Saturday, December 28, 2013

Published:

5 years in, Obama's presidency marked by fits and starts, high expectations turned to failure

WASHINGTON (AP) -- It was a moment for Barack Obama to savor.

His second inaugural address over, Obama paused as he strode from the podium last January, turning back for one last glance across the expanse of the National Mall, where a supportive throng stood in the winter chill to witness the launch of his new term.

"I want to take a look, one more time," Obama said quietly. "I'm not going to see this again."

There was so much Obama could not -- or did not -- see then, as he opened his second term with a confident call to arms and an expansive liberal agenda.

He'd never heard of Edward Snowden, who would lay bare the government's massive surveillance program. Large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria was only a threat. A government shutdown and second debt crisis seemed improbable. His health care law, the signature achievement of his presidency, seemed poised to make the leap from theory to reality.

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Thousands of documents paint detailed picture of Conn. shooter, but motive still a puzzle

Adam Lanza was fascinated with chimpanzees because of their capacity for empathy, but could show little or none himself.

He could write stories that struck horror into a teacher's heart, then turn around and craft a poem so beautiful it moved listeners to tears.

As a kid growing up in Connecticut, he rode bikes, played baseball and saxophone, and kept hamsters. As a man, he taped black garbage bags over his bedroom windows, retreating into a world of violent video games, guns and statistics on mass murder.

Despite the release Friday by Connecticut state police of thousands of pages of interviews, photographs and writings, the man who gunned down 20 first-graders and six adults at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, remains an enigma.

Some of the most tantalizing evidence of the inner workings of the 20-year-old Newtown man's brain appears to be contained in writings that the police chose not to release.

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Syrian government airstrike hits market in northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 21 people

BEIRUT (AP) -- A Syrian government airstrike hit a crowded vegetable market in a rebel-held neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, shattering cars and storefronts and killing at least 21 people, activists said.

For nearly two weeks, President Bashar Assad's warplanes and helicopters have pounded opposition-controlled areas of the divided city. Activists say the aerial assault has killed more than 400 people since it began Dec. 15.

The campaign comes in the run-up to an international peace conference scheduled to start Jan. 22 in Switzerland to try to find a political solution to Syria's civil war. Some observers say the Aleppo assault fits into Assad's apparent strategy of trying to expose the opposition's weakness to strengthen his own hand ahead of the negotiations.

Saturday's airstrike slammed into a marketplace in the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood, the Aleppo Media Center activist group and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said 25 people, including four children, were killed and dozens were wounded in the strike. The Aleppo Media Center published a list of 21 names of people it said were killed in the air raid.

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South Sudan: 25,000-strong 'White Army' marches toward state capital; cease-fire hopes dim

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- Twenty-five thousand young men who make up a tribal militia known as the "White Army" are marching toward a contested state capital in South Sudan, an official said Saturday, dimming hopes for a cease-fire.

Seeking an end to the nearly two-week crisis in which an estimated 1,000 people have been killed, leaders from across East Africa announced on Friday that South Sudan had agreed to a "cessation of hostilities" against forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, accused by the government of leading a coup attempt on Dec. 15 that erupted into spiraling violence.

But Machar rejected that, saying in an interview with the BBC that any cease-fire had to be negotiated by delegations from both sides. The government in the capital, Juba, seized on that statement to further condemn Machar.

"Dr. Riek Machar has put obstacles to this genuine call by issuing pre-conditions that a cease-fire cannot be reached unless a negotiation is conducted," said Vice President James Wani Igga. "This is complete intransigence and obstinacy because the main issue now is to stop violence."

In addition to those killed, tens of thousands are seeking shelters at United Nations camps.

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Boy Scouts hope for smooth transition as they start accepting openly gay youth on Jan. 1

The Boy Scouts of America will accept openly gay youths starting on New Year's Day, a historic change that has prompted the BSA to ponder a host of potential complications -- ranging from policies on tentmates and showers to whether Scouts can march in gay pride parades.

Yet despite their be-prepared approach, BSA leaders are rooting for the change to be a non-event, comparable to another New Year's Day in 2000 when widespread fears of digital-clock chaos to start the new millennium proved unfounded.

"My hope is there will be the same effect this Jan. 1 as the Y2K scare," said Brad Haddock, a BSA national executive board member who chairs the policy implementation committee. "It's business as usual, nothing happens and we move forward."

Some churches are dropping their sponsorship of Scout units because of the new policy and some families are switching to a new conservative alternative called Trail Life USA. But massive defections haven't materialized and most major sponsors, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches, are maintaining ties.

"There hasn't been a whole lot of fallout," said Haddock, a lawyer from Wichita, Kan. "If a church said they wouldn't work with us, we'd have a church right down the street say, 'We'll take the troop.'"

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Counting change and calories: Thanks to health law, vending machines to post nutritional info

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Office workers in search of snacks will be counting calories along with their change under new labeling regulations for vending machines included in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law.

Requiring calorie information to be displayed on roughly 5 million vending machines nationwide will help consumers make healthier choices, says the Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to release final rules early next year. It estimates the cost to the vending machine industry at $25.8 million initially and $24 million per year after that, but says if just .02 percent of obese adults ate 100 fewer calories a week, the savings to the health care system would be at least that great.

The rules will apply to about 10,800 companies that operate 20 or more machines. Nearly three quarters of those companies have three or fewer employees, and their profit margin is extremely low, according to the National Automatic Merchandising Association. An initial investment of $2,400 plus $2,200 in annual costs is a lot of money for a small company that only clears a few thousand dollars a year, said Eric Dell, the group's vice president for government affairs.

"The money that would be spent to comply with this -- there's no return on the investment," he said.

While the proposed rules would give companies a year to comply, the industry group has suggested a two-year deadline and is urging the government to allow as much flexibility as possible in implementing the rules. Some companies may use electronic displays to post calorie counts while others may opt for signs stuck to the machines.

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Fire engulfs express train in southern India, killing at least 26; officials say doors jammed

KOTHACHERUVU, India (AP) -- A fire engulfed a coach of an express train in southern India on Saturday, killing at least 26 passengers, many of whom became trapped and suffocated after the doors failed to open, officials said.

As the inferno and thick black smoke raced through the car at about 3:45 a.m., panicked passengers broke the windows and many saved themselves by jumping from the train.

Sixty-seven passengers were in the carriage when the fire broke out about 2 kilometers (1 mile) from the small town of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh state, said railways spokesman C.S. Gupta.

The train was brought to a halt and the burning coach was delinked from the rest of the cars to prevent the fire from spreading, Gupta said.

The fire spread to a second coach, but the blaze was put out before it caused much damage, Gupta said.

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Anti-government protester killed in fresh Thai violence; candidates blocked in 4 provinces

BANGKOK (AP) -- Gunmen killed an anti-government activist and wounded two others in Thailand's capital on Saturday, while protesters elsewhere blocked candidates from registering for upcoming elections, deepening a political crisis that threatens to derail democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

The registration for the Feb. 2 polls was suspended in four of the country's 76 provinces. All four were southern provinces where the demonstrators, who are seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, enjoy support.

The events followed comments Friday by the powerful army chief in which he declined to rule out the possibility of a coup in the country, which is a major U.S. ally, Southeast Asia's second-largest economy and a popular tourist destination.

The long-running dispute between Thailand's bitterly divided political factions flared anew in November after Yingluck's elected government tried to introduce an amnesty bill for her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to enable him to return to Thailand from self-imposed exile and escape a jail term for corruption.

Yingluck called early elections as a way of diffusing the crisis, but the protesters are demanding she resign and hand over power to an unelected council to carry out reforms. They are trying to disrupt the polls, which most people believe will give her a strong mandate thanks to strong support in the north and northeast of the country.

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Police: La. man who killed 3 people and himself was going through difficult divorce

LOCKPORT, La. (AP) -- It might have appeared that Ben Freeman was trying to right some wrongs in his life in the months before police say he killed three people and himself.

In June, he agreed to pay his ex-wife Jeanne (ZHANNE) Gouaux (GO) $22,560 in overdue child support payments dating back two years, court records show. A settlement filed the next month show that the couple would sell three adjacent lots near her parents' house and split the $25,000 in proceeds. Freeman also agreed to pay Gouaux $39,000.

But June also was the month that Gouaux and her father filed a complaint against Freeman. And on Oct. 23, he pleaded guilty to one of two criminal telephone-harassment charges based on that complaint, Lafourche Parish Clerk of Court Vernon H. Rodrigue said.

Freeman, 38, was given a deferred sentence of a $250 fine or 10 days in jail and put on unsupervised probation for a year, and the second count of criminal harassment was dismissed, Rodrigue said.

On Nov. 27, Freeman was issued a citation for simple battery domestic violence against his current wife, Denise Taylor Freeman, according to the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office. Freeman's court date had been scheduled for Jan. 16.

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Egyptian rapper speaks up for suppressed women

CAIRO (AP) -- As soon as the beat started, the young woman bobbed her head to the rhythm, raised her hands to get the crowd clapping and then unleashed a flood of rap lyrics that tackled some of the biggest social challenges women face in the Arab world.

With the Middle East's hit TV show "Arabs Got Talent" as her stage, 18-year-old Myam Mahmoud rapped about sexual harassment, second-class treatment of women, and societal expectations of how a young religious woman should behave.

The Egyptian teenager didn't win the program -- she crashed out in the semifinals -- but she did succeed in throwing the spotlight on something bigger than herself.

"I wanted to tell girls in Egypt and everywhere else that they are not alone, we all have the same problems, but we cannot stay silent, we have to speak up," Mahmoud, who wears an Islamic headscarf but not a full-face veil, told The Associated Press.

In Egypt, a country where politics have grabbed most of the headlines for the past three years, little space has been dedicated to addressing social problems. So Mahmoud, who is a first-year student of politics and economics at the October 6 University in a western Cairo suburb, decided to draw attention to women's rights through rap.