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

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Associated Press

Posted on March 7, 2013 at 6:02 AM

Ahead of UN sanctions vote, NKorea vows preemptive nuke strikes against US

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Thursday vowed to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, amplifying its threatening rhetoric hours ahead of a vote by U.N. diplomats on whether to level new sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent nuclear test.

An unidentified spokesman for Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said the North will exercise its right for "pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors" because Washington is pushing to start a nuclear war against the North.

Although North Korea boasts of nuclear bombs and pre-emptive strikes, it is not thought to have mastered the ability to produce a warhead small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching the U.S. It is believed to have enough nuclear fuel, however, for a handful of crude nuclear devices.

Such inflammatory rhetoric is common from North Korea, but it has been coming regularly in recent days. North Korea is angry over the possible sanctions and over upcoming U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The U.N. Security Council is set to impose a fourth round of sanctions against Pyongyang in a fresh attempt to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

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Kentucky senator uses rare filibuster to block vote on President Obama's nominee to lead CIA

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican senator and tea party favorite from Kentucky used an old-style filibuster lasting nearly 13 hours to take control of the chamber and block Senate confirmation of John Brennan's nomination to be CIA director.

Sen. Rand Paul ended his filibuster Thursday shortly after midnight, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Kentucky Republican, said he would continue to oppose Brennan's confirmation and resist ending the debate on President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the spy agency.

Paul's performance, which centered on questions about the possible use of drones against targets in the United States, clearly energized a number of his GOP colleagues, who came to the floor in a show of support and to share in the speaking duties. And even as the night progressed, Paul appeared invigorated despite being on his feet for so long. Actual talking filibusters have become rare in the Senate, where the rules are typically used in procedural ways to block the other party's agenda.

After Paul yielded the floor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., filed a motion to cut off debate on Brennan's nomination, setting up a vote for later this week.

Paul, a critic of Obama's drone policy, started just before noon Wednesday by demanding the president or Attorney General Eric Holder issue a statement assuring that the aircraft would not be used in the United States to kill terrorism suspects who are U.S. citizens. But by the time he left the Senate floor, Paul said he'd received no response.

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Russian dancer accused in attack on Bolshoi ballet chief denies ordering use of acid

MOSCOW (AP) — The star dancer accused of masterminding the attack on the Bolshoi ballet chief acknowledged Thursday that he gave the go-ahead for the attack, but told a Moscow court that he did not order anyone to throw acid on the artistic director's face.

The judge, however, refused to release Bolshoi soloist Pavel Dmitrichenko on bail and ordered him held until at least April 18.

Ballet chief Sergei Filin's face and eyes suffered severe burns in the Jan. 17 attack, which exposed a culture of deep intrigue and infighting at the famed theater.

Dmitrichenko said he had complained about the ballet chief to an acquaintance, who offered to "beat him up."

"It's not true that I ordered him to throw acid at Filin," the 29-year-old dancer told the court, speaking from a cage. He said he had never intended for the attack to cause such bodily harm.

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Prospects shaky for expanding background checks as Senate panel ready to vote on gun curbs

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's prospects for winning near-universal background checks for gun purchases seemed shaky as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared for Congress' first votes on curbing firearms since December's horrific shootings at a Connecticut elementary school.

The Democratic-led panel had four bills on its agenda Thursday as lawmakers began shaping their response to the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six staffers in Newtown, Conn. The shootings elevated guns to a top-tier national issue, though many of Obama's proposals have encountered opposition from the National Rifle Association and many Republicans.

Besides expanding background checks, the other measures would ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds, make gun trafficking and the purchase of firearms for people barred from owning them federal crimes, and provide more money for schools to buy video cameras and other safety equipment.

All four measures were expected to pass the committee, perhaps Thursday. But their fate when the full Senate considers them, probably in April, was less certain. The trafficking measure by panel Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was thought to have the best prospects and the assault weapons ban by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., seemed to have the slimmest chance.

Democrats had hoped to reach a bipartisan deal on expanding federal background checks with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. But on Wednesday, Democrats set aside their efforts to win over Coburn after weeks of talks failed to resolve a dispute over requiring that records of private sales be retained.

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Philippines cardinal taps Facebook, TV and serenades on rapid rise toward papal buzz

IMUS, Philippines (AP) — Asia's most prominent Roman Catholic leader knows how to reach the masses: He sings on stage, preaches on TV, brings churchgoers to laughter and tears with his homilies. And he's on Facebook.

But Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle's best response against the tide of secularism, clergy sex abuse scandals and rival-faith competition could be his reputation for humility. His compassion for the poor and unassuming ways have impressed followers in his homeland, Asia's largest Catholic nation, and church leaders in the Vatican.

Tagle's rising star has opened a previously unimaginable possibility: An Asian pope.

The Filipino prelate's chances are considered remote, as many believe that Latin America or Africa — with their faster growing Catholic flocks — would be more logical choices if the papal electors look beyond Europe. But even the hint of papal consideration has electrified many in the heavily Catholic Philippines, where past pontiffs had been welcomed by millions with rock-star intensity.

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Multitudes bring late President Chavez 'home' to military academy after emotional procession

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Hugo Chavez has been carried back to the military academy where he started his army career, his flag-draped coffin lying in state in the echoing halls until Friday's funeral.

As a band played the hymn from his first battalion, a long ribbon of tearful mourners numbering in the hundreds of thousands bid farewell to the larger-than-life leader Wednesday after a procession carried his casket through Caracas.

With the entire government, including anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, caught up in the seven-hour procession, there were few answers to the most pressing question facing the country — the timing of a presidential election that must be called within a month.

Generations of Venezuelans, many dressed in the red of Chavez's socialist party, filled the capital's streets to remember the man who dominated their country for 14 years before succumbing to cancer Tuesday afternoon.

Chavez's coffin made its way through the crowds atop an open hearse on an eight-kilometer (five-mile) journey that wound through the city's north and southeast, into many of the poorer neighborhoods where Chavez drew his political strength.

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Efforts to avoid gov't shutdown move to Senate as Obama seeks talks on bigger budget deal

WASHINGTON (AP) — Efforts to stave off a late March government shutdown shifted to the Senate after House Republicans swiftly passed legislation to keep federal agencies running, while also easing some of the effects of $85 billion in budget cuts.

The House legislation, approved Wednesday on a bipartisan vote, is the first step toward averting a possible fiscal showdown this month. If another budget crisis can be avoided, it could clear the way for lawmakers and President Barack Obama to restart talks on a longer-term deficit reduction plan.

That was Obama's focus during a rare dinner with a dozen Republican senators Wednesday night at a hotel near the White House. While no real breakthroughs appeared to emerge from the two-hour meal, the mere fact that it happened was significant given the lack of direct engagement between Obama and rank-and-file Republicans over the past two years.

White House and congressional aides said the president and lawmakers had a good exchange of ideas centered on how they could work together to tackle the nation's fiscal problems.

Emerging from the dinner, Sen. John McCain jokingly said the meeting was "terrible," then added that the meal went "just fine" and flashed a thumbs-up.

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At Arizona's border morgue, bodies keep coming despite drop in illegal traffic

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The body of Ildefonso Martinez arrived on a Friday night last April as John Doe, Case No. 12-01000. He wore black Nike shoes, a Perry Ellis belt, jeans with a 34-inch waist, a Casio watch.

For medical examiners at the Pima County morgue, his was an unusual case. Not in how he died — making the same arduous journey that has claimed thousands of illegal immigrants — but rather because he was identified so quickly.

The death of migrants crossing the border has long been a tragic consequence of illegal immigration and, many say, the increase in U.S. border enforcement. For some, the problem is a powerful motivator in pushing Congress to act this year on immigration reform. But critics say proposals offered so far call for more enforcement with few specifics on how to save lives.

"The language coming out is alarmingly more of the same," said Kat Rodriguez of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos in Tucson, who gathers information on missing migrants from family and friends to give to medical examiners trying to identify the dead.

Thousands more Border Patrol agents, hundreds of miles of fencing, and cameras, sensors and aircraft have made it more difficult to enter the U.S. illegally, prompting smugglers to guide migrants to remote deserts. People walk up to a week in debilitating heat, often with enough bottled water and canned tuna to last only days.

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Volunteer intern fatally mauled at California wild animal park after entering lion's enclosure

DUNLAP, Calif. (AP) — Authorities are trying to determine what provoked a lion at an exotic animal park in Central California to attack and maul to death a 24-year-old woman, who had been on the job as an intern there for just a few weeks.

Authorities said the woman was attacked and killed when she entered the male African lion's enclosure at Cat Haven about 45 miles east of Fresno.

Sheriff's deputies responding to an emergency call from Cat Haven found the woman severely injured and still lying inside the enclosure with the lion nearby, Fresno County sheriff's Lt. Bob Miller said.

Another park worker couldn't lure the lion into another pen, so deputies shot and killed it to safely reach the wounded woman. But she died at the scene, Miller said.

Paul Hanson, a Seattle-area attorney, identified the victim as his daughter Dianna Hanson of Brier, Wash. He said he drove his daughter from her home on New Year's Day, arriving at Cat Haven Jan. 2.

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AP Interview: After turnaround from crises, Toyota chief says growth must be sustainable

TOKYO (AP) — After four tumultuous years bookended by an unprecedented recall crisis and a return to the top of the global auto industry, Akio Toyoda is refashioning Toyota Motor Corp. into a leaner company that's more imbued with the venture spirit of founder Kiichiro Toyoda, his grandfather.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Toyota's president said he is putting new auto plants on hold for three years and reshaping the automaker's structure to give more autonomy to regional divisions and foreign executives.

During his four years at Toyota's helm, Toyoda has learned the hard way the costs of blindly pursuing growth, a strategy inherited from his predecessor that he ruefully acknowledges got him slammed by a cascade of recalls.

The spectacular recall debacle in the U.S., which began in 2009 and involved millions of vehicles, got him grilled at U.S. Congressional hearings over safety, but also rallied American dealers to his side. Toyoda wept openly during one emotional show of support from Toyota dealers in the U.S. Then in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan wiped out auto suppliers and Toyota's vehicle production plunged. Yet the automaker's comeback has been stunning. It sold a record 9.75 million vehicles last year, regaining the crown of world's No. 1 automaker from General Motors Co.

Despite the turnaround, caution lingers.

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