U.S. officials: al-Qaida is gaining a stronger foothold in Syria as the civil war drags on
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Al-Qaida has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who fear the terrorists could be on the verge of establishing an Iraq-like foothold that would be hard to defeat if rebels eventually oust President Bashar Assad.
At least a couple of hundred al-Qaida-linked militants are already operating in Syria, and their ranks are growing as foreign fighters stream into the Arab country daily, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say. The units are spreading from city to city, with veterans of the Iraq insurgency employing their expertise in bomb-building to carry out more than two dozen attacks so far. Others are using their experience in coordinating small units of fighters in Afghanistan to win new followers.
In Syria on Friday, rebel commanders appealed anew for new and better weapons from abroad, complaining that Assad’s forces have them badly outgunned from the air and on the ground. In fact, rebel leaders say that with so little aid coming to them from the U.S. and other nations, they are slowly losing the battle for influence against hardline militants. They say their fighters are sometimes siding with extremists who are better funded and armed so they can fight the far stronger Syrian
It all could point to a widening danger posed by extremists who have joined rebels fighting the Assad government. Although the extremists are ostensibly on the same side as Washington by opposing Assad, U.S. officials fear their presence could fundamentally reshape what began as a protest movement for reform composed of largely moderate or secular Syrians. The opposition expanded into a civil war pitting Assad’s four-decade dictatorship against a movement promising a new, democratic future for the country.
The intelligence also offers some explanation for the Obama administration’s reluctance to offer military aid to the anti-Assad insurgency, which Washington says it is still trying to better understand. U.S. officials have repeatedly rejected providing any lethal assistance to the conflict that has killed at least 19,000 people over the past 17 months. With the U.S. weighing its options, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will discuss the situation with top Turkish officials and Syrian opposition activists in Istanbul on Saturday.
Air Force relieves basic training commander over widening Lackland sex scandal
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A widening sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base has led to the dismissal of the top commander who oversees basic training for every new American airman, officials said Friday.
Col. Glenn Palmer was commander of basic training for the 737th training group at the Texas base, where more than a dozen military instructors in the past year have been investigated or charged with sexually assaulting recruits. Officials familiar with the decision said Palmer has been relieved from those duties, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.
The officials said there was no indication Palmer was facing any criminal charges. In all, six instructors have been charged with offenses ranging from rape to adultery.
Investigators say more than three dozen female trainees have been victimized by male instructors at Lackland, where approximately 35,000 airmen graduate each year.
About one in five recruits are female, while most instructors are male. The most serious allegations involved an instructor sentenced to 20 years in prison last month after being convicted of raping one female recruit and sexually assaulting several others.
AWOL soldier sentenced to life in prison for planning bomb attack on Fort Hood troops
WACO, Texas (AP) -- Naser Jason Abdo sat alone in court with his hands shackled and a white cloth secured over his mouth and neck. The soldier who went AWOL and plotted to kill other troops outside a Texas Army post remained defiant Friday as he was sentenced to life in prison, not asking for mercy and vowing to never end what he considers his holy war.
"I will continue until the day the dead are called to account for their deeds," Abdo said in a low, gravelly voice through the cloth mask.
A federal judge sentenced Abdo, 22, to two life terms plus additional time. The federal prison system offers no chance of parole. He was convicted of planning what he claimed would have been a massive attack on a Texas restaurant filled with troops from Fort Hood.
In court, Abdo referred to Maj. Nidal Hasan -- the Army psychiatrist soon to be tried in a deadly shooting rampage at that Army post -- as "my brother." He said he lived in Hasan’s shadow despite "efforts to outdo him."
Abdo became a Muslim at age 17.
U.S. nuns facing Vatican order to reform, quash dissent will hold talks with church leaders
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- An American nuns group rebuked by the Vatican said Friday it would hold talks with the bishops appointed to overhaul the organization but would not "compromise its mission."
Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, called a Vatican assessment charging the sisters with tolerating dissent a "misrepresentation." But she said the more than 900 women who attended the group’s national assembly this week decided they would stay open to discussion for now with three bishops the Vatican appointed to oversee them.
"The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible but will reconsider of LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission," Farrell said at a news conference, where she declined to discuss specifics.
The organization represents about 80 percent of the 57,000 Roman Catholic nuns in the U.S.
The St. Louis meeting was the group’s first national gathering since a Vatican review concluded the sisters had "serious doctrinal problems" and promoted "certain radical feminist themes" that undermine Catholic teaching on all-male priesthood, birth control and homosexuality. The nuns also were accused of remaining nearly silent in the fight against abortion.
U.S. gas prices spike amid refinery problems and Mideast turmoil; risk seen for Obama
NEW YORK (AP) -- A surprise surge in gasoline prices is taking some of the fun out of summer.
The national average for a gallon of gas at the pump has climbed to $3.67, a rise of 34 cents since July 1. An increase in crude oil prices and problems with refineries and pipelines in the West Coast and Midwest, including a fire in California, are mostly to blame.
Analysts don’t expect gas prices to get as high as they did in April, when 10 states passed $4 a gallon and the U.S. average topped out at $3.94. But this is still unwelcome news in this sluggish economy, since any extra money that goes to fill gas tanks doesn’t get spent on movies and dinners out.
The rising prices could also put pressure on President Barack Obama in the heat of his re-election campaign.
When Phil Van Schepen recently went to fill up his dry-cleaning delivery van in Coon Rapids, Minn., he found a Post-it note a driver before him had placed on the pump faulting Obama for high gasoline prices.
Clinton’s Africa trip dodges disease, bees, even features a bit of snow and dancing
COTONOU, Benin (AP) -- On an epic journey through Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton braved an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Uganda, escaped a swarm of angry bees in Malawi and witnessed a rare snow in South Africa. She even shimmied on a dance floor, gaining the nickname "Secretary of Shake."
As she wrapped up her nine-nation African tour Friday in Benin, Clinton shattered her own travel record, logging 865,000 miles and stops in 108 countries -- 10 more countries than her nearest competitor, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Circling from Senegal around the Cape of Good Hope to Kenya and back to the West African nation of Benin, she also engineered an oil deal between fractious Sudan and South Sudan, read the riot act to feuding politicians in Kenya, visited freedom icon Nelson Mandela and got Nigeria’s leaders to step up their efforts against terrorism.
Clinton’s grueling journey -- her second major African swing -- may be remembered best for visiting Uganda amid a deadly Ebola outbreak, for the bees that didn’t sting her in Malawi and for the dance moves she displayed in South Africa on the same day that snow fell in the capital for the first time since 1968.
On Tuesday in Pretoria, as South Africans reveled in the unusual winter snowfall, Clinton hosts dubbed her "Nimkita," or "the one who brought the snow," at a gala dinner that would provide perhaps the most-viewed television footage of the trip.
Ernesto weakens over Mexico, threat of floods still possible
VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) -- Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland Friday, though forecasters warned it could still dump dangerous rains in the mountains of Mexico’s flood-prone southern Gulf region, where five people were killed by the storm.
In Tabasco state, two fishermen drowned when the stormed passed through the area Thursday, Gov. Andres Granier told reporters.
Granier said the storm’s strong winds ripped rooftops from several homes but residents refused to evacuate, fearing their possessions might be stolen. "People have chosen to stay in their homes and we are helping them," he said.
In neighboring Veracruz state, three people died when strong winds knocked down a tree that fell on their car, the state’s civil protection department said in a statement.
A 38-year-old man, his wife and their 8-year-old boy were killed, it said.
Ernesto came ashore Thursday near the waters dotted with oil rigs operated by the state oil company in the far southern Gulf of Mexico. The government closed its largest Gulf coast port, Veracruz, and the smaller ports of Alvarado and Coatzacoalcos.
Coatzacoalcos, a major oil port, got seven inches of rain in the 24 hours before Ernesto’s center passed just a few miles away, according to Mexico’s weather service. San Pedro in the neighboring state of Tabasco had seen more than 10 inches.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ernesto’s sustained winds had decreased to 35 mph by early Friday. It said the storm would continue weakening and should dissipate by midday Friday, although it warned that heavy rains could continue into Friday night.
Ernesto was a weak hurricane when it made its first landfall late Tuesday near the cruise ship port of Mahahual in Yucatan, but it weakened as it crossed the peninsula and then spun into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday night.
Apple slices recalled due to listeria danger
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sliced apples distributed to fast-food and grocery chains across the country are among packaged products being recalled due to possible listeria contamination.
No illnesses have been reported, but listeria was found on equipment used to produce apple products by Missa Bay LLC, owned by Ready Pac Foods Inc. of Swedesboro, N.J.
Packaged apple slices distributed to McDonald’s and Burger King in some states are included in the recall, as are some packaged fruit, veggies, salads and sandwiches containing apples distributed to Wawa convenience store and Wegman’s grocery chains, as well as various apple and fruit snacks with "Ready Pac" labels and apple salad kits with a "Safeway Farms" label.
The recalled snacks have use-by dates of July 8 through Aug. 20, the company said. People should check their refrigerators for products with those use-by dates, the company said, and it asked retailers to check store shelves and inventories to make sure none of the packages are there.
Missa Bay announced the voluntary recall on Friday, saying a total of 293,488 cases and 296,224 individual units went to 36 states and the District of Columbia. People who may have purchased the recalled products are asked to record use-by dates and UPC codes and contact Ready Pac at 800-800-7822. More information on the more than two dozen products recalled and the states involved is available on the company’s website at www.readypac.com .
Listeria is a bacteria that causes food poisoning and is especially dangerous to pregnant women. While a pregnant woman may experience mild, flu-like symptoms, the illness caused by listeria can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery or life-threatening infection in newborns.
Symptoms in people besides pregnant women can include fever and muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions.
An outbreak of listeria in cantaloupes last year was linked to 30 deaths and one report of a pregnant woman who had a miscarriage while she was sick.