U.S., Europe target Putin’s inner circle for Russia’s Ukraine incursion

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Raising the stakes in an East-West showdown over Ukraine, President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered economic sanctions against nearly two dozen members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and a major Russian bank that provides them support. He warned that more sweeping penalties against Russia’s robust energy sector could follow.

Russia retaliated swiftly, imposing entry bans on American lawmakers and senior White House officials, among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and the president’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.

It’s far more than just a U.S.-Russia dispute. European Union leaders said they, too, were ready to close in on Putin’s associates, announcing plans to impose travel bans and asset freezes on more Russians involved in the territorial clash with Ukraine. The Western aim is twofold: to ratchet up the costs for Putin’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and to head off any further Russian military inroads into Ukraine.

"The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine," Obama said, speaking from the South Lawn of the White House.

Thursday’s volleys deepened the confrontation over Ukraine, a standoff that has become one of the biggest political crises in Europe since the Cold War. Putin, rather than backing off as the West warns of costs, has defiantly moved military forces into Crimea, backed a referendum in which the Crimean people overwhelming voted to join Russia and then signed a treaty formally absorbing the strategically important peninsula into Russia.

’Best lead’ emerges
in lost plane search

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- A freighter used searchlights early Friday to scan rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth after satellite images detected possible pieces from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the southern Indian Ocean.

In what officials called the "best lead" of the nearly two-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two objects floating about 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia and halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.

The development raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.

One of the objects on the satellite image was 24 meters (almost 80 feet) long and the other was 5 meters (15 feet). There could be other objects in the area, a four-hour flight from southwestern Australia, said John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.

"This is a lead, it’s probably the best lead we have right now," Young said. He cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a shipping route where containers can fall off cargo vessels, although the larger object is longer than a container.

Army general is spared prison in sexual misconduct case

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) -- The Army general at the center of a sexual misconduct case that put the military justice system itself on trial was spared prison Thursday and sentenced to a reprimand and a $20,000 fine -- a punishment legal experts, a women’s group and members of Congress decried as shockingly light.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, 51, immediately announced his retirement, capping a humiliating fall for the battle-tested commander once regarded as a rising star in the Army. A disciplinary board could still bust him in rank and severely reduce his pension.

"The system worked. I’ve always been proud of my Army," Sinclair said outside court after reacting to his sentence with a smile and an embrace of his lawyers. "All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and my wife."

The former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division was originally brought up on sexual assault charges punishable by life in prison. He was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on such charges.

But earlier this week, prosecutors dropped those charges midway through the trial in a deal in which Sinclair pleaded guilty to committing adultery with one woman and conducting inappropriate relationships with two others by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email. Adultery is a crime in the military.

With anti-gay protests, Rev. Fred Phelps tested boundaries of free speech, decency

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Fred Phelps did not care what you thought of his Westboro Baptist Church, nor did he care if you heard its message that society’s tolerance for gay people is the root of all earthly evil.

By the time you saw one of his outrageous and hate-filled signs -- "You’re Going to Hell" was among the more benign -- you were already doomed.

Tall, thin and increasingly spectral as he aged, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the Westboro Baptist Church, a small congregation made up almost entirely of his extended family, tested the boundaries of the free speech guarantees by violating accepted societal standards for decency in their unapologetic assault on gays and lesbians. In the process, some believe he even helped the cause of gay rights by serving as such a provocative symbol of intolerance.

All of that was irrelevant to Phelps, who died late Wednesday. He was 84.

God is love? Heresy, he preached, and derisively insisted the Lord had nothing but anger and bile for the moral miscreants of his creation.

Justice Department investigates ties between Wall Street exec., ex-Army officer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Justice Department is investigating a flamboyant Wall Street financier who won millions of dollars in military contracts and then hired the Army officer who allegedly steered the money her way.

Interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press portray entrepreneur Lynn Tilton and Col. Bert Vergez as being in unusually close contact for more than a year before Vergez retired from the Army in late 2012. Among the allegations is that Vergez provided Tilton with details about upcoming contracts to give her company, MD Helicopters of Mesa, Ariz., an advantage over the competition. No charges have been filed.

Vergez went to work for Tilton less than three months after hanging up his uniform. The Justice Department is examining whether his hiring breached "revolving door" rules that require federal officials to wait a year or more before receiving compensation from a company they had dealings with while employed by the government, according to people knowledgeable of the inquiry but not authorized to be identified as the sources of the information. Vergez’s ties to two Russian businessmen also are being investigated.

AP last week sent a list of questions to Davidson Goldin, a spokesman for Tilton and her company. Goldin declined to comment. Vergez did not return emails and telephone calls. Justice Department spokeswoman Allison Price said the department had no comment on the investigation.

The allegations run counter to the by-the-bootstraps image Tilton has cultivated since founding the private equity firm Patriarch Partners in 2000. With her platinum blonde hair and trademark stiletto heels, the Bronx, N.Y.-born Tilton relishes her role as a maverick in the buttoned-down world of finance.

Adding heat on CIA, Senate probes computers and lawmakers push to declassify torture report

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Adding heat on the CIA, the Senate will investigate a computer network that contained a still-secret review of U.S. terror interrogations that led to dueling criminal referrals to the Justice Department and a dramatic collapse in relations between the nation’s spy agencies and the lawmakers entrusted with their oversight.

In letters to the heads of the CIA and Justice Department, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the CIA’s decision to search the Senate intelligence committee’s network and computers without approval was "absolutely indefensible" and carried serious implications for the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Reid said he had instructed his Senate’s chief cop to examine how Senate staffers obtained an internal CIA review, which the agency accused them of improperly copying, although Reid described the CIA’s alleged monitoring of Senate computers as more serious.

Meanwhile, legislative aides said the Senate intelligence committee will push soon for declassification of parts or all of its 6,000-page report on the agency’s "war on terror" interrogation tactics at secret sites, the starting point of the entire dispute.

The parameters of the sergeant-at-arms’s investigation are unclear and it’s unknown what cooperation he’ll receive from the CIA, which has been locked in a bitter rift with the intelligence committee’s chairman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The agency accuses committee staffers of illegally accessing certain documents; Feinstein and other senators say the CIA broke the law by monitoring its computer use and deleting files.

Syrian troops capture famed Crusader-era citadel near the border with Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian troops captured a famed Crusader castle near the border with Lebanon on Thursday, running the two-starred government flag high above the stone ramparts of the 12th century fortress after days of intense clashes with rebel fighters.

Lebanese private broadcaster Al-Mayadeen TV aired footage of Syrian soldiers walking unopposed into the Crac des Chevaliers, the towering hilltop citadel. The loud crackle of celebratory gunfire could be heard as troops explored the sprawling castle, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The military’s push into the Crac des Chevaliers marked the latest in a string of battlefield gains for President Bashar Assad’s forces. Government troops have seized at least four towns and villages in the past two weeks near the border with Lebanon as the army tries to sever opposition supply lines across the rugged, mountainous frontier.

The sharpest blow to the rebels came with the fall of their stronghold of Yabroud near Lebanon’s eastern border on Sunday. But the government capture of the Crac des Chevaliers, which dominates the surrounding valley and terraced hills below, marked another painful setback, for symbolic reasons as much as strategic. Rebels had controlled the castle since 2012.

"Our efforts, those of the Syrian Arab Army and the National Defense Forces, were crowned today by raising the Syrian flag on the Crac des Chevaliers," an unnamed Syrian army colonel told Al-Mayadeen. "The battle had been going on for more than a month during which several nearby villages were liberated."