Putin recognizes Crimea
as independent, firmly challenging the West

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ignoring the toughest sanctions against Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as an "independent and sovereign country" on Monday, a bold challenge to Washington that escalates one of Europe’s worst security crises in years.

The brief decree posted on the Kremlin’s website came just hours after the United States and the European Union announced asset freezes and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the Crimean crisis. President Barack Obama warned that more would come if Russia didn’t stop interfering in Ukraine, and Putin’s move clearly forces his hand.

The West has struggled to find leverage to force Moscow to back off in the Ukraine turmoil, of which Crimea is only a part, and analysts saw Monday’s sanctions as mostly ineffectual.

Moscow showed no signs of flinching in the dispute that has roiled Ukraine since Russian troops took effective control of the strategic Black Sea peninsula last month and supported the Sunday referendum that overwhelmingly called for annexation by Russia. Recognizing Crimea as independent would be an interim step in absorbing the region.

Crimea had been part of Russia since the 18th century, until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954 and both Russians and Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian population see annexation as correcting a historic insult.


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New uncertainty arises over when communications went out aboard missing Malaysian jetliner

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Officials revealed a new timeline Monday suggesting the final voice transmission from the cockpit of the missing Malaysian plane may have occurred before any of its communications systems were disabled, adding more uncertainty about who aboard might have been to blame.

The search for Flight 370, which vanished early March 8 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, has now been expanded deep into the northern and southern hemispheres. Australian vessels scoured the southern Indian Ocean and China offered 21 of its satellites to help Malaysia in the unprecedented hunt.

With no wreckage found in one of the most puzzling aviation mysteries of all time, relatives of those on the Boeing 777 have been left in an agonizing limbo.

Investigators say the plane was deliberately diverted during its overnight flight and flew off-course for hours. They haven’t ruled out hijacking, sabotage, or pilot suicide, and they are checking the backgrounds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members, as well as the ground crew, to see if links to terrorists, personal problems or psychological issues could be factors.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said finding the plane was still the main focus, and he did not rule out that it might be discovered intact.

General who took plea deal chokes up, says he failed woman who accused him of sexual assault

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) -- An Army general who admitted to improper relationships with three subordinates appeared to choke up Monday as he told a judge that he’d failed the female captain who had leveled the most serious accusations against him.

Hours later, she took the stand to testify about how she can’t trust people and fears her superiors are always going to take advantage of her in the aftermath of the three-year affair.

As he pleaded guilty, Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s voice halted when telling the judge why he was pleading guilty to mistreating her in a deal that included the dropping of sexual assault charges.

"I failed her as a leader and as a mentor and caused harm to her emotional state," Sinclair said, his voice catching as he read from a statement. He asked the judge for a break and took a long drink of water before continuing to read.

"I created a situation over time that caused her emotional harm," Sinclair said, seated in his dress blue uniform. It was the first public show of regret or sadness for a 27-year veteran who had betrayed little emotion in court hearings over the past year.

NYC mayor skips St. Pat’s parade amid tension over gays; Ireland official promotes ‘Irishness’

NEW YORK (AP) -- A weekend of St. Patrick’s Day revelry and tensions over the exclusion of gays in some of the celebrations culminated Monday in New York, where the world’s largest parade celebrating Irish heritage stepped off without the city’s new mayor and Guinness beer amid a dispute over whether participants can carry pro-gay signs.

The parade of kilted Irish-Americans and bagpipers set off on a cold, gray morning. Hundreds of thousands of spectators lined Fifth Avenue, but the shivering, bundled up crowd was only about half as thick as in previous years.

Revelers also gathered elsewhere for green-themed celebrations, including some 400,000 locals and tourists in Dublin, where gay rights groups took part in the festivities.

De Blasio held New York’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day breakfast at Gracie Mansion with the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, but boycotted the parade because organizers said marchers were not allowed to carry gay-friendly signs or identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Weeks ago de Blasio said he would skip the parade over the issue, but Guinness abruptly dropped its support a day before the event. The Dublin-based company pulled sponsorship assets, including on-air presence, parade participation and any promotional materials that weren’t already printed, although the beer maker had already made a payment to parade organizers, spokeswoman Alix Dunn said.

In afterglow of the Big Bang, scientists see ‘smoking gun’ for universe’s early growth spurt

NEW YORK (AP) -- Researchers say they have spotted evidence that a split-second after the Big Bang, the newly formed universe ballooned out at a pace so astonishing that it left behind ripples in the fabric of the cosmos.

If confirmed, experts said, the discovery would be a major advance in the understanding of the early universe. Although many scientists already believed that an initial, extremely rapid growth spurt happened, they have long sought the type of evidence cited in the new study.

The results reported Monday emerged after researchers peered into the faint light that remains from the Big Bang of nearly 14 billion years ago.

The discovery "gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning," when it was far less than one-trillionth of a second old, said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who was not involved in the work.

"It’s just amazing," Krauss said. "You can see back to the beginning of time." Judge orders Brown to remain in Los Angeles jail; cites comments about gun, knives troubling

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A judge says R&B singer Chris Brown must remain in jail until a hearing in late April because he failed to remain in a court-mandated rehab program.

Superior Court Judge James R. Brandlin said Monday that he was troubled by comments that Brown made during his rehab stay in which the singer allegedly said he was good at using guns and knives.

The 24-year-old singer was arrested on Friday after he was dismissed from a Malibu facility where he was being treated for anger management and other issues.

Brown had been in rehab since November, when Brandlin ordered him to receive treatment as part of his sentence for a 2009 attack on then-girlfriend Rihanna.

Brown’s attorney Mark Geragos asked that Brown be allowed to enter another rehab program, but Brandlin refused and set a probation violation hearing for April 23.

L’Wren Scott, fashion designer and Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, found dead in apparent NY suicide

NEW YORK (AP) -- L’Wren Scott, who left her rural Utah home as a teenager to become a model in Paris, then a top Hollywood stylist and finally a high-end fashion designer best known as the longtime girlfriend of Mick Jagger, has died in what was being investigated as an apparent suicide.

Scott was found dead in her Manhattan apartment at 10 a.m. Monday; no note was found and there was no sign of foul play, police said. The designer had texted her assistant 90 minutes earlier and asked her to come to her apartment but didn’t say why. She was found kneeling with a scarf wrapped around her neck that had been tied to the handle of a French door, police said.

Her spokesperson requested privacy for her family and friends. Just last month Scott, who was believed to be 49 but had not disclosed her precise age, canceled her London Fashion Week show, due to reported production delays.

Jagger’s representative said the singer was "completely shocked and devastated by the news."

With deadline looming, Texas makes final push to enroll uninsured families
in new health plans

HOUSTON (AP) -- Sara Rodriguez recently received a $4,000 bill for a six-hour emergency room visit to treat a fever. She says she can’t pay, but she’s also not planning to buy health insurance through the new federal marketplace.

Rodriguez, like others gathered in a Houston gymnasium listening to a presentation about the health care overhaul, says she can’t afford insurance, even for $50 a month. With two young children and barely $400 of income a month after paying rent, she struggles to feed her family.

"It’s the law, but I’m not interested," the 27-year-old says, explaining that she attended the presentation only because her GED teacher is making her write an essay. "I cannot afford it."

The presentation ends and Rodriguez grabs her belongings and rushes out, forgoing the opportunity to make an appointment for enrollment assistance. The crowd of about 200 quickly dwindles, with some stragglers lingering to schedule appointments.

As a March 31 deadline draws near, this is a daily reality in Texas, where nearly 1 in 4 residents is uninsured, the highest rate in the nation.