Syrian pro-opposition groups claim dozens killed in 'poisonous gas' attack near Damascus
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian regime forces fired intense artillery and rocket barrages Wednesday on the eastern suburbs Damascus amid a fierce government offensive in what two pro-opposition groups claimed was a "poisonous gas" attack that killed dozens of people.
The claims came as a 20-member U.N. chemical weapons team was in Syria to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks had allegedly occurred in the past. The timing raises questions on why would the regime employ chemical agents during a visit by the U.N. experts.
The government promptly denied the reports of Wednesday's chemical weapons' attack as "absolutely baseless."
"They are an attempt to divert the U.N. commission on chemical weapons from carrying out its mission," the state-run SANA news agency said, quoting an unnamed government official, as is its standard practice.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling was intense and hit the capital's eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. The intensive bombardment as well as the sound of fighter jets could be heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early Wednesday, and gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.
Top US general says Syrian rebels unready to back US interests, rejects cruise missile option
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is opposed to even limited U.S. military intervention in Syria because it believes rebels fighting the Assad regime wouldn't support American interests if they were to seize power right now, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to a congressman in a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Effectively ruling out U.S. cruise missile attacks and other options that wouldn't require U.S. troops on the ground, Dempsey said the military is clearly capable of taking out Syrian President Bashar Assad's air force and shifting the balance of the Arab country's 2½-year war back toward the armed opposition. But he said such an approach would plunge the United States deep into another war in the Arab world and offer no strategy for peace in a nation plagued by ethnic rivalries.
"Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides," Dempsey said in the letter Aug. 19 to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not."
Dempsey's pessimistic assessment will hardly please members of the fractured Syrian opposition leadership and some members of the administration who have championed greater support to help the rebellion end Assad's four-decade family dynasty. Despite almost incessant bickering and internal disputes, some opposition groups have worked with the United States and other European and Arab supporters to try to form a cohesive, inclusive movement dedicated to a democratic and multiethnic state.
But those fighting the Assad government range wildly in political and ethnic beliefs and not all are interested in Western support.
Egypt arrests 2 more Islamist figures: hard-line cleric, a spokesman for Muslim Brotherhood
CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities on Wednesday arrested two more Islamist figures: a top ally of the Muslim Brotherhood as he reportedly tried to flee to neighboring Libya disguised as a woman, and a spokesman for the Islamist group on his way to catch a flight out of the country.
The arrests are the latest in a crackdown by Egypt's new military-backed leaders against the Muslim Brotherhood group, from which ousted President Mohammed Morsi hails.
They came just a day after authorities detained the Brotherhood's supreme leader and spiritual guide, Mohammed Badie, dealing a serious blow to the embattled movement that is now struggling to keep up street protests against the military's overthrow of Morsi.
Badie was arrested in an apartment in the Cairo district of Nasr City, close to the site of a sit-in encampment that was forcibly cleared by security forces last week, triggering violence that killed hundreds of people.
Hundreds, including the group's former lawmakers, politicians, and field operatives are already in custody.
Terrified parents waited for word in Ga. school shooting; 20-year-old suspect charged
DECATUR, Ga. (AP) — Rufus Morrow was at work when he got a phone call with the worst news he could imagine: Shots fired at his daughter's elementary school.
He drove "about 90 mph" to Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy where 800 or so students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade had been evacuated Tuesday in an Atlanta suburb. The police chief says a 20-year-old man with an assault rifle and other weapons was able to slip into the school where visitors must be buzzed in by staff.
The suspect, identified as Michael Brandon Hill, held one or two staff members in the front office captive for a time, the police chief said, making one of them call a local TV station. As officers swarmed the campus outside, he shot at them at least a half a dozen times with an assault rifle from inside the school and they returned fire, said DeKalb County Police Chief Cedric L. Alexander. Hill then surrendered. No one was injured.
Morrow said he almost cried as he told his supervisor why he needed to leave.
"Just the mere thought of what happened at that other elementary school happening here, it was just devastating to my soul," he said, referring to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut in December that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children.
Last Nixon tapes to be released cover key period in Watergate, Vietnam and US-Soviet summit
The final installment of secretly recorded phone calls and meetings from President Richard Nixon's White House will be released Wednesday, marking a final chapter in a campaign for public access that continues as memories of Watergate fade.
The recordings cap the chronological release of 3,000 hours of tapes Nixon recorded between February 1971 and July 1973 that have been released by the National Archives and Records Administration. The final installment covers the tumultuous three months when Watergate was closing in on the 37th president. Still, he forged ahead with Soviet peace talks, worked to cement Chinese relations and welcomed home Vietnam prisoners of war.
"This is a really big release in volume and importance, because of the time period it covers," said Luke Nichter of Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen, who runs a website cataloging Nixon's secret recordings. "This is the end of taping and this is Watergate really beginning."
The recordings released Wednesday from the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., cover April 9, 1973, to July 12, 1973, the day before the existence of the covert recording system was revealed to a Senate committee probing Watergate.
Also unveiled will be 140,000 pages of documents, including more than 30,000 recently declassified items such as an intelligence analysis of Vietnam. Another 700 hours of Nixon tapes remain classified or restricted and haven't been released because of national security and privacy concerns.
Bradley Manning faces sentencing for spilling mountain of US secrets to WikiLeaks website
FORT MEADE, Md. (AP) — More than three years after his arrest in Iraq, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is set to learn the price he'll pay for leaking an unprecedented volume of classified information to a once-obscure, anti-secrecy website.
Manning's sentencing Wednesday in a military courtroom at Fort Meade, near Baltimore, caps a 12-week trial and a much longer legal battle over the former intelligence analyst's intentions when he reached out to WikiLeaks.
Prosecutors portray Manning, now 25, as "the determined insider," an anarchist hacker and traitor who started working within weeks of his 2009 deployment to provide WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange with exactly what they wanted. The government has urged the military judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, to sentence him to 60 years in prison for crimes that include six Espionage Act violations, five theft counts and computer fraud.
Manning and his defense team maintain he was an idealistic soldier with a pure motive — to expose brutal truths about America's military and diplomatic corps. They say the gay soldier's gender-identity crisis in the "don't ask, don't tell" military reached a crescendo that caused him to act out, mistakenly believing that by pouring secret government documents and video onto the Internet, he could change the way the world viewed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and, perhaps, all wars.
"I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people," Manning said in a courtroom apology last week.
US soldier faces angry relatives of Afghan massacre victims as he fights for chance at parole
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (AP) — The U.S. soldier who killed 16 Afghan civilians in an attack on two villages may have to face more of the victims' relatives Wednesday while his lawyers prepare to present evidence to show he deserves a chance at parole.
An Afghan farmer shot during the massacre in Kandahar Province last year took the witness stand Tuesday at Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' sentencing hearing, cursing the soldier before breaking down and pleading with the prosecutor not to ask him any more questions.
Haji Mohammad Naim appeared at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, where Bales pleaded guilty in June to the March 11, 2012, attacks to avoid the death penalty.
Now the six jurors must decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole or without it.
The hearing afforded some victims and relatives their first chance to confront Bales face-to-face.
As global brands trumpet arrival in newly-opened Myanmar, tobacco giants slip in sans fanfare
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — As some of the world's biggest companies trumpet their arrival in Asia's hottest frontier market, the tobacco industry has a different strategy: It's slipping into Myanmar without fanfare.
The impoverished nation of 60 million people emerged from a half-century of isolation and brutal military rule two years ago. With most international sanctions against the country lifted or suspended, foreign businesses from Coca-Cola and Unilever to Suzuki Motors have scrambled to get in.
So too has Big Tobacco but without the ribbon cuttings or grandly worded press announcements.
British American Tobacco, the world's second largest cigarette manufacturer, shepherded a select audience of government officials to a low key ceremony last month where it formalized a $50 million investment over five years to produce, market and sell its brands in Myanmar. Its factory, to be built on the outskirts of Yangon, will create about 400 jobs.
Japan Tobacco, No. 3 globally, quietly inked a deal nearly a year ago with local partner tycoon Kyaw Win. Company spokesman Royhei Sugata said a factory was being built, but refused to discuss details, from the project's scale or brand name to the plant's location.
3 Okla. teens charged in death of Australian baseball player; police say they did it for fun
DUNCAN, Okla. (AP) — With a motive that's both chilling and simple — to break up the boredom of an Oklahoma summer — three teenagers randomly targeted an Australian collegiate baseball player who was attending school in the U.S. and killed him for fun, prosecutors said Tuesday as they charged two of the boys with murder.
Prosecutor Jason Hicks called the boys "thugs" as he described how Christopher Lane, 22, of Melbourne, was shot once in the back and died along a tree-lined road on Duncan's well-to-do north side. He said the three teens, from the grittier part of town, chose Lane at random and that one of the boys "thinks it's all a joke."
Hicks charged Chancey Allen Luna, 16, and James Francis Edwards Jr., 15, of Duncan, with first-degree murder. Under Oklahoma law they will be tried as adults. Michael Dewayne Jones, 17, of Duncan, was charged with using a vehicle in the discharge of a weapon and with accessory to first-degree murder after the fact. He is considered a youthful offender but will be tried in adult court.
Jones wept in the courtroom after he tried to speak about the incident but was cut off by the judge who said it wasn't the time to sort out the facts of the case. Jones faces anywhere from two years to life in prison if convicted on the counts he faces.
The two younger teens face life in prison without parole if convicted on the murder charge.
ACT reports that only a quarter of high school graduates are ready for all college subjects
WASHINGTON (AP) — Just a quarter of this year's high school graduates who took the ACT tests have the reading, math, English and science skills they need to succeed in college or a career, according to data the testing company released Wednesday.
The numbers are even worse for black high school graduates: Only 5 percent are fully ready for life after high school.
The results, part of ACT's annual report, indicate thousands of students graduate from high schools without the knowledge necessary for the next steps in life. The data also show a downturn in overall student scores, although company officials attribute the slide to updated standards and more students taking the exams — including those with no intention of attending two- or four-year colleges.
"The readiness of students leaves a lot to be desired," said Jon Erickson, president of the Iowa-based company's education division.
The ACT report is based on the 54 percent of high school graduates this year who took the exams. Roughly the same percentage took the SAT — the other major college entrance exam — and many students took both tests. Those who took only the SAT were not included in the report.