Signs of the Times

CIA missile kills 2 top al-Qaeda terrorists

The Washington Post is reporting that a CIA missile strike New Year’s Day killed two top al-Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan. They were the suspected masterminds of deadly suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998 and at a Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September. Sources told the paper the dead men were a Kenyan national described as al-Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan who used the name Usama al-Kini and his lieutenant, identified as Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. They were killed in a building the CIA said was being used for explosives training.” They died preparing new acts of terror,” an official told the paper.

Israeli Government says Gaza Offensive to Continue

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s government says it will press ahead with its offensive in the Gaza Strip despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. The government’s statement says Palestinian rocket fire Friday shows the Security Council’s call for a cease-fire “is not practical.” Israeli jets and helicopters bombarded Gaza early Friday and Hamas fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel, indicating there may be no quick end. In all, Israeli aircraft struck more than 30 targets before dawn, and constant explosions continued after first light. Friday’s deaths in Gaza pushed the Palestinian death toll to about 760 in the two-week-old conflict, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis have died.

Key Arab nations and Western powers reached agreement Thursday on a proposed U.N. resolution calling for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire between Hamas militants and Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, the head of the Arab League said. The resolution was supported by the United States, Israel’s closest ally, and Arab nations which have close ties to Hamas. The key elements are the withdrawal (of Israeli forces), cease-fire, the humanitarian situation, the opening of crossings.

Gaza‘s humanitarian crisis, desperate after 13 days of war with Israel, may be about to get much worse. The United Nations said Thursday that it was suspending operations in the Palestinian territory after the Israeli army fired on U.N. trucks, killing two workers. About half of Gaza’s 1.5 million population relies on U.N. aid, which includes food, medicine and other supplies. A three-vehicle U.N. convoy, including a medical truck, came under Israeli military fire Thursday while driving to recover the body of a colleague killed earlier in the week. Claims on all sides of the conflict have been difficult to confirm independently because Israel’s military has banned foreign reporters.

Attack on Israel from Lebanon Threatens 2nd Front

JERUSALEM (AP) — Lebanese militants fired barrages of rockets into northern Israel early Thursday, striking a nursing home and threatening to open a second front for the Jewish state as it pushed forward with its offensive in the Gaza Strip. There were no serious injuries, but the rockets on Israel’s north raised the specter of renewed hostilities with Hezbollah, just 2½ years after Israel battled the guerrilla group to a 34-day stalemate. Hezbollah started the 2006 war as Israel was battling Palestinian militants in Gaza. Lebanon’s government, wary of conflict, quickly condemned the rocket fire and said it was trying to determine who was behind the attack. Israel fired mortar shells into southern Lebanon in response.

U.S. to Head Anti-Pirate Patrols off Somalia

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A U.S. Navy commander will lead a new international force to battle pirates off the coast of Somalia. More than 20 nations are expected to take part in the mission once it is fully underway later this month. The announcement Thursday by U.S. Navy officials in Bahrain did not list the countries participating, but said the new force will be headed by U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Terence McKnight. Merchant fleets have been calling for a stronger military response to pirates after a sharp escalation in attacks last year. At least 111 ships were attacked and more than 40 of them commandeered.

Russia may Resume Gas Shipments to Europe Today

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Gazprom said it could restart gas shipments to Europe on Friday if an agreement can be signed allowing an EU-led monitoring mission to track gas flows through Ukrainian pipelines. EU monitors arrived Friday in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, but Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said a final agreement on their deployment has yet to be signed. Gazprom halted all natural gas shipments through Ukraine on Wednesday, ending or reducing gas supplies to more than a dozen European nations, amid a pricing dispute with Kiev. On Friday, Miller pledged Gazprom would resume shipments to Europe once EU and Russian monitors were in place at pipeline pumping stations across Ukraine — a country roughly the size of South Africa or Texas. The EU said it could then take days for the shipments to reach western Europe.

Obama Warns of Dire Consequences Without Stimulus

WASHINGTON (AP) — President-elect Barack Obama said Thursday the recession could “linger for years” unless Congress pumps unprecedented sums from Washington into the economy. “I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible,” Obama said in a speech delivered at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., outside Washington. His events have increasingly taken on the trappings and air of the presidency, with the speech — coming a full 12 days before he takes over at the White House — a particularly showy move. Presidents-elect typically stick to naming administration appointments and otherwise staying in the background during the transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, but Obama has clearly made the calculation that a nation anxious about its economic outlook and eager to bid farewell to the current president, George W. Bush, needs to hear from him differently and more frequently.

Pointing with concern to “red ink as far as the eye can see,” President-elect Barack Obama pledged Wednesday to tackle out-of-control Social Security and Medicare spending and named a special watchdog to clamp down on other federal programs, even as he campaigned anew to spend the largest pile of taxpayer money in history to revive the sinking economy. The steepness of the fiscal mountain he’ll face beginning Jan. 20 was underscored by stunning new figures: an estimate that the federal budget deficit will reach $1.2 trillion this year, by far the biggest ever, even without the new stimulus spending.

Ø JJ Commentary: Just as the past few presidents have done, Obama complains about the deficit and is right to do so. But his stimulus package will spend more than the savings he’ll get from cutting other programs and the debt load will continue to rise.

Retailers Report Dismal December Sales

NEW YORK — Retailers reported dismal sales figures for December on Thursday as even Wal-Mart Stores, one of the bright spots in the industry, finally buckled under the pressures of the deteriorating economy. As merchants reported their sales figures, confirming fears that the holiday season was the weakest in four decades, the malaise cut through practically all areas from kitchen gadget stores to apparel retailers. “This suggests that the lower income group is feeling the pinch more than we thought and this is clearly reflected in the lower-than-expected numbers at Wal-Mart,” said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics. “I think it says the economy is in more dire straits than we thought.”

December Payrolls Plunge 524,000, Jobless Rate at 7.2%

WASHINGTON (AP) — The unemployment rate bolted to 7.2% in December, the highest level in 16 years, as nervous employers slashed 524,000 jobs, and mass layoffs continue. The Labor Department’s report, released Friday, underscored the terrible toll the deepening recession is having on workers and companies, and highlights the hard task President-elect Barack Obama faces in resuscitating the flat-lined economy. For all of 2008, the economy lost a net total of 2.6 million jobs. That was the most since 1945, when nearly 2.8 million jobs were lost during World War II. The unemployment rate rose from 6.8% in November, to 7.2% last month, the highest since January 1993. Employers are chopping costs as they try to cope with dwindling appetite from customers in the U.S. as well as in other countries, which are struggling with their own economic problems.

Consumer Borrowing Falls a Record $7.94B in November

WASHINGTON — Consumers cut back on their borrowing by a record amount in dollar terms in November, another sign of trouble for the rapidly weakening economy. The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that borrowing on credit cards, and for such things as auto loans, dropped at an annual rate of $7.94 billion in November, the biggest decline in 65 years of record keeping. Analysts are worried the economy’s troubles could trigger a major retrenchment by consumers that will make the current recession, already the longest in a quarter-century, even worse. Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of total economic output. The 3.7% drop in total borrowing in November followed a 1.3% decline in October.

Ø JJ Commentary: The Bible warns against going into debt. The world says if we don’t the economy suffers. Trying to solve a debt-induced financial crisis with more government and consumer debt may hold off total collapse for a while, but only serves to make the eventual crash all the worse.

Family Films on Increase and Are the Profit-Makers in Hollywood

Religion Press Release Services, Hollywood, Calif. (January 7, 2009) — Since the inception of the MOVIEGUIDE® Faith & Values Awards Gala and Dr. Ted Baehr’s Annual Report, the number of family movies has more than doubled and the number of movies with positive moral content has nearly quadrupled by 388 percent. “The surprising thing is, MOVIEGUIDE®’s top picks turn out to be among the most profitable films Hollywood produced during the year,” Dr. Baehr notes.

Has Pepsi Gone ‘Gay’?

One of America’s favorite soft drink brands has donated more than a million dollars to homosexual groups – and refuses to give to organizations opposes to homosexuality, one group claims. Pepsi gifted $500,000 to the Human Rights Campaign, or HRC, a group that described itself as “America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality,” the American Family Association reports. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation gave PepsiCo a 100 percent rating for the fifth year in a row on its 2009 Corporate Equality Index – a system that ranks employers on a scale from 0 to 100 percent on their treatment of LGBT employees, consumers and investors. PepsiCo has also given $500,000 to the Straight for Equality program run by Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG. According to a PepsiCo bulletin, the company also won a Workplace Excellence Award at the Out & Equal Summit on Sept. 15 – an annual event that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workplace equality.

U.S. Mine Deaths Fall to 51, the Lowest on Record

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The number of miners killed on the job in the United States fell to 51 in 2008, the fewest number of deaths since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago, according to preliminary data released by federal regulators Thursday. The previous low was 55 in 2004. Revamped safety laws and beefed up enforcement were among factors that led to the overall decline in mining deaths, federal mine safety chief Richard Stickler told The Associated Press. Mine safety became a focal point in 2006 and 2007 following a series of mining disasters in Kentucky, Utah and West Virginia. In 2006, 73 miners were killed, including 12 who died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and five who died in a similar explosion at the Darby Mine in Kentucky. In 2007, 67 miners died, including six who were killed in the collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah.

Feds Uncover Two More Investor Ponzi Schemes

On Thursday, authorities announced two alleged Ponzi schemes, just weeks after the arrest of investor Bernard Madoff stunned Wall Street. Madoff was arrested for allegedly running one of the largest investment frauds in history in a $50 billion Ponzi scheme. The latest schemes show how alleged frauds are unraveling as investors get more averse to risk. In a Ponzi, a portion of the cash brought in from new investors is given to older investors in the form of a return. If cash stops coming in, or current investors demand their cash at the same time, the scheme collapses. The Securities and Exchange Commission charged Joseph Forte, 53, of Broomall, Pa., with allegedly taking $50 million from up to 80 investors. The U.S. Attorney of the Western District of New York and the SEC charged Richard Piccoli, 82, of Williamsville, N.Y., with operating a scheme that took at least $17 million from investors since 2004. Piccoli largely targeted clergy and religious charities by advertising in Catholic newspapers, the complaint said. Experts anticipate more revelations of alleged frauds.

42 States in Salmonella Outbreak

ATLANTA (AP) — A nationwide salmonella outbreak that has struck 42 states has put about one in five of its victims in the hospital, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. Nearly 400 people have become ill in the outbreak that might have killed one person. The same type of salmonella bacteria has been lab-confirmed in 388 cases nationwide, said the CDC, which is leading the investigation but has not yet released the list of states or determined which foods may have caused people to become sick. Nationally, all the illnesses began between Sept. 3 and Dec. 29, but most of the people grew sick after Oct. 1. Most people develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most people recover without treatment. DC officials say the cases in the outbreak have all been genetically fingerprinted as the Typhimurium type, which is among the most common forms of salmonella food poisoning.

Extreme Alaska Cold Grounds Planes, Disables Cars

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) —Extreme temperatures —as low as 60 below zero — call for extreme measures in a statewide cold snap so frigid that temperatures have grounded planes, disabled cars, frozen water pipes and even canceled several championship cross country ski races. Alaskans are accustomed to subzero temperatures but the prolonged conditions have folks wondering what’s going on with winter less than a month old. National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Brown said. “About once or twice every year, we get a good cold snap. But, in this case, you can call this an extreme event. This is rare.” The cold has kept planes grounded. Food and fuel aren’t coming in and they’re starting to run low in some villages.

Flooding, Avalanches Cause Evacuations in Northwest

A winter storm is drenching the Pacific Northwest and touching off avalanches, mudslides and floods that shut down highways and forced people from their homes. More than 25,000 people were told to leave their homes in a flood-endangered valley southeast of Tacoma, Wash. Three main highways crossing Washington’s Cascade Range were closed as heavy rain and wet snow made the up-to-10 feet of snowpack there unstable. The National Weather Service issued flood warnings for a number of rivers, and two, the Puyallup and Chehalis, were threatening Interstate 5 in Lewis County. The main roads connecting Seattle to the south remained closed Thursday night, while all highways heading east through the mountain passes were also closed. Mark Stewart of the Washington Military Department Emergency Management Division said nobody can recall flooding so widespread in the state.

Wildfires Trigger Evacuations near Boulder, Colo.

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Wind-driven wildfires swept across Boulder County grasslands Wednesday, destroying at least four structures and prompting mandatory evacuations of at least 500 homes. At least one other neighborhood north of the city was evacuated, but the number of homes wasn’t immediately known. The Red Cross said at least 100 people went to one emergency shelter. Authorities said more than 11,000 homes had been alerted to the fire by reverse-911 calls, but not all of those households were told to leave. The fires started in parched, rolling grasslands dotted with subdivisions, individual homes and horse ranches about 25 miles northwest of Denver. Authorities said at least three of the destroyed structures were homes, and the fourth was either a barn or a home. The largest fire, which burned more than 10 square miles, jumped across U.S. 36 and entered the Lake Valley Estates neighborhood, where police went from house to house warning residents to evacuate.

Ø JJ Commentary: Wildfires this time of year are unusual.

Moderate Quake Strikes San Bernardino

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) — A moderate earthquake struck Thursday night in San Bernardino, with shaking felt from Los Angeles 55 miles to the west and south to Orange County. No immediate reports of damage or injuries were reported. A preliminary reading by the U.S. Geological Survey showed a 4.5-magnitude quake struck at 7:49 p.m. about one mile south of San Bernardino, a city of about 200,000 people.

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