AP News in Brief at 5:58 a.m. EDT

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Associated Press

Posted on July 17, 2012 at 7:30 AM

Activists say Syrian troops using helicopter gunships battle rebels in Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Syrian government forces have used helicopter gunships to battle rebels in the capital Damascus.

The activists say that helicopters fired heavy machine guns during overnight clashes in the neighborhoods of Qadam and Hajar al-Aswad.

They say Damascus has been relatively quiet since 8 a.m. Tuesday after three days of intense clashes between troops and rebels.

The fighting has been the most sustained and widespread in the capital since the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad 16 months ago.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said the fighting concentrated in Kfar Souseh, Nahr Aisha, Midan and Qadam.

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Romney tries out new attack in Pennsylvania while Obama raises money in Texas

WASHINGTON (AP) — A counterattacking Mitt Romney is seeking to shift political attention away from his business tenure and his tax returns with a fresh assault on President Barack Obama's record. Obama, anxious about losing a financial edge in the contest, is turning to Republican-tilted Texas to raise money from gay, Latino and big-dollar donors.

Romney planned to campaign in the Pittsburgh area Tuesday, stepping up his criticism of Obama in a state that has proven to be a tough presidential battleground for the Republican Party. Romney is accusing Obama of engaging in cronyism, citing federal grants and loan guarantees to alternative energy companies run by Obama backers and donors.

Obama is expected to sustain his offensive against Romney, claiming the Republican's tax policies would benefit the rich and cost jobs. His re-election campaign continued to draw attention to Romney's time at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded in 1984. But Obama's central goal in Texas was to draw in money; he was holding two fundraisers in Austin and two in San Antonio, with an estimated haul of at least $5 million.

The events came as a top Romney aide floated the possibility Monday that he may name his vice presidential selection by week's end, raising the level of intrigue around what may be Romney's most significant decision before Election Day. But the timing was not certain. Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom initially said that while Romney had not yet made his pick, the selection could be announced in the coming days. He later downplayed the remark, suggesting the decision could come any time between now and the Republican National Convention at the end of August.

In choosing Texas to raise money, Obama was traveling to a state that has not voted Democratic in a presidential contest since 1976. But Texas ranks among the states with the largest concentrations of wealth, along with New York, California, Florida and Illinois. Republicans typically raise more in Texas than Democrats. So far this election, Obama has raised $4.5 million from the state and the Democratic National Committee has raised $1.7 million, compared with $7.1 million for Romney and $5.3 million for the Republican Party.

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Bernanke goes before congressional panels as US economy slumps, could signal Fed's next move

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chairman Ben Bernanke could offer some clues about whether the Federal Reserve is poised to take another step to jolt the sluggish U.S. economy when he appears before Congress this week.

Bernanke will give his semiannual report to the Senate Banking Committee Tuesday and to the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday. His testimony comes as job growth has slumped, manufacturing has weakened and consumers have grown more cautious about spending.

Investors are hoping Bernanke will signal another round of bond purchases is in the offing. The purchases seek to push down long-term interest rates and encourage more borrowing and spending. The first two rounds triggered powerful rallies in the U.S. stock market.

The economy was already sputtering when the Fed's policymaking committee last met June 19-20. At that meeting, the Fed decided to extend a program that shifts its bond portfolio to try to lower long-term interest rates.

Minutes of the June meeting show that Fed officials were open to taking further action — but were divided over whether the economy needs help now.

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Air Hillary: Jet-setting Clinton smashes travel record for secretaries of state

WASHINGTON (AP) — If diplomatic achievements were measured by the number of countries visited, Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the most accomplished secretary of state in history.

While historians will debate and eventually rate her tenure as America's top diplomat, Clinton is already assured of a place in the State Department record book.

When her plane touches down at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington early Tuesday morning, the former first lady will have completed an epic 13-day journey of 27,000 miles — about 2,000 miles more than the circumference of the Earth — through and over Europe to Asia and then doubling back to the Middle East.

One well-traveled Clinton staffer described the France-Afghanistan-Japan-Mongolia-Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia-Egypt-Israel itinerary as "especially absurd, even for us."

Despite the mind- and body-numbing time zone hopping, Clinton joked that she was ready for more.

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FBI tracking dogs joining search for Iowa cousins, 8 and 10, as trail goes cold

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — With the trail apparently cold in the search for two missing Iowa girls, the FBI is sending in tracking dogs and local authorities are draining a lake near where the girls' bicycles were found.

Elizabeth Collins, 8, and her cousin Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, were last reported seen Friday afternoon leaving their grandmother's house. Their bicycles and Elizabeth's purse were found later that day near a bike trail at the edge of Meyers Lake in the northeast Iowa city of Evansdale.

What followed was a massive sweep of the area that drew hundreds of volunteers over the weekend. But authorities suspended that effort Monday, saying it had failed to produce significant leads.

Black Hawk County Chief Deputy Rick Abben said the draining of the nearly 5-acre lake began Monday and could take up to three days. Officials believe it will go faster due to the low level of the lake and the Cedar River into which it drains.

Authorities previously dredged the lake and have been interviewing family, friends and registered sex offenders who live in the area.

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Bitter media divisions in polarized Argentina stoked by press-leery President Fernandez

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — When Argentine President Cristina Fernandez got an earful from some reporters frustrated over her general refusal to take questions at news conferences, she offered little hope for change: "If you want official information, listen to my speeches," she told them. "I won't be speaking against myself."

The brief encounter in the presidential palace press room, recounted by a radio reporter, reflects Fernandez's distrust of the media in a country deeply polarized by her rule.

Argentines have many news outlets to choose from, and nearly all of them take strong positions for or against her government, and frequently spend ink and airtime accusing the other side of bias. With few opportunities to establish a dialogue with officials on neutral ground, the two camps depend to an uncomfortable extent on leaks and rumors, reducing the credibility of all involved.

One side is led by the newspapers La Nacion and Clarin and their sister broadcast stations and magazines, which generally portray Fernandez as a power-hungry despot who is increasingly mismanaging Argentina's affairs.

On the other side are a growing number of media outlets staffed by Fernandez supporters who call themselves advocacy journalists and describe the president as a transformative figure who is challenging entrenched economic interests and redistributing wealth to the poor.

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Federal food program that screens produce for contamination spared until end of 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The nation's largest produce-safety testing program narrowly escaped closure thanks to a last-minute grudging reprieve from the Agriculture Department, and finding a permanent solution to keep tainted fruits and vegetables from reaching consumers could take an even bigger effort.

Each year, the tiny program screens thousands of produce samples. It has found more than two dozen bacteria-laced examples that prompted recalls of lettuce, tomatoes and other foods from grocery stores.

It was at risk of being scrapped after President Barack Obama's proposed budget slashed the effort's funding earlier this year. But USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said late Monday that although the Microbiological Data Program "does not align with USDA's core mission," it will operate through December, using existing agreements with states to keep testing for salmonella, E. coli and listeria over the next six months.

Public health officials and food safety advocates have long argued that getting rid of the program would leave the country without a crucial tool to investigate outbreaks of deadly foodborne illnesses.

If samples test positive for bacteria, it can trigger nationwide recalls and keep contaminated produce from reaching the public.

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Martian menu: Planned 2030 mission to Mars may give astronauts the chance to cook in space

HOUSTON (AP) — Through a labyrinth of hallways deep inside a 1950s-era building that has housed research that dates back to the origins of U.S. space travel, a group of scientists in white coats is stirring, mixing, measuring, brushing and, most important, tasting the end result of their cooking.

Their mission: Build a menu for a planned journey to Mars in the 2030s.

The menu must sustain a group of six to eight astronauts, keep them healthy and happy and also offer a broad array of food. That's no simple feat considering it will likely take six months to get to the Red Planet, astronauts will have to stay there 18 months and then it will take another six months to return to Earth. Imagine having to shop for a family's three-year supply of groceries all at once and having enough meals planned in advance for that length of time.

"Mars is different just because it's so far away," said Maya Cooper, senior research scientist with Lockheed Martin who is leading the efforts to build the menu. "We don't have the option to send a vehicle every six months and send more food as we do for International Space Station."

Astronauts who travel to the space station have a wide variety of food available to them, some 100 or so different options, in fact. But it is all pre-prepared and freeze-dried with a shelf life of at least two years. And while astronauts make up a panel that tastes the food and gives it a final OK on Earth before it blasts off, the lack of gravity means smell — and taste — is impaired. So the food is bland.

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A cautious Obama passes up kissing the first lady on basketball arena screen — but not twice

WASHINGTON (AP) — Second chances can be rare in politics, but President Barack Obama found Kiss Cam and an impatient crowd to be just the right motivation.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, were taking in Monday night's USA Basketball exhibition game when the Verizon Center's "Kiss Cam" turned its eye their way. Their image on the huge arena screen prompted the crowd to cheer — a not-so-subtle hint that Obama plant one on the first lady.

Both smiled, but Obama just put his arm around his wife as the game resumed. That cautious reaction brought some boos.

Obama got a do-over later in the game when the Kiss Cam swung back his way. This time he delivered, giving Mrs. Obama a big kiss on the lips. And a peck on the forehead for good measure.

And the crowd roared.

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LeBron James helps US Olympic basketball team pull away from Brazil after slow start

WASHINGTON (AP) — The problem was Brazil, not the president's presence.

The U.S. Olympic basketball players said they weren't nervous about playing in front of President Barack Obama, nor were they thrown off by the lengthy delay while the first fan took his seat just before tip-off.

"No, we just came out trying to pressure as much as we could, see how they would handle it, which we'll probably do nightly, and they did a pretty good job of handling the pressure," U.S. guard Chris Paul said. "And we settled down in the second quarter, held them to five points and got going."

LeBron James scored 30 points and the U.S. rallied from an early 10-point deficit to beat Brazil 80-69 on Monday night in its final exhibition game on home soil.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden watched the Americans get off to a dismal start, then turn it around by holding the Brazilians to two baskets in the second quarter.

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