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Russia, West try to build diplomatic solution to Ukraine as Crimea tensions flare
PARIS (AP) — Facing off in Europe's capitals Wednesday, Russia and the West began building the elements of a diplomatic solution to Europe's gravest crisis since the Cold War — even as the West appeared increasingly resigned to an entrenched Russian presence in Crimea. NATO hit back by putting Russia on suspension, 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.
As peace efforts got underway in Paris and Brussels, volatility reigned on the ground in Ukraine: A special U.N. envoy visiting Crimea came under threat by armed men who forced him to leave the region. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators, many chanting "Russia! Russia!" stormed a government building in eastern Ukraine — renewing fears that turmoil could spill out of Crimea and engulf other Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine.
Ukraine's prime minister told The Associated Press in his first interview since taking office that he still feared Russian President Vladimir Putin might attempt more land grabs: "Mr. President," Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, "stop this mess."
Yatsenyuk vowed to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, but expressed openness to granting it more autonomy. Ukraine's foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, told the AP that pro-Russian citizens in Crimea must be willing to replace armed forces with international observers if they want a vote on more self-rule.
But most of the bargaining chips Wednesday belonged to Russia, whose troops are fanned out across Crimea and control most of its strategic facilities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mass. high court rules that state law doesn't prohibit 'upskirt' photos of women riding subway
BOSTON (AP) — A man who took cellphone photos up the skirts of women riding the Boston subway did not violate state law because the women were not nude or partially nude, Massachusetts' highest court ruled Wednesday.
The Supreme Judicial Court overruled a lower court that had upheld charges against Michael Robertson, who was arrested in August 2010 by transit police who set up a sting after getting reports that he was using his cellphone to take photos and video up female riders' skirts and dresses.
The ruling immediately prompted top Beacon Hill lawmakers to pledge to update state law.
Existing so-called Peeping Tom laws protect people from being photographed in dressing rooms and bathrooms when nude or partially nude, but the way the law is written, it does not protect clothed people in public areas, the court said.
"A female passenger on a MBTA trolley who is wearing a skirt, dress, or the like covering these parts of her body is not a person who is 'partially nude,' no matter what is or is not underneath the skirt by way of underwear or other clothing," the court said in its ruling.
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 better 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.
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.
Former IRS official Lois Lerner refuses to testify at House hearing on tea party targeting
WASHINGTON (AP) — The former Internal Revenue Service official at the heart of the controversy over the agency's targeting of conservative groups once again refused to answer questions at a House hearing Wednesday amid signs that a congressional investigation into the affair may be stalling.
Lois Lerner headed the IRS division that improperly singled out tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. On Wednesday she was recalled to testify before the House Oversight Committee for the second time in a year.
But just like the first time, she declined to answer questions about her involvement. Appearing with her lawyer, Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at least nine times in response to questions by committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Later, Lerner's lawyer told reporters she didn't testify because "we completely lost confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the forum."
"This matter has become polarized," said the lawyer, William W. Taylor III. "It is completely partisan. There was no possibility, in my view, that Ms. Lerner would be given a fair opportunity to speak, to answer questions or to tell the truth."
New health law regulations include 2-year extension for canceled insurance policies
WASHINGTON (AP) — Warding off the specter of election-year health insurance cancellations, the Obama administration Wednesday announced a two-year extension for individual policies that don't meet requirements of the new health care law.
The decision helps defuse a political problem for Democrats in tough re-election battles this fall, especially for senators who in 2010 stood with President Barack Obama and voted to pass his health overhaul.
The extension was part of a major package of regulations that sets ground rules for 2015, the second year of government-subsidized health insurance markets under Obama's law — and the first year that larger employers will face a requirement to provide coverage.
Hundreds of pages of provisions affecting insurers, employers and consumers were issued by the Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. It will likely take days for lawyers and consultants to fully assess the implications.
The cancellation last fall of at least 4.7 million individual policies was one of the most damaging issues in the transition to a new insurance system under Obama's law. The wave of cancellations hit around the time that the new HealthCare.gov website was overwhelmed with technical problems that kept many consumers from signing up for coverage. It contradicted Obama's promise that you can keep your insurance plan if you like it.
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