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UN EXPERTS VISIT DAMASCUS SUBURB, ACTIVISTS SAY

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 11:51 Published in National News
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — U.N. chemical weapons experts on Wednesday took biological samples from several victims of last week's purported poison gas attack east of Damascus, activists said, as Western powers laid the groundwork for a possible punitive military strike and the U.N. chief pleaded for more time for diplomacy.

Fear of a dramatic escalation in the two-and-a-half-year conflict prompted some 6,000 Syrians to flee into Lebanon over a 24-hour period, or more than six times the average daily flow.

A jittery Israel ordered a special call-up of reserve troops Wednesday as residents lined up at gas-mask distribution centers, preparing for possible hostilities with Syria.

A week after the purported chemical attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus, momentum has been building for a possible strike by the U.S. and its allies against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon however said that no action should be taken until the U.N. chemical weapons inspectors finish their investigation.

"Let them conclude ... their work for four days and then we will have to analyze scientifically" their findings and send a report to the U.N. Security Council, he said Wednesday from The Hague. The U.N. said the analysis would be done "as quickly as possible."

At the same time, Syria's main allies Russia and Iran warned of dire consequences for the region if a military intervention is launched.

U.S. leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, have charged that Assad's government fired deadly chemical weapons near Damascus last week that, according to the group Doctors Without Borders, have killed 355 people.

Syria, which sits on one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, has denied the charges.

The U.S. has not presented concrete proof of Syrian regime involvement in an alleged chemical weapons attack, and U.N. inspectors have not endorsed the allegations — though the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said Wednesday that evidence suggests some kind of "substance" was used that killed hundreds on Aug. 21.

On Wednesday, the U.N. inspectors visited the eastern Damascus suburbs of Mleeha and Zamalka, activists said. Amateur video showed a convoy of five cars with U.N. markings, followed by armed rebels in pickups.

The video showed the inspectors visiting a clinic and interviewing a man through a translator. Two inspectors were present as a nurse drew blood from a man lying on an exam table. One of the experts is heard in the video saying he and his team members have collected blood, urine and hair samples.

The videos appeared consistent with other AP reporting, including Skype interviews with anti-regime activists.

One activist said the team took hair and skin samples of five suspected victims in Zamalka during a 90-minute visit. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of regime reprisals.

The U.N. team in Syria did not issue a statement about Wednesday's trip.

The U.N.'s Ban, meanwhile, pleaded for more time to give diplomacy another chance to end the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people.

Marking the centenary of a venue for peaceful conflict resolution, he said: "Here in the Peace Palace, let us say: Give peace a chance. Give diplomacy a chance. Stop fighting and start talking."

Britain was to turn to the Security Council later Wednesday, with a resolution seeking to condemn the Syrian government for the alleged attack. Britain would seek backing for "necessary measures to protect civilians" in Syria under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, the office of Prime Minister David Cameron said. Military force is one of the options that can be authorized, but that possibility faces a likely veto from Assad-ally Russia.

A French diplomatic official said the British resolution has virtually no chance of passing, but is being introduced to show that all diplomatic steps were being exhausted. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to disclose details of the deliberations.

Ban said the Security Council, whose permanent members are bitterly divided over Syria, must not go "missing in action."

The growing fear of escalation sent wider ripples across the region.

Lebanese security officials in the country's Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria said at least 6,000 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours through the main Masnaa border crossing, including an estimated 4,000 on Wednesday.

The normal daily rate is 500 to 1,000 Syrian refugees coming to Lebanon, depending on the level of fighting.

Witnesses said they saw long lines of cars packed with families and belongings at the crossing. There was also traffic in the other direction — a security official said around 2,000 crossed into Syria on Wednesday — but many of them said they were going in to evacuate relatives from Syria.

Um Ahmad, 45, crossed to Lebanon with her five children Wednesday, fearing U.S. strikes on Damascus.

"Isn't it enough, all the violence and fighting that we already have in the country, now America wants to bomb us, too?" she said, declining to give her full name for security concerns.

Her husband said they have no one in Lebanon but came anyway because of their children. "What will we do here, where will we go? I don't know — but hopefully we'll be safe."

Nearly 2 million Syrians have fled their country since the crisis began in March 2011, and millions more are displaced inside Syria.

In Israel, the government ordered a "limited" call-up of reserve units to beef up civil defense preparations and to operate air-defense units near the border. Officials said the call-up is anticipated to bring in "hundreds" of troops.

Israel fears that Syria may respond by attacking the Jewish state, a close American ally. While Israeli officials believe the chances of a Syrian strike remain slim, people were clearly preparing for the possibility.

Large crowds lined up at gas-mask distribution centers. Maya Avishai of the Israeli postal service, which oversees gas mask distribution, said demand has tripled in recent days. About five million Israelis, roughly 60 percent of the population, now have gas masks, she said.

Jordan, meanwhile, said it will not be used as a launching pad for attacks on Syria and the kingdom favors a diplomatic solution to the crisis. A U.S.-led strike would involve cruise missile attacks from the sea, which would not need to cross or make use of Jordanian territory.

But the remarks underline the U.S. ally's efforts to avoid further friction with its larger neighbor for fear that Assad or his Iranian backers could retaliate.

The remarks come a day after Jordan hosted a meeting of top commanders from Western and Middle Eastern countries, including some that are likely to participate in a military action.

"Jordan will not be a launching pad for any military action against Syria," said Information Minister Mohammad Momani.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement that any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and a threat to international peace and security.

He stopped short, however, of squarely putting the responsibility on the Assad regime, citing only "information available from a wide variety of sources" as pointing to the Syrian regime as being behind the attack.

Two of Syria's staunchest backers, Iran and Russia, warned of dire consequences if the U.S. and its allies attack in Syria.

Such strikes "will lead to the long-term destabilization of the situation in the country and the region," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that attacking Syria would be catastrophic for the entire Middle East.

"Intervention of foreign and extra-regional powers in a country has no result other than sparking fire," Iran's state TV quoted Khamenei as saying. "Waging a war is like a spark in a gunpowder store ... its dimensions and consequences can't be predicted."

___ Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Yasmine Saker and Zeina Karam in Beirut, John Heilprin in Geneva, Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, Mike Corder at The Hague, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Juergen Baetz in Brussels, Gregory Katz in London and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed reporting.

SOME SCHOOL DISTRICTS QUIT HEALTHIER LUNCH PROGRAM

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 11:45 Published in Health & Fitness
After just one year, some schools around the country are dropping out of the healthier new federal lunch program, complaining that so many students turned up their noses at meals packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables that the cafeterias were losing money.

Federal officials say they don't have exact numbers but have seen isolated reports of schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools for meals served and gives them access to lower-priced food.

Districts that rejected the program say the reimbursement was not enough to offset losses from students who began avoiding the lunch line and bringing food from home or, in some cases, going hungry.

"Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn't eat," said Catlin, Ill., Superintendent Gary Lewis, whose district saw a 10 to 12 percent drop in lunch sales, translating to $30,000 lost under the program last year.

"So you sit there and watch the kids, and you know they're hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness."

In upstate New York, a few districts have quit the program, including the Schenectady-area Burnt Hills Ballston Lake system, whose five lunchrooms ended the year $100,000 in the red.

Near Albany, Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Thayer Snyder said her district lost $30,000 in the first three months. The program didn't even make it through the school year after students repeatedly complained about the small portions and apples and pears went from the tray to the trash untouched.

Districts that leave the program are free to develop their own guidelines. Voorheesville's chef began serving such dishes as salad topped with flank steak and crumbled cheese, pasta with chicken and mushrooms, and a panini with chicken, red peppers and cheese.

In Catlin, soups and fish sticks will return to the menu this year, and the hamburger lunch will come with yogurt and a banana - not one or the other, like last year.

Nationally, about 31 million students participated in the guidelines that took effect last fall under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary for USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, which oversees the program, said she is aware of reports of districts quitting but is still optimistic about the program's long-term prospects.

"The vast majority of schools across the country are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, which is so important to help all our nation's children lead healthier lives," Thornton said.

"Many of these children have never seen or tasted some of the fruits and vegetables that are being served before, and it takes a while to adapt and learn," she said.

The agency had not determined how many districts have dropped out, Thornton said, cautioning that "the numbers that have threatened to drop and the ones that actually have dropped are quite different."

The School Nutrition Association found that 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the summer planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and about 3 percent were considering the move.

Not every district can afford to quit. The National School Lunch Program provides cash reimbursements for each meal served: about $2.50 to $3 for free and reduced-priced meals and about 30 cents for full-price meals. That takes the option of quitting off the table for schools with large numbers of poor youngsters.

The new guidelines set limits on calories and salt, phase in more whole grains and require that fruit and vegetables be served daily. A typical elementary school meal under the program consisted of whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes with low-fat ranch dip, applesauce and 1 percent milk.

In December, the Agriculture Department, responding to complaints that kids weren't getting enough to eat, relaxed the 2-ounce-per-day limit on grains and meats while keeping the calorie limits.

At Wallace County High in Sharon Springs, Kan., football player Callahan Grund said the revision helped, but he and his friends still weren't thrilled by the calorie limits (750-850 for high school) when they had hours of calorie-burning practice after school. The idea of dropping the program has come up at board meetings, but the district is sticking with it for now.

"A lot of kids were resorting to going over to the convenience store across the block from school and kids were buying junk food," the 17-year-old said. "It was kind of ironic that we're downsizing the amount of food to cut down on obesity but kids are going and getting junk food to fill that hunger."

To make the point, Grund and his schoolmates starred last year in a music video parody of the pop hit "We Are Young." Instead, they sang, "We Are Hungry."

It was funny, but Grund's mother, Chrysanne Grund, said her anxiety was not.

"I was quite literally panicked about how we would get enough food in these kids during the day," she said, "so we resorted to packing lunches most days."

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

History Museum Commemorates 1963

Wednesday, 28 August 2013 10:20 Published in Local News

As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the Missouri History Museum is highlighting the struggle for equality here in St. Louis. From this evening through Friday, the Museum is highlighting the 1963 protests at the Jefferson Bank, one of the most important chapters in St. Louis civil rights history. Tonight's programs examine banking practices in St. Louis, then and now. There will also be an assembly discussing issues surrounding the Trayvon Martin case. Thursday afternoon there is Civil Disobedience Training and Friday night is a look back at the Jefferson Bank protests. All the programs are free. For more information call: 314-533-2635.

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