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Train Carrying Toxic Chemicals Derails, Catches Fire In Tennessee

By AFP

Washington — A train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in Tennessee and caught fire, prompting a large-scale evacuation, firefighters said Thursday.

The train derailed near Maryville, close to the city of Knoxville, carrying acrylonitrile, a flammable, toxic compound that poses respiratory risks, firefighter Kermit Easterling said.

Some 5,000 residents are being evacuated, and firefighters are going door to door wearing breathing equipment to get people away from the fire, he said.

Firefighters are not battling the flames because of the dangers of acrylonitrile, and hazmat — hazardous material — teams have been called in to access the situation.

The train, which is also carrying containers of liquid petroleum gas, derailed just before midnight Wednesday, Easterling said.

There have been no reports of injuries, and a shelter has been set up at a local school for evacuated residents, the firefighter said.

File Photo: Freight Train Near Nashville Union Station, Reading Tom via Flickr 

New York Escaped Convict Shot Dead By Police: Reports

New York (AFP) – One of two convicts who escaped from a maximum-security New York prison was shot dead by police Friday after three weeks on the run, according to media reports.

Richard Matt, 49, was killed by law enforcement and his fellow escapee David Sweat, 35, was still being pursued by police, CNN reported.

The shooting took place in Franklin County in upstate New York, where police had focused search efforts after several reports the men had been spotted in the area.

The inmates used power tools to cut their way out of their cells at the Clinton Correctional Facility before dawn on June 6 in a spectacular prison break, triggering an intense weeks-long manhunt in the state.

Authorities said earlier Friday the pair might have been heading toward Canada, and warned border guards to be on alert.

The hunt was centered in an area about 50 miles from the prison and roughly 30 miles from the border with Canada.

Screenshot via

This story is breaking and is being updated.

Rupert Murdoch Setting Exit From Media Empire

New York (AFP) – Rupert Murdoch will step down as chief executive of his media-entertainment conglomerate 21st Century Fox and hand the job to his son James, his news channel said Thursday.

Fox News confirmed the succession plan shortly after other media reports, starting with CNBC television.

The 84-year-old tycoon will remain executive chairman of the group with his other son Lachlan as co-chairman in the move.

No timetable was given, but CNBC said the change would take place later this year or in early 2016.

The New York Times said the board would take up the transition plan next week.

The company did not immediately respond to an AFP query on the report.

James Murdoch, 42, will take over day to day management at Fox, working “in tandem with his 43-year-old brother Lachlan and his father,” according to CNBC.

Fox News, the cable channel which competes with CNN and MSNBC, will continue to be run by its president Roger Ailes, “reporting directly to Rupert Murdoch,” according to the network.

The company — which includes the Fox Hollywood studios and a range of television entities — was created two years ago when Murdoch broke off the struggling publishing operations of his News Corp. empire from the faster-growing media and entertainment operations.

Rupert Murdoch and his family remained in control of both companies after the split. The Australian-born Murdoch is executive chairman at News Corp. with his son Lachlan listed as co-chairman.

At Fox, Murdoch holds the title of chairman and chief executive, with Chase Carey president and chief operating officer and James Murdoch the co-chief operating officer.

According to CNBC, Carey was expected to step down from his role while remaining an adviser to the company.

Rupert Murdoch has spent a lifetime building his News Corp empire from a single Australian newspaper he inherited.

He moved to London where his purchase of the weekly News of the World in 1969 gave him a high-profile foothold in the British market. He went on to buy The Sun, a daily which he turned into a popular and big-selling tabloid.

The success of his London-based newspapers helped finance his 1981 purchase of The Times and Sunday Times, both prestigious broadsheets, in an acquisition that met with intense opposition from parts of Britain’s establishment.

He relocated to the United States where more bold acquisitions followed and where he became a naturalized US citizen in 1985.

The empire came under pressure in recent years from the slump in newspaper revenues, and a scandal in Britain which led to the shutdown of News of the World after the revelation the tabloid hacked into the phones of a murdered teenager and the families of dead soldiers.

The split in 2013 was aimed at “unlocking value” in the print and entertainment operations.

In the latest quarter, Fox reported net income of $975 million on revenues of $6.5 billion. The company includes the Fox studios in Hollywood and a global array of cable and broadcasting operations, including the Fox television entities, National Geographic Channels and local television stations, along with a stake in the Sky satellite television service.

News Corp — which also owns Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones — for the same period reported a profit of $23 million on $2 billion in revenues.

Fox shares fell 0.76 percent to $32.60 on the news.

File Photo: Rupert Murdoch, pictured on July 17, 2014, is preparing to step down as chief executive of the media-entertainment conglomerate 21st Century Fox and hand the job to his son James, CNBC television reports. (AFP/File / Jason Reed)

This post has been updated.

At Last, ‘Pharoah’ Rules As 12th Triple Crown Winner

New York (AFP) – American Pharoah ended American racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought, romping to victory in the Belmont Stakes.

The sweet-striding bay colt, ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Bob Baffert, added the 1 1/2-mile Belmont to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins to become the 12th horse to sweep all three — and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

Since then 13 horses had claimed the first two jewels of the Triple Crown only to be undone by the Belmont.

That list of near-misses included three horses trained by Baffert and two ridden by Espinoza.

“Thirty-seven years,” Baffert said. “I’m part of this but you know what, that little horse, he deserved it. He’s a great horse.”

Espinoza could hardly believe it as he cantered his mount toward the winner’s circle to delirious cheers from a crowd of 90,000.

“Wow! Wow!” Espinoza said. “It’s just an amazing thing. He’s just an amazing horse!”

His mount broke slowly from the gate, but responded quickly as Espinoza took him straight to the lead.

He stayed in front the rest of the way, the first favorite to win the Belmont since Afleet Alex in 2005.

“I’m thinking about my parents,” an emotional Baffert said as he made his way to the winner’s circle, surrounded by his family. “I wish they were alive to see this.”

The 62-year-old trainer has known Triple Crown heartbreak, having saddled Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) for Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins, only to see them fall short in the Belmont.

“I was really getting to dislike this trophy. It’s caused me a lot of misery,” Baffert said as he accepted it.

Espinoza was aboard War Emblem for that failed Triple try in 2002, and he had another Triple Crown chance go awry at the Belmont on California Chrome last year.

This time, Espinoza said, he knew at the first turn that Pharoah wouldn’t let him down.

“He broke a step slow, but in two jumps I was in the lead,” said Espinoza, who was in full control of the pace.

“Steady, steady all the way round, it was the best feeling ever across the first turn,” he said.

Godolphin-owned Frosted, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and ridden by Joel Rosario, made a move heading into the final straight, but American Pharoah pulled away remorselessly to beat him by 5 1/2-lengths.

Keen Ice, trained by Dale Romans and ridden by Kent Desormeaux, was third.

It was a seventh straight win in eight career starts for American Pharoah, who captured his three Triple Crown victories in varying style.

He ground down the opposition in the Kentucky Derby to win by a length, while in the Preakness he shrugged off a driving rainstorm and muddy track to go wire to wire and win by seven lengths.

While the field of eight was the smallest in the Belmont since 2007, over the course of the three Triple Crown races American Pharoah defeated a total of 31 challengers — second most behind the 32 beaten by War Admiral in 1937.

The son of Pioneerof the Nile, known for his short tail and kind demeanor, inscribed his mis-spelled name among the Thoroughbred greats.

American Pharoah ended a record Triple Crown drought. The previous record gap was 25 years, from Citation in 1948 to Secretariat in 1973.

The 70s proved a golden age for the elusive feat, with Secretariat followed by Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in ’78.

Then the long winter set in and the difficulty of winning three races at three different circuits in just five weeks began to seem insurmountable.

An increasing focus by breeders on speed over stamina had the 1 1/2-mile Belmont looking an ever more daunting task for modern Thoroughbreds.

Some wondered if the feat first achieved by Sir Barton in 1919 would ever be seen again.

“I was here in town, I was listening to every news station and people were saying, ‘Well, you know, it never happens,'” Baffert said.

“But there’s something about this horse. He just brought it every time, and he’s just enjoyment to be around.”

Ahmed Zayat, the Egyptian-born entrepreneur who bred and owns American Pharoah, said it was a victory for horse racing fans — a group steadily dwindling in the United States.

But more importantly it was a proof of American Pharoah’s quality.

“I can sit here for hours and praise the brilliant job that Bob, Victor, and team have done,” he said.

“But at this juncture it’s about the defining of the greatness of American Pharoah.”

Photo: American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, crosses the finish line to win the 147th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015 in Elmont, New York. (AFP / Timothy A. Clary)

Congress Curbs NSA Surveillance, Sends Bill To Obama

Washington (AFP) – The Senate passed landmark legislation Tuesday that ends the government’s bulk telephone data dragnet, reining in the most controversial surveillance program since the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

The House of Representatives has already passed the measure, which also reauthorizes key national security programs that had lapsed early this week. With the Senate rejecting Republican attempts to modify the bill, it now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to to his office at the US Capitol on June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC (Getty/AFP / Chip Somodevilla)

This story is breaking and is being updated.

Blatter Wins FIFA Vote Amid Corruption Storm

Zurich (AFP) – Sepp Blatter won the FIFA presidency for a fifth time Friday after his challenger Prince Ali bin al Hussein withdrew just before a scheduled second round.

The veteran Swiss powerbroker fell seven votes short of the required 140 majority in the first round of voting.

Just before the second round was about to start the Jordanian prince, a FIFA vice president who had campaigned on the need for reform, withdrew thanking those “brave enough” to vote for him.

Blatter, 79, has been FIFA’s president since 1998 and has defied European calls to stand down as corruption scandals tarnish the multi-billion dollar body’s image.

Photo: AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

U.S. Removes Cuba From Terror Blacklist

Washington (AFP) – The United States removed Cuba from its blacklist as a state sponsor of terrorism Friday, in a landmark move aimed at paving the way towards normalizing ties frozen for half a century.

President Barack Obama had notified Congress earlier this year that he intended to remove Havana from the list, giving lawmakers 45 days to object, which elapsed Friday.

Now Secretary of State John Kerry “has made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, effective today, May 29, 2015,” the State Department said in a statement.

“The rescission of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism reflects our assessment that Cuba meets the statutory criteria for rescission,” the statement said.

“While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a state sponsor of terrorism designation.”

The decision means that Cuba will now have better access to U.S. banking facilities and American aid, as well as removing an international stigma which it has long contended was groundless and unfair.

In a ground-breaking move, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in December to restore relations frozen for five decades.

So far teams from the two countries have met four times seeking to work out the terms for re-opening their embassies, which would be the first step towards normalizing ties.

Officials say the talks have made progress, but nothing concrete was announced at the last round, held in Washington a week ago.

The communist authorities in Havana have been particularly angered by US democracy programs and have so far not met demands that American diplomats be allowed to meet freely with dissidents.

The island is still subject to a U.S. trade embargo put in place in 1962, which Obama has called on Congress to lift.

Havana has also found a bank willing to do business with it on American soil, removing another key hurdle.

Friday’s decision means only Iran, Sudan and Syria remain on the State Department’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.

Photo: Day Donaldson via Flickr

Ex-Governor Pataki Joins Republican Race For White House

New York (AFP) — George Pataki, the former governor who led New York during the September 11, 2001 attacks, on Thursday threw his hat into the crowded ring of Republicans running for the White House.

Announcing his bid for the presidency in a brief video, the 69-year-old centrist made an emotional appeal for national unity and promised to make America great once again.

“What unites us is so much more important than what might seem superficially to divide us. If we are to flourish as a people we have to fall in love with America again,” he said.

The son of a postman, Pataki studied at Yale University and Columbia Law School. He played up his centrist credentials as a leader who could get things done across the United States’ fraught party lines.

“I was a Republican governor in a very deep blue state, the state of New York and I was governor for three terms and it’s because, at the end, people realized my vision was not a partisan vision it was a vision about people, about what we could accomplish together.”

His video closed with images of the new World Trade Center, the highest office building in the Western Hemisphere built after the 9/11 attacks and which Pataki was the first to name “Freedom Tower.”

It marks a first White House bid for Pataki, who was an ardent supporter of America’s last Republican president, George W. Bush and who has long flirted with the idea of contesting the presidency.

Married to Libby for 41 years, the couple have four children, including two sons who served in the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a daughter who is a best selling novelist.

“Washington has grown too big, too powerful, too expensive and too intrusive,” said Pataki. “It is time to stand up, protect our freedom and take back this government.”

More than a dozen prominent Republicans have already announced their bid to win the party’s nomination for the 2016 election.

Screenshot: Pataki for President 2016/YouTube

Police Arrest Mansion Murders Suspect After Pizza Crust Lead

Washington (AFP) – After following a DNA lead gleaned from pizza crust, authorities have arrested a suspect in the grisly murder of three members of a wealthy Washington family and their maid.

Daron Dylon Wint, 34, was arrested Thursday night in the nation’s capital, Washington Metropolitan Police said.

Three other men and two women who were with Wint as police pounced late Thursday night were also arrested, a U.S. Marshals Service official said.

The case has shocked the city because of the violence employed in last week’s murders — one of the four bludgeoned victims was a 10-year-old boy — and because the neighborhood where it happened is posh and hardly used to such bloodshed.

The manhunt for Wint began after the DNA was collected from pizza delivered to the slain family’s home and matched to him. The chase stretched all the way up to New York where he was said to have relatives.

In fact he was arrested after having returned from that city, authorities said.

In the crime, businessman Savvas Savopoulos, president and CEO of American Iron Works, a building materials company in Maryland, his wife Amy, their 10-year-old son Philip and the family’s housekeeper Veralicia Figueroa — were found bound and bludgeoned May 14 after a fire gutted the millionaire’s mansion.

Wint used to work for that company, officials say.

The motive of the killing is not known.

But police say that while the family was being held, an assistant of Savopoulos delivered $40,000 in cash to the home.

Savopoulos’s blue Porsche turned up shortly after the murders, abandoned several miles from the crime scene, authorities said. It also had been set ablaze.

Wint is now charged with first degree felony murder while armed.

He was captured with five other people — three men and two women — who were also arrested.

U.S. Marshals tailed two cars as they left a hotel in the neighboring state of Maryland, Commander Robert Fernandez of the U.S. Marshals Service said Friday.

“We could tell that they were together. They were going north bound. They did sort of a strange U-turn and we suspected they may have thought that they were being tailed,” Fernandez said.

“Once we reached a location in DC where we felt we could take them down, we did a pin maneuver on both vehicles and we arrested everyone,” he added.

The Washington Post reported Friday that Wint has had several brushes with the law over the years, often for allegedly violent behavior.

But Wint’s former attorney said on CNN Friday the police have the wrong man.

“It’s not his act. He’s a nice guy. He’s patriotic,” lawyer Robin Fickers said. He said he had defended Wint in six cases in 2005 and 2006 and he was never found guilty.

Fickers said Wint is being tried in the media, criticizing Mayor Muriel Bowser for holding a press conference to name Wint before he had even been questioned.

Fickers also challenged the pizza evidence, saying authorities have not said where the pizza was when it was found.

“Was it in the trash behind the house?” he asked. “I’ve had many cases where the DNA results were thrown out of court because they simply were not valid. And they may well have been contrived in this case.”

Screenshot via CNN/YouTube

DNA From Pizza Crust Helps Police Identify U.S. Murder Suspect

Washington (AFP) — Police were on the hunt Thursday for a suspect in the murder of a wealthy Washington family, after he was reportedly identified using DNA collected from the crust of a pizza delivered to victims’ home.

Authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Daron Dylon Wint in connection with the four murders, one of the most notorious crimes in recent memory in the US capital city.

Washington’s Mayor Muriel Bowser Thursday decried the killings as an “act of evil,” and appealed to the public for help in arresting Wint.

The victims — Savvas Savopoulos, president and CEO of American Iron Works, a building materials manufacturer in Maryland, his wife Amy, their 10-year-old son Philip and the family’s housekeeper Veralicia Figueroa — were found bound and bludgeoned May 14 after a fire gutted the millionaire’s mansion in an exclusive section of Washington.

Savopoulos’s blue Porsche, which had been stolen, turned up shortly after the murders, abandoned several miles from the crime scene, authorities said. It also had been set ablaze.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that the break in the case came after police matched Wint, 34, to DNA found on the crust of a Domino’s pizza that had been delivered to the house on the night of May 13, as the victims apparently were being held captive.

The daily, citing sources and court records, said Savvas Savopoulos’s personal assistant dropped off a package containing $40,000 in cash at the home shortly before it went up in flames.

Police said Wint is wanted for first degree murder in the case, and news reports said authorities have not ruled out that the crimes were committed with the help of accomplices.

Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters that investigators believe Wint was a former employee at Savopoulos’ firm.

“We have recent information that he did work at American Iron Works at one time in the past,” Lanier said.

“Right now it doesn’t appear this is a random crime but there is a connection through the business of the suspect and the Savopoulos family business.”

Lanier said law enforcement across the United States have been notified to be on the lookout for Wint.

“Right now you have just about every law enforcement officer across the country aware of his open warrant and are looking for him,” she said.

“I think even his family has made pleas for him to turn himself in.”

The violence has shocked Washington, at least in part because it occurred in a tony section of the city rarely touched by deadly crime.

The neighborhood is home to numerous embassies and diplomatic mansions as well as the official residence of Vice President Joe Biden and his wife.

Update: The suspect has been arrested.

Screenshot via CNN/YouTube

Germany’s Merkel Defends Cooperation With US Spy Agency

AFP

Berlin — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday insisted her country needed to work with American intelligence agencies, in the wake of claims Berlin helped the US spy on EU leaders and companies.

Merkel’s government has faced growing pressure over the allegations, and while analysts expect the popular leader to weather the scandal, her interior minister has drawn media and opposition fire over the “BND affair”, referring to Germany’s foreign intelligence service.

She insisted on Monday that the BND was “under control” and repeated a pledge to testify before a parliamentary inquiry over the activities of the American National Security Agency, were she called to do so.

“That said, the BND must continue to cooperate internationally, and will do so,” Merkel said at a joint news conference with Czech premier Bohuslav Sobotka.

Media say US intelligence asked Germany’s spy agency to eavesdrop on the online, phone, and other communications not just of terror suspects but also of France-based aviation giant Airbus, the French presidency, and EU Commission

“To carry out its responsibilities combating international terrorist threats requires collaboration with other agencies, starting with the NSA,” she said.

Merkel had previously promised to “clarify” the relationship between the two intelligence agencies.

Her beleaguered Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere — Merkel’s former chief-of-staff responsible for overseeing intelligence services — said last week he would also answer any questions posed by the parliamentary committee probing the row.

German media have reported that US intelligence asked the BND to eavesdrop on the online, phone, and other communications not just of terror suspects but also of France-based aviation giant Airbus, the French presidency, and EU Commission.

A core question has been whether de Maiziere’s ministry misled parliament when it said, as recently as April 14, it had no knowledge of alleged US economic spying in Europe, and of Germany’s alleged involvement.

Airbus has said it would “file a criminal complaint against persons unknown on suspicion of industrial espionage.”

Photo: Sven Festersen via Flickr

Woman Dies In Hawaii Shark Attack

Los Angeles (AFP) – A 65-year-old woman died from injuries apparently sustained in a shark attack off the Hawaiian holiday island of Maui after frantic efforts to save her failed, local authorities said Thursday.

The woman’s body was found floating Wednesday in the waters off Ahihi Kinau Bay on the southwest of the island, said Maui County Police Department. “She was brought to shore by other beach goers.

“Despite life-saving efforts, (the woman) sustained fatal injuries consistent with a shark attack,” it said in a statement posted online, adding that nearby beachfront areas were closed pending further investigation.

Maui is the second largest island in the US Pacific state of Hawaii, which draws millions of tourists from around the world every year to its sun, beaches, volcanoes and resorts.

Photo: Rob Murray via Flickr

Tesla Unveils Battery To ‘Transform Energy Infrastructure’

Los Angeles (AFP) – Electric car pioneer Tesla unveiled a “home battery” Thursday which its founder Elon Musk said would help change the “entire energy infrastructure of the world.”

The Tesla Powerwall can store power from solar panels, from the electricity grid at night when it is typically cheaper, and provide a secure backup in the case of a power outage.

In theory the device, which typically would fit on the wall of a garage or inside a house, could make solar-powered homes completely independent of the traditional energy grid.

“The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, to completely sustainable zero carbon,” Musk told reporters shortly before unveiling the Powerwall in a stylish warehouse space outside Los Angeles.

People look at newly-unveiled Tesla Powerwall batteries at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California, April 30, 2015

All the power for the evening demonstration, attended by several hundred media as well as tech world participants, came from his new batteries, hooked up to solar panels on the roof, he said.

Initially the device, which will cost $3,500, will go on sale in the United States later this year. But the aim is to roll it out internationally some time next year.

Germany is seen as a key market for the product — which is about 6 inches thick, 4 feet tall and 3 feet across — because it has among the highest take-up of solar energy in the world, Musk said.

But it could also be a huge boon for under-developed regions, where power is often unreliable at best, despite abundant solar energy — and he compared the potential to that of the way cellphone technology has expanded.

“It’s analogous to the way mobile leap-frogged landlines,” Musk said.

“This is going to be really great for the poorest communities in the world,” he said. “This allows you to be completely off grid.”

Musk stressed however that moving advanced economies like America away from unsustainable fossil fuels was a key goal.

“I think we should collectively do something about this .. we have this handy fusion reactor in the sky, called the sun,” he said.

The Powerwall comes in 10 kWh weekly cycle and 7 kWh daily cycle models, both of which are guaranteed for 10 years and are sufficient to power most homes during peak evening hours.

The Tesla chief was coy when asked whether Tesla Energy would be a bigger business than Tesla Motors, for which he is best known. He dodged the question.

Last year Tesla announced the construction of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery plant in Nevada, a five-billion-dollar “Gigafactory” with Japanese electronics giant Panasonic.

Tesla will run operations while its Japanese partner will make battery cells destined for the plant and invest in equipment and machinery, according to a joint statement released at that time.

While Tesla produces relatively few vehicles, it has become a star in the sector due to keen demand and a reputation for high quality.

Photo: Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk unveils large utility scale home batteries at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California, April 30, 2015 (©afp.com / David McNew)

NASA Pushes Back Against Proposal To Slash Climate Budget

Washington (AFP) — NASA pushed back against a congressional proposal to slash more than $300 million in funding from its branch focused on climate issues.

The proposal would cut funding to NASA’s Earth Sciences division, which researches the planet’s natural systems and processes — including climate change, severe weather, and glaciers.

Republican Lamar Smith, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee presented the proposal earlier in the week.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that the bill “threatens to set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts, and storm events.”

“In addition, the bill underfunds the critical space technologies that the nation will need to lead in space, including on our journey to Mars,” he said.

NASA’s Earth Sciences division currently has a budget of $1.9 billion.

Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, wrote in a letter to Smith that her organization was “extremely concerned that the reauthorization significantly cuts funding for NASA’s Earth Science Division.”

The Republican-majority House committee said in a statement that the move was an attempt to “restore balance to NASA’s budget” by putting more emphasis on space exploration.

“We must continue to invest in NASA as the only government agency responsible for space exploration,” it said.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, emphasized a similar desire to refocus NASA activities on space over Earth sciences during hearings last month.

Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the House committee’s ranking member, criticized what she called an attack against climate science.

“In order to serve an ideological agenda, the majority is willing to slash the science that helps us have a better understanding of our home planet” she said in The Hill, a Washington newspaper covering Congress.

In January, NASA announced that 2014 had been the warmest year on the planet since 1880.

Photo: ©afp.com / Esmee van Wijk

Kerry Heads To Sri Lanka On Historic Visit To Mend Ties

Washington (AFP) – Top U.S. diplomat John Kerry left early Friday on a landmark trip to Sri Lanka, the first such visit in a decade to the Indian Ocean island as it returns to the diplomatic fold.

Kerry is due to arrive around dawn Saturday in Colombo, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to set foot in the South Asian nation since Colin Powell, who visited in 2005 in the wake of the devastating Asian tsunami.

Kerry will meet with new President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected on January 8 as he unseated long-time strongman Mahinda Rajapakse at the ballot box.

The U.S. diplomat will also meet Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a senior State Department official said, adding Kerry would also hold talks with political leaders from the Tamil minority.

The United States and Europe have hailed Sri Lanka’s stunning democratic transition hoping to turn the page on years of discord caused by the former regime’s brutal crackdown on separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

Rajapakse won a landslide re-election victory in 2010, but critics say he failed to bring about reconciliation in the years that followed his crushing victory over the Tamil Tiger separatist group in 2009.

Sirisena has taken steps towards reconciliation with ethnic minority Tamils following the decades-long war which claimed at least 100,000 lives. There were allegations that at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed.

His government has pledged to investigate war crimes allegedly committed during the conflict in sharp contrast to former strongman Rajapakse who insisted no civilians were killed by his troops.

Colombo has sought “to indicate their desire to sort of reset Sri Lanka’s relations with the world community,” the State Department official said, welcoming the new government’s new 100-day reform program.

Under the plan, the government pledged to carry out a corruption probe into the Rajapakse regime and cooperate with a UN inquiry into any human rights abuses carried out in the civil war.

“The visit is intended to show that the U.S. government supports and applauds this vision, this effort,” the State Department official said.

It also aims to show there is a “future where we have a very good and mutually helpful relationship with a country that can be… a real beacon of democracy, of human rights, of reconciliation, where civil society and religious minorities can live freely.”

The UN, backed by the United States, has been investigating possible war crimes during the civil war for more than a year. In February however, the UN postponed its report at Colombo’s request to allow more time for Sri Lanka to complete its own investigation.

“We’ve always said that we support a domestic-driven process that is credible and viewed as credible by the Sri Lankan people,” the U.S. official said.

From Sri Lanka, Kerry is due to travel to Nairobi and then on to Djibouti before returning to Washington around May 8.

He will become the first ever secretary of state to visit Djibouti, a Horn of Africa country which has been thrust into the spotlight as thousands flee the chaos in Yemen, lying just across the narrow Red Sea Straits.

Photo: (©afp.com / Kena Betancur) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left on a landmark trip to Sri Lanka, the first such visit in a decade to the Indian Ocean island as it returns to the diplomatic fold.

Breaking: Six Police Officers Charged Over Freddie Gray Death In Baltimore

Washington (AFP) — Prosecutors in Baltimore on Friday charged six officers with multiple counts including second-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with the death of a 25-year-old African American man in police custody.

State prosecutor Marilyn Mosby said warrants have been issued for the arrest of the Baltimore Police Department officers over the death of Freddie Gray, which sparked days of protests and rioting in the US East Coast port city.

“The findings of our comprehensive, thorough and independent investigation, coupled with the medical examiner’s determination that Mr. Gray’s death was a homicide, which we received today, has led us to believe that we have probable cause to file criminal charges,” Mosby told a press conference.

Cheers broke out when Mosby announced the charges on the steps of Baltimore’s war memorial, across the street from city hall — a focal point of protests demanding justice over Gray’s death.

Gray, who had a record of non-violent drug offenses, died April 19 from spinal injuries sustained when he was arrested a week earlier in a west Baltimore public housing estate.

Facing the most serious charges of second-degree murder is Officer Caesar Goodson, the driver of the van that transported Gray to a police station.

Goodson, 45, was also charged with assault, manslaughter and misconduct.

Three other officers were charged with manslaughter, and two more charged with assault and misconduct.

Mosby said officers had “illegally arrested” Gray as “no crime had been committed.”

She urged protesters to keep the peace in the wake of the charges, and reiterated that the investigation was ongoing.

Gray has become the latest face of an ongoing national debate over whether American police are too quick to use violence against blacks, especially young men.

This post has been updated.