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Putin visits Venezuela to sign series of military and oil deals

CARCAS, Venezuela — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia visited Venezuela on Friday to sign a series of military and oil agreements with President Hugo Chavez, who is seeking to expand ties with Russia as a way of countering the influence of the United States in Latin America.

Putin’s one-day visit built on a relationship rooted in billions of dollars of Russian arms sales to Venezuela over the past decade. Venezuela has also emerged as one of Russia’s most vocal supporters, recognizing two Russian-backed separatist enclaves of Georgia in 2009 and applauding Russian efforts to advance the ambitions of an embryonic group of gas-rich nations.

Russia’s warm ties with Venezuela are also opening the way for it to improve relations with a handful of other countries in Latin America, notably Bolivia. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a staunch critic of the Obama administration and a major recipient of Venezuelan aid, was also expected to discuss cooperation agreements with Putin here on Friday night.

Still, obstacles persist to a more assertive Russian expansion in Venezuela beyond the sphere of weapons sales and political engagement with Chavez’s allies.

Protesters refuse to leave

Bangkok’s commercial center

BANGKOK — Convoys of anti-government protesters coursed through Bangkok on Monday while thousands more demonstrators remained in the commercial heart of the city, where they continued to defy government orders to disperse.

Many shopping malls were closed for a third day, and 43 bank branches in Thailand’s capital were shut as the economic toll of the protests rose.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, protesters broke into the Election Commission building, demanding the acceleration of an investigation into charges that a large Thai company made a multimillion-dollar payment to the governing Democrat Party. The group left after securing an agreement that results would be released April 20, more than a week earlier than scheduled.

Protest leaders have kept the city on edge for the past three weeks with unpredictable processions of motorcycles and pickup trucks. They say they want to highlight double standards that benefit the elite at the expense of the poor.

Business groups said the protests had caused tens of millions of dollars in lost business over the past two days, not counting damage to the tourism industry and the country’s image.

United States seeks fine of

$16.4 million against Toyota

DETROIT — The U.S. Transportation Department said Monday it would seek a $16.4 million fine against Toyota, the largest allowed, because the company failed to promptly notify the government about potential problems with accelerator pedals.

The fine, which Toyota has two weeks to contest, would be the largest civil penalty assessed by the government against a car company. In taking the step, federal authorities are sending the strongest signal yet that they believe the carmaker deliberately concealed safety information from them.

“We now have proof that Toyota failed to live up to its legal obligations,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “Worse yet, they knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families.”

LaHood said documents obtained by the department showed Toyota had known of the potential pedal defect since at least Sept. 29, when it issued repair procedures in 31 European countries and Canada to address complaints that accelerator pedals could become stuck and cause sudden, unintended acceleration.

The documents also showed that the company received complaints at that time from owners in the United States who were experiencing the same problems. But the company did not recall vehicles in this country for the pedal problem until late January, although it issued a recall for floor mats last fall.

Auto companies are legally obligated to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five business days if they determine that a safety defect exists. The agency itself has come under criticism for being too lenient in the past with Toyota when defects occurred.

Shuttle heads to space station

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Lighting up the predawn sky, the space shuttle Discovery climbed out of darkness and into the glare of the rising sun early Monday, putting on a spectacular sky show as it thundered away on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

Carrying a crew of seven and 10 tons of supplies and equipment, Discovery lifted off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 6:21 a.m. after a problem-free countdown.

Discovery’s climb to orbit appeared uneventful, with no obvious signs of problems. A camera mounted on the side of the ship’s external tank showed a few pieces of presumably foam insulation falling away halfway through the ascent, but it was well after the period when debris poses a serious threat to the shuttle’s heat shield.

The astronauts did run into a problem later with the shuttle’s Ku-band antenna, used to send data and video to the ground via NASA satellites. Without the antenna, the analysis of a heat shield inspection scheduled for Tuesday will be delayed, and the commander, Alan Poindexter, a Navy captain, and the pilot, James Dutton, an Air Force colonel, will not be able to use the antenna in radar mode during docking with the space station around 3:44 a.m. on Wednesday.