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Yearly Archives: 2014

UN chief visits Ebola-ravaged West African nations

 

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Liberia on its efforts to combat Ebola on Friday during his second visit here since the start of the outbreak that now has killed more than 6,900 people in West Africa.

“We have reasons to be cautiously optimistic that this terrible outbreak can be defeated,” said Ban at a press conference with Liberia’s president.

“Our response strategy is working — where people are gaining access to treatment, where contacts are being traced, burials are becoming safer, communities are mobilizing to protect themselves,” he said.

Nearly 3,300 of the Ebola deaths have been in Liberia, where health officials say the spread of the virus has shown signs of slowing in recent weeks.

Concern has grown about the situation in neighboring Sierra Leone, where the Ebola is now spreading the fastest in the region.

“Just one case can trigger an epidemic and we have a long way to go,” said Ban.

His visit to Liberia comes on the eve of crucial midterm senatorial elections. Some 139 candidates are vying for 15 seats in the senate, including former soccer star George Weah and Robert Sirleaf, the son of Liberia’s president.

Health authorities have deployed 4,700 thermometers to voting places around the country to take voters’ temperatures as people go to the polls. Authorities also have deployed 10,000 bottles of sanitizers to polling places amid concerns about Ebola.

The virus is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people, and one of the main symptoms is a high fever. Some critics have questioned whether the polls can be credible at a time the country is battling such a deadly epidemic.

4 Stupid Ways Everyone Deals With Breakups

 

(PhatzNewsRoom / Cracked)    —   Ahh, l’amour. Or, as the French call it, “le humpy jumpy.” It’s a funny thing us humans do to each other, getting all stupid in love with one another, touching tongues, watching Jennifer Aniston films, and feeling this intense longing for the presence of someone else in a way that curiously wanes over time and sometimes even turns into resentment. But the reasons for how and why we love are not important for us just now, no, we’re going to focus on what happens when that love is gone and we’re all mopey and shitty and depressed.

Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

And bae was like, “Nah, we ain’t watching Big Bang again.”

I was in love with a girl once, a few years ago. She was gorgeous in that way that people would look at the two of us together and just obviously assume she wasn’t with me. And truth be told, we were never together in the way I wanted. She was my friend, and she was very aware of my feelings, as I had just entered a curious phase of my life where I wore my heart on my sleeve and said and did whatever I felt when I felt it and let people accept or reject me as I truly was, no guile or being coy, just a faceful of Felix. But she did accept me.

We spent five days a week together in a post-graduate class but still found enough to enjoy in one another to party every weekend, see movies, go to dinner, basically date in all but name. We weren’t a couple; we were great friends. But I did fall in love with her. And at the end of our year she got an amazing job in another city and moved away. And for a solid month we kept in touch online. And then it dwindled, and within three months we stopped speaking. To this day, about a decade later, I have never heard from her again. She was just gone, and I was crushed.

Voyagerix/iStock/Getty Images

Like this nut.

I tried to find her for a while but came up with nothing. I assume if I had found her she wouldn’t want to speak with me, but I don’t know why. I had ostracized myself, but I don’t know how. Too pushy? Too Needy? Too ruggedly handsome and charming? No idea. Didn’t know then, don’t know now. Never will.

I’m not sure what hurt me more, that I lost someone I cared for or that I didn’t know why. But it did hurt. And that experience, along with one or two others, helped me figure out a few reactions to heartbreak that are just shitty ideas.

#4. Revenge

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I’ve never tried this one myself, because it’s not in my character, but dammit if I don’t see it a lot on TV, movies, and even in songs. Someone cheats on you or leaves you, and for some reason the response is to maybe destroy them as a person in a way that is on par with serial killer for its sinister leanings and insanely disturbing acts. After all, we’re all aware that men have had their penises cut off for cheating, and god knows how many women have endured full on MMA-style brutality at the hands of jealous husbands and boyfriends.

So let me take the bold stance of suggesting violence, whether against your ex or their belongings, is a shitty way to deal with heartache, one you should avoid. Of course you want to lash out when you’re hurt, but also, don’t be a literal maniac. Insanity doesn’t look good on anyone, and if you think it’s funny to light someone’s wardrobe on fire just because they had sex with someone else, you’re basically telling anyone you may one day get into a relationship with that you’re as unstable as a Jenga game on an epileptic’s back, and you’re not worth dealing with because you’re as good with anger as a starving tiger is with babies.

When you get angry, you’d do well in life to learn ways to deal with it that aren’t felonious and/or don’t let others know they should walk behind you without making noise lest they get your attention, make eye contact, and have to run screaming for help into the night. Maybe you could have a drink, eat a whole pizza, and watch bad movies. Maybe that’s better than shoving a curling iron in someone’s ass. Ever try that?

#3. Self-Destruction

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Those of us less inclined to destroy others may instead look to destroy ourselves. It’s easy and seems fun at first, which is why it’s so popular, just ask Captain Morgan or Gary Smirnoff.

When faced with some form of rejection or loss, it’s pretty easy to decide that you somehow did this to yourself and that the best thing you could do now, knowing you’re a big ol’ sack of losing loserishness who loses like a losing loser at a losing competition is to maybe get all shitty. So you drink. You do drugs. You have sex with CHUDs and use Skittles wrappers as protection. You get tribal tattoos. It’s not pretty.

This method is nefarious, because you tend to be aware it’s a bad idea, but you think it’s still necessary because you’re bad in some way, you deserve it, or you want to drown out the shitty feelings, and the best way to scour such things from your memory is with a thin paste made from meth and Everclear.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty

Wrong Everclear.

The reason self-destruction is such a shitty plan of action should be clear — you’re already broken in some way, so how is a further breakdown going to help things? That’s like treating dysentery by hitting up an all-you-can-eat Mexican buffet served out of the back of a van by a guy who keeps scratching his own ass crack.

On some level, we all know punishing ourselves isn’t going to make anything better, even if the reason we’re now single is entirely our fault. Even if you did some shitbird thing, like cheat on your partner, what good can come out of you switching from being an asshole to them to being an asshole to yourself? You’re just perpetuating your assholery, which is clearly your problem to begin with. That needs to be done away with in a more constructive, less brain-cell melting way.

 

#2. Obsession

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I know a vile pig of a human who barely earns that title who falls into this category, among others. The reason I mention him now is I have it on fairly good authority that, when one of his relationships ends, he takes it upon himself to simply follow his ex. Day after day. He’ll park nearby and watch her house. He takes photos of her coming and going. He makes fake accounts on Facebook to try to keep track of who she’s talking to. It’s a whole big stalker jamboree of douchebaggery and sickness, and it’s six kinds of fucked.

Obsessing over an ex is creepy and weird, and it’s a great way to confirm to everyone that your ex made a good choice by ditching you. It’s not normal.

Now, assuming you’re more rational than this twat that I know, there’s a less sinister but no less desperate form of obsession that oodles of people engage in and, in some circles, is even romanticized. If you’ve ever been moved to stand outside a woman’s house with your boombox playing Peter Gabriel, you know what I mean. If that’s part of your seduction technique, you need to upgrade your game, because that shit is played out. But if it’s part of your win-her-back routine, it’s even worse. You don’t win people, for one; we need to move past the idea that we live in a world in which someone else is a prize. That may be the product of hundreds of years of fiction assuring us all that women are available to be taken from dragons, evil knights, and sleeping spells, and all we need to do is show up and jam a penis at them.

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Rest easy, ladies. A man is here to open jars and adjust the thermostat.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of trying to make a failed relationship work, mind you. I bet that works in all sorts of Molly Ringwald-less situations, but it’s best approached in a way that suggests the reason you want to be with this other person is that you see in them qualities and attributes you find endearing, remarkable, and admirable, not because you saw them first and no one else can play with your toy; stamped it, no erasies, black magic, no takebacks.

If the only thing motivating you to continue a relationship with someone is your desire to know their every move and make sure they’re not doing things you don’t approve of or seeing people you don’t like, congratulations, you’re a madman. Shake that off before it gets way too dangerous, and try to piece together what it is that transpired in your life that makes you think you need to own another person. Generally speaking, slavery is frowned upon these days. Plus, clean up your act and maybe you’ll find something interesting about one of the other billions of people out there. Remember, just because Valentine’s Day cards say “be mine,” they don’t mean it in the chattel sense.

#1. Substitution

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This idea is so ingrained in our society it’s probably been the basis for at least one scene in nearly every romantic comedy made since the 1980s. You break up with someone, your friends rally and collectively decide that the cure for what ails you is a little taste of strange. Yes, poontang (or wild dong) fixes everything. At least 20 to 30 minutes into a screenplay, anyway.

On the one hand, this seems like an OK idea. You just ended a relationship, maybe one that was years long, you’re probably hurt and feeling alone regardless of whether or not you broke it off or they did, and, what do you know, outside your house there’s like a million wieners and vaginas with bodies dragging behind them all over the place. You should go fiddle with one, take your mind off your troubles.

The problem with this solution is that you’re not really fixing much. Well, maybe one thing, for five minutes, but then what? Incidentally, that five minutes is ballpark, ladies. You need six, even seven, I can probably do that.

You just basically used another person as a hump puppet and your own moral compass will let you decide how to feel about that, if you have such a thing, but what if they want to be your special friend now? What if your ex comes back, and now you have to be those pain-in-the-ass “we were on a break” people? What if your hump puppet was a wretched sack of herpes?

Not to sound like your dad, but you just fucked up. Keep it in your pants for like a week. A week! Never hump someone the next day, because your brain is all fucktarded and you’ll absolutely bone someone with herpes because they have a nice smile or they bought you a drink or they were under you when you started bouncing.

Mike Powell/Digital Vision/Getty Images

My name’s Ned. It’s nice to bounce on you!

You need at least a week to get your head straightened out, assuming you genuinely were in love with this person. Consider who you are when you’re by yourself and what you want to do with yourself. You know why your friends want you to get laid the next day? Because they’re stupid. And it’s not their fault; we’re bred this way. We all saw those movies, and it totally worked for Cameron Diaz, and by the third act she was married to the man of her dreams, so what the hell is your problem? Just pork someone, because no one wants to deal with you when you’re all sobby and lonesome. But that helps them more than it helps you.

So, what now? Thought I was going to leave you hanging, didn’t you? I have unsolicited advice! Now, bear in mind I’m no relationship expert, because there’s no such thing as that, and if anyone on TV calls themselves that it’s because what they actually are is full of shit, but without credentials to say as much. Anyone who has been in a relationship is as much a relationship expert as anyone else in the world. We’re not all the same, so what some dope on a daytime TV show has to say about relationships may be as relevant to you as quantum mechanics are to drunken vervets on an island somewhere.

But the good thing is, I know enough to know I don’t know you. You could be the nicest person on Earth, or you could be a sketchy dude who steals candy bars. You might mean well but fail to follow through, or maybe you murder gas station attendants. If so, please stop. Regardless of who you are and your predilections, you know why you loved that other person, so the best thing you can do for yourself when a relationship ends is to figure out for yourself why it happened. And the answer isn’t because she’s a bitch or he’s a dickhead. That might be part of it, I won’t take that away from you, but if you loved someone enough to be hurt by losing them, then they can’t be 100 percent dickhead bitches, otherwise what does that say about you? And why should you care that they’re gone? There has to be another step in there. Before your ex became a monster, or before you fell apart desperately hoping for them to come back, there was something else. So consider that and figure it out. Maybe it was you, maybe it was them, maybe it was herpes. I don’t know. But you probably do.

You need time to figure out that shit before you jump into obsessive stalking, burning clothes, or humping your way across town. Accomplish that, and you may be able to completely avoid all those terrible solutions.

For more from Felix, check out 4 Things No One Understands About Being Bullied. And then check out The Truth About Romantic Relationships: Charted.

NORAD technology documents Christmas Eve journey

 

(PhatzRadio / AP)    —   With today’s technology and a global social network, officials and fans all over the world are prepared now more than ever to track the grandest journey of the year.

Through satellite imaging, telephone hotlines, even Twitter (@NoradSanta), Santa Claus has been put on everyone’s radar.

For nearly 60 years, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) — previously known as Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) — has tracked Santa’s annual flight around the world.

In 1955, a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement misprinted the telephone number for children to call Santa, putting kids instead through to the CONAD commander-in-chief’s operations hotline. The director of operations at the time, Col. Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole.

“While the tradition of tracking Santa began purely by accident, NORAD continues to track Santa,” according to a statement from NORAD headquarters. “We’re the only organization that has the technology, the qualifications and the people to do it. And, we love it!”

Citizens from around the world can still check in with NORAD on Christmas Eve by phone (1-877-446-6723), as well as receive live updates, including images and video, online (http://www.noradsanta.org) or on their mobile device.

NORAD reports that more than 1,250 Canadian and American uniformed personnel and Department of Defense civilians volunteer their time on Dec. 24 to answer the thousands of phone calls and emails that flood in from around the world.

Google is also offering a “Santa Tracker” this year.

Little ones can track Santa’s whereabouts Christmas Eve using NORAD’s Santa tracker at http://www.noradsanta.org/. (Courtesy of www.noradsanta.org)

Like NORAD, in addition to live tracking, it offers fun activities to learn more about Santa and the holidays. On Christmas Eve, folks can download the “Google Santa Tracker” app to follow the big man’s trek in 3-D through Google Earth imaging.

Elf HQ, part of Santa Update, which has been operating since 1991, also offers live tracking, as well as in-depth year-round North Pole news, tips and communication tools through which users can “Ask an Elf” and also fill out a request form to get off the infamous “Naughty List.”

Interested individuals can do their part by joining the International Santa Trackers Association, which uses social media resources to track St. Nick, and anything Christmas related.

More interested in the industry behind being Father Christmas?

This year, NORAD has released specs on Santa’s sleigh, which travels “faster than starlight” on “hay, oats and carrots (for reindeer).” Business Insider recently did an in-depth analysis of how the vehicle compares to the Air Force’s C-130 Hercules transport.

And though he’s a philanthropist, Insure.com has published its annual “Santa Index” estimating a net worth and salary for the jolly old elf, and how that compares to the income his associates garner by representing him in shopping malls and various social engagements.

For the record, based on federal Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data, Kris Kringle’s due for a pay raise amounting to $139,924 — up more than $2,000 from last year’s estimated pay of $137,795.

With all the sleigh driving, toy manufacturing, reindeer herding and more, Santa has proved himself to be a highly skilled man for all seasons, particularly this one.

 

Marathon bombing suspect due in court Thursday

 

BOSTON (AP) — Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has not been seen in public since he was arraigned in July 2013, when he still bore signs of the bloody standoff with police that led to his capture and the death of his older brother, Tamerlan.

On Thursday, he’s due to show his face again in court.

Dzhokhar, 21, still had visible injuries at the appearance 1 1/2 years ago from a shootout with police several days after the April 15, 2013, bombings. His left arm was in a cast and his face was swollen. He appeared to have a jaw injury.

Three people were killed and more than 260 were injured when two bombs exploded near the finish line of the marathon. Tsarnaev, who has pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges, faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted.

Security is tight at the federal courthouse in Boston for Thursday’s final pretrial conference, which his lawyers said he would attend. At least one victim who lost a leg in the bombings, Marc Fucarile, arrived at court early. Protesters who say they want to ensure that Tsarnaev gets a fair trial were also outside court.

It is the last scheduled court hearing before jury selection begins on Jan. 5. The trial is expected to last several months. Seating a jury alone could take several weeks to a month.

On Thursday, prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to discuss the jury selection process with the judge. Both sides have submitted questions they want the judge to ask potential jurors, who will be selected from a pool of at least 1,200 people.

A defense motion to move the trial out of Boston also is still pending.

Earlier this month, Tsarnaev’s lawyers argued anew that “emotionally charged” media coverage and the widespread impact of the attacks have made it impossible for him to get a fair trial in Massachusetts.

U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. rejected Tsarnaev’s first request in September to move the trial, ruling that Tsarnaev’s lawyers had failed to show that extensive pretrial media coverage of the bombings had prejudiced the jury pool to the point that an impartial jury could not be chosen in Boston.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers previously said the trial should be moved to Washington, D.C.

O’Toole also rejected a defense request that prosecutors turn over evidence about his older brother’s possible participation in a 2011 triple killing in suburban Waltham.

Three friends of Tsarnaev were convicted this year of hampering the investigation by removing evidence from his dorm room or lying to the FBI.

Azamat Tazhayakov and Dias Kadyrbayev were convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for removing a backpack containing fireworks and other potential evidence while authorities were still looking for the suspected bombers. Another friend, Robel Phillipos, was convicted of lying to federal agents about being in the room. All three are awaiting sentencing.

Afghanistan: Suicide bomber kills policeman

 

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan police officer was killed and three were wounded Thursday when a suspected suicide bomber they were pursuing detonated his explosives-laden vehicle, an official said.

The Taliban issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.

The bomber “was trying to enter Kabul with the intention of detonating explosives in a crowded part of the city,” said Hashmat Stanekzai, spokesman for the Kabul provincial police chief. “He was being followed by police.”

The explosion occurred after police stopped the car, said Kabul provincial police chief, Abdul Rahman Rahimi.

Afghan authorities regularly claim to have thwarted attacks on the capital as the insurgents concentrate on government, military and foreign targets.

Five foreigners have been killed in the past month in attacks on soft targets such as a French-run school last week, where a German aid worker was killed.

The U.S.-led international combat mission, which peaked in 2010 with 140,000 American and NATO troops, ends on Dec. 31. Afghan security forces will assume full responsibility on Jan. 1, with a residual international force of around 13,000 to provide training and support.

The head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service said the drawdown of foreign troops had made it more difficult to track down militants.

Under pressure to explain the rise in attacks on Kabul, Rahmatullah Nabil, chief of the National Security Directorate, told parliament Wednesday that the removal of manpower and technology by withdrawing foreign forces had contributed to the spike in violence.

In Helmand province, he said, 65 surveillance balloons had been removed with the closure of U.S. and British bases last month. “Now I have just six agents working there,” he said.

Nabil added there were 107 terrorist cells in the provinces surrounding Kabul while the city’s preparedness is severely lacking and outdated.

Also Thursday, Kabul criminal investigation chief Farid Afzali said arrests had been made connection with the killing last week of a senior Supreme Court official.

Atiqullah Raoufi was shot dead on Saturday as he was walking from his home to his vehicle by assailants on motorcycles.

US probe links NKorea to Sony hacking

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal investigators have now connected the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. to North Korea, a U.S. official said Wednesday, though it remained unclear how the federal government would respond to a break-in that exposed sensitive documents and ultimately led to terrorist threats against moviegoers.

The official, who said a more formal statement could come in the near future, spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to openly discuss an ongoing criminal case.

Until Wednesday, the Obama administration had been saying it was not immediately clear who might have been responsible for the computer break-in, with FBI Director James Comey last week saying there was still more work to be done. North Korea has publicly denied it was involved.

The unidentified hackers had demanded that Sony cancel its release of the movie “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that included a gruesome scene depicting the assassination of North Korea’s leader. Sony on Wednesday canceled the Dec. 25 release, citing the threats of violence at movie theaters showing the movie, and the studio later said there were no further plans to release the film.

The disclosure about North Korea’s involvement came just after Sony hired FireEye Inc.’s Mandiant forensics unit, which last year published a landmark report with evidence accusing a Chinese Army organization, Unit 61398, of hacking into more than 140 companies over the years.

Tracing the origins of hacker break-ins and identities of those responsible is exceedingly difficult and often involves surmise and circumstantial evidence, but Mandiant’s work on its highly regarded China investigation provides some clues to its methods.

Investigators will disassemble any hacking tools left behind at the crime scene and — similar to bomb detectives — scour them for unique characteristics that might identify who built or deployed them. Hints about origin might include a tool’s programming code, how or when it was activated and where in the world it transmitted any stolen materials.

In some cases, investigators will trace break-ins by hackers to “command and control” computers or web servers, and logs in those machines or information in Internet registration records might provide further clues about who is behind the hack. Sometimes, hackers using aliases are identified on social media networks or in chat rooms discussing targets or techniques. Mandiant named three Chinese Army hackers, including one known as “Ugly Gorilla.”

The most sophisticated tools or specialized techniques are generally attributed to the work of governments — such as the U.S. role in releasing a tool known as Stuxnet to cripple Iran’s nuclear program — because it can be expensive and time-consuming for experts to build them. But governments wouldn’t use their most sophisticated tools against unsophisticated targets, because of the risk that valuable tools would be discovered and rendered useless for future attacks.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the U.S. government was preparing to respond. Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council spokeswoman, said the United States was “considering a range of options.”

The options against North Korea are in some ways limited given that the U.S. already has a trade embargo and almost certainly wouldn’t consider military action, said Martin Libicki, a cybersecurity expert at the U.S. Naval Academy and a Rand Corp. scholar.

In May, the Justice Department took the highly unusual step of announcing indictments against five Chinese military officials accused of vast cyberespionage against major American corporations. But months later, none of those defendants has been prosecuted in the United States, illustrating the challenge of using the American criminal justice system against cybercriminals operating in foreign countries.

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer studies at Harvard University, said Sony was unquestionably facing anger over the breach and the resulting disclosure of thousands of sensitive documents. But the movie studio may be able to mitigate that reaction and potential legal exposure if it’s established that North Korea was behind the attack.

“If Sony can characterize this as direct interference by or at the behest of a nation-state, might that somehow earn them the kind of immunity from liability that you might see other companies getting when there’s physical terrorism involved, sponsored by a state?” Zittrain said.

AP Analysis: US was at odds with world over Cuba policy

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s decision to pursue new relations with Cuba was driven in part by a stinging realization: Longstanding U.S. policies aimed at isolating Cuba had instead put Washington at odds with the rest of the world.

The American economic embargo on Cuba drove a wedge between the U.S. and Latin American nations. In an annual diplomatic embarrassment, the United Nations General Assembly votes overwhelmingly to condemn the U.S. policy. And while the U.S. was clinging to its economic restrictions against the small communist nation just 90 miles off its shores, leaders of China, Russia and Brazil flocked to Havana, promising millions in investment.

“Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people,” Obama said Wednesday as he announced historic shifts in U.S. relations with Cuba following 18 months of secret negotiations.

The embargo itself will remain in place; only Congress can fully revoke it. But the president is moving on his own to expand economic ties, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry to visit and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. Tourist travel remains banned.

For the president, the moves signaled his willingness to stretch his executive authority to remake American foreign policy without Congress. As he enters the waning years of his presidency, Obama is increasingly flexing his presidential powers not only on U.S.-Cuba policy, but also on immigration, Internet neutrality and climate change.

The president had hoped to revamp the U.S. relationship with Havana earlier in his tenure. But Cuba’s five-year detention of American government subcontractor Alan Gross was a persistent roadblock.

Gross was released Wednesday as part of a deal to normalize diplomatic ties that also includes a prisoner swap.

While Obama’s actions more closely align the U.S. with the rest of the world, he faces staunch political opposition from Republicans and other supporters of the embargo.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Obama was carrying out a policy of “appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs and adversaries, diminishing America’s influence in the world.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he would seek “to unravel as many of these changes as possible.”

In an extraordinary show of coordination between longtime foes, Obama spoke to the American public Wednesday at the same time Castro was addressing his nation in Havana, where church bells rang and schoolteachers paused lessons to mark the news. Castro said that while the U.S. and Cuba remain at odds on many matters, “we should learn the art of living together in a civilized manner in spite of our differences.”

Half a century ago, the U.S. recognized Fidel Castro’s new government soon after his rebels took power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. But before long things began to sour as Cuba deepened its relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1961 the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations, and then came the failed, U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, meant to topple Castro. A year later a U.S. blockade forced removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Over time, support for the embargo from nations friendly to the U.S. faded. For 23 years in a row, the U.N. General Assembly has voted to condemn the embargo, with Havana gaining increasing support.

The latest vote on Oct. 29 was 188-2, with only the U.S. and Israel voting “no.” General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding and unenforceable but they do reflect world opinion, and the vote has given Cuba an annual stage to demonstrate the isolation of the U.S. on the embargo.

The number of Americans who see Cuba as a serious threat has declined. A 1983 CNN/Time poll found 29 percent considered Cuba a very serious threat. That dipped to 13 percent in 1994 and 12 percent in 1997.

Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University, welcomed the policy shift but said the U.S. had been hanging on to an unsuccessful policy for far too long.

“That it took until 2014 demonstrates a fundamental flaw in American strategy employed throughout the Cold War and to this present day,” Engel said. He added that American sanctions on Cuba “bolstered the regime’s popularity at home, as anti-American sentiment was effectively used to distract suffering peoples from their government’s own flaws.”

The full impact of the policy shift agreed to by the U.S. and Cuba remains unclear and may not be known for some time. But to Obama, the result of simply staying the course is well known.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Julie Pace has covered the White House since 2009, and Matthew Lee has covered U.S. foreign policy and international affairs since 1999.

An AP News Analysis

Business: US jobless aid applications decline to 289,000

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, a sign of solid job security and growing confidence among employers.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 289,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That is the lowest level since late October.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, declined 750 to 298,750.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. The average has fallen nearly 13 percent in the past year, evidence the job market is improving. Companies are cutting fewer jobs as the economy expands and hiring has picked up.

In the first 11 months of this year, employers have added 2.65 million jobs. That already makes 2014 the best year for hiring since 1999.

The figures are “low enough to signal very strong payroll growth,” said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at High Frequency Economics. The current level of applications is consistent with monthly job gains of about 300,000, he added.

Just 2.37 million people are receiving benefits, down from more than 4 million a year ago. Some former recipients have found jobs, but many have used up all the benefits available to them. A federal extended benefits program expired at the end of last year. Barely a quarter of the 9.1 million people out of work receive unemployment aid.

Still, hiring is accelerating. Employers added 321,000 jobs in November, the most in nearly three years. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.8 percent, down from 7 percent 12 months earlier.

The average hourly wage rose 9 cents to $24.66, the biggest gain in 17 months. Over the past 12 months, hourly pay has risen 2.1 percent, above the 1.3 percent inflation rate.

Other recent data also point to an improving economy. Shoppers spent more in November at retail stores and restaurants, as tumbling gas prices left them with more money to spend on other goods and services.

And factory output rose at a healthy clip last month, fueled by more auto production. Manufacturing output has now surpassed its pre-recession peak.

Putin: West is trying to ‘defang’ the Russian bear

 

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday to fix Russia’s economic woes within two years by diversifying away from its heavy reliance on oil and gas and voiced confidence that the plummeting ruble will soon recover.

He also promised never to let the West chain or defang his proud nation, evoking the symbolic Russian bear.

Speaking with strong emotion during a live news conference that lasted more than three hours, Putin displayed his traditional defiant stance toward the West, which he insisted is trying to destroy Russia to grab Siberia’s great natural resources.

The annual televised production before the holidays is a Putin tradition, and this year he held it from a particularly strong vantage point: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows his approval rating at a full 80 percent.

Putin accompanied his message with trademark images of Russian pride, with video showing him surrounded by Sochi Olympic athletes, petting a baby tiger and greeting Russian cosmonauts.

In his speech, the man who has led Russia for 15 years sought to soothe market fears that the government could use administrative controls, such as fixing the ruble’s rate or obliging exporters to sell hard currency, to help stabilize the battered currency.

Putin said the nation’s hard currency reserves are sufficient to keep the economy in stable condition, adding that the Central Bank shouldn’t aimlessly “burn” its $419 billion in reserves.

“Our economy will overcome the current situation. How much time will be needed for that? Under the most unfavorable circumstances I think it will take about two years,” he said.

Putin also acknowledged that Western economic sanctions over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine were just one factor behind Russia’s economic crisis, estimating they accounted for roughly 25 to 30 percent of the ruble’s troubles. He said a key reason for the currency’s fall was Russia’s failure to ease its overwhelming dependence on oil and gas exports.

As Putin spoke, the Russian currency traded at 61 rubles to the dollar Thursday — slightly lower than Wednesday night but up 12 percent from the historic low of 80 to the dollar it hit on Tuesday. Russia’s benchmark MICEX index rallied by 5.6 percent by mid-afternoon Thursday.

Putin struck a defiant note against the United States and the European Union, saying the sanctions they slapped on Russia after it seized the Black Sea region of Crimea in March were part of a historical campaign to weaken Russia. He accused the West of trying to infringe on Russia’s sovereignty, saying the Ukrainian crisis was just a pretext for Western action.

To get his point across, he brought in a famed Russian symbol — the bear.

“Sometimes I think, maybe it would be better for our bear to sit quiet, rather than chasing around the forest after piglets. To sit eating berries and honey instead. Maybe they will leave it in peace,” said Putin. “They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.”

He said by fangs and claws he meant Russia’s nuclear weapons. And the West wants to weaken Russia, he said, to win control over its rich natural resources.

“Once they’ve taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal,” he said. “The issue is not Crimea, the issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist.”

Putin urged a political solution for the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling Ukrainian government troops since April, leaving 4,700 people dead.

He said Ukraine must remain one political entity, meaning that its pro-Russian, rebellious eastern regions should not break away. He also suggested the Ukrainian government and rebels should conduct a quick “all for all” prisoners swap before Christmas.

Yet he defended Russia’s increased military activities, including stepped-up Russian military flights in the Baltics that NATO says are putting civilian flights at risk, as a necessary response to what he described as aggressive Western action.

“We aren’t on the offensive, we aren’t attacking anyone, we are only defending our interests,” he said.

Russian military aircraft only resumed their regular patrols a few years ago, he noted, claiming that U.S. aircraft have never stopped patrolling since the end of the Cold War and NATO has moved its forces close to Russian borders.

Putin said Russia wants to have normal economic and security ties with the West but wants to cooperate on equal terms.

“I believe that we are right, and our Western partners are wrong” on the Ukrainian crisis, he said.

The European Union on Thursday further beefed up its sanctions against Russia with a ban on investment in Crimea and other economic penalties including measures aimed at keeping tourists away.

Beginning Saturday, Europeans and EU-based companies cannot buy real estate or businesses in Crimea, finance Crimean companies or supply services. EU operators will no longer be allowed to offer tourism services to Crimea’s Black Sea beaches or other destinations. Cruise ships owned by an EU-based company or flying an EU member state’s flag will also no longer be allowed to call at Sevastopol or other Crimean ports except in an emergency.

Putin said he feels sure that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sincerely wants a peaceful solution to the crisis but other forces in Ukraine don’t. He urged the Ukrainian government to grant amnesty to the rebels and offer broad rights to eastern residents.

Putin also held out hope for normalizing ties with the West, saying that Russia stands ready to expand its gas supplies to southern Europe using a prospective gas hub on Turkey’s border with Greece.

Turning to the ruble’s collapse, he said the government should work with exporters to help stabilize the plummeting currency, but added that it shouldn’t be done through formal orders.

He said he had talked to the heads of some of Russia’s major companies to encourage them to sell more rubles — and said one promised to sell $3 billion to help stabilize the currency.

Asked about if he thinks there is a danger of “palace coup” of some of his lieutenants amid the crisis, he rejected the possibility, saying that he continues to rely on broad public support. He praised the performance of Igor Sechin, his longtime confidant who heads the Rosneft state-controlled oil giant, shrugging off a question about Sechin’s hefty paycheck.

Putin toned down his accusations against his foes, who he earlier had branded as Western stooges bent on undermining Russia. Hours before the press conference, a Russian tycoon under house arrest since September, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, was released.

Shares in Sistema, a company that Yevtushenkov controls and manages, shot up more than 140 percent on Moscow’s MICEX stock exchange on Putin’s words that he hopes that the company will regain its stance on the market.

One of Sistema’s most lucrative assets — the oil company Bashneft — was transferred to the government this month, but Putin said money-laundering charges against Yevtushenkov have been dropped.

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John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

Fed promises ‘patient’ approach to rate hikes

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve is signaling that it’s edging closer to raising interest rates from record lows because of a strengthening U.S. economy and job market. But it is promising to be “patient” in determining when to raise rates.

The Fed said Wednesday after a two-day meeting that this “patient” approach is consistent with what it called its “previous” guidance that it expected to keep the rate near zero for a “considerable time.”

The Fed gave no specific guidance on when the first rate hike might occur.

Most private economists believe that the first rate hike will occur in June as long as the inflation outlook doesn’t remain persistently below its target rate of 2 percent. In an updated economic forecast, the Fed lowered its inflation forecast for next year to 1 percent to 1.6 percent.

The Fed’s action was approved on a 7-3 vote. The fact that three Fed officials dissented from the majority view was evidence of the internal battles inside the Fed at the moment as the central bank tries to transition from an extended period of ultra-low interest rates to a period when it begins to raise rates. The Fed has not raised rates in more than eight years.

The dissents included Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher and Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, two of the Fed’s leading hawks, officials who believe the Fed needs to emphasize the fight against inflation more than the battle to boost employment. But Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Fed’s Minneapolis regional bank, also dissented. He is a leading dove, an official who has pushed for more efforts to boost employment.

The Fed’s decision to move to a “patient” approach had been expected given the significant gains this year in the labor market. The economy created 321,000 jobs in November, keeping on track for the healthiest year for job growth since 1999, with the unemployment rate now down to 5.8 percent. That is close to the 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent unemployment rate that the central bank considers maximum employment.

The Fed is following the pattern it set in 2004 when it moved away from the phrase “considerable period” in January of that year and substituted “patient.”: It followed that in June with the first rate hike.

The Fed’s key short-term rate has been at a record low near zero since December 2008. When the Fed does begin raising rates, the expectation is that the rate increases will be a gradual process implemented with small quarter-point moves that will leave consumer and business interest rates at historically low levels for a considerable period.

At the previous meeting in October, the Fed brought to an end its third round of bond purchases. Those bond purchases have pushed the Fed’s holdings to close to 44.5 trillion, more than four times the level of the Fed’s balance when the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008.

While it is not adding to those bond holdings, the Fed is maintaining the current record-high level which is continuing to exert downward pressure on long-term rates.

Supporters of the bond purchases defend them as a successful attempt by the Fed to use all tools at its disposal to battle the worst economic downturn the country has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But critics of the move contend that the Fed will find it difficult to sell off its massive holdings without jolting financial markets. They also worry that the sharp increase in the money supply that was a result of the bond purchases will at some point trigger unwanted inflation and potentially inflate dangerous asset bubbles.

Russians flock to stores to pre-empt price rises

 

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian consumers flocked to the stores Wednesday, frantically buying a range of big-ticket items to pre-empt the price rises kicked off by the staggering fall in the value of the ruble in recent days.

As the Russian authorities announced a series of measures to ease the pressure on the ruble, which slid 15 percent in the previous two days and raised fears of a bank run, many Russians were buying cars and home appliances — in some cases in record numbers — before prices for these imported goods shoot higher.

The Swedish furniture giant IKEA already warned Russian consumers that its prices will rise Thursday, which resulted in weekend-like crowds at a Moscow store on a Wednesday afternoon.

Shops selling a broad range of items were reporting record sales — some have even suspended operations, unsure of how far the ruble will sink. Apple, for one, has halted all online sales in Russia.

“This is a very dangerous situation. We are just a few days away from a full-blown run on the banks,” Russia’s leading business daily Vedomosti said in an editorial Wednesday. “If one does not calm down the currency market right now, the banking system will need robust emergency care.”

Alyona Korsuntseva, a shopper at IKEA in her 30s, said the current jitters surrounding the Russian economy reminded her of the 1998 Russian crisis when the ruble tumbled following the government’s default on sovereign bonds.

“What’s pressuring us is the fact that many people (back then) rushed to withdraw money from bank cards, accounts,” she says. “We want to safeguard ourselves so that things wouldn’t be as bad they were back then.”

Consumers are buying durable goods as they are seen as better investments than most Russian stocks. And, an overwhelming majority of Russians cannot afford to buy land or real estate.

Earlier this week, the ruble suffered catastrophic losses as traders continued to fret over the combined impact of low oil prices and Western sanctions over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s crisis.

Some signs emerged Wednesday that the ruble’s freefall may have come to an end and the currency could recover, at least in the short-term. After posting fresh losses early Wednesday, the ruble rallied more than 10 percent to around 60 per dollar at 9 p.m. Moscow time (1800 GMT, 1 p.m. EST).

Analysts credited a series of reassuring statements from the Central Bank and the government for the improving ruble backdrop.

First, Deputy Finance Minister Alexei Moiseyev said the government will sell foreign currency from its own reserves “as much as necessary and as long as necessary.”

Then the Central Bank announced an expanded series of measures to help calm the situation such as giving banks more freedom to increase interest rates on retail deposits and offering them more flexibility to deal with the ruble’s depreciation on their balance sheets.

Neil Shearing, chief emerging markets economist at London-based Capital Economics, said the “authorities have at last started to develop a strategy for containing the effects of the ruble’s collapse on the banking system and wider economy.”

Tom Levinson, chief foreign exchange and rates strategist at Sberbank CIB, agreed, saying the Central Bank could ease pressure on the ruble, even without massively spending its reserves.

“If they can provide measures that help secure the banking sector, provide confidence to investors and also to the population as a whole … that could be the first toward stabilizing the situation,” Levinson said in an interview. “Long way to go, but we are seeing some positive steps at last.”

The ruble’s tailspin continued Tuesday, despite a surprise move by Russia’s Central Bank to raise its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent — a move aimed to make it more attractive for currency traders to hold onto their rubles.

Should the current attempts to shore up the ruble fail, then the Russian authorities could be imposing capital controls.

However, Russia’s Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev has denied the government is considering doing so. While easing pressure on the ruble, the move would shatter Russia’s already tarnished reputation to investors.

Russian officials, meanwhile, have sought to project a message of confidence on state television, dwelling on the advantages of ruble devaluation, such as a boost to domestic manufacturing.

There are fears that the ruble could come under further pressure this week as President Barack Obama is expected to sign legislation authorizing new economic sanctions against Russia.

Whatever happens with the ruble, the Russian economy is set to shrink next year by 0.8 percent, even if oil prices stay above $80 per barrel. If oil prices stay at the current level of around $60, the Central Bank said the Russian economy could contract by nearly 5 percent.

The German government’s coordinator for relations with Russia, Gernot Erler, said the economic crisis in Russia was largely the result of the drop in oil prices, not the sanctions imposed by the West.

“It’s an illusion to think that if the sanctions were to fall away tomorrow, the Russian economy would suddenly be all right again,” Erler told rbb-Inforadio on Wednesday.

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Vladimir Kondrashov and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Obama: US re-establishing relations with Cuba

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba on Wednesday and declared an end to America’s “outdated approach” to the communist island in a historic shift aimed at ending a half-century of Cold War enmity.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said in remarks from the White House. “It’s time for a new approach.”

As Obama spoke to Americans, Cuban President Raul Castro addressed his own nation from Havana, saying that while the two countries still have profound differences in areas such as human rights and foreign policy, they must learn to live together “in a civilized manner.”

Wednesday’s announcements followed more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba, including clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican and personal involvement from Pope Francis. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties was accompanied by Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years, and the swap of a Cuban who had spied for the U.S. for three Cubans jailed in Florida. Gross spoke with Obama from the plane carrying him back to the U.S.

Obama’s plans are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties with Cuba, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking U.S. officials to visit and review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.

Obama’s action marked an abrupt use of U.S. executive authority. However, he cannot unilaterally end the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which was passed by Congress and would require action from lawmakers to overturn.

In a statement, the Vatican said Pope Francis “wishes to express his warm congratulations” for the efforts taken by Cuba and the U.S. “with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the news “very positive” and thanked the U.S. and Cuban presidents “for taking this very important step.”

Obama said Gross’ imprisonment had been a major obstacle in normalizing relations. Gross arrived at an American military base just outside Washington Wednesday morning, accompanied by his wife and a handful of U.S. lawmakers. He went immediately into a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, who said he looked forward to becoming the first U.S. secretary of state in 60 years to visit Cuba.

Licensed American travelers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.

The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months. Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans and removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Kerry is also launching a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.

Obama said he continued to have serious concerns about Cuba’s human rights record but did not believe the current American policy toward the island was advancing efforts to change the government’s behavior.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” he said.

Some on Capitol Hill disagreed with his move.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the new U.S. policy would do nothing to address the issues of Cuba’s political system and human rights record.

“But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come,” Rubio said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that while he remains concerned about human rights and political freedom inside Cuba, “I support moving forward toward a new path with Cuba.”

U.S. officials said Cuba was taking some steps as part of the agreement to address its human rights issues, including freeing 53 political prisoners.

Cuba also released a non-American U.S. intelligence ‘asset’ along with Gross. Officials said the spy had been held for nearly 20 years and was responsible for some of the most important counterintelligence prosecutions that the United States has pursed in recent decades. That includes convicted Cuban spies Ana Belen Montes, Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers and a group known as the Cuban Five.

The three Cubans released in exchange for the spy are part of the Cuban Five — a group of men who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Cuba’s then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S.

Two of the five were previously released after finishing their sentences.

Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country. It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship.

Bonnie Rubinstein, Gross’ sister, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television.

“We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she said in a brief telephone interview from her home in Texas.

Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Gross’ family has said he was in ailing health. His wife, Judy, said in a statement earlier this month that he had lost more than 100 pounds, could barely walk due to chronic pain and had lost much of the sight in his right eye.

He walked without assistance after he arrived back in the United States.

Taliban storm Pakistani school, killing 126

 

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on Tuesday, killing 126 people, officials said, in the worst attack to hit the country in years.

The overwhelming majority of the victims were students at the army public school, which has children and teenagers in grades 1-10. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the assault and rushed to Peshawar to show his support for the victims.

The horrific attack, carried out by a relatively small number of militants from the Tehreek-e-Taliban, a Pakistani militant group trying to overthrow the government, also sent dozens of wounded flooding into local hospitals as terrified parents searched for their children.

“My son was in uniform in the morning. He is in a casket now,” wailed one parent, Tahir Ali, as he came to the hospital to collect the body of his 14-year-old son Abdullah. “My son was my dream. My dream has been killed.”

The attack began in the morning hours, with about half a dozen gunmen entering the school — and shooting at random, said police officer Javed Khan. Army commandos quickly arrived at the scene and started exchanging fire with the gunmen, he said. Students wearing their green school uniforms could be seen on Pakistani television, fleeing the area.

Outside the school, two loud booms of unknown origin were heard coming from the scene in the early afternoon, as Pakistani troops battled with the attackers. Armored personnel carriers were deployed around the school grounds, and a Pakistani military helicopter circled overhead.

Details were sketchy in the face of the overwhelming tragedy. Pakistani television showed soldiers surrounding the area and pushing people back. Ambulances streamed from the area to local hospitals.

The operation appeared to be winding down in the early evening. Pakistani military spokesman, Asim Bajwa, said on Twitter that the operation to clear the school was “closing up.” He said 11 more staff members had been rescued from inside the school.

The information minister for the province, Mushtaq Ghani, said 126 people were killed in the attack. Most of the dead were students, children and teenagers from the school, he said. Hospital officials said earlier that at least one teacher and a paramilitary soldier were among the dead.

Pervez Khattak, the chief minister of the province where Peshawar is located, said fighting was still underway in some parts of the school.

The prime minister vowed that the country would not be cowed by the violence and that the military would continue with an aggressive operation launched in June in the North Waziristan tribal area to rout militants.

“The fight will continue. No one should have any doubt about it,” Sharif said.

It was not clear how many students and staff remained still inside the facility. A student who escaped and a police official on the scene earlier said that at one point, about 200 students were being held hostage. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.

One of the wounded students, Abdullah Jamal, said that he was with a group of 8th, 9th and 10th graders who were getting first-aid instructions and training with a team of Pakistani army medics when the violence began for real.

When the shooting started, Jamal, who was shot in the leg, said nobody knew what was going on in the first few seconds.

“Then I saw children falling down who were crying and screaming. I also fell down. I learned later that I have got a bullet,” he said, speaking from his hospital bed.

Another student, Amir Mateen, said they locked the door from the inside when they heard the shooting but gunmen blasted through the door anyway and started shooting.

The school is located on the edge of a military cantonment in Peshawar, but the bulk of the students are civilian.

There was conflicting information about how many attackers carried out the violence, but it was a relatively small number.

Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to media, saying that six suicide bombers had carried out the attack in revenge for the killings of Taliban members at the hands of Pakistani authorities. But the chief minister said there were eight attackers, dressed in military uniforms. Two were killed by security forces and one blew himself up, Khattak said. The rest were still fighting.

Peshawar has been the target of frequent militant attacks in the past but has seen a relative lull recently.

The Pakistani military launched the military operation in the nearby North Waziristan tribal area in June, vowing that it would go after all militant groups that had been operating in the region. With the launch of the operation, security officials and civilians feared a backlash by militants targeted by the military but until Tuesday, a widespread backlash had failed to materialize.

Tuesday’s attack calls into question whether the militants have been crippled by the military or will be able to regroup. This appeared to be the worst attack in Pakistan since the 2008 suicide bombing in the port city of Karachi killed 150 people.

The violence also underscored the vulnerability of Pakistani schools, which was dramatically exposed in the attack two years ago on Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl shot in the head by a Taliban gunman outside her school in Swat Valley for daring to speak up about girls’ rights. She survived, becoming a Nobel Prize laureate and global advocate for girls’ education but out of security concerns has never returned to Pakistan.

Militants have also blown up schools in the northwest.

“I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us,” said Malala in a statement. “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters, but we will never be defeated.”

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Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Rebecca Santana in Islamabad, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report

On path to harsh tactics, CIA chose haste over analysis

 

(PhatzNewsRoom / Boston Globe)    —   WASHINGTON — Almost immediately after transferring the first important prisoner they had captured since the 9/11 attacks to a secret prison in Thailand, CIA officials met at the agency’s headquarters to debate two questions they had been discussing for months. Who would interrogate Abu Zubaydah, and how?

A CIA lawyer at the April 1, 2002, meeting suggested the name of a psychologist, James Mitchell, who had been on contract for several months, analyzing Al Qaeda for the agency’s Office of Technical Service, the arm of the CIA that creates disguises and builds James Bond-like spy gadgets.

The lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, had heard the name from someone in the office, and within hours of floating it, counterterrorism officials were on the phone with Mitchell. By that evening, according to the report released last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the agency had incorporated Mitchell’s views into a classified cable ordering preparations for the interrogation of Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative.

The cable called for constant lighting, loud music, and an all-white room to keep Zubaydah awake. The setup would cause “psychological disorientation, and reduced psychological wherewithal,” the cable read.

With little debate or vetting of Mitchell and his approach, the CIA that day in 2002 started down a road to interrogation practices that Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, last week called “a stain on our values and our history.”

In the months that followed, Mitchell, a former Air Force explosives expert and trainer, and later his partner, Bruce Jessen, another psychologist and former Air Force officer, designed, led and directed the interrogations and became the prime advocates for what is now widely considered to have been torture. In the process, they made tens of millions of dollars under contracts that their critics within the CIA warned at the time gave them financial incentives to repeatedly use the most brutal techniques.

The CIA has said it hired Mitchell and Jessen because their experience with nonstandard interrogation was unparalleled. But the government’s own experts favored the traditional approach to questioning prisoners. And the Senate report makes clear that the speed with which Mitchell was brought into the program — less than 24 hours elapsed between the time his name was floated and that first cable — meant there was no time to analyze whether his approach was best.

Former officials involved in the program attribute the speed to one thing: desperation. With the CIA under pressure to obtain information from its prisoners, Mitchell seemed to have the answer to how to do it.

That eagerness for a new, aggressive approach is reflected elsewhere in the Senate report. One CIA officer said the agency’s best intelligence justifying harsh interrogations came from a “walk-in” source — someone who appeared one day and told the CIA that Allah permitted jihadists to cooperate only if they were threatened. There is no evidence in the report that the CIA ever corroborated those assertions.

In a lengthy interview last week after the CIA released him from an order forbidding his talking about his role in its program, Mitchell said the speed of his hiring surprised him.

“I never knew how that happened,” he said. “I just got a phone call.”

Mitchell said he disagreed with the conclusions of the Senate report and believes he has been unfairly demonized. His role, he said, was more complicated than has been presented.

Mitchell and Jessen had worked as trainers at the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program, which subjected US airmen to the kind of interrogation they might face if captured so they could learn to resist it. Building on that experience, Mitchell proposed to the CIA a list of so-called enhanced interrogation tactics, including locking people in cramped boxes, shackling them in painful positions, keeping them awake for a week at a time, covering them with insects, and waterboarding, which simulates drowning and which the United States had considered torture.

Although the earliest mention of these tactics in the Senate report is July 2002, Justice Department documents released years ago show that CIA officials began discussing them within days of the April 1 meeting when Mitchell was brought aboard. John Rizzo, the agency’s top lawyer at the time, also placed those discussions in April in his memoir “Company Man.” He described some of the tactics as “sadistic and terrifying” but left it to Justice Department lawyers to decide whether they were legal. They ultimately decided they were.

Iran’s President Pledges to Face Down Forces Opposing a Nuclear Deal

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —   TEHRAN — Risking his political standing, Iran’s president stressed on Monday that he was determined to cinch a nuclear deal and prepared to take on the conservative forces who would prefer not to see an agreement with the West, even if that means continued economic sanctions on Iran.

“Some people may not like to see the sanctions lifted,” the president, Hassan Rouhani, said as Iranian negotiators and their United States counterparts resumed talks in Geneva. “Their numbers are few, and they want to muddy the waters.”

A deadline for those talks was extended by seven months after the parties failed to conclude a deal in November. Mr. Rouhani is continuing to maintain that a deal will be concluded. His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said last month that an agreement could be reached in a matter of “weeks.”

Both men have tied their political future to the deal, analysts say. Despite the setbacks in the talks, Mr. Rouhani stays on message on what he says is Iran’s bright future.

Mr. Rouhani came to office this year promising not just to strike a nuclear deal that would lift economic sanctions but to end Iran’s isolation from the world economy and to promote individual freedoms.

“The people will achieve their rights,” Mr. Rouhani said. “You should also prepare for interaction with the world,” he told an audience of central bank employees. “You should know that in the near future many investors will come to our country.”

He acknowledged that there are groups in Iran opposed to a nuclear deal, presumably those who benefited from sanctions by tightening their grip on the economy, often officials connected to hard-line clerics and commanders.

Arrayed against these powerful figures is the entire Iranian elite, Mr. Rouhani said.

“The overwhelming majority of our nation — intellectuals, academics, theologians, the greats and the leadership — are in favor of getting the sanctions removed.”

United States and Iranian diplomats had a preliminary meeting on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva on Monday before wider talks between Iran and six world powers get underway on Wednesday. Iran, pressured by a collapse in oil prices as well as inflation and lagging growth, wants sanctions lifted, while the world powers are demanding more control over Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In a reminder of how far Iran may still have to go in guaranteeing individual rights, a spokeswoman for Mary Rezaian, the mother of the arrested American-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian, said that Ms. Rezaian, an American, would travel to Tehran on Wednesday to try to meet him. Mr. Rezaian, a correspondent for The Washington Post, has been held in Evin prison since July 22.

2 Military Bases in Syria Fall to Rebels

 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Two important Syrian military bases in Idlib Province, under rebel siege for two years, fell on Monday to insurgents led by the Nusra Front, the Islamist militant group aligned with Al Qaeda, fighters and activist groups monitoring the conflict reported.

The Nusra fighters appeared to have achieved the victory partly by using American TOW antitank missiles they had captured from more moderate antigovernment fighters backed by the United States, another sign that those fighters are struggling to regain the initiative from extremist groups.

In what seemed like a significant strategic loss for Syria’s military, its soldiers abandoned the bases in the country’s northwest, Wadi Deif and Hamidiyeh, after intense fighting that began Sunday morning. Activists said the attackers had seized 13 checkpoints around Wadi Deif and seven around Hamidiyeh, and by early Monday afternoon they had control of both bases.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the fighting through a network of contacts on the ground, the Nusra-led attackers captured at least 15 Syrian soldiers. It said at least 31 soldiers and 12 insurgents had been killed in the assaults.

The two bases are important because they sit on a major highway linking the cities of Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus, the capital. If insurgents hold the bases, they could gain an opportunity to interfere with the Syrian military’s ability to supply and reinforce the forces that have been trying to retake Aleppo. The besieged city once was Syria’s commercial center but has been ravaged by the war.

The rebels also now could try to choke off supplies to Idlib, one of the few places in the province still under government control.

The Nusra Front has emerged as a powerful force in Idlib, intimidating not only Syrian government forces but also rebel factions that do not share its radical Islamic ideology. Last month Nusra militants routed comparatively moderate fighters of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, one of the recipients of American weapons, including the precision TOW missiles. The missiles can blast through tanks and other armored weapons.

Photographs posted on Twitter by Nusra fighters in their takeover of the two bases included images of TOW missiles. Yasser Abdullatif, a spokesman for the Islamic Front, a coalition aligned with Nusra, said in a telephone interview that they had been seized from the vanquished Syrian Revolutionaries Front.

“The TOWS that were used in this battle were from the Americans,” he said.

Entertainment: Camille Cosby defends husband as ‘kind, generous’

 

NEW YORK (AP) — Bill Cosby’s wife rejected sex assault allegations against her husband of a half-century on Monday, saying the man being accused by at least 15 women of drugging and having sex with them is “a man I do not know.”

In a statement issued Monday, Camille Cosby dismissed accusations that date back as far as the late 1960s.

She suggested that her husband, not the women, is the party being harmed.

“None of us will ever want to be in the position of attacking a victim,” she said. “But the question should be asked __ who is the victim?”

Cosby is being sued for defamation by one alleged victim and for sexual battery by another woman who says he forced her to perform a sex act when she was 15. He has never been charged in connection with any of the accusations, and his lawyers deny many of the allegations. He settled with a Pennsylvania woman who in a 2005 lawsuit said Cosby drugged and molested her in 2004.

A new round of claims of sexual assault and rape began in early November – accusations Camille Cosby said haven’t been properly vetted by the media. She likened the media’s handling of the accusations to a Rolling Stone article about a gang rape at the University of Virginia that later proved to be untrue, saying her husband’s accusers have been “given a pass” by the media.

“The (Rolling Stone) story was heart-breaking, but ultimately appears to be proved to be untrue. Many in the media were quick to link that story to stories about my husband – until that story unwound,” she said.

Noting that she married Cosby in 1964, a year after they met, she said, “The man I met, and fell in love with, and whom I continue to love, is the man you all knew through his work. He is a kind man, a generous man, a funny man, and a wonderful husband, father and friend. He is the man you thought you knew.”

The statement, released by Cosby spokesman David Brokaw, is the first public comment from Camille Cosby since the renewed allegations began.

Since then, the 77-year-old comedian’s tour has been whittled by cancellations and indefinite postponements of about 10 concerts in as many states reaching into next spring. A comedy special was canceled by Netflix, and NBC scuttled his prospective new sitcom that had been in the works.

Earlier Monday, Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black institution, announced it was suspending its endowed professorship with Cosby.

Camille Cosby’s defense of her husband came after this weekend’s publication of a brief interview with Cosby in The New York Post, where he maintained his silence regarding the allegations while praising his wife for “love and the strength of womanhood” for weathering the public scrutiny raging against him.

While many of the allegations against Cosby are blocked from court by statutes of limitations, a Southern California woman has sued the comedian claiming he molested her in a bedroom of the Playboy Mansion around 1974 when she was 15 years old.

A lawyer for the woman, Judy Huth, wrote in a court filing Friday that he has interviewed two witnesses who corroborate her story. Attorney Marc Strecker also states he has photographs of Huth and Cosby that were shot at the Playboy Mansion when she was underage.

Cosby’s attorneys are seeking to dismiss Huth’s lawsuit, stating her efforts to sell her story to a tabloid 10 years ago undercut her claim that she only recently discovered the psychological damage she contends Cosby caused.

___

AP Entertainment Writer Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

National: Search intensifies for gunman who killed 6

 

PENNSBURG, Pa. (AP) — The manhunt for a Marine veteran suspected of killing his ex-wife and five of her relatives amid a child custody dispute has spread to two suburban Philadelphia counties.

Some schools were closed Tuesday, hospitals and other public places increased security and residents remained on heightened alert, even as officials lifted a shelter-in-place order for parts of Bucks County, where a knife-wielding, fatigue-clad man resembling suspect Bradley William Stone attempted a carjacking Monday night.

The killings and the manhunt through neighborhoods and woods echoed two other Pennsylvania tragedies: George Banks shooting and killing 13 people, including five of his children, at two locations in Wilkes-Barre in 1982; and Eric Frein’s 48 days on the run through the Poconos after a shooting in September killed a state trooper and injured another.

Monday’s shooting rampage started before dawn at the home of Stone’s former sister-in-law in Souderton and ended about 90 minutes later at ex-wife Nicole Stone’s apartment in nearby Harleysville, prosecutors said.

Stone’s former wife, 33-year-old Nicole Stone, was found dead after a neighbor saw Brad Stone fleeing just before 5 a.m. Monday with their two young daughters.

Police then made the grim discovery of five people killed in two other houses: Nicole Stone’s sister, brother-in-law and 14-year-old niece were dead. A 17-year-old nephew was left clinging to life. And her mother and grandmother had been fatally shot.

Brad Stone and his ex-wife had been locked in a court fight over their children’s custody since she filed for divorce in 2009. He filed an emergency motion early this month, although the resulting Dec. 9 ruling remains sealed in court files.

“She would tell anybody who would listen that he was going to kill her and that she was really afraid for her life,” said Evan Weron, a neighbor at the Pheasant Run Apartments in Harleysville.

He said Nicole Stone would talk frequently about the custody dispute.

“(Nicole) came into the house a few times, a few separate occasions, crying about how it was very upsetting to her,” Weron said.

Neighbors woke to the sounds of breaking glass and gunshots coming from Nicole Stone’s apartment early Monday. They alerted authorities after seeing her ex-husband racing away with the children. The girls later were found safe with his neighbors, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said.

She declined to discuss the weapon or weapons involved in the slayings, and said authorities did not know if Stone was traveling on foot.

Stone, who’s white, about 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, likely was wearing military fatigues and may have shaved off his facial hair, said Ferman. She added that he sometimes used a cane or walker.

“As I stand here right now, we do not know where he is,” Ferman said at an evening news briefing.

The briefing came as SWAT teams surrounded his Pennsburg home for hours on Monday and pleaded through a bullhorn for him to surrender.

The rampage started in Souderton at the home of Brad Stone’s former sister-in-law and ended about 90 minutes later at Nicole Stone’s apartment in nearby Harleysville, Ferman said.

Nicole Stone’s sister, Patricia Flick, her sister’s husband, Aaron Flick, and the couple’s 14-year-old daughter, Nina Flick, were killed in the first wave of violence, which was not discovered until nearly 8 a.m. Their 17-year-old son, Anthony Flick, was pulled from the house with a head wound and was taken in an armored vehicle and then by helicopter to a Philadelphia hospital for treatment.

Nicole Stone’s mother, Joanne Hill, and grandmother Patricia Hill were killed next at their home in nearby Lansdale. Investigators were alerted by a hang-up call to emergency dispatchers, Ferman said.

Then they got the call from Nicole Stone’s neighbors.

Harleysville, Lansdale and Souderton are within a few miles of each other.

“I’m (angry) because he could have come to my door and I could have taken him to a treatment center, and we could have worked this out,” said longtime friend Matthew Schafte.

He described Stone as a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, but said he was not aware of any resulting injuries.

“He was pumped to go into the military,” said Schafte, who said his friend was a fixture at a local American Legion post, both before and after his service.

His wife, Tina Bickert Schafte, said she had babysat for both Nicole Stone and her sister Patricia when they were growing up.

Brad and Nicole Stone married in 2004 and filed for divorce in 2009, court records show. Nicole Stone became engaged over the summer, neighbors said.

He had faced several driving-under-the-influence charges, one of which was handled in veterans’ court and led to a three- to 23-month sentence.

Brad Stone remarried last year, according to his Facebook page and court records, and has an infant son. Neither his wife nor the son were injured. His wife’s Facebook page shows their son and Stone’s daughters having their picture taken with Santa on Saturday.

___

Dale reported from Harleysville. Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson contributed from Souderton and Harleysville.

Business: Ruble rallies on Central Bank rate hike

 

MOSCOW (AP) — A massive overnight rate hike by Russia’s Central Bank pushed the ruble 5 percent higher in early trading on Tuesday, reversing the currency’s fall but spelling troubles for the economy ahead.

The ruble traded at 61 per dollar less than an hour into the trading after losing about 10 percent on Monday in the biggest fall since the 1998 economic meltdown.

The surprise Central Bank announcement to hike the rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent came in the early hours on Tuesday in a desperate move to prop up the trouble currency. It’s the biggest interest rate hike since 1998, a year when Russia defaulted on its sovereign bonds.

The move was meant to make it expensive for currency traders to buy rubles and sell them on the market.

The ruble has lost half of its value this year and the decline intensified in the past months by Western sanctions and plunging oil prices.

“With these steps, the Central Bank is looking to bring stability back to the (foreign exchange) market, which has been behaving irrationally over the last few weeks,” Moscow-based investment bank Sberbank-CIB said in a morning note. “This state of affairs required extraordinary measures from the Central Bank — and such measures have now been taken.”The bank, however, added that this step is unlikely to reverse the collapse of the ruble.

The central bank has gradually raised the rate from 5.5 percent early this year. Last Thursday, it tried unsuccessfully to stem the ruble’s slide by boosting its key rate by 1 percentage point to 10.5 percent.

The rate increase, although it can help stabilize the ruble, could spell serious economic troubles ahead, making it more expensive for companies to borrow funds.

Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s finance minister in 2000-2011, said on Twitter following the rate hike that “the fall of the ruble and the stock market is not just a reaction to low oil prices and the sanctions but also (a show of) distrust to economic policies of the government.”

Europe’s Impatience With Israel on Peace Talks Tests U.S. Diplomacy

 

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —   Hoping to find a way to redirect those efforts, Mr. Kerry spent Monday meeting Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and European foreign ministers. He is scheduled to visit London on Tuesday to see Palestinian negotiators and the leader of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, on what has been a hastily organized trip. Mr. Kerry may find help from the Jordanians, who would have to put forward a Security Council resolution for the Palestinians and have said they are not yet committed to doing so this week.

On Sunday evening, even before meeting Mr. Kerry, the Palestinians announced their plan to press for a vote on their resolution at the Security Council as early as Wednesday. The move seemed to be an effort to pressure the United States either to veto the resolution or to come up with language, in any French-sponsored resolution, that is closer to the Palestinian position.

But with the announcement, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was also responding to internal politics after the death last week at an anti-settlement demonstration in the West Bank of a Palestinian minister, Ziad Abu Ein, who was in an altercation with Israeli forces. The Palestinians have put the blame for his death on Israel, which says he died from a stress-related heart attack.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian spokesman and vice president of Birzeit University, said the announcement had “resulted from increased public pressure, because of Ziad Abu Ein and an accumulation of many things.”

But the move, he said, “may also be a way to influence the debate that is taking place in Europe and to place pressure on Kerry, who is negotiating with the Europeans.”

The French, with significant European support, a senior European diplomat said, believe that there is a “window of opportunity” before the Israeli elections in mid-March to pass a resolution pressing for a rapid resumption of peace talks, with a two-year deadline. France told Security Council members on Monday that it was ready to circulate a draft text that would set “parameters for negotiations.”

 

Washington would prefer to wait until the Israeli elections are over, and Israel is pressing the United States to veto any Security Council action and use its diplomatic might to try to stall individual European efforts.

More pressure on Israel could help Mr. Netanyahu, the Americans have argued to the Europeans, who see Mr. Netanyahu as an obstacle toward negotiations. There is also the possibility that Mr. Netanyahu could lose the election, and that a new Israeli government might be more receptive to talks. Failing that, a resolution without a hard deadline could get American support and forestall the need for a veto.

Talks are continuing on whether to include a specific mention of “a Jewish state,” as the original 1947 General Assembly resolution did.

“Our American friends are cautiously, under certain conditions with certain red lines, ready to engage,” said one diplomat at the Security Council, speaking anonymously in accordance with diplomatic protocol. “There is a narrow path right now to get a consensus resolution.”

A veto now might also be seen as intervention in Israeli politics. It would also be criticized by the Palestinians and by the Arab League, a number of whose member states are part of the American-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Mr. Netanyahu was scathing on Monday, vowing, “We will not accept attempts to dictate to us unilateral moves on a limited timetable.” He added, “We will rebuff any attempt that would put this terrorism inside our home, inside the state of Israel.”

The effort to press for new peace talks and to support a two-state solution before it is somehow too late is impelling France, in particular, French diplomats say.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, will have his own meeting with the Palestinian and Arab League representatives in Paris, which his spokesman described on Monday as “part of France’s efforts to relaunch, on a credible basis and as swiftly as possible, the peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians” and “to offer the parties a concrete political horizon.”

It was indicative of the pressures building up at the United Nations that Robert Serry, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, briefed the Security Council on Monday to urge a quick resumption of peace talks.

He called the nonbinding European resolutions in favor of a Palestinian state “significant developments that serve to highlight growing impatience at the continued lack of real progress in achieving a two-state solution” and noted that “governments are under increased public pressure to promote an end to the conflict once and for all.”

Mr. Serry said that Security Council resolutions could not replace Israeli-Palestinian talks, but that he hoped “Security Council action will generate constructive momentum.”

Still, the chances of a resolution coming to a vote before the end of the year appear slim. Jordan, which currently represents the Arab countries on the Council, has not said whether or when it plans to bring the Palestinians’ resolution up for a vote.

The Palestinians would need nine of the 15 votes in the current Security Council to pass the resolution, which would force the United States, as one of the permanent members, to decide whether or not to veto it. The Palestinians may have better luck after Jan. 1, when Malaysia, Spain and Venezuela become members of the Council.

Justices reject Arizona bid over abortion drugs

 

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is refusing to allow Arizona to enforce stringent restrictions on drug-induced abortions while a challenge to those rules plays out in lower courts.

The justices on Monday left in place a lower court ruling that blocked regulations that control where and how women can take medications that cause abortions. The rules also would prohibit use of the drugs after the seventh week of pregnancy instead of the ninth.

Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, said it would have been extremely rare for the high court to grant the state’s request to enforce the restrictions.

“We’re disappointed, of course, but at this point there is nothing more that we can do,” Grisham said.

Planned Parenthood is among the abortion providers challenging the rules in federal court.

“The court did the right thing today, but this dangerous and misguided law should never have passed in the first place,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April issued an injunction blocking the rules while the case against them plays out in federal court in Tucson. A federal judge initially denied Planned Parenthood’s request for an injunction. The appeals court overturned his ruling.

Planned Parenthood Arizona has said about 800 women would have had to get surgical abortions in 2012 if the rules were in effect then.

The state Legislature approved the restrictions in 2012. Arizona argues they protect women’s health by mandating a federally approved protocol.

Similar laws are in effect in North Dakota, Ohio and Texas. The Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the restrictions in that state.

The rules ban women from taking the most common abortion-inducing drug, mifepristone, after the seventh week of pregnancy.

In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration approved the medication’s use through the first seven weeks of pregnancy. Mifepristone is prescribed with a second drug, misoprostol.

Since the FDA approval, medical researchers and clinical trials have shown mifepristone is effective in much smaller doses and for two weeks longer in a pregnancy, the challengers said. The second drug may be taken at home.

Arizona’s rules would require the drugs be taken only at the FDA-approved doses and only at clinics.

Planned Parenthood says medication-induced abortions account for more than 40 percent of abortions at its clinics.

To justify the restrictions, Arizona and the other states have pointed to the deaths of at least eight women who took the drugs. But the 9th Circuit said the FDA investigated those deaths and found no causal connection between them and the use of mifespristone or misoprostol.

___

Associated Press writer Astrid Galvan in Tucson, Arizona, contributed to this report.

Detroit bankruptcy tab to be revealed this month

(PhatzNewsRoom / USA Today)    —   DETROIT — The city of Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy will end Wednesday, setting in motion a sweeping plan to slash $7 billion in debt and reinvest $1.4 billion over 10 years to improve city services.

Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr told reporters that the final paperwork required to allowed the city to emerge from bankruptcy will be completed by the end of the day.

Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s restructuring plan in November, giving the city the authority to implement the grand bargain to help reduce pension cuts, preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts and start improving basic services.

The end of the bankruptcy also marks the end of Orr’s tenure. His resignation will take effect when the city emerges from bankruptcy by midnight.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity and very fortunate for the outcome on behalf of the city,” Orr said. “The reality is the city is moving forward and that gives me a great deal of pride and satisfaction. But it truly is bittersweet. I’ve grown a great deal of fondness for the city.”

Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Orr in March 2013 to take over the city’s operations. Orr, a Washington, D.C., bankruptcy attorney with Jones Day, authorized the bankruptcy on July 18, 2013, and led restructuring talks with creditors.

“It’s truly historic,” Snyder said Wednesday. “This has been an extremely difficult and hard process for many people but people worked together. We’ve got an outstanding outcome, far better than people’s expectation. And now most importantly we have the city poised for a new chapter — a new chapter about the growth of the city of Detroit after decades of decline.”

Mayor Mike Duggan welcomed Orr’s exit. The mayor and City Council will regain control of the city following Orr’s exit, but they will report to a state oversight board called the Financial Review Commission. Duggan and Council President Brenda Jones are members of the commission.

The commission will have the power to reject Detroit’s spending and borrowing over the next decade.

“We’re better off today than we were 18 months ago,” City Council member Gabe Leland said.

The consummation of the bankruptcy plan will allow the Detroit Institute of Art to spin off as an independent institution. The city-owned museum’s assets will be transferred to the nonprofit that operates the museum.

Detroit bankruptcy mediators, led by U.S. District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen, raised $366 million in 20-year pledges from a group of national and local foundations to help fund the grand bargain. The DIA pledged $100 million from its own roster of donors, which includes the Detroit Three automakers. And the state of Michigan committed $195 million upfront to help resolve the bankruptcy.

Retirees voted to accept the grand bargain and corresponding pension cuts, which vary in size depending on the individual. Police and fire retirees get the smallest cuts, with just a reduction in their annual pension increases. Civilian retirees get cuts of at least 4.5% per month. Pension cuts are expected to take effect in March.

The city is also slashing retiree health care insurance by about 90%. The plan of adjustment creates two new Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) groups to manage health care benefits for retirees who still qualify for payments from the city to offset their costs.

The plan of adjustment projects the city will free up about $1.7 billion over 10 years to invest in police, fire, blight removal, information technology and other services, but that figure is pegged to expectations of an improved government bureaucracy. It includes $483 million in anticipated new revenues from higher bus fares and parking fees, for example, as well as $358 million in cost savings.

The rest comes from the improved cash flow from the city’s reduced debt load. With less debt, the city can spend more on services.

“There’s no check for $1.7 billion,” Duggan said. “So basically it’s money that we’re going to have to earn as we produce.”

Duggan acknowledged that the plan of adjustment could shift as the city encounters fiscal realities.

“It’s a road map,” he said. “It will get adjusted as we progress. It’s a framework that says if we execute really well we’ll be able to provide the kind of services that people in a city our size expect.”

Orr’s departure comes about 21 months after his appointment in March 2013. When he accepted the job, he severed ties to his law firm, Jones Day, which the city ultimately hired to handle the bankruptcy case.

Asked whether he would consider returning to Jones Day, Orr demurred. He said he would “take a little time and decompress” after the bankruptcy and plans to consider his next steps in early 2015.

Judge Steven Rhodes will have a hearing Monday on some administrative steps to complete the bankruptcy process.

 

The city of Detroit must reveal the total cost of its Chapter 9 bankruptcy within about two weeks.

Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes on Monday instructed the city’s attorneys and advisers to submit their final invoices by Dec. 22. The city must tabulate the total costs and release that information publicly five days later, Rhodes ruled.

As of Oct. 31, the cost had exceeded $144 million. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had expressed concern that the figure could approach $200 million, dealing a blow to the city’s ability to recover after the historic restructuring process.

But the city’s bankruptcy professionals slashed millions off their tab during confidential mediation proceedings earlier this month, and Duggan has dropped his objections to the costs.

All advisers to the city, the U.S. government-appointed Official Committee of Retirees and Detroit’s two pension funds were required to submit itemized lists of their bills to fee examiner Robert Fishman for review.

Rhodes must still approve the fees as reasonable in one of the final administrative moves of the case.

“There has been a rigorous process with the fee examiner,” said Jones Day attorney Jeffrey Ellman, a city lawyer, at a bankruptcy hearing Monday morning. “There has now been a fully vetted mediation, which I believe has led to a full resolution of the issues.”

The city officially exited bankruptcy Wednesday, concluding a 17-month case and allowing Detroit to slash more than $7 billion in liabilities and reinvest $1.7 billion over 10 years in services.

The plan of adjustment projects the city will free up about $1.7 billion over 10 years to invest in police, fire, blight removal, information technology and other services, but that figure is pegged to expectations of an improved government bureaucracy. It includes $483 million in anticipated new revenues from higher bus fares and parking fees, for example, as well as $358 million in cost savings.

Separately Monday, Ellman said the city is still analyzing the various claims in a class of creditors dubbed Class 14, which includes mostly people who sued the city and are owed settlements.

Class 14 voted no on the city’s restructuring plan, but Rhodes approved the plan regardless. Creditors in that class will receive payouts in the coming weeks.

Rhodes approved the city’s restructuring plan in November, giving the city the authority to implement the grand bargain to help reduce pension cuts, preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts and start improving basic services.

 

Contributing: Matt Helms, Detroit Free Press.

 

Palestinians Seek U.N. Vote on Israeli Withdrawal From Occupied West Bank

 

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —    LONDON — Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting in Rome on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, was confronted with unexpected pressure from the Palestinian Authority, which announced that it would put forward a United Nations Security Council resolution this week demanding a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank by November 2016.

The Palestinian announcement, which Mr. Netanyahu immediately denounced, could put Washington in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to veto the resolution. Mr. Kerry, who will travel to Paris from Rome, is expected to discuss with European colleagues a compromise Security Council resolution proposed by France that seeks a two-year deadline for negotiations to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Senior American officials traveling with Mr. Kerry said that no resolution had been finalized or submitted to the Security Council, but that Washington did not support deadlines for such negotiations.

At the moment, it is unclear whether the Palestinians — working through Jordan, which is one of the nonpermanent members of the Security Council — can get enough support on the body to submit their resolution this week. Mr. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Palestinian negotiators in London on Tuesday.

“Kerry and the Americans feel that using their veto will be a bit difficult, so they are trying to postpone our presentation of the resolution,” Abbas Zaki, a member of the central committee of the Fatah party, told Voice of Palestine radio.

Washington is also trying to avoid a confrontation with Mr. Netanyahu, who is in the middle of an election campaign before voting scheduled for March.

Washington has vetoed resolutions demanding Palestinian statehood in the past, but patience is running out in Europe. With no negotiations underway, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are rising, and Israel has continued to expand settlements beyond the lines of the 1967 armistice.

The Europeans regard the settlements as illegal; Washington regards them as unilateral actions and calls them “obstacles to peace.”

Palestinian frustration with Mr. Netanyahu has prompted various moves and threats, including a demand that the Palestinians be granted full membership in the United Nations before any peace settlement can be agreed with Israel.

Washington has said that it does not support these Palestinian actions or any arbitrary deadlines for peace negotiations or an Israeli withdrawal. Still, European sympathy for Palestinian statehood is on the rise. Sweden, whose minority government has fallen, has recognized the state of Palestine, and legislatures in other countries, including France and Britain, have urged their governments to do so.

The Obama administration would seem to prefer to press the Palestinians and the Europeans to put off any resolutions until after the Israeli elections, which could usher in a different prime minister.

On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu denounced the pressures, warned of “Islamic terrorism” and said that “this time, as well, we will not accept attempts to dictate to us unilateral moves on a limited timetable.”

He added, “We will rebuff any attempt that would put this terrorism inside our home, inside the state of Israel.”

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, said that Israel expected the United States “to stick to its longstanding policy, and veto” a Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.

The Palestinians need nine of the 15 votes in the Security Council to submit their resolution; they may have higher chances of reaching that threshold after Jan. 1, when Malaysia and Venezuela will become members of the Security Council.

Shiite rebels expand territory in Yemeni capital

 

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s Shiite rebels defeated rival tribesmen and took control of a northern district of the capital on Saturday, expanding their control of the city, their spokesman said.

Mohammed Abdel-Salam, spokesman of the rebels known as Houthis, said the forces took control of Arhab, a district of greater Sanaa. The group already controls most of the capital and several other cities.

Military and tribal officials said the Houthis used tanks and artillery to shell houses and neighborhoods of rival tribes. The fighting left dozens dead, including 12 tribesmen, they added. Houthis usually refrain from announcing deaths among their ranks. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Meanwhile the north, a Yemeni border guard shot and killed three suspected militants wearing women’s veils as they tried to cross into Saudi Arabia with a male driver, security officials said.

Soldiers at the Hawdh area’s border crossing had sent the car to a nearby police station to have policewomen check its occupants’ identities.

The officials said one of the disguised men shot a soldier who had boarded the car, slightly wounding him. He immediately opened fire with an automatic rifle in response, killing the three and injuring the driver, who later confessed that he and the three disguised men are al-Qaida members who had planned to attack Saudi border guards by suicide bombing.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief the media, said the driver told the border guards he was taking his family to visit Saudi Arabia.

In July, three al-Qaida militants and two border guards were killed in a car bomb attack and fighting at another border post, while other gunmen managed to enter Saudi Arabia in two cars.

Yemen’s local al-Qaida branch, also known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, claimed responsibility for those attacks. The group is considered by the U.S. to be the world’s most dangerous branch of the terror network and has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.

Three Months of Protests End Quietly in Hong Kong

 

HONG KONG — Pro-democracy protests that swept onto the streets of Hong Kong 11 weeks ago faced a muted ending on Monday, when the police dismantled the last remaining road occupation, and a prominent student activist, Joshua Wong, appeared in court with about 30 other arrested protesters.

But the city still confronted aftershocks from the months of political strife.

After almost three months of tumult, the street protests had dwindled to a few dozen tents in the Causeway Bay area, a hectic shopping district. Before the police moved in to clear the area, most of the remaining dozens of protesters packed away their tents and sleeping bags and left the road of shops and malls festooned with Christmas decorations. About 16 stayed sitting on the road, waiting to be arrested in a gesture of support for what they call the Umbrella Movement, after the umbrellas used to fend off police pepper spray.

“It’s my responsibility,” said Harry Chow, 47, a floor polisher who said he had quit his job to join the protests and would accept arrest. “I want to tell people that the Umbrella Movement is not ending, and this is just a small part of it.”

Within 30 minutes of the police moving in, the last tent was pulled down, and trucks mounted with cranes were brought in to clear debris from the road, while clusters of protesters shouted from the sidewalk. The camp at Causeway Bay was by far the smallest, and the least volatile, of the street occupations that sprang up across Hong Kong on Sept. 28. That day the police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse student protesters around the city government headquarters backfired, and tens of thousands of people took to the streets in anger, also demanding that the government heed their calls for democratic voting rights.

“We achieved something,” said Teresa Liu, a student who said she had regularly stayed at the camp since Sept. 29. “We achieved international notice, and since we got notice, China has no excuse to hide anymore.”

But the Hong Kong government gave no substantial concessions, and the protest movement increasingly succumbed to exhaustion and internal fractures. On Thursday, the police demolished the biggest camp, adjacent to the city government headquarters in the Admiralty district, and in late November they pulled down the camp in Mong Kok, a crowded neighborhood where protesters seeking to defend and win back their space on the streets had repeatedly clashed with the police.

Even with the streets cleared of barricades, Hong Kong faces reverberations from months of divisive confrontation, including court cases for protesters arrested for resisting the police and similar charges. As well, the government proposal for overhauling elections must undergo a new round of public comment, offering opponents another chance to mobilize.

The government’s proposed changes would for the first time allow Hong Kong residents to vote directly for the city’s leader, or chief executive. But protesters and many other critics say the proposed rules would offer only a sham public say. Real power would reside with the Chinese government, which could exclude candidates it did not like.

“In a way, this blew up in Beijing’s face,” Michael C. Davis, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said in an interview. “They’ve got a whole civil society up in arms. The danger is that their answer to problems in Hong Kong has been more control, and this is exactly what’s causing the public tensions.”

On Monday, the Hong Kong High Court held a brief hearing for about 30 arrested protesters, including Mr. Wong, the bespectacled 18-year-old who became one of the movement’s best-known leaders. The judge adjourned the case to early next year.

A few dozen protesters have also continued to camp on space around the Legislative Council’s building near Admiralty. Officials from the legislature had to give their approval before the police could enter the area to remove the protesters, the police have said. The local news media, citing police sources, said that area would also be cleared on Monday.

“We still haven’t got what we wanted,” said Jerry Lau, 34, a former driver who was among the protesters at the city legislature building. “I stayed here for over 70 days, so we still want a result.”

PhatzNewsRoom / AP – News Videos Updates
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