Thursday January 31, 2013

Brazil: Nightclub owner blames ‘the whole country’ for
fire that killed 235

SANTA MARIA, Brazil (AP) -- The owner of a nightclub in southern Brazil where more than 230 people died in a fire last weekend deflected blame to "the whole country," as well as to architects and inspectors charged with making sure the building was safe, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Attorney Jader Marques said his client, Elissandro Spohr, "regretted having ever been born" because of his grief over the fire, but still blamed Sunday’s tragedy on "a succession of errors made by the whole country."

Police investigating the blaze have said it likely started when a country music band performing at the Kiss nightclub in the college town of Santa Maria lit a flare, which ignited flammable soundproofing foam on the ceiling. That initial error was compounded by the near-total lack of emergency infrastructure such as a fire alarms or sprinkler systems, police have said. The club also had only one working door and a faulty fire extinguisher.

Marques insisted in a phone interview with The Associated Press that "my client’s responsibility is having trusted too much in the inspectors and in those responsible for the construction."

"Hindsight is 20-20," he said, stressing that public officials had signed off on the club.

Israel conducts rare airstrike on Syria;
jets hit military site near Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) -- Israel conducted a rare airstrike on a military target inside Syria near the border with Lebanon, foreign officials and Syrian state TV said Wednesday, amid fears President Bashar Assad’s regime could provide powerful weapons to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah.

Regional security officials said Israel had been planning in the days leading up to the airstrike to hit a shipment of weapons bound for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful military force and a sworn enemy of the Jewish state. Among Israeli officials’ chief fears is that Assad will pass chemical weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah -- something that could change the balance of power in the region and greatly hinder Israel’s ability to conduct air sorties in Lebanon.

The regional officials said the shipment Israel was planning to strike included Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be strategically "game-changing" in the hands of Hezbollah by enabling the group to carry out fiercer attacks on Israel and shoot down Israeli jets, helicopters and surveillance drones. A U.S. official said the strike hit a convoy of trucks but did not give an exact location.

The Syrian military confirmed the strike in a statement read aloud on state TV, but it said the jets bombed a military research center in the area of Jamraya, northwest of the capital, Damascus, and about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the border with Lebanon.

The statement said the center was responsible for "raising the level of resistance and self-defense" of Syria’s military. It said the strike destroyed the center and a nearby building, killing two workers and wounding five others.

French capture Kidal, 3rd and last major Mali town held by radical Islamists

SEVARE, Mali (AP) -- French forces met no resistance Wednesday in Kidal, the Islamists’ last major town, as the two-week-old mission scored another success in its effort to dislodge the al-Qaida-linked militants from northern Mali.

The capture of Kidal came just days after French and Malian forces retook two other provincial capitals -- Gao and Timbuktu -- that also had been under harsh Islamic rule for nearly 10 months.

"Nobody questions France’s rapid deployment but the ability to hold on to the cities and territory is an immense challenge. It is not clear how they will be able to sustain the recent gains," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House.

"The Islamist extremists have not been defeated; they have melted into the heat haze of the desert."

Many fear the Islamists now will attempt to hide among civilian populations in small outlying villages, only to return and attack the weaker African forces once the French are gone.

Week of unrest weakens Egypt’s Islamist leader, may be forced to change ways

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s Islamist president has been significantly weakened by a week of violent protests across much of the country, with his popularity eroding, the powerful military implicitly criticizing him and some of his ultraconservative Islamist backers distancing themselves from him.

In his seven months since becoming Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi has weathered a series of crises. But the liberal opposition is now betting the backlash against him is so severe that he and his Muslim Brotherhood will be forced to change their ways, breaking what critics say is their monopolizing of power.

Critics claim that Morsi’s woes are mostly self-inflicted, calling him overconfident and out of sync with the public. Now the relatively high death toll -- around 60 -- the spread of protests and the use of excessive force by the police are feeding a wave of anger at the Egyptian leader and the Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which he hails and which is the foundation of his administration.

Morsi did not help matters when he addressed the nation Sunday night in a brief but angry address in which he at times screamed and wagged his finger. In that speech, he slapped a 30-day state of emergency and curfew on three Suez Canal provinces hit the hardest by the violence and vowed to take even harsher measures if peace is not restored.

In response, the three cities defied the president in a rare open rebellion that handed him an embarrassing loss of face.

Alabama school bus driver fatally shot; suspect grabs 6-year-old passenger and runs

MIDLAND CITY, Ala. (AP) -- Police, SWAT teams and negotiators were at a rural property where a man was believed to be holed up in a homemade bunker Wednesday after fatally shooting the driver of a school bus and fleeing with a 6-year-old child passenger, authorities said.

The man boarded the stopped school bus in the town of Midland City on Tuesday afternoon and shot the driver when he refused to let the child off the bus, said Dale County Sheriff Wally Olsen. The driver later died of his wounds. His identity wasn’t released.

The shooter took the child, authorities said.

County coroner Woodrow Hilboldt told The Associated Press the overnight standoff continued early Wednesday with tactical units, negotiators and other officers at the scene near a church. He said the suspect was believed to be in an underground shelter on his property.

"That’s what has been described to me as an underground bunker. Someplace to get out of the way of a tornado," Hilboldt said.

Phoenix police at home connected to office complex shooting that injured 3

PHOENIX (AP) -- A gunman remained at large Wednesday after opening fire at a Phoenix office building and wounding three people, one of them critically.

Authorities believe there was only one shooter and don’t think it was a random act.

A SWAT team surrounded a house 7 miles from the shooting scene that police said is connected to the shooting. Officers were talking to someone who was not the suspect, Sgt. Steve Martos said.

Police didn’t immediately release the name of the possible suspect or a motive for the shooting, which left two other victims with non-life threatening injuries.

They also wouldn’t identify the three people wounded.

Powerful storm flips cars, decimates homes along destructive path through Southeast

ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. (AP) -- A massive storm system raked the Southeast on Wednesday, spawning tornadoes and dangerous winds that overturned cars on a major Georgia interstate and demolished homes and businesses, killing at least two people.

In northwest Georgia, the storm system tossed vehicles on Interstate 75 onto their roofs. The highway was closed for a time, and another main thoroughfare remained closed until crews could safely remove downed trees and power lines from the road.

WSB-TV in Atlanta aired footage showing an enormous funnel cloud bearing down on Adairsville, about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, as the storm ripped through the city’s downtown area. The system flattened homes and wiped out parts of a large manufacturing plant. Pieces of insulation hung from trees and power poles, while the local bank was missing a big chunk of its roof.

One person was killed and nine were hospitalized for minor injuries, state emergency management officials said. Residents said no traces remained of some roadside produce stands -- a common sight on rural Georgia’s back roads.

One other death was reported in Tennessee after an uprooted tree fell onto a storage shed where a man had taken shelter.

N.J. Sen. Menendez says he traveled with donor, denies engagement with prostitutes in Dominican

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sen. Robert Menendez’s office said Wednesday that he traveled three times on a plane owned by a prominent Florida political donor but that the trips were paid for and reported appropriately. At the same time, Menendez’s office said unsubstantiated allegations the senator engaged in sex with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false.

The FBI searched the West Palm Beach, Fla., office of the donor -- eye doctor Salomon Melgen -- on Tuesday night and early Wednesday, but it was unclear if the raid was related to Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.

Records filed in Palm Beach County show an Internal Revenue Service lien against Melgen of more than $11.1 million for unpaid taxes from 2006 through 2009. Prior liens for taxes from 1998 to 2000 were subsequently withdrawn, records show.

The Daily Caller, a conservative website, reported shortly before the November election that Menendez traveled on Melgen’s private plane to the Dominican Republic to engage in sex with prostitutes.

Menendez’s office said that any accusations of engaging with prostitutes "are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false."