New Russian buildup seen as fighting rages in eastern Ukraine; rebels beg Moscow for help
MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia is resuming its military buildup along the Ukrainian border in an apparent attempt to intimidate its neighbor, NATO’s chief said Thursday as Ukrainian government forces unleashed a major offensive against pro-Moscow insurgents.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, voicing strong concern about the Ukrainian military onslaught. Putin said he expects Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to immediately launch his plan to end the violence, the Kremlin said.
Putin and Poroshenko then discussed details of the peace plan in a phone call -- their second conversation this week. Poroshenko’s office said he emphasized the need for introducing effective border controls and quickly releasing hostages.
Russia has denied Ukrainian and Western allegations that it is fomenting the rebellion by sending troops and weapons into Ukraine.
Last month, in an apparent attempt to ease tensions in Ukraine, Putin pulled back many of the estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed along the border.
House Republicans elect California’s McCarthy, Louisiana’s Scalise in leadership shuffle
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California capped a meteoric rise through the ranks of power on Thursday, winning election as House majority leader as Republicans shuffled their leadership in the wake of Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat in Virginia.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, 48, was elected to replace McCarthy as whip, a clear indication that the rank and file wanted a red-state Republican in the upper ranks of leadership for the first time since the party gained control of the House in 2010.
McCarthy, a former aide who won his seat in Congress less than eight years ago, pledged after his victory to make sure the GOP "has the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen, and we’ll turn this country around."
The changes take effect when Cantor steps down as majority leader on July 31. The current leader attended the day’s elections but did not speak as his successor was selected.
The challenges facing the leadership aren’t likely to change. They must guide an often fractious rank and file into the fall election season, while contending with a Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama.
Audit: 10 percent of vets wait at least 30 days for
VA appointment, double previous count
WASHINGTON (AP) -- An updated audit of 731 Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics shows that tens of thousands more veterans than previously reported had to wait at least a month for medical appointments at VA facilities.
But the audit also includes new data showing that average wait times actually experienced at most VA hospitals and clinics facilities are shorter than what future appointment schedules indicate.
The latest audit shows that about 10 percent of veterans seeking care at VA hospitals and clinics don’t get appointments within 30 days of seeking them. That’s more than double the 4 percent reported last week as having at least a month’s wait.
VA officials said the bottom line of the two reports remains unchanged: Many veterans are still waiting too long for care.
Hemp seeds seized at
U.S.-Canada border in latest challenge to
DENVER (AP) -- Hundreds of pounds of industrial hemp seeds bound from Canada to Colorado have been seized by federal authorities in North Dakota, marking the latest bump along the road to legalization of marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin.
At the center of the dispute is hemp activist Tom McClain. Armed with a copy of last year’s federal Farm Bill, which allowed states to permit hemp cultivation for research and development, he set off for MacGregor, Manitoba, and bought 350 pounds of seeds used to grow a strain known as X-59 or Hemp Nut.
Hemp is legal in Canada, and North Dakota is one of 15 states with laws that allow limited hemp production. However, under the Farm Bill, importing hemp seeds requires permission from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
McClain’s seeds were confiscated Saturday at the border crossing in Hansboro, North Dakota, after he says he declared the seven bags in his trunk. McClain, however, has not been charged with a crime.
"They treated me very professionally," McClain said after he returned to Colorado -- without the seeds. "They were just a little confused as to what to do. According to them, I couldn’t bring them in."
French Jews leave for Israel at pace unseen in decades; Israel looks to Europe for more
PARIS (AP) -- Increasing numbers of French Jews are leaving for Israel, citing dim economic prospects and a sense of being caught between an increasingly influential far right and militant Islam. More than 5,000 are on track to leave this year, the most since after the Six-Day War in 1967.
Israel, seeing the influx as a success, is doubling down on its efforts to attract Europeans, planning to dedicate $29 million over two years to bring in new immigrants.
France has the world’s third-largest Jewish population after Israel and the United States - about 500,000, according to rough estimates. The country bans any official documentation of a person’s race, religion or ethnicity in a law with roots in French shame over its collaboration with the Nazis.
Since World War II, France has redoubled efforts to make Jewish families feel welcome. But many say dramatic acts of anti-Semitism coupled with France’s stagnant economy -- which includes a 25 percent youth unemployment rate, compared with 11 percent in Israel -- make a hard choice easier.
Laurie Levy, 26, left in 2013. A native of the southern city of Toulouse, her departure came after attacks by a French-born Islamic radical on a Jewish school and soldiers left seven people dead, including three children and a rabbi. She has given up on a career in French law and left behind her parents and siblings.
Judge rejects Shelly Sterling request for protections against Donald Sterling and his lawyers
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A judge Thursday rejected an urgent request by Shelly Sterling’s attorney asking that husband Donald Sterling and his lawyers be ordered to stop harassing her legal team and doctors in their dispute over the planned sale of the Los Angeles Clippers.
A petition filed by Shelly Sterling’s attorneys quoted allegedly threatening remarks made by Donald Sterling in phone calls and a letter sent by his lawyer to two doctors who declared him mentally incapacitated.
Superior Court Judge Michael Levanas said the matter may involve "high emotions and some litigation posturing" and urged both parties to tone down their communications.
"The court does not feel that the statements set forth in the ... petition rise to the level of great and irreparable injury to a party as called for in the Code of Civil Procedure," Levanas said in a written decision.
Outside court Donald Sterling’s attorney Bobby Samini said, "Clearly from the court’s ruling it’s apparent Mr. Sterling is not a danger to anybody."
Prosecutors: Gov. Walker at center of criminal campaign fundraising scheme, no charges filed
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, took part in a nationwide criminal scheme to coordinate fundraising with conservative groups, prosecutors said in court documents unsealed Thursday.
No charges have been filed against Walker or any member of his staff. The documents were filed in December as part of an investigation into alleged illegal fundraising and campaign coordination by Walker and his campaign, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the state Chamber of Commerce and other groups.
The investigation began in 2012 as Walker, who rose to fame by passing a bill that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, was facing a recall election. But the probe has been on hold since May, when a federal judge ruled it was a breach of Wisconsin Club for Growth’s free-speech rights and temporarily halted it.
State prosecutors said in the December filing that Walker, former chief of staff Keith Gilkes, top adviser R.J. Johnson and campaign operative Deborah Jordahl discussed illegal fundraising and coordination with national political groups and prominent Republican figures, including GOP strategist Karl Rove.
Universal’s new Harry Potter-Diagon Alley park: Butterbeer ice cream, 3-D thrill ride, 7 shops
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Harry Potter fans helped increase attendance by 50 percent at Universal Orlando Resort in the past few years, and interest in a second Harry Potter park opening there July 8 could keep numbers going up. But even if the new park doesn’t lead to the surge in visitors that accompanied the original Harry Potter park, Universal’s cash registers will surely be ringing.
The new Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley has just one ride, a 3-D thriller called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (which coincidentally wasn’t working Thursday during a media preview). The first Harry Potter park had three rides. But Diagon Alley has seven shops, all so visually stimulating that you almost don’t notice you’re shopping.
Diagon Alley even has its own currency, so guests can swap U.S. dollars (muggles money) for wizard cash, to spend or to keep as a souvenir.
The rich level of detail in the park, inspired by J.K. Rowling’s books and the Potter films, is authentic and exciting enough to thrill hardcore fans and casual visitors alike. There’s a fire-breathing dragon, animatronic fantasy animals, and "The Monster Book of Monsters," a tome with teeth. There’s butterbeer ice cream, an outdoor performance stage, and a Hogwarts Express train that takes visitors to Universal’s original Harry Potter area, which opened on the other side of the park in 2010.
Shops here aren’t selling the typical, tacky amusement park fare of T-shirts, sunscreen and ball caps. Instead, Diagon Alley is a showplace for cleverly curated items like $250 wizard’s robes and $35 interactive wands that make trolls dance and light lamps. Backdrops include musty-looking books, creepy eels and cool stone-and-brick facades.