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Susan Smith-Harmon

Susan Smith-Harmon

Pakistan: 3 percent of drone deaths were civilians

Thursday, 31 October 2013 02:39 Published in National News

   ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani government said Wednesday that 3 percent of 2,227 people killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2008 were civilians, a surprisingly low figure that sparked criticism from groups that have investigated deaths from the attacks.

   The number, which was provided by the Ministry of Defense to the Senate, is much lower than past government calculations and estimates by independent organizations that have gone as high as 300. The ministry said 317 drone strikes have killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians since 2008.

   The attacks, which mainly target suspected Islamic militants near the northwestern border with Afghanistan, are widely unpopular in Pakistan because they are viewed as violating the country's sovereignty and killing too many civilians. The Pakistani government regularly criticizes the drone program in public, even though it is known to have secretly supported at least some of the strikes in the past.

   Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pressed President Barack Obama to end the attacks in a visit to the White House last week, but the U.S. considers the attacks vital to its battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban and gave no indication it was willing to abandon them.

   The latest strike occurred around midnight Wednesday, when missiles destroyed a vehicle in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major militant sanctuary, Pakistani intelligence officials said. No one was killed in the attack, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

   Defense Ministry officials could not be reached for comment on their civilian casualty figure, and the statement posted on the Senate's website did not give any indication why the number was so much lower than past government calculations and outside estimates.

   A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said earlier this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by the attacks in the country since they started in 2004.

   Emmerson called on the government to explain the apparent discrepancy, saying the figures provided by the Foreign Ministry since 2004 indicated a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.

   "If the true figures for civilian deaths are significantly lower, then it is important that this should now be made clear, and the apparent discrepancy explained," Emmerson said in an email.

   The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that drones have killed at least 300 civilians in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185. These estimates are often compiled based on media reports about the attacks.

   Pakistan's overall death toll is lower than some other totals, although not to the same degree as its figure for civilians. The New America Foundation registered 2,651 people killed in the same period, while the Long War Journal website has 2,493.

   The danger of traveling to the remote tribal region targeted by the strikes makes it difficult to compile an accurate number of civilian casualties.

   The U.S. rarely speaks publicly about the CIA-run drone program in Pakistan because it is classified. But some American officials have insisted that the strikes have killed very few civilians and that estimates from the Pakistani government and independent organizations are exaggerated.

   Amnesty International called on the U.S. to investigate reports of civilians killed and wounded by drone strikes in Pakistan in a report released earlier this month that provided new details about the alleged victims of the attacks, including a 68-year-old woman killed while farming with her grandchildren.

   Mamana Bibi's grandchildren told the London-based rights group that she was killed by missile fire on Oct. 24, 2012, as she was collecting vegetables in a family field in North Waziristan. Bibi's relatives testified before members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.

   The Amnesty report also cited witnesses as saying that a volley of missiles hit a tent where 18 men with no links to militant groups were eating after work, then a second struck those who came to help the wounded on July 6, 2012 in North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials at the time identified the dead as suspected militants.

   In its latest statement, the Pakistani government said 21 civilians were killed in 2008, nine in 2009, two in 2010 and 35 in 2011. But it insisted no civilians have been killed since then.

   Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri said he was skeptical about the government figures because it conflicted with their research and indicated a failure of the state to adequately investigate alleged civilian casualties.

   The London-based human rights group, Reprieve, called the government's civilian casualty figures inaccurate, based on higher numbers it said were submitted to the Peshawar High Court by the top official in North Waziristan earlier this year.

   An Associated Press study in early 2012 of 10 of the deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan over the preceding 18 months found that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent — at least 138 — were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single strike.

   The Interior Ministry also said Wednesday that "terrorist" attacks have killed 12,404 people and wounded 26,881 others since 2002, although these figures were disputed by some senators. The government has been battling an insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to topple the country's democratic system and impose Islamic law. It was not clear if the figure involved only attacks on civilians, or also attacks on security forces.

   A roadside bomb killed five soldiers and wounded three others Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal area, the Pakistani Taliban's main sanctuary before the army conducted a large ground offensive in 2009, said military officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military policy.

   Also Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a market in southwestern Pakistan, killing two people and wounding at least 20 others, said police official Ahmad Raza. The attack occurred in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. The province is home to both Islamic militants and separatists who have waged a low-level insurgency against the government for decades.

After unity, Obama faces Democratic pushback

Thursday, 31 October 2013 02:35 Published in National News

   WASHINGTON (AP) — Just two weeks after President Barack Obama saw his Democratic Party put up an unyielding front against Republicans, his coalition is showing signs of stress.

   From health care to spying to pending budget deals, many congressional Democrats are challenging the administration and pushing for measures that the White House has not embraced.

   Some Democrats are seeking to extend the enrollment period for new health care exchanges. Others want to place restraints on National Security Administration surveillance capabilities. Still others are standing tough against any budget deal that uses long-term reductions in major benefit programs to offset immediate cuts in defense.

   Though focused on disparate issues, the Democrats' anxieties are connected by timing and stand out all the more when contrasted with the remarkable unity the party displayed during the recent showdown over the partial government shutdown and the confrontation over raising the nation's borrowing limit.

   "That moment was always going to be fleeting," said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House and who regularly consults with Obama aides. "The White House, every White House, understands that these folks, driven either by principle or the demands of the politics of their state, have to put daylight between themselves and the president on occasion."

   Obama and the Democrats emerged from the debt and shutdown clash with what they wanted: a reopened government, a higher debt ceiling and a Republican Party reeling in the depths of public opinion polls.

   But within days, attention turned to the problem-riddled launch of the 3-year-old health care law's enrollment stage and revelations that the U.S. had been secretly monitoring the communications of as many as 35 allied leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And with new budget talks underway, Democratic Party liberals reiterated demands that Obama not agree to changes that reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits even in the improbable event Republicans agree to increase budget revenues.

   The fraying on the Democratic Party edges is hardly unraveling Obama's support and it pales when compared to the upheaval within the Republican Party as it distances itself from the tactics of tea party conservatives. But the pushback from Democrats comes as Obama is trying to draw renewed attention to his agenda, including passage of an immigration overhaul, his jobs initiatives and the benefits of his health care law.

   The computer troubles that befell the start of health insurance sign-ups have caused the greatest anxiety. Republicans pounced on the difficulties as evidence of deeper flaws in the law. But Democrats, even as they defended the policy, also demanded answers in the face of questions from their constituents.

   "The fact is that the administration really failed these Americans," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner at a hearing this week. "So going forward there can be just no more excuses."

   In the Senate, 10 Democrats signed on to a letter seeking an unspecified extension of the enrollment period, which ends March 31. "As you continue to fix problems with the website and the enrollment process, it is critical that the administration be open to modifications that provide greater flexibility for the American people seeking to access health insurance," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote.

   Another Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has called for a one-year delay in the requirement that virtually all Americans have health insurance or pay a fine.

   Democrats who have talked to White House officials in recent days describe them as rattled by the health care blunders. But they say they are confident that the troubled website used for enrollment will be corrected and fully operational by the end of November.

   The spying revelations also have created some tensions between the administration and Democrats. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and until now a staunch supporter of the NSA's surveillance, called for a "total review of all intelligence programs" following the Merkel reports.

   She said that when it came to the NSA collecting intelligence on the leaders of allies such as France, Spain, Mexico and Germany, "Let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed."

   With Congress renewing budget talks Wednesday, liberals have been outspoken in their insistence that Democrats vigorously resist efforts to reduce long-term deficits with savings in Social Security or Medicare. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who usually votes with Democrats, has been the most outspoken, saying he fears a budget deal will contain a proposal in Obama's budget to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs.

   Obama, however, has proposed that remedy only if Republicans agree to raise tax revenue, a bargain that most in the GOP firmly oppose. Moreover, leaders from both parties as well as White House officials have signaled that budget talks are looking for a small budget deal, not the type of "grand bargain" that would embrace such a revenue-for-benefit-cuts deal.

HIV-like virus suppressed in monkey experiment

Thursday, 31 October 2013 02:17 Published in Health & Fitness

   NEW YORK (AP) — Doctors may one day be able to control a patient's HIV infection in a new way: injecting swarms of germ-fighting antibodies, two new studies suggest.

   In monkeys, that strategy sharply reduced blood levels of a cousin of HIV. The results also gave tantalizing hints that someday the tactic might help destroy the AIDS virus in its hiding places in the body, something current drugs cannot do.

   The study results "could revolutionize efforts to cure HIV" if the approach is found to work in people, said a commentary published Wednesday by the journal Nature along with the monkey studies.

   Antibodies are proteins in the blood that grab onto specific germs and mark them for elimination. People infected with HIV naturally make antibodies to fight the AIDS virus, but they are generally ineffective. The two new studies used lab-made versions of rare antibodies with unusual potency against HIV.

   One study of rhesus monkeys showed a profound effect from a single injection of antibodies, said lead author Dr. Dan Barouch of Harvard and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

   The 18 animals had been infected with SHIV, a monkey version of HIV. In 13 animals, blood levels of SHIV became undetectable by standard tests within a week of the treatment. After the antibodies petered out, the virus came back. That happened one to three months after treatment.

   In three monkeys with the lowest levels of SHIV before treatment, the virus didn't return during an observation period of up to eight months. Barouch said the animals were not cured, but the treatment had apparently improved their immune systems enough to keep the virus in check.

   The two other monkeys started with the highest blood levels of SHIV. Treatment lowered those levels but not to the point where they were undetectable.

   The second study in Nature, from the National Institutes of Health, showed encouraging results in a smaller group of monkeys.

   In people, standard drugs routinely tamp down HIV to undetectable levels in the blood. But the antibody approach may someday help doctors attack virus that's hiding in infected cells, beyond the reach of today's drugs, said the Nature commentary by Dr. Steven Deeks of the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Louis Picker of the Oregon Health & Science University in Beaverton.

   In theory, antibodies might activate the body's immune system to kill those infected cells, they wrote. Barouch's results hinted at such an effect, they noted. Virus levels dropped faster in the monkeys than they do when people get standard HIV drugs, and when the monkey virus returned, it generally didn't reach its pre-treatment levels. Barouch also found virus levels reduced in cells and tissues after treatment.

   The findings of the two studies are "provocative" about prospects for attacking HIV's hiding places, Deeks said in a telephone interview.

   "These studies raised more questions than they answered," he said. "But that's how science advances."

   ___

   Online:  Nature: http://www.nature.com/nature

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