McClellan: Rove burned me

WASHINGTON - President Bush broke his promise to the country by refusing to fire aide Karl Rove for leaking a CIA agent's identity, said Scott McClellan, the president's chief spokesman for almost three years.

"I think the president should have stood by his word and that meant Karl should have left," McClellan said yesterday in a broadcast interview about his new tell-all book, a scathing rebuke of the White House under Bush's leadership.

McClellan now acknowledges he felt burned by Rove, Bush's top political adviser, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. He said Rove and Libby assured him they were not involved in leaking CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, and he repeated those assurances to reporters.

In fact, Rove and Libby did help leak Plame's identity, as confirmed in a later criminal investigation. Libby had resigned by then, but Rove remained in office and eventually stepped down on his terms in August 2007.

"I think the president should have stood by the word that we said, which was that if you were involved in this in any way, then you would no longer be in this administration. And Karl was involved in it," McClellan said.

Earthquake toll tops 69,000

BEIJING - It is meant to be a celebration of childhood, but in Sichuan province yesterday, Children's Day turned into a day of mourning, and a provocation to parents whose children were crushed by falling school buildings during the powerful earthquake three weeks ago.

At a half-dozen schoolyards across the region, where jagged piles of former classrooms are encircled by undamaged apartment buildings, parents came to grieve and to demand answers.

In the town of Wufu, they shouted slogans about corrupt politicians. In Mianzhu, they staged a sit-in. And at Juyuan, they were shooed away by soldiers who had sealed off the grounds of a middle school so workers could search for the bodies of six children still missing. By evening, one had been recovered.

Over the weekend, the government raised the death toll from the May 12 earthquake to just more than 69,000, with another 18,800 missing and thought to be dead. The state news media reported that a helicopter evacuating injured survivors had crashed in the fog near Wenchuan on Saturday, with the fate of the five crew members and 14 passengers unclear.

Astronauts check damage

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Lacking the proper laser tools, shuttle Discovery's astronauts performed a cursory wing inspection yesterday as they zoomed ever closer to the international space station.

The astronauts used their ship's 50-foot robot arm to beam down camera images of the upper edges of the wings so engineers back on Earth could check for any evidence of launch damage. Left unexamined were the lower edges of the wings and the nose cap, also particularly vulnerable hot spots during re-entry.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg, who helped operate the robot arm, said it was "just a quick inspection, as much as we could with what we have."

The astronauts' laser-tipped inspection boom is at the space station, left there by the previous shuttle crew in March. They'll retrieve it after they arrive at the orbiting outpost today and perform a full survey once they depart.

Discovery did not have enough room for the 50-foot boom - standard equipment on shuttle flights after the Columbia tragedy - because of the enormous Japanese lab that fills its payload bay.

Will kids smoke no-names?

LONDON - Britain's Department of Health has proposed banning tobacco companies from putting any logos or branding on cigarette packs.

One proposal for preventing young people from smoking is to sell cigarettes in plain black-and-white boxes with nothing on them but health warnings.

The British government is also considering banning cigarette vending machines. Another idea is to outlaw the sale of smaller, cheaper packs of 10 cigarettes available in Britain.

Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said Saturday that the government's priority is to protect children from smoking by taking away the temptation.

Prisoner swaps in offing?

JERUSALEM - Israel handed over a convicted Hezbollah spy to Lebanon yesterday and in a surprise move the Islamic guerrilla group turned over what it said were the body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in a 2006 war.

The Hezbollah gesture, along with recent comments by its leader, signaled that a larger prisoner exchange could be in the works between the two bitter enemies.

Israel said yesterday's exchanges were unrelated to a deal that would include Israel releasing the longest-serving Lebanese prisoner and Hezbollah setting free two soldiers captured in a 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a monthlong war.

But a senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a deal was in the making, even though there was no timetable for completing it. *

-Daily News wire services