Venezuela security forces block anti-Maduro protesters

2016-05-19 00:13:05

CARACAS Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas at protesters in Caracas on Wednesday amid nationwide rallies demanding a recall referendum to end President Nicolas Maduro's socialist rule. In the third day of opposition rallies in the past week, several thousand protesters descended on downtown Caracas for a march to the national election board, witnesses said.But National Guard soldiers and police cordoned off the square where they planned to meet, so protesters instead milled in nearby streets waving flags, chanting "the government will fall" and pressing up against lines. Authorities shot tear gas to disperse them several times, sending hundreds of panicked people running down streets. A few demonstrators were arrested and one young man was carried off unconscious, according to Reuters witnesses.Opposition leaders have warned that Venezuela is a "time bomb" and have said blocking democratic avenues for Maduro's removal means people will increasingly take to the streets. Spontaneous demonstrations and looting are becoming more common amid worsening food shortages, frequent power and water cuts, and inflation that is the highest in the world."They're scared," Alfredo Gonzalez, 76, from the 23 de Enero slum, said at the Caracas demonstration as he wore a scarf over his mouth."Venezuelans are tired, hungry," said Gonzalez, who added that he had been sprayed with pepper gas.Both protesters and security forces appeared more numerous than in other rallies this year, although the demonstration was still smaller than anti-government protests that turned violent and shook the OPEC country for three months in 2014. While Venezuelans are now much angrier at their deepening economic crisis, many are too busy queuing up for scarce food or too fearful of violence to join marches. Others are pessimistic about the chances of a recall referendum. In Tachira state, which saw the most violent scenes during the 2014 protests that resulted in 43 deaths, troops also blocked scores of marchers from reaching the local election board office on Wednesday. At a demonstration in the Caribbean coastal town of Coro, protesters formed a chain in the streets.An anti-Maduro demonstration last Wednesday in Caracas also turned violent, with troops using tear gas to quell stone-throwing protesters and an officer pepper-spraying opposition leader Henrique Capriles."DEAL WITH IT"Maduro, a 53-year-old former bus driver who narrowly won election to replace the late Hugo Chavez in 2013, accuses Capriles and other opposition leaders of seeking a coup with the help of the United States. "You don't like Maduro? Well, deal with it," said Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz, who has repeatedly said there will be no recall referendum this year.Authorities condemned Wednesday's demonstration, saying protesters had poured gasoline on two National Guards to burn them alive and attacked a school dorm. "We're in the presence of a profoundly violent right," said Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez. The opposition coalition, capitalizing on popular discontent over the economy, won control of the National Assembly in December elections. But all the legislature's measures have been shot down by the government-leaning Supreme Court.The opposition wants a recall referendum against Maduro this year to force a presidential election. But ruling Socialist Party officials say there is no time to organize a vote in 2016 and the election board is dragging its feet on paperwork. At the weekend, Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency, widening his powers to sidestep the legislature, intervene in the economy and control the streets, because of what he called U.S. and domestic plots against him.Authorities also closed subway stations in Caracas on Wednesday to impede the protesters."The people will stay in the street unless there is a recall referendum," said demonstrator Roberto Campos, 43, his forehead bleeding from where he said he had been hit by a tear gas canister.Protesters around him scrawled "recall" on security forces' riot shields. Many drivers honked their support, while government supporters shouted against the protesters from balconies of nearby buildings, even waving a sign that read: "'Chavista' territory." Maduro retains the support of a significant, although dwindling, hard core of "Chavistas" who praise Chavez's oil-fueled social projects. Maduro's approval levels fell just under 27 percent in March, a key poll showed.Latin America's leftist bloc is shrinking with swings to the right in Brazil and Argentina but Maduro still has strong support from Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Bolivian President Evo Morales condemned what he called "aggressions" against the Venezuelan leader. But the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, who has often crossed swords with Maduro, wrote a stinging letter calling him a "puny dictator." (Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Daniel Kai, Diego Ore, and Corina Pons in Caracas, Daniel Ramos in La Paz; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bill Trott and Andrew Hay)

Missouri lawmakers pass bill to restrict viewing of police camera footage

2016-05-11 08:06:05

Missouri lawmakers passed a bill on Tuesday to restrict the public's access to police camera footage, nearly two years after the slaying of a black teen in a St. Louis suburb fueled demands across the country for more police accountability.The measure would block the public from accessing footage collected by cameras worn by officers and mounted inside patrol vehicles while investigations are ongoing. Once an investigation is over, footage would remain restricted if recorded at locations where "one would have a reasonable expectation of privacy," such as inside schools, homes and medical facilities.Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, was considering whether to sign the proposal, an aide said.The legislation was passed almost unanimously by the state's House of Representatives on Tuesday after winning unanimous support in the state Senate. Both chambers are Republican-led. Police in Ferguson, Missouri, were not wearing body cameras in August 2014 when a white patrolman fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The incident sparked months of sometimes violent protests and demands for police reforms, including mandatory body cameras. Ferguson police use cameras now.Many U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Detroit and Seattle have also moved toward supplying patrol officers with body cameras following protests over what critics see as police use of indiscriminate force against unarmed civilians, particularly racial minorities and the mentally ill. So far in 2016, Florida, Indiana, Utah and Washington state as well as the District of Columbia have enacted laws governing the use of body cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-three states have passed laws for body cameras, the group said.Lawmakers and the Missouri Sheriff's Association that backed restricted access to police videos cited privacy issues, such as when officers rush into a home to help a victim of domestic violence.While the measure restricts access to footage gathered at schools, homes and medical facilities, some people would be able to obtain copies of the recordings, including those whose images or voices are contained in the video, their attorneys or certain relatives, and insurers. The general public including journalists would have to seek a court's permission to access videos taken from the designated non-public places. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. government and North Carolina escalate legal fight over transgender law

2016-05-10 02:58:06

WASHINGTON/WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. A fight between the Obama administration and North Carolina over a state law limiting public bathroom access for transgender people escalated on Monday as both sides sued each other, trading accusations of civil rights violations and government overreach.The U.S. Justice Department's complaint asked a federal district court in North Carolina to declare that the state is violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act and order it to stop enforcing the ban.Hours earlier, North Carolina's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and the state's secretary of public safety sued the agency in a different federal court in North Carolina, accusing it of "baseless and blatant overreach."The so-called bathroom law, passed in March and known as HB 2, prohibits people from using public restrooms not corresponding to their biological sex.It has thrust North Carolina into the center of a national debate over equality and privacy, and has now led the state into what could be a long and costly legal battle with the U.S. government.Americans are divided over how public restrooms should be used by transgender people, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, with 44 percent saying people should use them according to their biological sex and 39 percent saying they should be used according to the gender with which they identify. By passing the law, North Carolina became the first state in the country to ban people from using multiple occupancy restrooms or changing rooms in public buildings and schools that do not match the sex on their birth certificate.U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said on Monday the department "retains the option" of curtailing federal funding to North Carolina unless it backs down. "None of us can stand by when a state enters the business of legislating identity and insists that a person pretend to be something or someone that they are not," Lynch said at a news conference, comparing the measure to Jim Crow-era racial discrimination laws and bans on same-sex marriage.Lynch said the department is monitoring other U.S. jurisdictions that have passed or considered laws similar to North Carolina's but declined to say whether the agency was planning any action against them. White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the North Carolina law “mean-spirited” but McCrory said in his complaint that it is "common sense privacy policy."North Carolina Republicans say the law stops men from posing as transgender to gain access to women's restrooms. BILLIONS AT STAKENorth Carolina stands to lose $4.8 billion in funds, mainly educational grants, if it does not back down, according to an analysis by lawyers at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School.The Justice Department's complaint named the state of North Carolina, McCrory, the state's Department of Public Safety and the University of North Carolina system as defendants. The 17-campus University of North Carolina system says it takes federal non-discrimination laws very seriously but must also adhere to state laws like HB 2. "In these circumstances, the University is truly caught in the middle," UNC President Margaret Spellings said.McCrory told reporters that North Carolina had been forced to pass the law after the Charlotte city council passed an ordinance that allowed transgender people access to bathrooms based on gender identity in public and private buildings. "We’re taking the Obama admin to court. They're bypassing Congress, attempting to rewrite law & policies for the whole country, not just NC," McCrory wrote on Twitter. The Republican leaders of North Carolina's state legislature also sued the U.S. government over the law on Monday, hours after McCrory's lawsuit.The law is also being challenged in federal district court by critics including the American Civil Liberties Union. (Additional reporting by Julia Edwards in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Canada getting handle on Alberta wildfire, no restart yet for oil operations

2016-05-09 08:54:05

GREGOIRE LAKE, Alberta Canadian officials showed some optimism on Sunday they were beginning to get on top of the country's most destructive wildfire in recent memory, as favorable weather helped firefighters and winds took the flames southeast, away from oil sands boomtown Fort McMurray.There was still no time line, however, for getting Fort McMurray's 88,000 inhabitants back into what remains of their town, or when energy companies would be able to restart operations at evacuated sites nearby. The wildfires have cut Canada's vast oil sands output in half. "It definitely is a positive point for us, for sure," said Alberta fire official Chad Morrison in a news briefing, when asked if the fight to contain the flames had a reached a turning point. "We're obviously very happy that we've held the fire better than expected," said Morrison. "This is great firefighting weather, we can really get in here and get a handle on this fire, and really get a death grip on it." The wildfire scorching through Canada's oil sands region in northeast Alberta since last Sunday night had been expected to double in size on Sunday, threatening the neighboring province of Saskatchewan. But with the fire moving into its second week, light rains and cooler temperatures helped hold it back, giving officials hope that they could soon begin assessing the damage to Fort McMurray, close to where the fire started."As more and more fire has burned out around the city and the fuel around the city starts to disappear ... we are starting to move into that second phase of securing the site and assessing the site," Alberta Premier Rachel Notley told the same media briefing. Officials said it was too early to put a time line on getting people back into the town safely.LONG TIME TO CLEAN UPThe broader wildfire, moving southeast through wooded areas away from the town, would still take a long time to "clean up," Morrison cautioned. Officials previously warned that the fire could burn for months. Alberta's government estimated on Sunday that the fire had consumed 161,000 hectares (395,000 acres). That was less than a previous estimate, but authorities warned the fire would likely grow overnight. Fort McMurray is the center of Canada's oil sands region. About half of the crude output from the sands, or 1 million barrels per day, has been taken offline, according to a Reuters estimate.Oil prices jumped almost 2 percent in trading early on Monday, as Canada's fire contributed to tightening supply.The inferno looks set to become the costliest natural disaster in Canada's history. One analyst estimated insurance losses could exceed C$9 billion ($7 billion). Officials said on Sunday the fire had done minor damage at CNOOC unit Nexen's Long Lake facility, in the site's yard. It was the first reported damage to an energy industry asset since the fire began. Morrison said air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers had kept the blaze from reaching a Suncor Energy Inc facility, which Suncor identified as its base oil sands mining site north of Fort McMurray, and a Syncrude facility. Suncor said on Sunday it would allow employees to return to work as soon as it was safe to do so. "We are hopeful that this will be soon," the company said in a statement, adding it planned to use temporary camps for employees and was arranging for workers to commute from Calgary and Edmonton. Syncrude said its oil sands project about 35 km (22 miles) north of Fort McMurray had shut down completely on Saturday morning, the first time in its 38-year history, because of smoke from the wildfire. “We are not currently under threat from the actual fire, it’s smoke that’s presenting health hazards," a spokesman said. Notley is set to meet with energy executives on Tuesday to talk about the impact of the fire and how the province can help them resume operations. FORT MCMURRAY STILL OFF LIMITS Even though the fire has largely pushed through Fort McMurray, the town is still too dangerous to enter. Nearly all of Fort McMurray's residents escaped the fire safely, although two people were killed in a car crash during the evacuation. The town's 160 firefighters worked nearly non-stop in the first days of the fire, even as some of them lost their own homes, said fire captain Nick Waddington. Thousands of evacuees are camped out in nearby towns but stand little chance of returning soon, even if their homes are intact. The city's gas has been turned off, its power grid is damaged and the water is undrinkable.Provincial officials said displaced people would be better off driving to cities such as Calgary, 655 km (410 miles) to the south, where health and social services were better."We are thinking about relocating in Edmonton for the time being. Maybe stay a year," said Kyle Mackay, 27, a mechanic for equipment trucking company Northern Diesel, who fled from Fort McMurray to Lac la Biche, about three hours' drive south, and is now staying with friends.His girlfriend, Sarah Smith, who left separately, is pregnant and due to be induced into labor in Lac La Biche on Monday morning. "It's really stressful, but I know we'll get through it," said Mackay. Some evacuees are keen for people to return to the place known as 'Fort Mac,' or 'Fort McMoney' for its well-paid oil jobs."I'm trying to convince people Fort McMurray is a good place to return and rebuild," said Curtis Phillips, who has worked in the media in the town, speaking at a "reception center" in Lac La Biche providing food, shelter and services for the displaced. "People will return because of the high salaries and benefits," he said.  Officials said on Sunday that 34 wildfires were burning, with five out of control. There are more than 500 firefighters battling the blaze in and around Fort McMurray, with 15 helicopters and 14 air tankers. (Additional reporting by Ethan Lou, Allison Martell, David Ljunggren and Nia Williams; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Alan Crosby and Peter Cooney)

Arizona joins rest of U.S. in adding health insurance program for children

2016-05-08 17:15:05

PHOENIX Arizona's governor signed into law on Friday a bitterly contested proposal that will restore a federal health insurance program for children from low-income families, making it the last of its 49 counterparts to join the program.Arizona opted out of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program in 2010 over cost concerns as it grappled with a budget crunch. The program aims to help working families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid health care coverage for the poor, but who cannot afford private health insurance.To qualify for KidsCare, as it's known in Arizona, a family of four must earn between $33,000 and $49,000 annually. It is estimated to serve about 30,000 children in Arizona. Arizona's Republican governor, Doug Ducey, signed the legislation over fierce objections from the top two lawmakers in his own party a matter of hours after it cleared the Republican-led legislature.The debate over the program was among the most rancorous of the legislative session and focused on both costs and the fact that the measure was tacked on to a virtually unrelated school voucher bill, prompting concerns that the law would face a legal challenge. Backers said the program is desperately needed to close a gap in affordable health insurance options and to ensure that children are able to grow up healthy. Even though the state is no longer required under the program to contribute funds in exchange for federal dollars, as was the case in 2010, opponents argued that Arizona citizens are still indirectly financing the program by paying for the program through federal taxes. Arizona's House of Representatives approved the measure on Thursday following heated debate. The law could take effect as early as August. (Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix, Arizona; Editing by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle)

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