Tuesday February 26, 2013

Obama: Uncertainty over budget cuts already taking hold ahead of Friday deadline

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Monday said looming automatic spending cuts are already affecting the economy, while a top administration official warned that the nation’s borders would be less secure if billions of dollars are yanked from the budget Friday.

"The uncertainty is already having an effect," Obama said. "Companies are preparing layoff notices. Families are preparing to cut back on expenses. The longer these cuts are in place, the bigger the impact will become."

Despite the urgent rhetoric, there was no indication the White House and congressional Republicans were actively negotiating a deal to avoid the so-called sequester ahead of the end of the week deadline. The last known conversation between Obama and GOP leaders was last week and there have been no in-person meetings between the parties this year.

With Congress back from a weeklong recess, House Speaker John Boehner showed little willingness to move off his long-held position that the sequester be offset through targeted spending cuts, not the package of cuts and tax increases Obama supports.

"Mr. President, you got your tax increase," Boehner said, referring to the tax rate increases that took effect on Jan. 1. "It’s time to cut spending here in Washington."

In shift, Syria says it is ready to talk to armed opposition fighting to oust Assad regime

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria said Monday it is prepared to hold talks with the armed rebels bent on overthrowing President Bashar Assad, the clearest signal yet that the regime is growing increasingly nervous about its long-term prospects to hold onto power as opposition fighters make slow but persistent headway in the civil war.

The offer, by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during a visit to Moscow, came hours before residents of Damascus and state-run TV reported a huge explosion and a series of smaller blasts in the capital, followed by heavy gunfire.

State-run news agency SANA said there were multiple casualties from the explosion, which it said was a suicide car bombing.

The proposal marked the first time that a high-ranking regime official has stated publicly that Damascus would be willing to meet with the armed opposition. But al-Moallem did not spell out whether rebels would first have to lay down their weapons before negotiations could begin -- a crucial sticking point in the past.

The regime’s proposal is unlikely to lead to talks. The rebels battling the Syrian military have vowed to stop at nothing less than Assad’s downfall and are unlikely to agree to sit down with a leader they accuse of mass atrocities.

Billions of dollars at stake for BP, other companies as trial opens for Gulf oil spill

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- BP bears most of the blame for the disastrous 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico because it cut corners and put profits ahead of safety, a U.S. Justice Department attorney charged Monday at the opening of a high-stakes trial that could result in the oil company and its partners being forced to pay billions more in damages.

The London-based oil giant acknowledged it made "errors in judgment" before the deadly blowout, but it also cast blame on the owner of the drilling rig and the contractor involved in cementing the well.

The civil case went to trial after attempts to reach an 11th-hour settlement failed.

Eleven workers were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig leased by the BP exploded on April 20, 2010. An estimated 172 millions of gallons of crude spilled into the Gulf over the three months that followed.

Justice Department attorney Mike Underhill said the catastrophe resulted from BP’s "culture of corporate recklessness."

Embattled British cardinal first to skip papal conclave because of personal scandal

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- In a season of startling change for the Catholic Church, the latest break with tradition was as unexpected as it was a wakeup call to the 115 men who will elect the next pope.

Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader resigned and removed himself Monday from the upcoming conclave, saying he did not want allegations that he engaged in improper conduct with priests to be a distraction during the solemn process of choosing the next leader of the church’s 1.2 billion-member flock.

It was the first time a cardinal has recused himself from a conclave because of personal scandal, according to Vatican historians.

The Vatican insisted that Pope Benedict XVI accepted Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation purely because O’Brien was nearing the retirement age of 75 -- not because of the accusations.

But O’Brien himself issued a statement Monday saying he would skip the conclave because he wanted to avoid becoming the focus of media attention at such a delicate time.

SAfrica authorities: Pistorius must provide training schedule if he returns to track on bail

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Oscar Pistorius on Monday informed South African authorities that he wants to resume athletic training while on bail for the murder case against him, a government official said.

A spokeswoman for the Olympic runner, however, denied that he was making immediate plans to return to the track while awaiting trial for the Feb. 14 shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

"Absolutely not," said spokeswoman Janine Hills. "He is currently in mourning and his focus is not on his sports."

The double-amputee Paralympian discussed bail terms with his probation officer and a correctional official at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court in the capital, according to correctional officials. The guidelines will determine his daily routine until his next court appearance on June 4.

"It’s his wish to continue to practice," James Smalberger, chief deputy commissioner of the department of correctional services, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Cuba’s new heir apparent has big shoes to fill and even bigger problems to fix

HAVANA (AP) -- Miguel Diaz-Canel has five years to get started and a lot of work to do.

The man tapped as Cuban President Raul Castro’s chief lieutenant and likely successor must quietly fend off any challenges from within the Communist-run island’s secretive citadel of power.

He must gain legitimacy with young, and even middle-aged, Cubans who have never known a leader not named Castro. And he must deal with an exiled diaspora and American officials who were already making clear on Monday they will not be mollified by a new, younger face.

"There’s going to be a huge charisma deficit," said Ann Louise Bardach, author of "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington." "You go from Fidel to Raul who at least had some of the shine of the Castro mantle, somebody who fought in the revolution."

She said Cuba faces "massive" problems including a large public debt, dependence on Venezuela, an aging population, decades of brain drain and one of the world’s slowest Internet connections.

Stick to furniture? Ikea withdraws meatballs in Europe due to horse meat fears

STOCKHOLM (AP) -- Swedish furniture giant Ikea became entangled in Europe’s widening meat scandal Monday, forced to withdraw meatballs from stores across Europe amid suspicions that they contained horse meat.

Stores in the U.S. and Canada were not affected, Ikea said.

The company reacted after authorities in the Czech Republic said they had detected horse DNA in tests of 2.2-pound packs of frozen meatballs that were labeled as beef and pork. The Czech State Veterinary Administration said it tested two batches of Ikea meatballs and only one of them contained horse meat. It did not say how much.

Meatballs from the same batch had been sent from a Swedish supplier to 12 other European countries -- Slovakia, Hungary, France, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Ireland -- and would be pulled off the shelves in all of them, Ikea said.

Later Monday, the company expanded the withdrawals to stores in 21 European countries and in Hong Kong, Thailand and the Dominican Republic, all of which were getting meatballs from the same Swedish supplier.

Since Ireland published surprise DNA results on Jan. 15 showing that a third of frozen "beef" burgers in Ireland contained at least a trace of horse, food scientists in more than a dozen countries have found the animal trotting into products where it was never meant to roam.

Daily revelations from an ever-increasing menu of supermarket, catering and restaurant goods have taught the world one lesson: When minced up with other meat or slathered with spices, consumers cannot tell equine from bovine in the food chain. European horse has yet to be detected in any American-sold products.

Wife of NYC police officer accused in cannibal-plot case says he viewed disturbing porn online

NEW YORK (AP) -- Struggling to stay composed, the estranged wife of a New York City police officer testified Monday that she was shocked to find he had visited a website featuring a photo of a dead woman and other gruesome images -- a discovery that led to a federal prosecution accusing him of plotting to abduct, torture and eat dozens of women.

"It was porn. It was disturbing," Kathleen Mangan told a Manhattan jury about the darkfetishnet.com site.

"I know S&M is popular with ‘Shades of Grey,"’ she said in reference to the popular book series by E.L. James, "but this was different."

When her testimony was interrupted by a break, Mangan dropped her head and started sobbing. Her husband, Gilbert Valle, also looked upset, rubbing his brow and putting his head in his hands.

Mangan, 27, was the first government witness in the unusual federal case against Valle, who’s accused of conspiring to kidnap a woman and unauthorized use of a law enforcement database that prosecutors say he used to help build a list of potential targets. A conviction on the kidnapping count carries a possible life sentence.