Alert levels at the White House and Capitol were raised to their highest state, red, on Wednesday when a Cessna 152 crossed into restricted air space and failed to respond to a Homeland Security helicopter scrambled to stop it. Military jets fired four warning flares at the singleengine aircraft, which was carrying a pilot and a student pilot flying from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, before it turned away from the national landmarks. The pilots were released without criminal charges being brought against them. The incident, which lasted about 45 minutes, sparked a frenzy of activity that tested the capital's post-Sept. 11 response system. Homeland Security officials said the defense system worked as designed. City officials, however, said they weren't notified of the alert until the all-clear sounded.

Overall chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 6 percent in 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, the Environmental Protection Agency said in its latest report, issued Thursday. Some of the most hazardous chemicals, however, have increased significantly - those being mercury, PCBs, and dioxin.

Shocked by tales of beheadings and machete assaults, the House approved legislation Wednesday to make gang attacks federal crimes and put gang members in line for long federal prison sentences or even the death penalty. The bill establishes minimum mandatory sentences and authorizes the prosecution of 16- and 17-year-old gang members as adults in federal court. The legislation now moves to the Senate.

The sheriff's department confirmed Wednesday that the deaths of six family members in a remote ranch home in Garner Valley, Calif., were the result of a murder-suicide carried out by David McGowan, a district attorney's investigator, who killed his mother, wife, three children, and himself with his service weapon. Investigators are still looking for a motive.

The Mars rover Opportunity is facing its biggest challenge since it landed on the Red Planet last year: how to get out of a sand dune where it's been stuck for two weeks. Scientists sent the new driving directions to Opportunity on Wednesday, commanding it to start inching down from the dune in a series of "mini-drives."

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