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DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's foreign minister said Tuesday his country would defend itself using "all means available" in case of a U.S. strike, denying his government was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus and challenging Washington to present proof backing up its accusations.

Walid al-Moallem spoke at a press conference in Damascus as condemnation of President Bashar Assad's grew over last week's purported attack with poison gas, which activists say killed hundreds of people. The Arab League threw its weight behind calls for punitive action, blaming the Syrian government for the attack and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

The announcement by the 22-member body, which is dominated by Gulf powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provides indirect Arab cover for any potential military attack by Western powers.

The United Nations, meanwhile, said that its team of chemical weapons experts in Syria has delayed a second trip to investigate the alleged attack near Damascus by one day for security reasons.

Al-Moallem, speaking at a press conference in Damascus, likened U.S. allegations that President Bashar Assad's regime was behind the attack to false American charges that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of that country.

"They have a history of lies — Iraq," he said. Al-Moallem spoke a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical attack likely launched by Assad's regime.

Kerry's comments and tough language Monday laid out the clearest argument yet for U.S. military action in Syria, which, if President Barack Obama decides to order it, would most likely involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that U.S. forces are now ready to act on any such order.

In an interview with BBC television during a visit to the southeast Asian nation of Brunei, he said the U.S. Navy has four destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea positioned within range of targets inside Syria. U.S. warplanes are also in the region, he said.

Support for some sort of international military response is likely to grow if it is confirmed that Assad's regime was responsible for the Aug. 21 attack that activists say killed hundreds of people. The group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355.

In an emergency meeting held Tuesday, the Arab League also called on members of the U.N. Security Council to overcome their differences and agree on "deterrent" measures against those who committed "this heinous crime." The League said it will convene a meeting at the ministerial level next week to follow up on the situation in Syria.

"The council holds the Syrian regime totally responsible for this heinous crime and calls for all involved in the despicable crime to be given a fair international trial like other war criminals," a statement issued by the League said.

Obama has yet to say how he will respond, but appeared to be moving ahead even as the U.N. team on the ground in Syria collected evidence from the attack.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled Parliament on Tuesday for an urgent discussion on a possible military response, as the army drew up contingency plans.

Cameron's office said that Britain is considering a "proportionate" response that would deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future.

At the Syrian news conference, Al-Moallem called the U.S. accusations "categorically false."

"I challenge those who accuse our forces of using these weapons to come forward with the evidence," he said. Syria would fight back in case of a U.S. strike, he added.

"We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone," he told reporters in Damascus. "We will defend ourselves using all means available. I don't want to say more than that," he added.

Al-Moallem also rejected accusations that Syria was destroying evidence of the alleged attack. He said he was personally unconvinced that there will be international military action, but that if there was Syria could handle it.

"The strike will come and go. We get mortars every day and we have learned to live with them," he said.

He also blamed the postponement of the U.N. team's planned visit to the eastern Ghouta suburb on disputes between rebel gunmen who could not agree on safety guarantees for the investigators.

The U.N confirmed the one-day delay, saying only it was for security reasons. A statement said the decision was made Tuesday in order to improve preparedness and safety, after unidentified snipers opened fire on the team's convoy on Monday on a similar trip to the region.

"The Secretary-General again urges all sides in the conflict to give safe passage and access to the team," the statement said.

The U.N. team traveled Monday to the western Damascus suburb Moadamiyeh, one of the areas affected by purported chemical attack, where they collected samples and testimony after a treacherous journey through government and rebel-held territory. Their convoy was hit by snipers but members of the team were unharmed.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had instructed U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane in Damascus "to register a strong complaint" with both the Syrian government and opposition representatives for the convoy attack.

In Geneva, U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told reporters that the inspection team might need longer than the planned 14 days to complete its work and its priority now is to determine what chemical weapons might have been used in the Aug. 21 attack. "This is the first priority," she said.

___ Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut, John Heilprin from Geneva and Sarah El Deeb from Cairo.
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   WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry says there is "undeniable" evidence of a large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria, with intelligence strongly pointing to Bashar Assad's government, and "this international norm cannot be violated without consequences."

   Kerry's tough language marked the clearest justification yet for U.S. military action in Syria, which, if President Barack Obama decides to approve, most likely would involve sea-launched cruise missile attacks on Syrian military targets.

    Speaking to reporters at the State Department on Monday, Kerry was harshly critical of chemical warfare.

   "By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable," said Kerry, the highest-ranking U.S. official to confirm the attack in the Damascus suburbs that activists say killed hundreds of people.

   Obama has not decided how to respond to the use of deadly gases, officials said. The White House said last year that type of warfare would cross a "red line." The U.S., along with allies in Europe, appeared to be laying the groundwork for the most aggressive response since Syria's civil war began more than two years ago.

   Two administration officials said the U.S. was expected to make public a more formal determination of chemical weapons use on Tuesday, with an announcement of Obama's response likely to follow quickly. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the internal deliberations.

   The international community appeared to be considering action that would punish Assad for deploying deadly gases, not sweeping measures aimed at ousting the Syrian leader or strengthening rebel forces. The focus of the internal debate underscores the scant international appetite for a large-scale deployment of forces in Syria and the limited number of other options that could significantly change the trajectory of the conflict.

   "We continue to believe that there's no military solution here that's good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "This is about the violation of an international norm against the use of chemical weapons and how we should respond to that."

   The Obama administration was moving ahead even as a United Nations team already on the ground in Syria collected evidence from last week's attack. The U.S. said Syria's delay in giving the inspectors access rendered their investigation meaningless and officials said the administration had its own intelligence confirming chemical weapons use. U.N. officials disagreed that it was too late.

   "What is before us today is real and it is compelling," Kerry said. "Our understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts."

   The U.S. assessment is based in part on the number of reported victims, the symptoms of those injured or killed and witness accounts. Administration officials said the U.S. had additional intelligence confirming chemical weapons use and planned to make it public in the coming days.

   Officials stopped short of unequivocally stating that Assad's government was behind the attack. But they said there was "very little doubt" that it originated with the regime, noting that Syria's rebel forces do not appear to have access to the country's chemical weapons stockpile.

   Assad has denied launching a chemical attack. The U.N. team came under sniper fire Monday as it traveled to the site of the Aug. 21 attack.

   It's unclear whether Obama would seek authority from the U.N. or Congress before using force. The president has spoken frequently about his preference for taking military action only with international backing, but it is likely Russia and China would block U.S. efforts to authorize action through the U.N. Security Council.

    More than 100,000 people have died in clashes between forces loyal to Assad and rebels trying to oust him from power over the past two and a half years. While Obama has repeatedly called for Assad to leave power, he has resisted calls for a robust U.S. intervention, and has largely limited American assistance to humanitarian aid. The president said last year that chemical weapons use would cross a "red line" and would likely change his calculus in deciding on a U.S. response.

   Last week's attack in the Damascus suburbs is a challenge to Obama's credibility. He took little action after Assad used chemical weapons on a small scale earlier this year and risks signaling to countries like Iran that his administration does not follow through on its warnings.

   Syrian activists say the Aug. 21 attack killed hundreds; the group Doctors Without Borders put the death toll at 355 people.

   The U.S. Navy last week moved a fourth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean. Each ship can launch ballistic missiles.

   Officials said it was likely the targets of any cruise-missile attacks would be tied to the regime's ability to launch chemical weapons attacks. Possible targets would include weapons arsenals, command and control centers, radar and communications facilities, and other military headquarters. Less likely was a strike on a chemical weapons site because of the risk of releasing toxic gases.

   Military experts and U.S. officials said Monday that the precision strikes would probably come during the night and target key military sites.

   The president has ruled out putting American troops on the ground in Syria and officials say they are not considering setting up a unilateral no-fly zone.

   On Capitol Hill, bipartisan support for a military response appeared to be building, with some key lawmakers calling for targeted strikes. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the Ohio Republican had "preliminary communication" with White House officials about the situation in Syria and a potential American response.

   It's unlikely that the U.S. would launch a strike against Syria while the United Nations team is still in the country. The administration may also try to time any strike around Obama's travel schedule — he's due to hold meetings in Sweden and Russia next week — in order to avoid having the commander in chief abroad when the U.S. launches military action.

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   WASHINGTON (AP) - Millions of at-risk students could fall through the cracks as the Education Department gives states permission to ignore parts of No Child Left Behind, according to a study education advocates released Tuesday.

   The Education Department has been giving states waivers from the education law's requirements, including those to collect and publish data about students from poor families, students whose native language is not English, those with learning disabilities and minority students. The resulting patchwork of rules - from Miami to Seattle - has given states more freedom to implement plans to boost education but has allowed almost 2,300 schools to shed their label of seriously troubled, according to numbers compiled at the Campaign for High School Equity.

   "It appears to us that waivers could lead to fewer students of color receiving the support they need," said Rufina Hernandez, executive director for the Campaign for High School Equity.

   Her coalition of education reformers, civil rights activists and policy analysts studied the 34 states and the District of Columbia that had received waivers from No Child Left Behind before April. (Another six states and a collection of individual districts in California have won waivers since then.)

   The results show students who are at the highest risk of dropping out are often no longer tracked as carefully as they were before Education Secretary Arne Duncan began exempting states from some requirements if they promised to better prepare their students for college or careers.

   The Education Department had no immediate reaction to the study but Duncan has been vocal in calling for a rewrite of No Child Left Behind that would render his waivers moot.

   Under the original No Child Left Behind, schools that failed to teach at-risk students would be flagged if one group wasn't keeping pace. If one of the subgroups failed to meet its performance targets for two consecutive years, officials were required to stage an intervention to turn the entire school around.

   But the advocates' review finds those in-depth reporting requirements have fallen by the wayside under the waivers. An intervention is no longer automatically triggered in as many as 19 states, meaning those efforts that once were at the center of the law are now optional. In 16 states, student groups are lumped together and treated as one bloc of at-risk pupils, essentially scrapping the reporting of at-risk groups by label.

   The waivers make it easier to mask stumbles.

   "The No Child Left Behind system itself was far from perfect," said Phillip Lovell, vice president for federal advocacy with the Alliance for Excellent Education. "Where is succeeded was shining the spotlight on the subgroups."

   That spotlight now has dimmed, he said.

   Take, for instance, Ohio. In that state, 856 schools failed to meet their performance benchmarks for at-risk students two years in a row. Under the waiver Duncan approved, the number of schools called troubled schools fell to 445. Of that smaller sum, only 162 schools were deemed an urgent priority.

   That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Mike Petrilli, who has studied No Child Left Behind as a leader of the reform-minded Fordham Institute.

   "The waivers allow states to prioritize. We should be saving the toughest interventions for schools that have low proficiency and low progress," said Petrilli, a former official at the Education Department. "The spirit of the law is to make sure that kids don't get left behind."

   In all, 2,292 schools nationwide were deemed no longer needing special attention for improvement in states operating under waivers.

   Duncan's department can adjust this, though, when states return to the Education Department seeking to continue running their schools outside of No Child Left Behind's rules. Duncan's hall passes only last one year and states face the threat of returning to No Child Left Behind's requirements if they don't execute their improvements plans.

   "They can get stricter to make sure the accountability happens in states and trigger the interventions that were in place under No Child Left Behind," Hernandez said.

   In 2011, the Education Department announced that states could petition Duncan for waivers from No Child Left Behind's ambitious requirements, such as having all students read and count at grade level by 2014 or else risk their federal funding.

   In most cases, Duncan has agreed to their requests in exchange for promised improvements. Illinois, Iowa, Texas and Wyoming are still waiting for Duncan's verdict for their applications.

   Duncan had hoped the specter of waivers would compel Congress to update No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 without renewal.

   "The same year that No Child Left Behind came out, the iPod came out," Petrilli said. "We're still on No Child Left Behind, version 1.0, and we've had new versions of the iPod, iPhone, iPad."

   Various rewrites of the law have been discussed but none has made its way to the White House for a president's signature. The Republican-led House has passed a version; a rewrite has been completed in the Senate education panel but no vote of the full body has been scheduled.

   "NCLB is six years overdue for an update, and nearly all agree that it should be replaced with a law that gives systems and educators greater freedom while continuing to fulfill the law's original promise," Duncan wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.

   "In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change," he added.

 
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