Friday December 14, 2012

Russia acknowledges rebels might win in Syria, positioning itself for Assad’s fall

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria’s most powerful ally and protector, Russia, began positioning itself Thursday for the fall of President Bashar Assad, saying for the first time that rebels might overthrow him and preparing to evacuate thousands of Russian citizens from the country.

The head of NATO echoed the Russian assessment, saying the Syrian government is near collapse following a nearly two-year conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people and threatened to ignite the Middle East. Assad appears to be running out of options, with insurgents at the gates of the capital and the country fracturing under the weight of a devastating civil war.

"An opposition victory can’t be excluded, unfortunately, but it’s necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Moscow’s Middle East envoy, said during hearings at a Kremlin advisory body.

Still, Bogdanov gave no immediate signal that Russia would change its pro-Syria stance at the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has shielded Damascus from world sanctions.

The U.S.commended Russia "for finally waking up to the reality and acknowledging that the regime’s days are numbered," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.


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Obama, Boehner to meet at White House on ‘fiscal cliff’

WASHINGTON (AP) -- With time growing short and no "fiscal cliff" progress evident, President Barack Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner set face-to-face negotiations for late Thursday at the White House.

The meeting comes shortly after Boehner publicly accused Obama of dragging out negotiations on a federal tax-and-spending agreement that would avoid an economy-threatening series of wide-ranging tax increases and spending cuts that could come in less than three weeks. Other Republicans say such a tactic seems to be working when it comes to a deal forcing up tax rates for the wealthy.

The two sides appear far apart on the issues, and Boehner is scheduled to return home to Ohio on Friday.

An impasse between Obama and Boehner, R-Ohio, over the president’s demand for higher tax rates on income over $250,000 continues to be a main obstacle in negotiations to avoid broad tax increases and spending cuts that will be triggered automatically on Jan. 1. Boehner says the president refuses to offer spending cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare whose costs are rapidly rising.

"Unfortunately, the White House is so unserious about cutting spending that it appears willing to slow-walk any agreement and walk our economy right up to the fiscal cliff," Boehner told reporters Thursday.

GOP decries ‘regulatory cliff’ as Obama admin ponders new rules put off in campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) -- While the "fiscal cliff" of looming tax increases and spending cuts dominates political conversation in Washington, some Republicans and business groups see signs of a "regulatory cliff" that they say could be just as damaging to the economy.

For months, federal agencies and the White House have sidetracked dozens of major regulations that cover everything from power plant pollution to workplace safety to a crackdown on Wall Street.

The rules had been largely put on hold during the presidential campaign as the White House sought to quiet Republican charges that President Barack Obama was an overzealous regulator who is killing U.S. jobs.

But since the election, the Obama administration has quietly reopened the regulations pipeline.

In recent weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules to update water quality guidelines for beaches and deal with runoff from logging roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, has proposed long-delayed regulations requiring auto makers to include event data recorders -- better known as "black boxes" -- in all new cars and light trucks beginning in 2014.

Afghan’s Hamid Karzai accepts invitation to come to Washington for talks with Obama

KABUL (AP) -- President Hamid Karzai said Thursday he will meet President Barack Obama in Washington next month to discuss a postwar U.S. role in his country, whose fragile security was highlighted hours earlier by a suicide bombing that killed one U.S. troop and two Afghan civilians.

At a news conference with visiting Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Karzai said he and Obama will discuss how many U.S. troops will remain after the Western combat mission ends in December 2014. He said he understands that immunity from Afghan laws for those remaining Americans is of "immense importance" to Washington, but he added that he has his own priorities in negotiating a postwar U.S. role.

"Give us a good army, a good air force and a capability to project Afghan interests in the region," Karzai said, and he would be ready to argue "with ease and with reason" that his country should grant immunity to U.S. troops.

Obama has said the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan and risk that it might revert to the al-Qaida haven it became in the 1990s after the Taliban came to power. Nor has he indicated what size and scope of post-2104 military mission he thinks is necessary and affordable.

The Taliban are a small but resilient force, even after 11 years of fighting a vastly larger U.S.-led international force. They managed to send a dramatic reminder Thursday, claiming credit for the suicide bombing that killed three and wounded 17 near an entrance to Kandahar Air Field, the largest Western base in southern Afghanistan. Panetta and his traveling party had left the air field about two hours before the attack.

NKorea still years from reliable missiles, despite successful rocket launch

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- After 14 years of painstaking labor, North Korea finally has a rocket that can put a satellite in orbit. But that doesn’t mean the reclusive country is close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Experts say Pyongyang is years from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland and other distant targets, though it did gain attention and the outrage of world leaders Wednesday with its first successful launch of a three-stage, long-range rocket.

A missile program is built on decades of systematic, intricate testing, something extremely difficult for economically struggling Pyongyang, which faces guaranteed sanctions and world disapproval each time it stages an expensive launch. North Korea will need larger and more dependable missiles, and more advanced nuclear weapons, to threaten U.S. shores, though it already poses a threat to its neighbors.

"One success indicates progress, but not victory, and there is a huge gap between being able to make a system work once and having a system that is reliable enough to be militarily useful," said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command officer and a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a think tank on space policy.

North Korea’s satellite launch came only after repeated failures and hundreds of millions of dollars. It is an achievement for young authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, whose late father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, made development of missiles and nuclear weapons a priority despite international opposition and his nation’s poverty.

Friends of man accused in Ore. mall shooting express shock, disbelief

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- To police and witnesses, Jacob Tyler Roberts was a gunman on a mission, shooting numerous rounds from a semiautomatic rifle as he stalked through a Portland mall, ultimately killing two people and seriously injuring another. To Roberts’ shocked friends and family, he was just Jake, a happy, easygoing 22-year-old who liked video games and talked about moving to Hawaii.

"Jake was never the violent type," Roberts’ ex-girlfriend, Hannah Patricia Sansburn, told ABC News. "His main goal was to make you laugh, smile, make you feel comfortable. You can’t reconcile the differences.

"I hate him for what he did, but I can’t hate the person I knew because it was nothing like the person who would go into a mall and go on a rampage," she said.

The Clackamas County sheriff’s office said Roberts had several fully loaded magazines when he arrived at the mall Tuesday. Roberts parked his 1996 green Volkswagen Jetta in front of the second-floor entrance to Macy’s and walked through the store into the mall and began firing randomly in the food court.

He fatally shot Steven Mathew Forsyth, 45, and Cindy Ann Yuille, 54, the sheriff said. Kristina Shevchenko, 15, was wounded and in serious condition Wednesday.

Carter Center won’t monitor Egypt’s vote on draft constitution; rights groups warn of fraud

CAIRO (AP) -- Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s center said Thursday it will not deploy monitors for Egypt’s constitutional referendum, amid deepening polarization over the process of adopting a document guiding how the country is to be governed following its 2011 revolution.

The center was the main international group monitoring earlier Egyptian votes, and its absence increases the likelihood that, if the constitution backed by President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies passes, the rushed process leading to the Saturday referendum will further undermine the document’s legitimacy.

It also comes as opposition and rights groups warn that the breakneck pace of organizing the vote and changes to the procedure for accrediting elections monitors may lead to fraud in the vote.

Egypt was plunged into political crisis three weeks ago when Morsi issued a decree giving himself near-absolute power. The president rescinded the decree in the face of broad criticism and huge street protests, but not before a panel charged with drawing up the country’s constitution pushed through a draft in a marathon Dec. 1 overnight session and the president ordered a referendum two weeks later.

Morsi’s supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has gripped Egypt since the March 2011 overthrow of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. His opponents say minority concerns have been ignored and the constitution is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow Islamists to restrict civil liberties.

European court condemns CIA in landmark ruling on U.S. rendition

PARIS (AP) -- A European court issued a landmark ruling Thursday that condemned the CIA’s so-called extraordinary renditions programs and bolstered those who say they were illegally kidnapped and tortured as part of an overzealous war on terrorism.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that a German car salesman was a victim of torture and abuse, in a long-awaited victory for a man who had failed for years to get courts in the United States and Europe to recognize him as a victim.

Khaled El-Masri says he was kidnapped from Macedonia in 2003, mistaken for a terrorism suspect, then held for four months and brutally interrogated at an Afghan prison known as the "Salt Pit" run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He says that once U.S. authorities realized he was not a threat, they illegally sent him to Albania and left him on a mountainside.

The European court, based in Strasbourg, France, ruled that El-Masri’s account was "established beyond reasonable doubt" and that Macedonia "had been responsible for his torture and ill-treatment both in the country itself and after his transfer to the U.S. authorities in the context of an extra-judicial rendition."

It said the government of Macedonia violated El-Masri’s rights repeatedly and ordered it to pay $78,500 in damages. Macedonia’s Justice Ministry said it would enforce the court ruling and pay El-Masri the damages.