Alabama, blacks and whites register and vote in similar proportions, Riley said.

Other numbers suggest, as Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a recent court case involving a different section of the Voting Rights Act, "racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history." In Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi _ all of which must submit proposed election changes for approval _ less than 15 percent of white voters chose Obama.

Evidence amassed at congressional hearings showed that hundreds of discriminatory proposals were rejected by the Justice Department or withdrawn when government lawyers raised questions.

The Supreme Court has upheld the advance approval requirement on four occasions before now. The outcome this time may be no different, but the recent additions of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito have given hope to the law's opponents.

Roberts, in particular, has in several cases opposed the continuing use of race, once lamenting the "sordid business" of taking race into account to draw congressional districts.

In Canyon Creek, residents seem to care more about their tax squabbles with the Austin city government than the voting rights dispute, according to Ferguson, the board member.

And not all the utility district's leaders believe issue before the high court has run its course. Chris Bowers, 40, was elected last May on a platform that questioned why this was even Canyon Creek's fight. Bowers believes his victory shows many agree with him.

"I think it's dangerous to be using the government entity which has this narrow focus of paying off ... bonds" to challenge a federal law, Bowers said. "This really seems out of scope."

Supreme Court Writer Mark Sherman reported from Washington.

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Obama sees chance for Cuba, Venezuela dialogue

President Barack Obama says he sees the chance for frank dialogue with both Venezuela and Cuba.

Obama already has lifted travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans to visit families on the communist island. And he had several opportunities to greet Hugo Chavez, the leftist leader of Venezuela, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend.

But Obama reminded reporters at a summit-concluding news conference, "the test for all of us is not simply words but deeds."


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Hamilton not upset by Dennis exit

Dennis and Hamilton have had a close working relationship for many years

Lewis Hamilton has insisted that despite being surprised at the exit of McLaren mentor Ron Dennis from Formula 1, he was "not disappointed".


Dennis, who stepped down as team boss in January, handed over complete control of McLaren Racing to team principal Martin Whitmarsh on Thursday.

"I wasn't disappointed," said the 23-year-old. "I was surprised."

Hamilton said Dennis would remain key in his life - but admitted he did not know why he had chosen to leave now.

"Ron has been a huge force and support in my life, and he still plays a key role in my life," he told a news conference after Friday practice at the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai.

"Whether or not he is in the team or not, I think you guys have been writing about it for years that as soon as he gets to a certain stage he will move aside.

"I guess I don't know why he decided to do it now."

Dennis ended his 43-year involvement in F1 at a time when McLaren, whose car Hamilton drove to the world title last year, are under intense pressure after a series of on and off-track troubles.

McLaren - who have failed to register a podium finish in the season's first two races - are set to face the sport's governing body, the FIA, on 29 April to answer charges of breaching the International Sporting Code.

That comes after the British team were found guilty of misleading race stewards following the Australian Grand Prix, which led to Hamilton being disqualified from the race.

And 61-year-old Dennis - who insists that the timing of his departure from F1 was "purely coincidental" - admitted his absence may well be welcomed by two of F1's biggest names.

"I admit I'm not always easy to get on with. I admit I've always fought hard for McLaren in Formula 1," he said.

"I doubt if [FIA president] Max Mosley or [F1 commercial rights holder] Bernie Ecclestone will be displeased by my decision."

Martin Whitmarsh has also suggested that Dennis' departure may improve the team's standing with the FIA.

As executive chairman of McLaren Automotive, Dennis will now concentrate solely on leading the group's project to develop a range of pure McLaren sports cars, with the launch date for the first model set for 2011.

The future of Hamilton, who is contracted to McLaren until 2013, has been subject to scrutiny since events in Melbourne - but he insisted on Friday that he was not looking elsewhere.

"I'm contracted to the team and I'm happy where I am," he said.

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Obama, Chavez shake hands at Americas Summit

Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez have met for the first time, shaking hands as the Summit of the Americas gets under way in Trinidad and Tobago.

Photos released by the Venezuelan government show the two smiling and Obama touching Chavez on the shoulder.

The Venezuelan presidency says Obama initiated the handshake. It quotes Chavez as telling Obama he hopes for better relations between their nations.

Chavez also reportedly said Friday: "With this same hand I greeted Bush eight years ago. I want to be your friend."

As recently as last week, Chavez expressed a desire to "reset" relations with Washington.

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Met suspends G20 footage officer

A police sergeant apparently seen in video footage hitting a woman during the G20 protest in London has been suspended, Scotland Yard has said.

He is shown hitting the woman in the face with his hand and her leg with his baton after allegedly being sworn at.

The sergeant works for the Territorial Support Group.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission - probing the death of Ian Tomlinson during the 1 April protests - is examining the case.

Opposition members of the London Assembly said the latest incident proved that Mr Tomlinson's assault was not an isolated incident.

Officers 'accountable'

The latest video footage featuring the female protester has been passed to the IPCC, a Metropolitan Police spokesman said.

"The officer has been identified and suspended pending further investigation. The officer works as a sergeant in the territorial support group," he added.

Earlier, police said the actions of the officer featured in the footage raised "immediate concerns".

"Every officer is accountable under law, and fully aware of the scrutiny that their actions can be held open to," police said.

"The decision to use force is made by the individual police officer, and they must account for that."

The IPCC said it had been made aware of the latest footage by the Met and would now be looking at the "best way to progress an investigation into the actions of the officer involved".

Jenny Jones, the Green Party's home affairs spokesman on the London Assembly, said she was worried officers may have hidden police uniform numbers to avoid identification.

"This new video footage confirms what many of us knew, that the assault on Ian Tomlinson was far from being an isolated incident during the G20 protest," she said.

She added: "Any attempt to avoid accountability by hiding police uniform numbers, destroying video images, or collusion over statements, must be severely dealt with."

A Met spokesman said the grey epaulette flashes on the officer should also have carried his sergeant stripes.

David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat's justice spokesman, has called for a "full-scale inquiry".

"The fact that this video shows another example of an officer with his number obscured assaulting a member of the public indicates that there is a systematic problem here, not just a series of individual acts of misconduct," he said.

"The question is on my mind whether the police are using a some kind of 'designated hitter' system."

Investigation 'right'

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: "It is no doubt a pressure cooker environment, however highly trained professionals are supposed to be better at defusing the situation."

Andrew Or, a photographer who was standing near the woman, said the strike across the face could have been accidental.

"I was actually quite shocked when I saw the movement of the arm and her being hit by the policeman," he said.

"He may not have meant to hit her, he may have been swinging his arm in a movement to say move back."

The video footage of the female protester emerged as the IPCC continues to investigate the death of Mr Tomlinson, who suffered a heart attack and died during the demonstrations on 1 April.

The IPCC took up the case after footage taken by a New York fund manager showed Mr Tomlinson being pushed to the ground by a police officer shortly before his death.

Days later more video footage aired on Channel 4 appeared to show the newspaper vendor being struck by an officer with a baton.

The police officer seen in the video of Mr Tomlinson has been suspended by the Met.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said it was "absolutely right" any allegations regarding the new video footage should be thoroughly investigated.

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Teen says man was at pond where girl's body found

A police cadet said Friday that he saw someone "acting real strange" at an irrigation pond three days before an 8-year-old girl's body found in a suitcase pulled from the water.

Stephen Memory, a 19-year-old who lives near the pond where Sandra Cantu's body was found, said he spoke to the FBI about what he saw.

Memory said that he thought it was odd to see a beige Chevrolet Silverado truck parked on the shoulder of the road facing in the wrong direction on the afternoon of April 3. Sandra's body was found April 6.

The driver _ a white man in his late 40s or early 50s wearing a white baseball cap and gray T-shirt _ appeared to be looking down at the ditch beside the road, said Memory, a Stockton police cadet. Only four or five cars travel the remote road, which is a dead end, on a typical day, he noted.

"He was acting real strange," Memory said Friday of the driver. "I drove by real slow to get a good look at him. He looked at me real quick and then he turned away. I just kept going."

The FBI referred questions to Tracy police. Sgt. Tony Sheneman said Friday he was not aware of Memory's report and declined to comment on specifics of the pending investigation.

No suspects have been named in the case, but police have said the department has fielded nearly 1,500 tips in the search for Sandra's killer. Sheneman said "the investigation is heading in the right direction" but would not elaborate.

On Friday, Sheneman also announced a $32,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Meanwhile, a Sunday school teacher who lives in the mobile home complex where Sandra lived told the Tracy Press that her black suitcase was stolen from her driveway March 27, the day the girl disappeared.

Melissa Huckaby, 28, said Sandra visited her home that day to ask if she could play with her daughter. Huckaby said she left the suitcase in the driveway and forgot about it; when she went back for it, it was gone. She said she's spoken to authorities but doesn't know if her missing suitcase matches the one that held the girl's body.

Sheneman declined to comment on Huckaby's comments, only saying that there was no police report filed on a missing suitcase. A call to Huckaby by The Associated Press was not immediately returned.

Melissa Huckaby is a granddaughter of Pastor Clifford Lawless, who was questioned by police for three hours the night Sandra's body was found and whose Clover Road Baptist Church has been the subject of a police search. Lawless has denied involvement in Sandra's disappearance, and police say he's not at the center of their investigation.

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Brazil court orders jail, retrial in US nun death

A court on Tuesday ordered the arrest and retrial of an Amazon rancher acquitted of orchestrating the murder of American nun and rain forest activist Dorothy Stang.

Para state's top court reversed last year's not-guilty verdict for Vitalmiro Moura on a technicality, ruling that a video used by the defense was not admissible as evidence, the state prosecutor said.

"We're elated and we are convinced we will get a guilty verdict in the new trial," prosecutor Edson Souza told The Associated Press.

Souza said Moura is charged with ordering Stang's murder and that he had yet to be arrested. Calls to Moura's last-known defense attorney were not immediately answered.

Moura is accused of masterminding the 2005 death of the 73-year-old Stang, who was shot six times at close range with a revolver in the small jungle city of Anapu. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Stang spent three decades on the Amazon's wild frontier, working to preserve the rain forest and defend the rights of poor settlers whose lands were seized by powerful ranchers.

Her death prompted Amazon activists _ more than 1,000 of whom have been murdered in the past 20 years _ to demand Brazil's government crack down on the illegal seizing and clearing of rain forest to graze cattle, raise soy crops and harvest timber.

"I am excited that perhaps Dorothy will find justice," David Stang, the nun's brother, wrote in an e-mail to the AP.

David Stang, of Palmer Lake, Colorado, has traveled to Brazil several times to witness the trials. "All of us who love Brazil today are so proud of this great country, as would Dorothy be proud today," he wrote.

Prosecutors contend Moura and rancher Regivaldo Galvao hired gunmen to kill Stang over a disputed plot of land.

Moura has already been tried twice in the case _ Brazil has no double jeopardy law. He was found guilty by a state court in 2007 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. But that ruling was overturned last year after the man who confessed to shooting Stang recanted earlier testimony, insisting that he'd acted alone. Gunman Rayfran das Neves Sales was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

The court ruled on Tuesday that Moura and Sales must be retried because a video that Moura's defense showed the jury was inadmissible.

That video _ depicting Amair Feijoli da Cunha, who was sentenced to 17 years for acting as the middleman between the gunman and the ranchers _ was made while he was in prison and without a judge's approval.

The video, made by the defense team, showed Cunha saying that Moura had nothing to do with the case. He had testified earlier that Moura paid the hired gunmen.

In Moura's first trial, Cunha was expected to act as a witness for the prosecution, but was so badly beaten by a fellow inmate in jail that he wasn't able to attend the trial.

"We got him," federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes said of Moura. "All the lies and fabrications around this case have now died."

Pontes is not involved in the prosecution of Moura's case, but is prosecuting Galvao separately. Pontes fought to have all the cases judged by federal courts, which are widely perceived to be less swayed by local politics than the state courts, which tend to favor the ranchers.

The second rancher, Galvao, was arrested in 2005 but was freed on bail in 2006. Federal prosecutors last month charged him with trying to use falsified documents to obtain the same plot of Amazon rain forest that Stang died trying to defend.

That new charge could undermine one of Galvao's key alibis in the murder case. He has testified he had no interest in the piece of land Stang was defending.

Para court officials said no date has been set for the trials of Moura or Sales.

Pontes warned that the two ranchers might flee before their retrial.

More than 1,100 activists, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers have been killed in land disputes in the past two decades, according to the Catholic Land Pastoral, a Brazil-based watchdog group.

Of those killings, fewer than 100 cases have gone to court. About 80 convicted suspects were hired guns for powerful ranchers and loggers seeking to expand their lands, according to federal prosecutors and the Catholic group.

About 15 of the men who hired them were found guilty, but none is serving a sentence today.

Stang's case was the subject of a documentary film, "They Killed Sister Dorothy," which debuted on HBO last month.

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European investors await Bank of England

European stock markets rose only modestly Thursday despite earlier hefty gains in Asia _ which included a near 4 percent rally on Tokyo's Nikkei following details of a new stimulus package _ as investors remained cautious ahead of a Bank of England interest rate decision and the long Easter weekend.

The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was up 24.17 points, or 0.6 percent, at 3,949.69, while Germany's DAX rose 50.44 points, or 1.2 percent, to 4,408.36. France's CAC-40 was 17.28 points, or 0.6 percent, higher at 2,938.34. All three indexes are closed for the Good Friday public holiday, and the FTSE won't actually be reopening until Tuesday.

The main point of interest in European markets will be the Bank of England's rate decision at midday London time (1100 GMT). Though the bank is expected to keep its benchmark rate unchanged at 0.5 percent, investors will be focusing on what the Bank says about its quantitative easing strategy, in which the central bank can buy up to 75 billion pounds of financial assets from commercial banks in the hope that they will use the money to start lending again.

Earlier in Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average added 321.05 points, or 3.7 percent, to 8,916.06 for its highest close in three months, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng climbed 426.55, or 3 percent, to 14,901.41.

Investors across Asia were buoyed by the news that Japan's ruling party is seeking a stimulus package that is substantially bigger than originally announced, involving 15 trillion yen ($150.4 billion) in new fiscal spending. The measures, should they win final approval, would equal some 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

"Markets welcomed the move but it may be some time before this optimism is felt across the broader economy," said Neil Mellor, an analyst at Bank of New York Mellon.

There was also some encouragement offered by the news that Japan's machinery orders _ an indicator of how much the country's companies plan to spend _ rose in February for the first time in five months. Core private sector machinery orders grew 1.4 percent in February from the previous month to 728.1 billion yen ($7.3 billion), the government said.

In addition, there was upbeat data from China where auto sales hit a monthly record of 1.11 million vehicles in March, exceeding U.S. sales for the third month in a row, as tax cuts and rebates for small car purchases lured buyers back into showrooms. Shanghai's main index closed 32.49 points, or 1.4 percent, higher at 2,379.88.

Despite some losses this week, stocks around the world are still trading much higher than they were just a month ago, amid some tentative optimism that the worst of the global economic downturn may have passed.

However, David Buik, senior strategist at BGC Partners, said there was a lot of potential bad news out there that could fuel a further nasty retreat, especially if corporate earnings come in worse than anticipated.

Next week, he said, could be a testing time for markets, as many U.S. banks are set to post their results, including Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

"Have any of the schemes implemented by the US government started to pay dividends?" said Buik.

The fairly subdued tone in Europe is expected to carry through into New York, when Wall Street opens.

Dow futures were 45 points, or 0.6 percent, higher at 7,838, while the broader Standard & Poor's 500 futures rose 5.3 points, or 0.6 percent, to 827.90.

On Wednesday, insurance and technology shares led Wall Street higher in a volatile day. The Dow Jones industrials rose 47.55, or 0.6 percent, to 7,837.11, while the S&P closed 9.61, or 1.2 percent, higher at 825.16.

Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea's Kospi rose 4.3 percent to 1,316.25. Elsewhere, Australia's benchmark gained 1.4 percent, Taiwan's jumped 4.1 percent and Singapore advanced 2 percent.

Oil prices rose above $51 a barrel Thursday. Benchmark crude for May delivery rose $1.86 to $51.24 a barrel on electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Meanwhile, the dollar edged back up towards the 100 yen mark from 99.72 yen, while the euro rose to $1.3315 from $1.3297.

AP Business Writer Jeremiah Marquez in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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Top Mexican drug cartel suspect arrested, officials say

Mexican authorities arrested Vicente Carrillo Leyva, a leader of the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel, officials announced Thursday.

Carrillo Leyva was arrested as he exercised in a park in a residential area of Mexico City, where he had been living under the alias Alejandro Peralta Alvarez, officials said.

The federal attorney general's office told reporters he was tracked through his wife, who did not change her name.

Carrillo Leyva "is considered one of the heirs to the criminal organization known as the Juarez Cartel, after the death of his father, Amado Carrillo Fuentes," said Assistant Prosecutor Maricela Morales.

His father died in July 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery to alter his appearance in an effort to avoid capture. Amado Carrillo was known as "El Senor de los Cielos," the "Lord of the Skies," because of the fleet of jetliners he used to transport cocaine from Colombia to Mexico.

Carrillo Leyva, 32, was presented at the news conference, surrounded by black-clad, hooded law-enforcement officials. He wore dark-frame glasses and a white jogging suit with double black stripes on the sleeves. His dark hair was long and shaggy.

Last month, federal officials offered a reward of up to $2.16 million (30 million pesos) for information leading to his arrest. The same reward has been offered for his uncle, cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, also known as "El Viceroy" and "El General," who remains at-large.

Rewards of $2 million apiece have been offered for 22 other leading cartel suspects.

Wednesday's arrest was the fourth detention of a top drug cartel leader in recent weeks. Last week, officials announced the arrest of Hector Huerta Rios, also known as "La Burra" or "El Junior," a top lieutenant of the Beltran Leyva cartel. He was arrested in the city of San Pedro Garza Garcia in Nuevo Leon state, along Mexico's border with the United States.

The previous week, Mexican authorities announced the arrest of Sigifredo Najera Talamantes, a drug-trafficking suspect accused of attacking a U.S. consulate and killing Mexican soldiers. Talamantes, also known as "El Canicon," also is suspected in attacks on a television station in Monterrey in Nuevo Leon, the state-run Notimex agency said.

That same week, the Mexican military also arrested the son of a top drug cartel lieutenant.

Authorities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border blame drug cartels for a surge in violence in the region.

Despite the violence, Mexican officials say the country is generally safe and that tourist areas such as Cancun and Acapulco are heavily patrolled.Video Officials from Acapulco city hall, the Guerrero state government and the Mexico attorney general went so far as to sign a statement in early March assuring students wanting to go there on spring break that efforts had been taken to ensure their safety.

In a speech in mid-March, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said 93 percent of the 6,500 deaths attributed to organized crime in 2008 occurred among the criminals. Most of the rest were law enforcement authorities, officials have said.

Few civilians are killed, the president said.

In that same speech, Calderon ridiculed those who say Mexico is unsafe.

"It is absolutely false, absurd, that anyone indicate that Mexico does not have control over one single part of its national territory," he said. "I challenge anyone who says that to tell me what part of the country they want to go to and I will take that person there."

Analysts point out that most of the violence is occurring along the U.S. border, particularly in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and Tijuana. Drug cartel violence is also found on Mexico's western coast.

"The situation in Ciudad Juarez is of special concern," the U.S. State Department said in a February 20 travel alert. "Mexican authorities report that more than 1,800 people have been killed in the city since January 2008. Additionally, this city of 1.6 million people experienced more than 17,000 car thefts and 1,650 carjackings in 2008." The State Department advisory tells U.S. citizens how best to remain safe.

"While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business), violence in the country has increased recently. It is imperative that travelers understand the risks of travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and whom to contact if one becomes a crime victim. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable."
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CNN: Obama pleased with NATO allies' pledges of Afghan support

STRASBOURG, France (CNN) -- President Obama hailed the NATO summit in Europe on Saturday, calling the meeting "very productive" and praising the alliance's commitment to the fight in Afghanistan.Today I'm confident that we took a substantial step forward to renewing our alliance to meet the challenges of our time," said Obama.

Speaking to reporters as demonstrators protested against more involvement in Afghanistan, Obama said he was "pleased NATO allies pledged their strong and unanimous support" for America's new strategy in Afghanistan -- which calls for more troops, trainers and civilian workers.

He said America's NATO allies and partners have agreed to supply more combat troops to help shore up security during Afghan elections later this year.

More trainers have also been pledged for the police and army, and an expansion of a trust fund to help sustain Afghan security forces is in the works. Obama talked about achieving an increase in non-military assistance, such as doctors, engineers, educators and agricultural specialists.

America's NATO allies are pledging 5,000 more troops: 3,000 for the upcoming Afghan election security, 1,400 to 2,000 troops embedded with Afghan soldiers, and 400 police trainers.

This is apart from the 17,000 more combat troops and 4,000 trainers Obama recently committed.

"These commitments have troops, trainers and civilians represent a strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan and on the future of NATO."

Obama had been pushing for more NATO troops in Afghanistan, and he was asked whether he thought he got enough combat troops.

"This was not a pledging conference, and yet, we already received the kinds of commitments that historically you don't see at a conference like this," he said.

"This was at a summit that was designed to discuss strategy as opposed to attract pledges, and I think it's an indication of the fact that this alliance is committed to achieving the focused goals that we have set out in Afghanistan."

Along with the focus on the ground in Afghanistan, Obama said the United States and his allies want to help strengthen Pakistan's ability to fight al Qaeda and "deliver goods and services and a better life for its people."

Obama thanked French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for hosting the conference.

"I should add that not only were they gracious hosts, but the commitment that they made with respect to Afghanistan, indicate the seriousness of purpose with which they are approaching the NATO challenge and our mission in Afghanistan in particular," Obama said.

Also at the end of the summit, it was announced that Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been named the alliance's new secretary-general. The decision was unanimous.

Earlier in the day, the NATO leaders held symbolic ceremonies to mark France's return as a full NATO member and to remember those who have died in NATO-led missions during the alliance's 60-year history.

The leaders gathered on a footbridge over the Rhine River separating France and Germany.

Merkel and the other leaders walked to the middle from the German side of the bridge. There they met French President Sarkozy and all shook hands, symbolizing France's re-entry in NATO's military command more than four decades after it left.

Eight jets from the Patrouille Acrobatique de France, an aerial display team, flew overhead trailing the NATO colors of blue and white.

The group then walked onto the French side of the bridge for a solemn ceremony to honor the men and women in uniform who have died in NATO missions and operations over the years.

Surrounded by the flags of all 28 NATO member states, a lone military bugler played a tune before the place fell silent in memory of the fallen.

The NATO alliance has grown at the summit to include two new members, Albania and Croatia. Obama noted that both have contributed troops to the Afghan mission.

Noting that Saturday marked NATO's 60th birthday, Obama said, "It's a measure of our vitality that we are still welcoming new members."

Saturday morning's ceremony over the Rhine was briefly delayed because Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was deep in conversation on his mobile phone. The other NATO leaders eventually went on without him, and he was absent for both ceremonies.

Berlusconi rejoined them in time for a group photo after the moment of silence.

After the conclusion of the summit Saturday, Obama plans to head to Prague, in the Czech Republic, the current president of the European Union.

In Prague, Obama plans to make a speech on proliferation and ridding the world of nuclear weapons. As many as 30,000 people were expected to turn out for the speech, the first major foreign policy address of Obama's presidency.
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35 arrested in alleged Puerto Rico drug ring

FBI agents and police arrested at least 35 suspects Thursday in an alleged Puerto Rican drug trafficking ring blamed for seven murders, authorities said.

The network operated out of a housing project in the southern coastal city of Guayama and sold heroin, cocaine and marijuana in cities across the U.S. Caribbean territory, according to Luis Fraticelli, the special FBI agent in charge of Puerto Rico.

Fraticelli said authorities have a total of 47 federal arrest warrants in the case, including two for suspects in the United States _ one in Ohio and another in New York. The suspects in Puerto Rico were arrested in seven cities, including the capital, San Juan.

Puerto Rican police said they plan to send personnel to watch over the housing project in Guayama and help residents.

"Once we break up a gang, it creates a vacuum and if that vacuum isn't filled immediately, what happens is another organization wants to take over that complex. We aren't going to let that happen," said island police superintendent Jose Figueroa Sancha.

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