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

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Associated Press

Posted on May 11, 2014 at 7:05 AM

Ukraine regions vote on sovereignty as president warns of 'a step into the abyss'

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Residents of two restive regions in eastern Ukraine engulfed by a pro-Russian insurgency cast votes Sunday in contentious and hastily organized independence referendums, which have been rejected as illegal by the Ukrainian government and the West.

The ballots seek approval for declaring so-called sovereign people's republics in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where rebels have seized government buildings and clashed with police and Ukrainian troops over the past month.

Ukraine's interim president has said that independence for eastern regions will destroy the country's economy. "This is a step into the abyss for the regions," Oleksandr Turchynov said in comments posted on the presidential website Saturday.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). Referendum organizers said they expected a high turnout, even though the security situation remained unstable around much of the area where the vote was held.

There were reports of sporadic clashes, but the situation remained calm in most of the sprawling regions with a population of 6.5 million as voting got under way.

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Nigerian rights group calls for UN sanctions against Islamic extremists holding missing girls

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A leading Nigerian rights group is urging the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on the Islamic extremists that abducted some 300 schoolgirls, saying concern and condemnation are not enough.

A statement Sunday from the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project says it is time for the council to "act decisively" and that the cost of inaction is "too high to contemplate."

It comes as more experts are expected in Nigeria to help in the search, including U.S. hostage negotiators. Nigeria's government belatedly accepted offers of help last week from the United States, Britain, France, China and Spain amid mounting national and international outrage at its failure to rescue 276 girls abducted from a northeastern school on April 15. Fifty-three escaped. The militants are threatening to sell the girls into slavery.

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Arkansas to appeal ruling allowing Bible Belt state to issue same-sex marriage licenses

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — Lawyers for the state followed through with their promise to appeal a judge's decision overturning the constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 banning gay marriage.

But not before 15 licenses were issued for same-sex couples in northwest Arkansas' Carroll County. Gay marriage arrived in the Bible Belt on Saturday, beginning with two women who had traveled overnight to ensure they'd be first in line.

"Thank God," Jennifer Rambo said after Carroll County Deputy Clerk Jane Osborn issued a marriage license to her and Kristin Seaton, a former volleyball player at the University of Arkansas. The Fort Smith couple wed moments later on a sidewalk near the courthouse; the officiant wore a rainbow-colored dress.

In total, 15 licenses were issued for same-sex couples in northwest Arkansas' Carroll County, Osborn said.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza paved the way Friday with a ruling that removed a 10-year-old barrier, saying a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2004 banning gay marriage was "an unconstitutional attempt to narrow the definition of equality." Piazza's ruling also overturned a 1997 state law banning gay marriage.

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Investigators: Fed govt failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells amid energy boom

WASHINGTON (AP) — The government has failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells it considers potentially high risks for water contamination and other environmental damage, congressional investigators say.

The report, obtained by The Associated Press before its public release, highlights substantial gaps in oversight by the agency that manages oil and gas development on federal and Indian lands.

Investigators said weak control by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management resulted from policies based on outdated science and from incomplete monitoring data.

The findings from the Government Accountability Office come amid an energy boom in the country and the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That process involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks to allow oil and gas to flow. It has produced major economic benefits, but also raised fears that the chemicals could spread to water supplies.

The audit also said the BLM did not coordinate effectively with state regulators in New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah.

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Rams pick Sam in draft's final minutes, giving him a chance to be NFL's 1st openly gay player

NEW YORK (AP) — Michael Sam waited and waited. Hours passed, rounds came and went, and eventually, there were only eight more picks left on the third and final day of the NFL draft.

For just a moment, it looked as if his chance of being picked by a pro team and becoming the league's first openly gay player might take a detour. Or at least be delayed.

The call finally came in Saturday from the St. Louis Rams, the team right down the road from where Sam played his college ball at the University of Missouri.

Sam was selected in the seventh and final round and admitted it was a frustrating wait. He said teams that passed on him chickened out and he should have been drafted sooner.

"From last season alone, I should've been in the first three rounds. SEC Defensive Player of the Year, All-American," Sam said. He stopped short of directly saying his stock dropped in the draft because he came out.

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Authorities say insurgent attack on military barracks in northern Iraq kills 20 troops

BAGHDAD (AP) — Militants in Iraq launched an audacious attack on a military barracks in a remote area in the country's north and killed 20 troops overnight, including some who had been bound and shot at close range, authorities said Sunday.

The killings at the barracks in the village of Ayn al-Jahish outside the northern city of Mosul represent the latest blow to the government's efforts to achieve stability in restive Sunni-dominated areas.

Gunmen staged the assault late Saturday night, two police officers said, shooting some at short range while others died when insurgents stormed the barracks.

A medical official, who confirmed the causality number, said 11 troops had their hands tied behind their backs and suffered close-range gunshots to the head.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information to journalists.

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Virginia balloon crash looms over University of Richmond's undergraduate commencement

DOSWELL, Va. (AP) — People in the University of Richmond community prepared for graduation Sunday with heavy hearts after the revelation that two athletic staff members were aboard a hot air balloon that drifted into a power line, burst into flames and crashed in Virginia.

Undergraduate commencement was scheduled for the afternoon. Meanwhile, investigators were planning to resume their efforts to scour the woods and fields surrounding the site of Friday's balloon crash for the remains of the third person aboard the balloon. Two bodies have already been found.

University administrators said in a news release that associate head coach Ginny Doyle and director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis were two of the three people aboard the balloon that crashed Friday night. Investigators haven't said which bodies were found.

"Words cannot begin to express our sorrow," Keith Gill, the school's athletic director, said in a news release. "We are all stunned by the tragic news. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their loved ones."

Lewis just completed her second year as director of basketball operations for the women's team, according to a profile on the university's website. The Buffalo, New York, native was a four-year letter winner and two-time captain of the Spiders' swim team.

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Report: Secret Service agents left White House patrol in 2011 to protect director's assistant

WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of a Secret Service special unit responsible for patrolling near the White House were pulled off that assignment over at least two months in 2011 to protect the assistant of the agency's director while she was engaged in a dispute with a neighbor, according to a report in The Washington Post.

Agents were told that the Secret Service director at the time, Mark Sullivan, was concerned that his assistant was being harassed by her neighbor, the Post reported in a story posted Saturday night on its website. The newspaper cited three people familiar with the operation but did not provide their names.

The agents were pulled from a surveillance team that patrols the outskirts of the White House compound and monitors the southern side of the executive mansion whenever crowds gather to watch the president and first family travel via motorcade or helicopter, the Post reported.

Agents inside the Washington field office were concerned that the diversion of agents increased security risks to the compound and the president, two people familiar with the discussion told the newspaper. A spokesman for the agency told the Post that the agents involved were not part of the president's protective detail and therefore the operation had no impact on it.

Sullivan left the Secret Service in 2013 nearly a year after a scandal involving members of the presidential protection team hiring prostitutes ahead of a trip by President Barack Obama to Colombia in 2012. In a statement to the Post, Sullivan said a supervisor in his office authorized the visits to the assistant's home without his knowledge, that they lasted only a few days and that they were appropriate given the report of threats to an employee.

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Texans cheerleader, suburban Houston high school senior go to prom after Twitter proposal

CROSBY, Texas (AP) — Mike Ramirez is a high school football player who spent most of his time on the bench last season and works part-time at a local McDonalds. Caitlyn is a Texans cheerleader whose life is devoted to intense workouts, coaching tumbling classes and studying communications at the University of Houston.

Yet 10,000 retweets later, the two are a prom couple.

For "Big Mike," as he's been known to his friends since his sophomore year at Crosby High School in suburban Houston, it all started as a joke during 3rd period, when Caitlyn followed him on a "Twitter following spree."

"I was all like, 'What if I took a Texans cheerleader to prom?'" Ramirez recalled asking his classmate. "He was like, that would be pretty cool."

So Ramirez sent Caitlyn a message. "If I get 10,000 retweets will you go to prom with me (insert smiley face.) you will get asked in a cute way!"

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Nets cool off Heat, hand Miami first postseason loss with 104-90 Game 3 victory

NEW YORK (AP) — Two losses in Miami didn't faze Paul Pierce, nor did 16 quick points by LeBron James.

The postseason, Pierce said repeatedly, is no time to panic. And the Heat, apparently, are nothing to fear.

"We're not scared of them," Pierce said.

Joe Johnson scored 19 points, Andray Blatche had career playoff highs of 15 points and 10 rebounds, and the Brooklyn Nets handed the Heat their first loss this postseason, 104-90 on Saturday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Pierce scored 14 points, Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett bounced back from awful offensive efforts, and the Nets withstood James' 16-point first quarter and held him to two baskets over the final three quarters.

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