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In brief

All fired up for spring cleaning El Dorado firefighter Lt. Jesse McKinnon uses a little elbow grease Thursday while cleaning the bay door windows at Central Station in El Dorado, Ark. The firefighters were taking advantage of the nice weather to do some spring cleaning.

AP photo
WASHINGTON Retired FBI agent alive

Four years after a retired FBI agent mysteriously vanished inside Iran, U.S. officials have received proof he is alive, a remarkable development that has dramatically intensified secret negotiations to bring him home, The Associated Press has learned.

The U.S. had lacked reliable information about whether Robert Levinson was alive or dead since he disappeared in March 2007 from the Iranian island of Kish. It remains unclear who exactly is holding Levinson or where he is, but the proof that he is alive is a rare hopeful sign in a case that had seemingly gone cold.

Iran has repeatedly said it has no information about Levinson, but U.S. diplomats and investigators have long said they believed he was taken by Iranian government agents.

HAVANA Contractor goes on trial

More than a man’s fate will be at stake when U.S. contractor Alan Gross goes to trial today on charges he sought to undermine Cuba’s government by bringing communications equipment onto the island illegally.

U.S. officials have made clear that no meaningful rapprochement between the two Cold War enemies is possible while the 61-year-old Maryland native remains in jail. And with Gross facing a possible 20-year sentence for “acts against the integrity and independence” of Cuba, that could put relations into a long, deep freeze.

“If they sentence him to 20 years and then put him in prison ... I think it will have a very damaging effect on US-Cuban relations,” said Wayne Smith, a former top U.S. diplomat in Havana and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

ATLANTA Gingrich may run for prez

Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday he is launching a website to explore a run for president.

Earlier, a Gingrich spokesman had said Gingrich is testing the waters for a 2012 bid, which allows him to raise and spend money.

Gingrich is stopping short of setting up an exploratory committee, which would make him a legal candidate. The spokesman said Gingrich and his wife oversee a web of commercial and nonprofit ventures and must tie up loose ends with those businesses.

ISLAMABAD Pakistani Christians protest

Pakistani Christians burned tires and rallied for justice Thursday, a day after Islamist militants assassinated a Catholic government minister who had braved death threats to speak out in their defense.

The government, which has been accused of appeasing hard-liners, vowed to tackle the threat, but officials routinely make such promises after high-profile attacks and questions remain over its will to counter militants once supported by the state.

Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, was gunned down in the capital, Islamabad, apparently because he had urged Pakistan to reform harsh laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam. He had been given police and paramilitary guards but had asked them not to accompany him while he stayed with his mother, according to police.

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