PYONGYANG, North Korea -- Dennis Rodman apologized for comments about captive American missionary Kenneth Bae in an interview with CNN. A day after the former basketball star sang "Happy Birthday" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and led a squad of former NBA players in a friendly game, Rodman issued the apology through a publicist. "I want to apologize," Rodman said. "I take full responsibility for my actions. It had been a very stressful day. Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It's not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It's not an excuse, it's just the truth." SENT: 900 words, photos, video.
CANBERRA --Bats are dropping from the sky, kangaroos are collapsing in the patched Outback and gardens are turning brown. While North America freezes under record polar temperatures, the southern hemisphere is experience other weather extremes as new heat records are being set around Australia after the hottest year ever. By Rod McGuirk. UPCOMING 600 words, photos expected.
TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is heading to Africa, keeping up a busy overseas travel schedule designed to boost Japan's global profile in the face of China's rise. Abe departed Thursday and will make a brief visit to the Mideast state of Oman before heading to the Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Ethiopia. He has traveled more widely than his immediate predecessors in a bid to expand Japan's diplomatic reach and help Japanese companies win business overseas. SENT: 250 words, photos.
BEIJING -- When her mind is clear, Gong Qifeng can recall how she begged for mercy when several people pinned her head, arms, knees and ankles to a hospital bed before driving a syringe of labor-inducing drugs into her stomach. She was seven months pregnant with her second boy, and the drugs caused her to have a stillborn baby after 35 hours of excruciating pain. Although China has recently announced an easing of its one-child policy to allow more couples to have a second child, local governments are still ordered to comply with population quotas, and continue to meet them though forced abortions. By Didi Tang. UPCOMING: 1,000 words by 0700GMT, photos, video.
BEIJING -- A county chief and three other officials have been dismissed over a stampede at a mosque in China's northwest that left 14 people dead, official media said Thursday. Sunday's incident at the Beida mosque in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region was blamed on poor crowd control. Muslim believers had flocked to the mosque for a special flatbread being distributed to commemorate a revered local religious figure. SENT: 161 words.
SEATTLE -- The sister of a U.S. man imprisoned in North Korea says she's worried that Dennis Rodman, who is in the country to celebrate the birthday of leader Kim Jong Un, is hurting efforts to free her brother. Terri Chung said Wednesday his family couldn't believe what Dennis Rodman has said about Kenneth Bae. In a CNN interview Tuesday, Rodman said he refused to discuss Bae with North Korean leaders and implied Bae may deserve to be imprisoned. By Doug Esser. SENT: 350 words.
MANILA, Philippines -- Hundreds of thousands of Filipino Catholics began a raucous religious procession in Manila to honor a centuries-old black statue of Jesus Christ in an annual event that organizers say was being held partly to pray for the victims of a monster typhoon that devastated the central Philippines last year. About 6,000 policemen were deployed to secure the massive, daylong pilgrimage, a security nightmare due to the presence of Muslim extremists and widespread crimes in the country. By Jim Gomez. SENT: 400 words.
MANILA, Philippines -- Norway will continue brokering peace talks between the Philippine government and communist insurgents despite the rebels' withdrawal from negotiations. Foreign Minister Borge Brende visited areas devastated by a super typhoon in November that killed more than 6,100 people in the central Philippines, and announced $8 million more in aid, raising Norway's support to $43 million, making it the third-largest donor after the United States and Britain. SENT: 310 words.
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana -- Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal plans to travel to Asia for a week, seeking to cultivate business development and trade connections in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The Republican governor said he and Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret will meet with representatives of 10 companies, along with senior government officials and others to discuss expanding economic ties between Louisiana and the countries. By Melinda Deslatte. SENT, photos.
TOKYO -- South Korean pop group BIGBANG is set to end a massively successful tour of Japan, cementing its status as one of the more popular boy bands in Asia. The five-member band closes out the tour, with stops at all six of Japan's domed stadiums, with three shows starting Saturday in Osaka. SENT: 210 words.
BUSINESS & FINANCE
SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea's central bank has kept its 2014 growth forecast for Asia's fourth-largest economy at 3.8 percent. Kim Choong-soo, the Bank of Korea governor, says Thursday that South Korea's economy will expand at the fastest clip in four years as a global recovery continues. SENT.
BEIJING -- China's inflation rate eased in December to 2.5 percent amid signs the world's second-largest economy might be cooling. The consumer price rise reported Thursday was down from November's 3 percent. Inflation for the full year of 2013 was 2.6 percent, below the ruling Communist Party's target of 3.5 percent. By Joe Mcdonald. SENT: 270 words.
BEIJING -- Asian stock markets were muted Thursday amid concern an improved U.S. economy might prompt the Federal Reserve to reduce its stimulus faster than previously expected. A survey Wednesday that showed U.S. employment increased in December prompted concern the Fed might accelerate the process of winding down bond buying that has supported stock prices. By Joe Mcdonald. SENT: 360 words.
NEW YORK -- A judge has approved a non-prosecution agreement reached after JPMorgan Chase & Co. agreed to pay $1.7 billion to settle criminal charges stemming from its failure to report its concerns about Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff's private investment service. U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel approved the deal Wednesday, a day after it was announced. The judge set a January 2016 court date for the government to report if the bank complies with the agreement.
US & INTERNATIONAL
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is expected to tighten restrictions on U.S. spying on foreign leaders and also is considering changes in National Security Agency access to Americans' phone records, according to people familiar with a White House review of the nation's surveillance programs. Obama could unveil his highly anticipated decisions as early as next week. Ahead of that announcement, he is consulting with lawmakers, privacy advocates and intelligence officials who were invited to White House meetings Wednesday and Thursday. By Julie Pace and Stephen Braun. SENT, 1,000 words.
WASHINGTON -- Rushing to curb political fallout, the White House pushed back against harsh criticism in a new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that questions President Barack Obama's war leadership and rips into Vice President Joe Biden. The tell-all memoir from Gates has created a splash in Washington, casting a negative light on Obama's national security operations by detailing a high level of discord among the small team that made key decisions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For two key participants -- Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- the accusations could color how the two potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates are viewed by voters. By Josh Lederman. SENT: 800 words, photos.
TRENTON, N.J. -- A political dirty-tricks investigation involving Gov. Chris Christie's administration breaks wide open with the release of emails and text messages that suggest one of his top aides engineered traffic jams in a New Jersey town last September to punish its mayor. An "outraged and deeply saddened" Christie responds by saying he was misled by his aide, and he denies any involvement in the apparent act of political payback. By Angela Delli Santi and David Porter. SENT: 1,020 words, photos, video.
DALLAS -- The FBI is investigating death threats made against members of the Dallas hunting club that intends to auction off a rare permit to kill an endangered black rhino, an FBI spokeswoman said Wednesday. Katherine Chaumont said the agency is reviewing multiple threats against the Dallas Safari Club. The club on Saturday plans to auction a permit the African country of Namibia granted for the hunt. The group has said all proceeds will go toward rhino conservation efforts. By Michael Graczyk and David Warren. SENT, photos.
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Nicolas Maduro hastily gathered state governors and mayors Wednesday to talk about the country's violent crime amid public outrage over the killing of a popular soap-opera actress and former Miss Venezuela. Hundreds of actors and writers took to Caracas' streets to demand the government protect its citizens from the callous killers responsible for giving Venezuela one of the world's highest murder rates. By Frank Bajak and Jorge Rueda. SENT, photos.
BAGHDAD -- Tribal leaders in the Iraqi city of Fallujah are urging al-Qaida-linked fighters to leave to avoid a military showdown, echoing a call by the prime minister as the government pushes to regain control of mainly Sunni areas west of Baghdad. The United Nations and the Red Cross express fears of a humanitarian crisis as food and water start to run out in some besieged areas. By Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Adam Schreck. SENT: 1,030 words, photos.
CAIRO -- Egypt's military chief is looking for a strong turnout in next week's constitutional referendum as a mandate to run for president, senior officials tell the AP. The general, who ousted President Mohammed Morsi and ordered a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, could be disappointed: his Islamist foes have promised a boycott and mass demonstrations aimed at keeping voters at home. By Hamza Hendawi. SENT: 1,360 words, photos.
HALL OF FAME
NEW YORK -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were elected to baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday, while Craig Biggio fell two votes short and tainted stars of the Steroids Era remained a long way from Cooperstown. Maddux was picked on 555 of 571 ballots by senior members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. His 97.2 percentage was the eighth-highest in the history of voting. By Ronald Blum. SENT: 370 words, photos.
ALTENMARKT-ZAUCHENSEE, Austria -- The head coach of the U.S. women's ski team has praised Lindsey Vonn for taking "a very hard decision" and skipping the Sochi Olympics in February because of her injured right knee. "There was too much risk and she realized that and made the right decision," Alex Hoedlmoser told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "It was a very smart decision from her to actually do this step now." By Eric Willemsen. SENT: 440 words.
BILLIE JEAN KING-SOCHI
Billie Jean King believes standing up to discrimination is the best way to combat it. She will help lead the U.S. delegation in the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics in Russia, which recently passed an anti-gay law. She'll be joined on the American delegation by two openly gay former Olympic athletes -- figure skater Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow. King told The Associated Press that their presence sends a positive message about diversity. By Melissa Murphy. SENT: 1,000 words, photos.
ALBERTVILLE, France -- For adventure athletes, a video of their exploits is the new essential. Skiers, skydivers, snowboarders and bicyclists are strapping tiny cameras onto their helmets, bikes and bodies. And the videos can help investigators, like those studying what sent retired Formula One driver Michael Schumacher crashing headfirst onto a rock while skiing in the Alps. By Graham Dunbar. SENT: 990 words, photos.
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