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Friday, December 27, 2013,AP News in Brief at 5:58 a.m. EST

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Posted: Dec 26, 2013 4:00 PM

Updated: Dec 27, 2013 4:00 AM

Most official business of 2013 behind him, Obama sets sights on unfinished tasks for new year

HONOLULU (AP) The last vestiges of 2013's political wrangling officially behind him, President Barack Obama is setting his sights on the coming year, when a number of unfinished tasks will increasingly compete for attention with the 2014 midterm elections.

Vacationing in Hawaii, Obama on Thursday signed into law a bipartisan budget deal softening the blow from scheduled spending cuts and a military bill cracking down on sexual assault. The two bills, passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support, constituted a modest step away from gridlock, and both parties cautiously hoped that spirit of cooperation might linger after New Year's Day.

"This law is proof that both parties can work together. We can put aside our differences and find common ground," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who negotiated the budget deal for Republicans, said in a statement.

Easier said than done.

Already, familiar fault lines are emerging as Republicans and Democrats retrench for the next fiscal fight over raising the debt ceiling, which the Treasury says must be resolved by late February or early March. Despite the White House's insistence that Obama won't negotiate over that issue, Ryan has vowed the GOP will seek concessions before acquiescing.

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Bombing in Lebanese capital kills a prominent pro-Western politician, 4 others

BEIRUT (AP) A powerful car bomb tore through a business district in the center of the Lebanese capital Friday, setting cars ablaze and killing a prominent pro-Western politician and four other people.

The bomb targeted Mohammed Chatah, a former finance minister and a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in his car as he drove through central Beirut, security officials said.

The National News Agency confirmed Chatah and his driver were killed, along with three other people. The Health Ministry said more than 70 others were wounded.

Lebanon has seen a wave of bombings over the past months as tensions rise over Syria's civil war.

Hariri heads the main, Western-backed coalition in Lebanon, which is engaged in bitter feuding with the militant Hezbollah group, which is allied to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Several recent bombings have targeted senior Hezbollah figures or districts where the Shiite group dominates.

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Furor over cancelled insurance policies quieter a month after Obama move, but coverage unclear

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) President Barack Obama's decision a month ago that allowed people to keep insurance policies once slated for cancellation under the federal health overhaul has received a mixed response from insurers, state regulators and consumers.

In pitching the overhaul, Obama had long promised that people who liked their policies could keep them. But many consumers complained upon getting notification from their insurers in October and November that their individual policies would be canceled because they didn't cover basic benefits required by the Affordable Care Act, such as pre-existing conditions or hospitalization.

Then, Obama announced Nov. 14 that companies could continue existing policies that don't meet the minimum requirements if state regulators approved.

Reporting by The Associated Press shows that older policies are being allowed to continue in 36 states, either because officials allowed it after Obama's announcement, decided not to intervene in any way or had made a decision earlier in the year to extend non-compliant policies for a period of time.

Even so, insurers were given a choice of whether to continue the policies, and some declined to do so.

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Police: 4 dead after southern Louisiana shootings; Lafourche Parish councilman 1 of 3 injured

RACELAND, La. (AP) A southern Louisiana man attacked his former in-laws, his current wife, and the head of a hospital where he'd worked, killing three before killing himself, authorities said.

The shootings happened about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans on Thursday, the first reported by Lafourche Parish Councilman Louis Phillip Gouaux about 6:40 p.m. at a home in Lockport, Parish Sheriff's Office spokesman Brennan Matherne said in a news release.

The suspect, Ben Freeman, 38, was the ex-husband of Gouaux's daughter Jeanne.

Gouaux's wife, Susan "Pixie" Gouaux, was dead when deputies arrived, Matherne said. Louis Phillip Gouaux and his daughter, Andrea Gouaux, were injured and taken to University Hospital in New Orleans. Both were in critical but stable condition, Matherne said.

The second shooting happened at another home about 20 minutes later in Raceland, where Ochsner St. Anne General Hospital administrator Milton Bourgeois was shot and killed at close range, Matherne said. His wife, Ann Bourgeois, was shot and taken to the New Orleans hospital, where she is in stable condition.

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2 years into Cuba's free market experiment, small entrepreneurs struggle to stay afloat

HAVANA (AP) The dented metal pizza trays are packed away, so too the old blender that never worked when it was needed. Gone is the sweet smell of rising dough that infused Julio Cesar Hidalgo's Havana apartment when he and his girlfriend were in business for themselves, churning out cheesy pies for hungry costumers.

Two years on the front lines of Cuba's experiment with limited free market capitalism has left Hidalgo broke, out of work and facing a possible crushing fine. But the 33-year-old known for his wide smile and sunny disposition says the biggest loss is harder to define.

"I feel frustrated and let down," Hidalgo said, slumped in a rocking chair one recent December afternoon, shrugging his shoulders as he described the pizzeria's collapse. "The business didn't turn out as I had hoped."

The Associated Press recently checked in with nine small business owners whose fortunes it first reported on in 2011 as they set up shop amid the excitement of President Raul Castro's surprising embrace of some free enterprise.

Among them were restaurant and cafeteria owners, a seamstress and taekwondo instructor, a vendor of bootleg DVDs and a woman renting her rooms out to well-heeled tourists.

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Okinawa governor OKs land reclamation for US base, still wants it off southern Japanese island

TOKYO (AP) The governor of Okinawa gave the go-ahead Friday for land reclamation to begin for a new U.S. military base, advancing the effort to consolidate the massive U.S. troop presence on the southern Japanese island but also making protests from residents likely.

Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved the Japanese Defense Ministry's application to reclaim land for the base on Okinawa's coast to replace the U.S. Marine Corps base in Futenma, a more congested part of Okinawa's main island.

But he later told a news conference that he would continue pressing to move the Futenma troops off Okinawa entirely, noting estimates it would take 9 1/2 years to build the base.

"My thinking remains it would be fastest to relocate outside (Okinawa) prefecture to a place where there is already an airport," he said.

He added that he approved the land reclamation because it met all environmental requirements.

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UN: 120,000 people displaced by South Sudan violence; African leaders seek political solution

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) More than 120,000 people have been displaced by continuing violence in South Sudan, the United Nations said, as African leaders met Friday to find a political solution to a crisis that has exposed ethnic rifts within the country.

Regional leaders under a bloc called IGAD are meeting Friday in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi to discuss South Sudan. That summit is expected to produce a roadmap for peace talks between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, Kiir's political rival who is accused of orchestrating a failed coup that the government says sparked unrest across the oil-producing East African country.

"We in Kenya and the region are concerned with the loss of lives and resultant humanitarian crisis and would like to see the government taking the initiative to end hostilities," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said late Thursday.

The number of internally displaced people has been rising since fighting started on Dec. 15 in the capital, Juba, before spreading across the country. Now there are sporadic military clashes in the oil-rich states of Unity and Upper Nile, potentially endangering the oil revenues that South Sudan depends on to keep the government running.

The U.N. said aid agencies need at least $166 million to save lives.

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Hike in Indian gold tax to fight trade imbalance squeezes wedding budgets, spurs smuggling

MUMBAI, India (AP) With India's wedding season in full swing, the glass sales counters in Mumbai's famed Zhaveri gold bazaars are crowded with customers eyeing elaborate headpieces, nose rings and necklaces. No one does jewelry quite like an Indian bride, who by tradition wears all the gold she can stand up in and her family can afford.

These days, though, even the most ambitious bridal budgets don't bring the bling like they used to, thanks to hikes in import duties and a rise in local gold prices that have shoppers like Rajanikant Mehta grumbling.

Mehta, who owns a factory outside the capital, had planned to spend about 100,000 rupees ($1,800) on a necklace for the woman marrying his son late this month, but he's unhappy about what he's getting for his money. Gold prices in India, which imports nearly all its gold, have risen 50 percent over the past three years to about 87,000 rupees, or about $1,400, an ounce.

Thanks to the new tax and weaker rupee, that's about a 20 percent premium over the world market price, hovering just under $1,200 an ounce.

"The price of gold should be lower," Mehta complained. "This is a globalized world. If the prices are similar to the prices elsewhere, then the purchase of gold will increase."

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Cold, ice and long hours buffet utility linemen helping restore electricity after ice storm

DETROIT (AP) When an ice storm glazed over Michigan last weekend, Tony Carone feared he wouldn't be spending Christmas at home with his family.

"Nobody had to call. I heard it on the top of my roof," Carone said.

The 52-year-old lineman for Detroit-based DTE Energy is one of the thousands of electrical workers who have put in double shifts trying to restore power to more than a half-million homes and businesses. Outages stretched from the Great Plains to Maine and into eastern Canada.

"My power went out the same time as everybody else's," Carone said of the power to his Lapeer home, north of Detroit. It was about 7:30 a.m. Sunday, while he was on the phone with his utility's area leader. He walked out the door a half-hour later and has been working 16 hours a day ever since.

The storm has been blamed for 17 deaths in the U.S. and 10 in Canada. Five people apparently died from carbon monoxide poisoning tied to using generators.

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US speedskater Rebekah Bradford overcomes pulmonary embolism, makes try for 2nd Olympic team

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Rebekah Bradford was a highly trained athlete. She couldn't figure out why she was out of breath just walking up a flight of stairs.

Turns out, she was suffering from a potentially life-threatening condition.

Bradford was stricken with a pulmonary embolism last year, making her bid to reach the Olympics for a second time especially challenging. She is competing at the U.S. speedskating trials, which begin Friday in suburban Salt Lake City.

"It's not been the easiest road to get where I wanted to be," Bradford said.

Blood clots developed in her legs and eventually spread to her lungs, making it difficult to complete the simplest of tasks without getting winded. Over the course of six months, her condition kept getting worse and worse, leaving her in such excruciating pain that death seemed like a good option.

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