Friday, March 21, 2014

Published:

The divide deepens: Russia annexes Crimea, while Ukraine binds itself closer to Europe

BRUSSELS (AP) -- Two almost simultaneous signatures Friday on opposite sides of Europe deepened the divide between East and West, as Russia formally annexed Crimea and the European Union pulled Ukraine closer into its orbit.

In this "new post-Cold War order," as the Ukrainian prime minister called it, besieged Ukrainian troops on the Crimean Peninsula faced a critical choice: leave, join the Russian military or demobilize. Ukraine was working on evacuating its outnumbered troops in Crimea, but some said they were still awaiting orders.

With fears running high of clashes between the two sides or a grab by Moscow for more of Ukraine, the chief of the U.N. came to the capital city Kiev and urged calm all around.

All eyes were on Russian President Vladimir Putin, as they have been ever since pro-Western protests drove out Ukraine's president a month ago, angering Russia and plunging Europe into its worst crisis in a generation.

Putin sounded a conciliatory note Friday, almost joking about U.S. and EU sanctions squeezing his inner circle and saying he saw no reason to retaliate. But his government later warned of further action.

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Federal judge strikes down Michigan's 2004 ban on same-sex marriage

DETROIT (AP) -- Michigan's ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, a federal judge said Friday, striking down a law that was widely embraced by voters a decade ago in the latest in a series of similar decisions across the country.

But unlike cases in other states, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman did not suspend his decision while the Michigan attorney general pursues an appeal. That means clerks could start issuing licenses Monday unless a higher court intervenes.

Friedman released his 31-page ruling exactly two weeks after a rare trial that mostly focused on the impact of same-sex parenting on children. The challenge was brought by two Detroit-area nurses originally seeking to overturn Michigan's ban on joint adoptions by gay couples.

The judge noted that supporters of same-sex marriage believe the Michigan ban was at least partly the result of animosity toward gays and lesbians.

"Many Michigan residents have religious convictions whose principles govern the conduct of their daily lives and inform their own viewpoints about marriage," Friedman said. "Nonetheless, these views cannot strip other citizens of the guarantees of equal protection under the law."

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Australian planes resume search as 'extraordinary riddle' of missing jet extends to 2 weeks

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Three Australian planes took off at dawn Saturday for a third day of scouring the desolate southern Indian Ocean for possible parts of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, now lost for two full weeks.

Australia promised its best efforts to resolve "an extraordinary riddle," but two days of searching the seas about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth have not produced any evidence.

A satellite spotted two large objects in the area earlier this week, raising hopes of finding the Boeing 777 that disappeared March 8 with 239 people on board.

"It's about the most inaccessible spot that you could imagine on the face of the Earth, but if there is anything down there, we will find it," Prime Minister Tony Abbott said at a news conference in Papua New Guinea.

"We owe it to the families and the friends and the loved ones of the almost 240 people on Flight MH370 to do everything we can to try to resolve what is as yet an extraordinary riddle," he added.

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Turkish ban on Twitter over graft recordings appears to backfire with tech-savvy population

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkey's attempt to block access to Twitter appeared to backfire on Friday with many tech-savvy users circumventing the ban and suspicions growing that the prime minister was using court orders to suppress corruption allegations against him and his government.

Turkey's telecommunications authority said it had blocked access to the social media network hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to "rip out the roots" of the website. Tweets have proliferated with links to recordings that appear to incriminate him and other top officials in corruption.

Lutfi Elvan, Turkey's minister in charge of transport and communications, said Turkey was merely obeying court orders -- although an Istanbul lawyers group argued the court decisions were about blocking access to parts of websites deemed to be violating privacy -- not entire websites.

Turkey in the past has blocked access to YouTube, but this is the first ban on Twitter, which is hugely popular in the country -- to the point where Turkish hashtags routinely appear in global trends. The social network was instrumental in organizing flash protests against the government last year.

By midday Friday, tweets were continuing unabated as users swapped instructions online on how to change settings. One enterprising user spread the word by defacing Turkish election posters with instructions on beating censors.

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In bold attack, Taliban kill 9 in hotel, shooting Afghan journalist, wife, children in head

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- The luxury hotel was considered one of the safest spots in the Afghan capital. Yet four gunmen walked in, proceeded to the restaurant and pulled out pistols hidden in their shoes. They killed nine people, including a journalist for a French news agency, his wife and two children who were shot in the head.

One child survived but was seriously wounded.

The Taliban boasted that the assault Thursday night shows they can strike anywhere, and Afghan officials issued a string of conflicting statements as they scrambled to explain how the attackers penetrated the Serena Hotel's tight security.

It was a major embarrassment to government security forces less than two weeks before national elections and came on the heels of an uptick in bombings and shootings against foreigners in the capital, something that had been relatively rare. A Swedish journalist was shot on the street earlier this month, and a Lebanese restaurant popular with foreigners was attacked by a suicide bomber and gunmen in January.

The latest attack was particularly brazen because it was considered one of the best-protected sites for civilians in Kabul. Sheltered behind a nondescript wall, entrants must pass through a security room at the gate where they are patted down and go through a metal detector as bags are put through an X-ray machine and sometimes searched.

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Pricing Game: Wal-Mart's online tool compares rivals' prices, offers shoppers lowest

NEW YORK (AP) -- The "Every Day Low Price" king is trying to shake up the world of pricing once again.

Wal-Mart told The Associated Press that it has rolled out an online tool that compares its prices on 80,000 food and household products -- from canned beans to dishwashing soap -- with those of its competitors. If a lower price is found elsewhere, the discounter will refund the difference to shoppers in the form a store credit.

The world's largest retailer began offering the feature, called "Savings Catcher," on its website late last month in seven big markets that include Dallas, San Diego and Atlanta. The tool compares advertised prices at retailers with physical stores, and not at online rivals like Amazon.com that also offer low prices on staples.

The move by Wal-Mart, which has a long history of undercutting competitors, could not only change the way people shop, but also how other retailers price their merchandise. After all, Americans already increasingly are searching for the lowest prices on their tablets and smartphones while in checkout aisles.

Shoppers do this so often that big retailers that include behemoths like Target and Best Buy have started offering to match the lower prices of rivals -- but only if shoppers do the research on their own. The idea behind Wal-Mart's online feature, on the other hand, is to do the legwork for customers.

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Purported "Crown of Thorns" goes on show at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

PARIS (AP) -- An ancient relic that many Christians revere as Jesus Christ's "Crown of Thorns" has made a special public appearance at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The crown -- a circular band of branches encased in a gilded, golden tube -- is being displayed for three days to mark the 800th anniversary of the birthday and christening of King Louis IX of France, who acquired it in 1239.

The relic was first mentioned by Jerusalem pilgrims in the 5th century and was transferred to Constantinople in the 10th century.

The artifact has appeared in special ceremonies a handful of times in the last hundred years: in 1997, and in 1939 on the eve of World War II, to celebrate seven centuries since it came to France.

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Anita Hill girds herself for the spotlight again as new film revisits Clarence Thomas hearings

NEW YORK (AP) -- It's been more than 22 years since Anita Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee in that famous bright blue suit -- one she could never bring herself to wear again -- to make the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas that transfixed a nation.

And much has changed since then.

But not everything.

"I hope you rot in hell," went an email that Hill, now 57 and a professor at Brandeis University, received just a few weeks ago from a member of the public.

After all this time?

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Busted! Upsets eliminate all brackets before the weekend

The billion dollar dream is over.

A second day of upsets ended any chance of someone having a perfect NCAA tournament bracket in Warren Buffet's $1 billion challenge. It was a favorite that provided the first blemish on the final three people's brackets in the Quicken Loans contest on the Yahoo Sports website.

All three had ninth-seeded George Washington beating Memphis. The Tigers won 71-66.

"If Warren Buffett wants to donate the (billion) to our university, we will take it and use it in good company," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "We'll find a way."

It only took 25 games for everyone to be eliminated. Then again most of brackets were knocked out on the tournament's first full day. The number of unblemished brackets kept dwindling after third-seed Duke, sixth-seed UMass and seventh-seed New Mexico lost Friday.

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Quarterback shuffle: Jets sign Michael Vick and release Mark Sanchez

NEW YORK (AP) -- Michael Vick is switching green jerseys -- and maybe trading his clipboard for a starting job.

The New York Jets signed the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback to a one-year deal Friday, and released Mark Sanchez, the one-time face of the franchise.

"I love competition and I love football," Vick said during a conference call Friday night. "And, I feel I have a lot of football left to play."

Vick will present a real challenge to Jets starter Geno Smith, who played well down the stretch of his rookie season, but finished with 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.

"As of right now," Vick said, "Geno's the starting quarterback of this football team."