Obama vows unyielding commitment to Baltic allies

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday harshly condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine as a threat to peace in Europe and pledged that NATO will protect allies who fear they will be Moscow’s next target. Standing on Russia’s doorstep, Obama declared "this is a moment of testing" for the Western alliance to stand up to the Kremlin.

At the same time, the Pentagon announced that 200 U.S. soldiers would participate in an exercise in western Ukraine starting next week. Though largely a symbolic move, distant from the conflict with Russian-backed separatists, it would mark the first presence of American ground troops in Ukraine since the crisis began.

Obama’s tough words set the stage for a pivotal summit of the 28-nation NATO alliance beginning Thursday in Wales. For years, Moscow seethed as NATO expanded its membership and pushed its reach to Russia’s borders, encompassing former republics of the Soviet Union. The backlash from Moscow was a long time coming, but now Vladimir Putin seems determined to assert Russia’s role as a great power.

Obama offered no new prescriptions for solving the central conflict that has put Eastern Europe on edge: Russia’s months-long incursion in Ukraine. Multiple rounds of U.S. and European economic sanctions have done little to shift Putin’s tactics, and Obama remains staunchly opposed to U.S. military intervention.


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Unlike the Baltics and other Eastern European nations, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, meaning the U.S. and other allies have no treaty obligation to come to its defense.

A new prospect of a cease-fire emerged shortly after Obama arrived in Tallinn. But any potential agreement quickly fizzled when pro-Moscow separatists rejected the move and Russia -- which has denied affiliation with the rebels -- said it was not in a position to agree to the cease-fire because it was not a party to the conflict.

Russia, Ukraine discuss cease-fire plan amid skepticism from West over the conflict

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Russia and Ukraine said Wednesday they are working on a deal to halt months of fighting in eastern Ukraine, but Western leaders expressed skepticism -- noting it wasn’t the first attempt to end the deadly conflict.

On the eve of a crucial NATO summit, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed on steps for a cease-fire.

In a televised statement, Putin spelled out a seven-point plan for ending hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists scored significant gains last week against government forces after four months of fighting.

Putin, speaking on a visit to Mongolia, said the rebels should halt their offensive and the Ukrainian government forces should pull back to a distance that would make it impossible for them to use artillery and rockets against residential areas. He also urged international monitoring of a cease-fire, a prisoners exchange and the delivery of humanitarian aid to war-ravaged regions.

Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe could finalize the peace deal as early as Friday, Putin said.

Slain U.S. journalist was Israeli citizen; Obama vows to ‘degrade and destroy’ militants

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel confirmed on Wednesday that slain American journalist Steven Sotloff was also an Israeli citizen, while President Barack Obama vowed to build a coalition to "degrade and destroy" the extremist group that carried out the videotaped beheading.

Sotloff’s Jewish faith and Israeli citizenship were not widely known before his death -- in part because Israel’s military censor apparently kept a lid on the story for his safety -- and his killers may not have known about his background either, since they made no mention of Jews or Israel in the footage released Tuesday.

Sotloff, a 31-year-old who freelanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines before he was captured in Syria a year ago, became the second American newsman to be beheaded by Islamic State militants in two weeks, killed in retribution for U.S. airstrikes against the group.

The video horrified Americans and journalists around the world and touched a nerve in Israel, where news that Sotloff had connections to the country dominated newscasts and brought condolences from Israelis who knew the Miami-area native.

"Steve was part of a group of young Jewish Americans who are enamored with Israel and enamored with the Arab world," said Ehud Yaari, an Arab affairs commentator for Israeli Channel 2 who met Sotloff. "They were dying to know and enter all the dangerous places, and that’s how he behaved."

Global drive to block jihadis from fighting in Syria, Iraq; cyberspace is the new front line

PARIS (AP) -- New laws make it easier to seize passports. Suspected fighters are plucked from planes. Authorities block finances and shut down radical mosques.

In cyberspace, Silicon Valley firms are wiping extremist content from websites, such as video of the recent beheading of two American journalists. And Western intelligence agencies are exploring new technologies to identify returning fighters at the border.

Governments from France to Indonesia have launched urgent drives to cut off one of the Islamic State group’s biggest sources of strength: foreign fighters. At the heart of the drive is mounting concern that the organization is training the next generation of international terrorists.

Those fears have gained urgency from the group’s horrific methods: A British militant is suspected of beheading two American journalists, and a Frenchman who fought with the Islamic State group is accused in a deadly attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium.

With each video that ricochets around social networks, the militants gain new recruits.

Brothers freed after 3 decades in prison in N.C. girl’s killing

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina’s longest-serving death row inmate and his younger half brother walked out as free men Wednesday, three decades after they were convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl who DNA evidence shows may have been killed by another man.

Henry McCollum, 50, hugged his weeping parents at the gates of Central Prison in Raleigh, a day after a judge ordered his release, citing the new evidence in the 1983 slaying of Sabrina Buie. His half brother, 46-year-old Leon Brown, was later freed from Maury Correctional Institution near Greenville, where he had been serving a life sentence.

"I knew one day I was going to be blessed to get out of prison, I just didn’t know when that time was going to be," McCollum said. "I just thank God that I am out of this place. There’s not anger in my heart. I forgive those people and stuff. But I don’t like what they done to me and my brother because they took 30 years away from me for no reason. But I don’t hate them. I don’t hate them one bit."

Brown declined to be interviewed following his release, saying through his attorney he was too overwhelmed. He hugged his sister outside the prison before asking to go for a cheeseburger and milkshake.

"We were just looking at each other and just smiling," said Ann Kirby, one of Brown’s lawyers. "We may have been smiling too hard to say anything."

Passenger recalls seat dispute that diverted jet, says he could have handled it ‘much better’

NEW YORK (AP) -- The businessman whose dispute with a fellow airline passenger over a reclined seat sparked a national debate about air-travel etiquette says he’s embarrassed by the way the confrontation unfolded and regrets his behavior.

But don’t expect James Beach to stop using the Knee Defender, a $22 gadget that attaches to a passenger’s tray table and prevents the person in front from reclining. He just plans to be nicer about it.

"I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened," Beach told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I could have handled it so much better."

The argument became so tense that the pilots of the Aug. 24 fight diverted the Boeing 737 to Chicago. An AP story about the incident started a broad public discussion of whether passengers should be allowed to recline. In the days that followed, two other flights were diverted because of similar disagreements.

Beach, 48, reached out to the AP to clarify a few things about the episode, primarily that he initially complied with flight attendant instructions to remove the device.

Tesla Motors selects Nevada as site for $5 billion electric car battery factory

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Tesla Motors has chosen Nevada as the site for a massive, $5 billion factory that will pump out batteries for a new generation of electric cars, a person familiar with the company’s plans said Wednesday.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement had been made, said work would soon resume at an industrial park outside Reno.

Four other states -- California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico -- were vying for the project and the estimated 6,500 jobs it will bring.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office said only that the governor would make a "major economic development announcement" Thursday afternoon. A spokesman for Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, said company representatives would be at the Capitol for the announcement but offered no other details.

Tesla has done site-preparation work at the Reno Tahoe Industrial Center but had not publicly committed to building in Nevada, instead waiting as other states put together their best packages of economic incentives.

Detroit-area man sentenced to at least 17 years in prison for killing woman on porch

DETROIT (AP) -- A suburban Detroit man who killed an unarmed woman on his porch instead of calling police was sentenced Wednesday to at least 17 years in prison after telling the victim’s family he would carry "guilt and sorrow forever."

Wayne County Judge Dana Hathaway followed the recommendation of prosecutors in the case of Theodore Wafer, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of 19-year-old Renisha McBride.

Wafer, 55, of Dearborn Heights opened his front door and shot McBride through a screen door Nov. 2. He said he was awakened by pounding before dawn and feared for his life. A jury rejected his self-defense claim.

"Although the evidence clearly showed that Miss McBride made some terrible choices that night, none of them justified taking her life," the judge said. "I do not believe that you’re a cold-blooded murderer or that this case had anything to do with race or that you’re some sort of monster.

"I do believe that you acted out of some fear but mainly anger and panic," Hathaway said. "An unjustified fear is never an excuse for taking someone’s life. ... So what do we have? One life gone and one life ruined."

Juvenile court lawyer: 18-year-old shot by Ferguson officer never charged with serious felony

CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) -- The 18-year-old fatally shot by a suburban St. Louis police officer didn’t face any juvenile charges at the time of his death and never was charged with a serious felony such as murder, robbery or burglary, a juvenile court system lawyer said Wednesday.

Those details emerged at a hearing in which two media organizations sought the release of any possible juvenile records for Michael Brown.

Cynthia Harcourt, the St. Louis County juvenile office’s attorney, offered the most specific public details on whether Brown faced legal trouble before his 18th birthday -- a subject of intense speculation in a case that has garnered global attention. The 45-minute hearing before a St. Louis County family court judge didn’t reveal whether Brown had ever been charged with lesser offenses as a juvenile.

Juvenile records are confidential in Missouri, but under state law, being charged with certain violent crimes removes those juvenile privacy protections. Police have said Brown had no adult criminal record.

Joe Martineau, an attorney for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, cited an overriding public right to know Brown’s history after his early August shooting death by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson sparked more than a week of sometimes-violent protests and drew international scrutiny.

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Bond insurer’s attorney tells judge 75 cents on dollar is fair settlement of Detroit debt

DETROIT (AP) -- An attorney for one of Detroit’s creditors told a judge overseeing the city’s historic bankruptcy Wednesday that Detroit could afford to pay 75 cents on the dollar to settle its debt if it sold some masterpieces from the art museum.

But an attorney for Detroit told federal Judge Steven Rhodes in his opening statement that the debt-restructuring plan focused first on resolving a dire financial situation and does not discriminate against creditors.

Syncora Guarantee attorney Marc Kieselstein said the debt-restructuring plan would pay some creditors less than 10 cents on the dollar. Rhodes asked Kieselstein the percentage he believed Detroit could offer the New York-based bond insurer and where the money would come from.

"There’s the art," Kieselstein said, referring to city-owned artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "You could sell one or two pieces. You can finance some of the pieces to get that number."

Detroit wants to cut $12 billion in unsecured debt to about $5 billion through its plan of adjustment, which must be approved by Rhodes. Most creditors, including more than 30,000 retirees and city employees, have endorsed the plan of adjustment.