News briefs: Virus toll nears 1,400 in China with 5,090 new cases

Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — China on Friday reported another sharp rise in the number of people infected with a new virus, as the death toll neared 1,400. 

The National Health Commission said 121 more people had died and there were 5,090 new confirmed cases.

The number of reported cases has been rising more quickly after the hardest-hit province changed its method of counting them Thursday. There are now 63,851 confirmed cases in mainland China, of which 1,380 have died.

Hubei province is now including cases based on a physician's diagnosis and before they have been confirmed by lab tests. Of the 5,090 new cases, 3,095 fell into that category. 

The acceleration in the number of cases does not necessarily represent a sudden surge in new infections of the virus that causes COVID-19 as much as a revised methodology. 

Post-impeachment, House Democrats sharpen focus on Barr

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Democrats frustrated over the Senate's acquittal of President Donald Trump are pushing their oversight efforts toward the Justice Department and what they call Attorney General William Barr's efforts to politicize federal law enforcement. 

Democrats have demanded more information about Barr's intervention in the case of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant who was convicted in November of lying to Congress and other charges. Barr this week overruled prosecutors who had recommended that Stone be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticized Barr on Thursday, calling him one of Trump's "henchmen." 

"The attorney general has stooped to such levels," Pelosi said. "What a sad disappointment. The American people deserve better."

The sharpened look at Barr's activities comes at a time when many Democrats appear wary of prolonging the Ukraine inquiry that led to Trump's impeachment. Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff have put off — but not ruled out — a subpoena for former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who refused to participate in the House impeachment inquiry but later said he would testify in the Senate trial. Bolton is writing a book.

Ethiopians brave deserts and smugglers on the way to Saudi

LAC ASSAL, Djibouti (AP) — "Patience," Mohammed Eissa told himself.

He whispered it every time he felt like giving up. The sun was brutal, reflecting off the thick layer of salt encrusting the barren earth around Lac Assal, a lake 10 times saltier than the ocean.

Nothing grows here. Birds are said to fall dead out of the sky from the searing heat. And yet the 35-year-old Ethiopian walked on, as he had for three days, since he left his homeland for Saudi Arabia.

Nearby are two dozen graves, piles of rocks, with no headstones. People here say they belong to migrants who like Eissa embarked on an epic journey of hundreds of miles, from villages and towns in Ethiopia through the Horn of Africa countries Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through the war-torn country of Yemen.

The flow of migrants taking this route has grown. According to the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, 150,000 arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa in 2018, a 50% jump from the year before. The number in 2019 was similar.

2020 Democrats step up attacks to blunt Bloomberg's rise

WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic presidential candidates hoping to revive their flagging campaigns increasingly took aim at Mike Bloomberg on Thursday, blasting their billionaire rival for trying to buy his way into the White House and raising questions about his commitment to racial equality.

Struggling to recover from poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden took the lead in attacking Bloomberg. Biden, the former vice president, said on ABC's "The View" that "I don't think you can buy an election," while Warren took Bloomberg to task for his 2008 comments that ending redlining, a discriminatory housing practice helped trigger the economic meltdown.

Biden and billionaire Tom Steyer also joined forces in slamming Bernie Sanders after the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist won New Hampshire and essentially tied for the lead in Iowa with Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Biden said Sanders hadn't done enough to explain how he'd pay for his "Medicare for All" proposal to replace private insurance with a government-run program. Steyer said that "refusal to tell us how he will pay for his plan adds unnecessary financial risk to achieving health care as a right for every person."

Voters, Steyer said, "should have all the facts."

The sniping reflects the remarkably fluid state of the Democratic race even after two states that typically winnow presidential fields have already voted. The White House hopefuls are trying to blunt Bloomberg, who gained attention by flooding the national airwaves with hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisements and is on the verge of being admitted into next week's presidential debate. And the lagging candidates are trying to prove that they still have the mettle to stay in the race, even if their path is becoming increasingly difficult.

In 2 years, Florida 'red flag' law removes hundreds of guns

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A 23-year-old man who posted on Facebook, "I don't know why I don't go on a killing spree." A West Palm Beach couple who shot up their home while high on cocaine. A 31-year-old Gulf Coast man who pointed a semiautomatic rifle at a motorcyclist. 

All four Florida residents had their guns taken away by judges under a "red flag" law the state passed three weeks after a mentally disturbed gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland two years ago Friday. 

The law, supported by legislators of both parties , has been applied more than 3,500 times since, with the pace accelerating during the last half of 2019. Even so, an Associated Press analysis of the law showed its use is inconsistent, with some counties and cities using it rarely and others not at all. 

Advocates of Florida's red flag measure say before it existed, it was often difficult to remove firearms from those making threats or suffering severe mental breakdowns. Investigators did not act on reports that the Parkland shooter was threatening to carry out a school massacre. But even if they had, it is likely he would have been allowed to keep his guns because he had no felony convictions or involuntary, long-term mental commitments, they say.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who leads a commission that investigated the massacre's causes, says the shooter would have easily qualified for a red flag order. Gualtieri says while it is impossible to say that would have prevented the shooting, the gunman wouldn't have been able to legally buy weapons or ammunition, making his preparation difficult.

Prosecutors get final word at Harvey Weinstein's rape trial

NEW YORK (AP) — By the time prosecutors at Harvey Weinstein's rape trial give their closing argument on Friday, it will have been more than a week since jurors heard one of his accusers recount what prosecutors describe as a vile sexual encounter with the disgraced Hollywood mogul.

In the days since, Weinstein's lawyers have called witnesses who raised doubts about the accusers' testimony, brought in an expert who spoke about memories getting fuzzy over time and offered an epic, hourslong closing argument painting the prosecution's case as a "sinister tale" and the allegations as "regret renamed as rape."

Now, prosecutors look to focus the jury's attention back on the accusers who testified and their harrowing accounts alleging rapes, forced oral sex, groping, masturbation, lewd propositions and casting couch experiences.

Several women testified that Weinstein ignored pleas of "no, no, no" as he assaulted them. The woman Weinstein is charged with raping said he would turn violent when he couldn't get his way and that, "If he heard the word 'no,' it was like a trigger for him."

Another woman recalled Weinstein sneering, "You'll never make it in this business, this is how this industry works," when she laughed off his advances.

Why Syria's M5 is Assad's highway to victory

BEIRUT (AP) — It is arguably one of the most coveted prizes in Syria's civil war, and after eight years of fighting, Syrian President Bashar Assad has got it back.

The Damascus-Aleppo highway, or the M5, is known to Syrians simply as the "International Road." Cutting through all of Syria's major cities, the motorway is key to who controls the country. 

Assad gradually lost control over the motorway from 2012, when various rebel groups fighting to topple him began seizing parts of the country.

Protests against his family's rule had erupted the year before amid a wave of uprisings in the Arab world. This soon turned into a civil war, following a brutal government crackdown on dissent and the intervention of foreign powers in the growing conflict.

Historically a bustling trade route, one Syrian analyst, Taleb Ibrahim, called the M5 "the most basic and strategic highway in the Middle East."

Virus renews safety concerns about slaughtering wild animals

BEIJING (AP) — China cracked down on the sale of exotic species after an outbreak of a new virus in 2002 was linked to markets selling live animals. The germ turned out to be a coronavirus that caused SARS.

The ban was later lifted, and the animals reappeared. Now another coronavirus is spreading through China, so far killing 1,380 people and sickening more than 64,000 — eight times the number sickened by SARS.

The suspected origin? The same type of market.

With more than 60 million people under lockdown in more than a dozen Chinese cities, the new outbreak is prompting calls to permanently ban the sale of wildlife, which many say is being fueled by a limited group of wealthy people who consider the animals delicacies. The spreading illness also serves as a grim reminder that how animals are handled anywhere can endanger people everywhere.

"There's a vast number of viruses in the animal world that have not spread to humans, and have the potential to do so," said Robert Webster, an expert on influenza viruses at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

Limbaugh draws bipartisan criticism for Buttigieg remarks

WASHINGTON (AP) — Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh drew bipartisan criticism Thursday for saying the country won't elect Pete Buttigieg president because he's been "kissing his husband" on stage after debates.

Limbaugh's comments came eight days after President Donald Trump awarded him the nation's top civilian honor during the State of the Union address. Trump said Limbaugh inspires millions of people daily and thanked him for "decades of tireless devotion to our country." 

Limbaugh, a staunch Trump ally who recently announced he has advanced lung cancer, made the remarks on his nationally syndicated radio show. Buttigieg has finished in the top two in Democrats' first two presidential contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"They're saying, 'OK, how's this going to look?'" Limbaugh said Wednesday, imagining Democrats' thinking. "Thirty-seven-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage, next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump.'"

Buttigieg didn't directly address Limbaugh's remarks. But at a town hall in Las Vegas Thursday night, he said, "I'm proud of my marriage I'm proud of my husband."

Comments