AP News in Brief at 7:58 p.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on April 9, 2013 at 8:30 AM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 9 at 8:30 AM

Obama warns Congress not to use delay tactics against tighter gun regulations

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — With time running out on the chance to pass gun control legislation, President Barack Obama on Monday warned Congress not to use delaying tactics against tighter regulations and told families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims that he's "determined as ever" to honor their children with tougher laws.

Obama's gun control proposals have run into resistance on Capitol Hill, leaving their fate in doubt. Efforts by Senate Democrats to reach compromise with Republicans over expanding required federal background checks have yet to yield an agreement, and conservatives were promising to try blocking the Senate from even beginning debate on gun control legislation.

"The day Newtown happened was the toughest day of my presidency," Obama said in an emotional speech from Connecticut's capital, an hour's drive from Newtown. "But I've got to tell you, if we don't respond to this, that'll be a tough day for me too."

Some of the Sandy Hook families are making an attempt to push through the bill. Obama met with them privately before his speech at the University of Hartford Monday evening, then brought 12 family members back to Air Force One for the trip back to Washington. The relatives want to meet with senators who've yet to back the legislation to encourage their support in memory of their loved ones.

"Nothing's going to be more important in making sure that the Congress moves forward this week than hearing from them," Obama said. His eyes teared as he described Nicole Hockley, who lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan, saying how she asks him every night to come to her in her dreams so she can see him again.

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Ex-spokesman: Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, is dead at 87 from stroke

LONDON (AP) — Love her or loathe her, one thing's beyond dispute: Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain.

The Iron Lady, who ruled for 11 remarkable years, imposed her will on a fractious, rundown nation — breaking the unions, triumphing in a far-off war, and selling off state industries at a record pace. She left behind a leaner government and more prosperous nation by the time a political mutiny ousted her from No. 10 Downing Street.

Thatcher's spokesman, Tim Bell, said the former prime minister died from a stroke Monday morning at the Ritz hotel in London.

As flags were flown at half-staff at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Downing Street for the 87-year-old, praise for Thatcher and her leadership poured in from around the world.

"Margaret Thatcher undoubtedly was one of the most remarkable political figures of the modern world," said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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US may be out of nuclear North Korea's reach, but Japan fears Tokyo, US bases aren't

TOKYO (AP) — It's easy to write off North Korea's threats to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile as bluster: it has never demonstrated the capability to deploy a missile that could reach the Pacific island of Guam, let alone the mainland U.S.

But what about Japan?

Though it remains a highly unlikely scenario, Japanese officials have long feared that if North Korea ever decides to play its nuclear card it has not only the means but several potential motives for launching an attack on Tokyo or major U.S. military installations on Japan's main island. And while a conventional missile attack is far more likely, Tokyo is taking North Korea's nuclear rhetoric seriously.

On Monday, amid reports North Korea is preparing a missile launch or another nuclear test, Japanese officials said they have stepped up measures to ensure the nation's safety. Japanese media reported over the weekend that the defense minister has put destroyers with missile interception systems on alert to shoot down any missile or missile debris that appears to be headed for Japanese territory.

"We are doing all we can to protect the safety of our nation," said chief Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga, though he and Ministry of Defense officials refused to confirm the reports about the naval alert, saying they do not want to "show their cards" to North Korea.

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Suicide attacker detonates car bomb in financial heart of Syrian capital, killing at least 15

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A suicide car bomber struck Monday in the financial heart of Syria's capital, killing at least 15 people, damaging the nearby central bank and incinerating cars and trees in the neighborhood.

The attack was the latest in a recent series of bombings to hit Damascus in the civil war, slowly closing in on President Bashar Assad's base of power in the capital. Rebel fighters have chipped away at the regime's hold in northern and eastern Syria, as well as making significant gains in the south, helped in part by an influx of foreign-funded weapons.

The blast was adjacent Sabaa Bahrat Square — near the state-run Syrian Investment Agency, the Syrian Central Bank and the Finance Ministry — and dealt a symbolic blow to the nation's ailing economy.

In the early days of the 2-year-old uprising, the grandiose roundabout was home to huge pro-regime demonstrations with a gigantic poster of Assad hung over the central bank headquarters.

The area was a very different scene Monday.

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Four months after Newtown, push to arm school personnel stalls even in gun-friendly states

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — When a gunman killed 26 children and staff at a Connecticut grade school, Missouri state Rep. Mike Kelley quickly proposed legislation that would allow trained teachers to carry hidden guns into the classroom as a "line of defense" against attackers.

Similar bills soon proliferated in Republican-led states as the National Rifle Association called for armed officers in every American school.

Yet less than four months later, the quest to put guns in schools has stalled in many traditionally gun-friendly states after encountering opposition from educators, reluctance from some governors and ambivalence from legislative leaders more focused on economic initiatives.

The loss of momentum highlights how difficult it can be to advance any gun legislation, whether to adopt greater restrictions or expand the rights to carry weapons.

Since the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., legislators in at least four states — Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and New York — have passed significant gun-control measures. The Newtown attack came less than five months after a gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 at a Colorado movie theater.

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NC father sobs and prays on 911 call after 2 children buried under collapsed walls of pit

STANLEY, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina man tearfully begged authorities to hurry to his house to rescue his daughter and her cousin, who were buried when the walls of a 24-foot deep pit he dug on his property collapsed.

Jordan Arwood, 31, was operating a backhoe Sunday night in the pit when the walls collapsed and he called 911.

Arwood's desperate voice is heard on a recording released by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office on Monday, when the children's bodies were recovered.

"Please hurry ... My children are buried under tons of dirt ... They're buried under tons of clay ... It fell on top of them," he said sobbing.

When the dispatcher asked him if he could see the children, Arwood said he couldn't.

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Hagel recommends Congress strip commanders' ability to reverse criminal convictions

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is recommending that military commanders be largely stripped of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members, a move that comes in response to a congressional uproar over an Air Force officer's decision to overturn a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case, the Pentagon said Monday.

Hagel has asked his staff to draft legislation that would require that cases go through the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and that senior officers no longer have the authority to set aside guilty findings, except in limited, minor offenses that ordinarily don't warrant a court martial. The commanders, however, would retain their ability to participate in plea bargains and to reduce sentences, but they would have to defend the lesser sentence in writing.

In a written statement Monday, Hagel said that, if enacted by Congress, the changes "would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process and is accountable. These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case."

The change requires congressional action, but lawmakers have already begun looking into the matter in response to a furor over a recent Air Force sexual assault case. Hagel said the new recommendations have the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries.

Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, overturned the conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Wilkerson had been found guilty last Nov. 2 of charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident had involved a civilian employee.

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US gov't now informs lawyers if Guantanamo prisoners are being force fed during hunger strike

MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. government has begun notifying lawyers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners if the men they represent are being force-fed to prevent them from starving to death in a hunger strike that has dragged on for more than two months, though its extent remains in dispute.

Cori Crider, a lawyer for Yemeni prisoner Samir Mukbel, said she received notification from the Department of Justice late last week that her client was being force-fed and was permitted to speak with him by phone Monday to confirm the report.

Crider, who works for the British legal rights group Reprieve, said Mukbel told her he joined the hunger strike in February, has lost about 30 pounds and at one point fainted and had to be hospitalized at the prison on the U.S. base in Cuba. He described the feeding process as painful.

"Some people have gone through this a lot but he said he had never felt anything like it in his life," she said shortly after the call.

The U.S. military generally does not discuss specific prisoners in part because doing so might violate provisions of the Geneva Conventions that prohibit making a public spectacle of prisoners, said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, a spokesman for the detention center. As part of that policy, officials have not confirmed the identities of individual hunger strikers, though there has at times been indirect confirmation in court papers as part of the process through which the men challenge their confinement in federal court.

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Annette Funicello, who had girl-next-door appeal as Mouseketeer and movie star, dies at 70

NEW YORK (AP) — She was the first crush for a generation of boys, the perfect playmate for a generation of girls.

Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s, ruled among baby boomers, who tuned in every weekday afternoon to watch her on their flickering black-and-white television sets.

Then they shed their mouse ears, as Annette did when she teamed up with Frankie Avalon during the '60s in a string of frothy, fun-in-the-sun movies with titles like "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini."

Decades later, she endeared herself to baby boomers all over again after she announced in 1992 that she had multiple sclerosis and began grappling with the slow, degenerative effects with remarkably good cheer and faith.

Funicello died on Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from MS, the Walt Disney Co. said. She was 70 and had dropped from public view years ago.

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NFL, ex-players set for Pa. federal court battle over concussions; billions could be at stake

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With perhaps billions of dollars at stake, a hearing Tuesday over concussion litigation filed against the NFL promises to be a contest between legal lions.

About 4,200 former players have sued the league. Some suffer from dementia, depression, Alzheimer's disease and other neurological problems. Others simply want their health monitored.

And a small number, including Ray Easterling and 12-time Pro Bowler Junior Seau, committed suicide after long downward spirals.

The players' lawyers accuse the NFL of promoting violence in the game and concealing known cognitive risks from concussions and other blows to the head. They hope to keep the litigation in federal court so they can use the discovery process to access NFL files — and see what the league knew when.

"The NFL failed to live up to its responsibility: it negligently heightened players' exposure to repeated head trauma and fraudulently concealed the chronic brain injuries that resulted," the players' lawyers wrote in their latest brief, filed in January.

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