Cyberattacks hit South Korea Syria

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SEOUL, South Korea -- Computer networks running three major South Korean banks and two of the country's largest broadcasters were paralyzed Wednesday in attacks that some experts suspected originated in North Korea, underscoring the North's threat to cripple its far richer neighbor.

The attacks, which left many South Koreans unable to withdraw money from ATMs and news broadcasting crews staring at blank computer screens, came as the North's official Korean Central News Agency quoted the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, as threatening to destroy government installations in the South, along with U.S. bases in the Pacific.

Although U.S. officials dismissed those threats, they also noted that the facilities hit by the virus had been cited by the North before as potential targets.

The attacks, which occurred as U.S. and South Korean military forces were conducting major exercises, were not as sophisticated as some from China that have struck U.S. computers, and certainly less sophisticated than the U.S. and Israeli cyberattack on Iran's nuclear facilities. But it was far more complex than a "denial of service" attack that simply overwhelms a computer system with a flood of data.

Power failure blamed on rat

TOKYO -- The operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant said Wednesday that it had found what it believes was the cause of an extended blackout that disabled vital cooling systems earlier this week: the charred body of a rat.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., said that when its engineers looked inside a faulty switchboard, they found burn marks and the rodent's scorched body. The company said it appeared that the rat had somehow short-circuited the switchboard, possibly by gnawing on cables.

The company, known as TEPCO, has blamed problems with the switchboard for the power failure that began Monday, cutting off the flow of cooling water to four pools used to store more than 8,800 nuclear fuel rods. It took TEPCO almost a day to restore cooling to the first of the affected pools, with cooling of the final pool resuming early Wednesday.

The blackout served as an uncomfortable reminder to many Japanese about the continuing vulnerability of the plant, which suffered a triple meltdown in March 2011 after a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems.

Solar firm goes bankrupt

HONG KONG -- Suntech Power, a Chinese manufacturer that became the world's largest producer of solar panels by 2011 only to be battered by plummeting prices, announced Wednesday that its main operating subsidiary had been pushed into bankruptcy by eight Chinese banks.

Suntech was the Icarus of the solar panel industry, with production that soared year after year on heavy investment, as Western investors bought up its New York-traded shares and its international debt issues. Part of a massive Chinese government effort to dominate renewable energy industries, Suntech grew to 10,000 employees in its hometown of Wuxi and even set up a small factory in Arizona to do further assembly of panels there.

But a 10-fold expansion of overall Chinese solar panel manufacturing capacity from 2008 to 2012 produced a three-quarters drop in solar panel prices, undermining the economics of the business. Rapid expansion of natural gas production in the United States and a curtailment of subsidies in the European Union also hurt solar panel prices, as did a U.S. imposition last year of import tariffs totaling about 40 percent after an anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigation.

Pope meets religious leaders

ROME -- Pope Francis promised friendship, respect and continued dialogue with other religious leaders Wednesday, pledging cooperation with Orthodox Christian groups, describing the spiritual bond between Catholics and Jews as "very special" and expressing gratitude to Muslim leaders.

"The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions," the pope said.

Francis, who was formally installed a day earlier, greeted a diverse group of religious leaders in the ornate Clementine Hall inside the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. Among them were Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, as well as other Orthodox leaders; representatives from different Protestant denominations; Jewish and Muslim leaders and advocates; and representatives of the Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Jainist faiths.

Police investigate IMF chief

PARIS -- A lawyer for IMF chief Christine Lagarde said Wednesday French investigators have searched her Paris home as part of an inquiry into her role in a $400 million arbitration deal in favor of a tycoon.

Ms. Lagarde was France's finance minister when magnate Bernard Tapie won a 2008 settlement with a state-owned bank over the mishandled sale of Adidas in the 1990s. Critics said the settlement was too generous.

Anti-crime policy defended

MEXICO CITY -- President Enrique Pena Nieto, faced with a gruesome one-day toll of 29 suspected organized crime-related deaths in his country, told reporters Wednesday that Mexicans should give his anti-crime strategy about a year before judging whether it is working.

The violence reported Tuesday in 13 states included the slayings of two members of the federal police in Ciudad Juarez.

French hostage beheaded?

JOHANNESBURG -- Al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, one of the violent al-Qaida-linked militias active in North and West Africa, claims to have executed a French hostage in retaliation for France's military operation in Mali.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb told a Mauritanian news agency Tuesday that Philippe Verdon was beheaded March 10.

About 15 French hostages are still being held in the region.

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