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WHOA THERE: NYC CARRIAGE HORSE BAN IS STALLED

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 09:53 Published in National News

NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Bill de Blasio is pulling back the reins on his plans to quickly get rid of New York City's horse-drawn carriage industry, stung by a recent outpouring of support for the colorful coaches that have clip-clopped their way through Central Park for more than 150 years.

A campaign pledge to take on the horses during his first week as mayor was eclipsed by other issues. And as he nears his fourth month in office, he has encountered enough resistance from the usually compliant City Council to slow his plans again, now saying an industry he calls cruel and inhumane will be gone by year's end.

What changed?

For one, a media blitz led by actor Liam Neeson has portrayed the horse-drawn carriage industry as an iconic, romantic part of New York that provides about 400 jobs, many to Irish immigrants. In a series of editorials and TV interviews, he has said the operators treat their 200 working horses like their own children.

"I can appreciate a happy and well-cared-for horse when I see one," Neeson wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. "It has been my experience, always, that horses, much like humans, are at their happiest and healthiest when working."

The next blow came when a series of city unions — who usually are de Blasio's staunchest allies — broke with the mayor, urging him to reconsider his decision in order to save not only the industry's hundreds of jobs but a profitable source of tourism.

A recent poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers were in favor of keeping the horses at least in Central Park and were lukewarm on de Blasio's plan to put the horse drivers to work instead giving rides in old-timey electric cars.

Last week, the city's newspapers piled on. A story in the Times on the unveiling of the $150,000 prototype electric car described it as "the industrial spawn of a rickshaw and Thomas the Tank Engine," while an editorial bluntly urged de Blasio to "let the horses and carriages alone."

New York's Daily News launched a front-page campaign called "Save our Horses" that filled its pages with pro-carriage stories and an online petition that has recorded more than 11,000 signatures.

And The New Yorker devoted its cover this week to a cartoon depicting a carriage driver pulling the horse, giving the local tempest a national stage (but, like so many ambiguous New Yorker cartoons, it wasn't clear if it was taking sides on the issue).

For now, de Blasio and the animal rights activists who donated $1.3 million to his mayoral campaign are standing firm in the belief that the nation's most bustling city is no place for horses. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals launched an anti-horse carriage campaign with celebrities of its own, including Alec Baldwin, Pink and Lea Michele.

The group also organized a protest of its own last week outside Neeson's Manhattan apartment building.

Still, de Blasio has grown increasingly irritated by the number of questions he's faced about horses while trying to push other parts of his agenda.

"I've said it many times over the last year so let me try one more time: I believe it's inhumane," he said last week. "Horses working on the streets of New York City ... it's not right. We should change it."

SYRIAN REBELS MAKE LAST STAND FOR HOMS

Tuesday, 22 April 2014 09:52 Published in National News

BEIRUT (AP) — Weakened Syrian rebels are making their last desperate stand in Homs, as forces loyal to President Bashar Assad launch their harshest assault yet to expel them from the central city, once known as the capital of the revolution.

Some among the hundreds of rebels remaining in the city talk of surrender, according to opposition activists there. Others have lashed back against the siege with suicide car bombings in districts under government control. Some fighters are turning on comrades they suspect want to desert, pushing them into battle.

"We expect Homs to fall," said an activist who uses the name Thaer Khalidiya in an online interview with The Associated Press. "In the next few days, it could be under the regime's control."

The fight for Homs underscores Assad's determination to rout rebels ahead of presidential elections now set for June 3, aiming to scatter fighters back further north toward their supply lines on the Turkish borders. Assad's forces are building on gains elsewhere — they have been able to almost clear rebels from a broad swath of territory south of Homs between the capital, Damascus, and the Lebanese border, breaking important rebel supply lines there. Rebels have also capitulated in several towns around Damascus after blockades that caused widespread hunger and suffering.

Homs, Syria's third largest city, is a crucial target. Located in the country's center, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Damascus, it links the capital with Aleppo in the north — the country's largest city and another key battleground. But rebels still control large areas of the countryside in the north and south and have consolidated around the Turkish and Jordanian borders.

"A total loss of Homs would represent a serious loss to the opposition," said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

"The military has maintained a steadily significant focus on Homs precisely due to this importance," said Lister. "This has been all been part of a very conscious strategy of encircling, besieging and capturing areas of strategic importance," particularly urban areas.

For well over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in the string of districts they hold in the city center, around its ancient bazaars.

Just over a week ago, troops loyal to Assad escalated their assaults on rebel districts, barraging them with tank and mortar fire and bombs dropped from military aircraft. Syrian forces have so far advanced into two areas, Wadi al-Sayih and Bab Houd.

Online video footage showed explosions as projectiles smashed into buildings, sending up columns of white smoke. Angry rebels are heard shouting that they have been abandoned and singing that only God could help them. The footage corresponded to other AP reporting on the events.

Activists said it was the fiercest assault since last summer, when Syrian forces retook the rebel-held Homs neighborhood of Khalidiya.

The death toll from fighting isn't known, because neither side reports losses.

If Assad's forces take Homs, it would be a major boost as he prepares for the upcoming election, fueling the image his government has sought to promote that he is capable of eventually winning the relentless conflict. The war is now in its fourth year, with more than 150,000 people killed and a third of Syria's population driven from their homes. Assad is expected to easily win another seven-year term in the June 3 election, which the opposition and the United States have already declared a farce aimed at giving Assad a veneer of popular support.

Inside Homs, rebels have been deeply weakened by months of blockade around their strongholds and the loss of their supply lines from Lebanon in March, after Syrian forces seized the border town of Zara.

Hundreds of fighters surrendered during a series of U.N. mediated truces that began in November. An estimated 800 to 1,000 fighters left alongside hundreds of civilians who were evacuated from rebel-held parts of the city, according to activists and an official in the Homs province. The rebels remaining in the city are predominantly from the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, and other Islamist factions.

One rebel fighter in the city, who uses the nickname Abu Bilal, estimated there are 1,000 rebels who remain in Homs, but the number could not be confirmed. Like Khalidiya and other activists and rebels, he spoke on condition he be identified only by his nickname for fear of retribution.

An activist in Homs, Abu Rami, said rebels wanting to leave had weakened the spirits of others struggling to bear the blockade.

"They tempted them with food and drink, and saying, 'Don't you want to see your families?'" he said over Skype from the city. "(It) really did weaken hundreds of them, and it affected the morale of the rest of the rebels."

Dozens more fighters are now trying to surrender, according to Abu Rami and Khalidiya. The fighters reached out to contact the governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, and Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar, who handles such cases.

"We asked the regime if we could surrender and leave for the countryside," said Khalidiya.

"So far we don't have a clear answer," said Abu Rami, who is opposed to leaving but is helping mediate for the others.

Barazi's office said there was "absolutely no contact" with gunmen. It wasn't immediately possible to contact Haidar.

Some rebels have escalated suicide car bombings in government-controlled areas dominated by Alawites, the minority Shiite offshoot sect that Assad belongs to. At least five such bombings in April killed more than 60 people, one of the bloodiest months for residents in government-controlled areas, a local reporter there estimated. The most recent, on Friday, killed 14.

"We are killing them, those rotting carcasses," said Abu Bilal, the fighter.

The bombings have another aim, sparking fighting that prevents any truce that would allow rebels to desert, Abu Bilal said.

"Some of us are against those deserting. We are fighting so they can die in it," said Abu Bilal.

Homs' saga traces the arc of Syria's uprising.

It quickly embraced the uprising against Assad's rule after it began in southern Daraa province in March 2011. Tens of thousands joined anti-Assad protests in Homs, winning it the nickname of "the revolution's capital."

"We carried the spark of the revolution and made it a flame," Abu Rami said.

After pro-Assad forces violently cracked down on demonstrations, some protesters took up arms, transforming the uprising into an armed rebellion.

Homs has also seen the ever-increasing religious dimension of the conflict, with tit-for-tat sectarian killings in the city where majority Sunni Muslims live alongside Christians and Alawites.

Most recently, on April 7, a masked gunman killed a beloved, elderly Dutch priest, Jesuit Father Francis Van Der Lugt, who lived in a monastery in a rebel-held district, staying alongside civilians who were unable to leave.

Khalidiya, the activists, said Homs is lost, now they have to save the fighters.

"We are more scared that the regime (forces) will kill everybody than we are worried about the fall of Homs."

But Abu Rami said he'd rather die.

"If they come, then we are all going to be martyrs. We can lose an area, and we can regain it. But the most important thing is not to kneel."

____

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

KAHULUI, Hawaii (AP) -- Surveillance cameras at San Jose International Airport successfully captured the teenager on the tarmac, climbing up the landing gear of a jet. But in the end, the cameras failed because no one noticed the security breach until the plane - and the boy - landed in Hawaii.

Although the 15-year-old apparently wanted nothing more than to run away, his success in slipping past layers of security early Sunday morning made it clear that a determined person can still get into a supposedly safe area and sneak onto a plane.

Video surveillance can help catch trespassers. Some airports use not just human eyes watching video screens, but also technology that can be programmed to sound an alert when a camera captures something potentially suspicious. But just because something is caught on camera does not mean it will make an impression.

Despite great promise, "sometimes the actual results are quite underwhelming when it gets to the real world, where people are fatigued, people are preoccupied," said Richard Bloom, an airport security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. "There's no way to guarantee security, even if you had one person per video screen."

There were no obvious efforts Monday to increase security or the police presence at airports in San Jose or Maui. In San Jose, airport officials said they were reviewing how the boy slipped through security that includes video surveillance, German shepherds and Segway-riding police officers.

While each of those measures can work for certain situations, "the problem is that each layer has its own error factor," Bloom said.

Nobody monitoring security cameras throughout the 1,050-acre airport saw anyone approaching the Boeing 767 until they reviewed the footage after the boy was discovered in Hawaii, San Jose airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said. The airport, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is surrounded by fences, although many sections do not have barbed wire and could easily be scaled.

Barnes said the boy went onto the tarmac when it was still dark. The flight took off at about 8 a.m. PDT, about 90 minutes after sunrise.

The boy was knocked out most of the 5 1/2-hour flight and didn't regain consciousness until an hour after the plane landed in Hawaii, FBI spokesman Tom Simon said. When he came to, he climbed out of the wheel well and was immediately seen by Maui airport personnel, Simon said.

Surveillance video at Kahului Airport showed the boy getting out of the wheel well after landing, transportation officials in Hawaii said. The video was not released because of the ongoing investigation.

The boy was not charged with a crime, Simon said.

While the Transportation Security Administration oversees checkpoint security inside airport terminals, airport perimeters are policed by local authorities and federal law enforcement.

Airport police were working with the FBI and TSA to review security.

San Jose police said they will forward the findings of their investigation to the district attorney, who can decide whether to file criminal charges in California. Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said the county was not involved with the incident or investigation because the state runs the airports.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation said they didn't plan to investigate further after turning the boy over to state human services, where officials were working to reunite the boy with his family.

Isaac Yeffet, a former head of security for the Israeli airline El Al who now runs his own firm, Yeffet Security Consultants, said the breach shows that U.S. airport security still has weaknesses, despite billions of dollars invested.

"Shame on us for doing such a terrible job," he said. "Perimeters are not well protected. We see it again and again."

U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who serves on the Homeland Security committee, said on Twitter that the incident demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

The FAA says about one-quarter of the 105 stowaways who have sneaked aboard flights worldwide since 1947 have survived. Some wheel-well stowaways survived deadly cold and a lack of oxygen because their breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow down.

---

Pritchard reported from Los Angeles and can be reached atHTTPS://TWITTER.COM/LALANEWSMAN . Garcia can be reached atHTTP://TWITTER.COM/OSKARGARCIA . Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu and AP National Writer Martha Mendoza in San Jose, Calif., contributed to this report.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about ourPRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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