Senate confirms Jack Lew as new treasury secretary

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The full U.S. Senate confirmed Jack Lew as the country's new treasury secretary by a vote of 71-26.

Lew, 57, who was nominated for the post by President Barack Obama in January, had served as White House chief of staff since early 2012.

He will replace Timothy Geithner, who had resigned on Jan. 20 after four years at the helm of the department.

There were no surprises in the confirmation vote and Lew was comfortably approved, receiving the support of the Democratic majority in the upper house as well as the votes of almost 20 Republicans.

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Pope holds last public audience at Vatican

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Pope Benedict XVI held his last general audience at the Vatican, a day before he steps down from the papacy.

About 200,000 people turned out to bid farewell to the pontiff, who assured the faithful that his heart was "filled with thanksgiving to God who ever watches over his Church and her growth in faith and love."

The pope, who turns 86 in two months, announced on Feb. 11 that he planned to step down from the papacy on the last day of this month, becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

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Mexican union boss charged with racketeering

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The leader of Mexico's powerful SNTE teachers union learned that she and two associates face racketeering charges in connection with the alleged embezzlement of $157 million in union funds.

Elba Esther Gordillo was informed of the charges during a hearing inside the Santa Marta Acatitla prison on the outskirts of Mexico City, where she spent the night following her arrest.

The arraignment, which reporters followed via closed-circuit from another area of the prison, was broadcast live on national television.

The SNTE boss, along with co-defendants Isaias Gallardo and Jose Manuel Diaz, is to be held for at least 72 hours before the court addresses the question of bail.

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At least 19 dead in fire in India

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At least 19 people died and three others were injured in a fire at a paper warehouse in Calcutta, an Indian police official told Efe.

The fire broke out about 3:50 a.m. in a central business area of the city, according to an official with the local police, who added that the blaze had been extinguished.

The four-story building where the fire started "has not been searched completely by the emergency teams, and so the number of dead or injured could rise," said the officer, who asked not to be identified.

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Acclaimed pianist Van Cliburn dies

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Classical pianist Van Cliburn, known for his triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition that helped to calm down passions in the Cold War and made him a star, died after a battle with bone cancer. He was 78.

The musician died at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, surrounded by loved ones, his publicist and close friend Mary Lou Falcone said.

Cliburn, then 23, attained fame by winning the first edition of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, held in 1958, just six months after the Soviet Union shocked Washington by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik.

That success led him to perform in numerous concerts all over the country and resulted in his being featured on the cover of Time magazine, which proclaimed him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

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Cuban dissidents hope to build mass organization

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Former political prisoners and prominent dissident Guillermo Fariñas announced here the creation of a new group that seeks to become a "dynamic mass organization" and achieve greater unity within the opposition in Cuba.

The new organization will take the name of the existing Union Patriotica de Cuba (Patriotic Union of Cuba), or Unpacu, headed to date by Jose Daniel Ferrer and which will now merge with Fariñas' Fantu group.

Fariñas, 2010 recipient of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize, said that the new Unpacu aspires to be a model in the face of the tradition of would-be strongmen "that has characterized Cuban politics" and it will be open to all members of the peaceful opposition who are ready to embrace teamwork.

The new Unpacu will have a "coordinating council" comprised of Fariñas, Ferrer and other former political prisoners along with Elizardo Sanchez, the spokesman for the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, among others.

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17 Die in Taliban strike in Afghanistan

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Seventeen people died in a Taliban attack on a security outpost in the eastern Afghan province of Ghazni, the provincial governor told Efe.

The attack occurred Tuesday night in the Andar district, Musa Akbarzada said.

"Ten members of the local police force and seven civilians were killed while they slept at the installation," the governor said.

Authorities launched an investigation and detained some of the guards to question them about why they did not capture any of the insurgents who attacked the base.

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Shooting in Switzerland leaves 3 dead

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The man who opened fire on his workmates, killing two, at a wood-processing firm in the central Swiss town of Menznau was 42 years old and had worked for years at the facility, authorities said.

The shooter is among the fatalities, although authorities did not specify the circumstances of his death in the incident at the Kronospan facility.

At a press conference, police and Kronospan representatives said that the assailant fired on his colleagues with a pistol, killing two of them and wounding seven others, five of them seriously.

He began firing into the workshops around 9 a.m. and continued shooting people along the passage leading to the cafeteria.

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EFE