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Associated Press

Posted on December 22, 2013 at 6:02 PM

Updated Monday, Dec 23 at 6:01 AM

Thai protesters try to block sign-up for Feb. 2 polls in latest twist in political crisis

BANGKOK (AP) — Anti-government protesters determined to unseat Thailand's prime minister surrounded a Bangkok sports stadium in an unsuccessful attempt to physically block political parties from registering for a February election.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is popular among the rural majority but disliked by the urban middle class and educated elite, called the Feb. 2 elections to diffuse tension after several weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations in the Thai capital.

The attempted blockade comes after the main opposition Democrat Party said over the weekend it will boycott the vote, which Yingluck's ruling party would likely win.

Officials from her party and eight others managed to sign up for the election by slipping into the stadium in the middle of the night, despite the presence of some protesters who had camped out overnight, the Election Commission said.

"We were aware that protesters would be blocking all entrances, so we went into the stadium at 4:00 a.m. while they were sleeping," said Prompong Nopparit, spokesman of the ruling Pheu Thai Party. "Despite all this, the elections will continue as planned on Feb. 2."

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Military pension cuts now uncertain, but future changes to troop pay, benefits likely

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon's top civilian says it's time to tame burgeoning military personnel costs, but he's facing a test of wills with the nation's powerful veterans groups, which want no cut in their benefits.

Veterans groups are fighting curbs in annual pension increases for military retirees under age 62 that are part of the new budget deal passed by Congress last week and awaiting President Barack Obama's signature. After a barrage of protests from the military community, lawmakers said they'll review the cut next year and possibly reverse it. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that reform of military compensation can't be avoided.

"We all know that we need to slow cost growth in military compensation," Hagel told a Pentagon press conference. "We know that many proposals will be controversial and unpopular. ... Tough decisions will have to be made."

Retirees want the belt-tightening done elsewhere.

Here's a look at what members of the U.S. armed forces get now and the debate:

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10 Things to Know for Monday

Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday:

1. CRAZY QUILT OF WEATHER ACROSS THE NATION

On the first full day of winter, the U.S. sees a wild mix of ice and snow, flooding and record warmth.

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Pussy Riot members released from prison following amnesty

KRASNOYARSK, Russia (AP) — The third member of the Russian punk bank Pussy Riot has been released from custody following an amnesty law passed by parliament.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova left the prison colony in the eastern Siberian city Krasnoyarsk on Monday, hours after another band member, Maria Alekhina, was released in another region.

The amnesty that enabled their release is seen as the Kremlin's attempt to soothe criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February.

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For some, power outages may last through holiday after storm brings snow, ice and even warmth

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — After the first full day of winter brought everything from balmy temperatures along the Mid-Atlantic to snow in the Midwest and ice, snow and flooding in the Great Lakes, some people could be left in the dark for Christmas.

Much of the foul weather that occurred Sunday has lessened or disappeared entirely, but the harsh aftereffects were expected to linger.

Brad Hoving, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, Mich., said most people were without power in some counties between Grand Rapids and Lansing, Mich. Some may not have electricity until Wednesday or even Thursday, he said.

"It's a big deal," Hoving said. "It's Christmas and we've just had a major ice storm," with trees toppling over and ice-covered power lines.

By late Sunday, ice and snow had knocked out power to 440,000 homes and businesses in Michigan, upstate New York and northern New England — about half of whom had their power back by early Monday. The storm also left more than 400,000 customers without electricity in eastern Canada.

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In ominous sign, many health plan buyers are just picking the cheapest

CHICAGO (AP) — As a key enrollment deadline hits Monday, many people without health insurance have been sizing up policies on the new government health care marketplace and making what seems like a logical choice: They're picking the cheapest one.

Increasingly, experts in health insurance are becoming concerned that many of these first-time buyers will be in for a shock when they get medical care next year and discover they're on the hook for most of the initial cost.

The prospect of sticker shock after Jan. 1, when those who sign up for policies now can begin getting coverage, is seen as a looming problem for a new national system that has been plagued by trouble since the new marketplaces went online in the states in October.

For those without insurance — about 15 percent of the population— "the lesson is it's important to understand the total cost of ownership of a plan," said Matt Eyles, a vice president of Avalere Health, a market analysis firm. "You just don't want to look only at the premium."

Counselors who have been helping people choose policies say many are focused only on the upfront cost, not what the insurance companies agree to pay.

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Brits, Canadians, Australians among 3,000 foreigners in violent S. Sudan city US evacuated

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Civilian helicopters evacuated U.S. citizens from a violent South Sudan city seeing bouts of heavy machine gun fire, but 3,000 citizens from countries like Canada, Britain and Kenya remain trapped there, a top U.N. official said Monday.

Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator, said Australians, Ugandans and Ethiopians are also among 15,000 total people seeking protection at a U.N. base in Bor, a city that could see increasing violence in coming days.

The death toll from a week of violence in South Sudan has likely surpassed 1,000 people, though there are no firm numbers available, he said. The number of internal refugees has likely surpassed 100,000, said Lanzer, who is seeking urgent financial assistance from the international community.

"I can't afford any delays from donor capitals right now," he told The Associated Press in a phone call. "Never has there been a greater time of need in South Sudan."

Bor is the city where rebel forces fired on three U.S. military aircraft on Saturday, forcing the Ospreys — advanced helicopter-airplane hybrids — to abort their evacuation mission. On Sunday the U.S. evacuated Americans by civilian U.S. and U.N. helicopters.

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Democrats are hoping to make inroads in 2014 in Republican advantage among female governors

NEW YORK (AP) — The Democratic Party claims to be the natural home for women. The numbers tell another story when it comes to the nation's governors.

Republicans, four women: Jan Brewer in Arizona, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.

Democrats: Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire.

For the GOP, often accused of waging a "war on women," this advantage offers a powerful tool in the competition for female voters.

"We have to show the fact there is no war on women," said Haley, who is in her first term. "The more Republican women out there, the better our case is."

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Folks in Louisiana town stand by Duck Dynasty clan; Willie Robertson baptizes 3 at church

WEST MONROE, La. (AP) — "Faith. Family. Ducks." It's the unofficial motto for the family featured in the TV reality show Duck Dynasty and that homespun philosophy permeates nearly everything in this small north Louisiana town.

It's perhaps most on display at the White's Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, where the Robertson family prays and preaches most Sunday mornings.

The family — including patriarch Phil Robertson, who ignited a controversy last week when he told a magazine reporter that gays are sinners and African-Americans were happy under Jim Crow laws — were in a front pew this past Sunday. And standing by beliefs they say are deeply rooted in their reading of the Bible.

The rest of the flock, decked out in Duck Dynasty hats and bandannas, stood by the family and the sentiments Phil Robertson expressed.

Alan, Robertson's eldest son, helped deliver a Christmas-themed sermon. He started off by referring to last week's controversy.

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Born from Chicano civil rights movement, Pancho Claus now adored fixture in Texas cities

HOUSTON (AP) — He usually has black hair and a black beard, sometimes just a mustache. Like Santa, he wears a hat — though often it's a sombrero. He dons a serape or a poncho and, in one case, a red and black zoot suit. And he makes his grand entrance on lowriders or Harleys or led by a pack of burros instead of eight reindeer.

Meet Pancho Claus, the Tex-Mex Santa.

Amid all the talk about Santa Claus' race, spawned by a Fox News commentator's remarks that both Santa and Jesus were white, there is, in the Lone Star State, a Hispanic version of Santa in cities from the border to the plains — handing out gifts for low-income and at-risk children.

Born from the Chicano civil rights movement, Pancho Claus is a mostly Texas thing, historians say, though there may be one somewhere in California. Lorenzo Cano, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Houston, says Pancho was apparently conceived north of the border as Mexican-Americans looked to "build a place and a space for themselves" in the 1970s. His rise coincided with a growing interest in Mexican art, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day and other cultural events.

Now, Pancho is an adored Christmas fixture in many Texas cities.

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