Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Published:

Russia, West try to build diplomatic solution to Ukraine as Crimea tensions flare

PARIS (AP) -- The United States and Western diplomats failed to bring Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers together Wednesday for face-to-face talks on the confrontation in Crimea, even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced optimism that an exit strategy was possible. "I'd rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday," he said.

The flurry of diplomatic activity came as NATO punished Russia by suspending military cooperation, and the European Union extended $15 billion in aid to Ukraine, matching the amount the country's fugitive president accepted from Moscow to turn his back on an EU trade accord.

After an intense round of diplomacy with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several European counterparts in Paris, Kerry said the meetings were "very constructive, without promising something that is not defined yet, without raising hopes that are inappropriate to raise."

"I want to be realistic. This is hard, tough stuff, and a very serious moment," Kerry said. "I personally feel that I have something concrete to take back and talk to President Obama about," he added, without specifying what that was.

Speaking separately after what he called "a very long day" of discussions on Ukraine, Lavrov said the sides agreed to continue talks in coming days "about how we can help in efforts to normalize the situation and overcome the crisis."

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AP Interview: Tymoshenko says West must force Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine's Crimea

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's former prime minister, urged the West on Wednesday to ramp up pressure on Russia to force it to withdraw troops from Crimea.

In an interview with The Associated Press two weeks after she was released from jail, Tymoshenko, 53, said the United States and Britain must engage directly with Russia and use "the most powerful tools" to ensure that Russian troops leave the Crimean Peninsula, which they have been occupying for nearly a week after the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko said that as the signatories of a 1994 treaty, which guarantees Ukraine's security in exchange for it giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Britain must now deal directly with Russia. She said Ukraine cannot enter any negotiations with Moscow while Russian troops are pointing guns at its soldiers.

"It is up to them (the U.S. and the UK) to choose the methods to stop the aggressor. But they must do it immediately," Tymoshenko said at her office in downtown Kiev. The West must do "everything that will stop the aggressor. Period."

Tymoshenko spent two-and-a-half years in jail on charges of abuse of office that the West condemned as politically motivated.

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Israel says naval raid seizes Iranian shipment of advanced rockets bound for Gaza militants

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli naval forces on Wednesday seized a ship laden with rockets allegedly bound for militants in the Gaza Strip, and officials accused Iran of orchestrating the delivery in an elaborate 5,000-mile (8,000-kilometer) journey that included covert stops across the region.

The Syrian-made M-302 rockets would have put Israel's biggest cities well within range of Gaza, where militants already possess thousands of less powerful rockets. During eight days of fighting in 2012, armed groups fired 1,500 rockets into Israel, including several that reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The naval raid, which took place in the Red Sea hundreds of miles from Israel, came as Iran showed off powerful new ballistic missiles equipped with multiple warheads. The arms bust drew renewed Israeli calls for world powers to toughen their stand in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.

"Iran has been exposed for what it is. It smiles in the Geneva talks about its own nuclear ambitions, gives soothing words, and as they're doing that, they're shipping these deadly weapons to the world's worst terrorists," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in California during a U.S. visit. "Such a regime must not be able to have the capacity to make nuclear weapons."

Israel believes that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies. Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state, citing Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, its development of long-range missiles and its support for hostile militant groups.

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Senate blocks confirmation of Obama's choice to head civil rights enforcement

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's choice to lead the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division was blocked by bipartisan Senate opposition Wednesday in an emotional postscript to the long-ago murder of a Philadelphia policeman and the legal help his killer received.

The vote against advancing Debo Adegbile toward confirmation was 47-52, shy of the majority needed under new procedures Democrats put in place late last year to overcome Republican stalling tactics.

In this case, though, to the dismay of civil rights organizations and the White House, Democratic desertions played a decisive role in the outcome. Eight members of Obama's party joined all 44 Republicans in preventing a final vote.

Obama swiftly condemned the action. In a statement, he called it a "travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant."

Administration officials left open the possibility the nomination would be withdrawn rather than put to a second vote, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is positioned to call for one after changing his "yes" to "no" in a last-minute procedural move.

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Utility contractor at NJ explosion was fined $100K over safety at other sites; utility defends

EWING, N.J. (AP) -- The contractor working for New Jersey's largest utility at the site of a town house explosion that killed one resident recently had been fined more than $100,000 by safety regulators for problems at two other sites, but the utility said Wednesday it never had any problems with the construction firm.

Blue Bell, Pa.-based Henkels & McCoy was cited last year by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations involving signaling, warning signs and protection of workers during excavations. The company is contesting the fines.

Henkels & McCoy was working to replace electric service to the blast victim's home Tuesday when it damaged a gas line, Public Service Electric & Gas said. The utility said it was told of the damage around noon Tuesday and crews were repairing the line about an hour later when "ignition" occurred, obliterating the home, damaging more than 50 others and injuring seven utility workers.

At a news conference late Wednesday, a PSE&G director of gas construction, Mike Gaffney, expressed confidence in its contractor. He said the utility had a long-standing relationship with the firm, that it had done good work for the utility and that there had been no prior problems.

The victim of the blast was identified as Linda Cerritelli, 62, a resident of the house leveled in the blast. She was a regional office coordinator for a prescription drug unit of the health products giant Johnson & Johnson, the company confirmed.

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Doctors hope for cure in a 2nd baby born with HIV; LA case is similar to Mississippi girl

A second baby born with the AIDS virus may have had her infection put into remission and possibly cured by very early treatment -- in this instance, four hours after birth.

Doctors revealed the case Wednesday at an AIDS conference in Boston. The girl was born in suburban Los Angeles last April, a month after researchers announced the first case from Mississippi. That was a medical first that led doctors worldwide to rethink how fast and hard to treat infants born with HIV, and the California doctors followed that example.

In another AIDS-related development, scientists have modified genes in the blood cells of a dozen adults to help them resist HIV. The results give hope that this approach might one day free at least some people from needing medicines to keep HIV under control, a form of cure. That study was published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

The Mississippi baby is now 3 1/2 and seems HIV-free despite no treatment for about two years. The Los Angeles baby is still getting AIDS medicines, so the status of her infection is not as clear.

A host of sophisticated tests at multiple times suggest the LA baby has completely cleared the virus, said Dr. Deborah Persaud, a Johns Hopkins University physician who led the testing. The baby's signs are different from what doctors see in patients whose infections are merely suppressed by successful treatment, she said.

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US officials: CIA investigates whether officers improperly monitored Senate investigators

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The CIA is investigating whether its officers improperly monitored members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the intelligence agency, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The CIA inspector general is looking into the circumstances surrounding the committee's investigation into allegations of CIA abuse in a Bush-era detention and interrogation program, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters. The allegations include whether CIA officers improperly monitored Senate investigators and possibly accessed the computers they were using, two officials familiar with the investigation said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

The allegations come at a time when the Obama administration is trying to regain public trust after classified details about widespread surveillance of Americans were disclosed by a former National Security Agency systems analyst. The most recent allegations do not involve the NSA spying on Americans. But they do raise questions about the fundamental oversight of U.S. spy agencies by Congress and whether there were efforts to thwart it.

The allegations were first reported by McClatchy Newspapers and The New York Times.

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US safety agency demands reams of documents, data from General Motors in compact car recall

DETROIT (AP) -- U.S. safety regulators are demanding that General Motors turn over reams of documents and other data showing what the company knew and when it found out about a dangerous ignition problem that has been linked to 13 car-crash deaths.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating how GM handled the problem, which triggered the global recall of 1.6 million older-model compact cars. GM has acknowledged it knew of the ignition troubles a decade ago but didn't recall the cars until last month.

In a 27-page order sent to GM Tuesday, NHTSA demanded pictures, memos, electronic communications, engineering drawings and other data to answer 107 questions. The reply, which must be signed under oath by a company officer, is due on April 3. GM spokesman Alan Adler said Wednesday that the company is cooperating.

NHTSA wants the documents to determine if GM delayed its response or withheld evidence. In either case, it could fine GM up to $35 million. Automakers are required to inform NHTSA of safety defects within five days of discovering them. Such a fine would be a record for NHTSA, but essentially is pocket change for GM, which made $3.8 billion last year.

Included in the order is a series of questions about when GM discovered the ignition problem in 2004 and the identity of employees involved in finding and replicating it. The order asks what fixes GM considered "including the lead time required, costs and effectiveness of each of the solutions."

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New SAT: The essay will be optional, students will be able to use computers beginning in 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Essay optional. No penalties for wrong answers. The SAT college entrance exam is undergoing sweeping revisions.

Changes in the annual test that millions of students take will also do away with some vocabulary words such as "prevaricator" and "sagacious" in favor of words more commonly used in school and on the job.

College Board officials said Wednesday the update -- the first since 2005 -- is needed to make the exam more representative of what students study in high school and the skills they need to succeed in college and afterward. The test should offer "worthy challenges, not artificial obstacles," said College Board President David Coleman at an event in Austin, Texas.

The new exam will be rolled out in 2016, so this year's ninth graders will be the first to take it, in their junior year. The new SAT will continue to test reading, writing and math skills, with an emphasis on analysis. Scoring will return to a 1,600-point scale last used in 2004, with a separate score for the optional essay.

For the first time, students will have the option of taking the test on computers.

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Facebook to delete posts from users selling illegal guns or offering to skip background checks

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Under pressure from gun control advocates, Facebook agreed Wednesday to delete posts from users seeking to buy or sell weapons illegally or without a background check.

A similar policy will be applied to Instagram, the company's photo-sharing network, Facebook said. The measures will be put into effect over the next few weeks at the world's largest social network, with 1.3 billion active users.

"We will remove reported posts that explicitly indicate a specific attempt to evade or help others evade the law," the company said in a statement.

The move reflects growing alarm that the Internet is being used to sell banned weapons, evade restrictions on interstate sales, and put guns in the hands of convicted felons, domestic abusers, the mentally ill or others barred under federal law from obtaining firearms. Gun control advocates say Facebook has become a significant marketplace, with thousands of firearms-related posts.

Google Plus and Craigslist already prohibit all gun sales, legal or illegal.