Lavrov accuses West of plotting to seize control of Ukraine, demands Kiev buildings be vacated

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia’s economy felt the sting of the Ukrainian crisis Friday as a ratings agency cut its credit rating to near junk and Moscow hiked interest rates to keep its sliding ruble from fueling inflation.

The impact could get harder as the West threatens additional sanctions. Still, Russia is showing no signs of backing down, saying Friday that pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine’s southeast will lay down their arms only if the Ukrainian government clears out nationalist protesters in Kiev, the capital.

The soaring prosperity that has been a cornerstone of President Vladimir Putin’s popularity already had been heading for a slowdown before the Ukraine crisis hit, as Russian oil and gas exports slowed and the country’s reliance on extractive industries remained high. But the uncertainty ignited by the Ukraine crisis and Western sanctions against Russia worsened the problem.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s cut its credit grade for Russia on Friday for the first time in five years, saying the tensions over Ukraine were causing investors to pull money out of the country. Capital flight from Russia in the first three months of this year totaled about $70 billion -- more than all of 2013.


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The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March. Despite the sanctions and international denunciation, the annexation appears to be a done deal. Now the focus is on eastern Ukraine, where armed pro-Russia insurgents have seized police stations and government buildings in at least 10 cities and towns, allegedly with Russian participation or connivance.

Despite renewed push Israeli quest for
visa-free travel
to the U.S. faces major reciprocity test

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A campaign to allow Israelis to enter the United States without a visa is gaining steam in Congress, but is still running into a brick wall with the Obama administration over the U.S.government’s most elementary demand: that the Jewish state provide the same treatment at its borders to all Americans, even if they are Arab or Muslim.

Objections from U.S. officials and some lawmakers blocked a congressional effort over the last year that could have allowed Israel to maintain discriminatory entry policies for certain groups of Americans, which no other country can do if its citizens are able to visit the U.S. without visas. However, a new version of proposed legislation could offer Israel greater flexibility in the Visa Waiver Program, and the administration has pledged to work with Israel to help it move closer to qualifying for the program.

Israel’s push to join the prestigious club of 38 mainly European and Asian nations is a top priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and pro-Israel lawmakers. And because Israel currently meets few of the criteria for membership, the issue has become a sensitive diplomatic and legislative one in Washington, where officials and lawmakers don’t want to offend a close friend and ally. Citizens of member countries can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, provided they register electronically before boarding a flight.

"Reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said recently. Asked if the U.S. might soften that demand for Israel, she said: "No. The requirements have not changed. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State both remain concerned with reciprocal travel privileges for U.S. citizens due to the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans receive at Israel’s borders and checkpoints."

Up to now, many Palestinian-Americans have been barred from entering Israel. If they are allowed into Palestinian territories, they cannot arrive at Tel Aviv’s international airport and must instead travel overland from Jordan or Egypt. Other Americans of Arab origin or Muslim faith say they’ve suffered similar restrictions, as well as U.S. citizens with political views Israel finds objectionable.

SKorea says it mismatched bodies from ferry disaster, vows changes; Obama offers condolences

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- As visiting President Barack Obama offered South Koreans his condolences Friday for the ferry disaster, the South Korean government conceded that some bodies have been misidentified and announced changes to prevent such mistakes from happening again.

There have been several reports in South Korean media this week of bodies going to the wrong families, with the error sometimes caught only after the remains were taken to a funeral home. An "action plan" released by the government-wide emergency task force acknowledged that "there have been cases where the victims were wrongly transferred."

Remains will be transferred to families when there is a match using DNA testing or fingerprint or dental records, the task force said. The transfer will be temporary when a body is matched though identification or physical description, and authorities will wait for more authoritative evidence before making the transfer permanent.

Divers have recovered 183 bodies so far, but 119 remain missing and are feared dead in the dark rooms of the submerged vessel.

Search officials including a navy spokesman and a diver said 35 of the ferry’s 111 rooms have been searched so far, Yonhap news agency reported. They said 48 of the bodies recovered were found were in a single large room built to accommodate 38.

In South Korea, Obama stresses U.S. military ties in Asia amid China’s rise, North Korean threat

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Less than an hour after arriving in South Korea, President Barack Obama solemnly laid a wreath at a memorial honoring Americans killed in the Korean War. On Saturday, he’ll speak to some of the 28,000 American service members stationed here and hold a rare joint security briefing with South Korea’s president.

Obama’s itinerary is aimed at showcasing the U.S. military’s deep ties to the region at a time when Asia is warily watching China’s growing military prowess and North Korea’s unpredictable nuclear efforts.

"Obviously we come here at a time when there has been provocative language from North Korea, and it’s important for us to show complete solidarity with our ally, the Republic of Korea, in standing up to those provocations," said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

Obama arrived in South Korea on Friday, the second stop on his four-country swing through Asia. After events in Seoul on Saturday, the president will travel to Malaysia, where he’ll attend a dinner with the royal family.

Even as Obama pressed his security agenda in South Korea, he paid tribute to victims from last week’s ferry disaster. The vast majority of the 300 dead or missing were students from a single high school near Seoul.

Connecticut police investigate whether prom-date rejection led to fatal stabbing

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) -- A 16-year-old girl was stabbed to death inside a Connecticut high school Friday, and police were investigating whether a boy attacked her because she turned down an invitation to be his prom date.

Maren Sanchez was stabbed in a hallway of Jonathan Law High School in Milford, about an hour’s drive from New York City, around 7:15 a.m. Staff members and paramedics performed life-saving measures on the girl, but she was pronounced dead at a hospital, police said.

The 16-year-old boy was taken into custody. His name wasn’t released because of juvenile offender laws, said Police Chief Keith Mello.

Imani Langston, who describes herself as one of Sanchez’s best friends, said students were gathered in an auditorium when a teacher came and told them Sanchez had been stabbed.

"She basically just explained to us that Maren Sanchez got stabbed in the throat for saying no about going to prom" with the suspect, she said.

31 killed at Iraq campaign rally for Shiite militant group

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Suicide bombers killed 31 people Friday at a sports stadium hosting a campaign rally for thousands of supporters of a militant Shiite group before parliamentary elections, authorities said -- an attack that could unleash more sectarian violence.

An al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, claimed responsibility for the attack at the Industrial Stadium in eastern Baghdad, which drew about 10,000 backers of the Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq group.

It said on a militant website that the bombings were to avenge what it called the killing of Sunnis and their forced removal from their homes by Shiite militias.

The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified.

The attack was a stark reminder of the sectarian violence that has plagued Iraq more than two years after U.S. troops ended an eight-year presence that often served as a buffer between the nation’s Shiite majority and its Sunni Arab minority.

Even before racial comments, Nevada rancher had limited sympathy in the West

BUNKERVILLE, Nev. (AP) -- For a while, in certain quarters, Cliven Bundy was celebrated as a John Wayne-like throwback to the Old West -- a weathered, plainspoken rancher just trying to graze his cattle and keep the government off his back. But that was before he started sounding more like a throwback to the Old South.

Conservative Republican politicians and commentators who once embraced Bundy for standing up to Washington are stampeding in the other direction -- and branding him a racist -- after he suggested that blacks might have had it better as slaves picking cotton.

The furor has made it apparent how limited Bundy’s appeal ever was.

Bundy, 67, and his armed supporters thwarted an attempt by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management two weeks ago to seize his family’s cattle over his failure to pay $1.1 million in grazing fees and penalties for the use of government land over the past 20 years. A local land-use dispute soon turned into a national debate, with conservatives calling it another example of big-government overreach.

But the rugged West that Bundy was said to represent has changed, becoming more urban and less concerned about federal intrusion than it was during the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the urban areas that now dominate the West, there have been few stirrings of support for Bundy.

Slain U.S. doctor’s colleague recalls ‘a terrible sound of guns’ in hospital in Afghan capital

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- It was midmorning at Cure International Hospital in Kabul when Dr. Jerry Umanos took a phone call. He told co-workers he had to meet some guests at the front gate and would be right back.

Minutes later, Umanos and two of his American guests were dead, gunned down by an Afghan police security guard. Another American was wounded.

A day after Thursday’s attack at the hospital run by a U.S.-based Christian charity, those colleagues were mourning the pediatrician known as "Dr. Jerry" who treated children and helped train Afghan medical workers.

The identities of the Americans gunned down beside Umanos have not been released, and other details of the latest attack on foreigners in Kabul, such as the motive of the gunman, remain unclear.

Two of the dead visitors were described only as a father and son. Officials with the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Kabul said Friday they were not releasing the victims’ names after their family requested privacy. Cure International spokesman Joel Worrall and Umanos’ wife, Jan Schuitema, also declined to name them.