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Monthly Archives: October 2015

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Little outcry as hospitals bombed in Syria, Yemen

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BEIRUT (AP) — The first missile slammed into the field hospital in the rebel-held Syrian town of Sarmeen, killing a physiotherapist inside. Five minutes later, the aircraft returned, firing another missile that hit nearby just as the first responders were arriving. A total of 13 were killed, and the hospital organizers blamed Russian warplanes.

In Yemen, airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition targeting rebels destroyed a hospital run by the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders this week. Although there were no deaths, the hospital was the latest casualty of a campaign that has claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people since March.

But those strikes on hospitals brought little international outcry — a sharp contrast to an Oct. 3 American strike on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed 30 people and brought a firestorm of criticism on Washington.

The reasons are many, perhaps chief among them is general fatigue over the conflicts in Syria, now in its fifth year, and in Yemen, a relatively impoverished and isolated country mired in turmoil for more than a decade. Also, while the U.S. acknowledged relatively quickly that it carried out the strikes and President Barack Obama apologized to Doctors Without Borders, which also ran that facility, Russia and Saudi Arabia categorically deny that their campaigns hit civilians, and conditions on the ground make confirmations more difficult, muddying the waters for critics. Russia denied it hit the Sarmeen hospital, which was struck Oct. 20.

“After more than four years of war, I remain flabbergasted at how international humanitarian law can be so easily flouted by all parties to this conflict,” said Sylvain Groulx, head of Doctors Without Borders’ mission for Syria. “We can only wonder whether this concept is dead.”

The Syrian conflict has killed a quarter of a million people, producing a seemingly endless churn of death and devastation to viewers around the world. Hundreds of medical facilities have been destroyed throughout the war and 670 medical personnel have died since the start of the conflict in March 2011, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

The war in Yemen has generated little attention. There, Saudi Arabia and its allies have been waging an air campaign since March to back the president, ousted by Shiite rebels who have taken over large parts of the country. Civilian areas have borne a large part of the violence, and the U.N. said the Doctors Without Borders hospital hit Monday was the 39th health center struck in the air campaign.

Few governments around the world are eager to vocally criticize oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, since many benefit from its aid or investment. Saudi Arabia has also been able to win support for its campaign — even from the U.S. — by presenting it as aimed at pushing back the influence of Iran, which backs the rebels. For example, in Egypt, which is officially a partner in the Saudi coalition, little coverage of the Yemen war appears on TV stations and what does appear is uncritical.

“The media silence, coupled with a general lack of knowledge of Yemen and a growing anti-Shiite sentiment in the country, fuels the apathy toward the war,” said Egyptian analyst and sociologist Ziad A. Akl.

The relative silence over the civilian death toll in Yemen is in contrast, some say, to the outcry over Israel’s successive wars with the Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel was criticized over the heavy civilian death toll during last year’s war, when over 2,200 Palestinians were killed, including more than 1,400 civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel has said the civilian death toll was lower and blamed Hamas for civilian deaths, saying the group used schools, hospitals, mosques and residential areas as cover to stage attacks. The government often complains it is held to a double standard and comes under greater scrutiny than other nations.

Hirsh Goodman, an independent researcher on Israel’s strategic affairs, said the outcry against Israeli operations was a result of several factors, among them the world’s dislike of its nearly 50-year occupation of land Palestinians want for a future state and the increase of Muslims in Europe who are being more vocal against Israel.

He said that because of its military’s technological prowess, Israel is largely viewed as a Goliath and the Palestinians as a “beaten, battered, conquered people,” a narrative that has drawn many to support the Palestinians. He said that conflagrations in Yemen or Syria draw less attention because they are complicated and difficult to understand.

Bahrain political analyst Ali Fakhro said the similar abuses happen in Syria, Yemen or Gaza but public opinion in the Arab world is more “sensitive” about U.S. actions “because the U.S. committed many mistakes in the Arab region that can’t be forgotten easily, especially since it has a strong ties with Israel.”

And when it comes to Yemen, “no one is brave enough to criticize Saudi Arabia” and thus appear to be supporting Iran, he said.

Doctors Without Borders said there has been a significant increase on strikes on hospitals in northern Syria since late September — when the Russian campaign began — killing 35 Syrian patients and medical staff and wounding 73. In a statement Thursday, it said airstrikes have targeted twelve hospitals in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama governorates throughout October, including six hospitals it supports.

Russian officials have categorically denied hitting hospitals or any civilian targets in Syria. The Syrian American Medical Society, which runs the hospital in Sarmeen, said it was Russian strikes that hit in and around the facility, as did activists on the ground. Many Syrians say they can distinguish Russian airstrikes from those by the Syrian military because they show signs of being more technologically advanced, with larger explosions and planes flying much higher in the sky.

Raghda Ghanoum, a 23-year-old Syrian in a volunteer first responders group, was among the first to arrive to Sarmeen from nearby Saraqeb after it was hit. “There were dead people on the ground,” she told The Associated Press on Wednesday, saying that as she spoke Russian warplanes were circling above.

“The Russians think every medical center is treating terrorists,” she added.

Zaidoun Al-Zoabi, head of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, which provides help to hospitals in opposition-held areas, said people around the world have long stopped caring about Syria, and Syrians have lost all hope that someone can help them.

“I think people have reached the epitome of despair,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Brian Rohan and Nour Youssef in Cairo, Adam Schreck in Dubai and Josef Federman and Tia Goldberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report. FILE – In this Oct. 16, 2015, file photo, an employee of Doctors Without Borders stands inside the charred remains of their hospital after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Russian airstrikes have reportedly hit at least a half dozen medical facilities in Syria, according to activists. In Yemen, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. Still, apart from rights groups’ condemnations, there’s been little international outcry, in contrast to a U.S. strike on a hospital in Afghanistan that killed 30 people. (Najim Rahim via AP, File)

Congress sends budget and debt deal to Obama

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation sparing the country the specter of a catastrophic default and partial government shutdown is ready for President Barack Obama’s signature after the Senate passed it by a comfortable margin.

Senators voted 64-35 for the measure, which also provides a two-year budget, in the early hours Friday. Democrats teamed with Republican defense hawks to overcome opposition from conservatives including two GOP senators running for president — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Obama had negotiated the accord, passed by the House earlier this week, with congressional leaders who were intent on avoiding the brinkmanship and shutdown threats that have haunted the institution for the past several years. Departing Rep. John Boehner of Ohio made it his top priority in his final days as speaker before making way for Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

The deal allows members of both parties to look ahead toward next year’s presidential and congressional elections. Republican leaders were particularly concerned that failure to resolve this vexing issue could reflect poorly on their ability to govern. There was significant opposition in the Senate, nevertheless, as Paul and Cruz made it a point to be on the floor to register their concerns.

In an hour-long speech that delayed the final vote to around 3 a.m., Paul said Congress is “bad with money.” He railed against increases in defense dollars supported by Republicans and domestic programs supported by Democrats.

“These are the two parties getting together in an unholy alliance and spending us into oblivion,” he said.

Cruz said the Republican majorities in both the House and Senate had given Obama a “diamond-encrusted, glow-in-the-dark Amex card” for government spending.

“It’s a pretty nifty card,” he said. “You don’t have to pay for it, you get to spend it and it’s somebody else’s problem.”

The agreement would raise the government debt ceiling until March 2017, removing the threat of an unprecedented national default just days from now. At the same time, it would set the budget of the government through the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years and ease punishing spending caps by providing $80 billion more for military and domestic programs, paid for with a hodgepodge of spending cuts and revenue increases touching areas from tax compliance to spectrum auctions.

The deal would also avert a looming shortfall in the Social Security disability trust fund that threatened to slash benefits, and head off an unprecedented increase in Medicare premiums for outpatient care for about 15 million beneficiaries.

The promise of more money for the military ensured support from defense hawks like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, while additional funds for domestic programs pleased Democrats.

Obama and Democratic allies like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California were big winners in the talks, but GOP leaders cleared away political land mines confronting the party on the eve of 2016 campaigns to win back the White House and maintain its grip on the Senate.

The measure leaves a clean slate for Ryan as he begins his leadership of the House.

Obama had repeatedly said he would not negotiate budget concessions in exchange for increasing the debt limit, though he did agree to package the debt and budget provisions.

“I am as frustrated by the refusal of this administration to even engage on this (debt limit) issue,” said Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. “However, the president’s refusal to be reasonable and do his job when it comes to our debt is no excuse for Congress failing to do its job and prevent a default.”

The budget relief would lift caps on the appropriated spending passed by Congress each year by $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017, evenly divided between defense and domestic. Another $16 billion or so would come each year in the form of inflated war spending, evenly split between the Defense and State departments.

The Appropriations committees face a Dec. 11 deadline to craft legislation reflecting the spending priorities set forth in the compromise budget bill.

The cuts include curbs on Medicare payments for outpatient services provided by certain hospitals and an extension of a 2-percentage-point cut in Medicare payments to doctors through the end of a 10-year budget. There’s also a drawdown from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and savings reaped from a Justice Department fund for crime victims that involves assets seized from criminals.

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House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., left, walk to talk to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, about the passage of a budget by the House. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Last UK detainee at Guantanamo is released

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LONDON (AP) — A Saudi who emerged as a defiant leader among prisoners during nearly 14 years of confinement on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has been released to join his family in Britain.

The release of Shaker Aamer comes after a publicity campaign and at the request of Prime Minister David Cameron, who had urged President Barack Obama to resolve the case of the last prisoner at Guantanamo with significant ties to Britain.

“He needs, first, to be in a hospital, and then to be with his family,” said Clive Stafford Smith, one of his lawyers.

His release, the 15th from Guantanamo this year, brings the detainee population there to 112, and comes as part of a renewed push by Obama to close the facility opened by his predecessor after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Aamer, 48, had told his lawyers that he would seek a medical examination in Britain because of concerns about his health stemming in part from repeated hunger strikes while at Guantanamo.

He has received more media attention over the years than any other prisoners except the five who face trial by military commission for their alleged roles planning and providing support to 9/11 attacks.

Aamer was born in Saudi Arabia and remains a citizen, but wanted to return to London where he has four children, including a son he has never seen and a wife, who is the daughter of a prominent retired imam. Aamer worked as a translator for a law firm in London from 1994 to 2001.

He has said that he went to Afghanistan to help run a school for girls, and fled during the chaos following the U.S. invasion. He was captured by the Northern Alliance and turned over to the U.S. for a bounty. He was taken to Guantanamo in February 2002.

The U.S. Defense Department has disclosed that he was accused of significant links to terrorism. They said he shared an apartment in the late 1990s with Zacarias Moussaoui, who was convicted of taking part in the Sept. 11 conspiracy; had met with Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger jet with explosives in his shoes; had undergone al-Qaida training in the use of explosives and missiles, and received a stipend from Osama bin Laden.

Those allegations and more were later found in a November 2007 detainee assessment obtained and published by Wikileaks that described him as a member of al-Qaida and a “close associate” of bin Laden.

The U.S. never charged him with a crime.

Aamer and his supporters have denied the allegations, and Smith notes that Aamer had been cleared for release by the administration of President George W. Bush in June 2007.

Aamer spent much of his time at Guantanamo in the disciplinary units of Camp 5, a section of the detention center where prisoners are held alone in solid-walled cells of steel and concrete.

He helped organize a hunger strike that involved more than 100 prisoners and often served as an unofficial spokesman, providing detailed insider accounts of life inside Guantanamo through his lawyers.

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Fox contributed from Miami.

Immigrants caught at border believe families can stay in US

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of immigrant families caught illegally crossing the Mexican border told U.S. immigration agents they made the dangerous journey in part because they believed they would be permitted to stay in the United States and collect public benefits, according to internal intelligence files from the Homeland Security Department.

The interviews with immigrants by federal agents were intended to help the Obama administration understand what might be driving a puzzling surge in the numbers of border crossings that started over the summer. The explanations suggest the U.S. government’s efforts to discourage illegal crossings may have been unsuccessful. Its efforts have included public service campaigns in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to highlight the dangers and consequences of making the trek across Mexico to cross illegally into the United States.

The Associated Press obtained copies of the interview summaries, which were compiled in reports by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Intelligence. They said hundreds of people traveling as part of families consistently cited opportunities to obtain permission to stay in the U.S., claim asylum and receive unspecified benefits. Immigrants spoke of “permisos,” or a pass to come into the United States.

The report “is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the situation,” said department spokeswoman Marsha Catron, adding that troubles in the immigrants’ home countries likely contributed to their flight as well.

Although the Obama administration has explained that immigrants who cross the U.S. border illegally can be deported, lengthy backlogs of more than 456,000 cases mean that immigrants can effectively remain in the U.S. for years before a judge decides whether they should leave the country. Also, recent court rulings have complicated the government’s plans to hold families in immigration jails pending deportation proceedings. Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally generally are not eligible for public benefits, except that children may receive free or reduced meals in public schools.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the rising number of border crossings by families and children was due to “push factors” in Central America, such as crime and violence. He said the Obama administration wants to invest $1 billion in Central America to address the underlying problems that push families and children out of Central America.

“We need to expand on this and … we need to make the hard investment,” Johnson said Thursday at an academic conference at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Federal agents interviewed 345 people traveling with family members between July 7 and Sept. 30, according to the five-page report obtained by the House Judiciary Committee and shared with the AP. The interviews did not focus on what prompted the immigrants to leave their home countries, though many did mention gang and family violence as factors.

“This internal Border Patrol document shows that the Obama administration’s lax immigration policies are the culprit for the ongoing surge at our borders,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Last year, the administration coped with an unprecedented spike in children and families. By the end of the 2014 budget year, more than 136,000 people traveling as families and unaccompanied children had been caught crossing the border illegally. The numbers had dipped this year, with 79,808 people caught at the border. But the figures surged again during the last three months of this budget year.

Although the administration opened two new detention centers in Texas to hold thousands of immigrants, a federal judge in California ruled in August that the facilities violated a long-standing legal agreement that stipulates that immigrant children cannot be held in unlicensed secured facilities. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the department to release the children, with their mothers when possible, “without unnecessary delay” and gave the department until this month to comply.

The administration has appealed that ruling, though before Gee’s order was issued, Johnson had already announced plans to make it easier for families to be released on bond after being caught at the border.

Most of the immigrants interviewed, or 181 of them, said reports about the release of immigrant families influenced their decision to come to the U.S.

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FILE – In this June 20, 2014, file photo, immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally stand in line for tickets at the bus station after they were released from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in McAllen, Texas. Hundreds of families and children from Central America caught traveling alone in recent weeks across the Mexican border told U.S. immigration agents they made the dangerous journey in part because they believe they will be permitted to stay in the United States and collect public benefits, according to internal intelligence files from the Homeland Security Department. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap

Business: Global stocks muted, China 1-child change boosts NZ dollar

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TOKYO (AP) — Global stock markets wavered Friday on renewed expectations for a Fed rate hike this year but are ending October with strong gains after snapping back from a volatile third quarter. The New Zealand dollar jumped on prospects of increased dairy exports after China abolished its one-child policy.

KEEPING SCORE: France’s CAC 40 rose 0.2 percent to 4,897.76 in early trading and Germany’s DAX added 0.4 percent to 10,833.99. Britain’s FTSE 100 inched up 0.1 percent to 6,401.08. The DAX is the best performing major European stock index in October, with a gain of more than 14 percent. U.S. shares were set to rise. S&P 500 futures were up 0.3 percent to 2,090.10. Dow futures rose 0.3 percent to 17,731.00. The S&P 500 has gained 10.9 percent in October so far.

BABY BOOST: The New Zealand dollar surged in the wake of China’s announcement it would allow all couples to have two children, abolishing its unpopular one-child policy. New Zealand is a major dairy exporter and its milk powder and formula industry is likely to benefit from a baby boomlet in China. The kiwi dollar jumped to $0.6763 from $0.6699 the day before. Shares of baby-related stocks also posted big gains. Stroller maker Goodbaby International was up 2.3 percent in Hong Kong and Beingmate Baby & Child Food vaulted 10 percent in Shenzhen.

U.S. FACTORS: Investors increasingly believe the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise its benchmark interest rate from a record low in December. Data on Thursday showed the U.S. economy cooled during the third quarter but that was largely due to transitory changes in inventory levels and the underlying picture is in line with the Fed’s view of a moderately strong economy. Super low interest rates have been a boon for stock markets for several years.

THE QUOTE: The soft third quarter American growth “is unlikely to be an excuse for the Fed to hold off a rate hike,” said Bernard Aw, market strategist at IG in Singapore. “As long as the jobs data resumes a strong upward trajectory, shrugging off the soft patch in August and September, alongside improvement in the inflation numbers, the case for a December liftoff remains alive,” he said in a market commentary.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.8 percent to 19,083.10 after the Bank of Japan left its super-easy monetary policy unchanged but kept the door open to extra stimulus if risks to growth increase. The index rose 12.7 percent for the month. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell 0.8 percent to 22,640.04 and South Korea’s Kospi shed 0.2 percent to 2,029.47. China’s Shanghai Composite was little changed at 3,382.56 but rose 11.3 percent for the month. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 slipped 0.5 percent to 5,239.40. Stock benchmarks fell in Taiwan, Singapore the Philippines and Indonesia, but rose in Thailand.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude was down 44 cents to $45.62 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract added 12 cents to $46.06 a barrel in New York on Thursday. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, lost 30 cents to $48.50 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 120.75 yen from 120.95 yen on Thursday. The euro was little changed at $1.0998 from $1.0990.

 

Analysis: Bush comeback strategy backfires in GOP debate

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Jeb Bush sought to calm anxious donors with a comeback strategy focused on taking down rival Marco Rubio. But Bush’s plan backfired badly on national television in the third GOP presidential debate.

Instead of generating much needed momentum, Bush’s attack on his onetime protege raised new questions about his underwhelming candidacy in the primary contest he was once expected to dominate. And Bush’s continued struggles highlight a deepening sense of uncertainty settling over a 2016 Republican presidential race that remains crowded and without a clear front-runner.

Even with an estimated $100 million in the bank, Bush headed into Wednesday’s primetime debate at the weakest point of his campaign.

Just five days earlier, the son and brother of former presidents announced deep campaign spending cuts designed to salvage his floundering bid. He slashed salaries by 40 percent and shifted staff from his Miami headquarters to early voting states.

With his powerful family on hand, Bush spent much of the weekend huddling behind closed doors outlining a strategy that depended, above all else, on challenging Rubio. Bush appeared to get the perfect opportunity to test his strategy when he was positioned right next to Rubio on the debate stage.

The mild-mannered Bush mustered up an attack on Rubio for missing so many votes in the Senate. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work. I mean, literally, the Senate — what is it, like a French work week? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”

It was the moment Bush’s supporters had been waiting for. But so, apparently, was Rubio.

The first-term senator, Bush’s junior by 18 years, quickly charged that Bush had praised Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has missed many votes as well.

“I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”

The fresh-faced senator then pivoted beautifully: “My campaign is going to be about the future of America, it’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage.”

The crowd cheered. Bush’s team did not.

Ari Fleischer, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, said Bush should have attacked Donald Trump instead of Rubio. “Mistake going after Rubio,” Fleischer tweeted.

And Bush never seemed to recover from the exchange, which took place just minutes into the debate.

He almost completely disappeared for long stretches. In fact, Bush had the least speaking time of anyone in the debate, by some counts.

Despite his challenges, there is no sign that Bush is close to abandoning his campaign. An allied super PAC has raised more than $100 million on his behalf.

Yet if Bush World was worried heading into the debate, they will feel no better Thursday morning.

Rubio, who has been showing signs of momentum recently, shined for most of the night. He continues to face questions about his ability to build a national organization and raise the money necessary to support it — a problem Bush does not have. Yet his fundraising should improve coming off a strong performance on national television.

“This is all part of slowly moving up in the process,” Rubio’s campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, said after the debate. Asked about Bush’s performance, Sullivan said, “There’s no need to pile on Gov. Bush.”

The other candidates had varied performances.

The soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has led recent polls, flashed his personality at times, but struggled to articulate his policies at others. Trump was on the attack early and often, but also was silent for long stretches. And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz earned top marks from the audience and on social media for attacking the media and defending single mothers.

Yet nearly three months before the Iowa caucuses, the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is an unsettled as ever.

Bush’s team conceded that Rubio had a strong night.

“No one is going to argue Sen. Rubio is an outstanding performer,” said Bush campaign manager Danny Diaz. “But there’s a difference between an outstanding performer and someone who has delivered over and over again.”

He said Jeb was able to talk about issues, and if he keeps doing that he will win over voters.

Meanwhile, Bush retreats to New Hampshire on Thursday for a two-day campaign swing in a state that increasingly looks like a must-win.

Bush’s team circulated talking points shortly before the debate noting he has more paid staff in New Hampshire than any of the four states set to hold primary contests in February. And further increasing expectations, the talking points note that “we are placing a special focus on increasing our New Hampshire operation.”

Rubio is scheduled to visit New Hampshire next week.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Peoples covers national politics for The Associated Press. Marco Rubio, right, and Jeb Bush, argue a point during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

38 missing in the Aegean after migrant boat sinking

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LESBOS, Greece (AP) — Authorities on the Greek island of Lesbos search Thursday for 38 people believed still missing after the sinking of a wooden boat carrying migrants. Earlier, 242 people were rescued and three bodies were recovered.

At first light Thursday, a helicopter from the European border protection agency Frontex joined the search by Greek coast guard vessels off the northern coast of the island.

At least 11 people — mostly children — died in five separate incidents in the eastern Aegean Sea on Wednesday as thousands of people continue to head to the Greek islands from Turkey in frail boats and stormy weather.

Lesbos has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis in Greece, with more than 300,000 reaching the island this year — and the number of daily arrivals recently peaking at 7,500.

In a dramatic scene late Wednesday, dozens of paramedics and volunteers helped in the effort to assist the survivors, wrapping them in foil blankets and prioritizing ambulance transport.

Eighteen children were hospitalized, three in serious condition, local authorities said.

Kerry in Vienna for Syria talks including Iran, Saudis

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VIENNA (AP) — The latest developments in talks on ending the Syrian War (all times local).

12:59 pm

Syria has lashed out at Saudi Arabia saying it is not qualified to play a “productive” role in resolving the Syrian War because it is shedding the blood of Muslims and Arabs there, in Yemen and in Iraq.

The comments by Syria’s information minister were aired on pro-state Syrian al-Ikhbariya TV on Thursday. They come ahead of talks in Vienna by major players in the Syrian War, including the U.S. and Russia. For the first time the talks also bring together Saudi Arabia and Iran, a bitter rival and major ally of President Bashar Assad Iran. A day before the meeting, Saudi foreign minister Adel Jubeir said there is no role for Assad in the political transition.

Syria Minister Omran al-Zoghby criticized Jubeir, calling him a “servant” who is best silent

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12:35 p.m.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry says international talks in Vienna should help launch an inter-Syrian political dialogue and achieve political settlement.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at Thursday’s briefing that Moscow is satisfied to see that Iran and Egypt have been invited to join the talks among other participants.

She said using the potential of all regional players is essential for the success of the talks and unilateral approaches won’t work.

She voiced the hope that the talks will be frank and constructive.

Zakharova again rejected allegations that Russia’s air campaign in Syria has caused civilian casualties as lies, reaffirming that the Russian warplanes only target terrorist infrastructure.

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11:50 a.m.

Syria’s exiled opposition is rejecting any role for President Bashar Assad in the political transition “even for one day” ahead of talks on ending the country’s civil war.

In a statement Thursday, Syrian National Coalition member Bassam Abdullah warned against wasting time on political initiatives like Vienna, saying they are attempts to allow the military time to regain territories from rebels.

Abdullah’s comments come as diplomats converge on Vienna for talks by key players in the Syrian civil war now entering its fifth year.

The talks are attended by the U.S., Russia, and bitter regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, the first time the two nations to discuss Syria.

Abdullah made the statement after holding meetings in Germany with the U.S. envoy to Syria Michael Ratney.

House GOP, eager to mend wounds, ready to make Ryan speaker

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are ready to make Rep. Paul Ryan the new House speaker, hoping the young but grizzled lawmaker can heal the splintered party’s self-inflicted wounds and fashion a conservative message to woo voters in next year’s elections.

The House planned to formally elect the Wisconsin Republican to the post Thursday, with lawmakers voting aloud, one by one, in a tradition that bespeaks the dignity of a chamber that lately has been more rowdy than respectful. With the GOP controlling 247 of the House’s 435 votes, Ryan’s election was assured, despite grumbling from conservatives demanding more say in how the House operates.

In his acceptance speech, Ryan planned to ask both parties for a period of healing and to focus on working families, said an aide who described the remarks on condition of anonymity.

“If you have ideas, let’s hear them. A greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us,” Ryan was planning to say, said the aide, in what seemed a bid for GOP reconciliation.

Before the roll call, lawmakers will hear farewell remarks from outgoing Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. After leading the House since 2011, the 25-year House veteran stunningly announced his resignation last month, hounded by hard-line conservatives who are mostly rallying behind Ryan — at least for now.

Thursday’s vote comes as Congress nears completion of a bipartisan accord to avert a jarring federal default next week and likely prevent a December government shutdown by setting spending levels for the next two years. The House approved the bill Wednesday 266-167, with final Senate passage on track in a few days, despite opposition from conservatives including senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

House Republicans made Ryan their nominee for speaker in a secret ballot Wednesday that saw him defeat his only announced opponent, Rep. Dan Webster, R-Fla., by 200-43. Ryan later said it was time for “turning the page” on GOP infighting that followed Boehner’s decision to leave, though he revealed no specifics about his plans.

“We think the country is heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “And we have an obligation here in the people’s house, doing the people’s business, to give this country a better way forward.”

Though Ryan won less than the 218 votes needed to be elected by the full House, conservatives — including members of the rebellious House Freedom Caucus — said most would back him Thursday. Democrats are expected to make a futile vote for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Wednesday’s House budget vote underscored Ryan’s challenge in leading Republicans who often have scant interest in compromise, especially with a GOP presidential contest dominated by candidates who vilify Washington insiders. Republicans opposed the budget deal by 167-79, but Democrats supported it unanimously.

Conservatives complain that Boehner has been excessively powerful, forcing bills to the House floor without rank-and-filed input, dictating committee chairs and punishing rebels. One Freedom Caucus leader, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said conservatives expect Ryan to alter that.

“We’re going to have his back for the next few months and make sure that we give him the opportunity to show that he can be the leader that we hope he can be,” Labrador said.

Boehner’s resignation prompted a month of GOP turbulence after the Freedom Caucus derailed the candidacy of the heir-apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Establishment Republicans pressured a reluctant Ryan to seek the speakership, prevailing on the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee as their best shot at patching the GOP’s ragged ruptures.

Amiable and just 45, Ryan has been in Congress 17 years and has strong ties with all wings of the GOP. Past chairman of the House Budget Committee and current head of the Ways and Means panel, he’s put his imprint on deficit reduction, tax, health and trade legislation — prime subjects that have raised his stature and put him at the center of many of Congress’ highest profile debates.

Many Democrats like Ryan but none hesitate to attack him as a symbol of Republican policies they consider harsh. These include efforts to reshape Medicare into a voucher-like program, squeeze savings from Medicaid and pare taxes for the rich.

“This presents the clearest distinction of anyone they could have named: the Ryan budget,” Pelosi told reporters.

Ryan will become the House’s 54th speaker, putting him second in line to succeed the president. He’ll be the youngest speaker since Rep. James Blaine, R-Maine, who was 39 when he took the job in 1869.

At Wednesday’s closed-door GOP meeting to nominate Ryan, one Republican asked him how he would differ from Boehner.

“I’m not going to cry,” he joked, according to Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a reference to Boehner’s proclivity for tears at emotional moments.

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Eds: AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner and AP writer Matt Daly contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are ready to make Rep. Paul Ryan the new House speaker, hoping the young but grizzled lawmaker can heal the splintered party’s self-inflicted wounds and fashion a conservative message to woo voters in next year’s elections.

The House planned to formally elect the Wisconsin Republican to the post Thursday, with lawmakers voting aloud, one by one, in a tradition that bespeaks the dignity of a chamber that lately has been more rowdy than respectful. With the GOP controlling 247 of the House’s 435 votes, Ryan’s election was assured, despite grumbling from conservatives demanding more say in how the House operates.

In his acceptance speech, Ryan planned to ask both parties for a period of healing and to focus on working families, said an aide who described the remarks on condition of anonymity.

“If you have ideas, let’s hear them. A greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us,” Ryan was planning to say, said the aide, in what seemed a bid for GOP reconciliation.

Before the roll call, lawmakers will hear farewell remarks from outgoing Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. After leading the House since 2011, the 25-year House veteran stunningly announced his resignation last month, hounded by hard-line conservatives who are mostly rallying behind Ryan — at least for now.

Thursday’s vote comes as Congress nears completion of a bipartisan accord to avert a jarring federal default next week and likely prevent a December government shutdown by setting spending levels for the next two years. The House approved the bill Wednesday 266-167, with final Senate passage on track in a few days, despite opposition from conservatives including senators seeking the GOP presidential nomination.

House Republicans made Ryan their nominee for speaker in a secret ballot Wednesday that saw him defeat his only announced opponent, Rep. Dan Webster, R-Fla., by 200-43. Ryan later said it was time for “turning the page” on GOP infighting that followed Boehner’s decision to leave, though he revealed no specifics about his plans.

“We think the country is heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “And we have an obligation here in the people’s house, doing the people’s business, to give this country a better way forward.”

Though Ryan won less than the 218 votes needed to be elected by the full House, conservatives — including members of the rebellious House Freedom Caucus — said most would back him Thursday. Democrats are expected to make a futile vote for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Wednesday’s House budget vote underscored Ryan’s challenge in leading Republicans who often have scant interest in compromise, especially with a GOP presidential contest dominated by candidates who vilify Washington insiders. Republicans opposed the budget deal by 167-79, but Democrats supported it unanimously.

Conservatives complain that Boehner has been excessively powerful, forcing bills to the House floor without rank-and-filed input, dictating committee chairs and punishing rebels. One Freedom Caucus leader, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said conservatives expect Ryan to alter that.

“We’re going to have his back for the next few months and make sure that we give him the opportunity to show that he can be the leader that we hope he can be,” Labrador said.

Boehner’s resignation prompted a month of GOP turbulence after the Freedom Caucus derailed the candidacy of the heir-apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Establishment Republicans pressured a reluctant Ryan to seek the speakership, prevailing on the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee as their best shot at patching the GOP’s ragged ruptures.

Amiable and just 45, Ryan has been in Congress 17 years and has strong ties with all wings of the GOP. Past chairman of the House Budget Committee and current head of the Ways and Means panel, he’s put his imprint on deficit reduction, tax, health and trade legislation — prime subjects that have raised his stature and put him at the center of many of Congress’ highest profile debates.

Many Democrats like Ryan but none hesitate to attack him as a symbol of Republican policies they consider harsh. These include efforts to reshape Medicare into a voucher-like program, squeeze savings from Medicaid and pare taxes for the rich.

“This presents the clearest distinction of anyone they could have named: the Ryan budget,” Pelosi told reporters.

Ryan will become the House’s 54th speaker, putting him second in line to succeed the president. He’ll be the youngest speaker since Rep. James Blaine, R-Maine, who was 39 when he took the job in 1869.

At Wednesday’s closed-door GOP meeting to nominate Ryan, one Republican asked him how he would differ from Boehner.

“I’m not going to cry,” he joked, according to Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a reference to Boehner’s proclivity for tears at emotional moments.

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Eds: AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner and AP writer Matt Daly contributed to this report.

 

Army blimp breaks loose, drifts for hours over Pennsylvania

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MUNCY, Pa. (AP) — A slow-moving, unmanned Army surveillance blimp floated over Pennsylvania for hours causing electrical outages as its tether hit power lines, after it broke loose from its mooring at a Maryland military facility.

The 240-foot helium-filled blimp, which had two fighter jets on its tail, came down in at least two pieces Wednesday near Muncy, a small town about 80 miles north of Harrisburg, the state capital. No injuries were reported.

The radar-equipped blimp, fitted with sensitive defense technology, escaped from the military’s Aberdeen Proving Ground around 12:20 p.m. Authorities said it drifted northward, climbing to about 16,000 feet. It covered about 150 miles over about 3½ hours.

“I had no idea what it was. We lost power at work, so I looked outside and saw the blimp,” said Wendy Schafer, who was at her job at a spa and salon in Bloomsburg.

Two F-16s were scrambled from a National Guard base in New Jersey to track the big, white craft as it floated away because aviation officials feared it would endanger air traffic. But there was never any intention of shooting it down, said Navy Capt. Scott Miller, a spokesman for the nation’s air defense command.

The blimp — which cannot be steered remotely — eventually deflated and settled back to Earth on its own, according to Miller. He said there was an auto-deflate device aboard, but it was not deliberately activated, and it is unclear why the craft went limp.

He said it was also unknown how the blimp broke loose, and an investigation was underway.

People gawked in wonder and disbelief as the blimp floated silently over the sparsely populated area, its dangling tether taking out power lines.

Schafer thought a nearby school was conducting an experiment.

“My first thought was Vo-Tech was doing something at the school until my friends tagged on Facebook about the blimp,” she said. “It was crazy.”

Tiffany Slusser Hartkorn saw it fly over her neighborhood on the outskirts of Bloomsburg around 2:15 p.m. and soon disappear from sight.

“I honestly was worried that there were people in it that would be injured. A neighbor down the road is thinking it knocked down a tree branch and power pole by his house that could’ve potentially destroyed his house,” Hartkorn said.

About 27,000 customers in two counties were left without power, according to electric utility PPL, and Bloomsburg University canceled classes because of the outage. Electricity was restored to most people within a few hours.

The craft even knocked out power to the state police barracks at Bloomsburg before settling in a wooded hollow, where it was swiftly cordoned off while military personnel began arriving to retrieve it, State Police Capt. David Young said. He said trees will probably have to be cut down to get it out.

Miller, the spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the tail portion broke off and hit the ground about a quarter-mile from the main section.

The craft is known as a Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, and can be used to detect hostile missiles and aircraft. Such blimps have been used extensively in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to provide radar surveillance around U.S. bases and other sensitive sites.

The craft has a squat body, large fins and a rounded protrusion on its belly.

When in use, it is tethered to the ground, unmanned, like a balloon on a string, its cable carrying power up to the blimp and sending data back down to a computer. It can reach as high as 10,000 feet, according to its maker, Raytheon Co.

“My understanding is, from having seen these break loose in Afghanistan on a number of occasions, we could get it to descend and then we’ll recover it and put it back up,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the Pentagon as the journey unfolded. “This happens in bad weather.”

Raytheon referred questions to the military. But on its website, the defense contractor said the chances of the tether breaking are very small because it is made of a durable synthetic fiber and has withstood storms of more than 115 mph.

The blimp was operating at the Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of a test of the systems that defend the nation’s capital against airborne attack. The loss of the blimp has not weakened those defenses, Miller said.

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Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report along with AP writers Kristen de Groot and Michael R. Sisak in Pennsylvania. An unmanned Army surveillance blimp floats through the air while dragging a tether line just south of Millville, Pa., Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. The bulbous, 240-foot helium-filled blimp came down near Muncy, a small town about 80 miles north of Harrisburg. The North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado said the blimp detached from its station at the military’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. (Jimmy May/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise via AP)

Questions remain after deputy fired over tossing teen

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina sheriff says he acted swiftly but carefully in firing a school resource officer caught on video flipping a disruptive student out of her desk and tossing her across the floor. In the wake of the firing, though, questions remain about whether the officer should have been in the classroom in the first place, and where the former deputy goes from here.

The Spring Valley High School student refused to leave the classroom Monday despite being told by a teacher and an administrator to do so, according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. That’s when Senior Deputy Ben Fields was brought in to remove her. She again refused, and Fields told her she was under arrest.

Video shows the deputy flipping the teen backward and then throwing her across the room. At that point, Lott said Wednesday, Fields did not use proper procedure.

“Police officers make mistakes too. They’re human and they need to be held accountable, and that’s what we’ve done with Deputy Ben Fields,” Lott said.

Outrage spread quickly after videos of the white officer arresting the black teenager appeared on the Internet. One question is if Fields should have been involved in the situation at all, or whether it was a situation that should have been handled by school officials.

“We know important work is ahead of us as we thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption,” Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm said in a statement.

It’s up to school teachers and administrators to deal with disciplinary issues, and a memorandum of agreement delineates the circumstances under which it’s OK for officers to get involved. The school district and sheriff’s department have yet to provide that document after repeated requests.

Lott said Wednesday that both the teacher and vice principal in the classroom at the time told deputies they supported Fields’ actions.

An attorney for Fields, Scott Hayes, said in a statement that the deputy’s actions were justified and lawful.

Fields’ was fired and banned from Richland 2 District properties. Federal and state investigations into his actions have just begun, so it will be unknown for some time if he will face charges.

The sheriff also had stern words for the student who he said started the confrontation by refusing to hand over her cellphone after her math teacher saw her texting in class — a violation of school policy.

Both she and another student who verbally challenged the officer’s actions during the arrest still face misdemeanor charges of disturbing schools, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail, Lott said, although in most cases, judges impose alternative sentences that keep students out of jail.

“The student was not allowing the teacher to teach and not allowing the students to learn. She was very disrespectful and she started this whole incident,” Lott said.

Lott declined to release Fields’ personnel file, but said none of the complaints filed against him came from the school district. He did say that he and other deputies were trained not to throw or push subjects away unless they are in danger.

An expelled student has claimed Fields targeted blacks and falsely accused him of being a gang member in 2013, court records show. That case goes to trial in January.

The girl in the videos remains unidentified, but she has obtained a prominent attorney — Todd Rutherford, who also serves as House minority leader in South Carolina’s legislature — who contradicted the sheriff’s claim Tuesday that the girl “may have had a rug burn” but was otherwise uninjured.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rutherford said his client has a hard cast on her arm and complains of neck and back injuries as well as psychological trauma.

Rutherford said he doesn’t know if race played a factor.

“I’m positive what he did to her should not be done to any human being,” he said. “It should not be done to any animal. If he was on video and a dog bit him, and he threw a dog across the room, he’d still go to jail.”

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Associated Press writer Seanna Adcox contributed to this report. In this image taken from video, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott speaks during a news conference regarding Deputy Ben Fields in Columbia, S.C., Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. Fields, who flipped a disruptive student out of her desk and tossed her across her math class floor was fired. Lott called his actions “unacceptable,” and said videos recorded by her classmates show the girl posed no danger to anyone. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz)

Business: Stock markets mostly down after Fed hints at Dec. rate hike

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TOKYO (AP) — Global stock markets were generally downbeat Thursday after Federal Reserve policymakers left the U.S. benchmark rate at a record low but indicated they might raise it at their December meeting if the U.S. economy keeps improving.

KEEPING SCORE: Britain’s FTSE lost 0.8 percent to 6,387.92 and France’s CAC40 edged 0.1 percent lower to 4,884.79. Germany’s DAX was up 0.1 percent at 10,843.87. Wall Street looked set for a weak start. Dow futures were down 0.2 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 0.3 percent.

FEDERAL RESERVE: In its latest statement, the Fed deleted language expressing concern about the global economy, which led to renewed expectations in financial markets of a December rate hike. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has previously said she wants to start raising rates this year. The Fed cut its benchmark interest rate to almost zero in late 2008 to stimulate the economy during the Great Recession. Low interest rates have been a boon for stock markets for several years.

JAPAN DATA: Stronger than expected Japanese manufacturing data failed to boost sentiment, since it increases the likelihood the Bank of Japan will hold off on further monetary easing. The BOJ wraps up a policy meeting on Friday.

THE QUOTE: “The hawkish Fed statement and strong Japanese industrial production data put in doubt any further expansion of monetary easing by the major central banks in the near term,” Angus Nicholson of IG said in a research note.

ASIA’S DAY: Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.6 percent to 22,819.94 and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 dropped 1.3 percent to 5,266.90. South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.4 percent to 2,034.16 while Japan’s Nikkei 225 eked out a 0.2 percent gain after wavering all day to close at 18,935.71. China’s Shanghai Composite Index rose 0.4 percent to 3,387.32. Shares in Southeast Asia were lower.

CURRENCIES: The dollar slipped to 120.72 yen from 121.07 yen in the previous trading session. The euro rose to $1.0927 from $1.0924. The dollar climbed against other currencies on Wednesday as traders anticipated that higher rates were on the way. Central banks in Europe and Japan are expected to continue their own stimulus programs, keeping their rates near zero.

ENERGY: Oil prices fell back after soaring the day before. U.S. crude slipped 40 cents to $45.54 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It climbed $2.74 to $45.94 a barrel in New York on Wednesday. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, fell 38 cents to $48.67 in London. It rose $2.24, or 4.8 percent, to $49.05 on Wednesday.

Follow Elaine Kurtenbach: twitter.com/ekurtenbach

 

Analysis: White House Moves to Reassure Allies With South China Sea Patrol, but Quietly

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-  WASHINGTON — For months, lawmakers and national security hawks have urged President Obama to stand up to China’s land reclamation of disputed islands in the South China Sea. But now that the Obama administration finally has, the White House does not want to talk about it.

In sending a guided missile destroyer late Monday into waters China considers its territory, the Obama administration sought to exercise what officials called the right to freedom of navigation in international waters.

The move was meant to reassure allies in Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines that the United States would stand up to China’s efforts to unilaterally change facts on the ground by building up artificial islands in the Spratly Islands chain.

But even as it was authorizing the naval patrol, which China promptly called a “deliberate provocation,” the White House tried to play down the episode, anxious to avoid escalating a conflict between the nations, a pair of adversarial Pacific behemoths.

The White House directed Department of Defense officials not to say anything publicly about the episode. No formal announcements or news releases alerting the media to the passage of the destroyer, the Lassen, were to go out, White House officials ordered. And if asked, officials were instructed not to speak on the record about the maneuver, administration officials said.

As a result, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was left flailing during a scheduled appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, just hours after the Lassen left territorial waters near Subi Reef, one of several artificial islands that China has built in the disputed Spratly Islands chain.

Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, told Mr. Carter he had initially planned to “express concern” about American “inaction” in combating Beijing in the South China Sea, but changed his mind after hearing that the Navy warship had entered the 12-nautical-mile zone claimed by China.

“Is that true? Did we do that?” Mr. Sullivan asked.

Mr. Carter demurred. “We have said and we are acting on the basis of saying that we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits — — ”

Mr. Sullivan interrupted him. “Did we send a destroyer yesterday inside the 12-mile zone?”

Again, Mr. Carter sidestepped the question, and the two men went back and forth a few more times. The exchange prompted Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, to express exasperation. “Why would you not confirm or deny that that happened?”

Finally Mr. Carter acknowledged the episode. “I don’t like in general the idea of talking about our military operations,” he said. “But what you read in the newspaper is accurate.”

It was an extraordinary exchange considering the Pentagon had just hours before quietly informed reporters of the naval movement.

“This move seems to have been carefully planned and well executed to mitigate as much risk as possible,” said Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He said the administration might have just wanted to “let our actions do the talking for us.”

In fact, Mr. Carter was simply following White House orders, administration officials said. “Look, we don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it already is,” a senior administration official said Tuesday, speaking on the grounds of anonymity.

China accused the United States of committing a “deliberate provocation” by sending the destroyer into waters it claims as its own.

“China will firmly react to this deliberate provocation,” Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said at a regularly scheduled news conference on Tuesday.

Chinese authorities summoned the American ambassador, Max Baucus, to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday evening and told him that the United States should stop “threatening Chinese sovereignty and security interests,” the national broadcaster CCTV said.

The Chinese Defense Ministry said Tuesday night that two Chinese vessels — a missile destroyer, the Lanzhou, and a patrol boat, the Taizhou — had warned the American warship to leave the disputed waters.

Beijing’s response, though heated, essentially repeated language it has used in the past about its sovereignty over the South China Sea.

The Pentagon said that the Lassen stayed within the 12-nautical-mile border of the Spratly Islands chain for less than an hour, and that American surveillance equipment recorded images.

The Spratly archipelago is closer to the Philippines than to China. Satellite images show that China has built Subi Reef into an island, using huge dredging equipment, and that it has started constructing a runway capable of accommodating military aircraft. It has completed another such runway in the Spratlys, on Fiery Cross Reef, and is working on a third.

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The artificial islands built by China, and the broader issue of its claims over islands and small reefs in nearly 90 percent of the strategically important South China Sea, are among the most contentious issues between Washington and Beijing. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all dispute China’s claims to the Spratly Islands.

The naval maneuver came a month after China’s president, Xi Jinping, and President Obama met in Washington and failed to reach an agreement on China’s claims.

Mr. Xi said at a news conference during his Washington visit that China had no intention of militarizing islands in the South China Sea, but he did not expand on that pledge during his private talks with Mr. Obama, administration officials said. Officials had said before the Lassen’s mission that one purpose of such a patrol would be to test Mr. Xi’s words.

The Lassen operation was intended to show that the United States does not agree that China can prevent American ships from entering a 12-nautical-mile zone that Beijing is claiming around the artificial islands.

The Pentagon apparently chose Subi Reef, which is known as a low-tide elevation, with great care, said Andrew S. Erickson, associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a low-tide elevation — one naturally submerged at high tide — is not entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial limit, Mr. Erickson said. Beyond a 500-meter safety zone, foreign ships and aircraft are free to operate without consultation or permission, he said.

At the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday, Mr. Lu, the spokesman, said that China had sovereignty over the Spratly chain, and hence claimed the 12-nautical-mile zone.

“China has indisputable sovereignty of the Nansha Islands and adjacent waters,” Mr. Lu said, using China’s name for the Spratlys. He said that China was building in the South China Sea for the “public good.”

Referring to the United States, Mr. Lu said, “If the relevant party keeps stirring things up, it will be necessary for China to speed up its construction activities.”

The Lassen’s patrol came a week before the head of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., is scheduled to hold talks in Beijing with senior Chinese military officials.

Admiral Harris, who has criticized China for moving “walls of sand” to create the artificial islands, has been an outspoken proponent of freedom-of-navigation patrols and has warned that the United States will conduct such forays whenever it sees fit.

 

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Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Jane Perlez from Beijing. Michael Forsythe contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Yufan Huang contributed research from Beijing.

US, world powers save space for Iran at Syria talks

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Iran could join international talks over Syria’s future for the first time later this week, as the United States declared itself ready to engage its long-time foe if it might help halt Syria’s four-year civil war.

Washington was still waiting to hear if Tehran will attend the next round of discussions, expected to start Thursday and continue Friday in Vienna. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several top European and Arab diplomats will be attending, a familiar cast that up to now hasn’t included any Iranian representatives. Kerry departs for the Austrian capital on Wednesday.

State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday the arrangements for Vienna were still being finalized, but that “we anticipate that Iran will be invited to attend this upcoming meeting.” U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Russia was reaching out to Iran; Lavrov has spoken to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif multiple times in recent days, according to the Russian foreign ministry.

While the U.S. doesn’t approve of Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in Syria, Kirby said American officials “always have recognized that at some point in the discussion, moving toward a political transition, we have to have a conversation and a dialogue with Iran.”

“It’s up to Iran to decide whether they’re going to or not when they are asked,” he said.

The United States is taking a gamble. Iran has backed President Bashar Assad’s government throughout the conflict, fighting alongside the Syrian military, and is seen by Western-backed rebels and U.S. partners in the region as a major source of the bloodshed. The Syrian opposition may balk at Iran’s inclusion in any discussions on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.

On the other hand, all previous international efforts have done nothing to stop the fighting, and Kerry is trying to unite all sides with influence in the Arab country around a common vision of a peaceful, secular and pluralistic Syria governed with the consent of its people.

Washington actively opposed Iran participating in two earlier, months-long mediation attempts but recently spoke of the possibility of Iran joining talks in the future. It is now offering Tehran a seat after days of behind-the-scenes negotiation, particularly with its regional rival Saudi Arabia, according to officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Saudi King Salman spoke about cooperating closely to fight the Islamic State and “establish the conditions for a political transition in Syria,” according to a White House statement. They vowed to build on recent diplomatic efforts. The statement didn’t mention anything about Iran.

It’s not a given that Iran attends. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ruled out new negotiations with the United States after they and five other nations clinched a long-term nuclear agreement in July. But Iran clearly has a stake in Syria’s future, as Assad’s government has helped the Iranians exert dominance over nearby Lebanon and threaten Israel through their proxy, Hezbollah.

The U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met last week in Vienna, putting forward new ideas to revive diplomatic hopes. However, they remained deeply divided over Assad’s future.

The United States and its partners say Assad can participate in a “political transition,” but would have to leave power at the end of the process if Syria could ever move on from a war that has killed at least 250,000 people and forced more than 11 million from their homes. Russia and Iran reject that demand. Other sticking points include the length of the transition, and what a new constitution and future elections might look like.

Beyond Iran, this week’s gathering will expand to include countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

Amid all the talking, Syria’s fighting goes on. Since last month, Russia has launched hundreds of airstrikes targeting what it says are the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. The Obama administration, NATO and others say most of the bombs are landing on moderate rebel militias, some backed by the CIA.

Meanwhile, violence continues to rage between rebel groups and the Islamic State, and in the Kurdish region in northern Syria, even drawing in Turkey.

Budget deal vote, GOP nominating Ryan

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is poised to vote on a bipartisan pact charting a two-year budget truce and Republicans are set to nominate Rep. Paul Ryan as the chamber’s new speaker, milestones GOP leaders hope will transform their party’s recent chaos into calm in time for next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate were urging lawmakers to back the agreement, which would resolve fights over defense and domestic spending and federal borrowing until early 2017. Expectations were for House passage Wednesday and final Senate approval next week, even as hard-right conservatives and farm-state lawmakers arrayed against the deal.

“That’s good news for everybody. It’s a step forward,” President Barack Obama said of the deal Tuesday in Chicago. “And I hope both parties come together to pass this agreement without delay.”

Among those declaring victory was departing Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was pivotal in crafting what amounts to a valedictory legislative prize for his supporters and a whack at his conservative House nemeses. The quarter-century House veteran serves his final day in Congress on Friday, driven into abrupt retirement by rebellious GOP hardliners who scorned his penchant for compromise with Obama and Democrats.

“I have a gift for you, too,” Boehner told his House GOP colleagues at a closed-door meeting Tuesday, after they gave him a golf cart as a parting present. He called the agreement “the best possible deal at this moment for our troops, for taxpayers and for the American people.”

Without legislation, the government could lapse into an economy-jolting default next week. A partial federal shutdown would occur without action by Dec. 11.

Unyielding conservatives like members of the House Freedom Caucus railed against the agreement, calling it a backroom deal that surrendered too much to Obama.

“No wonder so many Americans distrust Congress,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the Freedom Caucus leader.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a presidential candidate, promised a filibuster, calling the package a capitulation that illustrates “why the grassroots Republicans are so angry with establishment Republicans.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed ready to use procedures to limit the delay to a few days — underscoring the conservatives’ helplessness when confronted with bipartisan cooperation.

The agreement would provide an extra $80 billion,. divided evenly between the Pentagon and domestic agencies over the next two years, and extend the government’s authority to borrow to pay bills into March 2017, as Obama’s successor settles into the White House.

Approval would reduce the chance of partisan fights cascading into a federal shutdown or default, a relief to Republicans fearing such events would alienate voters.

A foremost beneficiary would be Ryan, R-Wis., the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate, who seemed certain to be nominated as speaker when House Republicans vote Wednesday. Boehner had said he wanted to “clean the barn” of politically messy issues so Ryan, 45, could make a fresh start.

Ryan mostly ducked reporters seeking Tuesday to hear his views on the budget package and his role, if any, crafting it.

He said only that the secret, top-level process that party leaders and the White House used to reach the accord “stinks” and promised not to operate that way as speaker. Spokesman Brendan Buck said Ryan, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, played no part in the negotiations.

Ryan’s promise echoed demands of the outsider-oriented conservatives who made Boehner’s life miserable because they felt he left rank-and-file lawmakers powerless. But Ryan still faces tricky consequences, no matter how he votes on the budget compromise.

If he opposes it, he would look oddly out-of-step with the same establishment Republicans who virtually browbeat him to seek the speaker post. But if he supports it, he could get off to a poor start with the roughly 40 members of the Freedom Caucus, most of whom voiced support for him last week after initially backing a long-shot rival, Rep. Dan Webster, R-Fla.

The full House is scheduled to formally elect Ryan as speaker Thursday.

There was only slightly more suspense over the budget agreement. One conservative leader, Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, predicted the compromise would get 70 to 90 GOP votes, which seemed sufficient for passage when combined with what is expected to be solid support from Democrats.

The extra spending provided for in the agreement would be financed by a potpourri of savings including sales of millions of gallons from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, curbs on Medicare reimbursements to hospitals and doctors and tougher federal debt collection, including allowing federal agents to call people’s cell phones.

It would trim federal subsidies to companies that sell crop insurance to farmers, creating an uproar among agriculture-state lawmakers.

The package would also avert a looming shortfall in the Social Security disability trust fund that threatened to limit benefits, and head off an unprecedented increase in Medicare premiums for doctors’ visits for about 15 million beneficiaries.

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Eds: AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Defense secretary says US is retooling fight against IS

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Signaling a possible escalation of U.S. military action in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that the United States is retooling its strategy in Iraq and Syria and would conduct unilateral ground raids if needed to target Islamic State militants.

The U.S. has done special operations raids in Syria and participated in a ground operation to rescue hostages last week in northern Iraq that resulted in the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. Carter did not say under what circumstances the U.S. might conduct more ground action, but said, “Once we locate them, no target is beyond our reach.”

“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL, or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter said, using an acronym for the militant group.

Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Republicans harshly criticized the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria and Iraq, where IS militants have captured large swaths of territory and have largely fought the U.S.-led coalition to a stalemate.

With little recent progress in defeating the militant group, the defense secretary’s testimony outlined a changing U.S. approach to the fight against IS. The changes point toward the prospect of deeper U.S. military involvement, although President Barack Obama has said he would not authorize a major commitment of ground combat forces.

Among other options being considered is providing close-air support for Iraqi ground forces with Apache helicopters or other aircraft, and embedding U.S. military advisers with smaller Iraqi units, thus placing the Americans closer to the front lines. That’s according to defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The U.S. now has about 3,300 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces and to protect U.S. facilities. There are no U.S. troops in Syria.

Among options being considered is using U.S. Army Apache helicopters and perhaps other aircraft to provide close-air support for Iraqi ground troops in certain circumstances, one U.S. defense official said after Carter testified. The official was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations publicly and thus spoke on condition of anonymity.

The administration also is considering other moves that would place U.S. troops closer to the front lines.

The changes Carter cited focus largely on targeting Raqqa, the militants’ declared capital in Syria, and recapturing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq, which IS fighters captured in May and have successfully defended so far.

In Syria, Carter said the U.S. will support moderate Syrian forces fighting IS militants, who have made territorial gains near Raqqa. He said the U.S. hopes to better equip anti-IS forces, further bolster Jordan and intensify the American air campaign with additional U.S. and coalition aircraft to target IS with heavier airstrikes.

“In the new train-and-equip effort that we described today, we will look to identify and then support capable and motivated forces on Syrian territory that are willing to take on IS,” Carter said. “We have identified some of them already. And the new approach is to enable them, train them and equip them, rather than trying to create such forces anew, which was the previous approach.”

A Defense Department program to train and equip moderate rebels to combat the Islamic State was a failure, and CIA-backed rebels fighting Assad are now under attack by Russian bombers.

In Iraq, Carter said the U.S. is willing to provide more firepower and other support if the Iraqi government can create a motivated Iraqi force that includes ethnic Sunnis.

“We’ve given the Iraqi government two battalions worth of equipment for mobilizing Sunni tribal forces. … If local Sunni forces aren’t sufficiently equipped, regularly paid and empowered as co-equal members of the Iraqi security forces, ISIL’s defeats in Anbar will only be temporary,” Carter said.

If done simultaneously, all the actions in the new U.S. strategy on the ground and in the air “should help shrink IS territory into a smaller and smaller area and create new opportunities for targeting IS — ultimately denying this evil movement any safe haven,” Carter said.

Carter testified just weeks after Russia began conducting hundreds of airstrikes in Syria. Moscow says it is trying to help the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad defeat IS, but many of the Russia airstrikes have targeted Syrian rebels in areas where the extremist group is not present.

Carter reiterated his complaint that the Russian approach is “wrong-headed” and suggested a “doubling down on their long-standing relationship with Assad.”

“It appears the vast majority of their (the Russians’) strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs, which obviously increases the possibility of civilian casualties,” he said.

Carter’s testimony drew criticism from Republicans on the committee, primarily because it does not involve the ouster of Assad.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a presidential candidate, said Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militant group all are supporting Assad. Carter and Dunford both acknowledged that the U.S. was supporting moderate forces in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, but not those fighting against Assad.

Carter said the U.S. approach to removing Assad has been mostly a political effort.

Dunford said, “I think the balance of forces right now are in Assad’s advantage.”

Graham seized on their replies.

“If I’m Assad, this is a good day for me because the American government has just said, without saying it, that they are not going to fight to replace me,” Graham said.

“You have turned Syria over to Russia and Iran. … This is a sad day for America and the region will pay hell for this,” Graham said, adding that he thought the U.S. strategy was half-baked. “The Arabs are not going to accept this. The people of Syria are not going to accept this.”

Afghan quake death toll rises further as survivors await aid

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SHANGLA, Pakistan (AP) — Afghanistan and Pakistan were scrambling Wednesday to rush aid to survivors of this week’s magnitude-7.5 earthquake as the region’s overall death toll from the temblor rose to 385.

Pakistan’s disaster management authority said the nation’s dead now were at 267, with 220 people killed in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and another 47 elsewhere in the country.

Afghanistan has reported 115 dead and 556 wounded, while three people died on the Indian side of the disputed region of Kashmir.

The head of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, Wais Ahmad Barmak told parliament that 7,630 homes had been destroyed and around 1,000 animals killed. In battered northwestern Pakistan, more than 10,000 homes were damaged, as well as 147 schools, officials said.

The quake, which struck Monday, was centered in Afghanistan’s sparsely populated Badakhshan province bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan and China.

The poverty-stricken region is vast, with mountains and valleys that make it difficult to reach affected areas. Taliban are active in some parts, further complicating access, Barmak said.

Survey teams have been sent to assess casualties and damage in areas that can be reached only on foot or donkey. Once the information they bring back has been assessed, food and non-food supplies would be delivered, Barmak said.

Badakhshan is often hit by earthquakes and other disasters, including floods and landslides. Other regions, too, such as Nuristan and Kunar provinces in the east were presenting access challenges, he told parliament. “We have got some problems like security challenges and road blocks, and unfortunately all roads from Nuristan’s capital to its districts are still blocked and some roads are blocked in Kunar too,” preventing delivery of help.

Meanwhile, funerals of the victims continued Wednesday and in Pakistan’s worst-hit town of Shangla, residents demanded the government’s help to rebuild their homes.

According to Pakistan’s disaster management authority, the quake damaged 10,586 houses in the country’s northwest. Shangla is the worst affected town, with 49 people killed and 228 injured. Another 32 people died in Chitral, the Pakistani town closest to the epicenter of the quake.

Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority said it had distributed 15,519 tents, 25,700 blankets and tons of food. Further supplies would be delivered to remote areas once roads had been cleared and reopened.

In Shangla, 70-year-old Zurqun Nain said his extended family was living at a relative’s home after the quake damaged his house. “I had my own home before the earthquake. Now I am homeless at this old age,” he said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the northwestern city of Peshawar on Wednesday to attend a briefing on quake damages. In televised comments, he pledged his government would provide “maximum compensation” to the victims.

“We are going to start the provision of compensation to those whose homes were damaged,” he said, adding that 200,000 rupees (about $2,000) would be given to each person to rebuild their homes.

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Faiez reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmed contributed to this report from Islamabad. Afghan men offer funeral prayers in front of the bodies of people killed in an earthquake in Takhar province, northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Rescuers were struggling to reach quake-stricken regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan on Tuesday as officials said the combined death toll from the previous day’s earthquake rose to more than 300. (AP Photo/Naim Rahimi)

Impact of US Warship sailing near China’s disputed area

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BEIJING (AP) — Beijing reacted harshly to a U.S. warship sailing near one of its newly created islands in a disputed area of the South China Sea. The action did not spark a confrontation or roll back any Chinese island-building activities, but it sent a high-profile message to both Beijing and U.S. allies that Washington wants to test Chinese sovereignty assertions and ensure freedom of navigation.

Some questions and answers:

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WHAT IS THE IMPACT?

As in previous incidents, Beijing is likely to voice its outrage for a time, before reasserting the wisdom of the government’s calculated approach to its crucial relationship with the U.S. However, the testy reaction underlines tensions in the strategically vital region through which about one-third of global trade passes. Frictions are likely to worsen as Washington’s renewed focus on Asia rubs up against Beijing’s increasingly robust assertions of its claim to virtually the entire sea and its islands, reefs and atolls. China says its sovereignty claims do not conflict with the rights of other nations to operate in the South China Sea, although the Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of abusing those rights.

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WHAT DID THE U.S. NAVY DO?

The maneuver itself was relatively tame. The U.S. Navy sailed the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen past an artificial island created on Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago. The route was within a 12-nautical mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit that China might claim around the reef. However, international law permits “innocent passage” of warships through other countries’ territorial seas without any need for prior notification, and there was no indication the ship did anything other than pass through. Still, the U.S. said ahead of the trip that it was aimed at challenging any Chinese claims that the newly created islands are its sovereign territory.

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WHY DID THE NAVY ACT?

The sail-by was intended to reinforce Washington’s insistence on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed not only by China but by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. While the U.S. says it takes no view on ownership claims, it insists that the man-made islands China has created do not constitute sovereign territory and cannot claim territorial seas. Until the legal status of South China Sea is settled once and for all, such incidents “will continue unabated,” said U.S. Naval Academy China expert Yu Maochun.

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HOW DID CHINA RESPOND?

China reacted angrily, saying the sail-by was illegal, that it infringed on Chinese sovereignty and that it threatened the security of the island and the region. It said the maneuver would affect China-U.S. relations and summoned American Ambassador Max Baucus in Beijing for a high-level protest. It is unclear on what basis China claims the sail-by was illegal, partly because it has never clarified the basis of its claims to territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese response — limited so far only to rhetoric — suggests Beijing may tacitly acknowledges the freedom of navigation in the area, but does “not want the U.S. to make a regular practice of it,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the U.S. National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.

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WHAT ABOUT THE CHINESE PUBLIC?

Chinese Internet forums lit up with calls for a hard line against the U.S. The official China Daily newspaper published an editorial Wednesday accusing Washington of “stirring the waters at the risk of regional peace and stability,” and of using coercion to challenge what it called China’s legitimate territorial claims. Public sentiment strongly favors China displaying its military superiority in the face of defiant acts by rival claimants, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, although Beijing has so far shied away from military escalation. Passions over the South China Sea pale in comparison to negative sentiment toward old rival Japan, with which China is competing over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

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WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM IMPLICATIONS?

China has said it will continue work on island-building projects now underway, including the construction of buildings, harbors and airstrips on top of them. However, Washington’s regional allies have been buoyed by the show of U.S. resolve that follows warming military ties with the Philippines, former foe Vietnam and others. That may stiffen the determination of China’s neighbors to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness. Other players in the region, including Singapore and Indonesia, are wary of being caught up in a sharpening dispute between Washington and Beijing and all sides are calling for negotiations on a long-term solution to head off the possibility of conflict.

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In this April 8, 2008, file photo, Chinese navy personnel get ready for U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer USS Lassen to dock at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit. The USS Lassen sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged US-China relations and regional peace. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

Business: Nikkei gains on stimulus hope, Fed weighs on other markets

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HONG KONG (AP) — Japanese stocks rose Wednesday as investors bet on another shot of stimulus from the country’s central bank while other global benchmarks moved sideways ahead of U.S. growth figures and the Fed’s latest policy decision.

KEEPING SCORE: European stocks were muted in early trading. France’s CAC was up 0.2 percent to 4,854.40 and Germany’s DAX gained 0.2 percent to 10,706.45. Britain’s FTSE 100 slipped 0.1 percent to 6,358.75. U.S. stocks were poised for a flat open, with Dow futures practically unchanged at 17,513.00. Broader S&P 500 futures inched up 0.1 percent to 2,062.20.

RATE DEBATE: Investors were holding off from piling into stocks as they await the Federal Reserve’s latest interest rate decision due at the end of its two-day meeting that began Tuesday. Expectations that the Fed will raise rates this year have diminished amid concern about a slower than expected U.S. economic recovery. However many investors also would prefer to see uncertainty resolved over when rates will be lifted from record lows. In contrast, hopes are rising that the Bank of Japan will expand its monetary stimulus when it holds its latest policy Friday as it tries to revive a stagnant economy.

US GROWTH: The U.S. economy has resembled a dizzying roller-coaster ride this year, with a hurtling dive followed by a steep climb leading to yet another slide. On Thursday, when the government issues its first of three estimates of growth in the July-September quarter, it’s expected to show an economy slumping from global weakness and reduced corporate stockpiling.

ANALYST INSIGHT: “It is very unlikely that the Federal Open Market Committee would have contemplated a hike,” analysts at Societe Generale said in a research note. “More critically, officials will have to decide whether they still consider a December rate hike as likely and, if so, come up with a game plan to prepare the markets.”

ASIAN SCORECARD: Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.7 percent to close at 18,903.02 while South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.1 percent to 2,042.51. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 0.8 percent to 22,956.57 and the Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China retreated 1.7 percent to 3,375.20. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.2 percent to 5,335.20. Benchmarks in Taiwan and Southeast Asia also fell.

ENERGY: U.S. benchmark crude rose 7 cents to $43.27 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 78 cents to close at $43.20 in New York on Thursday. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, rose 9 cents to $46.90 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 120.33 yen from 120.43 on Thursday. The euro slipped to $1.1035 from $1.1039.

 

Analysis: Meetings and more meetings yield no Syria solution

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Another meeting in another luxury hotel in another European city oozing with diplomatic history.

Such is the state of the international effort to revive a peace plan for Syria.

The effort fell short again on Friday, as top diplomats from the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Vienna to toss around ideas on how to restart talks on a political transition in Syria. They failed to agree on any concrete steps other than to meet again, probably this week. Other interested nations may participate in the new meeting, likely in Vienna, but there was no consensus on which nations should attend because some oppose a role for Iran, while others support it.

And after years of on-and-off talks, the four countries — along with other players — remain deeply divided on the most contentious issue: the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Diplomats speak of a changed dynamic in Syria and elsewhere that could finally break the impasse. They say it would be irresponsible not to test it.

Given the catastrophe that Syria has become, they should be given credit for pursuing a diplomatic solution. Yet they have been there multiple times before and multiple meetings have produced no result.

“There are going to be more of these discussions as there needs to be,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday. “While each one on its own is important, as the next one will be, there will be one after that, and probably one after that, and who knows how many more until we really reach the ultimate goal here.”

Friday’s meeting in the Austrian capital was the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate the 2012 Geneva Communique, which called for the formation of a transitional government in Syria that would oversee free and fair elections as part of a broader political transition.

Yet in the 40 months since the communique was signed, there has been no movement toward implementing it.

In Syria, in those 40 months, the Islamic State has overshadowed the rebels who first opposed Assad, setting up the capital of its aspirational caliphate in the northern Syria city of Raqqa and making the situation on the ground far more combustible. The death toll has climbed over a quarter-million and world powers are competing dangerously for prominence in the skies above. A Defense Department program to train and equip moderate rebels to combat the Islamic State was a failure and CIA-backed rebels fighting Assad are now under attack by Russian bombers.

Diplomats, despite several large conferences in Switzerland and smaller meetings around Europe and New York, have been unable to move beyond the communique’s requirement that the transition government be chosen by “mutual consent” of the current government led by Assad, and its political foes.

Mutual consent was the formula devised by the U.S. and Russia that allowed them to claim success in Geneva but essentially guaranteed stalemate in the actual process of creating an interim administration as Assad refuses to go and the opposition refuses to accept him.

Since then, with the exception of one important agreement reached in Geneva in 2013 that got Assad to get rid of his declared chemical weapons stockpile, international diplomacy has come up short.

An attempt in Montreux, Switzerland, in January and February 2014 collapsed when the Syrian delegation refused to discuss Assad and branded the opposition terrorists.

On several occasions, American officials have pointed hopefully to Assad’s weakening position and apparent softening in Russia’s stance on Assad only to have those hopes dashed by Russian consistency on the matter.

The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna in July, brought hopes in Washington and elsewhere that a renewed diplomatic push might actually finally achieve results in Syria.

Shortly after the deal was struck, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Qatar to compare notes on what else might be possible to achieve. The U.S. and allies like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and much of Europe are united in insisting that Assad must step down for a credible transition to occur. Russia and Iran maintain they’re neutral on Assad and that it’s up to the Syrian people to decide their leaders. Yet, Tehran and Moscow have thrown military might into assisting Damascus.

In Vienna last week, Kerry and Lavrov acknowledged the others’ sharply conflicting views on Assad.

“It is clear that Russia and Iran are supportive of Assad, and certainly publicly have argued that it is important for Assad to be there for the stability of the country,” Kerry said. Others, however, “understand that Assad creates an impossible dynamic for peace — that you can’t make peace, even if you wanted to, with Assad there.”

Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the U.S. and its allies of being “obsessed” with Assad and noted what had happened when authoritarian rulers like Moammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein were ousted.

“If we count on changing the regime and especially if we focus narrowly on a concrete figure, we’ve already seen that in Iraq and in Libya and we know what this ended up in … a grave crisis in those countries,” Lavrov said.

Resolution, therefore, appears to be a long shot, even if Assad has hinted he may be ready to accept early elections once the terrorist threat has been addressed.

Kerry, however, is undeterred. He says continuing the dialogue may still yield results as all parties to the Geneva Communique can agree on the path to the ultimate goal despite differences on Assad.

“If we can get into a political process, sometimes these things have a way of resolving themselves,” he said, adding somewhat cryptically: “In other words, it could take years sometimes just to reach agreement on what we already agree on.”

If that’s the case, another meeting in another luxury hotel in another European city oozing with diplomatic history is unlikely to make much of a difference.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Matthew Lee has covered the State Department, American foreign policy and international affairs since 1999. FILE – In this Oct. 23, 2015 file-pool photo, Secretary of State John Kerry, speaks during a news conference following a day of meetings in Vienna. Top diplomats from the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey met in Vienna to toss around ideas on how to restart talks on a political transition in Syria. They failed to agree on any concrete steps other than to meet again, probably this week. Other interested nations may participate in the new meeting, likely in Vienna, but there was no consensus on which nations should attend because some oppose a role for Iran, while others support (Carlo Allegri/Pool Photo via AP, File)

5 Britons killed after whale boat sinks off Vancouver Island

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TOFINO, British Columbia (AP) — Investigators are trying to unravel the mystery of what caused a whale watching boat with 27 people on board to capsize off Vancouver Island in seemingly calm weather, killing five British nationals and leaving an Australian man missing. A fisherman who was among the first rescuers on the scene offered a clue, saying a survivor told him that a sudden wave capsized the boat.

Government Investigators have not commented on what caused the 20-meter (65-feet) Leviathan II to capsize on Sunday afternoon. A senior employee of Jamie’s Whaling Station, the company operating the boat, said the vessel sank so quickly the crew didn’t have time to issue a mayday call. The boat capsized about eight nautical miles (14.7 kilometers) off Tofino, a popular destination for whale watchers.

The company’s director of operations, Corene Inouye, said the crew shot flares from the water which attracted the attention of local aboriginal fishermen who rushed to help rescue 21 people. Valerie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said late Monday that four of the survivors remained in hospitals in British Columbia and were all in stable condition.

Fisherman Clarence Smith said he was reeling his lines for halibut when his friend saw a flare shoot in the sky. They raced to the scene in their small boat, and saw people in life rafts, in the water, and on rocks. They first helped a man who was clinging to the side of the boat, taking eight minutes to get him on board. He was unresponsive, and tangled in a line.

Then they rescued two women who were clinging to each other, and finally got 10 people on the life raft onto their boat. Among those they picked up were a pregnant woman and a woman with a broken leg.

“The lady was saying that a wave just capsized them. That’s why there weren’t any communications on the radio, no mayday,” Smith said.

Jamie Bray, the owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station, said the boat sank in an area it goes to every day. He said he’s had minimal contact with the crew and is cooperating with investigators to determine what caused the boat to flip over.

“This vessel has operated for 20 years with an absolutely perfect safety record. This is something just totally out of the blue,” Bray said. “We just don’t understand and we won’t know the answers until the Transportation Safety Board finishes their investigations.”

“We’re all traumatized,” Bray said, his voice shaking.

He said the passengers are not required to wear life jackets on larger ships like the Leviathan II.

It wasn’t the first fatal accident on the whale watching company’s record. In 1998 one of its vessels capsized during an excursion, sending all four people on board into the water. The operator and a passenger died. Bray said that vessel was struck by a rogue wave but said the latest incident involved a much larger boat.

Government investigators arrived Monday afternoon in Tofino, a remote community of about 2,000 people at the very tip of a peninsula some 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. But they hadn’t yet spoken to the crew and passengers, said Marc Andre Poisson, Director of Marine Investigations for Canada’s Transportation Safety Board.

Poisson said it’s too early to say what caused the boat to capsize it or what the contributing factors might be. He said investigators will review the weather, wreckage and the boat’s maintenance history. He said the vessel has been towed to a nearby island but remains mostly submerged. He said the investigation could take months.

“We’re still at the early stages right now,” he said.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent an underwater recovery team to search for the missing person, with assistance from the Coast Guard and local search and rescue personnel.

British and Australian consular officials were providing assistance to the families of the victims.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement that the five killed were U.K. nationals. “My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident,” Hammond said.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Tuesday confirmed that an Australian man was missing. Australian Associated Press reported that the 27 year-old Sydney man’s family said he was on the boat with his girlfriend and her family when it sank. His girlfriend’s father was among the dead, AAP said.

Barbara McLintock, a coroner’s spokeswoman, said four men and one woman died and their ages ranged from 18 to 76. She said two of the Britons were residents of Canada. Their names were not released.

Boats from the nearby Ahoushat First Nation arrived first on the scene, said Robert Burridge, who estimated that every available vessel from the village helped in the rescue operation.

Canadian Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau thanked all those who participated in the rescue effort and offered his condolences to the victims and their families.

“I know firsthand of this coastal area’s natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world,” said Trudeau, who won Canada’s national election last week. “My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, the crew, and their families at this most difficult time.”

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Hainsworth reported from Vancouver. Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report. Ahousaht First Nation boats patrol an area near where the whale watching boat Leviathan II sank near Tofino, British Columbia, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. The whale watching boat with over two dozen people on board sank off Vancouver Island, the British Foreign Minister said Monday, killing multiple people. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

GOP, Dems, Obama reach accord on 2-year budget deal

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional leaders are throwing their collective weight behind a hard-won, two-year bipartisan budget plan aimed at heading off a looming government debt crisis and forestalling a government shutdown in December.

The pact, which would take these volatile issues off the table until after the 2016 presidential election, emerged in behind-the-scenes negotiations late Monday on Capitol Hill. It-would give both the Pentagon and domestic agencies $80 billion in debt relief in exchange for cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The deal represents one last accommodation between President Barack Obama and departing House Speaker John Boehner, but whether it succeeds depends in great measure on the reception it gets from restive House Republicans, including the arch-conservatives who forced the Ohio Republican out.

“This is again just the umpteenth time that you have this big, huge deal that’ll last for two years and we were told nothing about it and in fact even today, were not given the details,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “And were probably going to have to vote on it in less than 48 hours.” A vote could come as early as Wednesday in the House.

The measure was to be discussed further at a GOP meeting Tuesday morning. Boehner hoped to get it passed before Rep. Paul Ryan’s election as his successor, expected Thursday

Boehner had promised to clear away as much business as possible before handing his speaker’s gavel to Ryan, R-Wis. The newly-assembled budget plan would restore order to Washington and remove the threat of budget and debt chaos — a premier goal of congressional Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a key architect of the pact.

Capitol Hill Democrats are likely to solidly support the agreement, although it gives greater budget relief to the Pentagon than it does domestic programs.

The legislation would suspend the current $18.1 trillion debt limit through March 2017. The budget portion would increase the current “caps” on total agency spending by $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017, offset by savings elsewhere in the budget. And it would permit about $16 billion to be added on top of that in 2016, classified as war funding, with a comparable boost in 2017.

It also would clean up expected problems in Social Security and Medicare by fixing a shortfall looming next year in Social Security payments to the disabled, as well as a large increase in Medicare premiums and deductibles for doctors’ visits and other outpatient care.

“Cleaning out the barn,” Boehner said, as he entered the evening meeting of Republicans to pitch the deal. He doesn’t want to saddle Ryan, R-Wis., with a lot of messy unfinished business.

The emerging budget side of the deal resembles a pact that Ryan fashioned two years ago in concert with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to ease automatic spending cuts for the 2014-15 budget years. A lot of conservatives disliked the measure and many on the GOP’s right flank are already swinging against the new one, which would apply to the 2016-17 budget years.

“I’m not excited about it at all,” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said of the agreement. He called it “a two-year budget deal that raises the debt ceiling for basically the entire term of this presidency.”

Boehner was pushed aside by conservatives in his own party after repeatedly turning to Democrats to pass must-do legislation in an era of divided government. Many Republicans also resented being kept in the dark. The pending deal fits both criteria.

Among the proposed spending cuts are curbs on Medicare payments for outpatient services provided by hospitals that have taken over doctors’ practices, and an extension of a 2 percentage-point cut in Medicare payments to doctors through the end of a 10-year budget.

The budget side of the deal is aimed at undoing automatic spending cuts which are a byproduct of a 2011 budget and debt agreement, and the failure of Washington to subsequently tackle the government’s fiscal woes. GOP defense hawks are a driving force, intent on reversing the automatic cuts and getting more money for the military. A key priority for Democrats is to boost domestic programs.

The focus is on setting a new overall spending limit for agencies whose operating budgets are set by Congress each year. It will be up to the House and Senate Appropriations committees to produce a detailed omnibus spending bill by the Dec. 11 deadline.

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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., walks to a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Oct. 26, 2015. Speaker John Boehner is pressing ahead with one last deal as he heads for the exits, pushing to finalize a far-reaching, two-year budget agreement with President Barack Obama before handing Congress’ top job over to Rep. Paul Ryan this week, congressional officials said Monday.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Death toll reaches 311 in quake-hit Pakistani, Afghan areas

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Rescuers were struggling to reach quake-stricken regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan on Tuesday as officials said the combined death toll from the previous day’s earthquake rose to 311.

According to Afghan and Pakistani officials, 237 people died in Pakistan and 74 in Afghanistan in the magnitude-7.5 quake, which was centered deep beneath the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan’s sparsely populated Badakhshan province that borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China.

Afghan authorities were scrambling to access the hardest-hit areas near the epicenter, located 73 kilometers (45 miles) south of Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan province.

In Pakistan, the Swat Valley and areas around the Dir, Malakand and Shangla towns in the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were also hard-hit in the quake. The Pakistani town closest to the epicenter is Chitral while on the Afghan side it is the Jurm district of Badakhshan.

More than 2,000 people were injured in Monday’s temblor, which also damaged nearly 2,500 homes in Pakistan, officials said.

In Afghanistan, Ismail Kawusi, spokesman for the Public Health Ministry said the numbers gathered so far from hospitals in various provinces recorded 457 injured. Earlier, Wais Ahmad Barmak, the Afghan minister for disaster management, said 74 people were dead and 266 had been injured.

Badakhshan’s Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb said that in all, 13 districts in the province had been affected, with more than 1,500 houses either destroyed or partially destroyed.

In his province alone, casualty figures of 11 dead and 25 injured “will rise by the end of the day, once the survey teams get to the remote areas and villages,” Adeeb said.

Helicopters were needed to reach the most remote villages, many inaccessible by road at the best of times, he added. Now, landslides and falling rocks have blocked the few existing roads. Food and other essentials were ready to go, he said, but “getting there is not easy.”

Badakhshan is one of the poorest regions of Afghanistan, despite vast mineral deposits. It is often hit by earthquakes, but casualty figures are usually low because it is so sparsely populated, with fewer than 1 million people spread across its vast mountains and valleys. It also suffers from floods, snowstorms and mudslides.

The casualties and the extent of damage were still being assessed, said Ahmad Kamal, the spokesman for Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority. Bajur tribal region bordering Afghanistan was also affected by the quake, with dozens of homes damaged in other tribal regions.

Pakistani helicopters and military planes were being used to transport relief supplies and military engineers were working on restoring communication lines disrupted by landslides triggered by the quake, said Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, the army spokesman.

The landslides were also hampering rescue attempts in some areas, and roads were being cleared to ease access. The military was also distributing food and blankets to people in remote and inaccessible northwestern and northern region, where most casualties and damage were reported, Bajwa said in a statement.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday visited the earthquake-hit town of Shangla in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where at least 49 people were killed and 80 were injured in the earthquake. Also Tuesday, Sharif attended a briefing in Islamabad about the damages caused by the quake.

According to a statement, Sharif praised the country’s rescue efforts and insisted that Pakistan was “capable enough to rescue and rehabilitate those affected by the earthquake” and that every effort would be made to help those stricken. He said his government would soon announce a relief package to compensate those affected by the quake.

Monday’s quake shook buildings in the capital, Islamabad, and elsewhere in Pakistan and Afghanistan for up to 45 seconds in the early afternoon, creating cracks in walls and shutting down power.

In Afghanistan’s Takhar province, 12 students at a girls’ school were killed in a stampede as they fled a shaking building.

Sonatullah Taimor, a spokesman for the governor of Takhar province, said so far authorities had recorded 14 people dead there — including the schoolgirls. More than 50 were injured and 200 houses were destroyed. He said food, blankets and tents were in short supply, though people had been warned to sleep outside — in near-freezing temperatures — in case of aftershocks.

The United States offered emergency shelters and relief supply kits stored in warehouses throughout Afghanistan that could be used. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. government has been in touch with officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is ready to provide any additional support.

Pakistan has said it will not issue any appeals to the international community for help as the country has the required resources to carry out the rescue and relief work.

A magnitude-7.6 quake hit Pakistan on Oct. 8, 2005, killing more than 80,000 people and leaving more than 3 million homeless, most of them in the northwest of the country and in the divided region of Kashmir.

That quake was much shallower than Monday’s — 10 kilometers (6 miles) below the surface, compared to the depth of 213 kilometers (130 miles) on Monday — and thus caused greater damage, said Mohammad Hanif, an official at the Meteorological Department.

___

Faiez reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Humayoon Babur and Amir Shah in Kabul, and Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report. A Pakistani boy examines a house damaged caused by massive earthquake in Mingora, the main town of Swat valley, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Officials say rescuers are struggling to reach quake-stricken regions in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Naveed Ali)

China warns US Navy after ship sails by Chinese-built island

This gallery contains 1 photo.

BEIJING (AP) — A U.S. Navy warship sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged U.S.-China relations and regional peace.

China’s Foreign Ministry said authorities monitored and warned the USS Lassen as it entered what China claims as a 12-mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, a group of reefs, islets, and atolls where the Philippines has competing claims.

“The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,” the ministry said on its website.

“The Chinese side expresses its strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” the statement said.

The sail-past fits a U.S. policy of pushing back against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. U.S. ally the Philippines welcomed the move as a way of helping maintain “a balance of power.”

Since 2013, China has accelerated the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets — activities seen as an attempt to change the territorial status quo by changing the geography.

Navy officials had said the sail-past was necessary to assert the U.S. position that China’s manmade islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding territorial waters.

International law permits military vessels the right of “innocent passage” in transiting other country’s seas without notification. China’s Foreign Ministry, though, labeled the ship’s actions as illegal.

The U.S. says it doesn’t take a position on sovereignty over the South China Sea but insists on freedom of navigation and overflight. About 30 percent of global trade passes through the South China Sea, which also has rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea mineral deposits.

China says it respects the right of navigation but has never specified the exact legal status of its maritime claims. China says virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim either parts or all of it.

Beijing’s response closely mirrored its actions in May when a navy dispatcher warned off a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.

A Defense Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Lassen’s movements, said the patrol was completed without incident. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, declined to comment.

Speaking to foreign correspondents in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he supported the U.S. naval maneuvers as an assertion of freedom of navigation and as a means to balance power in the region.

“I think expressing support for established norms of international behavior should not be a negative for a country,” he said. “I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world.”

Without identifying China by name, he said “one regional power” has been making “controversial pronouncements” that must not be left unchallenged.

The Obama administration has long said it will exercise a right to freedom of navigation in any international waters.

“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this month.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said China adhered to international law regarding freedom of navigation and flight, but “resolutely opposes the damaging of China’s sovereignty and security interests in the name of free navigation and flight.”

“China will firmly deal with provocations from other countries,” the statement said, adding that China would continue to monitor the air and sea and take further action when necessary.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kong said such actions by the U.S. might end up spurring further advances in Chinas defense capabilities.

“If any country wishes to disrupt or impede China’s reasonable, justifiable and lawful activities on our own territories by playing some little tricks, I would advise these countries to cast off this fantasy,” Lu said.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the U.S. would not be required to consult with other nations if it decided to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters.

“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters. You don’t need to consult with anybody,” Kirby said.

The South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States, even as President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas.

Despite those tensions, exchanges between the two militaries have continued to expand, with a U.S. Navy delegation paying visits last week to China’s sole aircraft carrier and a submarine warfare academy.

___

Associated Press reporter Oliver Teves contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines. Burns reported from Washington, D.C. / In this April 8, 2008, file photo, guided missile destroyer USS Lassen arrives at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit. The USS Lassen has sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged US-China relations and regional peace. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

Business: Global stocks down as China leaders meet, Fed reviews policy

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Global stock markets were lower Tuesday as investors awaited monetary policy announcements from central banks and the outcome of China’s economic planning meeting.

KEEPING SCORE: Europe got off to a weak start with Britain’s FTSE 100 down 0.4 percent to 6,393.06. Germany’s DAX shed 0.4 percent to 10,754.85 and France’s CAC 40 dropped 0.6 percent to 4,868.16. Futures showed that Wall Street was set for a sluggish start. Dow futures and S&P 500 futures both slipped 0.2 percent.

CENTRAL BANKS: Central bankers in some of the world’s biggest economies are convening this week to discuss key rates and stimulus actions. The U.S. Federal Reserve begins its two-day meeting later on Tuesday amid low expectations for a rate increase as U.S. inflation is subdued and recent data suggests the economic recovery remains uneven. Bank of Japan policymakers are meeting on Friday and are expected to leave the door open to additional monetary stimulus.

THE QUOTE: “No one expects the Fed to budge on policy tomorrow,” analysts at DBS Bank in Singapore said in a market commentary. Third-quarter U.S. growth data slated for release on Thursday could determine whether the central bank “dares move” at its final meeting for 2015 in December, DBS said.

CHINA MEETING: Chinese leaders began meeting Monday to set goals for the world’s second-largest economy for the next five years. The Communist Party leaders are expected to redouble their efforts to shift China’s reliance on trade and investment to more self-sustaining growth driven by domestic consumption. Whether China’s growth target will be lowered is a point of hot debate, Mizuho Bank said in a daily commentary, following Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s remark that communist leaders will accept growth below their official target of “about 7 percent.” On Friday, Beijing cut interest rates for a sixth time since November.

ASIA’S DAY: Asian markets closed mostly lower but Chinese stocks turned positive. Nikkei 225 fell 0.9 percent to 18,777.04 and South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.2 percent to 2,044.65. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng added 0.1 percent to 23,142.73 and the Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China rose 0.1 percent to 3,434.34. Stocks in Taiwan and Australia were lower.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude was down 48 cents to $43.50 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost 62 cents, or 1.4 percent, to close at $43.98 a barrel in New York on Monday. Brent Crude, which is used to price international oils, fell 34 cents to $47.20 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 120.48 yen from 121.06 yen in the previous trading session. The euro weakened to $1.1044 from $1.1057.

 

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