USA

A key gauge of future US economic activity fell 0.5 percent last month, the largest one-month decline since January 1996. The September drop in the Conference Board's Index of Leading Economic Indicators to 109 reflects a slowdown in manufacturing and service sectors, and an economy weakened further by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The index stood at 100 in 1996, its base year.

More than 2,200 postal employees in and around Washington were being tested for exposure to anthrax, and the Postal Service closed two facilities after one of its employees was diagnosed with the inhaled form of the disease. Health officials were awaiting test results from five other postal workers who have symptoms consistent with anthrax. The Postal Service said it would soon start using technology that can sanitize mail.

The Capitol reopened, but congressional office buildings remained closed for environmental testing of anthrax. New York Gov. George Pataki's Manhattan office also reopened, five days after tests for anthrax came back positive. Subsequent tests have been negative. Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) said the number of New Yorkers infected with the bacteria remained at four, with one case each at NBC, CBS, ABC, and the New York Post.

Average gasoline prices fell 9 cents a gallon in the past two weeks as travel worries slowed demand, analyst Trilby Lundberg reported. The average retail price of gas, including all grades and taxes, was $1.34 a gallon last week, according to her survey of 8,000 stations. Pump prices have fallen more than 22 cents since Sept. 7.

A NASA probe was to conclude its six-month, 286 million-mile voyage to Mars today and begin orbiting the Red Planet. The Odyssey mission, which was launched April 7, will begin limited mapping of minerals, elements, and frozen reservoirs of water on the dusty Martian surface if it successfully enters an elliptical orbit. The last two spacecraft NASA sent to the planet failed, forcing NASA to curb its ambitious Mars program. The Odyssey mission has a pricetag of $297 million.

Reports of serious crime fell slightly in 2000, marking the US's ninth straight year of decline, the FBI reported. The murder rate fell to its lowest point in 35 years at 5.5 per 100,000 residents, down 3 percent from 1999. The number of violent crimes fell 3 percent in 2000 to 506 per 100,000 residents, the lowest in 22 years. But the overall dip in reported crime in 2000, 0.2 percent, also was the smallest in nine years, suggesting that long-term declines in the number of murders, robberies, rapes, and other crimes may be bottoming out, analysts reported.

Fans Marina Savoy (l.) and Amy Hopkins-Lopez cheer for the Backstreet Boys during the United We Stand benefit concert in Washington Sunday. It was one of a series in the US featuring dozens of musicians and other celebrities over the weekend to raise money for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

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