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Tuesday, December 24, 2013,AP News in Brief at 8:58 p.m. EST

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Posted: Dec 24, 2013 4:00 PM

Updated: Dec 24, 2013 7:00 PM

Francis cradles a baby Jesus statue at start of his first papal Christmas Eve Mass at Vatican

VATICAN CITY (AP) Pope Francis lauded Jesus' humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby as he celebrated his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff Tuesday in St. Peter's Basilica.

"You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable," Francis said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with faithful.

Francis has dedicated much of his nine-month-old papacy to drawing attention to the plight of the poor, of children, and other vulnerable members of society.

He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus' birth were shepherds, who in society were considered "among the last, the outcast."

The bells of St. Peter's rang as Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began Tuesday 2 hours before midnight. Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his new papacy, Francis carried the statue instead of an aide, and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus.

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Federal court won't halt gay marriages in Utah, refusing to grant state's request for stay

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that gay marriages can continue in Utah, denying a request from the state to halt same-sex weddings that have been occurring at a rapid rate since last week.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' rejection of Utah's request for an emergency stay marks yet another legal setback for the state. The same federal judge who ruled that Utah's same-sex marriage ban violates gay and lesbian couples' rights previously denied the state's request to halt the marriages.

The appeals court said in its short ruling that a decision to put gay marriage on hold was not warranted, but said it put the case on the fast track for a full appeal of the ruling.

Utah's last chance to temporarily stop the marriages would be the U.S. Supreme Court. That's what the Utah Attorney General's Office is prepared to do, said spokesman Ryan Bruckman. "We're disappointed in the ruling, but we just have to take it to the next level," Bruckman said.

Gov. Gary Herbert's office declined comment on the decision.

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Government's health care website is put to the test as Americans rush to beat the deadline

CHICAGO (AP) The government's retooled health care website was put to its biggest test yet as record numbers of Americans rushed to beat Tuesday's extended deadline for signing up for insurance.

After a disastrous, glitch-filled rollout in October, HealthCare.gov, where people in 36 states can shop for coverage, received 2 million visits Monday, its highest one-day total, the government said.

Traffic was not as heavy on Tuesday but still high, White House spokeswoman Tara McGuinness said. She had no immediate estimate of visitors or how many succeeded in obtaining insurance before the midnight deadline.

"The site is performing well under intense consumer traffic," said Kurt DelBene, a former Microsoft executive appointed last week to take over management of the online marketplace. "With the highest volumes we have seen to date, response time is fast and the error rating is low."

Error rates were lower than 1 in 200, and pages loaded quickly, in less than a half-second, officials said.

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Powerful blast hits Egypt police station, killing 15 in deadliest bombing in wave of violence

MANSOURA, Egypt (AP) A powerful blast ripped through a police headquarters in an Egyptian Nile Delta city Tuesday while top security officials met to work out arrangements for an upcoming constitutional referendum, killing 15 people and wounding more than 100 in the deadliest bombing yet in a campaign of violence blamed on Islamic militants.

The attack underlined the vulnerability of Egypt's police and their weakness in keeping security amid fears of increased militant violence in the lead-up to the Jan. 14-15 referendum.

The vote is a key step in the country's political transition after the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July, but it has further stoked political tensions, with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood protesting against the new charter.

Authorities quickly sought to pin blame for the blast on the Brotherhood, the military-backed interim government's top political nemesis. With the group continuing protests, the government has increasingly depicted it as directly behind the wave of violence, without providing evidence in public.

The attack hikes pressure on the government by anti-Islamists to take tougher action against the group, including enforcing a court-ordered ban on it, possibly declaring it a terrorist organization and passing a controversial harsh new anti-terrorism law. The Brotherhood condemned the attack and accused the government of scapegoating it.

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UN: Mass grave with 34 bodies found in S. Sudan; Gov't claims to recapture rebel-held city

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) U.N. investigators discovered a mass grave in a rebel-held city in South Sudan, the United Nations said Tuesday, as a possible opening occurred for negotiations to avert civil war in the world's newest country where ethnic violence has erupted.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to beef up its peacekeeping force in South Sudan. It condemned targeted violence against civilians and ethnic communities and called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities and the immediate opening of a dialogue."

The government, meanwhile, announced that its military forces had taken back another key city, Bor, from the rebels who held it over the last week.

The bodies were found in the town of Bentiu in oil-rich Unity state: one grave with 14 bodies and a site nearby with 20 bodies, said U.N. human rights office spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani.

The government minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, said Bentiu is under the control of rebels loyal to the country's former vice president, Riek Machar, indicating they were responsible for the killings.

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NSA ex-contractor Snowden resurfaces in media in lead up to Christmas, saying he's 'won'

LONDON (AP) Keeping a mostly low-profile as a U.S. fugitive in Moscow, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has suddenly resurfaced in the media, saying he is confident his personal "mission is already accomplished" and he has "already won" after leaking NSA secrets. The challenge now, he believes, is to stress the importance of privacy and urge an end to mass government surveillance.

Snowden gave a more than 14-hour interview to The Washington Post, which says it's the first he has conducted in person since arriving in the Russian capital in June. He follows that up by speaking directly to the British public in a televised message that will be broadcast Wednesday as an alternative to the queen's annual Christmas speech.

Snowden told the Post he was satisfied because journalists have been able to tell the story of the U.S. government's collection of bulk Internet and phone records, an activity that has grown dramatically in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission's already accomplished," he said in the interview, which was published online Monday night. "I already won."

"As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated," Snowden told the Post. "Because, remember, I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself."

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Prospect of cold and dark Christmas challenging for some still without power after ice storms

For the first time in days, the sun was shining and skies were blue when Doug Jennings stepped outside his home Tuesday in central Maine. But the power that disappeared in a massive weekend ice storm? It was still out, setting up his family for a very cold and very dark Christmas Eve.

"It's going to be problematic. We're going to have to do something about it, go to a hotel or whatever," said Jennings, who lives in one of several towns near Augusta that were almost completely blacked out. "I don't know."

Jennings and his family were among the half a million utility customers from Maine to Michigan and into Canada who lost power in a weekend ice storm that one utility called the worst during a Christmas week in its history. Repair crews worked around the clock Tuesday to restore service, but like Jennings, thousands prepared for a holiday at home without electricity or packed up their wrapped gifts and headed off to stay with family or friends.

They faced doing so on a white Christmas, too. The National Weather Service said more snow was expected to move into the Northern High Plains and Central Rockies on Tuesday before rolling into the Great Lakes and Midwest by Wednesday morning.

The nationwide death toll from the storm reached at least 14 on Tuesday, when a 50-year-old man in Knox, Maine, was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a generator. It was the second reported death attributed to fumes from a generator during the storm. Police in Michigan also attributed two deaths in a traffic collision that happened Monday to the storm.

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Regulators approve temporary 3-cent increase in first-class stamps to 49 cents as of Jan. 26

WASHINGTON (AP) Mailing a letter is about to get a little more expensive.

Regulators on Tuesday approved a temporary price hike of 3 cents for a first-class stamp, bringing the charge to 49 cents a letter in an effort to help the Postal Service recover from severe mail decreases brought on by the 2008 economic downturn.

Many consumers won't feel the price increase immediately. Forever stamps, good for first-class postage whatever the future rate, can be purchased at the lower price until the new rate is effective Jan. 26.

The higher rate will last no more than two years, allowing the Postal Service to recoup $2.8 billion in losses. By a 2-1 vote, the independent Postal Regulatory Commission rejected a request to make the price hike permanent, though inflation over the next 24 months may make it so.

The surcharge "will last just long enough to recover the loss," Commission Chairman Ruth Y. Goldway said.

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Israel launches airstrikes on Gaza Strip after Israeli laborer killed along border fence

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) Israeli air and ground forces launched a series of attacks Tuesday on targets across the Gaza Strip, killing a young girl and wounding 10 in response to the deadly shooting of an Israeli civilian by a Palestinian sniper.

It was the heaviest burst of violence in the volatile area since November 2012, when Israel and Hamas' rulers engaged in eight days of heavy fighting. The sudden flare-up threatened a cease-fire that halted that fighting and which largely has held up for the past 13 months.

"I recommend to Hamas not to test our patience and to assert its authority," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. "If there isn't quiet in Israel, there won't be quiet in the Gaza Strip."

The Israeli military said aircraft, tanks and infantry targeted "terror sites" in Gaza, including a weapons-manufacturing facility, "terror infrastructure" and a concealed rocket launcher. "Direct hits were confirmed," it said.

Palestinian officials reported at least 16 Israeli attacks, causing a causing a series of loud explosions across the territory in rapid succession. Hamas ordered its forces to evacuate offices and compounds and redeploy to safer sites.

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Crowds throng Bethlehem's Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations on Tuesday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.

The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

"The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other," said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.

Excited tourists milled about the town's Manger Square, stopping in restaurants and souvenir shops and admiring a large, illuminated Christmas Tree. Marching bands and scout troops performed for the visitors in the streets, and on a stage next to the tree.

Will Green of New York City, along with his wife, Debbie, and their 2-year-old daughter Daphne were among the crowds of people who greeted Twal's motorcade as he entered town from nearby Jerusalem.

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