Nation & World News

Gaza Toll Near 340 As Israel Presses Ground War

By L. Carol Ritchie on July 19th, 2014 | Last updated: July 19, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Updated at 4:25 p.m. ET.

Nearly 340 people have been killed and nearly 2,400 wounded in 11 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip, as tens of thousands have been displaced in the conflict, according to health officials in the Palestinian territory.

Ashraf al-Kidra, a Gazan health official, says 338 Palestinians have been killed and 2,556 wounded. Earlier, another health official said some 70 children were among the dead.

Israel’s military says that since its ground invasion of Gaza began, militants there have fired more than 130 rockets toward Israel, NPR’s Emily Harris says.

Palestinians in the area where ground operations have taken place were warned by Israel a week ago to leave their homes in anticipation of a major escalation in the fighting. By last Sunday, Emily says, “almost 20,000 had taken refuge in schools run by a United Nations agency.” Since then, she says, the number housed in those schools has tripled.

The IDF says that two Israeli residents were killed Saturday in Hamas rocket attacks and two soldiers were killed in recent fighting.

Reuters reports Israeli tanks and bulldozers dug in along a one-mile strip of the territory’s eastern frontier on Saturday. The Israeli Defense Forces said combat engineers were concentrating on destroying tunnels and hidden rocked launchers that Hamas has used to fire on major cities across the border, including Tel Aviv.

Reuters quotes IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner as saying that the open-ended operation had “severely impeded Hamas’ capabilities.”

Israel says it foiled one cross-border raid by Gaza militants who entered Israel through one of the tunnels, and ground troops destroyed several other tunnels.

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Ukraine Accuses Rebels Of Destroying Evidence At MH17 Crash Site

By L. Carol Ritchie on July 19th, 2014 | Last updated: July 20, 2014 at 12:21 am

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET.

International investigators say armed rebels have limited their inspection of the Eastern Ukraine site of the downed Malaysian Airlines flight that killed nearly 300 passengers and crew, as Kiev accused pro-Russian separatists of destroying evidence at the scene.

Malaysia Airlines on Saturday released a list of names of the dead from Thursday’s crash. All 298 aboard the Boeing 777 were killed. Flight MH17 was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed in a rebel-held area near Donetsk, likely shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist-held territory, U.S. officials have said.

Kiev has said it has “compelling evidence” that Russians were on the crew of a missile battery believed to have shot down the plane, but did not present any information to back up the claim.

Some two dozen observers from the Organization of Cooperation and Safety in Europe say they were only allowed into a small area of the crash site for just over an hour, according to the BBC. One OCSE member said the team was confronted by a “visibly intoxicated guard” who fired shots into the air.

The rebels have denied that they are blocking access. Separatist leader Aleksander Borodai said his fighters had not touched the site, despite video of masked men shown rifling through wreckage and moving bodies.

In a statement, the Ukrainian government said rebels had removed 38 bodies from the crash site with the help of Russian specialists. It said rebels were also “seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia,” without elaborating.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, which lost nearly 200 of its citizens in the crash, said he was shocked by the “utterly disgraceful behavior” at the crash site. Rutte said he had a “very intense” phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the matter.

Malaysia’s Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai says “the integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement appealing to both sides in the Ukrainian conflict to do “everything possible to enable access for international experts.”

The crash site and debris, which spreads over miles of fields and farmland, are still unsecured and bodies lie exposed to the elements — some still strapped to seat belts and wearing inflight headphones, CNN reports.

At a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine’s intelligence chief, Vitaly Nada, said his government has “compelling evidence that this terrorist act was committed with the help of the Russian Federation.

“We know clearly that the crew of this system were Russian citizens,” Nada said. Moscow has denied any involvement in the shooting down of the plane, as have pro-Russian separatists.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that to launch the SA-11 missile thought to have brought down the plane requires a “very professional staff,” and, in an apparently derogatory reference to the rebels, could not, he said, be operated “by drunken gorillas.”

Securing evidence at the site is crucial to determining exactly who and what caused the crash. Workers also need to recover and identify the bodies, but the OCSE observers are not trained for that job and local emergency workers say it’s not their job either.

National Transportation Safety Board and FBI teams are on their way to the country, NPR’s David Schaper tells our Newscast desk. However, they are likely to find the same barriers as the OCSE officials, he says.

As former NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman tells NPR, “There are a lot of challenges here, I think chief among them is probably the war zone that they’re in, and just the very nature of what the people on the ground are facing.”

The bodies are starting to bloat and decay and need to be recovered quickly, OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw tells The Guardian. “We will keep coming back tomorrow and the next day and the next day.”

In other developments:

– Although early reports indicated that some 100 AIDS researchers and advocates may have been aboard MH17 en route to an international conference in Melbourne, Australia, the International AIDS Society issued a statement on Saturday drastically lowering the number. It said “at least six” delegates were on board the ill-fated flight.

– Secretary of State John Kerry, in a telephone call with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, expressed that the United States is “very concerned” over reports that wreckage and remains had been moved or tampered with. He also discussed allowing OSCE monitors “proper access” to the crash site.

– A statement from the Kremlin on Saturday says that in telephone conversation between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders agreed that hostilities in Ukraine’s southeast must be stopped immediately, peace talks begun, and the crash site opened to investigators. Merkel reportedly urged Putin to use his influence on the separatists.

– Interpol and its European counterpart, Europol, will dispatch a seven-member team to the crash site.

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Nuclear Negotiations With Iran Extended 4 Months

By Camila Domonoske on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Iran, the United States and five other countries have agreed to a four-month extension on negotiations toward a nuclear deal with Tehran.

The negotiations had a deadline of July 20. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement Friday saying that, two days shy of the deadline, there are still “very real gaps on issues such as enrichment capacity at the Natanz enrichment facility.” As a result, all seven nations involved have agreed that talks will continue in Vienna until Nov. 24.

The interim agreement governing these talks had allowed for an extension of up to six additional months, but as NPR’s Peter Kenyon reported Thursday, both sides of the negotiations would prefer a shorter timeline.

Some sanctions against Iran will continue to be suspended, as they were during the original six months of negotiations, and Iran will have access to $2.8 billion of restricted assets.

Under the terms of the extension, Kerry’s statement said, Iran will convert all its 20 percent-enriched uranium reserves into fuel — a step further than the terms of the original negotiation, which called for only half those reserves to be converted, and the other half diluted.

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U.S. Citizen Killed On MH17 Lived Mainly In Netherlands

By Scott Neuman on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Quinn Schansman, the dual U.S.-Dutch citizen killed on Malaysia Airlines MH17, was reportedly planning to join his family in Kuala Lumpur for vacation when the plane he was on was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

USA Today says: “Photos on social-media accounts show a fun-loving college student who enjoyed hanging out with friends, had a girlfriend and liked to relax with a beer or a smoke, especially after exams. Some news reports say he was 19 when he died.”

According to his Facebook page, Schansman considered Amsterdam his home.

USA Today, citing public records and social media, says his father lives in Menlo Park, in the San Francisco Bay area, where he currently works for Siemens. His mother lives in Amsterdam, the paper says.

NBC News says Schansman was born in New York City but lived in the Netherlands for most of his life.

Separately, Indiana University said Friday that 25-year-old Karlijn Keijzer, a Dutch national pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at Indiana University, was also among the dead on MH17. Keijzer had been a member of the university’s rowing team.

“On behalf of the entire Indiana University community, I want to express my deepest sympathies to Karlijn’s family and friends over her tragic death,” Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie said in a statement on the university’s website. “Karlijn was an outstanding student and a talented athlete, and her passing is a loss to the campus and the university. Our hearts also go out to the families of all the victims of this senseless act.”

The university said Keijzer “was part of a research team that uses large-scale computer simulations to study small-molecule reactions involving certain metals. She was co-author of a research article published this year in the Journal of the American Chemistry Association.”

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Drug Sentencing Guidelines Reduced For Current Prisoners

By Alan Greenblatt on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 4:20 pm

The U.S. Sentencing Commission on Friday voted unanimously to reduce terms for drug traffickers already in prison.

More than 46,000 drug offenders will be eligible for early release, unless Congress makes a move to stop the plan by Nov. 1.

On average, sentences could be reduced by more than two years.

“The magnitude of the change, both collectively and for individual offenders, is significant,” U.S. District Judge Patti Saris, who chairs the commission, said before the vote.

Such offenders won’t all be released. Their petitions will be considered individually by federal judges. None would be released before Nov. 1, 2015.

Despite the extra work, a majority of federal judges supported the change, NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported on Morning Edition.

“The driving factor for the committee’s decision was fundamental fairness,” Irene Keeley, a district judge in West Virginia, recently testified. “We do not believe that the date a sentence was imposed should dictate the length of imprisonment.”

The Justice Department has sought more leniency for some non-violent drug offenders in hopes of reducing sentencing disparities dating from the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.

The department, however, preferred a more limited approach than the Sentencing Commission has taken, arguing that only lower-level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories should be eligible. That would have reduced the number of inmates who could petition for early release to about 20,000.

But the commission voted to make the reduced sentencing guidelines it adopted in April for most drug traffickers fully retroactive.

Although its guidelines are just that — non-binding recommendations — they hold great sway within the judiciary.

Prosecutors have expressed concern about the direction the commission is going. “The strong sentencing scheme that has been in place over the last 25 years in our country has contributed to the lowest crime rates in more than a generation,” the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys wrote in a letter to the commission.

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Appeals Court Upholds Overturning Of Oklahoma Same-Sex-Marriage Ban

By Scott Neuman on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 5:22 pm

A U.S. appeals court in Denver has upheld a lower court ruling that struck down Oklahoma’s gay-marriage ban.

A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling on Friday, saying Oklahoma’s voter-approved ban violates the U.S. Constitution. The decision mirrored the same court’s June 25 ruling in a similar case involving Utah.

“Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage sweeps too broadly in that it denies a fundamental right to all same-sex couples who seek to marry or to have their marriages recognized regardless of their child-rearing ambitions,” wrote Judge Carlos Lucero, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

The Associated Press reports:

“Lower courts struck down Utah’s and Oklahoma’s voter-approved bans in December and January, respectively.

“The rulings are the first at the appellate level since the U.S. Supreme Court changed the legal landscape by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013. They are likely to be appealed to the high court.”

“We would like to thank the court for its time and careful consideration of our case, and we look forward to seeing Oklahoma gay and lesbian couples who love each other and want their relationships recognized by their government [to take] part fully in that right,” Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, the couple challenging the state ban in court, said in a statement on Friday.

The appellate court stayed its ruling, pending an expected appeal.

Same-sex marriage advocates have won more than 20 court victories since the Supreme Court ruled on the matter last year. The legal landscape remains clouded, however.

On Friday, Colorado’s Supreme Court ordered the Denver County clerk to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, which she’d been doing for the past week.

The ruling didn’t apply to Boulder and Pueblo counties, which have also been issuing licenses.

“The decision complicates the same-sex marriage debate in Colorado, which has seen a series of rulings by both federal and state courts on different cases and individual clerk and recorders interpreting rulings differently,” notes KDVR, the Fox affiliate in Denver.

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Typhoon Batters Chinese Island, Heads For Vietnam

By Alan Greenblatt on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 9:19 pm

The strongest typhoon to hit China in years battered the island of Hainan on Friday.

Typhoon Rammasun killed 54 people as it passed across parts of the Philippines Wednesday and gained strength as it crossed the South China Sea.

It was categorized as a super typhoon by China and has had winds in excess of 130 mph. The city of Haikou has had seven inches of rain in six hours, reports CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller.

Floods and mudslides are a major concern — as they are in Vietnam, where authorities began evacuating more than 118,000 people in the country’s northern provinces in preparation for Rammasun’s expected arrival Saturday.

The storm has been blamed for one death in China thus far. The Chinese news agency Xinhua is reporting that a man died in the town of Wengtian after being struck by debris as his house collapsed in the storm.

More than 26,000 people on Hainan were evacuated, The Associated Press reports. Hainan is sometimes referred to as “China’s Hawaii” and resorts, ferries, tour buses and trains have suspended operations.

“On the nearby mainland, the typhoon will also affect southwestern Guangdong province and southeastern Guangxi province,” USA Today reports. “The National Marine Environmental Forecasting Center forecast storm surges bringing waves of up to 20 feet in coastal Guangdong.”

The storm has also brought high winds and rain to Hong Kong, which is northeast of Hainan.

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Wildfires Force Evacuation Of Towns, Hospital In Washington State

By Alan Greenblatt on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 7:18 pm

This post was updated at 6:30 p.m. ET:

The small town of Pateros in north central Washington has emptied out as wildfires burning in the area destroyed as many as 100 homes.

The roughly 650 residents of Pateros — as well as a nearby hospital — were evacuated late Thursday.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the fire had grown to 168,000 acres by midday Friday.

“Simply put, there’s a firestorm in Washington right now,” Inslee said.

Various wildfires are currently plaguing several Western states, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. With 20 major fires burning in Oregon and Washington, authorities are calling for help from other states.

“We don’t have anything available anymore,” Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, told the Portland Oregonian. “We’re out of hot shot crews, we’re out of initial attack crews, we’re at a drawdown for incident management teams.”

Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers told AP that he’d heard of no injuries from any of the four wildfires in the Pateros area.

“The whole town was evacuated,” Rogers said. “It was a chaotic mess but we got everybody on the highway.”

You can see a small gallery of dramatic photos here.

“Last night, it really looked like the caldron of hell,” resident Tim Germaine told KCPQ, the Fox affiliate in Tacoma. “You can see flames everywhere you look.”

Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster was closed and residents in parts of the town were asked to evacuate. Several highways in the area have been closed, according to local news reports.

“The whole area was ablaze,” Keith Roe, whose home outside Twisp burned, told KCPQ. “I knew it was gone. I went up there today and it was gone, all gone.”

As we reported yesterday, the Chiwaukum Creek Fire in central Washington led to a large-scale evacuation order, with residents of 860 homes told to leave immediately and an additional 800 homes under less immediate threat.

“Several highways have been closed and homes evacuated near the central Washington city of Leavenworth,” which is about 100 miles east of Seattle, member station KUOW reports.

Conditions are poor for firefighting. Temperatures are expected to reach into the 90s on Friday, with continuing gusting winds. KUOW reporter Chris Lehman says that temperatures should cool in the region this weekend.

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Berlusconi Underage Sex Conviction Overturned By Italian Court

By Scott Neuman on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 11:20 am

An appeals court in Italy has overturned the conviction of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on charges that he paid for sex with an underage prostitute and then abused his power to cover up the crime.

The Milan court unexpectedly threw out last year’s verdict against the billionaire politician, who was sentenced to seven years in prison. Prosecutors are expected to appeal the decision to Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, with a likely decision sometime next year.

Reuters says: “Berlusconi was accused of paying for sex with former nightclub dancer Charisma El Mahout, better known under her stage name ‘Ruby the Heart stealer,’ when she was under 18, and of abusing his authority to get her released from police custody over unrelated theft accusations.”

The Wall Street Journal adds: “Mr. Berlusconi, who was also banned from public office and ousted from Italy’s Senate as a result of the tax fraud conviction, has always denied the charges in the sex case, which dates back to May 2010.”

As we reported in a profile of Berlusconi when he left office in 2011, many politicians inside and outside of Italy were eager to see the controversial leader exit. However, his numerous court cases have continued to follow him. Last year, a five-judge panel of the Court of Cassation rejected Berlusconi’s appeal of the tax fraud conviction, prompting celebrations on the streets of Rome.

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Book News: 15 Unpublished Elmore Leonard Stories Coming Out Next Year

By Annalisa Quinn on July 18th, 2014 | Last updated: July 18, 2014 at 8:21 am

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • A collection of 15 unpublished stories by the late, great crime writer Elmore Leonard is expected to come out in the U.S. and U.K. in 2015. They are early stories, written while Leonard worked as a copywriter at a Detroit ad agency. Leonard died last August at the age of 87. Sophie Buchan, an editor at Leonard’s British publisher, said in a statement: “I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to read original Leonard fiction again. And it’s wonderful to be wrong about that. Leonard wrote dialogue like a screenwriter; could build a character you can picture in just a few lines. And it’s astonishing that, so early in his career, these gifts are already on display.”
  • Giovanni’s Room, reportedly the oldest gay bookstore in the country, has found a buyer, current owner Ed Hermance told Publishers Weekly. The historic bookstore in Philadelphia has been closed since May. PW reports: “If all goes as planned, the new [unnamed] buyer will take over the lease on August 1 and the store will be up and running well before the fall season gets into full swing.”
  • Hilton Als’ commencement speech about art and memory at Columbia University School of the Arts is reprinted in The New York Review of Books: “By reading I discovered that art-making was a tradition that was bigger and no bigger than myself. I did not feel crippled by this knowledge; in fact, I was liberated by it: being an artist meant you were connected to other people – ghosts — who had been as moved by the enterprise of creating as you are now; evidence of their love was all the movies and performances and books and dances and music that informed your present so deeply and indelibly, acts of creation that stirred your imaginings to the point of making you wonder: How do I make the kind of film I want to see, write the kind of story or poem I want to read, perform the music, play, or dance that is expressive of the artist I’m meant to be?”
  • James Salter has a new short story, “Comet,” up on the Waterstones blog: “At the reception Adele smiled with happiness, drank too much, laughed, and scratched her bare arms with long showgirl nails. Her new husband admired her. He could have licked her palms like a calf does salt.”
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