AP News in Brief at 8:58 p.m. EST

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Associated Press

Posted on March 5, 2014 at 6:02 AM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 5 at 8:00 AM

Putin mocks West but ratchets down tensions over Ukraine; Kerry in Kiev

MOSCOW (AP) — Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention "to fight the Ukrainian people" but reserves the right to use force.

As the Russian president held court in his personal residence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev's fledgling government and urged Putin to stand down.

"It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve," Kerry said. "That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior."

Although nerves remained on edge in the Crimean Peninsula, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets jumped higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict. Kerry brought moral support and a $1 billion aid package to a Ukraine fighting to fend off bankruptcy.

Lounging in an arm-chair before Russian tricolor flags, Putin made his first public comments since the Ukrainian president fled a week and a half ago. It was a signature Putin performance, filled with earthy language, macho swagger and sarcastic jibes, accusing the West of promoting an "unconstitutional coup" in Ukraine. At one point he compared the U.S. role to an experiment with "lab rats."

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Obama's election-year budget: Rallying Democrats with a focus on jobs, economy, income gap

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's election-year budget seeks to rally fellow Democrats with new help for the working poor and fresh money for road-building, education and research. It also pulls back from controversial cuts to Social Security that had been designed to lure Republicans to the bargaining table.

Otherwise, Tuesday's $3.9 trillion submission for the 2015 budget year, which begins in October, looks a lot like Obama's previous plans. It combines proposals for more than $1.1 trillion in tax increases on the wealthy with an array of modest initiatives such as job training funds, money to rehabilitate national parks and funding for early childhood education.

"Our budget is about choices. It's about our values," Obama said at a Washington elementary school. "As a country, we've got to make a decision, if we're going to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans or if we're going to make smart investments necessary to create jobs and grow our economy and expand opportunity for every American."

Obama's previous budgets have mostly gone nowhere, and that's where Tuesday's submission appears to be headed as well. Instead, Congress is likely to adhere to last year's mini budget deal as it looks ahead to midterm elections this fall.

Said Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee: "This budget isn't a serious document; it's a campaign brochure."

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Woman killed, 7 hurt at NJ townhouse development after gas line damage leads to explosion

EWING, N.J. (AP) — A gas leak and subsequent explosion destroyed at least 10 houses and damaged dozens of others at a suburban town house development Tuesday, killing a woman and injuring seven workers, authorities said.

The body was not discovered until late in the day, on a car near the site of the explosion, after authorities had thought the neighborhood had escaped the blast without any deaths. Lt. Ron Lunetta said officials were not able to identify the victim and will await an autopsy for positive ID and cause of death. He added that no one else was believed to be missing.

It also was not clear Tuesday night if the woman who was killed was inside or outside a residence when the explosion occurred.

At least 55 units in the complex were damaged, police said, including at 10 that were destroyed. Officials were hoping that some of the displaced residents would be able to return to their homes by late Tuesday night, but said the majority of them would not be able to go home until Wednesday morning at the earliest.

Many of the displaced residents were being sheltered at a local fire house, while others were staying with family and friends. Officials said they would try to accommodate residents who were being kept out of their homes but wanted to briefly return there so they could get their pets or important items, such as medications.

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Showing support, Kerry visits Kiev protest sites, meets with Ukraine leaders, promises $1B aid

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — In a somber show of U.S. support for Ukraine's new leadership, Secretary of State John Kerry walked the streets Tuesday where more than 80 anti-government protesters were killed last month, and promised beseeching crowds that American aid is on the way.

Kerry met in Ukraine with the new government's acting president, prime minister, foreign minister and top parliamentary officials. Speaking to reporters afterward, Kerry urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to stand down and said the U.S. is looking for ways to de-escalate the mounting tensions.

"It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," Kerry said. "It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve. That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior."

Kerry made a pointed distinction between the Ukrainian government and Putin's.

"The contrast really could not be clearer: determined Ukrainians demonstrating strength through unity, and the Russian government out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation and provocations. In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing."

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Testimony: Ex-prosecutor in Army general sex case wanted most serious charges dropped

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Less than a month before an Army general's trial on sexual assault charges, the lead prosecutor broke down in tears as he told a superior he believed the primary accuser in the case had lied under oath.

Lt. Col. William Helixon had urged that the most serious charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair be dropped because they rely solely on the woman's accusation that he twice forced her to perform oral sex.

But those above the seasoned sex crimes prosecutor overrode him, rebuffing an offer from Sinclair to plead guilty to lesser charges.

Defense attorneys allege the top brass moved forward because they were worried about the political fallout that would result if the charges were dropped.

Helixon was pulled from the case after leading it for nearly two years, after a superior officer took him to a military hospital for a mental health evaluation, according to testimony.

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United gets tough on oversized carry-on bags, plans to eyeball luggage at security entrances

NEW YORK (AP) — United Airlines is getting tough on passengers with oversized carry-on bags, even sending some of them back to the ticket counter to check their luggage for a fee.

The Chicago-based airline has started a push to better enforce rules restricting the size of carry-on bags — an effort that will include instructing workers at security checkpoint entrances to eyeball passengers for bags that are too big.

In recent weeks, United has rolled out new bag-sizing boxes at most airports and sent an email to frequent fliers, reminding them of the rules. An internal employee newsletter called the program a "renewed focus on carry-on compliance."

The size limits on carry-on bags have been in place for years, but airlines have enforced them inconsistently, rarely conducting anything beyond occasional spot checks.

United says its new approach will ensure that bags are reliably reviewed at the security checkpoint, in addition to the bag checks already done at gates prior to boarding.

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Iditarod: 5 things to know about Alaska race's furry, 4-legged athletes

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — One human wins the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race each year, but it's the smaller, furry athletes that do the heroes' share of the work crossing nearly 1,000 miles of merciless terrain to reach the finish line on Alaska's wind-battered coast.

The 2014 race, which began Sunday, is still in the early stages, with jockeying for the lead remaining fluid until all the mushers begin taking a mandatory, 24-hour layover and two eight-hour rests. Sixty-nine mushers began the race, though several already have dropped out.

On Tuesday, Iditarod veteran Sonny Lindner was the first to leave the Nikolai checkpoint, more than 700 miles from the finish line in the old gold rush town of Nome. Participants say this year's trail conditions are grueling, including stretches of bare ground. Throughout the race, mushers will keep a close eye on their dogs.

Here are some other key things to know about the four-legged competitors:

IT TAKES A TEAM

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Dish, Disney strike a deal that envisions TV over the Internet instead of via satellite dish

LOS ANGELES (AP) — With a string of recent deals, cable and satellite providers are beginning to acknowledge a brutal truth that companies like Hulu and Netflix have known all along: Many TV viewers, especially young ones, want shows and movies on their own terms — wherever, whenever and on whatever devices they choose.

Dish Network took a big step toward such a future with a deal announced Monday with Disney. The agreement opens the way for the satellite TV service to live-stream Disney-owned channels like ESPN and ABC over the Internet to customers' smartphones, tablets, video game consoles and other devices.

The goal is to attract so-called cord-cutters who have become disenchanted with large channel packages and rising monthly bills for cable or satellite service.

Charlie Ergen, Dish Network Corp. chairman, hinted at the underpinnings of the deal last month, when he admitted that the traditional pay-TV business model — charging customers $80 or $100 a month for hundreds of channels, many of which they never watch — is not appealing to younger people.

"We're losing a whole generation of individuals who aren't going to buy into that model," he told analysts. "Obviously you'd like to kind of have your cake and eat it too, and make sure that you come up with products that can engage that new generation."

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Judge denies request to immediately force NJ honor student's parents to pay child support

MORRISTOWN, N.J. (AP) — A northern New Jersey honor student who has sued to get her parents to support her after she moved out of their home had her initial request denied Tuesday by a judge who cautioned that the case could lead to a "potentially slippery slope" of claims by teenagers against their parents.

Rachel Canning had sought immediate relief in the form of $650 in weekly child support and the payment of the remainder of her tuition at Morris Catholic High School, as well as attorney's fees.

State Superior Court Judge Peter Bogaard denied those motions but ordered the parties to return to court on April 22, when they will present evidence and testimony on the over-arching question of whether the Cannings are obligated to financially support their daughter. Rachel Canning, a high school senior, has already been accepted by at least one college and is seeking to have her parents pay some or all of her tuition, attorney Tanya Helfand told Bogaard Tuesday.

Dressed in her school uniform and with several friends in the gallery, Rachel Canning didn't speak to reporters after the hearing.

Bogaard sounded skeptical of some of the claims in the lawsuit, saying it could lead to teens "thumbing their noses" at their parents, leaving home and then asking for financial support.

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Texas holding nation's 1st primary election, as GOP hopefuls run right for slate of open seats

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republicans decided who was more conservative while Democrats sought to galvanize new voters as Texas held a first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday that could push the state farther right, even as the left looks to stake new claims.

Six of Texas' top jobs are open after GOP Gov. Rick Perry decided not to run again following a record 14 years in office, prompting a stampede of 26 Republicans candidates for various stepping stones to higher office. Democrats set on breaking the nation's longest losing streak in races for statewide office meanwhile hoped charismatic gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis would turn out long-dormant voters.

"If people don't start supporting the Democratic Party and voting as a Democrat, instead of being a Democrat voting in the Republican primary, then we're never going to win races and we're never going to establish ourselves as a serious party here," said Janet Veal, 43, a Texas Tech student adviser who cast a Democratic ballot in Lubbock.

That possibility, and the rising influence of tea party firebrand U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, has Texas Republicans flanking farther right this primary season. Some have blasted an "invasion" of immigrants coming across the Texas border, where immigration arrests have almost tripled in recent years but remain at about one-third of their historic highs. Others pledged to further tighten some of the nation's strictest abortion laws and doubled down on the state's gay marriage ban — one of several state bans recently ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.

"I think we need to bolster the border security and get tougher on immigration," 38-year-old conservative Republican Glendon Paulk said after voting in Lubbock. "I'm all for people who come over here legally but the illegal immigrants, it doesn't make sense for them to get a break while we're working and having to pay taxes."

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