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Airliner's heartfelt delivery

A Southwest Airlines flight made a heartfelt return to Seattle, recently.

The Boeing 737-700 was about 500 miles out of Seattle en route to Dallas on Dec 9 when the crew was informed a human heart intended for a hospital in Seattle had not been unloaded at SeaTac Airport, aeroinside.com reports.

The crew turned around and returned to SeaTac to deliver the heart, destined for transplant surgery, about 2.5 hours after departure.

An unrelated technical issue kept the aircraft on the ground, and a replacement aircraft was brought in, delaying the Dallas flight by about eight hours.



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40 yrs for kid-in-car deaths

A 20-year-old Texas mother whose two toddlers died after she left them inside a hot vehicle overnight has been sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The Kerrville Daily Times reports that Amanda Hawkins was sentenced Wednesday for the June 2017 deaths of her two daughters in Kerrville, about 100 kilometres northwest of San Antonio.

Hawkins pleaded guilty in September to two counts of child abandonment and endangerment, and two counts of injury to a child.

Police reports show that Hawkins left her two-year-old daughter Addyson and one-year-old daughter Brynn inside her vehicle while she visited friends. Temperatures reached into the 80s while the girls were in the car.

Hawkins apologized before her sentencing, saying the deaths will affect her for the rest of her life.



Kosovo tensions rise

Serbia talked up the possibility of an armed intervention in Kosovo Friday after the parliament in Pristina overwhelmingly approved the formation of an army, with Belgrade calling the move the "most direct threat to peace and stability in the region."

While NATO's chief called Kosovo's move "ill-timed," the U.S. approved it as "Kosovo's sovereign right."

All 107 lawmakers present in the 120-seat Kosovo parliament voted in favour of passing three draft laws to expand an existing 4,000 Kosovo Security Force and turn it into a regular, lightly armed army. Ethnic Serb lawmakers boycotted the vote.

Serbia insists that the new army violates a U.N. resolution that ended Kosovo's 1998-1999 bloody war of independence. It has warned bluntly that it may respond to the move with an armed intervention in the former province, with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic saying it is "one of the options on the table."

On Friday, Nikola Selakovic, an adviser to the Serbian president, said the country could send in armed forces or declare Kosovo an occupied territory. Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Serbia will seek an urgent session of the United Nations Security Council over the issue.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also visited Serbian troops near the border with Kosovo in an apparent saber-rattling move.

Any Serbian armed intervention in Kosovo would mean a direct confrontation with thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers, including U.S. soldiers, stationed in Kosovo since 1999.

Russia, Serbia's ally, denounced the moves to form a Kosovo army, saying the ethnic Albanian force must be "disbanded" by NATO in Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move not recognized by Belgrade or its ally Russia. Tensions have remained high between the two sides, and NATO and the European Union — which has led years-long talks to improve ties between the Balkan neighbours — expressed regret that Kosovo decided to go ahead with the army formation.

"I reiterate my call on both Pristina and Belgrade to remain calm and refrain from any statements or actions which may lead to escalation," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

He said the alliance remains committed "to a safe and secure environment in Kosovo and to stability in the wider Western Balkans." He said they will "re-examine the level of NATO's engagement with the Kosovo Security Force."

The new army will preserve its current name — Kosovo Security Force — but now with a new mandate. In about a decade the army expects to have 5,000 troops and 3,000 reservists, and a 98 million-euro ($111 million) annual budget. It will handle crisis response and civil protection operations — essentially what the current paramilitary force, which is lightly armed, does. Its main tasks would be search and rescue, explosive ordnance disposal, firefighting and hazardous material disposal.

It's not immediately clear how much more equipment or weapons the new army will have compared with the current force.

Seeking to reassure Serbia and the international community, Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said the new army "will never be used against them (Serbs)." He added: "Serbia's army will now have a partner — Kosovo's army — in the partnership for peace process."

Serbia fears the move's main purpose is to chase the Serb minority out Kosovo's Serbian-dominated north, a claim strongly denied by Pristina.



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7 held in shooting probe

Investigators looking into an attack that killed three people in Strasbourg were trying to establish whether the main suspect had help while on the run, as the French city tried to return to the small joys of the festive season with the reopening of its Christmas market on Friday.

Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz, who handles terror cases throughout France, told a news conference that seven people are in police custody, including four family members of Cherif Chekatt and two who were detained on Thursday night.

The 29-year-old was shot dead Thursday during a police operation in the Neudorf neighbourhood of the city.

"We want to reconstruct the past 48 hours in order to find out whether he got some support," Heitz said.

Chekatt was suspected of killing three people near Strasbourg's Christmas market on Tuesday night. Heitz said that, in addition, "a fourth victim is brain dead. Among the 12 other wounded, there is one person in a life-threatening condition and four who remain hospitalized."

It was the latest in a series of deadly attacks that have claimed more than 200 lives in France since 2015.

On Friday the Christmas market reopened for the first time since the attack, amid tight security. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner attended the reopening and had a stroll to meet with shopkeepers.

Access to the market has been reduced while extra police officers and military have been deployed to the site, in addition to private security guards.

"This Christmas market is part of our history. It's part of our common events and belongs to all the French people," Castaner said. "And this morning, we wanted to show, as we walked down the lanes, that we always know how to get our head up again."

Heitz gave more details about the police operation that led to Chekatt's death on Thursday evening after a two-day manhunt. He said the suspect was localized after police received two crucial tipoffs from Neudorf residents. Three officers patrolling in Neudorf ultimately spotted a man corresponding to the suspect's description. He noticed their vehicle and tried unsuccessfully to enter a building. When police officers identified themselves, Chekatt turned around and opened fire.

"A projectile hit the vehicle above the left rear door, two police officers responded, shooting several times, and killed him," Heitz said.

Investigators found a gun, a knife and ammunition on Chekatt's body.

Chekatt has a long history of convictions for various crimes, including robberies. Chekatt also had been on a watch list of potential extremists. He had his first conviction at 13, and had 26 more by the time he died at age 29. He served jail time in France, Germany and Switzerland.



13 miners feared dead

Thirteen young miners were missing and feared dead following the collapse of a shaft and flooding of a coal mine they were digging illegally in India's remote northeast, police said Friday.

Rescuers were attempting to pump water out of the mine, which flooded Wednesday, police said. National Disaster Response Force workers joined local authorities in the rescue effort.

Police said rescuers can only reach the miners after the water is removed from the mine.

Those missing are believed to be teenage boys used by illegal mining groups to enter "rat hole'" mines with small openings.

They said digging at the mine was banned four years ago, but illegal and unsafe activity by private landowners and the local community is rife. The area in Meghalaya state is about 130 kilometres (80 miles) north of Shillong, the state capital.

"It was absolutely an illegal mining activity," said Conrad Sangma, the state's top elected official. He said authorities would crack down on illegal mining groups.

Last month, an activist, Agnes Kharshiing, was assaulted by people involved in illegal mining when she visited the area to protest their activities. She remains hospitalized with life-threatening head and other injuries.



Fighters take last IS town

U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led fighters captured the last town held by the Islamic State group on Friday, after days of intense battles in the militants' single remaining enclave in eastern Syria, activists said.

The fall of Hajin is a blow to the extremists. The town was their main stronghold in the last pocket of land they control in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. IS still holds some villages nearby.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been fighting to take Hajin and the surrounding villages in Deir el-Zour province for over three months. In the past weeks, the offensive intensified with the arrival of reinforcements from northern Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF took Hajin early in the morning, after fierce fighting under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. It said some IS fighters withdrew to the villages and that fighting is still going in the fields outside Hajin as SDF fighters chase the extremists.

Europe-based activist Omar Abu Layla of the DeirEzzor 24 monitoring group confirmed that the town was taken, adding that some IS fighters are still holed up in small pockets on the edge of Hajin.

Aby Layla said that in IS ranks, disagreements over hierarchy and posts between Iraqi and Syrian fighters helped "speed up the collapse" of IS defences in Hajin.

Nuri Mehmud, spokesman of the Syrian Kurdish militia known as People's Protection Units or YPG — the main component of SDF — said "intense fighting" is still ongoing in small parts of Hajin.

The area was home to some 15,000 people, including 2,000 IS gunmen who fought back with counteroffensives and suicide attacks. Over the past days, hundreds of civilians were able to flee the enclave toward areas controlled by the SDF east of the Euphrates River and government-controlled regions on the river's west bank.

The Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, denounced Turkey's threat of a military operation against YPG and called on Syrians of all ethnic and religious groups to unite ahead of a possible Turkish attack.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intensified his criticism of U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters, saying Friday that Turkey would clear the key northern town of Manbij. Over the summer, the two NATO allies had struck a "road map" for Manbij to remove YPG, which Turkey considers a terror organization linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

Erdogan argued the United States has not kept its promises to push YPG east of the Euphrates River.



7-year-old dies after arrest

A 7-year-old girl who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her father last week died after being taken into the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol, federal immigration authorities confirmed Thursday.

The Washington Post reports the girl died of dehydration and shock more than eight hours after she was arrested by agents near Lordsburg, New Mexico. The girl was from Guatemala and was travelling with a group of 163 people who approached agents to turn themselves in on Dec. 6.

It's unknown what happened to the girl during the eight hours before she started having seizures and was flown to an El Paso hospital.

In a statement, Customs and Border Protection said the girl had not eaten or consumed water in several days.

The agency did not provide The Associated Press with the statement it gave to the Post, despite repeated requests.

Processing 163 immigrants in one night could have posed challenges for the agency, whose detention facilities are meant to be temporary and don't usually fit that many people.

When a Border Patrol agent arrests someone, that person gets processed at a facility but usually spends no more than 72 hours in custody before they are either transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, if they're Mexican, quickly deported home.

The girl's death raises questions about whether border agents knew she was ill and whether she was fed anything or given anything to drink during the eight-plus hours she was in custody.

Immigrants, attorneys and activists have long raised issues with the conditions of Border Patrol holding cells. In Tucson, an ongoing lawsuit claims holding cells are filthy, extremely cold and lacking basic necessities such as blankets. A judge overseeing that lawsuit has ordered the agency's Tucson Sector, which patrols much of the Arizona-Mexico border, to provide blankets and mats to sleep on and to continually turn over surveillance footage from inside the cells.

The Border Patrol has seen an increasing trend of large groups of immigrants, many with young children, walking up to agents and turning themselves in. Most are Central American and say they are fleeing violence. They turn themselves in instead of trying to circumvent authorities, many with plans to apply for asylum.



Priest pays it forward

Father Jim Sichko has a 50-state congregation and a simple mandate from the pope: Go forth and do good deeds.

That's why the Roman Catholic priest found himself standing by the drive-thru of a popular Hollywood fast-food joint on a recent windy, rain-swept afternoon buying lunch for everyone who stopped by. The next day he'd be at a gas station in Kentucky, topping off people's tanks. Then it would be on to Arizona where he would — well, he wasn't quite sure what he'd do there, but he'd think of something.

At a Starbucks last Christmas, he tipped each of the baristas $100 after learning the annual brouhaha over whether the coffee chain's holiday cups are Christmassy enough had caused tips to plummet.

Sichko is a papal missionary of mercy, a rarified group of 700 from around the world, including several from the United States, who were appointed directly by Pope Francis in celebration of a "Jubilee of Mercy" that began in December 2015 and has since been extended indefinitely.

Missionaries were assigned to travel the world spreading kindness, forgiveness, joy and mercy to everyone they encountered. Some responded by using their newly granted authority from the pope to perform confession and forgiveness of sins basically anywhere at any time. Others took to radio airwaves or retreats to offer messages of joy.

Sichko, a Kentucky-based preacher, came up with an idea different from the others and got his bishop at the Diocese of Lexington to sign off on it: He'd travel his country performing random acts of kindness in all 50 states.

He's provided groceries for half a year to a man with HIV and paid for medical services for a struggling Muslim family. This Christmas, he's headed to an elementary school in Corbin, Kentucky, where more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty. There he'll surprise the school's 100 second-graders with shiny new bicycles.

"The first question people ask is, 'Why are you doing this?'" Sichko says between bites of his double-double cheeseburger at the crowded In N' Out restaurant down the street from the Hollywood Walk of Fame where he'd just bought lunch for everybody.

"My question," the balding, bespectacled 51-year-old cleric adds with a smile, "is why not?

"My approach is not so much speaking about the word of God, although I do a lot of that, but showing the presence of God through acts of kindness that kind of shock the individual and kind of cause them to, maybe cause them to stop for a little bit," he said. "Or maybe, which I hope, to again bring kindness to others."

He is candid in saying the church itself has much work to do in restoring its image after years of priestly sex and pedophilia scandals that he calls "horrific and tragic and disgusting."



Baby beats Ebola

They call her the "young miracle." A baby who was admitted to an Ebola treatment centre just six days after birth is now recovered from the virus.

Congo's health ministry calls the baby the youngest survivor in what is now the world's second-deadliest Ebola outbreak.

The ministry late Thursday tweeted a photo of the infant, swaddled and with tiny mouth open in yawn or squall, surrounded by caregivers who watched over her 24 hours a day for weeks.

The baby's mother, who had Ebola, died in childbirth, the ministry said.

The infant was discharged from the treatment centre in Beni on Wednesday. "She went home in the arms of her father and her aunt," the ministry said.

Experts have reported worryingly high numbers of children with Ebola in this outbreak, which Congo's health ministry says now has 515 cases, 467 of them confirmed, including 255 confirmed deaths.

The tiny survivor is named Benedicte. In video footage shared by UNICEF, she is shown in an isolated treatment area, cradled in the arms of health workers in protective gear or cuddled by Ebola survivors, called "nounous," who can go without certain gear such as masks. The survivors are crucial with their reassuring presence, the health ministry said.

"This is my first child," her father, Thomas, says. "I truly don't want to lose her. She is my hope." He gazes at his daughter through the clear protective plastic.

Children now account for more than one-third of all cases in this outbreak, UNICEF said earlier this week. One in 10 Ebola cases is in a child under 5 years old, it said, and children who contract the hemorrhagic fever are at greater risk of dying than adults.

While Ebola typically infects adults, as they are most likely to be exposed to the lethal virus, children have been known in some instances to catch the disease when they act as caregivers.



Trump's hush money

Shaken and facing a prison term, President Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer said Friday that Trump directed him to buy the silence of two women during the 2016 campaign because he was concerned about how their stories of alleged affairs with him "would affect the election."

Michael Cohen — who for more than a decade was a key power player in the Trump Organization and a fixture in Trump's political life — said he "gave loyalty to someone who, truthfully, does not deserve loyalty." Cohen spoke in an interview with ABC that aired Friday on "Good Morning America."

Speaking to ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Cohen appeared shaken over the series of events that swiftly took him from Trump's "fixer" to a man facing three years in prison.

"I am done with the lying," Cohen said. "I am done being loyal to President Trump."

He added: "I will not be the villain of this story."

Cohen was sentenced Wednesday to three years in federal prison. He pleaded guilty to several charges, including campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. Prosecutors have said Trump directed Cohen to arrange the payments to buy the silence of porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal in the run-up to the 2016 campaign.

Asked whether the president also knew it was wrong to make the payments, Cohen said, "Of course." But Cohen did not provide any specific evidence or detail in the interview except to say that Trump "directed me to make the payments, he directed me to become involved in these matters."

Trump has denied that he directed Cohen to break the law and has asserted in a barrage of tweets over the last several weeks that Cohen is a "liar" who cut a deal in order to get a reduced prison sentence.

"He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth," Cohen said. "And here is the truth: People of the United States of America, people of the world, don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth. And it is sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds."

In a separate case, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his work on a possible Trump real estate project in Moscow and said he did so to be consistent with Trump's "political messaging."

The charges in that case were brought by special counsel Robert Mueller's office and Mueller's prosecutors have said Cohen has provided key information in their investigation. Cohen has said he is continuing to co-operate with investigators.



Boy Scouts bankrupt?

The Boy Scouts of America deflected questions about a report suggesting it is considering seeking bankruptcy protection, though the head of the organization said it is exploring "all options" as it tries to stay afloat while facing sexual abuse lawsuits and dwindling membership.

"I want to assure you that our daily mission will continue and that there are no imminent actions or immediate decisions expected," Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh said in a statement issued Wednesday evening.

Surbaugh was responding to a Wall Street Journal report that the BSA, founded in 1910, had hired a law firm to assist in a possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. He described the report as "news speculation," but he acknowledged that the group is "working with experts to explore all options available" as well as the pressures arising from multiple lawsuits related to past instances of sexual abuse.

"We have a social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse during their time in Scouting, and we also have an obligation to carry out our mission to serve youth, families and local communities through our programs," Surbaugh said.

Other institutions facing multifaceted sexual abuse scandals have sought bankruptcy protection recently. USA Gymnastics took the step last week as it attempts to settle dozens of lawsuits related to abuse by now-imprisoned gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. About 20 Roman Catholic dioceses and other religious orders around the U.S. have previously filed for bankruptcy protection as a result of clergy sexual abuse claims.

Surbaugh apologized on behalf of the BSA to those abused during their time in the Boy Scouts.

"We have always taken care of victims — we believe them, we believe in fairly compensating them and we have paid for unlimited counselling, by a provider of their choice, regardless of the amount of time that has passed since an instance of abuse," he said. "Throughout our history we have taken proactive steps to help victims heal and prevent future abuse."

In addition to abuse-related litigation, the Boy Scouts have been trying to reverse a decline in membership. The organizations' current youth participation is about 2.3 million, down from 2.6 million in 2013 and more than 4 million in peak years of the past.

In a major step toward revitalization, the BSA is moving to open all its programs to girls, but even that has caused problems.

Last month, the Girl Scouts of the USA filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the BSA for dropping the word "boy" from its flagship program in an effort to attract girls.

That suit was in response to the BSA's decision to rename its program for 11- to 17-year-olds; it will be called Scouts BSA rather than the Boy Scouts, though the parent organization will remain the Boy Scouts of America.

Paul Mones, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who has handled many sex-abuse lawsuits targeting the BSA, said the organization has assets of more than $1 billion, but has been under increasing pressure from litigation as public awareness of sexual abuse intensifies.

Mones was co-counsel in a 2010 sexual abuse case in Portland, Oregon, that led to a nearly $20 million judgment against the BSA on behalf of a man molested by a Scout leader in the 1980s. As a result of that case, the Oregon Supreme Court ordered the BSA to release previously confidential files on suspected abusers.



Gunman killed in shootout

UPDATE 1:35 p.m.

A top French official says a man has been killed in a shootout with police in Strasbourg, but he has not been confirmed as the suspected gunman who killed three people near a Christmas market.

The official, who could not be named because the operation was ongoing, said the dead man opened fire on police Thursday night and officers fired back, killing him.

A local police official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said the man who opened fire was armed with a pistol and a knife.

The shooting occurred in the Neudorf neighbourhood of Strasbourg, where police searched intensively earlier Thursday for Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year-old suspected of being the Christmas market gunman.

Chekatt is accused of killing three people and wounded 13 on Tuesday night. More than 700 officers were deployed to find Chekatt, who had a long criminal record and had been flagged for extremism, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews television.

Asked about the instructions they received, Griveaux said the focus was catching Chekatt "as soon as possible," dead or alive, and to "put an end to the manhunt."

Security forces, including the elite Raid squad, spent two hours searching in Neudorf on Thursday based on "supposition only" that Chekatt could have been hiding in a building nearby two days after the attack, a French police official said. Chekatt grew up in Neudorf.


ORIGINAL 5:46 a.m.

French security forces were trying to catch the suspected Strasbourg gunman dead or alive, an official said Thursday, two days after an attack near the city's Christmas market.

Local authorities, meanwhile, increased the death toll to three. The attack wounded 13 others, including five in serious condition, the prefecture of the Strasbourg region said.

More than 700 officers were involved in the manhunt for 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, who had been flagged for extremism, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews television.

Prosecutors have opened a terror investigation into Tuesday's attack.

Police have distributed a photo of Chekatt, who was wounded in an exchange of fire with security forces, with the warning: "Individual dangerous, above all do not intervene."

The government raised the terror alert level nationwide and deployed 1,800 additional soldiers across France to help patrol streets and secure crowded events.



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