World briefs – January 2

A man was detained after trying to go through a security checkpoint at a Texas airport with explosives in military-grade wrapping, federal and local officials said.

Man detained after entering Texas airport with explosives

MIDLAND, Texas — A man was detained after trying to go through a security checkpoint at a Texas airport with explosives in military-grade wrapping, federal and local officials said.

The man was stopped Saturday at a security checkpoint at the Midland International Airport about 9 a.m. and taken into custody by the FBI, they said.

FBI spokesman Mike Martinez declined to say whether the man was in military uniform or how many explosives were found in the bag. He said he did not know where the man was being held, saying he was at either the airport or at the FBI office in Midland.

Police Sgt. Brian Rackow told the Midland Reporter-Telegram and Odesa American that the man identified himself to investigating officials as being active in the military. He and his family had been in the area visiting relatives and were on their way back to his base in North Carolina, Rackow said.

It’s not clear which base, and Rackow did not immediately return phone calls to The Associated Press for comment.

City spokeswoman Tasa Watts said she had no information on the suspect but the explosives were wrapped in military-grade wrapping. She said the specific grade won’t be known until the explosives are tested.


Earthquake strikes under sea; no tsunami warning issued

TOKYO — A strong earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 struck under the sea several hundred miles (kilometres) south of Japan on Sunday, shaking buildings in the capital, but officials said there was no danger of a tsunami.

The quake struck near the uninhabited island of Torishima in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of Tokyo, and its epicenter was about 370 kilometres (230 miles) below the sea, the Meterological Agency said.

The agency said there was no danger of a tsunami.

Buildings in the Tokyo area shook but there were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. Express trains in northern and central Japan were suspended temporarily for safety checks but later resumed.

No abnormalities were reported at power plants in the region, including the crippled nuclear power plant hit by the March earthquake and tsunami, public broadcaster NHK reported.

Northeastern Japan was devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left nearly 20,000 people dead or missing. Japan, which lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” is one of the world’s most seismically active countries.


Stolen squirrel monkey found in park, returned to zoo

SAN FRANCISCO — A beloved squirrel monkey known as Banana Sam was returned scared but safe to the San Francisco Zoo on Saturday night, two days after he was taken.

Banana Sam was “hungry, trembling and thirsty,” after police returned him to the zoo, but a full physical examination showed he was healthy, zoo spokesman Danny Latham said in a statement.

The 17-year-old monkey was found at Stern Grove, a park about a mile from the zoo, police spokesman Carlos Manfredi said.

The monkey was found by a bystander who saw him come out of the bushes.

“He managed to coax the monkey into his backpack,” Manfredi said.

The man called police, and within an hour they met with zoo officials, who verified the monkey’s identity.

“We are so thankful to the community and to the San Francisco Police Department for this happy ending,” zoo director Tanya Peterson said in a statement. “I know it’s been extremely stressful for zoo staff during this time but we are grateful Banana Sam is back at the zoo where he belongs.”

No one has been arrested and no suspects have been identified.

“We’re looking at every possible avenue, including the bystander,” Manfredi said.

Banana Sam’s theft Thursday prompted the zoo to boost security and keep the other 17 squirrel monkeys indoors.

He was taken after thieves cut through a gate and made holes in the mesh surrounding the monkey exhibit.

A $5,000 reward had been offered for his safe return.

The two-pound, one-foot-tall Banana Sam at 17 is an elder among squirrel monkeys, whose lifespan is about 20 years.

Common squirrel monkeys like him are not endangered, and are often seen in pet markets and medical research.

While some states allow keeping monkeys as pets, in California it is illegal.


U.S. hopes to renew talks with Taliban

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration hopes to restore momentum in the spring to U.S. talks with the Taliban insurgency that had reached a critical point before falling apart this month because of objections from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

One goal of renewed talks with the insurgents would be to identify cease-fire zones that could be used as a steppingstone toward a full peace agreement that stops most fighting, a senior administration official told The Associated Press. It is a goal that so far has remained far out of reach.

U.S. officials from the State Department and White House plan to continue a series of secret meetings with Taliban representatives in Europe and the Gulf region next year, two officials said, assuming a small group of Taliban emissaries the U.S. considers legitimate remains willing.

The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive and precarious American outreach to the Taliban leadership.

The U.S. outreach this year had fits and starts but had progressed to the point that there was active discussion of two steps the Taliban seeks as precursors to negotiations, the senior U.S. official said. Talks are on an unofficial hiatus at Karzai’s request, U.S. and other officials said.

The trust-building measures under discussion involve a would-be Taliban headquarters office and the release from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of about five Afghan prisoners considered affiliated with the Taliban.

Those steps were to be matched by assurances from at least part of the Taliban leadership that the insurgents would cut ties with al-Qaida, accept the elected civilian government of Afghanistan and bargain in good faith.


Syrians hold biggest anti-government protests in month in show of defiance

BEIRUT — In the largest protests Syria has seen in months, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in a display of defiance to show an Arab League observer mission the strength of the opposition movement.

Despite the monitors’ presence in the country, activists said Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 22 people, most of them shot during the anti-government demonstrations.

In a further attempt to appeal to the monitors, dissident troops who have broken away from the Syrian army said they have halted attacks on regime forces to reinforce the activists’ contention that the uprising against Assad is a peaceful movement.

While opposition activists are deeply skeptical of the observer mission, the outpouring of demonstrators across Syria underscores their wish to make their case to the foreign monitors and take advantage of the small measure of safety they feel they brought with them.

The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first that Syria has allowed into the country during the uprising, which began in March. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League’s plan to end Assad’s crackdown on dissent. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died as the government has sought to crush the revolt.

Friday’s crowds were largest in Idlib and Hama provinces, with about 250,000 people turning out in each area, according to an activist and eyewitness who asked to be identified only as Manhal because he feared government reprisal. Other big rallies were held in Homs and Daraa provinces and the Damascus suburb of Douma, according to Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


Islands skip across date line

APIA, Samoa — The weekend came sooner than usual for the tiny South Pacific island nation of Samoa.

When the clock struck midnight Thursday, the country skipped over Friday and moved 24 hours ahead — straight into Saturday, Dec. 31.

Samoans gathered around a main clock tower in the capital of Apia for the historic moment, applauding in celebration as the midnight hour struck to the wail of sirens and burst of fireworks. Drivers circled the clock tower blaring their horns, and prayer services were held across the country.

Samoa aimed to align its time zone with key trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region by shifting west of the international date line.

The time jump means that Samoa’s 186,000 citizens, and the 1,500 in the three-atoll United Nations dependency of Tokelau, which also shifted, will now be the first in the world to ring in the new year, rather than the last.

The date line dance came 119 years after U.S. traders persuaded local Samoans to align their islands’ time with nearby U.S.-controlled American Samoa and the U.S. to assist their trading with California.

But the time zone put Samoa and Tokelau nearly a full day behind neighbouring Australia and New Zealand, which are increasingly important trading partners.

In June, the Samoan government passed a law to move Samoa west of the international date line, which separates one calendar day from the next and runs roughly north-to-south through the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Under a government decree, all those scheduled to work on the nonexistent Friday will be given full pay for the missed day of labour.


Nuclear sub fire doused, no radiation leak: Russia

MOSCOW — Firefighters extinguished a massive fire aboard a docked Russian nuclear submarine Friday as some crew members remained inside, officials said, assuring that there was no radiation leak and that the vessel’s nuclear-tipped missiles were not on board.

Military prosecutors have launched an investigation into whether safety regulations were breached, and President Dmitry Medvedev summoned top Cabinet officials to report on the situation and demanded punishment for anyone found responsible.

The fire broke out Thursday at an Arctic shipyard outside the northwestern Russian city of Murmansk where the submarine Yekaterinburg was in dry-dock. The blaze, which shot orange flames high into the air through the night, was put out Friday afternoon and firefighters continued to spray the vessel with water to cool it down, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Russian state television earlier showed the rubber-coated hull of the submarine still smouldering, with firefighters gathering around it and some standing on top to douse it with water.

Seven members of the submarine crew were hospitalized after inhaling poisonous carbon monoxide fumes from the fire, Shoigu said.

An unspecified number of crew remained inside the submarine during the fire, Defence Ministry spokesman Col. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. He insisted there never was any danger of it spreading inside the sub and said the crew reported that the conditions on board remained normal.


Thousands gather to mourn civilians killed in airstrike

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Thousands of mourners gathered in southeast Turkey on Friday for the funerals of 35 Kurdish civilians who were killed in a botched raid by Turkish military jets that mistook the group for Kurdish rebels based in Iraq.

Turkish television footage showed people, many weeping and lamenting the dead, as they gathered after the air strikes Wednesday that killed a group of smugglers along the border, one of the deadliest episodes in the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels who took up arms in 1984.

In a second day of civil unrest, stone-throwing demonstrators clashed with police who fired tear gas and water cannon in several cities in the mostly Kurdish southeast. Firat, a pro-Kurdish news agency, said 30 people were arrested in Diyarbakir, the region’s biggest city. One person was injured and six arrested in Van city, said the state-run news agency.

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