Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Published:

Under siege in Syrian city, where the regime tries to keep journalists out

ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) -- Explosions illuminated the night as we ran, hoping to escape Syria after nearly three weeks of covering a conflict that the government seems determined to keep the world from seeing. Tank shells slammed into the city streets behind us, snipers' bullets whizzed by our heads and the rebels escorting us were nearly out of ammunition.

It seemed like a good time to get out of Syria.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Award-winning journalists Rodrigo Abd and Ahmed Bahaddou sneaked into Syria and spent nearly three weeks reporting from opposition-held territory. Abd, an Associated Press photographer, is based in Guatemala. Bahaddou is a video journalist on assignment for the AP, based in Turkey.

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Stocks record biggest day this year; retail sales and banks drive rally

NEW YORK (AP) -- Bank stocks turbocharged a rally across the financial markets Tuesday, and all three major stock indexes posted their biggest gains of the year. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 218 points and closed at its highest level since the end of 2007.

The Nasdaq composite closed above 3,000 for the first time since December 2000, when dot-com stocks were collapsing.

There was already plenty of good news driving the market higher Tuesday -- the strongest retail sales gain since September and an encouraging assessment of the economy from the Federal Reserve.

Then the market soared in the final hour after JPMorgan Chase, the country's largest bank by assets, announced that it plans to buy back as much as $15 billion of its stock and raise its quarterly dividend by a nickel to 30 cents per share.

"That's what really made the day," said Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial.

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Southern faceoff: Romney, Santorum and Gingrich vie in Ala., Miss.; caucuses in Hawaii, too

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Mitt Romney collided with rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich on Tuesday in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, hotly contested Southern crossroads in the struggle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Caucuses in Hawaii were also on the calendar in the race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama this fall.

There were 107 Republican National Convention delegates at stake, 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.

Each of the three leading contenders faced a different challenge in Alabama and Mississippi, where heavy television advertising was evidence of the states' unaccustomed significance deep in the nominating campaign.

Gingrich struggled for political survival, Romney sought a strong showing to silence his critics and Santorum hoped to emerge at last as the chief conservative rival to the front-runner.

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Born-again Christians, conservatives dominate GOP presidential voting in Alabama, Mississippi

WASHINGTON (AP) -- White born-again and evangelical Christians were dominating Alabama's and Mississippi's Republican presidential primaries on Tuesday, showing up in numbers unsurpassed by any state where voters have been polled so far this year, according to preliminary results of exit polls of voters.

Around 8 in 10 Mississippians participating in Tuesday's contest were white evangelical or born-again Christians, the largest share measured in any state so far. Those same voters accounted for nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in Alabama, a proportion reached previously only in Tennessee and Oklahoma.

People in the two Deep South states were also strongly conservative, though they were not the most conservative to have cast ballots in presidential contests this year. Around 7 in 10 in both states considered themselves conservative, including about 4 in 10 who said they are very conservative -- proportions that have been matched or exceeded by several other states.

As in every state so far, the economy was the top issue on peoples' minds, with just over half in each state naming it as their foremost concern.

And around 4 in 10 in both states cited the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in the November election as their main concern for selecting a candidate.

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Afghan villagers recount shooting spree that left 16 dead; US soldier remains in custody

BALANDI, Afghanistan (AP) -- As bullets flew, the Afghan woman scooped up her 3-year-old niece and ran for their lives. Moments later, the woman was dead and the girl lay bleeding from a gunshot wound.

It was the closing scene of a massacre that left 16 civilians, including nine children, dead in two villages in southern Kandahar province.

The U.S. is holding an Army staff sergeant that military officials say slipped off a U.S. base before dawn Sunday, walked to the villages, barged into their homes and opened fire. Some of the corpses were burned. Eleven were from one family. Five other people were wounded.

The military said Tuesday there was probable cause to continue holding the soldier, who has not been named, in custody. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said he could face capital punishment.

Villagers -- angry at foreign troops, frustrated with their government and tired of war -- recounted the tragedy to a delegation sent to the scene by President Hamid Karzai. Two who lost relatives insisted that not one -- but at least two -- soldiers took part in the shootings.

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US starting to calculate final stages of Afghan troop pullout; recent killings muddy outlook

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration is only beginning to calculate the pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan beyond this summer, facing an endgame fraught with political risk and complicated by shocking setbacks like the alleged U.S. slaughter of Afghan civilians.

At stake is not only President Barack Obama's pledge to prevent Afghanistan from reverting to the terrorist haven it was before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but also his commitment to wind down the war while crafting a long-term security relationship with the Afghans.

U.S. military commanders want to keep as many troops in the country as possible until the Dec. 31, 2014, target date for having all combat forces out. They fear a too-rapid pullout would risk surrendering the security gains they have made in recent years.

But the White House faces the prospect of intensifying political pressure to end the military mission, especially after events such as the burning of Muslim holy books by U.S. troops last month that triggered a wave of Afghan violence, including the killings of at least six U.S. troops by Afghan troops.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., a top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, is among those calling for a faster withdrawal.

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Worship goes on at Crystal Cathedral amid split over copyright dispute with founder Schuller

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. (AP) -- The soaring, glass-paned megachurch built decades ago by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller will keep airing its weekly "Hour of Power" television broadcast and hold services, despite a bitter breach of contract dispute that has torn the storied congregation apart.

In a statement Tuesday, Crystal Cathedral Ministries said it would hold regular worship services on Sunday and air the television program both domestically and internationally, although Schuller and his family have been fired or have cut ties with the church.

The services will feature the "traditional worship style on which the ministry was founded," John Charles, the chairman of the ministries' board of directors said in the statement.

The church and its sprawling campus of religious statues, gardens and winding walkways sold in bankruptcy last month to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which is giving the current tenants three years to vacate the property. The diocese purchased the shimmering cathedral and its 31-acre campus in the heart of Orange County for more than $57 million after an intense bidding war.

The comment from the church is the latest development in a protracted dispute over copyright claims that emerged during bankruptcy proceedings.

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Officials: 2-year-old NJ girl found dead inside septic tank drowned accidentally

LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) -- A toddler whose body was found inside a septic tank behind her home, just hours after being reported missing by her mother, died of accidental drowning, an autopsy showed Tuesday.

A preliminary investigation found "no indication of foul play or trauma," Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford said.

The 2-year-old victim, identified by authorities only by the initials J.C., was reported missing by her mother, Marina Matias, shortly before 5 p.m. Monday. She had been playing in the yard with her four siblings.

Search teams quickly found a 3-foot-wide hole in the yard that led to a septic tank, and the Public Works Department was called to pump water from the tank. The girl's body was found inside it around 7:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, toys were strewn about the yard of the ramshackle property, and the front door of the small house sat wide open. Police tape cordoned off the area where the top of the tank had been covered with dirt. The tank sat just a few feet outside the back door to the home, next to an outbuilding.

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Jennie Garth, Peter Facinelli to split after 11 years of marriage; couple has 3 children

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Jennie Garth and Peter Facinelli say they are divorcing after 11 years.

In a statement Tuesday, the couple said they decided to end their marriage but share "the same deep love and devotion to our children."

Garth and Facinelli said they remain "dedicated to raising our beautiful daughters together," and asked for privacy and respect. The Southern California couple are parents to 14-year-old Luca, 9-year-old Lola and 5-year-old Fiona.

The 39-year-old Garth came to fame in the 1990s TV series "Beverly Hills, 90210" and appeared in the 2008-10 sequel. The 38-year-old Facinelli is a co-star in the "Twilight" movie franchise. The couple married in January 2001.

Garth competed in "Dancing With the Stars" in 2007, with Facinelli applauding her from the audience.

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Wide receivers make news as free agency begins

Marques Colston is staying put in New Orleans. Brandon Marshall is headed to Chicago.

Hours before free agency began Tuesday, the Saints' star receiver agreed to a five-year contract to remain in the Big Easy. A bit later, Miami sent its top wideout, Marshall, to the Bears for two draft picks.

"This was important to me, to be back with this team in this situation," Colston said in a statement released by the Saints. "I was not looking to chase free agency. It was more important for me to be back in our program, a program we have been building and a program I believe in."

The top free agent, of course, is Peyton Manning, who was released a week ago by the Colts. He still is conducting his limited tour of teams, but the Dolphins' trade of their No. 1 receiver could indicate Miami is out of the running for the four-time league MVP.

"Brandon Marshall out of Miami?" Dolphins center Mike Pouncey tweeted. "Tell me this ain't true..."