Thursday, May 7, 2009

WHO: Up to 2 billion people might get swine flu

GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization said Thursday that up to 2 billion people could be infected by swine flu if the current outbreak turns into a pandemic. The agency said a pandemic typically lasts two years.

WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda said the number wasn't a prediction, but that experience with flu pandemics showed one-third of the world's population gets infected.

"If we do move into a pandemic then our expectation is that we will see a large number of people infected worldwide," Fukuda said. "If you look at past pandemics, it would be a reasonable estimate to say perhaps a third of the world's population would get infected with this virus."

In Mexico, which has had the most cases, high schools and universities opened for the first time in two weeks as the country's top health official insisted the epidemic is on the decline. All students were checked for swine flu symptoms and some were sent home.

Fukuda said WHO is unable to know what the future holds and that it is impossible now to say whether the outbreak will turn into a pandemic or whether it would be a mild or severe strain of influenza.

Even with a mild flu, "from the global perspective there are still very large numbers of people who could develop pneumonia, require respirators, who could die," Fukuda said.

People react differently to the flu depending on their general state of health and other factors.

Some younger people in the Southern Hemisphere may be more vulnerable because of malnourishment, war, HIV infections and other factors, Fukuda said. This means a mild outbreak in wealthier countries can be "quite severe in its impact in the developing world," he said.

"We expect this kind of event to unfold over weeks and months. Pandemics don't occur in a couple of days. When we go back and we look at history, we're often looking at a one-year period. Really if you look over a two-period that is really the period in which you see an increase in the number of illnesses and deaths during a pandemic influenza."

History has been the spur to WHO to make sure the world is as prepared as possible for a pandemic, which would be recognized by a rise to phase 6 from the current phase 5 in the agency's alert scale. That would mean general spread of the disease in another region beyond North America, where the outbreak so far has been heaviest.

"I'm not quite sure we know if we're going to phase 6 or not, or when we would do so," Fukuda said. "It's really impossible for anybody to predict right now."

Mexican dance halls, movie theaters and bars were allowed to fully reopen Thursday after a five-day shutdown designed to curb the virus' spread. Businesses must screen for any sick customers and restaurant employees must wear surgical masks.

Fans can attend professional soccer matches this weekend after all were played in empty stadiums last weekend.

Mexico confirmed two more deaths, for a total of 44, while 1,160 people have been sickened, up 90 from Wednesday. Despite death tolls and confirmed caseloads that rise daily, Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova insisted the epidemic is waning in Mexico.

The WHO said the number of confirmed swine flu cases around the world has surpassed 2,000.

This swine flu seems to have a long incubation period — five to seven days before people notice symptoms, according to Dr. Marc-Alain Widdowson, a medical epidemiologist from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now tracking the flu in Mexico City. That means the virus can keep being spread by people who won't know to stay home.

Mexico had mobilized teachers and parents to disinfect its schools before reopening. Primary schools reopen next week.

Laughing and joking, high school students gathered at the entrance of the National School of Graphic Arts in Mexico City, waiting to fill out forms that asked about their health.

Of 280 students entering the school in the first 20 minutes, two showed symptoms of swine flu, including coughing and nasal congestion, said assistant principal Ana Maria Calvo Vega. Their parents were notified and they won't be readmitted without a statement from a doctor saying they don't have the virus, she said.

Students at a Mexico City vocational high school were welcomed with a dollop of hand sanitizer and a surgical mask. Joyful to see each other again, students embraced and kissed — some through masks.

Parents expressed relief that their children, shuttered so long at home, could return to class. But they also worried that the virus could surge back once 40 million young people gather in groups again.

"My 17-year-old daughter is afraid. She knows she must go back but doesn't want to," said Silvia Mendez as she walked with her 4-year-old son, Enrique, in San Miguel Topilejo, a town perched in forested mountains near the capital.

Working parents have struggled to provide child care during the shutdown. It forced many to stay home from work, bring their youngsters to their jobs, or leave them at home.

Each school, Mexican officials said, had to be cleaned and inspected this week. Complicating the task: Many schools are primitive buildings with dirt floors and lack proper bathrooms. It was unclear how students attending those schools could adhere to the government's strict sanitary conditions.

The government promised detergent, chlorine, trash bags, anti-bacterial soap or antiseptic gel and face masks to state governments for delivery to public schools. But some local districts apparently didn't get the word.

U.S. health officials are no longer recommending that schools close because of suspected swine flu cases since the virus has turned out to be milder than initially feared. But many U.S. schools have done so anyway, including the school of a Texas teacher who died.

Ramirez suspended 50 games for drug violation

NEW YORK (AP) — Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball on Thursday, becoming the latest high-profile player ensnared in the sport's drug scandals.

The Los Angeles Dodgers star said he did not take steroids and was given medication by a doctor that contained a banned substance. The commissioner's office didn't announce the specific violation by the 36-year-old outfielder, who apologized to the Dodgers and fans for "this whole situation."

"Recently, I saw a physician for a personal health issue. He gave me a medication, not a steroid, which he thought was OK to give me," Ramirez said in a statement issued by the players' union.

"Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy. Under the policy that mistake is now my responsibility. I have been advised not to say anything more for now. I do want to say one other thing; I've taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons."

The suspension began Thursday and barring any postponements Ramirez will be able to return to the Dodgers — who now have the best record in baseball — for the July 3 game at San Diego. Ramirez will lose about $7.65 million of his $25 million salary.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig couldn't comment on the suspension because of provisions of the management-union drug agreement, spokesman Rich Levin said.

While Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco and a long list of stars have been implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Ramirez is the most prominent suspended under the drug policy players and owners put in place seven years ago.

Ramirez is batting .348 with six home runs and 20 RBIs through the first 27 games of the season.

His suspension comes a day after the Dodgers broke the modern major league record for a home winning streak to open a season with their 13th consecutive victory. They play Washington again Thursday night.

Losing Ramirez to suspension could be a huge blow financially for the Dodgers. The slugger has been single-handedly responsible for increasing attendance, merchandise sales and interest in the team, in addition to helping them win the NL West after his late season arrival in 2008.

Los Angeles even renamed a section of seats in left field at Dodger Stadium "Mannywood" in his honor.

Ramirez's suspension came a day before Rodriguez was likely to rejoin the New York Yankees. Rodriguez has been on the disabled list since having hip surgery.

In February, Rodriguez admitted taking steroids while playing for Texas from 2001-03 and acknowledged testing positive under a 2003 survey. But testing with penalties didn't begin until 2004, and the New York Yankees third baseman doesn't appear likely to be suspended.

The players' association said Ramirez was suspended by the commissioner under the "just cause" provision of section 8.G.2 of the joint drug agreement. That allows players to be penalized for use, sale or distribution of banned substances, even where the agreement doesn't specify a particular penalty, such as for a positive test.

In his statement, Ramirez addressed Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, and manager Joe Torre.

"I want to apologize to Mr. McCourt, Mrs. McCourt, Mr. Torre, my teammates, the Dodger organization, and to the Dodger fans," Ramirez said. "LA is a special place to me, and I know everybody is disappointed. So am I. I'm sorry about this whole situation."

His suspension was first reported by the Los Angeles Times on its Web site.

Ramirez became the third player suspended this year under the major league program, following Philadelphia reliever J.C. Romero and Yankees pitcher Sergio Mitre.

Just two relatively low-profile players were suspended under the major league program last year, San Francisco catcher Elizier Alfonzo and Colorado catcher Humberto Coto.

In the past, the best-known player penalized was Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro, who received a 10-day suspension in 2005, the first year of penalties for first infractions.

Ramirez was acquired by Los Angeles from Boston last July 31 and became a fan favorite. His contract negotiations became a long-running drama during the offseason, and he agreed in early March — well after the start of spring training — to a $45 million, two-year contract that gives him the right to void the second season and become a free agent again.

In St. Louis, a clubhouse attendant stuck his head into manager Tony La Russa's office and said "Manny Ramirez, 50 games, steroids."

La Russa's reaction: "You're kidding me."

Publicist sues Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s publicist and general manager has filed a 44-million-dollar lawsuit against the pop star, claiming he has not paid her for deals she made.

Raymone Bain of Washington has been Jackson’s spokeswoman for more than five years, speaking on his behalf in all sorts of matters including his child molestation trial.

Three years ago, Jackson expanded her role by appointing her the head of the Michael Jackson Co Inc and his personal general manager.

In her lawsuit filed Tuesday in US District Court in Washington, Bain said Jackson agreed to pay her 10 per cent of any agreements that she handled.

She said he didn’t pay her for negotiating the release of a CD to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Thriller album, refinancing his loan to keep the Beatles’ song catalog, and negotiations that led to the upcoming sold-out concert series at the O2 Arena in London.

Bain is the latest in a string of former Jackson associates who have sued him claiming he didn’t pay for their services.

“Despite the action I have been compelled to take for professional and business reasons, when looking back, I have no regrets,” Bain said in a statement. “Michael Jackson, in my opinion, is the ‘King of Pop.’”

Strong Winds Fan California Wildfire

Bristol Palin on Media Tour for Teen Abstinence

Bristol Palin, arguably the nation's best-known unwed teen mother, embarked on a media tour Wednesday to argue that abstinence is a realistic way for teens to avoid unwanted pregnancy. (May 6)

Length of John Edwards' affair disputed

Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter was not a solitary encounter, a friend of Hunter says.

Inside Edition reported exclusively Wednesday that Pigeon O'Brien, described as a close friend of Hunter, said she believes Edwards, who also served as a U.S. senator from North Carolina and was the 2004 vice presidential candidate, had a lengthy affair.

"Rielle isn't a girl who would have a one night stand … ," O'Brien is quoted as saying. "I believe the affair lasted longer than a year."

That contradicts what Edwards' wife Elizabeth recent statement that he had only strayed once, Inside Edition said.

O'Brien goes on to say she thinks Edwards has not come clean with his wife.

"Some of the things he's said have contradicted truths that I know … . I know he's not telling the truth," she said.

O'Brien also told Inside Edition she believes Edwards is the father of Hunter's daughter Francis Quinn. Edwards has admitted the 2006 affair but denied the child is his.

"I know the relationship they were in around the time of conception, and the baby looks exactly like him," she said.

Victoria Beckham Unveils Bras For Malnourished, Dead-Eyed C-3POs

Ladies! Do you wish your boobs could look more like a prolapsed nutsack? You don’t? That’s disappointing.

Because we’re pretty sure that was what Victoria Beckham was shooting for in her new advert for Emporio Armani underwear. OK - do any of you ladies want to turn your boyfriends on by giving them the chilling impression that your skin could peel off leaving behind a metallic, hydraulically-operated endoskeleton? Still no? Victoria Beckham isn’t doing great here, is she?

What about a pencil drawing of a toddler as sketched by an uncomfortably horny teenager? No? Oh well. Sorry Victoria Beckham. We tried.

They say that the computer is the invention capable of making the most mistakes without dying, but that’s clearly rubbish. It’s Victoria Beckham. Victoria Beckham is the invention capable of making the most mistakes without dying. Virtually everything that Victoria Beckham has done in the last few years has been a terrible, anguished, soul-eroding mistake.

Victoria Beckham’s attempts to become a television presenter? Mistake. Victoria Beckham’s entire relocation to America? Mistake. Victoria Beckham’s Spice Girls reunion? Short-lived mistake. Victoria Beckham’s new haircut? Mistake that makes her look like a male paedophile with an eating disorder.

But despite all this, there are a few things that Victoria Beckham excels at. There’s her career as a fashion designer, for instance, which is enormously successful in its own right and has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that her husband is one of the most famous men on the planet with a salary so offensively large that it can subsidise whatever ridiculous vanity projects her brain decides to arbitrarily fart out. And then there’s twatting about in a bra.

Victoria Beckham is brilliant at twatting about in a bra. She’s proved it before - roughly every time she feels that public interest in her is dwindling, she’ll whack on a lacy bra and flop about for a photographer like a dehydrated toilet floatball - and she’s proved it again now with a new poster for Emporio Armani underwear.

There’s not a lot to say about Victoria Beckham’s new underwear advert, really, except that the part of Victoria Beckham seems to be played by Otzi The Iceman and that as the picture was being taken Victoria seems to be trying to remember what number comes after two. But still, at least Victoria Beckham took the advert more seriously than anyone on the planet, which is to say she actually gave it more than a second of passing thought. Hello reports:

“I was so excited about doing this and I worked out really hard,” the mum-of-three said at the unveiling of the campaign in New York on Wednesday. “I’ve been doing a lot of running because… I look OK but if I am going to be taking my clothes off then I wanted to tone up a little bit! So I’ve worked hard to have the confidence to do it.”

And, really, fair play to her. Victoria Beckham was only paid £12 million to be in the Armani campaign, so it’s great that she showed willingness to tone up for it. We heard that Victoria Beckham doesn’t usually get out of bed for that sort of money.

Actually, that’s not strictly true - she can’t get out of bed because she’s too enfeebled to physically move the duvet from on top of her with her tiny wizened arms - but it’s close enough.

Ex-NASCAR driver Kevin Grubb found dead in motel room

Kevin Grubb, whose NASCAR career was cut short because of alleged substance abuse, was found dead yesterday morning at a motel in Henrico County.

According to a Henrico police spokesman, personnel at Alpine Motel on the 7000 block of Brook Road discovered the Mechanicsville native in his room at about 11 a.m. Investigators did not speculate on the cause of death.

"Right now, it's an ongoing death investigation," said Henrico police Lt. Richard Cosby. "There doesn't appear to be anything unusual or suspicious [at the crime scene]."

Cosby said further details concerning Grubb's death are expected today.

Grubb, 31, was suspended indefinitely in September 2006 for failing to comply with NASCAR's substance-abuse policy while competing in the then-Busch Series (now Nationwide). He was suspended for refusing to submit to required testing following a race at Richmond International Raceway.

That had been Grubb's second violation of the sport's drug policy for reinstatement. He was first suspended in March 2004 for testing positive for banned substances. He was reinstated to drive in June 2006, with part of the conditions being an agreement that he submit to periodic drug testing at anytime.

"He would not submit to a drug test. We even gave him some time to think about it," NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter told reporters in 2006.

Grubb and brother Wayne were NASCAR drivers. Their father, W.O. Grubb, helped launch their careers with Grubb Motorsports. Kevin Grubb's career began with NASCAR's lower-tier series in 1997.

Grubb's only attempt in NASCAR Sprint Cup series came in 2002 in the Pontiac Excitement 400 at RIR. He failed to qualify with the No.54 Team Bristol Motorsports Chevrolet.

Did Ron Artest Deserve to Be Ejected?

By now you've probably seen Ron Artest being ejected from Game 2 against the Lakers, whether you watched it live or saw it in a neatly packaged highlight video. But after the jump, you can see what it was like to be a fan at the Staples Center on Wednesday night -- and the more I look at the video, the more I wonder whether the refs were too quick to give Artest the hook.

Seriously, think of all the questionable incidents this year -- heck, think of the incidents from earlier Wednesday evening -- and this is what merits an ejection? Not swiping a guy across the face as he attempts a shot, not slinging somebody into the scorers table, not a forearm shiver to an opponent who's already off-balance -- heck, even Dwight Howard's elbow to Samuel Dalembert's temple didn't get Howard tossed, even if it did eventually draw a suspension.

But Artest gets tossed for ... what, exactly? Yes, Artest was in Kobe's face, and as he admitted after the game, he fully expected a technical foul.

But why the second tech? Watching it on TV with all of the camera angles being switched every couple of seconds it was hard to tell what was going on, but from the angle presented in the first video above, I don't see what was so egregious. He jogged over, made his case (albeit a little too intimately) and allowed himself to be separated, not once raising his fists or giving any physical indication that violence might ensue.

Of course, I say this without the benefit of hearing what Artest actually said -- the first tech came when he got in Kobe's face, and it's possible the second one came because he continued to jaw after the two were separated. But still, after everything we've seen this season (and the fact that Artest was reacting to being elbowed in the throat), it's a little crazy that this is when the referees decided to assert their authority.

Initial jobless claims fall; ongoing claims again hit record

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- First-time claims for state unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level since late January, the Labor Department reported Thursday, in what may be a sign that a peak for pink sheets has passed.

The number of initial claims in the week ended May 2 fell 34,000 to stand at 601,000. The four-week average for first-time claims also fell, down 14,750 to 623,500. The four-week average is considered a better gauge of labor market conditions than the volatile weekly figures because it smoothes out one-time distortions caused by holidays, bad weather or strikes.
"The evidence is growing that the recession may be bottoming out in the second quarter," wrote analysts at RDQ Economics in a research note. "Companies may have begun to slow the rate of layoffs, but there is no evidence here that the pace of hiring has picked up."

Reported weekly, claims are one of the best tools for spotting turning points in the economy. A moderation in claims could mean that the pace of deterioration in the labor market is slowing.

However, the Labor Department also reported Thursday that the level of ongoing claims for jobless benefits continues to tally record highs, with a gain of 56,000 to reach 6.35 million in the week ended April 25. The four-week moving average of continuing claims also hit yet another record high, rising 125,250 to 6.21 million.
The U.S. insured unemployment rate, which represents the portion of all workers covered by unemployment insurance who are collecting benefits, rose to 4.8% -- the highest level since December 1982 -- from 4.7%.

Initial claims represent job destruction, while the level of continuing claims indicates how hard or easy it is for displaced workers to find new jobs. The latest claims report shows that finding a replacement job remains difficult.
On Friday, the government will report nonfarm payrolls for April, and economists are looking for a drop of 580,000, compared with March's contraction of 663,000.
On Wednesday, the ADP employment index showed that private-sector employment fell by an estimated 491,000 jobs in April, signaling that the economic downturn is moderating. See full story.

China Says Over 5,000 Students Died in Last Year's Earthquake

Chinese authorities have announced the first official numbers for student deaths in last year's devastating Sichuan earthquake.

Authorities in Sichuan province put the official student death count at 5,335. Authorities also say the quake left 546 students disabled.

These numbers are lower than estimates from the time of the earthquake, some of which put the student death toll close to 9,000.

Issue is sensitive

The issue of student deaths is especially sensitive for China because of accusations from many bereaved parents who say school buildings were poorly constructed.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has worked since December to compile a list of child quake victims. A co-designer of the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium and son of a famous Chinese poet, Ai thinks the only way to verify the government's official death toll is to see a complete list of victims' names.

"The names are very important because that is the essential facts," Ai said. "Otherwise the state just say(s) 10,000 people or 100,000 people are dead. There is no truth really to it."

Artist says his volunteers were harassed by authorities

Ai recruited volunteers to go to Sichuan and speak with families who lost children in the quake and to school employees. After six months of work, they have collected 5,200 names.

The artist updates the list of names on his popular blog, where he also posts accounts from his volunteers of police harassment.

"Our volunteers have been arrested, in over 20 cases been unlawfully searched, their materials destroyed, all those kind of things, and been sent to some unwilling areas, you know, dropped on the side of the highway and in two cases beaten," he said.

Rights groups urge Beijing to be more open

A recent Amnesty International report includes accounts from dozens of parents who were detained when they approached courts and local officials to complain about the schools. Human Rights Watch called for Beijing to be more open about the quake and to allow parents to file lawsuits against officials and companies involved in building schools.

The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China this week reported three instances of journalists being attacked while working in the quake zone.

White House: Obama seeks hike in domestic spending

WASHINGTON (AP) — In twin strokes, President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to award generous budget increases to domestic programs while proposing relatively modest cuts to wasteful or obsolete programs that just won't seem to die.

Officials said Wednesday that Obama's promised line-by-line scrub of the federal budget had produced a roster of 121 budget cuts totaling $17 billion — or about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.4 trillion budget Congress has approved for next year. The details were being unveiled Thursday.

White House budget director Peter Orszag said the president's plan for program cuts is just a start and that a lot more needs to be done to dig the government out of its fiscal hole, especially curbing the growth of the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs for the elderly and the poor.

"But $17 billion a year is not chump change by anyone's accounting," Orszag said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

Those savings are far exceeded by a phone-book-sized volume detailing Obama's generous increases for domestic programs that will accompany the call for cuts.

Most of the major elements of Obama's budget for next year were released in February. Additional details were coming out Thursday and next week.

The roster of cuts won't be easy for Congress to swallow. Lawmakers from the potent California, New York and Florida delegations are sure to fight the elimination of the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which gives money to states to help defray the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants who commit crimes. President George W. Bush tried and failed to kill the $400 million program several times.

About half the budget savings would come from an effort by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to curb defense programs, including ending production of the F-22 fighter and killing a much-maligned replacement helicopter fleet for the president.

Orszag briefed Democratic lawmakers on a partial roster of the cuts Wednesday. Obama also is fleshing out the details of the $1.3 trillion portion of the budget that he requested Congress pass through appropriations bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

And just as Congress is beginning work on a new war bill to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan into the fall, Obama is sending up a $130 billion request to fund them next year. That figure may not be adequate considering the increase in the tempo of operations in Afghanistan.

Obama has said repeatedly his administration will go through the budget "line by line" to eliminate waste. But the resulting savings are relatively minor compared with the government's fiscal woes, especially a deficit that's likely to exceed $1.5 trillion this year.

Administration and congressional officials described elements of the budget proposals only on condition of anonymity to discuss them before they're made public.

Republicans weren't impressed with the cuts.

"While we appreciate the newfound attention to saving taxpayer dollars from this administration, we respectfully suggested that we should do far more," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

Many of the cuts mirror those proposed previously by Bush but largely rejected by Congresses controlled by both Republicans and Democrats.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., said Obama's recommendations won't be "universally embraced" but said Congress also would weigh in with savings recommendations of its own to cut spending.

"This is something that's sorely needed," Cardoza said.

In fact, Democrats already have pared about $10 billion from Obama's appropriations requests in passing the $3.4 trillion congressional budget plan last month.

And lawmakers are unlikely to go along with a call to raise — after 2010 — per-ticket fees on airline travel to fund airport security programs.

In a preview, administration officials named a few examples Thursday which mostly represented easy-to-pluck targets, like ending the Education Department's attache in Paris, at a savings of $632,000 a year. Another example: the obsolete LORAN-C aircraft navigation system, which still gets $35 million a year despite being made obsolete by the satellite-based Global Positioning System.

In other budget areas, the administration would keep paying for private-school vouchers for about 1,700 children receiving them in Washington, D.C., an administration official said. Obama is proposing $12.2 million for the 2010-11 school year and would like to continue the funding until the kids in the program graduate. He would not allow new students into the program.

Teenager Shot At Bus Stop

BOSTON -- Boston police said they are investigating the shooting of a 16-year-old teenager in Boston as the boy stood in front of a bus stop early Thursday.

The unidentified teen was shot about 7:20 a.m. in the 300 block of Dudley Street, police said. The street was closed between Dearborn and the Boston Housing Authority.

He was apparently targeted by another teen, investigators said.

UN warns of refugee crisis as thousands flee fighting in Swat valley

Fighting between government forces and Taliban intensifies as Pakistan prepares for extra 500,000 refugees

Officials and aid workers in Pakistan were today facing a fresh influx of people fleeing fighting between government forces and Taliban militants in the Swat valley as the UN warned that the situation was fast becoming a crisis.

Following heavy ground and air assaults, which reached the outskirts of the region's main town, Mingora, many people took advantage of a brief lull in the violence to load their families into cars and trucks and flee.

Thousands have arrived in the town of Mardan, further south inside the North-West Frontier province.

The government is preparing for up to 500,000 internal refugees, the largest displacement crisis in Pakistan's history.

According to one UN official in Mardan, up to 60,000 displaced people have already registered at centres in the town.

The figure is likely to be only a fraction of the real total as most fleeing families stay with relatives or friends rather than seek official help.

Several thousand people are already based at camps around Mardan. Hundreds more are waiting to register for assistance with shelter and food.

"The international community needs to realise that this is becoming one of the major displacement crises in the world and it needs to be dealt with," Killian Kleinschmidt, deputy head of the UN refugee agency in Pakistan, said. "We need money now for what is going to happen through the summer."

More than 500,000 Pakistanis driven out by fighting in other regions of the country's north-west are already living in camps or with relatives elsewhere.

Washington sees the fighting as a key test of Pakistan's commitment to tackling an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency.

In February, the government in Islamabad agreed to the introduction of Islamic sharia law in Swat, formerly a tourist destination, prompting US concern about what is saw as capitulation to Taliban pressure.

But the pact broke down and, 11 days ago, security forces began an operation to remove militants from several districts, resulting in heavy fighting.

According to the government, more than 60 militants have been killed. The Taliban says 30 civilians have died.

Yesterday, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, met the US president, Barack Obama, and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in Washington.

Both Zardari and Karzai "fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat" posed by al-Qaida and its allies, Obama said later.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, praised the operation in Swat.

"I'm actually quite impressed by the actions the Pakistani government is now taking," she said. "I think that action was called for, and action has been forthcoming."

The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, told US troops in Afghanistan today that there was no prospect of their being deployed across the border.

During a question and answer session at a US base, Gates told a sergeant he did not have to "worry about going to Pakistan".

The last battle in Swat, over a period of 18 months from late 2007, saw militants fight the army to a standstill, resulting in the now-collapsed February peace deal.

GM posts $6B 1Q loss, spends $10.2B in cash

General Motors Corp. lost $6 billion in the first quarter and its revenue was cut nearly in half as car buyers feared the wounded auto giant would enter bankruptcy and no longer honor its warranties.

The Detroit-based company also said it spent $10.2 billion more cash than it took in from January through March, mainly because revenue dropped by a staggering $20 billion, or 47 percent.

Chief Financial Officer Ray Young said talk of the company going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection appeared to have scared some consumers away from buying GM vehicles. GM faces a June 1 government deadline to finish a restructuring plan or go into bankruptcy protection.

"The concern about bankruptcy is having an impact on our sales," Young told reporters Thursday morning.

He said a U.S. government guarantee of GM and Chrysler warranties was not revealed by the Obama administration until March 30. So, for most of the quarter, consumers were unsure about warranty protection. Chrysler last week filed for bankruptcy protection.

Young said people should be reassured by the warranty guarantee, but it might take time for word to spread.

GM's loss for the quarter amounted to $9.78 per share, compared with a loss of $3.3 billion, or $5.80 per share in the year-ago period.

Revenue dropped from $42.4 billion to $22.4 billion because of declining sales worldwide, mainly in North America and Europe, the company said.

Although the company cut structural costs by $3 billion, Young said that wasn't enough to offset plunging revenue.

"We cannot cut costs fast enough to offset that revenue loss," he said. "People are concerned about bankruptcy, and that's the reason why we want to avoid it if at all possible."

GM's cash burn for the quarter was offset by $9.4 billion in U.S. government loans GM received in the first quarter. GM got another $2 billion in April, bringing total government loans to $15.4 billion.

As bad as the results look, analysts were expecting worse. Excluding special items, GM's fourth-quarter adjusted loss was $9.66 per share, beating Wall Street's expectations. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters predicted a loss of $11.05 per share on revenue of $20.2 billion.

The company reported an operating loss of $3.2 billion from its North American operations alone.

GM posted an operating loss of $2 billion in Europe while it squeezed out a small profit in Latin America. Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of Italy's Fiat SpA, is in talks to take over GM's operations in Europe — Germany's Opel, Britain's Vauxhall and Sweden's Saab. Fiat confirmed Thursday it is interested in the Latin American operations.

Young would not comment on Fiat's interest in GM's European or Latin America units. Fiat will have a 20 percent stake in Chrysler when that automaker emerges from bankruptcy protection.

GM faces an almost impossible list of restructuring tasks to complete before the June 1 deadline. It must get new cost-cutting agreement with its unions, complete a debt-for-stock swap with 90 percent of its bondholders, close factories and cut jobs to prove to the government it can repay the loans.

The largest U.S.-based automaker also is trying to cut 2,600 dealerships and is in the process of selling or phasing out the Saturn, Saab and Hummer brands. GM has already decided to get rid of Pontiac.

GM shares were up 8 cents, or 4.8 percent, to $1.74 in premarket activity.

Young said quarterly production dropped 40 percent year over year to 900,000 vehicles. GM temporarily shuttered factories to stop its inventory from burgeoning.

"That's why we saw the revenue implosion, a combination of weakness and global volumes," he said.

The company intentionally cut low-profit sales to fleet buyers such as rental car companies, Young said.

The CFO said GM is continuing to simultaneously prepare for bankruptcy as well as its preferred option of restructuring out of court.

GM has made an offer to the holders of roughly $27 billion in debt to swap 225 shares of stock for every $1,000 GM owes. The deadline for the swap is May 26, and Young would not comment when asked if the offer might change.

CEO Fritz Henderson said Monday that the Treasury Department will not allow GM to offer more than 10 percent of the company's stock to the debtholders.

Mansions, humble homes burn in coastal Calif. city

Winds swirled and homes of all sizes burned as a wildfire descended on this scenic coastal city amid hot, dry conditions that resembled late summer more than the middle of spring.

Firefighters had a brief respite of moderate breezes early Thursday, but expected another day of heat, gusts and potential destruction as they took on a blaze that had swelled to 500 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 homes.

TV news helicopters showed at least a dozen homes ablaze as night fell, but authorities had no immediate estimate of how many had been destroyed.

Huge mansions and humble homes alike were reduced to rubble, leaving palm trees swaying over gutted ruins. Aerial footage showed five or more luxury homes burning along one crest-top road, and many flare-ups dotting the residential hills were apparently burning homes.

"The fire is very spotty and patchy and there's a lot of smoke," which makes it difficult to see the damage," Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said. "Because it involves people's homes, we don't want to speculate."

The fire went from tame to explosive Wednesday afternoon as gusts up to 50 mph in triple-digit temperatures hurled the fire from north to south into neighborhoods, Santa Barbara County fire Capt. David Sadecki said.

It remained out of control Thursday morning, though temperatures dropped to the 60s and winds had grown calm.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, and the National Weather Service issued a "Red Flag" warning for fire danger, predicting strong wind danger through Friday morning.

Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department spokesman Drew Sugars said 5,430 homes were under mandatory evacuation. The estimated population of those homes was 13,575 people, he said.

Some of the evacuated were allowed to return to their homes early Thursday, the county said in a news release, but officials had no estimate of how many people were affected.

More than 900 firefighters were on the lines, and 20 more strike teams totaling about 1,300 firefighters were requested.

Crews from surrounding counties and inmates from the California Department of Corrections were arriving on the scene Thursday morning.

Firefighters who had worked through Wednesday's fierce flames dozed in sleeping bags on the lawn of the command center while others worked through the night in evacuated neighborhoods.

"The firefighters are picking houses and seeing if they can make a stand," Sadecki said.

The city has experienced a number of wildfires. Less than six months ago a fire destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito. The new fire reached the area burned by that blaze Wednesday. And in 1990, a fire killed one and destroyed 641 homes, apartments and other structures in the county.

Santa Barbara, a city of 90,000 about 100 miles west of Los Angeles, rises rapidly from the coastline on the south to the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the north. It is subject to "Sundowners" — strong winds that blow downslope through passes and canyons of the mountain range and offshore.

Elsewhere, firefighters were battling a blaze in rural southeastern Arizona that destroyed three houses near Sierra Vista on Tuesday and injured a man. The fire charred about 4,200 acres near Fort Huachuca, threatening about 50 homes in a subdivision. Containment was estimated at 15 percent Wednesday.

In southern New Mexico, a wildfire in the mountains near Timberon charred about 100 acres, burning at least three structures. State Forestry spokesman Dan Ware said firefighters hadn't been able to confirm what types of buildings they were.

Fifteen residents have been evacuated, and 70 structures were threatened, Ware said.