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BANGKOK — A grandson of the creator of the Red Bull energy drink has been arrested for driving a Ferrari that struck a police officer and dragged his dead body down a Bangkok street in an early-morning hit-and-run, police said Monday.

Police took Vorayuth Yoovidhya, 27, for questioning after tracing oil streaks for several blocks to his family’s gated estate in a wealthy neighborhood of the Thai capital.

He was facing charges of causing death by reckless driving and escaping an arrest by police but was released on a 500,000 baht ($15,900) bail.

— Compiled from Associated Press

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks in Natanz, Iran. Major Asian importers of Iranian oil are thumbing their noses at attempts to get them to rein in their purchases, dealing a blow to sanctions.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — In defiant swipes at its foes, Iran said Wednesday it is dramatically closer to mastering the production of nuclear fuel even as the U.S. weighs tougher pressures and Tehran’s suspected shadow war with Israel brings probes far beyond the Middle East.

Iran further struck back at the West by indicating it was on the verge of imposing a midwinter fuel squeeze to Europe in retaliation for a looming boycott of Iranian oil, but denied reports earlier in the day that six nations had already been cut off.

The uncompromising messages from Iran, however, came with a counterpoint. The official IRNA news agency said Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that Iran is ready to return to talks with the U.S. and other world powers.

The dual strategy — taking nuclear steps while proposing more talks — has become a hallmark of Iran’s dealings for years and some critics have dismissed it as a time-buying tactic. The advances claimed Wednesday could likely feed these views.

In a live TV broadcast, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was shown overseeing what was described as the first Iranian-made fuel rod inserted into a research reactor in northern Tehran. Separately, the semiofficial Fars agency reported that a “new generation” of Iranian centrifuges — used to enrich uranium toward nuclear fuel — had gone into operation at the country’s main enrichment facility at Natanz in central Iran.

In Washington, the assistant secretary of state for International Security and Nonproliferation, Tom Countryman, dismissed the Iranian claims of reaching a pivotal moment. “The announcement today by Iran has much more to do with political developments in Iran than it has to do with factual developments,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Iran’s “defiant acts” seek to “distract attention” from the damage brought by international sanctions.

Meanwhile, Iran is facing major new international complications: Accusations of bringing an apparent covert conflict with Israel to points stretching from Thailand and India to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Officials in Israel ramped up allegations that Iran was linked to international bomb plots, saying magnetic “sticky” bombs found in a Bangkok house rented by Iranians were similar to devices used against Israeli envoys in a foiled attack in Georgia on Monday and a blast in New Delhi that injured four people, including a diplomat’s wife.

“In recent days, Iran’s terror operations are being laid bare for all,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who convened his security cabinet. It included discussions about “preventive measures” against Iranian threats, said a statement from Netanyahu’s office that did not elaborate.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, called the allegations “baseless” and an attempt to push “conspiracy” theories to discredit Iran with its Asian partners, including major oil buyer India.

Iran, in turn, accused Israel of being behind clandestine attacks that have claimed the lives of at least five members of Iran’s scientific community in the past two years, including a “sticky” bomb blast that killed a director at the Natanz labs last month.

Framed photos of the five scientists were shown by Iranian TV before a speech by Ahmadinejad, who was flanked by the flags of Iran and the country’s nuclear agency.

He repeated Iran’s goal of becoming a technological beacon for the Islamic world and insisted that scientific progress is the right of all nations. Here rests one of the biggest dilemmas for the West. Iran has merged the nuclear program with its national identity and is unlikely to make any concessions without huge incentives.

“I hope we reach the point where we will be able to meet all our nuclear needs inside the country so we won’t need to extend our hand before others, specifically before the world’s dastardly people,” Ahmadinejad said. “For a gentleman, for a chivalrous nation, the most difficult moment is when he has a need to ask (for something) from a dastardly person.”

Iran also used the announcements as a carefully crafted show of unity.

The families of the slain scientists attended the ceremonies. State TV showed the father of the scientist killed last month, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, clicking on the computer to inaugurate the advanced centrifuges inside the Natanz facility. TV showed tears in the eyes of Roshan’s mother and wife when the father opened the project.

Ahmadinejad put the young daughter of slain electronics student Darioush Rezaeinejad on his knee and patted her long hair.

The purported new frontiers for Iran’s atomic program showcase what could be significant steps at becoming self-sufficient in creating nuclear fuel — the centerpiece of the dispute with the U.S. and its allies.

In the fuel cycle, mined uranium is processed into gas, then that gas is spun in centrifuges to purify it. Low-enriched uranium is used to produce fuel rods that power a reactor. But the same process can be used to produce highly enriched uranium that can be used to build a warhead.

Iran claims it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.

The Tehran facility where IRNA said the new fuel rods were installed is intended to produce isotopes for cancer treatments. It requires fuel enriched to around 20 percent, considered a threshold between low- and high-enriched uranium.Iran began enriching up to near 20 percent in February 2010 after attempts at a deal with the West to import the fuel rods broke down.

Iranian officials have long spoken of introducing faster, more efficient centrifuges at the Natanz facility. The Fars report did not give further details, but Iran also says it also has sophisticated centrifuges in a new site built into a mountainside south of Tehran and possibly impervious to airstrikes.

A diplomat accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s known nuclear programs said the “new generation” of centrifuges appeared to be referring to about 65 IR-4 machines that were recently set up at an experimental site at Natanz. The new model can churn out enriched material at a faster rate than the more rudimentary IR-1 centrifuges, thousands of which are at work in Natanz producing low-enriched uranium, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information is privileged.

In still another development, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Abbasi, was quoted as saying Iran will open a new facility to produce “yellowcake,” which is concentrated natural uranium and is the foundation material in the process to make nuclear fuel. In the past, Iran has purchased most of its yellowcake abroad, including South Africa and China.

The U.S. and EU have tried to rein in Iran’s nuclear program with new boycotts and banking restrictions targeting Iran’s crucial oil exports, which accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s foreign revenue.

The Obama administration is now weighing an even harsher blow: possibly seeking Iran’s removal from SWIFT, an independent financial clearinghouse that is crucial to the country’s overseas oil sales. But such a move could push oil prices higher and undercut fragile Western economies.

Iran pushed back at Europe.

State TV quoted Foreign Ministry official Hasan Tajik as saying that six European diplomats were summoned Wednesday and told that Iran has no problem replacing customers — an implied warning that Tehran would carry out plans to cut off EU countries immediately to pre-empt sanctions set to go into effect in July.

Conflicting information about the cutoff has been relayed by Iranian media throughout the day: first the full blockade on six countries, then a report carried by the semiofficial Mehr agency saying that exports were cut to France and the Netherlands with four other European countries receiving ultimatums to sign long-term contracts with Iran.

Iranian officials say an immediate cutoff will hit European nations before they can line up new suppliers, and that Tehran has already found buyers for the 18 percent share of its oil that goes to Europe.

In Vienna, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized the U.S. and the EU for instituting “one-sided sanctions” on Tehran that “erode unified action against Iran’s nuclear program.”

At the same time, he said the suspicion — nurtured by years of Iranian secrecy — that Tehran is covertly working on a nuclear arms program “must be clarified without any doubt.”

In Bangkok, Thai officials held three Iranians rounded up after a cache of explosives detonated accidentally in their home. Bomb disposal teams combed the damaged house while security forces sought an Iranian woman they said had originally rented it.

Thai authorities have not disclosed any potential targets for the explosives.

Israeli defense officials, however, believe the Iranian men were plotting to attack the Israeli ambassador in Thailand, Israel’s Channel 10 TV reported. It said the investigation was still ongoing and its conclusions were not final.

In a reflection of how the attacks caught Israel off guard, the Israeli Counter Terrorism Bureau last month lifted a travel warning to Bangkok after Thai authorities arrested a suspect with alleged links to Hezbollah. The warning was issued Jan. 13 and lifted less than two weeks later.

The bureau lifted a similar travel advisory for Israelis going to Georgia in November.

Thai people make floats for the Loy Krathong festival at a flower market in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday. Every year when the moon is full and the rainy season draws to an end, millions of Thais fill their country's waterways with miniature lotus-shaped boats, setting them adrift wiht flickering candles in a centuries-old homage to a water goddess.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BANGKOK — Every year when the moon is full and the rainy season draws to an end, Thailand’s waterways fill with millions of floating lotus-shaped lanterns — a symbolic, centuries-old gesture once meant to placate to the country’s goddess of water.

Today, many Thais still believe the candlelit boats launched during Loy Krathong can carry misfortune away with them, allowing past sins to be cleansed and life to begin anew.

This year, flood-ravaged Thailand has plenty of reason to pray for rebirth — and little reason to celebrate.

The festival, due Thursday, comes on the heels of a cataclysmic waterborne disaster that’s drowned one-third of the country in three months, killing 529 people and wiping out rice fields and factories and livelihoods along the way. The flooding is the worst in Thailand since World War II, and it’s not over yet. Damage so far is likely to exceed $6 billion. Recovery will take months.

“Most people don’t feel like celebrating this year — there’s been too much sadness and suffering,” said Saithong Sateankamsoragai, a Bangkok flower vendor who sells the tiny boats, called krathongs, that are an integral part of the
annual festival.

Saithong fled her own home late last month after chest-level water engulfed it. Now she lives with her sister in a drier part of the capital, a refugee forced to flee by the water this Southeast Asian kingdom is ironically paying tribute to.

Tragedy in mind, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has canceled all official celebrations in Bangkok, including those along the Chao Phraya river — the chocolate-colored waterway that snakes through the city of glittering condominiums and decrepit apartment blocks.

In recent weeks, the river’s banks have brimmed to record levels, forcing a halt to dinner cruises and fueling fears the mighty waterway could swamp downtown.

Outside the capital, in cities floodwaters have spared, festivities are going ahead. They include the northern town of Sukhothai, where the tradition is believed to have been born. Revelers there have already begun setting off fireworks this week, filling the skies with the spellbinding spectacle of balloon-like lanterns.

The mood in Bangkok, where many neighborhoods remain submerged, is far more subdued. The Culture Ministry is calling for revelers to float just one boat per family, or float them online through websites on which you can light digital candles and incense and watch yours float on a full-screen rendering of lake.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, meanwhile, is urging people in flooded zones not to launch any at all.

Close to a million krathongs are typically set adrift annually in the capital alone, and there is concern they could trigger fires in abandoned homes or clog drains and canals critical to helping ease the massive pools of runoff bearing down on the metropolis of 9 million people.

Most krathongs are made from hardened, painted bread or ornately curled banana leafs filled with yellow marigold flowers and metallic-purple globe thistles. Some are built from environmentally unfriendly non-biodegradable plastic foam.

Thais joke they won’t have to go far from home to find water this year. “We probably can float the krathongs right in the house,” tweeted one.

Yingluck Shinawatra shakes hands with supporters as she celebrates after winning the election at the party's headquarters in Bangkok on Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BANGKOK — The sister of Thailand’s fugitive former prime minister led his loyalists to a landslide election victory Sunday, a stunning rout of the military-backed government that last year crushed protests by his supporters with a bloody crackdown that left the capital in flames.

The results pave the way for Thaksin Shinawatra’s youngest sister, widely considered his proxy, to become the nation’s first female prime minister — if the coup-prone Thai army accepts the results.

The Southeast Asian kingdom has been wracked by upheaval since 2006, when Thaksin was toppled in a military coup amid accusations of corruption and a rising popularity that some saw as a threat to the nation’s much-revered monarchy.

The coup touched off a schism between the country’s haves and long-silent have-nots — pitting the marginalized rural poor who hailed Thaksin’s populism against an elite establishment bent on defending the status quo that sees him as a corrupt autocrat. Last year’s violent demonstrations by “Red Shirt” protesters — most of them Thaksin backers — and the subsequent crackdown marked the boiling over of those divisions.

On Sunday, though, they played out at the ballot box in a vote that will decide the shape of Thailand’s fragile democracy.
The Pheu Thai party was led to an overwhelming victory by Thaksin’s 44-year-old sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a U.S.-educated businesswoman hand-picked by her billionaire brother.

He has called her his “clone.” The party’s slogan is: “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts.”

From exile 3,000 miles away in the desert emirate of Dubai, the 61-year-old Thaksin hailed the outcome. “People are tired of a standstill,” he said in an interview on Thai television. “They want to see change in a peaceful manner.”

At her party headquarters across town, Yingluck told an electrified crowd of supporters: “I don’t want to say that Pheu Thai wins today. It’s a victory of the people.”

With 98 percent of the vote counted, preliminary results from the Election Commission showed the Pheu Thai party far ahead with 264 of 500 parliament seats, well over the majority needed to form a government. The Democrat party of army-backed incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had 160 seats.

Thaksin and his proxies have won the country’s past four elections. By contrast, the Democrat party — backed by big business, the military and circles around the royal palace — has not won a popular vote since 1992.

Though he has been widely criticized for abuse of power and decried for a streak of authoritarian rule that has profoundly polarized Thailand, Thaksin has nevertheless “become a symbol of democracy for his supporters,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

Thailand’s democratic process has been repeatedly thwarted over the years, with 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s.

Movie Review

Grossing an astounding $277 million in the domestic box offices, the first “Hangover” film was one of the most successful films of summer 2009. By far the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, “Hangover” is the third highest R-rated film to boot. It's guaranteed that its sequel, “The Hangover Part II,” which comes out today, will follow suit.

Although director Todd Phillips and star Zach Galifianakis stumbled last year with the atrocious “Due Date,” they’re both in fine form for the second “Hangover” film, the rare sequel that bests its predecessor in nearly every way.

The sequel's plot is nearly identical to the first film – Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) drink to excess before a wedding and wake up hours later to discover one of their friends missing. This time around, instead of trying to find the missing groom in Vegas, they’re searching for the brother of Stu’s bride-to-be while stranded in Bangkok, Thailand.

For much of the first 20 minutes, the film is painful to watch. We’re quickly reintroduced to all the characters, which mostly involves Galifianakis being standoffish and Helms playing easily flustered. There’s an extensive collection of wedding cliches, complete with a resentful future father-in-law, an awkward speech at a rehearsal dinner and zany cultural clashes that are uninspired and unfunny across the board.

Audiences brave enough to stick around after the dispiriting first act devoid of humor will find plenty to like once its characters find themselves in a dingy Bangkok hotel room with no memory of how they got there. Just like the first film, most of the entertainment comes from watching the three heroes stumble their way through the previous night’s events, which are suitably more destructive than the first film’s mishaps, even reducing an entire city block to smoldering ashes.

Because Vegas seems relatively innocuous next to the crime-ridden Bangkok, the film has a sense of danger and urgency that further ups the ante. The stakes are raised across the board and there’s a sense of urgency to the group’s quest that was missing from the first film.

The sequel also escalates the comedy, venturing to weird, dark places for laughs. A short sequence in a strip club that’s not what it appears is perhaps the film’s oddest detour, made utterly hilarious by Ed Helms' increasingly horrified reactions.

Helms supports most of the film. The always funny Galifianakis gets most of the film’s big laughs, but Helms delivers plenty of solid, chuckle-worthy one-liners and tears into the film’s brief dramatic moments with aplomb. He even manages to sell a climactic speech that could have been unbearably cheesy with a weaker actor.

Fans of the first “Hangover” film know what they’re getting into with “The Hangover Part II.” This is essentially the same film, but even more over-the-top and surprisingly better. Despite a few dead spots in the beginning, it's a worthy sequel; a memorable R-rated comedy that dares the audience to give it enough money to warrant a third film.