Nation & World News

U.N. Peacekeepers Rescued After Being Trapped By Syrian Militants

By Scott Neuman on August 30th, 2014 | Last updated: August 30, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Dozens of besieged United Nations peacekeepers were safely extracted after being surrounded for days on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

After rebels of the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front seized 44 Fijian peacekeepers on Thursday, they laid siege to two encampments of Filipino peacekeepers totaling more than 70 soldiers.

The rebels demanded the Filipino soldiers, part of the U.N. mission known as UNDOF, surrender their weapons, but the peacekeepers refused.

“There was a firefight but I would like to assure everyone that our troops are safe at the moment,” said Ramon Zagala, chief of the Philippines Armed Forces public affairs office. He did not give any more details.

“The U.N. peacekeepers returned fire and prevented the attackers from entering the position,” a U.N. statement said. It said there were no reported casualties among the U.N. personnel.

It wasn’t immediately clear which U.N. peacekeepers were involved in the firefight with Nusra Front fighters.

The Associated Press reports: “The gunbattle began early Saturday at the Rwihana base some 1.5 miles (2.3 kilometers) from Quneitra, where 40 Filipino peacekeepers were surrounded by Nusra fighters who were ordering them to surrender, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Philippines’ Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin gave a similar account but did not name the armed group.”

The Irish Times quotes an unnamed military official as saying an Irish U.N. peacekeeping battalion, which is tasked with emergency responses, evacuated all the Filipino peacekeepers on Saturday morning.

The U.N. said in a statement that that the Fijian peacekeepers are, according to reliable sources, “safe and in good health.”

UNDOF, with peacekeepers from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines, has monitored the disengagement zone between Israel and Syria since 1974 in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Reuters says.

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Nicaraguan Miners Trapped After Collapse

By Scott Neuman on August 30th, 2014 | Last updated: August 30, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Rescue workers in Nicaragua were trying to reach four trapped miners in the gold and silver mine in the country’s south-central city of Bonanza, after 22 others were freed.

The Associated Press quotes the country’s first lady Rosario Murillo as saying 20 of the miners were rescued on Friday, in addition to two others who escaped a collapse on Thursday.

The AP says:

“Hundreds of relatives and fellow miners had gathered to pray outside the mine as rescuers lined up several ladders along a 200-foot long tunnel leading toward where the men were trapped. The mine cuts into the side of a mountain and then goes upward.

“Commander Javier Amaya of the rescue team said the rescue plan involved groups ‘of five or 10 miners entering the mine on wooden ladders, tying themselves off and going in until they reach them.’”

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John Walker Jr., Cold War Spy For Soviets, Dies At 77

By Scott Neuman on August 30th, 2014 | Last updated: August 30, 2014 at 2:14 pm

John A. Walker Jr., a former U.S. Navy officer convicted in the 1980s of running a spy network that for years passed classified communications to the Soviet Union, has died in federal prison at age 77.

Reuters writes:

“Walker began his Cold War-era espionage scheme while working as a Navy warrant officer and communications specialist. He provided secrets to the Soviets for more than 17 years and compromised at least 1 million classified messages, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Authorities said he also masterminded a family of spies, recruiting his brother Arthur, his son [Seaman] Michael [Walker] and [Petty Officer Jerry Whitworth] — all of whom had security clearances — to help him gain access to top-secret information after he retired from the Navy.”

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, Walker approached the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., offering to hand over keys to coded material on a regular basis. The Soviets used the keys to decipher secret U.S. Navy communications.

At the time of his arrest in 1985, then-Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger said Walker’s efforts had allowed the Soviets “access to weapons and sensor data and naval tactics, terrorist threats, and surface, submarine, and airborne training, readiness tactics.”

Some naval historians believe that in 1968, Soviet intelligence arranged for the North Koreans to seize the USS Pueblo specifically to obtain navy cipher machines needed to make use of the windfall from Walker’s spying.

Estimates of what the Soviets paid Walker for his information have ranged from several hundred thousand dollars to about $1 million.

The Los Angeles Times says the spying ring was uncovered “after [Walker's] ex-wife, Barbara Crowley Walker, alerted the FBI in the midst of a custody battle between her daughter, Laura Walker Snyder, and her son-in-law, Mark Snyder.”

The Times says: “John Walker Jr. later agreed to a plea deal, cooperating with federal authorities and testifying against Whitworth in exchange for securing a lighter, 25-year sentence for his son, Michael.”

His son served 15 years and was released in 2000; his brother Arthur was incarcerated at the same prison as John Walker in Butner, N.C., and died there in July at age 79. Whitworth, now 75, remains at the Federal Penitentiary in Atwater, Calif.

John Walker was sentenced in 1986 to life in prison, but under sentencing laws at that time would have been due for release in May, federal prisons spokesman Chris Burke was quoted by Reuters as saying.

He died on Thursday, but no immediate cause was given. Walker reportedly suffered from throat cancer.

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Poroshenko Says Ukraine Near To ‘Full-Scale War’

By Scott Neuman on August 30th, 2014 | Last updated: August 30, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Update at 6:55 p.m. ET

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has told European Union foreign ministers that his country is “close to a point of no return,” over Moscow’s support for separatist rebels.

“I think that we are very close to the point of no return,” he said at an EU meeting in Brussels, where he was invited to speak.

“Point of no return is full-scale war,” he said.

“Any offensive action which would be undertaken [by Russia]… would be a point of no return. And that’s why we undertake enormous efforts to stop that,” he said, according to the BBC.

The Ukrainian leader’s comments came as the EU was reportedly hammering out further sanctions against Russia. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the EU would have proposals for sanctions within a week, the Associated Press reported Saturday, although it’s not clear when those sanctions might be implemented.

These potential sanctions would be intended to punish Russia for its incursion into eastern Ukraine, where as many as 5,000 Kremlin troops are said to be fighting alongside pro-Russia separatists.

The European foreign minsters have expressed “deep concern” over Moscow’s “aggression.” NATO has also called on the Kremlin to halt its “illegal military operations” in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, pro-Russia separatists have captured the Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk in the southern Donetsk province on the coast of the Sea of Azov.

NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who visited Novoazovsk shortly after its capture, tells Weekend Edition Saturday that the city seems calm, but that residents are nervously reticent.

In an hour-long visit that was controlled by separatists, Soraya says she spoke to a city administration worker.

“She was rather frightened and it took me a while to even get her to give me her first name,” Soraya says. “I asked her if she was happy that she’d been liberated and she wouldn’t answer.”

The capture of the city, now part of what the separatists call “the new Russia,” came after three days of fighting, according to residents.

Soraya tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that it’s difficult or impossible to tell whether Russian forces are mixed in with the rebels, as the U.S. and European nations claim.

“[There] seems to be a mix of people here, definitely not locals who are here,” she says. “But the separatists claim they do not have any Russians fighting among them, that these are Ukrainians fighters who are here … that all the weapons and tanks here, and we’ve seen three tanks here, have been confiscated from the Ukrainians.”

According to the AP: “None of the half-dozen tanks seen by Associated Press reporters in the town of about 12,000 people bore Russian markings, but the packaging on [the fighters'] field rations said they were issued by the Russian army.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday referred to Russia’s “hollow denials” that its troops and equipment had illegally crossed the border into Ukraine. “This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution,” he said. Earlier this week, President Obama said there is “no doubt that this is not a homegrown, indigenous uprising.”

As EU foreign ministers met, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who was invited to speak, appealed for them to give an “appropriate response” over Russian forces being brought into Ukraine, his spokesman said in a Twitter post, according to Reuters:

“Referring to meetings in Brussels between Poroshenko and EU leaders on Saturday, the spokesman said: ‘Poroshenko expressed the hope that the leaders of EU members will give an appropriate response to the act of aggression towards Ukraine.

“‘The bringing of Russian forces onto Ukrainian territory requires an appropriate response from the EU.’”

The high-level discussions came amid reports that a Ukrainian SU-25 had been shot down. Soraya reports: “This has been the third jet that in recent days has been shot down. This time, the Ukrainians say it was some sort of Russian missile launcher that brought it down. There has been no response from the Russian side.”

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Chinese High-Rise Worker Left Dangling After Annoyed Boy Cuts Rope

By Scott Neuman on August 29th, 2014 | Last updated: August 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

A worker in southern China was left hanging from 100 feet up the side of a high-rise apartment building when a 10-year-old boy, apparently annoyed at the construction racket outside his window, decided to cut the safety line on the man’s rappelling apparatus.

Xinhua says the boy was watching cartoons in his eighth-floor apartment in Guizhou province as the worker was outside installing lighting. So, the boy took a knife and sliced through the rope that allows the worker to move up and down.

According to an English translation of the Xinhua article on the Shanghaiist website, the worker was left dangling midair. He yelled down to a co-worker, who called firemen; he was rescued about 40 minutes later. You can view photos here.

Xinhua quotes the worker, surnamed Liu, as saying:

” ‘When I was using the electric drill, I felt my lower rope shaking. Then I saw the boy cutting the rope with a knife.’

” ‘I shouted at him to stop but he didn’t listen and soon after, the rope was broken. That’s when I called to my workmate for help,’ Liu said.”

Shanghaiist says that after speaking with police, “the boy finally admitted to what he did”:

“His father, surnamed Tang, was called to come back home from work. He gave Liu a sincere apology on behalf of his son and compensated him with … a new safety rope.”

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Holiday Gas Prices Lowest In Four Years

By Scott Neuman on August 29th, 2014 | Last updated: August 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

Some good news heading into the long weekend: Labor Day gas prices are at their lowest level in four years.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the nationwide average for retail regular was $3.45 per gallon on Aug. 25 — that’s the lowest average price for a Monday ahead of Labor Day since 2010, and it’s about $0.25 per gallon less than at the end of June this year. The current price is down from the record average of $3.83 for the 2012 holiday.

EIA says the recent decline in prices is mainly due to changes in the price of crude: “In June of this year, the Brent spot price reached its year-to-date high of $115/barrel (bbl), then fell to $102/bbl on August 22. Current Brent prices are below their August average level over the past three years, which ranged between $110/bbl and $113/bbl. Crude oil prices were lower in 2010, as the global economy was just beginning to recover from the 2008-09 recession that reduced oil demand.”

USA Today writes:

“The energy markets have shrugged off tensions in the Middle East, the Ukraine-Russia conflict and minor supply disruptions during normal peak summer driving season.

“But with demand now at seven-year lows and daily North American oil production at five-decade highs, geopolitical risks are having less impact on oil prices.

“Even news of a larger-than-expected drop in oil supplies is having little impact.”

But as EIA reports, regional prices vary significantly:

“Prices are lowest on the Gulf Coast ($3.24/gal) and highest on the West Coast ($3.83/gal) as of August 25. Gulf Coast prices are often low compared with prices in other regions because of the Gulf Coast’s proximity to half the nation’s refining capacity — its gasoline production is greater than the region’s consumption — and because it does not rely on supply transferred from other U.S. regions or imported from the global market. West Coast prices are often higher than those in other areas of the country because of the more restrictive gasoline specifications in California, the region’s dominant market. As of August 25, prices in the Rocky Mountains region and East Coast averaged $3.65/gal and $3.40/gal, respectively.”

Earlier this month, an Edmunds survey noted that nearly three-quarters of all Americans were either definitely planning a road trip for the holiday or considering it.

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The Most Bizarre Bits To Come Out Of The Trial Of Virginia’s Ex-Governor

By Eyder Peralta on August 29th, 2014 | Last updated: August 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

The trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife went into closing arguments today. At issue are serious allegations of corruption, but the trial has also unveiled seriously strange details about the McDonnells’ personal life.

We haven’t given the trial much coverage around here. So, before the jury hands down its verdict, we wanted to catch you up on some of the oddest moments to emerge from the testimony.

– First Lady Was A ‘Nutbag’:

One of the recurring themes of the trial has been how Maureen McDonnell — the state’s former first lady — was a screamer who terrorized her staff.

On day eight of the trial, McDonnell’s chief of staff described her as a “nutbag.”

Here’s how the Richmond Times-Dispatch recapped that testimony:

“Mary-Shea Sutherland’s testimony on day eight of the McDonnells’ federal corruption trial portrayed a frustrated first lady placated by Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a free-spending dietary-supplement impresario, then CEO of Star Scientific.

“Sutherland depicted Maureen McDonnell as so undone by her privileged surroundings and financial limitations that the first lady grabbed at gifts, raged at staff, and even falsely accused the Executive Mansion chef of trying to ruin her Christmas by serving ‘bad shrimp.’

“The tawdry testimony led some courtroom spectators to roll their eyes, shake their heads and snicker in disbelief.”

– The Letter:

The big strategy in this trial for the defense has been to paint the couple as so dysfunctional and uncommunicative that they could not have possibly formed a conspiracy. Remember, they are accused of taking gifts from the CEO of a pharmaceutical company in exchange for the “prestige of the governorship.”

In any case, late in the trial, a letter from McDonnell to his wife was entered into evidence. It is cringe-inducing.

The Associated Press has the whole text. We’ll leave you with only one small portion:

“I know I am a sinner and keep trying to do better. But I am completely at a loss as to how to handle the fiery anger and hate from you that has become more and more frequent. You told me again yesterday that you would wreck my things and how bad I am. It hurt me to my core. I have asked and prayed to God so many times to take this anger away from you and heal whatever hurt is causing it … some going back years and years. He has not yet answered those prayers.”

– ‘Tic Tac Man’

Speaking of the CEO of Star Scientific. Testimony from McDonnell’s eldest daughter suggested that Mrs. McDonnell had a “mild obsession” with Jonnie Williams.

The AP wrote at the time of the testimony:

“Jeanine McDonnell said her parents rarely spoke to each other in private, going back decades. She also said her mother developed an unusually close friendship with Williams.

“Bob McDonnell testified that he viewed Williams as a personal friend and was comfortable accepting his gifts because he never sought any favors from him.

“Jeanine McDonnell made clear she no longer thinks highly of Williams, who earlier testified under immunity that he was not friends with the McDonnells and he spent lavishly on them only to gain acceptance for Anatabloc. The immunity agreement bars Williams’ prosecution not only for his dealings with the McDonnells, but also for potential securities violations.

“The judge mildly rebuked Jeanine McDonnell when she said she returned a $10,000 check from Williams, intended as a housewarming present, ‘once we learned that Jonnie himself was a criminal.’ ”

Anatabloc, by the way, is the supplement that prosecutors allege the defendants conspired to promote illegally in exchange for money from Williams.

Earlier in the trial, it was revealed that health policy aide Molly Huffstetler referred to Williams mockingly as the “Tic Tac man.” According to the Washington Post, Huffstetler also said she would have never met with Williams had the governor not asked her to do so.

– The Reality Circus:

Perhaps the development that best shows what a circus this trial has been is the names of two big reality TV stars coming into the official court record.

WVEC-TV takes us there:

“Williams has testified that, on at least two occasions, he purchased a $5,000 bottle of cognac while entertaining a group that included the McDonnells.

“One of those occasions — at a restaurant in the lobby of the Four Seasons in New York City — defense attorneys claim Williams also broke out his cellphone and bragged about having the cellphone numbers of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.”

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Malaysia Airlines Cuts A Third Of Its Workforce After Steep Losses

By Scott Neuman on August 29th, 2014 | Last updated: August 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

For Malaysia Airlines, the tragic loss of two of its aircraft with all passengers and crew in recent months has hardly been the extent of its problems: On Thursday, the carrier announced a steep quarterly loss, and today came word that it is cutting nearly a third of its workforce.

The airline said it would lay off 6,000 employees, or about 30 percent of its 20,000-strong workforce a day after it reported a loss in the quarter ending June of $97.6 million, on top of a first-quarter loss of $140.8 million.

In the wake of the mysterious disappearance of MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March and the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine, the airline has faced a public-relations disaster that has translated into empty cabins despite heavily discounted tickets. The airline said its weekly bookings had dropped by a third. It’s worth noting, however, that its financial losses predate the losses of its aircraft; in the same quarter a year ago, the carrier showed a $55.9 million loss.

The layoffs announced today are part of a recovery plan led by the state investment company Khazanah Nasional, the airline’s largest shareholder.

“The combination of measures announced today will enable our national airline to be revived,” said Khazanah’s managing director Azman Mokhtar. “Success is by no means guaranteed. While it is imperative that [Malaysia Airlines] … is revived, public accountability for the use of the funds mean that it cannot be renewed at any cost.”

The BBC says of the revitalization plan:

“Long-haul routes will be slashed, and the airline aims to return to profitability by 2018.

“The firm will be completely delisted from the Bursa Malaysia stock exchange by the end of 2014.

“Relevant assets, operations and liabilities of Malaysia Airlines will be transferred to a new company by 1 July 2015.

“The current chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, will continue to lead the firm until the new company is formed next year.”

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Britain Raises Terror Alert Level, But Cites No Specific Threat

By Scott Neuman on August 29th, 2014 | Last updated: August 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

British Prime Minister David Cameron is warning that the threat to the U.K. from international terrorism is “greater and deeper” than ever before, as London raised its terror warning level in response to what it said were plans by the Islamic State and other extremist groups to attack the West.

The U.K. ratcheted up the alert to “severe,” which is the second-highest of five levels and indicates the risk of an attack is considered “highly likely.” However, it’s important to note that authorities have not offered evidence of a specific or immediate plot. The level has been higher in the past — at “critical” in 2006 and again in 2007.

Ahead of Cameron’s remarks, Theresa May of the U.K.’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center said some plots “are likely to involve foreign fighters who have traveled there from the U.K. and Europe to take part in those conflicts.”

The prime minister expressed particular concern about what he said were at least 500 people who had traveled from the U.K. “to fight in Syria and potentially Iraq.” British authorities have been trying to track down the assassin of American journalist James Foley, who spoke with a British accent on the videotape released by his Islamic State captors.

Professor Andrew Silke of the University of East London told the BBC that he believes today’s announcement is a reaction to the killing of Foley.

Cameron said the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, poses a “greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.”

“We are in the middle of a generational struggle,” Cameron said, adding that it could take years. “The scale of this threat is growing.”

He said there is “no doubt” that the Islamic State is targeting “all of us in Western Europe.”

“Britain is an open, tolerant and free nation,” but it will take steps to stop people traveling by seizing their passports if they’re deemed a threat, Cameron said.

The prime minister added that it is important to make a distinction between religion and political ideology. The religion of Islam, he said, “inspires millions to countless acts of kindness,” but Islamic extremism is a political ideology that “is in the minority.

“We cannot appease this ideology,” Cameron said.

The BBC says the threat level went to “critical” in August 2006, after police uncovered a plot to blow up passenger planes, and again in June 2007 after an attack at Glasgow airport. The last time it was changed was in 2011, when it was lowered to “substantial.”

Update at 1:00 p.m. ET. Homeland Security: No ‘Specific, Credible’ Threat To U.S.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement after the British announcement:

“At present, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. homeland from ISIL [Islamic State]. Plainly, however, violent extremists who support ISIL have demonstrated the intent and capability to target American citizens overseas, and ISIL constitutes an active and serious threat within the region.”

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California Lawmakers Pass ‘Affirmative Consent’ Sexual Assault Bill

By Eyder Peralta on August 29th, 2014 | Last updated: August 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm

California is one step closer to becoming the first state to require colleges and universities “to adopt a standard of unambiguous consent among students engaging in sexual activity,” The Los Angeles Times reports.

The California Senate gave the bill unanimous approval on Thursday, and it is now headed to the governor’s office.

The Times adds:

“Along with a comprehensive prevention program, colleges would be required to help victims of sexual assault seek medical care, counseling, legal assistance and other services.

“Students engaging in sexual activity would first need ‘affirmative consent’ from both parties — a clear threshold that specifically could not include a person’s silence, a lack of resistance or consent given while intoxicated.”

As Reuters reports, the bill comes amid increasing national pressure for universities and colleges to curb sexual assault on campus.

As we’ve reported, the Department of Education said in May that 55 colleges and universities nationwide were under investigation over their handling of sexual abuse claims.

Reuters adds:

“The White House has declared sex crimes to be ‘epidemic’ on U.S. college campuses, with one in five students falling victim to sex assault during their college years.

“Universities in California and beyond have already taken steps, including seeking to delineate whether consent has been given beyond ‘no means no.’

“Harvard University said last month it had created an office to investigate all claims of sexual harassment or sex assault, and that it would lower its evidentiary standard of proof in weighing the cases.”

The California bill has been dubbed “yes means yes,” which means the burden is on both people to seek consent, not for one party to expect a no. The bill also calls for affirmative consent to be ongoing throughout the sexual activity.

Some critics have said the bill goes too far or that it’s confusing. The Long Beach Press-Telegram reports:

“A pair of friends at Cal State Long Beach said the bill seemed well-intentioned, but questioned how practical it is when it comes to ensuring consent throughout sex with their partners.

” ‘I feel like their hearts are in the right place, but the implementation is a little too excessive,’ said Henry Mu, a 24-year-old biology major. ‘Are there guidelines? Are we supposed to check every five minutes?’ ”

Insider Higher Ed adds:

“[The bill] is a good thing, say victims’ rights advocates. Female college students who make allegations are too often asked by college officials to account for their own actions, including what they were wearing and whether they tried hard enough to stop a sexual encounter.

“Others question whether the policy is an unworkable attempt at government overreach.

“How does a person prove they receive consent ‘shy of having it videotaped,’ said Joe Cohn, the legislative policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.”

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