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Nation digest 01/22/03

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Home construction has best year since 1986

WASHINGTON -- Construction of new homes and apartments posted an unexpectedly strong gain of 5 percent in December as the housing industry wrapped up its best performance in 16 years, a building boom fueled by the lowest mortgage rates in four decades.

The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that construction activity climbed to an annual rate of 1.84 million units in December, the highest monthly pace since June 1986 and well above economists' expectations.

For all of 2002, builders began construction on 1.70 million new homes and apartments, a 6.4 percent gain from the 1.60 million units constructed in 2001.

Pentagon to use satellite videophones on front line

FORT DIX, N.J. -- The Pentagon plans to use two-way satellite videophones from combat zones to provide the media with on-the-spot visuals it says could counter enemy propaganda.

The $27,000 system will allow military field commanders to hold "near real-time" videoconferences with journalists, said Lt. Col. David Lamp, a spokesman for the U.S. Joint Forces Command.

The rugged briefcase of the Scotty Tele-Transport Corp. videophone cradles a laptop computer with video-editing and recording capacity and includes a built-in camera, keyboard and a pair of external collapsable satellite dish antennas.

Television networks have begun using such equipment extensively over the past year.

Lamp said the videophones could be used to challenge false accusations against U.S. forces. In Afghanistan, for example, troops were accused of destroying a hospital and poisoning emergency food rations dropped to refugees.

Man accused of lying about plague free on bond

LUBBOCK, Texas -- A university professor accused of lying to federal agents about the whereabouts of 30 vials of plague bacteria was released from jail Tuesday after posting $100,000 bond.

Dr. Thomas C. Butler, 61, is charged with making a false statement to a federal agent in an incident that sparked a bioterrorism scare last week.

Butler, who is internationally renowned for his plague research, had been held without bond since being arrested late Wednesday after admitting he had accidentally destroyed the 30 vials, according to court documents. He had initially said they were missing.

Al Sharpton files papers for presidential run

WASHINGTON -- Saying the Democratic Party needs to expand its political base, the Rev. Al Sharpton formally filed papers Tuesday seeking the party's nomination for the 2004 presidential race.

The 48-year-old civil rights leader said he was the only candidate who is "anti-war, anti-death penalty, anti-tax cut across the board." Sharpton, who is black, said he would reach out to disaffected voters, including Latinos, blacks and young people.

Sharpton, who has unsuccessfully run for mayor and the U.S. Senate, has been outspoken on many local and national issues, most notably on police brutality in the highly publicized cases of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima in New York City, and the U.S. military bombing on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Court: WWII prisoners can't sue over slave labor

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court dismissed thousands of lawsuits Tuesday brought by World War II prisoners of war who alleged they were enslaved by Japanese and German companies.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld lower court rulings that said treaties signed by the United States barred prisoners from seeking restitution from companies accused of forcing them to work in mines, dig roads and perform other duties more than 50 years ago.

The appeals court struck down a 1999 California law granting former POWs the right to sue.

Plaintiff Alberto Saldejeno, 82, has said he was enslaved by a Japanese company to perform clerical work.

"That's not fair," he said of the court's ruling. "If you didn't work, you'd be beheaded."

-- From wire reports


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