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News Briefs, part 1

Firefighters Accused Of Setting Malibu Brush Fires

The Washington Post
LOS ANGELES

Two firefighters hailed as heroes for trying to put out last fall's devastating Malibu brush fire in its opening moments were accused Thursday of setting the fire.

"It is our belief that these are the persons responsible," Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block told a news conference Thursday morning. But he said neither man has been arrested and no charges have been filed.

Block said he informed prosecutors that the two men were suspects in December, a little over a month after the fire destroyed 185,000 acres, caused $375 million in damage and killed three people. But he said because of the complexity of the case, District Attorney Gil Garcetti decided to conduct his own investigation and does not plan to present evidence to a grand jury until the end of the month.

Block said that neither suspect was working as a firefighter at the time of the Malibu fire but that both men have since been hired by local fire departments, one in Los Angeles and the other in Manhattan Beach as a part-time volunteer. He declined to release their names, but the Los Angeles Times identified the men as Steven R. Shelp, 29, and Nicholas A. Durepo, 24.

Clinton Expected To Name Nominee Next Week

Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Selection of a new Supreme Court justice to replace Harry A. Blackmun "won't be long," President Clinton said Thursday as aides predicted the announcement would come early next week.

As has usually been the case, Clinton's selection process has taken somewhat longer than his aides predicted. Shortly after Blackmun announced his resignation last month, White House counsel Lloyd Cutler told reporters a decision would be made before the end of April. But since then White House officials have told reporters Clinton feels "no time pressure" on the selection as he continues to mull over a short list of top prospects.

"There's one or two other things going on here, but we're working on it," Clinton told reporters after a White House event designed to drum up support for legislation banning some assault weapons. "We're spending a good deal of time on it. It won't be long."

Asked about one leading candidate, federal appeals court judge Richard Arnold of Arkansas, Clinton offered warm praise. He also sought to counter those who argue against selecting Arnold because the administration already has too many Arkansas appointees, several of whom have been involved in politically embarrassing problem.

"I mean, he was first in his class at Harvard and Yale; he's the chief judge of the 8th Circuit; and he's been head of the appellate judges association," Clinton said. "So I don't think anyone would question - it would be difficult to find, just on terms of those raw qualifications, an appellate judge with equal or superior qualifications."

Palestinians Celebrate Peace Pact, Worry About Future

The Baltimore Sun
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip

Palestinian youths Thursday punctured the air with automatic gunfire to celebrate the return of Hamdi el-Rifi from 23 years in prison and exile.

But inside his father's house, the popular Palestinian leader was worried there is no school in the Gaza Strip where his daughter, 10, can continue learning the French she acquired in their Tunisia exile.

El-Rifi is one of thousands of exiles, refugees and prisoners returning here following the official start Wednesday of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank town of Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

The problems they bring - where to send their children to school, what jobs can they do - are among the vexing issues likely to delay quick implementation of the Israeli hand-over of those areas. Palestinians and Israelis acknowledged Thursday that the dismantling of Israel's 27-year-occupation of Jericho and the Gaza Strip will be a gradual process lasting several weeks, in order to sort out the problems.

Free Enterprise Revives Abandoned U.S. Naval Base (Subic Bay)

By Karl Schoenberger
Los Angeles Times
SUBIC BAY, Philippines

The big warships don't dock here anymore. The F-18 Hornet fighters no longer roar overhead. The bar girls have migrated away, and about 40,000 civilian jobs are gone, lost to a fit of Philippine national pride that kicked the U.S. Navy out of here two years ago.

But now, in the eerie ghost town atmosphere of what used to be the Navy's largest overseas base, something rather remarkable is happening: free enterprise.

Businesses are starting to blossom inside the gray military buildings that line the gloomy wharves, one of them making Reebok shoes. Federal Express is planning to use the Navy airstrip. Tourists are lounging in a casino hotel converted from a barracks and playing golf on fairways salvaged from the ash fallout of Mount Pinatubo.

Subic Bay, not long ago a Cold War relic symbolizing America's decline in the Pacific, is being transformed into a plucky little free-port zone.

Backed by a spurt of foreign investment and an army of "people power" volunteers, Subic is an experiment in economic development that embodies the new optimism rising in the Philippines, the so-called Sick Man of Asia.

Decades of economic malaise - compounded by legendary corruption, political turmoil and a chain of natural disasters - left the Philippines lagging far behind its successful neighbors. But people say things are different now, at last.

Venal dictator Ferdinand Marcos is dead. And the days of periodic coup attempts against housewife-turned-President Corazon Aquino have been replaced by humdrum stability since President Fidel V. Ramos - the general who rebelled against Marcos and quashed the insurrections against Aquino - took office in June 1992.

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Ramos has earned mixed reviews on the economic front. He has proceeded timidly with plans to liberalize the economy and bungled an attempt at hiking an oil tax to fix a worrisome fiscal deficit. He dragged his feet, then hastily assumed emergency powers to resolve an energy crisis that caused daily blackouts in the capital.

But political peace under Ramos seems to have allowed some modest economic growth, after years of volatility and stagnation.

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The Philippine economy grew 2.3 percent last year, and this year analysts predict gross national product will rise in real terms by more than 4 percent. That performance pales in comparison to the double-digit pace enjoyed by some East Asian export dynamos. But it's not a bad start.

"I think the numbers are starting to be good for us," Ramos said in an interview at Malacanang, the presidential palace in Manila. "The conditions for takeoff are in place."

If the economy does take flight, the Subic Bay Freeport Zone is the kind of launch pad that will provide some of the thrust.

It's one of 18 designated areas - including Clark Field, the former U.S. air base - where the government is trying to woo international investment with tax incentives and aggressive publicity. The strategy is to mimic the pattern of rapid industrialization that made "tigers" and "dragons" out of its neighbors.

After all, if the marriage of cheap labor and foreign capital works for the Indonesians, why not for English-speaking Filipinos?

"This is the best-kept secret in Asia," said Thomas Leber, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Manila. He maintains there isn't a scent of genuine anti-Americanism in the Philippines today, despite the base expulsion debacle.

"There's not a more logical place for American companies to use as their springboard into Southeast Asian markets," said Leber, who represents New York-based American Home Products Corp. in the Philippines. "We certainly wouldn't want to see Japanese or Taiwanese investors supplant the Americans here. That would be a travesty."

The U.S.-Philippine relationship has been complex and emotionally intense over the past century, beginning with the Spanish-American War, which left the islands a U.S. colony for nearly 50 years.

No one personifies that legacy better than Richard J. Gordon, the cheerful chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the government agency that runs the free-port zone.

During Gordon's reign as mayor of Olongapo, a city that thrived outside Subic's gates, he was an early proponent of gradual U.S. withdrawal and conversion of the base into a special economic zone.

The fact that Gordon now sits in the executive office once occupied by Rear Adm. Thomas A. Mercer - the last U.S. commander at Subic - is one of those ironic twists of history. His grandfather, John J. Gordon, waded ashore at Subic Bay with the New York regiment in 1898, the story goes, and later mustered out of the U.S. Army to marry a Filipina and settle nearby.

Gordon's father served as the first elected mayor of Olongapo until he was assassinated. Gordon's mother was elected to succeed him. Richard, a practicing lawyer, later took up the civic mantle.

Fueled by nationalistic sentiment, the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to oust the U.S. military. Gordon pounced on the opportunity to exploit the billions of dollars in inherited military infrastructure, using all the hoopla and machinery of a political campaign.

By the autumn of 1992, Gordon had organized laid-off base workers into a skilled force of volunteers. They stepped in to maintain security in the confusion of the American withdrawal that October and November, which itself came in the wake of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Pinatubo.

While the facilities at Clark air base were heavily damaged by volcanic ash and then trashed by looters, Subic emerged virtually unscathed. Volunteers hauled away tons of ash that blanketed the golf course, kept the lawns trimmed and protected 1,876 units of family housing from scavengers.

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Gordon also has used his political charisma to recruit a corps of youthful camp followers, many of them children of wealthy families with fresh degrees from U.S. universities. They work without pay for months until the charismatic Gordon, who does not disclaim future presidential ambitions, offers them meager civil service wages.

Blue-collar volunteers, meanwhile, are registered by computer, and when jobs open up in the free port, they're at the top of the hiring list. So far, Gordon said, 9,000 have gone back to work.

Federal Express Corp. is planning to use the Cubi Airfield at Subic as its regional hub starting in January, once navigational equipment is installed that will convert it to a commercial airport. Gordon says the industrial side of the free port is reaching critical mass, with commitments for as much as $400 million in investment from foreign and domestic sources involving more than 50 projects.

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During the transition, Subic retains a sense of order that is at odds with the conventions of chaotic Philippine society.

The free port was swarmed by about 100,000 tourists over the Easter weekend, many driving two to three hours from Manila to swim, gamble and shop their quota at PX outlets converted into duty-free stores. Gordon's volunteers issued 540 traffic tickets, shocking motorists who never would have imagined getting ticketed in the anarchy of Manila's streets.

"If Subic sparks a fire here, we'll be a model that changes the nation's attitudes about discipline and work ethic," Gordon said. "This will give the Filipino confidence. Subic will grow and become the magnet for the Philippines. You watch."

Taiwan Leader Gets Diplomatic Cold Shoulder From U.S. (Washn)

By Jim Mann
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

He wasn't able to shop in Waikiki. No one threw a lei around his neck. He didn't see any palm trees or walk on the beach.

Instead, when Taiwan President Li Teng-hui's plane stopped in Hawaii Wednesday on the way to a visit to Nicaragua, he decided to stay inside his plane on the Tarmac. The reason? The Clinton administration would not give the leader of Taiwan permission to do anything in Honolulu beyond a short refueling stop.

And, as if to compound the rebuff, there was no American welcoming party to greet Li's plane. No American diplomats or officials were present except Nat Bellocchi, head of the Washington office of the American Institute for Taiwan, the unofficial organization set up to handle non-government contacts with the island.

The Clinton administration's icy treatment of the Taiwan president is in line with past practice. Ever since 1979, when the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwans Nationalist government, it has discouraged Taiwan's top leaders from traveling to this country, out of fear of offending the People's Republic of China.

"Through several (U.S.) administrations we have been careful on this issue because of the suggestion of officiality of relations," explained Winston Lord, assistant secretary of State for East Asia. He told a congressional hearing Wednesday that American policy had worked out well both for the United States and for Taiwan.

In fact, Li's lonely refueling stop was the first time in 15 years that any president of Taiwan had set foot (well, touched down) on American soil.

Taiwan's premier stopped in Los Angeles and San Francisco earlier this year, but he was not allowed to remain in San Francisco for more than a day. And Taiwan's foreign minister has been allowed to visit Boston, but not Washington.

Some members of Congress are outraged at the American policy. "We have slighted the freely elected president of a political entity which is of first-rate importance to us and to our economic and security interests in East Asia," Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., protested in a letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher this week.

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Li is now on an official trip to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and South Africa, all of which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Soon after this trip was announced, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing warned that countries that have diplomatic relations with China should not give the Taiwan president permission to visit.

The State Department at first balked at allowing even a refueling stop by Li but finally relented. Lord told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that U.S. officials had concluded the stopover "was necessary for the safety of the president and his airplane and passengers."

The Hawaii incident appeared to be part of a determined campaign by Taiwan to search for ways to force or embarrass nations into giving a new, higher level of recognition to the island's top leaders.

In February, Li traveled to the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, meeting with top leaders of all three countries in what was billed as "vacation diplomacy."