AP News in Brief at 5:58 a.m. EDT

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Associated Press

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 5:02 AM

German Foreign Ministry summons US ambassador after allegations NSA targeted Merkel's phone

BERLIN (AP) — The German Foreign Ministry says it has summoned the U.S. ambassador in the wake of allegations that American intelligence may have targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.

The ministry said Ambassador John B. Emerson is expected to meet Thursday afternoon with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who will "spell out the position of the German government."

The U.S. Embassy said it had no comment.

Merkel's government says she complained to President Barack Obama in a phone call Wednesday after receiving information her cellphone may have been monitored. The White House said it isn't monitoring and won't monitor Merkel's communications, but conspicuously didn't say that they were never monitored.

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Some Dems say Obama should fire those responsible for problems with HealthCare.gov website

WASHINGTON (AP) — The principal contractors responsible for the federal government's trouble-plagued health insurance website say the Obama administration shares responsibility for the snags that have crippled the system.

Executives of CGI Federal, which built the federal HealthCare.gov website serving 36 states, and QSSI, which designed the part that verifies applicants' income and other personal details, are testifying Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The hearing comes as President Barack Obama's allies are starting to fret about the political fallout. Democrats had hoped to run for re-election next year on the benefits of the health care law for millions of uninsured Americans. Instead, computer problems are keeping many consumers from signing up through new online markets.

One House Democrat says the president needs to "man up" and fire somebody, while others are calling for signup deadlines to be extended and a reconsideration of the penalties individuals will face next year if they remain uninsured.

On that point, a change in the timeline for signing up for coverage is underway, the White House said. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to apply for coverage that's effective Jan. 1. Even though open enrollment lasts until March 31, people would face a penalty if they postpone buying coverage beyond mid-February. Calling that a "disconnect," the White House said officials will soon issue policy guidance allowing consumers to sign up by the end of March without penalty.

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Poll: More young people taunted online are reaching out to family for help, with good results

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sarah Ball was a 15-year-old high school sophomore at Hernando High School in Brooksville, Fla., when a friend posted on Facebook: "I hate Sarah Ball, and I don't care who knows."

Then there was the Facebook group "Hernando Haters" asking to rate her attractiveness, plus an anonymous email calling her a "waste of space." And this text arrived on her 16th birthday: "Wow, you're still alive? Impressive. Well happy birthday anyway."

It wasn't until Sarah's mom, who had access to her daughter's online passwords, saw the messages that the girl told her everything.

More young people are reaching out to family members after being harassed or taunted online, and it's helping. A poll released Thursday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV found incidents of "digital abuse" are still prevalent but declining somewhat. It found a growing awareness among teenagers and young adults about harm from online meanness and cyberbullying, as well as a slight increase among those willing to tell a parent or sibling.

"It was actually quite embarrassing, to be honest," remembers Ball, now an 18-year-old college freshman. But "really, truly, if it wasn't for my parents, I don't think I'd be where I'm at today."

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Study suggests gold star nutrition labels at grocery stores help consumers buy healthier

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A nutritional rating system using gold stars affixed to price labels on grocery store shelves appears to have shifted buying habits, potentially providing another tool to educate consumers on how to eat healthier, according to a new study.

The independent study examining a proprietary gold star system used in Maine-based Hannaford Supermarkets suggested it steered shoppers away from items with no stars toward healthier foods that merited gold stars.

"Our results suggest that point-of-sale nutrition information programs may be effective in providing easy-to-find nutrition information that is otherwise nonexistent, difficult to obtain or difficult to understand," the researchers wrote in the study, published last week in the journal Food Policy.

It's the most rigorous scientific study focusing on Guiding Stars, which was instituted in 2006 in Hannaford stores and is now licensed for use in more than 1,800 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the University of Florida focused on the cereal aisle, where it can be challenging to make healthy choices amid conflicting health claims and a multitude of sugary offerings targeting children.

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Syria releases a total of 61 women detainees as part of hostage-swap deal, activists say

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian authorities have released a total of 61 women detainees, an activist group said Thursday, the latest in a three-way prisoner exchange that was one of the more ambitious negotiated deals in the country's civil war in which rival factions remain largely opposed to any bartered peace.

Meanwhile, electricity returned to parts of Damascus, hours after a power cut plunged the capital and other parts of the country into darkness.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday the government of President Bashar Assad had freed the women over the past two days. There was no immediate comment from Syrian officials, nor details on who the women are or their current location.

The Observatory said the release was part of a complicated hostage swap last week brokered by Qatar and the Palestinian Authority that saw Syrian rebels free nine Lebanese Shiite Muslims, while Lebanese gunmen simultaneously released two Turkish pilots.

Lebanese officials have said a third part of the deal called for the Syrian government to free a number of women detainees to meet the rebels' demands.

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Bad guy blues: As Myanmar opens and film industry retrenches, villains scrabble for relevance

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — In a dimly lit alley on a cramped side street of a teeming Southeast Asian city, the bad guys cluster together, plotting their next move.

There is A Yaing Min, the "King of Cruelty," who twirls his mustache as he talks and cultivates a pointy beard with a pointed message: Mess with me, and I will end you. There is Myint Kyi, who has been dispatching enemies — typically with spears — since 1958. There is Phone Naing, muscular and sinewy in tight military pants, who talks only in a low snarl.

Granted, these are not actual evildoers. They are longtime cinematic villains who gather each morning in a tightly packed enclave of video production houses, movie-poster studios and worse-for-wear apartment buildings that serves as the tattered ground zero of the Burmese movie industry. In the heart of Yangon's Little Hollywood, they sit on tiny plastic chairs, glowering, spitting carmine betel-nut saliva onto the ground. They wait, and wait, and wait some more, stalking a quarry that is becoming ever more elusive: a day's work.

For decades, as Myanmar endured dictatorship and international isolation, these actors were the twisted faces of wrongdoing that the country's struggling film industry showed the Burmese people in movies that rarely made it out of the country — and even more rarely dealt with anything that really mattered. Now this nation is opening to a wider world brimming with pop-culture choices, big-budget special effects and international bad guys who jet from Stockholm to Shanghai to wreak destruction on shiny, globalized levels.

The struggle is a microcosm of change in the country once known as Burma, whose military dictatorship handed power to a civilian government in 2011 after elections the previous year. What happens when the world opens up to you? For Myanmar's movie industry, one of the answers was this: It got harder to earn a living being evil.

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As newer planes meet airlines' needs, Boeing's iconic 747 faces an uncertain future

For decades, the Boeing 747 was the Queen of the Skies. But the glamorous double-decker jumbo jet that revolutionized air travel and shrunk the globe could be nearing the end of the line.

Boeing has cut its production target twice in six months. Just 18 will be produced in each of the next two years. Counting cancellations, it hasn't sold a single 747 this year. Some brand-new 747s go into storage as soon as they leave the plant.

Boeing says it's committed to the 747, and sees a market for it in regions like Asia. But most airlines simply don't want big, four-engine planes anymore. They prefer newer two-engine jets that fly the same distance while burning less fuel.

"We had four engines when jet engine technology wasn't advanced," Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson said at a recent conference. "Now jet engines are amazing, amazing machines and you only need two of them."

Delta inherited 16 747s when it bought Northwest Airlines in 2008. Northwest last ordered a 747 in 2001, according to Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets.

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Despite billions in foreign aid over the past 12 years, most Afghans can't find full-time jobs

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Hundreds of men, some on crutches, all wearing tattered clothing, gather shortly before dawn at major intersections throughout Kabul and other Afghan cities. Displaying primitive tools such as a level or a trowel, they seek labor that is often backbreaking, always temporary and will earn just a few dollars for a day's work.

Employers circle the intersections, eyeing the crowds. Usually they are looking for one or two workers for minor construction tasks. Before they even stop, dozens of men swarm their vehicle, fighting with each other to get one of perhaps five or six jobs available that morning.

Despite billions of dollars from abroad to develop this impoverished country since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, roughly 12 million people, or eight out of every 10 working-age Afghan are unskilled day laborers, according to an International Labor Organization report. Most land only temporary jobs.

In rural areas, work is also temporary — but it's also seasonal and often illegal, the report said. Some of the biggest employers, opium-producing poppy farmers, provide tens of thousands of short-term jobs.

But almost everywhere, the pay is meager. Afghans with jobs, whether part-time or full-time, earn on average $410 per year — or about $1 per day, according to the World Bank.

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Poison in jerky treats from China is fatal to some pets, FDA asks pet owners and vets for help

LOS ANGELES (AP) — All that's left of Doodles are his ashes, a clay impression of his paw and a whole lot of questions owner Patricia Cassidy has about his mysterious death.

Doodles is believed to be one of 580 dogs in the U.S. that have died in the past six years from eating pet jerky from China. Baffled by the cause and seeing another surge in illnesses, the Food and Drug Administration reached out to owners and veterinarians Tuesday to help it find the poison behind the sickening of at least 3,600 dogs and 10 cats since 2007.

Within hours of eating the suspect jerky, pets lost their appetite, became lethargic, vomited and had diarrhea and other symptoms. The strips made of chicken, duck, sweet potatoes or dried fruit were sold under a variety of brand names.

There was a decrease in 2007 after some products were voluntarily removed from the market, but the FDA said it didn't want to conduct a recall without a definitive cause. Those products included Milo's Kitchen Chicken Jerky Treats and Chicken Grillers, made by Del Monte, and Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch dog treats, made by Nestle Purina.

But in the years since, the FDA has gotten complaints from pet owners and veterinarians who have seen repeated cases of kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding, and a rare kidney disorder, the FDA said.

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Reversed call, Napoli, Ortiz, Lester boost Red Sox over Cardinals 8-1 in World Series opener

BOSTON (AP) — Nearly a decade ago, the Boston Red Sox reversed The Curse.

Now they're even getting key calls turned around in the World Series, leaving them on the verge of an opening Fenway Park sweep for the third time in 10 seasons.

And not even a need for instant replay. The umpires overturned this blown call on their own.

After Dustin Pedroia was called out on a phantom force play in the first inning of Wednesday night's World Series opener, second base umpire Dana DeMuth was overruled by the other five members of his crew.

Three pitches later, Mike Napoli lined a cutter to the gap in left-center field for a go-ahead, three-run double, and the Red Sox coasted to an 8-1 rout of the St. Louis Cardinals.

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