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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Intel results beat expectations

US chipmaker Intel has reported a better-than-expected net profit of $1bn (£610m) for April to June, excluding a massive European Commission fine.

Including the fine, levied for anti-competitive practices in May, the company made a loss of $398m.

Revenue for the three months stood at $8bn, a 15% fall compared with $9.4bn for the same period last year.

Earlier on Tuesday, banking giant Goldman Sachs also reported strong second-quarter results.

Positive outlook

"Intel's second quarter results reflect improving conditions in the PC market segment, with our strongest first to second quarter growth since 1988 and a clear expectation for a seasonally stronger second half," said Intel boss Paul Otellini.

Analysts were also upbeat about the second quarter results.

Ashok Kumar at Collins Stewart described the numbers as "extremely strong given the economic backdrop", while Doug Freedman at Broadpoint Amtech said more good news was to come.

"Intel has a much stronger seasonal second half. So the fact that the second quarter is better than the first quarter clearly puts the worst behind Intel," he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, computer giant Dell said demand from businesses remained "very weak", but that the PC market may have reached its low point.

Intel was fined just over 1bn euros by the European Commission for anti-competitive practices.

The Commission found that between 2002 and 2007, it had paid manufacturers and a retailer to favour its chips over those of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).

Intel said it would appeal against the verdict.

US Stocks Rally, Dow Jumps Most in Three Months, on Intel

July 15 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. stocks rallied, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its best gain in three months, after Intel Corp. forecast sales that beat analysts’ estimates and gauges of manufacturing improved. Treasuries fell for a third day and the dollar and yen dropped.

Intel jumped 7.3 percent, the most since March, after saying computer makers boosted chip orders in anticipation of stronger demand. General Electric Co. and Caterpillar Inc. added at least 5.2 percent as better-than-projected Federal Reserve gauges of New York manufacturing and industrial output spurred optimism the economy is recovering. American Express Co. surged 11 percent after saying write-offs will be less than forecast.

The S&P 500 added 3 percent to 932.68 at 4:05 p.m. in New York, extending its biggest three-day advance since March. The Dow climbed 256.72 points, or 3.1 percent, to 8,616.21. The MSCI World Index of 23 developed nations surged 2.8 percent.

“There’s no doubt that the catalyst started with the report from Intel,” said Tom Wirth, senior investment officer at Chemung Canal Trust Co., which manages $1.5 billion in Elmira, New York. “It seems obvious to me that there’s more optimism, that we’ve seen the bottom and things are getting progressively better.”

Benchmark indexes extended gains, with the Dow and S&P 500 climbing to their highest levels since June 12, as minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee’s June meeting showed policy makers expect the U.S. economy to contract 1 percent to 1.5 percent this year, less than they anticipated in April, even as unemployment climbs to as high as 10 percent.

The S&P 500 has risen 6.1 percent so far this week as better-than-estimated retail sales boosted consumer shares and companies from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to Johnson & Johnson reported earnings that beat analysts’ estimates.

Rebound From March Low

The S&P 500 has rallied 38 percent from its 12-year low on March 9 amid speculation the economic contraction is slowing. It rose above its average price over the past 50 sessions today for the first time in eight trading days.

Earnings topped estimates by an average 20 percent for the 16 companies in the S&P 500 that released second-quarter results since July 8, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Analysts estimate profits slumped an average 35 percent in the period and will decrease 21 percent from July through September, according to Bloomberg data.

‘Trend Higher’

“It looks like we want to trend higher in this earning season,” said Peter Kenny, managing director in institutional sales at Knight Equity Markets in Jersey City, New Jersey. “The fact that Intel and Goldman Sachs, two enormous players globally, have positive numbers and positive surprises does give the market some buoyancy.”

Intel climbed 7.3 percent to $18.05, the highest price since October. The chipmaker forecast third-quarter revenue will reach as much as $8.9 billion. Analysts on average projected $7.86 billion.

Microsoft Corp. jumped 4.4 percent to a nine-month high of $24.12 for its biggest gain since April 24. The world’s largest software maker will report earnings next week.

S&P 500 technology shares led the market higher, adding 4.2 percent collectively. The group has rallied 28 percent so far this year for the biggest gain among 10 groups and helping propel the benchmark for U.S. stocks to a 3.3 percent gain in 2009.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc., the second-largest maker of personal-computer processors, advanced 8.7 percent to $3.86, climbing the most since May 4.

Cisco, Altera

Cisco Systems Inc. rallied the most since March, adding 5.8 percent to $19.81. The largest maker of networking equipment was given a “buy” recommendation in new coverage at Citigroup Inc., which said “we expect the shares to outperform in the early stages of an economic recovery.”

Altera Corp., the second-biggest maker of programmable semiconductors, posted second-quarter profit excluding some items that beat the average analyst estimate by 23 percent, according to Bloomberg data. The shares rallied 4.2 percent to $17.26.

A gauge of industrial shares added 3.4 percent after the Fed Bank of New York’s July general economic index climbed to minus 0.6, the highest level since April 2008, from minus 9.4 the prior month. Economists in a Bloomberg survey had estimated a reading of minus 5. Readings below zero for the Empire State index signal manufacturing is contracting. Caterpillar added 6 percent to $33.84, while GE advanced 5.2 percent to $12.24.

Financials Advance

S&P 500 financial shares gained 4.1 percent collectively for the second-steepest advance among 10 industries.

American Express Co. added 11 percent to $27.22, its steepest jump since May 4. The shares have almost tripled since hitting a 14-year low on March 6, the session before the S&P 500 slid to a 12-year low. The largest U.S. credit-card company by purchases said net write-offs for the second half of the year may be better than its previous forecast after uncollectible loans fell in June. Jefferies & Co. raised the shares to “buy” from “underperform.”

The New York Stock Exchange halted trading in CIT Group Inc. amid speculation regulators are close to a plan that would rescue the New York-based company. The century-old commercial lender facing $1 billion of bonds maturing next month and pleading for a federal bailout climbed 19 percent yesterday after tumbling 27 percent in the previous two trading days.

A U.S. aid package including a temporary loan may be announced in the next 24 hours, Reuters reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Commodities Gain

Exxon Mobil Corp. gained 3.4 percent to $68.44, helping lead a group of energy shares up 3.5 percent for the best advance since June 1. Crude oil rose the most in six weeks, gaining 3.4 percent to $61.54 a barrel, after a report showed a bigger-than-forecast drop in U.S. inventories.

Alcoa Inc., the largest U.S. aluminum producer, gained 5.7 percent to $10.14. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., the world’s biggest publicly traded copper producer, increased 5.7 percent to $50.91.

Barrick Gold Corp. added 3.4 percent to $33.94 as gold rose to the highest in almost two weeks. The U.S. dollar fell against 16 major currencies except the Japanese yen, signaling investors’ appetite for riskier assets increased. The yen fell against all the major currencies, including the greenback.

Newspaper Rally

Gannett Co., the largest U.S. newspaper owner, jumped 29 percent to $4.50 for its steepest gain in three months and the biggest advance on the S&P 500. Gannett posted earnings that topped estimates after enforcing its second week of unpaid leave this year, cutting salaries and halting a print edition of the Tucson Citizen to save money.

New York Times Co. gained 8.1 percent to $5.46, the most since May 4.

Today’s rally came even as a survey of Bloomberg users showed investor sentiment for U.S. stocks fell to the lowest level since March and confidence in equities around the world declined as prospects for the global economy worsened in June.

The Bloomberg Professional Confidence Survey’s measure for the S&P 500 dropped 14 percent to 39.59 in July, its second consecutive drop. Readings below 50 show participants expect equity prices will decrease in the next six months.

The rebound in the S&P 500 since March 9 shows few hallmarks of a bull market and stocks will probably stagnate for years, ISI Group Inc.’s Jeffrey deGraaf said.

Rally for Real?

The S&P 500 is at a level it first surpassed in 1997 even after the steepest quarterly advance in a decade, and is down more than 40 percent from its October 2007 peak. The main benchmark for American equities probably will continue to make “no net price progress” for at least two more years, deGraaf, the top-ranked technical analyst in Institutional Investor magazine’s poll for the past four years, said in an interview.

Yum! Brands Inc. lost the most on the S&P 500 after saying growth in same-store sales this year will be lower than it had expected. The owner of the Taco Bell and KFC chains slid 5.5 percent to $34.05, its worst drop this year.

Abbott Laboratories, the maker of the arthritis drug Humira, lost 2.6 percent to $45.28 in the second-biggest drop on the index. The company lowered its third-quarter forecast after saying second-quarter profit fell as sales missed estimates.

Treasuries fell for a third day, sending the 10-year note yield up 13 basis points to 3.61 percent, after U.S. industrial production.

Almost 10 billion shares changed hand on all U.S. exchanges today, 3.8 percent less than the three-month daily average.

Shuttle Endeavour refueled for sixth launch try

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--The shuttle Endeavour's external tank was reloaded with a half-million gallons of rocket fuel Wednesday for NASA's sixth attempt to launch a high-priority space station construction mission.

The hydrogen vent line that derailed two launch tries in June worked normally and forecasters were hopeful afternoon showers would clear the area in time for launch at 6:03:10 p.m. EDT, roughly the moment Earth's rotation carries the launch pad into the plane of the space station's orbit.

Rain showers rolled over the Kennedy Space Center shortly after 1:30 p.m. and lightning advisories were issued for the launch complex 39 area. The official forecast called for a 60 percent chance of acceptable weather by launch time.


Israel's Gaza Tactics Condemned By Troops

Israel has been condemned again following another investigation of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January, this time by its own soldiers.

Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers, interviewed 30 veterans of the Gaza offensive.

Their testimony corroborates other claims that Israelis were given permissive rules of engagement that caused enormous damage to civilians and their property.

"At any obstacle, any problem, we open fire and don't ask questions," claimed one anonymous sergeant in the Israeli Armoured Corps.

"Even if it's firing in the dark, firing aimed at unknown target, firing when we don't see, deterrent fire, no problem with that, etc.

"A vehicle that's in the way - crush it, a building in the way - shoot at it. This was the spirit which was repeated throughout the training."

Israeli soldiers on top of tanks

Yehuda Shaul, one of the report's authors said Israel's actions were unacceptable.

There was, he said, "The concept of 'we don't put our troops in danger, we don't take any risks, we prefer the mistakes to be on their body count than on ours'.

"These are actual sentences that were said by battalion officers, by company officers, in the briefings that soldiers received before they went into Gaza."

Hundreds of Palestinian civilians died in the offensive. At the time Israel blamed the death toll on Hamas for using civilians as human shields.

But it is now being claimed Israelis routinely used Palestinians as human shields themselves.

"In some cases" said one sergeant with the Golani Infantry Brigade, "there was actually entrance with the civilian, who would walk in front of the soldier while the soldier places his gun barrel on the civilian's shoulder."

This latest catalogue of alleged abuses has been rejected by Israeli military spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovitch.

"The IDF Spokesperson Unit regrets the fact that yet another human rights organisation is presenting to Israel and the world a report based on anonymous and general testimonies, without fully investigating their details or credibility," she said.

Breaking the Silence: Israeli soldiers 'used human shields' in Gaza

A group of Israeli soldiers who fought in the recent war in Gaza have testified that the military allowed them to use reckless force.

The 26 soldiers published their anonymous accounts in a booklet compiled by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli soldiers’ organisation.

They describe the Israeli army’s use of human shields and deliberate targeting of civilian structures.

The soldiers’ descriptions confirm information first published by The Times during the offensive that soldiers were given orders to shoot first and ask questions later.

In one typical account, a soldier said that in pre-invasion briefings his officers said it was better to hit an innocent than hesitate to attack an enemy. “If you’re not sure, kill. Fire power was insane.”

“You felt like a child playing around with a magnifying glass, burning up ants,” another Israeli soldier said. “A 20-year-old kid should not be doing such things to people.”

Several Israeli soldiers adescribed the use of white phosphorus in Gaza. One soldier described walking on the beach in Gaza and discovering an area covered in glazed sand from a white phosphorous bomb.

He said it was upsetting because “in training you learn that white phosphorus is not used, and you’re taught that it’s not humane”.

A soldier from the Golani brigade said: “Sometimes a force would enter while placing rifle barrels on a civilian’s shoulder, advancing into a house and using him as a human shield.”

Another soldier related an incident in which he was ordered not to fire warning shots at a man approaching their position from some dozen yards away.

When they asked their commander why he told them not to fire warning shots, he said: “It’s night time and this is a terrorist.”

Israel has blamed Palestinian militant groups for the high death toll in Gaza, stating that they hid explosives in schools, hospitals, and other civilian structures.

They said that Palestinian militants often dressed as civilians and attempted to get close to forces before launching an attack.

More than 1,400 Palestinians died in the three-week offensive. Gaza health officials say 900 of those killed were civilians but Israel says that figure is closer to 300.

Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians who died from rocket fire.

A military spokesman accused the group of “defaming and slandering the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and its commanders” but said that he would investigate formal complaints of military misconduct.

Apple Blocks Pre From iTunes

The latest version of Apple Inc.'s iTunes software has cut off rival Palm Inc.'s Pre smart phone.

Apple's online music and video bazaar now "disables devices falsely pretending to be iPods," which includes Palm's Pre, an Apple spokesman said.

The Pre smart phone has been able to access iTunes since going on sale in the U.S. in early June. But it was always unclear whether the Pre was doing so with Apple's permission. Given the latest iTunes update, Palm appears to have been acting on its own.

The development is a negative one for Palm, which is counting on Pre sales to turn around the company. With the move, Apple has dramatically limited one of the Pre's key competitive advantages: downloading music and videos from Apple's iTunes.

"If Apple chooses to disable media sync in iTunes, it will be a direct blow to their users who will be deprived of a seamless synchronization experience," Palm spokesman Lynn Fox said.

"However, people will have options," which include using previous versions of iTunes that are still Pre-compatible, she added.

For Apple, the new iTunes underscores its commitment to allow only authorized devices, such as its iPods and iPhones, to access its iTunes music store, which helps it corral more of the profits.

"As we've said before, newer versions of Apple's iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with unsupported digital media players," the Apple spokesman added.

US ready to engage Iran but time limited: Clinton

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday renewed a limited US offer to talk with Iran despite its post-election crackdown and defended the principle of engaging anti-American regimes.

In a policy speech marking nearly six months on the job, Clinton rejected critics who say engagement is a sign of weakness and warned Washington would not hesitate to use military force to defend itself or its allies.

But she said President Barack Obama's administration preferred to focus on diplomacy and development to advance US interests, which include fighting terror and promoting Middle East peace as well as boosting the global economy and curbing climate change.

She repeated previous calls to "lead with diplomacy, even in the cases of adversaries or nations with whom we disagree."

The Obama administration has taken steps toward engaging not just Iran but other US foes like Syria, Cuba and Venezuela, but its hopes to engage North Korea have stumbled amid a showdown over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs.

She rejected critics who suggest that engagement is "a sign of naivete or acquiescence to these countries' repression of their own people."

Engagement, on the other hand, can provide insight into the calculations of a hostile regime and open up opportunities for change, no matter how remote, she said.

Clinton recalled the Iranian leadership's crackdown on those protesting the June 12 presidential election when she conceded that neither she nor Obama held "any illusions" that direct talks with Iran "will guarantee success."

She said the Shiite Muslim fundamentalist leadership must be presented with a choice between further international isolation and the benefits of international integration.

On July 8, Clinton called for "stricter" sanctions against Iran if it fails to respond to US efforts at engagement and change its behavior.

"Iran can become a constructive actor in the region if it stops threatening its neighbors and supporting terrorism," she said in her speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It can assume a responsible position in the international community if it fulfills its obligations on human rights," according to Clinton.

"The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely.

On another burning issue, Clinton urged Arab states to make immediate gestures toward normalizing ties with Israel in a bid to promote prospects for Arab-Israeli peace.

However, she stopped short of reiterating previous calls for Israel to freeze all settlements, saying Washington wanted Israeli action on settlements but understood it faced political challenges.

The softer tone comes after a public clash between the Obama administration and the right-leaning Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the calls for such a freeze.

She said other key US priorities include reversing the spread of nuclear weapons as well as defeating terrorists while reaching out to Muslims worldwide.

Clinton also pushed for global economic recovery and economic development in poor countries, expanding free and fair trade, and boosting investment to create good jobs.

She vowed to combat climate change and increase energy security.

But Clinton warned that the new administration's stress on diplomacy and development should not be misread by foes.

"We will not hesitate to defend our friends, our interests, and above all, our people vigorously and when necessary with the world's strongest military," Clinton said.

"This is not an option we seek nor is it a threat; it is a promise to all Americans," she said.

Clinton's speech and her plans to travel to India and Thailand over the weekend and the next week mark her return to the world stage after she was sidelined for weeks by a broken elbow.

She also announced plans to travel to Russia and Pakistan.

Seven men charged with shooting deaths of wealthy US couple

An ex-convict who taught self-defence to children. A day labourer who served prison time for killing a man in a fight. An Air Force staff sergeant attached to an elite special operations unit.

Somehow, US authorities say, they ended up part of a loosely connected group of seven men charged in the shooting deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings, a wealthy Florida Panhandle couple known for adopting children with special needs.

The suspects, some dressed as ninjas, stole a safe and other items during the break-in at the sprawling Billings home west of Pensacola last Thursday. Nine of the couple's 13 adopted children were home at the time. Three saw the intruders but were not hurt. Authorities would not say what was in the safe or what else was taken.

Some of the masked men entered through the front door, while others slipped in through an unlocked utility door in the back. They were in and out in under 10 minutes. The crime was captured by an extensive video surveillance system the couple used to keep tabs on their many children.

"It was a very well-planned and well-executed operation," said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.

The last three of the seven suspects were arrested on Tuesday, though Sheriff Morgan said there still might be more arrests. State Attorney Bill Eddins said robbery was the main motive for the crime.

Adult daughter Ashley Markham - one of four Billings children from previous marriages - sobbed on Tuesday as she hugged Sheriff Morgan, who said he kept a promise made to her the night of the slayings.

"It is my honour today to tell you, Ashley, your family we have found them and they are in custody," Sheriff Morgan said.

The suspects ranged in age from 16 to 56, and several were day labourers who knew each other through a pressure washing business and a car detailer they worked for. One, Donnie Ray Stallworth, was with the Air Force Special Operations Command with an aircraft maintenance squadron at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach. It wasn't clear how he knew the others.

"We're dealing with a group of folks with rare exception - of course, there's a couple of people who are not - that again are basically day labourer sorts, folks that get odd jobs, part-time jobs and they drift," Sheriff Morgan said.

"With the exception of Mr Stallworth you don't have any career-minded people in this group."

Sheriff Morgan called 35-year-old suspect Leonard Gonzalez jnr a "pivotal person" in organising the crime, but stopped short of identifying him as the mastermind. He was charged with murder on Sunday.

In court on Tuesday, he read a statement proclaiming his innocence.

"The sheriff intentionally thrust me into the public's eye without any charges being filed and also intentionally placed me in a suicide ward to make me look even guiltier," Gonzalez said.

News clippings provided a very different picture of Gonzalez, a former National Guard member and martial arts expert who taught self-defence classes for women and children. In 2007, he and his wife founded a martial-arts course that taught children to defend themselves against sexual predators.

Gwinn Corley, a spokesman for a community group that gave Gonzalez and his wife an award for their program, said they brought their six young children to self-defence presentations.

"We were impressed with them," Corley said. "He was talking about children and their respect for their elders. They both seemed to have a passion to teaching the arts to abused women and kids; they had a vision for how to give free self defence."

But records show Gonzalez, who was arrested on Sunday, served time in Florida State Prison on burglary and forgery charges in the mid-1990s.

His father, Leonard Gonzalez snr, was also arrested. The 56-year-old was charged on Sunday night with evidence tampering after authorities said he tried to cover up some damage on a red van seen on surveillance video pulling away from the house. Officials said the damage was unrelated to the crime. Tips from the public led police to the van on Saturday.

The elder Gonzalez owned a pressure-washing business and may have visited the Billings property once before. Another man arrested and charged with murder on Sunday, day labourer Wayne Coldiron, 41, sometimes worked for him and also may have visited the property, Sheriff Morgan said.

Coldiron, who appeared in court on Tuesday and said he had lost his job as a plumber, served two years in a Tennessee prison in the early 1990s after killing a man during a fight. He also served nearly two years in prison in Florida on an aggravated assault charge.

The other four suspects were arrested on Monday and Tuesday.

Authorities in neighbouring Okaloosa County arrested 31-year-old Gary Sumner, another day labourer who was in a county jail on an unrelated traffic charge. On Tuesday, three more men were arrested: Stallworth, 19-year-old Frederick Lee Thorton, and a 16-year-old whom officials are not naming because he is a minor.

Mr Eddins, the prosecutor, said he would seek first-degree murder indictments from a grand jury against all the suspects, including Gonzalez snr. He would not say whether he would seek the death penalty.

Escambia County Judge Tom Johnson refused to set bail for the younger Gonzalez and Coldiron at the request of Mr Eddins. He set their arraignments for August 6. Bond for the elder Gonzalez had already been set at $US500,000 ($630,000). The suspects arrested on Monday and Tuesday are due in court this week except for Stallworth, who must be extradited from Alabama, where he was arrested.

The Billings family attended the hearing on Tuesday but made no statements. Some were in tears afterward.

Friends, meanwhile, struggled to understand how the couple could have been killed in such a horrific way.

"Melanie and Byrd both would give you the shirt off their back and maybe they were too trusting," said Patsy Brown, who had known Mrs Billings for 22 years.

Person of interest in Fla. couple's slaying found

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Authorities say they've located a woman wanted for questioning in the slaying of a Florida Panhandle couple during a break-in.

Seven people are in custody in the deaths of Melanie and Byrd Billings, known for adopting children with special needs.

Police said earlier Wednesday that they were looking for a real estate agent named Pamela Laverne Long. They were concerned about her safety because she hadn't been heard from in about two days.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says police in Orange Beach, Ala., found her in or near a marina about 30 miles from Pensacola on Wednesday afternoon.

Morgan says Long is coming back to Florida voluntarily and is not in custody. He says she is friends with and rented property to Leonard Gonzalez, Jr., one of the suspects charged with murder in the case.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — The accomplice assigned to turn off surveillance cameras before an elaborate, deadly break-in at a sprawling Florida Panhandle home never showed up, but the seven people accused in the crime apparently did not know that, authorities said Wednesday.

Melanie and Byrd Billings, known for adopting a large brood of children with special needs, were shot to death about a week ago. An extensive surveillance system captured footage of masked men — some dressed as ninjas — slipping into front and back doors at the home and stealing a safe, among other items.

The men were in the nine-bedroom house for just four minutes and on the property for 10, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said. Video captured during that time led investigators to a red van used as a getaway car and eventually to the suspects.

Morgan said investigators have been pondering "the huge gap" in what was otherwise a precise, methodical crime for which the suspects had trained 30 days. They were a loosely connected group of mostly day laborers who knew each other through a power washing business and an auto detailing operation.

"The execution was basically flawless," Morgan said at a press conference. "The one gaping hole that would not have made this a perfect operation, if you will, was the fact that the surveillance system was not disabled. I guess the question was why was it not?"

Investigators have not said what was in the safe or what else was taken from the house. Morgan said they also don't know the identity of the mysterious person assigned to turn off the camera system or why that person didn't show up. He speculated that maybe it was an attack of conscience. "Who knows?" he said.

Also Wednesday, Morgan asked for the public's help in finding a real estate agent named Pamela Laverne Long. Police do not believe she was at the house the night the Billingses were killed but they do believe she rented property to one of the suspects, 35-year-old Leonard Gonzalez Jr., whom Morgan described as a "pivotal person" in the operation.

Morgan also said they are looking for a second person of interest, though he didn't identify that person. He said investigators believe Long has "significant and substantial information" needed to conclude the case.

Nine of the couple's 13 adopted children were home during the break-in. Three saw the intruders but were not hurt. The couple also had four children from previous marriages.

State Attorney Bill Eddins has said he will ask a grand jury to indict all those arrested on first-degree murder charges in the Billings' shooting deaths. He said robbery was the main motive.

The suspects range in age from 16 to 56. One, Donnie Ray Stallworth, was with the Air Force Special Operations Command with an aircraft maintenance squadron at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach. It wasn't clear how he knew the others. Stallworth had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan five times since 2002, an Air Force spokesman said.

Gonzalez was charged with murder and read a statement in court Tuesday proclaiming his innocence.

His father, Leonard Gonzalez Sr., 56, was charged with evidence tampering after authorities said he tried to cover up some damage on a red van seen on surveillance video pulling away from the house. Officials said the damage was unrelated to the crime.

Day laborer Wayne Coldiron, 41, was also charged with murder. He sometimes worked for a pressure washing business owned by the elder Gonzalez.

The other suspects arrested were Gary Sumner, 31, a day laborer, 19-year-old Frederick Lee Thornton, and a 16-year-old whom officials are not naming because he is a minor.

Iraq prime minister visiting Obama July 22

WASHINGTON, July 15 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will visit President Barack Obama on July 22 as the United States presses the Iraqi leadership to take more responsibility for reconciling divided factions.

"The United States and Iraq enjoy a close relationship and are partners in building a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq through the responsible withdrawal of U.S. forces and the encouragement of new ties in trade, commerce, culture and education," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in announcing al-Maliki's visit to the White House.

As Washington focuses more resources on the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has been urging Maliki's government to take additional political steps to resolve remaining differences.

That has prompted an increasingly indignant response from the government of Shi'ite Arab al-Maliki. His spokesman rebuffed outside involvement in Iraqi affairs after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden offered U.S. help in reconciliation during a visit this month.

The United States plans to draw down forces in Iraq, saying the force which currently stands at around 130,000 would shrink rapidly after Iraq's national elections in January.

July is deadliest for US-led forces in Afghanistan

KABUL (AP) — July is shaping up as the deadliest month of the Afghan war for U.S.-led international forces, with the number killed already matching the highest full-month toll of the nearly eight-year conflict, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

As of Wednesday, at least 46 international troops, including 24 Americans, had been killed in Afghanistan this month, according to statements by the U.S. military and the NATO command. That matches the tolls for the two previous deadliest months — June and August of 2008.

The rate of deaths in July — about three a day — is approaching some of the highest levels of the Iraq war.

The latest reported deaths occurred Tuesday. They include an American soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan and two Turks, including a colonel, who died in a traffic accident in the north of the country.

In addition, six Ukrainian civilians and a 6-year-old Afghan were killed Tuesday when an Mi-6 transport helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan. The helicopter's owners in the former Soviet republic of Modova said the helicopter was shot down, and the Taliban claimed responsibility.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell acknowledged that the U.S. has lost troops "at an alarming rate this month."

He told reporters that July has been "an extraordinarily difficult month for all of us who are so heavily invested in trying to better the situation in Afghanistan."

U.S. commanders have been expecting higher casualties since President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year to curb a resurgent Taliban that threatens not only the U.S.-backed Kabul government but also Afghanistan's nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan.

There are about 57,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Obama's decision has effectively shifted the focus on the global war against Islamic extremism from Iraq, where the United States still maintains about 130,000 troops. Only two U.S. service members have died in Iraq this month — both from non-hostile causes, according to the Pentagon.

With the increase in troops heading for Afghanistan, the U.S. has stepped up the tempo of combat operations. About 4,000 U.S. Marines this month launched their biggest offensive since 2001 to break the Taliban stranglehold on the southern province of Helmand, the center of the country's opium poppy cultivation and a major insurgent smuggling route from Pakistan.

British forces, meanwhile, have been locked in fierce combat with Taliban fighters in another part of Helmand. Britain's 9,000-strong military force has lost 15 soldiers this month — including eight in a 24-hour period. Those deaths have prompted national debate in Britain over whether the Afghan conflict is winnable.

For their part, the Taliban have increased their attacks, including deadly roadside or suicide bombings that rose by 25 percent in the first four months of 2009 over the same period last year. The U.S. command expects bombings to rise 50 percent this year to 5,700 — up from 3,800 last year.

Other deaths this month among international forces include four Canadian soldiers and one Italian paratrooper.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this week that international troops in Afghanistan face a difficult summer of intense fighting. He has long called on other NATO allies, and European nations, to play a larger role in combat operations in Afghanistan and insisted that the Afghan army should provide larger numbers of soldiers.

The Afghan government provided only about 650 soldiers and police to join the ongoing Marine offensive in Helmand.

During a visit to Helmand on Wednesday, the outgoing chief of the British army, Gen. Richard Dannatt, said the international mission needs more soldiers to control territory won from the Taliban to give Afghans more confidence in security and wean them away from the Taliban.

"I have said before, we can have effect where we have boots on the ground. I don't mind whether the feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan. But we need more, to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us," Dannatt told BBC radio from the British base in the Helmand town of Sangin. "That is the top line and the bottom line."

The U.S. is sending thousands more soldiers to train Afghanistan's police and army.

Obama said Tuesday that he hopes military operations in Afghanistan can move to a different phase after the Afghan presidential election set for Aug. 20. Obama said he is looking for an exit strategy in which the Afghan army, police, courts and government take more responsibility for the country's security.

During last year's election campaign, Obama accused President George W. Bush of diverting U.S. resources from the war in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida's leadership planned the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, to what he termed an unnecessary war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Oldest mother, Maria Carmen del Bousada, dies at 69, leaving baby orphans

The Spanish woman who became the world’s oldest mother at the age of 66 has died from cancer, leaving her twin sons orphaned.

Maria Carmen del Bousada was diagnosed with cancer a year after giving birth to Cristian and Pau. She died at a hospital near Cadiz on Saturday aged 69.

Her two-year-old twins will be left to the care of the family and are unlikely to retain many memories of their mother.

The Diario de Cadiz newspaper reported that Ms Bousada was diagnosed with a tumour before she gave birth at a clinic in Barcelona in December 2006.

A former shop worker, she travelled to the US to undergo in vitro fertilisation treatment costing £30,000.

Later, she admitted that she lied to doctors about her age, saying she was only 55 to get round age limits at the Los Angeles clinic.

The birth provoked condemnation in Spain, from fertility experts and even from her own family.

“My mother would turn in her grave if she knew what my sister has done," said her brother Manuel Bousada de Lara, 73. "She would ask: ‘How are you going to bring up two boys at your age?’’

Before the birth, which was premature and by Caesarean section, she only told most of the family she had gone to America, failing to mention it was for intensive in vitro fertilisation.

The care of the twins is likely to be entrusted to a younger generation of the family, possibly the boys’ cousins, who are thought to be in their 30s or 40s.

Ricardo Bousada confirmed his sister’s death but refused to disclose the exact cause.

After the controversial birth, Ms Bousada insisted that she did not want to talk to the media to protect her sons.

But after she struck a financial deal with the News of the World, she told the newspaper: “I have always wanted to be a mother all my life, but I have never had the opportunity or met the right man.

"My mother lived to 101 years-old and I have every reason to believe longevity runs in my family."

Though she told the newspaper she felt healthy and predicted she would see her sons live into adulthood, she must have known she was suffering from a tumour.

She later told a Spanish television programme that she was suffering from cancer. It was thought she suffered from breast cancer.

Ms Bousada said the drugs used during her fertility treatment may have helped the disease spread. But she insisted she had no regrets.

The reaction in Spain to the birth was generally hostile. On cartoon in the Spanish daily El Mundo showed a mother pushing a Zimmer frame while her child asks for dinner.

Today the news of Ms Bousada’s death provoked much reaction in Spain where the family is a strong institution.

One anonymous reader wrote to El Mundo saying: “This woman for her own ego and lack of common sense did not think that these two children would have to defend themselves very soon. I hope they do not suffer the consequences of such an irresponsible decision.”

Another said: “Most women live to 80. It wasn’t likely she was going to live to see her sons over the age of about 13. It is barbarous what she has done.”

The oldest woman to have given birth is believed to be Omkari Panwar, from India, who had a twin boy and girl in July 2009. She claimed to be 70, although she had no birth certificate.

Britain's oldest mother is Elizabeth Adeney, from Lindgate in Suffolk, who gave birth to a son in May at the age of 66.

Oldest woman to give birth dies, leaving twins

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish woman who deceived a U.S. fertility clinic about her age and become the oldest woman to give birth has died at 69, leaving behind 2-year-old twins, newspapers reported Wednesday.

Maria del Carmen Bousada gave birth in December 2006 after telling a clinic in Los Angeles that she was 55, the facility's maximum age for single women receiving in-vitro fertilization. Guinness World Records said the 66-year-old was the oldest on record to give birth and the case ignited fierce debate over how much responsibility fertility clinics have over their patients.

Bousada told an interviewer at the time that the Pacific Fertility Center did not ask her for identification, and maintained that because her mother had died at 101, she stood a good chance of living long enough to raise her children.

Dr. Vicken Sahakian, director and owner of the clinic, said Bousada falsified her birth date on documents from Spain.

When he learned of the deception, "I figured something might happen and wind up being a disaster for these kids, and unfortunately I was right," he said.

It's easy for women to lie to their doctors, he said.

"We don't ask for passports, obviously," Sahakian said. "When is the last time you went to a doctor and he asked you for a birth certificate? We're not detectives here."

Bousada's brother told the local newspaper Diario de Cadiz that she had died but he did not disclose the cause. The newspaper said, without citing a source, that Bousada had been diagnosed with a tumor shortly after giving birth.

Sahakian said he implanted the Spanish woman with a younger woman's eggs and donated sperm, using hormones to "rejuvenate" her uterus with hormone therapy after she had been in menopause for 18 years.

The hormone treatment lasted three weeks. Sahakian said he did not believe that increased the woman's cancer risk.

"Nothing she did (to get pregnant) caused her illness," he said.

The brother, Ricardo Bousada, told the Barcelona-based newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya that he had exclusively sold details of his sister's death to an unidentified television program and that the proceeds would go to looking after his sister's twin boys, Pau and Christian.

Repeated calls by The Associated Press to Ricardo Bousada's residence in the southern province of Cadiz went unanswered. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed for another brother, Jose Luis Bousada, declined to comment. Her death was also reported by the national newspapers El Mundo

There was no word on who would raise the twins. Bousada had once said she would look for a younger man to help her raise them.

Bousada lived with her mother most of her life in Cadiz and worked in a department store before retiring. She decided to have children after her mother died in 2005 and initially kept her plan secret from her family, she told reporters.

She told the British tabloid News of the World that she sold her house to raise $59,000 to pay for the in-vitro fertilization.

"I think everyone should become a mother at the right time for them," Bousada told the paper. "Often circumstances put you between a rock and a hard place, and maybe things shouldn't have been done in the way they were done, but that was the only way to achieve the thing I had always dreamed of, and I did it," she said.

Spanish law on assisted reproduction sets no age limit, but state-funded and private clinics that offer the procedure set the ceiling at age 50 in an informal agreement based on recommendations from the scientific community, according to the Health Ministry.

There is no U.S. law limiting the age at which women can receive in vitro fertilization but Sahakian said he generally limits it to 55 or 56 because "I would like the mother ... to basically survive until the kids reach 18."

When Bousada finally told her relatives she was two months pregnant, they thought she was joking, she said.

"Yes, I am old of course, but if I live as long as my mom did, imagine, I could even have grandchildren," she told the News of the World.

Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said the organization recommends that assisted conception generally not be provided to women beyond the natural age of menopause at about 50.

"The rationale for all that is that nature didn't design women to have assisted conception beyond the age of the natural menopause...once you get into the mid-50s, I think nature is trying to tell us something," Pacey told The AP.

He added: "I think many people would worry about providing fertility treatment to women in their 60s. I think as a general rule, to embark on pregnancy when you may not see your child go to university is potentially a very difficult situation."

Adriana Iliescu, a Romanian who in 2005 also gave birth at 66, although she was 130 days younger than Bousada, said she was pained to hear of her death and what it meant for her sons.

"It is a great sadness when kids are orphans but civil society will help these children," she told The AP.

She described her little daughter Eliza as "very energetic and spoiled. We dance and sing together."

"I don't feel I am getting old. My pregnancy kept me young," Iliescu said.

AP correspondents Maria Cheng in London, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, and Jorge Sainz and Paul Haven in Madrid contributed to this report.

Mexico's drug war: Cartel kills 12 federal officers

The torture and killings could foreshadow a new surge in battles between authorities and drug cartels in the Mexican president's home state of Michoacán.

In the worst single execution-style slaying of federal forces in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón took office, the bodies of 12 officers were found alongside a road in the state of Michoacán, Mexican authorities confirmed Tuesday. The corpses showed signs of torture.

The news came as an armed gang shot dead a mayor near the US border, capping a vicious 48-hour period that has seen 30 people killed.

Since President Calderón launched a military offensive against organized crime in December 2006, hundreds of police and military officers have been killed. The Calderón administration has shown no signs of backing away from confronting the drug cartels. But the torture and killing of these officers could foreshadow a new surge in battles in the state of Michoacán.

Mexican authorities say the attack was part of a continued retaliation by La Familia, a cartel based in Michoacán that has grown in force in the past few years. Over the weekend, after one of La Familia's alleged leaders was arrested by federal authorities, the cartel coordinated shootouts against federal officers in at least six cities across the state.

"This is the cartel that attacks the authorities with the most belligerence," Monte Alejandro Rubido, a national security spokesman, said Tuesday at a press conference. "We shouldn't be surprised at this kind of reaction."

The officers, 11 men and one woman, were off duty at the time of the attack, and had been investigating organized crime, Mr. Rubido said. The bodies were found in a pile on the highway outside the mountain town of La Huacana.

Epicenter of drug violence: Michoacán

Michoacán, Calderón's native state, has been at the center of his effort to combat drug trafficking. He also carried out what was considered an unprecedented sweep of local officials alleged to be colluding with drug traffickers, including the arrests of mayors throughout the state, in May.

La Familia cartel infamous

La Familia garnered world infamy in 2006 when gunmen stormed into a dance club and hurled five human heads onto the dance floor in Uruapan, Michoacán. Last September, a grenade was launched into a plaza during a public holiday. La Familia has grown as other drug-trafficking groups have splintered, as they have vied for control over operations and smuggling routes in their state.

Calderón said on Tuesday that the government will not be intimidated by such violence. "In this fight we will not give in nor will we doubt," he said.

But in a poll published in the daily newspaper Milenio by the Mexico-based polling group Cabinet of Strategic Communication, more than half of Mexicans consider organized crime to be winning against the government effort. Only 28 percent said the government is gaining ground.

Daughter of Slain Fla. Couple: 'This Is Unimaginable'

The oldest daughter of a Florida couple police say were murdered last week says she is shocked at the brutal killings that left her and 16 other siblings parentless.

I just can't believe that there's people in the world that are capable of this type of hate," Ashley Markham, 26, told ABC's "Good Morning America" today. "This is just unimaginable."

Markham's parents, Byrd and Melanie Billings, were shot to death July 9 in what police have called a highly organized, military style operation in which robbery was the primary motive. A safe was among the items taken from the home.

Two of the seven suspects, 35-year-old Leonard Gonzalez Jr., and 28-year-old Donnie Ray Stallworth, had military training, police say. Stallworth worked in the Air Force's elite Special Operations Command with an aircraft maintenance squadron and Gonzalez was a former soldier in the National Guard,The Associated Press reported.

Several of the suspects, including Gonzalez, have criminal records. Wayne Coldiron, 41, served two years in a Tennessee prison in the early 1990s after killing a man during a fight.

Gonzalez stood before a Florida judge Tuesday and defended himself, saying there was "no hard evidence that links [him] to the scene of the crime July 9."

But Gonzalez's former sister-in-law, Jennifer Herkel, feared his violent side and said he threatened her family over the Internet. "If he would have gotten away with this crime, my family would have been the next one you would be reading about shot in the house," she said.

The Billings were parents to 17 children, 13 adopted and four biological. Nine of them were at home when police say the murders took place.

"We are holding up the best that we possibly know how," Markham said.

Two Teens Last Major Suspects Taken Into Custody

At a press conference Tuesday, Markham stood with Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan when he announced investigators had taken all the major suspects into custody, including a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old.

"We have found them, they are in custody," Morgan said as he hugged Markham.

There were "no direct ties" between the alleged murderers and the slain couple but at least some of the individuals arrested had been on the Billings' property in the past, said Morgan.

One of the suspects, Leonard P. Gonzalez Sr., 56, owned a pressure washing business and had hired three of the suspects as day laborers as he needed them, according to Morgan. Gonzalez Sr. is believed to have been the group's getaway driver, according to Morgan.

The four other suspects, including the 16-year-old, had worked at an auto detailing business in nearby Okaloosa County.

Coldiron had been on the Billings' property "at least one time," said Morgan.

It was not immediately clear what type of work Coldiron had performed for Byrd, 66, and Melanie, 43, Billings.

All seven will likely be charged with an open count of murder, and the juvenile will be treated as an adult, said Florida State Attorney Bill Eddins. Leonard P. Gonzalez Sr., father of Leonard P. Gonzalez Jr., was initially charged with tampering with evidence for allegedly trying to disguise the red van that police believe was used as the getaway vehicle. He is likely to see his charge increased to an open count of murder as well.

'Well-Planned, Well-Executed' Operation

There is still one more local individual that has yet to be arrested who police indicated may have been involved in the crime after it occurred. Morgan declined to say when an arrest of this individual might occur.

Eddins confirmed that the main motive in the crime was robbery.

"They did take items that you would normally expect to be taken in a robbery," said Eddins. A medium-size safe was taken from the home, according to Eddins, who declined to specify what was inside the safe.

Since the murders last week, police have repeatedly characterized the suspects' operation as having "military precision."

Morgan confirmed that some of the individuals in custody do have a history of military service. "We have info that indicates there was a good amount of practice that was involved," said Morgan. "It was very a well-planned and well-executed operation."

The suspects were on the Billing's property for 10 minutes and were in and out of the house in less than four minutes, Morgan said.

Two teams stormed the house on Thursday evening from different entrances and successfully navigated the large home before allegedly shooting and killing the Billings.

Nine of the couple's children were in the house at the time.

One team of two men entered the front of the house while another team of two men, all dressed in black ninja gear, entered through an unlocked back door of the home, he said.

Morgan speculated that one man may have been responsible for disabling the security system, but failed, allowing investigators to use surveillance videos to identify several suspects.

Federal agencies with video-enhancing capabilities have been assisting the investigation by reviewing surveillance video from the Billings' home as well as local stores where the suspects are believed to have purchased the ninja garb they allegedly wore during the incident.

"This was a well-planned, methodical operation," Morgan said. "There was planning that went into this operation."

In a surveillance tape from the Billings home that Morgan called "chilling and shocking," two men emerge from among trees in the rear property and hurry to a back door of the house.

They are believed to have been traveling in a metallic blue flake or gold flake Escalade that has not yet been located.

Robbery 'Prime' Motive, but Is There More?

Asked why the Billings family may have been targeted for this robbery, Morgan speculated that it may have had to do with the family being well-known in the community.

"The 'why question' in any crime that occurs is one you wrangle with," the sheriff said. "It could be a very long time before we know why this family was selected."

The deaths of the Billings couple shocked the country because they had dedicated their lives to caring for disabled children. They had four children of their own, but adopted 12 others, including children with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

"The children are coping very well," an emotional Markham said during a news conference Monday. "They are with lots of family and friends are not asking a lot of questions."

Byrd Billings managed several businesses that allowed him and his wife to be able to take care of so many children.

Morgan described him as an entrepreneur who "was involved in a lot of different businesses."

A memorial for the Billings will be held Friday morning, with a burial to follow.

Gaza war order was "shoot first," some troops say

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Some Israeli soldiers who took part in the January invasion of the Gaza Strip say they were encouraged by commanders to shoot first and worry later about civilians, and went into Gaza with guns blazing.

Testimony from 30 veterans of Operation Cast Lead, published on Wednesday by the activist group "Breaking the Silence," lends credence to charges by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and U.N. agencies that Israeli forces inflicted civilian death and destruction on an unjustifiable scale.

But the report drew an angry reaction from the military -- which has already rejected war crimes charges by international groups -- in a 3-page statement rebutting the allegations as a slanderous and defamatory mix of rumor and hearsay.

In print and video testimony, almost all of it nameless and digitally blurred, soldiers say the army's Gaza imperative was to minimize its own casualties to maintain public support.

"Better hit an innocent than hesitate to target an enemy," was a typical description by one unidentified soldier of his understanding of instructions repeated at pre-invasion briefings and during the 22-day operation, from December 27 to January 18.

"If you're not sure, kill. Fire power was insane. We went in and the booms were just mad," says another. "The minute we got to our starting line, we simply began to fire at suspect places.

"In urban warfare, anyone is your enemy. No innocents."

DEFAMATION AND SLANDER

The army issued a statement saying it "regrets the fact that yet another human rights organization is presenting to Israel and the world a report based on anonymous and general testimonies," while denying it "the minimal decency" of sending it an advance copy to allow the military to investigate.

"This was done while defaming and slandering the IDF (Israel Defense Force) and its commanders," the statement said.

It acknowledged "there were isolated incidences in which unintentional harm was caused to noncombatants as the result of operational errors" that were unavoidable in complex fighting.

Operation Cast Lead had the declared aim of forcing Islamist Hamas fighters, who deny Israel's right to exist, to stop rocket and mortar attacks aimed at southern Israeli towns.

A Palestinian rights group says 1,417 people were killed, in the 22-day onslaught, 926 of them civilians. The Israeli army put the toll at 1,166 and estimated 295 dead were civilians. Israel said 10 of its soldiers and three civilians were killed.

Whole streets in parts of the Gaza Strip were razed to minimize the risk of Israeli casualties from small-arms attacks and booby-trap bombs. The United Nations says Gaza six months later is just beginning to clear 600,000 tons of rubble.

Amnesty International labeled Israel's actions "wanton." The Anti-Defamation League in the United States accused Amnesty of "outrageously accusing the Israeli military of war crimes."

"MASSIVE DESTRUCTION"

Soldiers in Israel's largely conscript army have standing orders not to talk to the media. Breaking the Silence said those quoted "served in all sectors of the (Gaza) operation."

"The majority ... are still serving in their regular military units and turned to us in deep distress at the moral deterioration of the IDF," it said. Their narratives "are enough to bring into question the credibility" of the official line.

Transcripts can be seen at www.breakingthesilence.org.il.

Soldiers describe a "Neighbor Procedure" in which civilians were forced to enter suspect buildings ahead of troops. They cite at least one "human shield" case of a civilian forced to walk in front of a soldier resting a rifle on his shoulder.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Colonel Avi Peled said that story was based completely on hearsay.

"The soldier who testified spoke to his commander and the matter was investigated," he said. "He did not speak of his own experience. He spoke about something he'd heard that took place in the first week of the fighting (when) he was not even there."

"We never used any civilian as a human shield," Peled said.

The soldiers repeat charges leveled by international rights groups but denied by Israel that white phosphorus -- whose use as an incendiary is banned in populated areas -- was fired indiscriminately into Gaza streets.

In its summary, Breaking the Silence says these accounts indicate the "massive destruction" inflicted on Gaza "was unrelated to any direct threat to Israeli forces," and that the rules of engagement were deliberately "permissive."

"We did not get instructions to shoot at anything that moved," says one soldier. "But we were generally instructed: if you feel threatened, shoot. They kept repeating to us that this is war and in war opening fire is not restricted."

To strip away cover for Hamas fighters, soldiers said, first aerial bombardment and artillery, then demolition charges and armored bulldozers razed whole areas including gardens, and olive and orange groves.

"We didn't see a single house that was intact ... that was not hit. The entire infrastructure, tracks, fields, roads, was in total ruin. The D-9 (bulldozer) had gone over everything," the report quoted one as saying.

This was also evident to foreign reporters who were allowed into Gaza by the army only after fighting stopped on Jan 22.

"There was a clear feeling, and this was repeated whenever others spoke to us, that no humanitarian consideration played any role in the army at present," a soldier says.

"The goal was to carry out an operation with the least possible casualties for the army."

The army rebuttal said: "Most of the testimonies are anonymous and lack any identifying details that would allow the IDF to investigate, confirm, or refute them ... not even a first initial ..." and no ranks or unit names at all are provided.

Responding to Wednesday's report, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement: "The IDF is one of the most moral armies in the world and behaves in accordance with the highest ethical code."

Google Voice Expands to BlackBerrys, Android

Despite the fact that few people have the service and it's still limited invite only, Google Voice is branching out from the PC browser (where it is a PCMag Editors' Choice voice service) to the mobile phone. Google now offers its own applications for the VoIP service on Blackberry and its own Android OS. Previously, access on phones was limited to the service's mobile Web interface.

Google Voice, formerly known as GrandCentral, works like a personal switchboard so calls made to your personal "number for life" rings on all your phones -- home, office, mobile, whatever you set up. The problem is, calling out on those phones will bring up the caller ID for that line, not your Google Voice number, so returned calls only ring one line. These apps solve that problem, and more.

TechCrunch reports that the Android version of the app will literally take over the native dialer on the phone, so all outgoing calls will appear to come from the Google Voice number, even when returning a call. The Blackberry app is not quite as tightly integrated, but still allows the outbound call to appear in Caller ID as from your Google Voice. Google Voice also supports sending free text messages, and that should be available here too, letting you avoid SMS charges from the carrier. Also look for placing calls inexpensively using VoIP service call-back, listening to voice mail, and reading Google Voice's transcriptions of same, all will be on the handsets.

This software does not appear to be headed for the iPhone yet, but Google says it is working on it with Apple. Third party iPhone apps like GV Mobile at least let you make calls out.

iPhone users have to wait for Apple approval of the app

Google is steadily rolling out all sorts of new products and offerings and is doing well at turning itself from a search firm to a company that competes with Microsoft on many levels from software to email.

Google has been talking up its Chrome OS over the last few weeks and is set to combat Microsoft's Windows for market share in the netbook category. Google is also looking to fight a battle on the VOIP front against Skype with its Google Voice service. Google Voice is gaining some much-desired features, at least for Android users and Blackberry owners.

A new Google Voice application is available for the two platforms that adds features to make Google Voice more usable. The app allows users to make calls using their Google Voice number directly from their mobile phones. The call receiver will see the Google Voice number rather than the caller's mobile number. Any text messages sent will also be from the users Google Voice number.

The New York Times reports that before the new app was available, the only way for users to place calls from their Google Voice number was to type the numbers they wanted to call in rather than accessing the numbers from a contact list. The app will also allow users to access voice mail and view message transcripts.

The transcripts can also be read in a "karaoke style" with the apps highlighting the words being read. Only users that currently have a Google Voice number will be able to take advantage of the slick new applications. Google still says that it will offer the Voice service to more users and is currently working through a backlog of Google Voice requests.

Google also says it is working with Apple now to bring the application to the iPhone.


The magic of Apollo

Project Apollo might have been commissioned as a feel good project to boost the moral of a bruised Superpower, but it was conceived as a piece of pure scientific exploration. In his final essay marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, Dr Christopher Riley looks back at the part scientific curiosity played in inspiring the Moon landings and uniting the world during uncertain times.

One of Arthur C Clarke's "laws" states that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Some technological advancement take place over centuries, and some can occur within a single generation - leaving those who lived through it with that feeling of magic.

Apollo was an even faster example. Within eight years, we leapt from being unable to fly in space to living briefly on the Moon.

The world's oldest man at the time - Charlie Smith - reportedly born in 1842 was at the launch of the final Moonshot and simply couldn't believe where the men onboard were heading.

Even Apollo 11's Michael Collins, a man intimately connected with the machinations of his mission, once said he felt that there was some magic within the smooth clockwork-like running of his flight.

Such technological leaps require springboards of scientific curiosity, and Apollo was no exception.

Unsure about where the new president would point them (as Nasa always tends to be when new administrations come to office), the agency had prepared a number of options for President Kennedy to consider.

Chief amongst these were plans for a manned lunar exploration programme; conceived not by military strategists for reasons of Cold War bravado, nor by politicians with an eye on national prestige, but by one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th Century - a man passionately interested in our origins.

Planetary scientist Harold Urey had first suggested to Nasa that it commence a lunar exploration programme in the 1950s.

Urey figured that the Moon, lacking atmospheric weathering and the recycling of its crust through plate tectonics, might preserve some truly ancient geological relics from the early Solar System, long gone on Earth.

Ignited by Urey's curiosity, Nasa came up with ambitious plans to investigate his theories, harnessing an armada of robotic mapping missions and culminating in a manned landing.

With an estimated price tag of $11bn, there was little chance of it being adopted by the new President, but Nasa had it on the table just in case.

That case arose on the 12 April 1961, just three months after Kennedy had come to office, when Major Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth.

Kennedy immediately consulted his Vice President to find out what they could do to restore some national pride and Johnson was quick to recommend Nasa's novel lunar exploration programme.

At first Kennedy was reportedly unsure. With no guarantees of success, it seemed like a lot of money to convince Congress to spend. But Johnson was persuasive.

"To be second in space is to be second in everything," he told the President. Put that way, Kennedy had little choice but to embrace it.

Marshalling over 400,000 men and woman across America for this single, focused and determined goal, Nasa's philosophy borrowed from another of Clarke's laws - "the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible".

Examine the newspapers from any time during the 1960s and you will read of Apollo's "show stopping" engineering set-backs.

From the seemingly insurmountable problems of getting each stage of the Saturn V to work, to the challenges of making the Command Module safe following the fire that killed the first Apollo astronauts, even the engineers would have told you at times that they didn't think it could be done.

But against all the odds, on the 16 July 1969, just 30 months after the fatal fire - the first Saturn V rocket attempting to carry men from the surface of one world to another rose into the Florida sky.

Those who had worked on Apollo - who intimately knew every nut and bolt - were left gasping at what they'd accomplished.

For the rest of us - marvelling at the heaviest vehicle ever to lift off the ground - it was nothing short of magic.

Three days later when the first men to reach another world arrived, their initial act, within moments of setting foot there, was to document and collect a precious sample of lunar dust, to share with laboratories across the Earth.

It was a fitting thing to do at the climax of a voyage which had been started by a grand scientific idea about our origins.

As this series of essays has shown - whilst Apollo emerged during troubled times; accelerated into being as an antidote to the persistent terror of Armageddon, what transpired was far more than a Cold War race.

America's immense national effort devoted to something other than war had united the world in admiration.

In these similar times of great uncertainty - engaged in more un-winnable wars and threatened by new terrors - perhaps we need another magical project inspired by scientific curiosity and delivered by engineering ingenuity to lift our spirits and win over hearts and minds.

The writer J. Bainbridge summed up Apollo as "a story of engineers who tried to reach the heavens".

Is it time once more to challenge our scientists and engineers to reach for the heavens for the sake of all mankind?

Dr Christopher Riley is the author of the new Haynes guide: Apollo 11 - an owner's workshop manual. He also curates the Apollo film at the online archive collection Footagevault. He is the producer of the 2009 director's cut of Nasa's original documentary feature film Moonwalk One