S&P 500 finishes at 5-year high on economic data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index ended at a five-year high on Friday, lifted by reports showing employers kept up a steady pace of hiring workers and the vast services sector expanded at a brisk rate.

The gains on the S&P 500 pushed the index to its highest close since December 2007 and its biggest weekly gain since December 2011.

Most of the gains came early in the holiday-shortened week, including the largest one-day rise for the index in more than a year on Wednesday after politicians struck a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> gained 43.85 points, or 0.33 percent, to 13,435.21. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> rose 7.10 points, or 0.49 percent, to 1,466.47. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> edged up 1.09 points, or 0.04 percent, to 3,101.66.

For the week, the S&P gained 4.6 percent, the Dow rose 3.8 percent and the Nasdaq jumped 4.8 percent to post their largest weekly percentage gains in more than a year.

The CBOE Volatility index <.vix>, a measure of investor anxiety, dropped for a fourth straight session, giving the index a weekly decline of nearly 40 percent, its biggest weekly fall ever. The close of 13.83 on the VIX marks its lowest level since August.

In Friday's economic reports, the Labor Department said non-farm payrolls grew by 155,000 jobs last month, slightly below November's level. Gains were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to healthcare.

Also serving to boost equities was data from the Institute for Supply Management showing U.S. service sector activity expanding the most in 10 months.

With the S&P 500 index at a five-year closing high, analysts said any gains above the index's intraday high near 1,475 in September may be harder to come by.

"We are getting to a point where we need a strong catalyst, which could be earnings, it could be three months of good economic data, it could be a variety of things," said Adam Thurgood, managing director at HighTower Advisors in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"What is going on right now is this conflicting view of fundamentals look pretty good and improving, and then you've got these negative tail risks that could blow everything up," Thurgood said.

He referred to "a fiscal superstorm brewing" of issues still left unresolved in Washington, including tough federal budget cuts and the need to raise the government's debt ceiling all within a couple of months.

The rise in payrolls shown by the jobs data did not make a dent in the U.S. unemployment rate still at 7.8 percent.

A Reuters poll on Friday of economists at Wall Street's top financial institutions showed that most expect the Fed in 2013 to end the program with which it bought Treasury debt in an effort to stimulate the economy.

A drop in Apple Inc shares of 2.6 percent to $528.36 kept pressure on the Nasdaq.

Adding to concerns about Apple's ability to produce more innovative products, rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd is expected to widen its lead over Apple in global smartphone sales this year with growth of 35 percent. Market researcher Strategy Analytics said Samsung had a broad product lineup.

Eli Lilly and Co was among the biggest boost's to the S&P, up 3.7 percent to $51.56 after the pharmaceuticals maker said it expects its 2013 earnings to increase to $3.75 to $3.90 per share, excluding items, from $3.30 to $3.40 per share in 2012.

Fellow drugmaker Johnson & Johnson rose 1.2 percent to $71.55 after Deutsche Bank upgraded the Dow component to a "Buy" from a "Hold" rating. The NYSEArca pharmaceutical index <.drg> climbed 0.6 percent.

Shares of Mosaic Co gained 3.3 percent to $58.62. Excluding items, the fertilizer producer's quarterly earnings beat analysts' expectations, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Volume was modest with about 6.07 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, slightly below the 2012 daily average of 6.42 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,287 to 701, while on the Nasdaq, advancers beat decliners 1,599 to 866.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Kenneth Barry)

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Manziel leads A&M to Cotton Bowl rout of Sooners

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — At one point early in the Cotton Bowl, with "Johnny B. Goode" blaring through the stadium speakers, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel peeked up at the accompanying highlights on the huge video board hanging over the field.

Texas A&M's exciting dual-threat quarterback known as Johnny Football sure puts on a show worth watching.

"Best player I've ever played. He does so many good things. He's got magic," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He'll have a chance to win four (Heismans) if he stays healthy."

Manziel tiptoed down the sideline for a 23-yard TD on the game's opening drive and went on to an FBS bowl record for quarterbacks with 229 yards rushing on 17 carries. He also set a Cotton Bowl record with 516 total yards as the 10th-ranked Aggies beat No. 12 Oklahoma 41-13 on Friday night to wrap up their first SEC season.

With first-year coach Kevin Sumlin and their young star quarterback after leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, the Aggies (11-2) overwhelming won the only bowl game matching teams from those two power conferences. They won 11 games for the first time since 1998, their only Big 12 title season.

The Aggies never trailed while winning their last six games and became the first SEC team with more than 7,000 total yards — 7,261 after gaining 633 in the Cotton Bowl.

"It's huge for this program, and for me especially, with the kind of woes A&M has had over the past decade or however long it's been since they had 11 wins," Manziel said. "For us to get up tonight and watch them battle back, it's good when we strike first. That's what we like to do. It was good to do that and not really look back."

Texas A&M led by only a point at halftime, but scored on its first three drives of the second half — on drives of 91 and 89 yards before Manziel threw a short pass to Ryan Swope on fourth-and-5 that turned into a 33-yard TD and a 34-13 lead.

Oklahoma (10-3), which like the Aggies entered the game with a five-game winning streak, went three-and-out on its first three drives after halftime in what was quarterback Landry Jones' 50th and final career start.

"Feel just disappointed that he's going out this way, getting beat like that," Sooners center Gabe Ikard said.

Jones completed 35 of 48 passes for 278 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He won 39 games and three bowls for the Sooners, in a career that started on the same field in the 2009 season opener when he replaced injured Heisman winner Sam Bradford in the first college game at Cowboys Stadium.

But Jones missed out becoming only the third NCAA quarterback to go 4-0 as a starter in bowl games.

"It was obvious tonight that we didn't play the way we should have played," said Jones, whose frustration was evident when he yelled at a teammate after a failed fourth-down play. "We couldn't run it. We couldn't throw it. It happens, you know."

SEC teams have won the last five Cotton Bowls, all against Big 12 teams, and nine out of 10. That included Texas A&M's loss to LSU only two years ago.

It had been six weeks since the Aggies played their last game, and four weeks since Manziel became the first freshman to win college football's highest individual award.

Manziel got it started with an electrifying 24-yard run on third down on the opening drive. Then on a third-and-10, Manziel rolled to his left and took off, juked around a defender and got near the sideline. He tiptoed to stay in bounds and punctuated his 23-yard score with a high-step over the pylon for a quick lead.

Officials reviewed the play to make sure he did stay in bounds, and the replays showed clearly that he did.

"There is too much talk about how you perform after the Heisman and about the layoff and all of that," said Manziel, who set an SEC record with 4,600 total yards in the regular season. "There wasn't anything holding us back. No rust, there was no nothing. We played as a unit."

The chants of "S-E-C! S-E-C!" began after Swope's TD catch with 4 minutes left in the third quarter. They got louder and longer after that, and Manziel spread both his arms out and ran off the field like he was flying.

Oklahoma was in the Cotton Bowl for only the second time. It was the first bowl matchup between the former Big 12 rivals, but the 17th consecutive season they have played each other.

The Sooners had won 11 of 13 in the series since Bob Stoops became their coach. That included a 77-0 Oklahoma win in 2003 that was the most-lopsided loss in Texas A&M history.

Sumlin was the A&M offensive coordinator in 2002 when the Aggies upset the top-ranked Sooners. The next year, Sumlin was hired by Stoops as an assistant, and he stayed there five seasons before going to Houston as head coach and now the Aggies.

"I think tonight was really indicative of this season," Sumlin said. "It's one of the teams I thought in the country that truly got better every week."

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Feds: Chevron refinery crews may have damaged pipe

RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) — Chevron firefighters responding to a small California refinery leak last summer may have accidentally punctured a main pipeline before a massive blaze, federal investigators said.

A crude oil unit of the Richmond refinery burned on Aug. 6 and sent a cloud of gas and black smoke over residential areas. Thousands of people sought medical treatment, complaining of eye irritation and problems breathing. The unit remains closed.

A metallurgical report showed the 40-year-old pipe that failed was initially weakened by the heavy sulfur content of the crude oil being pumped through it, the San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/VmiRkU ) reported.

After a small leak sent hydrocarbons into the air, a small flash fire was put out. But a larger gash in the pipe released a bigger cloud of flammable gas, leading to the larger conflagration, the newspaper reported Friday.

The federal investigation found the pipe appeared to have been punctured from the outside.

Investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board are examining firefighter tools to determine if the line was accidentally damaged while they tore away insulation.

Investigators believe the fire could have started regardless of whether firefighters worsened the leak, but the tool damage could have been an aggravating factor.

Sean Comey, a spokesman for San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron Corp., said in an email to The Associated Press that the company is working closely with all investigations and conducting its own probe.

The company still believes it the crude unit damaged in the fire will be back online sometime during the first quarter of 2013.

The rebuilding was delayed after Richmond city officials looked to independent consultants to confirm that Chevron was replacing the damaged equipment with the best possible technology.

Chevron threatened to lay off more than 600 workers if it failed to get the needed permits for reconstruction. The city approved the project last month.


Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com

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Polar ends of fight for female equality

Hillary Clinton in Kolkata, India, last May. Clinton said that women still suffered from a 'glass ceiling' in politics.


  • Frida Ghitis: Hillary Clinton illness and New Delhi rape tell different stories about state of women

  • She says women's equality faces sharp divide; some ascend, most kept powerless

  • She says Egypt's new constitution presents time-bomb for new oppression of women

  • Ghitis: Progress for women needs strong legislation, education, sometimes protests

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- As the New Year approached, millions anxiously followed the news from two very different parts of the world about two very different women -- women whose lives somehow touched us, whose fate seemed, somehow, linked to all of us.

The world held its breath when word came that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was hospitalized in New York. The news arrived at a time when we were trying to absorb, with profound sadness, a seemingly unrelated drama unfolding thousands of miles away. In New Delhi, a 23-year-old woman, a university student on her way home after watching a movie with her boyfriend, was brutally raped and beaten by a group of men. She later died from her injuries.

Frida Ghitis

Frida Ghitis

The parallel stories point to a sharp divide in the worldwide struggle for women's equality. While women have made major strides, in some cases reaching the pinnacle of power, the most fundamental human rights -- such as freedom to go outside without risking harassment and physical attack -- elude millions, and full equality remains an unreached goal for most.

iReport: 'She could have been me'

Clinton, one of the world's most powerful women and an icon of the global fight for women's equality, has returned home and doctors say they expect a full recovery. In India, the plight of an anonymous woman nicknamed "Nirbhaya," Sanskrit for dauntless, has become a turning point for the country. (That we don't use Nirbhaya's real name proves the grotesque reality that being raped remains a source of shame for the victim.)

Nirbhaya's ashes have been scattered, and it seems her death was not in vain. The attack sent tens of thousands of people -- men and women -- into New Delhi's streets and pulled the thick cover from India's unspeakable rape statistics. Most rapes go unreported for good reason. Of the more than 600 cases filed with the Delhi police last year, only one resulted in conviction. Powerless rape victims often resort to suicide.

News: Clinton's future 'as good as her past,' docs say

The contrast could not be sharper with the woman many call simply Hillary. Speculation about whether she will run for president in 2016 is unending. The day she was hospitalized with a blood clot, we heard that she again came in first in Gallup's Most Admired Woman poll, finishing at the top for 11 years in a row and a total of 17 times since 1993, more than anyone in Gallup's history.

She is probably the world's best-known woman and unquestionably one of the most influential. But she is only one of many who have reached so far. Women lead some of the globe's biggest, most important countries. Chancellor Angela Merkel heads the government of Germany, Julia Gillard leads Australia, Dilma Rousseff is president of Brazil, and the list goes on.

American voters just elected 20 women to the Senate, the largest number in history. And yet, that's just 20% of the seats. It's sad we find this an accomplishment worth celebrating.

The push for equality has unleashed push-back. Rape, we are told, is about power. In traditional societies, men see improvements in the status of women as a challenge to their own. Sexual assaults by gangs of self-congratulating, hyperventilating men, whether in New Delhi, in Cairo's Tahrir Square or somewhere in Somalia, amount to chest-pounding assertions of dominance from fearful, cowardly individuals. In countries with strong laws and changing attitudes about women, the number of rapes has been plummeting.

Opinion: End global rape culture

Then there are the murders and attempted murders. Last year we saw Pakistan's Taliban try to kill Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl who demanded nothing more than the right to an education. And last month, in neighboring Afghanistan, gunmen murdered Najia Sediqi, the provincial director of women's affairs.

Between the two extremes in women's status, we have a much less dramatic -- but still crucial -- struggle.

The women of Egypt, who stood on the front lines of the revolution, will now have to live with a new constitution that commits the state to "preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family" and vaguely notes the "duties of a woman toward her family," opening the door to who-knows-what efforts by the state to keep women in their place.

In the United States, where progress is indisputable in so many areas, women still make, in the aggregate, 76 cents for every dollar men earn.

Inequality is pervasive in areas that are subtly important. Despite having a female secretary of State, and even, possibly, a female secretary of Defense on the horizon, Washington remains a "city of men," as the writer Micah Zenko noted, with women woefully underrepresented in the corridors of power, in think tanks and in academia.

Women's minds and ideas don't receive an equal hearing on the national stage partly because, as one survey showed, only 20% of all op-eds are written by women, and just 15% of columns dealing with foreign policy and security issues.

Opinion: House GOP failed women on Violence Against Women Act

Every women walks on the path laid painstakingly and deliberately by people like Hillary Clinton, or accidentally, tragically, by women like Nirbhaya. The road to women's equality, it turns out, is paved with potholes, quicksand and death traps.

There is a reason so many feel a close connection to Hillary Clinton and to Nirbhaya. Their stories, like those of 3 billion others, are of women seeking to make it in what is still today mostly a man's world.

As Clinton recovers and as the people of India work to build a positive legacy from Nirbhaya's death, the obvious lesson is that much work remains ahead. Strong headwinds will push against women's progress, but progress can be achieved through urgent legislation, through patient education, and when necessary -- as it is now -- through mass protests and unrelentingly firm demands.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

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Second escaped inmate caught in former neighborhood

Chicago Tribune reporter Jason Meisner on the recent arrest of Kenneth Conley, a convicted bank robber who escaped from federal jail in December. (Posted on: Jan. 4, 2013.)

Kenneth Conley was last seen by authorities making a daring escape down the side of a high-rise federal jail under the cover of night.

Friday afternoon, he was found hobbling down a Palos Hills street with a cane, one part of a flimsy disguise that included a bulky overcoat and a beret pulled low over his face.

An 18-day manhunt for the escaped bank robber ended after a maintenance employee working at a residential building in the southwest suburb called 911 about a suspicious man.

Conley, as it turns out, had not gone very far from places he used to live and homes where friends and family still reside.

But law enforcement sources said Friday that he apparently had no help — the former strip club employee was sleeping in the building's basement.

Conley was scheduled to appear in federal court at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

The spectacular jailbreak — the first at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in almost 30 years — embarrassed federal authorities and seemed to be meticulously planned. Conley and Joseph "Jose" Banks rappelled to freedom using a rope fashioned from bedsheets. But like Banks, who was arrested two days after the escape in the North Side neighborhood where he was raised, Conley had no apparent plan for life on the run and was found holed up in an area where he had known ties.

Palos Hills police said a maintenance worker at a building in the 10200 block of South 86th Terrace called police about 3:30 p.m. to report the "suspicious person" who might be sleeping at the premises. Officers arrived to find a man walking down the street in an overcoat and pretending to use a cane. He appeared to be trying to look older than his actual age, police said.

"Our officers stopped to talk to him and he said he was just visiting," Deputy Chief James Boie told the Tribune. "He gave them a phony name, and while they're trying to run the information, he got wise that they were going to figure it out, and he pushed one of the officers down and took off running."

Boie said two additional officers responding to the scene caught Conley about a block away as he was trying to force his way into the Scenic Tree apartment complex, which is across the street from the police headquarters. He was wrestled down but did not offer any other resistance. Conley and one officer were taken to Palos Community Hospital for observation, he said.

Police found a BB pistol in Conley's pocket. He had no cash or other weapons, Boie said.

Residents in the sprawling, low-rise apartment complex where Conley was apprehended said they had seen a lot of police activity in the area earlier in the day, including K-9 units.

Chris Stevens, who has lived in the complex for a decade, said FBI agents knocked on her door at about 7 a.m., showed her a photo of Conley and asked if she had seen him. The agents told her he had been spotted in the area.

By the afternoon, Stagg High School junior David Griffith, 16, said he was with a friend taking out the garbage at the complex when he heard shouting and saw an officer run past him into a grassy area behind his building.

"We ran back in my house, opened the patio door, looked in the back and just saw a whole bunch of police officers just tackle (Conley)," Griffith said. "It was crazy. Nothing ever happens over here."

According to court records, Conley once lived in an apartment near the scene of his arrest. Boie said Conley was known to Palos Hills police because he'd had multiple resisting and obstructing arrests in 2004. Even still, they were surprised when they realized whom they had just arrested.

"I'm sure they were a little surprised that they had the guy standing in front of them,'' Boie said.

A law enforcement source told the Tribune that U.S. marshals and FBI agents met this week to discuss the hunt for Conley and went to Palos Hills on Friday morning to canvass specific addresses where he had ties. Some of the doors they knocked on were in the same block where Conley was found later in the day, the source said.

Conley, 38, was awaiting sentencing for a single bank holdup when authorities said he and Banks removed a cinder block from their cell wall and scaled down about 15 stories of the sheer wall of the jail early on Dec. 18. The cellmates were last accounted for during a routine bed check, authorities said. About 7 a.m. the next day, jail employees arriving for work saw the bedsheets dangling from a hole in the wall down the south side of the facade.

The FBI said a surveillance camera a few blocks from the jail showed the two wearing light-colored clothing hailing a taxi at Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue about 2:40 a.m. They also appeared to be wearing backpacks, according to the FBI.

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Chavez swearing-in can be delayed: Venezuelan VP

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's formal swearing-in for a new six-year term scheduled for January 10 can be postponed if he is unable to attend due to his battle to recover from cancer surgery, Venezuela's vice president said on Friday.

Nicolas Maduro's comments were the clearest indication yet that the Venezuelan government is preparing to delay the swearing-in while avoiding naming a replacement for Chavez or calling a new election in the South American OPEC nation.

In power since 1999, the 58-year-old socialist leader has not been seen in public for more than three weeks. Allies say he is in delicate condition after a fourth operation in two years for an undisclosed form of cancer in his pelvic area.

The political opposition argues that Chavez's presence on January 10 in Cuba - where there are rumors he may be dying - is tantamount to the president's stepping down.

But Maduro, waving a copy of the constitution during an interview with state TV, said there was no problem if Chavez was sworn in at a later date by the nation's top court.

"The interpretation being given is that the 2013-2019 constitutional period starts on January 10. In the case of President Chavez, he is a re-elected president and continues in his functions," he said.

"The formality of his swearing-in can be resolved in the Supreme Court at the time the court deems appropriate in coordination with the head of state."

In the increasing "Kremlinology"-style analysis of Venezuela's extraordinary political situation, that could be interpreted in different ways: that Maduro and other allies trust Chavez will recover eventually, or that they are buying time to cement succession plans before going into an election.

Despite his serious medical condition, there was no reason to declare Chavez's "complete absence" from office, Maduro said. Such a declaration would trigger a new vote within 30 days, according to Venezuela's charter.


Chavez was conscious and fighting to recover, said Maduro, who traveled to Havana to see his boss this week.

"We will have the Commander well again," he said.

Maduro, 50, whom Chavez named as his preferred successor should he be forced to leave office, said Venezuela's opposition had no right to go against the will of the people as expressed in the October 7 vote to re-elect the president.

"The president right now is president ... Don't mess with the people. Respect democracy."

Despite insisting Chavez remains president and there is hope for recovery, the government has acknowledged the gravity of his condition, saying he is having trouble breathing due to a "severe" respiratory infection.

Social networks are abuzz with rumors he is on life support or facing uncontrollable metastasis of his cancer.

Chavez's abrupt exit from the political scene would be a huge shock for Venezuela. His oil-financed socialism has made him a hero to the poor, while critics call him a dictator seeking to impose Cuban-style communism on Venezuelans.

Should Chavez leave office, a new election is likely to pitch former bus driver and union activist Maduro against opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state.

Capriles lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, but won an impressive 44 percent of the vote. Though past polls have shown him to be more popular than all of Chavez's allies, the equation is now different given Maduro has received the president's personal blessing - a factor likely to fire up Chavez's fanatical supporters.

His condition is being watched closely by Latin American allies that have benefited from his help, as well as investors attracted by Venezuela's lucrative and widely traded debt.

"The odds are growing that the country will soon undergo a possibly tumultuous transition," the U.S.-based think tank Stratfor said this week.

(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga; editing by Christopher Wilson)

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Global shares, oil slip on Fed stimulus nerves

LONDON (Reuters) - World shares, oil and copper edged lower on Friday and the dollar rose after U.S. Federal Reserve officials raised concerns about possible side effects of its stimulus program.

Minutes from the Fed's December policy meeting unsettled financial markets as some policymakers raised the longer-term impact of its efforts to simulate the U.S. economy.

The Fed's bond-buying has underpinned appetite for risk, and the comments that raised the possibility it might be less committed to the program than previously thought unnerved investors before U.S. employment data later on Friday.

European shares echoed their Asian peers to open lower. But following a sharp jump on Wednesday after the United States edged back from the "fiscal cliff", they were on track for weekly gains of almost 2.7 percent.

London's FTSE 100 <.ftse>, Paris's CAC-40 <.fchi> and Frankfurt's DAX <.gdaxi> were down between 0.1 and 0.4 percent by 0810 GMT, while the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 <.fteu3> was down 0.15 percent and the MSCI index of world shares 0.2 percent lower at 345.91.

Euro zone PMI and inflation figures plus the U.S. non-farm payrolls report due through the day will be closely scrutinized by investors looking to assess the health of the global economy.

"The Fed has made it clear that it will keep policy loose until unemployment drops to 6.5 percent or below, so strong jobs data will undoubtedly raise expectations of a more hawkish Fed," analysts at Tradition brokerage said in a note.

The Fed comments gave fresh momentum to the recent slide by low-risk bonds including U.S. and German debt. Bund futures slipped half a point in early trading to 143.07, having already fallen steeply from last week's close of 145.64.

Benchmark U.S. Treasury yields continued their climb, hitting an eight-month high around 1.93 percent in Asia, while 10-year Japanese government bond yields touched a 3-1/2-month high of 0.83 percent.

In the currency market the dollar rose, hitting its highest since July 2010 against the yen at 87.835 while the euro fell to a three-week low of $1.3019. The dollar <.dxy> also touched a six-week high against a basket of major currencies.

The dollar's rise makes dollar-based assets more expensive for non-dollar investors and its rise hit precious metals and oil.

Brent crude shed 0.6 percent to $111.47 while gold fell 1 percent to $1,645, dragging silver down more than 2 percent to $29.48.

(editing by David Stamp)

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Oregon runs past K-State 35-17 at Fiesta Bowl

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — As Oregon coach Chip Kelly was about to receive the massive Fiesta Bowl trophy, Ducks fans inside University of Phoenix Stadium started a chant of "We want Chip!"

Whether he returns or not is up in the air.

If Kelly does head to the NFL, this was a great send off.

Sparked by De'Anthony Thomas' 94-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff, No. 5 Oregon turned the Fiesta Bowl into a track meet from the start and bolted past No. 7 Kansas State 35-17 Thursday night in what could be Kelly's final game with the Ducks.

"This wasn't going to be a distraction," Kelly said of reports that he was headed to the NFL. "It wasn't a distraction for me — I think it's an honor. But I think it's an honor because of the players we have in this program that people want to talk to me."

Teams that had their national title aspirations end on the same day, Oregon and Kansas State ended up in the desert for a marquee matchup billed as a battle of styles: The fast-flying Ducks vs. the methodical Wildcats.

With Kelly reportedly talking to several NFL teams, Oregon (12-1) was too much for Kansas State and its Heisman Trophy finalist, Collin Klein, who were playing catch-up from the start.

Thomas followed his before-everyone-sat-down kickoff return with a 23-yard touchdown catch, finishing with 195 total yards.

Kenjon Barner ran for 143 yards on 31 carries and scored on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota in the second quarter. Mariota later scored on a 2-yard run in the third quarter, capped by an obscure 1-point safety that went in the Ducks' favor.

Even Oregon's defense got into the act, intercepting Klein twice and holding him to 30 yards on 13 carries.

"We got beat by a better team tonight, combined by the fact that we let down from time to time," coach Bill Snyder said after Kansas State's fifth straight bowl loss.

Last year's Fiesta Bowl was an offensive fiesta, with Oklahoma State outlasting Stanford 41-38 in overtime.

The 2013 version was an upgrade: Nos. 4 and 5 in the BCS, two of the nation's best offenses, dynamic players and superbly successful coaches on both sides.

Oregon has become the standard for go-go-go football under Kelly, its fleet of Ducks making those shiny helmets — green like Christmas tree bulbs for the Fiesta Bowl — and flashy uniforms blur across the grassy landscape.

Thomas offered the first flash of speed, picking up a couple of blocks and racing toward a not-so-photo finish at the line.

Thomas hit the Wildcats (11-2) again late in the first quarter, breaking a couple of tackles and dragging three defenders into the end zone for a catch-and-run TD that put the Ducks up 15-0.

It's nothing new for Oregon's sophomore sensation: He had 314 total yards and two long touchdown runs in the 2012 Rose Bowl. The Ducks are used to it, too, averaging more than 50 points per game.

And they kept flying.

Oregon followed a missed 40-yard field goal by Kansas State's Anthony Cantele by unleashing one of its blink-and-you'll-miss-it scoring drives late in the second quarter. Moving 77 yards in 46 seconds, the Ducks went up 22-10 at halftime after Mariota hit Barner on 24-yard TD pass.

Alejandro Maldonado hit a 33-yard field goal on Oregon's opening drive of the third quarter and Mariota capped a long drive with an easy 2-yard TD run to the left. Kansas State's Javonta Boyd blocked the point-after attempt, but even that went wrong for the Wildcats. Chris Harper was tackled in the end zone for a bizarre 1-point safety that put Oregon up 32-10.

It was the first 1-point safety in major college football since 2004 when Texas did it against Texas A&M, STATS said.

"There were so many things that could have changed the outcome of this game," Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown said.

Kansas State needed a little time to get its wheels spinning on offense, laboring early before Klein scored on a 6-yard run early in the second quarter.

Klein kept the Wildcats moving in the quarter, though not toward touchdowns: Cantele hit a 25-yard field goal and missed from 40 after a false-start penalty.

Klein hit John Hubert on a 10-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, but all that did was cut Oregon's lead to 32-17.

He threw for 151 yards on 17 of 32 passing.

"It wasn't really complicated," Kelly said of slowing Klein. "He's a great player, one of the greats of college football. I had my heart in my throat a couple of times watching him around, but our guys just made plays when they had to make plays."

By doing so, they may have put a nice exclamation point on Kelly's college career.

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Support for School Prayer Declines

Support for prayer in school has declined since the 1970s, except among one group: evangelical Christians, finds a new study.

The findings may not come as a surprise given the rise of evangelical Christians as a societal force over the same time period. In August, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, sociologist Philip Schwadel reported in the journal Sociology of Religion that even as religious affiliations have decreased in America, evangelicals have become more devout.

Now, Schwadel has modeled data from a long-running questionnaire called the General Social Survey to measure Americans’ support for school prayer and religious instruction over the generations. Two Supreme Court decisions in 1962 prohibit state-sponsored school prayer as a violation of the First Amendment, which both prohibits the state from sponsoring a religion and establishes that citizens have the right to free exercise of their own beliefs.

“Social and cultural changes have led to greater opposition to state-sanctioned prayer and reading religious materials in public schools among some segments of the population,” Schwadel said in a statement. “Specifically, there’s growing opposition among non-evangelicals but not evangelicals, and these changes manifest across generations.” [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]

Changing convictions

Schwadel found that mainline Protestants and Catholics today are less supportive of school prayer than they were decades ago. Part of the decline may be because of the rise of the Baby Boomer generation, which is generally more skeptical of organized religion than generations before, Schwadel said. Catholics may have lost support for school prayer, because fewer attend parochial schools or predominantly Catholic public schools today than in the 1970s, he said. With public schools not offering exclusively Catholic prayer, Catholics may have become less interested in state-sponsored prayer.

Jewish respondents supported school prayer the least, with only 24 percent in favor. Even those who did not identify with any particular religion were more supportive, with 37 percent of that group saying they wanted to see prayer in schools.

While older Protestants and Catholics are more supportive of school prayer than younger ones, the same generational effects do not appear for Christians who identify as evangelical. Evangelicals stress literal interpretations of the Bible and personal relationships with religion, such as being “saved” or “born again.”

Evangelical support

No matter their age or generation, 70 percent of evangelical Christians supported school prayer, Schwadel found.

“What we see in these results is that there’s a very clear, unwavering perspective in the evangelical community on the role of prayer in public life,” he said. “While younger evangelicals seem to be more open to some issues, such as environmentalism, when it comes to key issues, they simply do not change across generations. There seem to be some bedrock issues they won’t budge on.”

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Myanmar: Evolution, not revolution

Tourists walk around the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in April. The tourism industry is set for expansion.


  • Myanmar is undergoing incremental change, welcomed by all, says Parag Khanna

  • But he says people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much

  • Myanmar has survived succession of natural and man-made ravages, Khanna adds

  • With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations

Editor's note: Parag Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Senior Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. His books include "The Second World," "How to Run the World," and "Hybrid Reality."

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) -- Call it a case for evolution instead of revolution. While the Arab world continues in the throes of violence and uncertainty, Myanmar is undergoing incremental change -- and almost everyone seems to want it that way.

The government is lightening up: holding elections, freeing political prisoners, abolishing censorship, legalizing protests, opening to investment and tourists and welcoming back exiles. But the people still tread lightly, careful not to overstep or demand too much. Still, the consensus is clear: Change in Myanmar is "irreversible."

Read more: Aung San Suu Kyi and the power of unity

As the British Raj's jungle frontier, Burma was a key Asian battleground resisting the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II. As with many post-colonial countries, the euphoria of independence and democracy in 1948 gave way in just over a decade to the 1962 coup in which General Ne Win nationalized the economy and abolished most institutions except the army.

Parag Khanna

Parag Khanna

Non-alignment gave way to isolationism. Like Syria or Uzbekistan, Myanmar became an ancient Silk Road passageway that almost voluntarily choked itself off, choosing the unique path of a Buddhist state conducting genocide, slavery, and human trafficking.

Watch: Myanmar in grip of economic revolution

The military junta began its increasingly cozy rapproachment with Deng Xiaoping's China in the 1970s, just as China was opening to the world, and used cash from its Golden Triangle drug-running operations to pay for Chinese weapons.

Mass protests, crackdowns and another coup in 1988 led to a rebranding of the junta as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the country's official renaming as the Union of Myanmar.

Terrorized, starving and homeless: Myanmar's Rohingya still forgotten

The 1990 elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority of the seats, were annulled by the SLORC, which continued to rule until 2011 when it was formally disbanded. Most international sanctions on Myanmar have now been lifted.

Read more: Myanmar: Is now a good time to go?

In just the past few years, Myanmar has survived a succession of natural and man-made ravages, from the brutal crackdown on the Saffron Revolution of 2007 (led by Buddhist monks but more widely supported in protest against rising fuel prices and economic mismanagement), to Cyclone Nargis (which killed an estimated 200,000 people in 2008) to civil wars between the government's army and ethnic groups such as the Kachin in the north and Shan and Karen in the east, and communal violence between the Muslim Rohingya (ethnic Bengalis) and Buddhist Rakhine in the west.

There are still approximately 150,000 Karen refugees in Thailand (and over 300,000 total refugees on the Thai-Burmese border) and more than 100,000 displaced Rohinya living in camps in Sittwe. So difficult is holding Myanmar together that even Aung San Suu Kyi, who helps lead the national reconciliation process, ironically advocated the use of the army (which kept her under house arrest for almost two decades) to pacify the rebellions.

Though sectarian conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine underscores the Myanmar's tenuous search for national unity, the genuine efforts at religious pluralism are reminiscent of neighboring India: Every religion is officially recognized, and days are given off for observance. Surrounding Yangon's downtown City Hall is not only the giant Sule Pagoda but also a mosque, synagogue, church and Jain temple. The roundabout is therefore a symbol of the country's diversity -- but also the place where protesters flock when the government doesn't live up to promises.

Q&A: What's behind sectarian violence in Myanmar?

Scarred from decades of oppressive and ideological rule and still beset by conflict, it is therefore against all odds that Myanmar would become the most talked about frontier market of the moment, a top Christmas holiday destination and a case study in democratic transitions. Myanmar's political scene is now a vibrant but cacophonous discourse involving the still-powerful army; upstart parliament; repatriated civilian advisers; flourishing civil society, including human rights groups, ambitious business community, the Buddhist religious community, and a feisty media (especially online).

The parliament is pushing for accountability in telecom and energy contracts, and its speaker, Shwe Mann, is already maneuvering to challenge the chairman of his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) -- current president Thein Sein -- in the 2015 elections.

In the meantime, however, the establishment in Yangon and the new capital of Napyidaw need to focus much more on building capacity. Thein Sein, who traded in his uniform for indigenous attire in 2011, has reshuffled the Cabinet to make room for functional experts in the energy and economic portfolios. He's even spearheaded an anti-corruption drive, admitting recently that Myanmar's "governance falls well below international standards." By many accounts he is also very open to advice on investment and other reforms.

He will need it, as Myanmar faces crucial tests of its international credibility in the coming years. In 2013, Myanmar will play host to the World Economic Forum (WEF) as well as the Southeast Asian Games. In 2014 it will chair the ASEAN regional group, and in 2015 it is expected to enter a new ASEAN Free Trade Area.

The military's power is still pervasive, placing it somewhere on the spectrum between Indonesia, where military influence has been rolled back, and Pakistan, where the military still dominates. On the streets, it's often difficult to know who is in charge.

One numerological fetish led to the driving side being unilaterally changed, making Myanmar the rare place where the steering wheel is (mostly) on the right, and cars drive (mostly) on the right. At least a dozen official and private newspapers (though private daily papers are not allowed yet) are on offer from meandering street hawkers, while you inch through Yangon's increasingly dense daily traffic jams.

At this time of year, visitors to Burma enjoy crisp, smoky morning air and dry, starry nights. Yangon is undergoing a construction boom, with faded colonial embassies turned into bustling banks, the national independence column being refurbished and redesigned with a park, and tycoons building columned mansions near downtown -- and seeking Buddhist blessings by pledging lavish donations for the construction of even more monasteries and pagodas.

By 2020, the population of Yangon could easily double from the current 5 million, at which point it may look like a mix of Calcutta and Kuala Lumpur.

Thant Myint-U, the grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant and noted historian of modern Burma, now wears several hats related to ethnic reconciliation, foreign donor trust funds and urban conservation. He says that as foreign aid flows grow from trickles into a flood, they have to be systematically focused on sustainable employment creation and infrastructure. USAID has pledged to spend more than $150 million in Myanmar in the next three years.

Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against China's commercial and strategic encroachment
Parag Khanna

Outside of Yangon, the pace of Burmese society slows to a timeless pace -- as do Internet connections. On village roads, cycle rickshaws and monks with parasols amble by fruit vendors and car part stalls. Whether at the Dhammayazika Pagoda in Bagan or Mandalay Hill in that city, locals enjoy watching sunrises and sunsets as much as tourists.

Traveling around Myanmar, one observes the paradox of a country that has massive potential yet still needs just about everything. Yangon's vegetable market is a maze of tented alleys overflowing with cabbage, pineapples, eggplant and flowers, but they are still transported by wheelbarrows and bicycles. Ox-drawn ploughs still power farming in much of the country, meaning agricultural output of rice, beans and other staples could grow immensely through mechanization.

Similarly, the British-era light-rail loop circling Yangon takes about three hours to ride once around, with no linking bus services into downtown. But with cars already clogging the city, a major transport overhaul is essential. The communications sector actually needs to be re-invented. At present, the country's Internet and mobile phone penetration are only just growing; both are still governed by India's 1886 Telegraph Act. Mobile penetration is only 3 million but could easily grow to 30 million (half the population) within the next couple of years, as the price of SIM cards come down (so far from $2,000 to about $200), and foreign telecoms are allowed in to provide data coverage.

With sanctions lifted, foreign investment is now pouring in from Western nations, in addition to the players who have been making inroads for years such as China, Thailand and Singapore. The paradox, however, is that Myanmar lacks the infrastructure (physical and institutional) to absorb all the investor interest.

Major nations have thus focused on special economic zones that they themselves effectively run. The way Japan has moved into Myanmar, one would think that its World War II imperialism has been forgotten. After their major bet on the Thilawa special economic zone south of Yangon, Japanese contractors have plans to deepen the Yangon River's estuary so that cargo ships can sail directly up to the city's shores and offload more containers of cars that are already being briskly snapped up at busy dealerships.

Besides natural gas and agriculture, everyone agrees that tourism will comprise an ever-larger share of the country's GDP. Especially with much of the country off-limits to foreigners due to security restrictions and the military's economic operations, tourists already clog all existing suitable hotels in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, meaning a massive upgrade is needed in the hospitality sector.

Annual tourist visits are climbing 25% annually to an estimated 400,000 for 2012. Daily flights arrive packed from around the region, with longer-haul routes beginning from as far afield as Istanbul and Doha.

Still, Myanmar is a traveler's dream come true. In Bagan, you can walk or take a sunrise jog around countless pagodas that feel like they haven't been touched in 800 years -- some actually haven't. There is also the sacred and enchanting Golden Rock; the pristine beaches of Ngwe Saung, which rival the best of Thailand and the Philippines; the temperate climate of Inle Lake; the Himalayan foothills near Putao in far northern Kachin state where one can trek; the rich dynastic history of Mandalay; and the languorous Irrawaddy River cruises that harken to George Orwell's "Burmese Days."

Yangon has a pleasant charm and gentle energy, with vast gardens and riverside walks, the grandeur of centuries-old monuments such as the Shwedegon Pagoda, a fast-growing cultural scene of art galleries and music performances, and a melting pot population of all Myanmar's tribes as well as industrious overseas Indians and Chinese, who make up 5% of the nation's population.

Mandalay in particular is where one feels the depth of China's demographic penetration into Myanmar, owing not only to recent decades of commercial expansion from gems trading to real estate but also centuries of seasonal migrations across the rugged natural border with Yunnan province. Some have begun to call the Shan region "Yunnan South."

The combination of the Saffron Revolution, civil strife, sanctions, its economic lag behind the rest of ASEAN, and the status of becoming a captive resource supplier to China all played crucial roles in Myanmar's opening. China has traditionally been a kingmaker in isolated and sanctioned countries and well-placed to capitalize on the infrastructural and extractive needs of emerging economies as well.

For China, Myanmar represents a crucial artery to evade the "Malacca trap" represented by its dependence on shipping transit through the Straits of Malacca. In 2011 China was still far and away the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, bringing in $5 billion (of a total of $9 billion) across their 2,000-kilometer (1250-mile)-long border. The massive ongoing investments include 63 hydropower projects, a 2,400-kilometer (1500-mile) Sittwe-to-Kunming oil pipeline from the Bay of Bengal and a proposed gas pipeline to China's Yunnan beginning at Myanmar's Ramree Island -- not to mention an entire military outfitted with Chinese tanks, helicopters, boats and planes.

Myanmar's opening, however, is strongly motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment that is part of a much wider global blowback against its commercial and strategic encroachment. Even well-kept generals are fundamentally Burmese nationalists and awoke to the predicament of total economic and strategic dependence on China. The government has taken major steps to correct this excessive tilt, suspending a major hydroelectric dam project at Myitsone and re-evaluating Wanbao Mining company's giant copper mine concession near Monywa.

Myanmar is now deftly playing the same multi-alignment game mastered by countries such as Kazakhstan in trying to escape the Soviet-Russian sphere of influence: courting all sides and gaining whatever one can from multiple great powers and neighbors while giving up as little autonomy as possible.

India sees Myanmar as the crucial gateway for its "Look East" policy and is offering substantial investments in oil and gas as well as port construction and information technology; Europe has become a larger investor, especially Great Britain; Russia is being courted as a new arms supplier; Japan is viewing Myanmar as its new Thailand for automobile production; and of course, U.S. President Barack Obama visited in December, paving the way not only for greater U.S. investment but even for Myanmar to potentially participate in the Cobra Gold military exercises held annually with America's regional allies.

Obama was not only the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar but also the first to call it by that name, conceding ground in a long-running dispute. The administration hopes that North Korea, Asia's still frozen outcast, will learn the lessons from Myanmar's steady but determined opening.

But countries that are playing multi-alignment don't have to thaw domestically -- witness Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan. Myanmar is simultaneously undergoing political liberalization and international rehabilitation -- a tricky and laudable feat for sure but not one North Korea is likely to emulate entirely. What the two do have in common, however, is the growing realization that having China as a neighbor is both a blessing and a curse.

During my visit to the "Genius Language School," where university students go for professional English tutoring, I asked the assembled round table whether they were happy that Obama came to visit and whether they considered America a friend. All giggled and chanted: "Yes."

Then I asked, "Are you afraid of China?" And the answer came in immediate, resounding unison: "Yes!"

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Parag Khanna.

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Firm bringing HQ to Chicago

St. Louis-based construction firm Clayco Inc. is moving its headquarters to Chicago, attracted by ease of air travel, proximity to clients, access to young professionals and the potential to land city business as Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushes ahead with public-private partnerships for infrastructure improvements, its top executive said Thursday.

Clayco Chairman and CEO Robert Clark and Emanuel are expected to formally announce the move Friday.

Two-hundred and eighty of the company's 1,000 employees already work in the Chicago area, including 88 who work full time at the Jewelers Building, 35 E. Wacker Drive, which becomes company headquarters.

The company expects to double its Chicago workforce during the next couple of years, in part by increasing its architectural business and expanding its infrastructure business.

Clark said the company is seeking to acquire a municipal engineering company as part of an effort to develop its infrastructure business during the next few years. Now focused on industrial, office and institutional projects, the company would like to add a fourth specialty area that would go after water, sewer, road, bridge and airport work, Clark said.

"In the long run, public-private partnerships are something I'm very intrigued about and interested in pursuing," he said. "I don't think we'll do it overnight. … It may be three years from now, until we have significant traction in the (infrastructure) market."

"We're interested in national projects, not just local," he said. "But hopefully we'll have work in our own backyard."

Clayco donated $50,000 to Emanuel's mayoral campaign in late 2010, and Clark donated an additional $10,000 in September to The Chicago Committee, the mayor's campaign fund, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Clark said his contributions to a variety of politicians stem from personal convictions and have no relation to his business endeavors.

Tom Alexander, a spokesman for Emanuel, said: "Clayco is choosing Chicago because Chicago offers them unique access to world-class talent and a location from which they can easily and effectively do business around the world, period. Any type of private-public building project would undergo the city's very strict, competitive procurement process."

Last spring, Emanuel won City Council approval for the formation of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which will endeavor to secure private financing for public infrastructure projects.

Clayco's shift into downtown Chicago began in October 2010, when it opened offices in the Jewelers Building. Employees who had been based in Oakbrook Terrace have moved there, as have a handful of executives from St. Louis. Clark relocated to Chicago in September 2010.

The company did not seek or receive any financial incentives for its move, the city said. Clayco will keep its St. Louis office intact, and no layoffs are planned as part of the relocation.

Clark and Emanuel first met when Emanuel worked in the Clinton White House. Clark, who was active with the Young Presidents' Organization, worked with Emanuel on some events at the White House. Their paths have crossed a number of times since then, including during President Barack Obama's campaign in 2008.

A meeting with Emanuel played a role in the decision to relocate company headquarters, Clark said. It occupies the 13th and 27th floors of the Jewelers Building, or 30,000 square feet.

"He asked me to target our national clients and bring them here," Clark recalls. "Quite frankly, I was blown away by that. Most mayors are not that aggressive; they leave that up to their economic development folks."

Clayco has done work for a number of large institutions and corporations, including Dow Chemical, Amazon.com, Caterpillar, and locally, Kraft Foods, Anixter, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago and Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Started 28 years ago by Clark, the privately held company has annual revenue of $820 million. Subsidiaries include architecture and design firm Forum Studios and Concrete Strategies Inc.


Twitter @kathy_bergen

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Eleven dead in Damascus gas station blast

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) - At least 11 people were killed and 40 wounded when a car bomb exploded at a crowded petrol station in the Syrian capital Damascus on Thursday, opposition activists said.

The station was packed with people queuing for fuel that has become increasingly scarce during the country's 21-month-long insurgency aimed at overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad.

The semi-official al-Ikhbariya television station showed footage of 10 burnt bodies and Red Crescent workers searching for victims at the site.

The opposition Revolution Leadership Council in Damascus said the explosion was caused by a booby-trapped car.

There was no immediate indication of who was responsible for the bombing in the Barzeh al-Balad district, whose residents include members of the Sunni Muslim majority and other religious and ethnic minorities.

"The station is usually packed even when it has no fuel," said an opposition activist who did not want to be named. "There are lots of people who sleep there overnight, waiting for early morning fuel consignments."

It was the second time that a petrol station has been hit in Damascus this week. Dozens of people were incinerated in an air strike as they waited for fuel on Wednesday, according to opposition sources.

In northern Syria, rebels were battling to seize an air base in their campaign against the air power that Assad has used to bomb rebel-held towns.

More than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising and civil war, the United Nations said this week, a much higher death toll than previously thought.


After dramatic advances over the second half of 2012, the rebels now hold wide swathes of territory in the north and east, but they cannot protect towns and villages from Assad's helicopters and jets.

Hundreds of rebel fighters were attempting to storm the Taftanaz air base, near the highway that links Syria's two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus.

A rebel fighter speaking from near the Taftanaz base overnight said much of the base was still in loyalist hands but insurgents had managed to destroy a helicopter and a fighter jet on the ground.

The northern rebel Idlib Coordination Committee said the rebels had detonated a car bomb inside the base.

The government's SANA news agency said the base had not fallen and that the military had "strongly confronted an attempt by the terrorists to attack the airport from several axes, inflicting heavy losses among them and destroying their weapons and munitions".

Rami Abdulrahman, head of the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the conflict from Britain, said as many as 800 fighters were involved in the assault, including Islamists from Jabhat al-Nusra, a powerful group that Washington considers terrorists.

Taftanaz is mainly a helicopter base, used for missions to resupply army positions cut off by the rebels, as well as for dropping crude "barrel bombs" on rebel-controlled areas.

Near Minakh, another northern air base that rebels have surrounded, government forces have retaliated by shelling and bombing nearby towns.


In the town of Azaz, where the bombardment has become a near nightly occurrence, shells hit a family house overnight. Zeinab Hammadi said her two wounded daughters, aged 10 and 12, had been rushed across the border to Turkey, one with her brain exposed.

"We were sleeping and it just landed on us in the blink of an eye," she said, weeping as she surveyed the damage.

Family members tried to salvage possessions from the wreckage, men lifting out furniture and children carrying out their belongings in tubs.

"He (Assad) wants revenge against the people," said Abu Hassan, 33, working at a garage near the destroyed house. "What is the fault of the children? Are they the ones fighting?"

Opposition activists said warplanes struck a residential building in another rebel-held northern town, Hayyan, killing at least eight civilians.

Video footage showed men carrying dismembered bodies of children and dozens of people searching for victims in the rubble. The provenance of the video could not be independently confirmed.

In addition to their tenuous grip on the north, the rebels also hold a crescent of suburbs on the edge of Damascus, which have come under bombardment by government forces that control the center of the capital.

On Wednesday, according to opposition activists, dozens of people died in an inferno caused by an air strike on a petrol station in a Damascus suburb where residents were lining up for fuel.

The civil war in Syria has become the longest and bloodiest of the conflicts that rose out of uprisings across the Arab world in the past two years.

Assad's family has ruled for 42 years since his father seized power in a coup. The war pits rebels, mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority, against a government supported by members of Assad's Shi'ite-derived Alawite minority sect and some members of other minorities who fear revenge if he falls.

The West, most Sunni-ruled Arab states and Turkey have called for Assad to step down. He is supported by Russia and Shi'ite Iran.

(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Ruth Pitchford and Giles Elgood)

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Asia stocks eke out gains on China hopes, oil eases

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Most Asian stock markets edged higher on Thursday on hopes of a steady economic revival in China, although oil gave back part of the previous session's strong gains as investors took some money off the table and braced for more U.S. budget battles.

The MSCI Asia Pacific ex-Japan index of stocks <.miapj0000pus> rose 0.2 percent following Wednesday's 2 percent jump on relief that U.S. politicians had averted the "fiscal cliff".

Data from China showing the services sector expanded in December continued to underpin expectations of an economic recovery that has helped spur a strong rally in Hong Kong-listed Chinese shares <.hsce> over the past month.

The China Enterprises index <.hsce> which rallied more than 4 percent in the previous session eased 0.2 percent. Onshore Chinese markets will resume trading on Friday.

"China looks like it's improving at the margin and the market has momentum that could last for at least a few months," said Christian Keilland, head of trading at BTIG in Hong Kong.

"Investors seem to have accepted that reforms are underway but they're going to happen at a slower pace."

Australian stocks <.axjo> rose 0.7 percent to their highest in more than 19 months, with mining giants Rio Tinto up 2.4 percent and BHP Billiton up 0.8 percent, among the top gainers on the benchmark S&P ASX/200 index. <.axjo/>

South Korea's Kospi <.ks11> underperformed the region, falling 0.4 percent as automakers and other exporters slumped on a stronger Korean won, which hit a 16-month high against the dollar overnight.

In other currency markets, the Japanese yen bounced after hitting a 29-month low versus the dollar earlier in the day but analysts warned that any strength is likely to be short-lived.

"Technically dollar/yen looks somewhat overbought here. It's gone a long way in a very short time," said Callum Henderson, global head of FX research for Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, adding that the dollar could see some consolidation in the near term before heading higher.

The euro which in overnight trading was close to a 8-1/2 month high against the dollar, slipped 0.1 percent.

The U.S. dollar rose 0.2 percent <.dxy> against a basket of major currencies.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans face even bigger budget battles in the next two months after a hard-fought deal averted the fiscal cliff of automatic tightening that threatened to push the U.S. into recession.

Strength in the dollar and profit-taking pushed oil prices lower with Brent crude slipping 0.3 percent and U.S. crude futures down 19 cents to $92.93.

"After the initial excitement, reality sets in," said Victor Shum, oil consultant at IHS Purvin & Gertz. "There will be other negotiations and the deal is a compromise."

(Reporting by Vikram Subhedar; Editing by Kim Coghill and Eric Meijer)

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Louisville upsets Florida 33-23 in Sugar Bowl

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Terell Floyd and the Louisville Cardinals gave the embattled Big East Conference at least one more triumphant night in a major bowl — and at the expense of a top team from the mighty SEC.

Floyd returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown on the first play, dual-threat quarterback Teddy Bridgewater directed a handful of scoring drives and No. 22 Louisville stunned the fourth-ranked Gators 33-23 in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night.

"I can't speak for the whole Big East, but I can speak for Louisville and I think this means a lot for us," Floyd said. "We showed the world we can play with the best."

The Big East is in a transitional phase and losing some of its top football programs in the process. Boise State has recently backed out of its Big East commitment and Louisville has plans to join the ACC.

Even this year, the Big East wasn't getting much respect. Louisville, the league champion, was a two-touchdown underdog in the Sugar Bowl.

But by the end, the chant, "Charlie, Charlie!" echoed from sections of the Superdome occupied by red-clad Cardinals fans. It was their way of serenading third-year Louisville coach Charlie Strong, the former defensive coordinator for the Gators, who has elevated Cardinals football to new heights and recently turned down a chance to leave for the top job at Tennessee.

"I look at this performance tonight, and I sometimes wonder, 'Why didn't we do this the whole season,'" Strong said. "We said this at the beginning: We just take care of our job and do what we're supposed to do, don't worry about who we're playing."

Shaking off an early hit that flattened him and knocked off his helmet, Bridgewater was 20 of 32 passing for 266 yards and two touchdowns. Among his throws was a pinpoint, 15-yard timing toss that DeVante Parker grabbed as he touched one foot down in the corner of the end zone.

"I looked at what did and didn't work for quarterbacks during the regular season," said Bridgewater, picked as the game's top player. "They faced guys forcing throws ... and coach tells me, 'No capes on your back or 'S' on your chest, take what the defense give you.' That's what I took. Film study was vital."

His other scoring strike went to Damian Copeland from 19 yards one play after a surprise onside kick by the Gators backfired. Jeremy Wright had a short touchdown run that gave Louisville (11-2) a 14-0 lead the Gators couldn't overcome.

Florida (11-2) never trailed by more than 10 points this season. The defeat dropped SEC teams to 3-3 this bowl season, with Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi still to play.

"We got outcoached and outplayed," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "That's what I told the football team. That's the bottom line."

Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel, who had thrown only three interceptions all season, turned the ball over three times on two interceptions — both tipped passes — and a fumble. He finished 16 of 29 for 175 yards.

Down 33-10 midway through the fourth period, Florida tried to rally. Andre Debose scored on a 100-yard kickoff return and Driskel threw a TD pass to tight end Kent Taylor with 2:13 left. But when Louisville defenders piled on Driskel to thwart the 2-point try, the game was essentially over.

Florida didn't score until Caleb Sturgis's 33-yard field goal early in the second quarter.

The Gators finally got in the end zone with a trick play in the closing seconds of the half. They changed personnel as if to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but lined up in a bizarre combination of swinging-gate and shotgun formations and handed off to Matt Jones.

The Gators tried to keep the momentum with a surprise onside kick to open the third quarter, but not only did Louisville recover, Florida's Chris Johnson was called for a personal foul and ejected for jabbing at Louisville's Zed Evans. That gave Louisville the ball on the Florida 19, from where Bridgewater needed one play to find Copeland for his score.

"We game-planned it and felt good about it," Muschamp said of the onside kick attempt. "We wanted to steal a possession at the start of the second half."

On the following kickoff, Evans cut down kick returner Loucheiz Purifoy with a vicious low, high-speed hit that shook Purifoy up. Soon after, Driskel was sacked hard from behind and stripped by safety Calvin Pryor, ending another Florida drive with a turnover.

"We had the right attitude, had the right mindset that we would go out and beat this team," Pryor said.

After Louisville native Muhammad Ali was on the field for the coin toss, the Cardinals quickly stung the Gators. Floyd, one of nearly three dozen Louisville players from Florida, made the play.

Driskel was looking for seldom-targeted Debose, who'd had only two catches all season.

"I threw it behind him, (he) tried to make a play on it, tipped it right to the guy," Driskel said. "Unfortunate to start the game like that."

When Louisville's offense got the ball later in the quarter, the Florida defense, ranked among the best in the nation this season, sought to intimidate the Cardinals with one heavy hit after another.

One blow by Jon Bostic knocked Bridgewater's helmet off moments after he'd floated an incomplete pass down the right sideline. Bostic was called for a personal foul, however, which seemed to get the Cardinals opening drive rolling. Later, Wright lost his helmet during a 3-yard gain and took another heavy hit before he went down.

Louisville kept coming.

B.J. Butler turned a short catch into a 23-yard gain down to the Florida 1. Then Wright punched it in to give the Cardinals an early two-TD lead over a team that finished third in the BCS standings, one spot too low to play for a national title in Miami.

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Lyrik & Lyla Are Among 2013′s First Babies

The first babies of 2013 are a creatively named bunch, with monikers ranging from vintage — Olivia Rose — to new inventions such as Lyrik.

Lyrik was the first baby born in Colorado in 2013, according to NameCandy.com, which collects the names of the first newborns in each state every year. Lyrik, a boy, was named for his mother’s love of music, according to the Denver Post. Though “Lyrik” has never ranked in the top 1,000 in U.S. baby names, “Lyric” ranked as the 325th most popular name for girls in 2011, and it was 858th for boys.

The hard “K” sound both at the start of the name and at the end has been on-trend for names in 2013, if Jan. 1 babies are any measure. The letter has been popular for some time, according to NameCandy. Among the new babies are Kiera (Minnesota), Klara (North Dakota) and Kennedi (Mississippi). [Quiz: Test Your Baby Name Knowledge]

While classic names such as New York’s Olivia Rose are popular, other parents are aiming for the unique. In Virginia, the first baby of the year, a boy, was named Daffon. Mobley entered the world at 12:33 a.m. in Tennessee, and Sayge Raylynn became 2013′s first new Vermonter at 1:59 a.m.

Speaking of Raylynn, “Y” is another popular letter among parents picking baby names today, as South Carolina’s Lyla can attest.

In May, the Social Security Administration releases the most popular baby names of the previous year, so 2012′s top monikers have yet to be announced. In 2011, “Sophia” topped the list for girls and “Jacob” for boys. Vowel-heavy girls names such as Isabella, Emma, Olivia and Emily dominated the top 10. Among the top 10 boy names were Mason, William, Jayden, Aiden and Daniel.

Having a popular name isn’t what it used to be, though. In the 1950s, the most popular girl and boy names (Mary and John) accounted for half of all babies named each year. Today, the top names account for just 1 percent of all babies.

That’s because parents choose more unusual baby names now, striving for the perfect balance between unique and pleasing to the ear, according to Laura Wattenberg, a statistician who blogs about names at BabyNameWizard.com.

“Everybody is looking for this impossible dream, which is a name that everybody knows, everybody loves and nobody is using,” Wattenberg told LiveScience last year. “As you can imagine, it just doesn’t work that way.”

See the state-by-state list of New Year’s babies at NameCandy.com.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We’re also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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U.S. fiscal cliff far from only problem


  • Dean Baker: Budget deficit is not the only top issue in our national economic policy

  • Baker: Fiscal cliff debate has been a distraction of the bigger problem of a downturn

  • He says fears of big deficits are preventing us from boosting the economy more

  • Baker: Given the economy's weakness, the government has to run big deficits

Editor's note: Dean Baker, an economist, is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive economic policy organization. He is author of "The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive."

(CNN) -- We have just passed into the new year, and the distractions created by the debate over the fiscal cliff appear to be behind us. Maybe.

That debate has been part of a larger distraction -- the concern over budget deficits at a time when by far the country's most important problem remains the economic downturn caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. The obsession with budget deficits is especially absurd because the enormous deficits of recent years are entirely the result of the economic downturn.

In spite of this, the leadership of both parties has elevated the budget deficit to be the top and virtually only issue in national economic policy. This means ignoring the downturn that continues to cause enormous amount of unnecessary suffering for tens of millions of people.

Dean Baker

Dean Baker

But fears of big deficits are preventing us from giving the same sort of boost to the economy that got us out of the Great Depression. The explanation is simple: profits have returned to prerecession levels.

Opinion: Cliff deal hollow victory for American people

This means that from the standpoint of the people who own and run American businesses, everything is pretty much fine. Moreover, they see the deficits created by the downturn as providing an opportunity to go after Social Security and Medicare.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan organization involving many of the country's richest and most powerful CEOs, sets out to do just that. It has become standard practice in Washington for Wall Street types and other wealthy interests to finance groups to push their agenda.

The Campaign to Fix the Debt involves the CEOs themselves directly stepping up to the plate and pushing the case for cutting Social Security and Medicare as well as lowering the corporate income tax rate.

It's clear what's going on here. We don't need any conspiracy theories.

iReport: What's your message for Washington?

CEOs from both political parties have openly come together to demand cuts in Social Security and Medicare, two programs that enjoy massive political support across the political spectrum. The wealthy are joining hands without regard to political affiliation to cut benefits that enjoy broad bipartisan support among everyone who is not rich.

President Barack Obama has an opportunity to show real leadership. He should explain to the public the basic facts that all budget experts know: We do not have a chronic deficit problem. The big deficits are the result of collapsed economy. The priority of the president and Congress must be to put people back to work and bring the economy back up to speed.

Fiscal cliff deal: 5 things to know

When the housing bubble burst, annual spending on residential construction fell back by more than 4% of GDP, which is $600 billion in today's economy. Similarly, consumption plunged as people drastically curtailed their spending in response to the loss of $8 trillion in housing bubble generated equity.

There is no easy way for the private sector to replace this demand. Businesses don't invest unless they see demand for their products, regardless of how much love we might shower on the "job creators." In fact, if anything, investment is surprisingly strong give the large amount of excess capacity in the economy. Measured as a share of GDP, investment in equipment and software is almost back to its prerecession level. It is hard to envision investment getting much higher, absent a major boost in demand from some other sector.

This is why it is necessary for the government to run large deficits. Ideally, the money would be spent in areas that will make us richer in the future: Education, infrastructure, research and development in clean energy, etc. There is just no way around a large role for the government given the economy's current weakness.

Big issues still pending

Obama needs to explain this simple story to the country. The rich of both parties will hate him for going down this route. They will use their powers to denounce him. But the American people support Social Security and Medicare, and they support an economy that creates jobs for ordinary workers.

Obama needs the courage to tell the truth.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Baker.

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