Friday February 22, 2013

Winter storm rumbles across Plains, drops more than foot of snow in Kan.; schools, gov’t close

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Blinding snow, at times accompanied by thunder and lightning, bombarded much of the nation’s midsection Thursday, causing whiteout conditions, shutting down large swaths of interstate highways and forcing schools, businesses and even state legislatures to close.

Kansas was the epicenter of the winter storm, with parts of the state buried under 14 inches of powdery snow, but winter storm warnings stretched from eastern Colorado through Illinois. Freezing rain and sleet were forecast for southern Missouri, southern Illinois and Arkansas. St. Louis received all of the above -- a treacherous mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.

Several accidents were blamed on icy and slushy roadways, including two fatal accidents. Most schools in Kansas and Missouri, and many in neighboring states, were closed. Legislatures shut down in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.

"Thundersnow" rumbled through Kansas and Missouri earlier Thursday. National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett said that’s the result of an unstable air mass, much like a thunderstorm.

"Instead of pouring rain, it’s pouring snow," Truett said. And pouring was a sound description, with snow falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour or more in some spots.

Flu vaccine doing poor job of protecting the elderly; CDC
stands by shots for senior citizens

ATLANTA (AP) -- It turns out this year’s flu shot is doing a startlingly dismal job of protecting senior citizens, the most vulnerable age group.

The vaccine is proving only 9 percent effective in people 65 and older against the harsh strain of the flu that is predominant this season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

Health officials are baffled as to why this is so. But the findings help explain why so many older people have been hospitalized with the flu this year.

Despite the findings, the CDC stood by its recommendation that everyone over 6 months get flu shots, the elderly included, because some protection is better than none, and because those who are vaccinated and still get sick may suffer less severe symptoms.

"Year in and year out, the vaccine is the best protection we have," said CDC flu expert Dr. Joseph Bresee.

Police believe hotel altercation sparked car-to-car shooting,
crash that killed 3 in Vegas

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- The Las Vegas Strip became a scene of deadly violence early Thursday when someone in a black Range Rover opened fire on a Maserati, sending it crashing into a taxi that burst into flames, leaving three people dead and at least six injured.

Police believe an altercation earlier at an unspecified casino resort prompted the car-to-car attack in the heart of the Strip at Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road.

The crossroads is the site of several major hotel-casinos, including Bellagio, Caesars Palace and Bally’s.

"This doesn’t happen where we come from, not on this scale," said Mark Thompson, who was visiting from Manchester, England, with his wife. "We get stabbings, and gang violence, but this is like something out of a movie. Like ‘Die Hard’ or something."

Police said they were contacting authorities in three neighboring states about the Range Rover Sport with dark tinted windows, distinctive black custom rims and paper dealer ads in place of license plates that fled the scene about 4:20 a.m.

Car bomb kills 53 in Syrian capital as rebels mount a sustained challenge in civil war

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- A car bomb exploded Thursday near Syria’s ruling party headquarters in Damascus, killing at least 53 people and scattering mangled bodies among the blazing wreckage in one of the bloodiest days in the capital since the uprising began almost two years ago.

Elsewhere in the city, two other bombs struck intelligence offices, killing 22, and mortar rounds hit the army’s central command, activists said.

Recent rebel advances in the Damascus suburbs, combined with the bombings and three straight days of mortar attacks, mark the most sustained challenge of the civil war for control of the seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.

Syrian state media said the car bombing near the Baath Party headquarters and the Russian Embassy was a suicide attack that killed 53 civilians and wounded more than 200, with children among the casualties. Anti-regime activists put the death toll at 61, which would make it the deadliest Damascus bombing of the revolt.

The violence has shattered the sense of normalcy that the Syrian regime has desperately tried to maintain in Damascus, a city that has largely been insulated from the bloodshed and destruction that has left other urban centers in ruins.

In Mali, al-Qaida kept Xeroxed tipsheet with 22 suggestions on how to avoid drones

TIMBUKTU, Mali (AP) -- One of the last things the bearded fighters did before leaving this city was to drive to the market where traders lay their carpets out in the sand.

The al-Qaida extremists bypassed the brightly colored, high-end synthetic floor coverings and stopped their pickup truck in front of a man selling more modest mats woven from desert grass, priced at $1.40 apiece. There they bought two bales of 25 mats each, and asked him to bundle them on top of the car, along with a stack of sticks.

"It’s the first time someone has bought such a large amount," said the mat seller, Leitny Cisse al-Djoumat. "They didn’t explain why they wanted so many."

Military officials can tell why: The fighters are stretching the mats across the tops of their cars on poles to form natural carports, so that drones cannot detect them from the air.

The instruction to camouflage cars is one of 22 tips on how to avoid drones, listed on a document left behind by the Islamic extremists as they fled northern Mali from a French military intervention last month. A Xeroxed copy of the document, which was first published on a jihadist forum two years ago, was found by The Associated Press in a manila envelope on the floor of a building here occupied by al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb.

Feuds, fiefdoms, betrayals underscore need for a manager pope to reform the Vatican

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- If evidence was ever needed that the next pope must urgently overhaul the powerful Vatican bureaucracy called the Curia, the scandal over Pope Benedict XVI’s private papers is Exhibit A.

The pope’s own butler stole sensitive internal letters to the pontiff and passed them off to a journalist, who then published them in a blockbuster book. The butler did it, he admitted himself, to expose the "evil and corruption" in the Vatican’s frescoed halls that he believed was hidden from Benedict by those who were supposed to serve him.

And if that original sin weren’t enough, the content of the leaks confirmed that the next pope has a very messy house to clean up. The letters and memos exposed petty wrangling, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the Catholic Church. The dirt ranged from the awarding of Vatican contracts to a plot, purportedly orchestrated by senior Vatican officials, to out a prominent Catholic newspaper editor as gay.

Ordinary Catholics might not think that dysfunction in the Apostolic Palace has any effect on their lives, but it does: The Curia makes decisions on everything from bishop appointments to church closings to marriage annulments and the disciplining of pedophile priests. Papal politics plays into the prayers the faithful say at Mass since missal translations are decided by committee in Rome. Donations the faithful make each year for the pope are held by a Vatican bank whose lack of financial transparency has fueled bitter internal debate.

And so after 35 years under two "scholar" popes who paid scant attention to the internal governance of the Catholic Church, a chorus is growing that the next pontiff must have a solid track record managing a complicated bureaucracy. Cardinals who will vote in next month’s conclave are openly talking about the need for reform, particularly given the dysfunction exposed by the scandal.

South Africa: Oscar Pistorius murder case gets new top detective ahead of bail decision

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- South African police appointed a new chief investigator Thursday in the Oscar Pistorius murder case, replacing a veteran detective after unsettling revelations that the officer was charged with seven counts of attempted murder.

The sensational twist in the state’s troubled investigation fueled growing public fascination with the case against the double-amputee Olympian, who is charged with premeditated murder in the Valentine’s Day slaying of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

Pistorius, a sporting icon and source of inspiration to millions until the shooting last week, is backed by a high-powered team of lawyers and publicists. The abruptness of his fall, and its gruesome circumstances, have gripped a global audience and put South Africa’s police and judicial system under the spotlight.

The man at the center of the storm sat in the dock during his bail hearing, mostly keeping his composure in contrast to slumped-over outbursts of weeping on previous days in court. In front of Pistorius, defense lawyer Barry Roux pounced on the apparent disarray in the state’s case, laying out arguments that amounted to a test run for the full trial yet to come.

Roux pointed to what he called the "poor quality" of the state’s investigation and raised the matter of intent, saying Pistorius and Steenkamp had a "loving relationship" and the athlete had no motive to plan her killing. At least 12 killed, scores hurt in
2 explosions in southern India

HYDERABAD, India (AP) -- A pair of bombs exploded Thursday evening in a crowded shopping area in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, killing at least 12 people and wounding scores of others in the worst bombing in the country in more than a year, officials said.

The blasts occurred about two minutes apart at around 7 p.m. outside a movie theater and a bus station, police said. Storefronts were shattered, motorcycles covered in debris, and food and plates from a roadside restaurant were scattered on the ground near a tangle of dead bodies. Passersby rushed the bleeding and wounded out of the area.

"This is a dastardly attack, the guilty will not go unpunished," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said. He appealed to the public to remain calm.

The bombs were attached to two bicycles about 150 meters (500 feet) apart in Dilsukh Nagar district, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters in New Delhi. The district is a usually crowded shopping area near a residential neighborhood.

When asked if the government had any suspects, Shinde responded: ‘’We have to investigate."

AP writers Lemire and Germain pick ‘Argo’ to win best picture at the Academy Awards

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Surprises and snubs on nominations day held the promise of an unpredictable Academy Awards night. But things have settled into the usual predictability, with clear favorites emerging in key categories.

Associated Press movie writers Christy Lemire and David Germain prefer to disagree, but they’re in harmony on the top prizes for Sunday’s show. Here are their picks, with Lemire sounding off on best picture, actor and supporting actress and Germain offering their take on director, actress and supporting actor.

BEST PICTURE

Nominees: "Amour," ‘’Argo," ‘’Beasts of the Southern Wild," ‘’Django Unchained," ‘’Les Miserables," ‘’Life of Pi," ‘’Lincoln," ‘’Silver Linings Playbook."

LEMIRE: The road to the top prize at the Academy Awards is a long haul full of ups and downs, front-runners and underdogs, and it’s been especially eventful this year. Back in November, Steven Spielberg’s stately "Lincoln" looked like the safe bet. Then the gripping "Zero Dark Thirty" figured into the mix. Then when Oscar nominations were announced, and the quirky romance "Silver Linings Playbook" received seven including one for best picture, it looked like a contender. Accusations of inaccuracy plagued some of these films and eventually were shot down, adding further drama.