AP News in Brief at 4:58 a.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on April 11, 2013 at 3:30 AM

As world awaits North Korea missile test, Pyongyang calmly celebrates Kim anniversaries

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — As neighboring nations kept a close eye on missile movements in North Korea, people in the country's capital began celebrating a series of April holidays, including the anniversary Thursday of their leader's appointment as head of the ruling Worker's Party.

Bracing for what South Korea's foreign minister warned could be a test-fire of a medium-range missile, Seoul deployed three naval destroyers, an early warning surveillance aircraft and a land-based radar system, a Defense Ministry official said in Seoul, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department rules.

Japan has deployed PAC-3 missile interceptors in key locations around Tokyo, while the South Korean and U.S. militaries raised their level of surveillance.

"North Korea has been, with its bellicose rhetoric, with its actions ... skating very close to a dangerous line," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Washington. "Their actions and their words have not helped defuse a combustible situation."

North Korea is believed to be readying a missile dubbed the "Musudan," named after the village where a northeastern launch pad is based. The missile has a range of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles), and is designed to reach U.S. military installments in Guam and Japan, experts say.

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Senate ready to topple conservative blockade, debate new curbs on guns as NRA promises fight

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is ready to launch an emotion-charged debate on new gun restrictions, four months after the carnage at a Connecticut elementary school spurred President Barack Obama and Congress to address firearms violence.

In an opening showdown Thursday, senators were scheduled to vote on an attempt by conservatives to scuttle the Democratic bill before debate even started. There were no real doubts the conservatives would be defeated and lawmakers would turn to the legislation, which would expand background checks to more gun buyers, toughen penalties against illicit firearms sales and offer slightly more money for school security.

The roll call was coming a day after two leading conservatives, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., unveiled a compromise to extend required federal background checks to gun shows and online transactions. Only noncommercial, personal transactions would be exempted.

That deal was expected to give gun control forces an initial burst of momentum as debate begins. But the National Rifle Association, along with many Republicans and some moderate Democrats, opposes fresh gun curbs as going too far, and the road to congressional approval of major restrictions remains rocky.

"Those two leaders stepping up is a very good way to start," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who is seeking re-election next year and has stressed her support for both the right to bear arms and reducing gun bloodshed. "How it ends, I don't know."

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Critics say Obama budget breaks campaign promises on Social Security cuts and tax increases

WASHINGTON (AP) — Advocates for seniors say President Barack Obama is breaking his promise to protect Social Security, while conservatives say he is breaking his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class.

Obama's budget proposal includes a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts in an effort to reduce government borrowing and spark the still-fragile economy. Obama says it is the kind of balanced approach that is necessary to tame runaway budget deficits.

But advocates from across the political spectrum are reminding the president of his past campaign promises.

"Clearly it will be up to members of Congress to set fiscal priorities that actually represent the needs of the average citizens they were elected to represent," said Max Richtman, head of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "The president's budget is not the balanced plan promised to Americans before November's election."

Obama's budget blueprint would increase taxes by $1 trillion over the next decade. Most of the tax increases would target wealthy households and corporations, though some, including a tax increase on cigarettes, would hit low- and middle-income families, too.

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Airlines are improving the airport experience for VIPs and passengers willing to pay extra

NEW YORK (AP) — Cutting lines at airports used to be only for the rich, famous or very frequent fliers. But then airlines started granting fast-track access to anybody with the right credit card or who was willing to shell out a few extra dollars.

Now, with the masses clogging up special security and boarding lanes, true VIPs are saying: Get me away from this chaos. And the airlines are listening.

Just as they've made first class more enjoyable with new seats, tastier meals and bigger TVs, airlines are focusing on easing the misery of airports for their highest-paying customers and giving them a truly elite experience.

At a growing number of airports, special agents will meet these celebrities, high-powered executives and wealthy vacationers at the curb and will privately escort them from check-in to security to boarding.

American Airlines built a private check-in lobby in Los Angeles for VIPs who are greeted by name, given preprinted boarding passes and then whisked by elevator to the front of the security line.

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What health care overhaul? Tracking costs of Obama's health law in budget isn't easy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Next year is the year President Barack Obama's signature health care law goes into high gear, covering millions of uninsured Americans by a mix of private plans and government programs infused with tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

You'd think there'd be a chapter in the new 2014 budget that lays it all out. Wrong.

Well, maybe a table? Wrong again.

A box? Nope.

It turns out that the costs of the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare to its unyielding Republican foes— are sprinkled here and there through hundreds of pages of budget books. It's partly due to the arcane ways of government budgeting. It may also be an effort to avoid giving foes more of a target.

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Ga. gunman holding firefighters hostage shot dead; hostages 'relieved' ordeal is over

SUWANEE, Ga. (AP) — It's a call that firefighters routinely respond to — a report of a medical emergency.

But when five firefighters answered one in a neighborhood north of Atlanta on Wednesday afternoon, authorities said, they encountered an armed man who demanded that his cable and power be turned back on at the house, which was in foreclosure.

The firefighters were held for hours, with one firefighter allowed to leave to move a fire truck. But with police later fearing the remaining firefighters were in immediate danger, SWAT teams set off a stun blast and stormed the house, and the gunman was shot dead during an exchange of gunfire, authorities said.

One SWAT team member was shot in the hand or arm but was OK afterward, and firefighters suffered only minor injuries, authorities said.

Gwinnett County police on Wednesday night didn't immediately release the name of the dead man or discussing details of the operation. However, the firefighters and a wounded police officer were treated at a nearby hospital and in good condition. Some had already gone home.

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Human Rights Watch says Syrian fighter jets have killed 4,300 people since July

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian regime has carried out indiscriminate and sometimes deliberate airstrikes against civilians that have killed at least 4,300 people since last summer and that amount to war crimes, an international human rights group said Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said Syrian fighter jets have deliberately targeted bakeries, breadlines and hospitals in the country's northern region.

Parts of northern Syria — especially areas along the border with Turkey — have in the past months fallen under the control of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, including several neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, the country's largest urban center.

"The aim of the airstrikes appears to be to terrorize civilians from the air, particularly in the opposition-controlled areas where they would otherwise be fairly safe from any effects of fighting," Ole Solvang of the New York-based group told The Associated Press.

These attacks are "serious violations of international humanitarian law," and people who commit such breaches are "responsible for war crimes," the New York-based group said.

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In an increasingly connected society, China confronts new bird flu with greater openness

SHANGHAI (AP) — After a new and lethal strain of bird flu emerged in Shanghai two weeks ago, the government of China's bustling financial capital responded with live updates on a Twitter-like microblog. It's a starkly different approach than a decade ago, when Chinese officials silenced reporting as a deadly pneumonia later known as SARS killed dozens in the south.

The contrast shows a new, though still evolving, openness in China that was learned from the SARS debacle, which devastated the government's credibility at home and abroad. It also reflects the demands of a more prosperous and educated citizenry for information and its use of social media to get it.

"Publicize information to prevent 'bird flu panic'," read a headline of a recent front-page commentary in the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's newspaper, that urged government departments to release information quickly about an outbreak that has killed nine and sickened 24 others.

Though some microbloggers and media are questioning why it took a couple of weeks after the first deaths for authorities to announce the new strain of bird flu, international health experts have broadly praised China's response. The government has said that it takes time for scientists to identify the virus and that such a finding had to be put through several layers of verification before being announced.

The new openness is thanks in part to people like Li Tiantian, founder of Dingxiangyuan, an online medical network popular with Chinese health care workers. His microblog is among a number of sites that have been tracking the government's response to the new bird flu. "It's evident that the strength of social media can pressure the government to be more open, more transparent," he said from his base in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

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AP PHOTOS: In the shadow of the Capitol, portraits of immigrants rallying for reform

Edwin Munoz, originally from El Salvador, brought his 5-month-old daughter to Washington to rally for citizenship rights. Mario Ibarra, who moved to Virginia from Mexico, is living in America legally, but "I'm here to support those who haven't been as fortunate as I am to have papers." Among the tens of thousands who gathered around the nation to press Congress to approve immigration reforms, here are some portraits and voices from the shadow of the Capitol:

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Tiger Woods is the clear favorite at Augusta National, but keep an eye out for some surprises

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Augusta National got a chance to gloat about finally allowing women into their exclusive club.

The players got a chance to relax and spend some quality time with their families.

Now, it's time for the first major of the year.

Everyone, it seems, is chasing Tiger Woods.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

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