U.N. observers are finally allowed into deserted town

Deserted streets, scorched buildings, the stench of death — that was the now-familiar state of affairs that United Nations observers found Thursday in Syria’s battered western highland town of Haffah, which the state-run media declared had been “cleansed” of “terrorists” this week.

U.N. personnel were finally able to enter the desolate town after more than a week of heavy combat as government troops sought to oust rebels ensconced there. Insurgent forces, commonly referred to by the government and its media as “terrorists,” say they pulled back, and on Wednesday officials declared that “security and calm” had been restored.

“The town appeared deserted,” the U.N. said in a statement about its visit to Haffah, once home to more than 20,000 people and long an agricultural hub.

What happened to the townsfolk remained a question mark. Many fled north to neighboring Turkey, opposition activists said. The U.S. State Department had voiced fears of a government “massacre” in the town, but there was no word Thursday about such an outcome.


Court confirms WikiLeaks founder can be extradited

Julian Assange, founder of a website that published classified U.S. documents, can be extradited to Sweden for questioning on allegations of rape and sexual assault, Britain’s Supreme Court confirmed Thursday.

A panel of seven judges had already given their decision two weeks ago but allowed further time to consider a legal technicality raised by the WikiLeaks founder’s defense team. His attorneys requested that the appeal proceedings be reopened on the grounds that a basic point of law relevant to the case had not been discussed in court.

On Thursday, the judges said “the court considers that this application is without merit and is dismissed.” They ruled that extradition proceedings could begin in 14 days.

In a final attempt in his long-running legal battle on British soil, the 40-year-old Assange can still seek to delay extradition proceedings by going to the European Court of Human Rights.

Assange was called in for questioning in August 2010 by a Swedish prosecutor after two women contended that he had sexually molested them in encounters during a Swedish lecture tour.

He traveled to Britain, where he has been under house arrest at the country mansion of a supporter.

BERN, Switzerland

Aung San Suu Kyi falls ill after trip to get Peace Prize 

A rock star welcome greeted Aung San Suu Kyi as she embarked on her first trip to Europe in 24 years. But after a whirlwind of standing ovations, speeches and receptions, it all became too much, and she fell ill Thursday during a news conference in Switzerland.

The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burmese opposition leader who was often under house arrest became sick shortly after saying how exhausted she was after her long trip from Asia to Europe. It was not known how her apparent exhaustion would affect the rest of a tightly-packed schedule, which includes delivering her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on Saturday, 21 years after winning the award.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

Top health official says  ecstasy can be OK to use 

British Columbia’s top health official says taking pure ecstasy can be safe when consumed responsibly by adults, despite warnings by police about the dangers of the street drug after a rash of deaths.

Dr. Perry Kendall said Thursday that the risks of MDMA — the pure substance synonymous with ecstasy — are overblown, and that its lethal dangers arise when gangs mix the man-made chemical with other toxic substances.

Sixteen people from western Canada died last July from a tainted batch of ecstasy they obtained from dealers, the only way an average person can acquire the drug in Canada. It was cut with a toxin called PMMA.

Kendall is advocating that MDMA be legalized and sold through licensed, government-run stores where the product is strictly regulated.


Child expenses for last year climb 3.5 percent from 2010

For $235,000, you could indulge in a shiny new Ferrari – or raise a child for 17 years.

A government report released Thursday found that a middle-income family with a child born last year will spend about that much in child-related expenses from birth through age 17. That’s a 3.5 percent increase from 2010.

The report from the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion said housing is the single largest expense, averaging about $70,500, or 30 percent of the total cost.

Families living in the urban Northeast tend to have the highest child-rearing expenses, followed by those in the urban West and the urban Midwest. Those living in the urban South and rural areas face the lowest costs.

The estimate also includes the cost of transportation, child care, education, food, clothing, health care and miscellaneous expenses.

The USDA has issued the report every year since 1960, when it estimated the cost of raising a child was just over $25,000 for middle-income families. That would be $191,720 today when adjusted for inflation.

Holder proposes to meet congressman on gun probe

Attorney General Eric Holder is proposing to meet with Rep. Darrell Issa by Monday to settle a dispute over Justice Department documents the congressman is demanding on a flawed gun-smuggling probe.

Holder said Thursday the department is prepared to turn over documents detailing how Justice Department officials came to the realization that federal agents in Arizona had used a controversial investigative tactic that resulted in hundreds of illicitly purchased guns winding up in Mexico, many of them at crime scenes. Two of the weapons were recovered at the scene of the slaying of a U.S. border agent, Brian Terry.

In a letter to Issa, the attorney general said the information he is prepared to provide will fully address concerns of the congressman and House Republican leaders.

Issa, R-Calif., has scheduled a committee vote for next Wednesday on a contempt citation against Holder for failing to turn over relevant documents on the operation and its aftermath.

Along with the documents, the attorney general said the department is prepared to provide a briefing “explaining how the department’s understanding of the facts of Fast and Furious evolved.”

Spanish cave paintings may be artwork of Neanderthals

New tests show that crude Spanish cave paintings of a red sphere and handprints are the oldest in the world, so ancient they may not have been made by modern man.

Some scientists say they might have even been made by the much-maligned Neanderthals, but others disagree.

Testing the coating of paintings in 11 Spanish caves, researchers found that one is at least 40,800 years old, which is at least 15,000 years older than previously thought. That makes them older than the more famous French cave paintings by thousands of years.

Scientists dated the Spanish cave paintings by measuring the decay of uranium atoms, instead of traditional carbon-dating, according to a report released Thursday by the journal Science.

The paintings were first discovered in the 1870s.

The oldest of the paintings is a red sphere from a cave called El Castillo. About 25 outlined handprints in another cave are at least 37,300 years old. Slightly younger paintings include horses.

– From news service reports