Psychiatric exam ordered for man who attempted kidnapping in Montreal

 

MONTREAL – A 51-year-old man involved in an alleged child abduction will remain in custody for the next 30 days as he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation.

This will determine if he could be held criminally responsible for a bizarre attempted kidnapping in an Outremont park on Wednesday.

Chiheb Battikh appeared in court on Thursday afternoon, but said little as his lawyer requested the evaluation, to be carried out at the Phillippe Pinel Institute.

 

He appeared shocked when he was informed that he would not be liberated for at least a month.

His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 18, 2013.

Charges against Battikh include attempted kidnapping, holding, assault with a weapon (reportedly a Taser) and possession of a weapon.

He is alleged to have snatched a 3-year-old child (who cannot be identified) in F.X. Garneau park, near the corner of Côte Ste. Catherine Rd. and Outremont Ave., about 4 p.m. on Wednesday.

 

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The child’s father, 48, was among several people who successfully gave chase after Battikh allegedly grabbed the tot and ran, Sûreté du Quebec Constable Dany Richer said Thursday morning.

The suspect managed to go “several metres” with the child before he was intercepted, wrestled down and held for police, Richer said.

“Other citizens came to help,” the police spokesperson added, without providing further details.

“Investigators have been able to determine that the suspect targeted the family … but the family did not know the suspect.”

Both the child and the father “are in a good condition,” and did not sustain any serious injuries, he added.

Crown prosecutor Sylvie Lemieux told reporters following Battikh’s arraignment that there is ample evidence that the kidnapping was carefully planned.

He made a declaration, she said, that suggested the attack was planned over a significant period of time.

Asked if Battikh had hoped to collect a ransom from the child’s family, Lemieux said it appears that was the case.

 

Teachers carry concealed weapons in tiny Texas town as US school safety debate heats up

HARROLD, Texas – In the tiny Texas town of Harrold, children and their parents don’t give much thought to safety at the community’s lone school – mostly because some of the teachers are carrying concealed weapons.

The nearest sheriff’s office is 30 minutes away, and people tend to know – and trust – one another. So the school board voted to let teachers bring guns to school.

“We don’t have money for a security guard, but this is a better solution,” Superintendent David Thweatt said. “A shooter could take out a guard or officer with a visible, holstered weapon, but our teachers have master’s degrees, are older and have had extensive training. And their guns are hidden. We can protect our children.”

In the awful aftermath of last week’s Connecticut elementary school shooting, lawmakers in a growing number of states – including Oklahoma, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota and Oregon – have said they will consider laws allowing teachers and school administrators to carry firearms at school.

Texas law bans guns in schools unless the school has given written authorization. Arizona and six other states have similar laws with exceptions for people who have licenses to carry concealed weapons.

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Harrold’s school board voted unanimously in 2007 to allow employees to carry weapons. After obtaining a state concealed-weapons permit, each employee who wants to carry a weapon must be approved by the board based on his or her personality and reaction to a crisis, Thweatt said.

Employees also must undergo training in crisis intervention and hostage situations. And they must use bullets that minimize the risk of ricochet, similar to those carried by air marshals on planes.

CaRae Reinisch, who lives in the nearby community of Elliott, said she took her children out of a larger school and enrolled them in Harrold two years ago, partly because she felt they would be safer in a building with armed teachers.

“I think it’s a great idea for trained teachers to carry weapons,” Reinish said. “But I hate that it has come to this.”

The superintendent won’t disclose how many of the school’s 50 employees carry weapons, saying that revealing that number might jeopardize school security.

The school has 103 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Most of them rarely think about who is carrying a gun.

“This is the first time in a long time that I’ve thought about it,” said Matt Templeton, the principal’s 17-year-old son. “And that’s because of what happened” in Connecticut.

Opponents insist that having more people armed at a school, especially teachers or administrators who aren’t trained to deal with crime on a daily basis, could lead to more injuries and deaths. They point to an August shooting outside the Empire State Building, where police killed a laid-off clothing designer after he fatally shot his former colleague. Nine bystanders were wounded by police gunfire, ricochets and fragments.

“You are going to put teachers, people teaching 6-year-olds in a school, and expect them to respond to an active-shooter situation?” said Ladd Everitt, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, who called the idea of arming teachers “madness.”

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said focusing on arming teachers distracts from the “real things” that could help prevent a school shooting “and at worse it furthers a dangerous conversation that only talks about guns as protection without a discussion about the serious risks they present.”

As the debate continues, Harrold’s school plans to leave its policy unchanged.

“Nothing is 100 per cent at all. … But hope makes for a terrible plan, hoping that (a tragedy) won’t happen,” Thweatt said. “My question is: What have you done about it? How have you planned?”

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Associated Press writers Juan A. Lozano in Houston and Nomaan Merchant in Dallas contributed to this report.

Some see 2013 as start of something good for Canada’s middling economy

OTTAWA – Almost four years removed from the start of the so-called economic recovery, 2013 could be the year Canada finally leaves the legacy of the Great Recession behind.

It may not look like it from the numbers.

With few exceptions, most economists see the upcoming year as not much better than what happened in 2012, when the pillars of global expansion came tumbling down like so many dominoes.

Says Arlene Kish of IRS Global Insight: “It is more like the Canadian economy will be able to keep its head up by treading water while waiting out external global winds.”

And CIBC chief executive Avery Shenfeld, who was recently voted the most accurate forecaster of the past two years, says the time for Canada to set sail from a few years of dead calm is 2014’s story.

Canadians should hope Shenfeld doesn’t win the accuracy award next year because he is predicting the country’s gross domestic product output will only expand by 1.7 per cent, marking the third consecutive year of losing altitude in the growth statistics since 2010.

That’s the year the economy shot out of Great Recession with a 3.2 per cent spurt. Since then, the numbers have trended downward – 2.6 in 2011, about 2.0 in 2012, and according to the latest consensus, 1.8 in 2013.

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So where’s the good news in all this?

It’s that even the pessimists among the private sector forecasters say the second half of 2013 will start resembling the economy Canadians have been expecting for several years.

For the optimists, solid growth and job creation arrive even earlier.

“I think it’s certainly possible,” says Doug Porter, who was recently named the Bank of Montreal’s new chief economist – if Canada and the world manage to skirt the potholes.

The first crater is just around the corner. The U.S. Congress and White House have to work out a fiscal deal that prevents government action from sabotaging the economy. Pothole number two is Europe, which will remain a major risk for years.

“Ultimately to really get rolling we need a much healthier U.S. economy and I do think things are starting to fall in place for the U.S.,” Porter says.

“Their housing sector is turning the corner, auto sales are getting back to almost normal … and if that happens, then that would be a huge positive for the Canadian economy.”

The Royal Bank, among the glass half-full crowd, sees policy-makers steering clear of cliffs, fiscal and otherwise, with the result being a stronger global performance. And it sees the resultant boost drawing early dividends.

The RBC has Canada’s economy picking up steam in each of the first three quarters of 2013, starting with a 2.4 per cent gain in the first quarter and peaking at 3.4 in the third, the summer months. Overall, 2013 will average 2.4, mostly because of the weak handoff, and 2014 expands to 2.8 per cent.

RBC chief economist Craig Wright doesn’t see this as particularly strong growth, given that typically recoveries can generate rates as high as five and six per cent. But in comparison to the last few years, it constitutes solid progress.

The reason it won’t be more robust, says Wright, is that while exports provide a boost as the global economy strengthens, the domestic side goes into hibernation for awhile.

Canadian households have spent their limit the past few years, he explains, so their contribution is likely to cool going forward, led by a much more tame housing sector.

TD Bank chief economist Craig Alexander also sees the U.S. fiscal cliff negotiations as key. If there is a deal between the Democrats and Republicans, about four percentage points of stimulus – in terms of spending and tax cuts – will stay on the books another year.

But the importance of a political deal goes beyond the direct aid to business and workers, he says.

Some have argued only fear and lack of confidence has kept trillions of dollars in U.S. corporate treasuries – what Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney called “dead money” – from being unleashed, triggering a new growth cycle.

“If you had a bipartisan deal you could have remarkably strong economic growth in the United States because you would unlock business confidence, which could allow very strong balance sheets to be put to work, creating jobs and economic growth,” he explained.

On the other hand, if it went the other way, even the most pessimistic of forecasters would be embarrassed by how rosy his outlook had been.

Economists say an example of what could be in store is to consider the stock market crash that occurred in the summer of 2011 when Republicans threatened to hold up extending the U.S. debt limit. Next year’s “fiscal cliff” repercussions would be scarier and longer lasting, they say.

It’s one reason Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says he’s “relatively optimistic” it won’t happen. “I think there’s a keen realization of the seriousness of the issue.”

Early on, as Canada was emerging from the slump, economists warned this recovery would be different, leading the CIBC’s Shenfeld to label it “the Great Disappointment.”

Their reasoning was that the 2008-09 crisis wasn’t caused by fatigue or central banks hiking interest rates to control inflation. So cutting rates wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work dramatically.

At the centre of the crisis was years of excessive spending, particularly on borrowed money, which only years of saving could reverse.

That wasn’t so much the case in Canada, but as a trading nation, Canada paid the price when its foreign customers stopped buying what it was selling. They’re still not buying. Exports have actually contracted in the past year and overall, are still below where they were in 2007.

But economists say winds are changing on that front, particularly south of the border, where households have reduced debt and built up their net worth to near pre-slump levels. As well, China, which went through a particularly soft patch this year, is expected to put in a more solid performance in 2013.

Barring another major setback, those two sources of external strength will help lift Canada’s economy. The question is will it be this year?

Discover Financial Services 4th-qtr. net income climbs, writes off fewer unpaid balances

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Discover Financial Services on Thursday reported higher earnings for its fiscal fourth quarter, as users of its namesake credit card stepped up purchases and the company wrote off fewer unpaid balances.

Even so, the Riverwoods, Ill.-based company’s results fell short of Wall Street expectations, and investors sent its shares down 3.7 per cent in afternoon trading.

Discover, the nation’s sixth-largest credit card issuer, said total loans, credit card loans and Discover card sales volume increased 6 per cent in the quarter, which coincided with the tail end of the back-to-school shopping season and the ramp up to the December holidays – key periods when consumers traditionally spend more.

Discover card sales volume increased to $26.5 billion, while credit card loans at the end of the quarter totalled $49.6 billion. Private student loans rose 6 per cent, while personal loans climbed 24 per cent, the company said.

“Our strong receivables and sales growth results demonstrate the effectiveness of our marketing programs, consumers’ preference for cash rewards and our acceptance and awareness initiatives,” Chairman and CEO David Nelms said during a conference call with analysts.

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While Discover’s customers racked up more debt, more of them paid off credit card balances on time. The delinquency rate on credit-card loans over 30 days past due was 1.86 per cent, an improvement of 53 basis points from a year earlier. The rate of charge-offs, when the company writes off unpaid credit card balances, dropped to a historic low of 2.29 per cent.

“While the continued improvement in credit appears to be nearing an end, we don’t believe we are at a point where charge-offs are poised to rise significantly,” Nelms said.

Nationwide the rate of credit card payments at least 90 days overdue edged up in the third quarter to 0.75 per cent, according to credit reporting agency TransUnion. The rate is coming off historically low levels, however.

Discover has traditionally had one of the lowest rates for default and delinquency in the credit card industry, the result of tighter lending standards and close monitoring of problem accounts.

The company has reported improvement in its customers’ default and late-payment rates since the Great Recession, as cardholders moved to pay down debt and boost savings.

Late-payment rates tend to creep higher in the fall, particularly as cardholders spend more money on holiday shopping, travel and other expenses. The company said that seasonal factor led to a slight increase in its credit card loan delinquency rate between the third and fourth quarter.

While Discover’s rates for late payments and defaults remain low, the company has been making more loans. As a result, it has been setting aside more funds to cover potential loan losses.

In the September-to-November quarter, Discover increased its provision for loan losses by 6 per cent to $338 million, noting that was somewhat offset by a drop in the number of unpaid credit card balances that had to be written off.

Meanwhile Discover’s payment-services business, which competes with Visa and MasterCard, saw dollar volume increase 13 per cent in the latest quarter.

In a client note Thursday, RBC Capital Markets analyst Jason Arnold said Discover is benefiting from increased acceptance of its cards and favourable credit trends.

“We remain very enthused by Discover’s fundamental position and believe the company remains well positioned for loan and (earnings per share) growth,” wrote Arnold, who has a $50 price target on the stock.

For the period ended Nov. 30, Discover earned $541 million, or $1.07 per share. That compares with $513 million, or 95 cents per share, a year earlier.

Analysts surveyed by FactSet expected earnings of $1.12 per share.

Revenue climbed 11 per cent to $2 billion, after interest expense. Wall Street forecast $1.96 billion.

Also on Thursday, Discover declared a dividend of 14 cents per share. It will be paid on Jan. 17 to shareholders of record on Jan. 3.

Discover shares fell $1.53, or 3.8 per cent, to $38.24 in afternoon trading. The stock is up nearly 60 per cent this year.

Yellow Media pays down $1.5 billion in debt, continuing digital transformation

MONTREAL – The publisher of the Yellow Pages directories has about $900 million in remaining debt after a recapitalization plan that it hopes will be part of its transformation to a digital media and marketing company.

Parent company Yellow Media Ltd. (TSX:Y) said Thursday it cut its debt by about $1.5 billion under the plan.

Total debt before the restructuring was more than $2 billion.

“It was a difficult year for all of our stakeholders, but this is a great outcome for the company,” president and CEO Marc Tellier said.

“It removes the uncertainty for advertisers, for employees. It allows us the flexibility to focus on our digital transformation,” Tellier said in an interview.

Yellow Media owns a number of publications including the Yellow Pages print directories, YellowPages.ca, Canada411.ca and RedFlagDeals杭州龙凤.

Tellier said the company has about 320,000 customers, of which 61 per cent advertise online.

Yellow Media also builds websites for small- and medium-sized businesses and provides such services as email marketing, search engine marketing, video production and mobile advertising.

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Last winter, Yellow Media shook up its board and brought in experts in restructuring and corporate finance to help deal with its debt. The company also cancelled its shareholder dividend.

The recapitalization plan was recently approved by Quebec Superior Court after getting the go ahead from Yellow Media’s debtholders, shareholders and convertible debenture holders.

The restructuring saw the company’s various creditors exchange their debt for a combination of cash, new secured and unsecured debt as well as new shares and warrants in Yellow Media depending on their holdings.

The company’s shareholders also received new shares in the company and warrants.

Tellier said he expects it to take roughly 18 to 36 months to complete Yellow Media’s transformation.

“We’re not replacing the print declines fast enough with the new online revenues, but as online continues to be a bigger part of the business, we feel good about the strategy.”

The company – which printed its first directory in 1908 when it was still part of Bell Canada – has had to adapt to consumers find information about local businesses online and on mobile devices.

Tellier said on annualized basis about 34 per cent, or $370 million, of Yellow Media’s revenues are digital.

The company recently announced it’s adding about 170 Montreal-based information and digital technology positions, but about 125 clerical positions will be moved to other company offices across Canada from Montreal.

Yellow Media also has an expanded partnership with Yahoo! Canada for local search results.

In its recent third-quarter results, Yellow Media earned $24 million or four cents per share. The profit was a turnaround from the same time last year when Yellow Media took a huge writedown on assets that resulted in a loss of $2.8 billion.

Adjusted earnings were $77.1 million or 15 cents per share in the latest quarter. That compared with $69.2 million or 14 cents per share in adjusted earnings last year.

But, revenues fell 17 per cent year over year to $267.7 million from $323.4 million as a result of lower print revenues, discontinued directories and the sale of an online classified ad site in November 2011.

The new shares in Yellow Media Ltd. traded for $7.50 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Neptune rejects U.S. class-action lawsuit from shareholders over deadly explosion

LAVAL, Que. – Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc. says it will fight a U.S. class-action lawsuit from shareholders over a powerful explosion and fire at its industrial plant in Sherbrooke, Que., that killed three and injured 18 last month.

The Quebec-based company said Thursday that the lawsuit is “completely without merit” and that it has “substantial and meritorious legal and factual defences, which Neptune intends to pursue vigorously.”

The law firm representing shareholders claims, among other things, that Neptune had installed larger acetone storage tanks at the Sherbrooke production plant that facilitated “dangerously high levels” of of the chemical at the site.

Neptune (TSX:NTB) said Thursday the amount of acetone levels stored on-site or used in the production of its krill oil products never exceeded levels permitted by the province. It also obtained the required construction permits for the plant expansion and was in the process of obtaining the required environmental permits for the expansion.

It repeated that a Quebec Ministry of Environment notice received on Nov. 16 alleging environmental non-compliance related to equipment acquisitions and the plant expansion, not acetone levels.

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The incident occurred in Quebec’s Eastern Townships at a facility which produces health products derived from marine life.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York alleges violations of the Securities Exchange Act.

The complaint was filed on behalf of the purchasers of Neptune stock between Dec. 12, 2011 and Nov. 18, 2012. The period included a public offering of Neptune shares on Sept. 25, 2012, at $4.10.

The stock is now worth about half that, trading at about $2.05 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

The firm representing shareholders, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, that througout the relevant period Neptune “lauded the future benefits” of an expansion at the production plant and failed to disclose several adverse facts.

Neptune says it continues to work on its plan to resume its neutraceutical operations and certain levels of sales of its products to customers in the short term, while reconstructing a plant using the expansion facility and equipment that doesn’t appear to have suffered significant damage in the explosion.

The company has said it expects insurance coverage would likely be enough to fund most of the costs for construction of a new plant that could be operational in six to nine months.

Chelsea drawn to play Sparta Prague in Europa League last 32; Zenit faces Liverpool

NYON, Switzerland – Chelsea’s reward for failing to defend the Champions League title was being drawn on Thursday to play Sparta Prague in the last 32 of the second-tier Europa League.

Zenit St. Petersburg, the 2008 UEFA Cup winner, will face Liverpool, and Tottenham will play Lyon.

Defending champion Atletico Madrid, which beat Chelsea in the Super Cup in August, was paired with Rubin Kazan.

Three-time winner Inter Milan will play Cluj, and Ajax plays Steaua Bucharest in a meeting of former European champions.

The draw included eight third-place teams from the Champions League groups, and 24 which advanced from Europa League groups.

First-leg matches are played on Feb. 14, and return games on Feb. 21.

UEFA also drew the last-16 pairings, putting Inter and Tottenham on course to meet again after thrilling Champions League group-stage matches two years ago. Chelsea and Ajax could meet in March if both win through their last-32 matches.

Zenit, which also started in the Champions League, was content to get an attractive opponent.

“Liverpool is one of the best European clubs. It is one of the most difficult draws but we are happy,” Zenit chief executive Maxim Mitrofanov told The Associated Press.

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The first leg in Russia will likely be played in around minus-10 Celsius (14 F) temperatures, though Mitrofanov played down the potential advantage.

“We are also a very technical team so we also need a good pitch,” he said.

Atletico seeks a third title in four seasons in the Europa League, which has often struggled in the shadow cast by the Champions League.

“We’re happy to be champions,” Atletico director Clemente Villaverde said. “I think there are very, very important teams in it. Rubin Kazan is a very difficult team.”

UEFA President Michel Platini showed his support by meeting with officials from the 32 clubs, arriving after the Champions League last-16 draw ceremony was completed.

Inter ambassador Luis Figo also defended the competition, which this season offers one-sixth of the prize money paid to clubs in UEFA’s signature event.

“Of course it’s a prestigious competition for us,” Figo told AP. “You just have to look at the teams in the competition and see it’s difficult to reach the final.”

The Italian club’s route to the final in Amsterdam will have to go through England or France.

“Lyon are a club with many trophies and are a top team,” Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas said. “It’s a huge fixture and will fuel excitement.”

Tottenham’s group-stage rival Lazio, which was paired with Borussia Moenchengladbach, still awaits details of UEFA disciplinary charges after Italian fans directed abuse at the English club’s traditional Jewish following inside the Olympic Stadium in Rome.

UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino warned clubs to curb unsporting and racist behaviour: “Don’t let it spoil the party,” he told officials.

The Zenit vs. Liverpool matches are a likely focus for debate about racism.

Some of the Russian clubs fans this week urged the club not to sign black or gay players, while Liverpool forward Luis Suarez served an eight-match ban last season for directing racial comments at Manchester United defender Patrice Evra.

“Yes, we probably have some fans who have different opinions about racism,” Mitrofanov told AP. “But we are here playing football and we are against racism. Playing in this competition will help.”

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani being treated in Germany for after stroke

BAGHDAD – Iraqi President Jalal Talabani arrived in Germany on Thursday for further medical treatment after suffering a stroke, leaving Baghdad without an influential mediator able to bridge the country’s complex ethnic and sectarian rifts.

The ailing 79-year-old president was rushed to a hospital in the Iraqi capital late Monday because of what was described as a medical emergency.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press on Thursday that doctors have determined the president had a “very serious stroke,” and that he is showing signs of improvement.

“He is starting to regain his senses. He is able to feel pain, and this is a sign of progress,” Zebari said.

Talabani’s spokesman, Nasser al-Ani, said the president is able to move some of his limbs and communicate with simple signals, but is unable to speak.

The decision to move Talabani to Germany was made after his condition was stabilized and he began to show signs of improvement, according to Iraqi officials.

Vice-President Khudier al-Khuzaie, and Arab Shiite, will temporarily assume Talabani’s duties during his absence, Zebari said.

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Iraq’s parliament has the authority to choose a new president should Talabani’s office become vacant. The Kurds would likely insist on retaining the presidency to maintain the government’s power-sharing balance.

Iraq at one point had three vice-presidents at a time, though one resigned last year and the other, Sunni politician Tariq al-Hashemi, fled the country after arrest warrants were issued against him.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Talabani arrived on Thursday morning.

“I can confirm that the Iraqi President Talabani is being treated in Germany. I send him heartfelt wishes for a quick and full recovery,” Westerwelle said. The Foreign Ministry would not elaborate.

Berlin’s Charite hospital, the German capital’s largest, confirmed Thursday that Talabani had been admitted to its Virchow Clinic but wouldn’t give any details on his condition nor what he was being treated for, citing patient confidentiality.

In a statement on its official website, Talabani’s office said the treatment he underwent in Baghdad “provided the right conditions for the transfer of (Talabani) out of the country for follow-up treatment in Germany.” It gave no further details on his condition.

“His health condition is stable and much better,” said Firyad Rawndouzi, a senior member of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.

The presidency of Iraq is largely a ceremonial role. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the head of government.

Talabani is overweight and has undergone several medical procedures in recent years, including heart surgery in 2008 and knee replacement surgery this year. He has previously received treatment in Germany.

Although his official powers are limited, Talabani is a senior Kurdish leader and has been a symbol of unity in Iraq. He has frequently used his position to mediate among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, as well smaller minority groups.

Before he fell ill, Talabani was actively involved in trying to mediate in a crisis between Baghdad and the Kurds, who have their own fighters and considerable autonomy in their enclave in northern Iraq. The two sides last month moved additional troops into disputed areas along the Kurds’ self-rule region, prompting fears that fighting could break out.

Last week, Talabani brokered a deal that calls on both sides to eventually withdraw troops from the contested areas, though there was no timetable for how soon the drawdown might take place.

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Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Adam Schreck and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

Teacher slain in Connecticut shooting while trying to protect students mourned

NEWTOWN, Conn. – A teacher who authorities said died trying to protect her students in the Connecticut school shooting that left 28 people dead was laid to rest Thursday.

Anne Marie Murphy, 52, was remembered as a teacher who “brought together a community, a nation, a world, now awed by her own life and death,” in a eulogy by Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

Murphy’s father, Hugh McGowan, said authorities told him that she died trying to protect her young pupils. Her body was found covering a group of children’s bodies as if to shield them, McGowan said.

“Like Jesus, Annie laid down her life for her friends,” Dolan said. “Like Jesus, Annie’s life and death brings light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death.”

About 15 people arrived at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Katonah, New York, in a yellow school bus with “Newtown,” the name of the Connecticut town where the shooting occurred, written on its side. The church quickly filled and about 100 mourners waited outside.

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A Justice Department official said the country’s top lawyer, Attorney General Eric Holder, would visit the town Thursday to meet privately with first responders and law enforcement officials. The official requested anonymity because Holder’s visit had not been publicly announced.

At least nine funerals and wakes were held Wednesday for those who died when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza, armed with a military-style assault rifle, broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday and opened fire. He killed six teachers and 20 children, all of them 6 or 7 years old. Lanza killed his mother at her home before the attack and killed himself at the school as police closed in.

More tributes were scheduled for Friday and Saturday.

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Associated Press writer Frederic J. Frommer in Washington, Jim Fitzgerald in Katonah, New York, Christina Rexrode in New York, Helen O’Neill in Danbury, Connecticut, and David Klepper, Eilleen AJ Connelly and Tom Hays in Newtown contributed to this report.

Loonie up slightly against U.S. dollar as commodity prices slip

TORONTO – The Canadian dollar rose slightly against the U.S. dollar Thursday morning even as commodity prices pulled back despite positive economic data out of Canada and the U.S.

The loonie was up 0.05 of a cent at 101.25 cents US after earlier falling against the greenback.

Traders are waiting for news from budget negotiations in Washington. A deadline for reaching a deal is just days away.

The House of Representatives planned to move ahead on what Speaker John Boehner called “Plan B,” but President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it. A deal must be made by the end of the year to avoid sweeping tax increases and government spending cuts that many fear could drive the U.S. back into recession.

Analyst John Curran of Canadian Forex also noted that traditional risk currencies, like the Canadian dollar, are under pressure as traders engage in some year-end profit taking.

“Given the slow pace of movement on our beloved currency pair over the past few months don’t hold your breath for a quick pop higher,” he said, although thin holiday markets may provide a surprise.

“For those looking to clear up any pre-holiday requirements I suggest you do so before week’s end,” Curran said in a note.

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February oil futures lost 27 cents to US$89.71 a barrel, while February Gold prices fell $27.70 to US$1,640 an ounce and copper prices slipped seven cents to US$3.54 a pound.

Statistics Canada said average weekly earnings of non-farm payroll employees rose to $909 in October, up 0.9 per cent from September.

On a year-over-year basis, earnings were up 2.8 per cent. That reflected a number of factors, including wage growth and changes in the composition of employment by industry as well as the average number of hours worked.

Statistics Canada also reported retail sales edged up 0.7 per cent to $39.4 billion in October, the fourth straight monthly increase. In volume terms, retail sales increased 0.3 per cent, with eight of 11 subsectors reporting gains.

The U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.1 per cent over the July-September quarter as consumers spent more and state and local governments added to growth for the first time in nearly three years. But the economy is likely slowing in the current quarter.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s third and final estimate Thursday of growth for the July-September quarter was revised up from its previous estimate of a 2.7 per cent annual growth rate.

However, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week by 17,000, reversing four weeks of declines. The Labour Department reports that a seasonally adjusted 361,000 people sought unemployment aid the week ended Dec. 15, up from a revised 344,000 the week before.

Meanwhile, sales of previously occupied homes in the United States jumped to their highest level in three years last month, bolstered by steady job gains and record-low mortgage rates.

The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales rose 5.9 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million in November. That’s up from 4.76 million in October.