EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 3, 2013

Nation Briefs


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Spending cuts now in place

WASHINGTON — Severe spending cuts now the law of the land, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans refused Saturday to concede any culpability for failing to stave off what both parties acknowledged was a foolhardy way to slash $85 billion in federal spending.

The still-fragile economy braced itself for the gradual but potentially grave impact of the across-the-board cuts, which took effect Friday night at the stroke of Obama’s pen. Hours earlier, he and congressional leaders emerged from a White House meeting no closer to an agreement.

Even as they pledged a renewed effort to retroactively undo the spending cuts, both parties said the blame rests squarely on the other for any damage the cuts might inflict. There were no indications that either side was wavering from entrenched positions that for weeks had prevented progress on a deal to find a way out: Republicans refusing any deal with more tax revenue and Democrats snubbing any deal without it.

“None of this is necessary,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday. “It’s happening because Republicans in Congress chose this outcome over closing a single wasteful tax loophole that helps reduce the deficit.”

The president said the cuts would cause “a ripple effect across the economy” that would worsen the longer they stay in place, eventually costing more than 750,000 jobs and disrupting the lives of middle-class families.

Disappointing year for the citrus crop in Fla.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida’s citrus crop has suffered huge losses this year, with fruit falling from trees and the overall forecast declining about 10 percent, but the problems shouldn’t translate to a price increase at the breakfast table — yet.

Experts and growers say warm, dry weather; too much fruit on each tree; and citrus greening disease are the likely culprits.

Some say this is the year that greening — which is caused by a fast-spreading bacteria and is also known as HLB, or, in Chinese, Huanglongbing — finally translates into crop losses. Greening is spread by insects, and there is no cure. It leaves fruit sour and unusable, and eventually kills the infected tree.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re beginning to see the effects of citrus greening on the industry,” said Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner. “This is a situation where the state’s signature agricultural commodity faces an existential threat.”

Most of Florida’s biggest crop, Valencia oranges, is used for juice, and because of a surplus from last year, consumer prices are not expected to increase this year. But they could in the future.

— Associated Press

Chadian army chief claims troops killed al-Qaida terrorist behind Algeria plant attack

N’DJAMENA, Chad (AP) — Chad’s military chief announced on state television late Saturday that his troops deployed in northern Mali had killed Moktar Belmoktar, the terrorist who orchestrated the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria that left 36 foreigners dead.

The French military, which is leading the offensive against al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, said they could not immediately confirm the information.

Local officials in Kidal, the northern town that is being used as the base for the military operation, cast doubt on the assertion, saying Chadian officials are attempting to score a PR victory to make up for the significant losses they have suffered in recent days.

Known as the “one-eyed,” Belmoktar’s profile soared after the mid-January attack and mass hostage-taking on a huge Algerian gas plant. His purported death comes a day after Chad’s president said his troops had killed Abou Zeid, the other main al-Qaida commander operating in northern Mali.

If both deaths are confirmed, it would mean that the international intervention in Mali had succeeded in decapitating two of the pillars of al-Qaida in the Sahara.

Benedict’s resignation: the hints were there all along, in retrospect

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Benedict XVI stunned the world when he announced Feb. 11 he would resign as pope. But in retrospect, all the signs were there, and they even accelerated in recent months. Here’s a look at the hints Benedict dropped starting in 2005, his first year as pope, indicating that unlike his predecessors over 600 years, his papacy would end in retirement, not death.

—In his first encyclical “God is Love” — published eight months after he was elected — Benedict wrote about service. “It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength.”

—Five years later, in the 2010 book “Light of the World,” Benedict made it more explicit, and personal. “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

—In March, according to the Vatican newspaper, he decided to resign after an exhausting trip to Mexico and Cuba. He told only a handful of people and the only visible sign for those in the know would come seven months later when renovations began on the monastery in the Vatican gardens where he will live.

Kerry says Egypt’s bickering sides need to create sense of ‘political and economic viability’

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s bickering government and opposition need to overcome their differences to create “a sense of political and economic viability” if the country is to thrive as a democracy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.

He urged them to compromise for the good of the country.

In meetings with Egypt’s foreign minister and opposition politicians, some of whom plan to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, Kerry said an agreement on economic reforms to seal a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan package was critical. Closing the IMF deal also will unlock significant U.S. assistance promised by President Barack Obama last year.

But Kerry’s message to the liberal and secular opposition may have been blunted as only six of the 11 guests invited by the U.S. Embassy turned up to see the top American diplomat at a group meeting, and three of those six said they still intended to boycott the April polls, according to participants.

Undaunted, Kerry told reporters he had heard great passion from those who did attend and was convinced that they wanted to work in Egypt’s best interests.

Syria, Iran condemn US aid to rebels, say Assad to remain in power for now

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Iran and Syria condemned a U.S. plan to assist rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad on Saturday and signaled the Syrian leader intends to stay in power at least until 2014 presidential elections.

The remarks came against the backdrop of a strategic victory for the regime as the military regained control over a string of villages along a key highway to open a potential supply route in Syria’s heavily contested north.

The army command boasted of the achievement in a statement, saying it had eradicated the remnants of “terrorist agents and mercenaries” in the area that links the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo’s international airport.

The reversal of gains, confirmed by Syrian activists, has the potential to change the outcome of the battle in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city where government troops and rebels have been locked in a stalemate for months.

Syrian rebels have long complained that they are hampered by the world’s failure to provide heavier arms to help them battle Assad’s better-equipped military. The international community is reluctant to send weapons partly because of fears they may fall into the hands of extremists who have been gaining influence among the rebels.

Engineers carefully, slowly continue work near Florida sinkhole that swallowed man

SEFFNER, Fla. (AP) — Engineers worked gingerly Saturday to find out more about a slowly growing sinkhole that swallowed a Florida man in his bedroom, believing the entire house could eventually succumb to the unstable ground.

It could be days before officials decide whether they will attempt to recover Jeff Bush’s body, and they were still trying Saturday to determine the extent of the sinkhole network and what kind of work might be safe. As the sinkhole grows, it may pose further risk to the subdivision and its homes.

Bush, 37, was in his bedroom Thursday night in Seffner — a suburb of 8,000 people 15 miles east of downtown Tampa — when the earth opened and took him and everything else in his room. Five others in the house escape unharmed.

On Saturday, the normally quiet neighborhood of concrete block homes painted in Florida pastels was jammed with cars as engineers, reporters, and curious onlookers came to the scene.

At the home next door to the Bushes, a family cried and organized boxes. Testing determined that their house also was compromised by the sinkhole, according to Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ronnie Rivera. The family, which had evacuated Friday, was allowed to go inside for about a half-hour to gathering belongings.

Within sight of NYC skyscrapers, one of nation’s most polluted neighborhoods awaits cleanup

NEW YORK (AP) — Just across the East River from midtown Manhattan’s shimmering skyscrapers sits one of the nation’s most polluted neighborhoods, fouled by generations of industrial waste, overflow from the city’s sewage system and an underground oil leak bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill.

It’s easy to see — and smell — the filth in and around Newtown Creek, which runs through an area of working-class homes, warehouses and industrial lots straddling Brooklyn and Queens. The odor of petroleum mixes with the smell of sewage, particularly on rainy days when the city’s treatment plants can’t handle the volume and municipal pipes send trash and human waste straight into the creek.

Oily, rainbow-slicked water is filled with soda cans, plastic bottles, raw sewage and decaying food. Ditched vehicles are stuck in the mud on the banks. And what was once a creek teeming with fish, surrounded by marshland, is now a dull gray waterway that cannot sustain life.

“It’s the byproduct of our society,” says environmentalist John Lipscomb of the Riverkeeper clean-water advocacy group. “What was originally a watershed is now a sewage shed.”

After generations of neglect, the first, small steps are being taken in a multi-pronged cleanup that could take at least a dozen years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But even the most hopeful officials acknowledge the watershed may never be clear of all pollutants.

Bacteria, drought, heavy crop load: It’s been a disappointing year for the citrus crop in Fla.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s citrus crop has suffered huge losses this year, with fruit falling from trees and the overall forecast declining about 10 percent, but the problems shouldn’t translate to a price increase at the breakfast table — yet.

Experts and growers say warm, dry weather; too much fruit on each tree; and citrus greening disease are the likely culprits.

Some say this is the year that greening — which is caused by a fast-spreading bacteria and is also known as HLB, or, in Chinese, Huanglongbing — finally translates into crop losses. Greening is spread by insects, and there is no cure. It leaves fruit sour and unusable, and eventually kills the infected tree.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re beginning to see the effects of citrus greening on the industry,” said Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner. “This is a situation where the state’s signature agricultural commodity faces an existential threat.”

Most of Florida’s biggest crop, Valencia oranges, is used for juice, and because of a surplus from last year, consumer prices are not expected to increase this year. But they could in the future.

Cast comings and goings at ‘Downton Abbey’ announced for the British drama’s 4th season

NEW YORK (AP) — Shirley MacLaine will be returning to “Downton Abbey” next season, and opera star Kiri Te Kanawa is joining the cast.

MacLaine will reprise her role as Martha Levinson, Lord Robert Crawley’s freewheeling American mother-in-law, Carnival Films and “Masterpiece” on PBS said Saturday. MacLaine appeared in episodes early last season.

New Zealand-born soprano Te Kanawa will play a house guest. She will sing during her visit.

NASCAR to look at placement of gates along fencing after Daytona crash injured fans

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — NASCAR will look at the placement of gates at its tracks after a Nationwide Series car crashed through the fence at Daytona and injured more than two dozen fans.

The fans were injured during the 12-car crash last Saturday when pieces of rookie Kyle Larson’s car ripped through the fence, including a section where a gate connects the grandstand and the track.

“I think because of where it came through and having pieces that did get through and it being a gate area, that’s really going to be the focus for us to look at,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s Senior Vice President, Racing Operations said Saturday from Phoenix International Raceway. “We’re certainly going to look at fencing in general, but I think that particular area, that it was a gate, did impact it. We know the gate was locked, but does that provide as much stability as the rest of the fencing we believed it did? We’ve now got to look at that impact.”

The crash occurred on the final lap of the Nationwide race the day before the Daytona 500, when leader Regan Smith tried to block Brad Keselowski and triggered a chain reaction. Larson’s car went airborne during the wreck and slammed into the fence, sending debris into the stands.

O’Donnell said two injured fans remain at the hospital, but everyone else has been released.