Officials say Iran
nuke talks hit bump, as 2 sides differ
over enrichment

VIENNA (AP) -- Iran is taking steps to improve its ability to speed up uranium enrichment that could delay implementation of a nuclear deal with six world powers because Tehran’s moves are opposed by the United States and its allies.

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said late Thursday that his country is building a new generation of centrifuges for uranium enrichment but they need further tests before they can be mass produced. His comments appeared aimed at countering criticism from Iranian hardliners by showing their country’s nuclear program is moving ahead and has not been halted by the accord.

But two officials familiar with Iran’s nuclear activities said Tehran has gone even further by interpreting a provision of the interim Geneva nuclear deal in a way rejected by many, if not all, of the six powers that sealed the Geneva deal with Iran.

They told The Associated Press Friday that Iranian technical experts told counterparts from the six powers last week that some of the cutting-edge machines have been installed at a research tract of one of Iran’s enriching sites. They gave no numbers.

Iran argued that it had a right to do so under the research and development provisions of the Nov. 24 Geneva accord, said the officials, who represent countries that are members of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear agency monitoring Tehran’s atomic activities. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the closed meetings.

Iran’s approach is being hotly disputed by the United States and other representatives of the six powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- said the officials. They said they have argued that installing any centrifuge that increases overall numbers, particularly a new model, violates Tehran’s commitment to freeze the amount and type of enriching machines at Nov. 24 levels.

1.3M Americans losing jobless benefits as emergency program expires after 5+ years

WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than 1 million Americans are bracing for a harrowing, post-Christmas jolt as extended federal unemployment benefits come to a sudden halt this weekend, with potentially significant implications for the recovering U.S. economy. A tense political battle likely looms when Congress reconvenes in the new, midterm election year.

Nudging Congress along, a vacationing President Barack Obama called two senators proposing an extension to offer his support. From Hawaii, Obama pledged Friday to push Congress to move quickly next year to address the "urgent economic priority," the White House said.

For families dependent on cash assistance, the end of the federal government’s "emergency unemployment compensation" will mean some difficult belt-tightening as enrollees lose their average monthly stipend of $1,166.

Jobless rates could drop, but analysts say the economy may suffer with less money for consumers to spend on everything from clothes to cars. Having let the "emergency" program expire as part of a budget deal, it’s unclear if Congress has the appetite to start it anew.

An estimated 1.3 million people will be cut off when the federally funded unemployment payments end Saturday.

Powerful car bomb in Lebanese capital kills a prominent pro-Western politician, 5 others

BEIRUT (AP) -- A powerful car bomb killed a prominent Lebanese politician critical of Syria and its ally Hezbollah, hitting his SUV Friday as it drove through a ritzy business district near Beirut’s waterfront, shredding trees and scattering glass and twisted scraps of metal across the pavement.

Allies of the slain politician, former finance minister Mohammed Chatah, indirectly blamed the Shiite Hezbollah group for the bombing, raising tensions between Lebanon’s two main political camps at a time when the country’s factions are already deeply at odds over the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The morning explosion echoed across Beirut and threw a pillar of black smoke above the city’s skyline. The force of the blast punched a nearly 2-meter (yard) wide crater in the street, set at least three cars on fire and shattered windows in office buildings and apartment towers up to a block away.

The 62-year-old Chatah, who was also a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States and a senior aide to ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was killed along with his driver and four others, the National News Agency reported. The Health Ministry said at least 70 people were wounded.

In a statement, the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attack and "reiterated their unequivocal condemnation of any attempt to destabilize Lebanon through political assassinations."

La. police: Wife of killer who fatally shot 2 others was suffocated and drowned

LOCKPORT, La. (AP) -- Authorities say an autopsy shows that the wife of a man accused of killing three people and wounding three others suffocated and drowned.

Terrebonne Parish Sheriff Jerry Larpenter released the results of the autopsy Friday afternoon.

Maj. Malcolm Wolfe with the sheriff’s department said in an email that the evidence also indicates that Benjamin Freeman killed his wife, Denise Freeman, before he went on a rampage and killed others Thursday.

Denise Freeman’s body was found Thursday in a bathtub by deputies hunting for Benjamin Freeman.

Benjamin Freeman killed himself Thursday with the shotgun he’d used to kill his former mother-in-law and the CEO of a hospital he left in 2011.

South Sudan agrees to end hostilities against rebels, but cease-fire is thrown into doubt

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) -- South Sudan’s government agreed Friday at a meeting of East African leaders to end hostilities against rebels accused of trying to overthrow the young country, but the cease-fire was quickly thrown into doubt because the head of the rebellion was not invited.

An army spokesman suggested the fighting could go on despite the announcement by politicians in a faraway capital.

At the meeting in Kenya, South Sudan agreed not to carry out a planned offensive to recapture Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state, which is controlled by troops loyal to Riek Machar, the former vice president vilified by the government as a corrupt coup plotter.

"We are not moving on Bentiu as long as the rebel forces abide by the cease-fire," said Michael Makuei Lueth, South Sudan’s information minister.

But no one representing Machar was at the Nairobi meeting -- a move possibly meant to deny him any elevated status that could also slow the search for peace. And Machar told the BBC that conditions for a truce were not yet in place.

Gambler gives $10K reward to Vegas cab driver who returned $300K stash left in taxi

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- A poker player who left $300,000 in the back seat of a Las Vegas taxi made good on his promise this week, handing over a $10,000 reward to the honest cabbie who returned the stash.

Yellow Checker Star Cab Company CEO Bill Shranko confirmed Friday that Gerardo Gamboa had been paid by the poker player. The cab company also honored the driver’s good deed by naming him employee of the year, awarding him $1,000 and giving him a gift certificate to a Las Vegas steakhouse.

It’s unclear how Gamboa plans to spend the belated Christmas gift. He did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press on Friday.

The tale, first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, started Monday when Gamboa made a pickup at the Bellagio casino. A hotel doorman noticed a brown paper bag on the back seat and handed it to him; Gamboa thought it was candy.

The driver said he had another passenger by the time he began wondering what kind of chocolates were in the brown paper bag. He peeked inside at a traffic light and spotted the cash.

2 years into Cuba’s free market experiment, small entrepreneurs struggle to stay afloat

HAVANA (AP) -- The dented metal pizza trays are packed away, so too the old blender that never worked when it was needed. Gone is the sweet smell of rising dough that infused Julio Cesar Hidalgo’s Havana apartment when he and his girlfriend were in business for themselves, churning out cheesy pies for hungry costumers.

Two years on the front lines of Cuba’s experiment with limited free market capitalism has left Hidalgo broke, out of work and facing a possible crushing fine. But the 33-year-old known for his wide smile and sunny disposition says the biggest loss is harder to define.

"I feel frustrated and let down," Hidalgo said, slumped in a rocking chair one recent December afternoon, shrugging his shoulders as he described the pizzeria’s collapse. "The business didn’t turn out as I had hoped."

The Associated Press recently checked in with nine small business owners whose fortunes it first reported on in 2011 as they set up shop amid the excitement of President Raul Castro’s surprising embrace of some free enterprise.

Among them were restaurant and cafeteria owners, a seamstress and taekwondo instructor, a vendor of bootleg DVDs and a woman renting her rooms out to well-heeled tourists.

Okinawa gov.OKs land reclamation for U.S. base, still wants it off southern Japanese island

TOKYO (AP) -- The governor of Okinawa gave the go-ahead Friday for land reclamation to begin for a new U.S. military base, advancing the effort to consolidate the massive U.S. troop presence on the southern Japanese island but also making protests from residents likely.

Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the Japanese Defense Ministry’s application to reclaim land for the base on Okinawa’s coast to replace the U.S. Marine Corps base in Futenma, a more congested part of Okinawa’s main island.

But he later told a news conference that he would continue pressing to move the Futenma troops off Okinawa entirely, noting estimates it would take 9 1/2 years to build the base.

"My thinking remains it would be fastest to relocate outside (Okinawa) prefecture to a place where there is already an airport," he said.

He added that he approved the land reclamation because it met all environmental requirements.

Hike in Indian gold tax to fight trade imbalance squeezes budgets, spurs smuggling

MUMBAI, India (AP) -- With India’s wedding season in full swing, the glass sales counters in Mumbai’s famed Zhaveri gold bazaars are crowded with customers eyeing elaborate headpieces, nose rings and necklaces. No one does jewelry quite like an Indian bride, who by tradition wears all the gold she can stand up in and her family can afford.

These days, though, even the most ambitious bridal budgets don’t bring the bling like they used to, thanks to hikes in import duties and a rise in local gold prices that have shoppers like Rajanikant Mehta grumbling.

Mehta, who owns a factory outside the capital, had planned to spend about 100,000 rupees ($1,800) on a necklace for the woman marrying his son late this month, but he’s unhappy about what he’s getting for his money. Gold prices in India, which imports nearly all its gold, have risen 50 percent over the past three years to about 87,000 rupees, or about $1,400, an ounce.

Thanks to the new tax and weaker rupee, that’s about a 20 percent premium over the world market price, hovering just under $1,200 an ounce.

"The price of gold should be lower," Mehta complained. "This is a globalized world. If the prices are similar to the prices elsewhere, then the purchase of gold will increase."