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Associated Press

Posted on March 26, 2013 at 5:02 AM

Supreme Court takes up California gay marriage case as public opinion swings in favor of it

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is wading into the fight over same-sex marriage at a time when public opinion is shifting rapidly in favor of permitting gay and lesbian couples to wed, but 40 states don't allow it.

The court's first major examination of gay rights in 10 years begins Tuesday with a hearing on California's ban on same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, the justices will consider the federal law that prevents legally married gay couples from receiving a range of benefits afforded straight married Americans.

People have been waiting in line — even through light snow — since Thursday for coveted seats for the argument over California's Proposition 8.

The two California couples challenging the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in the nation's largest state are in Washington for the argument and are urging the justices to strike down not just the California provision, but constitutional amendments and statutes in every state that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

They envision the 21st century equivalent of the court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down state bans on interracial marriages.

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US training Syrians in Jordan to boost anti-Assad forces, stem extremist sway, officials say

WASHINGTON (AP) — For months now, the United States has been training secular Syrian fighters in Jordan with the goal of bolstering the array of forces battling President Bashar Assad's regime while at the same time strengthening the hand of moderates among the country's fractured opposition, American and foreign officials said. They said the effort is ongoing.

The training has been taking place since late last year at an unspecified location, concentrating largely on Sunnis and tribal Bedouins who formerly served as members of the Syrian army, officials told The Associated Press. The forces aren't members of the leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, they said. The U.S. and others fear the growing role of extremist militia groups in the rebel ranks, including some linked to al-Qaida.

Officials said the operation is being run by U.S. intelligence. But those in Washington stressed that the U.S. was only providing nonlethal aid at this point, stopping short of a step that is being increasingly advocated by lawmakers in Congress but which the Obama administration opposes.

Others such as Britain and France are involved, officials added, though it's unclear whether any Western government is providing materiel or other direct military support after two years of civil war that, according to the United Nations, already has killed more than 70,000 people.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the program.

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Neighbors share excitement as 'hardworking' NJ bodega owner wins $338M Powerball jackpot

PASSAIC, N.J. (AP) — Pedro Quezada's neighbors see a lot of themselves in the winner of the $338 million Powerball jackpot: hardworking, a family man, an immigrant, and someone who has known hard times.

That's why they're so thrilled that one of their own has finally struck it rich.

Quezada, 44, entered Eagle Liquors store, where his ticket was sold, late Monday afternoon. The Passaic store's owner ran Quezada's ticket through the lottery machine and, as a newspaper and television outlets recorded the moment, validated that it was a winner.

"This is super for all of us on this block," said Eladia Vazquez, who has lived across the street from Quezada's building for the past 25 years. Quezada and his family "deserve it because they are hardworking people."

Quezada told reporters in Spanish that he was "very happy" and that he intends to help his family.

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Cyprus: Bankruptcy averted, but banks to stay closed until Thursday

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus ordered banks to remain closed for two more days over fears of a run by customers trying to get their money out, after striking a pre-dawn bailout deal Monday that averted the country's imminent bankruptcy.

The sudden midnight postponement of the much anticipated Tuesday bank opening by all but the country's two largest lenders was sure to hammer businesses already reeling from more than a week of no access to their deposits.

ATMs have been dispensing cash but often run out, and an increasing number of stores and other businesses have stopped accepting credit or debit cards. The two largest lenders, the struggling Laiki and Bank of Cyprus, have imposed a daily withdrawal limit of 100 euros ($130).

Cyprus clinched an eleventh-hour deal with the 17-nation eurozone and the International Monetary Fund early Monday for a 10 billion euro ($13 billion) bailout. Without it, the country's banks would have collapsed, dragging down the economy and potentially pushing it out of the euro.

Under the deal, the country agreed to slash its oversized banking sector and inflict hefty losses on large depositors in troubled banks.

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USDA Secretary Vilsack to announce expansion of program aimed at reducing rural poverty

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — U.S. officials are expanding a program intended to reduce poverty and improve life in rural areas through better access to federal funding.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was expected in South Carolina on Tuesday to announce the expansion of the so-called StrikeForce initiative, which already operates in 10 states. The program will now also be available in the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Alabama and Virginia.

The goal of StrikeForce is to help farmers, food producers and other businesses get access to money for projects such as new wells, greenhouses, community gardens, kitchen space, and summer meals for low-income school children. The money is often hard to access due to complicated grant applications, requirements for matching funds, and limited staffing.

"You just don't have the technical wherewithal, technical assistance, in your city officials, council members, part-time mayors, even your city administrators, to know what the federal programs are," Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who is also an ex-mayor of a small town in Iowa, told The Associated Press this week. "Oftentimes these programs have matching requirements. For small communities operating by themselves, that is very difficult."

The USDA uses U.S. Census data to find areas with poverty rates higher than 20 percent. The agency then works with local officials and community-based organizations to publicize the program and reach out to potential applicants. Included in the secretary's expected stops Tuesday is Bamberg County, home to South Carolina's fourth-highest unemployment, at 15.3 percent.

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GM freshens up Regal, Lacrosse in latest effort to shed Buick image as car for over-60 crowd

NEW YORK (AP) — Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's this famous car brand whose average driver is more familiar with Social Security than social media.

General Motors Co. will make another attempt to get Buick to appeal to younger buyers with freshened up versions of the Regal midsize sports sedan and the LaCrosse large luxury car. GM unveils the pair Tuesday ahead of the New York auto show.

Youth has been the theme of several of Buick marketing campaigns during the last three decades, with famous pitchmen from Tiger Woods to Shaquille O'Neal. Sales have even risen recently after a dramatic and lengthy decline. But even with that recent success, odds are against GM making Buick a go-to option for large numbers of drivers below the age of 50.

Buick, once coveted for its understated elegance, used to be a dominant brand. In 1984, GM sold 942,000 Buicks in the U.S., according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. But many Buick buyers died, and younger people opted for SUVs and cooler European cars. Sales tumbled, bottoming out at just over 102,000 in 2009. GM only kept the brand alive because it became a huge seller in China.

The company doesn't expect Buick sales to approach 900,000 per year again. But executives say they can still make a lot of money selling the higher-priced luxury vehicles with lower sales numbers.

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NJ professor undertakes apparently quixotic quest to become Iran's next president

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — The man who wants to be the next president of Iran sits in a hotel lobby, steps from his office and thousands of miles away from the country he wants to lead, a distance surpassed only by the hurdles he needs to clear even to land on the ballot.

Hooshang Amirahmadi, a bespectacled professor of public policy at Rutgers University, declared his candidacy for the Iranian presidency last year. He's now well into a quixotic quest that has taken him on fundraising jaunts from New York to California to Dubai and, finally, to Iran next month.

Amirahmadi, 65, has lived in the United States for 40 years, calling it "my country." He married his wife here, and his daughter was raised in New Jersey. But he feels compelled to run for office in Iran to reconcile the conflict he and other Iranian-Americans feel within.

"I feel like, you know, it's not easy to be an Iranian originally and be here, and be a citizen of this country, and see the two sides of you fight each other every day," Amirahmadi said.

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected to his second term in 2009 in an election that sparked pro-democracy protests. He is not eligible to run again.

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Kerry meets again with President Karzai as he wraps up quick mission to Afghanistan

KABUL (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met again Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a day after they put on a show of unity as they tried to end recent bickering over anti-American comments made by the Afghan leader.

Kerry also met Tuesday at the American Embassy in Kabul with participants in a U.S.-backed women's entrepreneurship program. He heard a succession of concerns from businesswomen fearful of what the 2014 transition will mean for not only for women and girls but for Afghanistan's commerce in general.

Many advocates for women's rights worry that the departure of international troops will lead to a deterioration in conditions for women, who were denied basic rights such as education under Taliban rule.

"After the transition happens, we are hoping for the same attention" as we get now, said Hassina Syed, who runs catering, construction and transportation firms. With the transition approaching "there is a lot of negative effect on the business sector," she told Kerry.

Kerry also spoke with civic leaders preparing for Afghanistan's 2014 elections, telling them he wanted to pay the "respects of everybody in America for the journey that you are on and for the great contribution you're making to your country and the efforts you're making to develop this democracy."

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Unabated, illegal trafficking risks survival of chimpanzees, orangutans, other apes, UN says

BANGKOK (AP) — The multibillion-dollar trade in illegal wildlife — clandestine trafficking that has driven iconic creatures like the tiger to near-extinction — is also threatening the survival of great apes, a new U.N. report says.

Endangered chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos are disappearing from the wild in frightening numbers, as private owners pay top dollar for exotic pets, while disreputable zoos, amusement parks and traveling circuses clamor for smuggled primates to entertain audiences.

More than 22,000 great apes are estimated to have been traded illegally over a seven-year period ending in 2011. That's about 3,000 a year; more than half are chimpanzees, the U.N. report said.

"These great apes make up an important part of our natural heritage. But as with all things of value, great apes are used by man for commercial profit and the illegal trafficking of the species constitutes a serious threat to their existence," Henri Djombo, a government minister from the Republic of Congo, was quoted as saying.

The U.N. report paints a dire picture of the fight to protect vulnerable and dwindling flora and fauna from organized criminal networks that often have the upper hand.

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Tiger Woods, on familiar ground, moves back into familiar territory in golf

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods never questioned his ability, only his health.

Woods returned to No. 1 in the world by winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational, not surprising except if you consider where he was a little more than a year ago. He had not won a PGA Tour in some 2½ years. He missed most of the summer and two majors in 2011 because of injuries to his left leg and Achilles tendon. He walked off the course at Doral a year ago because of tightness in the same tendon. It wasn't until June that he felt good enough to hit balls on the range after a round.

Instead of a limp, he now has a swagger.

After making three straight bogeys to end his second round at Bay Hill, he stayed on the range for close to an hour. When someone noticed his caddie walking away, Joe LaCava replied, "Going to get another bucket."

Woods was at full strength in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and he looked as good as ever.

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