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World briefly for Nov. 20

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POSTED: November 20, 2012 9:01 a.m.

GOMA, Congo (AP) — A rebel group created just seven months ago attacked the strategic provincial capital of Goma, home to more than 1 million people in eastern Congo, on Tuesday, seizing part of the city and the international airport, according to a rebel spokesman, residents and eyewitnesses.

Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels appeared to push forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital which lies to the south. The rebels are allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda, which the Rwandan government denies.

"We already took the airport and part of the city," said rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama, reached by telephone on Tuesday. "We are now inside the city of Goma."

An official at the United Nations peacekeeping base in Goma, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press, confirmed that the airport had fallen. A factory owner whose business faces the airport said he saw the rebels go onto the tarmac. By late Tuesday morning, he said that the shooting had stopped there and that the airport appeared quiet.

Goma was last threatened by rebels in 2008 when fighters stopped just short of Goma. The United Nations has said that if Goma were to fall, a humanitarian catastrophe would result. The rebels, believed to be backed by Rwanda, have been fighting Congolese government forces which are backed by U.N. peacekeepers, tasked with protecting civilians.

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Obama dispatches Secretary of State Clinton to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo amid crisis in Gaza

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — President Barack Obama dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East on Tuesday as the U.S. urgently seeks to contain the bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Clinton hastily departed for the region from Cambodia, where she had joined Obama for summit meetings with Asian leaders. The White House said she would make three stops, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian officials in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Egyptian leaders in Cairo.

Clinton's trip marks the Obama administration's most forceful engagement in the weeklong conflict that has killed more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis, with hundreds more wounded. While the U.S. has backed Israel's right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza, the Obama administration has warned its ally against pursuing a ground assault that would further escalate the violence and could dramatically increase casualties on both sides.

Still, Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. believes "Israel will make its own decisions about the military operations and decisions that it undertakes."

"At the same time, we believe that Israel, like the United States, like other countries, would prefer to see their interests met diplomatically and peacefully," Rhodes said. "It's in nobody's interest to see an escalation of the military conflict."

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US secretary of state heads to Mideast in bid to end a week of Israeli-Palestinian violence

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Efforts to end a week-old convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence drew in the world's top diplomats on Tuesday, with President Barack Obama dispatching his secretary of state to the region on an emergency mission and the U.N. chief appealing from Cairo for an immediate cease-fire.

Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers have staked tough, hard-to-bridge positions, and the gaps keep alive the threat of an Israeli ground invasion. On Tuesday, grieving Gazans were burying militants and civilians killed in ongoing Israeli airstrikes, and barrages of rockets from Gaza sent terrified Israelis scurrying to take cover.

From Egypt, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he came to the region because of the "alarming situation."

"This must stop, immediate steps are needed to avoid further escalation, including a ground operation," Ban said. "Both sides must hold fire immediately ... Further escalation of the situation could put the entire region at risk."

A deputy White House national security adviser said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would depart for the Mideast on Tuesday from Cambodia, where she had accompanied Obama on a visit to Southeast Asia. The official said Clinton would begin her Mideast diplomacy by meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, then she would meet with senior officials of the Palestinian government in the West Bank before heading to Cairo to meet with Egyptian leaders.

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Israeli premier Netanyahu conducts first major offensive, hoping campaign assures re-election

JERUSALEM (AP) — Throughout his long political career, Israel's prime minister has earned a reputation as a tough talker. An ardent hawk who wrote a book about how to defeat terrorism, Benjamin Netanyahu has previously threatened to attack Iran, topple Gaza's Hamas leaders and strike hard at Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

But only now, after seven years in power, he has finally pulled the trigger, unleashing an offensive to stop Gaza rocket salvos. The public and even his political opponents have all lined up behind him.

Barring a fiasco involving heavy Israeli casualties, the operation should help Netanyahu coast to victory in the upcoming Israeli elections.

While his more dovish predecessors have carried out daring military operations in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and reportedly beyond, Netanyahu's reign has surprisingly been categorized by restraint. Just a month ago, in a speech before parliament, he boasted that as prime minister, he "didn't wage any unnecessary wars or any wars at all."

The comments appeared to be a swipe at his predecessor, centrist Ehud Olmert, who launched two wars in his three years as prime minister between 2006 and 2009.

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Obama meets Chinese, Japanese leaders amid tensions in South China Sea and island disputes

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — President Barack Obama closed his Asian tour in diplomatic talks with leaders of Japan and China, their economic message overshadowed by security tensions over disputed waters and territories. The crisis between Israel and Hamas militants intervened, too, as Obama rushed his top diplomat straight from Cambodia to the Mideast.

Obama was wrapping up four days in Southeast Asia on Tuesday and starting the long journey home, where fiscal deadlines and decisions await.

On the margins of the East Asia Summit here, Obama met with two Asian leaders, outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is likely to be replaced. The president is devoting attention to the region to broaden U.S. influence in a part of the world long dominated by China.

But talk of trade was overshadowed by discussions over how to prevent violence over South China Sea territories. Southeast Asian leaders meeting here in the Cambodian capital decided to ask China to start formal talks "as soon as possible" on crafting a binding agreement on how to resolve such disputes.

Tensions have flared recently over rival claims by China, the Philippines and Vietnam to South China Sea islands and waters that are believed to be rich in gas and oil and that comprise some of the world's main shipping routes. Two other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Brunei and Malaysia, also have been embroiled in South China Sea rifts.

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FBI: 4 Southern California men arrested on terrorism charges, planned to join al-Qaida

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Four Southern California men have been charged with plotting to kill Americans and destroy U.S. targets overseas by joining al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, federal officials said Monday.

The defendants, including a man who served in the U.S. Air Force, were arrested for plotting to bomb military bases and government facilities, and for planning to engage in "violent jihad," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said in a release.

A federal complaint unsealed Monday says 34-year-old Sohiel Omar Kabir of Pomona introduced two of the other men to the radical Islamist doctrine of Anwar al-Awlaki, a deceased al-Qaida leader. Kabir served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2001.

The other two — 23-year-old Ralph Deleon of Ontario and 21-year-old Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales of Upland — converted to Islam in 2010 and began engaging with Kabir and others online in discussions about jihad, including posting radical content to Facebook and expressing extremist views in comments.

They later recruited 21-year-old Arifeen David Gojali of Riverside.

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Amid protests, Jordan's opposition says it's not seeking king's ouster — but some in street do

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — It's usually a few younger protesters who break out in the chant — startling and almost unheard of in this country where the monarchy has always been almost sacrosanct — "Down, down with the king."

The rest of the opposition, including its biggest and most powerful faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, are quick to make clear they don't demand the ouster of Jordan's King Abdullah II. But after the past week's angry protests sparked by a government hike in gas and fuel prices, they warn that this usually placid U.S. ally will be thrown into turmoil unless the king allows change.

The unusually violent protests have shifted the focus of discontent from the government, at which anger was focused in the past, squarely on Abdullah for the first time. As a result, the monarch faces the biggest test yet of his democratic reform program, which his critics say does not do enough to end his monopoly on power. Anger over the price hikes has given the opposition, led by the Brotherhood, a rallying point to push him for more dramatic moves.

At the heart of the political standoff is a half-British king trying to forestall Arab Spring-style uprisings that have toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya and led to the civil war in Syria. A darling of the United States and other Western governments who celebrate him and his beautiful Palestinian wife as modern celebrity-monarchs, the king still sits at the helm of a sprawling and largely feared intelligence service, a carefully lubricated patronage system and a U.S.-trained military.

His moribund economy is largely dependent on aid from Washington, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing Arab states. Government opponents say their phones are bugged and homes watched. At times, such as during the 2010 parliamentary elections, his government was accused of blatantly rigging the vote.

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Unions showed political muscle and spent millions in state elections, ballot measure fights

WASHINGTON (AP) — From California to Maine, unions used their political muscle in the recent elections to help install Democratic governors, build labor-friendly majorities in state legislatures and defeat ballot initiatives against them.

The combination of union money and member mobilization helped Democrats take control of state legislatures in Maine and Minnesota.

In Michigan, voters repealed a law that allowed cities in financial distress to suspend collective bargaining contracts. But unions lost there on an effort to make collective bargaining rights a part of the state constitution.

In New Hampshire, unions helped Maggie Hassan win the governor's race. Unions spent millions backing Hassan with television ads and an extensive get-out-the-vote operation because she opposes a right-to-work bill to ban labor-management contracts that require affected workers to be union members or pay union fees.

In perhaps their most important victory, unions defeated a California ballot measure that would have prohibited them from collecting money for political purposes through payroll deductions.

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Superstorm puts federal beach program in spotlight after stripping sand from NJ coast

SPRING LAKE, N.J. (AP) — The average New Jersey beach is 30 to 40 feet narrower after Superstorm Sandy, according to a survey that is sure to intensify a long-running debate on whether federal dollars should be used to replenish stretches of sand that only a fraction of U.S. taxpayers use.

Some of New Jersey's famous beaches lost half their sand when Sandy slammed ashore in late October.

The shore town of Mantoloking, one of the hardest-hit communities, lost 150 feet of beach, said Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton College's Coastal Research Center and a leading expert on beach erosion.

Routine storms tear up beaches in any season, and one prescription for protecting communities from storm surge has been to replenish beaches with sand pumped from offshore. Places with recently beefed-up beaches saw comparatively little damage, said Farrell, whose study's findings were made available to The Associated Press.

"It really, really works," Farrell said. "Where there was a federal beach fill in place, there was no major damage — no homes destroyed, no sand piles in the streets. Where there was no beach fill, water broke through the dunes."

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Making HIV tests as common as cholesterol checks: Guideline pushes routine screens for most

WASHINGTON (AP) — There's a new push to make testing for the AIDS virus as common as cholesterol checks.

Americans ages 15 to 64 should get an HIV test at least once — not just people considered at high risk for the virus, an independent panel that sets screening guidelines proposed Monday.

The draft guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are the latest recommendations that aim to make HIV screening simply a routine part of a check-up, something a doctor can order with as little fuss as a cholesterol test or a mammogram. Since 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has pushed for widespread, routine HIV screening.

Yet not nearly enough people have heeded that call: Of the more than 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, nearly 1 in 5 — almost 240,000 people — don't know it. Not only is their own health at risk without treatment, they could unwittingly be spreading the virus to others.

The updated guidelines will bring this long-simmering issue before doctors and their patients again — emphasizing that public health experts agree on how important it is to test even people who don't think they're at risk, because they could be.

 

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