Friday April 19, 2013

UN officials believe evidence proves use of Syrian chemical weapons on rebels

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Britain and France have told the secretary-general they have reliable evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons near Aleppo, in Homs and possibly in Damascus, U.N. diplomats and officials say.

The British and French ambassadors told Ban Ki-moon in a letter on March 25 that soil samples and interviews with witnesses and opposition figures backed their belief that the government used chemical shells that had caused injuries and deaths, the diplomats and officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the letter has not been made public.

Syria asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 21 to investigate an alleged chemical weapons attack by rebels two days earlier on Khan al-Assal village in northern Aleppo province. The rebels blamed regime forces for the attack.

The following day, Britain and France asked the U.N. chief to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in two locations in Khan al-Assal and the village of Ataybah in the vicinity of Damascus, all on March 19, as well as in Homs on Dec. 23.

Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed and injured in the Khan al-Assal incident but the British and French believe this was the result of a misfired Syrian government shell, the diplomats and officials said.


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After examining the letters from Syria and the Europeans, the secretary-general appointed a team of chemical weapons experts to investigate the allegations in Khan al-Assal and in Homs, where there was the most evidence. But the Syrian government has so far refused to allow the experts to go anywhere but Khan al-Assal.

The secretary-general said Wednesday that the team of experts, nonetheless, would proceed with "its fact-finding activities." He said additional information has been requested from the three governments.

U.N. diplomats say the chemical weapons experts are expected to visit camps for Syrian refugees, neighboring countries where Syrians have fled and possibly London and Paris to try to obtain information outside Syria. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because details have not been announced.

Attorney: Man charged with mailing ricin surprised by arrest, says he is innocent

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) -- A Mississippi man charged with mailing ricin-tainted letters to national leaders wrote in online postings that he had uncovered a conspiracy to sell human body parts on the black market, and on Thursday his attorney said he was surprised by his arrest and maintains he is innocent.

Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, wore shackles and a Johnny Cash T-shirt Thursday in a federal courtroom. His handcuffs were taken off for the brief hearing, and he said little. He faces two charges on accusations of threatening President Barack Obama and others. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

He did not enter a plea on the two charges. The judge said a preliminary hearing and a detention hearing are scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday.

Attorney Christi R. McCoy said Curtis "maintains 100 percent that he did not do this."

"I know Kevin, I know his family," she said. "This is a huge shock."

Gun control backers say Senate defeat won’t stop them, but unsure about how to succeed

WASHINGTON (AP) -- One day after the demise of gun control legislation, Senate supporters of the measure vowed to try again, while a leading opponent accused President Barack Obama of taking the "low road" when he harshly criticized lawmakers who voted against key provisions.

"When good and honest people have honest differences of opinion about what policies the country should pursue about gun rights...the president of the United States should not accuse them of having no coherent arguments or of caving to the pressure," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The fate of the bill was sealed in a string of votes on Wednesday, when Republicans backed by a small group of rural-state Democrats rejected more extensive background checks for gun purchasers and also torpedoed proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

The Senate delivered its verdict four months after a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left 20 first graders and six educators dead. The tragedy prompted Obama to champion an issue that Democrats had largely avoided for two decades, and that he himself ignored during his first term in the White House.

Though the gun control bill was moribund for the foreseeable future, the Senate approved two minor amendments on Thursday. One by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., cutting aid to state and local governments that release information on gun owners, was approved 67-30. Another by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., bolstering federal mental health programs passed 95-2.

Officials: Suicide attack kills 26 in Iraq; Violence on rise as elections approach

BAGHDAD (AP) -- A suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Baghdad cafe crowded with young people late Thursday, killing at least 26 and wounding dozens ahead of provincial elections scheduled for the weekend.

The rare evening attack, which came at the start of the local weekend, brought to 30 the number of people killed across the country Thursday.

The cafe bomber struck about 9:30 p.m. Police said that two children and a woman who were passing by at the time of the blast were among the dead. More than 50 people were wounded.

The packed cafe is on the third floor of a building in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Amiriyah. Police said the cafe was packed with young people enjoying water pipes and playing pool.

Earlier in the day, a car bomb struck an army convoy in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing three soldiers and wounding five others. Hours later, one policeman was killed and three others were wounded when gunmen attacked a security checkpoint in western Baghdad, police said.

Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Violence has been on the rise ahead of provincial elections to be held on Saturday. The vote is for local officials in several provinces across the country, including the capital, Baghdad. Authorities have been vowing to bolster security ahead of the elections.

Senators unveil immigration bill with broad support as conservatives attack

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Four Democratic and four Republican senators formally unveiled a sweeping immigration bill Thursday at a news conference attended by traditional opponents from big business and labor, conservative groups and liberal ones. The lawmakers argued that this time, thanks to that broad-based support, immigration overhaul legislation can succeed in Congress.

"Powerful outside forces have helped defeat certain other initiatives in Washington, but on immigration, the opposite is proving true," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a day after senators under intense lobbying pressure blocked a major gun control package. "I am confident this issue will not fall victim to the usual partisan deadlock."

Support for the bill is already being put to the test as conservatives grow more vocal in opposition. Two Republican senators held a dueling news conference with law enforcement officials to bash the bill’s security provisions, and several conservative bloggers seized on one provision of the legislation to falsely claim that it would allow people here illegally to get free cellphones.

The 844-page bill is designed to secure the border, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status, and put 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship, as long as certain border security goals are met first.

"Yes, we offer a path to citizenship to people who didn’t come here legally," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., anticipating opposition to that provision. "They’re here, and realistically there is nothing we can do to induce them all to return to their countries of origin."

Michigan woman, 75, gets at least 22 years in prison for killing teen grandson

PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) -- A 75-year-old Detroit-area woman who killed her grandson expressed remorse Thursday but repeatedly accused his parents of dumping a troubled boy at her doorstep during a desperate, emotional plea to avoid a prison sentence that likely means death behind bars.

The judge wasn’t swayed, sending Sandra Layne away for at least 22 years and capping a wrenching case that revealed family strife, adolescent rebellion and fatal consequences.

Joanthan Hoffman was shot six times, including twice in the back, last spring in Oakland County’s West Bloomfield Township. Layne, a former teacher and real estate agent, said she shot him out of fear during a physical altercation, but a jury in March rejected her claim of self-defense.

Prosecutors said there were no signs of Layne being injured by Hoffman. A recording of a 911 call shows him being shot again while pleading for help -- a critical piece of evidence that jurors played over and over during deliberations. Judge Denise Langford Morris zeroed in on it, too, wondering why Layne simply didn’t call police if she felt helpless.

"Grandmothers are supposed to protect. ... Why did you keep shooting and how could you keep shooting?" Morris asked. "You didn’t have to keep shooting. Those were hollow-pointed bullets designed for a devastating impact."

Telescope sees distant worlds not too hot, not too cold, not too big

WASHINGTON (AP) -- NASA’s planet-hunting telescope has discovered two planets that seem like ideal places for some sort of life to flourish. And they are just the right size and in just the right place.

One is toasty, the other nippy.

The distant duo are the best candidates for habitable planets that astronomers have found so far, said William Borucki, the chief scientist for NASA’s Kepler telescope. And it’s got astronomers thinking that similar planets that are just about right for life -- "Goldilocks planets" -- might be common in the universe.

The discoveries, published online Thursday in the journal Science, mark a milestone in the search for planets where life could exist. In the four years that Kepler has been trailing Earth’s orbit, the telescope has found 122 exoplanets -- planets outside our solar system.

In the past, those planets haven’t fit all the criteria that would make them right for life of any kind from microbes to man.