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

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Associated Press

Posted on December 3, 2012 at 9:02 PM

Counteroffer: Medicare, Social Security on the table as GOP issues new 'fiscal cliff' offer

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans put forth a $2.2 trillion "fiscal cliff" counteroffer to President Barack Obama on Monday, calling for raising the eligibility age for Medicare, lowering cost-of-living hikes for Social Security benefits and bringing in $800 billion in higher tax revenue — but not raising rates for the wealthy.

The White House declared the Republicans still weren't ready to "get serious" and again vowed tax rate increases will be in any measure Obama signs to prevent the government from the cliff's automatic tax hikes and sharp spending cuts. Administration officials also hardened their insistence that Obama is willing to take the nation over the cliff rather than give in to Republicans and extend the tax cuts for upper-income earners.

With the clock ticking toward the year-end deadline, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans said they were proposing a "reasonable solution" for negotiations that Boehner says have been going nowhere. Monday's proposal came in response to Obama's plan last week to raise taxes by $1.6 trillion over the coming decade but largely exempt Medicare and Social Security from budget cuts.

Though the GOP plan proposes to raise $800 billion in higher tax revenue over the same 10 years, it would keep the Bush-era tax cuts — including those for wealthier earners targeted by Obama — in place for now. Dismissing the idea of raising any tax rates, the Republicans said the new revenue would come from closing loopholes and deductions while lowering rates.

Boehner called that a "credible plan" and said he hoped the administration would "respond in a timely and responsible way." The offer came after the administration urged Republicans to detail their proposal to cut popular benefit programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

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Violence near Syrian capital interrupts air traffic, forces UN to pull staff

BEIRUT (AP) — Fighting between rebels and government forces raged near the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday, forcing an inbound commercial jet to turn back while the U.N. said it was withdrawing staff because of deteriorating security conditions.

Lebanese security officials said Jihad Makdissi, a polished Foreign Ministry spokesman known for defending the regime of President Bashar Assad in fluent English, flew from Beirut to London. But it was not immediately clear whether he had defected.

The fighting over the past few weeks in and around Damascus has been the most serious in the capital since July, when rebels captured several neighborhoods before a swift government counteroffensive swept them out. The spike in violence recently is concentrated in the ring of mostly poor suburbs around Damascus but often bleeds into the capital itself as rebels bring their fight closer to Assad's seat of power. Assad's forces have so far repelled major rebel advances on the capital, though their hold may be slipping.

"The security situation has become extremely difficult, including in Damascus," said Radhouane Nouicer, the U.N.'s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

Nouicer said the U.N. was withdrawing most of its international staff from Syria due to security issues, adding that up to one quarter of the 100 international staff working for several U.N. agencies could leave by week's end. There are about 900 more local staff working for the U.N. in Syria, officials said.

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William and Kate are expecting their first child, duchess hospitalized with morning sickness

LONDON (AP) — Britain doesn't have to wait any longer: Prince William's wife, Kate, is pregnant.

St. James's Palace made the announcement Monday, saying that the Duchess of Cambridge — formerly Kate Middleton — has a severe form of morning sickness and is currently in a London hospital. William was at his wife's side.

The news drew congratulations from around the world, with the hashtag "royalbaby" trending globally on Twitter.

The couple's first child will be third in line to the throne — behind William and his father, Prince Charles — leapfrogging the gregarious Prince Harry and possibly setting up the first scenario in which a female heir could benefit from new gender rules about succession.

The palace would not say how far along the 30-year-old duchess is, only that she has not yet reached the 12-week mark.

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CDC says US flu season arrives early, could be bad, but one-third of Americans are vaccinated

NEW YORK (AP) — Flu season in the U.S. is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade — and it could be a bad one.

Health officials on Monday said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.

"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news is that the nation seems fairly well prepared, Frieden said. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC officials said.

Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn't happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations are also rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two deaths in children.

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Israel feels heat from European and US allies over settlement announcement

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel rejected a wave of American and European condemnations Monday over plans to build thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, vowing to press forward with the construction in the face of widespread international opposition.

The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office was likely to deepen a rift that has emerged between Israel and some of its closest allies following the U.N.'s recognition of a Palestinian state last week. The U.N. decision appears to be fueling a tougher international line against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israeli ambassadors were summoned for consultations in five European capitals, and European officials warned of other potential measures against Israel. In Washington, the U.S. said the Israeli actions were "especially damaging" to peace prospects.

Italian Premier Mario Monti and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement saying they were "deeply worried" by Israel's settlement plans. The two men, meeting in Lyon, France, called the Israeli decisions "serious and illegal" and a "serious obstacle" to Mideast peace.

Netanyahu, however, showed no signs of bending. His office said Israel would continue to stand up for its interests "even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision taken."

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Egypt's political crisis widens with planned strikes, protest march to presidential palace

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's political crisis is widening, with plans for a huge march and a general strike Tuesday to protest the hurried drafting of a new constitution and decrees by President Mohammed Morsi that gave him nearly unrestricted powers.

Morsi also faces the prospect of wider civil disobedience as media, the tourism industry and law professors pondered moves that would build on a strike by the nation's judges.

The planned strikes and march raise new fears of unrest, threatening to derail the country's transition to democratic rule.

"Egypt is a big ship in high seas, and no one should stop its captain from taking it to the shore," said Morsi's legal adviser, Mohammed Gaballah, defending his boss.

"The ship must keep moving under any conditions," he told The Associated Press on Monday.

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Pope joins tweeting masses with Pontifex handle, oddsmakers bet he'll get 1M followers

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Benedict XVI, the pope known for his hefty volumes of theology and lengthy encyclicals, is now trying brevity — spreading the faith through his own Twitter account.

The pontiff will tweet in eight languages starting Dec. 12 using his personal handle (at)Pontifex, responding live to questions about faith during his weekly general audience, the Vatican said Monday.

Within 10 hours of the Vatican's announcement, Benedict had already garnered nearly a quarter-million followers on the English version of (at)Pontifex alone, with thousands more following him in the eight other language accounts.

All that, and he hadn't sent a single tweet.

He may never hit the 1 billion faithful that the Catholic Church counts around the globe, but he's odds-on to get 1 million followers by the end of the year, British bookmakers Ladbrokes said.

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North Carolina inmates say guards forced them to rub hot sauce on genitals, kiss wild snakes

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Prison officials in North Carolina are calling for a criminal investigation after inmates alleged correctional officers forced them to rub habanero hot sauce on their genitals, resulting in painful blisters.

N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pamela Walker said Monday that officials had asked the State Bureau of Investigation to review conduct at Sampson Correctional Institution.

Walker said one staff member at the prison has been reassigned and another went on leave after the start of an internal investigation, the findings of which are being kept confidential. Additional personnel action could be forthcoming, she said.

"Upon review of an internal investigation, (the Division of Adult Correction) has referred the inmate allegations to the SBI for their review and any subsequent actions they deem appropriate," Walker said. "DAC considers the allegations to be serious and the alleged actions in violation of policy, which warrants further review by management."

In July, six inmates from Sampson sent a hand-written letter to the U.S. District Court in Greensboro complaining that staff had forced them to perform numerous humiliating acts for the entertainment of guards, including stripping nude and pretending to have sex. The medium-security facility houses about 500 male inmates in Clinton, which is about 60 miles southeast of Raleigh.

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Software founder John McAfee says he's still free, but has left Belize

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Software company founder John McAfee said Monday he has fled from Belize using a bizarre ruse, adding yet another chapter in what threatens to become one of the biggest media fugitive frenzies since O.J. Simpson led police on a low-speed chase in 1994.

McAfee claimed in a blog posting he had evaded authorities by staging an elaborate distraction in neighboring Mexico.

In an email to The Associated Press, McAfee confirmed a posting to his website in which he described, in what appeared to be joking tones, how he mounted the ruse.

"My 'double,' carrying on (sic) a North Korean passport under my name, was detained in Mexico for pre-planned misbehavior," McAfee wrote in the posting, "but due to indifference on the part of authorities (he) was evicted from the jail and was unable to serve his intended purpose in our exit plan."

It was a turn typical of the bizarre saga of the eccentric anti-virus company founder wanted for questioning in connection with the killing of fellow American ex-pat Gregory Viant Faull, who was shot to death at the Belize island where they both had homes in early November.

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Families of Chiefs linebacker Belcher, slain girlfriend Perkins grieve in wake of tragedy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Breaking their silence for the first time, the family of the woman shot and killed by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher said Monday their "hearts are truly broken" and asked for privacy while they grieve the loss of two loved ones.

Belcher shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at their Kansas City home Saturday before driving to Arrowhead Stadium, where Belcher committed suicide in the practice facility's parking lot, police said. The couple had a 3-month-old daughter, Zoey.

"Our hearts are truly broken for Kasi was a beloved daughter, granddaughter, sister, mother, cousin and friend," the family said in an emailed statement. The family also asked that the media "respect our privacy during this difficult time."

"Please keep us in your hearts and prayers as well as the Belcher family," the statement said.

Kansas City police Sgt. Marisa Barnes said Monday that authorities hope to deliver an investigative report to prosecutors on Tuesday.

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