Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Published:

Syrian activists, medics accuse Assad government of chlorine gas attacks; Syria denies it

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces have attacked rebel-held areas with poisonous chlorine gas in recent weeks and months, leaving men, women and children coughing, choking and gasping for breath, according to Associated Press interviews with more than a dozen activists, medics and residents on the opposition side.

Syria flatly denied the allegations, and they have yet to be confirmed by any foreign country or international organization. But if true, they highlight the limitations of the global effort to rid President Bashar Assad's government of its chemical weapons.

Witnesses near Damascus and in a central rebel-held village told the AP of dozens of cases of choking, fainting and other afflictions from inhaling fumes that some said were yellowish and smelled like chlorine cleanser. Some of those interviewed said they believe the gas was responsible for at least two deaths.

They said the fumes came from hand grenades and helicopter-dropped "barrel bombs," which are crude containers packed with explosives and shrapnel.

Activists have posted videos similar, though on a far smaller scale, to those from last August's chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and nearly triggered U.S. airstrikes against Syria. The new footage depicts pale-faced men, women and children coughing and gasping at field hospitals.

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Russia warns that attacks on its citizens or interests in Ukraine will bring a firm response

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) -- Russia's foreign minister warned Wednesday that attacks on Russian citizens or interests in Ukraine would bring a firm response and drew a comparison to the circumstances that opened the war with Georgia in 2008.

"Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, a day after Ukraine announced it was re-launching a campaign against pro-Kremlin insurgents occupying government facilities in the mostly Russian-speaking east.

"If we were attacked we could certainly respond," Lavrov said, speaking on the Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel RT.

Lavrov's warning came as the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a separate statement demanding that Ukraine pull its armed forces out of the crisis-ridden region.

"If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia, I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law," Lavrov said, referring to the 2008 war that led to the breaking away of the Georgian republic of South Ossetia.

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10 Things to Know for Thursday

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

1. FCC VEERING FROM INTERNET NEUTRALITY

The federal agency will propose new rules allowing content companies to pay Internet service providers for faster delivery of videos and other content to people's homes.

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FCC to propose pay-for-priority Internet access rules that protect competition, free speech

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Federal Communications Commission is set to propose new open Internet rules that would allow content companies to pay for faster delivery over the so-called "last mile" connection to people's homes, but enhance scrutiny of such deals so they don't harm competition or limit free speech.

That's according to a senior FCC official familiar with the matter who wasn't authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is to present the proposed rules to the other commissioners on Thursday.

So-called "net neutrality" rules are hotly debated because without them, consumers' ability to freely access certain types of content could be constrained by giant conglomerates for business, political or other reasons.

The new rules are meant to replace the FCC's open Internet order from 2010, which was struck down by a federal appeals court in January. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed that the FCC had the authority to create open-access rules but said it failed to establish that its 2010 regulations didn't overreach.

While the older rules technically allowed for paid priority treatment, it was discouraged. The new rules spell out standards that such deals would have to meet to be considered "commercially reasonable" and are designed to survive a court challenge in the future.

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SKorea ferry toll hits 159 as divers plunge deeper into submerged ferry to reach victims

JINDO, South Korea (AP) -- Divers made their way deeper Thursday into the submerged wreck of a ferry that sank more than a week ago as the death toll neared 160 and relatives of the more than 140 still missing pressed the government to finish the grim task of recovery soon.

At a port on this island near the scene of divers' efforts, relatives lined up for a daily ritual, crowding around a large signboard to read updates about bodies found overnight and the search plan for the day. Volunteers posted messages of support: "Please come back home," one of the messages said. "We pray for you."

Navy divers Thursday were searching the rear of the ferry's fourth floor, officials posted on a sign board. The coast guard and a rescue company were searching the middle section of the same floor, and another team was to search the front and middle of the fourth floor. Officials also posted new numbers at the port: 159 dead; 143 missing.

As divers plunge deeper into the ferry, the work gets harder as they find they have to rip through cabin walls to retrieve more victims.

Looming in the background is a sensitive issue: When to bring in the cranes and begin the salvage effort by cutting up and raising the submerged vessel.

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Obama offering Japan security, economic assurances as Ukraine crisis vies for his attention

TOKYO (AP) -- President Barack Obama is seeking to reassure Japanese leaders Thursday that he can deliver on his security and economic pledges to Asia even as the crisis in Ukraine demands U.S. attention and resources elsewhere.

The ominous standoff between Ukraine and Russia is threatening to overshadow Obama's four-country Asia swing that began Wednesday. He may decide during the trip whether to levy new economic sanctions on Moscow, a step that would signal the failure of an international agreement aimed at defusing the crisis.

But at least publicly, Obama will try to keep the focus on his Asia agenda, which includes reaffirming his commitment to a defense treaty with Japan, making progress on a stalled trans-Pacific trade agreement and finalizing a deal to modestly increase the American military footprint in the Philippines.

Obama steered clear of more sensitive topics like the trade and China tensions as he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for a morning meeting at Tokyo's Akasaka Palace. Instead, Obama spoke of a U.S.-Japanese bond that transcends its military alliance.

"My visit here I think once again represents my deep belief that a strong U.S.-Japan relationship is not only good for our countries, but the world," Obama said.

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Former soldier testifies that teenage brothers in Iraq posed no threat before killing

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) -- Two unarmed Iraqi brothers posed no threat as they herded cattle in a palm grove where a U.S. Army reconnaissance team was hidden one day seven years ago, a former soldier said Wednesday at a preliminary hearing.

But then-Staff Sgt. Michael Barbera took a knee, leveled his rifle and killed them -- from nearly 200 yards away, former Spc. John Lotempio testified.

"Oh my God -- why?" he said when a prosecutor asked him to describe his reaction to the killings. "They didn't see us."

Barbera, 31, now a sergeant first-class, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder in a case that raised concerns about a possible cover-up. Two years after the killings, Army criminal investigators looked into the case, but commanders decided to give Barbera a letter of reprimand instead of a court martial.

It was only after a Pittsburgh newspaper, The Tribune-Review, published an investigation about the matter in 2012 that the Army took another look. The story described how some of Barbera's fellow soldiers remained troubled that he was never prosecuted, and it prompted calls from Congress for the Army to review the matter.

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Ga.'s governor signs law allowing licensed owners to bring guns into bars, schools, churches

ELLIJAY, Ga. (AP) -- Criticized by one group as the "guns everywhere" bill, Georgia took a big step Wednesday toward expanding where licensed carriers can take their weapons, with the governor signing a law that allows them in bars without restriction and in some churches, schools and government buildings under certain circumstances.

Following mass shootings in recent years, some states have pursued stronger limits on guns while others like Georgia have taken the opposite path, with advocates arguing that people should be allowed to carry weapons as an issue of public safety. Republicans control large majorities in the Georgia General Assembly, and the bill passed overwhelming despite objections from some religious leaders and local government officials.

A few hundred gun rights supporters gathered at an outdoor pavilion along a river in north Georgia in the town of Ellijay for the bill signing by Gov. Nathan Deal and a barbecue. Many sported "Stop Gun Control" buttons and several had weapons holstered at their side. House Speaker David Ralston offered a thinly veiled critique of those who might oppose the bill while describing the people of his district.

"This is the apple capital of Georgia. And, yes, it's a community where we cling to our religion and our guns," Ralston said, drawing big applause in referencing a past comment made by President Barack Obama.

The bill makes several changes to state law and takes effect July 1. Besides in bars without restrictions, guns could be brought into some government buildings that don't have certain security measures, such as metal detectors or security guards screening visitors. Religious leaders would have the final say as to whether guns can be carried into their place of worship.

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Investigation in Gacy case helps solve Chicago man's unrelated killing from 1978

MAYWOOD, Ill. (AP) -- Ruth Rodriguez didn't want to believe her brother was one of more than 30 young men and boys John Wayne Gacy lured into his Chicago-area house and strangled, but she was willing to provide her DNA to find out.

She and her father gave authorities samples as part of an effort to identify eight of Gacy's victims more than two years ago and learned none of the remains were those of her sibling, 22-year-old Edward Beaudion who went missing in 1978.

Eventually, the work done in the Gacy probe did help provide the family with some answers they had long awaited: Beaudion's remains were those found in a forest preserve by hikers in 2008. And his killer was a small-time Missouri crook named Jerry Jackson who died last year.

On Wednesday, Rodriguez and her 86-year-old father, Louis Beaudion, appeared with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to announce the news.

"My mom went to her grave in 2001 not knowing where my brother was," the sister said. "My dad, he will now be able to know where my brother was."

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Tarred: Yankees' Michael Pineda ejected for foreign substance as Red Sox beat New York 5-1

BOSTON (AP) -- Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected for using a foreign substance less than two weeks after appearing to get away with it in another game against Boston, and the Red Sox beat New York 5-1 on Wednesday night.

The right-hander was thrown out in the second inning when plate umpire Gerry Davis found a shiny substance on the right side of Pineda's neck after Red Sox manager John Farrell asked him to check. Pineda walked from the mound without protest.

"When it's that obvious, something has got to be said," Farrell explained after the game. "Our awareness was heightened, given what we had seen in the past."

Pineda (2-2) had nothing on the right side of his neck in a photo of him on the mound in his tough first inning, when four of the first six batters reached on hits.

Another photo taken in the second showed a shiny horizontal substance on his upper neck below his right ear. After Pineda struck out the first two batters and had a 1-2 count on Grady Sizemore, Farrell talked to Davis. The umpire went to the mound, looked at the ball then touched the substance on Pineda's neck with his right index finger. Then he gestured with that same finger, indicating Pineda's ejection.