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AP Top News at 3:23 a.m. EST

Colleagues paint caustic portrait of artist colony founder
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The founder of a ramshackle Oakland artists' colony where dozens of people burned to death saw himself as a kind of guru and loved to surround himself with followers but showed chilling disregard for their well-being, according to relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Derick Ion Almena, 46, leased and operated the cluttered warehouse where fire erupted Friday night during a dance party, leaving at least 36 people dead in the nation's most lethal building fire in over a decade. In his first interview since the fire, Almena told San Jose television station KNTV that he felt himself to be like a grandfather to all the young artists who had lived in the warehouse with his family,


No experience needed: Trump taps Carson for HUD secretary
NEW YORK (AP) - Donald Trump chose retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson on Monday to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, raising fresh concerns about the lack of experience some of Trump's Cabinet picks have with agencies they're now being chosen to lead. Carson, who opposed Trump in the Republican primaries, has no background in government or running a large bureaucracy. In addition, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump's choice to be ambassador to the United Nations, has no foreign policy experience. Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner and Hollywood executive, is Trump's man to lead the Treasury Department but has never worked in government.


Ransomed: The freeing of 226 Christians from Islamic State
SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) - The millions in ransom money came in dollar by dollar, euro by euro from around the world. The donations, raised from church offerings, a Christmas concert, and the diaspora of Assyrian Christians on Facebook, landed in a bank account in Iraq. Its ultimate destination: the Islamic State group. Deep inside Syria, a bishop worked around the blurred edges of international law to save the lives of more than 200 people - one of the largest groups of hostages yet documented in IS's war in Syria and Iraq. It took more than a year, and videotaped killings of three captives, before all the rest were freed.


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Cuba starts return to normal as mourning for Castro ends
HAVANA (AP) - Music is playing in the streets again. Tourists are sipping mojitos at sidewalk cafes. Flags are flapping at full staff. After nine days of national mourning for Fidel Castro, Cuba is slowly returning to noisy, boisterous normality. Cuba is a country where sidewalks serve as living rooms and social clubs, but during the mourning period people mostly stayed indoors, watching television and avoiding any appearance of joviality. With a government ban on selling alcohol and on playing live or recorded music after Castro's death, Cubans paid tribute to their longtime leader in near silence. They filed by the hundreds of thousands through special sites equipped with photos of Castro as a young guerrilla and books where people could separately sign both their condolences and an oath of loyalty to Castro's socialist, single-party system.


Oil industry urges Trump to approve Dakota Access pipeline
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Industry leaders are urging President-elect Donald Trump to make approval of the disputed Dakota Access oil pipeline a priority when he takes office next month, but a spokesman for Trump isn't offering many clues about how the incoming president might act. Meanwhile, the leader of the Standing Rock Sioux is calling on pipeline opponents to leave a camp in southern North Dakota where they've been protesting for months, as dangerous winter weather sets in. Many are vowing to stay, however. Here's a guide to the latest developments and key background about the protest: --- THE TRUMP FACTOR Two industry groups are calling on Trump to pave the way for the pipeline's completion when he enters the White House in January.


World leaders face risks in reconciling with past enemies
Reconciliation can be tricky. It took 70 years for an American president to visit the site of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and nearly 75 for a Japanese leader to announce he would visit Pearl Harbor, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did Monday. Abe is likely to receive a warm reception later this month at the memorial for more than 2,300 Americans who died in the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian naval base. That hasn't always been the case for other world leaders visiting similar sites, particularly when memories are fresher. --- REAGAN IN BITBURG U.S. President Ronald Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stirred a global outcry in May 1985 when the American leader visited a German military cemetery that included the remains of 49 members of Adolf Hitler's Waffen SS troops.


News guide: Prosecutors can use Cosby's deposition at trial
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A suburban Philadelphia judge settled one of two key pretrial issues in Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial when he ruled on Monday that the jury could hear Cosby's damaging testimony from a decade-old civil deposition. The defense had argued that Cosby only gave the testimony after being assured he would never be charged in the case. But Montgomery County Judge Steven O'Neill concluded that Cosby had no such guarantee. O'Neill has vowed to bring the case to trial by June. The 79-year-old Cosby is charged with felony sexual assault. Here's where the criminal case against Cosby stands, and what's ahead.


Indians look for solutions only when toxic pollution soars
NEW DELHI (AP) - The truth of New Delhi's toxic air finally hit home for Rakhi Singh when her 3-year-old son began to cough constantly early this year. She bought air purifiers for her home. When a thick, gray haze turned the view outside her home into a scene from a bad science fiction film last month, she bought pollution masks. "Having a kid made the reality of the city's pollution hit me harder," she said. The news that the Indian capital is one of the dirtiest cities in the world is three years old. But the awareness that it's toxic enough to leave its citizens chronically ill and requires long-term lifestyle changes is relatively nascent.


Matt Damon says 'Wall' role never intended for Asian actor
BEIJING (AP) - Matt Damon said Tuesday that his role in the new China-Hollywood production "The Great Wall" was always intended to be European, responding to criticism that an Asian actor should have been picked for the part. Some critics have said Damon's casting amounted to "whitewashing," in which Caucasians are chosen for roles that should have gone to actors from other ethnicities. In an interview with The Associated Press, the American actor said he thinks of "whitewashing" as applying to Caucasian actors applying makeup to appear to be of another race, as was common in the early days of film and television, when racism was much more overt.


Police: Fake news story led gunman to popular DC pizzeria
WASHINGTON (AP) - The bizarre rumors began with a leaked email referencing Hillary Clinton and sinister interpretations of references to pizza parties. It morphed into fake online news stories about a child sex trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint. On Sunday, it culminated in violence when police say a North Carolina man fired an assault rifle multiple times inside the Comet Ping Pong restaurant as he attempted to "self-investigate" the conspiracy theory known in the Twitterverse as "Pizzagate." No one was hurt and the man was arrested. But the shooting alarmed those from neighboring businesses all the way to the White House about the real life dangers of fake news on the internet.