Saturday January 12, 2013

CDC: Nearly all states now reporting widespread flu, but some areas easing a bit

NEW YORK (AP) -- Flu is now widespread in all but three states as the nation grapples with an earlier-than-normal season. But there was one bit of good news Friday: The number of hard-hit areas declined.

The flu season in the U.S. got under way a month early, in December, driven by a strain that tends to make people sicker. That led to worries that it might be a bad season, following one of the mildest flu seasons in recent memory.

The latest numbers do show that the flu surpassed an "epidemic" threshold last week. That is based on deaths from pneumonia and influenza in 122 U.S. cities. However, it’s not unusual -- the epidemic level varies at different times of the year, and it was breached earlier this flu season, in October and November.

And there’s a hint that the flu season may already have peaked in some spots, like in the South. Still, officials there and elsewhere are bracing for more sickness

In Ohio, administrators at Miami University are anxious that a bug that hit employees will spread to students when they return to the Oxford campus next week.

Activists say Syrian rebels attacking bases after capturing key air base in country’s north

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels and Islamic militants overran a major military air base in the north Friday and, buoyed by the victory, intensified their offensive on two other bases in their most aggressive campaign yet to erode the air supremacy on which the regime of President Bashar Assad has increasingly relied the past year.


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The rebels control the ground in large parts of the north, but they have been unable to solidify their grip because they - and civilians in rebel-held regions - come under withering strikes from aircraft stationed at a number of military bases in the area.

The Taftanaz air base in Idlib province is the largest air base yet to be captured by the rebels. It is the biggest field in the north for helicopters the military uses both for strikes on rebels and for delivering supplies to government troops still in the north to avoid the danger of rebel attacks on the roads.

Shortly after they captured the Taftanaz field, rebels in the neighboring province of Aleppo intensified their assault on the Mannagh air base and the international airport of the city of Aleppo, which includes a military base. Rebels have been trying to capture the two sites since last week, along with a third airfield known as Kweires.

The latest fighting came as international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi expressed little hope for a political solution for Syria’s nearly 2-year-old civil war anytime soon after meeting Friday with senior Russian and U.S. diplomats at the United Nations’ European headquarters.

Video game industry defends practices, cites lower violence amid gun-control discussion

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The video game industry, blamed by some for fostering a culture of violence, defended its practices Friday at a White House meeting exploring how to prevent horrific shootings like the recent Connecticut elementary school massacre.

Vice President Joe Biden, wrapping up three days of wide-ranging talks on gun violence prevention, said the meeting was an effort to understand whether the U.S. was undergoing a "coarsening of our culture."

"I come to this meeting with no judgment. You all know the judgments other people have made," Biden said at the opening of a two-hour discussion. "We’re looking for help."

The gaming industry says that violent crime, particularly among the young, has fallen since the early 1990s while video games have increased in popularity.

There are conflicting studies on the impact of video games and other screen violence. Some conclude that video games can desensitize people to real-world violence or temporarily quiet part of the brain that governs impulse control. Other studies have concluded there is no lasting effect.

French forces launch military operations against Islamist extremists in Mali

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- France launched airstrikes Friday to help the government of Mali defeat al-Qaida-linked militants who captured more ground this week, dramatically raising the stakes in the battle for this vast desert nation.

French President Francois Hollande said the "terrorist groups, drug traffickers and extremists" in northern Mali "show a brutality that threatens us all." He vowed that the operation would last "as long as necessary."

France said it was taking the action in Mali at the request of President Dioncounda Traore, who declared a state of emergency because of the militants’ advance.

The arrival of the French troops in their former colony came a day after the Islamists moved the closest yet toward territory still under government control and fought the Malian military for the first time in months, seizing the strategic city of Konna.

Sanda Abou Moahmed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine group, condemned Mali’s president for seeking military help from its former colonizer.

School board in Ohio plans to arm some non-teaching
staffers with guns

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- A rural school district in Ohio is drawing attention with its plans to arm a handful of its non-teaching employees with handguns this year -- perhaps even janitors.

Four employees in the Montpelier schools have agreed to take a weapons training course and carry their own guns inside the district’s one building, which houses 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, school officials said.

"It’s kind of a sign of the times," Superintendent Jamie Grime said Friday.

The Toledo Blade reported that the employees were janitors, but school officials would not confirm that to The Associated Press, saying only that they are employees who don’t have direct supervision over the students in the northwest Ohio district.

The four employees who will carry guns all volunteered to take part, Grime said. The school plans to pay for them to attend a two-day training course.

After fire, fuel leak, FAA to conduct review of Boeing’s 787 -- but officials say plane is safe

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government stepped in Friday to assure the public that Boeing’s new 787 "Dreamliner" is safe to fly, even as it launched a comprehensive review to find out what caused a fire, a fuel leak and other worrisome incidents this week.

Despite the incidents, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared, "I believe this plane is safe, and I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes and taking a flight." Administrator Michael Huerta of the Federal Aviation Administration said his agency has seen no data suggesting the plane isn’t safe but wanted the review to find out why safety-related incidents were occurring.

The 787 is the aircraft maker’s newest and most technologically advanced airliner, and the company is counting heavily on its success. It relies more than any other modern airliner on electrical signals to help power nearly everything the plane does. It’s also the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium ion batteries, which charge faster and can be molded to space-saving shapes compared to other airplane batteries. The plane is made with lightweight composite materials instead of aluminum.

A fire ignited Monday in the battery pack of an auxiliary power unit of a Japan Airlines 787 empty of passengers as the plane sat on the tarmac at Boston’s Logan International Airport. It took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze. Also this week, a fuel leak delayed a flight from Boston to Tokyo of another Japan Airlines 787.

On Friday, Japan’s All Nippon Airways reported two new cases of problems with the aircraft. ANA spokeswoman Ayumi Kunimatsu said a very small amount of oil was discovered leaking from an engine of a 787 flight from southern Japan’s Miyazaki airport to Tokyo.

Obama, Karzai agree to put Afghan forces
in lead combat role this spring

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Uneasy allies, President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrated Friday they could agree on one big idea: After 11 years of war, the time is right for U.S. forces to let Afghans do their own fighting. U.S. and coalition forces will take a battlefield back seat by spring and, by implication, go home in larger numbers soon thereafter.

"It will be a historic moment," Obama declared.

In a White House meeting billed as a chance to take stock of a war that now ranks as America’s longest, Obama and Karzai agreed to accelerate their timetable for putting the Afghanistan army in the lead combat role nationwide. It will happen this spring instead of summer -- a shift that looks small but looms larger in the debate over how quickly to bring U.S. troops home and whether some should stay after combat ends in 2014.

The two leaders also agreed that the Afghan government would be given full control of detention centers and detainees. They did not reach agreement on an equally sticky issue: whether any U.S. troops remaining after 2014 would be granted immunity from prosecution under Afghan law. Immunity is a U.S. demand that the Afghans have resisted, saying they want assurances on other things -- like authority over detainees -- first.

At a joint news conference with Karzai in the White House East Room, Obama said he was not yet ready to decide the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals between now and December 2014. That is the target date set by NATO and the Afghan government for the international combat mission to end. There are now 66,000 U.S. troops there.

Kerry’s outreach to Syrian leader seems certain to draw scrutiny at confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. John Kerry has held up Syria as a country that could bring peace and stability to the Mideast and predicted that the now-disgraced government of President Bashar Assad would pursue a legitimate relationship with the United States. Those assertions are certain to draw scrutiny at Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of state as Assad’s brutal crackdown has plunged his country into civil war.

Conservative websites have mocked the relationship as a Kerry-Assad "bromance," seizing on comments the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman has made in speeches and during his six visits to Syria.

The politically tinged criticism of President Barack Obama’s nominee fails to capture the context of Kerry’s words, his more recent statements and what has been a complicated outreach to a mercurial and defiant leader. Both Republican and Democratic administrations also have struggled to fathom the Assad family, which has kept a tight grip on power for four decades and at times has cooperated with the West.

Syria supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to force Iraq out of Kuwait after President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, James A. Baker III, made a dozen trips to Damascus, the Syrian capital. Syria was an outcast for years and the U.S. pulled its ambassador in February 2005 after the assassination of Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was widely accused of involvement in the killing, which Damascus has denied.

The nearly two-year civil war in Syria and the anger and frustration of some Republican lawmakers with Obama’s response is likely to produce several questions for Kerry. One of the newest committee members and a Kerry friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been the most vocal critic of Obama on Syria, complaining that the president’s policies have proved futile in stopping the bloodshed.