WASHINGTON

- The seasoned diplomat who penned a highly critical report on security at a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, defended his scathing assessment but absolved then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"They've tried to point a finger at people more senior than where we found the decisions were made," Thomas Pickering said of Clinton's critics.

The Accountability Review Board, which Pickering headed, did not question Clinton at length about the attacks, but concluded last December that the decisions about the consulate were made well below the secretary's level.

Pickering and Mullen's blistering report found that "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels" of the State Department meant that security was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."

Pope Francis canonizes Italian martyrs

VATICAN CITY

- Pope Francis yesterday gave the Catholic Church new saints, including hundreds of 15th-century martyrs who were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam, as he led his first canonization ceremony in a packed St. Peter's Square.

The "Martyrs of Otranto" were 813 Italians who were slain in the southern Italian city in 1480 for defying demands to renounce Christianity by Turkish invaders who overran the citadel.

Their approval for sainthood was decided upon by Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, shortly before his retirement.

Police ID victims in Indiana homicide

WAYNESVILLE, Ind.

- Authorities said yesterday that four people found shot to death in a southern Indiana home were a couple who lived there and two of their male friends.

Daniel Burton, the 27-year-old son of the woman who was killed, arrived home from work Saturday night and found two of the victims dead in the living room of his Waynesville home, Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett said. He said Burton called police, who found the other two victims, including Burton's 53-year-old mother, Katheryn Burton.

Authorities identified the others who were killed as Katheryn Burton's longtime boyfriend, 39-year-old Thomas Smith, who also lived at the home, and two 41-year-old Columbus, Ohio, men, Aaron Cross and Shawn Burton (of no relation to Katheryn Burton).

Syrian rebels release U.N. peacekeepers

DAMASCUS, Syria

- Syrian rebels yesterday released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers they abducted last week in a dramatic incident that prompted warnings from the Philippines that the nation might pull out its contingent from the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, a Syrian official said President Bashar Assad's troops have the right to enter the Israeli-occupied Golan whenever they wish - a veiled threat toward Israel to stay out of Syria's conflict.

Also yesterday, Damascus rejected Turkey's allegations that Syria was behind two car bombings that killed 46 people in Turkey.

Data: Ousted PSU prez was highest earner

BUFFALO, N.Y

. - The

Chronicle of Higher Education

has released its annual ranking of what public college presidents make.

Survey results released yesterday show that ex-Penn State President Graham Spanier tops the list, earning $2.9 million in 2011-12, including $1.2 million in severance pay and $1.2 million in deferred compensation.

Spanier was forced out of his position in November 2011 over his handling of the sex-abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

-Daily News wire services