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.

’Extraordinary riddle’ of missing Malaysia Airlines plane remains unsolved after 2 weeks

PERTH, Australia (AP) -- Aircraft and ships from China headed to the desolate southern Indian Ocean to join the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, now lost for two full weeks, and Australia promised its best efforts to resolve "an extraordinary riddle."

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. Surveillance planes scoured the region -- about 1,550 miles southwest of Perth -- for a second day on Friday but came back empty-handed after a 10-hour mission.

Australian officials pledged to continue the effort. even as they tried to tamp down expectations.

"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.

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 as he struck down a law that was widely embraced by voters a decade ago -- the latest in a recent series of decisions overturning similar prohibitions across the country.

U.S. District Judge Bernard 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.

He 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."

The decision was filed shortly after 5 p.m. in Detroit, when most county clerk offices were closed. Clerks issue marriage licenses in Michigan.

Obama trip to Europe set to be dominated
by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pushing back against demands to supply arms to Ukraine, Obama administration officials said Friday that economic sanctions would remain the primary weapon as the U.S. and its European allies seek a diplomatic solution to Russia’s aggression.

"Our interest is not in seeing this situation escalate and devolve into hot conflict," Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice said. "Our interest is in a diplomatic resolution, de-escalation and, obviously, economic support for Ukraine, and to the extent that it continues to be necessary, further cost imposed on Russia for its actions."

President Barack Obama, traveling across the Atlantic next week, will seek a cohesive stance from European leaders unnerved by Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula but cautious about the economic punishment the United States says it’s willing to unleash if Moscow makes further expansionist moves.

The trip, scheduled long before Russia moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula away from Ukraine, had initially aimed to nurture international relationships as well as feature a high-profile audience with Pope Francis. But Russia’s actions will now dominate Obama’s visit as the president and U.S. allies seek to confront one of the most serious political crises in Europe since the Cold War.

Underscoring the gravity with which the United States and the West perceive Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Obama will meet with leaders of the Group of Seven leading economies on Monday to display a unified stance against Moscow.

Contracts, documents about local police use of cellphone trackers often censored, denied

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Police across the country may be intercepting phone calls or text messages to find suspects using a technology tool known as Stingray. But they’re refusing to turn over details about its use or heavily censoring files when they do.

Police say Stingray, a suitcase-sized device that pretends it’s a cell tower, is useful for catching criminals, but that’s about all they’ll say.

For example, they won’t disclose details about contracts with the device’s manufacturer, Harris Corp., insisting they are protecting both police tactics and commercial secrets. The secrecy -- at times imposed by non-disclosure agreements signed by police -- is pitting obligations under private contracts against government transparency laws.

Even in states with strong open records laws, including Florida and Arizona, little is known about police use of Stingray and any rules governing it.

A Stingray device tricks all cellphones in an area into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting data to police rather than the nearest phone company’s tower. Because documents about Stingrays are regularly censored, it’s not immediately clear what information the devices could capture, such as the contents of phone conversations and text messages, what they routinely do capture based on how they’re configured or how often they might be used.

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.

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.

4th body found in New Jersey motel fire; other missing occupants accounted for

POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. (AP) -- A fire early Friday destroyed a New Jersey shore motel that was housing people displaced by Superstorm Sandy, killing four people and injuring eight, authorities said.

The blaze erupted at the wooden Mariner’s Cover Motor Inn in this popular summer resort town at around 5:30 a.m., and flames were shooting out the building by the time firefighters arrived. At least one person leaped from a second-floor window to escape.

Three people were injured critically. Other injuries included broken bones.

The discovery of a fourth victim was announced Friday afternoon just before firefighters removed the body on a stretcher. Authorities said all remaining occupants had been accounted for.

The victims were identified as male adults, but the prosecutor’s office said no positive identifications had been made yet and the cause of the blaze was unknown.