- Anger grows over fuel shortage in storm-hit U.S. Northeast
- Obama, Romney take aim at key Midwestern swing states
- Uganda says to pull out troops from Somalia over Congo charges
Posted: 02 Nov 2012 07:18 PM PDT
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tempers frayed in long gas lines and millions were still without electricity across the U.S. Northeast on Friday as the death toll from superstorm Sandy hit 102 and crews searched for more victims in devastated communities in New York and New Jersey.
The U.S. government moved to ease the fuel crunch by tapping strategic reserves and buying millions of gallons of gasoline and diesel to be trucked to storm-damaged areas.
With the U.S. presidential election four days away, television and newspaper images of angry storm victims could affect the campaign. President Barack Obama, locked in a tight race with Republican rival Mitt Romney, has so far generally received praise for his handling of the storm.
New York City cancelled its annual marathon in the face of mounting anger as utilities restored power to about a million East Coast homes and businesses but still had about 3.5 million customers in the dark four days after Sandy hit the U.S. coast.
New Jersey natives Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, along with Sting and a host of others, staged a televised benefit concert on Friday to raise money for victims of Sandy.
The massive storm, which combined a Caribbean hurricane with another powerful weather system, brought 80 mile-per-hour (130-kph) winds and a record surge of seawater to Manhattan, Staten Island and coastal towns on Monday, sweeping homes from their foundations, shattering piers and swamping subway tunnels.
Forty-one died in New York City, about half of them in Staten Island, which was overrun by a wall of water.
Acute gasoline shortages led to long lines and short tempers across the region. In a move to ease the shortage, the Obama administration directed the Defense Logistics Agency to buy up to 12 million gallons (45 million litres) of unleaded fuel and 10 million gallons (38 million litres) of diesel for distribution to areas affected by Sandy.
The government also waived rules that barred foreign-flagged ships from taking gas, diesel and other products from the Gulf of Mexico to Northeast ports, and said it would tap strategic reserves for diesel for the Defense Department to distribute to emergency responders.
"There should be a real change in conditions and people should see it quickly," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
Starting before dawn on Friday, long lines of cars snaked around gasoline stations in scenes reminiscent of the energy shortage of the 1970s. Some of the lines stretched for miles.
"It's a catastrophe," said Anthony Ennab, a 21-year-old student, as he waited in line at a Staten Island gas station with a container. "If I had an emergency, I would have no gas."
Police were in place at many locations to keep the peace between frustrated drivers. On Thursday, a man who attempted to cut in line was charged with threatening another driver with a gun in the borough of Queens.
Less than half of all gas stations in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey operated on Thursday because of power outages and limited supplies.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered gas rationing in 12 counties to begin on Saturday.
'BREAKS YOUR HEART'
Sandy started as a late-season hurricane in the Caribbean, where it killed 69 people. At its peak, it stretched from the Carolinas to Connecticut and was the largest storm by area to hit the United States in decades.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he had spoken to the father of two boys, aged 2 and 4, who were swept from their mother's arms as she tried to escape rising waters on Staten Island. Their father is a sanitation worker and was helping the city respond to the storm when it happened, Bloomberg said.
"It just breaks your heart to even think about it," Bloomberg said on Friday. "While life in much of our city is getting back to normal, for New Yorkers that have lost loved ones, the storm left a wound that I think will never heal."
Search crews scoured beaches and went house-to-house in Staten Island and other neighbourhoods in New York and New Jersey looking for bodies.
In Brooklyn's Coney Island, home to a large Russian immigrant community, Anna Ladd's basement still was swamped and she had no power or gas. Ladd, 62, has applied to the government for help but was wary of what aid, if any, she would receive.
"We have a saying in Russia - when someone promises something, you have to wait three more years until they deliver," she said.
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano visited Staten Island on Friday amid angry assertions by some residents that the New York City borough had been ignored.
"A lot of people are hurting and we want to work through the next days and hours to get people on their feet as quickly as possible," Napolitano told reporters.
'CONTROVERSY AND DIVISION'
Bloomberg reversed an earlier decision to go ahead with the marathon, which was expected to draw more than 40,000 runners, after rising criticism from residents who said the city should focus on recovery. He said the race had become a source of "controversy and division."
Runner Arthur Sorenson, 51, expressed disappointment at the news but said he would put his energy into fixing his Long Island home, which was swamped by Sandy's storm surge.
"All the nasty things that were written and tweeted. It's a race, people!" Sorenson said. "I just wonder if all the people who opposed the marathon so much will use that energy for good."
But Michael Cremer, 45, a benefits consultant, said before the cancellation was announced that the marathon had become a "symbol of insensitivity" to Staten Island.
"Staten Islanders feel like the forgotten people," Cremer said. "The thing about the marathon is just mind-boggling and people here are just extremely angry. ... The insensitivity of Mayor Bloomberg is just unbelievable."
Much of lower Manhattan still lacked power and subway service on Friday, while midtown and uptown Manhattan were close to normal. Power was expected to be restored throughout Manhattan by Saturday, but it could be a week or more in suburbs and more distant towns along the coast.
Disaster modelling company Eqecat estimated Sandy caused up to $20 billion in insured losses and $50 billion in economic losses, double its previous forecast.
At the high end of the range, Sandy would rank as the fourth costliest U.S. catastrophe, according to the Insurance Information Institute, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the September 11, 2001, attacks and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus throughout the U.S. Northeast; Writing by Daniel Trotta, Michelle Nichols and Jim Loney; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 02 Nov 2012 06:21 PM PDT
HILLIARD, Ohio (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney made late pitches in the political battlegrounds of the upper Midwest on Friday, a region likely to decide the winner in next week's closely fought election for the White House.
In duelling campaign appearances in the swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin, the two contenders battled over the economy on a day when the government reported the jobless rate ticked up to 7.9 percent in October but that employers stepped up their hiring.
In Wisconsin, where polls show Romney trailing Obama, the Republican laid out the case for his election and said the jobs report was more evidence of the president's failing leadership.
"The question of this election comes down to this: do you want more of the same or do you want real change?" Romney said in a suburb of Milwaukee after getting the endorsement of former Green Bay Packers star quarterback Bart Starr.
Romney stepped up his attack at two stops in Ohio, including a huge rally in West Chester, a community near Cincinnati, where Kid Rock warmed up the crowd with the Romney signature song, "Born Free," and a host of Republican leaders spoke.
"Your state is the one I'm counting on," Romney told thousands of cheering supporters on a chilly night. "This is the one we have to win."
With four days left until Tuesday's election, Obama and Romney are essentially tied in national polls, but the president holds a slight edge in the battleground states that are crucial to gaining the 270 electoral votes needed to win.
On a stop in Ohio, the most heavily contested swing state and a vital cog in the electoral math for both candidates, Obama said the jobs report was evidence "we have made real progress."
Obama, whose federal rescue of the auto industry has been popular in a state where one in eight jobs is auto industry-related, hammered Romney for a recent statement that Chrysler planned to move Jeep production to China.
Chrysler has refuted that, noting it was adding workers to build more Jeeps in Ohio, and the two campaigns have aired advertisements over the issue. Obama said Romney, who opposed a government auto bailout, was trying to scare workers in a desperate bid to make up ground in Ohio.
"I know we're close to an election, but this isn't a game. These are people's jobs, these are people's lives," Obama said. "You don't scare hard-working Americans just to scare up some votes."
Obama's advisers said the Jeep controversy, which has featured heavily in the state's media, had helped the president solidify his lead in Ohio.
"We all felt prior to this week we were in very solid shape in the state of Ohio, and our expectation is that our position's been strengthened by this," White House senior adviser David Plouffe told reporters.
While campaigning in the Midwestern heartland, Obama's team was casting an eye on the Northeast where New York-area motorists were scrambling for gasoline on a third day of panic buying after the storm Sandy devastated the area.
Obama won plaudits for turning his attention to storm relief earlier this week, but growing frustration among victims could hurt the Democrat if the federal response is deemed unsatisfactory.
A variety of state polls show Obama still has slight leads in four states - Ohio, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin - that would give him 277 electoral votes, barring any surprises elsewhere.
Obama plans to visit Ohio each of the next three days, and will close the campaign on Monday with a swing through his Midwestern safety net of Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa.
'LOCK IT IN'
"We want to make sure we lock it in and that it's definitely in our column," Obama senior adviser Robert Gibbs said on "CBS This Morning," when asked why Obama was focusing so much on Wisconsin if he had a solid lead there.
Romney needs a breakthrough in one of those Midwestern states, or an upset in another state where Obama is even more heavily favoured, to have a shot at making his electoral math work.
Romney is within striking distance of Obama in four other states with a combined 55 electoral votes - Florida, Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire.
A series of Reuters/Ipsos online state polls found Obama led Romney among likely voters by a narrow margin of 3 percentage points in Virginia and 2 points in Ohio and Florida. They were tied in Colorado.
The Romney campaign launched ads this week in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota - Democratic-leaning states where Obama's lead has dwindled in recent weeks - in an effort to expand the playing field, and Romney will visit Pennsylvania on Sunday.
Republicans say the move is a sign of momentum, while Democrats call it a sign of desperation.
"By every metric, the Obama campaign is doing far worse than they were four years ago. They will continue playing defence on turf they once took for granted - Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania," Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said.
With the polls so close and the outcome unpredictable, both campaigns made plans for a final weekend of get-out-the-vote efforts, focusing on getting their base supporters to the polls and reaching out to independents and the last undecideds.
Romney headed to Ohio after starting the day in Wisconsin, and told voters in both states that Obama had failed to bridge the partisan divide and would be unable to work with Congress and break the gridlock in Washington.
"He promised he'd have a post-partisan presidency but it's the most partisan I've seen," Romney said during a visit to a machine factory in Etna, Ohio. "I will not represent one party, I will represent one nation."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Romney's conservative agenda had already been rejected by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate and accused him of having a "terrible" relationship with Democrats when he was Massachusetts governor.
"Mitt Romney's fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his 'severely conservative' agenda is laughable," Reid said in a statement. "Senate Democrats are committed to defending the middle class, and we will do everything in our power to defend them against Mitt Romney's Tea Party agenda."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in West Chester, Ohio, and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)
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Copyright © 2012 Reuters
Posted: 02 Nov 2012 06:09 PM PDT
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda will tell the United Nations it is withdrawing its forces from military operations in Somalia and other regional hotspots after the world body accused it of supporting Congolese rebels, the security minister said on Friday.
Minister Wilson Mukasa said the decision was irreversible and another Cabinet minister would explain Uganda's position at the United Nations in New York. However, it was not immediately clear if an irrevocable decision had been taken.
U.N. diplomats told Reuters the Ugandan delegation, which was led by Ruhakana Rugunda, special envoy and minister of information and communications technology, did not threaten to withdraw troops from international peacekeeping missions during discussions with U.N. officials in New York this week.
A read-out of the Ugandan delegation's meeting on Friday with Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, the president of the U.N. Security Council this month, also made no mention of threats to pull out troops. The information was made available to Reuters by India's U.N. mission.
Ugandan troops account for more than a third of the 17,600 U.N.-mandated African peacekeepers battling al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels in Somalia and their withdrawal could hand an advantage to al Shabaab.
Its soldiers, backed by U.S. special forces, are also leading the hunt for fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony in Central African Republic, with some stationed in South Sudan.
In a leaked report, a U.N. Group of Experts last month accused Uganda and Rwanda of supporting the so-called M23 rebel group commanded by Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord indicted by the International Criminal Court nicknamed "the Terminator".
India's statement said the Ugandan delegation expressed "grave concern" about the report of the Group of Experts, and added that the Security Council's Congo sanctions committee had yet to formally consider the experts' report.
Puri noted that "views expressed by the independent experts do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations," the statement said. It added that Uganda was an important U.N. troop contributor playing a vital role in Somalia and elsewhere.
'TIRED OF BEING MALIGNED'
Mukasa said Uganda would withdraw troops from Somalia, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo to concentrate on domestic security.
"We are tired of being maligned even after sacrifices have been made to ensure that our friends, our neighbours are okay. The 'thank you' we get is that you are now aiding this, you are this and that, so we are tired," he told reporters in Kampala.
A Ugandan army spokesman, Felix Kulayigye, said the military had received no orders yet but was ready to act when it did.
"We'll not stay an extra day in Somalia when we get that order," he said.
U.N. diplomats said it was not clear whether Uganda meant the threats seriously or was merely trying to pressure Security Council members from taking action on the Group of Experts' recommendations. The experts called for U.N. sanctions against individuals supporting the M23 rebels.
The African force has been vital to propping up a string of interim governments in Somalia and driving al Shabaab militants from all their urban strongholds over the last 15 months, including the capital, Mogadishu, and southern port of Kismayu.
A sudden reduction in its numbers, especially in Mogadishu, would risk unravelling the security gains that allowed the first presidential elections in more than four decades to be held in the capital in September.
Somalia's poorly equipped and ill-disciplined army is more a loose affiliation of rival militias than a cohesive fighting force loyal to a single president.
Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al Shabaab's military operation, said it was unaware of Uganda's intention to withdraw and it would keep fighting the African peacekeepers.
"After Ugandans leave, what else, it will be easier to fight the remaining invaders. We shall finish them," he told Reuters.
Uganda has earned significant Western support for deploying its soldiers to a war zone few foreign powers outside the region have the stomach for.
It also benefits financially for its AMISOM contribution while at the same time a troop presence in Somalia, Central African Republic and South Sudan gives the Ugandan military a big footprint across the region.
"It's just politics and playing to the gallery. They won't pull out. Things will be quietly settled behind closed doors with perhaps future reports not being so critical," said London-based Somali-analyst Hamza Mohamed.
The confidential 44-page report by the U.N. Security Council's Group of Experts, a body that monitors compliance with the U.N. sanctions and arms embargo in place for Congo, said M23 has expanded territory under its control, stepped up recruitment of child soldiers and summarily executed recruits and prisoners.
The report said Rwandan officials coordinated the setting up of the rebel movement as well as its military operations. Uganda's more subtle support to M23 allowed its political branch to operate from within Kampala.
Uganda and Rwanda have repeatedly denied the accusations.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York, Drazen Jorgic and Yara Bayoumy in Nairobi, Feisal Omar and Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu; Justin Dralaze in Kampala; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by James Macharia and David Brunnstrom)
Copyright © 2012 Reuters
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