Lava from an active volcano on Hawaii's Big Island slowed slightly but stayed on track to hit a shopping centre in the small town of Pahoa.
The molten rock was 1,200 to 1,300 yards away from the edge of Pahoa Marketplace on Thursday and had advanced about 165 yards from the previous day, said Darryl Oliveira, Hawaii County civil defence administrator.
"We're just watching the activity on the flow going forward and trying to remain optimistic that we might see a slow down or pause or stall," Oliveira said.
Lava from Kilauea Volcano is crossing flatter terrain, which may have partly caused the slackening.
Gov. David Ige visited the community Thursday, meeting with impacted residents and teachers and taking an aerial tour of the flow.
"I am amazed at the attitude of the citizens of Pahoa," Ige told reporters late Thursday. "They are definitely upbeat; the community has really drawn together to work through this disaster."
During his visit, Ige received an update from Oliveira and took a helicopter tour of the lava flow, which he says changed his perspective on the situation.
"I do know that the eruption has been ongoing for 30 years, and this flow has stretched more than 13 miles," Ige said. "But to actually see it, to be able to fly over it, to notice the variations in how sometimes it's very broad and sometimes very narrow, the fits and starts of the flow and the randomness really become very apparent when you get to see the entire flow."
Ige said he would push to get maximum assistance from the federal government, and would look at what services and assistance the state could provide as it crafts the state budget, which is due to lawmakers next week.
In a morning helicopter flight, Oliveira caught a view of the lava before sunrise and said it was easy to see the breaks and cracks in the partially hardened mass.
"It had a very nice orange feature to it across the edge and the surface, as it wasn't completely crusted over," he said.
At its current pace, the lava could hit the marketplace in six days, but that could change, he said. The county plans to cut off the market's electricity three days before the lava is expected to hit.
A gas station has removed the gasoline from its tanks and will finish removing sludge and vapours by Friday, Oliveira said. If the lava crosses Highway 130, it will make it difficult for residents in the area to access other parts of the island.
"They're losing at this point their only supermarket, hardware store, one of three gas stations," Oliveira said. "Everybody's adjustment to that is appreciated, and we definitely are empathetic to what this means."
Eight dead children and a woman suffering from stab wounds were found inside a home in a northern Australian city on Friday, police said.
Queensland state police said they were called to the home in the Cairns suburb of Manoora on Friday morning after receiving a report of a woman with serious injuries.
When police got to the house, they found the bodies of the children inside. The victims range in age from 18 months to 15 years.
A 34-year-old woman found inside the home was suffering from stab wounds to the chest, a Queensland Ambulance Service spokesman said.
The woman was receiving treatment for her wounds and was in stable condition at a hospital, Detective Inspector Bruno Asnicar said. He said he had no further information, including how the children were killed.
"As it stands at the moment, there's no need for the public to be concerned about this other than the fact that it's a tragic, tragic event," Asnicar said. "The situation is well controlled at the moment. There shouldn't be any concern for anyone else out of this environment."
Detectives were speaking with neighbours and police had not determined the relationship between all of the children and the hospitalized woman.
But Lisa Thaiday, who said she was the woman's cousin, said the children were all siblings and that the woman was their mother. Thaiday said another sibling, a 20-year-old man, came home and found his brothers and sisters dead inside the house.
"I'm going to see him now, he needs comforting," Thaiday said. "We're a big family ... I just can't believe it. We just found out (about) those poor babies."
The street has been cordoned off and a crime scene will remain in place for at least the next day, Asnicar said.
Dozens of police have swarmed the home.
"These events are extremely distressing for everyone of course and police officers aren't immune from that — we're human beings as well," Ascinar said.
The tragedy comes as Australia is still reeling from the shock of a deadly siege in a Sydney cafe earlier this week. On Monday, a gunman stormed into a cafe in the heart of the city and took 18 people inside hostage. Two hostages were killed along with the gunman after police stormed into the cafe 16 hours later in a bid to end the siege.
One of two girls accused of stabbing a classmate in a southeastern Wisconsin park to please a fantasy character known as Slender Man is competent to stand trial for attempted homicide, a judge ruled Thursday.
A state psychiatrist determined the girl was able to assist in her defence, but her attorney disputed the finding, saying he had a report from another doctor who disagreed. Both reports are sealed.
Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren said the girl is competent to stand trial. The decision keeps the case tracking toward a preliminary hearing.
Prosecutors have charged both girls with attempted first-degree intentional homicide in the attack in May in Waukesha, a city of 71,000 about 15 miles west of Milwaukee. They say the girls plotted for months to kill classmate Payton Leutner, luring her to a wooded park after a sleepover and stabbing her 19 times. After her attackers left, Leutner crawled through the woods to a sidewalk where a bicyclist found her and called 911.
The two girls charged in the case were found walking toward a national forest where they said they believed Slender Man lived in a mansion. They told investigators they believed killing Leutner would curry favour with the figure.
All three girls were 12 at the time of the attack. The girl whose competency was in question has since turned 13.
Wisconsin law requires suspects in severe crimes to be charged as adults if they are at least 10 years old. The Associated Press is not naming the girls because their attorneys have said they may still try to move their cases into juvenile court, where proceedings are closed to the public.
Islamic extremists killed 35 people and kidnapped at least 185, fleeing residents said Thursday of an attack near the town where nearly 300 schoolgirls were taken hostage in April.
Most of those kidnapped Sunday were young women, children and members of a civilian defence group that is fighting Boko Haram, residents said.
Teenager Aji Ibrahim said he was lucky to escape into the bushes.
"No doubt they were Boko Haram members because they were chanting 'Allahu akbar' (God is great) while shooting at people and torching houses," he told The Associated Press.
The attack on Gumburi happened on Sunday night, said a security official and a local government officer, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The news took days to emerge because the militants have destroyed communications towers in the area.
Gumburi is 20 kilometres from Chibok, the northeastern town where extremists kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in April. Dozens of the students escaped but 219 remain missing.
The militants have kidnapped hundreds of people but the mass kidnappings of the girls from a boarding school attracted international outrage and condemnation of Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan and his military for their failure to rescue the hostages.
The United States, Britain, France and China were among countries that sent security experts and hostage negotiators to help free the girls. Washington also flew drones over the area where they believed the schoolgirls were held.
None of them has yet been found.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau initially demanded the release of his fighters who are being held illegally without charges or trial. But Jonathan said he would not negotiate with terrorists.
There were reports that some of the girls had been married to their captors and some carried across borders.
In a recent video, Shekau said the girls were "an old story," implying their release was no longer up for negotiation.
Boko Haram has seized a score of towns and villages where it has declared an Islamic caliphate along the northeast border with Cameroon. Thousands of people have been killed in the 5-year-old Islamic uprising that has driven some 1.3 million from their homes.
Cubans cheered the surprise announcement that their country will restore relations with the United States, hopeful they'll soon see expanded trade and new economic vibrancy even though the 53-year-old economic embargo remains in place for the time being.
"This opens a better future for us," said Milagros Diaz, 34. "We have really needed something like this because the situation has been bad and the people very discouraged."
Bells tolled in celebration and teachers halted lessons midday as President Raul Castro told his country Wednesday that Cuba would renew relations with Washington after more than a half-century of hostility.
Wearing his military uniform with its five-star insignia, the 83-year-old leader said the two countries would work to resolve their differences "without renouncing a single one of our principles."
Havana residents gathered around television sets in homes, schools and businesses to hear the historic national broadcast, which coincided with a statement by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. Uniformed schoolchildren burst into applause at the news.
At the University of San Geronimo in the capital's historic centre, the announcement drew ringing from the bell tower. Throughout the capital, there was a sense of euphoria as word spread.
"For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish-come-true, because with this, we have overcome our differences," said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old IT specialist. "It is an advance that will open the road to a better future for the two countries."
Fidel and Raul Castro led the 1959 rebellion that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. initially recognized the new government but broke relations in 1961 after Cuba veered sharply to the left and nationalized U.S.-owned businesses.
As Cuba turned toward the Soviet Union, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo in 1962. Particularly since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cubans have confronted severe shortages of oil, food and consumer goods, forcing them to ration everything from beans to powdered milk.
The Cuban government blames most of its economic travails on the embargo, while Washington has traditionally blamed Cuba's Communist economic policies.
In his address, Castro called on Washington to end its trade embargo which, he said, "has caused enormous human and economic damage."
Some dissidents expressed their displeasure at not being consulted by the U.S. government about the historic move.
Guillermo Farinas considered the move a "betrayal" by Obama who, he said, had promised that they would be consulted. Another activist, Antonio Rodiles, said the measure "sends a bad message."
Others, meanwhile, were cautious, saying they'll wait and see what it all means.
"It's not enough since it doesn't lift the blockade," said Pedro Duran, 28. "We'll see if it's true, if it's not like everything here: one step forward and three steps back. For now, I don't think there will be any immediate improvement after we've been living like this for 50 years."
A man who shot and killed a German exchange student caught trespassing in his garage was convicted of deliberate homicide in a case that attracted attention as a test of "stand your ground" laws in the U.S. that govern the use of deadly force against attackers.
Cheers erupted in the packed courtroom when the verdict was read Wednesday in the case against Markus Kaarma, 30. The case generated outcry in Germany, where a Hamburg prosecutor said this week his office was conducting its own investigation.
Kaarma shot 17-year-old high school student Diren Dede in the early hours of April 27 after being alerted to an intruder by motion sensors. Witnesses testified Kaarma fired four shotgun blasts at Dede, who was unarmed.
The teen's parents were in the courtroom and hugged and cried at the outcome, while others applauded.
"It is very good," said Dede's father, Celal Dede, with tears in his eyes. "Long live justice."
Kaarma remained stoic as he was taken into custody at the end of the hearing. He faces a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 11. His lawyers plan to appeal.
Dede's parents attended the entire trial, often leaving the crowded courtroom during emotional testimony. The Hamburg teen was studying at Missoula's Big Sky High School and was to leave the U.S. after the school term ended in just a few weeks.
Kaarma's attorneys argued at trial that he feared for his life, didn't know if the intruder was armed, and was on edge because his garage was burglarized at least once in the weeks before the shooting. They said Kaarma's actions were justifiable because he feared for his family's safety.
More than 30 U.S. states, including Montana, have laws expanding the right of people to use deadly force to protect their homes or themselves, some of them known as "stand your ground" laws. The self-defence principle is known as the "castle doctrine," a centuries-old premise that a person has the right to defend their home against attack. The name evokes the old saying, "my home is my castle."
Montana's law was amended in 2009 to state that a person who is threatened with physical harm has no duty to retreat or summon law enforcement assistance prior to using force.
Prosecutors argued Kaarma was intent on luring an intruder into his garage and then harming that person. That night, Kaarma left his garage door partially open with a purse inside. Three witnesses testified they heard Kaarma say his house had been burglarized and he'd been waiting up nights to shoot an intruder.
A U.S. official says North Korea has been linked to the unprecedented act of cyberwarfare against Sony Pictures that exposed tens of thousands of sensitive documents and escalated to threats of terrorist attacks that ultimately drove the studio to cancel all release plans for the film at the heart of the hack, "The Interview."
The attack is possibly the costliest for a U.S. company ever, said Avivah Litan, a cybersecurity analyst at research firm Gartner. "This attack went to the heart and core of Sony's business — and succeeded," she said. "We haven't seen any attack like this in the annals of U.S. breach history."
Federal investigators believe there is a connection between the Sony Pictures hack and the isolated communist nation, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to openly discuss an ongoing criminal case. Earlier in the day, the besieged company cancelled the Christmas Day release of "The Interview," citing the threats of violence against movie theatres and decisions by the largest multiplex chains in North America to pull the film from its screens. Seemingly putting to rest any hope of a delayed theatrical release or a video-on-demand release, Sony Pictures later said it has "no further release plans for the film."
The cancellation was a startling blow to the Hollywood studio. The hackers, who call themselves Guardians of Peace, on Tuesday had threatened violence reminiscent of September 11th, 2001 against movie theatres showing the film. Sony cancelled a planned New York premiere and offered theatres the option of bowing out. One after the other, all the top U.S. movie chains announced they would postpone any showings of the comedy, which features a pair of journalists played by James Franco and Seth Rogen that are tasked by the CIA to assassinate North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. Sony said it then had little choice but to cancel the release.
"We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public," Sony Pictures said in a statement Wednesday. "We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome."
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the U.S. government had no involvement in Sony's decision, adding that artists and entertainers have the right to produce and distribute whatever content they want in the U.S.
"We take very seriously any attempt to threaten or limit artists' freedom of speech or of expression," Meehan said.
Just how much the cyberattack will ultimately cost Sony is unclear. Sony faces trouble on several fronts after nearly four weeks since the hackers first crippled its computer systems and started dumping thousands of emails and private documents online.
In addition to vanishing box-office revenue from "The Interview," leaked documents could muck up production schedules, experts say. There will be the cost of defending the studio against multiple lawsuits by ex-employees angry over leaked Social Security numbers and other personal information. And then there are actors and talent who just might decide to work at another studio.
Beyond the financial blow, some say the attack and Sony's capitulation has raised troubling questions about self-censorship and whether other studios and U.S. companies are now open season for cyberterrorists.
"Artistic freedom is at risk," said Efraim Levy, a senior financial analyst at research firm S&P Capital IQ. "Are we not going to put out movies that offend some constituencies?"
Authorities from multiple law enforcement agencies are combing the area around a remote Central Texas television studio where a morning meteorologist was shot in a parking lot after an argument.
The Texas Department of Public Safety says the shooting occurred around 9:15 a.m. Wednesday outside KCEN-TV's rural studio on Interstate 35 near Bruceville-Eddy, 75 miles north of Austin.
The station website reports the victim, on-air meteorologist Patrick Crawford, backed his car away from the shooter and drove up to a highway construction crew that called 911. Jim Hice, the station's news director, says Crawford was wounded in the shoulder and the abdomen.
Crawford underwent surgery at a Temple hospital. A hospital spokesman says he's in fair condition.
The shooter fled. No motive has been released.
Update 7:00 p.m.
Under the threat of terrorist attacks from hackers and with the nation's largest multiplex chains pulling the film from their screens, Sony Pictures Entertainment took the unprecedented step of cancelling the Dec. 25 release of the Seth Rogen comedy "The Interview."
The cancellation announced Wednesday was a startling blow to the Hollywood studio that has been shaken by hacker leaks and intimidations over the last several weeks by an anonymous group calling itself Guardians of Peace.
A U.S. official said Wednesday that federal investigators have now connected the Sony hacking to North Korea and may make an announcement in the near future. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to openly discuss an ongoing criminal case.
Sony said it was cancelling "The Interview" release "in light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film." The studio said it respected and shared in the exhibitors' concerns.
"We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public," read the statement. "We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome."
Seemingly putting to rest any hope of a delayed theatrical release or a video-on-demand release Sony Pictures spokeswoman Jean Guerin later added: "Sony Pictures has no further release plans for the film."
Earlier Wednesday, Regal Cinemas, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theatres — the three top theatre chains in North America — announced that they were postponing any showings of "The Interview." The comedy, about a TV host (James Franco) and producer (Rogen) tasked by the CIA to assassinate North Korea's Kim Jong Un (played by Randall Park), has inflamed North Korea for parodying its leader.
Regal said in a statement that it was delaying "The Interview" ''due to wavering support of the film ... by Sony Pictures, as well as the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats." AMC noted "the overall confusion and uncertainty" surrounding the film.
Sony had offered theatres the option of bowing out, and when so many of them did (other chains to drop it included ArcLight Cinemas, Cineplex Entertainment and Carmike Cinemas), Sony was left with little choice.
On Tuesday, the hacking group threatened violence at "the very times and places" showing "The Interview." The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday there was "no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theatres," but noted it was still analyzing messages from the group. The warning did prompt law enforcement in New York and Los Angeles to address measures to ramp up security.
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the U.S. government had no involvement in Sony's decision, adding that artists and entertainers have the right to produce and distribute whatever content they want in the U.S.
"We take very seriously any attempt to threaten or limit artists' freedom of speech or of expression," Meehan said.
President Barack Obama commented the hacking Wednesday in an interview with ABC News.
"The cyberattack is very serious," said Obama. "We're investigating and we're taking it seriously. We'll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible then we'll alert the public. But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies."
With a modest budget of about $40 million, "The Interview" was predicted to earn around $30 million in its opening weekend before Tuesday's threats. Sony also stands to lose tens of millions in marketing costs already incurred.
"This attack went to the heart and core of Sony's business — and succeeded," said Avivah Litan, a cybersecurity analyst at research firm Gartner. "We haven't seen any attack like this in the annals of U.S. breach history."
Sony was also under pressure from other studios. Christmas is one of the most important box-office weekends of the year, and the threats could have scared moviegoers away. Releases include Universal's "Unbroken," Paramount's "The Gambler," and Disney's "Into the Woods." Sony's musical "Annie," also expected to be a big earner, debuts Friday.
Doug Stone, president of film industry newsletter Box Office Analyst, had predicted that "The Interview" could have made $75 to $100 million. With Sony taking about 55 per cent of domestic revenues, that could mean a $41 to $55 million revenue loss, according to Stone.
Sony's announcement was met with widespread distress across Hollywood and by others watching the unfolding attack on Sony. A former senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration said the company made the wrong decision.
"When you are confronted with a bully the idea is not to cave but to punch him in the nose," Fran Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser, said Wednesday during a previously scheduled appearance in Washington. "This is a horrible, I think, horrible precedent."
--The Canadian Press
A Canadian movie theatre chain has pulled all showtimes for the Vancouver-shot North Korea comedy “The Interview” following an ominous threat of terror attacks, reports CTV Vancouver.
Cineplex, one of the country’s biggest entertainment companies, said it decided to postpone scheduled showings of the Seth Rogen-James Franco film after careful consideration.
“Cineplex takes seriously its commitment to the freedom of artistic expression, but we want to reassure our guests and staff that their safety and security is our number one priority,” spokesman Pat Marshall said in a statement.
“We look forward to a time when this situation is resolved and those responsible are apprehended.”
On Tuesday, a threatening note emerged warning the public to keep away from theatres showing the controversial comedy, which follows Rogen and Franco on a fictional CIA-backed plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
“The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001,” the threat reportedly reads.
Sony Pictures Entertainment responded by allowing theatres to cancel showings of the film, and even cancelling a New York premiere. They recently announced that the movie release has been completely cancelled in the wake of these hack attacks.
Part of the film was shot in Vancouver, where Robson Square was dressed to look like the streets of Pyongyang and a large statue of Kim Jong- was erected.
The project also marked a return to the Lower Mainland for Rogen, who was born in Vancouver in 1982.
North Korea has been a vocal critic of the film, describing it as an act of war against the country. There has been speculation the country is behind a massive Sony hack that exposed thousands of private emails and released several of the studio’s upcoming movies online.
The latest in a string of storms noisily marched across Southern California on Wednesday, hurling lightning bolts, coating mountains with snow and unleashing downpours that triggered a freeway-blocking mudslide before mostly moving on.
"It was rather rare to see lightning all night long as this storm system moved across the region," the National Weather Service said, noting that the tempest's instability was similar to a heavy rain event last week that produced no lightning at all.
Intense rains brought on by stronger thunderstorms didn't hit any of the most vulnerable burn areas or other susceptible problem spots, the NWS said.
Another weaker storm entered the northern end of the state late Wednesday, but rainfall was expected to remain light and the system wasn't expected to spread farther south than central coast counties.
California has been hit hard by rain and snow over the past week, but experts say it will take many storms to end a three-year drought.
A torrent of mud and rocks from a recently burned hillside covered part of state Route 91 in Orange County before dawn. Cars and trucks were stuck for about 90 minutes, and the eastbound lanes were shut for several hours. No injuries were reported.
"It's pretty bad. It's about 2 feet deep," Jeff Dean, a motorcyclist who was stranded, told KABC-TV.
After moving down the coast from Northern California, the second of back-to-back storms prompted temporary evacuations Tuesday night in Camarillo Springs, which was hit by mudslides last week. This time, the wildfire-scarred hillsides held above the community about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Clouds dumped more than a half-inch on downtown Los Angeles and nearly an inch at Los Angeles International Airport and in Beverly Hills.
Eight to 10 inches of snow accumulated at ski resorts at Mountain High and on Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, and 5 inches to 7 inches fell at resorts at Big Bear farther east in the San Bernardino Mountains, the weather service said.
A study of satellite data released by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory found that at the peak of the drought earlier this year, water storage in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins was 11 trillion gallons below normal seasonal levels.
Still, rainfall has been trending above normal in many places so far during the 2014-2015 rain season that began July 1. As of Tuesday, downtown Los Angeles had collected 4.32 inches, more than 1.3 inches more than normal to date. A year earlier, it had collected just 0.86 of an inch to date. Downtown San Francisco had tallied 13.37 inches, or more than 6 1/2 inches above normal to date.
More than 70 years after South Carolina sent a 14-year-old black boy to the electric chair in the killings of two white girls in a segregated mill town, a judge threw out the conviction, saying the state committed a great injustice.
George Stinney was arrested, convicted of murder in a one-day trial and executed in 1944 — all in the span of about three months and without an appeal. The speed in which the state meted out justice against the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century was shocking and extremely unfair, Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen wrote in her ruling Wednesday.
The girls, ages 7 and 11, were beaten badly in the head with an iron railroad spike in the town of Alcolu, authorities said. A search by dozens of people found their bodies several hours later.
Investigators arrested Stinney, saying witnesses saw him with the girls as they picked flowers. He was kept away from his parents, and authorities later said he confessed.
His supporters said he was a small, frail boy so scared that he said whatever he thought would make the authorities happy. They said there was no physical evidence linking him to the deaths. His executioners noted the electric chair straps didn't fit him, and an electrode was too big for his leg.
During a two-day hearing in January, Mullen heard from Stinney's surviving brother and sisters, someone involved in the search and experts who questioned the autopsy findings and Stinney's confession. Most of the evidence from the original trial was gone and almost all the witnesses were dead.
It took Mullen nearly four times as long to issue her ruling as it took in 1944 to go from arrest to execution.
Stinney's case has long been whispered in civil rights circles in South Carolina as an example of how a black person could be railroaded by a justice system during the era of Jim Crow segregation laws where the investigators, prosecutors and juries were all white.
The case received renewed attention because of a crusade by textile inspector and school board member George Frierson. Armed with a binder full of newspaper articles and other evidence, he and a law firm believed the teen represented everything that was wrong with South Carolina during the era of segregation.
Frierson said he heard about the judge's decision from a co-worker. He had to attend a school board meeting later in the day, so the news hadn't sunk in yet.
"When I get home, I'm going to get on my knees and thank the Lord Almighty for being so good and making sure justice prevailed," Frierson said.
President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations as well as an easing in economic and travel restrictions on Cuba Wednesday, declaring an end to America's "outdated approach" to the communist island in a historic shift that aims to bring an end to a half-century of Cold War enmity.
"Isolation has not worked," Obama said in remarks from the White House. "It's time for a new approach."
As Obama spoke, Cuban President Raul Castro addressed his own nation from Havana. Obama and Castro spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.
Obama's announcement marked an abrupt use of executive power. However, he cannot unilaterally end the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which was passed by Congress and would require action from lawmakers to overturn.
Wednesday's announcements followed more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties was accompanied by Cuba's release of American Alan Gross and the swap of a U.S. spy held in Cuba for three Cubans jailed in Florida.
Obama said Gross' five-year imprisonment had been a "major obstacle" in normalizing relations. Gross arrived at an American military base just outside Washington Wednesday, accompanied by his wife and a handful of U.S. lawmakers. He went immediately into a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.
As part of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. The U.S. is also easing travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities. Tourist travel remains banned.
Licensed American travellers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.
The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months. Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans and removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Kerry is also launching a review of Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror.
The siege at the Sydney cafe had been going on for more than five hours and 82-year-old John O'Brien had become convinced the gunman was insane and they would likely all end up dead.
And so he made a decision, one he knew came with a cost: he was going to try to escape.
O'Brien — a former professional tennis player who played at Wimbledon — looked at the gunman who was at the other end of the cafe, barricaded behind tables and chairs. The man had forced two or three young women to stand in front of him as human shields, so police snipers couldn't take shots at him.
O'Brien glanced up at Stefan Balafoutis, a lawyer, who was standing, as ordered, with his hands against the window. The younger man had his eyes closed.
"I said to the barrister, look, this is not going to end well, this guy will never get out of here alive, and he's going to take everyone with him," O'Brien told The Associated Press in the first detailed account from a hostage who was held inside the cafe.
He whispered his plan to Balafoutis. The lawyer replied: "Good idea."
O'Brien was exhausted and was wondering at times if he was in a dream. He hadn't eaten since early in the morning, before their ordeal began, when he'd ordered a piece of raisin toast and a cappuccino.
He thought the coffee at the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in Martin Place was creamy and delicious, albeit overpriced. He liked the chocolates on display, a point of difference at the cafe. He'd visit a few times a year, often after an appointment with his eye doctor like the one he'd had that morning.
O'Brien was eating his toast when 50-year-old Man Haron Monis strode in, wearing a bandanna with Arabic writing. He pulled out a shotgun. O'Brien looked at it, thinking it was the size of a tennis racket. He knew right away the situation was dire. The gunman grabbed Tori Johnson, the 34-year-old cafe manager, ordering him to lock the door. O'Brien said Monis was immediately aggressive and belligerent.
There were 17 people in the cafe that Monday who became the gunman's hostages. Several were cafe staff in their early 20s. The customers included three lawyers and four bank workers who had popped in from nearby offices. O'Brien was the oldest while Jarrod Hoffman, a 19-year-old university student and a cafe staffer, was the youngest.
Monis ordered the customers to stand with their hands on the cafe window and to hold up a black Shahada flag with the Islamic declaration of faith written on it. O'Brien said he stood with his hands on the window for 30 minutes, or maybe 45 — it was hard to tell — before telling the gunman how old he was and saying he needed to sit down.
It was his first challenge to the gunman's authority and a bit of a ruse, he said. He felt stronger than he was letting on. He's remarkably fit for his age. He still plays competitive tennis, and is among the best in Australia in his age group. As a young man, in 1956, he made it to the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Monis complained but relented, allowing O'Brien and a few others to sit.
The hours ticked by as the gunman tried to use the hostages to relay his odd demands on social media: to be delivered a flag of the Islamic State group and to speak directly to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
O'Brien would sometimes rest his head on the table. He thought about his wife, Maureen, whose brother had died two weeks earlier. He thought about his two daughters. And he thought about the gunman, who he became convinced was mad.
O'Brien quietly slipped out of his seat and sat on the floor. He'd noticed a small gap between the wall and a large advertising placard, which was perhaps 10 feet wide and 5 feet high. He figured the gap was less than a foot wide but he knew he had to squeeze through if his plan was to work.
He struggled, trying several times and failing. Finally, he made it through. Now the placard was obscuring him from the gunman. He lay down, looking up at a large green button. But he wasn't sure if it would open the glass doors. If the button didn't work, he figured, he would be seen by the gunman and killed.
Also weighing on his mind was the thought of leaving the others behind. He didn't want to, of course, and he had no way of knowing how the gunman might react.
"I was terribly worried for them," he said.
But there was no turning back. He reached up and pushed the green button and a moment later, at 3:37 p.m., he was free.
The images of O'Brien running toward the police in his blue blazer, glancing back with Balafoutis close behind, were played around the world. The men put their hands in the air as they reached the heavily clad officers. O'Brien took a step back out into the street, gesturing back toward the cafe, before an officer pushed him behind the front line and to safety.
Over the following hours, several more hostages escaped. The siege ended just after 2 a.m. in a barrage of gunfire when police rushed in to free the remaining captives. Two hostages, including Johnson, the cafe manager, were killed. So was the gunman.
Johnson would be hailed a hero, after reports he brought the standoff to an end by wrestling Monis for the shotgun, saving the lives of most of his fellow hostages.
O'Brien certainly considers Johnson a hero. He says he can't sleep and he can't stop thinking about Johnson and the other victim, Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old mother of three.
"They weren't doing anything wrong," he said.
He may be president now, but Barack Obama says he's a black man who has been mistaken for the valet.
"There's no black male my age, who's a professional, who hasn't come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn't hand them their car keys," Obama told People magazine in an interview out Wednesday. That happened to him, he said.
First lady Michelle Obama said her husband also once was mistaken for a waiter at a black-tie party and asked for coffee. She said even when she went to Target as first lady, a fellow shopper asked her to get something from a shelf.
"I think people forget that we've lived in the White House for six years," she said. "Before that, Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs."
The first couple spoke about their experiences with racism amid protests nationwide over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in State Island, New York. The president said racial relations have gotten better, but more progress is needed.
"The small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced," Obama said. "It's one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It's another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress."
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