Obama meets with leaders of France, Britain to navigate shifting terrain in Ukraine crisis

BRUSSELS (AP) -- President Barack Obama is meeting with two of his most important European allies -- Britain and France -- as they navigate shifting conditions in the Ukraine crisis now that a new government is coming to power.

Obama plans to consult Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Brussels after a gathering of world leaders at the Group of 7 summit, then hop a short flight to Paris for dinner with French President Francois Hollande. Topping the agenda was what to do about Russia and its involvement in Ukraine.

The U.S. and Europe started out showing solidarity against Vladimir Putin by levying sanctions against the Russian president. But diverging approaches are emerging now that European leaders are planning separate, private meetings with Putin in Paris while Obama is steering clear of him.

Hollande said Thursday that it’s up to Obama whether he wants to meet with Putin and noted that both men would be at events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy Friday, along with other world leaders.

"The important thing is we have the same language, the same arguments on Ukraine all together," Holland said in a brief exchange with reporters traveling with Obama. "We are seven."

No hero’s welcome for Bergdahl: National uproar prompts cancellation of
return home party

HAILEY, Idaho (AP) -- There will be no hero’s welcome for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in his hometown, no fanfare of parades, music or picnics in the park.

A planned celebration for the end of June marking his return after five years of Taliban captivity in Afghanistan has been scrapped, largely due to security concerns as his release has touched off a nationwide debate. Was he an American prisoner of war who should be welcomed home after years in the enemy’s hands or a deserter who abandoned his unit who should be punished accordingly?

For those who knew Bergdahl and his family in this small central Idaho town surrounded by forests and mountains, the politics of war have no place. They just want Bergdahl back home.

"It’s like a modern day lynching. He hasn’t even been able to give his side of the story yet. This community will welcome him back no matter what," said Lee Ann Ferris, who lives next door to the Bergdahl family and watched Bowe grow up. "He’s a hometown kid and he’s already suffered enough."

The town of 8,000 has been swamped with hate mail and angry calls, labeling the 28-year-old Bergdahl un-American and a traitor. Given the prospect of large crowds on both sides of the debate, organizers abruptly canceled their welcome home celebration.

3 key questions for GM’s attorney as probe of mishandled ignition switch recall is released

DETROIT (AP) -- Along rows of cubicles at the General Motors Technical Center in suburban Warren, engineers knew for years about faulty ignition switches in small cars. Safety officials in the same complex knew, too. So did the lawyers downtown.

That knowledge loitered inside GM for at least a decade until this February, when the company recalled 2.6 million cars to repair the switches. During that time, at least 13 people lost their lives in crashes tied to the problem. Why that delay happened -- and who is responsible -- should be revealed Thursday, when a report by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas is made public.

The report, paid for by GM with the promise of an "unvarnished" inquiry, also will address just how high in the company knowledge of the problem reached. Valukas isn’t expected to place blame with CEO Mary Barra. She has denied knowing the details until Jan. 31.

Although Valukas is expected to name names, it’s likely that he’ll find GM’s bureaucratic structure at least partly responsible.

The switches can slip out of the run position, shut off the cars’ engines and knock out power-assisted steering. This can make steering difficult and cause drivers to lose control. Congress and the Justice Department are investigating the delayed recall, too. Criminal charges are possible.

Japan hopes North Korea
deal to investigate abductions brings answers, not more disappointment

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan and North Korea appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough on a bizarre legacy of the Cold War, a secret, government-ordered program that led to the abduction of more than a dozen and possibly several hundred Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s by North Korean infiltrators and spies.

After three days of talks in Stockholm last week, North Korea agreed to open a new investigation into the abductions, the biggest step forward Tokyo and Pyongyang have made in years. Questions over the fate of the abductees -- some believed to still be alive -- have kept relations in a deep freeze.

A resolution would be a big win for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would in return get the lifting of some sanctions and possibly increased humanitarian aid. The U.S. and South Korea, however, fear Abe could weaken diplomatic efforts for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program by focusing too much on the bilateral abduction issue.

Tokyo is as concerned as Washington and Seoul are about North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but the abductions have been the biggest thorn in its relations with Pyongyang. For many Japanese, the tales of a child vanishing on her way home from school, couples grabbed off beaches and tourists nabbed while abroad have put a human face on what they see as the brutality and hostility of the North Korean regime.

Abe, known for his hawkish nationalism and his hard-line stance toward Pyongyang, has made the abductions his cause celebre. He vowed in announcing the new deal that he will not relent until "the day the families of the abduction victims can hold their loved ones in their arms."

Senators push for bill on veterans’ health care as new VA chief heads to Phoenix

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate is moving forward on a compromise bill to help veterans avoid long waits to see a doctor and make it easier to fire administrators who falsify records to cover up long wait times.

Hopes for a vote as soon as Thursday have dimmed, but senators said they would press ahead on a measure to address an uproar over veterans’ health care following allegations that veterans have died while waiting to see a Veterans Affairs doctor.

Senators had wanted to pass the bill before Friday’s 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II. Up to a dozen senators were expected to attend the D-Day ceremonies in France.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, had said Wednesday he was "cautiously optimistic" that a vote could be held Thursday.

Sanders and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona were leading negotiations on the bill, holding two closed-door meetings Wednesday to iron out details.

Israel advances 1,500 settlement housing units
in response to Palestinian
unity government

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel’s housing ministry said Thursday it was advancing plans for nearly 1,500 new settlement housing units in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in response to the formation of a Palestinian unity government backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel said in a statement that the move was a "fitting Zionist response to the formation of a Palestinian terror government," adding that the housing plans were "just the beginning."

Tenders were issued late Wednesday for about 900 housing units in the West Bank and about 560 units in east Jerusalem, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians claim for their future state. The tenders represent the final governmental approval before construction can begin.

Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said the settlement announcement is "a clear sign that Israel is moving toward a major escalation" and that the Palestinians were weighing their response to the announcement. The Palestinians have long viewed settlement construction on land they want for their future state as a major obstacle to resolving the decades-old conflict.

The announcement of new settlement building was the first such move since the official end of nine months of U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in April. U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told Army Radio Thursday that the U.S. opposes the planned settlement construction.

Applications up slightly
for U.S. jobless aid

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Slightly more Americans sought unemployment benefits last week, but claims for jobless aid continue to be anchored near seven-year lows.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment benefits rose 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 312,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 310,250. That’s the lowest average since June 2007.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs, so the running average suggests employers are letting go of fewer workers. When businesses are confident enough to hold onto staff, they may also step up hiring. That is a positive sign ahead of May’s jobs report to be released Friday.

Fewer Americans are also receiving benefits. The number of recipients declined to 2.6 million, the lowest level since October 2007.

The decline in applications since the start of the year has been accompanied by solid job growth, despite an economy that struggled to grow during the winter.

The economy shrank at an annual rate of 1 percent during the first three months of 2014, primarily because freezing winter weather slowed factory output and consumer spending.

Still, the pace of hiring was steady and has accelerated this spring.

Employers added 288,000 jobs in April, the most in 2 1/2 years, and the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3 percent from 6.7 percent. But that steep decline mostly occurred because fewer people than usual began looking for work. The government doesn’t count people as unemployed unless they are actively searching.

In the first four months of this year, employers have added an average of 214,000 jobs a month, up from 194,000 last year.

The government issues its May jobs report on Friday. Economists expect 220,000 jobs were created in May, according to a FactSet survey. But payroll processer ADP said Wednesday that private employers pulled back on hiring in May, adding just 179,000 jobs.

Improved hiring should help boost economic growth for the rest of 2014. More jobs mean more people have paychecks to spend.