AP News in Brief at 9:04 p.m. EST


Massive fireworks market blast kills at least 26 in Mexico

TULTEPEC, Mexico (AP) — A powerful chain-reaction explosion ripped through Mexico’s best-known fireworks market on the northern outskirts of the capital Tuesday, killing at least 26 people, injuring scores more and sending a huge plume of charcoal-gray smoke billowing into the sky.

The blast leveled the open-air San Pablito Market in Tultepec in the middle of the afternoon as it bustled with shoppers stocking up on fireworks to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s, reducing vendors’ stands to piles of rubble, ash, and charred metal. It was the third devastating explosion and fire to ravage the market since 2005.

Crescencia Francisco Garcia said she was in the middle of the grid of stalls along with a few hundred others when the thunderous explosions began. She froze, reflexively looked up at the sky and then took off running through the smoke once she realized everyone was doing so. As she ran she saw people with burns and cuts, and lots of blood.

“Everything was catching fire. Everything was exploding,” Francisco said. “The stones were flying, pieces of brick, everything was flying.”

Alejandro Gomez, chief prosecutor of the state of Mexico, raised the death toll from nine to 26 in comments broadcast on Mexican television. At least 70 injuries were reported. Authorities have not yet said what caused the explosion.

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Islamic State claims Berlin Christmas market attack

BERLIN (AP) — The Islamic State group claimed responsibility Tuesday for a truck attack on a crowded Berlin Christmas market that German authorities said came right out of the extremist group’s playbook, inflicting mass casualties on a soft target fraught with symbolic meaning.

The Monday night attack on the popular market by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in the heart of former West Berlin left 12 dead and 48 injured — the first mass casualty attack by Islamic extremists carried out on German soil. German security forces were still hunting for the perpetrator after releasing a man from custody for lack of evidence.

The claim of responsibility carried on the Islamic State group’s Amaq news agency described the man seen fleeing from the truck as “a soldier of the Islamic State” who “carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting citizens of the Crusader coalition.”

Germany is not involved in anti-IS combat operations, but has Tornado jets and a refueling plane stationed in Turkey in support of the coalition fighting militants in Syria, as well as a frigate protecting a French aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, among other assets.

The claim of responsibility came not long after German prosecutors said they had released a man picked up near the scene of the attack, initially suspected of driving the truck.

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Berlin attack may make Merkel’s re-election quest rougher

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel already knew that her campaign for a fourth term as Germany’s leader will be her most difficult yet. The deadly truck attack on a Christmas market may have made it tougher — and is already polarizing opinion.

A nationalist party that has assailed Merkel’s acceptance of migrants leapt on events in Berlin well before authorities even concluded that the incident was an attack, with a prominent member proclaiming the 12 victims to be “Merkel’s dead.”

Monday’s attack also threatened to rekindle tensions between Merkel and Bavarian conservative allies, who have sniped at her migrant policies and demanded a cap on the number of newcomers that Germany will accept, and whose supporters are an important source of votes.

A man arrested after the truck attack Monday night in Berlin and initially treated as a suspect came from Pakistan and registered as an asylum-seeker in Germany last year. Later Tuesday, he was released for lack of evidence tying him to the attack.

Merkel said it would be “particularly sickening” if the assailant were confirmed to be an asylum-seeker — both for Germans who help refugees and “for the many people who really need our help and are making an effort to integrate in our country.”

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Turkey and Russia probe slaying of envoy in Ankara gallery

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Investigators from Turkey and Russia hunted for clues Tuesday in the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in front of stunned onlookers at a photo exhibition in Ankara.

A team of 18 Russian investigators and foreign ministry officials arrived in Turkey and began inspecting the art gallery where the shooting of Andrei Karlov took place.

Central to the joint Turkish-Russian investigation is whether Mevlut Mert Altintas, a member of Ankara’s riot police squad, planned the attack alone.

One senior Turkish government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release details to the press, said it was unlikely Altintas acted alone.

The official said the killing had all the marks of being “fully professional, not a one-man action.”

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Obama bans future oil leases in much of Arctic, Atlantic

HONOLULU (AP) — President Barack Obama on Tuesday designated the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean as indefinitely off limits to future oil and gas leasing.

The move helps put some finishing touches on Obama’s environmental legacy while also testing President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to unleash the nation’s untapped energy reserves.

The White House announced the actions in conjunction with the government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which also placed a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in its Arctic waters, subject to periodic review.

Obama is making use of an arcane provision in a 1953 law to ban offshore leases in the waters permanently. The statute says that “the president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.”

Environmental groups hope the ban, despite relying on executive powers, will be difficult for future presidents to reverse. The White House said it’s confident the president’s order will withstand legal challenge and said the language of the statute provides no authority for subsequent presidents to undo permanent withdrawals.

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Trump family drops access offered for charity donations

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump’s children may see his move to the White House as a way to raise money for their favorite causes.

Two recent fundraising pitches featuring the incoming first family were meant to benefit charities, but they also raised questions among ethics experts that the Trumps might be inappropriately selling access.

Last week, Eric Trump tried auctioning a coffee date with his sister Ivanka to raise money for a children’s hospital. Now, Eric and Donald Trump Jr. are part of a venture that initially offered a private reception with their father during inauguration weekend in exchange for $1 million donations that would go to conservation charities. Some of those contributors could later go hunting or fishing with one or both of the sons, the invitation promised.

These events are dissolving as quickly as they become public, suggesting the family is learning on the fly what’s acceptable.

Trump aides say the Trump family has been focused on resolving the perception of conflicts when it comes to Trump’s business; how to handle their charitable endeavors has been a secondary concern. But in light of recent events, the Trump team is looking more quickly for solutions, said a Trump transition official, speaking on condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.

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Russia, Iran, Turkey cast themselves as deal-makers in Syria

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia, Turkey and Iran cast themselves as the essential deal-makers in Syria on Tuesday, saying at a trilateral meeting in Moscow that their cooperation could pave the way for a future settlement in Syria.

The meeting of foreign and defense ministers of the three nations that previously backed the opposing sides in the nearly six-year conflict reflected a shared interest in brokering a compromise. The talks come a day after the killing of the Russian ambassador in Turkey, but Moscow and Ankara vowed that the attack wouldn’t hurt their rapprochement.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after the talks that the three nations believe their efforts could overcome the “stagnation” in the Syrian peace process.

“The format you see today is the most efficient one,” Lavrov said. “It’s not an attempt to cast a shadow on the efforts taken by our other partners, it’s just stating the facts.”

He cited the evacuation of civilians and rebels from Aleppo, brokered by Moscow and Ankara, as proof of the efficiency of the trilateral cooperation. “More than any others, our states are ready to help the settlement with real deeds and not just words,” he said.

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It’s a tough time in Oklahoma, except for Scott Pruitt

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The last few years have been grindingly tough for state government in Oklahoma as plunging oil prices decimated tax revenues, forcing agencies to lay off employees, shutter offices and scale back services.

But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the office of Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to become director of the Environmental Protection Agency. While living in the same harsh fiscal climate and preaching small-government conservatism, Pruitt has managed to increase his office’s expenses by 40 percent and add nearly 60 employees since taking over, creating a dynamo for legal attacks on the Obama administration and a launching pad for his political career.

Ambitious conservatives abound in deep-red Oklahoma, but the 48-year-old Pruitt has become known for an extraordinary talent for expanding his power and budget. This drive and ingenuity will soon be trained on a federal agency that has long been a nemesis for the GOP’s right wing.

“He’s known to be a fighter,” said Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, whose own general counsel was pushed out after Pruitt made him a target over several flawed executions. “He’s taken stances and led the charge.”

And he’s not worried about appearances.

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Trump hosts candidates for key Veterans Affairs post

PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President-elect Donald Trump met Tuesday met with candidates for his unfilled Cabinet positions, including prospective hires to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, a beleaguered agency that the Republican businessman has vowed to overhaul.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence met with members of his incoming national security team a day after acts of violence rocked the world.

At Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s palatial Florida estate, the president-elect met with Luis Quinonez, who runs a company with military and health care ties and is said to be under consideration for VA secretary. He also interviewed Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, who was a top contender to replace Eric Shinseki when he resigned at the VA in 2014. Cosgrove later withdrew from consideration.

Trump repeatedly pledged during the campaign to fix the woes at the department and said he would “take care of great veterans.” But he also came under scrutiny for being slow in paying out money raised for veterans groups and for suggesting that “strong” veterans don’t need treatment for mental health problems.

Others said to be considered for the post include former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, Florida Rep. Jeff Miller and Pete Hegseth, an Army veteran and former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.

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McConnell rejects calls for select panel on Russian meddling

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is rejecting bipartisan calls for a special committee to investigate Russian interference in the U.S. election, which American intelligence says was aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The likely meddling by Russia “is a serious issue, but it doesn’t require a select committee,” said McConnell, R-Ky. The Senate intelligence committee is able to investigate the matter, he added.

CIA Director John Brennan has said the intelligence community is in agreement that Russia tried to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, although there’s no evidence Moscow succeeded in helping Trump win.

“There’s no question that the Russians were messing around in our election,” McConnell told Kentucky Educational Television on Monday night. “It is a matter of genuine concern and it needs to be investigated.”

Still, McConnell said the issue should be investigated in “regular order” by the Senate intelligence panel, which is “fully capable of handling this.”

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