Report: Syria firing Scud missiles
MARRAKECH, Morocco, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- A U.S. official says Syrian forces have fired at least half a dozen Scud missiles at rebel groups in northern Syria in a major escalation of hostilities.
"The total number is probably north of six now," another U.S. official told The New York Times Wednesday. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity and presidential news secretary Jay Carney declined to confirm the reports of missile firings at his daily White House briefing.
"If true, this would be the last desperate act from a regime that has shown utter disregard for innocent life, utter disregard for the lives of its own citizens," Carney said.
Details on the possible use of Scud missiles, a class of Soviet-era missiles made famous when they were fired by Iraq's Saddam Hussein during Operation Desert Storm, the first Persian Gulf war, were sketchy, The Washington Post reported.
The senior officials said the missiles were launched from Damascus over the past few days but they declined to indicate where they landed in northeastern Syria or say if they caused any deaths or injuries for "intelligence reasons," the newspaper said.
Carney said Syrian President Bashar Assad's use Scuds against his own people would be "another indication of the depravity of Assad and his cronies."
There were also reports by two Lebanese television channels of a deadly car bombing and two other explosions outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus Wednesday that may have killed four people and injured 20.
In Washington, President Barack Obama spoke of his decision Tuesday to declare a newly formed Syrian opposition group the "legitimate representative" of Syria's people in an interview with ABC News.
"We've made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition [of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces] is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population and we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime," the president said. The full interview will be broadcast later this week.
Bernanke: 'Fiscal cliff' taking toll
WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke Wednesday warned the threat of going over the "fiscal cliff" already is having an impact on the economy.
As Republicans and the White House continued to wrangle over legislation to keep tax increases and $500 billion in spending cuts from kicking in Jan. 1, Bernanke warned allowing the economy to go over the "fiscal cliff" would wreak havoc, The Hill reported.
"Why are markets volatile? Why is business investment among its weakest levels during the recovery?" Bernanke asked reporters. "All of these things, at least to some extent, can be traced to the anticipation and concern over the fiscal cliff."
Bernanke said lawmakers need to craft a framework for dealing with the deficit/debt problem and not just kick the can down the road.
Earlier, House Republican leaders warned members they may have to return after Christmas to settle the issue.
With negotiations over avoiding the "fiscal cliff" the highest priority of the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters after a closed-door meeting with House members Wednesday: "The president seems to be walking us ever so slowly towards the cliff. We're going to stay here right up until Christmas Eve and throughout the time period before the new year because we want to make sure we resolve this in an acceptable way for the American people."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after Tuesday's exchange of ideas with President Obama, "I remain the most optimistic person in this town but we've got some serious differences."
"Indications are we'll be here after Christmas," House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., added.
Sheriff IDs mall shooter, victims
CLACKAMAS, Ore., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- A local sheriff identified the gunman who went on a shooting spree in a mall in suburban Portland, Ore., killing two and wounding one before killing himself.
Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts Wednesday said the gunman was Jacob Tyler Roberts, 22, and confirmed he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But the sheriff said he was unable to give the man's motive, or say how many shots he fired.
The dead were identified as Cindy Ann Yuille, 54, and Steven Mathew Forsyth, 45, both of suburban Portland. Kristina Shevchenko, 15, was seriously wounded and was being treated at a Portland hospital.
Roberts said the suspect was carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, stolen from a friend, and wore an ammunition vest and a hockey mask.
The sheriff said investigators "cannot understand the motive ... except there was no apparent connection between the suspect and his victims." Roberts said he would not release the results of a search warrant executed at the shooter's home.
"Everyone (of the officers responding) did an amazing job," Roberts said, and police had "practiced for just this type of situation" at the mall earlier this year.
"This was a heartbreaking tragedy by any standard," the sheriff said. " ... On the other hand we all need to be thankful that this incident wasn't much worse."
He credited three factors for many more victims not being shot: The shooter's weapon jammed in the food court, though he managed to get it working again; a "large number of police arrived very rapidly," and "10,000 people in the mall kept their head," getting out and helping others get out calmly.
The gunman swept through the Clackamas Town Center Tuesday afternoon, firing away as he moved to the food court and other public areas.
Roberts told ABC News, "I believe, at least from the information that's been provided to me at this point in time, it really was a killing of total strangers. To my knowledge at this point in time he was really trying, I think, to kill as many people as possible."
NYC prosecutors moving on Etan Patz case
NEW YORK, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- New York prosecutors are moving forward with the case against a mentally ill man who confessed to the 1979 killing of 6-year-old Etan Patz.
Pedro Hernandez was a clerk at a convenience store near Patz' home when he disappeared on his way to a school bus stop -- the first time the boy's parents ever let him walk the route alone. The Patz case rocked New York City and reverberated across the nation, forever changing how missing children cases are handled. Patz was the first child ever put on the back of a milk carton and the day he disappeared, May 25, is now National Missing Children Day.
Prosecutors told CBS New York they would move forward, with a grand jury hearing murder charges against Hernandez, despite there being no evidence against him aside from his admission. A box containing children's underwear and toy cars was found at Hernandez's home, but it couldn't be conclusively linked to Patz.
Police long suspected another man, Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester who was dating Patz' babysitter at the time of his disappearance. Ramos was found responsible for Patz' death in a civil case in 2004 but prosecutors said they lacked evidence to bring criminal charges.
A judge has ordered a mental health evaluation for Hernandez to see whether he is fit to stand trial.
Iraq immigrant accused of bombing
CASA GRANDE, Ariz., Dec. 12 (UPI) -- An immigrant from Iraq pleaded not guilty to charges he set off a bomb at an Arizona Social Security office.
Abdullatif Ali Aldosary, 47, of Coolidge spoke just one word in a federal court arraignment, responding "yes" to a judge's question to whether that was his real name. Federal prosecutors and his court-appointed defense attorney both said Aldosary has refused to speak with them, KPHO-TV, Phoenix, reported Tuesday.
He is charged with setting off an improvised explosive device outside a government office Nov. 30 in Casa Grande, about 50 miles south of Phoenix. No one was injured in the blast, which shook downtown offices.
Aldosary's attorney entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of his client during the hearing.
First piece of WTC spire put in place
NEW YORK, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The first of several pieces to the spire that will sit atop Freedom Tower in New York City was lifted 104 stories into place Wednesday.
The 16-foot barrel-shaped piece, which weighs about 70 tons, was lifted by crane from ground level to the top of what will be the tallest building in the Western hemisphere at 1,776 feet when it is completed.
It was the first of 18 pieces to the spire to be lifted into place. The hoist took about 45 minutes, the New York Daily News said.
The building is scheduled for completion in Lower Manhattan in the first quarter of 2013, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said.