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WORLD BRIEFLY: Little urgency to avoid automatic spending cuts

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 | 8:47 p.m. CST; updated 8:56 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Here are today's top stories, according to The Associated Press.

Urgency to avoid automatic spending cuts not as evident as in past fiscal fights

WASHINGTON — Ten days before a new deadline for broad, automatic government spending cuts, the sense of urgency that surrounded other recent fiscal crises is absent. Government agencies are preparing to absorb an $85 billion hit to their budgets, and politicians, at least for now, seem willing to accept the consequences.

President Barack Obama, back from a Florida golfing weekend, warned Tuesday that "people will lose their jobs" if Congress doesn't act. But lawmakers weren't in session to hear his appeal, and they aren't coming back to work until next week.

Still dividing the two sides are sharp differences over whether tax increases, which Obama wants and Republicans oppose, should be part of a budget deal.

Obama cautioned that if the immediate spending cuts — known as sequestration — occur, the full range of government will feel the effects. Among those he listed: furloughed FBI agents, reductions in spending for communities to pay police, firefighters and teachers, and decreased ability to respond to threats around the world.

Aides say Obama is ready to take his case more directly to the public in an effort to pressure Republicans, either by traveling to vulnerable states or, as the White House often does, through local media interviews. They say neither Obama nor White House officials are now engaged in direct negotiations with Republican leaders.

Oscar Pistorius says he mistook girlfriend for intruder

PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius wept Tuesday as his defense lawyer read the athlete's account of how he shot his girlfriend to death on Valentine's Day, claiming he had mistaken her for an intruder.

Prosecutors, however, told a packed courtroom that the double-amputee known as the Blade Runner intentionally and mercilessly shot and killed 29-year-old Reeva Steenkamp as she cowered inside a locked bathroom.

Pistorius told the Pretoria Magistrate's Court at a bail hearing he felt vulnerable in the presence of an intruder inside the bathroom because he did not have his prosthetic legs on, and fired into the bathroom door.

The Valentine's Day shooting in Pistorius' home in Pretoria shocked South Africans and many around the world who idolized him for overcoming adversity to become a sports champion, competing in the London Olympics last year in track besides being a Paralympian. Steenkamp was a model and law graduate who made her debut on a South African reality TV program that was broadcast on Saturday, two days after her death.

A major point of contention emerged during a Tuesday bail hearing where prosecutor Gerrie Nel said Pistorius took the time to put on his prostheses, walked seven meters (yards) from the bed to the enclosed toilet inside his bathroom and only then opened fire. Three of the bullets hit Steenkamp of the four that were fired into the door, Nel said.

Missile strike in Syria kills 33; mortars land near presidential palace

BEIRUT — A Syrian missile strike leveled a block of buildings in an impoverished district of Aleppo on Tuesday, killing at least 33 people, almost half of them children, anti-regime activists said.

Many were trapped under the rubble of destroyed houses and piles of concrete and the death toll could still rise further if more bodies are uncovered.

The apparent ground-to-ground missile attack struck a quiet area that has been held by anti-regime fighters for many months, a reminder of how difficult it is for the opposition to defend territory in the face of the regime's far superior weaponry.

In the capital Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said two mortars exploded near one of President Bashar Assad's palaces. It dealt a symbolic blow to the embattled leader, who has tried to maintain an image as the head of a functioning state even as rebels edge closer to the heart of his seat of power.

No casualties were reported and it was unclear whether Assad was in the palace. He has two others in the city.

U.N. concerned about rise in drone strikes in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — The number of U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan rose sharply last year compared with 2011, the United Nations said Tuesday. The increase was a sign that unmanned aircraft are taking a greater role as Americans try to streamline the fight against insurgents while preparing to withdraw combat forces in less than two years.

Drones have become a major source of contention between the U.S. and countries like Pakistan, where covert strikes on militant leaders have drawn condemnation and allegations of sovereignty infringements as family members and other bystanders are killed.

They have not been a prominent issue in Afghanistan, however. While drone attacks have occurred, they have largely been in support of ground troops during operations and have not been singled out by President Hamid Karzai's administration in its campaign against international airstrikes.

The steep rise in the number of weapons fired from unmanned aerial aircraft — the formal term for drones — raises the possibility that may change as U.S. forces become more dependent on such attacks to fight al-Qaida and other insurgents as combat missions are due to end by the end of 2014.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 506 weapons were released by drones in 2012, compared with 294 the previous year. Five incidents resulted in casualties with 16 civilians killed and three wounded, up from just one incident in 2011.

Belgian diamond heist shows 1960s-style capers still a threat in information age

LONDON — At a time when many robberies take place at the click of a mouse, a group of jewel thieves has shown there's still a potential payoff for old-fashioned criminals willing to use disguises, planning and pluck to nab their loot.

Monday's theft of some $50 million worth of diamonds from the tarmac of Brussels' international airport is a "huge blip on the radar," said retired FBI agent Bill Rehder, who spent more than three decades on Los Angeles' bank robbery squad.

"You can almost liken it to the meteor that hit in Russia," he said, referring to the space rock which exploded last week over the city of Chelyabinsk, injuring hundreds. "These things happen so infrequently, but when they do happen it's a huge story."

It's also the type of story that complicates trends that have seen many crimes — particularly those targeting banks — jump from the world of brandished weapons and ransom notes to a universe of Trojan software and password-stealing computer programs.

In several Western countries, robberies have fallen as banks have installed bullet-proof glass, access-control vestibules and cash boxes rigged with paint or glue. Rehder said that, in the United States, tougher sentencing for criminals and societal changes have also led to a drop in bank robberies, which shrank from 8,516 in 2001 to 5,086 in 2011.

U.S. company says evidence points to China's military in hacking attacks

BEIJING — Cyberattacks that stole massive amounts of information from military contractors, energy companies and other key industries in the U.S. and elsewhere have been traced to the doorstep of a Chinese military unit, a U.S. security firm alleged Tuesday.

China's Foreign Ministry dismissed the report as "groundless," and the Defense Ministry denied any involvement in hacking attacks.

China has frequently been accused of hacking, but the report by Virginia-based Mandiant Corp. contains some of the most extensive and detailed accusations to date linking its military to a wave of cyberspying against U.S. and other foreign companies and government agencies.

Mandiant said it traced the hacking back to a neighborhood in the outskirts of Shanghai that includes a drab, white 12-story office building run by "Unit 61398" of the People's Liberation Army.

The unit "has systematically stolen hundreds of terabytes of data from at least 141 organizations," Mandiant wrote. By comparison, the U.S. Library of Congress 2006-2010 Twitter archive of about 170 billion tweets totals 133.2 terabytes.

In Iraq, Sunni protesters dig in as familiar tensions flare

RAMADI, Iraq — Sunni protesters are camped out in dozens of tents festooned with tribal banners on the edge of this one-time Iraqi insurgent stronghold. They are digging in and growing more organized, vowing to keep up their demonstrations against a Shiite-led government they feel has left them behind.

The protesters will seek to bring down the government if their demands aren't met, warns a prominent Sunni sheik who once helped Americans battle al-Qaida in Iraq. He speaks ominously that armed militants who once fought U.S. troops could rally to the cause.

"When we give up hope that the government can reform itself, we will call for toppling it," Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha said in his well-guarded family compound near the banks of the Euphrates. "If this government does not disband itself, we will head to Baghdad and stage protests in the streets and paralyze the government's work until it falls apart."

When the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, there was hope that majority Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds would learn to work together, resolve their differences and create a healthy democracy in a country with a history of strong-arm rule.

But as the 10th anniversary of the March 20, 2003 U.S.-led invasion approaches next month, the same sectarian tensions stirred up by the war are flaring again — in no small part, many Sunnis say, because of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempts to consolidate power.

Brutal, fast-moving shooting spree in California leaves 4 dead

TUSTIN, Calif. — The violence stretched across 25 miles in Orange County and was as brutal as it was fast-moving.

In less than an hour, a man in his 20s shot and killed a woman in her home and two commuters during carjackings early Tuesday, shot up vehicles on a Southern California freeway and committed suicide as police closed in on him, authorities said.

One driver was forced from his BMW at a red light, marched to a curb and killed as witnesses watched in horror.

"He was basically executed," Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said. "There were at least six witnesses."

It was unclear if the victims knew each other or the shooter, Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said.


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