Friday, February 24, 2012

Published:

Romney says he would raise Medicare eligibility age to help program survive in future decades

DETROIT (AP) -- Four days before critical primary elections, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney outlined a far-reaching plan Friday to gradually delay Americans' eligibility for Medicare as well as Social Security.

Romney said the shift, as people live longer, is needed to steer the giant benefit programs toward economic sustainability.

Speaking to the Detroit Economic Club -- in cavernous Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions football team plays -- he also made a play for primary election support in Michigan, which votes on Tuesday along with Arizona.

Romney said previous steps to toughen government emission standards had "provided a benefit to some of the foreign automakers" at the expense of American companies. He said future changes should be worked out cooperatively between government and industry.

Campaigning in the city where he was born, Romney described himself as "a car guy" who has a Ford Mustang and a Chevy pickup and whose wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs." Aides said they were model year 2007 and 2010 SRX vehicles, one each registered in Massachusetts and California.

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Hillary Clinton blasts Russia, China as 'despicable' for opposing U.N. action on Syria

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted Russia and China as "despicable" for opposing U.N. action aimed at stopping the bloodshed in Syria, and more than 60 nations began planning a civilian peacekeeping mission to deploy after the Damascus regime halts its crackdown on the opposition.

In his most forceful words to date on the Syrian crisis, President Barack Obama said the U.S. and its allies would use "every tool available" to end the bloodshed by the government of President Bashar Assad.

"It is time to stop the killing of Syrian citizens by their own government," Obama said in Washington, adding that it "absolutely imperative for the international community to rally and send a clear message to President Assad that it is time for a transition. It is time for that regime to move on."

Obama spoke as a group known as the Friends of Syria, led by the U.S. and European and Arab nations, met in Tunisia in the latest effort to halt the Assad regime's nearly year-old suppression of an anti-government uprising.

The group's actions are aimed at jolting Assad and his allies into accepting demands for a democratic transition, even as they are still unwilling to commit to military intervention.

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Tensions over Iran push oil prices up near 2011 highs; gasoline hits $3.65 a gallon

NEW YORK (AP) -- Oil prices are approaching last year's highs as tensions increase over Iran's nuclear program. The rise pushed gasoline prices on Friday to a national average of $3.65 per gallon, the highest ever for this time of year.

Western nations fear Iran is building a nuclear weapon and have been trying to force it to open its facilities to inspection. Iran has refused, turning away international inspectors this week for the second time this month. The United Nations said Friday that Iran has responded to the recent scrutiny by speeding up production of higher-grade enriched uranium, feeding concerns that it is developing a bomb.

As both sides dig in for a protracted standoff, investors are snapping up oil contracts in case fighting breaks out in the heart of the one of the world's biggest oil-producing regions. "Everyone's pricing in the potential for war now," independent analyst Stephen Schork said. "Without a concrete resolution, nobody knows how high this can go."

Israel hasn't ruled out an attack on Iran, and Iran has said it is ready to strike pre-emptively, possibly targeting the Strait of Hormuz, if it is threatened. The Persian Gulf passageway is a potential choke point for oil supplies. One-fifth of the world's oil tankers pass through it every day.

On Friday benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rose by $1.94 to end the week at $109.77 per barrel in New York. Brent crude rose by $1.85 to finish at $125.47 per barrel in London.

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UN atomic agency report notes rapidly expanding Iranian activity that could be used for arms

VIENNA (AP) -- Iran has rapidly ramped up production of higher-grade enriched uranium over the last few months, the U.N. nuclear agency said Friday, in a confidential report that feeds concerns about how quickly the Islamic republic could produce an atomic bomb.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report also said Iran failed to give a convincing explanation about a quantity of missing uranium metal. Diplomats say the amount unaccounted for is large enough to be used for experiments in arming a nuclear missile.

Iran insists it is not interested in nuclear weapons and says its activities are meant either to generate energy or to be used for research.

But the report contained little assurances the country's activities are purely peaceful. Instead, it also confirmed that two IAEA missions to Tehran within less than a month had failed to dent Iran's refusal to assist an IAEA probe of suspicions the country has been secretly working on aspects of a nuclear weapons program.

The IAEA team had hoped to speak with key Iranian scientists suspected of working on the alleged weapons program, break down opposition to their plans to inspect documents related to nuclear work and secure commitments from Iranian authorities to allow future visits.

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Venezuela's Hugo Chavez bids farewell to backers, flies to Cuba for surgery to extract tumor

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez bid an emotional farewell laced with references to Jesus Christ and independence hero Simon Bolivar as he departed Venezuela on Friday for Cuba for urgent surgery to remove a tumor he says is probably malignant.

Clasping the hand of his youngest daughter, Chavez addressed allies of his socialist political movement and troops standing at attention at the Miraflores presidential palace.

"I say this from my gut: With cancer or without cancer ... come rain, thunder or lightning ... nobody can avoid a great patriotic victory Oct. 7," the president said, referring to the date of Venezuela's presidential election. "Long live Chavez!"

The socialist president, who is seeking a fourth term, referenced Bolivar and Christ's burdens to describe his battle with cancer.

"Our (founding) father Simon Bolivar once said, 'I am a man of troubles.' I say as a son of Bolivar, I too am a man of troubles. We are a people of troubles," Chavez said. "Let the troubles come and add like the cross of Christ to the definitive liberation of the country. With the cross of Christ, one must sometimes bear pain as a spur to love. It is fuel for love."

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For presidents, sorry seems to be the hardest word; biggest US errors make toughest apologies

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Nearly every president ends up saying he's sorry for something America has done -- from a bomb gone tragically astray to the locking up of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This time it's disrespectful disposal of Qurans. And again there are critics who see an apology as a sign of weakness or a failure of patriotism.

Should being president mean never having to say you're sorry?

Few would go that far, but there are plenty of advocates for keeping presidential regrets to a minimum.

It seems that the bigger the national blunder, the more controversial the apology.

So saying the U.S. is sorry for the mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia or the accidental sinking of a Japanese fishing boat is widely accepted. But apologizing for the moral catastrophe of slavery is so contentious that no president has done so.

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Records: Alabama girl had troubled life before stepmom and grandma allegedly ran her to death

ATTALLA, Ala. (AP) -- Savannah Hardin's life was in turmoil long before police say the 9-year-old was run to death by her grandmother and stepmother for allegedly lying about some candy she ate.

Divorce and custody documents filed in family court over a period of several years reflect a history of fractured family relationships, with Savannah's divorced parents fighting over her welfare; claims of mental instability and abuse between her father and his second wife; medical problems that required frequent doctor visits; and counseling for the girl who still somehow managed to remain among the top students in her third-grade class.

Authorities say Savannah's life ended in exhaustion earlier this month when she was forced by her paternal grandmother, Joyce Hardin Gerrard, to run for three hours, while her stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, did nothing to stop it.

The grandmother prodded her along cruelly, and the stepmother didn't intervene until Savannah collapsed in an unconscious heap, investigators say.

Now, Hardin Garrard is in jail and Savannah's stepmother is being held in police custody at a hospital after giving birth to another child. Both have been charged with murder.

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Fate of 351-year-old will sparks bitter dispute between trustees, residents in Mass. city

BOSTON (AP) -- With only eight days to live, a wealthy, ailing Massachusetts merchant wrote in his will 351 years ago that he was leaving a spectacular 35-acre seafront property for the benefit of public school children, decreeing the land should never be sold or wasted.

The dying wish of William Payne, one of the state's earliest settlers, created the nation's oldest charitable trust and eventually led tenants to build 167 cottages -- most of them used by summer vacationers -- on the land he left for the seaside city of Ipswich. The rent money has generated some $2.4 million to help fund public schools over the last 25 years.

Now, the trustees want to tear up the will, convert the property into condominiums and sell them to the tenants to settle a 2006 lawsuit filed by the tenants over rent increases. But hundreds of Ipswich residents have gone to court to block the settlement, saying it violates the sacred intent of Payne's will and shortchanges the schools.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court is considering whether to nullify the settlement and is scheduled to hear arguments in the case March 2.

The residents contend that while independent appraisals show the value of the land is an average of about $41 million, the agreement sets a sale price of nearly $32 million. They also say that the settlement also denies public schools the benefit of rising land value that occurs over the long term and that could help them collect higher rents.

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Military planes take off for Spain carrying 17 tons of silver recovered from 1804 shipwreck

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- A 17-ton haul of silver coins, lost for two centuries in the wreck of a sunken Spanish galleon, began its journey back to its home country on Friday after the deep-sea explorers who lifted it to the surface lost their claim to ownership.

Two Spanish military C-130 cargo planes took off after noon from a Florida Air Force base with 594,000 silver coins and other artifacts aboard. They were packed into the same white plastic buckets in which they were brought to the U.S. by Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in May 2007.

"These are emotional and moving moments for me and all my colleagues behind me," Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazar, said Friday. He stood on the windy tarmac at MacDill Air Force base, flanked by an entourage of more than two dozen Spanish officials and others.

"History will make us who we are, and today we are witnessing a journey that started 200 years ago," he said. "This is not money. This is historical heritage."

The planes were expected to make two refueling stops and land about 24 hours later at one of two air force bases in Madrid in a high-security operation.

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Court tells Ohio man to apologize on Facebook for comments about estranged wife or go to jail

CINCINNATI (AP) -- A man who was threatened with jail time for posting comments about his estranged wife on his personal Facebook page unless he posted daily apologies for a month says the court ruling violates his freedom of speech.

Mark Byron, who is making the apology to avoid 60 days in jail, said Friday night that he believes it's too late for him to appeal the domestic relations court ruling as planned. But the Cincinnati man and free speech and media experts say it should concern other users of the social networking site.

With hundreds of millions of people using Facebook for communication, Byron said that "if they can do this to me, they can do it to others."

The idea "that anybody could tell you what to say to your friends on Facebook should be scary to people," said Cincinnati attorney Jill Meyer, who specializes in free speech and media issues.

The ruling is highly unusual and "troubling because it's a court telling someone to say something to -- in some regards -- his chosen group of friends," said Meyer. She noted that the comments were not directed to Byron's wife, Elizabeth Byron, who was blocked from accessing the page.