GENEVA (AP) — Ukraine is hoping to placate Russia and calm hostilities with its neighbor even as the U.S. prepares a new round of sanctions to punish Moscow for what it regards as fomenting unrest.
The carrot-stick strategy emerged as diplomats from Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and Russia met Thursday for the first time over the burgeoning crisis that threatens to roil the new government in Kiev.
It also comes as Russia hones a strategy of its own: Push the West as far as possible without provoking crippling sanctions against its financial and energy sectors or a military confrontation with NATO.
"I think we still have a chance to de-escalate the situation using the diplomatic means," Ukraine's foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, told reporters late Wednesday ahead of the talks. "And we are trying hard."
However, Deshchytsia said the diplomatic discussions also must be tempered with efforts "to look for a more concrete and adequate response to Russia's plans and actions."
Obama administration officials tamped down any expectations that the meetings in Geneva would yield a breakthrough or Russian concessions meaningful enough to avoid new U.S. penalties.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began his day with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Asked if he was expecting to make any progress Thursday, Kerry shrugged. He also met individually with Deshchytsia and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before all four of the top diplomats sat down together.
With Ukraine struggling to contain a pro-Russian uprising in its eastern region bordering Russia, the Obama administration is readying additional sanctions against Moscow and a boost in aid for the Ukrainian military in the coming days, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The sanctions likely will target more wealthy individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the entities they run, while military aid could include medical supplies and clothing.
"Each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, there are going to be consequences," President Barack Obama said Wednesday in an interview with CBS News. "Mr. Putin's decisions aren't just bad for Ukraine. Over the long term, they're going to be bad for Russia."
On Thursday, Putin denied claims that Russian special forces were fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine. He called the Ukrainian government's effort to quash the uprising a "crime."
The U.S. military aid was expected to stop short of body armor and other equipment for Ukraine's troops. Additionally, the Obama administration is reluctant to send weapons and ammunition, as Kiev has requested, amid fears that lethal supplies would be seen as an escalatory step by the U.S. and trigger a more aggressive response from the estimated 40,000 Russian forces massed on its border with Ukraine.
Despite the diplomatic freeze between Moscow and Kiev, a senior State Department official said Ukraine's negotiators planned to try to assuage Russia's concerns during Thursday's talks. Deshchytsia and his team were expected to brief Russia and the other diplomats on what Kiev was doing to transfer more power from the central government to the regions, including letting local areas keep more of their funding and elect their own leaders.
The Ukraine diplomats were prepared to field questions from negotiators and even seek Russia's advice on how to quell concerns in Moscow about the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine and the approaching May 25 presidential elections to ensure they are inclusive for all candidates.
Ukraine's outreach during Thursday's talks will help test whether Russia is willing to respond to a diplomatic solution to the crisis, said the U.S. official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Brussels, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the military alliance would increase its presence in Eastern Europe, including flying more sorties over the Baltic region west of Ukraine and deploying allied warships to the Baltic Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. NATO's supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, told reporters that ground forces also could be involved at some point, but gave no details.
So far, the military movements and two initial rounds of sanctions against Russians and Ukrainians accused by the West of stirring up the unrest have done little to ease tensions.
Officials said a full-scale Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would result in broad U.S. and European sanctions on key Russian economic sectors, including its powerful energy industry. However, European nations are divided on whether to limit its access to Russia's oil and gas supplies, and a vote to sanction must be unanimous among the EU's 28 member states.
The sanctions that could be levied in the aftermath of the Geneva meeting were expected to focus on Putin's close associates, including oligarchs who control much of Russia's wealth, as well as businesses and other entities they control. It was unclear whether those sanctions would change Putin's calculus, given that the U.S. and the Europeans already have launched targeted sanctions on people in Putin's inner circle.
Pace reported from Washington. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington and AP Television News Senior Producer Ed Brown in Geneva contributed to this report.
Follow Lara Jakes at https://twitter.com/larajakesAP and Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service says it has detained a young Israeli Arab journalist for traveling to Lebanon, which Israel considers an enemy country.
Majd Kayyal, a 23-year-old journalist for the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, traveled to Beirut last month for a conference.
Although Lebanon bars Israeli citizens from entering, the Shin Bet says Palestinian officials in the West Bank gave Kayyal Palestinian travel documents.
Kayyal was arrested last Saturday at the Israeli border on suspicion of being recruited by a militant organization. The Shin Bet says it dropped that suspicion, and is considering indicting him for traveling to Lebanon.
Kayyal has been held since his arrest without access to a lawyer. The Shin Bet says this is permitted in security cases.
Israel lifted a gag order on the arrest Thursday.
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's parliament looks set to pass a bill that increases the powers and immunities of the country's spy agency. It is the latest in a string of moves critics say is undermining democracy in the country that is a candidate to join the European Union.
The bill, expected to be voted on Thursday, gives the National Intelligence Agency greater eavesdropping and operational powers and increases its immunities and abilities to keep tabs on citizens. Journalists publishing classified documents would face prison terms.
The government insists the overhaul will make the agency more efficient and meet "new security and foreign policy needs."
Opposition parties say the bill grants the agency far-reaching powers and will turn Turkey into an surveillance state.
NEW DELHI (AP) — An Indian court says it won't rule before July 1 on the case of a New York City police officer arrested in New Delhi on a weapons charge.
The New York Police Department says Manny Encarnacion was arrested in March after Indian authorities discovered three bullets he had accidentally packed in his luggage. He is out on bail but has been barred from leaving India until the case is resolved.
On Thursday, the police officer's attorney, Samarjeet Pattnaik, said the court heard a petition to throw out the arrest but gave no ruling.
The arrest follows a furor between the United States and India over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York City. But Indian authorities say the arrest had nothing to do with the diplomatic spat.
PARIS (AP) — A Tommy Lee Jones western and a David Cronenberg expose on Hollywood are among the 18 films vying for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The festival organizers also said Thursday that two women directors and famed New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard will be in competition at the festival that runs May 14-25. The Belgian Dardenne brothers will be angling for their third Palme d'Or, as the top award is known.
Director Jane Campion, the only woman to win the Palme d'Or, is leading the festival's jury this year for the competition on the Riviera resort.
Organizers have already said the big-budget biopic "Grace of Monaco" by French director Olivier Dahan will hold its world premiere at the Cannes opening.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya's police chief says 91 Somali nationals have been deported to Mogadishu.
The deportations are part of a massive security operation being carried out by Kenyan police in Somali neighborhoods of Nairobi.
Police Chief David Kimaiyo said Thursday that 91 Somali nationals were sent to Mogadishu. This follows the deportation of 82 Somalis last week.
The security sweep is ostensibly to look for terrorism suspects and illegal aliens, but residents and rights groups say the police are shaking down residents and physically and sexually abusing some.
Omar bin Omar, a resident in Nairobi's Somali enclave of Eastleigh, said men with beards who wear clothes associated with Islam are being targeted.
The operation was launched this month following a series of terror attacks in Nairobi and the coastal city of Mombasa.
ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerians went to the polls Thursday to elect the president of their oil-rich country, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terror and a major natural gas provider to Europe. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is expected to win, despite suffering a stroke that left him unable to campaign for a fourth term in office.
Here are key things to know about Algeria.
Algeria has large hydrocarbon resources which it has used to keep the country quiet amid pro-democracy uprisings across the region during 2011. It is one of the top three exporters of natural gas to Europe, but investment in the sector has lagged and reserves are dwindling while domestic consumption is rising — raising fears that in a few years the state may not have enough money to keep the peace.
Algeria's army fought a bloody civil war against Islamist rebels in the 1990s, the remnants of whom went on to form al-Qaida's North Africa branch. Algeria is a close ally of the United States in combating the rising influence of the extremists, especially along its southern borders.
A desire for stability and the fear of returning to the dark days of the 1990s has kept the population from pushing too hard for political change. But the image of increasingly feeble president running for another term has resulted in rare voices of dissent against the system.
While Bouteflika will likely win, there are grave doubts about his ability to run the country for another five-year term. Those concerns are deepened by economic challenges and the threat of al-Qaida in the southern desert regions. The generals who are key to running the country will be considering succession scenarios soon after the elections.
In 2009, Bouteflika won re-election with more than 90 percent of the vote with nearly 75 percent turnout — according to official figures that few believe. Another such "win"— especially amid possible suspicions of fraud — could galvanize the opposition and lead to unrest.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi officials say militants have attacked a military base in the country's north, killing at least 10 soldiers.
An army officer and a police officer say a suicide bomber first detonated his explosives-laden truck at the gates of the base outside the northern city of Mosul on Thursday morning.
A group of gunmen then opened fire from apparently commandeered military Humvees.
The officials say at least 10 troops were killed and 12 were wounded. Eight militants were also killed in the ensuing shootout.
A medical official confirmed the causality figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to media.
Mosul is about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad. The city and its surroundings have seen brazen militant attacks over the past months.
Oil flat-lined Thursday as the upheaval in Ukraine continued to cancel out a big increase in U.S. oil supplies.
Benchmark U.S. crude for May delivery was up 1 cent at $103.77 a barrel at 0910 GMT in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 1 cent Wednesday to $103.76. There is no oil trading on Good Friday, one of only three days a year in which oil is not traded either electronically or through open outcry.
Oil trading was hemmed in Thursday by opposing influences.
Tensions remained over Ukraine, where po-Russian militants clashed with Ukrainian forces in the country's east as authorities try to reassert control over a region where some are pushing to secede and join Russia.
Officials from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union are set to meet in Geneva on Thursday for negotiations aimed at persuading Russia to back off in Ukraine following its annexation of Crimea.
Traders worry that Russia's actions could be met with sanctions that disrupt exports of the country's oil and gas. But that upward impetus for oil prices was offset by the U.S. Energy Department's weekly supply report Wednesday. It showed an increase of 10 million barrels, the largest in 13 years, on higher domestic production and imports.
Brent crude was down 27 cents at $109.34 a barrel on the ICE exchange in London.
In other energy futures trading in new York:
— Wholesale gasoline fell 0.7 cent to $3.004 a gallon.
— Natural gas is down 2.7 cents to $4.557 per 1,000 cubic feet.
— Heating oil dropped 0.7 cent to $2.995 a gallon.
ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algerians are trickling into the polls to elect a new president of this oil-rich North African nation in an election expected to be won by the ailing incumbent.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ruled this nation for the past 15 years and, despite suffering a stroke, is running for a fourth term on a platform of stability.
As polling stations opened in central Algiers Thursday, it was mostly elderly retirees coming to cast their ballots and saying stability was a key factor in their decision.
Younger Algerians are disaffected by politics and don't vote in large numbers.
Official turnout figures of 75 percent in the 2009 re-election of Bouteflika are viewed with skepticism.
Opposition candidate Ali Benflis said he will not stay silent if there is electoral fraud.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi officials: Gunmen attack military base in the country's north, kill at least 10 soldiers.
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A Jordanian military official says one of its fighter jets has crashed during a training flight, killing the pilot.
The official says the crash took place on Thursday morning near the town of Safawi, in the northeastern desert region of Jordan toward the Iraqi border.
He says the crash was due to a technical failure on the F-5 fighter jet. At the time, several fighter jets were taking part in the training flight.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — Kim Jeong-keun woke up on his cabin bed to find out his friends had smeared lipstick on his face while he had been asleep, a prank harking back to their school days.
The 60-year-old Kim took it in good spirits and washed his face. After all, they were traveling together on a reunion voyage aboard The Sewol, celebrating their birthdays and remembering good old days from their elementary school in Incheon city, where the ferry departed Tuesday evening.
Within hours, the 17 former schoolmates were fighting for their lives as the multi-story ferry began to list. Only five of them, including Kim, have been rescued.
"We gathered once every three months. When we met last time in March, somebody suggested a trip to celebrate our 60th birthdays to Jeju," Kim said from a hospital in Mokpo, where he was being treated for a fracture in a rib bone.
In South Korea, as in many other countries, 60th birthdays are often celebrated as a milestone in one's lifetime.
"We wanted to make some memories with old friends," he said, recalling the lipstick prank and the funny characters his buddies drew on his arms while he was sleeping. One of his friends took a picture of him and sent it to him on a mobile phone, but it too was lost as the ferry flipped on one side and sank in cold waters.
Nine people, including five students and two teachers, have been confirmed dead, 287 are still missing and 179 have been rescued. There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on an overnight school trip to Jeju, a tourist island. They were from Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul. Kim's group came from Incheon Yongyu Elementary School.
For Kim, who works in the food business, it was his first sea journey, and his first big trip since he traveled to China on a plane a decade ago.
He said that his 12 missing buddies were like brothers and sisters to him — they've remained close for about 50 years, meeting regularly, making plans together and carrying their childhood friendship into old age. They had been planning a much bigger overseas trip in the fall, this time with their spouses.
Among his friends, Kim said he missed Baek Pyung-kwon most.
"He didn't even drink and he helped other people in difficulties a lot," Kim said. "He was not even rich but he made a lot of donations when he watched stories of people in difficulties on TV. He did a lot of volunteer work."
Another of Kim's missing friends was an elder at a church, a devout Christian who also spent his time volunteering.
BEIJING (AP) — A labor group says a strike at the world's biggest athletic shoe maker is snowballing, with about 30,000 of its Chinese workers protesting over insufficient benefits.
Workers in the southern city of Dongguan want Taiwanese-owned Yu Yuen Industrial to make social security contributions required by Chinese law and meet other demands.
They've been striking in increasing numbers in on-and-off stoppages since April 5.
The labor unrest threatens to crimp the contract manufacturer's output for clients that include Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Asics, New Balance and Timberland.
A company spokesman could not be reached for comment.
The strike at the massive, 10-factory complex is the latest in a wave of labor unrest at factories in China, where migrant workers have become increasingly assertive amid a growing shortage of migrant labor.
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's President Vladimir Putin has dismissed claims that Russian special forces are in eastern Ukraine as "nonsense."
Speaking Thursday in a televised call-in show with the nation, Putin said that people in eastern Ukraine have risen against the authorities in Kiev ignoring their rights and legitimate demands.
Putin said that the government's decision to use the military to uproot the protests in the east was a "crime."
A wave of protests, which Ukraine and the West said was organized by Russia and involved Russian special forces, have swept eastern Ukraine over the past weeks, with gunmen seizing government offices and police stations in at least 10 cities.
Putin rejected the claims of Russian involvement, saying that the government in Kiev should engage in a dialogue with protesters.
HONG KONG (AP) — As China's growth inexorably slows, manufacturers such as Linan Meite Cable are discovering that being an efficient low cost producer is no longer enough to prosper.
Factories that had thrived by using cheap migrant labor to churn out inexpensive clothing, electronics and toys for export now face changing government priorities as a growth engine based on investment and trade loses its momentum after more than a decade of double-digit expansion.
At the same time, China's labor costs are rising and global demand is still weak, putting pressure on manufacturers to move into more advanced production, consolidate into bigger entities or shift to cheaper inland regions to survive.
Growth in the world's second-largest economy eased to 7.4 percent last quarter, the lowest since a mini-downturn in late 2012, government figures showed Wednesday.
Last year's expansion of 7.7 percent tied 2012 for the weakest since 1999. Leaders in Beijing have indicated that slower growth is the price to pay for long term changes to the economy that reduce its dependence on trade and industrial and infrastructure investment. Instead, they want growth to be sustainable, less polluting and based on domestic spending by 1.2 billion consumers.
Caught in the middle are companies like Linan Meite, which sells shipping-container loads of electronics cable to customers in Europe and North and South America.
Owner Sabrina Dong is thinking of upgrading the company's factory, one of more than 200 in Linan City in eastern Zhejiang province making coaxial and networking cable. Dong said she wants to buy a production line from Germany that can make the latest standard of computer networking cable, called Cat 7.
Only a handful of companies in China have it, so the investment would be a big competitive advantage. But the new machines plus an expanded factory building to house them would cost 30 million yuan ($5 million). The company doesn't have that much cash and Dong's father, who founded the company, is wary about borrowing to expand.
"I want to buy more machines to do high end cable," said Dong, whose company was one of several thousand looking for buyers at the Global Sources electronics trade fair in Hong Kong this week.
"But my father said no, because he has done business so many years in China. He knows China won't keep going like this" — she angled her hand upwards — "but come down like this," she said, pointing her hand to the floor.
It's one example of the dilemma in front of China's countless low-end manufacturers, which feel the pressure to upgrade but are squeezed by rising wages and costs and also are dealing with the uncertainty of a fragile and uneven global recovery.
"We have to understand that the Chinese economy has entered a new phrase of structural change and upgrading, so we must look at these reforms and changes with a new perspective of thinking," said Sheng Laiyun, a spokesman for China's National Bureau of Statistics, at a press briefing Wednesday.
Weakness in China's sprawling manufacturing industries was highlighted by figures last week that showed exports, long a big source of economic growth, shrank in March for the second month in a row.
"This will add to downside risks to growth and potentially weigh on job creation," HSBC economists Qu Hongbin, Sun Junwei and John Zhu said in a report.
Slower growth has raised hopes of support from the government. Premier Li Keqiang has already ruled out sweeping stimulus like the one following the 2008-09 global financial crisis, but Beijing has rolled out some small-scale measures. The latest, announced Wednesday, lowers the level of reserves that rural banks and other financial institutions need to hold and extends some tax breaks for small businesses.
Such measures are of no consequence to China's small entrepreneurs.
The government said it's helpful "but we have 100 reasons to doubt that," said Patrick Chan, marketing manager of iNotten, which is based in Shenzhen, next door to Hong Kong, and makes charging cables and battery packs for smartphones.
He complained that the policies seem mainly intended to benefit the country's giant state owned companies.
Chan said low-end manufacturing companies like his that blanket the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong province face pressure not just from rising wages and costs but also from the local government, which is trying to "push away" the factories and instead attract more advanced companies and service industries, part of the broader effort to reshape the economy.
"We all think it's going to be tougher than before," he said.
Chan said some factories have started to move to inland provinces such as Jiangxi or Hunan, but he's staying put and trying to focus more on research and development.
David Sun, sales director for Honsunmount, which makes wall-mounting brackets for TVs and monitors in Ningbo, near Shanghai, said the yuan's recent depreciation was "good news" because earnings from its mostly European customers would be higher after they were converted into yuan.
He said higher order volumes would boost revenue for the company by 30 percent over last year. However, the company's mostly European customers are demanding bigger discounts, which will squeeze profit margins by 30 to 40 percent.
Profits will be "much smaller," he said as he waited for customers at his booth.
Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman
PERTH, Australia (AP) — A robotic submarine completed its first successful scan of the seabed Thursday in the hunt for the missing Malaysian plane, and investigators were analyzing the sub's data while also trying to identify the origins of a nearby oil slick.
The Bluefin 21's first two missions were cut short by technical problems and deep water, but the unmanned sub finally managed to complete a full 16-hour scan of the silt-covered seabed far off Australia's west coast, the search coordination center said on Thursday. While data collected by the sub from its latest mission, which ended overnight, was still being analyzed, nothing of note had yet been discovered, the center said. The sub has now covered 90 square kilometers (35 square miles) of seafloor.
Meanwhile, officials in the western city of Perth were analyzing an oil sample that search crews collected earlier this week about 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) from an area where equipment picked up underwater sounds consistent with an aircraft black box. Angus Houston, who is heading up the search effort, has said the oil does not appear to be from ships in the region, but cautioned against jumping to conclusions about its source.
The analysis could provide further evidence that officials are looking in the right place for Flight 370, which vanished March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. Searchers have yet to find any physical proof that the sounds that led them to the ocean floor where the Bluefin has been deployed were from the ill-fated jet.
Twelve planes and 11 ships were scouring a 40,300-square-kilometer (15,600-square-mile) patch of sea for any debris that may be floating on the ocean surface, about 2,200 kilometers (1,400 miles) northwest of Perth.
Despite weeks of searching, no debris related to the jet has been found and earlier this week, Houston said the surface search would be ending within days. But the search coordination center on Thursday said crews would continue searching the ocean surface into next week.
Malaysia's defense minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, confirmed that the search would continue through the Easter weekend, though acknowledged that officials would have to rethink their strategy at some point if nothing is found.
"There will come a time when we need to regroup and reconsider, but in any event, the search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach," he said at a news conference on Thursday.
Radar and satellite data show the Boeing 777 flew far off-course for an unknown reason and would have run out of fuel in a desolate patch of the Indian Ocean west of Australia.
A ship-towed device detected four underwater signals that are believed to have come from the plane's black boxes shortly before the batteries powering the devices' beacons likely died. The sounds helped narrow the search area to the waters where the Bluefin is now operating.
The U.S. Navy's unmanned sub cut short its first mission on Monday because it exceeded its maximum operating depth of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet). Searchers moved it away from the deepest waters before redeploying the sub to scan the seabed with sonar to map a potential debris field.
In addition to finding the plane itself, investigators want to recover the black boxes in hopes the cockpit voice and flight data recorders can explain why the plane lost communications and flew so far off-course before disappearing.
Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.
Follow Margie Mason on Twitter at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP
PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The prosecutor at the murder trial of double-amputee Olympian Oscar Pistorius is continuing his cross-examination of one of the defense's forensic experts.
Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel was questioning materials analyst and former policeman Roger Dixon Thursday on the expert's findings regarding Pistorius' fatal shooting of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year. Dixon has offered a different sequence for the shots that killed Steenkamp, contradicting testimony by a police ballistics expert and the pathologist who did the autopsy on Steenkamp's body.
Nel criticized Dixon for testifying in areas he had no expertise in.
Dixon testified that Steenkamp's wounds show she may have been in a different position than the prosecution says when she was shot multiple times through a toilet door by Pistorius. The athlete is charged with premeditated murder.
KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) — International rights groups say parts of a bill proposed by the Nepal government should be rejected because it could provide amnesty to people who committed serious human rights violations during the country's Maoist insurgency.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists said in a statement Thursday that provisions in the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission bill contain provisions for an amnesty that violate international law.
The proposed bill would set up commissions to investigate crimes during the 1996-2006 communist insurgency, when more than 13,000 people were killed, and punish the violators.
The groups say the language in the bill is too vague.
The ex-rebels who are now a major political party fear they could be prosecuted for their activities during the years of fighting.
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — This bustling center of Palestinian life is just a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, but for Israelis it might as well be on the other side of the world.
Since a major round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting more than a decade ago, Israelis have been kept out of Palestinian cities by the Israeli military and their own fears. But after several years of relative calm, a few have begun trickling back in tours led by Palestinian guides and guarded by plainclothes Palestinian security agents.
On Wednesday, about two dozen visitors, Israelis and a few foreigners, visited the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a shrine to national poet Mahmoud Darwish — though hopes of talking to local residents went unfulfilled.
The trip fell in the week of the Jewish holiday of Passover, and those observing religious tradition unwrapped matza, or unleavened bread, during lunch at a local restaurant, as Arabic music played in the background.
The tour also came as another U.S. attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal appeared doomed.
Gershon Baskin, an organizer, said such trips are needed, nonetheless, to foster understanding after years of enforced separation that deepened the divide between the two peoples. "There will never be peace in this land unless the people living on the land talk to each other and ... drop these walls of fear, animosity and hatred," he said.
While some Palestinians, especially shopkeepers, would welcome large numbers of Israeli visitors to their towns, others dismiss the possibility of normalizing relations while the Israeli military occupation continues.
"Normalization is the attempt to deceptively project something abnormal as if it were normal," said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of a Palestinian-led movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), aimed at ending occupation and what it considers other violations of international law.
"Ethical co-existence can only come as a result of ending oppression and injustice," Barghouti said in an emailed comment. "Israelis who support comprehensive Palestinian rights under international law and 'co-resist' oppression are welcome."
One of the stops on Wednesday's itinerary, the village of Nabi Saleh, was canceled at short notice because of an internal Palestinian debate over what constitutes acceptable relations with Israelis.
Like several other villages, Nabi Saleh has been holding weekly protest marches against Israeli practices in the West Bank, including the confiscation of land. Israeli and foreign activists often join those protests.
"Usually, we accept these (visiting Israeli) groups," said Bassem Tamimi, a Nabi Saleh protest leader who has repeatedly been arrested and jailed by Israel. He said Wednesday's visit was called off because there was a sense that Palestinian public opinion is largely against Israeli visits to Ramallah and attempts at normalization.
The Israelis came to Ramallah with their own issues, including security concerns, but also a lot of curiosity.
"The Palestinians are our neighbors," said Tel Aviv resident Gavin Gross, 52, an immigrant to Israel from New York City. "We are right on top of each other. Jericho, Bethlehem, Ramallah, they are short drives from Jerusalem, and I can't sit here and think that there's something there that I am not allowed to see. That's why I'm here."
Gross said he last visited Ramallah in 1999, spending an enjoyable evening at a jazz club. It was a time when the two sides seemed close to a deal on setting up a state of Palestine alongside Israel.
However, U.S.-sponsored talks on a partition of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River collapsed in 2000 and were followed by several years of fighting.
Those years marked the bloodiest period since Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands the Palestinians want for a state — in the 1967 war. Several thousand Palestinians were killed, including in clashes with the Israeli army, while hundreds of Israelis were killed in bombings and shootings by Palestinian militants.
An event seared into the collective consciousness of Israelis came shortly after the outbreak of fighting. On Oct. 12, 2000, two Israeli reserve soldiers who had made a wrong turn en route to their base were beaten to death by a Palestinian mob that broke into a Ramallah police station where the two were being held.
Since 2000, Israel's military has barred Israelis from entering Palestinian towns and cities, with large red road signs in Hebrew warning those ignoring the ban that they break Israeli law and put their lives at risk. At the same time, about 550,000 Israeli settlers live on occupied lands, including about 350,000 in the 60 percent of the West Bank that remains under full Israeli control.
Israel has also erected a physical divider of cement slabs and fences in the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is meant to keep out militants. Palestinians, pointing to stretches of the barrier that jut into the West Bank territory, say it's a land grab.
Despite a sharp drop in violence, Israeli army raids still turn deadly from time to time while Israelis in the West Bank occasionally come under attack by militants. Last week, an assailant fired at Israeli cars in the West Bank, killing a motorist.
An Israeli permit system, meanwhile, has prevented most Palestinians from entering Israel since the 1990s, further reducing contact. Older Palestinians who used to work on Israeli farms, in restaurants and construction sites in the tens of thousands can converse in Hebrew, while many younger Palestinians don't speak the language.
Those joining Wednesday's tour, organized by IPCRI, an Israeli-Palestinian group promoting co-existence, had to apply for special army permits to enter Ramallah. Since 2013, IPCRI has organized several trips for Israelis to the West Bank. With new funding, it now hopes to organize several tours a week, said Baskin.
Itai Artzi, a 27-year-old sociology student from Jerusalem, said it was his first chance to visit Ramallah. Artzi said he had hoped to get to know Palestinians better and "go through the psychological barrier that the Israeli government is trying to put between Israelis and Palestinians."
Gross said he would have preferred less politics on the trip and more chances to speak to people about plans for the future.
In the end, the group didn't get to talk to Ramallah residents.
The hosts seemed eager to rush the visitors through the stops to avoid any possible incidents. Even at the local restaurant — where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry once stopped for lunch during one of his many mediation trips in recent months — they were ushered into a separate room.
Palestinian guide Osama Elewat said that despite limitations, he believes the tours can help shape Israeli public opinion.
"I believe this is the best way to show ... that we can build our state, that we can take responsibility," he said.
PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — Thai authorities have charged two journalists with defaming Thailand's navy in an online news report about the trafficking of refugees from Myanmar.
The Australian editor of the Phuketwan website and his Thai colleague appeared at a court Thursday on the southern island of Phuket to hear charges of defamation and violation of the computer crime act. If found guilty, they could face up to seven years in prison and a fine of 100,000 baht ($3,010).
Phuketwan posted a story last July carrying excerpts from a report by the Reuters news agency alleging that members of the Thai military were involved in trafficking captured illegal immigrants from Myanmar's beleaguered Rohingya ethnic minority. The navy filed the lawsuit in December.
Human rights and press freedom groups are urging the charges be dropped.
HONG KONG (AP) — Asian stock markets were subdued on Thursday, with Japan's Nikkei faltering as investors locked in profits after a strong rally.
Profit taking set in following a sharp rise in Tokyo the day before and as comments from the country's central bank governor left investors unimpressed.
Other regional benchmarks were unable to find direction as disappointing first-quarter earnings reports from IBM and Google after the U.S. closing bell offset supportive comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who said the central bank would continue to provide stimulus for the job market.
A rally in major U.S. benchmarks, which closed at least 1 percent higher, failed to filter through to Asia.
Trading was thin in some markets such as Hong Kong and Australia ahead of a long weekend.
Japan's Nikkei 225 index recouped earlier losses to edge up 0.2 percent to 14,362.94 after rising 3 percent on Wednesday.
Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda said in a speech that the bank would make adjustments as needed to its ultra-loose monetary policy, and he reiterated his confidence that the policy is having the desired effect of stimulating the economy, according to Kyodo news agency.
South Korea's Kospi dropped 0.2 percent to 1,987.86. Hong Kong's Hang Seng climbed 0.3 percent to 22,759.41 and Australia's S&P/ASX 200 rose 0.6 percent to 5,452.50. In mainland China, the Shanghai Composite Index shed 0.2 percent to 2,101.37.
On Wall Street, the Dow rose 1 percent to 16,424.85 and the Standard & Poor's 500 rose 1.1 percent to 1,862.31. The Nasdaq composite rose 1.3 percent to 4,086.22.
In energy trading, benchmark crude oil for May delivery was up 24 cents to $104.00. The contract rose 1 cent to settle at $103.76 on Wednesday.
In currencies, the dollar slipped to 102.03 yen from 102.22 in late trading Wednesday. The euro rose to $1.3842 from $1.3820.
BEIJING (AP) — China's automakers are the underdogs heading into next week's Beijing auto show, where foreign and domestic brands will jostle for attention in a market that is increasingly difficult for homegrown models.
Facing intense competition from General Motors, Volkswagen and other global rivals, local brands such as Chery, Geely and SUV maker Great Wall have suffered shrinking sales and market share this year while China's overall auto market has grown. That is a blow to Chinese leaders who have made it a national priority to catch up with neighboring Japan and South Korea by creating globally competitive automakers.
"I am pretty pessimistic about the domestic brands," said Wang Chao, auto editor for the newspaper China Youth Daily. "They have to work even harder to win customers."
China is the world's biggest auto market, with last year's sales rising 15.7 percent from 2012 to 17.9 million vehicles. That has supported the rapid growth of Chinese brands. But it also has attracted U.S., European, Japanese and Korean automakers that have more advanced technology and are spending heavily to appeal to local tastes in a market they see as a key to their future growth.
In the first quarter, sales by Chinese brands shrank 2.6 percent from a year earlier while the overall market grew 7.9 percent, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Their market share shrank by 4.5 percentage points to 38.7 percent while German, American, Japanese and Korean rivals gained.
"The dramatic decline in domestic sales has exceeded even our bearish expectations," said Bernstein Research analyst Max Warburton in a report.
China's fledgling independent brands face an array of problems from weak research and development to lack of marketing experience.
Adding to competition in a crowded market, Ford Motor Co. is using the auto show to launch its luxury Lincoln brand in China.
General Motors Co. plans to unveil a new Chevrolet Cruze compact and to display an updated Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Trax SUV. Nissan Motor Co., looking to China to help drive its global turnaround, will debut a concept sedan.
Chinese brands are using the show to showcase their latest sedans and sport utility vehicles. Geely Holding Group, owner of Sweden's Volvo Cars, is launching a new branding campaign. BYD Ltd., the country's leading maker of electric cars, is to unveil a compact sedan and a plug-in hybrid SUV.
Foreign brands have long dominated the premium end of China's market. Some see China as so important that they have broken with the industry trend of selling the same models everywhere and are designing vehicles for this country.
Now, they are making inroads with unexpected speed into Chinese brands' former stronghold in lower-income markets outside major cities.
GM's joint venture with state-owned Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp. and Liuzhou Wuling Motors Ltd. sells its Hongguang minivan for as little as 45,000 yuan ($7,500).
Wuling sold 81,200 of its new Hongguang S in January. That exceeded combined sales for Chinese automakers Geely, BYD and Great Wall Motors Co.
Without the Hongguang in the market, "these customers would have chosen a domestic branded car instead," said Bernstein's Warburton.
The crush of competition is partly self-inflicted following repeated strategy changes by Chinese leaders who are trying to create global competitors by decree.
In the 1990s, foreign automakers that wanted to manufacture in China were required to do so through state-owned partners. Planners hoped local manufacturers would learn from them and strike out on their own.
That fueled the growth of cash-rich but unambitious companies such as Shanghai Automotive Industries, which assembles vehicles for GM and VW, and Dongfeng Motor Corp., the partner of Japan's Honda Motor Co. and Korea's Kia Motor Co. Both have launched their own brands but make most of their money providing support to global partners.
After 2000, Chinese leaders changed course and threw support to ambitious independent brands such as Geely, Chery Inc. and Great Wall. Governments of cities and provinces were ordered to favor them in buying official vehicles.
Planners have taken yet another tack in the past five years, requiring global automakers to set up indigenous brands with Chinese partners as the price of being allowed to expand their own production.
GM and Nissan have made their indigenous brands a low-priced extension to their product range. They are penetrating lower-income cities and the countryside where Chinese brands once dominated. Sales of GM's Baojun brand, which is another joint venture with SAIC and Wuling, rose 19 percent last year to 100,498 vehicles.
Some Chinese automakers have responded by expanding abroad.
In February, Dongfeng injected 800 million euro ($1.1 billion) into struggling PSA Peugeot Citroen, France's biggest automaker, in exchange for a 14 percent stake. Peugeot executives say they will use the tie-up to expand faster in China.
China's auto market has cooled since its growth peaked above 40 percent in 2009 but still is the world's fastest-growing. Sales should reach a record 23.3 million vehicles this year, according to LMC Automotive.
GM and its Chinese partners sold nearly 3.2 million GM-brand vehicles last year. China's biggest independent brand, Chery, sold a total of 375,000 vehicles.
Still, Chinese automakers are making progress in design and some might catch up within five years, said LMC Automotive analyst John Zeng.
Chinese brands including Chery and Geely also are suffering from lack of new models over the past two years but several are preparing to release new vehicles that should help to fix that.
"We probably will see their performance improve once their new products make it to the market," said Zeng.
AP researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed.
MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for 287 passengers, many thought to be high school students, still missing more than a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea.
Nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but many expect a sharp jump in that number because of the long period of time the missing have now spent either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater.
There were 475 people aboard, including 325 students on a school trip to a tourist island, and some of the frantic, angry parents gathered at Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul. Other relatives assembled on Jindo, an island near where the ferry slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible.
Relatives of the dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances at a hospital in Mokpo, a city close to the accident site, took the bodies to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their own cars. At the school, some desperate relatives lashed out in frustration, screaming threats at the news media. On Jindo, one woman passed out and was carried to an ambulance.
The family of one of the dead, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs.
"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down on her knee.
Meanwhile, more than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters. Coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said that in the next two days, three vessels with cranes onboard would arrive to help with the rescue and salvage the ship. Divers worked round the clock in shifts in an attempt to get inside the vessel, he said. But the current wouldn't allow them to enter.
Kim said that divers planned to pump oxygen into the ship to help any survivors, but first they had to get inside the ferry.
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because department rules did not allow talking to the media. Officials said the ocean was 37 meters (121 feet) deep in the area.
Kim said coast guard officials were questioning the captain, but declined to provide details or speculate on the cause of sinking. Kim denied earlier reports by Yonhap news agency that the ferry had turned too swiftly when it was supposed to make a slow turn. He also declined to say whether the ferry had wandered from its usual route.
"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face hidden beneath a gray hoodie. "I don't know what to say."
Coast guard officers, experts on marine science and other specialists planned to gather Thursday in Mokpo to start discussions on how the ship sank.
The coast guard said it found two more bodies in the sea Thursday morning, pushing the death toll to nine. The dead include a female crew member in her 20s, five high school students and two teachers. Dozens were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early Thursday at 179.
The Sewol, a 146-meter (480-foot) vessel that can reportedly hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.
The ferry was three hours from its destination when it sent a distress call after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
Passenger Koo Bon-hee, 36, told The Associated Press that many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break.
"The rescue wasn't done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time," Koo, who was on a business trip to Jeju with a co-worker, said from a hospital bed in Mokpo where he was treated for minor injuries. "If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."
Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain, told AP that rescue efforts were hampered by the ferry's severe tilt. "We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," Oh said.
The Sewol's wreckage is in waters a little north of Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
The survivors — wet, stunned and many without shoes — were brought to Jindo, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked for injuries before taking them to a cavernous gymnasium.
As the search dragged on, families of the missing gathered at a nearby dock, some crying and holding each other.
Angry shouts could be heard when Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited a shelter where relatives of the missing passengers waited for news. Some yelled that the government should have sent more divers to search the wreckage.
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Ansan and Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed to this report.
SYDNEY (AP) — Britain's Prince William and his wife, Kate, visited a town ravaged by wildfires in the mountains west of Sydney on Thursday, as they continue their Down Under tour.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stopped in the Blue Mountains town of Winmalee to meet with firefighters and locals affected by wildfires that swept through the region last year, destroying more than 200 homes.
William and Kate also visited a Girl Guides hall, where they planted a tree, and later took in the sweeping views of the mountains.
"Here we are five months down the track after we lost our house and for them to come out now, it makes us feel like we haven't been forgotten," said Adrian Harrison, whose house was destroyed in the fires.
The royal couple is on a three-week tour of New Zealand and Australia. Their itinerary includes seeing local wildlife at Sydney's harbor side zoo and traveling to Uluru, the iconic red sandstone monolith in the Outback.
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's state TV says a magnitude 5.3 earthquake has jolted a sparsely populated district in the south of the country. The quake was moderate and no injuries were reported.
The TV says the quake struck in Shonbeh on Thursday morning, at 04:01 a.m. local time (Wednesday 23:31 GMT).
Last April, a magnitude 6.1 quake killed dozens and injured hundreds in the same district but authorities said it did not damage the nearby nuclear reactor in Bushehr, about 96 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Shonbeh.
Iran sits on a series of seismic fault lines and experiences one slight earthquake quake a day on average.
In 2003, some 26,000 people were killed by a magnitude 6.6 quake that flattened the historic southeastern city of Bam.
RAJNANDGAON, India (AP) — Voters are casting ballots in India's general election despite threats of violence in some areas by extreme leftist insurgents, who say the country's democracy has failed its marginalized and its poor.
The central state of Chhattisgarh, which is now the epicenter of India's four-decade Maoist insurgency, was among the areas voting Thursday in the multi-phase election. Authorities say there are signs that the rebels have waning support — including the lines of voters shuffling into polling booths in the Chhattisgarh town of Rajnandgaon.
Dozens of people have died in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere since February in a surge of anti-election violence despite tens of thousands of extra security forces.
The nationwide voting runs until May 12, and results for the 543-seat lower house of Parliament will be announced May 16.
GENEVA (AP) — Ukraine is seeking to pacify Russia even as the U.S. prepares a new round of sanctions to punish Moscow for what Washington says are Russian efforts to foment unrest in the former Soviet state.
The carrot-and-stick strategy emerged as diplomats from Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and Russia prepared to meet Thursday for the first time over the burgeoning crisis that threatens to roil the new government in Kiev.
Russia also appears to be honing a strategy to push the West as far as possible without provoking crippling sanctions against its financial and energy sectors or a military confrontation with NATO.
Obama administration officials played down any expectations that the meetings in Geneva would yield a breakthrough or Russian concessions meaningful enough to avoid new U.S. penalties.
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Few outsiders dare venture after dark into Tepito, a neighborhood known as Mexico City's main clearinghouse for contraband ranging from guns and drugs to counterfeit sneakers.
But a theater project led by one of Mexico's best-known actors has been taking middle-class audiences into the lives of Tepito residents in recent weeks in an attempt to show the human side of the gritty area blighted by poverty and crime.
Traveling by foot and motorcycle, the participants move after dark along trash-strewn streets, then crowd into the cramped apartments of residents, who interact with professional actors as they perform fictionalized renditions of tales about their lives.
The small company led by movie star Daniel Gimenez Cacho has offered the experience known as "Safari in Tepito" since mid-March. The performances end this month.
Many attending the four-hour production say it helped them better understand an area they would not have visited otherwise.
"The play helped me see there are good people in Tepito, there are kind people, people struggling to improve their situation," said Christian Pimental, a 24-year-old who works in marketing and lives in a middle-class neighborhood. He said he had visited Tepito in the daytime as a child, "but I still wouldn't dare go there at night by myself."
People in Tepito, which has been the site of a huge open-air market since Aztec times, sometimes battle with rocks and bottles against police trying to conduct raids at houses believed to be storing drugs or pirated merchandise.
Adding to the tough reputation, Tepito and its residents have been hit by a series of violent tragedies in recent years. In 2010, a drive-by shooting there killed six youths. Last year, a dozen young people, most of them from Tepito, were abducted from an after-hours bar called Heaven in another neighborhood and turned up dead nearly three months later.
Organizers and attendees of "Safari in Tepito" say they aren't trying to exploit the residents' lives for their own entertainment. They say "Safari in Tepito" aims to increase understanding of the poor in a country where nearly 50 percent of the population lives in poverty.
"I have liked this neighborhood since I was young and I was worried that a place I love so much, that to me represents the heart of Mexican identity, could be defined only by how many dead people there were, or how much cocaine was trafficked," said Gimenez Cacho, who has starred in films by directors Pedro Almodovar of Spain and Alfonso Cuaron of Mexico.
Tepito residents, most of them merchants, have welcomed the visitors, and as the outsiders walk through the market they are invited to shop at vendors' stands or stay for a beer.
The theater project is modeled on "Safari in Slotermeer," a work produced by Dutch actress Adelheid Roosen in a heavily immigrant district of Amsterdam. Roosen traveled to Mexico to help set up the Tepito version.
To develop the scripts, four actors lived for two weeks in the homes of Tepito residents — a human rights activist, a man paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot wound, a woman who supports her family selling makeup bags and cosmetic contact lenses, and a vendor known as the queen of "albures," or sexual double entendres.
Together, the actors and residents wrote two-person scenes dealing with abandonment, violence, sexual abuse, hope, female strength and love.
Before performances, each of the four actors leads 10 people through the neighborhood after sundown while members of the production walk in front of the group and others trail behind, guarding the participants. Plastic foam cups and plates are piled along curbs. Children fly kites of plastic bags and sticks among gutted cars.
The groups pass through the market, which bustles in daytime with sales of pirated DVDs, women's underwear, jeans and other items, most illegally imported from China. At night the clamor of commerce is replaced by norteno and brass band music booming from speakers near improvised sidewalk bars, and the smell of grilled meat gives way to the aroma of marijuana.
On a recent Friday evening, one group traversed a narrow hallway into the tiny apartment of Martin Camarillo, 35, paralyzed when he was 19.
Camarillo welcomed the audience into a bedroom barely big enough for his bunk bed. Actor Raul Briones lay on the bottom bunk and exchanged thoughts about fatherhood with Camarillo in his wheelchair. Camarillo talked about having to accept that he'll never have a child, and described his own father's alcoholism, womanizing and domestic abuse. The character Briones plays then said he was unsure he wants to meet his 8-year-old son.
Camarillo said he wants to show visitors the similarity of their lives.
"We are all the same people, with the same dreams, perhaps the same suffering," he said. "We want for people to know that in Tepito there are also people who work hard, who set up their stands early in the morning to give their family a better future, to give them hope."
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Veteran Malaysian opposition lawmaker Karpal Singh, an eminent lawyer who had been detained without trial under security laws and battled numerous sedition charges, has died in a road accident. He was 73.
District police chief Ng Kong Soon said Singh was travelling with four others when his car collided with a truck early Thursday on a highway.
Ng was quoted by national Bernama news agency as saying Singh and his personal assistant were killed immediately and his Indonesian maid was badly injured, but his son, Ram Singh, and the driver escaped unhurt.
Gobind Singh Deo, Karpal's son and also a lawmaker, posted a message on Facebook and Twitter announcing his father's death.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said Malaysia has lost an "indefatigable fighter for justice."
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Western countries on the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday slammed what they called Russia's "fantasy narrative" on the crisis in Ukraine after a new report on the human rights situation there.
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic warned the council that the violence in eastern Ukraine risks "seriously destabilizing the country as a whole."
The meeting came a day before the top diplomats of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union hold high-level talks in Geneva on an increasingly chaotic situation in which pro-Russian insurgents have seized police stations and government buildings in at least nine cities in the region. Russia has 40,000 troops massed on its border with Ukraine.
Western countries on the Security Council said the new report undermines Russia's claims about the events that led to its recent annexation of Crimea, and they warned of a similar situation unfolding now.
"A new fantasy narrative," British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant called Russia's stance on the latest phase of the crisis.
"Virtual reality," French Ambassador Gerard Araud said.
"A well-orchestrated professional campaign of incitement," U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said.
Ultimately, the council is powerless to take action on Ukraine, as permanent member Russia holds veto power.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, called the human rights report "biased." He emerged from the meeting declaring in Russian, "Eleventh! Eleventh!" That's how many times the council has met on the crisis.
The human rights report, based on the findings of visits to Ukraine by Simonovic and by a U.N. monitoring mission there, declares the arming of protesters in eastern Ukraine must end and encourages "an inclusive, sustained and meaningful national dialogue."
The report also takes aim at Russian claims that the large ethnic Russian minority in the region has been under attack there.
"Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread," it says. It adds that the mood remains "particularly tense," with fears by ethnic Russians that the country's new government doesn't represent them.
Ukraine's new leaders have struggled since taking power after protesters wanting closers to ties with the European Union instead of Russia forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee.
Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev told the council Wednesday that his country is determined to hold elections on May 25 "under all circumstances." What his country needs to break from the corruption and other bad ways of the past, he said, "is that Russia leaves us in peace."
The new report warns Ukraine's new government against "the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred by some political parties, group and individuals." In his comments Wednesday, Simonovic singled out the largely marginal hardcore nationalist Right Sector movement.
Looking back at Russia's rapid annexation on the largely Russian-speaking Crimea just weeks ago, Simonovic said "the presence of paramilitary and so-called self-defense groups, as well as soldiers in uniform without insignia, was not conducive to an environment in which voters could freely exercise their right to hold opinions."
He also criticized the "media manipulation" that helped create a 'climate of fear and insecurity in the period preceding the referendum."
A second human rights report on the Ukraine crisis is set to come out May 15.
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's military says all but eight of 129 female students kidnapped from a northeastern school by Islamic militants are free.
Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade says one of the kidnappers has been captured. Without giving details he says "the others have been freed this evening."
The government said security forces were in hot pursuit of militants who abducted more than 100 girls at a high school early Tuesday.
The governor of Borno state said at least 14 freed themselves: four of the students — aged between 16 and 18 — jumped off the back of a truck and 10 escaped into the bush when the extremists asked them to cook and were not paying attention.
The abductions came hours after an explosion blamed on extremists killed 75 people in Nigeria's capital.
MOKPO, South Korea | Koo Bon-hee could see the exit. For half an hour, as the doomed ferry filled with water and listed severely on its side, the crew told passengers to wait for rescuers.
With their breathing room disappearing, the 36-year-old businessman and some of the other passengers floated to an exit and swam to a nearby fishing boat. But 290 of the 475 people aboard — many of them high school students on a class trip — were still missing after the ferry sank Wednesday off the southern coast of South Korea. Six were confirmed dead and 55 were injured.
Early Thursday, divers, helicopters and boats continued to search for survivors from the ferry, which slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible. The high number of people unaccounted for — possibly trapped in the ship or floating in the chilly water nearby — raised fears that the death toll could increase drastically.
It was still unknown why the ferry sank, and the coast guard was interviewing the captain and crew. The Sewol, a 146-meter (480-foot) vessel that can hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.
About 9 a.m. Wednesday, when it was three hours from Jeju, the ferry sent a distress call after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.
Passenger Kim Seong-mok told broadcaster YTN that after having breakfast, he felt the ferry tilt and then heard it crash into something. He said an announcement told passengers to not move from their places and that he never heard another about evacuating.
He said he was certain that many people were trapped inside the ferry as water rushed in and the severe tilt of the vessel kept them from reaching the exits.
Koo also complained about the crew's efforts during the initial stages of the disaster, saying early misjudgments may account for the large number of missing.
In addition to the order not to evacuate immediately, Koo said many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break.
"The rescue wasn't done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time," Koo, who was on a business trip to Jeju with a co-worker, said from a hospital bed in Mokpo, the nearest major city to the site of the accident, where he was treated for minor injuries. "If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."
Oh-Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain, told The Associated Press that rescue efforts were hampered by the ferry's severe tilt.
"We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," Oh said.
Student Lim Hyung-min told YTN that he and others jumped into the water wearing life jackets and then swam to a nearby rescue boat.
"As the ferry was shaking and tilting, we all tripped and bumped into each another," Lim said, adding that some people were bleeding. Once he jumped, the ocean "was so cold. ... I was hurrying, thinking that I wanted to live."
Dozens of coast guard and navy divers searched for survivors around the Sewol's wreckage a little north of Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.
Coast guard spokesman Cho Man-yong said 16 divers could not get inside the ferry Wednesday night because the current was too strong. The water was muddy and visibility was poor, he said, but divers would try again Thursday morning.
"We cannot give up," said South Korean President Park Geun-hye, after a briefing in Seoul. "We have to do our best to rescue even one passenger."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. and its 7th Fleet stood ready to assist, including the USS Bonhomme Richard, which was in the region.
The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.
TV stations broadcast live pictures Wednesday of the listing Sewol as passengers clambered over the side, jumped into the sea or were hoisted up by helicopters. At least 87 vessels and 18 aircraft swarmed around the stricken ferry.
The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 1½ hours of exposure, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because department rules did not allow talking to the media.
Lee Gyeong-og, a vice minister for the Public Administration and Security Ministry, said the ocean was 37 meters (121 feet) deep in the area.
The survivors — wet, stunned and many without shoes — were brought to nearby Jindo Island, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked for injuries before taking them to a cavernous gymnasium.
As the search dragged on, families of the missing gathered at a nearby dock, some crying and holding each other. Boats circled the sunken ferry into the night, illuminated by red flares.
Angry shouts could be heard when Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited a shelter where relatives of the missing passengers waited for news. Some yelled that the government should have sent more divers to search the wreckage.
The numbers of passengers, as well as the dead and missing, fluctuated throughout the day. As of early Thursday, South Korean authorities estimated 475 people were on the ferry.
Of that total, there were 325 students and 15 teachers from Danwon High School in Ansan, a city near Seoul. They were headed to Jeju for a four-day trip, according to a relief team set up by Gyeonggi province.
Authorities said the dead included a female member of the crew and two male students. A coast guard officer confirmed three other fatalities but had few details about them. Kang Byung-kyu, a government minister, said 55 people were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early Thursday at 179.
Many South Korean high schools organize trips for first- or second-year students, and Jeju is a popular destination. The students on the ferry were in their second year, which would make most of them 16 or 17.
At Danwon High School, students were sent home early and parents gathered for news about their children. Park Ji-hee, a first-year student, said she saw about a dozen parents crying at the school entrance.
There are faster ways to get to Jeju, but the ferry from Incheon is cheaper than flying.
The Sewol, which travels twice a week between Incheon and Jeju, was built in Japan in 1994 and could carry a maximum of 921 people, 180 vehicles and 152 shipping containers, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.
GENEVA (AP) — A senior U.S. official says high-stakes diplomatic meetings in Geneva on Thursday to try to ease burgeoning violence in eastern Ukraine will mark Kiev's final attempt to engage with Russia before the West hits Moscow with additional economic sanctions.
It was not immediately clear how tough the sanctions might be and whether they would target Moscow's lucrative banking and energy sectors.
The U.S. official says diplomats from Kiev plan to brief Russia's foreign minister about efforts to decentralize power in Ukraine and protect Russian-speaking minorities like the ones who live near the two nation's border that has seen a surge in unrest over the last several days.
The U.S. diplomat was not permitted to be identified discussing the sensitive diplomatic talks and spoke on condition of anonymity.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Uruguayan President Jose Mujica says his wealth adds up to $322,883. Nearly a third of that is cash, kept in three bank accounts that he didn't previously declare.
Mujica's insistence on living simply has earned him the nickname "the poorest president in the world," but his sworn declaration this year shows zero debts and a 74 percent increase in wealth since 2012.
The form he submitted to Uruguay's transparency and public ethics board doesn't require Mujica to declare the source of the $103,451 in cash he says he now keeps in banks. The joint annual income he makes with his wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, totals $229,450, and they declared no debts, owning their land and cars outright.
Most of the cash is in two accounts at the Banco Republica Oriental de Uruguay, while another $14,062 is kept in an account at Bandes, a Venezuelan development bank.
The president's spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the declaration emailed by The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Mujica has said that he habitually donates most of his income. In the "observations" section of the form, Mujica writes in longhand that since becoming president in 2010, he has given about $25,500 in cash and $60,348 in heavy equipment to "Plan Juntos" a housing organization supported by the ruling Broad Front coalition, and donated $86,068 to the coalition itself.
Mujica and Topolansky are former leftist guerrillas who often speak out against greed and consumerism, and say they learned to live on very little during their long years in prison under Uruguay's 1973-1985 dictatorship. They gave up a chance to live in the luxurious presidential mansion after he was elected four years ago, staying instead on their ramshackle flower farm, which Mujica declared to be worth about $108,000. They share ownership in two other properties as well.
Mujica also declared three tractors, each worth more than his two 1987 Volkswagen Beetles, which together value about $4,750.
Uruguay's 42,000 public officials have to make sworn wealth declarations every two years, but only the top two are required to make them public.
Vice President Daniel Astori says he's worth $389,000.
MOSCOW (AP) — Thursday's high-level talks in Geneva on Ukraine come as the country's eastern regions are awash in turmoil and pro-Russian insurgents have seized police stations and government buildings in at least nine cities.
But for all the anxiety about Ukraine's future — bolstered by Vladimir Putin's contention the country is on the verge of civil war — the top diplomats of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union may find their positions so far apart that no one can find a compromise.
A look at the parties in the talks and their levers of power:
What Russia says it wants: Since the ouster of Ukraine's Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Moscow has consistently pushed for Ukraine to become a federalized state, in which the country's regions would have more powers outside the central government in Kiev. That could let some Ukraine regions pursue closer trade ties with Russia — or even vote to join Russia.
What it really wants: It deeply wants Ukraine to stay away from NATO membership and to be drawn back into Russia's orbit instead of coming under the sway of the European Union.
What it would settle for: Ukraine not in NATO or the EU and in a trade confederation that Moscow will build, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia In Global Affairs journal. Russia is likely to push hard for these, even at the risk of more sanctions. "If further sanctions are imposed, this is the price Putin will accept and certainly he will not concede," said analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
What the U.S. says it wants: The Obama administration wants Russia to drop its claim to have annexed Crimea and drawn down its troops on the strategic peninsula to pre-crisis levels. The White House is also demanding the Kremlin halt provocative actions by pro-Russian militia in eastern Ukraine that the West believes are being funded and coordinated by Moscow.
What it really wants: The U.S. wants the above — but it also wants Russia to stop bullying Ukraine, especially in the energy sector, which it sees as a worrisome precedent for other former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Moldova and the Baltics. Washington also still needs Russian cooperation on thorny diplomatic issues such as Iran.
What it would settle for: The U.S. will not recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea but that's by and large a done deal. The U.S. would settle for the Kremlin to just halt its provocations in eastern and southern Ukraine and end any efforts at destabilizing the country.
What Ukraine says it wants: Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says for the Geneva talks "there is only one, fundamental directive: Russia must pull out its saboteur groups and denounce terrorists."
What it really wants: Analyst Vadim Karasyov says behind the scenes, Ukraine will be talking about how best to decentralize power so regions don't want to break away and join Russia. "They will be searching for some kind of compromise with Russia because nobody wants to go to war," he said.
What it would settle for: Ukraine wants Russia to stop supporting insurgents in the east. It is also likely to be playing for time, hoping to keep the situation on the ground comparatively calm ahead of the May 25 presidential election. If that vote goes smoothly, Russia will lose its leverage of tarring Ukraine as being led by an illegitimate government.
THE EUROPEAN UNION
What the EU says it wants: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton's spokeswoman says the 28-nation bloc wants direct talks between Russia and Ukraine to calm down the tensions in eastern Ukraine. If that situation deteriorates further, EU leaders have threatened to introduce biting economic sanctions against Russia.
What it really wants: The EU wants pro-Russian groups to stop seizing government facilities in eastern Ukraine. It also wants to lessen Ukraine's economic dependency on Russia, offering a wide-ranging aid package, a free trade agreement and help in reducing the country's reliance on Russian natural gas.
What it would settle for: Tacitly, though not legally, the EU has accepted Ukraine's loss of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia but it won't accept a further partition of the country. It has hinted it could accommodate some of Russia's concerns about the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement if this could smooth Kiev's dealings with Moscow.
Maria Danilova in Kiev, Ukraine, and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.
SEJKOVACA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Family members of victims from Bosnia's 1992-1995 war are beginning to travel to northwestern Bosnia to view the remains of corpses meticulously pulled from the earth and identified through DNA analysis.
Hundreds of families are expected to make the sad pilgrimage to see bodies excavated from the mass grave at Tomasica, which is about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of Sarajevo.
So far, 430 victims were found in the Tomasica grave, a vast pit 10 meters (about 30 feet) deep and covering 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet).
The pit contains victims of Bosnian Serb military units who killed Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats in hopes of creating an ethnically pure region.
Viewings of the bodies began Wednesday.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi activists say authorities have detained a prominent human rights lawyer in the capital.
Activists say Waleed Abu al-Khair was taken into custody Tuesday after attending a court hearing in Riyadh where he faces charges that include inciting public opinion.
The case is related to the work of Abu al-Khair's organization, Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.
His wife, Samar Badawi, told The Associated Press Wednesday that court officials told her Abu al-Khair has been sent to al-Hayer prison. She said guards have barred her from seeing him and did not say why he is being held.
Abu al-Khair received a 3-month prison sentence in February for signing a petition that called for the release of political detainees and for investigations into killings of protesters. He appealed the verdict.
BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese security official says a longtime ally of former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi detained in Lebanon has been moved to a Beirut hospital after falling ill.
The official said Marcello Dell'Utri is in stable condition.
A former executive in Berlusconi's media empire, Dell'Utri faces a final appeal of his conviction of Mafia association in Italy.
He was declared a fugitive in Italy and detained in Lebanon. Italy said Saturday it was preparing to seek his extradition.
Dell'Utri denies any ties to the Sicilian Mafia, and any link between the crime syndicate and Berlusconi.
The Lebanese official said he was taken from a central prison to a Beirut hospital for treatment. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.
BEIRUT (AP) — A spike in targeted murders of journalists in Syria landed the war-shattered country for the first time on the Committee to Protect Journalists' annual Impunity Index, joining a list of countries where journalists' killings are most likely to go unpunished, the international watchdog said Wednesday.
CPJ said the murders add a new threat to the mix in Syria, already deemed the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to do their jobs with unprecedented numbers of abductions and high rates of fatalities in combat and crossfire.
Iraq, another Middle Eastern country racked by unrest and sectarian violence, remains along with Somalia and the Philippines the worst places on the 2014 Index. A hundred journalists have been murdered in Iraq in the past decade, all with impunity, CPJ said. After a respite in 2012, nine murders took place last year, it added.
Syria joined the list for the first time this year. A surge in militant groups operating in the country has made it increasingly dangerous for journalists, both local and international, to cover the conflict, leading many news organizations to suspend reporting trips to opposition-held northern and eastern Syria, deeming it no longer worth the risk.
More than 60 journalists have been killed by crossfire and dangerous assignments in the past three years, according to CPJ. Moreover, at least 61 were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, most by rebel forces, it said. Some of the journalists have since escaped or been released.
Deliberate murder adds a chilling new threat to the mix, according to a report released Wednesday entitled "Getting Away With Murder."
It said at least seven journalists were fatally targeted in Syria since 2012, all with complete impunity. The perpetrators come from all sides: Foreign Islamic extremists, rebels targeting pro-government media, and President Bashar Assad's forces.
Victims include reporters for citizen media outlets like Abdel Karim al-Oqda, a contributor to Shaam News Network, a citizen news organization that has posted tens of thousands of videos documenting the unrest since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Al-Oqda died when security forces burned his home in retaliation for his coverage of the unrest, CPJ said.
"In too many countries, the climate of impunity engenders further violence and deprives citizens — global as well as local — of their basic right to information," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
Three Lebanese members of a TV crew from the Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV were shot dead this week by gunmen in Syria while covering the Syrian army's capture of a Christian town north of Damascus.
Al-Manar said it was not clear if the three were targeted, adding they were traveling in a convoy clearly marked as press.
SLOVYANSK, Ukraine | Pro-Russian insurgents commandeered six Ukrainian armored vehicles along with their crews and hoisted Russian flags over them Wednesday, dampening the central government's hopes of re-establishing control over restive eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian soldiers manning the vehicles offered no armed resistance, and masked pro-Russian militias in combat fatigues sat on top as they drove into the eastern city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine's interim government.
In Brussels, NATO announced it was immediately strengthening its military footprint along its eastern border — which often lies next to Russia — in response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The leaders of Russia and Germany, meanwhile, talked about the turmoil in Ukraine but came to very different conclusions, their offices said.
Insurgents in Slovyansk have seized the police headquarters and the administration building, demanding broader autonomy for eastern Ukraine and closer ties with Russia. Their actions have been repeated in at least eight other cities in eastern Ukraine — and the central government says Moscow is fomenting the unrest.
One of the Ukrainian soldiers said they had defected to the pro-Russian side — which raises the specter of an uprising led by disgruntled Ukrainian forces. But an AP journalist overheard another soldier suggesting they were forced at gunpoint to hand over the vehicles.
"How was I supposed to behave if I had guns pointed at me?" the soldier, who did not identify himself, asked a resident.
Breaking hours of silence, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Ukrainian troops had entered Kramatorsk, south of Slovyansk, on Wednesday morning, where locals and "members of Russian sabotage groups" seized six armored personnel vehicles and drove them to Slovyansk.
The military said "the whereabouts of the Ukrainian servicemen" were not yet known. The Interfax news agency quoted Miroslav Rudenko, one of the insurgent leaders in Slovyansk, as saying the soldiers will be offered the chance to join a local militia or leave the region.
Eastern Ukraine was the support base for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after months of protests over his decision to reject closer relations with the European Union and turn instead toward Russia.
Reflecting the West's concern over the turmoil in Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation and preparations for diplomatic talks Thursday in Geneva on Ukraine.
The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel that "the sharp escalation of the conflict places the country in effect on the verge of a civil war." Merkel's office said she and Putin had "different assessments" of the events in Ukraine.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, meanwhile, said NATO will respond to what he called Russian aggression in Ukraine. NATO aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region and allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere if needed.
"We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land," Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels.
NATO says Russia has up to 40,000 troops stationed near its border with Ukraine. Western nations and the new government in Kiev fear that Moscow will use unrest in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for a military invasion.
Ukraine is not a NATO member but several NATO members — Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland — all border Russia. NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey also border the Black Sea along with Russia and Ukraine.
In Slovyansk, a Ukrainian city 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the border with Russia, the armored vehicles stopped near a government building and flew Russian flags while residents chanted "Good job! Good job!"
One of the men on them, who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of Ukraine's 25th Brigade of Airborne Forces and they had switched to the pro-Russian side.
"Our bosses made the decision and we obeyed," he said.
His statement couldn't be independently confirmed.
Some onlookers were happy with the pro-Russian forces.
"We will never allow the fascist Kiev authorities to come here," said Andrei Bondar, 32, a Slovyansk resident.
But Tetyana Kustova, a 35-year-old sales clerk, was appalled by the unrest.
"They are pushing us toward Russia," she said. "They are tearing Ukraine into pieces."
Later Wednesday, in Pchyolkino, a town south of Slovyansk, tensions boiled over as several hundred residents surrounded 14 Ukrainian armored vehicles. Fearing the troops were sent to quell them, the crowd refused to let the vehicles leave despite the pleas of a Ukrainian officer. The crowd was later reinforced by pro-Russian gunmen.
To end the standoff, leaders in the crowd told Lt. Colonel Oleksandr Shvets they would let his 100-strong troops go if they handed over the magazines from their assault rifles. The soldiers took the magazines off, put them in plastic bags and gave them to the pro-Russian insurgents.
"We are really tired of all of this confusion," said Sgt. Dmytro Mokletsov. "It's really scary giving away the magazines. We have no weapons now. But we were told to, it was an order."
The column of APCs was preparing to leave the area Wednesday evening.
In the eastern regional capital of Donetsk, armed militias seized the mayor's office, demanding that the Kiev government hold a vote on giving the east more autonomy.
"We have come into this building so that Kiev accepts our demands, the demands of the ordinary people of Donbass, to adopt a law on local referendums," said militiaman Alexander Zakharchenko.
In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest.
"Russia has got a new export now, apart from oil and gas: Russia is now exporting terrorism to Ukraine," Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting. "Russia must withdraw its sabotage groups, condemn terrorists and liberate all administrative buildings."
Russian markets have been rattled by the tensions between Moscow and Ukraine, where Russia annexed the Black Sea region of Crimea last month.
The Russian economy slowed sharply in the first three months of the year as spooked investors pulled money out of the country.
Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told parliament that growth was only 0.8 percent in the first quarter — far short of the ministry's earlier prediction of 2.5 percent — because of "the acute international situation of the past two months" as well as "serious capital flight."
The main stock index in Moscow tanked 10 percent in March, wiping out billions in market capitalization. In the first three months of 2014, the ruble lost 9 percent against the dollar, making imports more expensive, while spooked investors pulled about $70 billion out of the country — more than in all of 2013.
Associated Press writers Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Maria Danilova and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Laura Mills in Moscow and Juergen Baetz and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials say the Obama administration is working on a package of non-lethal aid for Ukraine that could include medical supplies and clothing, but would stop short of providing body armor and other military-style equipment.
The incremental assistance would be aimed at bolstering the Ukrainian military as it seeks to halt the advances of pro-Russian forces in the east, as well as showing symbolic U.S. support for Ukraine's efforts. But the aid is unlikely to satisfy administration critics, who say what the Ukrainians really need are weapons to defend themselves.
The administration has said it is not actively considering sending weapons, ammunition or other lethal assistance.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly before the aid package is finalized.
DUBLIN (AP) — A jury has cleared former Anglo Irish Bank chairman Sean FitzPatrick of all fraud charges related to a loans-for-shares scheme that preceded the bank's 2009 collapse.
The 65-year-old FitzPatrick had denied providing illegal financial help to selected clients.
The verdict reached Wednesday removes the final charges against FitzPatrick. Other charges against him were dismissed last week. The jury is still considering charges against two other bank directors.
The Dublin Circuit Criminal Court case is the first prosecution related to the collapse of the bank, regarded as having brought Ireland to the brink of national bankruptcy.
ISLAMABAD (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban says it will not renew a ceasefire it called to facilitate peace negotiations with the government but says talks will continue.
In a statement emailed Wednesday to reporters, the organization's spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the governing council of the militant group had decided unanimously to drop the ceasefire.
The group announced a one-month ceasefire on March 1 and then extended it for ten days. This is the group's first comment since the ceasefire expired last Thursday.
The spokesman blamed the government, saying it was still continuing operations against militants during the ceasefire. But he said the talks would continue in "complete sincerity."
Militants in Pakistan's northwest have been battling the government for years with thousands of troops and civilians dying in bombings and shootings.
LONDON (AP) — North Korean diplomats have asked the British government to take action against a London hair salon's poster poking fun at distinctively coiffured leader Kim Jong Un.
The Foreign Office said Wednesday it had received a letter from the country's embassy objecting to the poster, and was considering its response.
The Evening Standard newspaper reported the letter urged Britain to take "necessary action to stop the provocation."
Staff at M&M Hair Academy say they were visited by diplomats from the nearby embassy after putting up a poster featuring a picture of Kim — who sports a distinctive undercut — and the slogan "Bad Hair Day?"
Police say they spoke to both parties and determined no crime had been committed.
The embassy didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Ugandan officials say about 400 troops will be deployed in Somalia on Thursday under a new United Nations guard unit charged with protecting U.N. staff and installations in the violence-prone Somali capital.
Dressed in the U.N.'s blue helmets and Ugandan military fatigues they will wear while on duty in Mogadishu, the troops were urged to show discipline in a ceremony witnessed by their Western trainers on Wednesday.
The U.N. last year recommended the deployment of a "static" guard unit to strengthen the security of its compound within the international airport in Mogadishu, which has been attacked repeatedly by Somalia's Islamic extremist rebels, who are linked to al-Qaida.
Ugandan troops have for years led a U.N.-backed African Union peacekeeping force that in 2011 ousted the al-Shabab rebels from Mogadishu.
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Negotiators from Venezuela's government and the opposition agreed to broaden membership in a truth commission tasked with investigating who's to blame for 41 deaths tied to weeks of political unrest.
The compromise was announced following hours of negotiations that took place Tuesday night behind closed doors in what both sides described as a much-needed if torturous attempt at dialogue in a nation polarized by 15 years of socialist rule.
Heading into Tuesday's talks the government had insisted that any probing of the protests be led by Congress, which it dominates. But it partially met the opposition's demands for an independent commission by agreeing to include national figures trusted by both sides.
Talks that began last week are being sponsored by the Vatican as well as three South American nations.
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The Associated Press has named Michelle Faul, who has covered the major stories of Africa over the past three decades, as its bureau chief in Nigeria.
The appointment was announced Wednesday by Africa Editor Andrew Selsky.
"Michelle Faul is a wonderful writer and a meticulous reporter with deep experience who has a knack for building sources," Selsky said. "These skills, along with her ability to grasp the nuances of events, will benefit AP's worldwide audience as she explains what is happening in Africa's most populous nation, one that today is being ravaged by an Islamic insurgency."
Faul has been AP's chief Africa correspondent based in Johannesburg since 2005, traveling widely in sub-Saharan Africa.
She won an Associated Press Managing Editors' award for Enterprise Reporting for her coverage of unrest in eastern Congo in 2009 and for coverage of violence in Ivory Coast in 2011.
From South Africa, she covered the 2009 elections that brought Jacob Zuma to the presidency, the police killings of striking miners in 2012, an event that had echoes of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela's declining health.
Faul first traveled to Nigeria for the AP in 1990 to write about how the oil industry was polluting the land and impoverishing residents of the Niger Delta.
In her new role, Faul will be based in Lagos. She will be responsible for directing AP coverage of Africa's biggest oil producer and economic powerhouse as it prepares for elections early next year.
She will continue to report to Selsky.
Faul joined the AP in her native Zimbabwe in 1983. She was forced to leave under threat of arrest two years later for her coverage of mass killings by the government. She reported on East Africa from Nairobi, Kenya, for two years before moving to the AP's International Desk in New York City in 1988. The following year she transferred to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to cover West Africa.
She was named Caribbean news editor, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1995, and was promoted to chief of bureau there in 2000.
Faul covered the great famine in Ethiopia, civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and the transformation of many West African countries from military dictatorships amid widespread pro-democracy demonstrations.
In the Caribbean, she reported on the arrival of the first detainees at the U.S. lockup at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, U.S. efforts to fight drug smuggling, the devastating volcanic eruption in Montserrat, and on Jean-Bertrand Aristide's fall from power in Haiti. She returned to Haiti in 2010 as part of the AP team that covered the deadly earthquake there.
Faul, 57, previously worked for the British Broadcasting Corp., Agence France-Presse and The Sunday Mail and Herald newspapers of Zimbabwe.
DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AP) — The president of Tanzania is warning armed rebels operating in eastern Congo to put down their arms or risk being hunted down by Congolese and U.N. forces.
Tanzania has contributed troops to a special U.N. brigade tasked with pursuing armed groups in Congo's east, where several rebel groups vie for control of the mineral-rich area and its resources.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Jakaya Kikwete hailed the U.N. intervention force's success in defeating the M23 rebels, one of the main armed groups in the area.
But that defeat and Tanzania's participation in the force have irritated neighboring Rwanda, which is widely believed to have backed the M23 rebels to serve as a buffer against another armed group.
Kikwete denied there was any significant dispute with Rwanda.
LONDON (AP) — Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson has acknowledged that he listened to hacked voicemail messages while he was editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid.
Coulson told a London jury that he was "shocked" in 2004 when a reporter said he had heard voicemails that showed government minister David Blunkett was having an affair.
Coulson said he felt this was "an apparent breach of privacy" and ordered the reporter to drop the story.
But later, after hearing the messages, he decided there was "some public interest justification" in running the story.
Coulson and six others are on trial on charges stemming from the revelation that the News of the World regularly eavesdropped on the voicemails of people in the public eye. All the defendants deny wrongdoing.
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