Saturday February 9, 2013

Rebel push into Damascus raises fears of long fight coupled by mass exodus

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels brought their fight within a mile of the heart of Damascus on Friday, seizing army checkpoints and cutting a key highway with a row of burning tires as they pressed their campaign for the heavily guarded capital, considered the likely endgame in the nearly 2-year-old civil war.

The clashes raised fears that Damascus, a major cultural center and one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, could fall victim to a protracted battle that would bring the destruction seen in other major cities and trigger a mass refugee exodus into neighboring countries.

"Any attempt by the rebels to advance into central Damascus would mean the beginning of a very long fight," said Syrian activist Rami Jarrah. "I imagine Aleppo would be a small example of what is likely to happen in Damascus."

Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and main commercial hub, has been convulsed by violence since the summer, when rebels launched an offensive to take control of the city. Since then the fighting has been locked in a deadly stalemate, with the war-ravaged city carved up into government- and opposition-held strongholds.

The latest Damascus offensive, launched from the northeastern side of the city, did not appear to be coordinated with rebels on other sides of the capital, and it was unclear whether the opposition fighters would be able to hold their ground.

Protesters clash with police in street battles across Egypt as political turmoil continues

CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian security forces backed by water cannons fired tear gas at rock-throwing protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Friday while demonstrators clashed with riot police in cities across the country in marches against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The protests are part of a wave of opposition-led demonstrations over the past two weeks that have frequently devolved into street clashes. The violence has left more than 70 people dead and hundreds wounded, and plunged the country into a fresh cycle of bloodshed and political turmoil.

Egypt’s opposition is demanding Morsi form a new coalition government, open an investigation into the killings of protesters over the past months and give guarantees that upcoming parliamentary elections will be fair and free. They also want him to form a commission to amend the country’s newly adopted constitution, which was drafted by an Islamist-led panel and approved last December in a contentious referendum.

Some of the protesters go even further, demanding Morsi be removed from office. They also accuse the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist group from which Morsi hails, of monopolizing power and failing to deal with the country’s mounting woes.

Thousands took their demands to the streets in cities across the country on Friday, carrying Egyptian flags and pictures of slain protesters and chanting "down with the rule of the Guide," referring to Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, who critics allege is calling the shots for Morsi from behind the scenes.

The worst of the flu season appears to be over, U.S. health officials cautiously say

NEW YORK (AP) -- The worst of the flu season appears to be over.

The number of states reporting intense or widespread flu dropped again last week, U.S. health officials said Friday.

The season started earlier than normal, spiking first in the Southeast and then spreading. But now, by some measures, flu activity has been ebbing for at least four weeks in much of the country. Flu and pneumonia deaths have been dropping for two weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

"It’s likely that the worst of the current flu season is over," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said in an email.

It’s been nine years since a conventional flu season started like this one. That was the winter of 2003-04 -- one of the deadliest in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. Like this year, that season had the same dominant flu strain, one that tends to make people sicker.

Entergy takes blames for Super Bowl blackout, says outage resulted from electrical relay

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The company that supplied electricity to the Super Bowl took the blame Friday for the power outage that brought the big game to a halt, explaining that a device designed specifically to prevent a blackout failed and plunged the game into darkness for more than half an hour.

The device called a relay had been installed to protect the Superdome from problems in the cable that links the company’s incoming power line with the lines that run into the stadium.

Officials from Entergy New Orleans said the relay functioned with no problems during January’s Sugar Bowl and other earlier events. It has been removed and will be replaced.

All systems at the Superdome are now working, and the dome was to host a major Mardi Gras event Saturday night, said Doug Thornton, an executive with SMG, the company that manages the stadium for the state.

The device was installed in a building near the stadium known as "the vault," which receives a line directly from a nearby Entergy substation. Once the line reaches the vault, it splits into two cables that go into the Superdome.

Food recall: European horsemeat scandal reaches Sweden

LONDON (AP) -- Sweden on Friday became the newest European country to be hit by a widening meat products scandal, as frozen-food company Findus said it was recalling beef lasagna meals there after tests confirmed the products contained horsemeat.

Already, Britain, Ireland, Poland and France have been drawn into the growing saga over the use of horsemeat and the apparent mislabeling of products along the supply chain. Millions of burgers have been recalled in recent days due to the scandal.

Eating horsemeat is not generally a health risk, but the cases have spurred disgust in places where such meat is far from a staple.

Earlier this week, Findus said it was recalling beef lasagna meals in Britain because of concerns raised by its French supplier Comigel. Tests later found that some of those meals contained between 60 to 100 percent horsemeat instead of beef.

Then on Friday, a second British company, Aldi, confirmed that tests on Comigel-supplied products it had recently recalled -- beef lasagna and frozen spaghetti bolognese -- showed some contained between 30 and 100 percent horsemeat.

Aldi said it felt "angry and let down" by Comigel and that it was severing ties with the French supplier.

Findus official Henrik Nyberg said about 20,000 frozen lasagna meals are being recalled in Sweden. Nyberg told The Associated Press that the products don’t pose any food safety risk, and were recalled solely because they had been mislabeled.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday that the scandal is "completely unacceptable" and must be addressed.

Cameron acknowledged there is "great public concern" around the "very shocking" issue, saying "people will be very angry to find out they have been eating horse when they thought they were eating beef."

In a switch, GOP governors back expanding Medicaid

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Once largely united against the Obama administration’s new health care overhaul, a growing number of Republican governors are now buying into parts of the system.

This week, Michigan’s Rick Snyder became the sixth GOP governor to support expanding his state’s health insurance program to cover more low-income residents.

Snyder concluded that the state’s higher Medicaid cost would be outweighed by the large amount of federal money Michigan would receive. Expanding Medicaid is optional for states, and most Republican governors have not agreed to do so. Many fear the federal government could later renege on covering its share of the costs.

The administration is pushing the states to participate so that most low-income people will have health coverage when the new system begins next year.

Stocks edge higher; S&P 500 highest since November ‘07

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks are closing slightly higher, pushing the Standard & Poor’s 500 index to the highest point since November 2007.

Trading was thin as a winter storm blanketed the Northeast with snow.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 49 points to close at 13,993 Friday.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 rose eight points at 1,518. The Nasdaq composite rose 29 points to 3,194.

Traders were encouraged by a 21 percent decline in the U.S. trade deficit.

Activision Blizzard, which makes "Call of Duty" and other video games, surged 11 percent after posting sharply higher earnings and revenue.

One stock fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was thinner than usual because of the storm, 2.9 billion shares versus the recent average of 3.5 billion.

Ornery dog leads to $1M Idaho lottery win

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A group of blue collar University of Utah workers will split $1 million in lottery winnings thanks to an ornery little dog named "Stella."

Twelve years after playing the same set of numbers every month in the Idaho lottery, the group of 33 workers who work on heating and cooling university buildings hit pay dirt when Steve Hughes left his truck running while he went inside a gas station.

When he returned, his miniature pincher had locked him out by putting her paw on the manual lock. Hughes had planned to buy the ticket elsewhere but instead his girlfriend bought it there while he tried to pick the lock.

Hughes says they will each get about $20,000 after taxes. They buy the tickets in Idaho because Utah has no lottery.