Furor over cancelled insurance policies quieter a month after Obama move, but coverage unclear

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A month after President Barack Obama announced people could keep insurance policies slated for cancellation under the federal health overhaul, the reversal has gotten a mixed response from insurers, state regulators and consumers.

Many consumers complained in October and November after insurers notified them that their individual policies were being canceled because they did not cover pre-existing conditions, hospitalization, prescription drugs or seven other basic benefits required under the law. In pitching the overhaul, Obama had long promised that people who liked their policies could keep them.

Then Obama announced Nov. 14 that companies could continue existing policies that don’t meet the minimum requirements if state regulators approved.

Reporting by The Associated Press shows that older policies are being allowed to continue in 36 states, either because officials allowed it after Obama’s announcement, decided not to intervene in any way or had made a decision earlier in the year to extend non-compliant policies for a period of time.

Even so, insurers were given a choice of whether to continue the policies, and some declined to do so.

After branding it terrorist group, Egypt hikes crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s security authorities launched a sweep of arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members on Thursday and warned that holding a leadership post in the group could now be grounds for the death penalty after it was officially declared a terrorist organization, stepping up the government’s confrontation with its top political nemesis.

The announcement came as a bomb exploded in a busy intersection in Cairo Thursday morning, hitting a bus and wounding five people. Though small, the blast raised fears that a campaign of violence by Islamic militants that for months has targeted police and the military could turn to civilians in retaliation for the stepped up crackdown.

The terrorist labeling of the Brotherhood -- an unprecedented step even during past decades when the group was banned -- takes to a new level the government’s moves to crush the group, which rode on elections to dominate Egypt’s politics the past three years until the military removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July after massive protests against him.

The Brotherhood vowed to "qualitatively" escalate its protests against the new military-backed interim government, whose authority it rejects. The group has struggled to bring numbers into the streets in past months under a crackdown that has already killed hundreds of its members and put thousands more in prison, including Morsi and other top leaders -- and there was little sign of any protests on Thursday.

The moves -- all playing out before the backdrop of increasing violence by al-Qaida-inspired militants --raise the potential for greater turmoil as the country nears a key Jan. 14-15 referendum on a revised constitution, a milestone in the post-Morsi political transition. The government is pushing for overwhelming passage of the new document, while the Brotherhood vows to stop it with protests.

Russian probe finds that Arafat’s death
was natural; not caused by radiation

MOSCOW (AP) -- A Russian probe into the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has found that his death wasn’t caused by radiation -- a finding that comes after a French probe found traces of the radioactive isotope polonium and a Swiss investigation said the timeframe of his illness and death was consistent with that of polonium poisoning.

Vladimir Uiba, the head of the Federal Medical and Biological Agency, said Thursday that Arafat died of natural causes and the agency had no plans to conduct further tests.

Teams of scientists from France, Switzerland and Russia were asked to determine whether polonium, a rare and extremely lethal substance, played a role in Arafat’s death in a French military hospital in 2004.

French experts found traces of polonium but said it was "of natural environmental origin," according to Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat. Swiss scientists, meanwhile, said they found elevated traces of polonium-210 and lead, and that the timeframe of Arafat’s illness and death was consistent with poisoning from ingesting polonium.

"It was a natural death; there was no impact of radiation," Uiba said, according to Russian news agencies.

Utah holdouts begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses after state ban overturned

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The last of the Utah counties that were holding out on issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples reversed course Thursday and decided to hand out licenses to all eligible applicants.

Officials for the four holdouts -- Box Elder, Utah, Piute and San Juan counties -- told The Associated Press they made the decision to offer licenses to same-sex couples.

County clerks say they had little choice after an appeals court Tuesday declined to intervene and halt gay marriage. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby ruled last week that Utah’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional, sending gay couples rushing to clerk offices for licenses.

The state plans to take its fight against gay marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court as early as Friday while it prepares an appeal of Shelby’s ruling to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Ryan Bruckman, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office.

Bruckman has said counties could be held in contempt of federal court if they refused to comply.

African leaders try to advance peace talks between South Sudanese president, his rivals

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- African leaders tried Thursday to advance peace talks between South Sudan’s president and political rivals he accuses of attempting a coup to topple the government of the world’s newest country.

As fighting persisted in parts of South Sudan’s oil-producing region, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had "a constructive dialogue" with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, according to Kiir’s foreign minister. But the fugitive former deputy president who now leads renegade troops was not represented, and no political breakthrough emerged.

The next round of meetings will be held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where regional leaders under a bloc known as IGAD are to meet Friday to discuss a report from Thursday’s meeting, South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said.

Kiir agreed "in principle" to stop hostilities and to negotiate with former Vice President Riek Machar, who is expected to be formally invited by IGAD to attend upcoming peace talks, said Benjamin, who offered no details.

It was not possible to reach Machar, as his known phone numbers were switched off.

Mass grave found in Central African Republic, day after peacekeepers killed in fighting

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) -- Elodiane Baalbe hid underneath her bed as gunfire echoed around her on Christmas Day in the capital of Central African Republic. When it finally died down on Thursday, she made a dash for safety, hiding behind houses as she fled her neighborhood.

On her way out she passed the calcified car of a unit of Chadian peacekeepers, the charred body of one soldier still upright in the vehicle inside. The sight was so horrifying that she looked away immediately. "I had my 3-year-old on my back. I looked for a second, and then I kept running," she said.

A total of six Chadian soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force were killed on Christmas Day in the Gobongo neighborhood of the capital. Their destroyed car, with at least one body still inside, had not been removed a day later, underscoring how dangerous this chaotic country has become, even for the international forces tasked with pacifying it, said African Union spokesman Eloi Yao.

As the African Union was struggling to secure the crime scene, they discovered another: Close to the presidential palace, peacekeepers discovered a mass grave.

"We found around 20 bodies in a state of decomposition in an area that we call Panthers’ Hill. The 20 were scattered in different graves in a small area. You found five bodies in one hole, three in another, two in yet another and so on. The bodies were wearing civilian dress, but we cannot know if they really were civilians or if they were militiamen," said Yao.

Crews still working but parts of U.S., Canada hit by ice might remain without power till Friday

GARDINER, Maine (AP) -- By Thursday, Bob and Katrina Johnson had grown weary of lugging around a portable generator to prevent a freezer-load of moose meat from spoiling and to keep Katrina’s mother’s home warm.

The Maine couple spent Christmas Eve at a family member’s home without electricity. Christmas morning found them at their own home without power. And to complete their holiday, they traveled to a third darkened home to exchange gifts that afternoon.

"You have to go with the flow and adapt, and do the best you can," Katrina Johnson said Thursday, before their power was finally restored. "You learn how to deal with it. Do you like it? No, but you deal with it."

Utility officials said it could be days longer before power is restored to everyone after a weekend ice storm that turned out the lights from Michigan to Maine and into Canada.

People shivered for a seventh day as a new storm blew through the upper Midwest and Northeast, shutting down part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike after a pileup involving 35 vehicles. Ten people were taken to the hospital with injuries from the crash. Another pileup on Interstate 78 in eastern Pennsylvania involving 25 to 30 vehicles sent 25 people to hospitals.