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World briefly for Jan. 17

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POSTED: January 17, 2013 9:21 a.m.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Inspectors taking the first-ever inventory of flood control systems overseen by the federal government have found hundreds of structures at risk of failing and endangering people and property in 37 states.

Levees deemed in unacceptable condition span the breadth of America. They are in every region, in cities and towns big and small: Washington, D.C., and Sacramento Calif., Cleveland and Dallas, Augusta, Ga., and Brookport, Ill.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue ratings for a little more than 40 percent of the 2,487 structures, which protect about 10 million people. Of those it has rated, however, 326 levees covering more than 2,000 miles were found in urgent need of repair.

The problems are myriad: earthen walls weakened by trees, shrubs and burrowing animal holes; houses built dangerously close to or even on top of levees; decayed pipes and pumping stations.

The Associated Press requested, under the Freedom of Information Act, details on why certain levees were judged unacceptable and how many people would be affected in a flood. The Corps declined on grounds that such information could heighten risks of terrorism and sabotage.

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Safety concerns about Boeing 787's lithium batteries deepen as FAA grounds US planes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lithium batteries that can leak corrosive fluid and start fires have emerged as the chief safety concern involving Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, a problem that apparently is far more serious than government or company officials acknowledged less than a week ago.

The Federal Aviation Administration late Wednesday grounded Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced jetliner until the risk of battery fires is resolved. The order applies only to the six Dreamliners operated by United Airlines, the lone U.S. carrier with 787s. But other airlines and civil aviation authorities in other countries will be under pressure to follow suit or face possible accusations of taking unnecessary risks with public safety.

Japan's two largest air carriers voluntarily grounded their 787s on Wednesday ahead of the FAA's order following an emergency landing by one of the planes in Japan. The Indian government ordered Air India to ground its fleet of six Boeing 787 aircraft. That means more than two-thirds of the world's 50 787s are grounded pending safety checks.

Only hours before the FAA issued its order, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated to reporters that he considers the plane safe and wouldn't hesitate to fly one. LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta unequivocally declared the plane safe at a news conference last week even while they ordered a safety review of the aircraft.

However, as details emerged of two battery failures only 10 days apart, it became apparent that the FAA wouldn't be able to wait for completion of its safety review before taking action. An inspection of the All Nippon Airways 787 that made an emergency landing in western Japan found that electrolytes, a flammable battery fluid, had leaked from the plane's main lithium-ion battery. Investigators found burn marks around the damage. Japan's Kyodo News agency quoted transport ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi as saying the liquid leaked through the electrical room floor to the outside of the aircraft.

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PROMISES, PROMISES: A second-term president leavened by his curbed ambitions

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite a relentless workload ahead, President Barack Obama is lighter on his feet in one sense as he opens his second term. Gone are the hundreds of promises of the past. He's toting carry-ons instead of heavy cargo this time.

Obama's first presidential campaign and the years that followed were distinguished by an overflowing ambition, converted into a checklist of things he swore to do. The list was striking not only for its length but its breadth, ranging from tidbits in forgotten corners of public policy to grand — even grandiose — pronouncements worthy of Moses.

He made a sweeping vow to calm the rise of the seas. And a literally down-in-the-weeds pledge to aid the sage grouse and its grassy habitat.

Obama worked his way through that stockpile, breaking dozens of his promises along the way and keeping many more of them.

Thanks to the messy business of governing, the president's record on promises is not cut and dried. Some of his most notable flops, for example, contained seeds of future success.

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Obama's efforts to put new limits on guns face difficulties with lawmakers of both parties

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's sweeping gun-control package faces an uncertain future on Capitol Hill, where majority House Republicans are rejecting his proposals while the president's allies in the Democratic-controlled Senate are stopping well short of pledging immediate action.

The fate of his plan could ultimately hinge on a handful of moderate Democratic senators. Although they are unlikely to endorse the president's call for banning assault weapons, they might go along with other proposals, such as requiring universal background checks on gun purchases.

Several of these senators responded warily after Obama unveiled his proposals Wednesday with the challenge that "Congress must act soon."

"I will look closely at all proposals on the table, but we must use common sense and respect our Constitution," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Tester told the Missoulian newspaper in his home state recently that he supports background checks but doesn't think an assault weapons ban would have stopped the shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman massacred 20 children and six adults before turning the gun on himself.

Obama's proposals came a month after the shootings in Newtown, which he has called the worst day of his presidency. His announcements capped a swift and wide-ranging effort, led by Vice President Joe Biden, to respond to the deaths.

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US aiding intervention efforts in Mali but clear about what its involvement won't entail

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration has declared it cannot accept new terrorist sanctuaries in Mali or anywhere else and has promised to support French and African efforts to restore security. Yet after almost a year of disorder in the West African nation, Washington is still keeping the conflict at arm's length.

France has been engaged in a weeklong fight to eradicate Islamist extremists in northern Mali. But the U.S. ambivalence reflects several factors, foremost the U.S. government's desire to avoid being dragged into yet another war in a desolate, impoverished Islamic country. It also doesn't want to shoulder the financial burden of a potentially lengthy fight against extremists, and distrusts a Malian government dominated by military officials who've chased out a president and a prime minister over the last 10 months.

That leaves the United States hoping France can get the job done. American officials say they are providing intelligence to its European ally and are considering deploying American aircraft to land in Mali for airlift or logistical support. The U.S. is offering possible surveillance drones, too, but won't entertain notions of sending American troops to keep terrorists from carving out a safe haven like they did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base of operations," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week. The U.S. must pursue the terrorist network "wherever they are," he said, including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.

But Washington is taking different approaches in different parts of the world. It has maintained a frustrating but durable alliance with Pakistan against terrorists and insurgents hiding along the Pakistani-Afghan border. In Yemen, it has successfully taken out a series of high-ranking al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula leaders and pushed through a political transition. In Somalia, the U.S. has footed the bill for Ethiopian efforts to root out al-Shabab, another al-Qaida-linked group.

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Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o says he was victim of 'sick joke,' story of girlfriend dying a hoax

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Not long before Notre Dame played Michigan State last fall, word spread that Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o had lost his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of each other.

Te'o never missed a practice and made a season-high 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 victory against the Spartans. His inspired play became a stirring story line for the Fighting Irish as they made a run to the national championship game behind their humble, charismatic star.

Te'o's grandmother did indeed die. His girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed.

In a shocking announcement Wednesday night, Notre Dame said Te'o was duped into an online relationship with a woman whose "death" from leukemia was faked by perpetrators of an elaborate hoax. The goal of the scam wasn't clear, though Notre Dame said it used an investigative firm to dig into the details after Te'o disclosed them three weeks ago.

The hoax was disclosed hours after Deadspin.com posted a lengthy story, saying it could find no record that Kekua ever existed. The story suggests a friend of Te'o may have carried out the hoax and that the football player may have been in on it — a stunning claim against a widely admired All-American who led the most famed program in college football back to the championship game for the first time since 1988.

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Serena Williams, Azarenka, Murray waste no time winning matches in Australian Open heat

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — With temperatures well over the 100-degree mark, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka were in no mood to stick around on the searing courts at the Australian Open.

A dancing Azarenka and an ankle-weary Williams played back-to-back matches Thursday on Rod Laver Arena, both easy straight-set victories.

U.S. Open champion Murray also won routinely, beating Joao Sousa of Portugal 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 on Hisense Arena, the second show court at Melbourne Park.

"You need to be the one that's trying to dictate the points in these conditions," said Murray, who practices in Florida. "Miami is the perfect preparation. It's hot and humid there, although it certainly doesn't get up to 37 degrees (Celsius; 99 Fahrenheit). It was a good match to get done in straight sets. "

Despite the high temperatures — it later peaked at 106 F — tournament officials left the retractable roofs on both main arenas open because a combination of factors including humidity and court temperature didn't warrant making the venues a temporary indoor haven from the heat.

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RealtyTrac: Banks took back fewer US homes in foreclosure in 2012; fewer expected this year

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lenders took possession of fewer U.S. homes in 2012 than a year earlier, as the pace of new homes entering the path to foreclosure slowed and banks increasingly opted to allow troubled borrowers to sell their homes for less than what they owed on their mortgage.

All told, banks repossessed 671,251 homes last year, down nearly 17 percent from 804,423 the year before, according to data released Thursday by foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc.

The trend, along with an annual decline in overall foreclosure activity, suggests that the country's foreclosure woes are easing, at least on a national level.

But half the states experienced higher levels of foreclosure activity last year and many are expected to continue seeing increases this year, RealtyTrac said.

All told, foreclosure activity, defined as the number of homes that received at least one foreclosure-related filing, declined 3 percent last year. That translates to 1.8 million U.S. homes, and represents a drop of 36 percent from a peak of 2.9 million homes in 2010, the firm said.

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AP sources: Obama likely to name national security aide McDonough as next chief of staff

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is likely to name Denis McDonough, one of his closest national security advisers, as his next chief of staff, according to people familiar with the White House thinking.

However, White House officials say a final decision has not been made.

In tapping McDonough, Obama would be relying on an inner circle ally for the key West Wing post. McDonough, 43, currently serves as the president's deputy national security adviser and is highly regarded by Obama and White House staffers.

McDonough would replace current White House chief of staff Jack Lew, the president's nominee for treasury secretary.

The people familiar with the White House thinking spoke on condition of anonymity because there has been no announcement an appointment.

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Algeria mulls international force for hostage standoff; contacts potential negotiators

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria's government searched desperately Thursday for a way to end a desert standoff with Islamic militants who have taken dozens of foreigners hostage at a natural gas complex, turning to tribal leaders among Algerian Tuaregs and contemplating an international force.

The government was in talks throughout the night with the U.S. and France over whether international forces could help against the militants, who have said 41 foreigners, including seven Americans, were being held after the assault on one of oil-rich Algeria's energy facilities, 800 miles from the capital of Algiers. Two foreigners, one of them a Briton, were killed.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the attack, said Algerian officials also contacted tribal elders among Algerian Tuaregs, who are believed to have close ties with Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida. The official said the government hoped the Tuaregs might help negotiate an end to the standoff.

The group claiming responsibility — called Katibat Moulathamine or the Masked Brigade — said the attack Wednesday was in revenge for Algeria's support of France's military operation against al-Qaida-linked rebels in neighboring Mali. Militants phoned a Mauritanian news outlet to say one of its affiliates had carried out the operation at the Ain Amenas gas field, and that France should end its intervention in Mali to ensure the safety of the hostages.

But the militants themselves appeared to have no escape, cut off by surrounding troops and army helicopters overhead. Algerian Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila said it seemed the militants were hoping to negotiate their departure from the area — a notion he rejected. He also dismissed theories that the militants had come from Libya, a mere 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, or from Mali, more than 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) away.

 

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