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News Briefs

U.N. Officials Call Taliban Probe Difficult


The chief U.N. official in Afghanistan said Tuesday that there is no chance soon of a thorough, impartial investigation in the alleged murder last fall of Taliban soldiers, which might implicate troops loyal to one of the country’s most powerful warlords, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Afghanistan must become far more orderly and stable before the alleged perpetrators can be pursued without endangering the lives of witnesses who remain in the area, said United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” he said.

In other areas, however, Brahimi praised the progress of the transitional Afghan government led by interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai as it seeks to consolidate peace and establish order in a devastated country that had known more than two decades of war.

Despite a spate of recent minor explosions in the edgy Afghan capital, including one outside a U.N. residence Sunday, government and international authorities believe Kabul is becoming safe enough to soon lift its midnight to 4 a.m. curfew, Brahimi said.

And training of new police and army forces, if it continues apace, should allow the country to stand on its own within two years, he said.

Acela Cracks May Recur


Trying to fix the cracked brackets that have sidelined its lucrative Acela trains, Amtrak is relying on around-the-clock welding and rigorous inspections after every run while it waits for a permanent solution.

One by one, the popular high-speed trains are being returned to service in the Northeast corridor. But because the root cause of the problem remains undiscovered, experts say, the cracks may well return, which could draw Amtrak into a disruptive cycle of cancellations and repairs.

“There may be additional cracks down the road,” said Cliff Black, an Amtrak spokesman. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Amtrak and Acela’s manufacturer, Bombardier Transportation of North America, are still investigating the cause of the cracks, which mechanics discovered two weeks ago on steel brackets attaching a shock absorber system to the body of 36 Acela locomotives and 15 nearly new high-horsepower conventional locomotives. They later found additional cracks on the locomotives’ steel frames, all of them located near the damaged brackets.

The railroad pulled its entire Acela Express fleet -- 18 trains each pulled by two locomotives -- out of service last week to begin repairs. On Wednesday, Amtrak will run seven of the high-speed trains, making a total of 23 departures, about half of its normal 50 on a weekday.

Men Reported Missing After 9/11 Found in Hospitals


Two men who were reported missing after the World Trade Center attacks have been found alive in New York hospitals, according to officials with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office.

George Sims, 46, was identified by photographs and DNA samples sent to the hospital earlier this month after officials alerted his mother, Newark, N.J., resident Anna Sims, that they believed her son was in their care.

Albert Vaughan, 45, a homeless man from Brooklyn, will also be removed from the official list of those missing. Family members recently discovered that Vaughan was being treated in an upstate New York psychiatric hospital.

“We’ve had many cases of people initially thought to be missing who were later found and taken off the list, but I can’t recall anything quite like this,” said Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office. In these two cases, she noted, “somebody missing on Sept. 11 has been found long after the fact in a hospital.”

Sims’ mother, who first told the story of his discovery to the Newark Star Ledger, was reluctant to give many details about her son’s life. But she said that he had been “selling things” near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. When the family failed to hear from him after several weeks, they contacted New York police on Oct. 7 to list him as missing.

Dogs, Cats May Help Prevent Allergies, Study Shows


The truth about cat and dog allergies might be the opposite of what experts have long suspected, according to a new study. Raising children alongside the furry companions might reduce rather than increase the likelihood that they will break out in itching and sneezing fits.

Not only that, but the study of 474 youngsters in suburban Detroit found that those raised from birth in households with two or more cats or dogs were also less likely to develop allergies to pollen, mold and grasses.

The finding, being published in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, clashes with conventional wisdom about pet allergies, which holds that children are more likely to develop reactions the more they are exposed to the animals.

“For 30 years, physicians in general have been taught that early exposure to cats and dogs is more likely to increase the risk that a child will develop allergy to cats and dogs,” said Dr. Dennis Ownby, an allergist with the Medical College of Georgia, who directed the study, “What we found was just the opposite.”

The finding, although preliminary, suggests that an early dose of dog or cat dander might somehow tweak the immune system in a way that keeps it from mounting the exaggerated response to irritants that can cause allergic symptoms.