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Associated Press

Posted on January 21, 2014 at 6:02 AM

United Nations chief withdraws last-minute invitation to Iran to attend Syrian peace talks

GENEVA (AP) — A last-minute U.N. invitation for Iran to join this week's Syria peace talks threw the long-awaited Geneva conference into doubt Monday, forcing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rescind his offer under intense U.S. pressure after the opposition threatened to boycott.

With the invitation withdrawn, the main Western-backed opposition group said it would attend the talks aimed at ending Syria's ruinous three-year civil war. The opposition said the conference should seek to establish a transitional government with full executive powers "in which killers and criminals do not participate."

The surprise invitation, extended Sunday by the U.N. secretary-general, set off a flurry of diplomatic activity to salvage the talks. The U.S. said the offer should be rescinded, and the opposition threatened to skip the event entirely.

The conference is set to begin Wednesday in the Swiss luxury resort city of Montreux, with high-ranking delegations from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending. Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents — the first of the uprising — are to start Friday in Geneva.

The uproar over Iran's invitation put the entire event at risk of being scuttled.

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What a Snowden trial could look like, and why the administration might prefer to skip it

WASHINGTON (AP) — Should Edward Snowden ever return to the U.S., he would face criminal charges for leaking information about National Security Agency surveillance programs. But legal experts say a trial could expose more classified information as his lawyers try to build a case in an open court that the operations he exposed were illegal.

A jury trial could be awkward for the Obama administration if the jurors believe Snowden is a whistle-blower who exposed government overreach. Snowden surely would try to turn the tables on the government, arguing that its right to keep information secret does not outweigh his constitutional right to speak out.

"He would no doubt bring First Amendment defenses to what he did, emphasizing the public interest in his disclosures and the democratic values that he served," said David Pozen, a Columbia Law School professor and a former legal adviser at the State Department. "There's been no case quite like it."

Administration officials say the possibility of a public spectacle wherein Snowden tries to reveal even more classified information to make his case has not lessened the Justice Department's intent to prosecute him, and Attorney General Eric Holder has not warmed to calls for clemency for the former NSA systems analyst.

Department spokesman Andrew Ames last week indicated there was no change in the department's intent to prosecute, and that point was reinforced by National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

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Attorneys releasing documents showing how Chicago archdiocese handled priest sex abuse claims

CHICAGO (AP) — Thousands of pages of documents showing how the Archdiocese of Chicago handled the sexual abuse of children by priests will be made public Tuesday, providing the broadest look yet into the details of what the church knew and did — or didn't do — about the scandal.

The archdiocese, one of the largest and most influential in the U.S., handed over last week more than 6,000 pages of documents to victims' attorneys, who said they will show the archdiocese concealed abuse for decades, including moving priests to new parishes where they molested again.

The disclosures involving 30 priests were made as part of legal settlements with abuse victims, and are similar to disclosures made in other dioceses in the U.S. in recent years that showed how the Roman Catholic Church shielded priests and failed for many years to report child sex abuse to authorities.

Chicago officials said most of the abuse occurred before 1988 and none after 1996.

Debra Brian, a 24-year-old Catholic from Chicago, had not yet seen or heard what was included in the documents, but said Sunday that the church is doing the right thing by acknowledging what occurred.

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Heavy snow, frigid temperatures take aim at eastern US, bringing worry of travel hazards

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Another batch of heavy snow and frigid temperatures is forecast from Virginia to New England as a winter storm bears down on the mid-Atlantic and northeastern U.S.

The National Weather Service says the winter storm could bring 10 inches of snow Tuesday to New York and Philadelphia and bitterly cold air with wind chills as low as 10 degrees below zero later in the day.

It warned of heavy winds and hazardous driving conditions throughout the day as the storm moves up the East Coast.

The federal government says its offices in the Washington area will be closed Tuesday due to the storm. The weather service warns the storm could impact the morning commute in Washington and Baltimore.

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Car bomb strikes Shiite area in southern Beirut, killing 2 people

BEIRUT (AP) — A car bomb ripped through a Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut on Tuesday, killing at least two people and setting plumes of smoke over the area in the latest attack targeting supporters of the militant Hezbollah group in Lebanon.

A series of attacks have hit Lebanon recently as Syria's civil war spills over into its smaller neighbor, targeting the country's Sunni and Shiite communities. It has further stoked sectarian tensions that are already running high as each Lebanese community lines up with its brethren in Syria on opposing sides of the war.

Thousands of people flocked to the Beirut neighborhood of Haret Hreik after the explosion shook the area, according to footage broadcast by the Hezbollah-owned al-Manar television station.

The footage showed flames furiously engulfing one building, as medics hauled a man on a stretcher out of the area.

Lebanese Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said a man and woman were killed, and 26 people were hospitalized with wounds from the bombing.

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Vatican monsignor on trial for alleged smuggling accused of money-laundering via Vatican bank

VATICAN CITY (AP) — A Vatican monsignor already on trial for allegedly plotting to smuggle 20 million euros ($26 million) from Switzerland to Italy was ordered arrested in a separate case on Tuesday for allegedly using his Vatican bank accounts to launder money.

The financial police in the southern city of Salerno said Monsignor Nunzio Scarano's accounts had been used to transfer millions of euros (dollars) in fictitious donations from offshore companies. Police said millions have been seized and that other arrest warrants were issued.

Scarano's lawyer, Silverio Sica, said his client merely took donations from people he thought were acting in good faith to fund a home for the terminally ill. He conceded that the money ended up being used to pay off Scarano's mortgage, however.

"We continue to strongly maintain the good faith of Don Nunzio Scarano and his absolute certainty that the money came from legitimate donations," Sica told The Associated Press.

The Salerno investigation was already underway when Scarano was arrested in June in Rome on separate accusations that he had plotted, along with a financier and carabinieri officer, to secretly transport 20 million euros in a private jet from Switzerland to avoid paying customs duties. Sica has said Scarano in that case was merely acting as a middleman.

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Tested by scandal, Christie to be sworn in for 2nd term as NJ governor

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Tuesday's celebrations to mark the start of Gov. Chris Christie's second term could be tempered by multiple investigations into traffic tie-ups that appear to have been ordered by his staff for political retribution and an allegation that his administration tied Superstorm Sandy aid to approval for a real estate project.

But the 55th governor of New Jersey has a full schedule of inaugural events.

His day is scheduled to start with a service at Newark's New Hope Baptist Church before a swearing in and address in Trenton and an evening party on Ellis Island, a symbolic spot synonymous with the promise of the United States. The island where some 12 million immigrants first entered the U.S. is divided between New Jersey and New York, but his party is to be in a hall on the New York side.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who was drawn into the controversy surrounding Christie this weekend, is also to be sworn in for her second term.

Christie won re-election in November by a 22-point margin over state Sen. Barbara Buono, a Democrat.

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Due for major earthquake, Israel seeks to keep Holy Land's ancient treasures standing

JERUSALEM (AP) — With Israel situated in one of the world's earthquake-prone areas, officials are taking action to protect the Holy Land's most important ancient treasures so they don't come tumbling down.

After a series of five moderate earthquakes shook the country in October, experts installed a seismic monitoring system at the Tower of David, one of Jerusalem's most important — and most visible — historical sites.

The project is Israel's first attempt to use such technology to determine structural weaknesses in the countless ancient edifices that dot the Holy Land. The efforts, however, have been slowed by authorities' reticence to publically declare sites as vulnerable, as well as the explosive geopolitics surrounding ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites at the heart of the Mideast conflict.

"We have to remember that this is the Holy Land," said Avi Shapira, head of a national steering committee for earthquake preparedness. "We have some responsibility not only to preserve the historical monuments of our personal heritage ... but also for the rest of the world."

Most of Israel's historical sites "have not been checked," said Shapira. "We have them on the map, but an engineer still hasn't visited them."

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Police: 2 arrested at Texas border used data from Target breach for credit card fraud

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A South Texas police chief said Monday that two Mexican citizens who were arrested at the border used account information stolen during the Target security breach to buy tens of thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise. But a federal official said later there currently was no connection between the arrests and the retailer's credit card data theft.

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said Mary Carmen Garcia, 27, and Daniel Guardiola Dominguez, 28, both of Monterrey, Mexico, had used cards containing the account information of South Texas residents. Rodriguez said they were used to purchase numerous items at national retailers in the area including Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us.

"They're obviously selling the data sets by region," Rodriguez said.

Late Monday, a federal official with knowledge of the case said there currently was no connection between the McAllen case and any ongoing investigation into the Target breach, but would not elaborate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was prohibited from providing details about the investigation.

The discrepancy could not immediately be rectified late Monday. Messages left for Rodriguez and his lieutenant Monday evening seeking a response to those comments weren't immediately returned.

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Sochi still scrambling to sell tickets for Olympics amid signs spectators staying away

LONDON (AP) — What if they held an Olympics and nobody came?

The situation isn't that bleak, of course, for the Sochi Games. Yet, with less than three weeks to go until the opening ceremony, hundreds of thousands of tickets remain unsold, raising the prospect of empty seats and a lack of atmosphere at Russia's first Winter Olympics.

There are signs that many foreign fans are staying away, turned off by terrorist threats, expensive flights and hotels, long travel distances, a shortage of tourist attractions in the area, and the hassle of obtaining visas and spectator passes.

"Some people are scared it costs too much and other people are scared because of security," senior International Olympic Committee member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway told The Associated Press. "From my country, I know that several people and companies are not going for these two reasons. Of course, there will be Norwegians there but not as many as we are used to."

Sochi organizers announced last week that 70 percent of tickets have been sold for the games, which run from Feb. 7-23 and represent a symbol of pride and prestige for Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

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