Shuttle crash linked to breach in craft skin

WASHINGTON

The space shuttle Columbia almost certainly suffered a devastating breach of its skin, allowing superheated air inside the left wing and possibly the wheel compartment during its fiery descent, investigators said yesterday.

In its first significant determination, the accident investigation board announced that heat damage from a missing tile would not be sufficient to cause the unusual temperature increases detected inside Columbia minutes before it disintegrated. Sensors noticed an unusual heat buildup of about 30 degrees inside the wheel well before the accident.

Instead, the board determined those increases were caused by the presence inside Columbia of plasma, or superheated air with temperatures of roughly 2,000 degrees. It said investigators were studying where a breach might have occurred to allow plasma to seep inside the wheel compartment or elsewhere in Columbia’s left wing.

The board did not specify whether such a breach could be the result of a structural tear in Columbia’s aluminum frame or a hole from debris striking the spacecraft. The board also did not indicate when the breach occurred during the shuttle’s 16-day mission.

Officials have previously focused on an unusually large chunk of foam that broke off Columbia’s external fuel tank on liftoff.

Police quell riots that leave 22 dead in 2 days

Striking police officers returned to work yesterday after two days of violent street protests that left 22 people dead and a trail of burned and looted buildings throughout the capital of South America’s poorest nation.

People lined the streets of La Paz to cheer police officers as they began to restore order after demonstrators set fire to government buildings and looted stores in a wave of violence that began as a protest against a new income tax that the government suspended to calm the unrest.

Over the two days, 22 people were killed, including at least nine police officers, and 102 were injured, according to Eduardo Chavez, director of La Paz’s General Hospital, where most of the casualties were treated.

Earlier yesterday, sirens wailed and bands of looters ran through chaotic central La Paz, where tanks and 400 heavily armed soldiers were deployed near the presidential palace, which was besieged by protesters a day earlier.

Several thousand protesters marched through downtown, shouting slogans against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. “Resign or die, those are your options,” they chanted. The march, organized by labor groups, ended without violence.

U.S. declines talks with North Korea

WASHINGTON

North Korea wants talks with the United States alone to discuss that country’s nuclear weapons program and has snubbed efforts to include China, Russia and South Korea, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress yesterday.

One-on-one talks are unacceptable, because many nations are in danger if the largely closed, communist nation continues to pursue nuclear weapons, Powell said.

“We have to have a regional settlement,” Powell said. “It can’t be just be the U.S. and the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea).”

North Korea’s response to the suggestion of regional talks – delivered through diplomatic channels and in low-level contacts with the Bush administration – was “no, no, no,” Powell said.

“We have to find a way to broaden the dialogue,” Powell told the House Budget Committee.

Facing terror, U.S. steps up security

WASHINGTON

Police carrying semiautomatic rifles patrolled the grounds of the Capitol yesterday, and the government warned key industries and utilities to beware of employees who might have been planted by al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.

The security measures were the latest to emerge since the nation went on high alert for possible terrorist attacks last week. The orange level is the second-highest in a five-point, color-coded scale that would be topped only by a red alert that meant an attack was imminent or under way.

There are no plans to raise the threat level, Justice Department officials said. U.S. counterterrorism officials said they are continuing to gather intelligence but have no specific information as to targets or methods for a terrorist strike.

Authorities have said they are worried about attacks timed to coincide with the hajj, a Muslim holy period that ended yesterday, or the beginning of a war with Iraq.

Vatican archives may reveal anti-Semitism

VATICAN CITY

For years the Vatican has struggled to defend its wartime pope, Pius XII, against claims he was anti-Semitic and didn’t do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Now the Vatican is taking the extraordinary step of opening part of its secret archives ahead of schedule, in a bid to silence attacks against a man it is considering for sainthood. Starting tomorrow, millions of Vatican documents from the years leading up to World War II will be available to scholars.

The Vatican’s chief archivist says he doesn’t expect any “shocking revelations” to emerge from the documents – and it will no doubt be months if not years before any findings are published. But Roman Catholic and Jewish scholars say the papers may answer some questions about the policies that shaped Pius’ papacy and what the Vatican knew about anti-Semitism in Europe before the war and responsive to the needs of scholars.

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