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

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Associated Press

Posted on January 16, 2013 at 6:02 AM

French forces will be in 'direct combat' in Mali within hours as ground operations launch

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French troops pressed northward in Mali toward territory occupied by radical Islamists on Wednesday, military officials said, announcing the start of a land assault that will put soldiers in direct combat "within hours."

French ground operations began overnight in Mali, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the French military chief of staff, said on Europe 1 television. France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said soldiers were headed away from the relative safety of the capital toward the rebel strongholds in the north.

Residents of Niono, a city in the center of Mali which is just south of a town that was overrun by the jihadists earlier this week, said they saw trucks of French soldiers arrive overnight. The natural target for the French infantry is Diabaly, located 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of the capital and roughly 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of Niono. French warplanes have carried out airstrikes on Diabaly since the weekend, when a column of dozens of rebel vehicles cut off the road out of Diabaly and seized the town as well as its military camp.

Ibrahim Komnotogo, a resident of Diabaly who heads a USAID-financed rice agriculture project, happened to be outside the town when the jihadists encircled it. He has 20 employees and contractors who he says are stuck inside the town, population 35,000. He told The Associated Press that al-Qaida-linked rebels have sealed off the roads and are preventing people from leaving.

Komnotogo says he fears the Islamists are planning to hide within the mud-walled neighborhoods and use the population as a human shield.

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Obama to outline gun control plans Wednesday, including assault weapons ban, executive actions

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's broad effort to reduce gun violence will include proposed bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips as well as more than a dozen executive orders aimed at circumventing congressional opposition to stricter gun control.

Obama was to announce the measures Wednesday at a White House event that will bring together law enforcement officials, lawmakers and children who wrote the president about gun violence following last month's shooting of 20 young students and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

The broad package Obama will unveil will also include efforts to stop bullying and boost availability of mental health services.

But Congress would have to approve the bans on assault weapons and ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets, along with a requirement for universal background checks on gun buyers. Some gun control advocates worry that opposition from Republicans and conservative Democrats, as well as the National Rifle Association, will be too great to overcome.

"We're not going to get an outright ban," Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., said of limits on assault weapons. Still, McCarthy, a leading voice in Congress in favor of gun control, said she would keep pushing for a ban and hoped Obama would as well.

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2 dead after helicopter crashes in central London after hitting crane

LONDON (AP) — Police say two people were killed when a helicopter crashed Wednesday during rush hour in central London after apparently hitting a construction crane on top of a building.

Two people were taken to a nearby hospital with "minor injuries," London Ambulance Service said.

The helicopter crashed just south of the River Thames near the Underground and mainline train station at Vauxhall, and the British spy agency MI6.

Video on Sky News showed wreckage burning in a street, and a large plume of black smoke rose in the area. The video from the crash scene showed a line of flaming fuel and debris.

Witness reports that the helicopter hit a crane atop a 50-story residential building, the St. George Wharf Tower, were not immediately confirmed.

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AP-GfK poll: After Conn. school shooting, nearly 6 in 10 Americans back stricter gun laws

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly six in 10 Americans want stricter gun laws in the aftermath of last month's deadly school shooting in Connecticut, with majorities favoring a nationwide ban on military-style, rapid-fire weapons and limits on gun violence depicted in video games, movies and TV shows, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

A lopsided 84 percent of adults would like to see the establishment of a federal standard for background checks for people buying guns at gun shows, the poll showed.

Three-quarters of Americans said they reacted to the Connecticut massacre with deep anger, while 54 percent said they felt deeply ashamed it could happen in the United States.

President Barack Obama was set Wednesday to unveil a wide-ranging package of steps for reducing gun violence, expected to include a proposed ban on assault weapons, limits on the capacity of ammunition magazines and universal background checks for gun sales.

Many of the more restrictive proposals under consideration, such as the assault-weapons ban, would face stiff congressional opposition, particularly among Republicans.

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Police: 6 suicide bombers attack Afghan spy agency in capital; deaths reported

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Six militants — one driving a car packed with explosives — attacked the gate of the Afghan intelligence service in the capital Kabul on Wednesday, setting off a blast that could be heard throughout downtown and which sent a plume of dark smoke rising into the sky.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message sent to The Associated Press.

A high-ranking official with the intelligence agency, called the National Directorate of Security, said that there were deaths from the attack but did not say how many. He declined to give his name because he was not an official spokesman.

The explosion occurred about noon local time and was followed by volleys of gunfire for the next 45 minutes. As the car bomber drove into the gate, the five others attacked on foot, said Mohammad Zahir, the chief of the Kabul police investigation unit. All the assailants were killed in the fighting, he said. It was not immediately clear if some of the men on foot were also were wearing suicide vests.

Zahir said at least 30 people were wounded, but he did not have information on deaths.

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Japan's Boeing 787 jets in Japan grounded for safety checks after emergency landing, problems

TOKYO (AP) — Boeing Co.'s 787 planes were grounded for safety checks Wednesday by two major Japanese airlines after one was forced to make an emergency landing in the latest blow for the new jet.

All Nippon Airways said a cockpit message showed battery problems and a burning smell were detected in the cockpit and the cabin, forcing the 787 on a domestic flight to land at Takamatsu airport in western Japan.

The 787, known as the Dreamliner, is Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced jet, and the company is counting heavily on its success. Since its launch, which came after delays of more than three years, the plane has been plagued by a series of problems including a battery fire and fuel leaks. Japan's ANA and Japan Airlines are major customers for the jet and among the first to fly it.

Japan's transport ministry said it got notices from ANA, which operates 17 of the jets, and Japan Airlines which has seven, that all their 787s would not be flying. The grounding was done voluntarily by the airlines.

The earliest manufactured jets of any new aircraft usually have problems and airlines run higher risks in flying them first, said Brendan Sobie, Singapore-based chief analyst at CAPA-Center for Aviation. Since about half the 787 fleet is in Japan, more problems are cropping up there.

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TV confession not enough: Anti-doping officials want Lance Armstrong to testify under oath

Lance Armstrong may not be done confessing.

His interview with Oprah Winfrey hasn't aired yet, but already some people want to hear more — under oath — before Armstrong is allowed to compete in elite triathlons, a sport he returned to after retiring from cycling in 2011. In addition to stripping him of all seven of his Tour de France titles last year, anti-doping officials banned Armstrong for life from sanctioned events.

"He's got to follow a certain course," said David Howman, director general of World Anti-Doping Agency. "That is not talking to a talk show host."

Armstrong already has had conversations with U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials, touching off speculation that the team leader who demanded loyalty from others soon may face some very tough choices himself: whether to cooperate and name those who aided, knew about or helped cover up a sophisticated doping ring that Armstrong ran on his tour-winning U.S. Postal Service squads. Former teammate Frankie Andreu, one of several riders Armstrong cast aside on his ride to the top of the sport, said no one could provide a better blueprint for cleaning up the sport.

"Lance knows everything that happened," Andreu told The Associated Press. "He's the one who knows who did what because he was the ringleader. It's up to him how much he wants to expose."

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A separate class: Study highlights huge spending gaps between athletics and academics

Annual spending on sports by public universities in six big-time conferences like the SEC and Big 12 has passed $100,000 per athlete — about six to 12 times the amount those universities are spending per student on academics, according to a study released Wednesday to greet college presidents arriving at the NCAA's annual meeting in Texas.

The study finds the largest gap by far in the Southeastern Conference, which combines relatively low academic spending and explosive coaching salaries. Median athletic spending there totaled nearly $164,000 per athlete in 2010. That is more than 12 times the $13,390 that SEC schools spent per student for academic expenses, including instructional costs and student services.

The schools of the Pac-10 (now the Pac 12), Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Big East also averaged six-figure spending per student athlete in 2010, the study finds. Across Division I, athletic spending —though still smaller in absolute terms — rose twice as fast as academic spending between 2005 and 2010. During that period, the schools competing in the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of the NCAA upped their athletic expenditures on average $6,200 per athlete each year, according to data compiled by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research as part of an ongoing project with the pro-reform Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

The report does not provide information about ratios at individual institutions.

Overall, FBS schools spent on average $92,000 per athlete in 2010, or just under seven times what they were spending per student on academics at a time of falling state funding for higher education in much of the country, and tuition increases widely outpacing inflation. The report did find, however, the growth rate seemed to be slowing.

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Afghan street kids, orphans to perform at Carnegie Hall as music struggles to revive

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Not so long ago Fakira roamed the mean streets of the Afghan capital, hawking magazines for 13 U.S. cents apiece to support her poverty-stricken family.  Next month, the 15-year-old cellist appears in America's most prestigious concert halls, performing alongside other former street children and orphans of Afghanistan's decades of violence.

"Suddenly my whole life changed, and now I am going to America," she says, recounting her chance encounter with a rather improbable school that's reviving music, both Western classical and Afghan, in a country where the Taliban had made even listening to it a crime — and where a generation of musicians vanished through killings, old age or exile.

The teenager, who uses only one name like many Afghans, will be playing in the Afghan Youth Orchestra, which on Feb. 3 begins a 12-day U.S. tour that includes concerts at Washington's Kennedy Center — President Barack Obama has been invited — New York's Carnegie Hall and the New England Conservatory in Boston.  

"Most reports about Afghanistan are about suicide bombings, killings, destruction, corruption, (depicting) Afghanistan as a place where hope has died," says Ahmad Sarmast, who leads the youth orchestra. He says the young musicians will try "to show a different Afghanistan, an Afghanistan where hope is alive and the people are striving to bring about changes. The kids are the symbol of hope. "

The orchestra is the centerpiece of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which Sarmast founded 2½ years ago. By all accounts, the music institute is proving a success story in a country where failed development projects — through poor planning, corruption or militant violence — are more the norm.

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After sparking a furor among Republicans, aid package for Sandy victims passes in House

WASHINGTON (AP) — The political tempest stirred up by Superstorm Sandy appears to have moved on after wreaking havoc among congressional Republicans divided over how much aid to allocate to the victims.

In a 241-180 vote Tuesday night, the House approved $50.5 billion in disaster relief for Sandy victims. The Senate is expected to accept the measure early next week and send it to President Barack Obama in spite of some Democratic concerns that it doesn't do enough.

"While the House bill is not quite as good as the Senate bill, it is certainly close enough," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

House Democrats supported the aid package in large numbers Tuesday night, but substantial Republican backing was needed for its passage in the GOP-controlled House. There were 192 Democrats and 49 Republicans voting to pass the measure.

The victory was tinged with some bitterness for Northeast lawmakers who have complained that Congress approved tens of billions of dollars in aid within days of Hurricane Katrina but dragged their feet for more than two months on Sandy aid.

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