Around the World: February 4, 2015

Here's what's happening across the United States and around the world today.

Taiwanese flight with 58 people aboard crashes into Taipei river; at least 19 killed

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — A Taiwanese flight carrying 58 people turned on its side in midair, clipped an elevated roadway and careened into a shallow river Wednesday shortly after taking off from Taipei, killing at least 19 people and leaving 24 missing, officials and media reports said.

More than half of the passengers aboard TransAsia Airways Flight GE235 were from China and the death toll was expected to rise as rescue crews cleared the mostly submerged fuselage in the Keelung River. Teams in rubber rafts clustered around the wreckage, several dozen meters (yards) from the shore.

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Dramatic video clips apparently taken from cars on Taiwan's National Freeway No. 1 were posted online and aired by broadcasters, showing the ATR 72 prop-jet as it pivoted onto its side while zooming toward the elevated highway. In one of them, the plane rapidly fills the screen as its now-vertical wing scrapes over the road, hitting a vehicle before heading into the river.

It was the airline's second French-Italian-built ATR 72 to crash in the past year. Wednesday's flight had taken off at 11:35 a.m. from Taipei's downtown Sungshan Airport en route to the outlying Taiwanese-controlled Kinmen islands. The pilot issued a mayday call shortly after takeoff, Taiwanese civil aviation authorities said.

TransAsia director Peter Chen said contact with the plane was lost four minutes after takeoff, but that weather conditions were suitable for flying and the cause of the accident was unknown.

Commuter train crashes into SUV on tracks at suburban New York crossing, killing 7 people

VALHALLA, N.Y. (AP) — A crowded commuter train slammed into a sport utility vehicle on the tracks at a suburban New York crossing and burst into flames, killing seven people and seriously injuring nearly a dozen in the railroad's deadliest crash, authorities said.

The collision involving a Metro-North Railroad train and a Jeep Cherokee Tuesday evening in Valhalla, about 20 miles north of New York City, sent hundreds of passengers scrambling to get to safety. Authorities said the impact was so forceful the electrified third rail came up and pierced the train.

Killed were the SUV's driver and six people aboard the train, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, making this crash the railroad's most deadly.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said the front part of the train was "completely charred and burned."

"I am amazed anyone got off that train alive. ... It must have been pure panic, with the flames, the third rail and the smoke," he said.

Jordan executes 2 al-Qaida prisoners after Islamic State group burns Jordanian pilot to death

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan executed two al-Qaida prisoners before dawn Wednesday, just hours after an online video purported to show Islamic State group militants burning a captured Jordanian pilot to death in a cage.

The gruesome death of 26-year-old Lt. Muath Al-Kaseasbeh, captured while participating in airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition targeting the militants, sparked outrage and anti-Islamic State group demonstrations in Jordan.

Newspaper headlines warned Jordan "will take revenge" for his slaying as King Abdullah II, a staunch Western ally, rushed back to his kingdom from Washington. In Raqaa, the Islamic State group's de facto capital, the militants gleefully played al-Kaseasbeh's slaying on big-screen televisions, Syrian activists there said.

In its first response, Jordan executed Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziad al-Karbouly, two Iraqis linked to al-Qaida, government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani said. Another official said they were executed by hanging.

The executions took place at Swaqa prison about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Jordan's capital, Amman. At sunrise, two ambulances carrying the bodies of al-Rishawi and al-Karbouly drove away from the prison with security escorts. Authorities said they'd be buried later in Jordan.

From Australia to Wisconsin, Westerners join Kurds to battle Islamic State group in Iraq

SINJAR, Iraq (AP) — As Kurdish fighters gathered around a fire in this damp, frigid mountain town in northwestern Iraq, exhausted from battling the Islamic State group, a surprising recruit wearing a tactical vest with the words "Christ is Lord" scribbled on it joined them.

The fighter, with a sniper rifle slung over his shoulder and Rambo-styled bandanna around his head, is 28-year-old Jordan Matson from Sturtevant, Wisconsin, a former U.S. Army soldier who joined the Kurds to fight the extremist group now holding a third of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

"I'm not going back until the fight is finished and ISIS is crippled," Matson told The Associated Press, using an alternate acronym for the militant group. "I decided that if my government wasn't going to do anything to help this country, especially Kurdish people who stood by us for 10 years and helped us out while we were in this country, then I was going to do something."

Matson and dozens of other Westerners now fight with the Kurds, spurred on by Kurdish social media campaigners and a sense of duty many feel after Iraq, the target of a decade-long U.S.-led military campaign, collapsed under an Islamic State group offensive within days last summer. And while U.S. and its coalition allies bomb the extremists from the air, Kurds say they hope more Westerners will join them on the ground to fight.

Foreigners joining other people's wars is nothing new, from the French Foreign Legion to the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. The Kurds, however, turned to the Internet to find its warriors, creating a Facebook page called "The Lions of Rojava" with the stated mission of sending "terrorists to hell and save humanity." The page also frequently features portraits of smiling, beautiful and heavily armed Kurdish female commanders and fighters.

Defense chief nominee calls for both Congress and Pentagon to mind their military dollars

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's pick to run the Pentagon says he will seek better use of taxpayer dollars but that Congress must bring stability back to the military's budget.

Ashton Carter, in prepared remarks for his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, acknowledges that the Defense Department must end wasteful practices that undermine public confidence even as he criticizes the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

"I cannot suggest support and stability for the defense budget without at the same time frankly noting that not every defense dollar is spent as well as it should be," Carter says in remarks prepared for his opening statement to the Armed Services Committee.

"The taxpayer cannot comprehend, let alone support, the defense budget when they read of cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like," he adds in prepared remarks obtained by The Associated Press.

Carter is expected to face politically charged questions about Iraq and other hot spots during his Senate appearance. Nominated by President Barack Obama to become the fourth Pentagon chief of his administration, he is experienced in a wide range of national security issues.

What to do? Some questions and answers about handling measles concerns in the workplace

NEW YORK (AP) — A boss who's worried about an outbreak of measles in the workplace needs to tread lightly.

Reports of a growing number of measles cases have employers wondering what they should be doing. But federal and state laws can limit their ability to require workers to be vaccinated. And it may be risky to even ask staffers whether they've gotten a measles or other type of vaccination.

News about a measles case in the New York City area has clients calling human resources provider Alcott HR Group seeking advice, says Bob Byrnes, director of risk management with the New York-based company.

"They're asking, what can they do? Can they go up and ask people if they're vaccinated, or if their children are," Byrnes says.

US will back activists in new Cuba relationship, official says; poll shows US support for thaw

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration's lead negotiator with Cuba is vowing to maintain U.S. support for democracy and human rights activists there as she pushes to restore embassies between the countries after a half-century interruption.

An Associated Press-GfK poll finds broad support in the United States for warmer ties with Cuba. Forty-five percent of those surveyed backed the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Cold War foes, with only 15 percent opposing. Sixty percent backed the end of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, with 35 percent supporting its continuation.

Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, is set to testify before the before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On Tuesday she told a Senate panel that she planned more talks with her Cuban counterparts later this month. The administration had hoped to reach an agreement on new embassies by April's Summit of the Americas in Panama, though that looks unlikely.

Jacobson's trip to Havana last month made her the highest-level U.S. official to visit Cuba's capital in more than three decades. The talks encompassed the details of reconstituting embassies in each other's capitals, managing migration flows and the much larger process of normalizing ties between governments with unresolved issues such as fugitives and financial claims.

She said she raised several remaining barriers to full diplomatic relations during her Havana discussions, including U.S. resistance to any restrictions on American diplomats, shipments to the U.S. Interests Section and Cuban access to that building.

US set to begin destroying its largest remaining cache of chemical weapons at Colorado depot

PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) — The United States is about to begin destroying its largest remaining stockpile of chemical-laden artillery shells, marking a milestone in the global campaign to eradicate a debilitating weapon that still creeps into modern wars.

The Pueblo Chemical Depot in southern Colorado plans to start neutralizing 2,600 tons of aging mustard agent in March as the U.S. moves toward complying with a 1997 treaty banning all chemical weapons.

"The start of Pueblo is an enormous step forward to a world free of chemical weapons," said Paul Walker, who has tracked chemical warfare for more than 20 years, first as a U.S. House of Representatives staffer and currently with Green Cross International, which advocates on issues of security, poverty and the environment.

The work starts less than a year after chlorine gas killed 13 people in Syria in April 2014. International inspectors concluded last month that the gas had been used as a weapon.

Before the chlorine attack, 1,400 people were killed in a 2013 nerve gas attack in Syria, the U.S. said.

Breakup of Colombian gangs leads to extortion boom undermining security gains

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Their names he never knew, but their faces he could never forget. At the end of every month, men using aliases such as "Smelly Feet" and "Grandpa" casually slipped into the backseat of his unlicensed taxi, a rusting 1985 Chevette, to demand their payment.

For years, drivers of pirate cabs in the sprawling slum of Usme, on the southern outskirts of Bogota, had no choice but to pay up. Either that or risk watching extorters set ablaze their cars or hurt their loved ones.

"Whenever I left my house I looked behind my back," said the driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear for his safety. Eventually, he mustered the courage to denounce the racket to police who, months later, launched an armed sweep.

"They were so sure of themselves," he said, recalling with fright the terror he lived with. "They never thought they'd be caught."

For many Colombians, the threat of such shakedowns remains.

Chris Martin's unusual journey: from pushing appliances to putting on Yankees' pinstripes

NEW YORK (AP) — Chris Martin was as far from the bright lights of the major leagues as could be five years ago, working in a warehouse off Interstate 20 in Arlington, Texas, pushing 650-pound Sub-Zero refrigerators onto dollies for deliveries.

Drafted twice but never signed, he hurt his arm while pitching for a community college, didn't respond to surgery and finished school without a degree.

But at least he was down to one job.

He worked his own unique day-night doubleheader for a stretch, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the lawn-and-garden section at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse and from 5:30-11 p.m. loading 53-foot trailers for UPS at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

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