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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.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- While scientists believe the universe began with a Big Bang, most Americans put a big question mark on the concept, an Associated Press-GfK poll found.

Yet when it comes to smoking causing cancer or that a genetic code determines who we are, the doubts disappear.

When considering concepts scientists consider truths, Americans have more skepticism than confidence in those that are farther away from our bodies in scope and time: global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and especially the Big Bang from 13.8 billion years ago.

Rather than quizzing scientific knowledge, the survey asked people to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.

On some, there's broad acceptance. Just 4 percent doubt that smoking causes cancer, 6 percent question whether mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain and 8 percent are skeptical there's a genetic code inside our cells. More - 15 percent - have doubts about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines.

About 4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection, though most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority - 51 percent - questions the Big Bang theory.

Those results depress and upset some of America's top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, who vouched for the science in the statements tested, calling them settled scientific facts.

"Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts," said 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley.

The poll highlights "the iron triangle of science, religion and politics," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

And scientists know they've got the shakiest leg in the triangle.

To the public "most often values and beliefs trump science" when they conflict, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world's largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Political and religious values were closely tied to views on science in the poll, with Democrats more apt than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change.

Confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises, according to the poll. Likewise, those who regularly attend religious services or are evangelical Christians express much greater doubts about scientific concepts they may see as contradictory to their faith.

"When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can't argue against faith," said 2012 Nobel Prize winning biochemistry professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University. "It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable."

But evolution, the age of the Earth and the Big Bang are all compatible with God, except to Bible literalists, said Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine.

Beyond religious belief, views on science may be tied to what we see with our own eyes. The closer an issue is to ourselves and the less complicated, the easier it is for people to believe, said John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and historian of technology at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Marsha Brooks, a 59-year-old nanny who lives in Washington, D.C., said she's certain smoking causes cancer because she saw her mother, aunts and uncles, all smokers, die of cancer. But when it comes to the universe beginning with a Big Bang or the Earth being about 4.5 billion years old, she has doubts. She explained: "It could be a lack of knowledge. It seems so far" away.

Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect from Bridgewater, N.J., pointed to a warm 2012 without a winter and said, "I feel the change. There must be a reason." But when it came to Earth's beginnings 4.5 billion years ago, he has doubts simply because "I wasn't there."

Experience and faith aren't the only things affecting people's views on science. Duke University's Lefkowitz sees "the force of concerted campaigns to discredit scientific fact" as a more striking factor, citing significant interest groups - political, business and religious - campaigning against scientific truths on vaccines, climate change and evolution.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

---

On Twitter, follow AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein atHTTP://TWITTER.COM/BORENBEARS and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta atHTTP://WWW.TWITTER.COM/JENNAGIESTA .

---

Online:

AP-GfK Poll: HTTP://WWW.AP-GFKPOLL.COM

© 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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