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Jan. 9, 2013 at 5:00 PM
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Biden: 'Determined' to act on guns

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said he and President Barack Obama are "determined to take action" as he opened a series of White House meetings on gun violence.

Biden met Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, near the White House, with representatives from gun-safety groups, survivors of gun violence and relatives of gun violence victims. It was the first of a series of planned meetings for the task force Biden is heading at the president's direction in the aftermath of the December massacre of 20 students and six teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The National Rifle Association is among the groups that are to participate in the series of discussions.

As Biden welcomed participants to Wednesday's session, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seated next to him, the vice president said gun violence in the United States "is a problem that requires immediate attention" and the administration has determined "executive action can be taken" -- suggesting Obama is prepared to use executive orders to address gun violence if Congress does not act.

"The president and I are determined to take action," Biden said.

He said the administration will consider a wide range of possible approaches to addressing gun violence.

"I want to make clear that we're not going to get caught up in the notion that, unless we can do everything, were going to do nothing," Biden said.

The task force also plans to discuss gun violence with representatives of the entertainment and video game industries, the White House said.

Boston declares public health emergency

BOSTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency Wednesday after 700 cases of influenza were confirmed, four of them fatal.

Menino said healthcare centers across the city would offer free vaccines to anyone who hasn't yet been immunized for flu. A list is available at the city's website http://www.cityofboston.gov/.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said there have been 18 flu-related deaths this season -- a flu season that came about five weeks earlier than usual.

"We're off to an early start nationally and in Massachusetts," Kevin Cranston, director of the department's Bureau of Infectious Disease, told reporters.

He said 91 percent of the viruses found in laboratory testing this year were well-matched to the seasonal flu vaccine and suggested people who have not yet been vaccinated to get a flu shot, although it takes two weeks for it to be effective.

The flu season this year is considered moderately severe, more severe than average, but not unprecedented in severity, The Boston Globe reported.

Russians to protest adoption law

MOSCOW, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Opponents of a Russian law banning adoptions by parents in the United States say they have received a permit for a large protest in Moscow.

They received official permission for a march next Sunday of up to 20,000 people, RIA Novosti reported.

Organizers say that the march, while it will follow the same route as two protests last year against President Vladimir Putin, is aimed only at the adoption law Putin signed in December.

"The organizers of the January 13 march are civil activists," Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front, said on Twitter.

While Putin and other officials say the law is a response to the deaths of 19 Russian children adopted in the United States in the past 13 years, it was also aimed at a recent U.S. law imposing economic sanctions on Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. The Magnitsky Act was named after Serge Magnitsky, a Russian human rights lawyer who died in police custody.

Russian orphanages remain overcrowded. About 45,000 children have been adopted by families in the United States since 1999, more than any other country, but polls show about 56 percent of Russians support the adoption ban.

Bush fires continue to threaten Australia

CANBERRA, Australia, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Bush fires continued to ravage Australia on Wednesday as a heat wave moved up the east coast to Queensland, fire officials said.

Cooler weather in New South Wales helped firefighters there, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported. But Anthony Clark, an official with the state's Rural Fire Service, warned the center of the country is enduring temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit that could blow east.

Slightly better conditions Wednesday allowed firefighters in some areas to make progress, officials said. But in the Brisbane area, temperatures hit 104 degrees.

In recent weeks fires have consumed acres of pastureland and burned homes from Queensland in the north to Tasmania in the south. One victim early Wednesday was a historic rural mansion at Carngham Station near Ballarat in Victoria.

Some of the fires have been blamed on arson. In Victoria, three fires that broke out Wednesday at about 30 minute intervals may have been deliberately set.

Some neighborhoods on Bribie Island north of Brisbane were evacuated because of fires. Christine Knyvett, a resident of the island, said the fires have so far spared buildings but have been scary.

"When I went home at lunchtime today it was just a mass of smoke and embers all over the pool -- all over the back veranda -- and you couldn't see very much except for just feeling the heat and seeing the blow," she said. "At this stage it's in the state forest and we haven't heard of any homes being lost or anything like that in White Patch."

Rob Rogers, deputy director of the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales, said conditions there were so bad Tuesday volunteer firefighters were deployed to areas where fires had not broken out just in case.

"It's pretty awful conditions and some of the worst I can recall in 30 years of doing this stuff," he told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Lew to be nominated Treasury secretary

WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- White House Chief of Staff Jacob J. "Jack" Lew will be nominated to succeed Timothy Geithner as U.S. treasury secretary, reports said Wednesday.

Lew has been a central behind-the-scenes figure in the Clinton and Obama White Houses as head of the Office of Budget and Management, Politico reported Wednesday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Lew would break the mold of recent treasury chiefs, less a financial market expert with broad contacts in the business world than a loyal Democratic lieutenant and budget authority, The Wall Street Journal noted Wednesday.

The appointment comes as Washington, recovering from the exhaustion of "fiscal cliff" negotiations, readies itself for budget fights over the nation's debt limit, sequestration cuts and a measure to continue funding the government, the Washington newspaper The Hill reported.

The Hill said information on the nomination came from "a Democratic official familiar with the matter."

Republicans view Lew as capable but rigid, after contending with him during budget battles going back to the 1990s, and some Republicans said he was unwilling to offer concessions to cut a debt ceiling deal in 2011, the Journal said.

Cardinal: John Paul II will be saint soon

VATICAN CITY, Jan. 9 (UPI) -- Pope John Paul II will almost certainly be a saint by the end of 2014, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re said.

The cardinal, who was close to John Paul and is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops, said the canonization is likely to occur in 2013, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. Re said that three or four miracles attributed to the late pope are now being examined.

John Paul was beatified, the first step to canonization, in 2011. The Vatican recognized one miracle at that time, the healing of a French nun diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

At least one more miracle needs to be recognized for canonization.

John Paul was pope for more than 26 years until his death at 84 in 2005, the second-longest reign in Vatican history. At the time of his election, he was archbishop of Krakow and he was the first non-Italian to become pope since the 16th century.

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