- At trial, Chinese prosecutor demands Bo be severely punished
- Yosemite wildfire grows, fuelling dangerous winds
- U.N. experts in Syria to visit site of poison gas attack
JINAN, China (Reuters) - Chinese prosecutors demanded a heavy sentence for ousted top politician Bo Xilai on Monday, the fifth day of his landmark trial, saying his "whimsical" challenge to bribery, graft and abuse of power charges flew in the face of the evidence.
Bo was a rising star in China's leadership circles when his career was stopped short last year by a murder scandal in which his wife Gu Kailai was convicted of poisoning a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who had been a family friend.
Bo, who was Communist Party chief of the south-western metropolis of Chongqing, has mounted an unexpectedly feisty defence since the trial began on Thursday, denouncing testimony against him by his wife as the ravings of a mad woman.
He has repeatedly said he is not guilty of any of the charges, although he has admitted to making some bad decisions and to shaming his country by his handling of his former police chief Wang Lijun, who first told Bo that Gu had probably murdered Heywood.
Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu in February last year after confronting Bo with evidence that Gu was involved in the murder. Wang was also jailed last year for covering up the crime.
Summing up the evidence on the fifth day of the trial, the state's prosecutor said Bo should not be shown leniency as he had recanted admissions of guilt provided ahead of the trial.
"Over the past few days of the trial, the accused Bo Xilai has not only flatly denied a vast amount of conclusive evidence and facts of his crimes, he has also repudiated his pre-trial written testimony and materials," the court cited the prosecutor as saying.
"We take this opportunity to remind Bo Xilai: the facts of the crimes are objective, and can't be shifted around on your whim," it said, without saying which of the four prosecutors had made the remarks.
The trial has heard many salacious allegations against Bo, with transcripts, although these are probably highly edited, being carried on the court's official microblog.
The prosecution has alleged that Bo took more than 20 million yuan (2.1 million pounds) in bribes from two businessmen, embezzled another 5 million yuan from a government building project, and abused his power in trying to cover up Gu's crime.
Details have been presented of a villa on the French Riviera bought for the Bo family by businessman Xu Ming, who also paid for foreign trips by Bo and Gu's only son, Bo Guagua, offering a glimpse into the lifestyles of China's elite politicians.
Bo said that he had initially admitted to Communist Party anti-corruption investigators that he received bribes as he had been "under psychological pressure".
Bo also said he been framed by one of the men accused of bribing him, businessman Tang Xiaolin, who he called a "mad dog".
The prosecutor said Bo's lack of contrition would count against him.
"The severeness of the accused's crimes, and that he refused to admit guilt, don't match the circumstances of leniency, and (he) must be severely punished in accordance with the law."
Despite Bo's gutsy defence, a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion as China's courts are controlled by the Communist Party. State media, which speaks for the party, has already all but condemned him.
Bo could theoretically be given the death penalty for the charges, though many observers say that is unlikely as the party will not want to make a martyr of a man whose left-leaning social welfare policies won much popular support.
(Writing by Ben Blanchard)
(Reuters) - A colossal wildfire raging across the western edge of Yosemite National Park swept further into the park on Sunday and forced the evacuation of some its camps due to heavy smoke, according to a park spokesman.
The blaze on Sunday had come within 2 miles (3.2 km) of a key reservoir that supplies most of San Francisco's water.
The so-called Rim Fire, which has burned 134,000 acres (54,000 hectares), caused the closure of the White Wolf area of the park on its western side, said Yosemite spokesman Tom Medema. Thirteen of 74 camps were occupied and evacuated, he said.
The flames had consumed 15,000 acres (4,850 hectares) within Yosemite, a park known for its waterfalls, giant sequoia groves and other scenic wonders, by Sunday afternoon, up from just over 12,000 acres in the morning, he said.
"There's no eminent risk from the fire but the smoke impact is so heavy that we're evacuating those areas," Medema said.
He did not know how many people were evacuated but said that one of the camps had 25 occupants.
Officials said they have no plans to shut down the entire park or its top attractions.
The fire was threatening power and water supplies to San Francisco, about 200 miles (320 km) to the west. On Sunday, it moved to within 2 miles of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which serves 85 percent of San Francisco with water, according to San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tyrone Jue.
The fire had been 4 miles (6.4 km) from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir the day before.
Jue said reservoir water remained clear on Sunday, despite threats of ash contamination.
"There are strike teams and crews in place right now to assist with fire protection" near the reservoir, Jue said.
The fire also passed through two power structures that help supply San Francisco's public facilities with electricity. Utility crews planned to make repairs on Sunday, Jue said.
The utility commission has been drawing on power reserves and purchasing electricity since Monday due to the downed power structures.
Jue said San Francisco power has not been disrupted.
EYE ON THE WIND
The fire had grown by 9,000 acres (3,640 hectares) by Sunday morning. It has produced dangerous weather patterns by fuelling thunderous pyrocumulus clouds that can alter the wind direction rapidly, potentially trapping fire-fighters, forest officials said. Smoke columns are rising more than 30,000 feet (9 km), said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dick Fleishman.
"That's a real watch-out situation for our fire-fighters when they see that kind of activity, they know that the wind could actually move that fire right back on them," Fleishman said. "That's been happening every afternoon."
Started on August 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest, the fire remained largely unchecked with extreme terrain and increased wind hampering efforts at containment, Medema said. Seven percent of the wildfire is now contained, he said.
The fire is consuming brush, oaks and pines and has threatened some giant sequoias in the park, Medema said.
Officials have closed parts of the park's north-western edge throughout the week, including the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir area, Lake Eleanor, Lake Cherry and the Tuolumne and Merced giant sequoia groves.
The fire was still 20 miles (32 km) from Yosemite Valley, the park's main tourist centre, Medema said Sunday morning. More than 2,800 fire-fighters were on the front lines on Sunday.
California Governor Jerry Brown on Friday declared a state of emergency for San Francisco, saying the fire had damaged the electrical infrastructure serving the city and forced the Public Utilities Commission to shut down power lines.
The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir provides water to 2.6 million customers in the San Francisco area and Brown in his declaration said the city's water supply could be affected if the fire harms the reservoir, most likely by contaminating its water with ash.
San Francisco could draw on water from neighbours if the supply is compromised, Jue said.
Yosemite, one of the nation's major tourist destinations, attracted nearly 4 million visitors last year. The park has been posting updates and alerts on its website. (http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm)
The blaze in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains is now the fastest-moving of 50 large wildfires raging across the drought-parched U.S. West. The blazes have strained resources and prompted fire managers to open talks with Pentagon commanders and Canadian officials about possible reinforcements.
A 111,000-acre (44,920-hctare) fire near the resort town of Sun Valley in central Idaho was 82 percent contained on Sunday as the number of fire-fighters assigned to the blaze was reduced to several hundred from a high of 1,800, officials said.
At its height a week ago, the blaze forced the evacuation of 2,250 homes in upscale developments in a scenic river valley known for a world-class ski resort and for premier hiking and biking trails that wind through the Sawtooth Mountains.
The Rim Fire had destroyed 11 homes, 1,000 outbuildings and four commercial properties by Sunday.
Evacuation advisories were lifted for roughly 2,500 residences in two Tuolumne County communities in California on Saturday, but at least 2,000 households were under evacuation advisories, Fleishman said.
The 2013 fire season has already drained U.S. Forest Service fire suppression and emergency funds, causing the agency to redirect $600 million meant for other projects like campground and trail maintenance and thinning of trees to reduce wildfire risks, agency spokesman Mike Ferris has said.
(Corrects the number of outbuildings destroyed in paragraph 28 to 1,000 from 12)
BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.N. weapons experts are due on Monday to inspect a site where poison gas killed many hundreds of people in Damascus suburbs, amid calls from Western capitals for military action to punish the world's worst apparent chemical weapons attack in 25 years.
Syria agreed on Sunday to allow the inspectors to visit the site. The United States and its allies say evidence has been destroyed by government shelling of the area over the past five days, and the Syrian offer to allow inspectors came too late.
Washington has faced calls for action in response to Wednesday's attack, which came a year after President Barack Obama declared use of chemical weapons to be a "red line" which would require a firm response.
Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria's 2-1/2-year-old conflict and U.S. officials stressed that he has yet to make a decision on how to respond. A senior senator, Republican Bob Corker, said he believed Obama would ask Congress for authorisation to use force when lawmakers return from summer recess next month.
Secretary of State John Kerry said in a round of phone calls to his foreign counterparts that there was "very little doubt" the Syrian government had gassed its own citizens.
The State Department said Kerry emphasised this in calls to the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Canada as well as to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia, a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has suggested rebels may have been behind the chemical attack and said it would be a "tragic mistake" to jump to conclusions over who was responsible.
The White House said Obama and French President Francois Hollande "discussed possible responses by the international community".
British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that "such an attack demanded a firm response from the international community," Cameron's office said.
Syria watchers said the government's decision to allow the inspections may have been an attempt to stave off intervention.
"My view is that the Syrian government's apparent agreement to the U.N. inspection has been triggered by the growing possibility of military action," said Malcolm Chalmers, Research Director at the Britain's Royal United Services Institute.
"I think that is why they are doing it."
In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague said evidence of a chemical attack could have already been destroyed by subsequent artillery shelling in the areas or degraded in the days following the strike.
"We have to be realistic now about what the U.N. team can achieve," he told reporters.
CEASEFIRE DURING INSPECTIONS
The United Nations said Damascus had agreed to a ceasefire while the U.N. experts are at the site for inspections.
Syria confirmed it had agreed to allow access to the inspectors, who arrived in Syria to investigate smaller chemical weapons allegations just three days before the huge incident, which occurred before dawn after a night of heavy bombardment.
Medicins sans Frontieres said at least 355 people were reported dead in three hospitals from symptoms of poisoning. Assad's opponents have given death tolls ranging from 500 to well over 1,000.
The experts' mandate is to find out whether chemical weapons were used, not to assign blame, but the evidence they collect, for example about the missile used, can provide a strong indication about the identity of the party responsible.
If the U.N. team obtains independent evidence, it could be easier to build an international diplomatic case for intervention. Former weapons investigators say every hour matters.
The team has been waiting in a Damascus luxury hotel a few miles from the site of what appears to have been the world's worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein's forces gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.
Syria's information minister said any U.S. military action would "create a ball of fire that will inflame the Middle East".
He said Damascus had evidence chemical arms were used by rebels fighting to topple Assad, not by his government. Western states say they believe the rebels lack access to poison gas or weapons that could deliver it.
Assad's closest ally Iran, repeating Obama's own previous rhetoric, said the United States should not cross a "red line" by attacking Syria.
Two and a half years since the start of a war that has already killed more than 100,000 people, the United States and its allies have yet to take direct action, despite long ago saying Assad must be removed from power.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Christopher Wilson)
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