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Pope Francis visits basilica

VATICAN CITY, March 14 (UPI) -- Pope Francis began his first full day as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics Thursday with a visit to the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome.


The Rev. Ludovico Melo, a priest who prayed with the pope, said the new pontiff spent about a half-hour at the basilica, which included singing a hymn and spoke to people in the church to go to confession, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

"Mercy, mercy, mercy," the Argentine pope said, Melo indicated.

Pope Francis, who was the first South American pope elected Wednesday after five votes at the conclave, also prayed before a famous icon of the Virgin Mary called the Salus Populi Romani, ANSA said.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who participated in the conclave, said Pope Francis was to travel to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome Thursday to meet his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned at the end of February, citing health and age.

The schedule indicates Francis, 76, was to meet with cardinals – both who participated in the conclave and those who did not -- on Friday. ANSA said he will lead his first Angelus, a Catholic devotional, as pope in St. Peter's Square on Sunday. His inaugural mass is scheduled for Tuesday.


Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio who was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, told the cardinals following the conclave Wednesday that one of his first acts as pope would be a visit to his predecessor.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said it was "an act of great significance and pastorality" that Francis' first act as pope was to offer a prayer for Benedict.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, plan to be at the inaugural mass and lead the U.S. delegation, the White House said.

Biden said in a statement the Catholic church played "an essential role in my life," not just in matters of faith but also "in pursuit of peace and human dignity for all faiths."

U.S. troops on alert in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 14 (UPI) -- The U.S. commander in Afghanistan put his forces on alert, warning a series of anti-American statements by President Hamid Karzai may endanger troops.

In his advisory to top commanders Wednesday, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. said Karzai's remarks "could be a catalyst for some to lash out against our forces -- he may also issue orders that put our forces at risk," The New York Times reported.


The command threat advisory was issued as backlash grows against Karzai's public denunciations of the United States, including a speech in which he suggested that his government might act unilaterally to ensure control of the Bagram prison if the United States delays its handover.

The advisory specifically mentioned Karzai's comments concerning Bagram, warning commanders to be on guard against insider attacks by Afghan forces against Western troops, as well as Taliban violence.

Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Twitty, the head of communications for the military in Kabul, told the Times a more general threat advisory typically would have gone out in April, but recent events pushed it earlier.

"This is prudent," Twitty said. "It's making sure the force is seeing the same thing we're seeing. It's our job to alert the force."

Karzai's comments on Bagram is the latest public statements and positions critical of the United States, including banning Special Operations forces from a key province and suggesting the Taliban and the United States were essentially working together keep each other in Afghanistan.

An Obama administration official told the Times Wednesday commanders on the ground were taking steps appropriate for the situation. The official also said that while many in the administration were "obviously unhappy" with Karzai's comments, the current military assistance plan for Afghanistan wouldn't be derailed.


Violence kills at least 15 in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, March 14 (UPI) -- At least 15 people died and 30 others wounded Thursday in multiple attacks in Baghdad, an Iraqi Interior Ministry source told China's Xinhua news agency.

The ministry source said the deaths and injuries occurred in a series of car bombings near ministry offices downtown.

One car bomb detonated near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and another went off near the Ministry of Justice, officials said. A third device was detonated near a communications institute facility.

The ministry official told Xinhua the bombings apparently were to help gunmen and a suicide bomber enter the Ministry of Justice, but Iraqi security forces repelled them. The suicide bomber detonated his vest of explosives at the entrance of the Justice Ministry building when soldiers opened fire, the Chinese news agency said.

Appeals panel upholds terrorist conviction

SAN FRANCISCO, March 14 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court panel upheld the conviction of a U.S.-born Pakistani who was suspected of awaiting orders to carry out an attack on the United States.

In its 2-1 ruling Wednesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel sitting in San Francisco rejected Hamid Hayat's appeal of his 2006 convictions and 24-year prison sentence for providing material support to terrorists and lying to government officials, Courthouse News Service reported.


The court record indicated Hayat was born in the United States and lived in America until he was 7, and then lived with his relatives in Pakistan until he was 18. In 2000 he returned to his parents' house in Lodi, Calif., the site of a suspected terrorist cell.

Speaking to an FBI informant, Hayat discussed his scorn for America and his plans to attend a terrorist training camp in Pakistan, the ruling said. When Hayat tried to re-enter the United States in 2005 after a two-year trip to Pakistan with his family, his return flight was diverted to Japan because his name was on the federal "No Fly" list. FBI agents took him to Sacramento for more questioning five days after he landed.

After denying he attended a terrorist training camp, Hayat admitted he attended a camp where he was trained for jihad, among other things. After questioning, he was arrested.

In his appeal, Hayat said the jury foreman was biased against him, the defense should have been allowed to further cross-examine the informant and the trial judge was unfair in what he did or didn't allow during trial.

The appeal court's majority found "plausible," non-biased explanations for comments made by the foreman and found no abuses of discretion or "plain error" in what the trial judge allowed or omitted at trial, Courthouse News Service said.


In dissent, Judge Wallace Tashima said, "This case is a stark demonstration of the unsettling and untoward consequences of the government's use of anticipatory prosecution as a weapon in the 'war on terrorism."

Upstate N.Y. standoff ends, suspect dead

HERKIMER, N.Y., March 14 (UPI) -- The suspect in the shooting deaths of four people in upstate New York was killed by police Thursday in a shootout, officials said.

Police said they returned fire on suspect Kurt Myers after Myers opened fire as officers entered the basement of a vacant building in Herkimer, N.Y., the Utica Observer-Dispatch reported.

Myers, 64, of Mohawk, was the prime suspect in the Wednesday shooting deaths of four people at two businesses in Herkimer and Mohawk. Two others were injured.

Police stormed the vacant building in Herkimer after daybreak, ending a nearly 19-hour standoff, the Observer-Dispatch said.

Officials said schools in Herkimer and Mohawk were closed as a precaution.

Herkimer spent Wednesday on lockdown after the suspect allegedly killed four people and holed up in the shuttered sports bar Glory Days Food and Drink.

During the standoff, local police officers and state troopers surrounded building and tried unsuccessfully to contact Myers by cellphone, the newspaper said.


Myers allegedly started a fire in the building where he lived in Mohawk Wednesday morning and shot four men at John's Barbershop, killing two of them. Police said he then drove across the Mohawk River to Herkimer and killed two people at Gaffey's Fast Lube.

His car was found near the building formerly occupied by Glory Days. Police evacuated buildings along Main Street and placed schools on lockdown.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrived in Herkimer with State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amico shortly after the standoff began and remained at the scene for several hours.

Two customers, Harry M. Montgomery, 68, and Michael G. Rancier, 57, were killed at the barbershop. The owner, John Seymour, was wounded.

Those killed at the car wash were employee Thomas Stefka and Michael Renshaw, a state Corrections Department employee.

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