Agent Orange probe in S. Korea finished

SEOUL, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A U.S.-South Korean team said it found no evidence of Agent Orange during its probe of claims the toxic defoliant was buried on a U.S. facility in South Korea.

Army Col. Joseph F. Birchmeier, the lead U.S. investigator, said the investigation found no evidence Agent Orange was buried on Camp Carroll and discovered no risk to public health on the Army post, the Pentagon said Friday in a release.

“I want you to know that we have found no definitive evidence that Agent Orange was buried or stored on Camp Carroll,” Birchmeier said during a joint news conference with Gon Ok, a biomedical professor at Pokyong National University in Busan, South Korea.

The investigation began in May following a report by a Phoenix television station during which U.S. veterans claimed they buried Agent Orange on the military complex in southeastern South Korea in 1978.

A review of documents indicated all 380 barrels of Agent Orange brought to South Korea in 1968 were used by the Korean army to reduce areas where the enemy could hide inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the Pentagon said.

“Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our people and our Korean neighbors in the surrounding communities,” said Army Brig. Gen. David Conboy, deputy commanding general for 8th Army. “This joint investigation was thorough, scientific and complete, and I’m happy to report that there is no threat to public health and no evidence that Agent Orange was buried on the post.”

String of arsons hits Hollywood

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Nineteen fires were set early Friday in Hollywood and West Hollywood, including one at the former home of Jim Morrison, Los Angeles fire officials said.

The fires were started in parked cars, the Los Angeles Times reported. In some cases, the fires spread to nearby buildings.

At the house on Love Street in West Hollywood where Morrison once lived a fire that started in a parked Mazda Miata spread to the front of the building, officials said. The blaze was extinguished in what officials called a “major save” because of the 90-year-old house’s age and its location on an overgrown hillside.

Morrison, lead singer with the Doors, lived in the house with his partner, Pamela Courson, before moving to Paris. His song, “Love Street,” was inspired by the house.

Investigators said the first fires were reported just after midnight in West Hollywood. Calls continued to come in through the night.

On Thursday, three fires were started before dawn in a five-block stretch of Sunset Boulevard. A suspect, Samuel Arrington, 22, of Los Angeles was arrested.

Investigators are unsure if the new string of fires were set by copycats or if they involve the same arsonist as those on Thursday.

Wisconsin man killed when train hits truck

IXONIA, Wis., Dec. 30 (UPI) — A 44-year-old Wisconsin man was killed when an Amtrak train hit his truck at a railroad crossing Thursday, authorities said.

Michael Dragan of Oconomowoc, Wis., had driven down a private driveway that crosses railroad tracks in Ixonia in southern Wisconsin when the train hit his 2007 truck about 4:42 p.m., Jefferson County Sheriff Paul Milbrath told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Dragan was pronounced dead at the scene.

Nobody was injured on the Amtrak train, a westbound Empire Builder carrying 326 passengers, Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham said.

The train, which was en route from Chicago to Seattle, stopped at the scene about four hours while authorities investigated the crash.

U.S., S. Korea pledge cooperative efforts

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — U.S. Defense chief Leon Panetta and his South Korean counterpart pledged to work to stabilize the region after North Korea’s leadership change, officials said.

Pentagon press secretary George Little said Panetta and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin “shared the view that peace and stability on the Korean peninsula is our overarching priority and agreed to maintain close cooperation and coordination in the weeks and months ahead” during a telephone conversation.

The two leaders spoke for about 20 minutes Thursday, Little said in a Pentagon release.

North Korea conducted a state funeral Wednesday for Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack Dec. 17. Kim’s third son, Kim Jong Un, was proclaimed the country’s new leader Thursday.

The Pentagon said it hasn’t seen any North Korean provocation since the elder Kim’s death, and the U.S. alert level for troops stationed in South Korea hasn’t been raised.

Doctors in Greece threaten strike

ATHENS, Greece, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Doctors in Greece’s social security system say they’ll strike next week and urged private doctors to join over changes in the way insured patients are treated.

Beginning Jan. 1, Greeks insured through a number of social security funds will be treated by the newly formed National Organization for Healthcare Provision, known as EOPPY.

Doctors working for the main social security fund IKA, who are employed on a freelance basis, say they fear that if they lose their patients to doctors working for EOPPY, they will also lose their jobs, ekathimerini reported.

The IKA doctors say they will strike in an effort to convince the government to allow all doctors, not just those listed with EOPPY, to be able to see patients and issue them prescriptions.

In a statement, EOPPY said doctors who do not work for the organization would still be able to treat patients and write prescriptions.

Government officials said the changes to the health system are part of Greece’s efforts to rein in public spending.

British newspapers accused of sexism

LONDON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A coalition of women’s groups says British newspapers are sexist and create a dangerous environment for women.

The groups End Violence Against Women, Equality Now, Object and Eaves says the government panel investigating British media ethics should shift its focus from alleged phone hacking to issues surrounding the way women are portrayed by the media, The Guardian reported Friday.

The End Violence Against Women coalition offered the Leveson inquiry examples of “poor reporting of violence against women stories which were either intrusive, inaccurate, which misrepresented or were misogynistic, victim-blaming or condoning violence against women and girls.”

While the coalition was critical of the British newspaper industry in general, it was most fiercely critical of tabloids such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun for features and photos that objectify young women, The Guardian said.

Anna van Heeswijk of the group Object said the sexualized stories and images portrayed in the tabloids “grooms boys and men into thinking it is acceptable to view and treat women and girls as sex objects. This portrayal of women is incompatible with a socially responsible press.”

Herbert Nipson, former Ebony editor, dies

CHICAGO, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Herbert Nipson, who spent almost 40 years with Ebony magazine, including 15 as its executive editor, has died, the Chicago-based publication says.

Linda Johnson Rice, chairwoman of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing, announced that Nipson, 95, died of natural causes Dec. 10, the Chicago Tribune reported. He was at his home in Albuquerque, N.M., where he spent his winters.

During his time with the magazine, Nipson reached out to a broader audience. While Ebony was founded as a magazine for urban blacks, Nipson included articles aimed at those in rural areas and expanded coverage of the arts, entertainment and sports.

“Nip, as we all knew him, was an extraordinary presence for as long as I can remember going to the Johnson Publishing Co. offices.,” Rice, daughter of the company’s founder, said. “He was a guiding force in shaping Ebony. His vision was essential to making the magazine what it is today.”

Nipson grew up in Pennsylvania and majored in journalism at Penn State. He became the first black member of the journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi, now the Society of Professional Journalists, although his daughter, Maria Nipson, said he later found out he was admitted only because the group was unaware of his race.

After serving as an Army driving instructor during World War II, Nipson received a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa. He joined Ebony in 1949.

Nipson collected art and served for many years as president of the board of the Southside Community Arts Center in Chicago.

In his last years, Nipson spent summers with his son in Cambridge, Mass., and winters in Albuquerque where his daughter lived.

Indonesia to address overpopulation

JAKARTA, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Indonesia says it’s launching an ambitious family-planning program in an effort to slow population growth in the capital of Jakarta, home to 9.6 million people.

Asep Syarifudin, head of the Jakarta Community Empowerment Agency, said the immediate goal was to keep population growth in the capital, the most populous city in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia, below 10 percent next year, the Jakarta Globe reported Thursday.

So far only 501,787 people had joined the family-planning program, Syarifudin said, a majority of them women who had agreed to take birth control pills.

About 37,000 men had received free vasectomies as part of the program, he said.

“We have done lots of things to bring in new participants. We have prepared all the facilities necessary to provide free family planning,” he said.

The Jakarta government is spending $1.3 million this year for the program in cooperation with a number of state and private hospitals and health clinics.

January is slavery, trafficking prevention month

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — U.S. President Obama proclaimed January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, urging people to know what they can do to end modern slavery.

“During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we stand with all those who are held in compelled service,” Obama said in the proclamation issued Friday. “[We] recognize the people, organizations, and government entities that are working to combat human trafficking; and we recommit to bringing an end to this inexcusable human rights abuse.”

Human trafficking endangers the lives of millions of people worldwide and “knows no borders,” Obama said.

He said his administration will continue to implement its strategy to combat human trafficking in the United States by working to protect the victims, prosecute the traffickers and prevent human rights abuses by raising public awareness and addressing “the root causes of modern slavery.”

“The steadfast defense of human rights is an essential part of our national identity, and as long as individuals suffer the violence of slavery and human trafficking, we must continue the fight,” Obama said.

Chimp starts his own fires and cooks

DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A chimpanzee living in Iowa knows how to use tools and can even start fires and cook, animal researchers say.

Kanzi, a male bonobo chimp, lives at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where scientists taught him to use matches.

Now Kanzi enjoys roasting marshmallows over an open fire and pan-frying hamburgers, the New York Daily News reported Friday.

“Kanzi makes fire because he wants to. He used to watch the film ‘Quest for Fire’ when he was very young, which was about early man struggling to control fire,” trust scientist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh said.

“He watched it spellbound over and over hundreds of times.”

The ability to control fire was a major evolutionary step that helped improve humans’ diets and led to the development of larger brains, researchers said.

Chimpanzees may not be so far behind: Kanzi is reportedly teaching his son Teco how to make fires, too.

Blast kills nine, injures 12 in Pakistan

QUETTA, Pakistan, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A powerful bomb went off in Quetta, Pakistan, near the home of former federal minister Naseer Mengal Friday, killing nine and injuring 12, officials said.

Police cordoned off the blast site and the injured were taken to a local hospital, while firefighters doused the flames, DawnNews reported.

Witnesses said windows of nearby buildings were broken by the blast and that many houses were damaged by the fire.

Italian police seize fireworks

ROME, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Police in Italy said they seized thousands of illegal fireworks across the country ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The police sweeps came as numerous cities, including Milan, Palermo and Venice, have banned fireworks, Italy’s ANSA news agency reported Friday.

Each year, fireworks cause numerous injuries, including burns and mutilations, Italian police say.

Police seized 4 tons of fireworks at a clandestine fireworks factory in Naples, where they arrested one man, and discovered another fireworks factory in Salerno whose owner was cited for breaking the law, ANSA said.

Another man was arrested for alleged possession of about 350 pounds of illegal fireworks at San Giorgio a Cremano outside Naples.

Authorities also said about 660 pounds of fireworks were found under stairs in a house in Lecce in Puglia and a couple was cited, while a toy shop owner in Castelfiorentino near Florence was cited for alleged possession of about 850 pounds of fireworks. And police reported a man was caught with about 1,200 pounds of illegal fireworks on a highway near Arezzo.

Most of the powerful and illegal fireworks seized by Italian police each year are made in China, ANSA said.

Nigerian mosque target of bomb attack

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Dec. 30 (UPI) — An explosion near a mosque in the troubled northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri has killed four people, witnesses reported.

Nigerian army spokesman Maj. Gen. Raphael Isa, in an interview with the BBC, blamed the Islamist group Boko Haram.

The group, which wants to institute strict Shariah law in the country, has been accused of a number of attacks in the northeast of the country, with thousands of people fleeing their homes in Maiduguri and other cities attacked by the group.

Boko Haram is suspected of targeting a number of churches on Christmas Day with bombings that killed at least 42 people.

Ongoing sectarian violence has plagued Nigeria, divided between a largely Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.

Nigeria’s main Christian group has warned that the country’s Christians may have to defend themselves if the security forces cannot protect them.

Poll: GOP given edge for White House win

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — U.S. voters give the edge to Republicans to control the White House and Congress after the 2012 elections, a Rasmussen Reports poll released Friday indicates.

Of likely voters 47 percent said they thought the Republican candidate was likely to beat President Obama, while 39 percent said they expected Obama to win re-election. Fourteen percent said they were undecided.

Voters also gave the edge to the GOP to win control of the U.S. Senate and retain its majority in the House of Representatives, Rasmussen Reports said.

The Iowa caucuses kick off the primary cycle Tuesday.

Results are based on a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters conducted Tuesday and Wednesday. The margin of error is 3 percentage points.

Riyadh silencing dissent, HRW says

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Saudi Arabia in 2011 dismissed efforts at reform and instead turned to silence opposition voices in the country, Human Rights Watch said.

“Saudi Arabia is not immune to the Arab Spring,” Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Friday from Beirut.

The rights organization said reformists had several protests this month despite a March ban on demonstrations. Authorities have arrested scores of people engaged in a silent protest in Riyadh to demonstrate against the detention of cleric Yusuf al-Ahmad, jailed in July for expressed solidarity with detainees.

“In 2011, the Saudi government shed all pretense of reform and become the kingdom of silence,” Wilcke said.

The criticism follows an announcement from the U.S. government of the sale of nearly $30 billion in F-15 fighter jets to the Saudi government.

“The United States is firmly committed to the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as we have been for nearly seven decades,” said James Miller, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published a 71-page report detailing a “new wave of repression” in the Saudi kingdom since the start of the Arab Spring this year.

Amnesty International says the crackdown is related to a “secret draft anti-terror law” in Saudi Arabia that equates peaceful dissent to terrorism.

NATO coalition at risk from French vote on Armenian deaths

PARIS, Dec. 30 (UPI) — NATO’s multifaceted partnership with eastern member Turkey is at risk after Ankara slapped sanctions on Paris in response to a French Parliament vote criminalizing denial of genocide, including the deaths of Armenians during World War I.

The vote threatened to cause a split within President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe reported calling the vote useless and stupid.

“What I hope now is that our Turkish friends do not overreact about the French National Assembly decision,” Juppe said. “We have lots of things to work on together.”

However, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a freeze on economic, military and political cooperation with France, a measure timed with ongoing NATO consultations on what to do with Syria amid mounting violence there, with Iran amid a tense stand-off over its nuclear program and the Strait of Hormuz oil waterway in the Persian Gulf, and with Iraq over a perceived Iranian threat after the U.S. pullout.

Turkey is outside the European Union but is NATO’s key partner in the Middle East. Its bases are regularly used by NATO forces for operations in the region.

Erdogan accused Sarkozy of seeking populist appeal in the hope of re-election in April presidential race.

“Efforts of gaining votes using Turcophobia and Islamophobia just to win the presidential elections in France for personal ambitions raises concerns, not only in the name of France, but also in the name of all Europe and universal values of Europe,” Erdogan said.

Around 500,000 citizens of Armenian descent are seen as a key source of support for Sarkozy and his party ahead of presidential and legislative elections in April and June next year.

The law will make denial of any mass killings that are recognized by the state as genocide a crime punishable by a one-year prison sentence and a $58,000 fine.

It will put the controversy over the Armenian killings on a par with punishment for denial of the Holocaust and the deaths of Jews, gypsies and other minorities under Nazi Germany.

So far only the Holocaust and the Armenian deaths are recognized by France as genocide, and punishments apply to denial of the Holocaust.

About 20 other countries, including Italy, Canada and Russia have formally recognized genocide against the Armenians.

Turkey says it cannot be held accountable for events in the Ottoman Empire. It also disputes the deaths of Christian Armenians by Ottoman Turks as a systematic genocide, the numbers of deaths cited in claims and counter claims and maintains that Turks and other nationalities also suffered during the conflict.

Algeria joined the escalating war of words, calling on France to apologize for what it termed genocide of its people during the French occupation. Erdogan said evidence pointed to French occupation forces using ovens to exterminate Algerians en masse, for which he said an apology was overdue.

It’s the third time France has faced Turkish ire over the Armenian genocide controversy, each time losing trade and political privileges.

French-Turkish trade this year exceeded $13.5 billion. In 2001, when France recognized the Armenian deaths as genocide, it lost 40 percent of its exports to Turkey. In 2006, Turkey responded to a similar genocide bill in the National Assembly by freezing military ties with France. That bill was eventually dropped by the French Senate.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero sought to placate Ankara, saying the bill wasn’t a Sarkozy initiative and Turkey was bound by bilateral and international accords and couldn’t impose a trade embargo. Officials in Ankara said a boycott of France would go ahead.

The vote is up for review in the National Assembly before it goes to the Senate next year.

Unlike recession-bound EU states, Turkey is having growth rates in excess of 8 percent. The eurozone crisis has turned many Turks away from the idea of joining the EU, which France, and several other EU members, firmly opposes anyway.

U.N. tries to block South Sudan violence

PIBOR, South Sudan, Dec. 30 (UPI) — U.N. troops moved into the town of Pibor in South Sudan to prevent an attack by armed members of the Lou Nuer ethnic group, officials said Friday.

Tens of thousands of people from the rival Murle group have fled, fearing an attack from some 6,000 armed men who were marching through Jonglei state, burning homes and seizing cattle, the BBC reported.

Hilde Johnson, head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan, said troops were being reinforced in key areas of Jonglei to deter violence.

“Time is now running out and the government needs to redouble its efforts to prevent a tragedy and avert large-scale violence,” Johnson said in a statement earlier this week. “All South Sudanese people must now put peace and stability in their new and independent country above any other concerns and interests.”

The U.N. mission in South Sudan said cattle rustling and demand for high bridal dowries have exacerbated existing ethnic tensions in Jonglei.

South Sudan became independent from Sudan in July.

More than 1,000 people are estimated to have been killed in ethnic clashes within South Sudan this year, with Jonglei one of the states most affected by the violence that has displaced thousands of people from their homes, the U.N. News Service said.

Turkey says it regrets civilian Kurd death

ISTANBUL, Turkey, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Turkey is investigating the deaths of 35 Kurdish civilians in a Turkish air strike near the border with Iraq, officials said.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul the incident was “unfortunate and saddening,” the BBC reported Friday. He told reporters surveillance footage of the air raid is being examined, Hurriyet Daily News said Friday.

The military said it is investigating the attack near the village of Uludere in Sirnak province in southeastern Turkey that had targeted suspected Kurdish militants. The victims turned out to be smugglers, not rebels, the BBC said.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party said the victims were civilians aged between 16 and 20.

Turkey said the the raid was launched following information that suspected militants were planning to attack Turkish security bases.

Security concerns grave for South Sudan

JUBA, South Sudan, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A U.N. team operating in South Sudan faces “enormous” challenges in trying to avert an assault by members of an ethnic group in Jonglei state, an official said.

The United Nations announced it was sending reinforcements to the town of Pibor to counter an expected attack by the Lou Nuer ethnic group, the BBC reports.

Lise Grande, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, told the British broadcaster the United Nations was “very concerned” about pending conflict.

“The United Nations is facing enormous logistical challenges,” she said. “We still have no military aircraft, only civilian helicopters.”

Ethnic conflict in Jonglei claimed at least 1,000 lives in recent months. The conflict was triggered by cattle raids and high bridal dowries. Most of the victims are women and children.

South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar has been engaged in efforts to calm ethnic tensions in the region but fears of attacks by Lou Nuer fighters is escalating.

This week, the town of Lukangol was razed by Lou Nuer fighters, leaving about 20,000 people displaced.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan notes Jonglei, the center of civil conflict in Sudan in the 1980s, has experienced the worst of the ethnic violence since South Sudan became an independent country in July.

Many Japanese death row inmates on meds

TOKYO, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Nearly half of death row inmates in Japan are on full-time medication for mental stress, the Justice Ministry said.

A ministry official said 56 of 124 inmates on death row have complained of psychological symptoms such as insomnia and hallucinations and have been continuously treated with drugs, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported Friday.

Such symptoms can occur because of confinement in closed spaces for a long period of time, and since some inmates have been detained for more than 30 years it is suspected the symptoms are the result of their lengthy detention, experts said.

Under Japanese law, if a death row inmate is diagnosed as insane, the justice minister will order the suspension of the execution.

However, a high-ranking ministry official has said no inmates currently on death row have been so diagnosed.

“As far as we could tell, there are no death row inmates who are insane,” the official said.

Discipline a concern among Ivorian forces

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Members of the Ivorian military are accused of acts of sexual violence and torture in several parts of the country, a U.N. envoy said.

Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara set up the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, known by its French initials FRCI, in March. The force features fighters loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo and former pro-Ouattara rebels.

Kenneth Blackman, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, said FRCI fighters were accused of atrocities in several parts of the country.

Four people were killed in the southern town of Sikensi during ethnic clashes involved the FRCI, the mission said. Blackman said Ivorian authorities are working to improve the security sector in the country and overall discipline within the FRCI ranks.

“UNOCI welcomes any action likely to improve the security situation, to strengthen discipline within the FRCI and the disarmament drive,” Blackman said in a statement.

Ivory Coast was pushed to the brink of civil war after Gbagbo refused to stand down following November presidential elections that Ouattara won. That election was meant to unite a country divided by an earlier civil war and Ouattara has an uphill battle with post-election reconciliation.

Gbagbo is awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity committed after the election.