AP News in Brief at 4:58 p.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on December 30, 2012 at 6:02 AM

Updated Monday, Dec 31 at 7:00 AM

Family spokesman: Former President George H.W. Bush has been moved out of intensive care

HOUSTON (AP) — Former President George H.W. Bush's condition continued to improve Saturday, prompting doctors to move him out of intensive care, a spokesman said.

"President Bush's condition has improved, so he has been moved today from the intensive care unit to a regular patient room at The Methodist Hospital to continue his recovery," family spokesman Jim McGrath said Saturday. "The Bushes thank everyone for their prayers and good wishes."

Bush was hospitalized Nov. 23 for treatment of a bronchitis-related cough. He was moved to intensive care at the Houston hospital on Dec. 23 after he developed a fever.

On Friday, McGrath said Bush had improved since arriving in the ICU. He said he was alert and in good spirits and was even doing some singing.

McGrath said Saturday morning that future updates on Bush's condition would be made as warranted.

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Senators negotiate over fiscal cliff; Obama warns against "self-inflicted wound" to economy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate leaders groped for a last-minute compromise Saturday to avoid middle-class tax increases and possibly prevent deep spending cuts at the dawn of the new year as President Barack Obama warned that failure could mean a "self-inflicted wound to the economy."

Obama chastised lawmakers in his weekly radio and Internet address for waiting until the last minute to try and avoid a "fiscal cliff," yet said there was still time for an agreement. "We cannot let Washington politics get in the way of America's progress," he said as the hurry-up negotiations unfolded.

Senate Republicans said they were ready to compromise. "Divided government is a good time to solve hard problems_and in the next few days, leaders in Washington have an important responsibility to work together and do just that," said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, delivering his party's weekly address.

Even so, there was no guarantee of success.

In a blunt challenge to Republicans, Obama said that barring a bipartisan agreement, he expected both houses to vote on his own proposal to block tax increases on all but the wealthy and simultaneously preserve expiring unemployment benefits.

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If US falls off 'fiscal cliff,' economy could get soft landing — or dizzy dive onto the rocks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Efforts to save the nation from going over a year-end "fiscal cliff" were still in disarray as lawmakers returned to the Capitol to confront the tax-and-spend crisis. A tone-setting quotation was Democratic Sen. Harry Reid's assertion that the House under Republican Speaker John Boehner had been "operating with a dictatorship."

President Barack Obama flew back to Washington from Hawaii after telephoning congressional leaders from his Christmas vacation perch. Once back, he set up a meeting with leaders of both parties at the White House late Friday to make a fresh attempt to find a solution before Monday night's deadline.

A look at why it's so hard for Republicans and Democrats to compromise on urgent matters of taxes and spending, and what happens if they fail to meet their deadline:

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NEW YEAR'S HEADACHE

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Russian foreign minister says Assad won't step down, can't be persuaded

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's foreign minister said Saturday that Syrian President Bashar Assad has no intention of stepping down and it would be impossible to try to persuade him otherwise.

After a meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.'s envoy for the Syrian crisis, Sergey Lavrov also said that the Syrian opposition risks sacrificing many more lives if it continues to insist on Assad leaving office as a precondition for holding talks on Syria's future.

Assad "has repeatedly said publicly and privately, including in his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus not long ago, that he does not intend to leave for anywhere, that he will stay to the end in his post, that he will, as he expressed it, defend the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty and so forth," Lavrov said. "There's no possibility to change this position."

Brahimi warned that the country's civil war could plunge the entire region into chaos by sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring nations, but his talks in Moscow produced no sign of progress toward settling the crisis.

Brahimi and Lavrov both said after their meeting that the 21-month-old Syrian conflict can only be settled through talks, while admitting that the parties in the conflict have shown no desire for compromise. Neither official hinted at a possible solution that would persuade the Syrian government and the opposition to agree to a ceasefire and sit down for talks about a political transition.

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Police say they have suspect in custody in death of man who was shoved in front of NYC subway

NEW YORK (AP) — A woman is in custody in the death of a man who was shoved in front of a speeding subway train, and she "made statements implicating herself," New York City police said Saturday.

Detectives questioned her but aren't releasing the 31-year-old suspect's name until she is formally charged, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said in a brief statement. Among other things, investigators were arranging for witnesses to positively identify the woman in custody as the attacker, police said.

Sunando Sen, a 46-year-old Queens resident who was born in India and ran a printing shop, died Thursday night when a woman who had been muttering to herself on a train platform in Queens suddenly knocked him on the tracks as a train entered the station.

The woman fled after the attack. Police released security camera video showing her running from the station.

The attack was the second time this month that someone was pushed to their death in a New York City subway station. A homeless man was arrested in early December and accused of shoving a man in front of a train in Times Square. He is awaiting trial, and claimed he acted in self-defense.

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4 dead after airliner goes off Moscow runway, catches fire

MOSCOW (AP) — A passenger airliner careered off the runway at Russia's third-busiest airport and partly onto a highway while landing on Saturday, broke into pieces and caught fire, killing at least four people.

Officials said there were eight people aboard the Tu-204 belonging to Russian airline Red Wings that was flying back from the Czech Republic without passengers to its home at Vnukovo Airport.

Emergency officials said in a televised news conference that four people were killed and another four severely injured when the plane rolled off the runway into a snowy field and partly onto an adjacent highway, then disintegrated. No collisions with vehicles on the major, multilane highway were reported.

The plane's cockpit area was sheared off from the fuselage and the tail section partly torn away.

The crash occurred amid snow and winds gusting up to 15 meters a second (30 mph), but other details were not immediately known. A spokesman for Russia's top investigative agency, Vladimir Markin, said initial indications were that pilot error was the cause.

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Las Vegas police suspect casino worker killed 10-year-old girl, slashed co-worker with razor

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Police suspect that a casino worker killed a 10-year-girl before going to a Las Vegas resort and allegedly slashing the face of a co-worker with razor blades.

The search for Jade Morris ended Friday afternoon when officials confirmed that it was her body that was found a day earlier in an undeveloped housing tract.

The Clark County coroner's office said she died of multiple stab wounds. Jade was last seen Dec. 21 with family friend Brenda Stokes Wilson, who picked her up to go Christmas shopping.

Wilson, 50, returned the car she had borrowed for the outing to a friend two hours later. Jade never came back. Investigators later found blood on the driver's door and steering wheel of the 2007 Saab sedan.

Later that night, Wilson was wrestled to the ground with razors in each hand after allegedly slashing the face of a female co-worker at the Bellagio casino.

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A year along 79th: How a Chicago corridor coped with gangs, shootings and death in 2012

CHICAGO (AP) — It was February, the middle of lunch hour on a busy South Side street. The gunman approached his victim in a White Castle parking lot, shot him in the head, then fled down an alley.

The next month, one block away, also on West 79th Street: Two men in hooded sweatshirts opened fire at the Bishop Golden convenience store. They killed one young man and wounded five others, including a nephew of basketball superstar Dwyane Wade. The shooters got away in a silver SUV.

In July, a Saturday night, two men were walking on 79th when they were approached by a man who killed one and injured the other. This shooting resulted in a quick arrest; police had a witness, and a security camera caught the shooting.

These three violent snapshots of a single Chicago street are not exceptional. It's been a bloody year in the nation's third-largest city.

A spike in murders and shootings — much of it gang-related — shocked Chicagoans, spurred new crime-fighting strategies and left indelible images: Mayor Rahm Emanuel voicing outrage about gang crossfire that killed a 7-year-old named Heaven selling candy in her front yard. Panicked mourners scrambling as shots ring out on the church steps at a funeral for a reputed gang leader. Girls wearing red high school basketball uniforms, filing by the casket of a 16-year-old teammate shot on her porch.

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Drilling and driving: NASA rover Curiosity faces a long to-do list on Mars in 2013

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Since captivating the world with its acrobatic landing, the Mars rover Curiosity has fallen into a rhythm: Drive, snap pictures, zap at boulders, scoop up dirt. Repeat.

Topping its to-do list in the new year: Set off toward a Martian mountain — a trek that will take up a good chunk of the year.

The original itinerary called for starting the drive before the Times Square ball drop, but Curiosity lingered longer than planned at a pit stop, delaying the trip.

Curiosity will now head for Mount Sharp in mid-February after it drills into its first rock.

"We'll probably be ready to hit the pedal to the metal and give the keys back to the rover drivers," mission chief scientist John Grotzinger said in a recent interview at his office on the sprawling NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

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North Korea's caste system, long the arbiter of life, frays under the growing power of money

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — For more than a half-century, a mysterious caste system has shadowed the life of every North Korean. It can decide whether they will live in the gated compounds of the minuscule elite, or in mountain villages where farmers hack at rocky soil with handmade tools. It can help determine what hospital will take them if they fall sick, whether they go to college and, very often, whom they will marry.

It is called songbun. And officially, it does not exist at all.

The power of caste remains potent, exiles and scholars say, generations after it was permanently branded onto every family based on their supposed ideological purity. But today it is also quietly fraying, weakened by the growing importance of something that barely existed until recently in socialist North Korea: wealth.

Like almost all change in North Korea's deeply opaque society, where so much is hidden to outsiders, the shift is happening slowly and often silently. But in the contest for power within the closed world that Pyongyang has created, defectors, analysts and activists say money is now competing with the domination of political caste.

"There's one place where songbun doesn't matter, and that's in business," said a North Korean soldier-turned-businessman who fled to South Korea after a prison stint, and who now lives in a working-class apartment building on the fringes of Seoul. "Songbun means nothing to people who want to make money."

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