President takes part in shuttle memorial

SPACE CENTER, Houston — Under sapphire blue skies that once held Columbia and her crew, President Bush paid tribute yesterday to the shuttle’s seven astronauts and rededicated the nation to space travel. “They go in peace for all mankind. And all mankind is in their debt,” he said.

The president joined at least 10,000 teary-eyed NASA workers, aging astronauts, political leaders and families of the fallen crew for a memorial service in a plaza outside Mission Control usually reserved for celebrations of space triumphs.

The shuttle broke up Saturday as it was returning to earth. In Bush’s words: “Their mission was almost complete, and we lost them so close to home.”

The president met with family members after the service, which ended with the ringing of a Navy bell – seven times, one for each of the deceased astronauts – and a “missing man” formation flyover: Four T-38 NASA jets roared above the crowd, with one peeling away and soaring high and out of sight.

Bush bowed his head and first lady Laura Bush wiped tears from her eyes as the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters led the crowd in song. The words to one hymn, “God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand,” were printed on the back of the service’s programs, allowing the NASA family to raise its voice in tribute to “shining worlds in splendor through the skies.”

U.S. favors direct negotiations with N. Korea

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s No. 2 official yesterday gave senators the Bush administration’s strongest assurance to date that the United States intends to have direct talks with North Korea on its nuclear programs.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage also acknowledged that the Pentagon may bolster U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean in case “North Korea would, in some fashion, try to take advantage of our focus on Iraq.”

Less than a week after Armitage appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee explaining why war might be necessary against Iraq, he returned to tell often-skeptical lawmakers why a different approach was needed with North Korea, which he conceded poses a greater nuclear threat than Iraq.

He said Iraq has stronger ties to terrorists and that diplomatic efforts with North Korea are relatively new, while Iraq’s defiance has lasted 12 years. Also, North Korea’s weapons programs seem to be tied to the country’s dire economic needs while Iraq is pursuing weapons “to dominate, to intimidate and to attack,” he said.

Armitage repeated the Bush administration’s position that North Korea’s nuclear program isn’t a crisis.

Lawmaker pushes for approval of tax cuts

WASHINGTON — A senior Republican lawmaker announced plans yesterday to push tax relief legislation through the House by the end of March, setting the stage for a quick test of President Bush’s call for $1.3 trillion in new cuts over the next decade.

“We need to act soon,” said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. He cited a need to put more money into the hands of consumers and create jobs in a time of slow economic growth.

Thomas laid out a timetable for action on tax cut legislation as Treasury Secretary John Snow and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels parried criticism from congressional Democrats over the record deficits envisioned in the administration’s day-old budget.

“Deficits matter. They are never welcome. But there are times, such as these, when they are unavoidable, particularly when we are compelled to address critical national needs,” Snow said.

Rebels target tourists in southern Mexico

NUEVO JERUSALEM, Mexico — Zapatista rebels are threatening to seize a ranch and guest house owned by U.S. citizens and are running tourists out of parts of southern Chiapas state – an unexpected turn for a country whose third-largest income source is tourism.

The conflict is part of the rebels’ battle against foreign investment and eco-tourism, the small-scale, environmentally-friendly operations that were supposed to help save the jungles where the Zapatistas have their last redoubts.

“We don’t want any American tourists. … We don’t want any tourists at all,” said Gabriel, a black-clad Zapatista guarding a roadblock near the ranch who would give only his first name. “We don’t want strangers coming around.”

Over the last two weeks, Zapatista sympathizers have detained and threatened a group of French and Canadian kayakers on a jungle river and blocked access to Rancho Esmeralda, the U.S.-owned ranch and guesthouse.

Yugoslav republics to form loose union

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro — Erasing Yugoslavia from the map of Europe, lawmakers all but dissolved the troubled Balkan federation yesterday and gave birth to a new country with a new name: Serbia and Montenegro.

Under a European Union-brokered accord approved by parliament, the two republics stick together in a loose union that gives each greater autonomy and the trappings of statehood. The final breakup of the former Yugoslavia – outright independence for both – could come as soon as 2006.

Widely seen as a compromise solution amid conflicting demands within both republics that Serbia and Montenegro be either firmly tied or completely separated, the accord preserves the alliance but allows each member state to hold an independence referendum after three years.

The deal offers the republics near-total sovereignty.

— Compiled from Daily wire reports.

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