AP News in Brief at 5:58 p.m. EDT

The Associated PressJuly 15, 2014 

In crowded Gaza, civilians urged by Israel to leave homes often have nowhere to go

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The text message was as urgent as it was unwelcome: The Israeli army advised Mouin Ghaffir to leave his home quickly or risk being killed in airstrikes against Hamas rocket squads.

He swiftly sent his wife and 11 children to a dirty U.N. emergency shelter, with more than 40 people crammed in each classroom, but had to endure a night under bombardment at home after failing to find a safe place for his ailing 75-year-old mother.

Such is the life-and-death predicament of tens of thousands of Gazans being told by Israel to flee targeted areas, most with nowhere to go. U.N. shelters lack the space, and relatives, with their own overcrowded homes, often cannot help.

Israel says urging residents to evacuate — with warnings delivered through automated calls, text messages and leaflets dropped from planes — is part of the military's attempt to spare civilians whenever possible.

It holds Hamas responsible for the ordeal of Gaza's 1.7 million people, saying Hamas fighters fire rockets toward Israel from residential areas, effectively using civilians as human shields.

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A loss or a gain? Democrats reach for political advantage with women in birth control setback

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats suffered what looked like a difficult setback on birth control Wednesday, but they hope it pays big political dividends in November.

Republicans blocked a bill that was designed to override a Supreme Court ruling and ensure access to contraception for women who get their health insurance from companies with religious objections. The vote was 56-43 to move ahead on the legislation — dubbed the "Not My Boss' Business Act" by proponents — four short of the 60 necessary to proceed.

But Democrats hope the issue has enough life to energize female voters in the fall, when Republicans are threatening to take control of the Senate.

GOP senators said Wednesday's vote was simply a stunt, political messaging designed to boost vulnerable Democratic incumbents. The GOP needs to gain six seats to seize control.

"Democrats are just trying to win an election," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said bluntly.

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US escalating economic sanctions against Russia in response to crisis in Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States imposed new sanctions Wednesday on lucrative Russian energy and defense entities, as well as major banks, as the Obama administration struggles for a way to quell an insurgency in eastern Ukraine widely believed to be backed by Moscow.

The penalties significantly expand on previous U.S. sanctions, which hit Russian individuals and companies with travel bans and asset freezes. But the new sanctions stop short of fully cutting off key Russian economic sectors, a step U.S. officials said they were continuing to hold in reserve in case Moscow launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine or takes similarly provocative actions.

Obama was expected to speak about the sanctions from the White House Wednesday afternoon.

The Treasury Department sanctions target two major Russian energy firms, Novatek and Rosneft, and a pair of leading Russian financial institutions, Gazprombank and VEB. The sanctions restrict the entities' ability to access U.S. capital markets, officials said.

Eight Russian arms firms responsible for the production of small arms, mortar shells and tanks were also hit with sanctions.

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Studies reveal more side effects for cholesterol drug niacin; some doctors say it's too risky

New details from two studies reveal more side effects from niacin, a drug that many Americans take for cholesterol problems and general heart health. Some doctors say the drug now seems too risky for routine use.

Niacin is a type of B vitamin sold over the counter and in higher prescription doses. Some people take it in place of or in addition to statin medicines such as Lipitor for cholesterol problems.

The studies previously found that niacin did not prevent heart problems better than statins alone and carried more side effects. Details in this week's New England Journal of Medicine suggest that deaths, bleeding, infections, gastrointestinal and other problems were more common among niacin users.

Heart specialists say no one should stop taking any drug without talking with a doctor.

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Fox bid for Time Warner sets off race to consolidate among media companies

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Even though Rupert Murdoch's $76 billion bid for rival media giant Time Warner Inc. has been rejected, that doesn't mean how you watch TV shows and movies will stop changing any time soon.

The cash-and-stock bid by Murdoch's Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. was partly meant to counter consolidation among TV distributors like Comcast-Time Warner Cable and AT&T-DirecTV.

The more must-have channels like HBO and Fox News Channel are assembled under one company, the stronger that company's bargaining position in demanding licensing fees from the TV distributors, no matter how big they get.

Time Warner also owns TV channels CNN, TNT and TBS, along with the Warner Bros. movie studio, which includes Batman, Superman and Harry Potter. Fox owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio, the Fox broadcast network and such TV channels as Fox News and FX.

Much of the value is in the television channels because of the ever-increasing fees they are able to command from cable and satellite TV providers. Disputes over such fees have led to temporary blackouts of popular channels from various systems.

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Digital afterlife: What happens to your email, other accounts when you die and don't specify?

WASHINGTON (AP) — You've probably decided who gets the house or that family heirloom up in the attic when you die. But what about your email account and all those photos stored online?

Grieving relatives might want access for sentimental reasons, or to settle financial issues. But do you want your mom reading your exchanges on an online dating profile or a spouse going through every email?

The Uniform Law Commission, whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardize state laws, was on track Wednesday to endorse a plan that would give loved ones access to — but not control of — the deceased's digital accounts, unless specified otherwise in a will.

To become law in a state, the legislation would have to be adopted by the legislature. If it did, a person's online life could become as much a part of estate planning as deciding what to do with physical possessions.

"This is something most people don't think of until they are faced with it. They have no idea what is about to be lost," said Karen Williams of Beaverton, Oregon, who sued Facebook for access to her 22-year-old son Loren's account after he died in a 2005 motorcycle accident.

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Urban warfare feared in Ukraine as insurgents hunker down in cities; relatives are sent away

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Insurgents bade tearful farewells Wednesday as they loaded their families onto Russia-bound buses and began hunkering down for what could be the next phase in Ukraine's conflict: bloody urban warfare.

While the pro-Russian rebels in the east have lost much ground in recent weeks and were driven from their stronghold of Slovyansk, many have regrouped in Donetsk, an industrial city that had a population of 1 million before tens of thousands by some estimates fled in recent weeks for fear of a government siege. The rebels also hold the city of Luhansk.

Despite the government's desire to minimize civilian casualties, Ukraine's forces could find themselves dragged into grueling warfare inside the cities in their battle to hold the country together.

"To respond to this phase ... we evidently must change tactics," said Valeriy Chaly, deputy head of the presidential administration. He refrained from specifying how.

Insurgents in Donetsk appeared be bracing for a bitter fight as they shipped their relatives out of the city.

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Texas woman gets 18 years in prison for sending ricin-laced letters to Obama, Bloomberg

TEXARKANA, Texas (AP) — A Texas actress who tried to blame her husband after sending ricin-laced letters to officials including President Barack Obama was sentenced Wednesday to 18 years in prison.

A federal judge gave Shannon Guess Richardson, 36, the maximum sentence under her plea deal on a federal charge of possessing and producing a biological toxin. Richardson was also ordered to pay restitution of about $367,000. She had pleaded guilty to the charge in December.

"I never intended for anybody to be hurt," she told the court, adding later, "I'm not a bad person; I don't have it in me to hurt anyone."

Judge Michael H. Schneider noted that she had put many lives in danger and threatened public officials.

Richardson, who had minor acting roles in film and television including in the series "The Walking Dead" and the movie "The Blind Side," said she thought security measures would prevent anyone from opening the letters addressed to Obama, then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Mark Glaze, who at the time was director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Bloomberg's group advocating for tougher gun control.

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Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin asks world: Where were you while I walked on moon 45 years ago Sunday?

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin was "out of town" when the world united and rejoiced in a way never seen before or since.

He and Neil Armstrong were on the moon.

They missed the whole celebration 45 years ago this Sunday. So did Michael Collins, orbiting solo around the moon in the mother ship.

Now, on this Apollo 11 milestone — just five years shy of the golden anniversary — Aldrin is asking everyone to remember where they were when he and Armstrong became the first humans to step onto another heavenly body, and to share their memories online.

Too young? You can also share how the moonwalkers inspired you.

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NYC Mayor de Blasio's Italian vacation amid looming commuter rail strike questioned

NEW YORK (AP) — A screaming headline that reads "Good luck on that, I'm off to Italy." A composite photo depicting his family in a gondola in Venice. Withering criticism from a former mayor.

Despite the increasingly bad political optics, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio remains set to depart Friday for a lengthy Italian vacation in the face of a potential strike at the nation's largest commuter railroad.

If Long Island Rail Road workers walk off the job at midnight Sunday, it could paralyze portions of the city and lead to a public relations nightmare for de Blasio, with the city's tabloids — who have been nipping at his heels since he took office — eager to juxtapose a photo of him gallivanting on an Italian beach with a shot of a city highway clogged by a nightmarish traffic jam.

De Blasio, a Democrat who took office in January, had said he would return from his trip if a crisis arose but signaled this week that he believed his team could manage without him. His spokesman confirmed Wednesday that the trip was proceeding as planned.

The mayor handed out fliers in a busy Brooklyn subway station at rush hour Wednesday morning but did not take questions from reporters. He has not weighed in on the subject since Monday at which point he downplayed the impact of a potential strike.

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