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Friday, March 15, 2013

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Syrian rebel chief marks 2-year anniversary of uprising, saying the rebels 'will not give up'

BEIRUT (AP) — The chief of Syria's main, Western-backed rebel group marked the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad on Friday by pledging to fight until the "criminal" regime is gone.

Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Council, called on Syrian soldiers to join the rebels in a "fight for freedom and democracy," and said: "Dear friends, the Free Syrian Army (fighters) will not give up."

In Damascus, authorities beefed up security measures as rebel groups called for stepped-up attacks on government troops and state institutions on the anniversary.

The revolt against Assad's authoritarian rule began in March 2011 with protests in the southern city of Daraa, after troops arrested teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall. It has since morphed into a civil war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people, according to the U.N.

"We want (a) Syria where every Syrian can live in peace and liberty. This is our dream. This is what we are fighting for," Idris said in a video address obtained by The Associated Press form the military council's media office.

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Portman's gay marriage stand a sign of GOP soul-searching in times of shifting social views

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican senator's embrace of gay marriage is the latest sign of soul-searching in a party struggling to adapt in a society whose demographics — and views on emotional issues — are changing fast.

Gay marriage still divides the party, with the conservative wing strongly opposed. But an increasing number of Republicans, now including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, are reversing course. Many others simply downplay the subject.

With the issue of immigration also shifting rapidly under Republicans' feet, they seem increasingly focused — and united — on one overarching goal: keeping income taxes from rising. Their solidarity on that issue is thwarting President Barack Obama's efforts to find a compromise approach to deficit spending and expensive social programs.

These trends raise the possibility that the GOP — reeling after losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections -- will lessen its identity with hot-button social issues and sharpen its emphasis on tax and spending matters.

Portman announced Friday that he now supports gay marriage, linking his stand to learning that one of his sons is gay.

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Hugo Chavez's coffin parades past deadly slums, food lines in broken Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The road from the military academy where Hugo Chavez's body has been lying in state to the hilltop museum where he'll be displayed indefinitely is lined with some of the most dangerous slums on the planet. It runs under bridges in dire need of repair and past grocery stores with no groceries.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans gathered along that route Friday to watch the late president's body cross the city in yet another choreographed show designed to keep Chavez supporters in thrall, at least until an April 14 election scheduled to replace him. Afterward, people will have to go on living with the problems that Chavez left behind.

This tense, relentlessly gray capital embodies many of Venezuela's problems, with crumbling apartment towers and food lines often sharing the same sidewalk with cheering crowds eager to greet their departed Comandante.

"More than anything, the government continues fighting with everyone, and does everything badly," said Francisco Olivero, a 54-year-old carpenter who lives with his wife and five children in the poor neighborhood of Catia, just blocks from the funeral route.

Like many Venezuelans, Olivero said wartime-levels of street violence all over the city were his top worry.

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North Dakota lawmakers approve strict abortion laws, setting up costly battle over Roe v. Wade

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota on Friday moved one step closer to adopting what would be the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, with lawmakers sending the Republican governor measures that could set the state up for a costly legal battle over the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure.

The North Dakota Senate approved two anti-abortion bills Friday, one banning abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and another prohibiting the procedure because of genetic defects such as Down syndrome. If the governor signs the measures, North Dakota would be the only state in the U.S. with those laws.

Supporters said their goal is to challenge the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion up until a fetus is considered viable, usually at 22 to 24 weeks, though anti-abortion activists elsewhere have expressed concern about the strategy.

"It's a good day for babies," said Rep. Bette Grande, a Republican from Fargo who introduced both bills. The state's only abortion clinic is in Fargo, and abortion-rights advocates say the measures are meant to shut it down.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple hasn't said anything to indicate he won't approve the measures.

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Lawmakers approve measure to make Md. 18th state to ban death penalty; Gov. O'Malley to sign

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers approved a measure abolishing the death penalty on Friday, and the bill is expected to be signed by the Democratic governor who has long pushed for banning capital punishment in the state.

If the measure is signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, it will make Maryland the 18th state in the nation to do away with the death penalty.

A repeal bill won final passage from the House of Delegates on Friday. It already had been approved by the Senate.

The House advanced the legislation this week after delegates rejected nearly 20 amendments, mostly from Republicans, aimed at keeping capital punishment for the most heinous crimes.

If passed, life without the possibility of parole would be the most severe sentence in the state.

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US clergy abuse victims want new pope to take action against cardinals, release all files

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Most Roman Catholics are rejoicing at the election of Pope Francis, but alleged victims of clergy abuse in the U.S. are demanding swift and bold actions from the new Jesuit pontiff: Defrock all molester priests and the cardinals who covered up for them, formally apologize, and release all confidential church files.

Adding to their distrust are several multimillion dollar settlements the Jesuits paid out in recent years, including $166 million to more than 450 Native Alaskan and Native American abuse victims in 2011 for molestation at Jesuit-run schools across the Pacific Northwest. The settlement bankrupted the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus. The order also paid $14 million to settle nine California cases.

"I would like to see this pope stand up and say to those cardinals, 'You need to square this away and change everything that was covered up,' " said Ken Smolka, a 70-year-old retired actor who claimed in a lawsuit he was abused as a teen by a Jesuit priest. "You need to get them on their knees, and let them spend the rest of their lives on their knees praying for the victims."

Pope Francis, who has already set the tone for a new era of humility and compassion, is likely to be sensitive to the plight of clergy abuse victims and aware of the need to work with the worldwide church to prevent more abuse, said Christopher Ruddy, an associate professor at Catholic University of America. Meting out punishment to individual cardinals, however, is much less likely, Ruddy said.

"My sense is that if a bishop really wanted to dig in his heels, it would be very difficult to get him to resign. We have this idea that the pope says something, and everybody just leaps. It doesn't really work that way," Ruddy said. "The bishops themselves have certain rights under church law and they have authority, so that's a hard thing to talk about."

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Obama pushes for clean-energy research, says US must wean cars and trucks off of oil

LEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Envisioning cars that can go "coast to coast without using a drop of oil," President Barack Obama on Friday urged Congress to authorize spending $2 billion over the next decade to expand research into electric cars and biofuels to wean automobiles off gasoline.

Obama, expanding on an initiative he addressed in his State of the Union speech last month, said the United States must shift its cars and trucks entirely off oil to avoid perpetual fluctuations in gas prices. Citing policies that already require automakers to increase gas mileage, he said he expects that by the middle of the next decade, Americans will only have to fill up their cars half as often.

"We've set some achievable but ambitious goals," Obama said, speaking at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago

"The only way to break this cycle of spiking gas prices — the only way to break that cycle for good — is to shift our cars entirely, our cars and trucks, off oil," the president said.

Friday's speech, with its focus on energy, was designed to draw attention to what the White House says is one of Obama's top agenda items for his second term. That focus, however, has been overshadowed as the administration and Congress work on an immigration overhaul, gun legislation and deficit-reduction measures.

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Pentagon to beef up missile defense system designed to protect US against NKorean attack

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon announced Friday it will spend $1 billion to add 14 interceptors to a West Coast-based missile defense system, responding to what it called faster-than-anticipated North Korean progress on nuclear weapons and missiles.

In announcing the decision, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is determined to ensure protection of the U.S. homeland and stay ahead of the North Korean missile threat. He acknowledged that the interceptors already in place to defend against potential North Korean missile launches have had poor test performances.

"We will strengthen our homeland defense, maintain our commitment to our allies and partners, and make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression," Hagel told a Pentagon news conference.

The Pentagon intends to add the 14 interceptors to 26 already in place at Fort Greely, Alaska. That will expand the system's ability to shoot down long-range missiles in flight before they could reach U.S. territory. In addition to those at Greely, the U.S. also has four missile interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Hagel said the 14 extras should be in place by September 2017 but will not be deployed until they have been adequately tested.

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Twister puzzler: How will global warming affect tornadoes? Recent trends are erratic

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — With the planet heating up, many scientists seem fairly certain some weather elements like hurricanes and droughts will worsen. But tornadoes have them stumped.

These unpredictable, sometimes deadly storms plague the United States more than any other country. Here in tornado alley, Oklahoma City has been hit with at least 147 tornadoes since 1890.

But as the traditional tornado season nears, scientists have been pondering a simple question: Will there be more or fewer twisters as global warming increases?

There is no easy answer. Lately, tornado activity in America has been Jekyll-and-Hyde weird, and scientists are unsure if climate change has played a role in recent erratic patterns.

In 2011, the United States saw its second-deadliest tornado season in history: Nearly 1,700 tornadoes killed 553 people. The Joplin, Mo., twister was the single deadliest in American history, killing 158 people and causing $2.8 billion in damage.

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Christo unveils "Big Air Package," huge indoor sculpture at former German gas storage tank

OBERHAUSEN, Germany (AP) — Artist Christo has unveiled his latest spectacular creation: a balloonlike installation that fills the inside of a former natural gas storage tank in Germany's industrial Ruhr region.

Christo's "Big Air Package," an inflatable envelope made of translucent white polyester, rises 295 feet (90 meters) from the floor of the Gasometer in Oberhausen. It will be open to the public from Saturday through Dec. 30.

Christo's structure is kept upright by air fans. Visitors enter through airlocks. Christo says the effect is to leave visitors "virtually swimming in light."

The tank was converted into an exhibition hall after being taken out of service in 1988.

Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, in 1999 exhibited a wall made of 13,000 colored oil barrels at the Gasometer.

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