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News briefs: The Senate's witness debate

Whether to call John Bolton, other witnesses 

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump's impeachment trial is shifting to questions from senators, a pivotal juncture as Republicans lack the votes to block witnesses and face a potential setback in their hope of ending the trial with a quick acquittal. 

After Trump's defense team rested Tuesday with a plea to "end now," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately told senators he doesn't yet have the votes to brush back Democratic demands for witnesses now that revelations from John Bolton, the former national security adviser, have roiled the trial.

Bolton writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion, if true, would undercut a key defense argument and go to the heart of one of the two articles of impeachment against the president.

"I think Bolton probably has something to offer us," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. 

Not in Trump's view. "Why didn't John Bolton complain about this 'nonsense' a long time ago, when he was very publicly terminated," Trump tweeted shortly after midnight. "He said, not that it matters, NOTHING!"

Question time: What's next in Trump's impeachment trial

WASHINGTON (AP) — With opening arguments wrapped up in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, senators will now get a chance to ask questions. But the normally loquacious politicians will still have to keep silent, as their questions can only be submitted in writing. 

The question-and-answer session, expected to last two days, will allow the lawyers on both sides to make their final points before the senators vote on whether to hear witnesses and, eventually, on whether to convict the president and remove him from office. 

A look at the questions and answers: Seen, not heard

The senators must submit their questions to the presiding officer, Chief Justice John Roberts. He will then read them and request an answer. 

Cases of new virus in China top its total for SARS

BEIJING (AP) — China, with 5,974 cases of a new virus, has more infections than it did in with SARS, though the death toll is still lower. China had 5,327 cases of SARS in the 2002-2003 outbreak. 

China reported another large jump in cases Wednesday and a rise in the death toll to 132. That compares to 348 people killed in China during SARS. Severe acute respiratory syndrome killed nearly 800 people worldwide.

Scientists say there are still many critical questions to be answered about the new virus, including just how transmissible and severe it is. More than 50 cases have been reported outside China.

Israel headed for clash with ICC over West Bank settlements

JERUSALEM (AP) — Emboldened by a supportive White House, Israel appears to be barreling toward a showdown with the international community over its half-century-old settlement enterprise in the West Bank.

With the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court poised to launch a war crimes probe of Israel's settlement policies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday announced plans to move ahead with the potentially explosive annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank, including dozens of Jewish settlements. He spoke in Washington as President Donald Trump unveiled a Mideast peace plan that matches Netanyahu's nationalistic stance and undercuts Palestinian ambitions.

This confluence of forces could make 2020 the year that finally provides clarity on the status of Israeli settlements and the viability of a two-state solution.

"History is knocking at the door," Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, a patron of the settler movement, said as he urged Netanyahu to immediately annex all of Israel's settlements and snuff out any hopes for Palestinian independence. 

"Now the campaign is moving from the White House to the Cabinet room in Jerusalem," he said. "Take everything now."

Kobe Bryant helicopter lacked recommended safety device

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant didn't have a recommended warning system to alert the pilot he was too close to land but it's not clear it would have averted the crash that killed nine because the pilot may have lost control as the aircraft plunged into a fog-shrouded mountain, federal investigators said Tuesday.

Pilot Ara Zobayan had been climbing out of the clouds when the aircraft banked left and began a sudden and terrifying 1,200-foot (366-meter) descent that lasted nearly a minute. 

"This is a pretty steep descent at high speed," said Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board. "We know that this was a high-energy impact crash."

The aircraft was intact when it hit the ground, but the impact spread debris over more than 500 feet (150 meters). Remains of the final victims were recovered Tuesday and so far the remains of Bryant, Zobayan and two other passengers have been identified using fingerprints.

Determining what caused the crash will take months, but investigators may again recommend that to avoid future crashes helicopters carrying six or more passenger seats be equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System that would have sounded an alarm if the aircraft was in danger of crashing.

Syrian troops capture key town in rebel-held Idlib province

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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces captured one of the largest and most strategic rebel-held towns in the country's northwest, the Syrian military and opposition activists said Wednesday, part of a Russian-backed military assault that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to safer areas.

The town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered critical to President Bashar Assad's forces. The town is now largely empty as a result of intense bombardment in recent weeks.

Its capture is the latest in a series of military triumphs for Assad. His forces have retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters, largely because of blanket air support from Russia, which helped turn the tide in the nearly nine-year civil war. 

Syria's nearly nine-year conflict left more than 400,000 people dead and displaced half of Syria's population, including more than 5 million who are refugees, mostly in neighboring countries. 

An exception has been Idlib province, in the northwestern corner of the country near the Turkish border, which is held by opposition fighters and is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The province is home to some 3 million people, many of them internally displaced.

U.S. ponders cutting military forces in Africa; allies worry

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — As extremist violence grows across Africa, the United States is considering reducing its military presence on the continent, a move that worries its international partners who are working to strengthen the fight in the tumultuous Sahel region.

The timing is especially critical in the Sahel, the vast arid region south of the Sahara Desert, where militants with links to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have carried out increased attacks in the past six months. In Niger and Mali, soldiers have been ambushed and at times overpowered by hundreds of extremist gunmen on motorcycles. More than 500,000 people have been displaced by violence in Burkina Faso.

The pending decision is part of a worldwide review by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is looking for ways to tighten the focus on China and Russia.

"My aim is to free up time, money and manpower around the globe, where we currently are, so that I can direct it" toward Asia or return forces to the United States to improve combat readiness, Esper said Monday after meeting with French Defense Minister Florence Parly, who traveled to Washington to urge the U.S. not to reduce forces in the Sahel.

High-profile Republicans and Democrats have warned that such a decision would undermine national security. They argue that cuts in Africa could hand over influence on the booming continent of 1.2 billion people to China and Russia.

Pastor's fight against KKK becomes movie that may aid battle

LAURENS, S.C. (AP) — Not many years ago in a small, rural South Carolina town stood The Redneck Shop — a racist emporium and Ku Klux Klan museum housed in an old theater, where white supremacist neo-Nazis gave heil-Hitler salutes and flaunted swastikas and Rebel flags.

That building, once the property of the Klan, now belongs to a black preacher and committed foe of racism who fought the group for more than 20 years. The Rev. David Kennedy plans to transform it into a shrine of reconciliation.

How Kennedy, whose great-great-uncle was lynched in the community, got ownership of the old Echo Theater building from an ex-Klansman — a man who once contemplated murdering Kennedy — is the subject of a movie that could end up raising funds for that transformation.

"It symbolizes right now in the shape it's in — hatred," Kennedy said. "But we hope we can turn it into a building of love."

 A decade ago, the white supremacist store in Laurens was a place where one of the few shirts sold without an overt racial slur said, "If I had known this was going to happen I would have picked my own cotton." The World Famous Ku Klux Klan Museum with its racist meeting place was in the back.

Confined at home, Chinese get creative to beat boredom

BANGKOK (AP) — Chinese around the country confined to their apartments either by choice or by order are making the best of the situation as cities remain in lockdown in a desperate bid to contain a new, dangerous virus. 

A couple from Shantou, a coastal city in Guangdong province, recreated a childhood game at home for their children. 

In video posted on Douyin, a popular Chinese social media platform, the mom pretends to be a street vendor selling hoops made of cardboard paper. The children throw the hoops to score prizes laid out on the ground. It is a popular game usually played outdoor at Chinese New Year celebrations, but this year is different. 

"Many travel plans and outdoor activities were canceled. A lot of people are strictly limiting their needs of going outside," said Ouyang, the father. "Staying home is boring. So we decided to play this game at home with our kids and record a short clip of it." 

A woman who goes by screen name Liang Jinjin lives in Yichang in Hubei province, a city not too far from the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan and one of several places where public transportation and traffic with the outside world have been blocked off. In her collection of videos, she sips water from a giant glass to her own reflection in the mirror and drinks from a coconut with a TV background showing animation of a beach. In another clip, she makes a tiny snowman with ice from her freezer. 

From marching bands to The Boss to Lady Gaga at halftime

MIAMI (AP) — Regardless of your musical tastes, it seems the Super Bowl halftime show has gone there. 

From marching bands to New Orleans jazz, from Latin and Caribbean vibes to Motown. From classic rock to country, pop to hip hop and rap.

From the sublime (Tony Bennett) to the ridiculous (Janet Jackson's "uncovering"), and from Michael Jackson's moonwalks to U2's majestic remembrance of the 9/11 victims, the halftime presentations have drawn nearly as much attention as the NFL championship game itself.

It's certain to do so again on Feb. 2 when Jennifer Lopez and Shakira headline.

"You kind of tune in to the Super Bowl to be surprised," says Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's senior vice president of events, "in terms of what can happen, whether it's the renditions of the national anthem and `America The Beautiful,' the pregame, halftime. ... Ultimately game day is about moments, creating moments that pull people together and that they talk about forever."