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News Briefs

Refugee Influx Poses New Health Risks, Afghan Officials Say

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- KABUL

Health officials here warned Thursday that the rising tide of returning refugees poses significant health risks for a country already suffering one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world.

The influx of Afghans returning from Pakistan, Iran and other countries has severely burdened a health system already taxed by war, drought and food shortages, said Dr. Abdullah Fahim, spokesman for the Health Ministry.

Since March, an estimated 1.5 million Afghans have returned in what refugee officials have characterized as one of the fastest repatriations on record, and three times the rate of initial estimates. About one-third, or 500,000, have come to Kabul, swelling the capital’s population by about 25 percent.

Cholera is a special concern in urban areas where there are shortages of pure drinking water and proper sanitary systems. Although isolated cases have been reported in recent weeks, Fahim said there has been “no massive outbreak.” Nevertheless, some hospitals have taken to isolating patients with severe diarrhea in order to prevent a wider epidemic, he said.

The United Nations, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Health Ministry, is updating the infant and maternal mortality survey. Fahim expects it will show that rates have risen since 1997 because restrictions imposed by the strict Islamic Taliban regime put women at greater risk.

Economic Health of Blacks Up, But Still Trailing Average

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Although both the income and wealth of black households have been increasing, they still trail well behind American households as a whole, a new study shows.

While black household wealth grew 321 percent between 1989 and 1998, the median net wealth of a black household was only $15,500, compared with $71,700 for all American households, according to an analysis of the most recent Federal Reserve data on household finances. The study, conducted by the Consumer Federation of America, defined “net wealth” as assets minus debts.

The new study found that lower-income households are less likely to save, tend to overspend their income and have a shorter financial “planning horizon.”

Just over half as many black households had net wealth of at least $100,000, as compared with all American households, while almost twice as many black households had net wealth of less that $10,000.

“We are trying to communicate to middle America, to working-class America, that they can build wealth as well,” said Brobeck. “But one has to be patient, one has to be smart, one has to be disciplined.”

“Over time, it is realistic to expect most low- and moderate-income families to build six-figure wealth. That is very realistic.”

The Consumer Federation based its study on an analysis of 1998 Federal Reserve System data on the consumer finances of 4,000 households conducted by Catherine Montalto of Ohio State University.

Skakel Gets 20 Years to Life

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- NEW YORK

A Connecticut judge sentenced Michael Skakel to 20 years to life in prison on Thursday for murdering his 15-year-old neighbor in 1975, rejecting a rambling, emotional claim of innocence by Skakel and a handwritten plea for leniency from his aunt, Ethel Kennedy.

Skakel, 41, was convicted in June of fatally bludgeoning and stabbing Martha Moxley with a golf club in their elite Greenwich neighborhood. Skakel also was 15 at the time of the slaying, which confounded police for decades and prompted claims that the Kennedy clan’s influence had thwarted investigators.

“I would love to be able to say I did the crime so that the Moxley family could have peace,” he said in State Superior Court in Norwalk, Conn., taking the stand for the first time. “But to do that would be a lie.” He said he prays for the Moxleys every night.

Judge John F. Kavanewsky had to follow sentencing guidelines in effect at the time of the killing. Skakel faced a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum of 25 years to life. By choosing the 20-year sentence, Kavanewsky ensured that Skakel would have to serve at least 11 1/2 years before becoming eligible for parole.

Prosecutors charged that the Skakels’ stature and connection to the Kennedys had prevented a thorough investigation in 1975 and continued to influence proceedings.

Bertelsmann Disputes Napster Deal

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- SAN FRANCISCO

An attorney for Bertelsmann told a bankruptcy judge Thursday that the German publishing giant might walk away from its plan to buy the technology of Napster Inc. if a dispute over the deal isn’t resolved by next week.

Under former Chief Executive Thomas Middelhoff, Bertelsmann agreed to pay $9 million to Napster creditors if a deal were consummated by Tuesday.

Record labels and songwriters filed their opposition to the transaction this month, saying that Bertelsmann exercised improper control over Napster when the bargain was struck.

Bankruptcy Judge Peter Walsh was to hear the objections Thursday afternoon but rescheduled the hearing for Friday.

During the scheduling debate, he asked a Bertelsmann lawyer if the company would agree to honor the offer past the Tuesday deadline if he couldn’t rule before then. The attorney said Bertelsmann would not, according to Dow Jones.