U.S. weighs airstrikes, humanitarian aid to assist trapped religious minorities in Iraq

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House is considering dropping humanitarian supplies by air to thousands of displaced religious minorities in northwestern Iraq who are under siege from Islamic militants, possibly in combination with U.S. airstrikes, according to U.S. defense officials and others familiar with the administration’s thinking.

The administration is also weighing military options, to include airstrikes, in the event that American interests are threatened by the Islamic State group, whose fighters who have made gains toward the Kurdish capital city of Irbil, two senior defense officials said.

The U.S. has a diplomatic consulate in Irbil as well as a military operations center that was set up there recently to advise and assist the Iraqi military in that region.

President Barack Obama met with his national security team Thursday morning to discuss the crisis as the Islamic State group made further gains. Airstrikes in particular would mark a significant shift in the U.S. strategy in Iraq, where the military fully withdrew in late 2011 after nearly a decade of war.

Officials said Obama could announce a decision as early as Thursday. The people familiar with the administration’s thinking insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.


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Militants seize Iraq’s largest dam near Mosul, Kurdish
troops withdraw

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Militants from the Islamic State group seized Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam on Thursday, giving them control of enormous power and water resources and leverage over the Tigris River that runs through the heart of Baghdad.

The fighting has trapped tens of thousands of members of religious minorities on a mountaintop, and the Obama administration was weighing possible airstrikes or airdrops of food and medicine to help them, according to U.S. defense officials and others familiar with the administration’s thinking. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Thursday’s dam seizure was the latest in a string of victories by the Sunni radical group as it expands its hold in northern Iraq, driving back Kurdish forces, sending minority communities fleeing and unleashing bombings that have killed more than 90 people in the capital over the past two days.

After a week of attempts, the radical Islamist gunmen successfully stormed the Mosul Dam Thursday and forced Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area, residents living near the dam told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.

The al-Qaida breakaway group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming it had taken control of the dam and vowing to continue "the march in all directions," as it expands the Islamic state, or Caliphate, it has imposed over broad swathes of territory straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. The group said it has seized a total of 17 Iraqi cities, towns and targets -- including the dam and a military base -- over the past five days. The statement could not be verified but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group.

Russia retaliates over Ukraine sanctions, banning imported food products from the West

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia retaliated Thursday for sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine by banning most food imports from the West, dealing a blow to Europe that also takes aim at hurting the U.S., Canada and Australia.

In choosing to make an economic move, President Vladimir Putin signaled he isn’t ready at this point to send troops into Ukraine. He also showed he’s willing to inflict significant pain on his own people to make a point.

The U.S. and the European Union have accused Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, of supplying arms and expertise to a pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and have responded by slapping sanctions on Russian individuals and companies. Tensions rose further last month when a Malaysian jetliner was shot down over rebel-held territory, killing all 298 people aboard, and the West accused Russia of most likely providing the militants with the missiles that may have been used to bring the plane down.

Moscow denies supporting the rebels and accuses the West of blocking attempts at a political settlement by encouraging Kiev to use its military to crush the insurgency.

The ban, announced by a somber Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at a televised Cabinet meeting, covers all imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, milk and milk products from the U.S. and Canada; all 28 EU countries, plus Norway; and Australia. It will last for one year.

Africans face long wait for unproven Ebola drug; Liberia deploys troops to protect capital

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) -- Africans seeking a drug to help contain the Ebola virus will have to wait months before a potentially life-saving experimental treatment used on two infected Americans is produced even in small amounts, officials said.

And there are no guarantees that the medication known as ZMapp would help curb the spread of the dreaded disease, which starts with a fever and body aches and sometimes progresses to serious bleeding. Supplies of the drug are limited. It has never been tested for safety or effectiveness in humans.

The health minister of Nigeria, one of the four countries where Ebola has broken out, told a news conference in his country that he had asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about access to the drug. A CDC spokesman said Wednesday "there are virtually no doses available."

Some people in other affected countries questioned why the medicine has not been offered to infected Africans.

Anthony Kamara, a 27-year-old man riding a bicycle in Freetown, Sierra Leone, said "Americans are very selfish. They only care about the lives of themselves and no one else."

NATO pledges Ukraine support as shelling intensifies in regions wracked by conflict

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- NATO’s chief defied mounting Russian belligerence Thursday with a pledge to provide assistance to Ukraine, which is battling to quash an insurgency being waged by pro-Russia rebels in the country’s east.

The show of support from Anders Fogh Rasmussen comes as government troops increasingly focus their push to claw back rebel-held territory on the stronghold of Donetsk. Ukraine appears to be ratcheting up the urgency of its onslaught against the backdrop of an alleged escalation of Russian troop presence on the border.

"In response to Russia’s aggression, NATO is working even more closely with Ukraine to reform its armed forces and defense institutions," Rasmussen said during a visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

In a sign of sagging morale among rebel forces, separatist authorities issued a desperate plea for assistance Thursday, complaining in a statement that a "critical situation has developed with the militia’s food, uniform and ammunition supplies."

In Donetsk, sustained shelling struck residential buildings and a hospital, killing at least four people and wounding 10 others, local officials said.

Hamas rejects disarmament proposal, trades threats of renewed violence on eve of truce expiry

GAZA CITY, Gaza City (AP) -- With a deadline looming hours away, Hamas on Thursday rejected Israeli demands it disarm and threatened to resume its rocket attacks if its demands for lifting a crippling blockade on Gaza were not met.

The hard-line stance, voiced by a senior Hamas official at the group’s first rally since a cease-fire in the Gaza war took effect on Tuesday, signaled that indirect negotiations in Cairo over a permanent truce in Gaza were not making headway. It was an ominous sign ahead of Friday’s expiration of a temporary three-day truce that ended a month of fighting.

A text message from Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, warned there would be no extension of the cease-fire if there was no agreement to permanently lift the blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt since the militant group overran Gaza in 2007.

Abu Obeida, the al-Qassam spokesman, appeared on the group’s Al-Aqsa TV station and said Hamas was "ready to go to war again." He threatened to launch a long-term war of attrition that would cripple life in Israel’s big cities and disrupt air traffic at Israel’s international airport in Tel Aviv.

He also appealed to Hamas negotiators in Egypt not to accept an extension of the cease-fire without an agreement on lifting the blockade. "The resistance is capable of imposing its conditions," he said.

Detroit-area homeowner convicted of 2nd-degree murder for killing unarmed woman on his porch

DETROIT (AP) -- A jury convicted a suburban Detroit homeowner of second-degree murder and manslaughter Thursday in the killing of an unarmed woman on his porch last year, rejecting his claim that he was afraid for his life when he heard the woman pounding on his door in the middle of the night and had acted in self-defense.

Theodore Wafer, 55, shot Renisha McBride through a screen door on Nov. 2, hours after she crashed into a parked car a half-mile from his house. No one knows why she ended up at the Dearborn Heights home, although prosecutors speculated that the 19-year-old woman may have been seeking help.

The jury convicted Wafer of second-degree murder, manslaughter and a gun-related charge after deliberating for about eight hours over two days.

Wayne County Judge Dana Hathaway warned that she would lock people up for any outbursts, and the courtroom was silent after the verdict was read.

McBride’s mother, Monica McBride, cried and clasped her hands as if praying when the jury’s decision was announced. She gave long hugs to prosecutors as the courtroom emptied.

3 decades after shocking mass suicide-murder, remains of 9 Jonestown bodies found in Delaware

DOVER, Del. (AP) -- More than 35 years after the infamous suicide-murder of some 900 people -- many forced to drink a cyanide-laced grape punch -- in Jonestown, Guyana, the cremated remains of nine of the victims were found in a dilapidated former funeral home in Delaware, officials said Thursday.

The grisly discovery brought back memories of a tragedy that killed hundreds of children and a U.S. congressman and horrified Americans.

The remains were clearly marked, with the names of the deceased included on death certificates, authorities said. But Kimberly Chandler, spokeswoman for the Delaware Division of Forensic Science, declined to release the names of the nine people to The Associated Press. Chandler said officials were working to notify relatives.

She said the agency found the remains last week on a site visit prompted by a call from the property’s current owner -- a bank, according to Dover police. Officials found 38 containers of remains, 33 of which were marked and identified. Chandler said the containers spanned a period from about 1970 to the 1990s and included remains from Jonestown, established by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones.

"It’s simply a case of unclaimed cremains at a closed funeral home," Chandler said, adding that there is no reason to believe the five unmarked containers contain remains of more Jonestown victims.