---- — Hagel optimistic US will work things out
JALALABAD, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he believes U.S. officials will be able to work things out with Afghan leaders who have ordered special operations forces out of Wardak province, even as commandos face a Monday deadline to leave.
Hagel’s comments came on his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary. On his first morning in Kabul, two suicide bombings, one outside the Afghan Defense Ministry and the other near a police checkpoint in eastern Khost province, killed at least 19 people, including a U.S. contractor. A Taliban spokesman said the blast outside the defense ministry was a message to the visiting Pentagon chief.
The violence and the order to withdraw the special operations forces underscore the military and diplomatic complexities confronting the Obama administration and the U.S.-led NATO force as they work to end combat operations in 2014.
Venezuela sets April 14 for election
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s electoral council has set a presidential election for April 14 to choose the successor to President Hugo Chavez.
Acting President Nicolas Maduro will run as the ruling party candidate.
The coordinator of the opposition coalition says Henrique Capriles is being offered that bloc’s candidacy. Capriles lost to Chavez in an October election.
Chavez later anointed Maduro as his chosen successor before undergoing surgery in December for the cancer that led to his death Tuesday.
Rebels free 21 UN peacekeepers held captive in Syria
BEIRUT — Rebels in southern Syria freed 21 U.N. peacekeepers on Friday after holding them hostage for four days, driving them to the border with Jordan after accusations from Western officials that the little-known group had tarnished the image of those fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
The abduction and the tortured negotiations that ended it highlight the disorganization of the rebel movement, which has hindered its ability to fight Assad and complicates vows by the U.S. and others to provide assistance.
It also has raised concerns about the future of U.N. operations in the area. The Filipino peacekeepers were abducted on Wednesday by one of the rebel groups operating in southern Syria near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where a U.N. force has patrolled a cease-fire line between Israel and Syria for nearly four decades.
Activists associated with the group, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, gave different reasons for seizing the 21 men. First they demanded that all government forces leave the area. Then they suggested the peacekeepers were human shields against government attacks. Then they declared them “honored guests” held for their own safety.
They also released videos online, including one on Saturday of a bearded rebel commander with his arms around two peacekeepers’ shoulders, flashing a V for victory sign.
Nixon pushed for gun control
WASHINGTON — Few presidents in modern times have been as interested in gun control as Richard Nixon, of all people. He proposed ridding the market of Saturday night specials, contemplated banning handguns altogether and refused to pander to gun owners by feigning interest in their weapons.
Several previously unreported Oval Office recordings and White House memos from the Nixon years show a conservative president who at times appeared willing to take on the National Rifle Association, a powerful gun lobby then as now, even as his aides worried about the political ramifications.
“I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house,” Nixon said in a taped conversation with aides. “The kids usually kill themselves with it and so forth.” He asked why “can’t we go after handguns, period?”
Nixon went on: “I know the rifle association will be against it, the gun makers will be against it.” But “people should not have handguns.” He laced his comments with obscenities, as was typical.
Nixon made his remarks in the Oval Office on May 16, 1972, the day after a would-be assassin shot and paralyzed segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. As president, Nixon never publicly called for a ban on all handguns. Instead, he urged Congress to pass more modest legislation banning Saturday night specials, which were cheaply made, easily concealed and often used by criminals.
— Associated Press
Rising economy stirs partisan debate: Is government a help or an impediment?
WASHINGTON (AP) — Increased hiring, lower unemployment, stock market on the rise. Who gets the credit?
It’s a hotly debated point in Washington, where political scorekeeping amounts to who gets blame and who gets praise.
Following Friday’s strong jobs report — 236,000 new jobs and unemployment dropping to a four-year low of 7.7 percent — partisans hurriedly staked out turf.
“Woot woot!” tweeted former White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee. “With 12 million still unemployed?” countered Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman, Don Stewart.
Presidents usually get the rap for economic downturns and reap benefits when things improve. But the main factors affecting the current recovery and the record activity in the stock market may have less to do with high-profile fiscal policy fights in Washington than they do in the decisions of the Federal Reserve Bank, which has pumped trillions of dollars into the economy, kept interests rates at near zero and pushed investors away from low-yield bonds to stocks.
Cardinals only in the Sistine Chapel, but Catholics & others create ‘virtual conclave’ online
VATICAN CITY (AP) — A pastor in Ontario wondered about behind-the-scenes politicking ahead of the conclave to elect the next pope. He could have read news reports or listened to briefings by the Vatican spokesman. Instead, he asked a cardinal. Less than an hour later, the response arrived.
“What I see is a real desire to know, and so evaluate, the papabili against criteria of qualities demanded by situations,” wrote Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, using the term “papabili” for cardinals seen as papal contenders.
The exchange occurred on Twitter, one of many online interactions that have made this papal succession unlike any other for Roman Catholics and observers of the church. While the election starting Tuesday will remain strictly secret, social media is providing a direct link to the events surrounding the succession, creating a virtual conclave that involves lay people in everything from voting to prayer.
“I think it’s fabulous for the church,” said Brother Martin Browne, a Benedictine monk in County Limerick, Ireland, who is following Vatican analysts and reporters on Twitter instead of watching general news coverage. “I think more people understand what’s going on now because there’s greater access to good information.”
No one will be posting updates from inside the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican will activate electronic jamming devices so no one can listen in or report out. “You obviously can’t have cardinals inside the conclave tweeting ‘Uh-oh, trending right now: new young cardinal from wherever,’” said Greg Burke, a Vatican communications adviser.
Nelson Mandela in hospital for tests as South Africa grapples with post-apartheid setbacks
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader, was admitted to a hospital on Saturday for a scheduled medical check-up and doctors say there is no cause for “alarm,” the president’s office said.
Officials have used similarly soothing language to explain previous hospital stays for 94-year-old Mandela, but in those cases he later turned out to have more serious conditions. The intense privacy surrounding the health of Mandela reflects in part the official reverence for a man who is seen as one of the great, unifying figures of the 20th century for helping to avert race-driven chaos in South Africa’s tense transition from apartheid to democracy.
Mandela’s latest hospitalization comes at a time when South Africa is enduring a series of setbacks that serve as a reminder of how it has fallen short of the kind of harmonious society that he envisioned, but could not realize during his five years as the country’s first black president.
The nation of 50 million has long struggled with poverty and inequality since it emerged from white minority rule. But crisis hit in August, when police shot and killed 34 striking miners at the Marikana platinum mine in a spasm of violence that drew comparisons among some South Africans with Sharpeville in 1960, Soweto in 1976 and other mass killings by agents of the apartheid state.
Then came February, when the gang-rape and killing of 17-year-old Anene Booysen highlighted the scourge of violence against women in South Africa; the arrest of Oscar Pistorius, South Africa’s double-amputee athlete who inspired millions at the London Olympics, on charges of murdering his girlfriend; and the killing of Mado Macia, a Mozambican taxi driver who was found dead in a South African police cell after he was dragged from a police vehicle in view of onlookers who filmed the shocking incident.