News briefs: Chinese leader's role questioned in virus response

Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — A recent speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping that has been published by state media indicates for the first time that he was leading the response to a new virus outbreak from early on in the crisis.

The publication of the Feb. 3 speech was an apparent attempt to demonstrate that the Communist Party leadership acted decisively from the beginning, but also opens Xi up to criticism over why the public was not alerted sooner. 

In the speech, Xi said he gave instructions on fighting the virus on Jan. 7 and ordered the shutdown that began on Jan. 23 of cities at the epicenter of the outbreak. His remarks were published by state media late Saturday. 

"On Jan. 22, in light of the epidemic's rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people," he told a meeting of the party's standing committee, its top body.

China's National Health Commission on Sunday reported a drop in new virus cases for the third straight day. There were 2,009 new cases in mainland China, bringing the total to 68,500. 

Cost of China's anti-virus fight rises with workers idle

BEIJING (AP) — Real estate agent Du Xuekun's sales usually jump after the Lunar New Year holiday. But this year, Du has been at home for a month with no income after vast swathes of China's economy were shut down in a sweeping effort to contain a virus outbreak. 

Du, who lives in Jiaozhuo, near the central city of Zhengzhou, is one of millions of people who are bearing the soaring cost of the most extreme anti-disease measures ever imposed. Some businesses are reopening, but Beijing has told the public to stay home if possible. 

"People will buy food and clothes online but for sure won't buy an apartment without seeing it," said Du. 

Industries from auto sales to travel to retailing effectively shut down after curbs were imposed starting Jan. 23 with the suspension of most access to Wuhan, an industrial metropolis of 11 million people at the center of the outbreak. 

Travel restrictions expanded to cities with more than 60 million people, while curbs on business spread nationwide. The Lunar New Year holiday was extended to keep factories and offices closed. Nationwide, thousands of restaurants and cinemas have been shut to prevent crowds from gathering. 

Joe Biden in Vegas takes on Bernie Sanders' gun votes in fiery speech

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joe Biden, standing on a Las Vegas stage roughly 1,000 feet from the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, took on White House rival Bernie Sanders for his past vote to exempt gun manufacturers from liability for shootings. 

The former vice president devoted the majority of his Saturday night speech at a Democratic gala on the Las Vegas Strip to deliver a fiery charge against the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers, vowing to hold gun makers accountable if elected president.

"When I'm the president, we'll take them on, remove the immunity and allow those parents who are trying now to sue for the pain and mayhem they have caused," Biden said on stage at the Tropicana casino-resort. The resort sits adjacent to the grounds where a gunman in 2017 unleashed a torrent of gunfire on a country music festival—an incident that only Biden referred to Saturday night. 

Biden, after decrying "carnage in our streets" and the anguish of families whose loved ones were killed in gun violence, said he "will not rest until they're able to sue the gun manufacturers and get a ban on assault weapons." 

Biden didn't cite Sanders by name when referring to a 2005 federal law that shields gun makers from liability in most crimes, but said, "some of the people running for office voted for that exemption." 

Turkey, Russia to discuss grave situation in Syria's Idlib

MUNICH (AP) — A Turkish delegation will travel to Russia on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria's Idlib province amid mounting fears of a humanitarian disaster there, Turkey's foreign minister said.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians in Idlib province are scrambling to escape a widening, multi-front offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces. 

"What matters is today around 1 million people from Idlib have been moving towards our border," Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a statement Saturday after a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump in which they discussed Syria and other topics. "We are already hosting 3.5-4 million people. Unfortunately we are not in a position of accepting this another 1 million."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said after meeting his German counterpart on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that 2 million people could head for Turkey's border with Syria if no cease-fire is achieved.

He said a Turkish delegation was due to visit Moscow on Monday to talk discuss the situation in Idlib, much of which remains in rebel hands. The meeting follows previous visits by a Russian delegation to Ankara. Russia supports Assad, while Turkey backs the opposition. 

Writer AE Hotchner, friend to Hemingway, Newman, dead at 102

A.E. Hotchner, a well-traveled author, playwright and gadabout whose street smarts and famous pals led to a loving, but litigated memoir of Ernest Hemingway, business adventures with Paul Newman and a book about his Depression-era childhood that became a Steven Soderbergh film, died Saturday at age 102.

He died at his home in Westport, Connecticut, according to his son, Timothy Hotchner, who did not immediately know the cause of death. 

A. E. Hotchner, known to friends as "Ed" or "Hotch," was an impish St. Louis native and ex-marbles champ who read, wrote and hustled himself out of poverty and went on to publish more than a dozen books, befriend countless celebrities and see his play, "The White House," performed at the real White House for President Bill Clinton.

He was a natural fit for Elaine's, the former Manhattan nightspot for the famous and the near-famous, and contributed the text for "Everyone Comes to Elaine's," an illustrated history. Hotchner's other works included the novel "The Man Who Lived at the Ritz," bestselling biographies of Doris Day and Sophia Loren, and a musical, "Let 'Em Rot!" co-written with Cy Coleman. 

In his 90s, he completed an upbeat book of essays on aging, "O.J. in the Morning, G&T at Night." When he was 100, he wrote the detective novel "The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom." At 101, he adapted Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" for the stage.

'Parasite' shines light on South Korean basement dwellers

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Kim Da-hye, a 29-year-old South Korean, said that moving into a semi-basement apartment was her least-preferred option when she was looking for a new place to live.

But after a rigorous search and a close examination of her finances, she was forced to settle for a "banjiha," the Korean word for a cramped basement flat.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning film "Parasite" has brought banjiha dwellers like Kim to worldwide attention, thanks to its depiction of two families — one living in a semi-basement apartment and the other in an airy mansion — and the differences in their social status.

In 2015, around 1.9 percent of South Koreans lived in semi-basement apartments, according to data from Statistics Korea. It's an affordable choice for urban dwellers in Seoul, one of the most expensive cities in Asia.

The apartments, which are often cramped and sometimes squalid, generally cost between $210 and $500 a month with a hefty deposit.

Mississippi braces for flooding amid cresting river

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency Saturday amid predictions that a river running in the area around the state capital of Jackson could burst its banks and spark widespread flooding.

Forecasters believe the Pearl River will crest at 38 feet (11.6 meters) Sunday evening to levels not seen in decades, following days of torrential rains across the Southeast. Reeves said the state should prepare for "the third worst flood" in its history.

"This is a historic, unprecedented flood," Reeves said via Twitter. 

Parts of Jackson and suburban Ridgeland were under evacuation orders, and some people had already filled trucks with furniture and other belongings to get out. Reeves said more than 2,400 homes and other structures in and near Jackson could either be inundated or isolated by the rising waters. That includes 1,925 structures in Hinds County, 461 in Rankin County and 31 in Madison County. 

"I cannot stress to you how important the next 24 to 48 hours is for the people who are going to be affected," Reeves said. He signed an emergency declaration to speed up spending for flood response and recovery. More than 96,000 sandbags had already been distributed by Saturday. The National Guard, the Highway Patrol and other high-water rescue teams were on standby, Reeves said.

US agency to pay for 11,000 miles of fuel breaks in 6 states

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Bureau of Land Management has announced plans to fund 11,000 miles of strategic fuel breaks in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah in an effort to help control wildfires.

The fuel breaks are intended to prop up fire mitigation efforts and help protect firefighters, communities and natural resources, The Oregonian reported Saturday.

According to the BLM, wildfires are becoming bigger and more frequent across the Great Basin states. Between 2009 and 2018, more than 13.5 million acres of BLM land burned in the project area.

"Recovering from the devastating effects of wildfires can take decades in the rugged, high-desert climate of the Great Basin. These tools will help firefighters contain fires when they break out," said acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond in a news release. "That's why creating fuel breaks is incredibly important to the entire basin, the people who live in these communities, and our wildland firefighters."

Fuel breaks are intended to break up fire fuels by creating breaks in vegetation that slow a blaze's progress. By implementing them strategically, they help firefighters control the spread of fire, and can protect homes and resources.

14-year-old charged with Barnard College student death

NEW YORK (AP) — A 14-year-old has been arrested in the fatal stabbing of a Barnard College student in a park during a robbery in December, a crime that rattled New York City residents, authorities said Saturday.

Rashaun Weaver has been indicted by a grand jury and was taken into custody Friday night without incident, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said at a news conference.

Weaver, charged with second-degree murder and robbery, is the second teenager to be charged in the attack on 18-year-old Tessa Majors in a Manhattan park.

"We are confident that we have the person in custody who stabbed her," Shea said. "And that person will face justice in a court of law."

The Associated Press is naming the juvenile defendant because of the seriousness of the crime and because he has been charged as an adult. Weaver's attorney, Elsie Chandler, did not immediately return a call to Neighbor Defender Service of Harlem seeking comment.

Boyfriend of British TV presenter heartbroken by her death

LONDON (AP) — The boyfriend of Caroline Flack, the British TV host for the controversial reality show "Love Island," said Sunday that his "heart is broken" at her death as criticism swelled at her treatment by some British media.

Flack, 40, was found dead Saturday at her home in east London after taking her own life, according to a family lawyer. Flack hosted "Love Island" from its launch in 2015 before stepping down last year after being charged with assaulting her 27-year-old boyfriend, Lewis Burton. 

Flack denied the charge and was to stand trial next month. She was also not allowed to have any contact with Burton. He objected to that bail restriction and did not want Britain's Crown Prosecution Service to go ahead with the trial.

Over the past few months, Flack had been the focus of several negative articles and was trolled across social media for the assault charge. On Sunday, the story of her suicide dominated the front pages of British newspapers.

Beside a picture of them together, Burton said on Instagram that he was in "so much pain." 

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