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Far from Carnival street fests, glitzy Rio Ball for elite

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Women in elegant, long-flowing dresses saunter on the red carpet while men in tuxedos smile broadly and wave to hundreds of people who have lined up along Rio de Janeiro’s Avenida Atlantica to have a look.

As the guests walk into the iconic Copacabana Palace Hotel, they are greeted with the rhythms of a Japanese drum ensemble and the sounds of ocean waves just across the street. Once inside, dozens of men and women in Japanese kimonos bow and say “good night.”

Welcome to Rio’s Ball, the highest of the high-end Carnival parties in the world capital of the bash.

“This event is for people who like to dress up, not just women but men too,” said Andrea Natal, general director of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. “It’s for people who don’t want to deal with dirty bathrooms and who just want a little bit of luxury.”

In stark contrast to the hundreds of hard-charging street parties across Rio that are open to anyone, the “Baile do Copa” bills itself as a fairytale event where the country’s elite — superbly dressed, sometimes in line with the ball’s theme and other times simply as standard jet-setters — can see and be seen in a hotel known for both opulence and a lengthy tradition of welcoming world leaders and stars.

It’s the kind of event where if you have to ask the price, you probably don’t belong. For those who are curious: single tickets range from $800 to $1,900, several times more than the average monthly minimum salary in Latin America’s most populous nation.

“It’s the dance of the wealthy in the most chic of hotels,” said Haroldo Costa, a Carnival historian, adding that despite the high price tag, “every year there is a fight to get tickets.”

The theme of this year’s event was “Geishas,” or Japanese artists who entertain with traditional music and dance. Picking that theme was a nod to the Japanese community in Brazil, the largest in the world outside of Japan.

Some 2 million Brazilians trace their ancestry back to Japan. Many arrived during the 20th century, and worked as poorly paid agricultural workers who labored on coffee plantations in southern Brazil.

Akemi Ono, a 48-year-old who was born in Rio to Japanese parents, said this year’s theme would be a vehicle to teach Brazilians about Japanese traditions.

“It’s a form of cultural exchange that wouldn’t be possible without events like this,” said Ono, who attended the dance dressed in a kimono.

Like any good Brazilian party, it starts late and doesn’t end until the sun comes up — on the beach, naturally. While it officially began at 10 p.m. Saturday, most of the 1,400 people began pouring in around midnight. It was not expected to end until breakfast was served in the morning.

“It may be the first and last time, but I had to do this at least once in my life,” said 67-year-old banker Cleusa Amaral.

In several halls of the hotel, pink and white fans, umbrellas and lanterns hung from the walls and ceiling. Waiters circulated with champagne, beer and any other spirits that guest could think of to ask for. Three halls were dedicated to huge spreads of food that included: myriad types of sushi rolls, shrimp, quinoa salads, grouper in Thai tangerine sauce and filet mignon.

John and Nancy Kennedy, Americans visiting Rio from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said they were impressed with a party that went “all out.”

“I’ve never walked a red carpet before,” said Nancy, laughing.

“It’s not exactly something we do a lot of in the Midwest,” added John.

Back outside the hotel, while guests walked in, Aline Soza looked on in awe.

“One year, I would really like to go,” said Soza, a 35-year-old flight attendant. “It’s very expensive, but I think it would be worth it.”

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Follow Peter Prengaman: www.twitter.com/peterprengaman

Why N. Korea may have used VX to kill leader’s half brother

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Was it a poorly executed assassination or did North Korea want to showcase its stockpile of banned chemical weapons?

The use of the highly toxic VX warfare agent to kill the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader has raised questions about Pyongyang’s real motives in one of the strangest killings the world has seen.

Some say North Korea, in allegedly bringing a U.N.-classified weapon of mass destruction to kill a man at a busy international airport, intended to show the world what it can do with chemical weapons, which are easily forgotten amid concerns about the country’s advancing nuclear missile technologies.

But other experts believe it’s unlikely that North Korea wanted VX to be discovered. There’s no reason for Pyongyang to risk taking another hit when it’s already under heavy international sanctions over its nuclear program. It’s also doubtful that the country would be suddenly willing to showcase its chemical weapons as a deterrent when it has never acknowledged their existence, the experts say.

For Pyongyang, killing Kim Jong Nam, who might have been seen as a potential threat to leader Kim Jong Un, would have been the clear priority that made any other consideration secondary, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

“They probably picked the deadliest chemical at their disposal because they absolutely didn’t want to fail at killing Kim Jong Nam,” Koh said. “The fallout of using VX at an international airport could turn out to be significant for the country, but I doubt that the North Koreans thoroughly thought this through.”

North Korea has denied involvement in the Feb. 13 attack on Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, and also refused to confirm that it was Kim who died. Saying that one of its nationals died from a “heart stroke,” North Korea has strongly criticized the investigation by Malaysia, which has been one of its few legitimate diplomatic partners, and made repeated demands for Kim’s body.

The overwhelming presumption that North Korea’s government organized a hit job on Kim only strengthened after Malaysian police announced they found VX on his eyes and face. Analysts say it’s almost certain that the highly powerful nerve agent, which scientists say is capable of killing 500 people through skin exposure with an amount weighing as much as just two pennies, would have been sourced from North Korea’s state laboratories as its materials are tightly controlled internationally and hard to obtain.

South Korea’s military believes North Korea has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons with up to 5,000 tons that include sarin, mustard, tabun and hydrogen cyanide, in addition to V-type nerve agents.

If North Korea really did use VX to assassinate Kim, it would indicate a new level of sophistication in its handling of chemical weapons. The North Koreans probably needed to conduct many tests before figuring out the precise amount of VX that would kill Kim Jong Nam without harming the assailants or anyone else nearby in one of the world’s busiest airports.

While some Western analysts have argued through the media that North Korea might have used Kim’s assassination to draw attention to its chemical weapons, most South Korean experts doubt it.

North Korea, which has been pursuing nuclear weapons as an ultimate deterrent, has little to gain by highlighting its chemical weapons, which would only bring harsher punitive measures and put further pressure on the United States to relist the country as a state sponsor of terrorism, analysts say.

“North Korea was already under immense pressure over its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and also its human rights issues. Things will get even more complicated for Pyongyang if its chemical weapons issues are thrown into the mix,” said Chang Yong Seok, an analyst at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

Perhaps North Korea expected that its use of VX would go undetected because only a tiny amount would have been needed to kill Kim, experts say.

Or maybe using VX might have been a logical choice for North Korea because it relied on two lightly trained foreign women to do the job. North Korea would have been reluctant to directly use its own operatives when it had no plans to acknowledge its involvement. A less powerful chemical, including those needing injection devices or other equipment, would have increased the possibility of the women failing to kill Kim or would require larger dosses that might have put more lives at risk.

It’s still unclear how the two women handled the VX without contaminating themselves and others, including travelers and medical workers who handled Kim’s body.

Some analysts say that North Korea probably produced VX in the form of a binary agent, where two chemicals that aren’t separately deadly become a nerve agent when mixed together.

But a South Korean military researcher, who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters, has doubts. While it can be made as a binary agent, VX doesn’t synthesize easily, so wiping a person’s face separately with two of its component chemicals may not be a surefire way to kill him, said the researcher.

What’s more likely is that the North Koreans who allegedly organized the assassination coated the women’s hands with protective chemicals before putting VX on them, he said. Aside from the two suspects, police have also arrested a North Korean who worked at a Malaysian company and are seeking seven more North Koreans who are believed to have been involved in Kim’s death, including an embassy official and an airline employee.

“The security camera footage shows one of the women heading to the bathroom to wash her hands after attacking Kim. If she touched VX with her bare hands, she wouldn’t have had the time to do even that,” said the researcher.

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Follow Kim Tong-hyung at www.twitter.com/KimTongHyung

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Ward Chamberlin Jr., public broadcasting pioneer, dies at 95

NEW YORK (AP) — Ward B. Chamberlin Jr., who pioneered public broadcasting, led stations in New York and Washington and helped launch the career of Oscar-nominated documentarian Ken Burns, has died from complications from dementia. He was 95.

His daughter, Lyn Chamberlin, confirmed Saturday to The Associated Press that her father died Thursday in Bedford, Massachusetts.

She says in a statement that her father was “a man of indomitable spirit, vision, and enormous compassion who touched everyone who ever met him.”

Ward Chamberlin Jr. was born on August 4, 1921. He worked as the operating officer of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and had a strong role in the creation of PBS and National Public Radio. He had held executive roles at WNET/Thirteen, American Playhouse, PBS and WETA.

Large sewage spill in Tijuana, Mexico, flows north of border

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Officials in Southern California are crying foul after more than 140 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Tijuana River in Mexico and flowed north of the border for more than two weeks, according to a report.

The spill was caused Feb. 2 during rehabilitation of a sewage collector pipe and wasn’t contained until Thursday, the International Boundary and Water Commission said in its report released Friday. The river drains into the Pacific Ocean on the U.S. side.

Serge Dedina, the mayor of Imperial Beach, California, said residents of his city and other coastal communities just north of the border have complained about a growing stench.

Dedina criticized federal officials in the U.S. and Mexico for not alerting people to the spill.

“Border authorities charged with managing sewage infrastructure and reporting these spills must do better and be held accountable for this act,” Dedina said in a statement Saturday. He called for the resignation of Edward Drusina, chief of the international water commission, over his lack of attention to cross-border sewage flows.

Officials with the commission didn’t immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment Saturday.

The mayor said his office will seek an investigation into the spill and its aftermath, adding that U.S. officials “must make fixing sewage infrastructure a priority and issue of national security.”

San Diego County beaches, which typically would be closed by such a spill, already were off-limits to swimmers and surfers because of runoff as a result of recent storms, Dedina said.

Over the years, several large sewage spills on both sides of the border have worsened conditions in the Tijuana River, one of the most polluted waterways in the country, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper. Old sewage infrastructure in Tijuana and the lack of any plumbing in some residences have been blamed for the problem.