Sunday, December 8, 2013

Published:

United in prayer, South Africans give thanks for the life of Nelson Mandela

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- In death, Nelson Mandela unified South Africans of all races and backgrounds Sunday on a day of prayer for the global statesman -- from a vaulted cathedral with hymns and incense to a rural, hilltop church with goat-skin drums and barefoot dancing.

Mandela was remembered in old bedrocks of resistance to white domination as well as former bastions of loyalty to apartheid.

"May his long walk to freedom be enjoyed and realized in our time by all of us," worshippers said in a prayer at the majestic St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, where the first white settlers arrived centuries ago aboard European ships.

South Africa's reflection on Mandela's astonishing life was a prelude to a massive memorial in a Johannesburg stadium Tuesday that will draw world leaders and luminaries. They will gather to mourn, but also to salute the achievements of the prisoner who became president and an emblem of humanity's best instincts.

The extended farewell -- a bittersweet mix of grief and celebration -- ends Dec. 15, when Mandela is to be buried in his rural hometown of Qunu in Eastern Cape province.

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Ukraine sees largest anti-govt protest since 2004 Orange Revolution; Lenin statue toppled

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Ukraine's capital on Sunday, toppling a statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and blockading key government buildings in an escalating standoff with the president over the future of the country.

The biggest demonstration in the former Soviet republic since Ukraine's pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 led the government to fire back. It announced an investigation of opposition leaders for an alleged attempt to seize power and warned the demonstrators they could face criminal charges.

The West pressed for a peaceful settlement.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flooded the center of Kiev, the capital, to demand President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster after he ditched ties with the European Union in favor of Russia and sent police to break up an earlier protest in the nearly three-week standoff.

"Ukraine is tired of Yanukovych. We need new rules. We need to completely change those in power," said protester Kostyantyn Meselyuk, 42. "Europe can help us."

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Powerful storm moving up East Coast blankets NFL fields with snow, threatens morning commutes

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- A powerful storm that crept across the country dumped a mix of snow, freezing rain and sleet on the Mid-Atlantic region and headed northeast Sunday, turning NFL playing fields in Pennsylvania into winter wonderlands, threatening as much as a foot of snow in Delaware and New Jersey and raising concerns about a messy morning commute.

The storm forced the cancellation of thousands of flights across the U.S. and slowed traffic on roads, leading to a number of accidents, including a fatal crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Morgantown that led to a series of fender-benders involving 50 cars that stranded some motorists for up to seven hours. More than two dozen vehicles were involved in another series of crashes on nearby Interstate 78.

What was forecast in the Philadelphia area to be a tame storm system with about an inch of snow gradually changing over to rain mushroomed into a full-blown snowstorm that snarled mid-afternoon traffic along Interstate 95 in Pennsylvania from the Delaware to New Jersey state lines.

Paul Jones, 24, a youth hockey coach from Warminster in the Philadelphia suburbs, was on his way to a game in Lancaster when he got stuck -- along with his fiancee, another coach and three players -- in a major backup on the turnpike.

The roadway was "snow-covered, slick," Jones said in an interview from the car, where he was a passenger and had been at a standstill for more than an hour.

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Old Man Winter frosts NFL gridirons with snow, ice

Winter weather hit NFL gridirons in the East on Sunday, blanketing some playing fields with snow and causing sloppy conditions for players.

In Philadelphia, snow began falling two hours before the Lions-Eagles kickoff, and intensified after the game started. Workers used shovels and hand-held blowers to clear off yard lines. The Eagles won, 34-20.

In Pittsburgh, the warm-weather Dolphins didn't let the cold and snow slow them down in their march to a 34-28 win over the Steelers.

Before the Vikings-Ravens game in Baltimore, small tractors with plows and workers with shovels tried to clear the snow, to no avail. After the snow let up, tractors moved it from between the hash marks and shovels cleared the yard lines. The Ravens held off the Vikes, 29-26.

Here are some images from the snowy games.

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After NYC train crash, senators press to require cameras to watch train engineers and tracks

NEW YORK (AP) -- A week after four people died in a New York commuter train derailment, two federal lawmakers proposed Sunday that trains nationwide be outfitted with cameras pointed at engineers and at the tracks.

"I know you're going to hear from Metro-North that there are costs, but the costs of these audio and visual recorders is minuscule, in fact negligible, compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that this tragic incident will cost Metro-North in the end," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut who joined New York Sen. Charles Schumer for a news conference at Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal.

Last Sunday, a Metro-North Railroad train approached a curve on the tracks just north of Manhattan going at 82 mph instead of the speed limit of 30 mph. Rail cars careened off the tracks, with the front car ending up inches from the water where the Hudson River meets the Harlem River.

A lawyer and union leader for the derailed train's engineer, William Rockefeller, have said the train's hypnotic motion may have caused him to experience a "nod" or a "daze" at the controls.

The Democratic lawmakers are urging the Federal Railroad Administration to demand the implementation of a measure they say might prevent the kind of deadly Metro-North derailment that also left dozens of people injured.

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After school closures, Chicago officials call transition smooth; some kids, teachers disagree

CHICAGO (AP) -- Devion Allen peers wistfully through a door window at the school he used to attend. Those who live outside his gritty, violence-plagued neighborhood might dismiss this towering brick building as just another failing urban school. But to the eighth grader, the school across the street from his mom's subsidized apartment was a haven -- "like a family," he says.

To the administrators of Chicago Public Schools, though, the neighborhood school was underutilized and underperforming -- one of 47 public schools that closed in the city in June, most of them in high-poverty neighborhoods with mostly minority populations. Two more will be phased out by the end of the school year.

Allen left his school for the last time last summer, holding back tears as chaos and protests ensued. From that point on, the school, formerly known as Lafayette Elementary, became a symbol in a citywide and even national debate about the future course of public education.

Soon, officials say, the empty building will likely house an arts high school operated as a contract school, publicly funded but privately run.

"It's not fair," Allen said. He and many of his friends, meanwhile, have been shifted to a school about a half mile away, one that is smaller than their old school and jammed with twice as many students as it had last school year.

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NKorea acknowledges Kim Jong Un's influential uncle purged from power over corruption charges

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korea on Monday acknowledged the purge of leader Kim Jong Un's influential uncle for alleged corruption, drug use, gambling and a long list of other "anti-state" acts, apparently ending the career of the country's second most powerful official.

The young North Korean leader will now rule without the relative long considered his mentor as he consolidated power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, two years ago. Jang Song Thaek's fall from the leadership, detailed in a lengthy dispatch by state media, is the latest and most significant in a series of personnel reshuffles that Kim has conducted in an apparent effort to bolster his power.

Some analysts see the purge as a sign of Kim Jong Un's growing confidence, but there has also been fear in Seoul that the removal of such an important part of the North's government -- seen by outsiders as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms -- could create dangerous instability or lead to a major miscalculation or attack on the South.

Tensions are still high on the Korean Peninsula following a torrent of threats in March and April by Kim Jong Un's government against Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, including vows of missile and nuclear strikes and warnings that Pyongyang would restart nuclear bomb fuel production.

South Korean intelligence officials said days ago that a purge was likely because two of Jang's aides had been executed last month for corruption. A recent state documentary in the North had all images of Jang removed.

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At a Damascus church, Syrian Christians pray for return of nuns held by rebels

DAMASCUS (AP) -- Syrian Christians offered prayers Sunday for a group of more than a dozen nuns and orphanage workers held by rebels for nearly a week, fueling fears in the minority community that they are being targeted by extremists among the fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad.

The seizure of the 12 Greek Orthodox nuns and at least three other women is the latest attack to spark panic among Syria's Christians over the strength of al-Qaida-linked militants and other Islamic radicals in the nearly 3-year-old revolt against Assad's government. A priest and two bishops previously kidnapped by rebels remain missing, and extremists are accused of vandalizing churches in areas they have captured.

Rebels seized the nuns on Monday from the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla convent when fighters overran Maaloula, a mainly Christian village north of Damascus that lies on a key highway and has changed hands several times in fierce fighting between rebels and government forces. The group, along with three women -- themselves orphans -- who work in the convent's orphanage were taken to the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud.

The eldest of the nuns is nearly 90 years old, and the youngest of the orphanage workers is in her mid-teens, according to Mother Superior Febronia Nabhan, head of the Saidnaya Convent.

On Friday, a video was released of the nuns, in which they denied being kidnapped, saying they were in good health and that fighters had taken them to a location away from the combat out of concerns for their safety.

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An AP reporter's quest to find bodies of victims killed by Malian military ends in the desert

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- Across the desert, the wind combs the sand into smooth ripples that roll out evenly for miles. So when a hole is dug, you see it immediately. The sand looks agitated. Its pattern is disturbed.

That's how you know where the bodies are buried.

Close to three dozen people in northern Mali disappeared earlier this year, killed or taken away by the country's military, according to human rights groups. The victims were caught in a backlash against Arabs and Tuaregs, desert people who form a small and shrinking ethnic minority in Mali. As the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, I wanted to know what had happened to them.

Over six months, my colleagues and I tracked down what we would rather not have found: Six bodies in the desert, including that of a 70-year-old grandfather who had become a symbol of the killings. In each case, the victims had last been seen taken away by the Malian military at gunpoint. And in at least four of the cases, the military was found responsible in an internal report described to me but never released to the public.

The bodies offer concrete evidence for killings that Mali's government has so far denied in public. If the government acknowledges their deaths, it could open a path to bring those who killed the men to justice. It also finally could return the bodies to their bereft families, who did not know where their loved ones were buried, or were too terrified to recover them.

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Thailand's tense capital braces for protests after opposition party resigns from Parliament

BANGKOK (AP) -- Thailand's capital braced for another wave of unrest Monday as protesters trying to overthrow the country's democratically elected government vowed to swarm Bangkok's streets for a "final showdown." The demonstrations come one day after the main opposition party resigned from Parliament en masse, exacerbating the nation's deep political divide.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban called on supporters to stay peaceful, but many fear the day could end violently when demonstrators converge from nine locations on Yingluck's office at Government House. More than 60 Thai and international schools in Bangkok have closed as a precaution.

Thailand has been plagued by political turmoil since the army toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's brother Thaksin in a 2006 coup. In broad terms, the conflict pits the Thai elite and the educated middle-class against Thaksin's power base in the countryside, which benefited from populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.

"We will rise up. We will walk on every street in the country. We will not be going home again," said Suthep, whose supporters have occupied the Finance Ministry and part of a vast government complex for more than a week. "The people who will be going home empty-handed are those in the Thaksin regime."

Despite calls for calm, a group of hooded and masked men crept in the dark Sunday night toward a police post at Government House and attacked it with slingshots loaded with nails and sharp metal projectiles, according to Police Maj. Gen. Piya Uthayo. Police did not respond, and the assailants retreated, he said. There were no injuries.