AP News in Brief at 7:58 p.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on November 29, 2012 at 9:02 PM

UN General Assembly votes overwhelmingly to recognize state of Palestine; US, Israel object

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations voted overwhelmingly Thursday to recognize a Palestinian state, a long-sought victory for the Palestinians and an embarrassing diplomatic defeat for the United States.

The resolution upgrading the Palestinians' status to a nonmember observer state at the U.N. was approved by a vote of 138-9, with 41 abstentions, in the 193-member world body.

A Palestinian flag was quickly unfurled on the floor of the General Assembly, behind the Palestinian delegation. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, hundreds crowded into the main square waved Palestinian flags and chanted "God is great." Others who had watched the vote on outdoor screens and television sets hugged, honked and set off fireworks before dancing in the streets.

Real independence, however, remains an elusive dream until the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal with the Israelis, who warned that the General Assembly action will only delay a lasting solution. Israel still controls the West Bank, east Jerusalem and access to Gaza, and it accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the campaign to upgrade their U.N. status.

The Palestinians still face enormous limitations. They don't control their borders, airspace or trade, they have separate and competing governments in Gaza and the West Bank and they have no unified army or police.

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White House 'fiscal cliff' offer gets withering GOP response as accusations fly

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House is seeking $1.6 trillion in higher taxes over a decade and an immediate infusion of funds to aid the jobless, help hard-pressed homeowners and perhaps extend the expiring payroll tax cut, officials said Thursday as talks aimed at averting an economy-rattling "'fiscal cliff" turned testy.

In exchange, the officials said, President Barack Obama will support an unspecified amount of spending cuts this year, to be followed by legislation in 2013 producing savings of as much as $400 billion from Medicare and other benefit programs over a decade.

The offer produced a withering response from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, after a closed-door meeting in the Capitol with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. "Unfortunately, many Democrats continue to rule out sensible spending cuts that must be part of any significant agreement that will reduce our deficit," he declared.

Boehner added, "No substantive progress has been made between the White House and the House" in the two weeks since Obama welcomed congressional leaders at the White House.

Democrats swiftly countered that any holdup was the fault of Republicans who refuse to accept Obama's campaign-long call to raise tax rates on upper incomes.

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Internet service goes out across Syria amid intense fighting near Damascus airport

BEIRUT (AP) — Internet service went down Thursday across Syria and international flights were canceled at the Damascus airport when a road near the facility was closed by heavy fighting in the country's civil war.

Activists said President Bashar Assad's regime pulled the plug on the Internet, perhaps in preparation for a major offensive. Cellphone service also went out in Damascus and parts of central Syria, they said. The government blamed rebel fighters for the outages.

With pressure building against the regime on several fronts and government forces on their heels in the battle for the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels have recently begun pushing back into Damascus after largely being driven out of the capital following a July offensive. One Damascus resident reported seeing rebel forces near a suburb of the city previously deemed to be safe from fighting.

The Internet outage, confirmed by two U.S.-based companies that monitor online connectivity, is unprecedented in Syria's 20-month-old uprising against Assad, which activists say has killed more than 40,000 people.

Regime forces suffered a string of tactical defeats in recent weeks, losing air bases and other strategic facilities. The government may be trying to blunt additional rebel offensives by hampering communications.

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Tiny Mo. town abuzz with $588M Powerball jackpot to be shared with ticket holder in Arizona

DEARBORN, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Lottery officials on Thursday verified one of two tickets that matched all six numbers to split a record $588 million Powerball jackpot, but that ticket holder — and another in Arizona — remained a mystery, even as neighbors and co-workers lamented their losses and gossiped about who may have won.

The tickets were sold at a convenience store in suburban Phoenix and a gas station in Dearborn, Mo., just off Interstate 29, the highway linking Kansas City to the Canadian border.

Missouri lottery officials said they verified a ticket that was presented to them Thursday and set a news conference for 11 a.m. CST Friday at North Platte High School, near where the ticket was bought.

Lottery Chief Operations Officer Gary Gonder couldn't provide any details, including whether the ticket was bought by someone from Missouri.

Speculation had many of Dearborn's 500 residents buzzing about who had won.

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Egypt's Islamists hurriedly vote on new constitution, stoking already deepening crisis

CAIRO (AP) — Islamists on Thursday rushed to approve a draft constitution for Egypt without the participation of liberal and Christian members, aiming to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel and further inflaming the clash between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.

The move advances a charter with an Islamist bent that rights experts say could give Muslim clerics oversight over legislation and bring restrictions on freedom of speech, women's rights and other liberties.

The assembly that has been working on the constitution for months raced to pass it in a single marathon session that continued past midnight, with members voting article-by-article on the more than 230-article draft. The lack of inclusion was on display in the nationally televised gathering — of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives.

For weeks, liberal, secular and Christian members, already a minority on the 100-member panel, have been withdrawing to protest what they call the Islamists' hijacking of the process.

The sudden rush to finish came as the latest twist in a week-long crisis pitting Morsi and his Islamist supporters against a mostly secular and liberal opposition and the powerful judiciary. Voting had not been expected for another two months. But the assembly abruptly moved it up in order to pass the draft before Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court rules on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.

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Twinkies maker Hostess says it has 110 interested buyers lined up; 18,000 jobs wiped out

NEW YORK (AP) — The future of Twinkies is virtually assured.

Hostess Brands Inc. got final approval for its wind-down plans in bankruptcy court Thursday, setting the stage for its iconic snack cakes to find a second life with new owners — even as 18,000 jobs will be wiped out.

The company said in court that it's in talks with 110 potential buyers for its brands, which include CupCakes, Ding Dongs and Ho Hos. The suitors include at least five national retailers such as supermarkets, a financial adviser for Hostess said. The process has been "so fast and furious" Hostess wasn't able to make its planned calls to potential buyers, said Joshua Scherer of Perella Weinberg Partners.

"Not only are these buyers serious, but they are expecting to spend substantial sums," he said, noting that six of them had hired investment banks to help in the process.

The update on the sale process came as Hostess also received approval to give its top executives bonuses totaling up to $1.8 million for meeting certain budget goals during the liquidation. The company says the incentive pay is needed to retain the 19 corporate officers and "high-level managers" for the wind down process, which could take about a year.

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Sandy slows retail spending, factory output and home sales in late October and early November

WASHINGTON (AP) — Superstorm Sandy packed a bigger economic punch than most people had thought.

In its sweep through the Northeast, the storm halted sales at major retailers at the start of the crucial holiday shopping season, closed factories and slowed home sales in one of the most densely populated areas of the country.

On Thursday, for example, Kohl's, Target and Macy's blamed the storm for weak sales in November. Macy's and Nordstrom Inc. reported their first monthly sales drop since late 2009, when the U.S. economy was just emerging from the Great Recession.

And the government said this week that new-home sales plunged 32 percent in the Northeast last month and nearly 12 percent in the South. By contrast, sales surged nearly 63 percent in the Midwest and nearly 9 percent in the West.

Sandy is being blamed for about $62 billion in damage and other losses in the U.S., most of it in New York and New Jersey. It's the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, which caused $128 billion in damage in inflation-adjusted dollars.

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Drought could make Mississippi impassable to barges just as 2012 harvest heads to market

ST. LOUIS (AP) — After months of drought, companies that ship grain and other goods down the Mississippi River are being haunted by a potential nightmare: If water levels fall too low, the nation's main inland waterway could become impassable to barges just as the harvest heads to market.

Any closure of the river would upend the transport system that has carried American grain since before steamboats and Mark Twain. So shipping companies are scrambling to find alternative ways to move tons of corn, wheat and other crops to the Gulf Coast for shipment overseas.

"You can't just wait until it shuts down and suddenly say, 'There's a problem,'" said Rick Calhoun, head of marine operations for Chicago-based Cargill Inc. "We're always looking at Plan B."

The mighty Mississippi is approaching the point where it may become too shallow for barges that carry food, fuel and other commodities. If the river is closed for a lengthy period, experts say, economic losses could climb into the billions of dollars.

It isn't just the shipping and grain industries that will feel the pinch. Grocery prices and utility bills could rise. And deliveries of everything from road-clearing rock salt for winter and fertilizer for the spring planting season could be late and in short supply.

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AP source: Strauss-Kahn, NY hotel maid agree to settle her lawsuit claiming sex assault

NEW YORK (AP) — Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and a hotel maid who accused him of trying to rape her have reached an agreement to settle her lawsuit, likely ending a legal saga that forced the onetime French presidential contender's resignation and opened a floodgate of accusations against him, a person familiar with the case said Thursday.

Details of the deal, which comes after prosecutors dropped related criminal charges last year, weren't immediately known and likely will be veiled by a confidentiality agreement that could prevent the two from speaking publicly about a May 2011 encounter that she called a brutally sudden attack and he termed a consensual "moral failing."

Lawyers for Strauss-Kahn and the housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, made the as-yet-unsigned agreement within recent days, with Bronx Supreme Court Justice Douglas McKeon facilitating that and a separate agreement to end another lawsuit Diallo filed against the New York Post, said the person, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private agreement. A court date is expected next week, though the day wasn't set, the person said.

Strauss-Kahn lawyer William W. Taylor III declined to comment. Lawyers for the housekeeper didn't immediately respond to phone and email messages.

Diallo, 33, and Strauss-Kahn, 63, crossed paths when she arrived to clean his luxury Manhattan hotel suite. She told police he chased her down, tried to yank down her pantyhose and forced her to perform oral sex.

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NASA spacecraft confirms ice at shadowy north pole of Mercury, closest planet to sun

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Just in time for Christmas, scientists have confirmed a vast amount of ice at the north pole — on Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.

The findings are from NASA's Mercury-orbiting probe, Messenger, and the subject of three scientific papers released Thursday by the journal Science.

The frozen water is located in regions of Mercury's north pole that always are in shadows, essentially impact craters. It's believed the south pole harbors ice as well, though there are no hard data to support it. Messenger orbits much closer to the north pole than the south.

"If you add it all up, you have on the order of 100 billion to 1 trillion metric tons of ice," said David Lawrence of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. "The uncertainty on that number is just how deep it goes."

The ice is thought to be at least 1½ feet deep — and possibly as much as 65 feet deep.

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