Israel’s population reached 7.8M in 2011

JERUSALEM, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Israel’s population grew 1.8 percent to 7.8 million people in 2011, the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported.

The year-end report from the ICBS Thursday indicates 166,000 babies were born in Israel throughout 2011, with 17,500 immigrants arriving in the country, Haaretz reported.

Jews comprise 75.3 percent of Israel’s population, the report said, with 5.901 million people. Arab citizens make up another 20.5 percent, or 1.610 million.

Another 4.2 percent, or 325,000 people, is comprised of non-Arab Christians and those the Interior Ministry doesn’t classify by religion.

More Thatcher archive material released

LONDON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once considered arming police during the 1981 riots, recently released archival material indicated.

The then-prime minister’s personal file on the riots indicated she was warned in a classified Home Office report that “spontaneous disorder” was likely among the country’s ethnic populations, The Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

Historians consider the 1981 riots the worst civil disturbance in Britain since 1919, and had nothing comparable until the riots last summer.

At the time of the 1981 riots, Britain was in recession and unemployment was high, especially among the young, and black and Asian populations. Riots in Brixton, south London, lasted several days. Rioting also broke out in Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and other English cities during the summer.

The file offers a detailed picture of how Thatcher responded, including discussions with Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, the Telegraph said.

The records indicate Thatcher and Whitelaw discussed how better to equip police and briefly considered sending in troops. However, they agreed that using the army “could not be contemplated,” preferring to arm the police.

The records also showed that showed that Geoffrey Howe — Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer among other things — warned the prime minister of the need “not to over-commit scarce resources to Liverpool.”

However, Howe told the BBC Friday he didn’t recall making that argument to Thatcher and claimed he was partly responsible for introducing “enterprise zones” to help revive the area.

Howe said he didn’t think the archival material accurately reflected his conversations in 1981 over the future of regeneration in Liverpool.

“I don’t recall how that argument got into the discussion at all,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t sound very considerate.”

Charitable giving up 15 percent in December

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Charitable giving in December is up 15 percent from 2010 across the United States, says the Network for Good, a Web site for giving donations to charities.

“This year looks a little better, but not back to pre-recession levels yet,” said Katya Andresen, Network for Good’s chief strategy officer.

While one-third of all online giving happens in December, a study by Network for Good shows 22 percent happens in the last two days of the year, CNN reported Friday.

The extra end-of-year giving is attributed to donors looking for some last-minute tax savings.

“It’s traditional to think about charity in December and of course, it’s the end of the tax year,” Andresen said.

Experts say although giving is up, it’s still low compared with just a few years ago. Total charitable donations from individuals, corporations and foundations increased in 2010 to $290.9 billion, but that is below 2007’s $310.6 billion, Giving USA, a foundation that tracks charitable contributions, reported.

Geoffrey Brown, executive director of the organization, says it’s too early to say how 2011 will fare compared with last year. “Giving is probably going to be flat, if anything,” he said.

Pakistani militia targeting informants

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A militant group tied to al-Qaida is killing accused of pinpointing targets villagers in northwest Pakistan for CIA drones, authorities say.

Militant groups operating along the northwest Pakistani border with Afghanistan don’t have the capability to bring down the drones. Instead, the Los Angeles Times reports, an umbrella organization calling itself the Khorasan Mujahedin is tracking down people suspected of giving Western intelligence officers targeting information.

“In the sky there are drones and on the ground there’s the Khorasan Mujahedin,” a relative of one of the militant group’s victims was quoted as saying.

Pakistani authorities say most of the militant group’s victims are tortured into making confessions and most of them are killed.

A former Pakistani intelligence officer, who spoke with the Times on condition of anonymity, said that despite the militant threat, villagers are lured by the financial rewards.

“They want the Taliban out because their whole tribal system has been destroyed,” the former officer said. “More than 90 percent don’t want the Taliban to be ruling them.”

The Long War Journal, an online forum monitoring conflict in Central Asia, estimates at least 64 drone missile strikes hit targets in Pakistan this year, about half the total compared with 2010. Some 18 top al-Qaida figures were killed in the strikes.

Snow in Italy closes tunnel to truck traffic

AOSTA, Italy, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Heavy snow Friday halted truck traffic through a tunnel connecting Italy and France, officials said.

Cars were still able to travel through the 7.2-mile Mont-Blanc tunnel in the Alps linking Chamonix in Haute-Savoie, France, and Courmayeur in Val d’Aosta, Italy, Italy’s ANSA news agency reported.

One-third of the road freight between the two countries travels through the tunnel.

Aid workers killed in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Somalia, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders confirmed two of its staff members were killed in a shootout at its offices in the Somalia.

The aid group said a 53-year-old Belgian national and a 44-year-old Indonesian were killed during attacks on the group’s compound in Mogadishu.

“The exact circumstances of the shooting are not yet clear,” the group said in a statement. “Our priority is to take care of those most affected by this tragedy, in particular the families and the colleagues of the victims.”

It added that it was relocating “some” staff in Mogadishu for security reasons. It remained committed to carrying out humanitarian work in the city and elsewhere in the country.

One of the workers was killed during the attack and the other died later in a hospital following surgery. Both had been working for the organization for at least a decade.

Doctors Without Borders is one of the few aid organizations operating in Somalia. Al-Qaida’s affiliate al-Shabaab, in control of the country’s south, banned some humanitarian groups from working in Somalia.

Two workers with Doctors Without Borders were abducted early this year from Kenya. Kenya had sent military forces to southern Somalia in response to a rash of kidnappings of Westerners in the region.

U.S. to sell fighter jets to Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — The United States has agreed to sell advanced fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia for $30 billion, a military official said.

The deal, announced Thursday, includes the sale of 84 new F-15 fighter jets and an upgrade of 70 existing aircraft, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The agreement was reached against a backdrop of escalating tensions and rhetoric between Iran and the United States.

“This agreement reinforces the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The White House also said the agreement would generate more than 50,000 manufacturing and supplier jobs in 44 states.

The F-15s are manufactured by Boeing Co. in St. Louis.

U.S. officials sought to reassure Israel the deal with Saudi Arabia would benefit Israel’s security by strengthening allies in the region, the Journal said.

The fighter sale “will not have an impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge,” said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs.

Poll: Romney, Paul in virtual tie in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are in a virtual dead heat just days before the Iowa caucuses, a Marist-NBC News poll indicated.

Romney leads the poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers with 23 percent, followed by Paul with 21 percent as Iowa prepares for Tuesday’s first-in-the-country caucuses, results released Friday indicated.

However, results also indicated former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Gov. Rick Perry surged to within striking distance of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Paul, a congressman from Texas.

Santorum garnered 15 percent support for third, followed by Perry at 14 percent.

“There has been a lot of movement in the past month,” Dr. Lee M. Miringoff, director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said in a release. “This is a contest that is very unsettled.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has seen his popularity slip after leading the pack a month ago, was in fifth at 13 percent. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has invested a lot of time in Iowa, picked up 6 percent.

Political observers in Iowa have been watching Santorum, Perry and Bachmann because evangelical voters in Iowa haven’t yet rallied around one candidate, Marist pollsters said.

Results are based on interviews with 3,223 adults in Iowa conducted Tuesday and Wednesday. The margin of error for the total sample is 1.7 percentage points.

Pelosi’s office denies retirement rumors

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — An aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has denied a claim from a Pelosi family member that the California Democrat wants to retire.

Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra Pelosi, told the conservative Web site Big Government her mother wants to retire but has been pressured by campaign contributors to continue serving, The Hill reported Thursday.

However, the younger Pelosi said she hadn’t discussed the matter with her mother.

“I have never talked to Nancy Pelosi about any of this,” she said in a text message.

In a statement Thursday, Pelosi’s office said the report on Big Government was “totally untrue.”

“This may be wishful thinking on the part of a right-wing blog but it is totally untrue. When the day comes and Leader Pelosi’s work is done, she won’t be announcing it there,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said in a statement Thursday.

Black leaders call for Arpaio to resign

PHOENIX, Dec. 30 (UPI) — National Urban League and NAACP leaders in Phoenix have joined the Hispanic community’s call for the resignation of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The U.S. Justice Department has accused the five-term Maricopa County sheriff of racial profiling.

Black community leaders joined Councilman Michael Johnson Thursday on the steps of the federal courthouse to call for an immediate change in leadership in the Sheriff’s Office, The Arizona Republic reported.

Many of the speakers compared Arpaio to Birmingham, Ala., police officers who abused civil rights activists in the 1960s, the newspaper said.

Arpaio, 78, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent known for his get-tough stance on illegal immigrants, has refused to resign.

“They’re ganging up on me,” Arpaio said. “They know I can win next year. They think they can drive me out. It’s never going to happen.”

The Justice Department has accused Arpaio of fostering discrimination against Latino residents through the sheriff’s immigration-enforcement efforts and treatment of Hispanic inmates in Maricopa County jails.

Federal prosecutors say they can file a lawsuit under the federal Civil Rights Act if the sheriff refuses to cooperate or does not reach an agreement with federal officials.

Syria a grave concern for ICRC

GENEVA, Switzerland, Dec. 30 (UPI) — There are grave concerns about the deteriorating situation in Syria where violence is extracting a heavy toll on civilians, the Red Cross said.

The international community is assessing the effectiveness of a, Arab League monitoring team in Syria.

The team is there to ensure Damascus is complying with an agreement to pull military equipment and forces from the streets. Critics accuse the Syrian government of hiding atrocities from observers.

Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of operations for the region at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the crisis is having a major impact across the country.

“Needs are mounting rapidly, especially with winter setting in,” she said in a statement. “Fuel shortages and the difficulty of moving about freely and buying food, are among the things that make daily life ever harder.”

The ICRC expressed concern about detainees in the country. The group in September visited a Damascus prison according to the framework of confidential agreements with the Syrian government. It maintained, however, that it needs access to detainees as often as it considers necessary.

“Findings and recommendations are discussed only with the authorities concerned,” she said. “We believe that this is the best way to obtain satisfactory results.”

Egypt’s rocky road to democracy

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Egypt’s journey to democracy is proving anything but smooth as clashes between an agitated population and its temporary military rulers continue.

Human rights groups estimate about 40 people were killed last month in clashes with authorities; about 15 were said killed in Cairo just last week.

Egyptian soldiers have raided the offices of more than a dozen pro-democracy, non-governmental organizations — including three U.S. organizations — amid accusations of foreign incitement of the protests rocking the capital.

And with Egypt’s complicated election process rumbling on for months yet, the situation is unlikely to calm significantly.

“It (the raids on NGO offices) is the clearest indication yet that the Supreme Council of the Armed forces … has no intention of permitting the establishment of genuine democracy and is attempting to scapegoat civil society for its own abysmal failure to manage Egypt’s transition effectively,” David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, was quoted as saying.

Freedom House is a U.S. international organization promoting human rights and democracy. Its office in Cairo was one of about 17 raided this week by Egyptian authorities.

Egypt’s military took control of the country after President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country since 1981, resigned in February amid violent pro-democracy demonstrations and concomitant pressure from the United States — Mubarak’s long-time ally.

Although elections are taking place in Egypt — for the lower house of Parliament and later a new president — and the military has pledged to fully relinquish power to civilian authorities by the middle of next year — it is being suspected of attempting to retain its power in Egyptian society.

The protests taking place in Cairo are against military abuses of civil rights and for immediate handover of power.

Ironically, Islamist organizations which were long opposed to the Mubarak’s heavy-handed regime and played a key role in its demise, are apparently not part of the latest ground-swell of demonstrations. If the military, in reaction to civil disorder, were to cancel the balloting taking place around the country they would lose out on dominating any new, permanent civilian government.

In the first round of voting recently, Islamists won the largest vote. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood garnered 36 percent of ballots cast in the party-list vote and about 32 of the 56 individual parliamentary seats up for grabs. The more fundamentalist Salafist party Al-Nour won 24 percent of the ballots cast and five individual seats.

Secular parties and candidates trailed.

The second round of voting is taking place in mainly rural sectors, where the Islamists are again expected to do well.

Protests in one form or another have become common in post-Mubarak Egypt. The latest explosion in Cairo was sparked by military authorities breaking up a sit-in outside Cabinet offices. Severe beatings of protesters took place.

The public outrage when photographs and videos of the beatings appeared on social networking sites, then spiraled.

Military authorities apologized for the mistreatment but followed with the raid on NGO offices. The military had earlier accused foreign elements of stirring up dissent, even through the illegal funding of Egyptian political organizations.

The beating of demonstrators, particularly female demonstrators, resulted in a stern rebuke from Washington, which provides the Egyptian military with more than $1 billion in aid annually.

Meanwhile, Mubarak this week again was hauled into court in Cairo, where he faces a multitude of charges, including graft and corruption. The appearance could likely stoke further protests against the military — Mubarak’s ally and tool during his reign — as it brings more focus on the military’s past, present and future in a new Egyptian political landscape.

Italian police catch fugitive mafia member

REGGIO CALABRIA, Italy, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Italian police caught a fugitive member of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta Mafia Friday.

Antonio Franze, 32, had been on the run since he was charged with international drug trafficking last month, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

Police found Franze hiding in the home of an uncle in Gioia Tauro, Europe’s second largest container port where ‘Ndrangheta is known to be very active.

The Calabrian Mafia is Italy’s most wealthy because of its domination of the European cocaine trade.

Israeli army chief says Iran region threat

BE’ER TUVIA, Israel, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Israeli army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said Friday Iran poses a threat not only to Israel but to the entire Mideast region and beyond.

Speaking to high school students in Be’er Tuvia, Gantz said the Iranian threat can be overcome through domestic and international preparation but did not elaborate, Ynetnews reported.

“With proper international and Israeli preparations, this challenge can be met, and [allow us] to stay here as to fulfill the Zionist dream for dozens and hundreds of years to come,” he said.

Gantz said Iran is working toward a nuclear weapons program that “warrants concern,” adding, “Israel is the only country in the world which is under a threat of annihilation by a country working to that end, but the threat is not only on Israel but the entire region and other parts of the world.”

His comments came less than a week after Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi warned Israel should not attack Iran unless it “wants to commit suicide.”

Jamaicans elect Miller-Simpson as PM

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Dec. 30 (UPI) — The People’s National Party cruised to victory in Jamaica’s elections, electing Portia Simpson-Miller as prime minister and picking up 41 parliamentary seats.

Simpson-Miller, who returns as prime minister after being ousted by a Jamaica Labor Party win in 2007, extended an the olive branch after what has been a vigorous campaign, the Jamaica Observer reported Friday.

“We will be working to move this country forward to achieve growth and development and for job creation,” she said Thursday. “As we move to balance the books, we will be moving to balance people’s lives.”

She defeated Andrew Holness, who became prime minister when Bruce Golding resigned in October.

The Jamaica Labor Party won 22 legislative seats.

In his concession speech, Holness said, “The people have spoken and we are humble servants and we listen.”

Voting went smoothly, despite long lines at some polling stations, glitches in the electronic voter identification system and low voter turnout, the Observer said.

The Electoral Office said voter turnout was 48 percent.

U.S. won’t dictate to Iraq

WASHINGTON, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Washington has no intention of getting in the middle of the political turmoil gripping a post-war Iraq, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said.

Iraqi lawmakers are trading barbs following the end of the U.S. military engagement there. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants the country’s vice president arrested on terrorism charges, a move that his adversaries say is pushing the country toward civil war.

Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said Washington was encouraging Iraqi political blocs to address differences at the negotiating table.

Influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose supporters have key positions in the Iraqi government, called for new elections though others have said dialogue is the best course of action.

Nuland said that apart from encouraging political talks between rival groups in Iraq, the issue was largely an Iraqi matter they need to settle internally.

“I think we’re not going to get into the middle of this and dictate one way or the other,” she said. “Clearly, the Iraqi political groups need to sit down together and work this through in a manner that is consistent with Iraq’s constitution and their commitments to each other.”

Canadian investor mulls women-only taxis

SAINT JOHN, New Brunswick, Dec. 30 (UPI) — A Canadian entrepreneur says he thinks women in Saint John, New Brunswick, would take to taxis with female drivers, particularly Muslim customers.

Dave Barnes told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. he was doing market research in the city based on reported successes in Europe in which some female drivers would only accept female passengers.

The city has a metropolitan population of about 122,000 and Barnes said he believes it would support as many as six female-only taxis based on what women have told him.

“They’ve all had stories about getting into taxis and having an, ‘Oh my God’ moment as soon as they close the door,” he said, adding he wasn’t being disrespectful to all male drivers.

“But there are guys out there that probably shouldn’t be behind the wheel,” Barnes told the CBC.

He said his research shows in undisclosed European cities with growing Muslim populations, as in Saint John, the concept was being well received.

“I think that’s a target market for me here,” he said.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms would permit such female-only service.

Tymoshenko sent to penal colony

KIEV, Ukraine, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Decisions regarding the fate of jailed Ukrainian former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko raise serious questions about the rule of law, London said.

Minister for Europe David Lidington said a decision by a court of appeals in Kiev upholding the seven-year prison sentence for Tymoshenko was an assault to justice. The trial, he said, was “subject to numerous and serious violations of legal principles.”

Tymoshenko, a leader of the country’s Orange Revolution in 2004, was charged with abusing her authority in a 2009 deal with Russian energy company Gazprom.

Tymoshenko was transferred Friday to the Kachanovskaya penal colony, Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti reports.

Media reports suggested she was transferred from her former cell in a wheelchair, though the Russian report said prison doctors said her health wouldn’t affect her ability to move from Kiev.

Her Western allies say the charges filed against her are part of a political ruse by the pro-Kremlin government of Viktor Yanukovych, a charge his administration denies.

Tymoshenko lost a bruising fight for president to Yanukovych in 2010.

Security high for Times Square ball drop

NEW YORK, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Security will be tight in New York’s Times Square this weekend as crowds fill the streets to welcome the New Year, police officials said.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said he plans to deploy thousands of resources, including 35 mounted horses, bomb-sniffing dogs, and uniformed as well as plainclothes officers on Saturday, CNN reported.

“We operate under the assumption that we’re at the top of the terrorist target list, and we’ve had 14 attempts at terrorist-type attacks,” the commissioner said.

Revelers must pass through a security checkpoint system before entering Times Square, authorities said. Checkpoints will be positioned at each of the 16 entrances to the site, and cameras and helicopters will blanket the square as celebrants watch the glitzy ball drop to signal the new year.

The Joint Operations Center “will be activated, where we have representatives from units throughout the department, and federal, state and local agencies,” Kelly said, “so you can get face-to-face coordination, which is a very important aspect of what we do.”

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to watch the ball drop, Times Square’s official Web site said.

“I think it’s something you have to do at least once,” Kelly said. “It’s sort of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s a happy event. It’s an exciting event.”

Sept. 11 museum delayed by budget dispute

NEW YORK, Dec. 30 (UPI) — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says work on the National September 11 Memorial Museum is at a standstill because of a budget dispute..

Bloomberg said a budgetary dispute between the city and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has delayed the museum project, which was scheduled to be completed in time for the 11th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks that brought down the World Trade Center, CNN reported.

“There’s no chance of it being open on time. Work has basically stopped,” Bloomberg was quoted as saying Thursday. “We have a legitimate claim against the port authority for delays for roughly $140 million, which has increased our cost.”

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum Foundation announced Thursday that more than a million people have visited the memorial plaza at the site since it opened in September.

Turkey regrets deadly border strike

ANKARA, Turkey, Dec. 30 (UPI) — Turkish officials expressed regret over airstrikes along the southern border that left 35 villagers dead in a raid that targeted Kurdish rebels.

Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, said those killed in the airstrikes this week were cigarette smugglers, not militants with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

He said the attack followed information collected with surveillance drones that indicated Kurdish militant activity in the area. Celik said the government was investigating the incident, adding Ankara was saddened by the loss of life, Turkey’s daily newspaper Today’s Zaman reports.

Leaders from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party described the attack as a “massacre,” equating Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the Syrian president.

Kurdish groups note that villagers living along the southern border with Iraq rely on smuggling for much of their income.

Celik added that intelligence errors were likely behind the attack, noting the government wouldn’t coverup any wrongdoings.

The military expressed condolences for those killed in the attack.

“We wish God’s mercy upon our citizens who lost their lives in the incident that took place on the night of Dec. 28, 2011, and we also convey our condolences to their families,” the statement read.