Russian moves raise specter of wider confrontation; new Ukraine leaders vow to prevent breakup

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) -- Masked gunmen stormed parliament in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region Thursday as Russian fighter jets scrambled to patrol borders, while the newly formed government pledged to prevent a national breakup with strong backing from the West -- the stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.

Moscow granted shelter to Ukraine’s fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, state media said. He was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat and to have scheduled a news conference Friday near the Ukrainian border.

As gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading "Crimea is Russia" in the provincial capital, Ukraine’s interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory "has been and will be a part of Ukraine."

The escalating conflict sent Ukraine’s finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.

Yanukovych, whose abandonment of closer ties to Europe in favor of a bailout loan from Russia set off three months of protests, finally fled by helicopter last week as his allies deserted him. The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine’s drama came to a head. The Russian leader has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine -- a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization -- closer into Moscow’s orbit.

Democrats look
to make GOP split over Arizona bill a midterm election campaign issue

PHOENIX (AP) -- Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of a bill allowing businesses to refuse service to gays exposed a fracture within the Republican Party between social conservatives and the GOP’s pro-business wing, a split that Democrats hope to turn into a midterm election campaign issue.

The Republican governor has made job creation and business expansion the centerpiece of her administration, and she was more than willing to disregard the wishes of social conservatives amid protests from major corporations such as American Airlines and Apple Inc. As a result, the GOP base was left dispirited, and opponents of gay marriage are struggling to find their footing after significant losses in the courts and statehouses.

"It’s leading people to say: ‘We’re not sure where the Republican party is on something as basic as economic freedom,"’ said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative group in Washington, D.C., that argued the proposal was aimed simply at allowing people to run businesses as they saw fit. "There certainly is a risk, especially as you head into the midterm elections, when the turnout of your base is essential."

Brewer vetoed the measure Wednesday night after Republicans ranging from Mitt Romney to her state’s two U.S. Senators urged her to reject the measure, which emerged from the GOP-controlled state Legislature. The bill was designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays or others who offend their beliefs. Opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination.

Gay marriage is increasingly popular nationwide, and the Democratic Party already has been claiming that measures like the Arizona bill are a throwback to pre-civil rights era Jim Crow laws.

Sen. Cruz blasts GOP leaders, refuses to endorse fellow Texan or others with party challengers

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The sniping between establishment Republicans and tea partyers resumed Thursday as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz refused to endorse his state’s senior senator in next week’s Republican primary.

Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican leader, faces tea party-backed Rep. Steve Stockman in Tuesday’s election. Cruz declined to tell reporters how he plans to vote.

"I am not supporting any of the senators from my party or their opponents" in this year’s primaries, Cruz said, adding that he might change his mind later.

Cruz, a tea party favorite and potential 2016 presidential candidate, has infuriated fellow Republicans by forcing uncomfortable votes on issues such as the debt, and by raising money for conservative groups trying to defeat veteran Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Cruz’s comments are especially notable because he is a vice chairman of the GOP committee tasked with winning Senate elections. He criticized the committee’s track record and policy of virtually always backing incumbents.

GOP derails Senate Dems’ bill boosting vets benefits amid disputes over spending, Iran

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A divided Senate on Thursday derailed Democratic legislation that would have provided $21 billion for medical, education and job-training benefits for the nation’s veterans. The bill fell victim to election-year disputes over spending and fresh penalties against Iran.

Each party covets the allegiance of the country’s 22 million veterans and their families, and each party blamed the other for turning the effort into a chess match aimed at forcing politically embarrassing votes.

Republicans used a procedural move to block the bill after Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chided GOP lawmakers about their priorities.

"I personally, I have to say this honestly, have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for tax breaks for billionaires, for millionaires, for large corporations and then say we don’t have the resources to protect our veterans," said Sanders, the measure’s chief author.

Democrats noted that more than two dozen veterans groups supported the legislation. But Republicans said they still favor helping veterans while also wanting to be prudent about federal spending.

Facing tough political year, Vice President Biden urges Dems not to apologize, and vows to help campaign

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday told Democrats to stop apologizing for their policies and go on offense as party leaders try to overcome pessimism about prospects for the November election.

At a Democratic National Committee gathering, Biden said he and President Barack Obama have an obligation to raise money and campaign for the party’s candidates. He said he has signed up to participate in more than 120 races and that Obama has given him permission to participate in every campaign where he can be helpful.

"I am so tired about hearing about the demise of the Democratic Party. Give me a break," Biden said. "My central message to you is look: I think we should not apologize for a single thing."

In his pep talk to state chairmen, the vice president tried to portray the party as starting on solid ground as campaigning gears up.

"There is no Republican Party," Biden said, accusing the GOP of masquerading as conservative while actually espousing anti-government views that he said Americans reject.

Airport phone system didn’t give dispatchers location of LA airport shooting

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A Los Angeles International Airport police dispatcher who received a call seconds after a gunman opened fire last year didn’t know where to send officers because no one was on the line and the airport communications system didn’t identify that the call was from a security checkpoint emergency phone, two officials told The Associated Press.

A screening supervisor in the sprawling airport’s Terminal 3 picked up the phone but fled before responding to a dispatcher’s questions because the gunman was approaching with a high-powered rifle and spraying bullets, according to two officials briefed on preliminary findings of a review of the emergency response. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because the final report won’t be released until next month.

One of the officials likened the situation to a 911 call but police not knowing what address to go to. Airport dispatchers knew something was wrong but didn’t know where to send help because the system didn’t identify locations of its emergency phones.

After asking questions and receiving no answers, the dispatcher hung up. An airline contractor working in the terminal called dispatch directly from his cellphone, and officers were dispatched 90 seconds after the shooting started.

Douglas Laird, a former security director for Northwest Airlines who owns an aviation security consulting business, was surprised to learn of the issue with the emergency phone. Most systems he’s seen indicate the origin of a call.

Mormon church: Members not taught they’ll get planet in afterlife, as told in ‘Book of Mormon’

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon Church is pushing back against the notion that members of the faith are taught they’ll get their own planet in the afterlife, a misconception popularized in pop culture most recently by the Broadway show "The Book of Mormon."

A newly-posted article affirms the faith’s belief that humans can become like God in eternity, but says the "cartoonish image of people receiving their own planets" is not how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints envision it.

"While few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet, most would agree that the awe inspired by creation hints at our creative potential in the eternities," the article says.

The expectation of exaltation is more figurative and ambiguous than boiling it down to living on one planet, it says.

"Church members imagine exaltation less through images of what they will get and more through the relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated," the article says.

Maronite Catholic Church in U.S. to ordain its 1st married priest in nearly a century

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- When Deacon Wissam Akiki is ordained as a Maronite Catholic priest Thursday night in St. Louis, he’s expected to have hundreds of supporters there for him, including his wife and daughter.

For the first time in nearly a century, the Maronite Catholic Church in the United States is ordaining a married priest in a ceremony at the ornate St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral near downtown St. Louis.

Akiki was in retreat before Thursday’s ceremony and unavailable for an interview.

Eastern Catholic churches in the Middle East and Europe ordain married men. However, the Vatican banned the practice in America in the 1920s after Latin-rite bishops complained it was confusing for parishioners. But Pope John Paul II called for greater acceptance of Eastern Catholic traditions. And over the years, popes have made exceptions on a case-by-case basis for married men to become Eastern Catholic priests in America.

"Almost half of our priests in Lebanon are married, so it’s not an unusual event in the life of the Maronite Church, though in the United States it is," Deacon Louis Peters, chancellor at St. Raymond’s, said Thursday.

Teen survives rare cancer, then wants to study it, helping to find a gene mutation

WASHINGTON (AP) -- First the teenager survived a rare cancer. Then she wanted to study it, spurring a study that helped scientists find a weird gene flaw that might play a role in how the tumor strikes.

Age 18 is pretty young to be listed as an author of a study in the prestigious journal Science. But the industrious high school student’s efforts are bringing new attention to this mysterious disease.

"It’s crazy that I’ve been able to do this," said Elana Simon of New York City, describing her idea to study the extremely rare form of liver cancer that mostly hits adolescents and young adults.

Making that idea work required a lot of help from real scientists: Her father, who runs a cellular biophysics lab at the Rockefeller University; her surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; and gene specialists at the New York Genome Center. A second survivor of this cancer, who the journal said didn’t want to be identified, also co-authored the study.

Together, the team reported Thursday that they uncovered an oddity: A break in genetic material that left the "head" of one gene fused to the "body" of another. That results in an abnormal protein that forms inside the tumors but not in normal liver tissue, suggesting it might fuel cancer growth, the researchers wrote. They’ve found the evidence in all 15 of the tumors tested so far.