AP News in Brief

AP News
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Posted: Apr 18, 2011 6:14 PM
AP News in Brief

S&P issues warning to US government: Fix federal deficit or risk nation's top credit rating

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A key credit agency issued an unprecedented warning to the United States government Monday, urging Washington to get a grip on its finances or risk losing the nation's sterling credit rating.

For the first time, Standard & Poor's lowered its long-term outlook for the federal government's fiscal health from "stable" to "negative," and warned of serious consequences if lawmakers fail to reach a deal to control the massive federal deficit.

An impasse could prompt the agency to strip the government of its top investment rating in the next two years, S&P said. A loss of the triple-A rating would ripple through the American economy, making loans more expensive and credit more difficult to obtain.

The downgrade was interpreted as a rebuke to President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, admonishing them to put politics aside and come up with a long-term financial plan as soon as possible.

"This is a warning: Don't mess around," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that is pushing for deficit reduction.

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Pentagon inquiry into Rolling Stone article on McChrystal clears the general of wrongdoing

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Pentagon inquiry into a Rolling Stone magazine profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led to his dismissal as the top US commander in Afghanistan has cleared him of wrongdoing.

The probe's results released Monday also called into question the accuracy of the magazine's report last June, which quoted anonymously people around McChrystal making disparaging remarks about members of President Barack Obama's national security team, including Vice President Joe Biden.

At the time he dismissed McChrystal, Obama said the general had fallen short of "the standard that should be set by a commanding general." The Defense Department inspector general's report, however, concluded that available evidence did not support the conclusion that McChrystal had violated any applicable legal or ethics standard.

Last week the White House tapped McChrystal to head a new advisory board to support military families, an initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president. The selection of McChrystal was announced on April 12, four days after the inspector general's report was finished.

The inspector general's conclusions were first reported Monday by The New York Times, which obtained the report under a Freedom of Information Act request. The Pentagon subsequently posted the report on its website.

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Southerners look to rebuild from storms that killed dozens from Okla. to Va.; NC hardest hit

SANFORD, N.C. (AP) _ Lowe's store manager Michael Hollowell had heard the tornado warnings, but his first clue that the danger was outside his front door came when he saw his staff running toward the back of the home improvement store.

More than 100 employees and customers screamed in near unison when the steel roof curled off overhead Saturday. The store was becoming part of the wreckage left by a ferocious storm system bristling with killer twisters that ripped through the South.

"You could hear all the steel ripping. People screaming in fear for their lives," Hollowell told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Those in the store did not become part of the death toll that totaled at least 44 across six states, and officials said quick action by Hollowell and his employees helped them all make it out alive in Sanford, about 40 miles south of Raleigh.

In all of Lee County, where Sanford is located, officials said there was just one confirmed death during the storm, which claimed at least 21 lives statewide, damaged hundreds of homes and left a swath of destruction unmatched by any spring storm since the mid-1980s.

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Syrian protesters challenge authorities with sit-in calling for Assad ouster

BEIRUT (AP) _ More than 5,000 anti-government protesters in Syria took over the main square of the country's third-largest city Monday, vowing to occupy the site until President Bashar Assad is ousted and defying authorities who warn they will not be forced into reforms.

The government, however, blamed the weeks of anti-government unrest in the country on ultraconservative Muslims seeking to establish a fundamentalist state and terrorize the people, in the latest official effort to portray the reform movement as populated by extremists.

The Egypt-style standoff in the central city of Homs followed funeral processions by more than 10,000 mourners for some of those killed in clashes Sunday that a rights group said left at least 12 people dead. It also brought a high-stakes challenge to security forces over whether to risk more bloodshed _ and international backlash _ by trying to clear the square.

In the past month, Syrian security forces in uniforms and plainclothes have launched a deadly crackdown on demonstrations, killing at least 200 people, according to human rights groups. Many Syrians also say pro-government thugs _ known as Shabiha _ have terrorized neighborhoods with tactics such as opening fire into the air.

The government has in the past blamed "armed gangs" seeking to stir up unrest for many of the killings, such as the ones who fatally shot seven people, including three army officers, on Sunday in Homs.

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Woman who falsely accused Duke lacrosse players indicted on murder charge in boyfriend's death

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ The woman who falsely accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her was charged Monday with murder in the death of her boyfriend.

Crystal Mangum was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder and two counts of larceny. She has been in jail since April 3, when police charged her with assault in the stabbing 46-year-old Reginald Daye. He died after nearly two weeks at a hospital.

An attorney for Mangum and officials in the district attorney's office did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Mangum falsely accused the lacrosse players of raping her at a 2006 party at which she was hired to perform as a stripper. The case heightened long-standing tensions in Durham about race, class and the privileged status of college athletes.

Prosecutors declined to press charges for the false accusations, but Mangum's bizarre legal troubles have continued.

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Los Angeles Times wins Pulitzer for exposing big salaries in small town of Bell, Calif.

NEW YORK (AP) _ The Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for public service Monday for a series revealing that politicians in the struggling, working-class city of Bell, Calif., were paying themselves enormous, six-figure salaries.

The newspaper's reporting that officials in the 37,000-resident town were jacking up property taxes and other fees in part to cover the huge salaries led to arrests and the ouster of some of Bell's top officials.

The Times won a second Pulitzer for feature photography, and The New York Times was awarded two Pulitzers for international reporting and for commentary.

But in a year in which the earthquake in Haiti and the disastrous Gulf oil spill were some of the biggest stories, the Pulitzer Board decided not to give an award in the category of breaking news _ a first in the 95-year history of the most prestigious prize in journalism.

"No entry received the necessary majority," said Sig Gissler, administrator of the prizes. He wouldn't elaborate except to say that breaking news is a "deadline-driven category" that depends on news organizations' reporting of an event the moment it happens.

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Readings from robots report radiation inside Japan's reactor buildings too high for workers

TOKYO (AP) _ A pair of thin robots on treads sent to explore buildings inside Japan's crippled nuclear reactor came back Monday with disheartening news: Radiation levels are far too high for repair crews to go inside.

Nevertheless, officials remained hopeful they can stick to their freshly minted "roadmap" for cleaning up the radiation leak and stabilizing the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant by year's end so they can begin returning tens of thousands of evacuees to their homes.

"Even I had expected high radioactivity in those areas. I'm sure (plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.) and other experts have factored in those figures when they compiled the roadmap," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

Officials said Monday that radiation had spiked in a water tank in Unit 2 and contaminated water was discovered in other areas of the plant. They also described in detail for the first time the damage to fuel in three troubled reactors, saying pellets had melted.

That damage _ sometimes referred to as a partial meltdown _ had already been widely assumed, but the confirmation, along with the continued release of radiation from other areas, serves to underscore how difficult and how long the cleanup process will be. In fact, government officials themselves have acknowledged that there are still many setbacks that could crop up to slow down their timeline.

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Cuba's Communist Party holds leadership vote; a new No. 2 could be in line to succeed Castros

HAVANA (AP) _ Cuba's Communist Party began the process of electing new leaders Monday in a vote that is likely to formally name Raul Castro as first secretary in place of his brother. All eyes were on the selection of the No. 2 position, which could signal the Castros' choice of an eventual successor.

The vote came during a historic Party Congress convened to consider hundreds of changes that officials hope will breathe life, along with a certain free-market spirit, into an ailing economy. Committees gave preliminary approval to a number of measures, including one that would let Cubans buy and sell private homes, something that has been prohibited since the 1959 revolution.

An official photograph taken by Cuban state media from inside the spacious convention hall where the party confab was taking place showed Castro placing his vote inside a ballot box. The ballot read, "Candidacy for Members of the Central Committee." A box reading, "Vote for All," was checked on the ballot, indicating that Castro had approved an entire slate of candidates.

The candidates themselves are not visible in the picture, and it was not clear when the new leadership will be announced. The party congress is scheduled to wrap up Tuesday.

Fidel and Raul Castro have held the top two spots in the Communist Party since its creation in 1965. But at this year's Sixth Party Congress, there is an air of mystery surrounding the leadership vote.

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Pietro Ferrero, CEO of Ferrero, Italian producer of Nutella dies after bike fall in SAfrica

ROME (AP) _ Pietro Ferrero, the CEO of the Ferrero Group holding company that produces Nutella, Tic Tac mints and other confections and a scion of one of Italy's richest families died on Monday after falling from a bicycle while on a business trip in South Africa. He was 47.

Pietro Ferrero was also chairman of Ferrero S.p.A. the Italian branch of the family-run company and the heart of the candy and sweets maker empire.

The company's press office at headquarters in Alba, northwestern Italy, said Ferrero, a cycling enthusiast, was riding a bike on his usual training run on a road in Capetown when he fell off. It said it wasn't clear what prompted the fall.

With him on the business trip was his father, Michele Ferrero, who turned the company into an international sweets producer and invented successes including Nutella and Kinder in the 1960s and helped make the Ferreros a billionaire family that is now Italy's richest.

Ferrero's namesake grandfather Pietro started the company in 1942, supplying products for a pastry shop run by his wife, Piera, in Alba, in the region of Piedmont. Because it was hard to obtain ingredients for sweets during World War II, the elder Pietro Ferrero decided to exploit something Piedmont had in abundance _ hazelnuts _ and invented a confection using a sweet paste made from the nut.

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Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai wins Boston in 2:03:02 _ fastest marathon ever run

BOSTON (AP) _ Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest 26.2 miles in history to win the Boston Marathon on Monday. Then his claim to a world record was swallowed up by the hills.

Not the inclines of Heartbreak Hill that have doomed so many runners before him.

It was the downhill part of the race that makes his time of 2 hours, 3 minutes, 2 seconds ineligible for an official world record. In short: IAAF rules have deemed the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the world _ long considered the one of the most difficult, too _ to be too easy.

"You don't look at world records. You just go," Mutai said. "If you are strong, you push it. But if you put it in your head, you can't make it."

Mutai outsprinted Moses Mosop down Boylston Street to win by four seconds as the two Kenyans both beat Haile Gebrselassie's sanctioned world record of 2:03:59. Four men, including third-place finisher Gebregziabher Gebremariam of Ethiopia and American Ryan Hall, broke the course record of 2:05:52 set just last year by Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot.