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AP News in Brief at 11:04 p.m. EST

January 30, 2019 - 8:04 PM

Peace with the Taliban? Trump warned of Afghan pullout risks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Trump administration claims of progress in talks with the Taliban have sparked fears even among the president's allies that his impatience with the war in Afghanistan will lead him to withdraw troops too soon, leaving the country at risk of returning to the same volatile condition that prompted the invasion in the first place.

Discussions between a U.S. envoy and the Taliban are advancing weeks after the administration said it wanted to begin drawing down troops in Afghanistan. That has prompted some critics to note that President Donald Trump is telegraphing a withdrawal — the same thing he accused President Barack Obama of doing by saying he wanted to end the American combat mission in 2014.

"It's an effort to put lipstick on what will be a U.S. withdrawal," said Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul under Obama.

A negotiated settlement to America's longest war poses a dilemma for Trump. He has often declared he wants to end lengthy overseas military entanglements, something he made clear in December by declaring the Islamic State group defeated in Syria and announcing he was pulling 2,000 American troops from that country over the objections of his top foreign policy advisers.

The stakes are higher in Afghanistan, a conflict that has cost 2,400 American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars. The U.S. invaded the country to oust the Taliban and al-Qaida in October 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the CIA director warned as recently as Tuesday that Afghanistan could once again become a terrorist haven.

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Polar blast envelops Midwest, strains aging infrastructure

CHICAGO (AP) — A blast of polar air enveloped much of the Midwest on Wednesday, cracking train rails, breaking water pipes and straining electrical systems with some of the lowest temperatures in a generation.

The deep freeze closed schools and businesses and cancelled flights in the nation's third-largest city, which was as cold as the Arctic. Heavily dressed repair crews hustled to keep utilities from failing.

Chicago dropped to a low of around minus 23 (minus 30 Celsius), slightly above the city's lowest-ever reading of minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius) from January 1985. Milwaukee had similar conditions. Minneapolis recorded minus 27 (minus 32 Celsius). Sioux Falls, South Dakota, saw minus 25 (minus 31 Celsius).

Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 (minus 45 Celsius) or worse. Downtown Chicago streets were largely deserted after most offices told employees to stay home. Trains and buses operated with few passengers. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.

The Postal Service took the rare step of suspending mail delivery in many places, and in southeastern Minnesota, even the snowplows were idled by the weather.

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US: Mueller evidence used in disinformation campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal prosecutors say confidential material from the Russia investigation was altered and released online as part of a disinformation campaign to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, according to a court filing Wednesday.

The material had been handed over to defence attorneys for Concord Management and Consulting LLC, a Russian company that Mueller has charged with financing efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But the files, which prosecutors say were not sensitive, surfaced online last year in a link posted by a pro-Russian Twitter account.

The prosecutors stopped short of accusing Concord of leaking the material, but they argue that the company's request to have sensitive new evidence sent to Russia "unreasonably risks the national security interests of the United States."

Concord is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman known as "Putin's chef" for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has been hit with U.S. sanctions over Russian interference in the 2016 election and is charged alongside his company in the indictment brought by Mueller.

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Dems see future in Abrams as she prepares to rebut Trump

ATLANTA (AP) — Stacey Abrams will be doing more than rebutting President Donald Trump next week. As the first black woman to deliver a Democratic response to a State of the Union address, she'll represent what many in the party see as their political future.

In picking Abrams, the Georgian who narrowly lost her bid to be the nation's first African-American woman governor, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is reflecting the party's hope to win future elections with appeals to women and people of colour. He's also signalling the party's desire to make inroads in the diversifying South and Sun Belt after disappointing losses there during last year's midterms.

Abrams, 45, represents the growing political clout of black women. That's something Schumer wants to tap into by recruiting her to compete in next year's Georgia Senate race, a decision that could have national implications for Democrats if she successfully flips the seat and, in the process, turns out enough voters to make the Deep South state competitive at the presidential level.

Schumer and others "understand the power and prowess and contributions of black women ... and choosing Stacey Abrams is the physical embodiment of that recognition," said Democratic strategist Symone Sanders.

The speech offers Abrams a high-profile launching pad to a Senate campaign. Though she hasn't decided whether she'll run, Schumer has spent the past several weeks courting Abrams to challenge first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue. She has also met with Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, chairwoman of Senate Democrats' 2020 campaign efforts, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris, a presidential contender who is currently the lone black woman in the Senate.

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Opposition protesters fill streets of Venezuelan capital

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans of every age, class and profession poured into the streets of the capital on Wednesday to demand that President Nicolas Maduro step down and to express their support for the young opposition leader who has declared himself interim president.

Dressed in suits, scrubs, and jeans, they waved the national flag, displayed signs, and chanted slogans. One disgusted vendor threw devalued national currency into the air.

Protesters who made an appearance were heeding a call from opposition leader Juan Guaido to stage mass demonstrations despite crackdowns on previous protests.

Here are some scenes from across Caracas:

NO MORE DICTATORSHIP

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US secretly shipped plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy revealed on Wednesday that it secretly shipped weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site in Nevada months ago despite the state's protests.

The Justice Department notified a federal judge in Reno that the government trucked in the radioactive material to store at the site 70 miles (113 kilometres) north of Las Vegas before Nevada first asked a court to block the move in November.

Department lawyers said in a nine-page filing that the previously classified information about the shipment from South Carolina can be disclosed now because enough time has passed to protect national security. They didn't specify when the one-half metric ton of plutonium was transferred.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he's "beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception." He announced at a hastily called news conference in Carson City late Wednesday the state is now seeking another court order to block any more shipments of plutonium as it pursues "any and all legal remedies," including contempt of court orders against the federal government.

The newly elected Democrat said he's exploring options for the plutonium that already has arrived and is working with Nevada's congressional delegation to fight back against the U.S. government's "reckless disregard" for the safety of Nevadans.

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Rand Paul awarded more than $580K after neighbour's attack

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was awarded more than $580,000 in damages and medical expenses on Wednesday in his lawsuit against the neighbour who tackled him and broke several of his ribs in a dispute over lawn maintenance.

A jury in Bowling Green, Kentucky, deliberated less than two hours before delivering the award to the Republican lawmaker who had been attacked while doing yard work at his Kentucky home.

Paul had testified during the three-day trial that he feared for his life as he struggled to breathe after Rene Boucher, an anesthesiologist by trade, slammed into him in their upscale Bowling Green neighbourhood in late 2017.

The jury awarded $375,000 in punitive damages and $200,000 for pain and suffering, plus $7,834 for medical expenses.

Afterward, Paul said in a statement that he hoped the verdict would send a "clear message that violence is not the answer — anytime, anywhere."

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E-cigs outperform patches and gums in quit-smoking study

WASHINGTON (AP) — A major new study provides the strongest evidence yet that vaping can help smokers quit cigarettes, with e-cigarettes proving nearly twice as effective as nicotine gums and patches.

The British research, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, could influence what doctors tell their patients and shape the debate in the U.S., where the Food and Drug Administration has come under pressure to more tightly regulate the burgeoning industry amid a surge in teenage vaping.

"We know that patients are asking about e-cigarettes and many doctors haven't been sure what to say," said Dr. Nancy Rigotti, a tobacco treatment specialist at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study. "I think they now have more evidence to endorse e-cigarettes."

At the same time, Rigotti and other experts cautioned that no vaping products have been approved in the U.S. to help smokers quit.

Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death worldwide, blamed for nearly 6 million deaths a year. Quitting is notoriously difficult, even with decades-old nicotine aids and newer prescription drugs. More than 55 per cent of U.S. smokers try to quit each year, and only about 7 per cent succeed, according to government figures.

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Parole recommended for Manson follower Leslie Van Houten

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California panel on Wednesday recommended that Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten be paroled after serving more than four decades in prison.

After a hearing at the women's prison in Corona, California, commissioners of the Board of Parole Hearings found for the third time that the 69-year-old Van Houten was suitable for release.

If her case withstands a 150-day review process, it will rest in the hands of California's new Gov. Gavin Newsom. Van Houten was recommended for parole twice previously, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown blocked her release.

Van Houten was among the followers in Manson's murderous cult who stabbed to death wealthy grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in 1969. Van Houten was 19 during the killings, which came a day after other Manson followers killed pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others in Los Angeles.

Tate's sister attended Wednesday's proceedings and said afterward that she vehemently disagrees with the parole recommendation.

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Police release photos of "persons of interest" in attack

CHICAGO (AP) — Detectives reviewed surveillance footage of "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett walking to his downtown Chicago apartment, but so far none of the video shows him being attacked by two masked men, although investigators have obtained images of people they would like to question, a police spokesman said Wednesday.

Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi tweeted photos of the "persons of interest" Wednesday evening.

Investigators "for the most part" can confirm the route Smollett took early Tuesday when he says he was attacked along a street in the Streeterville neighbourhood after visiting a sandwich shop, Guglielmi said. However, there are gaps, and none of the footage shows an attack, he said, although the review is ongoing.

Smollett, who is black and gay and plays the gay character Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox television show, said the men beat him, subjected him to racist and homophobic insults, threw an "unknown chemical substance" on him and put a thin rope around his neck before fleeing.

Guglielmi said detectives, who are investigating the allegations as a possible hate crime, have looked at hundreds of hours of surveillance video from businesses and hotels in the heavily monitored area. But he said they still need to collect and view more. He said they are expanding the search to include footage from public buses and buildings beyond the scene's immediate vicinity in the hopes of spotting the men who match Smollett's description of the suspects.

News from © The Associated Press, 2019
The Associated Press

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