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Afghan Opium Crop at Record High For Second Year, U.N. Says

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan grew by 17 percent in 2007, reaching record levels for the second straight year, according to a U.N. report released Monday.

A $600 million American counternarcotics effort helped increase the number of poppy-free provinces from six to 13, the report found, but Afghanistan still produces more than Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined. It accounts for 93 percent of the world’s opium in 2007, up from 92 percent last year.

Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crimes Policy, which issued the report, called the new figures “terrifying” and “very bad, very big and getting bigger.”

In an interview, Costa referred to a “divided” Afghanistan, with opium production dropping in the north, which is relatively stable, and growing in the insurgency-wracked south. There, Taliban militants control large swaths of territory and have been encouraging farmers to grow opium. The report is likely to spark renewed debate over an American-backed proposal to spray opium crops with herbicide. Afghan and British officials have opposed spraying, saying it would increase support for the Taliban among farmers.

Vick Pleads Guilty to Charges In Dog-Fighting Case

Michael Vick formally accepted a plea agreement from the federal government on Monday at the U.S. District Court here, pleading guilty to a felony charge stemming from a dog fighting ring run from a property he owned.

On Friday the star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons was suspended indefinitely without pay by the NFL hours after the plea agreement was filed here.

Within the statement of facts, which accompanied the agreement, Vick admitted to funding the dog fighting operation and the gambling associated with it, and to being complicit in the killing of at least six dogs that underperformed.

“I was ashamed and totally disappointed in myself, to say the least,” Vick said at a press conference at the Omni hotel here after the hearing. He added: “Dog fighting is a terrible thing. I reject it. Vick, 27, faces up to five years in prison on the charges of conspiring to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and conspiring to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture. The U.S. attorney’s office will recommend a lighter sentence, between a year to 18 months, as long as Vick continues to cooperate with authorities.

Macau Gears Up Its Resorts To Challenge Las Vegas

Las Vegas’ days as the capital of excess may be numbered.

The $2.4 billion Venetian Macau Resort, scheduled to open here Tuesday, will give Sin City more than a run for its money. The Venetian has more floor space than four Empire State Buildings. The hotel’s slot machines, baccarat tables and other games of chance sprawl across a casino more than three times the size of the largest casino in Las Vegas. The 15,000-seat sports arena nearly rivals Madison Square Garden, the convention center has a 6,000-seat banquet hall and the luxury shopping mall has three indoor canals with singing gondoliers; the Venetian in Las Vegas has just one.

But what is most surprising about the 3,000-suite project is that it is merely the first of 14 interconnected hotels being built here by Las Vegas Sands Corp. When completed, the complex will include a St. Regis, a Shangri-la, a Raffles, a Conrad, an Intercontinental and a Sheraton, with their own casinos, bars and restaurants. And the project, which will cost $10 billion to $12 billion, is just the largest of a series of giant gambling complexes being constructed here in Macau, on the southwestern lip of the mouth of the Pearl River.

China has already surpassed the United States in the manufacture of everything from steel and cement to DVD players and microwave ovens. Now, China is on its way to establishing itself as the global leader in a service industry: gambling.

Vatican’s Discount Airline to Jet Pilgrims to Holy Sites

It already has its own postal service, its own bank and even its own Internet domain. On Monday, the Vatican inaugurated its latest venture: a low-cost charter airline to ferry thousands of Catholic pilgrims from Italy to popular religious sites around the world.

The carrier’s first flight — a one-day visit to the shrine at Lourdes, France — departed Monday morning using a Boeing 737 owned by the Italian cargo airline Mistral Air. At less than half a square kilometer, or 109 acres, the Holy See is too small to support its own runway, so the plane took off from Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome.

“The way to make pilgrimages can change over time, but their deepest meaning remains the same: to look for a deeper contact with God,” Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, told reporters before boarding the flight, The Associated Press reported. Ruini, a former head of the Italian Bishops Conference, was also expected to serve as the official guide for the tour group, which included Italian notables and church leaders.

The Vatican pilgrimage office, the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, has signed a five-year agreement with Mistral Air to fly passengers from seven Italian airports, including ones in Rome, Verona and Brindisi. Planned destinations include the shrine of Fatima in Portugal, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, and the Holy Land.

The airline expects eventually to transport 150,000 pilgrims a year.