AP News in Brief at 5:58 a.m. EDT

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Associated Press

Posted on April 15, 2014 at 5:02 AM

Amid Russian provocations, Obama faces test of willingness to follow through on tough warnings

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the White House asserting that Russia is stoking instability in eastern Ukraine, President Barack Obama is once again faced with the complicated reality of following through on his tough warnings against overseas provocations.

Obama has vowed repeatedly to enact biting sanctions against Russia's vital economic sectors if the Kremlin tries to replicate its actions in Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine, elsewhere in the former Soviet republic. Despite those warnings, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be testing Obama's limits, instigating protests in eastern Ukraine, the White House says, and massing tens of thousands of troops on the border, but so far stopping short of a full-scale military incursion.

"They have been willing to do things to provoke the situation that no one anticipated," Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Wilson Center, said of Russia. "It's such a high-stakes, high-risk situation, and here they are right in the middle of it."

For Obama, the U.S. response to the chaos in Ukraine has become more than a test of his ability to stop Russia's advances. It's also being viewed through the prism of his decision last summer to back away from his threat to launch a military strike when Syria crossed his chemical weapons "red line" — a decision that has fed into a narrative pushed by Obama's critics that the president talks tough, but doesn't follow through.

While there has been no talk of "red lines" when dealing with Putin, Obama has said repeatedly that the Kremlin's advances into eastern Ukraine would be a "serious escalation" of the conflict that would warrant broad international sanctions on the Russian economy. But perhaps trying to avoid another Syria scenario, White House officials have carefully avoided defining what exactly would meet Obama's definition of a "serious escalation," even as they make clear that they believe Russia is fomenting the violence in cities throughout Ukraine's vital industrial east.

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Ukraine leader announces anti-terror operation in restive east

HORLIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russian insurgents who have seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine dug in on Tuesday, fortifying their positions and erecting fresh barricades, despite another government announcement that it was acting to restore order in the restive region.

In Kiev, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced an "anti-terrorist operation" to root out the "separatists," but it was unclear how that measure differed from the one announced Monday, which resulted in no visible action.

The insurgents, many of them armed, continued occupying government, police and other administrative buildings in nearly 10 cities in the country's Russian-speaking east of the country, demanding broader autonomy and closer ties with Russia. The central government has so far been unable to rein in the insurgents, as many of the local security forces have switched to their side.

The unrest comes weeks after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, after a pro-Russian president was ousted after three months of pro-Western protests.

The city of Horlivka, not far from the Russian border, where the local police station has been seized by unidentified gunmen, has been turned into the latest of a wave of sit-ins across eastern Ukraine, where at least nine cities appeared in control of the insurgents.

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Malaysian jet Indian Ocean seabed search area proves too deep for submarine's first mission

PERTH, Australia (AP) — The search area for the missing Malaysian jet has proved too deep for a robotic submarine which was hauled back to the surface of the Indian Ocean less than halfway through its first seabed hunt for wreckage and the all-important black boxes, authorities said on Tuesday.

Search crews sent the U.S. Navy's Bluefin 21 deep into the Indian Ocean on Monday to begin scouring the seabed for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 after failing for six days to detect any signals believed to be from its black boxes.

But just six hours into its planned 16-hour mission on the sea bed, the unmanned sub exceeded its maximum depth limit of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) and its built-in safety feature returned it to the surface, the search coordination center said in a statement.

The data collected by the Bluefin on Monday was analyzed after it returned to the surface and nothing of interest was found, the U.S. Navy said in a statement. Search crews were hoping to send it back under water on Tuesday, if weather conditions permit.

Search authorities knew that the primary wreckage from Flight 370 was likely lying at the limit of the Bluefin's dive capabilities. Deeper diving submersibles have been evaluated, but none is yet available to help.

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Blast at bus station in Nigeria capital kills 72 people; President blames Islamic extremists

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Suspected Islamic militants struck in the heart of Nigeria on Monday with a massive rush-hour bomb blast at a bus station that killed at least 72 people and wounded 164 in the deadliest attack ever on the nation's capital.

Survivors screamed in anguish and the stench of burning fuel and flesh hung over the area, where billows of black smoke rose as firefighters worked to put out the fires. Rescue workers and police gathered body parts as ambulances rushed the wounded to hospitals.

Visiting the blast scene, President Goodluck Jonathan blamed Boko Haram, the homegrown terrorist network that has targeted schools, churches, mosques, villages and government facilities, killing thousands in its five-year campaign to make Nigeria an Islamic state.

Authorities said at least 72 people were killed and 164 wounded, though the death toll was sure to climb because it did not include victims whose bodies were dismembered, the health ministry said. It was the deadliest attack yet in Abuja, the centrally located capital that is hundreds of miles from Boko Haram's stronghold in Nigeria's northeast.

"I can't count the number of people that died. They took them in open vehicles. People were running and there was confusion," said civil servant Ben Nwachukwu.

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AP PHOTOS: A year later, AP revisits sites of Boston Marathon bombing, search for suspect

Life has resumed on the streets of Boston.

A year after three people were killed and more than 260 injured when two bombs went off near the finish line of the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon, the city's landscape bears few reminders of the explosions, or the manhunt that ended with the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown.

On Boylston Street, the chaos and pain of that day has been replaced by the regular routines of pedestrians and drivers. Businesses are open again, including the restaurant Forum, badly damaged when one bomb exploded directly outside.

This week, barricades and a viewing stand are already set up near the finish line for this year's marathon, set for Monday.

Just down the street, Copley Square became home to a spontaneous memorial. The items, including running shoes and messages, were removed in June. Some are now on view in an exhibit across the street at the Boston Public Library.

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Hate group monitor finds anti-Semitic attacks in US on decline before deadly Kansas shooting

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (AP) — A group monitoring anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. cautiously noted a sharp decline in such incidents less than two weeks before the fatal shootings over the weekend outside two Jewish sites in suburban Kansas City.

The contrast between the Anti-Defamation League's 2013 audit and the Sunday attack that killed three people highlights what hate-group trackers say is a broader trend: more overall tolerance disrupted by periodic bursts of violence from a disenfranchised fringe.

"Because of their ability to strike fear in the entire Jewish community and the country, their impact is disproportionate to their occurrence," said Mark Pitcavage, the ADL's investigative research director. "Like any terrorist incident, they have the power to strike beyond the immediate victim."

An avowed white supremacist is accused in the attacks outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and a nearby Jewish retirement home in Overland Park, Kan. The suspect, Frazier Glenn Cross, is a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran from southwest Missouri who founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in his native North Carolina and later the White Patriot Party.

Cross remained jailed Tuesday. It was unclear when formal charges would be filed against Cross, who shouted "Heil Hitler" at television cameras as he was arrested. Officials said Monday that a federal grand jury is expected to consider what investigators are calling a hate crime.

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Authorities: Utah woman admitted strangling, suffocating her 6 newborn babies

PLEASANT GROVE, Utah (AP) — Megan Huntsman was clear about what she did with six of her newborn babies.

Huntsman, 39, told police she either strangled or suffocated them immediately after they were born. She wrapped their bodies in a towel or a shirt, put them in plastic bags and then packed them inside boxes in the garage of her home south of Salt Lake City.

What's not clear is why. A day after her arrest on charges of killing her six babies, investigators and her neighbors puzzled over the grisly discovery, including how she could have concealed a half-dozen pregnancies over a 10-year period.

"How can you have a baby and not have evidence and other people know?" asked neighbor SanDee Wall. "You can't plan when a baby is going to come. Just the thought of somebody putting a baby into a box is a heartbreaker."

Huntsman, who was arrested Sunday on six counts of murder, was ordered held on $6 million bail — $1 million for each baby. The remains of a seventh baby police found appears to have been stillborn, authorities said.

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Social Security suspends program that seized tax refunds to recoup decade-old overpayments

WASHINGTON (AP) — People with old Social Security debts are getting a reprieve — for now.

The Social Security Administration had been participating in a program in which thousands of people were having their tax refunds seized to recoup overpayments that happened more than a decade ago.

On Monday, Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin said she was suspending the program while the agency conducts a review.

Social Security recipients and members of Congress complained that people were being forced to repay overpayments that were sometimes paid to their parents or guardians when they were children.

The Social Security Administration says it has identified about 400,000 people with old debts. They owe a total of $714 million.

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First women move into Army field artillery jobs as cannon platoon leaders

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Under a canopy of trees on the edge of a large field, soldiers from Bravo Battery are lying in a circle as they pore over targeting charts. Nearby, others are preparing the howitzer cannons as helicopters swoop overhead. At the edge of the circle, the platoon leader watches as the field artillerymen go through their training exercise.

No one seems to notice the small knot of hair at the base of the lieutenant's helmet, or that 1st Lt. Kelly Requa is the only woman on the field at Campbell's Crossroads on the sprawling grounds of Fort Bragg.

By January 2016, the U.S. military must open all combat jobs to women or explain why any must remain closed. The Army in November officially began assigning female officers to lead the cannon platoons and plans to open other jobs, including those of crew members within the field artillery units.

The integration comes as the military struggles with an increase in reports of sexual harassment and assault and as Congress battles with the Pentagon over how those cases are prosecuted.

Some of those concerns were reflected in how senior commanders are preparing the men as women arrive — and what the men say concerns them, from whether women can keep up to whether the men's salty language will be too offensive.

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Chief prosecutor in murder trial of Oscar Pistorius ends cross-examination of athlete

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The chief prosecutor in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius has ended his cross-examination after challenging the athlete for five days of testimony about how he killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said he had no further questions late Tuesday morning after presenting his case that Pistorius is lying in his account of mistakenly shooting Steenkamp, and that the double-amputee runner killed her intentionally after an argument.

Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a closed toilet door in his home before dawn on Feb. 14, 2013. The athlete says that he thought she was an intruder about to come out of the toilet to attack him.

Pistorius faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted of premeditated murder.

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