Young Palestinians banned from work

JERUSALEM

Israel banned Palestinians younger than 35 from entering the country to work yesterday – even if they have permits – the latest punitive measure after a double Palestinian suicide bombing in Tel Aviv killed 22 bystanders.

Israel also drew complaints from Britain by banning Palestinian negotiators from attending a London session planned for discussing reform in the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli government has said it would close three Palestinian universities in response to the attacks, but took no action yesterday.

A splinter of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, claimed responsibility for the two bombings in Tel Aviv, and Israel blamed Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

Though the Palestinian leadership denounced the attack, the deadliest inside Israel since March, Israel enacted measures aimed at Palestinian officials, banning them from leaving the country.

Britain had announced it would host Palestinian, European and U.N. representatives at a conference Jan. 13-14 to discuss administrative reforms in Arafat’s regime. After angry exchanges, Israel and Britain appeared to be trying to defuse the disagreement, with Britain expressing the hope that Israel would lift the ban.

Yesterday, Israel further tightened restrictions, saying only Palestinian workers age 35 and over could enter Israel, the military said. Before the current conflict erupted in September 2000, more than 100,000 Palestinian workers crossed into Israel every day, providing a key source of income for the West Bank and Gaza.

When the fighting began, Israel at first banned all Palestinians from entering for security reasons, saying that would keep attackers out of the country.

U.S. builds new Persian Gulf command post

WASHINGTON

The U.S. battle staff that would run a war against Iraq has begun assembling at a Persian Gulf command post linked to air, land, naval and special operations commanders in the region, officials said yesterday.

The same Central Command planners were at the post, called Camp As Sayliyah, last month for a weeklong exercise before returning to their permanent headquarters in Florida, but this time it is not an exercise.

They are positioning themselves to kick off any military action against Iraq that President Bush should deem necessary, although officials stressed that the movement does not mean war is imminent or inevitable.

Meanwhile, Britain ordered a task force of ships and 3,000 Royal Marines to head toward the Gulf and mobilized 1,500 reserve soldiers, joining the United States in increasing military pressure on Saddam Hussein.

And in France, where there has been less support for Bush’s war talk, President Jacques Chirac told French troops to be prepared for deployment if Baghdad does not comply with U.N. orders to eliminate weapons programs.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Royal Navy vessels and Royal Marines would be sent to the Mediterranean to train for possible action. A Ministry of Defense official said about 3,000 Marines would be aboard the ships, which include an aircraft carrier and three destroyers.

In Washington, a senior official who discussed the U.S. effort on condition of anonymity said the movement of Central Command battle planners, which began this week, is part of an accelerating buildup of forces in the Gulf region. Tens of thousands more combat forces are scheduled to arrive over the next few weeks.

Among the forces expected to deploy from U.S. bases in the next several days are F-15E and F-15C fighters and B-1B bombers.

Jim Wilkinson, the Central Command director of strategic communications, confirmed the decision to send the battle planners to As Sayliyah, in Qatar, but he declined to provide details on when they would arrive or when the command post would be ready to start a war.

“Central Command continues to cycle personnel into and out of the region,” Wilkinson said. “We refuse to discuss deployments in advance. However, you can expect to see continuing deployments to Qatar and elsewhere in support of ongoing diplomatic activities.”

Other officials said the command post at As Sayliyah will be operational before the end of the month.

In December, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, oversaw an extensive computer-based exercise at As Sayliyah that many viewed as a tuneup for a war against Iraq. Franks said the exercise verified technologies that would enable him to coordinate with air, ground and naval commanders in the region.

Franks and his battle staff returned to their permanent headquarters in Tampa, Fla., before Christmas.

In the next several days, most of the same battle staff will be back at As Sayliyah, a desert encampment with newly designed command posts hidden inside enormous warehouses near the Qatari capital of Doha.

In the December exercise, about 1,000 battle planners participated. Wilkinson would not say how many will be returning this month, but other officials said it likely would be about the same as the December group.

If there is war, Franks would run it from As Sayliyah, but he is not returning immediately with his battle staff, officials said.

The senior officer at As Sayliyah in coming days will be Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, a deputy commander of Central Command. The other deputy commander, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Mike DeLong, is at the Tampa headquarters.

Although the officers at As Sayliyah would command the overall war, the air portion of the campaign would be run from a facility at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have not publicly confirmed that they would permit use of the facility for war against Iraq, and there have been questions about the degree of Saudi government support for the Bush administration’s policy of overthrowing the Iraqi regime.

Ricin finding linked to al-Qaida terrorists

LONDON

Police said yesterday they found traces of ricin – a deadly poison twice as potent as cobra venom – in a north London apartment and arrested six men of North African origin in connection with the virulent toxin that has been linked to al-Qaida terrorists and Iraq.

London police said material seized at a flat in the Wood Green neighborhood on Sunday had tested positive yesterday for traces of the toxin, tiny amounts of which can kill an adult. There is no antidote.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to a meeting of British ambassadors, said the find highlights the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

“As the arrests … show, this danger is present and real, and with us now, and its potential is huge,” he said.

Ricin is derived from the castor bean plant, which is grown around the world.

The poison is relatively easy to produce, and Andy Oppenheimer, a chemical and biological weapons expert at Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, said its presence in London did not necessarily indicate a connection to any outside group or country.

In Washington, U.S. officials said no al-Qaida links had yet been established to the London arrests, but that it was a matter being investigated.

Anti-terrorist police said they arrested the six men of north African origin under the Terrorism Act during raids in east and north London and seized “a quantity of material and items of equipment” at the Wood Green apartment.

Police did not identify the men and refused to specify what country or countries they were from, saying only that they were in their late teens, 20s and 30s. They were not immediately charged with a crime.

The British Broadcasting Corp. reported on television last night that the men were Algerian, but Scotland Yard refused to confirm that.

A woman arrested in the raids was released, authorities said.

Police said the arrests were prompted by “receipt of intelligence” but gave no other details.

State loses contact with sex offenders

SAN JOSE, Calif.

California has lost track of more than 33,000 convicted sex offenders, despite a law requiring rapists and child molesters to register each year for inclusion in the Megan’s Law database.

“We don’t know where they are,” acknowledged Margaret Moore, who until recently ran California’s sex offender registry.

Sex offenders are not checking in with law enforcement, which in most cases is a felony. And many overworked police departments are not following up. Experts say sex offender databases nationwide have fallen short of their promise.

“It’s not only in California,” said Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, a national victims’ rights group. “We’re expecting sex offenders to be reporting their addresses and that’s the problem.”

According to 2002 data provided to The Associated Press after repeated requests over nine months, the state does not know the whereabouts of at least 33,296 sex offenders, or 44 percent of the 76,350 who registered with the state at least once. These rapists and child molesters vanished after registering.

The total number of convicted sex offenders whose whereabouts are unknown may be even higher: No one knows how many offenders never registered at all after leaving prison.

Failing to register could put high-risk offenders in jail for up to three more years, but most police departments are not enforcing the law.

No one knows how many of these missing sex offenders have struck again. But nationally, 52 percent of rapists are arrested for new crimes within three years of leaving prison, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Among those missing is Richard Flick, convicted of molesting four young children in the 1980s and ’90s. Flick was freed from Atascadero State Hospital in 1999 despite warnings from the hospital staff that he hadn’t resolved his sexual attraction to children. Even he said it would be “disastrous” to be released without supervision. A search of the database turned up nothing about him.

Radio hosts play trick on Venezuelan leader

MIAMI

Two radio hosts known for playing pranks on the air called Venezuela’s president and used tape recordings of Fidel Castro to get him to believe he was talking to the Cuban leader.

Venezuelan Information Minister Nora Uribe confirmed yesterday that the call occurred. She said President Hugo Chavez “caught on and hung up.”

But a recording provided by the Cuban-American radio announcers has Chavez, who is struggling to end a month-old national strike by opponents, talking for about two minutes. He happily answered what he thought would be a friendly call Monday morning from Castro, one of his closest allies.

On the other end of the line were WXDJ-FM disc jockeys Joe Ferrero and Enrique Santos.

During the call, they played disjointed snippets of a private conversation between Castro and Mexican President Vicente Fox, which the Cuban leader released last year.

“We usually call (regular) people,” Ferrero said. “We never thought that we would be able to talk to Chavez. We thought maybe we’d be able to talk to a secretary.”

He said they had tried about 10 times since Friday to bluff their way past Chavez’ aides at the Venezuelan presidential palace.

On Monday, Ferrero said, he and a woman posed as telephone operators and told a Chavez secretary that they needed the president’s personal phone number to connect him with Castro, who supposedly was in a hidden location and could not receive calls. A recording of Castro’s voice was heard in the background.

The announcers said the secretary finally consented, and they called Chavez with their tape of Castro ready to roll.

“Hello Fidel?” Chavez answered, according to an audiotape of the call provided by the announcers.

“Yes. Did you receive my letter?” Castro asked.

After greeting Castro, Chavez said: “Yes, I received everything fine.”

“I am ready to cooperate with you,” the voice of Castro replied.

After an exchange about the day of the week, Santos broke in and said they were calling from Miami.

“Get out of Venezuela, (expletive) terrorist! … Animal, assassin, (expletive)!” Santos said before hanging up.

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