Thursday March 7, 2013

Snowstorm strikes Mid-Atlantic, but largely bypasses DC; 250K without power

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A winter storm marched into the Mid-Atlantic region Wednesday, dumping nearly two feet of snow in some places and knocking out power to about 250,000 homes and businesses. It largely spared the nation’s capital, which was expecting much worse and had all but shut down because of dire forecasts.

Officials didn’t want a repeat of 2011, when a rush-hour snowstorm stranded commuters for hours, so they told people to stay off the roads and gave workers the day off. Dubbed the "snowquester," the storm closed government offices, just as the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester were expected to do.

The storm pummeled the nation’s midsection on Tuesday, killing at least four people in weather-related traffic accidents. It was forecast to head to the northeast on Thursday, bringing strong winds, more snow and the possibility of coastal flooding to New England.

In Washington, where as much as 10 inches were forecast, the storm did little but drop harmless snowflakes that rapidly melted amid warmer-than-expected temperatures.

"They just say that it might snow and the whole city shuts down," said Sheri Sable, who was out walking her two dogs in light rain and marveled at how even the dog park she frequents failed to open at 7 a.m.

Maduro is Venezuela’s interim leader and will run for president, just as Chavez ordained

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- A flag-draped coffin carrying the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez floated over a sea of supporters Wednesday on its way to a military academy where it will lie in state. Away from the procession route, jittery Venezuelans facing an uncertain future without their larger-than-life leader flocked to supermarkets and gas stations to stock up on supplies, preparing for the worst a day after Chavez succumbed to cancer.

Tens of thousands lined the streets or walked with the casket in the capital, many weeping as the body approached, led by a grim drum major. Other mourners pumped their fists and held aloft images of the late president, amid countless waving yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag.

"The fight goes on! Chavez lives!" shouted the mourners in unison, many through eyes red from crying late into the night.

Chavez’s bereaved mother Elena Frias de Chavez leaned against her son’s casket, while a priest read a prayer before the procession left the military hospital where Chavez died at the age of 58. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor, walked with the crowd, along with Cabinet members and uniformed soldiers.

"I feel so much pain. So much pain," said Yamile Gil, a 38-year-old housewife. "We never wanted to see our president like this. We will always love him."

In grim milestone, UN says number of Syrian refugees tops 1 million

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria’s accelerating humanitarian crisis hit a grim milestone Wednesday: The number of U.N.-registered refugees topped 1 million -- half of them children -- described by an aid worker as a "human river" of thousands spilling out of the war-ravaged country every day.

Nearly 4 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes by the civil war. Of the displaced, 2 million have sought cover in camps and makeshift shelters across Syria, 1 million have registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and several hundred thousand more fled the country but haven’t signed up with the U.N. refugee agency.

The West has refrained from military intervention in the two-year-old battle to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, and many Syrians hold the international community responsible for their misery.

"The refugee numbers swelled because the world community is sitting idly, watching the tyrant Assad killing innocent people," said Mohammed Ammari, a 32-year-old refugee in the Zaatari camp straddling Jordan’s border with Syria. "Shame, shame, shame. The world should be ashamed."

Despite an overall deadlock on the battlefield, the rebels have made recent gains, especially in northern Syria. On Wednesday, they completed their capture of Raqqa, the first major city to fall completely into rebel hands, activists said.

20 peacekeepers monitoring Israel-Syria cease-fire detained by 30 armed fighters

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Armed fighters linked to the Syrian opposition detained more than 20 U.N. peacekeepers Wednesday in the increasingly volatile zone separating Israeli and Syrian troops on the Golan Heights, a new escalation in the spillover of Syria’s civil war.

The U.N. Security Council demanded their immediate and unconditional release.

The capture comes a week after the announcement that a member of the peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF, is missing.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current Security Council president, said talks are under way between U.N. officials from the peacekeeping force and the captors.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous, who briefed the council behind closed doors, identified the captors as being from a group associated with the Syrian armed opposition, Churkin said.

Vatican secrecy wins out over American-style transparency as conclave briefings nixed

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- In the end, American-style transparency was no match for the Vatican’s obsession with secrecy.

Cardinals attending closed-door discussions ahead of the conclave to elect the next pope imposed a media blackout Wednesday, forcing the cancellation of the popular daily press briefings by U.S. cardinals that had provided crucial insights into the deliberations.

The official reason for the blackout was that some details of the secret discussions about the problems in the church appeared in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

But speculation mounted that the underlying aim of the blackout was to silence the Americans, who have been vocal in their calls for disclosure about allegations of corruption and dysfunction in the Holy See’s governance before they enter the conclave to elect a successor to Benedict XVI.

As a result, the conflict appears to be a microcosm of the likely battle lines heading into the election: American and German cardinals have indicated they want a pope who will impose some order on the Vatican’s inner workings, while the Vatican-based cardinals are defending their record and seeking to end the discussion.

Egypt court suspends parliamentary elections scheduled to begin next month

CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian court on Wednesday ordered the suspension of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April, opening a legal battle likely to delay the vote and deepening the political crisis between the Islamist president and his opponents that has polarized the nation for months.

The new confusion surrounding the election underlined the paralysis gripping Egypt, between political deadlock, infighting among state institutions, a faltering economy and a wave of protests, strikes and clashes against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that has spiraled for months around the country.

In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, scene of heavy clashes between protesters and police that have left six dead since Sunday, the violence entered a fourth day, dragging in the military. Protesters hurled stones at police firing tear gas, as army troops struggled to keep the two sides apart.

Morsi’s Islamist supporters and some in the public exhausted by the turmoil have viewed the parliamentary elections as a step toward bringing some stability, accusing the opposition of stirring up unrest to derail the voting. But the mainly liberal and secular opposition had called a boycott of the vote, saying Morsi must first find some political consensus and ease the wave of popular anger. Whether or not the opposition boycotts, the Islamists would likely win a parliamentary majority.

The new court ruling is unlikely to defuse the tension, bringing the dispute into the judiciary, which has repeatedly been used by the various sides in Egypt’s political battles.

Love of dog mushing, not wealth, draws competitors to 1,000-mile Iditarod race

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- No one who races sled dogs is going to get filthy rich any time soon, even if they win Alaska’s 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The prize for winning the sport’s premier race is only $50,400 and a new 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. That doesn’t even cover the annual dog food bill for many competitive mushers, who keep dozens of dogs in professional kennels geared to breed the sturdiest, fastest runners.

Many mushers rely on sponsors, part-time work and prizes from smaller races. Others work in seasonal jobs in tourism, construction and commercial fishing. They skimp on luxuries -- one couple even hunts moose to keep food on the table.

It’s all to maintain a passion that is being played out this week in the Iditarod, which kicked off with a ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday. The competitive portion of the race started Sunday in Willow 50 miles to the north.

"I’ve got a hundred sled dogs. Each dog eats well over $1,000 worth of food every year," said defending champion Dallas Seavey, of Willow, who was in 11th place Wednesday. "The $50,000 cash prize covers half my food bill for the year, and that’s when you win the biggest race in the sport."

Jodi Arias begins answering juror questions in death penalty trial in Arizona

PHOENIX (AP) -- Jodi Arias was peppered with questions Wednesday from a jury deciding her fate in the death penalty case against her for the June 2008 killing of her lover in Arizona.

Arizona is one of just a few others where jurors are allowed to ask questions of witnesses during a criminal trial as a matter of law. The panel in Arias’ trial had about 100 questions after her 15 days on the witness stand.

Judge Sherry Stephens read them one-by-one aloud to Arias, who responded with calm, concise answers. One focused on why she didn’t call police after she claimed Travis Alexander had repeatedly physically abused her in the months leading up to this death.

The questions provided a glimpse into the panel’s thoughts after hearing her testify about practically every detail of her life, from a self-described abusive childhood in California to her stormy romance with Alexander and her conversion to the Mormon faith.

They asked her about past relationships with other men, how it could have been so easy for her to get a gun from the victim’s closet as they fought on the day of the killing, and he chased her in a fury. Jurors also wanted to know why she tried to clean the bloody scene at Alexander’s home.

European competition watchdog fines Microsoft $733M for backsliding on browser promise

AMSTERDAM (AP) -- The European Union has fined Microsoft (euro) 561 million ($733 million) for breaking a pledge to offer personal computer users a choice of Internet browsers when they install the company’s flagship Windows operating system.

The penalty imposed by the EU’s executive arm, the Commission, is a first for Brussels: no company has ever failed to keep its end of a bargain with EU authorities before.

In 2009, Microsoft Corp. struck a broad settlement with the Commission to resolve disputes over the company’s abuse of the dominance of Windows, which had spanned more than a decade.

Back then, the company agreed to pay (euro) 860 million and promised to give Windows users the option of choosing another browser rather than having Microsoft’s Internet Explorer automatically installed on their machines.

But Microsoft failed to stick to the deal for some 15 million installations of Windows 7 software in Europe from May 2011 until July 2012. The company admitted the failure last year, adding that it was a mistake.