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Associated Press

Posted on January 19, 2014 at 6:02 AM

Updated Sunday, Jan 19 at 11:01 PM

Main Syrian opposition group votes in favor of attending coming peace talks

ISTANBUL (AP) — The main, Western-backed Syrian opposition group voted Saturday in favor of attending a coming peace conference aimed at ending the country's bloody civil war, paving the way for the first direct talks between the rival sides in the nearly three-year conflict.

The vote in Istanbul came as food supplies began entering a besieged rebel-held Palestinian refugee camp in Syria's capital for the first time in months, an apparent goodwill gesture by President Bashar Assad's government ahead of the peace conference, Palestinian and United Nations officials said.

The Syrian National Coalition was under huge pressure from its Western and Arab sponsors to attend the peace talks, scheduled to open Wednesday in the Swiss city of Montreux. The Syrian government has already said it will attend the U.N.-sponsored talks.

The Coalition's leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, said in a speech late Saturday that they are heading to the conference "without any bargain regarding the principles of the revolution and we will not be cheated by Assad's regime."

"The negotiating table for us is a track toward achieving the demands of the revolution — at the top of them removing the butcher from power," Jarba said.

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Voters overwhelmingly support Egypt's new constitution, though results hide divided country

CAIRO (AP) — Almost everyone who cast ballots supported Egypt's new constitution in this week's referendum, results announced Saturday show, but a boycott by Islamists and low youth turnout suggest the country is still dangerously divided.

Nearly 20 million voters backed the new constitution, almost double the number of those who voted for one drafted in 2012 under the government of toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Only a narrow sliver of voters — 1.9 percent — voted against the charter, after a massive government-sponsored campaign supporting it and the arrest of activists campaigning against it.

"Despite a milieu of intense social upheaval and acts of terrorism and sabotage that sought to derail the process, Egyptians have now marked yet another defining moment in our roadmap to democracy," presidential spokesman Ehab Badawy said. "The outcome represents nothing less than the dawning of a new Egypt."

The expected overwhelming support for the charter is seen as key to legitimizing Egypt's military-backed interim government, and the political plan put in place since Morsi's ouster in July. Analysts say it also suggests military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup against Morsi, has enough popular support to make a rumored run for the presidency himself.

It was the first vote since the military removed Morsi following massive protests in July. Hundreds celebrated in the streets after officials announced the results, including Hoda Hamza, a housewife who waved an Egyptian flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square and carried a picture of el-Sissi with an inscription reading: "By the order of the people, el-Sissi is president."

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Afghan restaurant attack that killed 21 people the deadliest of war for foreign civilians

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A Taliban attack against a popular Kabul restaurant killed 21 people, authorities said Saturday, making it the deadliest single attack against foreign civilians in the course of a nearly 13-year U.S.-led war there now approaching its end.

The attack comes as security has been deteriorating and apprehension has been growing among Afghans over their country's future as U.S.-led foreign forces prepare for a final withdrawal at the end of the year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is deferring signing an agreement allowing U.S. forces to stay past the planned withdrawal until after the country's April 5 presidential election, criticized America while condemning the attack.

"If NATO forces and in the lead the United States of America want to cooperate and be united with Afghan people, they must target terrorism," he said without fully elaborating on what America should be doing. He added that the U.S. had followed a policy that "was not successful in the past decade."

The dead from Friday's assault against La Taverna du Liban included 13 foreigners and eight Afghans, all civilians. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said late Saturday that three Americans were killed. Previously, those identified included two U.S. citizens working for the American University of Afghanistan and a victim identified by the United Nations as Basra Hassan, a Somali-American working as a nutrition specialist for UNICEF.

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Air Force says latest missteps don't equate to failure; others cite worrying pattern

WASHINGTON (AP) — At what point do breakdowns in discipline put the country's nuclear security in jeopardy?

And when does a string of embarrassing episodes in arguably the military's most sensitive mission become a pattern of failure?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is now concerned "there could be something larger afoot here," according to his chief spokesman, and "wants this taken very, very seriously."

The disclosures of disturbing behavior by nuclear missile officers are mounting and now include alleged drug use and exam cheating. Yet Air Force leaders insist the trouble is episodic, correctible and not cause for public worry.

The military has a well-established set of inspections and other means of ensuring the safety of its nuclear weapons. But as in any human endeavor, military or civilian, the key to success is the people, not the hardware.

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NJ mayor: Christie administration said Sandy funds wouldn't arrive until project went forward

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The Christie administration withheld millions of dollars in Superstorm Sandy recovery grants from a New Jersey city because its mayor refused to sign off on a politically connected commercial development, the mayor said Saturday.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer alleged that Gov. Chris Christie's lieutenant governor and a top community development official told her recovery funds would flow to her city if she allowed the project to move forward.

Zimmer said Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno pulled her aside at an event in May and told her Sandy aid was tied to the project — a proposal from the New York City-based Rockefeller Group aimed at prime real estate in the densely populated city across the river from New York City.

The mayor said the administration officials wanted Rockefeller's plans for the property approved, while Zimmer said she preferred to go through normal channels and hear from all stakeholders, including the public and owners of adjacent property. Rockefeller Group owns about three blocks of the 19-block area.

"I was directly told the by the lieutenant governor — she made it very clear — that the Rockefeller project needed to move forward or they wouldn't be able to help me," Zimmer told The Associated Press.

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Many refuse to drink W.Va. water that's been declared safe; experts say fears are justified

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The smell lingers — the slightly sweet, slightly bitter odor of a chemical that contaminated the water supply of West Virginia's capital more than a week ago. It creeps out of faucets and shower heads. It wafts from the Elk River, the site of the spill. Sometimes it hangs in the cold nighttime air.

For several days, a majority of Charleston-area residents have been told their water is safe to drink, that the concentration of a chemical used to wash coal is so low that it won't be harmful. Restaurants have reopened — using tap water to wash dishes and produce, clean out their soda fountains and make ice.

But as long as people can still smell it, they're wary — and given the lack of knowledge about the chemical known as MCHM, some experts say their caution is justified.

"I would certainly be waiting until I couldn't smell it anymore, certainly to be drinking it," said Richard Denison, a scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who has followed the spill closely. "I don't blame people at all for raising questions and wondering whether they can trust what's being told to them."

The Jan. 9 spill from a Freedom Industries facility on the banks of the Elk River, less than 2 miles upstream from Charleston's water treatment plant, led to a ban on water use that affected 300,000 people.

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Hopes fade for US families affected by Russia's year-old adoption ban; some look elsewhere

NEW YORK (AP) — A year after Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by Americans, some affected U.S. families are reluctantly looking elsewhere to adopt. Others refuse to abandon flickering hopes of uniting with the Russian children who won their hearts.

Thirty-three of the families have filed appeals with the European Court of Human Rights, contending that the ban violates the rights of the orphans whose adoptions were thwarted. But there's no tight time frame for the case, and even a favorable ruling might be unenforceable if Russia objects.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have spurned requests from U.S. officials to reconsider the ban, and the two governments have other volatile issues on their mutual agenda — including terrorism and various foreign policy differences — as the international community prepares for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month

"I don't see movement on the Russian side, and on the U.S. side we've heard nothing," said Diana Gerson, a New York City rabbi who had her heart set on adopting a Russian toddler. "I feel in many ways we were abandoned."

By the Russians' count, the ban halted the pending adoptions of 259 children. Roughly 230 U.S. families, some seeking to adopt more than one child, were affected — including scores of Americans who had bonded face-to-face with the children during visits to their orphanages.

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Last evacuees of wildfire in suburban Los Angeles return home; blaze containment at 61 percent

GLENDORA, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of residents who fled a wildfire in the suburbs of Los Angeles returned home Saturday as red-flag warnings of extremely dangerous fire conditions expired, but officials say that bone-dry winter conditions remain a threat for the region.

The last wave of evacuees in the Azusa neighborhood known as Mountain Cove, about 25 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, were allowed to return home Saturday evening.

"It's exhilarating ... very thankful (to the firefighters) for saving our community," resident Alexandra Ramos told KNBC-TV.

Crews focused on securing fire lines around the roughly 3-square-mile blaze and looked ahead to rehabilitating the burn area to prevent erosion and possible mudslides, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Robert Brady. Containment increased from 30 percent earlier in the day to 61 percent.

"It's starting to look fairly good," Brady said. "We're still in very dry conditions, so I would remind people to be careful out there."

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APNewsbreak: Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman checks into alcohol rehabilitation center

Dennis Rodman has checked into an undisclosed alcohol rehabilitation center to treat his long-time struggle with alcoholism, his agent says.

Darren Prince declined on Saturday to say which facility will treat Rodman and how long he will be there. Rodman recently returned to the United States from his latest trip to North Korea.

He later apologized for comments he made in North Korea about a detained American missionary, saying he had been drinking and was under pressure as he organized an exhibition game there. He also sang "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the start of the friendly game.

"What was potentially a historic and monumental event turned into a nightmare for everyone concerned," Prince said. "Dennis Rodman came back from North Korea in pretty rough shape emotionally. The pressure that was put on him to be a combination 'super human' political figure and 'fixer' got the better of him.

"He is embarrassed, saddened and remorseful for the anger and hurt his words have caused."

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A complete list of winners at the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A complete list of winners at Saturday's 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards:

MOVIES:

Actor: Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"

Actress: Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"

Supporting actor: Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club"

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