- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Are Syrians ready to talk? After bitter opening to peace talks, UN takes a day to find out

MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) - The United Nations is taking a day to see if there is enough common ground between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition to talk directly for the first time since the rebellion began in 2011.

Peace talks charting a path out of Syria’s civil war got off to a tense start Wednesday, with Assad’s future at the heart of bitter exchanges on the podium as dozens of the world’s most powerful diplomats looked on. High-level mediating has yielded little so far, but Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. mediator who is meeting separately Thursday with each Syrian delegation, said there are signs they might be willing to bend on humanitarian aid, cease-fires and prisoner exchanges.

At another Swiss venue, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Thursday for a new election in Syria, saying his nation would respect the results.

“The best solution is to organize a free and fair election in Syria” and once the ballots are cast “we should all accept” the outcome, he said.

Iran, a close ally of Assad’s, was barred from participating in the Swiss-based talks to end Syria’s civil war


Heavyweight Iran’s absence hangs over Syria talks following diplomatic snub

MONTREUX, Switzerland (AP) - It’s the regional heavyweight that few want at the table, but without it any attempt to end the Syria war may be futile. Iran’s backing is crucial for President Bashar Assad’s hold on power - and for the Iranians, Syria is key to their aspirations of regional power.

As an international conference on Syria kicked off Wednesday with the participation of more than 40 countries, Iran’s absence hung over the meeting, following a diplomatic debacle that saw the U.N. withdraw a last-minute invitation after an uproar from the United States and the Syrian opposition.

The absence of Damascus’ strongest regional ally stood out even more given that the biggest supporters of the opposition were all present: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The question of Iran’s participation underlines how the international powers that have lined up behind either Assad or the rebels trying to topple him are as crucial to a solution as Syria’s warring parties themselves.

Like any of the regional players, Iran can be a spoiler for a resolution it opposes or can be a force for pressuring its side to make concessions.


Poll: Americans take stock of Obama at 5-year mark and find him nice guy, so-so president.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Nice guy, so-so president.

Taking stock of President Barack Obama at the five-year mark in his term, less than a third of Americans consider him to be an above-average chief executive. Nearly twice as many find him likable.

A new Associated Press-GfK Poll finds the president’s personal image to be on the rebound after taking a hit during the government shutdown late last year, with 58 percent now sizing him up as very or somewhat likable. That’s up 9 percentage points from October, just after the shutdown.

Yet as Obama prepares to stand before Americans for his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, people are largely pessimistic about the country’s direction, down on the condition of the economy and doubtful it will bounce back anytime soon. Unemployment? Seventy percent think it will go higher or stay the same.

Obama “wasn’t a total disappointment,” allows Joshua Parker, a 37-year-old small businessman in Smyrna, Tenn. “He didn’t put us into a Great Depression.”


Ukrainian president faces ultimatum to call new elections or face street rage

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Thick black smoke from burning tires engulfed parts of downtown Kiev as an ultimatum issued by the opposition to the president to call early election or face street rage was set to expire with no sign of a compromise on Thursday.

The three main opposition leaders urged protesters late Wednesday to refrain from violence for 24 hours until their ultimatum to President Viktor Yanukovych expires. They demanded that Yanukovych dismiss the government, call early elections and scrap harsh anti-protest legislation that triggered the violence.

The largely peaceful protest against Yanukovych’s decision to shun the EU and turn toward Moscow in November descended into violence Sunday when demonstrators, angered by the passage of repressive laws intended to stifle the protest, marched on official buildings.

For days protesters hurled fire bombs and stones at police, which retaliated with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. The Wednesday deaths of two protesters - the first fatalities in more than two months of protests - fueled fears of more violence.

Police on Wednesday tore down barricades and chased the protesters down the hill from official buildings, but demonstrators later set hundreds of tires ablaze and regained their positions under plumes of heavy smoke helped by the wind blowing in the police direction.


Government oversight panel urges end to phone data spying, records purge

WASHINGTON (AP) - A sharply divided government task force that reviewed the National Security Agency’s surveillance program for four months has urged President Barack Obama to shut down the agency’s bulk collection of phone data and purge its massive inventory of millions of Americans’ calling records, The Associated Press has learned.

The recommendation from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to abandon the NSA’s phone surveillance was even more sweeping than a similar proposal from another panel of experts. That panel, the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, advised Obama in December to restrict phone surveillance to limited court-ordered sweeps.

The oversight board’s new 234-page report - a copy of which was obtained by the AP - contained several strong dissents from two members of the five-member board - former Bush administration national security lawyers who recommended that the government retain its broad phone surveillance authority. The board disclosed key parts of its report to Obama earlier this month before he unveiled his plans during a speech last week to the nation.

In that speech, Obama said the bulk phone collection program would continue for the time being. He directed the Justice Department and intelligence officials to find ways to end the government’s control over the phone data. And he narrowed the NSA’s bulk collection by insisting on close supervision by a secret federal intelligence court and reducing the wide chain of calls that the NSA may track. Phone companies have said they do not want to take responsibility for overseeing the data under standards set by the NSA.

Warning that the NSA’s massive daily intake of calling records “raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties,” a three-member majority of the oversight board said the government should end the surveillance program and “purge the database of telephone records that have been collected and stored during the program’s operation.” The board said the NSA should instead seek records directly from phone service providers using “existing legal authorities.”


Va. AG’s office says state’s gay marriage ban is unconstitutional; will no longer defend it

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia’s attorney general has concluded that the state’s ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional and he will no longer defend it in federal lawsuits challenging it, his office said Thursday.

In an email to The Associated Press, Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, said the state will instead side with the plaintiffs who are seeking to have the ban struck down.

Herring planned to file a brief Thursday morning with the federal court in Norfolk, where one of the lawsuits is being heard, notifying the court of the state’s change in position in the case, Kelly said.

The attorney general decided the ban was unconstitutional after a thorough legal review of the matter, Kelly said.

Virginia has emerged as a critical state in the nationwide fight for gay marriage. The state’s shift comes on the heels of recent court rulings in which federal judges struck down gay marriage bans in Utah and Oklahoma.


Man who killed officer executed in Texas despite opposition from Mexico, State Department

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - A Mexican national was executed Wednesday night in Texas for killing a Houston police officer, despite pleas and diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department to halt the punishment.

Edgar Tamayo, 46, received a lethal injection for the January 1994 fatal shooting of Officer Guy Gaddis, 24.

Asked by a warden if he had a final statement, he mumbled “no” and shook his head. As the lethal dose of pentobarbital began taking effect, he took a few breaths and then made one slightly audible snore before all movement stopped. He was pronounced dead 17 minutes after the drug was administered, at 9:32 p.m. CST.

The execution, the first this year in the nation’s most active death penalty state, was delayed more than three hours while the U.S. Supreme Court considered last-ditch appeals.

Tamayo never looked toward Gaddis’ mother, two brothers and two other relatives who watched through a window.


Taming the Cookie Monster: Sesame Street, heart doctor launch project to boost kids’ health

Bert and Ernie jump rope and munch apples and carrots, and Cookie Monster has his namesake treat once a week, not every day. Can a Muppets mini-makeover improve kids’ health, too?

A three-year experiment in South America suggests it can. Now, the Sesame Street project is coming to the United States.

Already, a test run in a New York City preschool has seen results: Four-year-old Jahmeice Strowder got her mom to make cauliflower for the first time in her life. A classmate, Bryson Payne, bugged his dad for a banana every morning and more salads. A parent brought home a loaf of bread instead of Doritos.

“What we created, I believe, is a culture” of healthy eating to fight a “toxic environment” of junk food and too little exercise, said Dr. Valentin Fuster, a cardiologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

Six years ago, he started working with Sesame Workshop, producers of television’s Sesame Street, on a project aimed at 3-to-5-year-olds.


APNewsBreak: Gallup finds modest drop in US uninsured rate as new health law takes effect

WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation’s uninsured rate dropped modestly this month as the major coverage expansion under President Barack Obama’s health care law got underway, according to a closely watched survey released Thursday.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that the uninsured rate for U.S. adults dropped by 1.2 percentage points in January, to 16.1 percent. The biggest change was for unemployed people, a drop of 6.7 percentage points. That was followed by a 2.6 percentage-point decline for nonwhites. Traditionally both groups are far more likely to be uninsured than the population as a whole.

The survey found no appreciable change among young adults ages 18-34. Members of that coveted, low-cost demographic have been ambivalent about signing up so far.

Based on interviews with more than 9,000 people, the Gallup numbers could be the first evidence that core provisions of Obama’s much-debated law have started delivering on the promise of access for nearly all Americans.

The overall drop in the uninsured rate would translate to approximately 2 million to 3 million people gaining coverage.


Tests of natural gas locomotives chugging ahead but railroads have many questions about idea

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The diesel-burning locomotive, the workhorse of American railroads since World War II, will soon begin burning natural gas - a potentially historic shift that could cut fuel costs, reduce pollution and strengthen the advantage railroads hold over trucks in long-haul shipping.

Rail companies want to take advantage of booming natural gas production that has cut the price of the fuel by as much as 50 percent. So they are preparing to experiment with redesigned engines capable of burning both diesel and liquefied natural gas.

Natural gas “may revolutionize the industry much like the transition from steam to diesel,” said Jessica Taylor, a spokeswoman for General Electric’s locomotive division, one of several companies that will test new natural gas equipment later this year.

Any changes are sure to happen slowly. A full-scale shift to natural gas would require expensive new infrastructure across the nation’s 140,000-mile freight-rail system, including scores of fueling stations.

The change has been made possible by hydraulic fracturing mining techniques, which have allowed U.S. drillers to tap into vast deposits of natural gas. The boom has created such abundance that prices dropped to an average of $3.73 per million British thermal units last year - less than one-third of their 2008 peak.

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