Crimeans vote overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine, join Russia; West vows to punish with sanctions
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Just two weeks after Russian troops seized their peninsula, Crimeans voted Sunday to leave Ukraine and join Russia, overwhelmingly approving a referendum that sought to unite the strategically important Black Sea region with the country it was part of for some 250 years.
The vote was widely condemned by Western leaders, who planned to move swiftly to punish Russia with economic sanctions.
As the votes were counted, a jubilant crowd gathered around a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the center of Simferopol to celebrate with song and dance. Many held Russian flags, and some unfurled a handwritten banner reading "We're Russian and proud of it." Fireworks exploded in the skies above.
"We want to go back home, and today we are going back home," said Viktoria Chernyshova, a 38-year-old businesswoman. "We needed to save ourselves from those unprincipled clowns who have taken power in Kiev."
Ukraine's new government in Kiev called the referendum a "circus" directed at gunpoint by Moscow, referring to the thousands of troops that now occupy the peninsula, which has traded hands repeatedly since ancient times.
Missing jet's communications system had been disabled before pilot uttered final words
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — When someone at the controls calmly said the last words heard from the missing Malaysian jetliner, one of the Boeing 777's communications systems had already been disabled, authorities said Sunday, adding to suspicions that one or both of the pilots were involved in the disappearance of the flight.
Investigators also examined a flight simulator confiscated from the home of one of the pilots and dug through the background of all 239 people on board, as well as the ground crew that serviced the plane.
The Malaysia Airlines jet took off from Kuala Lumpur in the wee hours of March 8, headed to Beijing. On Saturday, the Malaysian government announced findings that strongly suggested the plane was deliberately diverted and may have flown as far north as Central Asia or south into the vast reaches of the Indian Ocean.
Authorities have said someone on board the plane first disabled one of its communications systems — the Aircraft and Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS — about 40 minutes after takeoff. The ACARS equipment sends information about the jet's engines and other data to the airline.
Around 14 minutes later, the transponder that identifies the plane to commercial radar systems was also shut down. The fact that both systems went dark separately offered strong evidence that the plane's disappearance was deliberate.
Disappearance of Flight 370 unveils flaws in aviation system, but change not guaranteed
NEW YORK (AP) — The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has exposed wide gaps in how the world's airlines — and their regulators — operate. But experts warn this isn't likely to be one of those defining moments that lead to fundamental changes.
For financial and technological reasons, and because of issues tied to national sovereignty, the status quo is expected to prevail in the way passports are checked, aircraft are tracked at sea and searches are coordinated.
In an age of constant connectedness, it's almost inconceivable to lose a 209-foot-long airplane for more than a week, or be in the dark about what happened onboard around the time it went missing.
The reality is that large portions of the globe don't have radar coverage. Over oceans, pilots fill in those gaps by radioing air traffic controllers at routine intervals with position updates. And while planes record sounds in the cockpit as well as speed, altitude, fuel flow and the positions of flaps, that information isn't shared with anyone on the ground. Crash investigators only get access to the data on the recorders after combing through the wreckage.
Numerous experts have said it is time to update tracking abilities and use satellite links to provide real-time feeds on the operation of planes and conversations within the cockpit.
Defense: Army general's new plea deal includes dropping of sexual assault charges
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Defense attorneys said Sunday that the Army will drop sexual assault charges against a general under a plea deal that marks the end of a closely watched case that unfolded as the military grapples with sex crimes within the ranks.
Lawyers representing Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair said he will plead to lesser charges in exchange for the dropping of the sexual assault charges and two other counts that might have required Sinclair to register as a sex offender.
Sinclair, 51, had been accused of twice forcing a female captain under his command to perform oral sex during a three-year extramarital affair. But the Army's case against Sinclair crumbled in recent weeks as questions arose about whether the woman had lied in a pre-trial hearing.
The defense provided a copy of the plea agreement approved and signed by a high-ranking general overseeing the case. Sinclair is expected to enter the new pleas when his court martial reconvenes Monday morning at Fort Bragg.
The married 27-year Army veteran pleaded guilty earlier this month to having improper relationships with three subordinate officers, including the female captain who accused him of assault. He also pleaded guilty to adultery, which is a crime in the military.
US rejects Crimea vote; warns Russia against new moves toward south, east Ukraine
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday that Crimea's vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia "would never be recognized" by the United States, as he and other top U.S. officials warned Moscow against making further military moves toward southern and eastern Ukraine.
The two leaders spoke after residents in Crimea voted overwhelmingly in favor of the split in a referendum that the United States, European Union and others say violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law and took place in the strategic peninsula under duress of Russian military intervention. Putin maintained that the vote was legal and consistent with the right of self-determination, according to the Kremlin. But the White House said Obama reminded Putin that the U.S. and its allies in Europe would impose sanctions against Russia should it annex Crimea. U.S. and EU sanctions are expected to be announced Monday.
In the call, which came amid a heightened exchange of decidedly Cold War-style rhetoric between East and West, Obama urged Putin to pursue a diplomatic de-escalation of the crisis, support the Ukraine government's plans for political reform, return its troops in Crimea to their bases, and halt advances into Ukrainian territory and military build-ups along Ukraine's borders.
Obama told Putin that "a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine's borders only exacerbate the tension," the White House said in a statement.
Even before official results of the referendum were announced, the White House denounced the vote, saying "no decisions should be made about the future of Ukraine without the Ukrainian government" and noting that Russia had rejected the deployment of international monitors in Crimea to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians there were protected.
US censors, denies access to gov't records more than ever under Freedom of Information Act
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.
The administration cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests, the analysis found.
The government's own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that half way through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records despite its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history.
In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government's efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.
In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama's first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times. The Defense Department, including the NSA, and the CIA accounted for nearly all those. The Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency cited national security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency did twice and the National Park Service once.
Commercial drones take off around the globe, but are grounded in the US for now by government
WASHINGTON (AP) — A small, four-rotor drone hovered over Washington Nationals players for a few days during spring training in Florida last month, taking publicity photos impossible for a human photographer to capture. But no one got the Federal Aviation Administration's permission first.
"No, we didn't get it cleared, but we don't get our pop flies cleared either and those go higher than this thing did," a team official said when contacted by The Associated Press. The drone flights ceased the next day. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.
The agency bars commercial use of drones no matter how seemingly benign. The lone exception is an oil company that has been granted permission to fly drones over the Arctic Ocean, and it took an act of Congress to win that concession.
FAA officials say rules to address the special safety challenges associated with unmanned aircraft need to be in place before they can share the sky with manned aircraft. The agency has worked on those regulations for the past decade and is still months and possibly years away from issuing final rules for small drones, which are defined as those weighing less than 55 pounds. Rules for larger drones are even further off.
But tempting technology and an eager marketplace are outrunning the aviation agency's best intentions. Photographers, real estate agents, moviemakers and others are hurrying to embrace the technology. Drones have been used to photograph the two apartment buildings that collapsed in New York City this past week and a car crash in Connecticut. The AP, in fact, is one of several news organizations studying the possible use of drones.
Crackdown in Egypt on ousted president's backers sees 16,000 detained, many reports of abuses
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country's biggest round-up in nearly two decades, according to previously unreleased figures from security officials. Rights activists say reports of abuses in prisons are mounting, with prisoners describing systematic beatings and miserable conditions for dozens packed into tiny cells.
The Egyptian government has not released official numbers for those arrested in the sweeps since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. But four senior officials — two from the Interior Ministry and two from the military — gave The Associated Press a count of 16,000, including about 3,000 top- or mid-level members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
The count, which is consistent with recent estimates by human rights groups, was based on a tally kept by the Interior Ministry to which the military also has access. It includes hundreds of women and minors, though the officials could not give exact figures. The officials gave the figures to the AP on condition of anonymity because the government has not released them.
The flood of arrests has swamped prisons and the legal system. Many are held for months in police station lockups meant as temporary holding areas or in impromptu jails set up in police training camps because prisons are overcrowded. Inmates are kept for months without charge.
"My son looks like a caveman now. His hair and nails are long, he has a beard and he is unclean," said Nagham Omar, describing to the AP the conditions that her 20-year-old son Salahideen Ayman Mohammed has endured since his arrest in January while participating in a pro-Morsi protest. He and 22 others are crammed in a 3-by-3 meter (yard) cell in a police station in the southern city of Assiut, said Omar, who visits him once a week. Mohammed has not yet been charged.
Florida, Arizona, Wichita St, Virginia earn top seeding in NCAA tournament
The surprises start at the top of the NCAA tournament bracket: Virginia is a No. 1 seed.
Oh, some things went to form. Florida earned the top overall seed as expected and will be joined on the '1' line by Wichita State and Arizona. But there were head-scratchers nearly everywhere else.
Last year's national champion, Louisville, was seeded fourth in the Midwest despite playing well enough to be considered a No. 1 by many. And speaking of the Midwest — Wichita State and Michigan are there as well, making it three of last year's Final Four participants all vying for one spot this year.
SMU, the team led on a renaissance by coaching lifer Larry Brown — nowhere to be found. And Michigan State, the team that geared things up in time to win the Big Ten tournament, is only a No. 4 seed.
The tournament begins Tuesday with a pair of First Four games, and things get going in earnest Thursday when 32 of the 64 teams in the main draw take to the floor. The Final Four is set for April 5 and 7 in Arlington, Texas.
St. Patrick's Day festivities kick off with bagpipes and beer amid tension over gays in US
NEW YORK (AP) — St. Patrick's Day festivities were in full swing Sunday with the usual merriment of bagpipes and beer, but political tensions lingered in the northeastern U.S., where city leaders will be conspicuously absent from parades over gay rights issues.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio will become the first mayor in decades to sit out the traditional march Monday because parade organizers refuse to let participants carry pro-gay signs. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh wasn't marching in his city's parade Sunday, either, after talks broke down that would have allowed a gay group to march.
Still, thousands of green-clad spectators came out for the parade in Boston to watch bagpipers, and organizers of a float intended to promote diversity threw Mardi Gras-type beads at onlookers. A similar scene played out in downtown Philadelphia.
In Georgia, the dome of Savannah's City Hall will be lit green, and several thousand people braved temperatures in the teens on Sunday to march with pipe and drum bands in Detroit and Bay City, Mich.
In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day provides the launch of the country's annual push for tourism, a big part of the rural economy.