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December 3, 2012

AP News Briefs for Monday, Dec. 3

— Obama warns Syria against using chemical weapons, says it would be a ’tragic mistake’

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama warned Syria on Monday that the use of chemical weapons would be “totally unacceptable” and that the country’s leaders would be held accountable.

Obama said that if Syrian President Bashar Assad made the “tragic mistake” of deploying chemical weapons, there would be consequences. Obama stopped short of detailing those consequences.

Obama’s comments came as U.S. officials said intelligence had detected Syrian movement of chemical weapons components in recent days.

The White House said earlier Monday that it was increasingly concerned that the beleaguered regime in Syria might be considering use of chemical weapons against its own people and warned that doing so would “cross a red line.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said U.S. officials were closely monitoring Syria’s proliferation of sensitive materials and facilities, as opposition to the Syrian government grows.

———

Counteroffer: Medicare, Social Security on the table as GOP issues new ’fiscal cliff’ offer

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans on Monday proposed a new 10-year, $2.2 trillion blueprint to President Barack Obama that calls for raising the eligibility age for Medicare and lowering cost-of-living hikes for Social Security benefits, a counteroffer to jump-start stalled talks with the “fiscal cliff” just weeks away.

The proposal from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans comes in response to Obama’s plan last week to raise taxes by $1.6 trillion over the coming decade but largely exempt Medicare and Social Security from budget cuts.

The GOP plan also proposes to raise $800 billion in higher tax revenue over the decade but it would keep the Bush-era tax cuts — including those for wealthier earners targeted by Obama — in place for now.

Dismissing the idea of raising any tax rates, the Republicans said the new revenue would come from closing loopholes and deductions while lowering rates.

Boehner called the GOP proposal a “credible plan” and said he hopes the administration will “respond in a timely and responsible way.” The offer comes after the administration urged Republicans to detail their proposal to cut popular benefit programs like Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid.

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Prince William and Kate expect their first child; duchess hospitalized with morning sickness

LONDON (AP) — The most widely anticipated pregnancy since Princess Diana’s in 1981 is official: Prince William’s wife, Kate, is pregnant.

St. James’s Palace announced the pregnancy Monday, saying that the Duchess of Cambridge — formerly known as Kate Middleton — has a severe form of morning sickness and is currently in a London hospital. William is at his wife’s side.

News of the pregnancy drew congratulations from across the world, with the hashtag “royalbaby” trending globally on Twitter.

The couple’s first child will be third in line to take the throne — leapfrogging the gregarious Prince Harry and possibly setting up the first scenario in which a U.K. female heir could benefit from new gender rules about succession.

The palace would not say how far along the 30-year-old duchess is, only that she has not yet reached the 12-week mark. Palace officials said the duchess was hospitalized with hyperemesis gravidarum, a potentially dangerous type of morning sickness where vomiting is so severe no food or liquid can be kept down. They said she was expected to remain hospitalized for several days and would require a period of rest afterward.

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Violence near Syrian capital interrupts air traffic, forces UN to pull staff

BEIRUT (AP) — Fighting between rebels and government forces raged near the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday, forcing an inbound commercial jet to turn back while the U.N. said it was withdrawing staff because of deteriorating security conditions.

Lebanese security officials said Jihad Makdissi, a polished Foreign Ministry spokesman known for defending the regime of President Bashar Assad in fluent English, flew from Beirut to London. But it was not immediately clear whether he had defected.

The fighting over the past few weeks in and around Damascus has been the most serious in the capital since July, when rebels captured several neighborhoods before a swift government counteroffensive swept them out. The spike in violence recently is concentrated in the ring of mostly poor suburbs around Damascus but often bleeds into the capital itself as rebels bring their fight closer to Assad’s seat of power. Assad’s forces have so far repelled major rebel advances on the capital, though their hold may be slipping.

“The security situation has become extremely difficult, including in Damascus,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

Nouicer said the U.N. was withdrawing most of its international staff from Syria due to security issues, adding that up to one quarter of the 100 international staff working for several U.N. agencies could leave by week’s end. There are about 900 more local staff working for the U.N. in Syria, officials said.

———

CDC says US flu season arrives early, could be bad, but one-third of Americans are vaccinated

NEW YORK (AP) — Flu season in the U.S. is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade — and it could be a bad one.

Health officials on Monday said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.

“It looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news is that the nation seems fairly well prepared, Frieden said. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC officials said.

Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn’t happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations are also rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two deaths in children.

———

Israel feels heat from European and US allies over settlement announcement

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel rejected a wave of American and European condemnations Monday over plans to build thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, vowing to press forward with the construction in the face of widespread international opposition.

The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was likely to deepen a rift that has emerged between Israel and some of its closest allies following the U.N.’s recognition of a Palestinian state last week. The U.N. decision appears to be fueling a tougher international line against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israeli ambassadors were summoned for consultations in five European capitals, and European officials warned of other potential measures against Israel. In Washington, the U.S. said the Israeli actions were “especially damaging” to peace prospects.

Italian Premier Mario Monti and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement saying they were “deeply worried” by Israel’s settlement plans. The two men, meeting in Lyon, France, called the Israeli decisions “serious and illegal” and a “serious obstacle” to Mideast peace.

Netanyahu, however, showed no signs of bending. His office said Israel would continue to stand up for its interests “even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision taken.”

———

Egypt’s political crisis widens with planned strikes, protest march to presidential palace

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s political crisis is widening, with plans for a huge march and a general strike Tuesday to protest the hurried drafting of a new constitution and decrees by President Mohammed Morsi that gave him nearly unrestricted powers.

Morsi also faces the prospect of wider civil disobedience as media, the tourism industry and law professors pondered moves that would build on a strike by the nation’s judges.

The planned strikes and march raise new fears of unrest, threatening to derail the country’s transition to democratic rule.

“Egypt is a big ship in high seas, and no one should stop its captain from taking it to the shore,” said Morsi’s legal adviser, Mohammed Gaballah, defending his boss.

“The ship must keep moving under any conditions,” he told The Associated Press on Monday.

———

Fossil fuel subsidies seen as ’missing piece’ of climate puzzle in UN talks

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Hassan al-Kubaisi considers it a gift from above that drivers in oil- and gas-rich Qatar only have to pay $1 per gallon at the pump.

“Thank God that our country is an oil producer and the price of gasoline is one of the lowest,” al-Kubaisi said, filling up his Toyota Land Cruiser at a gas station in Doha. “God has given us a blessing.”

To those looking for a global response to climate change, it’s more like a curse.

Qatar — the host of U.N. climate talks that entered their final week Monday — is among dozens of countries that keep gas prices artificially low through subsidies that exceeded $500 billion globally last year. Renewable energy worldwide received six times less support — an imbalance that is just starting to earn attention in the divisive negotiations on curbing the carbon emissions blamed for heating the planet.

“We need to stop funding the problem, and start funding the solution,” said Steve Kretzmann, of Oil Change International, an advocacy group for clean energy.

———

Pope joins tweeting masses with Pontifex handle, oddsmakers bet he’ll get 1M followers

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Benedict XVI, the pope known for his hefty volumes of theology, is now trying brevity — spreading the faith through his own Twitter account.

The pontiff will tweet in eight languages starting Dec. 12 using his personal handle (at)Pontifex, responding live to questions about faith during his weekly general audience, the Vatican said Monday.

Within six hours of the Vatican’s announcement, Benedict had already garnered nearly 150,000 followers on the English version of (at)Pontifex alone, with thousands more following him in the eight other language accounts.

All that, and he hadn’t even sent a single tweet.

He may never hit 1 billion faithful that the Catholic Church counts around the globe, but he’s odds-on to get 1 million followers by the end of the year, British bookmakers Ladbrokes said.

———

Families of Chiefs linebacker Belcher, slain girlfriend Perkins grieve in wake of tragedy

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Breaking their silence for the first time, the family of the woman shot and killed by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher said Monday their “hearts are truly broken” and asked for privacy while they grieve the loss of two loved ones.

Belcher shot and killed his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, at their Kansas City home Saturday before driving to Arrowhead Stadium, where Belcher committed suicide in the practice facility’s parking lot, police said. The couple had a 3-month-old daughter, Zoey.

“Our hearts are truly broken for Kasi was a beloved daughter, granddaughter, sister, mother, cousin and friend,” the family said in an emailed statement. The family also asked that the media “respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

“Please keep us in your hearts and prayers as well as the Belcher family,” the statement said.

Kansas City police Sgt. Marisa Barnes said Monday that authorities hope to deliver an investigative report to prosecutors on Tuesday.

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