- Associated Press - Thursday, January 22, 2015

Saudi state TV reports King Abdullah, longtime US ally, has died at 90

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.

More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.

He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds - most horrifically in Syria’s civil war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.

And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on Saudi Arabia’s terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington’s failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.



Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV by a presenter who said the king died at 1 a.m. on Friday. His successor was announced as 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency. Salman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities.

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Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, a longtime statesman, mediator in family disputes

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, is a veteran of the country’s top leadership, versed in diplomacy from nearly 50 years as the governor of the capital Riyadh and known as a mediator of disputes within the sprawling royal family.

Salman, 79, had increasingly taken on the duties of the king over the past year as his ailing predecessor and half-brother, Abdullah, became more incapacitated. Abdullah died before dawn on Friday at 90.

Salman had served as defense minister since 2011 and so was head of the military as Saudi Arabia joined the United States and other Arab countries in carrying out airstrikes in Syria in 2014 against the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that the kingdom began to see as a threat to its own stability.

He takes the helm at a time when the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom and oil powerhouse is trying to navigate social pressures from a burgeoning youth population - over half the population of 20 million is under 25 - seeking jobs and increasingly testing boundaries of speech on the Internet, where criticism of the royal family is rife.

The new king’s health has been a question of concern. He suffered at least one stroke that has left him with limited movement on his left arm.

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As protesters march outside, GOP pushes broad abortion curbs through the House

WASHINGTON (AP) - With thousands of abortion protesters swarming the city in their annual March for Life, Republicans muscled broadened abortion restrictions through the House on Thursday after a GOP rebellion forced leaders into an awkward retreat on an earlier version.

By a near party-line 242-179 vote, the House voted to permanently forbid federal funds for most abortion coverage. The bill would also block tax credits for many people and employers who buy abortion coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

A White House veto threat and an uncertain fate in the Senate mean the legislation has no realistic chance of becoming law. But on a day when crowds of anti-abortion demonstrators stretched for blocks outside Capitol windows - and hours after the embarrassing GOP stumble on another abortion measure - Thursday’s vote let party leaders signal that the Congress they now command is at least trying to end abortion.

The GOP’s passage of one bill and the abrupt derailment of another forbidding most late-term abortions underscored the party’s perilous balancing act of backing abortion restrictions crucial to conservatives while not alienating women and younger voters wary of such restrictions.

Obama, out West to promote his State of the Union economic agenda, embraced the same 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion that the protesters were vilifying.

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Japan faces deadline to free 2 captives of Islamic State; experts offer to try negotiating

TOKYO (AP) - The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group was fast approaching early Friday with no signs of a breakthrough.

Lacking clout and diplomatic reach in the Middle East, Japan has been scrambling for a way to secure the release of the two men, one a journalist, the other an adventurer fascinated by war. Two Japanese who said they have contacts with a leader in the Islamic State group offered Thursday to try to negotiate, but it was unclear if the Japanese government was receptive to the idea.

The militants threatened in a video message to kill the hostages within 72 hours unless they receive $200 million. Based on the video’s release time, that deadline would expire sometime Friday.

Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that Japan was trying all possible channels to reach those holding the hostages - 47-year-old freelance journalist Kenji Goto, and 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa, the founder of a private security company.

Goto’s mother was expected to make an appearance in Tokyo early Friday, in the first public comment by a family member.

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Speakers at UN meeting challenge world to stand up to rising anti-Semitism

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The first U.N. General Assembly meeting Thursday on anti-Semitism sparked calls for global action to combat the rising hatred of Jews and a surprising denunciation from the world’s 57 Islamic nations of all words and acts that lead “to hatred, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia.”

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said the statement delivered by Saudi Arabia’s U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Moualimi on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation was “extremely significant,” especially since the United Nations has often been a venue to try to de-legitimize Israel.

The assembly met at the request of 37 mainly Western countries including the United States who urged the world body to address the “alarming outbreak of anti-Semitism worldwide.” It was an informal meeting, attended by about half the 193 member states, so no resolution could be adopted.

But 40 mainly Western countries issued a joint statement afterward urging all nations to “declare their categorical rejection of anti-Semitism,” strengthen laws to combat discrimination, and prosecute those responsible for anti-Semitic crimes.

“The determination to eradicate the conditions that gave rise to the Holocaust was a guiding principle among the founders of this organization over six decades ago,” their statement said. “Let us rededicate ourselves to that principle and endeavor to eliminate anti-Semitism in all forms.”

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The plunging euro won’t benefit American shoppers but will make European vacations cheaper

NEW YORK (AP) - Americans hoping to save on European goods thanks to a falling euro shouldn’t rush to uncork that bottle of French Bordeaux. There’s very little to celebrate.

Not since September 2003 has the euro traded this low against the dollar. Still, German sports cars, Belgian beers and the latest fashions out of Italy aren’t going on sale anytime soon. The reason? There’s simply too much demand in the U.S. for any markdowns.

“The U.S. economy is the one that’s doing well in the world right now,” notes IHS senior principal economist George Magliano. “We’ve got a lot of growth in upper-income families and households.”

Since Americans are willing - and able - to spend heavily on imported goods, there’s no need for companies to cut prices. Any savings thanks to the euro’s decline will instead be pocketed by manufacturers and distributors.

It’s been a dramatic fall for the euro. Back in April, the European currency was trading at 1.38 dollars to the euro. That means that one dollar bought you about 72 euro cents.

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Yemen’s US-backed president quits under pressure, increasing fears that country could fracture

SANAA, Yemen (AP) - Yemen’s U.S.-backed president quit Thursday under pressure from rebels holding him captive in his home, severely complicating American efforts to combat al-Qaida’s powerful local franchise and raising fears that the Arab world’s poorest country will fracture into mini-states.

Presidential officials said Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi submitted his resignation to parliament rather than make further concessions to Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, who control the capital and are widely believed to be backed by Iran.

The prime minister and his cabinet also stepped down, making a thinly veiled reference to the Houthis’ push at gunpoint for a greater share of power. Houthis deployed their fighters around parliament, which is due to discuss the situation on Sunday.

Yemeni law dictates that the parliament speaker - Yahia al-Rai, a close ally of former autocratic ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh - will now assume the presidency. Saleh still wields considerable power and is widely believed to be allied with the Houthis.

There were conflicting reports suggesting that authorities in Aden, the capital of southern region of Yemen, would no longer submit to the central government’s authority. Even before the Houthis’ recent ascendance, a powerful movement in southern Yemen was demanding autonomy or a return to the full independence the region enjoyed before 1990. Southerners outrightly reject rule by the Houthis, whose power base is in the north. The Houthis are Zaydis, a Shiite minority that makes up about a third of Yemen’s population.

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Top New York politician arrested on bribery charges, accused of misusing his ‘titanic’ power

NEW YORK (AP) - Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who bent state government to his will for more than 20 years as one of New York’s most powerful and canny politicians, was arrested Thursday on charges of taking nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks.

The 70-year-old Democrat was taken into custody by the FBI on federal conspiracy and bribery charges that carry up to 100 years in prison and could cost him his political seat. He was released on $200,000 bail.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Silver, a lawyer by training, lined up jobs at two firms and then accepted large sums of money over more than a decade in exchange for using his “titanic” power to do political favors. The money was disguised as “referral fees,” Bharara said.

Silver, who seemed unfazed in court, did not enter a plea.

“I’m confident that after a full hearing and due process I’ll be vindicated on the charges,” said Silver, who even paused on his way out of court to sign a sketch artist’s rendering of the scene.

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Disney-linked measles outbreak casts spotlight on anti-vaccine movement

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A major measles outbreak traced to Disneyland has brought criticism down on the small but vocal movement among parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children.

In a rash of cases that public health officials are rushing to contain, at least 70 people in six states and Mexico have fallen ill since mid-December, most of them from California. The vast majority of those who got sick had not gotten the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine.

While still a scourge in many corners of the world, measles has been all but eradicated in the U.S. since 2000 because of vaccinations. But the virus has made a comeback in recent years, in part because of people obtaining personal belief exemptions from rules that say children must get their shots to enroll in school.

Others have delayed getting their children vaccinated because they still believe now-discredited research linking the measles vaccine to autism.

“Some people are just incredibly selfish” by skipping shots, said Dr. James Cherry, a pediatric disease expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Beautiful, eerie fluorescent glow of Hong Kong seas indicates harmful algal bloom at work

Eerie fluorescent blue patches of water glimmering off Hong Kong’s seashore are magnificent, disturbing and potentially toxic, marine biologists say.

The glow is an indicator of a harmful algal bloom created by something called Noctiluca scintillans, nicknamed Sea Sparkle.

It looks like algae and can act like algae. But it’s not quite. It is a single-celled organism that technically can function as both animal and plant.

These type blooms are triggered by farm pollution that can be devastating to marine life and local fisheries, according to University of Georgia oceanographer Samantha Joye, who was shown Associated Press photos of the glowing water.

“Those pictures are magnificent. It’s just extremely unfortunate that the mysterious and majestic blue hue is created by a Noctiluca,” Joye wrote in an email Thursday.

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