Saudi Arabia Increases Oil Production To 9.7 Million Barrels Per Day

King Abdullah has agreed that his country will increased output to 9.7 million barrels a day as he opened a summit on the soaring international price of crude.

Saudi Arabia will also give one billion dollars to an OPEC fund for developing countries and 500 million dollars in soft loans for poor countries to finance energy and development projects, he said.

"We are very concerned for consumers in all countries," the leader of the world's top oil exporter said as he formally launched the meeting seeking to find ways to stop spiralling price rises seen as a threat to the world economy.

"We have increased production in the past few months from nine million barrels a day to 9.7 million barrels," said the king.

"And we declare our readiness to meet any additional needs," he added.

The latest Saudi output hike took the kingdom's daily production to the highest level for more than two and a half decades.

Western powers at the Jeddah meeting have called on the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and other major producers to increase output to ease market tensions.

OPEC has in turn insisted that supply is adequate and that "speculators" are playing a key role in the doubling of the price of a barrel of crude to almost 140 dollars over the past year.

In his opening speech to conference delegates, King Abdullah appealed for the World Bank to help poor nations that are battling runaway energy costs.

"I call for launching the initiative of energy for the poor ... to help poor nations face the rising cost of energy," the king said.

"I call on the World Bank to organise a meeting for donor nations to discuss and activate this initiative."

Saudi Arabia had already increased output by 300,000 bpd last month after US President George W. Bush visited the oil-rich kingdom.

However, the output hike failed to stem soaring oil prices that have held stubbornly above 130 dollars per barrel. New York's light sweet crude oil hit a record 139.89 dollars last Monday.

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Jury Finds R Kelly Not Guilty

R. Kelly was acquitted of all charges Friday after less than a day of deliberations in his child pornography trial, ending a six-year ordeal for the R&B superstar.

Kelly dabbed his face with a handkerchief and hugged each of his four attorneys after the verdict — not guilty on all 14 counts — was read. The Grammy award-winning singer had faced 15 years in prison if convicted.

Minutes later, surrounded by bodyguards, he left the courthouse without comment. Dozens of fans screamed and cheered as he climbed into a waiting SUV.

Prosecutors had argued that a video tape mailed to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2002 showed Kelly engaged in graphic sex acts with a girl as young as 13 at the time. Both Kelly, 41, and the now 23-year-old alleged victim had denied they were the ones on the tape. Neither testified during the trial.

The prosecution's star witness was a woman who said she engaged in three-way sex with Kelly and the alleged victim. Defense attorneys argued the man on the tape didn't have a large mole on his back; Kelly has such a mole.

The monthlong trial centered on whether Kelly was the man who appears on a sexually graphic, 27-minute videotape at the heart of the case, and whether a female who also appears on it was underage.

Over seven days presenting their case, prosecutors called 22 witnesses, including several childhood friends of the alleged victim and four of her relatives who identified her as the female on the video.

In just two days, Kelly's lawyers called 12 witnesses. They included three relatives of the alleged victim who testified they did not recognize her as the female on the tape.

Kelly won a Grammy in 1997 for "I Believe I Can Fly," and is known for such raunchy hits as "Bump N' Grind," "Ignition," and for "Trapped in the Closet," a multipart saga about the sexual secrets of an ever-expanding cast of characters.

Of the 12 jurors, nine were men and three were women; eight were white and four were black. They included the wife of a Baptist preacher from Kelly's Chicago-area hometown, Olympia Fields, as well as a compliance officer for a Chicago investment firm and a man in his 60s who emigrated from then-Communist Romania nearly 40 years ago.

Despite his legal troubles, Kelly — who rose from poverty on Chicago's South Side to become a star singer, songwriter and producer — still retains a huge following, and his popularity has arguably grown in recent years.

The singer has released more than half a dozen albums, most of them selling over a million copies. He's also had a multitude of hits and gone on tours. Kelly has a new song, "Hair Braider," out now, and is due to release a new album in July.

Kelly, always meticulously dressed in a suit and tie, appeared tense at times during the trial, furrowing his brow. He seemed particularly ill at ease when prosecutors played the sex tape in open court after opening arguments.

In the video, entered into evidence as "People's Exhibit No. 1," a man has sex with a young female, who is naked for most of the recording. She is often blank-faced. The man speaks to her in a hushed voice, and she calls him "Daddy."

In one scene, alluded to in one count of the indictment, the man urinates on the female.

The issue of whether there was or wasn't a fingernail-sized mole on the man's lower was a subject of hours of testimony. A defense witness told jurors there was no mole on his back, proving it's not Kelly, who has such a mole. But a prosecution witness displayed freeze frames of the video where a dark spot seemed to appear as the man turns to take off his pants.

One surreal moment came when a defense expert played a segment of the tape he doctored showing two headless bodies engaging in sex. The defense said that backed their argument that Kelly's likeness could have been computer-generated.

Cross examination was often heated. Several witnesses cried on the stand.

The star prosecution witness, Lisa Van Allen, became teary eyed as she told jurors she engaged in several three-way sexual encounters with Kelly and the alleged victim, including once on a basketball court. Kelly videotaped the trysts, she said.

Van Allen also claimed Kelly used to carry a duffel bag stuffed full of his homemade sex tapes.

The defense called several witnesses in a bid to discredit Van Allen, accusing her of trying to extort money from Kelly. Under cross-examination, Van Allen admitted she once stole Kelly's $20,000 diamond-studded watch from a hotel.

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Robert Mugabe Threatens Violence If He Loses Election

President Robert Mugabe said Friday that his supporters are ready to fight if the opposition wins an upcoming presidential runoff election, hardening the rhetoric of a campaign that already has seen widespread violence against government opponents.

"I'm even prepared to join the fight," the 84-year-old Mugabe told a conference of his party's youth wing.

Mugabe said the veterans of the war of independence in 1980 had approached him after the first round of voting in March and threatened to take up arms again if opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai wins the June 27 runoff.

Tsvangirai finished first in a field of four in the first round but failed to win the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

"We can't allow the British to dominate us through their puppets," said Mugabe, returning to a campaign theme of portraying Tsvangirai as a pawn of Western powers, a charge the opposition denies. "A vote for the (opposition) is a vote for the British to have once again not just a foothold but real power."

A High Court judge, meanwhile, ordered police to bring No. 2 opposition leader Tendai Biti to court Saturday and explain why he should not be immediately released, according to opposition lawyer Selby Hwacha.

Biti was arrested Thursday upon returning to Zimbabwe from neighboring South Africa. The United States was among the governments that said the arrest of the top aide to Tsvangirai only deepened concerns the runoff would not be free and fair.

Since picking up Biti at the airport Thursday, police have refused to say where he was being held or when they might bring him to court. They have said he faces a charge of treason, which can carry the death penalty.

Tsvangirai, speaking on the campaign trail Friday, called the charge Biti faces "frivolous."

"Tendai has not committed any crime, he has not committed any offense to warrant the arrest," the candidate said.

The party said Tsvangirai himself was released overnight after being detained by police.

Tsvangirai was stopped twice by police as he tried to campaign Thursday, according to the party, which said he was held for about two hours the first time and late into the night the second time before being released. Such incidents have become common as Tsvangirai attempts to reach out to voters, and the opposition says 66 of its supporters have been killed.

In 2004, Tsvangirai was acquitted after a treason trial that lasted more than a year.

Botswana, a fellow member of the Southern African Development Community, was the first neighbor to condemn Biti's arrest. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had summoned the Zimbabwean ambassador to express its concern.

"Botswana is alarmed by these arrests and detentions as they disrupt electoral activities of key players and intimidate the electorate thus undermining the process of holding a free, fair and democratic election," said Clifford Maribe, ministry spokesman.

It was unusually strong language from a fellow African government. Zimbabwe's neighbors, particularly regional power South Africa, have for the most part refused to confront Mugabe.

The arrest of Biti and police harassment of Tsvangirai are the latest examples of efforts by Mugabe's government to defeat the opposition. The harassment has included using security forces to confiscate a large U.S. food donation and giving it to Mugabe supporters in a country where many people are poor.

The United States, long a sharp critic of Mugabe, said Thursday that whatever pressure the neighbors had so far brought to bear had been ineffective. It called for immediate action by the U.N. Security Council.

News emerged that a 20-ton shipment of U.S.-donated grain, beans and oil being sent to a school in eastern Zimbabwe was hijacked by security forces and then passed out to Mugabe backers at a rally last week.

In Washington, officials said the United States, which now holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, would try to raise the Zimbabwe issue next week.

U.S. Ambassador James McGee said Friday the clampdown on aid work has left some people surviving on less than one meal a day.

"The situation right now is bad and it's continuing to get worse," McGee told reporters in a conference call from Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. "If this continues much beyond the elections, it will be disastrous for Zimbabwe."

Aid group World Vision, which has projects across the country, appealed to the government Friday to allow delivery of basic humanitarian assistance by reversing the suspension.

"As a child-focused organization, we are particularly concerned for the close to 400,000 children we would have assisted this month through school-feeding and our ongoing development work," said Wilfred Mlay, vice president for Africa for World Vision. "We hold grave concerns for the 1.6 million orphans and vulnerable children across the country who will now not receive critical assistance from humanitarian agencies operating in the country."

World Vision said the suspension was keeping more than 30 groups from delivering food and other aid. It said up to 4 million people are in need of aid.

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Plane Crash Kills 6, Including Ex-legislator In Ohio

Six people, including a former state legislator who was flying the plane, are dead in the crash of an airplane into a residential neighborhood on the west side of Fremont, according to the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

A single-engine plane crash killed six people, including a prominent former state legislator who was the pilot, Sunday afternoon near Fremont Airport, authorities said.

Killed in the 1 p.m. crash were Gene Damschroder, Sr., 86, of Fremont; Bill Ansted, 62, of Lindsey; Allison Ansted, 23, of Lindsey; Daniel Gerwin, 31, of Gibsonburg; Emily Gerwin, 4, of Gibsonburg, and Matt Clearman, 25, of Maumee.

According to troopers at the Ohio Highway Patrol post in Fremont, the Cessna 68 crashed shortly after take-off into a residential area east of the airport, killing all on board. No structures were struck and no one on the ground was injured.

Rex Damschroder virtually grew up flying; his father, Gene Damschroder, owns Fremont Airport."There was an airplane parked in a hangar right through my bedroom wall," the younger Mr. Damschroder said.
Rex Damschroder, a son who followed his footsteps into the Ohio legislature, said Mr. Damschroder was hosting a Lions’ Club pancake breakfast at the airport and taking people up for airplane rides during that event. Rex Damschroder said he was not there when the plane crashed.

"One of the witnesses told me he heard the engine sputter, but that was about it," the younger Mr. Damschroder said.

Gene Damschroder, whose flying days dated back to military experience during World War II, had bought the Cessna 68 new 40 years ago and maintained it meticulously.

"He had a long flying career. He was a highly experienced pilot," Rex Damschroder said. "It was an accident — a misfortune. He’s been flying since he was 20. Flying was his life."

Federal Aviation Administration representatives were on the scene and the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators, the highway patrol said.

FAA records show that Mr. Damschroder was licensed to fly both single and multi-engine aircraft over land or sea and was certified to fly by instruments. He also was a certified flight instructor and airframe and engine mechanic.

NTSB investigations of fatal plane crashes typically take a year or more to complete and involve inquiry into multiple aspects of a flight, including the pilot, the airplane, and the weather.

There were no storms in the Fremont area at the time of the crash, but weather was hot and breezy. Hot weather reduces airplanes’ aerodynamic lift, so they can’t fly with as much weight as they might under cooler conditions, but Rex Damschroder said he doubted his father’s plane was overloaded.

The plane crashed within a mile of the east end of Fremont Airport’s runway in an open field surrounded by houses. It clipped a tree on its way down.

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Amazon To Charge Sales Tax With Effect From June 1

One of the great things about shopping on sites like Amazon has been not having to pay a dime in taxes (or shipping, if you've spent enough). Since the dawn of Web commerce, the rule was that as long as a retailer didn't have a physical presence in the shopper's state, the company didn't collect a sales tax.

Well, it was fun while it lasted. Starting June 1, Amazon will charge a sales tax to shoppers who live in New York, even though the retailer maintains no physical operations in the Empire State.

Why the crackdown? With the economy in the tank, the State of New York was getting desperate to fill its budget gap. So it expanded its rules about what constitutes a business presence in the state. Amazon lets other sites earn commissions by linking to products on its pages as part of a program called Amazon Associates. And because some of those sites are based in New York, the state considers the Seattle-based retailer fair game.

Amazon, for its part, has filed suit in the New York Supreme Court arguing the law is unconstitutional. The company says these third-party sites shouldn't be counted as agents of Amazon in New York because they're totally independent from the retailer. Instead, they act merely as advertisers who are compensated with commissions. Also in its complaint, Amazon points out there are hundreds of thousands of associates in the program, and the company can't always determine whether these sites are actually run by New Yorkers.

Some online shoppers in New York may be howling over this new law but technically they shouldn't feel a difference. In truth, all purchases on Amazon have always been subject to taxes. Until now, only four states required Amazon itself to collect the tax: Washington (where Amazon's HQ is), North Dakota (the site of customer relations operations), Kentucky and Kansas (those last two contain large Amazon distribution centers). In other states, shoppers are supposed to keep track of their untaxed out-of-state purchases and report them in their state income tax returns every year. Needless to say, this doesn't always happen.

The state doesn't pursue people for failing to report their tax-free online shopping, or at least that's not enough to alarm the authorities. "The sales tax itself isn't going to raise enough concern to prosecute anybody," says Tom Bergin, spokesman for the New York Department of Taxation and Finance. "Now, if there were other red flags involved with that tax return, then we'd look at everything."

Starting in the 2003 tax year, the state of New York added a new line on its income tax forms specifically for untaxed out-of-state purchases, and last year, the state collected $45.2 million in sales taxes that way. But states know they stand a better chance of getting all the money they're due if they require retailers to collect it, and in the case of New York, the state expects to get as much as an extra $47 million a year from Amazon and others.

The state of Texas, applying some more conventional legal reasoning, is looking closer at an Amazon distribution center in Irving that could quality as sufficient physical presence in the state to pick up some extra money. But with the economy continuing to slow, other states will surely be watching what happens in New York. If the courts uphold New York's line of thinking, the rest of the Union could be headed in this direction.

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Australia Finally Pulls Troop Out of Iraq

Five years and three months after the coalition invasion began, Australia's combat role in Iraq is over.

The withdrawal of 550 troops, from a mission that resulted in no combat casualties, fulfils an election promise by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to bring the soldiers home this year.

A flag-lowering ceremony overnight at the Tallil air base, 300 kilometres south of Baghdad, marked the moment Australia handed over its operational role to the Americans.

The soldiers coming home are from Overwatch Battle Group (West) 4, which has been providing security for Iraqi forces in the south, and helping with reconstruction and aid work.

About 1000 troops will remain in the region on naval ships, C130 Hercules, P3C Orions, at coalition HQ and the security detachment for the Australian embassy in Baghdad.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said last night that the conclusion of the two missions at Tallil marked the completion of Australia's combat role in Iraq.

"Our soldiers have worked tirelessly to ensure that local people in southern Iraq have the best possible chance to move on from their suffering under Saddam's regime and, as a Government, we are extremely proud of their service," he said.

The withdrawal of the Australians leaves the US with only two other major coalition partners in Iraq - Britain, which has about 4000 soldiers in Basra, and Georgia which has about 2000 deployed in other provinces.

The lowering of the flag overnight closes one chapter in an acrimonious debate that followed Australia's decision to join the invasion in March 2003, a commitment that has cost the country $3 billion.

This includes about $500 million spent on reconstruction and forgiven debt.

Successive Labor leaders pledged to withdraw forces, including Mark Latham's controversial "troops home by Christmas" vow in early 2004, while former prime minister John Howard argued that premature withdrawal from Iraq would boost terrorism.

But in line with Labor's election pledge, the 516 troops from the Overwatch Battle Group and the 60-person Australian Army training team will start returning home over the next fortnight after a six-month deployment.

In recent weeks, the soldiers carried out joint patrols to introduce incoming coalition forces to the area and to local Iraqi leaders.

Not everyone is pleased the Australian troops are leaving.

"We are against … American forces in the area because they are using weapons while the Australians didn't do anything harmful against the people all the time they were in the province," said teacher Hassan Mohsin, 32.

"I think the return of the Americans to the city will cause many problems. They will make many arrests," said shopkeeper Abdullah Muzhir.

More than 3500 Australian troops have served in the two southern provinces, Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar, since Australia took on an oversight role in April 2005, helping train up to 30,000 Iraqi police and security staff. The provinces were among the first to be handed over for control by the new Iraqi security forces, with foreign troops playing a support role.

Australian forces have survived the five-year engagement without a combat death, although 27 troops were wounded, six of them in southern Iraq.

Three Australian casualties during the conflict were a result of mishaps or clashes under foreign command.

SAS Warrant Officer David Nary was killed in a training exercise in Kuwait; Private Jake Kovco died mishandling his weapon in barracks in Baghdad; and Paul Pardoel was serving with the British when his RAF transport plane was shot down in 2005.

Australia's allies have been circumspect about Australia's withdrawal plan, with American leaders saying they accepted it was an election pledge.

On a visit to Canberra last week, British Defence Secretary Des Browne said the Australians would be withdrawing at the right time, declaring Iraq was "in an advanced stage of its own independence in terms of providing its own security".

Mr Browne said that Britain was grateful to Australia and its troops for their "magnificent" contribution in Iraq.

In April, US ambassador to Australia Robert McCallum said Washington harboured no hard feelings over the Federal Government's decision to withdraw Australia's troops.

Australia Defence Association spokesman Neil James said the move would have occurred whether Labor or the Coalition had been elected last year, although Mr Howard as leader might have left a training team behind.

Mr James said the withdrawal would help relieve the overstretched defence force, cutting the proportion of its infantry and cavalry deployed overseas from about half to a little under one-third.

A look at the jouney to and fro Iraq reveals:

January 10, 2003
Prime minister John Howard announces Australia's initial forward deployment will include two naval frigates, an amphibious transport ship and 150 SAS troops.

March 20, 2003
Australia joins the "coalition of the willing". The US-led forces invade after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ignores a US deadline to leave. Howard tells the nation that "the Government has decided to commit Australian forces to action to disarm Iraq because we believe it is right, it is lawful and it's in Australia's national interest".

May 1, 2003
US President George Bush declares victory in the "Battle of Iraq".

December 2003 Saddam is captured.

March 2004
Opposition leader Mark Latham pledges to bring Australia's 850 troops in Iraq home by Christmas if elected prime minister, making the future of the troops an election issue.

October 9, 2004
Howard government re-elected.

January 30, 2005
First free elections in 50 years held in Iraq.

February 22, 2005 Australia decides to commit 450 additional troops.

April 2006
Private Jacob Kovco dies in the Baghdad barracks when his fi rearm discharges. December 30, 2006 Saddam is executed.

February 2007
Howard announces he will send up to 70 more Australian troops to Iraq despite growing public and political opposition to the war. New opposition leader Kevin Rudd opposes sending any more troops to Iraq and repeats that a Labor government would pull all 520 Australian combat troops out of the country if elected.

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Massive Inferno Engulf Universal Studios

About 100 firefighters are working with the studio's own crew to fight the blaze and ensure it doesn't spread to nearby brush, he said. TV images show helicopters dropping water on the blaze.

A Los Angeles fire official said the fire started burning around 4:44am local time on a lot at Universal Studios.

Los Angeles fire Capt. Frank Reynoso says the blaze was reported just before dawn on a sound stage on a back lot. There are no immediate reports of injuries.

Reynoso says filming could have been going on at the time and that there has been at least one explosion.

He said the fire was contained to the back lot, and that firefighters were working to ensure the flames didn't spread to nearby brush. Helicopters were dropping water onto the burning structures.

Losses identified at this stage includes the King Kong exhibits.

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