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Monthly Archives: June 2015

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Iran’s FM returns to nuke talks amid signs of backtracking

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VIENNA (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister returned to the nuclear talks in Vienna where negotiators are struggling to overcome still significant differences and preparing to work through Tuesday’s self-imposed deadline for a deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejoined the talks after a day of consultations in Tehran and was meeting first with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I feel the negotiations have reached a very sensitive stage, and at this stage, with political will, determination and lots of work, progress is possible,” Zarif told reporters on arriving in Vienna with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic agency, who had missed earlier sessions due to illness.

Iran’s official news agency said Salehi’s participation indicated Iran’s serious desire to accelerate the talks and achieve a comprehensive deal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was also expected to join the discussions.

Zarif said Iran would only accept an agreement that is “fair, balanced and also based on national pride and the rights of the Iranian people.”

On Monday, U.S. officials suggested that significant backtracking by Tehran’s negotiators may need several more days of discussions to resolve.

Monday had originally been envisioned as the penultimate day of a 20-month process to assure the world Iran cannot produce nuclear weapons and provide the Iranian people a path of out of years of international isolation. But officials said over the weekend they were nowhere near a final accord, and Zarif flew back to his capital for further consultations.

Several signs pointed toward Iranian intransigence and perhaps even backsliding on a framework it reached with world powers three months ago. At a briefing for some three-dozen, mainly American, reporters, a senior U.S. official repeated several times that the final package must be based on the April parameters — “period.” The official declined to elaborate because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy; reporters were updated on the condition that no individuals be quoted by name.

At the United Nations, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters that no new target date has been set for concluding the nuclear talks, which would set a decade of restrictions on Iran’s enrichment of uranium and other activity in exchange for tens of billions of dollars in relief from international economic sanctions.

Fabius, who was in Vienna over the weekend, repeated his country’s red lines for an agreement: stricter limits on Iranian research and development, capacity for U.N. nuclear monitors to verify the deal and the ability of world powers to snap sanctions back into place quickly if Iran cheats. In addition to France, Russia and the United States, other negotiating countries are Britain, China and Germany.

France’s conditions are essentially the same as America’s, whose diplomats have conducted the bulk of the negotiations with Iran since a series of secret talks between the countries two years ago and then the election of moderate-leaning President Hassan Rouhani. Iran insists its program is for energy, medical and research purposes, but much of the world suspects it of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions.

The U.S. official said many of the trickiest issues involved in the negotiation remained unresolved. These have been described by others as the level of inspections Iran will grant International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, how fast the U.S. and its partners would lift sanctions on Iran, and the exact restrictions on Iranian research of advance nuclear technology.

While the seven nations will continue working beyond their original June 30 deadline, the U.S. official stressed that there is no talk of a long-term extension. The official added that it would not surprise the parties if talks drag on further past the deadline than they did for the framework pact. In that case, negotiations wrapped up talks April 2, two days after a March 30 deadline.

The current effort is more difficult. Now, diplomats must settle every element of an agreement.

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Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report. FILE – In this file photo taken Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as they walk in Geneva, Switzerland, ahead of the next round of nuclear discussions. Should the talks over Iran’s nuclear program collapse, the alternatives are not appealing: the war option that the United States has kept on the table has few fans, and the world does not seem willing to truly bring Iran to its knees by shutting off the flow of capital and goods. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP, File)

A year after Gaza war, Hamas entrenched as frustration grows

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Emad Firi is angry. During last summer’s Israel-Hamas war, a shell slammed through the roof of his house and shredded his right leg. Unable to work, Firi’s son now drives his taxi but the family struggles to survive.

The 50-year-old blames Israel, but also the Islamic militant group Hamas which has ruled Gaza since a violent takeover in 2007. In the Hamas era, the tiny territory has endured three wars with Israel and a crippling Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that keeps most of its 1.8 million residents trapped.

“Who is not angry about this difficult situation?” Firi said, waiting at a rehabilitation clinic to finally to be fitted with an artificial leg.

But the people of Gaza won’t rise up — some out of fear, he said. “If I say two words, I may go to prison,” he says, as Hamas has little tolerance for dissent and often detains critics. “So we stay silent.”

A year after the most destructive war in Gaza yet, Hamas remains in control — despite signs of mounting frustration and a poll indicating half the residents would emigrate if borders were open.

No alternative to Hamas rule has emerged, after deep-seated rivalries between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas derailed attempts to set up a unity government in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas can also rely on unwavering support from about one-third of the population, polls indicate.

At the same time, Israel and Egypt have signaled a policy shift, from trying to weaken and perhaps topple Hamas, including by enforcing the blockade over the past eight years, to containing the group.

Egypt’s military temporarily opened the border crossing with Gaza in recent days. Thousands left Gaza for the first time in months, while shipments of desperately-needed cement entered the territory. Egypt said it acts according to changing security assessments, while Hamas officials said they were promised a further easing.

Meanwhile, Israel relaxed its stringent movement restrictions for Gaza residents, amid reports that foreign diplomats are carrying messages between Israel and Hamas on a long-term cease-fire deal.

Israeli officials have also struck a new tone. The outgoing top army commander dealing with Gaza, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, has said recently that Israel and Hamas have some shared interests, while leading right-wing Cabinet minister Naftali Bennett said the Hamas presence in Gaza is a reality. “It’s not a matter of reconciling with it (Hamas rule) or not,” he told Israeli TV’s Channel 2 over the weekend. “I see that they (Hamas) are there.”

Israel and the West have branded Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, as a terror group.

Salah Bardawil, a Hamas spokesman, said he believes Egypt and Israel have become “more realistic.” They “realized that they can’t reach their goals by violence and force,” he said.

Hamas’ biggest problem currently is lack of funds, after Egypt shut down hundreds of smuggling tunnels under its border with Gaza two years ago. The tunnels delivered cheap fuel and cement, powering key sectors of the economy, while Hamas earned tens of millions a year taxing the smuggled goods.

The tunnel closures triggered Hamas’ worst-ever financial crisis, leaving it unable to cover its $30 million-a-month payroll for 40,000 civil servants and security forces.

Last year, Hamas agreed to step aside in Gaza for a “national consensus government” led by Abbas — whose forces were defeated by Hamas in 2007 — in hopes of solving the cash crisis. Yet disputes prevented the government from taking control in Gaza.

Since May, Hamas, which is believed to receive aid from Iran, has stepped up its hunt for new revenues.

It has imposed new import fees on goods entering Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel, including a 25 percent custom on cars.

Ziad Zaza, a former Hamas finance minister, said Abbas’ government in the West Bank earns about $80 million a month in customs from the crossing — money Hamas feels should flow into its coffers.

Gaza traders, already paying 50 percent in car customs to Abbas, had to comply after Hamas held up 265 cars at the crossing. Ismail Abu Nakhala of the importers’ association said Hamas stands to make almost $1 million a month from the new fees.

Gaza City car dealer Alaa Badwan expects a drop in business since retail prices are bound to rise. “In this situation (in Gaza), there is no room for additional taxes,” he said.

Half the work force is unemployed. It doesn’t help that large firms and other potential employers are often hampered by politics.

Hamas demands taxes from large West Bank-based firms with branches in Gaza, such as telecoms operator Jawwal. Company officials have said they’ve been asked by the Abbas government not to pay taxes to Hamas.

Last week, the attorney general in Gaza threatened to shut down the main Jawwal service center in Gaza over the tax dispute. On Tuesday, the center was closed, with Hamas police posted outside and a sign saying the closure was ordered by the attorney general.

Despite rising prices and potential backlash from higher taxes, a former Hamas official said the group has to raise money to provide services in Gaza, including security.

“We collect the minimum to survive,” former official Ahmed Yousef said. Zaza mainly blamed price hikes on Gaza’s involuntary switch from cheap Egyptian fuel smuggled through tunnels to pricier Israeli gas.

Market vendor Abu Maher Mourtaga said business is down because of the double burden of rising prices and a drop in purchasing power. At his stall, the price of nuts is up 50 percent from last year, now $15 a kilogram (about $6.80 a pound). A five kilogram (11 pound) box of dates is now $16, compared to $13 a year ago.

A June poll by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research reflected growing frustration. Fifty percent of Gaza residents are considering emigration, up five points from previous surveys, and 63 percent are dissatisfied with the results of war, said the survey among 1,200 people with an error margin of 3 percentage points.

During the 50 days of fighting, which began July 8, Israel launched more than 6,000 airstrikes against Gaza, while Hamas fired more than 6,600 rockets and mortars at Israel.

The war killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and damaged or destroyed 141,000 homes, according to U.N. figures. Israel counted 73 deaths, including six civilians

A recent U.N. investigation concluded there’s suspicion both sides committed war crimes, pointing to indiscriminate Gaza rocket attacks on Israel and heavy Israeli firepower used in densely populated Gaza areas.

United Nations officials say the pace of reconstruction is too slow, with no homes being rebuilt from the ground up yet. Roberto Valent, local head of the U.N. Development Program, blamed the slow flow of foreign aid and curbs on building material imports dictated by Israeli security concerns.

Tens of thousands are still displaced, while others live in damaged apartments.

“Siege is siege and nothing has changed,” said Fadi Jundia, 29, who lives with 12 people on the damaged ground floor of his family home in Gaza City, after the upper floors were destroyed by shelling. “We went back 100 years.”

Some make a meager living from the rubble, with less than half of the 2 million tons of war debris removed so far. Maisera Khouli, 24, collects rubble with his donkey cart, selling each of his three or four daily loads for $1.25. With food for the donkey costing $2.50 a day, there’s little left over. Khouli said he’d gladly leave Gaza for a decent job.

What construction there is eases public pressure on Hamas.

A new housing complex being built on former Jewish settlement lands is funded by Qatar, the biggest foreign donor to Gaza. Qatar is supervising the $140 million project directly, rather than going through Hamas. Still, the construction of 3,600 apartments — along with two four-lane highways Qatar is paving — creates jobs and meets local needs.

While many are struggling, Hamas takes care of its own businesses.

Its Al Aqsa TV station, destroyed by an Israeli strike, was swiftly rebuilt for $600,000. Bardawil, the Hamas spokesman and head of the station, said Al Aqsa even managed to produce a 30-part series, “Freedom Fighter,” for $100,000 in time for the holy month of Ramadan, when families watch TV serials together after breaking their daily dawn-to-dusk fast.

As in previous crises, the militants’ strategy is to survive day to day and wait for a regional re-alignment that could ease its isolation. One analyst warned another war could easily erupt because restrictions on Gaza have not been lifted since Hamas gambled on war in 2014 as a way to break the border blockade.

“At present, the main actors, Hamas and Israel, don’t want another war,” said Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group think tank. “(But) in a year or two years, all policies are pushing Gaza to another war.”

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Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report. In this June 17, 2015 photo, Palestinian girls are seen reflected in a mirror as they walk next to rubble in the area where they live with family after losing their house in Gaza City. A year after the most destructive war in Gaza yet, Hamas remains in control, despite signs of mounting frustration and a poll indicating half the residents would emigrate if borders were open. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Recaptured killer: Escapees were headed to Mexico

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —-   ALBANY, N.Y. — Recaptured killer David Sweat told authorities that he and Richard Matt had planned to flee to Mexico in the hours after their spectacular escape from prison three weeks ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

The plan apparently went awry when Joyce Mitchell, the 51-year-old manager of the prison tailor shop, abandoned a plan to drive off with them, Cuomo told The Capitol Pressroom, a local radio show here.

“They would kill Mitchell’s husband, then get in the car and drive to Mexico on the theory that Mitchell was in love with one or both of them,” Cuomo told the Pressroom. “Then they would go live happily after after, which is a fairy tale that I wasn’t read as a child.

“But we all believe what we want to believe.”

Sweat’s condition was upgraded to serious from critical Monday, one day after being shot and captured near the tiny town of Constable, less than two miles from the Canadian border. He was unarmed.

Matt, 49, was fatally shot by U.S. Border Patrol officers Friday. He was armed with a stolen .20-gauge shotgun.

Matt had fled to Mexico after he killed and dismembered his former boss in 1997, and he served time in a Mexican jail for killing a man in a bar fight.

When Mitchell did not show, Sweat told investigators, the men decided to head for Canada. Cuomo said the 35-year-old Sweat told authorities the two escapees split up about five days ago.

“Sweat felt that Matt was slowing him down, as a matter of fact,” Cuomo told Pressroom.

State Trooper Jay Cook spotted Sweat walking down a road Sunday, chased him on foot and finally shot Sweat twice as he approached a tree line, authorities say. Cuomo has dubbed the 21-year veteran officer a “hero,” saying Sweat could have disappeared into the woods and then into Canada if Cook had not acted.

Cuomo told CNN that Sweat was carrying a bag with maps, Pop Tarts, bug repellent and other items. He said an investigation was underway to determine how he obtained the items and who else may have aided the escape.

Sweat was initially rushed to a hospital in nearby Malone, then airlifted to Albany Medical Center, about 200 miles away.

“It was determined by our trauma team that he did not require any surgeries,” the center said in a statement. “David Sweat will remain at Albany Medical Center for at least a few days while his condition stabilizes.”

He is under 24-hour armed guard.

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said Sweat would be charged with escape, burglary and other charges once his condition improves. He had been serving a life sentence without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy in Broome County in 2002.

Cuomo rejected claims that the Clinton Corrections Facility in Dannemora had become a “country club” for inmates. The men had privileges that helped facilitate their escape.

“This is the prison they were threatening the other inmates in the rest of the system with,” he told Pressroom. “If you didn’t behave you go to Dannemora. Dannemora had a reputation as the toughest prison in the system. It was no country club.”

The June 6 escape of Matt, and Sweat sparked a massive manhunt that drew up to 1,500 law-enforcement officials to the rugged, rural terrain of Northern New York.

Mitchell was arrested days after the escape, accused of providing the inmates with hacksaw blades and screwdriver bits she hid in frozen ground beef. She told authorities she had agreed to meet them outside the prison with a car, but that she changed her mind.

She also said the men had planned to kill her husband, Lyle, who claims to have had no knowledge of the planned escape.

A prison guard, 53-year-old Gene Palmer, is also facing charges of doing favors for Matt and Sweat — including passing the tool-stuffed meat — in exchange for artwork and information on other inmates. He appeared in Plattsburgh court Monday and remains free on bond.

He faces a maximum sentence of 2 to 7 years if convicted of felony promoting prison contraband and up to 4 years for felony tampering with evidence.

“If you help a convict escape, you will become a convict,” Cuomo said. “I want to make that point clear.”

But Sweat has told investigators Palmer was not involved with the breakout, Wylie said Monday.

Palmer has worked at the Dannemora prison for 27 years, the past eight on the “honor” cellblock where Matt and Sweat had privileges such as cooking and wearing street clothes. He has been suspended without pay from his $72,000-a-year job.

Business: European stocks fall again on Greece crisis, Asia rebounds

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TOKYO (AP) — Asian stock markets bounced back Tuesday, recouping some of the previous day’s sharp fall, but European indexes widened their losses as investors fretted the debt crisis in Greece could spread to other countries in the region.

France’s CAC 40 dipped 0.9 percent to 4,827.71 and Germany’s DAX fell 0.8 percent to 10,999.94. Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 0.6 percent to 6,581.66. U.S. shares were set to rebound moderately. Dow futures were up 0.2 percent and S&P 500 futures up 0.3 percent.

Investors were concerned that the crisis in cash-strapped Greece could spread to other euro countries that are struggling with high debt and austerity policies or to developing nations in Asia and South America.

A series of events over the weekend has left Greece perilously close to defaulting on its debts. Greek leaders pulled out of talks with creditors that include European nations and the International Monetary Fund and called a referendum that’s likely to determine if Greece stays in the euro common currency.

In the vote set for Sunday, the government is urging Greeks to vote against its creditors’ proposals, arguing that they are humiliating and that they would prolong the country’s financial woes.

“Greece and the outcomes of a rejection of austerity have always been a known unknown, but the timing and sheer defiance from the Greeks have startled markets,” said Chris Weston, chief strategist at IG, in a market commentary. “Traders have been smacked into action and a real wake-up call has been provided.”

In Asia, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 gained 0.6 percent to 20,235.73 after dropping to its lowest point for the year Monday. South Korea’s Kospi was up 0.7 percent to 2,074.20. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 1.1 percent to 26,250.03. China’s Shanghai Composite jumped 5.5 percent to 4,277.22 while Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 was up 0.7 percent at 5,459.00.

In currency trading, the euro dropped to $1.1161 from $1.1216 on Monday. The dollar fell to 122.15 yen from 122.62 yen.

“Most traders are well prepped over the possible fallout of Greece. It’s guessing which card will fall next that’s the difficult bit,” said Nicholas Teo, analyst at CMC Markets in Singapore. “The Brazilian real was knocked back hard these past days as have the Turkish lira and most other emerging Asian currencies. These associations are made to Greece as they fall under the labeling of global emerging markets.”

Investors fled from stocks worldwide on Monday and retreated to the safety of government bonds.

U.S. stocks had their worst day of the year. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 43.85 points, or 2.1 percent, to 2,057.64. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 350.33 points, or 2 percent, to 17,596.35, and the Nasdaq composite fell 122.04 points, or 2.4 percent, to 4,958.47. The losses wiped out all the gains for the Dow and S&P 500 indexes this year.

Over the weekend, the European Central Bank refused to extend its emergency support for Greece’s banking system. That prompted the Greek government to close banks and announce limits on withdrawals. Pictures of long lines at bank machines in Athens appeared on television screens around the world.

In energy markets, benchmark U.S. crude was up 13 cents at $58.45 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract dropped $1.30 to close at $58.33 in Nymex floor trading on Monday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, gained 39 cents at $62.40 a barrel in London.

 

NY Prison Break: Troopers hunting escapees scrambled to save 1 they captured

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MALONE, N.Y. (AP) — Some of the same state troopers who spent three weeks hunting down two escaped killers found themselves scrambling to get the lone survivor to a hospital, hoping to make him well enough to share the tale of how the pair managed to escape and stay on the run for so long.

David Sweat, 35, was shot and captured Sunday afternoon when a single state police sergeant spotted a suspicious man walking on a rural road in Constable, near the Canadian border. He was in critical condition at an Albany hospital Sunday night.

His capture came two days after his fellow escapee, Richard Matt, was killed in a confrontation with law enforcement while holding a shotgun. Sweat was unarmed when he was shot twice by Sgt. Jay Cook as the fugitive ran for a tree line.

The men had been on the loose since June 6, when they cut their way out of a maximum-security prison about 30 miles away using power tools. Two prison workers have been charged with helping them.

Clinton correction officer Gene Palmer, charged with promoting prison contraband, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct, is due in court Monday. His attorney has said he will plead not guilty.

Officials said Palmer gave the two prisoners frozen hamburger meat that a prison tailoring shop instructor had used to hide the tools she smuggled to Sweat and Matt. Palmer’s attorney said he had no knowledge that the meat contained hacksaw blades, a bit and a screwdriver.

Prosecutors said the tailor shop worker, Joyce Mitchell, got close to the men while working with them and had agreed to be their getaway driver but backed out because she felt guilty for participating in the escape. Authorities also said Mitchell had discussed killing her husband as part of the plot.

Mitchell pleaded not guilty June 15 to charges including felony promoting prison contraband.

Sweat’s capture ended an ordeal that sent 1,300 law enforcement officers into the thickly forested northern reaches of New York and forced residents to tolerate nerve-wracking armed checkpoints and property searches.

“The nightmare is finally over,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared at a news conference.

Cook, a 21-year veteran, was alone and on routine patrol when he stumbled upon Sweat in Constable, about 30 miles northwest of the prison. He gave chase when Sweat fled and decided to fire fearing he would lose Sweat in the trees, state police said.

“I can only assume he was going for the border,” Superintendent Joseph D’Amico said.

D’Amico said the men may have used black pepper to throw off their scent from the dogs that were tracking them; he said Sweat’s DNA was recovered from pepper shakers found at one camp where the fugitives may have spent time.

Cuomo said many questions remained unanswered in the case, including whether the inmates had other accomplices.

“We have already started a full investigation,” he said. “But today ends with good news. These were dangerous, dangerous men.”

Sweat had not been formally interviewed by investigators as of late Sunday, but any information he provides could be critical to the investigation, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said.

Sweat will be charged with escape, burglary and other charges, Wylie said. He and Matt are suspected of breaking into some of the region’s many cabins during their time on the lam. Wylie said prosecutors would wait for Sweat to recover before charging him.

Matt, 49, and Sweat used power tools to saw through a steel cell wall and several steel steam pipes, bashed a hole through a 2-foot-thick brick wall, squirmed through pipes and emerged from a manhole outside the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

Sweat was serving a sentence of life without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy in Broome County in 2002. Matt was serving 25 years to life for the killing and dismembering of his former boss.

Authorities said the men had filled their beds in their adjacent cells with clothes to make it appear they were sleeping when guards made overnight rounds. On a cut steam pipe, the prisoners left a taunting note containing a crude caricature of an Asian face and the words “Have a nice day.”

Prosecutors said the inmates apparently used tools stored by prison contractors, taking care to return them to their toolboxes after each night’s work.

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Associated Press writers Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, and Deepti Hajela in New York City contributed to this report. Police stand over David Sweat after he was shot and captured near the Canadian border Sunday, June 28, 2015, in Constable, N.Y. Sweat is the second of two convicted murderers who staged a brazen escape three weeks ago from a maximum-security prison in northern New York. His capture came two days after his escape partner, Richard Matt, was shot and killed by authorities. (AP Photo)

A look at Greece’s lockdown on money withdrawals, transfers

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece has imposed restrictions on money withdrawals and banking transactions to keep its financial system from collapsing due to a run on the banks.

Anxious Greeks rushed to ATMs to withdraw cash after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called late Friday for a referendum on the creditors’ reform proposals.

Here is a look at what Greece’s so-called capital controls entail.

—Banks will remain closed from Monday until at least next Monday, July 6, the day after the referendum.

—Cash withdrawals from ATMs will have a daily limit of 60 euros ($67) per card.

—Credit and debit card transactions within the country will not be limited. In practice, however, many retailers were already not accepting card transactions as of Monday morning, and were demanding cash payments only.

—Internet and phone banking within the country will have no restrictions, but no money can be transferred out of the country.

—For emergency needs, such as importing medicines or sending remittances abroad, the Greek Treasury will create a Banking Transactions Approval Committee to examine requests on a case-by-case basis.

—Foreign bank cards, whether debit or credit, will not be affected and tourists will be able to withdraw the full amounts their own banks allow them to.

\Banks and ATM machines were shut throughout Greece on Monday, the first day of capital controls announced by the government in a dramatic twist in the country’s five-year financial saga.

Despite the closures, pensioners lined up just after dawn at bank branches hoping they would be able to receive their pensions, which were due to be paid Monday. The finance ministry said the manner in which pensions would be disbursed would be announced later in the afternoon.

The bank closures came after Greeks rushed to ATMs over the weekend to withdraw money following Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ surprise call for a referendum on creditor proposals for the reforms Greece should take to gain access to blocked bailout funds.

The referendum has been set for Sunday, and the government has been advocating Greeks vote against the proposals.

The capital controls are meant to staunch the flow of money out of Greek banks and spur the country’s creditors to offer concessions before Greece’s international bailout program expires Tuesday.

Once that happens, Greece loses access to the remaining 7.2 billion euros ($8.1 billion) of rescue loans, and is unlikely to be able to meet a 1.6 billion-euro debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund due the same day.

The accelerating crisis has thrown into question Greece’s financial future and continued membership in the 19-nation shared euro currency — and even the European Union.

Asian stock markets sank with indexes in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sydney down more than 2 percent. Oil prices and the euro also fell. The Athens Stock Exchange remained closed.

The European Union’s executive Commission, which enforces the bloc’s laws, said the imposition of capital controls was “prima facie, justified.”

Jonathan Hill, the Commission’s top official responsible for financial stability, added that the free movement of capital should be restored as quickly as possible and that the Commission would monitor the way any restrictions are imposed.

Overnight, massive queues formed at gas stations, with worried motorists seeking to fill up their tanks and pay with credit cards while they were still being accepted.

The government announced bank transaction restrictions late Sunday night, limiting daily withdrawals to 60 euros ($67) per person per ATM card. Automatic teller machines were expected to reopen later Monday, while banks would remain shut for at least six days.

Although credit and cash card transactions have not been restricted, in practice most retailers were not accepting card transactions Monday morning.

Many of Greece’s retirees don’t have bank cards and collect their pensions directly from the bank tellers. Long lines of elderly Greeks formed at neighborhood bank branches, despite them being told the banks would not open for the day.

Deputy Minister of State Terence Quick said special arrangements would be made for pensions. Speaking on private Antenna television, he said retirees would be allowed to access their full pensions in cash due to the fact that many don’t have bank cards.

Under the bank transaction restrictions, electronic transfers and bill payments are allowed, but only within the country. The government also stressed the controls would not affect foreign tourists, who would have no limits on cash withdrawals with foreign bank cards.

For emergency needs, such as importing medicines or sending remittances abroad, the Greek Treasury was creating a Banking Transactions Approval Committee to examine requests on a case-by-case basis.

Tsipras announced the capital controls in a televised address Sunday night, blaming the Eurogroup, the gathering of the eurozone’s finance ministers, and its decision to reject an extension request for the bailout program, which expires June 30. He again asked for it to be extended by a few days to allow for the referendum.

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said talks with Greece could resume at any time, while Pierre Moscovici, the European commissioner for economic affairs, said negotiations were cut off when an agreement seemed within reach.

The situation now largely rests on a ‘yes’ vote in Greece, Moscovici said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was to make a statement on Greece at midday.

The referendum decision, ratified by Parliament after a marathon 13-hour session that ended in the early hours of Sunday, shocked and angered Greece’s European partners. The country’s negotiations with its European creditors have been suspended, with both sides accusing each other of being responsible for talks breaking off.

Tsipras also blamed the European Central Bank’s Sunday decision not to increase the amount of emergency liquidity the lenders could access from the central bank — meaning Greece has no way to replenish fast-diminishing deposits.

“It is now more than clear that this decision has no other aim than to blackmail the will of the Greek people and prevent the smooth democratic process of the referendum,” Tsipras said. “They will not succeed.”

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A broker gestures as he looks at a screen at the Stock Exchange in Madrid, Monday, June 29, 2015. Spain’s economy minister has said a Greek debt deal is still reachable before a deadline on the nation’s credit from the European Central Bank runs out at midnight Tuesday. Spain’s benchmark Ibex stock index slid nearly 4 percent Monday morning. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Sputtering start to US military’s training of Syrian rebels

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.

The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said last week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

On June 26, 2014, the White House said it was asking Congress for $500 million for a three-year train-and-equip program. It only got started in May, however.

That program, together with a more advanced but also troubled parallel effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, is central to the U.S.-led effort to create ground forces capable of fighting IS without involving U.S. ground combat troops.

The Syria initiative is seen more as a way of enabling moderate opposition forces to defend their own towns against the militants. Expectations for the Iraqis are much higher; the goal is to have them roll back IS and restore the Iraq-Syria border.

The main problem thus far has been finding enough Syrian recruits untainted by extremist affiliations or disqualified by physical or other flaws. Of approximately 6,000 volunteers, about 1,500 have passed muster and await movement to training camps in other countries. Citing security concerns, the Pentagon will not say exactly how many are in training. Officials said that as of Friday, the number was under 100 and that none has completed the program.

“We have set the bar very high on vetting,” said Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, the Central Command special operations commander who is heading the program, wants volunteers with more than a will to fight.

“We are trying to recruit and identify people who … can be counted on … to fight, to have the right mindset and ideology,” and at the same time be willing to make combating IS their first priority, Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the House Armed Services Committee on June 17.

“It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria,” Carter said.

Many Syrian rebel volunteers prefer to use their training to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, the original target of their revolution. While IS has been a brutal occupant of much of their country, the rebels see the extremists as fighting a parallel war.

The screening does not end with their preferred target. Dozens who were initially accepted have been sent home during training or quit because of revelations about their background or other problems, according to two senior U.S. defense officials. They were not authorized to discuss details and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, doubts the viability of the training program.

“It is simply difficult to acquire the number of Syrian rebels willing to participate in the training under current parameters,” she said.

Abdul-Jabbar Abu Thabet, commander of Aleppo Swords Battalion, a moderate faction that is fighting both Assad’s forces and IS, said he believes the Americans are more interested in recruiting Syrian army defectors than moderate rebels.

He said he would no longer give Americans the names of training candidates from his group, after having done so once and not receiving a U.S. response.

“The Americans are saying they want to train rebels to fight against Daesh only,” he said by telephone from northern Syria, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “The fighting should be against Daesh, the (Assad) regime and everyone who is against the revolution.”

The Pentagon announced in May that it had begun training 90 recruits in Jordan, but it has refused to give details. Defense officials, however, said last week that training also is underway in Turkey. Eventually it is to be expanded to bases in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Each trainee is receiving a U.S. stipend of between $250 and $400 a month, with the amount set by their skill level, performance and leadership role, said a Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith.

The Pentagon also is wrestling with how to support those who complete the training and are sent back into Syria. Also, there are questions about how to avoid having their U.S.-supplied arms fall into the wrong hands inside Syria.

“So these constraints that we put on ourselves, which are perfectly understandable, do progressively limit the number of inductees into the program,” Carter told Congress. “And that’s proving the thing that limits the growth of the program.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the same House hearing that “within the next couple of months” the administration will have to decide what kinds of post-training support the Syrian rebels will receive. He said the Pentagon is considering several forms, including intelligence, communications, logistics and battlefield airpower.

U.S. officials have pointed to the Syrian Kurds’ successes in the north as an example of what U.S. airpower can enable when coupled with a credible, reliable ground force. But it does not answer the question posed by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., to Dempsey.

When she asked him whether the rebel training program is worth continuing, he offered something less than a ringing endorsement.

“It’s a little too soon to give up on it,” Dempsey said.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report. FILE – In this Dec. 17, 2012, file photo, Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan near Idlib, Syria. Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year. The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said this past week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

Business: Global stocks sink after Greece closes banks

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BEIJING (AP) — Global stock markets sank Monday after Greece closed its banks and imposed capital controls in a dramatic turn in its struggle with heavy debts.

Oil prices declined and the euro edged down after Athens announced the moves to stanch the flow of money out of Greek banks and pressure creditors to offer concessions before a bailout program expires Tuesday.

Germany’s DAX index tumbled 2.9 percent to 11,161.41 points in early trading and France’s CAC-40 dived 3.4 percent to 4,887.69. Britain’s FTSE 100 dropped 1.6 percent to 6,643.83. Futures augured losses on Wall Street. Dow futures were down 1.1 percent at 17,677.00. S&P 500 futures shed 1.1 percent to 2,073.00.

Greece’s Cabinet closed banks for six business days and restricted cash withdrawals. The Athens Stock Exchange was due to be closed Monday. That follows Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ weekend decision to call a referendum on European and International Monetary Fund proposals for Greek reforms in return for bailout funds.

The accelerating crisis has raised questions about whether Greece might withdraw from the 19-nation euro currency, a move dubbed Grexit.

“Even if a deal is somehow reached, the ability of Greece to implement agreed reforms is doubtful,” said IHS Global Insight economist Rajiv Biswas in a report.

Greek withdrawal from the euro could lower Asian economic growth by 0.3 percentage points next year due to disruption in trade and financial markets, Biswas said.

In Asia, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 3.3 percent to 4,053.03 despite China’s surprise weekend interest rate cut. Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 shed 2.9 percent to 20,109.95.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell 2.6 percent to 25,966.98 and Sydney’s S&P/ASX 200 was off 2.2 percent at 5,422.50. Seoul’s Kospi dropped 1.4 percent to 2,060.49 and India’s Sensex declined 1.5 percent to 27,385.05.

The euro slipped to $1.1066 from the previous session’s $1.1168. The dollar declined to 122.96 yen from 123.89 yen.

Globally, Greece’s brinksmanship with its creditors is unlikely to have the impact of the financial panic set off by the collapse of Lehman Bros. in September 2008, economists said.

“Today, the European banks have shed much of their Greek debt and they have significantly increased their capital,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“A Greek default and exit from the euro zone would be devastating to Greece’s economy, but no one else’s,” said Zandi. “So, the Greek standoff will be disconcerting to financial markets, but only temporarily.”

The European Central Bank has vowed to do whatever it takes to prevent a financial panic.

The ECB is committed to buying 60 billion euros a month in bonds to push down interest rates and help economies that use the euro. It could buy more and flood financial markets with cash to calm jittery investors.

“They stand ready to do whatever it takes,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

China’s rate cut, the fourth since November, appeared to be aimed at reassuring investors after a plunge in share prices last week, rather than boosting economic growth, analysts said.

Beijing cut its benchmark lending rate by 0.25 percentage point and freed up money for lending by lowering the reserves banks are required to hold.

The timing is “rather market-friendly” and appears to be meant to “provide a support to the market sentiment,” said Credit Suisse economists Dong Tao and Weishen Deng in a report.

In energy markets, U.S. benchmark crude declined $1.11 to $58.52 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract shed 7 cents in the previous session to close at $59.63. Brent crude, used to price international oils, shed $1.24 cents to $62.02 in London.

Wiseman reported from Washington, D.C.

 

Analysis: Time to change the subject in America’s health care debate?

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The country finally has an opportunity to change the subject on health care, after the Supreme Court again upheld President Barack Obama’s law.

There’s no shortage of pressing issues, including prescription drug prices, high insurance deductibles and long-term care.

But moving on will take time, partly because many Republicans want another chance to repeal the Affordable Care Act if they win the White House and both chambers of Congress next year.

Also, it’s difficult to start new conversations when political divisions are so raw, and there’s a big disconnect between what people perceive as problems and the priorities of policymakers, business and the health care industry.

Democrats say a change in focus is long overdue.

“I do think the energy has already shifted,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a think tank often aligned with the White House. “It would be great if the health care conversation moves to where people are, not relitigating these insurance issues.”

Wishful thinking, say Republicans.

“The politics of this has gotten so unpleasant that we’re locked into ‘repeal-and-replace’ for the next year and a half,” said lobbyist Tom Scully, who ran Medicare in President George W. Bush’s administration. “It may not be great for America, but that’s the reality.”

Scully says Republicans may be able to make substantial changes but not repeal Obama’s law entirely.

What would a different health care conversation sound like? Some possibilities:

PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICES

Nearly three-quarters of the general public see prescription drug costs as unreasonable, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. That concern seems to be driven by new breakthrough drugs that can cost $100,000 a year and even more. Last year it was Sovaldi, a cure for liver-wasting hepatitis C infection. Next it could be skin cancer drugs in the approval pipeline.

Economist Len Nichols of George Mason University in Virginia says the cost of new medications is “unsustainable,” but government price controls could stifle innovation.

Most patients are not exposed to those excruciating cost pressures because the vast majority of prescriptions are for lower-priced generic drugs. Overall, only 1 in 5 people taking prescription drugs say it is difficult to afford their own medications, the same survey found.

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HIGH INSURANCE COSTS

The value of a health insurance card is being eroded as employers and insurers impose higher deductibles, copayments and other cost-sharing on top of premiums.

“When people ask me what is the No. 1 change I want to make in the Affordable Care Act, my answer is that it’s not affordable enough,” said John McDonough, a former Democratic Senate aide who helped steer the health law to passage. “Moving forward, one of the challenges is how we’re going to address this new world of cost sharing.”

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GETTING EVERYONE COVERED

When the health care law passed, a little more than 80 percent of people under 65 — the age to qualify for Medicare — had health insurance. That share is now up to around 90 percent, largely the result of the law.

Yet covering the remaining uninsured will be a challenge. Much depends on some 20 states — mainly GOP-led — that have not accepted the health care law’s Medicaid expansion. The ruling may budge a couple, but probably not Texas, the biggest prize.

“The people who are going without coverage in states whose leaders are denying them a chance to get Medicaid are pawns in a political game,” said former California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the main authors of the health law.

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LONG-TERM CARE

Economist Gail Wilensky, an adviser to Republicans, says the patchwork system for caring for frail older people and the disabled “is an issue that isn’t going away.” She’s involved with an informal discussion group that spans the political spectrum, looking for long-term care ideas that might find support. It could take years.

“I don’t see any stomach for taking on these issues post-King v. Burwell,” she said, referring to the name of the Supreme Court case decided this past week. “People are going to need time.”

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PAYING FOR QUALITY AND EFFICIENCY

Revamping the way hospitals and doctors are paid for their services is the top issue for employers, insurers and government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. Everyone wants to get away from compensating providers on a piecemeal basis for the sheer volume of services. But defining what constitutes quality care turns out to be not so easy, and it’s unclear whether the new approaches will produce significant savings.

Look for these changes to continue at full speed, aided by the spread of computerized medical records and increasingly sophisticated data analysis.

There could be a downside, says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. “You’re getting hospitals merging, and they are becoming mega-operations,” she said. “Small doctors’ groups feel like they are just being swallowed up.”

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CONTROLLING COSTS

When all is said and done, the U.S. still spends too much for health care. After a lull the last few years, spending is expected to pick up again. The government has its fingers in practically every pot, with a jumble of laws and regulations that create conflicting incentives, said economist Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan public policy center.

“We’ve got multiple and largely uncoordinated subsidies and rules,” said Steuerle. “On the cost side, what I see is more and more efforts to put budget constraints on the system.”

Nuke talks to miss target; Iran foreign minister heads home

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VIENNA (AP) — A senior U.S. official acknowledged Sunday that Iran nuclear talks will go past their June 30 target date, as Iran’s foreign minister prepared to head home Sunday for consultations before returning to push for a breakthrough.

Iranian media said Mohammed Javad Zarif’s trip was planned in advance. Still, the fact that he was leaving the talks so close to the Tuesday deadline reflected his need to get instructions on how to proceed on issues where the sides remain apart — among them how much access Tehran should give to U.N. experts monitoring his country’s compliance to any deal.

The United States insists on more intrusive access than Iran is ready to give. With these and other disputes still unresolved the likelihood that the Tuesday target deadline for an Iran nuclear deal could slip was increasingly growing even before the U.S. confirmation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Vienna for their third encounter since Saturday. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius are also in Vienna, and their Russian and British counterparts were to join later. China was sending a deputy foreign minister in a building diplomatic effort to wrap up the negotiations.

For weeks, all seven nations at the negotiating table insisted that Tuesday remains the formal deadline for a deal. But with time running out, a senior U.S. official acknowledged that was unrealistic.

“Given the dates, and that we have some work to do … the parties are planning to remain in Vienna beyond June 30 to continue working,” said the official, who demanded anonymity in line with State Department practice.

Asked about the chances for a deal, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, told reporters: “It’s going to be tough … but not impossible.”

Steinmeier avoided reporters but told German media earlier: “I am convinced that if there is no agreement, everyone loses.”

“Iran would remain isolated. A new arms race in a region that is already riven by conflict could be the dramatic consequence.”

Both sides recognize that there is leeway to extend to July 9. As part of an agreement with the U.S. Congress, lawmakers then have 30 days to review the deal before suspending congressional sanctions.

But postponement beyond that would double the congressional review period to 60 days, giving both Iranian and U.S. critics more time to work on undermining an agreement.

Arguing for more time to allow the U.S. to drive a harder bargain, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a fierce opponent of the talks — weighed in on Sunday against “this bad agreement, which is becoming worse by the day.”

“It is still not too late to go back and insist on demands that will genuinely deny Iran the ability to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” he said.

The goal of the talks involving Iran and the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia is a deal that would crimp Tehran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief. Iran insists it does not want such arms but is bargaining in exchange for sanctions relief

On Saturday, diplomats told The Associated Press that Iran was considering a U.S.-backed plan for it to send enriched uranium to another country for sale as reactor fuel, a step that would resolve one of several outstanding issues.

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Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, arrives at the Palais Coburg where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Officers use floodlights, checkpoints in hunt for escapee

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MALONE, N.Y. (AP) — Officers scouring dense and boggy woods for a surviving escaped killer took floodlights into the search area overnight, and others carrying rifles manned checkpoints and examined vehicles, opening trunks and peering into windows.

Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said late Saturday tips continued to pour in and he was optimistic David Sweat would be captured, perhaps within 48 hours.

“It’s going to be one of those phone calls that turns this case around,” he said.

Richard Matt — who once vowed never to be taken alive — was fatally shot Friday during an encounter with border patrol agents about 30 miles west of the prison he escaped from with Sweat on June 6. Sweat remained on the lam early Sunday, and about 1,200 searchers focused intensely on 22 square miles encompassing thick forests and heavy brush around where Matt was killed.

Police hoped the solo escapee would finally succumb to the stress of little sleep, scant food and biting bugs.

“Anyone in the woods and on the run from the law so to speak is not getting a full eight hours sleep, they’re not eating well and they have to keep moving,” Mulverhill said. “He’s fatigued, tired, and he’s going to make a mistake.”

Sweat could have an even tougher time now without someone to take turns resting with and to watch his back, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said.

“Now it’s a one-man show and it makes it more difficult for him,” Favro said. “And I’m sure fatigue is setting in for him as well, knowing the guy he was with has already been shot.”

The manhunt broke open Friday afternoon when a person towing a camper heard a loud noise and thought a tire had blown. Finding there was no flat, the driver drove eight miles before looking again and finding a bullet hole in the trailer. A tactical team responding to the scene of the shot smelled gunpowder inside a cabin and saw evidence that someone had fled out the back door.

A noise — perhaps a cough — ultimately did Matt in. A border patrol team discovered Matt, who was shot after failing to heed a command to raise his hands.

Matt had a 20-gauge shotgun that was believed to have been taken from another cabin. The pair had apparently been relying on the remote region’s many hunting camps and seasonal dwellings for supplies.

Matt, who turned 49 the day before he died, was serving 25 years to life at Clinton Correctional Facility for the killing and dismemberment of his former boss. Local residents were relieved that one killer was no longer roaming the woods, but the constant commotion of speeding police cruisers and helicopters pointed to the continued danger.

“Half the threat is taken care of, but obviously David Sweat is on the loose,” said Matt Maguire, who was waiting for a police escort to pick up some clothes from his house inside the search area. Maguire and his fiancee decided a week ago to stay with nearby relatives.

Sweat, 35, was serving a sentence of life without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy in Broome County in 2002. Mulverhill said investigators believe he may be armed.

Matt and Sweat used power tools to saw through a steel cell wall and several steel steam pipes, bashed a hole through a 2-foot-thick brick wall, squirmed through pipes and emerged from a manhole outside the prison.

While there have been no confirmed sightings of Sweat, police said investigators saw a second set of tracks near where Matt was shot.

Ultimately, how the chase ends is up to Sweat, Mulverhill said.

“If he’s willing to surrender to law enforcement then we’ll place him in handcuffs and we’ll bring him back into custody,” he said.

“If he chooses to resist or he chooses not to comply, then the results are his.”

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Associated Press writers Jim Fitzgerald in New York City and Michael Hill in Albany, New York, contributed to this report. A corrections officer holds a gun at a roadblock on Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Malone, N.Y. The shooting death of Richard Matt, one escaped killer brought new energy to the three-week hunt for David Sweat, a second escaped murderer in the United States as helicopters, search dogs and hundreds of law enforcement officers converged on a wooded area 30 miles from Clinton Correctional Facility. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Some gay marriage opponents balk, while couples rush to wed

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CINCINNATI (AP) — With the mayor of Dayton declaring “you are now husband and husband,” the wait for Ohio to allow same-sex marriage ended for a gay couple in the city just as it is ending for couples across the last states with bans on such unions — even if the opposition isn’t over.

Some couples rushed to marriage license bureaus and even wed Friday within hours of the Supreme Court ruling that said gay couples can marry anywhere in the country including in the 14 remaining states with bans. Steadfast activists who say traditional marriage is defined as a man and a woman vowed to defend rights of religious objectors and to try to battle back politically.

There were also scattered holdouts, with some officials in those states contending they needed more time and legal direction before complying with the 5-4 ruling.

“Texans’ fundamental right to religious liberty remains protected,” Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said. “No Texan is required by the Supreme Court’s decision to act contrary to his or her religious beliefs regarding marriage.”

His office later clarified a directive to state agencies telling them to preserve religious liberties, saying the order didn’t allow them to discriminate against employees in same-sex couples. Same-sex couples got marriage licenses Friday in Dallas, Austin and the state’s other big cities, but many counties were holding off after the Texas attorney general urged them not to rush. A couple counties claimed technical glitches prevented them from processing licenses for gay couples.

Governors in Louisiana and Mississippi also railed against the ruling.

“This has always been about our religious freedoms and the persecution of those who believe same-sex unions are wrong,” said Phil Burress, longtime leader of the Citizens for Community Values in suburban Cincinnati. “Now the persecutions will begin.”

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati said the high court disregarded the will of voters in Ohio and other states, besides disregarding an understanding of marriage shared by virtually all cultures until recently.

“Every nation has laws limiting who and under what circumstances people can be married,” Archbishop Dennis Schnurr said in a statement.

Religious organizations are exempt from the ruling, and churches including Southern Baptists, Mormons and others that oppose same-sex marriages can still make their own decisions about whether clergy will conduct gay marriages in their places of worship.

The high court gave the losing side some three weeks to ask for reconsideration. The 14 states that had banned gay marriage are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, most of Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, where some counties have continued to refuse to comply with federal rulings that gay couples could marry, the attorney general and Gov. Sam Brownback said they would study the Supreme Court ruling further before making any moves in a lawsuit over the state’s voter-passed ban. An ACLU official said the state leaders should “admit defeat.”

Officials at the county courthouse in Toledo, Ohio, called in another minister to perform same-sex marriages Friday because the rotating minister on duty wouldn’t marry gay couples, said the Rev. Sandra Frost, who married the first couple around noon.

Some county clerks in other states refused gay couples, citing a three-week grace period allowed by the Supreme Court or forms now out of date that specify “bride” and “groom.”

Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond (Virginia) law professor, said political opponents of same-sex marriage will likely push legislation to expand religious freedom and to aim at protecting those who don’t want to participate in actions that facilitate same-sex marriage.

Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert said lawmakers should push for a U.S. constitutional amendment on marriage under a provision that would trigger a constitutional convention if 34 states apply for it. The Republican said the Supreme Court “has brought us to the brink of real crisis in our country” by ruling against the will of the people.

Burress pledged to go after politicians who have supported same-sex marriage, predicting outrage over the decision will bring out a wave of new voters.

Among those who have drawn his ire is Ohio’s Republican U.S. senator, Rob Portman, who switched his position to support same-sex marriage after his son Will came out to him and his wife Jane as gay.

Portman, who is seeking re-election in 2016, said Friday he welcomed the ruling “as a father,” although he would have preferred that the issue be resolved by the democratic process because that builds a lasting consensus. He said he hopes the ruling means “we can move past the division and polarization the issue has caused.”

Valeria Tanco and Sophy Jesty, a couple who sued Tennessee to gain recognition for their out-of-state marriage, were jubilant.

“I just feel free, like a burden or a weight has been lifted,” Jesty said.

The couple were married in New York before moving to Tennessee for work.

Jesty and Tanco said they are especially happy that their 15-month-old daughter won’t have to grow up feeling that her parents are different from anyone else’s.

“Her family is legally recognized, and both moms are on the birth certificate, so no one can take that away from her, or from her family,” Tanco said.

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Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio; John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio; Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee; Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, and Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.

Business: Stocks end mostly lower as Greece debt deadline approaches

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NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks had a mixed day Friday, as investors waited for negotiators to finish their work on a solution to Greece’s debt problems. Chinese stocks plunged 7 percent as fears spread that a yearlong bull rally there has become overheated. China’s benchmark index is still up more than double over the past year.

The Dow Jones industrial average added 56.32 points, or 0.3 percent, to 17,946.68. It was largely lifted by Nike, which rose more than 4 percent after posting strong quarterly results.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 0.82 of a point, or 0.04 percent, to 2,101.49 and the Nasdaq composite lost 31.68 points, or 0.6 percent, to 5,080.51. All three indexes ended the week slightly lower.

As they have done all week, global investors are watching closely as Greek debt talks go down to the wire. On Thursday, a key meeting of eurozone finance ministers broke up without an agreement. The 19 ministers are due to meet again Saturday.

Greece needs a deal in order to make a debt payment of 1.6 billion euros ($1.8 billion) to the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday. Failing to do so would put the country on a path toward default and a possible exit from the euro.

“While these deadlines can quite often be taken with a pinch of salt, Greece has literally run out of time on this occasion,” said Craig Erlam, senior market analyst at OANDA.

Investors now turn to next week, when the U.S. government will release the June jobs report. Economists forecast that U.S. employers created 237,500 jobs last month, according to FactSet.

There’s been a lot of focus on when the Federal Reserve will raise its key interest rate. Recent economic data seems to show that the U.S. economic recovery is holding steady, and now many investors are expecting the Fed to raise rates in September.

“There’s a premium on economic data right now. Outside of Greece, everyone will be focused on how the U.S. economy is holding up,” said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.

While Greece has been the main driver in financial markets recent weeks, worries over China have risen the list of concerns. On Friday, Chinese stocks plunged more than 7 percent. The Shanghai composite closed at 4,391.91. It reached 5,300 just two weeks ago.

“Although I continue to be optimistic about the longer-term trend of (China’s) markets, it’s clear that we are in a sharp correction phase,” said Bernard Aw of IG Markets in Singapore.

In energy trading, the price of oil was nearly flat Friday. It finished the week little changed, and remained in a narrow range for the ninth straight week. Benchmark U.S. crude fell 7 cents to close at $59.63 a barrel in New York.

Oil finished last week at $59.61 and it has traded roughly between $57 and $61 since late April. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose 6 cents to close at $63.26 a barrel in London.

In other futures trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, wholesale gasoline rose 1.2 cents to close at $2.049 a gallon. Heating oil rose 0.1 cents to close at $1.863 a gallon and natural gas fell 7.7 cents to close at $2.773 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Gold rose $1.40 to $1,173.20 an ounce. Silver fell 7 cents to $15.73 an ounce and copper rose 2 cents to $2.64 a pound.

U.S. government bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.48 percent from 2.39 percent late Thursday.

In currency trading, the euro fell to $1.1161 while the dollar rose to 123.85 Japanese yen.

 

Breaking News: Supreme Court extends gay marriage nationwide

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court declared Friday that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States, a historic culmination of decades of litigation over gay marriage and gay rights generally.

Gay and lesbian couples already could marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia. The court’s 5-4 ruling means the remaining 14 states, in the South and Midwest, will have to stop enforcing their bans on same-sex marriage.

A court in Atlanta issued marriage licenses to three same-sex couples Friday morning, soon after the decision.

Gay rights supporters cheered, danced and wept outside the court after the decision, which put an exclamation point on breathtaking changes in the nation’s social norms.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, just as he did in the court’s previous three major gay rights cases dating back to 1996. It came on the anniversary of two of those earlier decisions.

“No union is more profound than marriage,” Kennedy wrote, joined by the court’s four more liberal justices.

The stories of the people asking for the right to marry “reveal that they seek not to denigrate marriage but rather to live their lives, or honor their spouses’ memory, joined by its bond,” Kennedy said.

As he read his opinion, spectators in the courtroom wiped away tears after the import of the decision became clear. One of those in the audience was James Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court fight.

Outside, Obergefell held up a photo of his late spouse, John, and said the ruling establishes that “our love is equal.” He added, “This is for you, John.”

President Barack Obama placed a congratulatory phone call to Obergefell, which he took amid a throng of reporters outside the courthouse.

Speaking a few minutes later at the White House, Obama praised the decision as “justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.” He said it was an affirmation of the principle that “all Americans are created equal.”

The four dissenting justices each filed a separate opinion explaining his views, but they all agreed that states and their voters should have been left with the power to decide who can marry.

“This court is not a legislature. Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in dissent. Roberts read a summary of his dissent from the bench, the first time he has done so in nearly 10 years as chief justice.

“If you are among the many Americans — of whatever sexual orientation — who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision,” Roberts said. “But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”

Justice Antonin Scalia said he was not concerned so much about same-sex marriage but about “this court’s threat to American democracy.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas also dissented.

Several religious organizations criticized the decision and a group of pastors in Texas vowed to defy it.

Kennedy said nothing in the court’s ruling would force religions to condone, much less perform, weddings to which they object.

The ruling will not take effect immediately because the court gives the losing side roughly three weeks to ask for reconsideration. But some state officials and county clerks might follow the lead of the Fulton County, Georgia, probate court and decide there is little risk in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The cases before the court involved laws from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Those states have not allowed same-sex couples to marry within their borders and they also have refused to recognize valid marriages from elsewhere.

Just two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal anti-gay marriage law that denied a range of government benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor formed the majority with Kennedy on Friday, the same lineup as two years ago.

The earlier decision in United States v. Windsor did not address the validity of state marriage bans, but courts across the country, with few exceptions, said its logic compelled them to invalidate state laws that prohibited gay and lesbian couples from marrying.

The number of states allowing same-sex marriage has grown rapidly. As recently as last October, just over one-third of the states permitted it.

There are an estimated 390,000 married same-sex couples in the United States, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute, which tracks the demographics of gay and lesbian Americans. Another 70,000 couples living in states that do not currently permit them to wed would get married in the next three years, the institute says. Roughly 1 million same-sex couples, married and unmarried, live together in the United States, the institute says.

The Obama administration backed the right of same-sex couples to marry. The Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the federal anti-marriage law in 2011 was an important moment for gay rights, and Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage in 2012.

The states affected by Friday’s ruling are: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, most of Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

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Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko, Sam Hananel and Glynn Hill contributed to this report.

Obama health care law survives second Supreme Court fight

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court sent a clear message Thursday that President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul is here to stay, rejecting a major challenge that would have imperiled the landmark law and health insurance for millions of Americans.

Whether you call it the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, or in the words of a dissenting justice, SCOTUScare, Obama’s signature domestic achievement is, as the president himself put it, “reality.”

The 6-3 ruling, which upheld financial aid to millions of low- and middle-income Americans to help pay for insurance premiums regardless of where they live, was the second major victory in three years for Obama in politically charged Supreme Court tests of the law. And it came on the same day the court gave him an unexpected victory on another subject, preserving a key tool the administration uses to fight housing bias.

Obama greeted news of the health care decision by declaring the law is no longer about politics but the benefits millions of people are receiving. “This is no longer about a law,” he said in the White House Rose Garden. “This is health care in America.”

Declining to concede, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Republicans, who have voted more than 50 times to undo the law, will “continue our efforts to repeal the law and replace it with patient-centered solutions that meet the needs of seniors, small business owners, and middle-class families.” However, he declined to commit to a vote this year.

Several Republican presidential candidates said they would continue the fight, ensuring it will be an issue in the campaign.

Other legal challenges are working their way through the courts, but they appear to pose lesser threats to the law, which passed Congress without a single Republican vote in 2010 and has now withstood two stern challenges at the Supreme Court.

At the court, Chief Justice John Roberts again wrote the opinion in support of the law, just as he did in 2012. His four liberal colleagues were with him three years ago and again on Thursday. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a dissenter in 2012, was part of the majority this time.

Roberts said that to read the law the way challengers wanted — limiting tax credits to people who live in states that set up their own health insurance marketplaces — would lead to a “calamitous result” that Congress could not have intended.

“Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” Roberts declared in the majority opinion.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent he summarized from the bench, strongly disagreed. “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” he said, using an acronym for the Supreme Court and suggesting his colleagues’ ownership of the law by virtue of their twice stepping in to save it from what he considered worthy challenges.

His comment drew a smile from Roberts, his seatmate and the object of Scalia’s ire.

Scalia said that Roberts’ 2012 decision that upheld the law and his opinion on Thursday “will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent, as they did in 2012.

Nationally, 10.2 million people have signed up for health insurance under the law. That includes 8.7 million who are receiving an average subsidy of $272 a month to help pay their premiums. Of those receiving subsidies, 6.4 million were at risk of losing that aid because they live in states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges.

The health insurance industry breathed a sigh of relief, and a national organization representing state regulators from both political parties said the court’s decision will mean stable markets for consumers.

Shares of publicly traded hospital operators including HCA Holdings Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. soared after the ruling. Investors had worried that many patients would drop their coverage if they no longer had tax credits to help pay.

The legal case against nationwide subsidies relied on four words — “established by the state” — in the more than 900-page law.

The law’s opponents argued that the vast majority of people who now get help paying for premiums are ineligible for their federal tax credits. That is because roughly three dozen states opted against creating their own health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, and instead rely on the federal healthcare.gov site to help people find coverage if they don’t have it through their jobs.

In the challengers’ view, the phrase “established by the state” demonstrated that subsidies were to be available only to people in states that set up their own exchanges.

The administration, congressional Democrats and 22 states responded that it would make no sense to interpret the law that way. The idea was to decrease the number of uninsured, preventing insurers from denying coverage because of “pre-existing” health conditions, requiring almost everyone to be insured and providing financial help to those who otherwise would spend too much of their paychecks on premiums.

The point of the last piece, the subsidies, is to keep enough people in the pool of insured to avoid triggering a disastrous decline in enrollment, a growing proportion of less healthy people and then premium increases.

Several portions of the law indicate that consumers can claim tax credits no matter where they live. No member of Congress said at the time that subsidies would be limited, and several states said in a separate brief to the court that they had no inkling they had to set up their own exchanges for their residents to get tax credits.

Roberts pointed out that the law “contains more than a few examples of inartful drafting,” including three separate sections numbered 1563. He said the court’s duty was to read the provision at issue in context and with the larger picture in mind.

In Scalia’s view, Roberts was engaging in “somersaults of statutory interpretation” that were redolent of the chief justice’s efforts to save the law in 2012.

The 2012 case took place in the midst of Obama’s re-election campaign, when the president was touting the largest expansion of the social safety net since the advent of Medicare nearly a half-century earlier. But at the time, promised benefits of the Affordable Care Act were mostly in the future. Many of its provisions had yet to take effect.

In 2015, the landscape has changed, although the partisan and ideological divisions remain.

The case is King v. Burwell, 14-114.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Connie Cass and Jessica Gresko in Washington and Business Writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

Putin calls Obama, discuss Ukraine, IS, Iran

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —   WASHINGTON — President Obama spoke with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday in their first direct contact in four months as the United States and Russia try to manage their conflict over Ukraine while still working together on other issues like Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Putin initiated the call, the first between the estranged leaders since February, the White House said. He brought up the war against the Islamic State in Syria and the two leaders agreed to have Secretary of State John Kerry meet with Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov to discuss how to counter the spread of radicalism in the Middle East. They also discussed the Iran talks in advance of next week’s deadline for an agreement.

But American officials said that Mr. Obama focused on the continuing separatist war in Ukraine fomented by support from Moscow and pushed Mr. Putin to abide by a shaky diplomatic agreement known as the Minsk accord. Violence has flared in recent weeks even as Russia failed to drive a wedge among the members of the European Union who agreed to renew economic sanctions on Russia for another six months.

“President Obama reiterated the need for Russia to fulfill its commitments under the Minsk agreements, including the removal of all Russian troops and equipment from Ukrainian territory,” the White House said.

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin agreed to have his deputy foreign minister, Grigory Karasin, talk with Victoria J. Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, about the fulfillment of the Minsk accord.

Mr. Putin’s decision to call Mr. Obama and focus on Syria and Iran may reflect a desire to assert his continuing importance on the world stage despite Russia’s isolation and failure to break the Western consensus on sanctions.

The United States and Russia have been at odds over Syria. Moscow supports the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and Mr. Obama has called for his resignation. American officials hope Mr. Putin may see the rise of the Islamic State as enough of a threat to now be willing to apply pressure on Mr. Assad, but they also suspected his renewed interest in the issue may be a way of distracting from Ukraine.

Arrested prison guard denies knowing of inmates’ escape plot

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PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — A prison guard charged in connection with the escape of two killers admitted providing them with tools, paint, frozen hamburger and access to a catwalk electrical box but says he never knew they planned to bust out, authorities say.

As the search for the convicts entered its 20th day Thursday, Gene Palmer was released on $25,000 bail after his arrest on charges of promoting prison contraband, tampering with evidence and official misconduct.

Palmer became the second Clinton Correctional Facility employee to be charged since inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat used power tools to cut their way out of the maximum-security prison in far northern New York on June 6.

Prison tailor shop instructor Joyce Mitchell stands charged with helping them break out.

But in contrast to the allegations against Mitchell, Palmer said he was an unwitting helper.

“I did not realize at the time that the assistance provided to Matt or Sweat made their escape easier,” he told authorities in a signed statement.

District Attorney Andrew Wylie said that based on Palmer’s statements and a polygraph test, investigators have no reason to believe he was knowingly involved in the escape.

In the statement, Palmer admitted providing Matt with paint and paintbrushes. On four occasions over eight months, he supplied Sweat with needle-nose pliers and a screwdriver. He said he gave Sweat access to the catwalk later used in the escape to change the wiring on electrical boxes as “a favor” to make it easier for them to cook in their cells.

And a week before the escape, he delivered to Matt a pound of frozen ground beef in a package left by Mitchell.

“Matt provided me with elaborate paintings and information on the illegal acts that inmates were committing within the facility,” Palmer told authorities. “In turn, I provided him with benefits such as paint, paintbrushes, movement of inmates, hamburger meat, altering of electrical boxes in the catwalk areas.”

Wylie said Mitchell told investigators she smuggled hacksaw blades, a screwdriver and other tools into the prison by hiding them in the frozen meat.

She then put the meat in a refrigerator in the tailor shop, and Palmer took the meat to Sweat and Matt, who were housed in a section where inmates are allowed to cook their meals, according to the district attorney.

Wylie said Thursday that investigators have no proof Palmer knew hacksaw blades were embedded in the meat.

After the escape, Palmer burned and buried the inmate paintings, according to court documents.

Palmer, who has been suspended, will plead not guilty, his lawyer said. The misconduct charge relates to receiving the inmate-made paintings in exchange for the contraband pliers and screwdriver. The tampering charges stem from the destruction and concealment of the paintings.

Authorities say the inmates cut through the steel wall at the back of their cells, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, cut their way into and out of a steam pipe and then emerged from a manhole outside the prison.

Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy. Matt, who turned 49 on Thursday, was doing 25 years to life in the kidnapping, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.

Palmer, 57, had worked at the prison in Dannemora for more than 27 years and had a base annual salary of $72,644. He had known Sweat and Matt for at least five years.

In a 2000 interview with upstate New York’s North Country Public Radio, Palmer portrayed the job as highly stressful.

“With the money that they pay you,” he said, “you’ll go bald, you’ll have high blood pressure, you’ll become an alcoholic, you’ll divorce and then you’ll kill yourself.”

Away from his day job, Palmer was a bandanna-wearing rocker, singing and playing guitar and keyboard in Just Us, a band that covered such baby boomer songs as Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bon Jovi’s “Runaway.”

“He’s a great guy. Always treated everybody fairly here,” said Christopher Brothers, manager of Fuzzy Ducks bar in Morrisonville, where Just Us has played. “I don’t want to jump to conclusions. It seems like he may have done bad things, but I hope people take into consideration he also gave 28 years of his life to that prison.”

About 1,100 federal, state and local law enforcement officers took part in Thursday’s search, which focused on a 75-square-mile area dominated by heavy woods.

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Associated Press writers Michael Hill and Michael Sisak contributed to this story. This photo provided by the New York State Police shows Gene Palmer on Wednesday, June 24, 2015. The maximum-security prison guard is believed to have delivered tools inside frozen meat to two inmates before they escaped was arrested on Wednesday, authorities said. (New York State Police via AP)

Business: China stocks plunge, other markets eye Greece developments

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HONG KONG (AP) — Chinese stocks plunged on Friday as panicked investors rushed to sell over fears that an extended bull market was coming to an end. Other world benchmarks fell as a standoff between Greece and its international creditors threatened to drag into the weekend.

KEEPING SCORE: European stocks opened lower, with France’s CAC 40 down 0.5 percent to 5,015.19. Germany’s DAX fell 0.5 percent to 11,418.47. Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 0.9 percent to 6,745.86. U.S. stocks were poised for an uneven open. Dow futures were up less than 0.1 percent to 17,817.00. Broader S&P 500 futures dipped less than 0.1 percent to 2,093.50.

SHANGHAI SLUMP: After a sizzling rally that more than doubled Shanghai’s benchmark index over the past year, investors are now heading for the exit. One factor appears to be authorities tightening rules on margin financing, which involves using borrowed money to buy stocks. The market’s drop may also be exacerbated by the herd mentality of retail investors, who play an outsize role in China’s markets, or by margin investors being forced to sell off to meet margin calls.

ANALYST INSIGHT: “Although I continue to be optimistic about the longer-term trend of the China markets, it’s clear that we are in a sharp correction phase,” said Bernard Aw of IG Markets in Singapore. He said up until Thursday, $1.2 trillion had been wiped off of China’s equity markets since they peaked June 14 at $10 trillion.

ASIA SCORECARD: The Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China plunged 7.4 percent to close at 4,192.87, bringing its losses for the week to 12.4 percent. The smaller Shenzhen Composite Index tumbled 7.9 percent to 2,502.96. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 1.8 percent to 26,663.87. Asian benchmarks outside of China were more muted. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index lost 0.3 percent to 20,706.15 while South Korea’s Kospi gained 0.3 percent to 2,090.26. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 shed 1.5 percent to 5,545.90.

GREEK TALKS: Global investors are watching closely as Greek debt talks go down to the wire. On Thursday, a key meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Greece’s rescue package broke up without agreement, intensifying doubts about whether Athens can repay a 1.6 billion euro ($1.8 billion) debt to the International Monetary Fund due Tuesday. A new meeting is tentatively scheduled for Saturday. Creditors will not free up billions in bailout money until there’s an agreement on a drastic tax and austerity reform package for the Mediterranean nation.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell 23 cents to $59.47 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract dropped 57 cents to close at $59.70 a barrel in New York on Thursday. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 14 cents to $63.06 in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro rose to $1.1210 from $1.1205 in the previous trading session. The dollar weakened to 123.39 yen from 123.62 yen.

 

Church resumes Bible study as slain pastor’s body returned

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The site of a massacre a week ago, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is being reclaimed by parishioners who are pledging to remember the loved ones they lost in a shooting rampage while carrying on the work of the beloved pastor who was slain beside them.

Only hours before the body of state senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was to be returned to the historic black church one last time for his wake, members of his flock and non-church members alike packed into the church’s basement to attend Wednesday night Bible study. It was the very same thing that was taking place a week ago before Pinckney and eight parishioners were gunned down in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.

“Because of our faith, we’ve shown up once more again to declare that Jesus lives and because he lives, we can face tomorrow,” interim pastor Norvel Goff told a multiracial crowd that swayed, clapped and sang in the same room where the shooting occurred. Among the worshippers were several family members of one of the victims, Myra Thompson.

“It is a powerful testimony that they are able to come,” Goff said of Thompson’s relatives, who were applauded by others in the audience.

The first funerals of some of those slain were to begin Thursday at nearby churches in North Charleston, with a viewing for Pinckney inside Emanuel on Thursday evening. President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral Friday at a nearby college arena.

In the church’s basement Wednesday evening, there was little evidence of the violence that had taken place there just seven days before. Workers at the church puttied over bullet holes in the wall and removed other traces of the attack before inviting the public back in, church spokeswoman Maxine Smith said.

Just before the Bible study began, volunteers brought in a large wooden cross covered with notes of sympathy from well-wishers. A table in front of a small pulpit overflowed with roses, lilies and other flowers and plants. Propped up in front of it was a poster bearing written expressions of sympathy for Pinckney and the eight slain parishioners.

The 41-year-old minister on Wednesday became the first African-American since Reconstruction to rest in honor in South Carolina’s Statehouse Rotunda. Pinckney served the people from the Statehouse for nearly 20 years, first as a page, then a state representative, and later a senator. Prior to a public viewing that authorities say drew 4,000 mourners, his widow and two young daughters met a horse-drawn carriage carrying his body.

As mourners filed by his open casket, a makeshift drape over a huge second-floor window obscured the secessionist battle flag outside on the Statehouse grounds, emphasizing how quickly this symbol of Southern pride has fallen into official disrepute.

In state after state, the Confederate symbols that were seemingly embraced by the suspect in the killings, have suddenly come under question.

Dylann Storm Roof was captured a day after the shootings when a motorist spotted his Confederate license plate. Images on a website created in Roof’s name months before the attacks show him posing with the Confederate flag and burning and desecrating the U.S. flag. He also poses at Confederate museums, former slave plantations and slave graves.

Gov. Nikki Haley started the groundswell against Confederate icons Monday by successfully calling on South Carolina lawmakers to debate taking down the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the Statehouse. Then Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, also a conservative Republican, issued an executive order that brought down four secessionist flags Wednesday. He compared the banner to the universally shunned symbols of Nazi Germany, a stunning reversal in a region where the Confederacy was formed 154 years ago and where Jefferson Davis was elected president.

The iconic Confederate battle flag in particular “is offensive to some people because unfortunately, it’s like the swastika; some people have adopted that as part of their hate-filled groups,” Bentley said.

Both of Mississippi’s U.S. senators have endorsed removing the Confederate symbol from the flag the state has flown since Reconstruction — despite a 2001 endorsement of the symbol by state voters. Other lawmakers and activists took aim at symbols including a bust of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee’s Senate, a sculpture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky Rotunda, the vanity license plates used by thousands of motorists, and Minnesota’s Lake Calhoun.

Businesses also have acted swiftly. Wal-Mart, e-Bay, Amazon, Target and Sears are among those saying Confederate merchandise will be gone from their stores and online sites. And Warner Bros. announced it will no longer license toy cars and models of the “General Lee” car with the Confederate flag on its roof that starred in the 1980s TV show “Dukes of Hazzard.”

Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the TV series, said these symbols are under attack by a “wave of political correctness” that is vilifying Southern culture. He said Confederate items will never be removed from the Cooter’s Place stores he owns in Tennessee and Virginia.

Republican Jonathon Hill, a freshman South Carolina representative, also said the flag should remain above the monument to fallen Confederate soldiers, and that addressing it now disrespects the victims’ families.

“Dylann Roof wanted a race war, and I think this has a potential to start one in the sense that it’s a very divisive issue,” Hill said.

A growing number of Confederate symbols have been defaced by graffiti.

The words “Black Lives Matter” were spray-painted Wednesday on a century-old Confederate memorial in St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, Missouri, where the phrase took root after a white officer killed an unarmed black man last August. In Charleston, the words “racist” and “slavery” were painted Tuesday on a monument to Calhoun, just a block from where the Emanuel AME church stands on Calhoun Street.

Goff used his time at Emanuel’s Bible study to call for continued calm in Charleston in the face of the tragedy.

“We may not be in control of those who commit evil acts, but we are in control of how we respond to it,” he said.

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Jonathan Drew and Meg Kinnard in Charleston; Seanna Adcox, Jeffrey Collins, Susanne M. Schafer and Jack Jones in Columbia; Kim Chandler in Hackleburg, Alabama; Martin Swant in Montgomery, Alabama; and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report. South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guards stand over Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s body as members of the public file past in the Statehouse, Wednesday, June 24, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney’s funeral Friday morning at the College of Charleston. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Islamic State group storms northeast Syrian city of Hassakeh

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BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants in Syria stormed government-held neighborhoods in the predominantly Kurdish northeastern city of Hassakeh on Thursday morning, capturing several areas of the city, officials and state media said.

The attack came after the Islamic State group suffered several setbacks in northern Syria against Kurdish forces over the past weeks. The city of Hassakeh is divided between Bashar Assad’s forces and Kurdish fighters.

Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said IS militants attacked government-held neighborhoods on the southern edge of Hassakeh, and captured some areas.

Syrian state TV reported intense clashes inside Hassakeh’s southern neighborhood of Nashawi. According to the report, IS fighters killed several people they captured in the city, including the head of a military housing institution. It said the militants sustained many casualties, including the commander of the group who is a foreign fighter.

IS tried to storm the city earlier this month and reached its southern outskirts before facing strong resistance from Syrian government troops who pushed them away.

Also Thursday, IS staged a new attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani, which famously resisted a months-long assault by the Islamic militants. The attack involved a suicide car bombing that wounded scores.

“A group of fighters deployed in some areas of Kobani. We are defending a position now,” Ghalia Nehme, a commander with the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, told The Associated Press by telephone from inside the border town.

After months of bloody street fighting, the Kurdish forces in Kobani, which lies along the Syria-Turkey border, succeeded in pushing out IS militants earlier this year. That was a landmark victory against the IS, enabled in part by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

Two Turkish officials said Thursday’s attack involved a suicide bomber who detonated his car near the border gate that separates Kobani from the Turkish town of Mursitpinar.

The first official, from the local governor’s office, said that 41 wounded were taken across the border to a hospital in Turkey. Surveillance footage showed a fiery explosion rocking Kobani in the dim light of dawn, he said, adding that video came from one of the 24 cameras monitoring the border crossing.

The second official, who is with the district government, put the number of wounded at 43 and said that sporadic gunfire could still be heard from the other side of the border later in the morning as well. He said one person, a child, had been killed.

There was no immediate way to resolve the discrepancy between their reports. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Syrian state TV said the extremists crossed from the Turkish side of the border into Kobani, adding that are casualties. It gave no further details.

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Associated Press writers Ayse Wieting and Raphael Satter in Istanbul contributed to this report. FILE – In this picture taken on Saturday, April 18, 2015, a car passes in an area that was destroyed during the battle between the U.S. backed Kurdish forces and the Islamic State fighters, in Kobani, north Syria. Turkish officials said on Thursday, June 25, 2015 that the Islamic State group has staged a new attack on the Kurdish town of Kobani, which resisted a months-long assault by the Islamic militants until they were pushed out earlier this year. Two Turkish officials say Thursday’s attack involved a suicide bomber detonating his car near the border gate. (AP Photo/Mehmet Shakir, File)

Obama: US government has let down hostages’ families

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama conceded Wednesday that the U.S. government had let down the families of Americans held hostage by terrorists and promised they would not face criminal prosecution for paying ransoms to their loved ones’ captors.

“These families have already suffered enough and they should never feel ignored or victimized by their own government,” Obama said as he detailed the results of a six-month review of U.S. hostage policy.

The president said for the first time that U.S. government officials can communicate directly with terrorists and help families negotiate for the release of hostages. More than 30 Americans are being held hostage abroad, White House officials said.

The review was sparked by sharp criticism of the Obama administration from families of Americans kidnapped by the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other groups. Families have complained about receiving confusing and contradictory information from the government and bristled at threats of prosecution for considering paying terrorists to secure the release of hostages.

By clearing the way for payment of ransom without fear of criminal charges, Obama is essentially allowing families to take actions the U.S. government has long said put Americans at risk. While the government will continue to abide by prohibitions on paying ransoms or making other concessions to terrorists, the Justice Department indicated it would ignore the law in situations involving families.

European governments routinely pay ransom to win the release of hostages. However, Obama and his predecessors have argued that policy provides terrorists with funds to fuel dangerous activities and puts Americans at greater risk of kidnapping.

Critics of the White House review argue that allowing families to do what the government will not could lead to those same troubling consequences.

“We have had a policy in the United States for over 200 years of not paying ransom and not negotiating with terrorists,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “The concern that I have is that by lifting that long-held principle you could be endangering more Americans here and overseas.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he, too, worries that paying ransom could encourage terrorism. But McCain, who met Wednesday with the family of Kayla Mueller, an Arizona woman killed after being kidnapped by the Islamic State, added that “to tell a family member — as this administration did — that they could go to jail is unconscionable.”

White House officials drew a distinction between the concessions private individuals could make to terrorists, which are largely financial, and the more wide-ranging deals the U.S. government could strike, including military activity and other foreign policy priorities.

Still, officials acknowledged that allowing some concessions and banning others could be perceived as a contradictory policy.

“There’s no doubt that the payment of ransoms fuels the very activity that we are trying to stop,” said Lisa Monaco, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser. “At the same time we’ve got a responsibility to stand with families as they make the most difficult decisions we could ever imagine.”

Ahead of his public comments, Obama held an emotional private meeting with former hostages, as well as families of Americans currently being held and those who have been freed or killed in captivity.

“I acknowledged to them in private what I want to say publicly, that it is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down,” he said. “I promised them that we can do better.”

Despite the ban on the U.S. government making concessions to terrorists, the Obama administration did negotiate with the Taliban last year to win the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured after walking away from this post in Afghanistan. Five Guantanamo Bay detainees were exchanged as a condition of his release.

White House officials say those negotiations were permissible because Obama sees a special responsibility to leave no American service member behind on the battlefield.

Four other Americans have been killed by the Islamic State since last summer: journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Peter Kassig and Mueller. After the release of gruesome videos showing the beheadings of some hostages, Obama approved an airstrike campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria.

Luke Somers, an American journalist kidnapped in Yemen, was also killed during a failed U.S. rescue attempt. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qaida, was accidentally killed by a U.S. drone strike against a terrorist compound in Pakistan.

The families of some of these hostages have been among the most vocal in pushing for changes in U.S. government policy. In a statement Tuesday, Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, said she hoped her family would be the last “that fails to receive the level of coordinated government support that those who serve abroad deserve when trouble finds them.”

The Mueller, Kassig and Sotloff families issued a joint statement saying they “have faith that the changes announced today will lead to increased success in bringing our citizens home.”

“The changes are a step in the right direction; we’re hopeful they will make a difference for families and their friends and loved ones facing this horror currently and in the future,” they said.

Foley’s parents released a statement Wednesday night saying: “We want to commend the hostage review team for their in-depth evaluation of the American hostage issue. We applaud their willingness to examine the previously inadequate response to the kidnapping of American citizens abroad.”

In a step aimed at streamlining communications with families, Obama also announced the creation of a “Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell” that will coordinate recovery efforts among various government agencies. Some families had pushed for the new office to be based at the White House, but it will be at the FBI.

The president said it was “totally unacceptable” that hostages’ families had felt lost in the bureaucracy and he said the fusion cell would be an important step in rectifying that problem.

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Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Deb Riechmann in Washington and David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Maryland, contributed to this report.

Business: Global stocks lower as latest Greece bailout talks falter

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Global stock markets were lower Thursday as negotiations to keep Greece from defaulting dragged on without result, dimming hopes of a deal this week. But U.S. futures were slightly higher ahead of the release of consumer spending and unemployment figures.

KEEPING SCORE: European stocks opened weaker with Britain’s FTSE 100 down 0.1 percent to 6,839.29. France’s CAC 40 dipped 0.2 percent to 5,036.62 and Germany’s DAX was nearly unchanged at 11,472.59. Futures showed that Wall Street was set to recoup losses from the previous session. S&P 500 futures rose 0.4 percent and Dow futures advanced 0.5 percent.

GREEK DOUBT: Crucial talks between Greece and its international creditors ended without result early Thursday, casting fresh doubt over the country’s future in the euro currency and piling new pressure on negotiators to reach a deal later in the day. After an eight-hour grilling with the leaders of the three main institutions handling his country’s massive debts, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras left the talks in Brussels without speaking to reporters . Technical experts were due to resume their deliberations just after dawn in Europe to thrash out the details of Greece’s reform plans.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Traders who thought that a bailout deal for Greece will be smooth sailing after Monday’s meeting are now having second thoughts,” said Bernard Aw, a market strategist at IG. “The reality is that time is running out for Greece and a major part of the problem for the deadlock is that they seem to be playing a zero-sum game.”

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 was down 0.5 percent to 20,771.40 and South Korea’s Kospi finished nearly unchanged at 2,085.06. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng declined 1 percent to 27,145.75. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 fell 1 percent to 5,632.70. Stocks in Southeast Asia were lower. China’s Shanghai Composite, which started higher, closed 3.5 percent lower at 4,527.78.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude for August delivery was up 1 cent to $60.28 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 74 cents to close at $60.27 a barrel on Wednesday after the Energy Department reported an increase in stockpiles of gasoline and diesel in its weekly inventory report. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, added 44 cents at $63.92 a barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The euro fell to $1.1168 from $1.1206 while the dollar weakened to 123.57 yen from 123.84 yen.

 

AP Exclusive: Document outlines big-power nuke help to Iran

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VIENNA (AP) — The United States and other nations negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran are ready to offer high-tech reactors and other state-of-the-art equipment to Tehran if it agrees to crimp programs that can make atomic arms, according to a confidential document obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The draft document — one of several technical appendices meant to accompany the main text of any deal — has dozens of bracketed text where disagreements remain. Technical cooperation is the least controversial issue at the talks, and the number of brackets suggest the sides have a ways to go not only on that topic but also more contentious disputes with little more than a week until the June 30 deadline for a deal.

With that deadline looming, Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Tuesday rejected a long-term freeze on nuclear research and supported banning international inspectors from accessing military sites. Khamenei, in comments broadcast on Iranian state television, also said Iran will sign a final deal provided all economic sanctions now on Iran are first lifted — in a sign the Islamic Republic may be toughening its stance ahead of the deadline.

The West has always held out the prospect of providing Iran peaceful nuclear technology in the nearly decade-long international diplomatic effort designed to reduce Tehran’s potential ability to make nuclear weapons. But the scope of the help now being offered in the draft may displease U.S. congressional critics who already argue that Washington has offered too many concessions at the negotiations.

Iran denies any interest in nuclear weapons but is prepared to make concessions in exchange for relief from billions of dollars in economic penalties. Beyond a pact limiting Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon for at least 10 years, the U.S. and its negotiating partners hope to eliminate any grounds for Iran to argue that it needs to expand programs that could be used to make such arms once an agreement expires.

To that end, the draft, entitled “Civil Nuclear Cooperation,” promises to supply Iran with light-water nuclear reactors instead of its nearly completed heavy-water facility at Arak, which would produce enough plutonium for several bombs a year if completed as planned.

Reducing the Arak reactor’s plutonium output was one of the main aims of the U.S. and its negotiating partners, along with paring down Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium — like plutonium, a potential pathway to nuclear arms.

Outlining plans to modify that heavy-water reactor, the draft, dated June 19, offers to “establish an international partnership” to rebuild it into a less proliferation-prone facility while leaving Iran in “the leadership role as the project owner and manager.”

The eight-page draft also promises “arrangements for the assured supply and removal of nuclear fuel for each reactor provided,” and offers help in the “construction and effective operation” of the reactors and related hardware. It also offers to cooperate with Iran in the fields of nuclear safety, nuclear medicine, research, nuclear waste removal and other peaceful applications.

As well, it firms up earlier tentative agreement on what to do with the underground site of Fordo, saying it will be used for isotope production instead of uranium enrichment.

Washington and its allies had long insisted that the facility be repurposed away from enrichment because Fordo is dug deep into a mountain and thought resistant to air strikes — an option neither the U.S. nor Israel has ruled out should talks fail.

But because isotope production uses the same technology as enrichment and can be quickly re-engineered to enriching uranium, the compromise has been criticized by congressional opponents of the deal.

A diplomat familiar with the negotiations said China was ready to help in re-engineering the heavy water reactor at Arak; France in reprocessing nuclear waste, and Britain in the field of nuclear safety and security.

He spoke on the eve of Wednesday’s new round of nuclear talks in Vienna and demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the confidential talks.

Diplomats say the other appendices include ways of dealing with enrichment; limits on Iran’s research and development of advanced uranium-enriching centrifuges and ways of making sure Tehran is keeping its commitment to the deal.

Iran has most publicly pushed back on how much leeway the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency would have in monitoring Tehran’s nuclear activities. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is rebuffing U.S. demands that the IAEA have access to military sites and nuclear scientists as they keep an eye on Iran’s present activities and try to follow up suspicions that the country worked in the past on a nuclear weapon.

But a senior U.S. official who demanded anonymity in exchange for commenting on the talks said Tuesday that the sides are still apart not only on how transparent Iran must be but all other ancillary issues as well. Separately, White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested the talks could go past June 30.

If a deal “requires us to take a couple of extra days … then we’ll do that,” he said.

A delay up to July 9 is not a deal-breaker. If Congress receives a deal by then, it has 30 days to review it before President Barack Obama could suspend congressional sanctions.

But postponement beyond that would double the congressional review period to 60 days, giving both Iranian and U.S. opponents more time to work on undermining an agreement.

Earnest indicated that negotiations may continue even if the sides declare they have reached a final deal, in comments that may further embolden congressional critics who say the talks already have gone on too long.

He said that even past that point, ongoing “differences of opinion … may require additional negotiations.”

___

Associated Press writers Nancy Benac and Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington. FILE – In this May 30, 2015, file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Geneva, Switzerland during talks on the future of the Iranian nuclear program. The United States and other nations negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran are ready to offer high-tech reactors and other state of the art equipment to Tehran if it agrees to crimp programs that can make atomic arms, according to a confidential document obtained Tuesday, June 22, 2015, by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool, File)

The latest on NY prison escape – Day 15: DA – Tools hidden in meat

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(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)    —-   Authorities say the prison employee charged with helping two murderers escape from a New York prison smuggled tools to them by hiding the items in frozen hamburger meat.

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wiley has told reporters that Joyce Mitchell told investigators she put hacksaw blades and a screwdriver in the meat, then placed it in a refrigerator in the tailor shop where she worked at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.

Wiley says a corrections officer brought the meat to David Sweat and Richard Matt, who were housed in a section of the maximum-security prison where inmates are allowed to cook their own meals. The DA says the guard didn’t know the tools were inside the meat. He has been placed on paid leave.

Hundreds of searchers checked ATV trails and logging roads and went door-to-door in far northern New York trying to close in on two murderers who escaped from a maximum-security prison more than two weeks ago.

Spurred on by fresh evidence, law enforcement officers methodically combed through heavy woods on Tuesday looking for inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt.

Authorities began committing heavy resources to the remote woods this week after leads from a hunting camp that was apparently broken into led to “good evidence, DNA data” regarding the inmates, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Roadblocks were in place Tuesday around the remote hamlets of Owls Head and Mountain View in an area of rugged terrain about 20 miles west of Clinton County Correctional Facility.

Investigators conducted grid searches in the thick, mosquito-infested forests and also checked railroad beds, said Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill. He said people were going to seasonal properties looking for signs of intruders.

“If they’re here, we’re going to find them,” Mulverhill said. “I really believe it’s going to come down to old-fashioned police work and the public.”

Cuomo said, “I believe we will get these guys.” But the governor also cautioned that they’ve had a number of leads and the more than 1,000 officers involved in the search have to follow each as though it’s the one that’s going to bring authorities to the escapees.

Meanwhile, the husband of the woman accused of helping the inmates escape said in an interview aired Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show that he’s “absolutely 100 percent” certain the pair would have killed him and his wife if his wife had been their getaway driver, as initially planned.

Lyle Mitchell said his wife, Joyce Mitchell, told him Sweat and Matt offered to give her pills to knock him out so she could pick them up after they escaped, but she refused because she said she still loved her husband.

“Do I still love her? Yes. Am I mad? Yes,” Lyle Mitchell said in the interview aired Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Joyce Mitchell remained in custody on charges she helped the two men escape by providing them hacksaw blades, chisels and other tools. She has pleaded not guilty.

Sweat and Matt escaped from the prison in Dannemora on June 6. Authorities say the pair cut through the steel wall at the back of their cell, crawled down a catwalk, broke through a brick wall, cut their way into and out of a steam pipe, and then sliced through the chain and lock on a manhole cover outside the prison.

Sweat, 35, was serving a life sentence without parole for killing a sheriff’s deputy. Matt, 48, was doing 25 years to life for the 1997 kidnapping, torture and hacksaw dismemberment of his former boss.

Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie told reporters that Joyce Mitchell told investigators she smuggled hacksaw blades, a screwdriver and other tools into the prison by placing them in frozen hamburger meat. He said she then placed it in a refrigerator in the tailor shop where she worked, and a corrections officer brought the meat to Sweat and Matt, who were housed in a section of the maximum-security prison where inmates are allowed to cook their own meals.

The DA said the guard didn’t know the tools were inside the meat. The guard has been placed on paid leave.

Wylie told ABC News several corrections officers from different prisons in the area own the hunting cabin where the evidence was found. Investigators are looking into whether the escapees overheard guards talking about the cabin or whether they found it by chance.

Sweat and Matt used power tools to make their escape June 6 and remain at large Wednesday.

_______________

Corrections officers rush to an area of a possible sighting of two escaped prisoners from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Mountain View, N.Y. Police began focusing intensely on an area 20 miles west of the prison that inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt escaped from prison on June 6. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

French president holds emergency meeting over NSA intercepts

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PARIS (AP) — French President Francois Hollande is holding an emergency meeting with the country’s top security officials to respond to WikiLeaks documents saying that the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped on the last three French presidents.

A French presidential aide said Wednesday’s meeting was convened to evaluate the information released and draw relevant conclusions. The aide was not authorized to be publicly named.

The documents published in French daily newspaper Liberation and investigative website Mediapart late Tuesday include material that appeared to capture officials in Paris talking candidly about Greece’s economy and relations with Germany.

Ironically, they also include discussions about American espionage of its allies.

There was no instant confirmation of the accuracy of the documents, though WikiLeaks has a track record of publishing intelligence and diplomatic material.

WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson told The Associated Press he was confident the documents were authentic, noting that WikiLeaks’ previous mass disclosures — including a large cache of Saudi diplomatic memos released last week — have proven to be accurate.

The release appeared to be timed to coincide with a vote in the French Parliament on a bill allowing broad new surveillance powers, in particular to counter terrorist threats. The Senate approved it Tuesday and the lower house of parliament is expected to give it final approval Wednesday.

The release prompted uproar among French politicians, although it didn’t reveal any huge surprises or secrets. France is among several U.S. allies that rely heavily on American spying powers when trying to prevent terrorist and other threats.

Hollande’s office didn’t comment beyond announcing Wednesday’s security meeting, though his Socialist Party issued an angry statement saying the reports suggest “a truly stupefying state paranoia.” Even if the government was aware of such intercepts, the party said, that doesn’t mean “that this massive, systematic, uncontrolled eavesdropping is tolerable.”

An aide to Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy told The AP that the former president considers these methods unacceptable, especially from an ally. The aide was not authorized to be publicly named.

There was no immediate comment from former President Jacques Chirac, also reportedly targeted by the eavesdropping.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price released a statement Tuesday evening saying the U.S. is “not targeting and will not target the communications of President Hollande.”

“We do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose,” Price added. “This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike. We work closely with France on all matters of international concern, and the French are indispensable partners.”

Price did not address claims that the U.S. had previously eavesdropped on Hollande or his predecessors.

Ever since documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed in 2013 that the NSA had been eavesdropping on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it had been understood that the U.S. had been using the digital spying agency to intercept the conversations of allied politicians.

_____________

FILE – In this June 22, 2015, file photo, French President Francois Hollande speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels. WikiLeaks published documents late Tuesday, June 23, 2015, that it says show the U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropped on the last three French presidents, Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, releasing material which appeared to capture officials in Paris talking candidly about Greece’s economy, relations with Germany — and, ironically, American espionage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

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