Obama threatens Karzai with full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by end of year
WASHINGTON (AP) - Frustrated with his Afghan counterpart, President Barack Obama is ordering the Pentagon to accelerate planning for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of this year. But Obama is also holding out hope that Afghanistan’s next president may eventually sign a stalled security agreement that could prevent the U.S. from having to take that step.
Obama spoke Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the first direct conversation between the two leaders since last June. The White House has become increasingly frustrated with Karzai, who has refused to sign a security pact that the White House says is crucial to keeping a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after the war formally concludes at the end of this year.
With no sign that Karzai will sign the agreement, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama “has tasked the Pentagon with preparing for the contingency that there will be no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.” However, he added that the U.S. remains open to keeping troops in Afghanistan if an agreement can be signed later this year, likely after the April Afghan elections.
That decision appeared aimed at marginalizing Karzai’s role in the high-stakes negotiations over the future of the lengthy American-led war. The Afghan leader has deeply irritated Washington with anti-American rhetoric, as well as with his decision this month to release 65 prisoners over the objections of U.S. officials.
The White House insists it won’t keep any American troops in Afghanistan after December without a security agreement giving the military a legal basis for staying in the country. While the White House did not publicly set a deadline for finalizing the agreement before that time, officials said the size and scope of any U.S. mission could shrink the longer Obama waits.
Ukraine disbands feared riot police unit blamed for violent attacks on protesters
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Ukraine’s acting interior minister on Wednesday ordered the disbandment of a feared riot police force that many accuse of attacks on protesters during the country’s three-month political turmoil.
Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that he has signed a decree to disband the force known as Berkut and said more detail would be announced later.
Anti-government protesters have blamed Berkut for violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators protesting authorities’ decision to ditch closer ties with the European Union and turn to Moscow instead. Those attacks galvanized long-brewing anger against police and the protests quickly grew into a massive movement, attracting crowds exceeding 100,000 and establishing an extensive tent camp in the capital’s main downtown square.
The force, whose name means “golden eagle,” consisted of about 5,000 officers. It was unclear Wednesday if its members would be dismissed or if they would be reassigned to other units.
President Viktor Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement last week to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead in just a few days in Kiev. Shortly after, Yanukovych fled the capital for his powerbase in eastern Ukraine but his exact whereabouts are unknown.
Cartel leader’s high-tech gadgets, counterspy tactics helped him evade capture for 13 years
WASHINGTON (AP) - Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel leader employed high-tech communications gadgetry and sophisticated counterespionage practices to elude an international manhunt for 13 years, The Associated Press has learned. In the end, however, life on the run unraveled for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in a decidedly low-tech way.
A traditional wiretap in southern Arizona pointed authorities to a cellphone being used by a top associate. Within a day, Guzman was captured in a high-rise beachfront condominium in Mazatlan, Mexico.
Guzman’s penchant for technology and his efforts to stay ahead of the law were described to the AP by a senior law enforcement official with direct knowledge of Guzman’s years on the run and by a U.S. government official who was briefed on the case. Both spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation by name.
“He didn’t spare any expenses when it came to protecting himself,” the law enforcement official said.
Some of the communications equipment Guzman used was not generally available to consumers. The sophistication of the gear and Guzman’s diligence deeply impressed investigators who were pursuing him. Among other practices, Guzman employed countersurveillance scanners to detect transmitters hidden in rooms or carried by people with whom he was meeting.
Government study says preschooler obesity fell sharply; experts wary of declaring victory
ATLANTA (AP) - Toddler obesity shrank sharply in the past decade, a new study suggests. While promising, it’s not proof that the nation has turned a corner in the battle against childhood obesity, some experts say.
The finding comes from a government study considered a gold-standard gauge of trends in the public’s health. The researchers found that obesity among children ages 2 to 5 decreased - to 8 percent, from 14 percent a decade ago. That would represent a 43 percent drop.
But the only decline was seen in preschoolers, not in older children. And some experts note that even the improvement in toddlers wasn’t a steady decline, and say it’s hard to know yet whether preschooler weight figures are permanently curving down or merely jumping around.
It is enough of a decline to be optimistic, said Cynthia Ogden, one of the study’s authors.
“There’s a glimmer of hope,” said Ogden, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Avalanche deaths spike as storms dump snow, fuel dangerous conditions across West
SEATTLE (AP) - Skiers and snowboarders rejoiced when a series of storms dumped several feet of snow in the mountains across the West, after what had been a disappointing start for those seeking fresh powder in the backcountry.
But all the new snow and strong winds in the past month have fueled dangerous conditions from the Cascades to the Rockies, prompting forecasters to issue warnings of considerable or high avalanche danger for many places outside of established ski areas.
Seventeen people have died in an avalanche this winter, 11 of them since early February. Many more skirted disaster and survived with broken bones or other injuries. Some were partially buried in snow, but managed to dig themselves out or were dug out by companions.
Avalanche experts are seeing a similar problem across the region: too much snow and strong winds overloading weak layers of old snow. With too much stress and not enough time to bond or stabilize, that weak snow layer eventually gives way.
“It’s like putting a brick on top of a pile of potato chips,” said Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Utah Avalanche Center.
Tale of two messages? NYC mayor’s inequality fight sidelined by slew of ‘sideshows’
NEW YORK (AP) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious agenda to fight income inequality - a campaign he famously titled “The Tale of Two Cities” - has taken a backseat in recent weeks to a series of political stumbles that have become tabloid fodder and shaken his everyman image.
First, there was his late-night call to police on behalf of a political ally who was arrested but didn’t spend a night in jail. (“BAIL OF TWO CITIES: Blaz’s call to cops springs pal,” the Daily News blared.)
Then came widespread second-guessing - led by TV weatherman Al Roker - over inconsistent snowplowing of the tony Upper East Side in one heavy storm and the decision to keep schools open in another (“LET THEM EAT SNOW!: Rage as Bill keeps schools open,” the New York Post chided.)
And most recently, a TV news video caught de Blasio’s motorcade speeding through stop signs, two days after he introduced a sweeping traffic safety program. (“It’s another tale of two cities,” the Daily News wrote, “one set of traffic rules for Mayor de Blasio, and one for the rest of us.”)
The mayor has often responded by being defensive and snippy when dealing with the media, and then chastising reporters for focusing on the blunders.
Samsung’s fingerprint technology not bulletproof, but provides convenient security
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S5 smartphone will be at least the third to have a fingerprint sensor for security but it’s alone in letting you use that for general shopping, thanks to a partnership with PayPal.
The sensor brings convenience for entering passcodes and could encourage more people to lock their phones. But fingerprint security isn’t foolproof.
Here’s what to know as you consider whether to place your trust in it:
How does it work?
Tiny houses employed to help tackle big homeless problem nationwide
MADISON, Wis. (AP) - While tiny houses have been attractive for those wanting to downsize or simplify their lives for financial or environmental reasons, there’s another population benefiting from the small-dwelling movement: the homeless.
There’s a growing effort across the nation from advocates and religious groups to build these compact buildings because they are cheaper than a traditional large-scale shelter, help the recipients socially because they are built in communal settings and are environmentally friendly due to their size.
“You’re out of the elements, you’ve got your own bed, you’ve got your own place to call your own,” said Harold “Hap” Morgan, who is without a permanent home in Madison. “It gives you a little bit of self-pride: This is my own house.”
He’s in line for a 99-square-foot house built through the nonprofit Occupy Madison Build, or OM Build, run by former organizers with the Occupy movement. The group hopes to create a cluster of tiny houses like those in Olympia, Wash., and Eugene and Portland, Ore.
Many have been built with donated materials and volunteer labor, sometimes from the people who will live in them. Most require residents to behave appropriately, avoid drugs and alcohol and help maintain the properties.
California couple uncover rare gold coins worth $10 million while walking their dog
LOS ANGELES (AP) - A Northern California couple out walking their dog on their property stumbled across a modern-day bonanza: $10 million in rare, mint-condition gold coins buried in the shadow of an old tree.
Nearly all of the 1,427 coins, dating from 1847 to 1894, are in uncirculated, mint condition, said David Hall, co-founder of Professional Coin Grading Service of Santa Ana, which recently authenticated them. Although the face value of the gold pieces only adds up to more than $28,000, some of them are so rare that coin experts say they could fetch nearly $1 million apiece.
“I don’t like to say once-in-a-lifetime for anything, but you don’t get an opportunity to handle this kind of material, a treasure like this, ever,” said veteran numismatist Don Kagin, who is representing the finders. “It’s like they found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Kagin, whose family has been in the rare-coin business for 81 years, would say little about the couple other than that they are husband and wife, are middle-aged and have lived for several years on the rural property in California’s Gold Country, where the coins were found. They have no idea who put them there, he said.
The pair are choosing to remain anonymous, Kagin said, in part to avoid a renewed gold rush to their property by modern-day prospectors armed with metal detectors.
Rally in pro-Russian region of Crimea decries the ‘bandits’ in Kiev forming new government
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP) - Dozens of pro-Russian protesters rallied Tuesday in this Crimean Peninsula city, bitterly denouncing politicians in Kiev who are trying to form a new government, with some even calling for secession from Ukraine. A Russian lawmaker stoked their passions by promising that Moscow will protect them.
“Russia, save us!” they chanted.
The outburst of pro-Russian sentiment in the strategic peninsula on the Black Sea, home to a Russian naval base, came amid fears of economic collapse for Ukraine as the fractious foes of President Viktor Yanukovych failed to reach agreement on forming a new national government and said the task of assigning posts could not be completed before Thursday.
While Ukraine’s politicians struggled to reorganize themselves in Kiev, a Russian flag had replaced the Ukrainian flag in front of the city council building in Sevastopol, 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the south of the capital. An armored personnel carrier and two trucks full of Russian troops made a rare appearance on the streets, vividly demonstrating Russian power in this port city where the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
Some called on Moscow to protect them from the movement that drove Yanukovych from the capital three days ago.
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