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Yearly Archives: 2017

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Collins: Trump should back effort to resume health subsidy

WASHINGTON (AP) — A key moderate Republican is urging President Donald Trump to support a bipartisan Senate effort to reinstate insurer payments, calling his move to halt the subsidies an immediate threat to millions of Americans who could now face rising premiums and lost health care coverage.

“What the president is doing is affecting people’s access and the cost of health care right now,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has cast pivotal votes on health care in the narrowly divided Senate. “This is not a bailout of the insurers. What this money is used for is to help low-income people afford their deductibles and their co-pays.”

“Congress needs to step in and I hope that the president will take a look at what we’re doing,” she added.

Her comments Sunday came amid rising attention on the bipartisan bid led by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., to at least temporarily reinstate the payments.

Congressional Republicans are divided over the effort. And White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has suggested that Trump may oppose the agreement unless he gets something in return — such as a repeal of former President Barack Obama’s health care law or funding of Trump’s promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The insurer payments will be stopped beginning this week, with sign-up season for subsidized private insurance set to start Nov. 1.

“The president is not going to continue to throw good money after bad, give $7 billion to insurance companies unless something changes about Obamacare that would justify it,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who golfed with Trump Saturday at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia.

“It’s got to be a good deal,” Graham said.

In his decision last week, Trump derided the $7 billion in subsidies as bailouts to insurers and indicated he was trying to pressure Democrats into negotiating an Obamacare repeal, a bid that repeatedly crashed in the GOP-run Senate this summer.

The subsidies are designed to lower out-of-pocket costs for insurers, which are required under Obama’s law to reduce poorer people’s expenses — about 6 million people. To recoup the lost money, carriers are likely to raise 2018 premiums for people buying their own health insurance policies.

Alexander and Murray have been seeking a deal that the Tennessee Republican has said would reinstate the payments for two years. In exchange, Alexander said, Republicans want “meaningful flexibility for states” to offer lower-cost insurance policies with less coverage than Obama’s law mandates.

On Sunday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described Trump’s demand for a sit-down with congressional Democratic leaders as “a little far down the road,” noting that nothing in Trump’s proposals to repeal Obamacare indicates what would replace it. Pelosi pointed to the bipartisan effort in the Senate and said ultimately it will be up to a Republican-controlled Congress and executive branch whether the federal government can avert a shutdown by year’s end.

The government faces a Dec. 8 deadline on the debt limit and government spending.

“We’re not about closing down government. The Republicans have the majority,” Pelosi said. “In terms of the health care, we’re saying ‘Let’s follow what Sens. Murray and Alexander are doing.’”

“They’re trying to find common ground, and that should be encouraged,” she added.

The scrapping of subsidies would affect millions more consumers in states won by Trump last year, including Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, than in states won by Democrat Hillary Clinton. Nearly 70 percent of the 6 million who benefit from the cost-sharing subsidies are in states that voted for the Republican.

Republican Gov. John Kasich of Ohio said Sunday his state had anticipated that the insurer payments would be halted, but not so quickly. He called for the payments to be reinstated right away, describing a hit to Ohio — a state also won by Trump last November — for at least the “first two or three months.”

“Over time, this is going to have a dramatic impact,” Kasich said. “Who gets hurt? People. And it’s just outrageous.”

Nineteen Democratic state attorneys general have announced plans to sue Trump over the stoppage. Attorneys general from California, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New York were among those saying they will file the lawsuit in federal court in California to stop Trump’s attempt “to gut the health and well-being of our country.”

Collins appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and CNN’s “State of the Union,” Pelosi spoke on ABC, Graham appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” and Kasich was on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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Follow Hope Yen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hopeyen1

UK leader makes surprise Brussels trip to undo Brexit logjam

LONDON (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will have a dinner meeting in Brussels with senior European Union officials on Monday, in hopes of reinvigorating stalled negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union.

May’s unexpected meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier follows Barnier’s warning last week that the latest round of talks ended in a “disturbing deadlock” over Britain’s financial obligations to the bloc.

EU estimates suggest Britain must pay from 60 billion euros to 100 billion euros ($80 billion to $120 billion) to settle commitments it has made while part of the EU, including development projects and the pensions of civil servants. Britain has rejected such figures.

The EU is demanding progress on the so-called divorce issues – the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the status of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland — before talks can move on to issues such as future trading and security arrangements. Leaders of other 27 member states are expected to rule this week that there hasn’t been enough progress for the talks to move forward.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Monday urged the EU to speed up talks and start a discussion of the future relationship with the U.K., which is set to leave the bloc in March 2019. Arriving at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, Johnson said it was time for the negotiators to get moving and “stop letting the grass grow under our feet.”

It is time for “the great ship to go down the slipway and onto the open sea and for us to start some serious conversations about the future and the new relationship,” Johnson told reporters.

California fires turn shelters into extended homes

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — Barking dogs, loud snorers and a woman who appears to have dementia crying out every night. Trying to sleep on a cot in a shelter for fire evacuees is not easy.

Nicole Lonefight had spent her nights at a Red Cross shelter on fairgrounds in Sonoma County after flames consumed her prefabricated home in Santa Rosa that she had finished putting together with her husband and best friend days before the fire struck.

The hardest part of life at the shelter is seeing other people who were devastated by the blaze, particularly older people who don’t look like they’ll recover from the trauma, she said.

“It’s already overwhelming to get through what you did,” she said. One older woman at her shelter, she said, woke people up every night, shouting, “Everybody’s gone. They left me here. I don’t want to be here.”

“It’s too much,” Lonefight said. She was hoping for a voucher to sleep at a hotel on Sunday night.

Lois Krier, 86, and her 89-year husband, William, said it was hard to sleep with people snoring and dogs barking. The cots are also uncomfortable, Lois Krier said, before quickly adding that she didn’t want to complain.

With the winds dying down, fire officials said they appeared to have “turned a corner” against the wildfires that have devastated California wine country and other parts of the state over the past week. The number of those under evacuation orders was down to 75,000 from nearly 100,000 the day before and thousands more were expected to get the all-clear to return home in coming days.

Still, Sonoma County listed 18 shelters that were open for evacuees, among them two fairgrounds that had space for recreational vehicles and campers.

Evacuees said they were loath to criticize their living conditions given everything shelter workers were doing to keep them comfortable. William Krier said someone got his blood thinning medication from a pharmacy and took care of the copayment. Lois Krier said volunteers were quick to come over and offer assistance if someone appeared to be fumbling for something in the middle of the night.

At the Sonoma fairgrounds, evacuees watched the San Francisco 49ers on TV and received free chiropractic treatment and haircuts.

At the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds, another evacuation center about 20 miles away, children played basketball on Saturday with National Guard troops and a poster outside a building used as a cafeteria announced a movie – “Gulliver’s Travels” – in the evening. There were regular hot meals and mounds of donations, with enough diapers and sanitary wipes to stock a neighborhood Costco.

“The kindness has overwhelmed me,” said David Lamb, 78, who evacuated from Santa Rosa. Someone in a neighboring recreational vehicle offered Lamb use of a generator to power a machine he uses at night to breathe. “It makes you wonder why we can’t come together like this all the time,” Lamb said.

Brooke Padgett, 34, was at the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds with her and her sister’s five kids and their parents. The kids were sleeping in tents, and she and her sister and their parents were in a trailer.

Padgett, who had been at the shelter since Wednesday, said her home was OK.

“The kids just think we’re camping, and they love it,” she said.

Somalia truck bombing toll over 300 as funerals continue

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The death toll from Saturday’s truck bombing in Somalia’s capital is now over 300, the director of an ambulance service said Monday, as this country reeled from the deadliest single attack it’s ever experienced.

More people have died of their wounds in the past few hours, said Dr. Abdulkadir Adam of Aamin Ambulance. Funerals have continued and the government said the death toll is expected to rise.

Saturday’s truck bombing targeted a crowded street in Mogadishu, and about 300 others were injured. Somalia’s government is blaming the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group, which has not commented.

More than 70 critically injured people were being airlifted to Turkey for treatment on Monday as international aid began to arrive, said officials. Nervous relatives stood on the tarmac at the airport, praying for the recovery of their loved ones.

Overwhelmed hospitals in Mogadishu were struggling to assist other badly wounded victims, many burned beyond recognition.

The attack was one of the worst in the world in recent years. It is one of the deadliest attacks in sub-Saharan Africa, larger than the Garissa University attack in Kenya in 2015, in which 148 died, and the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, in which about 219 were killed.

The most powerful bomb blast ever witnessed in Somalia’s capital has killed more than 200 people, with hundreds more injured. It is the deadliest single attack in the Horn of Africa nation. (Oct. 15)

In addition to Tukey, Kenya and Ethiopia have offered to send medical aid in response to what Somali’s government has called a “national disaster,” said Information Minister Abdirahman Osman.

Al-Shabab, Africa’s deadliest Islamic extremist group, often targets high-profile areas of Mogadishu. Earlier this year, it vowed to step up attacks after both the Trump administration and Somalia’s recently elected president announced new military efforts against the group.

The country’s Somali-American leader, President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, has declared three days of mourning and joined thousands of people who responded to a desperate plea by hospitals to donate blood.

“This is really horrendous, unlike any other time in the past,” said Dr. Mohamed Yusuf, the director of Medina hospital.

Exhausted doctors struggled to keep their eyes open, while screams from victims and newly bereaved families echoed through the halls.

Mogadishu, a city long accustomed to deadly bombings by al-Shabab, was stunned by the force of Saturday’s blast. The explosion shattered hopes of recovery in an impoverished country left fragile by decades of conflict, and it again raised doubts over the government’s ability to secure the seaside city of more than 2 million people.

The United States has condemned the bombing, saying “such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.” It tweeted a photo of its charge d’affaires in Somalia donating blood. But the U.S. Africa Command said U.S. forces had not been asked to provide aid.

The U.S. military has stepped up drone strikes and other efforts this year against al-Shabab, which is also fighting the Somali military and over 20,000 African Union forces in the country.

Saturday’s blast occurred two days after the head of the U.S. Africa Command was in Mogadishu to meet with Somalia’s president, and two days after the country’s defense minister and army chief resigned for undisclosed reasons.

The United Nations special envoy to Somalia called the attack “revolting.” Michael Keating said the U.N. and African Union were supporting the Somali government’s response with “logistical support, medical supplies and expertise.”

Iraqi forces drive Kurds from disputed areas near Kirkuk

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish officials said early Monday that federal forces and state-backed militias have launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking Kirkuk, as fighting erupted just outside the disputed northern city.

Kurdish forces appeared to be pulling back, abandoning fortified positions around the airport as large numbers of civilians fled the northern city ahead of a feared assault. The multi-ethnic city, home to some 1 million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, is claimed by autonomous Kurdish authorities as well as the central government in Baghdad.

The conflict pits two close U.S. allies against each other, potentially undermining the unfinished war against the Islamic State group.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias following the “unprovoked attack” south of the city.

Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said federal forces have seized an oil and gas company and other industrial areas south of Kirkuk in fighting with Kurdish forces that caused “lots of casualties,” without providing a specific figure.

Iraqi Kurdish officials said early Monday that Iraqi federal forces and state-backed militias have launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking Kirkuk from the Kurds. Kurdish forces have held the divided Iraqi city since 2014. (Oct. 16)

He said Iraqi forces have “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” in Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed city. His claims could not be independently verified.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry said in a brief statement that federal forces have taken control of a power plant, a police station and industrial areas near Kirkuk. It provided no further details on the fighting or casualties in what it referred to as Operation Impose Security on Kirkuk.

Tensions have soared since the Kurds held a non-binding referendum last month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote.

The United States has supplied and trained Iraqi federal forces and the peshmerga, both of which are fighting the Islamic State group. The U.S. also opposed the referendum, and has urged both sides to remain focused on defeating the extremists.

U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, tweeted that it was “closely monitoring sit. near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all.” ISIS is another acronym for the Islamic State group.

The central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north have long been divided over oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories like Kirkuk that are controlled by Kurdish forces but are outside their self-ruled region.

The Kurds assumed control of Kirkuk, in the heart of a major oil-producing region, in the summer of 2014, when IS militants swept across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces crumbled.

Iraq has since rebuilt its armed forces with considerable U.S. aid, and they are battle-hardened and flush with victory after driving IS from most of the territory it once held. Fighting alongside the armed forces are tens of thousands of state-sanctioned militiamen, mainly Shiite Arab fighters backed by Iran, whom the Kurds view as an instrument of demographic change.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had vowed that the militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, would remain outside the city, but an Associated Press reporter saw them taking up posts that had been abandoned by Kurdish forces in western Kirkuk.

The Kurdish security council said the assault launched late Sunday was aimed at entering the city and retaking the K-1 military base and nearby oil fields.

State-run Al-Iraqiya TV had earlier reported that federal forces rolled into parts of the countryside outside Kirkuk without facing resistance. However, some residents of the city and an Iraqi militia commander reported shelling.

Al-Iraqiya carried a statement from al-Abadi’s office saying he had ordered federal forces to “impose security in the city in cooperation with the inhabitants and the peshmerga,” indicating he was willing to share administration.

A commander of the local Kurdish police force said his forces remained in control of the province’s disputed oil wells. “There’s been no agreement to hand over the wells until now. As for the future, I don’t know,” said Bahja Ahmad Amin.

Ercuman Turkman, a PMF commander, said shortly before forces began moving in that he expected orders to move on Kirkuk’s oil wells, its airport and the nearby K-1 military base, but not the city. Haytham Hashem, another PMF commander, reported shelling on his position in Toz Khormato, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the edge of Kirkuk city.

Baghdad has been turning the screws on the Kurdish region since the September referendum, pushing Kurd leaders to disavow the vote and accept shared administration over Kirkuk.

Iraq’s government barred international flights to and from the region and asked neighboring Turkey and Iran to close their borders. Iran closed its three official crossings with the Kurdish region Sunday, Kurdish media reported. It also froze currency transfers to four banks operating in the Kurdish region.

Al-Abadi has demanded shared administration over Kirkuk. His Cabinet said Sunday that fighters from Turkey’s Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, were beginning to appear in Kirkuk, and declared that would be tantamount to an act of war.

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Associated Press writers Emad Matti in Irbil, Iraq, and Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Business: Global shares gain as finance leaders back easy money

TOKYO (AP) — Shares rose in Europe and Asia on Monday after leaders of global finance appealed at a weekend meeting of the International Monetary Fund for a continuation of low-interest rate policies to keep economic recoveries on track.

KEEPING SCORE: Germany’s DAX edged 0.2 percent higher to 13,012.00 and the FTSE 100 was up 0.1 percent to 7,546.05. The CAC 40 of France added 0.3 percent to 5,365.57. Dow futures added 0.1 percent to 22,845.00 and S&P 500 futures were almost unchanged, pointing to a steady start for the week on Wall Street.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index added 0.5 percent to 21,255.56 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index surged 0.8 percent to 28,692.80. South Korea’s Kospi rose 0.3 percent to 2,480.05 and the S&P ASX/200 advanced 0.6 percent to 5,846.80. India’s Sensex picked up 0.6 percent to 32,612.52, but the Shanghai Composite index slipped 0.4 percent to 3,378.47. Shares in Southeast Asia were higher.

GLOBAL FINANCE: Finance ministers declared the recovery from the 2008 financial crisis incomplete and said central banks should stick with low interest rates that make borrowing attractive to safeguard the still fragile world economy. The meeting in Washington also focused attention on the failure of such policies to fuel inflation outside of financial markets. The 189-nation IMF’s communique warned there “is no room for complacency” as nations confront new challenges to global growth from a range of threats, including cyber-security attacks and more violent weather patterns linked to climate change.

ANALYST VIEWPOINT: “In the face of protectionist threats, global economies have enjoyed a synchronized upswing this year amidst a pickup in trade activity, but even then the outlook is not entirely rosy,” Mizuho Bank said in a commentary. “To begin with, it is becoming increasingly evident that persistently low inflation has become a puzzle, even to central bank policymakers,” it said.

CHINA PARTY MEETING: China’s ruling Communist Party begins a congress Wednesday where President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader in decades, will get a second five-year term as party leader. The meeting will be closely watched for indications of future policy at a time when the party is expanding its role in the world’s second-largest economy even though strong job creation and through it poverty alleviation depend largely on the dynamism of the private sector.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil picked up 66 cents to $52.11 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It gained 85 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $51.45 a barrel on Friday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, climbed 74 cents to $57.91 per barrel. It gained 92 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $57.17 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar slid to 111.79 yen from 111.82 yen. The euro dipped to $1.1792 from $1.1820.

California turns corner in battling wine country fires

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — California fire authorities said Sunday they have turned a corner in battling several of the wildfires that have devastated wine country and other rural parts of Northern California over the past week.

Some counties were preparing to let more evacuees return to their homes amid improving weather. The winds that have been fanning the deadliest and most destructive cluster of wildfires in California history did not kick up overnight as much as feared.

“Conditions have drastically changed from just 24 hours ago, and that is definitely a very good sign. And it’s probably a sign we’ve turned a corner on these fires,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We’re starting to see fires with containment numbers in the 50 and 60 percent, so we’re definitely getting the upper hand on these fires.”

The wildfires that erupted last weekend have killed at least 40 people and destroyed at least 5,700 homes and other structures. As of Sunday, roughly 75,000 people were under evacuation orders, down from nearly 100,000 the day before.

On Sunday, the Sonoma County sheriff’s office said the county would start assessing evacuated areas, which is a first step toward allowing people back home. Mendocino County said it expected to allow even more people home on Sunday as well.

Rising winds fanned the California wildfires again Saturday, forcing hundreds more people to flee their homes in the state’s fabled wine country and testing the efforts of crews who have spent days trying to corral the flames behind firebreaks. (Oct. 14)

Some people were growing increasingly impatient to return home — or at least see whether their homes were still standing.

“We’re on pins and needles,” Travis Oglesby, who evacuated from his home in Santa Rosa, told the Sonoma County sheriff on Saturday. “We’re hearing about looting.”

Douglas and Marian Taylor stood outside their apartment complex Saturday in Santa Rosa with their two dogs and a sign that read “End evacuation now.”

Their building at the edge of the cordoned-off evacuation zone was unharmed. The couple said they are spending about $300 a day staying at a motel and eating out, and they want to return home because the fire does not appear to threaten it.

Hundreds of people remain unaccounted for, though officials said they believe they will locate most of them alive.

Most of the dead are believed to have died late on Oct. 8 or early Oct. 9, when the fires exploded and took people by surprise in the middle of the night. Most of the victims were elderly.

In all, 17 large fires still burned across the northern part of the state, with more than 10,000 firefighters attacking the flames using air tankers, helicopters and more than 1,000 fire engines.

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Associated Press writers Olga Rodriguez and Marcio Jose Sanchez in Santa Rosa, Daisy Nguyen in San Francisco and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires .

Breaking News: Death toll from blast in Somalia’s capital rises to 231

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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — The death toll from the most powerful bomb blast witnessed in Somalia’s capital rose to 231 with more than 275 injured, making it the deadliest single attack ever in this Horn of Africa nation, a senator said Sunday.

Abshir Abdi Ahmed cited doctors at hospitals he had visited in Mogadishu. Many of the bodies in mortuaries had not yet been identified, he said. Officials feared the toll would continue to climb from Saturday’s truck bomb that targeted a busy street near key ministries.

Doctors struggled to assist horrifically wounded victims, many burned beyond recognition. “The hospital is overwhelmed by both dead and wounded,” said Dr. Mohamed Yusuf, the director of Medina hospital. “This is really horrendous, unlike any other time in the past.”

Ambulance sirens echoed across the city as bewildered families wandered in the rubble of buildings, looking for missing relatives. “In our 10 year experience as the first responder in #Mogadishu, we haven’t seen anything like this,” the Aamin Ambulance service tweeted.

Grief overwhelmed many.

“There’s nothing I can say. We have lost everything,” wept Zainab Sharif, a mother of four who lost her husband. She sat outside a hospital where he was pronounced dead after hours of efforts by doctors to save him.

A huge explosion from a truck bomb killed 20 people in Somalia’s capital, police said Saturday, as shaken residents called it the most powerful blast they’d heard in years. (Oct. 14)

President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed declared three days of mourning and joined thousands of people who responded to a desperate plea by hospitals to donate blood. “I am appealing all Somali people to come forward and donate,” he said.

Angry protesters gathered near the scene of the attack as Somalia’s government blamed the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group for what it called a “national disaster.” However, al-Shabab, which often targets high-profile areas of the capital with bombings, had yet to comment.

“They don’t care about the lives of Somali people, mothers, fathers and children,” Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire said. “They have targeted the most populated area in Mogadishu, killing only civilians.”

Rescue workers searched for survivors trapped under the rubble of the largely destroyed Safari Hotel, which is close to Somalia’s foreign ministry. The explosion blew off metal gates and blast walls erected outside the hotel.

The United States condemned the bombing, saying “such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism.”

But the U.S. Africa Command said U.S. forces had not been asked to provide aid. A spokesman told The Associated Press that first responders and local enforcement would handle the response and “the U.S. would offer assistance if and when a request was made.”

The U.S. military has stepped up drone strikes and other efforts this year against al-Shabab, which is also fighting the Somali military and over 20,000 African Union forces in the country.

The United Nations special envoy to Somalia called the attack “revolting,” saying an unprecedented number of civilians had been killed. Michael Keating said the U.N. and African Union were supporting the Somali government’s response with “logistical support, medical supplies and expertise.”

Saturday’s blast occurred two days after the head of the U.S. Africa Command was in Mogadishu to meet with Somalia’s president, and two days after the country’s defense minister and army chief resigned for undisclosed reasons.

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Associated Press video journalist Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed.

Analysis: This executive order is Trump’s most significant step yet to undermine Obamacare

(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)   —   Since his election, President Trump’s efforts regarding Obamacare have been almost all geared at undermining it. Now that Congress has failed to repeal the law, he’s acting as much as he can on his own. And depending on how it’s implemented, the executive order Trump signed Thursday could be his most significant step yet to sabotage the law.

It will expand the availability of plans that are loosely regulated and don’t have to provide essential health benefits, which could pull people off the Obamacare exchanges. Here’s a look at the options available to Trump to fix, save, undermine or gut Obamacare, and where this new executive order fits on that scale.

 

Option 1: Prop up Obamacare. Trump could support a bipartisan effort in Congress to provide regular subsidies to insurers to cover the cost of lower-income people who pay less under Obamacare.

Has he done this? No. Trump seems entirely uninterested in this. In fact, one of the reasons Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are trying to make these subsidies more regular is because they are concerned that Trump could suddenly stop issuing them. That could be calamitous for thousands of people who rely on them. Experts also warn that the unpredictability is bad for all health insurance markets because insurers don’t know how much the government will be helping them out.

Trump has suggested that he might work with Democrats to pass some kind of ambiguous health-care overhaul. But no one in Washington is taking that seriously, especially given his 180 on an immigration deal with Democrats.

Option 2: Undermine Obamacare. If Obamacare is going to be the law of the land, Trump can try to cut holes in it so big that the law is unrecognizable. The approach seems to be to force Obamacare to fail, forcing Congress to fully repeal it.

 

Has he done this? Oh yes.

    • Trump has slashed by 90 percent the federal government’s budget to advertise and help enroll people on the exchanges.
    • The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports that he’s told the federal government to refuse to help Iowa prop up its struggling marketplace, which is a federal-state partnership.
    • Add this executive order to the list: The Post’s Amy Goldstein reports that the order will allow small businesses to form an association to negotiate health benefits, called association health plans. Under Trump’s rule, these disputed plans could soon be sold across state lines with no regulation on what health benefits they have to cover.

Many state insurance commissioners, both Republican and Democrat, oppose expanding associations because doing so could allow a plan formed in Ohio that, say, doesn’t include protections for preexisting conditions to be sold in Indiana, and there’s nothing that Indiana officials could do about it.

Goldstein reports that the National Association of Insurance Commissioners warned Congress in February that something like this “would result in less protections for the most vulnerable populations and the collapse of individual markets.”

In fact, aside from a few ideologically rigid conservatives, association health plans aren’t really a mainstream discussion, said Paul Ginsburg, a health policy expert and director of the USC Brookings-Schaeffer Initiative.

“To aggressively pursue association health plans is very much an attempt to undermine the markets in the Affordable Care Act,” Ginsburg said.

 

Trump will also direct the government to expand the availability of short-term health-insurance plans, from three months to a year. That “could do serious damages to the marketplaces and the individual market,” said Gary Claxton, an analyst with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

These plans are designed to be short-term — say, if you’re between jobs and can’t get on the exchanges. They don’t have to cover essential health benefits, they are not renewable, and they are cheaper. But Trump’s order would make them closer to an alternative for full health insurance, which could make them an attractive plan for healthy people, which could increase the volume of sicker people on the exchanges.

“If you leave the sicker people on the exchanges, then premiums will rise more, and it gets you back to the possibility of a death spiral,” said Alice Rivlin, a health policy expert with the Brookings Institution.

Option 3: Fully gut Obamacare. Trump can’t do this, because it’s a law Congress passed. But he could put nonstop pressure on Congress to repeal the entire law.

Has he done this? Yes and no. Trump has made clear how frustrated he is that Republicans were unable to repeal Obamacare. But he has largely pivoted to overhauling the tax code.

There’s one more thing health policy experts say Trump could do on his own to rip up Obamacare: end the payments to insurers that cover lower-income people’s premiums (the very same payments Congress is trying to shore up). Most health-policy experts agree that if these subsidies are taken away without a change in how much lower-income people pay for their health insurance, insurance markets would implode, forcing insurance companies to leave Obamacare exchanges, causing Obamacare itself to implode.

As of Thursday, Trump has done everything to sabotage Obamacare but that.

Breaking News: Turkish troops move into al-Qaida-dominated Syrian province

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish armored vehicles have rolled into northwestern Syria to impose a “de-escalation zone” in a province dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants, an incursion that the Turkish leader said was meant to secure his country’s border.

The Turkish military said it began an operation late Thursday to set up “observation points” in Idlib, without providing further details or saying how many troops were involved.

Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper said around 30 armored vehicles and more than 100 commandos and special forces are taking part in the operation, with more troop movements expected in the coming days. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deployment of nearly 16 armored vehicles, five tanks and a military force came days after Turkey sent reconnaissance missions to the area.

The deployment appears to be focused on establishing a Turkish military presence between the northwestern Idlib province and an adjacent Kurdish enclave.

Turkey didn’t address the details or scope of the deployment, saying only that it was working to prevent a “terror” corridor from forming along its border. Turkey considers Syria’s main Kurdish militia a terrorist group because of its links to the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast.

In what appears to be part of the agreement to facilitate the first phase of the deployment, the Observatory and fighters in the area said the Turkish vehicles were escorted by fighters from an alliance led by an al-Qaida-linked group. That suggests the main focus at this point is to deter the Kurdish forces.

Some of the Turkey-backed Syrian fighters had ties with al-Qaida-linked groups and are likely keen to avoid immediate confrontation.

“We said we would come suddenly,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in Ankara Friday.

Erdogan said his country, with a 911-kilometer (566-mile) border with Syria, has to take precautions.

“We are the ones that are under harassment and threat. No one has the right to tell us why did you do this?” he said.

A rebel fighter in the area said the troops deployed from a border crossing into the Idlib province to be stationed between the Kurdish-held Afrin enclave and an area held by Syrian rebels.

A Kurdish militiaman confirmed the deployment of Turkish troops, saying they were stationed in three separate points along a “front” between Afrin and Idlib. He said the deployment was “not wide.”

Both the rebel fighter and the Observatory said the Levant Liberation Committee, an insurgent coalition allied with al-Qaida, escorted the Turkish troops. The fighter and the Kurdish militia member spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press.

It’s not clear if the insurgents are on board with Turkey’s plans. Brief clashes broke out along the border ahead of the deployment, amid reports of divisions within the insurgent coalition.

Syria expert Charles Lister told Syria Deeply earlier this week the Turkish operation appears to be first focused on establishing its own internal security, deterring Kurdish threats, minimizing refugee flows, and forming a Turkish protected area in northern Idlib. A slow and “methodical” campaign to undermine the al-Qaida-linked alliance may follow, Lister said.

“The situation is complex,” said Mustafa Sejari, a spokesman for the Almutassim Brigades, a Turkish-backed Syrian force. He identified three major threats to the area: the Kurdish “separatists,” the Syrian and Russian air campaign against the rebels, and the continued domination of the province by al-Qaida-linked militants.

“The presence of Turkish soldiers on the ground gives the area some immunity and stops the bombing,” Sejari told The Associated Press in a series of text messages.

Last week, Turkey announced an operation with Syrian opposition forces in Idlib to implement a de-escalation zone in the province. Turkey sent forces into northern Syria last year to battle the Islamic State group and to stem the advance of the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who are also battling the extremists.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

Officials: Trump will scorn but not bolt from Iran nuke deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump will say Friday the Iran nuclear deal is no longer in U.S. national security interests, but he won’t withdraw from the landmark 2015 accord or immediately re-impose sanctions against Tehran, according to U.S. officials and outside advisers to the administration.

Trump’s speech from the White House will outline specific faults he finds in the pact but will also focus on an array of Iran’s troubling non-nuclear activities, four officials and advisers said. Those include Tehran’s ballistic missile program, support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and other groups that destabilize the region, including in Yemen.

Under U.S. law, Trump faces a Sunday deadline to notify Congress whether Iran is complying with the accord that was negotiated over 18 months by the Obama administration and determine if it remains a national security priority. Although Trump will allow that Iran is living up to the letter of the agreement, he will make the case that the deal is fatally flawed and that its non-nuclear behavior violates the spirit of the regional stability it was intended to encourage, the officials and advisers said.

The officials and advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly preview the speech, said Trump will not call for a re-imposition of nuclear sanctions on Tehran. He will instead urge lawmakers to codify tough new requirements for Tehran to continue to benefit from the sanctions relief that it won in exchange for curbing its atomic program, they said. And he’ll announce his long-anticipated intent to impose sanctions on portions of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps by designating them terrorist organization under an existing executive order, according to the officials and advisers.

“The reckless behavior of the Iranian regime, and the IRGC in particular, poses one of the most dangerous threats to the interests of the United States and to regional stability,” the White House said in a statement released ahead of the speech. The statement, which did not reveal Trump’s decision, denounced the Obama administration for its “myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear program to the exclusion of the regime’s many other malign activities” and said the same “mistakes” would not be repeated.

“The Trump administration’s Iran policy will address the totality of these threats from and malign activities by the Government of Iran and will seek to bring about a change in the Iranian’s regime’s behavior,” it said.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker, said Friday that any U.S. move against a nuclear deal with Iran would be an “insult” to the United Nations because the U.N. had given the deal its blessing.

He added that any revision of the deal would allow Iran to take its own actions, and warned that the U.S. move could destabilize the international situation.

“We will continue to adhere to our obligations … for as long as other parties observe the agreement,” he said on a visit to Russia.

In his speech, Trump will ask Congress to amend or replace legislation that currently requires him to certify Iranian compliance every 90 days. Officials have said that Trump hates the requirement more than the nuclear deal itself because it forces him to take a position every three months on what he has repeatedly denounced as the worst deal in American history. That frequency has also irritated aides who have complained that they are spending inordinate amounts of time on certification at the expense of other issues.

White House aides had initially sought a venue for Trump’s address that would project American power and determination. The shuttered former Iranian embassy in Washington was briefly considered before being deemed inappropriate. Officials also considered the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial, which was ruled out because it is currently being renovated. The Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House was eventually agreed.

American allies, who have pressed the White House to remain in the nuclear accord, will be closely watching the president’s address. Trump wants to impress on the European parties to the accord — Germany, France and Britain — the importance of fixing what he sees as flaws in the nuclear accord and addressing malign behavior not covered in the agreement.

The Europeans, along with the other parties, Iran, Russia and China, have ruled out reopening the deal. But some, notably France, have signaled a willingness to tackle unresolved issues in supplementary negotiations. Among those issues are the expiration of several restrictions on advanced nuclear activity under so-called “sunset clauses” that will allow Iran to begin ramping up its enrichment capabilities after 10 years, the end of an arms embargo and the eventual easing of demands for a halt to its missile program.

In the speech, Trump hopes to “recruit” the Europeans into joining his broad strategy, particularly by punishing the Revolutionary Guard, which he and his national security team believe is fomenting instability, violence and extremism throughout the Middle East and beyond, according to one official.

In anticipation of Trump’s announcements, Republican legislators have drawn up a new version of the law replacing the current 90-day timetable with “semi-annual” certifications, according to drafts seen by the Associated Press this week.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker said in a statement on Friday that his panel had agreed to fresh certification criteria to include items that are also the province of the U.N. nuclear watchdog and require the U.S. intelligence community to determine if Iran is carrying out illicit activity in facilities to which the International Atomic Energy Agency has not had access.

The certification would also demand that the intelligence community produce judgments on Iranian behavior not covered by the nuclear deal, including missile testing and development, backing for Hezbollah and Assad and threats to Israel and the Mideast more broadly, according to the drafts.

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Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

Trump lashes out at Puerto Rico as House passes aid package

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump lashed out at hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico on Thursday, insisting in tweets that the federal government can’t keep sending help “forever” and suggesting the U.S. territory was to blame for its financial struggles.

His broadsides triggered an outcry from Democrats in Washington and officials on the island, which has been reeling since Hurricane Maria struck three weeks ago, leaving death and destruction in an unparalleled humanitarian crisis.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, with whom Trump has had a running war of words, tweeted that the president’s comments were “unbecoming” to a commander in chief and “seem more to come from a ‘Hater in Chief.’”

“Mr. President, you seem to want to disregard the moral imperative that your administration has been unable to fulfill,” the mayor said in a statement.

The debate played out as the House passed, on a sweeping 353-69 vote, a $36.5 billion disaster aid package that includes assistance for Puerto Rico’s financially-strapped government. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the government needs to ensure that Puerto Rico can “begin to stand on its own two feet” and said the U.S. has “got to do more to help Puerto Rico rebuild its own economy.”

Wildfires that raged across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark what were once homes. (Oct. 11)

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders praised the House action Thursday night and promised the administration “will continue to work with Congress to provide the resources necessary to recover and rebuild from the hurricanes” and the wildfires in California.

Forty-five deaths in Puerto Rico have been blamed on Maria, about 85 percent of Puerto Rico residents still lack electricity and the government says it hopes to have electricity restored completely by March.

Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the island last week to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the island’s recovery. But Trump’s tweets Thursday raised questions about whether the U.S. would remain there for the long haul. He tweeted, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

In a series of tweets, the president added, “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.” He blamed Puerto Rico for its looming financial crisis and “a total lack of accountability.”

The tweets conflicted with Trump’s past statements on Puerto Rico. During an event last week honoring the heritage of Hispanics, for example, the president said, “We will be there all the time to help Puerto Rico recover, restore, rebuild.”

White House chief of staff John Kelly, speaking to reporters, said the military and other emergency responders were trying very hard to “work themselves out of a job.” Reassuring the island, Kelly said the U.S. will “stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done.”

At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. told reporters “there’s still plenty of work to be done” by the military troops in Puerto Rico. He said there was no current plan to withdraw troops who are supporting FEMA’s recovery efforts. McKenzie, director of the military’s Joint Staff, said it will be up to FEMA and other civilian agencies to decide when the military is no longer needed there.

Democrats said Trump’s tweets were deplorable, given that the 3 million-plus U.S. citizens on Puerto Rico are confronting the kind of hardships that would draw howls of outrage if they affected a state. One-third of the island lacks clean running water and just 8 percent of its roads are passable, according to government statistics.

“It is shameful that President Trump is threatening to abandon these Americans when they most need the federal government’s help,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.

After years of economic challenges, Puerto Rico was already in the process of restructuring much of its $74 billion in debt before the hurricane struck. The financial situation is more complicated than Trump’s tweets suggest.

Puerto Rico lost population and jobs after Congress eliminated special tax breaks in 2006, making it more difficult to repay its debts. Yet lenders continued to extend credit to Puerto Rico despite its economic struggles, while pension costs strained Puerto Rico’s government and its infrastructure deteriorated.

The legislative aid package totals $36.5 billion and sticks close to a White House request. For now, it ignores huge demands from the powerful Florida and Texas delegations, which together pressed for some $40 billion more.

A steady series of disasters could put 2017 on track to rival Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 storms as the most costly set of disasters ever. Katrina required about $110 billion in emergency appropriations.

The bill combines $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $16 billion to permit the financially troubled federal flood insurance program pay an influx of Harvey-related claims. An additional $577 million would pay for western firefighting efforts.

Up to $5 billion of the FEMA money could be used to help local governments remain functional as they endure unsustainable cash shortfalls in the aftermath of Maria, which has choked off revenues and strained resources.

Ryan, the House speaker, planned to visit Puerto Rico on Friday. He has promised that the island will get what it needs.

“It’s not easy when you’re used to living in an American way of life, and then somebody tells you that you’re going to be without power for six or eight months,” said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who represents Puerto Rico as a nonvoting member of Congress. “It’s not easy when you are continue to suffer — see the suffering of the people without food, without water, and actually living in a humanitarian crisis.”

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Associated Press writers Josh Boak and Robert Burns contributed to this report.

Trump to issue stop-payment order on health care subsidies

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a brash move likely to roil insurance markets, President Donald Trump will “immediately” halt payments to insurers under the Obama-era health care law he has been trying to unravel for months.

The Department of Health and Human Services made the announcement in a statement late Thursday. “We will discontinue these payments immediately,” said acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan and Medicare administrator Seema Verma. Sign-up season for subsidized private insurance starts Nov. 1, in less than three weeks, with about 9 million people currently covered.

In a separate statement, the White House said the government cannot legally continue to pay the so-called cost-sharing subsidies because they lack a formal authorization by Congress.

However, the administration had been making the payments from month to month, even as Trump threated to cut them off to force Democrats to negotiate over health care. The subsidies help lower copays and deductibles for people with modest incomes.

Halting the payments would trigger a spike in premiums for next year, unless Trump reverses course or Congress authorizes the money. The next payments are due around Oct. 20.

The top two Democrats in Congress sharply denounced the Trump plan in a joint statement.

“It is a spiteful act of vast, pointless sabotage leveled at working families and the middle class in every corner of America,” said House and Senate Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi of California and Chuck Schumer of New York. “Make no mistake about it, Trump will try to blame the Affordable Care Act, but this will fall on his back and he will pay the price for it.”

The president’s action is likely to trigger a lawsuit from state attorneys general, who contend the subsidies to insurers are fully authorized by federal law, and say the president’s position is reckless.

“We are prepared to sue,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “We’ve taken the Trump Administration to court before and won.”

Word of Trump’s plan came on a day when the president had also signed an executive order directing government agencies to design insurance plans that would offer lower premiums outside the requirements of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Frustrated over setbacks in Congress, Trump is wielding his executive powers to bring the “repeal and replace” debate to a head. He appears to be following through on his vow to punish Democrats and insurers after the failure of GOP health care legislation.

On Twitter, Trump has termed the payments to insurers a “bailout,” but it’s unclear if the president will get Democrats to negotiate by stopping payment.

Experts have warned that cutting off the money would lead to a double-digit spike in premiums, on top of increases insurers already planned for next year. That would deliver another blow to markets around the country already fragile from insurers exiting and costs rising. Insurers, hospitals, doctors’ groups, state officials and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have urged the administration to keep paying.

Leading GOP lawmakers have also called for continuing the payments to insurers, at least temporarily, so constituents maintain access to health insurance. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is working on such legislation with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.

The so-called “cost-sharing” subsidies defray copays and deductibles for people with low-to-modest incomes, and can reduce a deductible of $3,500 to a few hundred dollars. Assistance is available to consumers buying individual policies; people with employer coverage are unaffected by the dispute.

Nearly 3 in 5 HealthCare.gov customers qualify for help, an estimated 6 million people or more. The annual cost to the government is currently about $7 billion.

But the subsidies have been under a legal cloud because of a dispute over whether the Obama health care law properly approved them. Adding to the confusion, other parts of the Affordable Care Act clearly direct the government to reimburse the carriers.

For example, the ACA requires insurers to help low-income consumers with their copays and deductibles.

And the law also specifies that the government shall reimburse insurers for the cost-sharing assistance that they provide.

But there’s disagreement over whether the law properly provided a congressional “appropriation,” similar to an instruction to pay. The Constitution says the government shall not spend money unless Congress appropriates it.

House Republicans trying to thwart the ACA sued the Obama administration in federal court in Washington, arguing that the law lacked specific language appropriating the cost-sharing subsidies.

A district court judge agreed with House Republicans, and the case has been on hold before the U.S. appeals court in Washington. Up to this point the Trump administration continued making the monthly payments, as the Obama administration had done.

While the legal issue seems arcane, the impact on consumers would be real.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that premiums for a standard “silver” plan will increase by about 20 percent without the subsidies. Insurers can recover the cost-sharing money by raising premiums, since those are also subsidized by the ACA, and there’s no legal question about their appropriation.

Consumers who receive tax credits under the ACA to pay their premiums would be shielded from those premium increases.

But millions of others buy individual health care policies without any financial assistance from the government and could face prohibitive increases. Taxpayers would end up spending more to subsidize premiums.

Earlier Thursday, Trump had directed government agencies to design a legal framework for groups of employers to band together and offer health insurance plans across state lines, a longstanding goal of the president.

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Associated Press Writers Ken Thomas and Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.

Californians under siege try to fight fires, find loved ones

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — They are trying to find lost loved ones, to sift through the remains of lost homes, to count, identify and mourn the dozens of dead — all while the fires rage on.

The communities of Northern California were preparing for another day under siege Friday, despite being driven to exhaustion by evacuations, destruction and danger amid the deadliest week of wildfires the state has ever seen.

“It wears you out,” said winemaker Kristin Belair, who was driving back from Lake Tahoe to her as-yet-unburnt home in Napa. “Anybody who’s been in a natural disaster can tell you that it goes on and on. I think you just kind of do hour by hour almost.”

The death toll had climbed to an unprecedented 31, and was expected to keep rising. Individual fires including the Oakland Hills blaze of 1991 had killed more people than any one of the current fires, but no collection of simultaneous fires in California had ever led to so many deaths, authorities said.

“We had series of statewide fires in 2003, 2007, 2008 that didn’t have anything close to this death count,” said Daniel Berlant, a deputy director with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Hundreds more were injured or missing.

Firefighters were on the front lines Thursday in Sonoma, California fighting to snuff out wildfire hot spots, as evacuating residents were leaving with the belongings they could carry and haul away, with fire danger still threatening the area. (Oct. 12)

Real recovery would have to wait for firefighters to bring under control the 21 wildfires spanning more than 300 square miles (777 square kilometers). Most were less than 10 percent contained. New evacuations were still being ordered for fires that broke out on Sunday night.

“We are not even close to being out of this emergency,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state’s Office of Emergency Services.

Choking smoke hung thick in the fire counties and drifted all over the San Francisco Bay Area, where masks to filter the fumes were becoming a regular uniform and the sunsets were blood-red from the haze.

“It’s acrid now,” said Wayne Petersen in Sonoma. “I’m wearing the mask because I’ve been here two or three days now, I live here, said Wayne Petersen in Sonoma. “It’s starting to really affect my breathing and lungs so I’m wearing the mask. It’s helping.”

Even some members of the Oakland Raiders were wearing the masks during workouts Thursday.

The fires drove hundreds of evacuees northward to beaches, some sleeping on the sand on the first night of the blazes.

Since then, authorities have brought tents and sleeping bags and opened public buildings and restaurants to house people seeking refuge in the safety and clean air of the coastal community of Bodega Bay, where temperatures drop dramatically at night.

“The kids were scared,” said Patricia Ginochio, who opened her seaside restaurant for some 300 people to sleep. “They were shivering and freezing.”

California Highway Patrol Officer Quintin Shawk took relatives and other evacuees into his home and office, as did many others.

“It’s like a refugee camp,” Shawk said.

Teams with cadaver dogs began a grim search Thursday for more dead, resorting in some cases to serial numbers stamped on medical implants to identify remains in charred ruins.

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said officials were still investigating hundreds of reports of missing people and that recovery teams would begin conducting “targeted searches” for specific residents at their last known addresses.

“We have found bodies almost completely intact, and we have found bodies that were nothing more than ash and bones,” said the sheriff, whose office released the names of 10 of the dead, all age 57 or older, on Thursday.

Some remains have been identified using medical devices uncovered in the scorched heaps that were once homes. Metal implants, such as artificial hips, have ID numbers that helped put names to victims, he said. Distinctive tattoos have helped identify some.

Since igniting Sunday in spots across eight counties, the fires have transformed many neighborhoods into wastelands. At least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed and an estimated 25,000 people forced to flee.

Fire officials were investigating whether downed power lines or other utility failures could have sparked the fires.

Some lucky evacuees returned to find what they least expected.

Anna Brooner was prepared to find rubble and ashes after fleeing Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood.

Then she got a call from a friend: “You’re not going to believe this.” Her home was one of only a handful still standing.

“I swore when I left I was never coming back to this place,” Brooner said. “I feel so bad for all the other people. All of us came back thinking we had nothing left.”

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Dalton reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez and Janie Har in San Francisco, Jonathan J. Cooper in Santa Rosa and Brian Skoloff in Calistoga contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires .

Business: Global stocks subdued as investors brace for earnings season

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Global stock markets were subdued on Friday, apart from another strong gain by Japan’s benchmark. Trading was mostly subdued as investors awaited corporate earnings and U.S. inflation data.

KEEPING SCORE: Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.4 percent to 7,529.53 while France’s CAC 40 edged down 0.1 percent to 5,357.66. Germany’s DAX was flat at 12,984.18. Futures augured a lukewarm start on Wall Street. S&P futures fell less than 0.1 percent while Dow futures added less than 0.1 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 1.0 percent to 21,155.18 while South Korea’s Kospi lost 0.1 percent to 2,473.62. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index added 0.1 percent to 28,476.43 and the Shanghai Composite Index rose 0.1 percent to 3,390.52. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.3 percent to 5,814.20. Stocks in Southeast Asia were higher.

JAPAN RALLY: The Nikkei 225 index has logged gains in most recent sessions, reaching levels last seen 21 years ago. Strong economic data and corporate earnings expectations are supporting sentiment, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe looks set to buttress his already strong majority in parliament in a lower house election due to be held on Oct. 22.

SAMSUNG EARNINGS: Samsung said its third quarter profit nearly tripled from a year earlier thanks to a continued boom in the memory chip industry. The company’s share price slumped 1.5 percent after the head of its semiconductor business offered to resign, saying the company needs a new leader.

ANALYST VIEWPOINT: “U.S. markets took another break from record breaking, ending Thursday broadly lower. Diving into the earnings season, it may not be a welcoming turn for Asian markets looking to continue the strong rally from yesterday,” Jingyi Pan of IG said in a commentary. “Friday’s September CPI release may still offer an opportunity for the U.S. dollar to see some upsides.”

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude oil rose 81 cents to $51.41 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost 70 cents, or 1.4 percent, to finish at $50.60 a barrel on Thursday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 98 cents to $57.23 per barrel in London. It fell 69 cents, or 1.2 percent, to close at $56.25 a barrel on Thursday.

CURRENCIES: The dollar weakened to 112.12 yen from 112.30 yen. The euro slipped $1.1827 from $1.1828.

Puerto Rico investigates post-hurricane disease outbreak

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Four deaths in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath are being investigated as possible cases of a disease spread by animals’ urine, Puerto Rico’s governor said Wednesday amid concerns about islanders’ exposure to contaminated water.

A total of 10 people have come down with suspected cases of leptospirosis, Gov. Ricardo Rossello said at a news conference.

On a U.S. territory where a third of customers remain without running water three weeks after the hurricane, some became ill after turning to local streams to relieve their thirst.

Jorge Antonio Sanyet Morales, a 61-year-old bus driver, took a drink from a stream near his concrete home on a hillside in Canovanas a week after the Sept. 20 storm. He then developed a fever, his skin turned yellow and within a week, he died at a hospital in Carolina, according to his widow, Maritza Rivera.

Dr. Juan Santiago said Sanyet was among five patients who came in his emergency clinic last week with similar symptoms after drinking from streams in Canovanas and Loiza.

The water was still not running at Sanyet’s house this week, but Rivera, said she and her family were drinking only bottled water, including some delivered by the town. Her husband was the only one who drank from the stream, she said.

“He was a friend to everyone,” Rivera said. “I don’t know how I’ll face everything without him.”

Forty-five deaths in Puerto Rico have been blamed on Hurricane Maria, which tore across the island with 150 mph (240 kph) winds. Ninety percent of the island is still without power and the government says it hopes to have electricity restored completely by March.

Leptospirosis is not uncommon in the tropics, particularly after heavy rains or floods. Rossello said the symptoms can be confused with those of other illnesses, including dengue, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was helping to investigate. Two of the deaths were in Bayamon, and one each in Carolina and Mayaguez. Other patients have been receiving treatment with antibiotics.

Rossello said that fliers with instructions on how to disinfect water will be sent to mayors for distribution with food supplies in towns across Puerto Rico.

“For people that have access to internet and have access to printers, be good citizens and help us distribute this information,” Rossello said.

The Health Department and the U.S. military also will be distributing pills to purify water, he said.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The House is on track to backing President Donald Trump’s request for billions more in disaster aid, $16 billion to pay flood insurance claims and emergency funding to help the cash-strapped government of Puerto Rico stay afloat.

Thursday’s hurricane aid package totals $36.5 billion and sticks close to a White House request, ignoring — for now — huge demands from the powerful Florida and Texas delegations, who together pressed for some $40 billion more.

Yet President Donald Trump criticized the U.S. territory early Thursday, saying it shouldn’t expect federal help to last “forever.” In a series of tweets, the president said “electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes” and blamed Puerto Rico for its looming financial crisis and “a total lack of accountability.”

He tweeted: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

A steady series of disasters — massive flooding in Texas, hurricane damage in Florida, and a humanitarian crisis in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico — could be putting 2017 on track to rival Hurricane Katrina and other 2005 storms as the most costly set of disasters ever. Katrina required about $110 billion in emergency appropriations.

The bill combines $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency with $16 billion to permit the financially troubled federal flood insurance program pay an influx of Harvey-related claims. Another $577 million would pay for western firefighting efforts.

Up to $5 billion of the FEMA money could be used to help local governments — especially Puerto Rico’s central government and the island’s local governments — remain functional as they endure unsustainable cash shortfalls in the aftermath of Maria, which has choked off revenues and strained resources.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is traveling to Puerto Rico on Friday. He has promised that the U.S. territory will get what it needs, but most of the island remains without power, and many of its more isolated residents still lack drinking water.

“It’s not easy when you’re used to live in an American way of life, and then somebody tell you that you’re going to be without power for six or eight months,” said Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, who represents Puerto Rico as a non-voting member of Congress. “It’s not easy when you are continue to suffer — see the suffering of the people without food, without water, and actually living in a humanitarian crisis.”

Republicans controlling Congress, who had protracted debates last year on modest requests by former President Barack Obama to combat the Zika virus and help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system, are moving quickly to take care of this year’s alarming series of disasters, quickly passing a $15.3 billion measure last month and signaling that another installment is coming next month.

Several lawmakers from hurricane-hit states said a third interim aid request is anticipated shortly — with a final, huge hurricane recovery and rebuilding package likely to be acted upon by the end of the year.

“Another tranche is coming in maybe two, three weeks,” said Rep. Pete Olsen, R-Texas. Olsen said several members of the Texas delegation won assurances from Ryan that more money is on its way.

“I’m counting on the next supplemental adding the funds for Texas,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas.

Democrats embraced the package which was before lawmakers Thursday. It includes an estimated $1 billion added by the House Appropriations Committee to address California’s ongoing wildfire disasters, a priority for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Trump’s anger over Iran deal forced aides to scramble for a compromise

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(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)     —-    President Trump was livid. Why, he asked his advisers in mid-July, should he go along with what he considered the failed Obama-era policy toward Iran and prop up an international nuclear deal he saw as disastrous?

He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits. He did not want to certify to Congress that the agreement remained in the vital U.S. national security interest and that Iran was meeting its obligations. He did not think either was true.

“He threw a fit,” said one person familiar with the meeting. “. . .He was furious. Really furious. It’s clear he felt jammed.”

So White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan — one aimed at accommodating Trump’s loathing of the Iran deal as “an embarrassment” without killing it outright.

To get Trump, in other words, to compromise.

“McMaster realized we just cannot come back here next time with a binary option — certify or decertify,” an exercise Congress requires every 90 days, said a person familiar with the July discussion. “He put his team to work on a range of other options, including a decertification option that would involve Congress” and would not immediately break the deal.

That effort — described by seven people familiar with the debate, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the confidential discussions — led to a revamping of the U.S. approach to Iran and the nuclear pact that Trump is set to announce this week and which congressional leaders were briefed about on Wednesday. Under the expected announcement, Trump will declare that the deal is not in the U.S. national interest while stopping short of recommending renewed nuclear sanctions.

The deliberations show the extent to which Trump’s national security team in recent months has been occupied with navigating the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump repeatedly vowed to throw out as a “disaster” during the campaign. The sometimes angry internal debate also provides another illustration of the way in which Trump’s gut impulses and desire for dramatic action have often collided with the subtlety of international diplomacy.

The Iran agreement, brokered by former president Barack Obama, was never designed to do many of the things Trump criticizes it for lacking. Many of his own advisers — and many Republican leaders and key U.S. allies — see it as a valuable tool in stopping an Iranian nuclear bomb.

The solution is a compromise that retains the agreement but also puts Iran and U.S. allies on notice that Trump is willing to walk away. Meanwhile, Trump is likely to make the case that as the Islamic State terrorist group is weakened, Iran is reasserting itself as the most destructive influence in the Middle East and using the nuclear deal as cover to do so.

“He doesn’t want to certify the Iran deal for more domestic reasons than international ones,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “He doesn’t want to certify that any piece of the Obama strategy is working.”

Trump is expected to announce new conditions for U.S. participation in the agreement among the U.S., Iran, Britain France, Germany, Russia and China and punt the issue to Congress. He may also announce new sanctions or penalties on Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Trump said Wednesday that a decision is coming “very soon,” and others familiar with White House planning said they expect a speech Thursday in which Trump explains the new U.S. position.

“We are on a tightrope. We don’t know what will happen,” said one Western diplomat worried that Trump’s action will undermine the international agreement.

Iran deal 1507108677097

© Jacquelyn Martin/AP Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) leaves a meeting of Republican senators Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.

As a practical matter, Trump’s expected move will place the onus on Congress to decide what to do next. Working with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a leading congressional hawk on Iran, the White House would refrain from recommending that Congress reimpose nuclear sanctions that were suspended under the deal.

That would buy time for new legislation codifying Trump’s conditions for remaining in the deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a Republican congressional aide said. It would also increase U.S. leverage with European allies who don’t want to renegotiate the deal, said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Trump has not yet announced his plan.

“To get us on the right foot on the Iran strategy, we do need to use this certification decision, this moment, to launch a real effort to plug the holes and the weaknesses in the JCPOA,” the aide said.

“We need to send the message that the president does not feel constrained by the JCPOA and does not feel beholden to it” while seeking an extension of the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities and other modifications.

Cotton laid out that approach in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations this month, in which he accused Iran of harming U.S. interests in the Middle East and scheming to preserve its ability to eventually produce a bomb.

The speaker and the setting were clear signals that the Iran hard-liner would block for Trump in two ways. By holding off on new sanctions that would bust the deal, Cotton helps Trump refute the claim of sabotage from Democrats and other parties to the agreement. And because of his history of advocating tough measures against Iran, he may help protect the White House from criticism by conservatives who want to do away with the deal.

“It would give a few months’ or years’ lead time to give time to get U.S. allies on board with the same restrictions — a unified front that will put lots of pressure on the Iranians” to reopen the deal, the aide said.

Britain, France and Germany, along with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, have argued to Congress and the Trump administration that the deal cannot be redone. Iran has said the same.

The pivotal moment in the administration’s Iran debate came on July 17, when the president balked when presented with the consensus recommendation of his national security advisers that he should submit the congressional certification. He argued with aides all that afternoon, forcing a postponement of a planned announcement and a rewriting of White House talking points.

The decision was clumsily announced that evening, hours before a legal deadline, along with a declaration that Trump planned to toughen expectations and enforcement.

The administration announced new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program the following day. But only sanctions related to the country’s disputed nuclear program are covered by the 2015 deal. Iran claims it has never sought a nuclear weapon and that its nuclear research and development is intended for medicine and energy.

The first certification of Trump’s presidency came in April, when Trump was also reluctant but agreed on the grounds that the administration was just beginning a broad review of its Iran strategy and would wait for major decisions, the people familiar with the debate said.

By July, the president’s frustration was evident. He made it clear he felt strong-armed and that the July certification would be his last, several people familiar with the discussion said.

Trump took the internal confrontation public in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in which he said he regretted the decision. The experience also further soured Trump on Tillerson, who he complained consistently came forward with only “totally conventional” approaches to foreign policy problems, people familiar with Trump’s thinking have said.

It would fall to Tillerson and the State Department to try to negotiate new terms for the Iran deal, and ally after ally has bent his ear with arguments that the deal should be preserved as it is.

“The nuclear deal was a crucial agreement that neutralized its nuclear threat,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Tuesday, following a telephone call with Tillerson. “The U.K. supports the deal and stresses the importance of all parties continuing to uphold their commitments.”

Tillerson joined all of Trump’s other top national security advisers in recommending last month that Trump decertify the deal as part of a strategy some refer to as “decertify, pressure and fix.”

As Trump officials briefed lawmakers Wednesday, two Obama administration architects of the deal, former secretary of state John F. Kerry and former energy secretary Ernest Moniz, were also on Capitol Hill arguing in defense of the original agreement.

Congress may now do away with the requirement that the president recommit to the deal every 90 days, something that skeptical lawmakers of both parties mandated when Obama negotiated the agreement.

Karoun Demirjian and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Questions remain about police response to Las Vegas massacre

(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —    A revised chronology given by investigators for the Las Vegas massacre is intensifying pressure for police to explain how quickly they responded to what would become the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Two hotel employees had called for help and reported that gunman Stephen Paddock sprayed a hallway with bullets, striking an unarmed security guard in the leg, several minutes before Paddock opened fire on a crowd at a musical performance, killing 58 people and injuring nearly 500 others.

At 10:05 p.m. Paddock began his 10-minute deadly barrage into the crowd, firing off more than 1,000 rounds, police said. Police didn’t arrive on the 32nd floor until 10:17 p.m., which is two minutes after he had stopped firing.

Questions remain about what happened in the six minutes between the time police say Paddock fired off 200 rounds through the door of his 32nd-floor suite into the hallway of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino and when he unleashed a deadly hail of gunfire into the crowd at a the Route 91 Harvest festival.

Chief among them: Were police notified immediately about the hallway shooting and did officers respond quickly enough to have a chance to take out the gunman before could carry out the bloodshed?

Lawyers representing a woman shot at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas have filed a lawsuit based on what they say is a failure to protect people attending the concert. (Oct. 11)

How crucial were the minutes that elapsed before the massacre began? Here’s a look at what we know — and still don’t know — about the six minutes in question:

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THE CHRONOLOGY OF THE SHOOTING HAS CHANGED

On Monday, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said Paddock shot and wounded the security guard outside his door and opened fire through his door around 9:59 p.m. — six minutes before shooting into the crowd.

That was a different account from the one police gave last week: that Paddock shot the guard, Jesus Campos, after unleashing his barrage of fire on the crowd.

The sheriff had previously hailed Campos as a “hero” whose arrival in the hallway may have led Paddock to stop firing. On Monday, Lombardo said he didn’t know what prompted Paddock to end the gunfire and take his own life.

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BULLETS WHIZZING DOWN THE HALLWAY

A hotel maintenance worker, Stephen Schuck, told NBC News on Wednesday that he told hotel dispatchers to call police and report that a gunman had opened fire in the hallway on the 32nd floor.

He had been called there to check out a report of a jammed fire door and made it about a third of the way down the hall when he heard gunshots. Schuck saw Campos, the security guard, peek out from an alcove and was told to take cover.

He described bullets whizzing past his head as he tried to flee the shooting.

“It was kind of relentless so I called over the radio what was going on,” he said. “As soon as the shooting stopped we made our way down the hallway and took cover again and then the shooting started again.”

Gunshots can be heard in the background as Schuck reported the shooting on his radio, telling a dispatcher: “Call the police, someone’s firing a gun up here. Someone’s firing a rifle on the 32nd floor down the hallway.”

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SECURITY GUARD IS SHOT

Campos had been dispatched to the 32nd floor before Schuck to respond to an alarm that signaled a door was open and heard an odd drilling sound, police have said. As he approached there was a series of single gunshots through the door, one of which hit him in the leg. At about the same time the maintenance worker arrived and Paddock fired more than 200 rounds through the door at Campos and Schuck.

As he was running away, Campos used his radio and possibly a hallway phone to call for help, Assistant Sheriff Tom Roberts confirmed to The Associated Press.

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HOTEL QUESTIONS POLICE TIMELINE

Late Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Mandalay Bay questioned the latest timeline of events provided by police.

“We cannot be certain about the most recent timeline that has been communicated publically (sic), and we believe what is currently being expressed may not be accurate,” said Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for MGM Resorts International, which owns the Mandalay Bay hotel casino. The company’s statement did not offer what it thinks was the correct timeline.

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WHAT TYPICALLY HAPPENS WHEN THERE’S A SHOOTING AT A CASINO

A security officer in a casino-hotel the size of Mandalay Bay, with about 3,200 rooms, would typically report the shooting to an in-house dispatcher who would then call Las Vegas police, said Jim Tatonetti, an executive with Griffin Investigations, a Las Vegas company that provides security and surveillance information to casinos.

Tatonetti said they should have gotten word quickly about the shooting from the lead hotel security supervisor or they would hear the call from police dispatch.

“When you have law enforcement on property you defer to them,” Tatonetti said, adding that hotel security officers would turn to their primary duty: guest safety. Officers would focus on evacuating and keeping guests away from dangerous areas.

A large casino in Las Vegas might have 50 or more security officers on a shift, Tatonetti said. Supervisors might be armed. Few on regular patrol have guns. Some might have emergency medical training.

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WHAT WE STILL DON’T KNOW

It was unclear if the hotel relayed the reports of the hallway shooting or the gunman’s location to the police. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department hasn’t responded to questions from The Associated Press about whether hotel security or anyone else in the hotel called 911 to report the gunfire. Police have not responded to questions about the hotel’s statement or whether investigators stand behind the revised timeline released earlier in the week. A request for the 911 recordings was denied by police who said they were part of the ongoing investigation.

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Associated Press writer Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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For complete coverage of the Las Vegas shooting, click here: https://apnews.com/tag/LasVegasmassshooting .

Deadly and vast California wildfires could gain momentum

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Wildfires already well on their way to becoming the deadliest and most destructive in California history could gain momentum Thursday and erase even the modest gains firefighters have made.

Steady winds with gusts up to 45 mph (72 kph) with nearly non-existent humidity are expected to descend on the areas north of San Francisco where at least 23 people have died and at least 3,500 homes and businesses have been destroyed.

“It’s going to continue to get worse before it gets better,” state fire Chief Ken Pimlott said Wednesday.

Entire cities had evacuated in anticipation of the next wave, their streets empty, the only motion coming from ashes falling like snowflakes.

They included Calistoga, the historic resort town of wine tastings and hot springs, whose 5,300 people are all under evacuation orders. Tens of thousands more were also driven from their homes by the flames. A few left behind cookies for firefighters and signs that read, “Please save our home!”

The 22 fires spanned more than 265 square miles (686 square kilometers) as they entered their fourth day, many of them completely out of control. Modern, strategic attacks that have kept destruction and death tolls low in recent years just haven’t worked against their ferocity.

“We are literally looking at explosive vegetation,” Pimlott said. “Make no mistake,” he later added, “this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”

The community of Boyes Hot Springs in Sonoma County also was told to clear out Wednesday, and the streets were quickly lined with cars packed with people fleeing.

“That’s very bad,” resident Nick Hinman said when a deputy sheriff warned him that the driving winds could shift the wildfires toward the town of Sonoma proper, where 11,000 people live. “It’ll go up like a candle.”

The ash rained down on the Sonoma Valley, covering windshields, as winds began picking up toward the potentially disastrous forecast speed of 30 mph (48 kph). Countless emergency vehicles sped toward the flames, sirens blaring, as evacuees sped away. Residents manhandled canvas bags into cars jammed with possessions or filled their gas tanks.

State fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said 22 wildfires were burning Wednesday, up from 17 the day before. As the fires grow, officials voiced concern that separate blazes would merge into even larger infernos.

“We have had big fires in the past. This is one of the biggest, most serious, and it’s not over,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference Wednesday, alongside the state’s top emergency officials.

They said 8,000 firefighters and other personnel were battling the blazes and more resources were pouring in from Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Oregon.

Flames have raced across the wine-growing region and the scenic coastal area of Mendocino farther north, leveling whole neighborhoods and leaving only brick chimneys and charred appliances to mark where homes once stood.

In Boyes Hot Springs, residents had watched the ridges over the west side of town for days to gauge how close the billowing smoke and orange flames of the wildfires had come. On Wednesday, the ridges were obscured by the growing clouds of smoke.

With fires advancing from several sides in Sonoma Valley, law enforcement officers on loan from other areas of Northern California barred residents of evacuated communities from returning to see how the homes and businesses had fared. Manned roadblocks were set up between Sonoma and devastated areas of Santa Rosa.

Alejandro Rodriguez had been evacuated from one tiny Sonoma Valley town, only to have deputies come to the neighborhood to where he had relocated and tell residents there to pack up and go.

“I want to see my house, see if anything’s left,” Rodriguez said, gesturing at officers at one roadblock. “They won’t tell us nothing.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano said hundreds of people were still reported missing. But officials believe many of those people will be found. Chaotic evacuations and poor communications over the past few days have made locating friends and family difficult.

The sheriff also expects the death toll to climb.

“The devastation is enormous,” he said. “We can’t even get into most areas.”

Helicopters and air tankers were assisting thousands of firefighters trying to beat back the flames. Until now, the efforts have focused on “life safety” rather than extinguishing the blazes, partly because the flames were shifting with winds and targeting new communities without warning.

Fires were “burning faster than firefighters can run, in some situations,” Emergency Operations Director Mark Ghilarducci said.

In Southern California, cooler weather and moist ocean air helped firefighters gain ground against a wildfire that has scorched nearly 14 square miles (36 sq. kilometers).

Orange County fire officials said the blaze was 60 percent contained and full containment was expected by Sunday, although another round of gusty winds and low humidity levels could arrive late Thursday.

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Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez, Juliet Williams and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires .

Foiled in Congress, Trump Moves on His Own to Undermine Obamacare

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)    —-   WASHINGTON — President Trump, after failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act in Congress, will act on his own to relax health care standards on small businesses that band together to buy health insurance and may take steps to allow the sale of other health plans that skirt the health law’s requirements.

The president plans to sign an executive order “to promote health care choice and competition” on Thursday at a White House event attended by small-business owners and others.

Although Mr. Trump has been telegraphing his intentions for more than a week, Democrats and some state regulators are now greeting the move with increasing alarm, calling it another attempt to undermine President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. They warn that by relaxing standards for so-called association health plans, Mr. Trump would create low-cost insurance options for the healthy, driving up costs for the sick and destabilizing insurance marketplaces created under the Affordable Care Act.

“It would have a very negative impact on the markets,” said Mike Kreidler, the insurance commissioner in Washington State. “Our state is a poster child of what can go wrong. Association health plans often shun the bad risks and stay with the good risks.”

They also worry that the Trump administration intends to loosen restrictions on short-term health insurance plans that do not satisfy requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

“By siphoning off healthy individuals, these junk plans could cannibalize the insurance exchanges,” said Topher Spiro, a vice president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal research and advocacy group. “For older, sicker people left behind in plans regulated under the Affordable Care Act, premiums could increase.”

But to business groups, the executive order offers an opportunity to bind their members together and sell large-group insurance policies that are cheap and attractive. Dirk Van Dongen, the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said that he was delighted with Mr. Trump’s initiative and that his group would seriously consider establishing an association health plan.

“Small to midsize businesses have very little leverage in the insurance market,” Mr. Van Dongen said. “Anything that allows them to amalgamate their purchasing power will be helpful.”

Large employer-sponsored health plans are generally subject to fewer federal insurance requirements than small group plans and coverage purchased by individuals and families on their own. They are generally not required to provide “essential health benefits,” such as emergency services, maternity and newborn care, mental health coverage and substance abuse treatment, although many do.

A decision by Obama appointees in 2011 discouraged the use of association health plans as a substitute for Affordable Care Act policies because officials feared they would be used to circumvent the law’s coverage mandates. The Obama administration said that coverage offered to dozens or hundreds of small businesses through a trade or professional association would not be treated as a single large employer health plan for the purpose of insurance regulation.

Instead, the Obama administration said, the government would look at the size of each business participating in the association, so that many small employers would still be subject to stringent federal rules.

The Trump administration, by contrast, wants to make it easier for small businesses to buy less expensive plans that do not comply with some requirements of the 2010 law.

Several states considered bills to treat health plans offered to small employers through a trade association as large-group coverage, exempt from federal rules that apply to small businesses. But the Obama administration blocked those efforts, saying they were pre-empted by the Affordable Care Act. Trump administration officials are reconsidering that interpretation, in view of the president’s vow to increase access to less expensive insurance.

Large-group plans are still subject to some requirements of the Affordable Care Act. They generally must cover children up to age 26 on their parents’ plans, cannot impose lifetime limits on covered benefits and cannot charge co-payments for preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies.

But they are generally exempt from the requirements to provide a specified package of benefits and to cover a certain percentage of the cost of covered services.

The Trump administration is also looking for ways to ease restrictions on short-term health insurance plans that do not meet requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Under a rule issued last October by the Obama administration, the duration of such short-term plans, purchased by hundreds of thousands of people seeking inexpensive insurance, must be less than three months. The rules previously said “less than 12 months.”

The Obama administration said some insurers were abusing short-term plans and keeping healthier consumers out of the Affordable Care Act marketplaces. People are buying these short-term plans as their “primary form of health coverage,” and some insurers are pitching the products to healthier people, the Obama administration said.

But Trump administration officials say that with insurance premiums soaring in many states, consumers should be able to buy less comprehensive, less expensive coverage as an alternative to conventional plans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said short-term policies “serve an important purpose for consumers” who are between jobs.

That has some insurance experts worried. The influx of a set of plans exempt from the Affordable Care Act rules will essentially divide the market and make it increasingly unstable, said Rebecca Owen, a health research actuary with the Society of Actuaries.

People who want or need broad coverage could find it increasingly difficult to obtain an affordable policy, experts say. While the administration’s goal may be to give people a broader choice of plans, it could have the opposite effect on people who need or want the robust coverage available under the Affordable Care Act.

“The easier you make it not to buy comprehensive coverage, the harder you make it to buy comprehensive coverage,” said Katherine Hempstead, a health policy expert at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

As they waited for details of the executive order, health insurers still offering coverage in the online marketplaces created by the health care law were apprehensive.

Those insurers are most jittery about the possibility of a surge in short-term plans. Many of the large national insurers, like UnitedHealth Group, already offer these plans, and there would be little difficulty in their introducing more because of the executive order, analysts said.

“They can cobble these things together pretty easily,” said John Graves, a health policy expert at Vanderbilt University.

Individuals may already be attracted to short-term plans because of their low costs. These plans tend to limit benefits or offer policies only to people who do not have expensive medical conditions.

Short-term policies do not satisfy the coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act, so consumers who buy them may be subject to tax penalties. But with the price of conventional insurance policies rising at double-digit rates, some people say they are willing to pay a penalty so they can buy a cheaper plan.

The introduction of new association plans could take much longer, according to insurers and other experts. The administration would need to work out the regulatory details, and groups would need to construct those plans.

But these plans pose some of the same risks, and industry experts warn that they have a history of leaving consumers with unpaid medical bills if they are not adequately regulated.

While association health plans can be well run, they “have had a spotty track record,” said Ms. Owen, the actuary. In the past, some plans failed because they did not have enough money to pay their customers’ medical bills, while some insurance companies were accused of misleading people about exactly what the plans would cover.

Business: Global shares mixed as Europe falls back after Asian gains

TOKYO (AP) — Shares fell in early European trading Thursday, but Asian shares mostly advanced, taking their cue from the latest record highs on Wall Street. Chinese investors are holding back ahead of a key communist party meeting next week.

KEEPING SCORE: France’s CAC 40 lost 0.3 percent in early trading to 5,347.80, while Germany’s DAX slipped 0.2 percent to 12,948.52. Britain’s FTSE 100 was up less than 0.1 percent at 7,535.23. U.S. shares were set to drift lower with Dow futures inching down 0.05 percent to 22,805. S&P 500 futures lost 0.1 percent to 2,550.10.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 added 0.4 percent to finish at 20,954.72. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 gained 0.4 percent to 5,794.50. South Korea’s Kospi rose 0.7 percent to 2,474.76. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng advanced 0.3 percent to 28,472.66, while the Shanghai Composite dipped 0.1 percent to 3,386.10.

JAPAN RALLY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index has closed at 21 year highs over the past few days, lifted by optimism over the latest economic data and anticipation of strong corporate results in the upcoming quarterly reporting period. Expectations are rising that an Oct. 22 nationwide election for the more powerful lower house of Parliament will reinforce a strong majority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democrats, who favor tax cuts for corporations.

THE QUOTE: “Markets expect good results from the upcoming earning seasons and investors are putting bets on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s victory in the upcoming election,” says Jane Fu, sales trader at CMC Markets in Singapore.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil lost 38 cents to $50.92 a barrel. It rose 38 cents to $51.30 a barrel overnight in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 31 cents to $56.63 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar was little changed, at 112.27 yen, up from 112.26 yen. The euro rose to $1.1862 from $1.1819.

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AP Business Writer Yuri Kageyama can be reached at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

Her work can be found at https://www.apnews.com/search/yuri%20kageyama

US official: No negotiated pullout for IS from Syria’s Raqqa

BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group said on Wednesday that it won’t accept a negotiated withdrawal for hundreds of IS militants holed up in the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the extremists’ de facto capital.

The remarks by coalition spokesman, Col. Ryan Dillon, came as coalition allies were working out ways to safely evacuate an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.

The coalition has said IS militants are holding some civilians as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages for the last remaining slice of Raqqa in militant hands. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that over 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.

The United Nations estimates 8,000 people are trapped in Raqqa, and has called on all parties to the conflict to take all measures to protect civilians. The U.N. said September was the worst month in 2017 for civilians in Syria.

Dillon said the Raqqa Civil Council, a local administration of Arab and Kurdish officials, was leading the discussions to ensure safe evacuation of civilians as the fight for Raqqa enters its final stages. However, it was not clear with whom the council is speaking inside Raqqa. A Kurdish-led force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is leading the U.S.-backed battles on the ground.

“We are seeing some good progress of civilians that are being able to safely exit Raqqa. The trend has turned into … a broader effort by the Raqqa Civil Council to get the remaining civilians out of there,” Dillon told The Associated Press. He said at least 700 civilians have been evacuated from the city since Monday.

But Dillon added that discussions about the fate of the militants remaining in the city have focused on “unconditional surrender.”

A negotiated withdrawal “is absolutely something that we as a coalition would not be a part of or agree with,” Dillon added. Between 300 and 400 militants are believed holed up in about 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of Raqqa, including in the city’s stadium and a hospital, he said.

The stadium is believed to be used by the militants as weapons warehouse and a prison while the hospital is one of their major headquarters.

Dillon said that in the last three weeks, up to 15 militants, including a senior leader, have surrendered in Raqqa, a trend also spotted in Iraq as the extremist group’s power wanes in both countries. Dillon said at least another leading figure was arrested among civilians, trying to escape.

The battle for Raqqa began in June but after a swift start, stiff resistance by IS slowed down the advance by the Kurdish-led fighters.

Meanwhile, airstrikes on the city appeared to have decreased, apparently to allow for the evacuations and the talks. The coalition reported five airstrikes near Raqqa on Tuesday.

Nunes Subpoenaed Firm Behind Trump Dossier Without Telling Democrats

(PhatzNewsRoom / MSNBC)    —-    WASHINGTON — Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, issued subpoenas to a U.S. firm involved in the Donald Trump dossier without consulting the Democrats on the committee, three people familiar with the matter told NBC News.

A source close to Fusion GPS, a firm co-founded by Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson, confirmed to NBC News that its partners received subpoenas from the committee. And a Democratic congressional source told NBC News that the subpoenas were issued unilaterally by the Republicans, “despite good faith engagement thus far by the witnesses on the potential terms for voluntary cooperation.”

“This is a blatant attempt to undermine the reporting of the so-called ‘dossier,’ even as its core conclusion of a broad campaign by the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election has been confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community and is now widely accepted as fact,” Joshua Levy, a lawyer for Fusion GPS, told NBC News in a statement.

“The public record alone contains mounting evidence that the Kremlin used nearly every tool in its arsenal of dirty tricks to try to tip the election in favor of Donald Trump,” Levy continued. “We are learning more each day about fake news perpetuated by the Russian government via social media, the deep ties to Russia of top Trump campaign officials, and the Trump Organization’s quest for Russian business deals and outsized reliance on Russian money.

“Rather than investigate these chilling facts in good faith, Rep. Nunes has decided to act unilaterally to set traps for and demonize those who have investigated these serious matters — be they FBI investigators or private citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.”

A spokesman for Nunes did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nunes “stepped away” from the House Russia investigation after he was targeted by an ethics complaint over his actions involving reviewing secret documents provided to him by the White House. But he says that was not a formal recusal, and he retains the power as committee chairman to issue subpoenas.

Fusion GPS was hired by an unknown Republican organization to conduct opposition research on Trump during the primaries, and it engaged Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence operative, to collect information from his sources in Russia. An unknown Democratic group later took over the funding, people familiar with the matter say.

Steele’s sources provided the bulk of the dossier, but Simpson and his partners were involved in the investigation, people familiar with the matter say.

 

Puerto Ricans leave for US mainland as storm woes linger

MIAMI (AP) — Lourdes Rodriguez fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria filled her home in the northern town of Vega Baja with mud, ruining mattresses and other belongings. She thought it would be a short stay with her daughter in Florida, but three weeks later there’s still no power or water back home.

“We’re going to be here indefinitely,” the 59-year-old retiree said in an interview at the daughter’s home in Tampa. “It’s been crazy, totally unexpected, like nothing I’ve experienced before.”

In San Juan, Efrain Diaz Figueroa, 70, sat listening to a battery-powered radio amid the wreckage of his home, its walls collapsed into the yard and clothes and mattresses soaking in the rain. A sister was coming to take him to family in Boston: “I’ll live better there,” Figueroa said.

Tens of thousands of islanders left for the U.S. mainland to escape the immediate aftermath of the storm. With conditions back home still grim — about 85 percent of residents still lack electricity and 40 percent are without running water, and neither is expected to be fully restored for months — many find themselves scrambling to build new lives away from the island.

Particularly in states with large Puerto Rican populations, such as New York, Illinois, Florida and Connecticut, people are bunking with relatives while trying to find longer-term housing, jobs and schools for their kids.

“I am in limbo right now,” said Betzaida Ferrer, a 74-year-old retiree who moved from Miami to Puerto Rico in July and now finds herself back three months later, only this time without a place of her own. She is trying to find a job that will let her afford $1,300 in monthly rent, more than double what she was to pay back home.

“To be in a situation like this where you need help is horrible,” said Ferrer, who is staying with friends and taking a three-hour a day job training program.

There have been several major migratory exoduses from Puerto Rico to the mainland over the years, most recently during the past decade when the island’s population shrank by about 10 percent because of a long economic slide that shows no sign of easing anytime soon.

Hurricane Maria, which struck Sept. 20 and killed at least 34 people, created a new surge that could have lasting demographic effects on Puerto Rico and on the mainland.

“I think that we could expect that people who did not plan to stay permanently might do so now,” said Jorge Duany, a professor of anthropology at Florida International University who has long studied migration from the island.

Many of those who left are elderly or sick people who fled or were evacuated because of the dangers posed by living on a tropical island with no power or air conditioning and limited water for an indefinite period of time.

The exodus has been exhausting for people like Madeline Maldonado, who stayed in a hotel in New York caring for two granddaughters before going to a friend*s house in Washington.

“I need to get back to my homeland,” she said at the hotel with the two girls, ages 9 and 13, though it’s not clear when that may be possible.

While Puerto Ricans have grown accustomed to severe weather and hardship, the extent of this storm’s devastation has been more than many could bear.

“We experienced something similar with (Hurricane) Hugo more than 20 years ago. Then came (Hurricane) George,” said Carmelo Rivera, a 78-year-old from the central town of Caguas who is staying with relatives in Long Island, New York. “But nothing has been as hard as Maria.”

It’s too soon to know exactly how many have decamped for the mainland, but Florida says more than 20,000 have come to the state since Oct. 3. There were already about 1 million Puerto Ricans in the Sunshine State, second only to New York.

Many U.S. agencies and jurisdictions are helping islanders make emergency transitions.

Law schools including Florida A&M and the University of Connecticut have agreed to accept students from Puerto Rico. Miami-Dade County Public Schools have offered to adapt the curriculum and change bus routes to help evacuee children. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has said displaced teachers won’t have to pay for certificates to work in his state and ordered that licensing fees for certain professionals such as real estate agents and barbers be suspended for people fleeing the storm.

Still, it’s a tough transition for many.

Rodriguez said her family is trying to figure out whether they need to sell their house. They don’t want to, but may have no choice if they are to survive and build a new life Stateside. After initially staying at her daughter’s home, she, her husband, another daughter and two grandchildren now are all living crammed into a two-bedroom rental apartment.

Rodriguez said they had considered moving to the mainland before, but they never imagined it would be under such dire, forced circumstances: “It’s just been a desperate situation.”

___

Gisela Salomon reported from Miami and Claudia Torrens reported from New York. Associated Press writer Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

California wildfires reduces years-long dreams to embers

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — Jose Garnica worked for more than two decades to build up his dream home that was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes by the deadly firestorm striking Northern California.

Garnica, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico over 20 years ago, had finally decided he could afford to upgrade parts of his Santa Rosa house after building a stable career with the local garbage company and saving nearly everything he and his wife earned.

Over the past two years, he replaced the siding and installed a new air conditioner, stainless steel appliances and new flooring. He bought a new 60-inch (1.5-meter) television. On Saturday, the 44-year-old got an estimate to replace the fence, one of the last items on his list.

But at 3:30 a.m. Monday, he watched his house become one of the more than 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed by the series of blazes across the region that had killed at least 17 people.

“You feel helpless,” he said Tuesday. “There’s nothing you can do. Everything, your whole life, goes through your mind in a minute. Everything you had done. I left all my family behind in Mexico to get a better life. Finally we were just coming to the comfort level, and this happens.”

Drone video taken over part of Santa Rosa, California Tuesday shows residential areas scorched by the inferno that swept through the area late Sunday into Monday. Officials say wildfires destroyed as many as 2,000 homes and businesses. (Oct. 10)

Garnica tried to save the home with a garden hose. He and a neighbor tried to cut open the neighbor’s above-ground pool, hoping the water would protect their homes. In 15 minutes, the entire neighborhood caught fire, he said.

“If I knew this was going to happen, maybe those 45 minutes I spent trying to put the fire down, I should’ve just grabbed all the belongings,” Garnica said. “But I didn’t think it was going to happen.”

Those destructive flames raced across the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties and the coastal beauty of Mendocino further north, leaving little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. Whole neighborhoods are gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark sites that were once family homes.

“This is just pure devastation, and it’s going to take us a while to get out and comb through all of this,” said Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He said the state had “several days of fire weather conditions to come.”

In some torched neighborhoods, fire hydrants still had hoses attached, apparently abandoned by firefighters who had to flee.

The wildfires already rank among the deadliest in California history, and officials expected the death toll to increase as the scope of destruction becomes clear. At least 185 people were injured during the blazes that cropped up Sunday night. Nearly 200 people were reported missing in Sonoma County alone.

David Leal, 55, and his wife and stepson salvaged a few decorative items from their Santa Rosa home, including a wind chime, tiles from the backsplash in the kitchen, a decorative sun and a cross.

“Our plan is to keep those things, and when we rebuild, they’ll be mementos of what we’ve lived through, and of, just, resilience,” Leal said. “It’s hard not to get emotional.

In the meantime, Leal got a post office box so the family can get mail, a new laptop and some clothes. They’re living out of their two vehicles for now.

“We’ll be back home again sooner than later, and with our chins held high,” he said, choking back tears. “And hopefully we’ll be amongst our neighbors and friends as they do the same.”

Leal, a U.S. Navy veteran, evacuated with his family, two dogs and cat to nearby Petaluma late Sunday after seeing fierce, hot winds and flames whipping in the distance.

“We didn’t have time to think about what to grab. We grabbed what we saw,” he said. He got his external hard drive, which was lying out, but left his laptop.

Garnica also hung onto hope, saying he was not back at square one.

“I came into the States with nothing. I didn’t have anything,” Garnica said. “I think I’m better off than how I came in. At least I got a job. I got a family. I’m healthy.”

___

Knickmeyer reported from Sonoma, California. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Olga R. Rodriguez, Sudhin Thanawala, Juliet Williams and Andrew Dalton in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento contributed to this report.

___

Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires.

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