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Monthly Archives: April 2016

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Supreme Court trying to find its way after Scalia

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Two months, 31 arguments and 18 decisions since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, is the Supreme Court hopelessly deadlocked or coping as a party of eight?

The answer varies with the issue, but arguments last week in the corruption case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell show there are high-profile cases on which justices from the left and the right agree more often than they don’t.

There also is some indication, hazy though it may be, that the court is trying to avoid division in an era of stark political partisanship and during a rollicking presidential campaign.

“The court prides itself appropriately as being an institution that works,” said Washington lawyer Andy Pincus, who argues regularly at the Supreme Court.

If the court can demonstrate an ability to get its work done, that could reinforce Republican opposition to confirming federal Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, who died in February.

At the same time, the court has split 4-4 in two cases and part of a third, and the justices could end up similarly divided over immigration, birth control and a couple of other issues. Scalia’s death has deprived the court’s conservatives of a fifth, majority-making vote on some high-profile issues.

In McDonnell’s appeal of his corruption convictions, however, liberal and conservative justices seemed to share a deep skepticism of the government’s case. They strongly suggested that the court eventually will set aside his criminal conviction.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the justice between them on the ideological spectrum, Anthony Kennedy, all sharply questioned the government’s case against McDonnell. The onetime rising Republican star was convicted of accepting, along with his wife, Maureen, more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement.

Breyer said he worried about putting too much power in the hands of a criminal prosecutor, “who is virtually uncontrollable.” Roberts said perhaps the court should strike at the root of the problem and declare unconstitutional a key federal bribery law.

The justices long have expressed their discomfort about overzealous prosecutors and their pursuit of corruption charges, previously limiting the very law Roberts speculated about Wednesday. Scalia was a loud voice against the “honest services” fraud statue, but he was not alone.

If corruption prosecutions are one area in which ideology seems less important, concern about digital-age privacy is another. Two years ago, the court unanimously ruled for a suspected gang member after police searched his smartphone without a warrant.

On both topics, the fear of unbridled government power worries liberals and conservatives alike.

In two more cases, the court unanimously turned away Republican- and conservative-led voting rights challenges in Arizona and Texas. Both cases still might have come out the same way — with the challengers losing — had Scalia been on the court.

But John Elwood, a lawyer who writes a popular feature about the court’s caseload for Scotusblog, said he thinks the court resolved the cases more narrowly after Scalia’s death, perhaps to avoid division.

The court doesn’t just miss Scalia’s vote, but his distinctive voice as well. The biggest difference at the court since Scalia’s death has been the way the justices relate to each other during arguments that once were filled with Scalia’s pointed barbs and wry wit.

In some arguments, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has adopted a more aggressive tone, even challenging Roberts or interrupting his line of questioning. During arguments last month over the Obama health care law’s contraception mandate, Roberts suggested that women who work at faith-based groups that object to birth control coverage could instead apply for it through the federal insurance exchanges.

“That’s a falsehood,” Sotomayor said before Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. could respond.

In a second case involving Puerto Rico’s financial plight, Sotomayor essentially answered a question Roberts had asked lawyer Chris Landau.

The exchange prompted Roberts to say: “You came up with a very good answer, Mr. Landau, to my question.”

In a case involving the federal Clean Water Act, Elwood said Kennedy seemed to fill the role once played by Scalia as the law’s chief skeptic.

In last week’s McDonnell case, Kennedy offered a tart response to Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben’s assertion that it would be stunning if the court were to strike down long-standing anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws.

“Would it be absolutely stunning to say that the government has given us no workable standard?” Kennedy asked.

In some ways, the justices could be trying on roles as they adjust to life without Scalia. There are fewer big cases in the pipeline for next term, almost certainly a product of the court’s desire to avoid controversial topics until the bench is once again full.

The eight-justice court probably will be around for a while — at least through the presidential election in November and possibly some months beyond that.

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FILE – In this Oct. 2, 2013 file photo, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Two months, 31 arguments and 18 decisions since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, is the Supreme Court hopelessly deadlocked or coping as a party of eight? The answer varies with the issue, but arguments last week in the corruption case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell show there are high-profile cases on which justices from the left and the right agree more often than they don’t. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds, File)

Online:

Audio of arguments in McDonnell v. U.S.: http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/audio/2015/15-474

China lays out firm conditions for improved ties with Japan

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BEIJING (AP) — China laid out firm conditions Saturday for improved ties with Japan, telling Tokyo’s visiting foreign minister that there could be “no ambiguity or vacillation” in meeting Beijing’s demands over historical interpretation, relations with Taiwan and other key matters.

Beijing portrayed the visit by Fumio Kishida as an act of outreach to an angry China, as the two sides try to repair relations bedeviled by disputes over territory, history and competition for influence in East Asia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kishida that the ties must be based on “respect for history, adherence to commitment, and on cooperation rather than confrontation.”

Relations have gone through “twists and turns in recent years due to reasons best known by Japan,” Wang said, adding that China desires “healthy and stable relations” with its neighbor and key economic partner.

Japan needs to “turn its words into deeds,” Wang said.

In an elaboration on Wang’s comments, the Foreign Ministry quoted him as saying that Japan must adhere to commitments laid down in previous agreements, “face up to and reflect upon the history and follow the one-China policy to the letter,” the last part a reference to Beijing’s insistence that self-governing Taiwan is Chinese territory.

“No ambiguity or vacillation is allowed when it comes to this important political foundation of the bilateral ties,” the ministry quoted Wang as saying.

As part of what the ministry termed a “four-point requirement on improving bilateral ties,” Wang also demanded that Japan “have a more positive and healthy attitude toward the growth of China, and stop spreading or echoing all kinds of China threat or China economic recession theories.”

Kishida was making the first formal visit to China by a Japanese foreign minister in more than four years, part of an effort to revive a relationship that for years has been economically vital but politically dormant.

High-level ties between the two countries have been largely frozen since Japan nationalized a string of uninhabited East China Sea islands claimed by China in 2012, sparking deep anger among Chinese. Kishida’s visit was the first formal one to China by a Japanese foreign minister in more than four years.

Despite their crucial economic relationship, many Chinese harbor deep animosity toward Japan dating from its brutal invasion and occupation of much of China during the 1930s and 1940s. Meanwhile, distrust toward Beijing runs deep among the Japanese public, who see their country’s economic and political influence being overshadowed by a rising China.

China is also deeply critical of Japan’s alliance with the U.S. and has warned Tokyo to keep out of a festering dispute over China’s moves to cement its claim over virtually the entire South China Sea. Beijing has also lambasted moves by Japanese conservatives seen as whitewashing Japan’s militaristic past and minimizing World War II atrocities committed in China and elsewhere.

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Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, left, stretch to shake hands with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, in Beijing, China, Saturday, April 30, 2016. (Jason Lee/Pool Photo via AP)

UN says N. Korea accusations vs US troops ‘unsubstantiated’

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The American-led U.N. command on Saturday dismissed as unsubstantiated accusations from North Korea that U.S. troops at a border village tried to provoke its frontline troops with “disgusting acts.”

A North Korean military statement Friday warned U.S. soldiers to stop what it called “hooliganism” at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom or they’ll meet a “dog’s death any time and any place.”

It said U.S. troops pointed their fingers at North Korean soldiers and made strange noises and unspecified “disgusting” facial expressions. It also said that American troops encouraged South Korean soldiers to aim their guns at the North.

A statement from Christopher Bush, a spokesman for the U.N. command, said they looked into the allegations and determined they were unsubstantiated.

North Korea occasionally accuses South Korean and U.S. troops of trying to provoke its border troops and vice versa. After North Korea’s first nuclear bomb test in 2006, the U.S. accused North Korean troops of spitting across the border’s demarcation line, making throat-slashing hand gestures and flashing their middle fingers.

The latest North Korean accusation came a day after South Korean and U.S. officials said two suspected medium-range missile launches by North Korea ended in failure. In recent weeks, North Korea fired a barrage of missiles and artillery shells into the sea in an apparent response to annual South Korea-U.S. military drills that ended Saturday.

About 28,000 American troops are deployed in South Korea to deter potential aggression from North Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty.

Panmunjom, located inside the 4-kilometer- (2.5-mile-) wide Demilitarized Zone that bisects the Korean Peninsula, is where the 1953 armistice was signed. It remains one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, but Panmunjom — jointly overseen by North Korea and the American-led U.N. Command — is also a popular tourist spot drawing visitors on both sides.

Visitors from the southern side are often told by tour guides to be extremely careful about what gestures they make so as not to antagonize the nearby North Korean soldiers.

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A South Korean army soldier mans a K-9 self-propelled artillery vehicle during an exercise in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Friday, April 29, 2016. North Korea on Friday accused U.S. soldiers of trying to provoke its frontline troops with “disgusting” acts and encouraging South Korean soldiers to aim their guns at the North.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hyungjin1972

Iran media: Moderates win more than 30 more parliament seats

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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s moderate-reformist bloc secured more than 30 additional seats in parliamentary runoff elections, according to a Saturday report on state TV.

The bloc, which supports President Hassan Rouhani and a nuclear deal the country reached with world powers last summer, will have to dominate the remaining unannounced runoff seats in order to secure an outright majority in the 290-seat legislature.

State TV on Saturday morning announced winners for 60 of the remaining 68 seats being contested. Among them there are 32 moderate-reformist candidates, with the rest divided between hard-liners and independent candidates.

Final results are expected later on Saturday.

So far the moderate-reformist bloc has secured the largest faction in the 290-seat parliament with at least 130 seats, followed by hard-liners with less than 90 seats and independents with some 60 seats.

The moderate-reformist bloc chief and leading candidate in Tehran, Mohammad Reza Aref, said earlier in April they needed 40 seats in the runoff to secure a pure mathematical majority.

If they fail to achieve the majority, the bloc will have to turn to some of the independent parliamentarians in order to push through legislation. The stances of these independent MPs tend to vary from issue to issue.

Failure to achieve that majority could also complicate the bloc’s efforts to name the parliament speaker of their choosing. The speaker usually plays a significant role in passing or rejecting bills and also serves on several important decision-making bodies including the powerful Supreme National Security Council.

In February, the moderate-reformist bloc dominated the vote in Tehran, securing all 30 seats there. But their support is less dominant outside the capital.

Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Ali Amiri told state TV that turnout in the runoff elections was 59 percent, compared with 62 percent in the original February elections. Some 17 million Iranians were eligible to vote.

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An Iranian woman casts her ballot for the parliamentary runoff elections in a polling station at the city of Qods about 12 miles (20 kilometers) west of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, April 29, 2016. Iranians voted Friday in the country’s parliamentary runoff elections, a key polling that is expected to decide exactly how much power moderate forces backing President Hassan Rouhani will have in the next legislature. The balloting is for the remaining 68 positions in the 290-seat chamber that were not decided in February’s general election, in which Rouhani’s allies won an initial majority. (AP Photo)

 

Business Wrap-up: US stocks hit by health care woes but avoid bigger losses

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NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stocks fell Friday as health care and technology companies continued to report weak first-quarter results, but thanks to some late buying, they managed to avoid major losses.

Stocks opened lower and fell further throughout the morning, extending a downturn from the day before. That followed a rout in European indexes. Late in the day bond prices rose again, sending yields lower and pushing investors to buy utility and phone company stocks.

Dan Suzuki, senior U.S. equities strategist at Bank of America, said investors don’t like what they’re seeing in the results from technology companies.

“A lot of investors have been disappointed by results from tech this earnings season,” he said. So they are turning to bond-like stocks such as phone and utility companies, as well as small- and mid-cap stocks, which struggled in 2015.

“Everything that was working through last year has been an underperformer this year, and vice versa,” he said.

The Dow Jones industrial average gave up 57.12 points, or 0.3 percent, to 17,773.64. It was down as much as 178 points earlier in the day. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 10.51 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,065.30. The Nasdaq composite index lost 29.93 points, or 0.6 percent, to 4,775.36. That was its seventh decline in a row.

Health care companies took the biggest losses after a bout of weak earnings reports. Biotech drugmaker Gilead Sciences said its results were hurt by big discounts and rebates on its costly hepatitis C medicines, and its stock lost $8.79, or 9.1 percent, to $88.21. Rival biotech giant Amgen reported relatively solid results, but fell $2.26, or 1.4 percent, to $158.30.

Health insurer Molina Healthcare slashed its full-year guidance because of higher medical care costs in Ohio and Texas, expenses related to recent acquisitions, and pharmacy costs, especially in Puerto Rico. It plunged $12.46, or 19.4 percent, to $51.76.

Molecular diagnostics company Cepheid shed $6.86, or 19.4 percent, to $28.54 as analysts were disappointed with its revenue projections for the second quarter.

Tech stocks continued to slide. After its profit fell short of estimates, electronic storage company Seagate Technology lost $5.13, or 19.1 percent, to $21.77. Hard drive maker Western Digital dropped $5.19, or 11.3 percent, to $40.87. Apple, which is in a deep two-week slide, fell another $1.09, or 1.1 percent, to $93.75. Like the Nasdaq, Apple has fallen for seven days in a row.

Bond prices rose slightly, and yields continue to slip. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell to 1.82 percent from 1.83 percent. Utility companies made the biggest gains, as NextEra Energy added $1.11, or 1 percent, to $117.58.

While earnings hurt tech and health care companies, better results at consumer companies sent those stocks higher. E-commerce giant Amazon said its revenue jumped 28 percent in the first quarter, and the company turned a far bigger profit than analysts expected. Cloud-based Amazon Web Services performed well. Amazon rose $57.59, or 9.6 percent, to $656.59.

Consumer products maker Newell Brands gave a strong outlook for the year after its reported solid results in the first quarter, and its stock rose $2.12, or 4.9 percent, to $45.54. Online travel company Expedia reported a bigger adjusted profit and greater sales than expected, and its stock added $8.86, or 8.3 percent, to $115.77.

Digital TV listing company Rovi said it will buy digital video recording company TiVo for about $1.1 billion in cash and stock. TiVo gained 56 cents, or 5.9 percent, to $9.98 and Rovi rose 27 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $17.62.

Stocks in Europe took big losses. Official data showed the eurozone economy rose by a surprising 0.6 percent in the first quarter, but investors were concerned that inflation slipped in April. France’s CAC 40 fell 2.8 percent and Germany’s DAX lost 2.7 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 1.3 percent.

The yen continued to gain strength, as it has done over the last few months. It jumped Thursday after the Bank of Japan held off on implementing any new economic stimulus measures. On Friday the dollar fell to 106.73 yen from 108.09 yen. Japanese markets were closed for a holiday Friday. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index fell 1.5 percent and Seoul’s Kospi gave up 0.3 percent.

Metals prices continued to rise. Gold advanced $24.10, or 1.9 percent, to $1,290.50 an ounce and silver rose 23 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $17.82 an ounce. Gold is trading at 15-month highs. Copper picked up 5 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $2.28 a pound.

Benchmark U.S. crude lost 11 cents to $45.92 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 1 cent to $48.13 a barrel in London.

In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline lost 1 cent to $1.58 a gallon. Heating oil fell 3 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $1.38 a gallon. Natural gas rose 10 cents, or 4.8 percent, to $2.18 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The euro rose to $1.1454 from $1.1351.

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FILE – This May 11, 2007 file photo shows a Wall Street sign in front of the flag-draped facade of the New York Stock Exchange. Global stock markets mostly fell Friday, April 29, 2016, after Wall Street slid and Japan’s central bank surprised markets by putting off possible additional stimulus. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

AP Markets Writer Marley Jay can be reached at http://twitter.com/MarleyJayAP His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/marley-jay

Military buildup, fighting spells end of Syrian cease-fire

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BEIRUT (AP) — A military buildup in northern Syria, coupled with heavy fighting and mounting civilian casualties, spells the end of a cease-fire that for two months brought some relief to a war-weary country. The renewed violence is ushering in what could be an even more ruinous chapter in the 5-year-old conflict.

About 200 civilians have been killed in the past week, nearly half of them around Aleppo. There has even been shelling in Damascus, along with a car bomb — both rarities for the capital.

With peace talks in Geneva completely deadlocked, Syrians are regarding the escalating bloodshed with dread, fearing a return to full war and slow destruction.

“There are regime attempts to advance and preparations by (rebel) forces to advance in the other direction. But the truth is that both sides have no capacity to advance,” said activist Ahmad al-Ahmad, who lives in opposition-held areas outside Hama. “It is attrition, except for the planes, which can target civilians.”

Aleppo is likely to be the focus of the next phase of the war, with both sides preparing for a major battle, according to senior rebel leaders and opposition activists who spokes to The Associated Press.

Government forces have been mobilizing soldiers, equipment and ammunition in preparation for a military action in Aleppo, said Maj. Jamil Saleh, leader of Tajammu Alezzah, a Free Syrian Army faction that has received U.S.-delivered TOW anti-tank missiles.

He said his group, which operates primarily in Hama and Latakia, has sent troops to Aleppo to help the rebels ward off government advances. He described the airstrikes and artillery shelling in the former commercial capital for the last week as “preparatory” work for a major campaign.

Opposition activists also said a substantial redeployment of personnel has taken place recently, as contingents of the Syrian army and allied militias have moved from Palmyra to the vicinity of Aleppo.

“The cease-fire was a cover, because the regime never committed to it since the start of the cease-fire,” Saleh said in a telephone interview from Syria.

Nazeer al-Khatib, an activist who lives on the outskirts of Aleppo, said the city is being choked off by fighting. Government and allied forces are moving in on the main highway to rebel-held areas, blocking the only access to the rest of the country, he said.

Aleppo residents already are moving out of Syria’s largest city to rural areas to evade violence, but also out of fear of getting trapped amid shortages of food and rising prices.

The city was the focus of government efforts that succeeded in almost completely choking off rebels holed up in some neighborhoods before the U.S. and Russia engineered the cease-fire on Feb. 27.

The truce held surprisingly well for weeks, underlining the exhaustion on all sides. Formally called a “cessation of hostilities,” it was never meant to be complete because it excluded extremists such as the Islamic State group and its rival al-Qaida branch, the Nusra Front. The presence of Nusra in almost every contested area has allowed the Syrian army and its Russian allies to target opposition-held areas while also claiming not to have technically violated the cease-fire.

That has allowed the truce to gradually unravel, with both sides accusing each other of incremental violations, mainly in the crucial Aleppo area where all sides are trying to expand their presence.

With the upsurge in fighting, the U.N. envoy for Syria appealed to the U.S. and Russia to intervene to help revive the peace talks, saying the renewed violence has put an increasingly feeble truce in “great danger.”

Staffan de Mistura spoke to reporters early Thursday after briefing the U.N. Security Council via videoconference about the largely stalled talks.

De Mistura said he hoped that the talks would resume in May, and he predicted the overall process would continue as previously planned through July. But stopped short of setting a specific date, pointing to recent upsurge in fighting, notably in and around Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.

De Mistura lamented the worsening violence, saying that “in the last 48 hours, we have had an average of one Syrian killed every 25 minutes, one Syrian wounded every 13 minutes … How can you have substantial talks when you have only news about bombing and shelling?”

Any move to cut off Aleppo completely and end resistance in the city is likely to be a costly and extended affair, resulting in mass casualties and more refugees fleeing the country. There is talk that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, key backers of the rebels, may renew weapons shipments as the peace talks flounder.

Firas Abi Ali, principal analyst at IHS Country Risk, said an offensive on Aleppo also risks a reunification of the Syrian opposition around groups such as Nusra. He said it also increases the likelihood of cooperation between Nusra and the Islamic State group to capture towns south of Aleppo that are crucial to supplying government forces.

The ground movements suggest that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, which have been on the ascendancy thanks to unwavering Russian and Iranian support, are likely to try to win back Aleppo.

“The fighting is about to get worse,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut. “I think we will see an escalation before serious (peace) talks begin.”

Russia’s six-month air campaign allowed Assad’s forces to advance in key areas against the rebels, and the recapture of Palmyra from IS militants has won his forces praise, including from the head of the United Nations.

With Washington caught up in a presidential election, the U.S is inclined to pay even less attention to Syria, and its focus is squarely on the war with IS. This week, President Barack Obama said an additional 250 military personnel would be deployed to Syria to train and advise local units to eventually dislodge IS from its de facto capital of Raqqa.

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Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb, Philip Issa and Maeva Bambuck contributed to this report. FILE – In this Sunday, April 24, 2016, file photo made from video posted online by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, Civil Defense workers run after airstrikes and shelling hit Aleppo, Syria. A military buildup in northern Syria coupled with heavy fighting and mounting civilian casualties spells the end of a cease-fire that for two months brought much needed relief to war-stricken Syrians, ushering in what could be an even more ruinous chapter in the country’s five-year-old conflict. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP video, File)

Investigators look at overdose in Prince death

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Investigators are looking into whether Prince died from an overdose and whether a doctor was prescribing him drugs in the weeks before he was found dead at his home in suburban Minneapolis, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

The official said Thursday that among the things investigators are looking at is whether a doctor was with Prince on a plane that made an emergency landing in Illinois less than a week before the star died.

The law enforcement official has been briefed on the investigation and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The official said investigators are also looking into what kind of drugs were on the plane and at Prince’s house in suburban Minneapolis.

The official also confirmed some details that have previously been reported by other media outlets, including TMZ.

Prince’s plane made an emergency stop in Moline, in western Illinois, on April 15 and he was found unconscious on the plane, the official said. The person said first responders gave Prince a shot of Narcan, which is used in suspected opioid overdoses. The official said the so-called save shot was given when the plane was on the tarmac in Moline as Prince returned to Minneapolis following a performance in Atlanta.

The official said investigators are looking at whether Prince overdosed on the plane and whether an overdose killed him, and at what kind of drugs were involved. One possibility is the powerful painkiller Percocet or something similar, the official said.

Narcan can be used on people even if an overdose isn’t confirmed because it wouldn’t necessarily be harmful.

While it’s premature to say where the investigation is heading, the mention of a doctor calls to mind other celebrity deaths, including Michael Jackson’s. Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his role in prescribing a powerful anesthetic that contributed to the pop star’s death in 2009.

A second law enforcement official told AP that prescription drugs were discovered at Prince’s home when the musician was found dead on April 21.

That official spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak about the ongoing investigation into Prince’s death. The official did not elaborate. An autopsy has been performed, but results aren’t expected for three to four weeks. The search warrant for Prince’s Paisley Park home and studio — carried out the day of his death — was filed Thursday under seal at the request of investigators who said it would hamper their investigation if contents were public.

An affidavit in support of sealing the warrant, signed by Carver County Chief Deputy Jason Kamerud, also warned that disclosing details in the warrant could cause “the search or related searches to be unsuccessful” and risk injury to innocent people.

Kamerud declined to comment Thursday on the reports of drugs found at Paisley Park, and told AP that he strongly disputed reports by several media outlets that investigators had asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for help in the case.

“We have not asked them for help, or asked them to be a part of the investigation,” Kamerud said. “We might contact them to help us, but that hasn’t happened. We don’t have the medical examiner’s report yet. We don’t know to what extent pharmaceuticals could be a part of this.”

Leo Hawkins, a DEA spokesman in Chicago, said he had no comment.

Prince’s death came two weeks after he canceled concerts in Atlanta, saying he wasn’t feeling well. He played a pair of makeup shows April 14 in that city. Prince was scheduled to perform two shows in St. Louis but canceled them shortly before his death due to health concerns.

Longtime friend and collaborator Sheila E. has told the AP that Prince had physical issues from performing, citing hip and knee problems that she said came from years of jumping off risers and stage speakers in heels.

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Tarm reported from Chicago. Tucker reported from Washington, D.C. FILE – In this Nov. 22, 2015 file photo, Prince presents the award for favorite album – soul/R&B at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles. ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN, citing unidentified law enforcement sources, reported that prescription painkillers were found on the musician and in his home. The Star Tribune, also citing unnamed sources, reported that prescription pills were found but that it wasn’t clear whether they had been prescribed to Prince. Prince was found dead in his Paisley Park home in suburban Minneapolis on April 21, 2016. He was 57. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

ISIS Senior Leader Killed In Lebanon

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(PhatzNewsRoom / IBT)   —-    BEIRUT– Two senior Islamic State group fighters, including one of the group’s leaders, were killed in Lebanon Thursday, as the state army carried out an operation on one of the terrorist group’s “key posts” on the country’s northeastern border. A third man was arrested.

Nayef Shaalan, also known as Abu Fouz, was the militant group’s leader in the northeastern border town of Arsal, long a stronghold of the group commonly known as ISIS. During Thursday’s clashes with the army in Arsal’s outskirts, Shaalan and his “Syrian escort” Ahmad Mroueh were killed. ISIS’ regional security official, Syrian national Moustafa Mousalli, was arrested, according to a statement from the Lebanese army.

Lebanese security officials had been monitoring Shaalan’s whereabouts, accusing him of carrying out or planning several attacks on the Lebanese side of the border with Syria. Earlier this week, Hezbollah said it thwarted an ISIS attack on one of its bases near Arsal.

“The targeted terrorists had participated in fighting against the army in 2014 and they are responsible for rigging a number of cars and causing several explosions that targeted army posts and civilians in Arsal and its surroundings,” the army statement said.

Arsal has been a hotbed of fighters from al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS for nearly two years since the groups coordinated the kidnap of 30 Lebanese security forces from the town in August 2014. The militants used the hostages as leverage to buy themselves freedom of movement in Arsal and the surrounding mountainous region.

nusra lebanon© Provided by IBT US nusra lebanon

For the majority of that time, Lebanese security forces and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s armed Shiite Muslim party, were only able to carry out minimal operations in Arsal’s outskirts, fearing the hostages would be killed in retaliation.

However, late last year, Hezbollah and the army stepped up attacks in the border area after Nusra agreed to a prisoner swap with Lebanon. ISIS still has nine Lebanese security forces hostage.

Biden presses Iraq to not let political chaos upend gains

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden pressed Iraq on Thursday not to let its crippling political crisis upend hard-fought gains against the Islamic State group as he returned to the country that’s come to symbolize America’s relentless struggles in the Middle East.

Biden slipped into Baghdad on an unannounced trip, his first to Iraq in nearly five years. Officials said the stop was planned before Iraq’s political system descended into turmoil, hindering U.S.-led efforts to defeat extremists who control parts of both Iraq and Syria. Sitting down with Iraq’s beleaguered leaders, he praised them for working “very, very hard” to construct a new Cabinet and touted progress wresting back territory from IS.

“It’s real, it’s serious, and it’s committed,” Biden said as he met with Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni politician facing calls from his colleagues to resign.

Still, the anxious undertones of Biden’s brief visit were clear from the moment he stepped off a military transport plane into blistering heat after an overnight flight from Washington. White House staffers donned body armor and helmets as Biden was whisked by helicopter to the relative safety of the heavily fortified Green Zone, reminders of the dire security situation even in Iraq’s capital.

Biden’s roughly eight-hour visit came amid a wave of tense protests and demands for sweeping political reforms that have paralyzed a government already struggling to tackle a dire economic crisis and battle IS. The United States has deployed more troops and equipment in hopes of putting Iraq on a better path as President Barack Obama prepares to leave office in January.

Though there’s been progress in wresting back territory from IS and weakening its leadership, senior U.S. officials traveling with Biden said any lost momentum would likely be due to political unrest rather than military shortcomings. Chaotic politics are nothing new in Iraq, but the present infighting risks becoming a distraction, with politicians more focused on keeping their jobs than fighting IS, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak on the record.

While Obama and Biden came into office pledging to end the war – and did so in 2011 – U.S. troops returned here in 2014 amid the rise of IS violence.

Obama now acknowledges that his goal of defeating the militants won’t be realized during his presidency.

Still, this month Obama agreed to deploy more than 200 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the authorized total to just over 4,000, and to send Apache helicopters into the fight. Biden thanked some of those troops and American diplomats during a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he alluded to the deep sectarian divides still plaguing Iraq long after U.S.-led forces toppled the late dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace, all the places we’ve sent you guys and women,” Biden said. “They’re places where because of history, we’ve drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states, made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious cultural groups and said, ‘Have at it. Live together.'”

Biden, as a U.S. senator in 2006, proposed dividing Iraq into semi-autonomous regions for Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Though that plan wasn’t adopted, the persistent strains among the groups that have flared recently in Iraq’s government illustrate the difficulty in holding the country together.

The current round of turmoil grew out of weeks of rallies by followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanding an end to pervasive corruption and mismanagement. Thousands have protested just outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, calling for politicians to be replaced by independent technocrats and for Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias to be brought into key ministries.

At the center of the crisis is Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite who met with Biden on Thursday at one of Saddam’s grandiose former palaces. Long overdue to deliver on his promises for reform, Al-Abadi is caught between ordinary Iraqis pleading for government accountability and entrenched political blocks that are reluctant to give up a powerful patronage system.

Last month, al-Abadi pulled troops fighting IS on the front lines to protect Baghdad amid the protests, and other Arab nations have declined to provide Iraq more financial support until it gets its political act together. An economic crisis spurred by collapsing oil prices has further compounded Iraq’s troubles.

Biden said he and al-Abadi discussed plans for retaking the key northern city of Mosul, an immense challenge for Iraqi forces and their U.S. backers. Biden said he was “very optimistic,” though U.S. officials predict a long road ahead.

“If you think about it, the history of the region is a nightmare from which everyone is trying to awake,” Biden said of Iraq and the Middle East, riffing on a passage from James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

While in Iraq, Biden also stopped briefly in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s mostly autonomous northern Kurdish region, where he met with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been among the most effective forces battling Islamic State extremists, but the U.S. partnership with Kurdish forces in neighboring Syria has been a sore point with U.S. NATO ally Turkey.

Biden headed for Rome after leaving Iraq.

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Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. diplomatic and military personnel serving in Iraq, Thursday, April 28, 2016, at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. (AP Photo/Josh Lederman)

Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

SF official releases more police racist texts

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco’s police chief has ordered “effective immediately” that all officers attend an anti-harassment class, even as he released more transcripts of a former lieutenant and two former officers exchanging racist text messages.

Investigators found the text messages on the personal phones of during criminal probes of former officer Jason Lai and retired Lt. Curtis Liu.

Police Chief Greg Suhr provided additional transcripts and copies of photos with racist captions that were found on Liu’s phone to The Associated Press Thursday. He also provided additional transcripts found as well as additional transcripts found on Lai’s phones.

Suhr is set to announce the new anti-harassment training Friday and unveil other steps he’s taking to combat bias in the department. It’s the second racist text scandal the department has endured since 2014.

“The vast majority of police officers are shaken,” Suhr said. “The expectations have never been higher, so when officers do something like this, the disappointment can’t be greater.”

Mayor Ed Lee on Thursday sent every officer in department of 2,100 an email letter urging officers to turn in colleagues who display intolerant behavior.

The names of those involved in the racists and homophobic conversations Suhr provided were redacted. Suhr said that Lai, Lui and an unidentified third former officer sent and received many of the messages. He also said several civilians were involved in the conversations.

Lai resigned earlier this month and Lui retired last year. The unidentified officer also resigned and fourth officer also implicated in the texting scandal Suhr declined to identify is facing dismissal before the city’s Police Commission.

The newly provided transcripts denigrate minority suspects with racial slurs and they insult colleagues they perceive to be gay. They ridicule blacks in Ferguson, Mo. where police shot and killed an unarmed black man, calling a picture of a burnt turkey a “Ferguson turkey.”

They discuss a shootout among black men and the shooting of an armed suspect by police. In doing so, they appear to ridicule the shooting death by police in 2014 of a mentally ill man carrying a stun gun officers mistook for a gun.

They also exchanged photographs with racist captions.

One photo depicts a white man playfully spraying a young black child with a garden hose The caption calls the young boy a racial slur.

There’s a photo of smoke rising above San Francisco and guesses are exchanged about the origins of the fire.

“Must be Korean BBQ,” quips one.

“I heard was a slave ship!!” quips another.

Lai was accused of sexual assault in August. Liu was charged Wednesday with a felony for allegedly lying to investigators looking into the Lai rape allegation.

Public defender Jeff Adachi released transcripts of racist text messages Lai sent earlier in the week. Adachi received the transcripts because he is representing a defendant Lai helped investigate.

Liu’s attorney Tony Brass said Thursday night that the texts investigators turned over to him show Liu only on the receiving end. But Brass said he may not be privy to all Liu’s texts, only the ones that pertain to his criminal case.

“But I can say that there have not been a single allegation that Curtis Liu has ever displayed any racist behavior,” Brass said. “That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to proliferate racist images and words. But he has never been accused of being a racist.”

Lai’s attorney Don Nobles didn’t return a call late Thursday night.

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FILE – In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi gestures while standing beside a picture of police officer Jason Lai during a news conference in San Francisco. San Francisco’s police chief has ordered “effective immediately” that every sworn officer attend an anti-harassment class while he released more transcripts of a former lieutenant and two former officers exchanging racist text messages. Investigators found the text messages on the personal phones of during criminal probes of former officer Jason Lai and retired Lt. Curtis Liu. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Business: Global stocks lower mixed after Wall Street slide

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BEIJING (AP) — Global stock markets mostly fell Friday after Wall Street slid and Japan’s central bank surprised markets by putting off possible additional stimulus.

KEEPING SCORE: In early trading, France’s CAC 40 fell 1.4 percent to 4,495.60 and Germany’s DAX lost 1 percent to 10,214.73. Britain’s FTSE 100 shed 0.8 percent to 6,268.49. On Thursday, the CAC 40 retreated by 0.7 percent, the DAX shed 0.4 percent and the FTSE 100 was off 0.2 percent. Wall Street looked set to extend its losses, with futures for the Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 down 0.1 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 1.5 percent to 21,067.05 and India’s Sensex lost 0.4 percent to 25,491.07. The Shanghai Composite Index retreated 0.3 percent to 2,938.32 and Seoul’s Kospi gave up 0.3 percent to 1,994.15. Benchmarks in Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines also retreated. Sydney’s S&P-ASX 200 advanced 0.5 percent to 5,252.20 and New Zealand also rose. Japanese markets were closed for a holiday.

WALL STREET SLIDE: Tech stocks slumped after billionaire investor Carl Icahn revealed he sold his stake in Apple Inc. Icahn wasn’t a major shareholder but investors watch his moves closely. Apple has fallen 15 percent in two weeks. Other shares moved on takeover news. The Dow lost 1.2 percent, the S&P fell 0.9 percent and the Nasdaq composite shed 1.2 percent for its sixth straight daily decline.

JAPANESE STIMULUS: The Bank of Japan surprised investors by deciding against adding to its huge stimulus for the world’s third-largest economy. Investors wanted to see that because inflation and consumer spending are weak, largely because the yen has gotten stronger. The bank’s decision to wait “will erode further investor confidence” in its ability to achieve its inflation target, Chris Weston of IG said in a report. On Thursday, the Nikkei 225 tumbled by an unusually wide daily margin of 3.6 percent.

ANALYST’S TAKE: “Expect short-term share market volatility to remain high as we head into May,” with global growth fragile and the Fed preparing markets for an eventual rate hike, Shane Oliver of AMP Capital said in a report. “However, beyond near-term volatility, we still see shares trending higher this year helped by a combination of relatively attractive valuations, further global monetary easing and continuing moderate global economic growth.”

LOWER U.S. GROWTH: The U.S. economy grew a bit less than expected in the first quarter. The government said gross domestic product increased 0.5 percent as consumer spending slowed down, exports fell and business investment plunged. That was the weakest result in two years, but experts think the economy will bounce back in the current quarter.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude shed 3 cents to $46.00 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract added 80 cents on Thursday to close at $46.03. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 2 cents to $47.75 in London. It added 84 cents the previous session to $47.77.

CURRENCY: The dollar declined to 107.24 from Thursday’s 108.12. The euro rose to $1.1393 from $1.1352.

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A currency trader walks by the screen showing the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) at the foreign exchange dealing room in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, April 29, 2016. Asian stocks were mixed Friday after Wall Street slid and Japan’s central bank surprised markets by putting off possible additional stimulus. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Breaking News: Ex-Reserve Deputy in Oklahoma Is Convicted in Shooting Death

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —-     A former volunteer deputy for a sheriff’s office in Tulsa, Okla., who fatally shot a suspect by accidentally firing his handgun instead of a Taser, was convicted on Wednesday of second-degree manslaughter, the volunteer’s defense lawyer said..

The volunteer, Robert C. Bates, 74, was a reserve deputy with the Tulsa County sheriff’s office when the shooting happened on April 2, 2015, during an illegal gun sales sting. He faces up to four years in prison.

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Eric C. Harris, 44, was fatally shot after fleeing an arrest in Tulsa, Okla. Credit Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office

The shooting was captured on video by a body camera worn by another deputy. It showed the suspect, Eric C. Harris, 44, who had fled from deputies, being knocked to the ground and ordered to roll on his stomach as officers struggled to subdue him.

A voice on the video could be heard saying “Taser, Taser.” A moment later, there was a single gunshot, and a voice saying: “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.”

Mr. Harris, who was black, was unarmed. Mr. Bates is white.

The defense called Mr. Harris’s death an “excusable homicide” and argued that methamphetamine in his system and his cardiac health caused his death, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Bates’s lawyer, Clark O. Brewster, said an appeal would be filed.

The shooting prompted several investigations, which revealed that Mr. Bates, a close friend of Sheriff Stanley Glanz and a volunteer reserve deputy since 2008, had donated thousands of dollars in cash, vehicles and equipment. Also discovered was a 2009 memo that questioned Mr. Bates’s qualifications.

Sheriff Glanz defended the program. He told The Tulsa World that Mr. Bates was an old friend “who made an error.”

A grand jury recommended that Sheriff Glanz be removed from office. He was charged with two misdemeanors for refusing to release the 2009 report and for false expense reimbursements. He resigned on Nov. 1. Vic Regalado, who was sworn in as the new sheriff on April 11, has outlined plans to reform and restore the reserve deputy program.

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Robert C. Bates, a former volunteer for the sheriff’s office in Tulsa, Okla., was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting of an unarmed man. Credit Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office

Israel’s controversial ‘roof knocking’ tactic appears in Iraq. And this time, it’s the U.S. doing it.

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“Roof knocking” is a controversial Israeli military practice used in the Gaza Strip. It works on a simple logic designed to minimize civilian casualties. Occupants of a building are given a warning a few minutes before a military strike.

The first warning is generally a phone call. The second is a rocket.

The Israeli military has argued that the practice saves lives by giving occupants a chance to escape, but critics say the tactic creates confusion and can amount to psychological warfare. This week, the United States announced that it had used the tactic in Iraq.

U.S. military officials told reporters on Tuesday that roof-knocking had been carried out during an operation on April 5 in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The United States was targeting a building that was housing a member of the Islamic State and about $150 million in funds for the extremist group, officials said. However, a woman and children also were found to be visiting the house, raising the possibility that noncombatants could be killed in a strike.

To warn the occupants of the house about the impending strike, a Hellfire missile was fired above the building to explode in mid-air, Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten said. The tactic did not fulfill its goal: The woman ran back into the house before the second strike, which destroyed the building.

Gersten said it was “very difficult for us to watch and it was within the final seconds of the actual impact.”

The Israeli practice of roof-knocking goes back at least a decade. It was used widely during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. The Israel Defense Forces would later say that they made about 165,000 warning phone calls and adhered to the “innovative” roof-knocking tactic during the operation. This video, shot by a Gaza-based news agency, shows a roof-knock shortly before a building is destroyed by a missile during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

This image from a Jan. 11, 2016, video released by the U.S. military shows an airstrike targeting an Islamic State cash distribution center near Mosul, Iraq.© Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve via AP This image from a Jan. 11, 2016, video released by the U.S. military shows an airstrike targeting an Islamic State cash distribution center near Mosul, Iraq.

Even though the practice is designed to save lives, it remains deeply controversial. Roof-knocking shows not only the ease with which Israel can target specific sites within Gaza, but also how much it controls the Palestinian territory’s telecommunications, generally routed through Israeli servers. There are reports that these warnings are sometimes not followed by strikes or that sometimes a strike is not preceded by a warning. In some cases, the warning may spur people to enter the house in the hope that their presence would deter a strike, while some warning strikes are said to have killed occupants.

“There is no way that firing a missile at a civilian home can constitute an effective ‘warning,’” Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, said in a statement during the 2014 conflict. The U.N. Human Rights Council would later issue a report arguing that roof-knocks “cannot be considered an effective warning given the confusion they often cause to building residents and the short time allowed to evacuate before the actual strike.”

Gersten said Tuesday that the use of the technique was not coordinated with Israel, though it was inspired by it. “We’ve certainly watched and observed their procedure,” he told reporters. The Islamic State’s presence in large cities in Iraq and Syria has made it hard to directly target them with airstrikes without causing civilian casualties. The United States has acknowledged killing at least 41 civilians since 2014 in thousands of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, though human rights groups often put the figure far higher. One monitoring group, Airwars, says that more than a thousand civilians are likely to have been killed in these airstrikes.

Although the roof-knock in Mosul may not have worked as hoped, Gersten said Tuesday that the tactic may be used again. “We do everything we can to mitigate the possibility of civilian casualties but don’t want to go into any additional detail about our tactics,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, said in a subsequent email.

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A member of a Kurdish special forces regiment watches from a hilltop as US-led coalition airstrike targets a Islamic State position while a large convoy of Kurdish peshmerga forces drives to Sinjar city during a major offensive to expel Islamic State militants.

China to join exercises with rival South China Sea claimants

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BEIJING (AP) — China said Thursday it will send a warship and special forces for a multinational exercise next month that is also expected to include troops from the Philippines and other rival claimants in the South China Sea.

The May 2-12 maritime security and counterterrorism exercise will feature the militaries of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, along with those of the U.S., India and six other dialogue partners.

It will be held in Singapore and Brunei and in nearby waters of the South China Sea.

Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Wu Qian said that China would send the missile destroyer Lanzhou, staff officers and a dozen special forces troops.

The exercise will help the militaries to “learn from each other and deepen practical cooperation in the defense and security fields,” Wu told reporters at a monthly news briefing.

China claims virtually the entirety of the strategically vital South China Sea and has attempted to shore up its control by building islands on coral reefs complete with airstrips, harbors and radar stations.

Despite that, China says it wants to resolve differences between the six rival claimants through dialogue and accuses the U.S. of raising tensions by challenging the Chinese actions with what are known as freedom of navigation patrols.

Asked about calls in the U.S. for stepped-up naval activity in the South China Sea, Wu summed up China’s hard line on its sovereignty claim in a new formulation claim he called the “Three No’s.”

“No matter how many and how frequently U.S. ships come to the South China Sea, that would not change the fact that the islands and adjacent islands are China’s inherent territory, it would not stop the pace of China’s growth and development and even more it would not shake the will of the People’s Liberation Army in resolutely safeguarding the sovereignty and security of China,” Wu said.

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File Photo: US navy sailors in a training exercise on the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen in the South China Sea, October 2015. (PhatzNewsRoom)

Deadly airstrikes hit MSF-supported hospital in Syrian city

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BEIRUT (AP) — A wave of nighttime airstrikes hit a hospital in Syria supported by Doctors Without Borders and nearby buildings in the rebel-held part of the contested city of Aleppo, killing at least 27 people as the U.N. envoy for Syria appealed early Thursday on the U.S. and Russia to help revive the peace talks and a cease-fire, which he said “hangs by a thread.”

Six hospital staff and three children were also among the casualties. The strikes, shortly before midnight Wednesday, hit the well-known al-Quds field hospital in the rebel-held district of Sukkari in Aleppo, according to opposition activists and rescue workers.

The chief Syrian opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush blamed the government of President Bashar Assad for the deadly airstrikes. He told The Associated Press that the latest violence by government forces shows “the environment is not conducive to any political action.”

The Civil Defense, a volunteer first-responders agency whose members went to the scene of the attack, put the death toll at 30 and said the dead included six hospital staff. Among those slain was one of the last pediatricians remaining in opposition-held areas of the contested city and a dentist.

The agency, also known as the White Helmets, said the al-Quds hospital and adjacent buildings were struck in four consecutive airstrikes. It said there were still victims buried under the rubble and that the rescue work continued.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 27 were killed, including three children.

Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, said in a series of tweets also emailed to the AP that at least 14 patients and staff were among those killed, with the toll expected to rise.

“Destroyed MSF-supported hospital in Aleppo was well known locally and hit by direct airstrike on Wednesday,” it said.

A video posted online by the White Helmets showed a number of lifeless bodies, including those of children, being pulled out from a building and loaded into ambulances amid screaming and wailing. It also showed distraught rescue workers trying to keep onlookers away from the scene, apparently fearing more airstrikes.

Alloush, who was one of the leading negotiators of the opposition in the Geneva talks, described the airstrikes as one of the latest “war crimes” of Assad’s government.

“Whoever carries out these massacres needs a war tribunal and a court of justice to be tried for his crimes. He does not need a negotiating table,” Alloush told the AP in a telephone interview. “Now, the environment is not conducive for any political action.”

The February 27 cease-fire has been fraying in the past weeks as casualty figures from violence mount, particularly in Aleppo and across northern Syria. Airstrikes earlier this week also targeted a training center for the Syrian Civil Defense, leaving five of its team dead in rural Aleppo.

Since April 19, nearly 200 people have died, including at least 44 in an airstrike on a market place in rebel-held area in northern Idlib province, as well as dozens of civilians in government-held areas from rebel shelling.

The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, briefed the U.N. Security Council via videoconference about the largely stalled indirect talks between the Western- and Saudi-backed opposition and envoys from Assad’s government, which has the backing of Moscow.

He said that after 60 days, the cessation of hostilities agreed to by both sides “hangs by a thread.”

“I really fear that the erosion of the cessation is unraveling the fragile consensus around a political solution, carefully built over the last year,” de Mistura said in his council briefing obtained by The Associated Press. “Now I see parties reverting to the language of a military solution or military option. We must ensure that they do not see that as a solution or an option.”

The talks foundered last week after the main opposition group, called the High Negotiating Committee, suspended its formal participation in the indirect talks with Assad’s envoys to protest alleged government cease-fire violations, a drop in humanitarian aid deliveries and no progress in winning the release of detainees in Syria.

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FILE — In this Sunday, April 24, 2016, file photo made from video posted online by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, a man helps an injured man as others stand in rubble after airstrikes and shelling hit Aleppo, Syria. A military buildup in northern Syria coupled with heavy fighting and mounting civilian casualties spells the end of a cease-fire that for two months brought much needed relief to war-stricken Syrians, ushering in what could be an even more ruinous chapter in the country’s five-year-old conflict. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP video, File)

South Korea: Suspected midrange North Korean missile crashes

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A suspected powerful intermediate-range North Korean missile crashed moments after liftoff Thursday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said, in what would be the second such embarrassing failure in recent weeks.

The report of the North Korean launch failure is particularly humiliating as it comes ahead of a major North Korean ruling party meeting next week at which leader Kim Jong Un is believed to want to place his stamp more forcefully on a government he inherited after his dictator father’s death in late 2011.

The launch was likely the second attempted test of a Musudan, a new intermediate-range missile that could one day be capable of reaching far-off U.S. military bases in Asia and the Pacific.

The projectile fired from a North Korean northeastern coastal town crashed a few seconds after liftoff, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said, requesting anonymity because of office rules. It wasn’t immediately known whether it crashed on land or into the sea.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the launch a provocation and said it will try to increase international pressure on North Korea.

The failed launch comes amid North Korean anger over annual South Korean-U.S. military drills that it calls a rehearsal for an invasion. The North has fired many missiles and artillery shells into the sea in recent months in an apparent protest against the drills, which end Saturday.

Earlier this week, South Korean media reported that North Korea had placed a Musudan missile on standby for an impending launch. The reports said the missile was one of two Musudan missiles North Korea had earlier deployed in the northeast.

South Korean and U.S. officials said there was a North Korean missile launch on April 15, the birthday of the North’s late founder, but they have not officially confirmed it was a Musudan. U.S. officials said that launch ended in failure.

Musudan missiles have a potential range of about 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles), which would put U.S. military bases in Guam within their striking distance. North Korea is also pushing to develop a nuclear-armed long-range missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, but South Korea believes it does not yet possess such a missile.

Before this month’s suspected launches, North Korea had never flight-tested a Musudan missile, though one was displayed during a military parade in 2010 in Pyongyang.

There is speculation in South Korea that North Korea will soon conduct a fifth nuclear test. The North carried out a fourth atomic test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February, earning worldwide condemnation and tougher U.N. sanctions.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Thursday there were unspecified signs that a fifth test was “imminent.” She warned another nuclear test would result in North Korea suffering harsher sanctions.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report. South Korean President Park Geun-hye, left, salutes to the national flag during the National Security Council Meeting at the presidential house in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 28, 2016. A suspected powerful intermediate-range North Korean missile crashed moments after liftoff Thursday, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said, in what would be the second such embarrassing failure in recent weeks. Park said Thursday there were unspecified signs that a fifth test was “imminent.” She warned another nuclear test would result in North Korea suffering harsher sanctions. (Lee Sang-hack/Yonhap via AP) KOREA OUT

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Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at twitter.com/hyungjin1972

Obama wants $1.9B to fight Zika: Where does it stand?

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion request for emergency money to combat the Zika virus has been sitting before Congress for more than two months, and there’s no obvious path forward despite a growing threat in the hot summer months and increasing public anxiety.

The administration has already transferred almost $600 million of unused Ebola funds and other money to fight Zika in the near term, but it says more is urgently needed to control the mosquitoes that spread the virus, manufacture vaccines once they are developed, and produce more accurate testing for the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said recently that no local mosquito-borne Zika virus disease cases have been reported in the U.S., but there have been 388 travel-associated cases.

The Zika virus can cause microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. It is spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact and is likely to spread more aggressively as mosquito season looms.

Top Republicans in the House, where tea party lawmakers hold great sway, aren’t convinced that more money is needed now and that it might be fine to wait until the fall.

Not so, says the White House, where press secretary Josh Earnest complained on Wednesday that Republicans “have refused to do what is necessary to protect the country from a genuine public health emergency.”

Questions and answers on where the issue stands:

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Q: Why are Republicans controlling the House reluctant to agree to the request?

A: For starters, they contend that the White House has a tendency to pad the numbers on such budget requests. There’s also additional leftover money from $5 billion approved in 2014 to fight Ebola. And if the White House won’t use more of that money there’s a desire to use other previously approved funds to offset the Zika request. Republicans don’t want to add to the budget deficit, and many of them simply won’t agree with any request from the president.

Democrats counter that the threat is real.

“This is not an Obama fantasy,” warns Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

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Q: Isn’t there a political cost if they don’t act?

A: You would think so, especially since they would open themselves up to political attacks while they’re away from Washington on a seven-week summer vacation at the same time as the virus might spread during peak mosquito season. Obama also is more popular than Congress and has a much bigger megaphone than his GOP rivals on Capitol Hill.

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Q: Why can’t the White House use even more Ebola money to fight Zika?

A: It can, but the administration says that would undermine agreements with poor nations to help them strengthen their health care systems to better respond to outbreaks and other threats. And the threat from Ebola hasn’t gone away completely and the administration says it needs reserves in case it flares again.

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Q: What about the Senate?

A: Senior Senate Republicans have developed an approximately $1.1 billion proposal to partially fund Obama’s request, and they’ve signaled they want to attach it to an upcoming spending bill — rather than try to advance a stand-alone Zika bill as requested by the White House. Some Senate Democrats, like Mikulski and Patty Murray of Washington state, reacted positively to the overtures. The White House, however, seems to think it can win a bigger package, and more partisan Democratic leaders might be inclined to use the Zika issue to bash Republicans.

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Q: So what’s next?

A: Both the House and Senate are on recess next week so nothing is happening for a while. When Congress returns the week of May 9, the pressure will be on since the White House has urged action by Memorial Day. If Senate Republicans succeed in bringing up another funding bill and successfully attach Zika funds to it, Democrats are likely to back it. What the GOP-controlled House would do with it is anybody’s guess.

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Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nev., joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, to call on congressional Republicans to approve President Barack Obama’s emergency supplemental request to fight the Zika virus. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Business: Japan leads world stocks lower on stimulus disappointment

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HONG KONG (AP) — Japanese stocks tumbled and the yen surged Thursday after the central bank dashed investors’ hopes for more stimulus, leading declines in most other world benchmarks after the Fed left interest rates unchanged.

KEEPING SCORE: European stocks slid in early trading, with France’s CAC 40 down 1.6 percent to 4,487.10 and Germany’s DAX shedding 1.6 percent to 10,137.11. Britain’s FTSE 100 dropped nearly 1 percent to 6,260.02. U.S. stocks were poised to open lower, with Dow futures falling 0.8 percent to 17,823.00 and broader S&P 500 futures also down 0.8 percent at 2,074.70.

JAPAN POLICY: Investors were disappointed by the Bank of Japan’s decision not to add to its huge economic stimulus program, though it did give some extra relief for earthquake recovery programs. Hopes for more stimulus for Asia’s No. 2 economy rose after the latest official figures revealed weak inflation and consumer spending for March even as factory output climbed.

MARKET INSIGHT: “This shows that too much expectation of further easing had been priced in and the BOJ has surprised the market by taking no action,” Margaret Yang, an analyst at CMC Markets in Singapore, said in a commentary. “It is probable that the central bank is temporarily running out of tools to stimulate the economy, or they need more time to observe and assess the impact of negative interest rates.”

FED ON HOLD: Earlier, the U.S. central bank offered few surprises for investors in its latest policy statement, saying it would keep a key interest rate unchanged while revealing no clues as to when its next rate hike might occur. The Fed said that the United States is seeing solid job gains while noting economic activity appears to be slowing and expressed less alarm about the global economy than it had at its previous meeting in March.

ASIAN SCORECARD: Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index erased earlier gains, falling 3.6 percent to 16,666.05. South Korea’s Kospi shed 0.7 percent to 2,000.93 while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index eked out a 0.1 percent gain to 21,388.03. The Shanghai Composite Index in mainland China lost 0.3 percent to 2,945.59 and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 added 0.7 percent to 5,225.40. New Zealand’s benchmark rose but those in Taiwan and Southeast Asia fell.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell 3 percent against the yen after the central bank statement, sliding to 108.18 yen from 111.53 yen. The euro strengthened to $1.1355 from $1.1325.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell hovered at its highest level this year, rising 3 cents to $45.36 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose $1.29, or 2.9 percent, to settle at $45.33 a barrel on Wednesday, which was its highest price since December. Brent crude, the international standard, lost 13 cents to $47.05 a barrel in London.

Opinion: Iran’s Supreme Leader says U.S. lifted sanctions only on paper

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(PhatzNewsRoom / Reuters)   —-   Iran’s Supreme Leader accused the United States on Wednesday of scaring businesses away from Tehran and undermining a deal to lift international sanctions.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told hundreds of workers that a global deal, signed between Iran and world powers, had lifted financial sanctions, but U.S. obstruction was stopping Iran getting the full economic fruits of the agreement.

“On paper the United States allows foreign banks to deal with Iran, but in practice they create Iranophobia so no one does business with Iran,” he said in quotes from the speech posted on his website.

Iran has repeatedly urged Washington to do more to remove obstacles to the banking sector, in the spirit of the July deal with the United States, the European Union, Russia and China to lift most sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme.

But some U.S. sanctions remain, and U.S. banks remain prohibited from doing business with Iran directly or indirectly because Washington still accuses Tehran of supporting terrorism and human rights abuses.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on Saturday that Washington was not trying to stop Iran dealing with banks outside the United States.

“There are now opportunities for foreign banks to do business with Iran … Unfortunately there seems to be some confusion among some foreign banks and we want to try and clarify that,” Kerry said.

_________

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; editing by John Stonestreet)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei poses before delivering a speech marking Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in this handout photo released by the Iranian Supreme Leader website on March 20, 2016.

 

Analysis: After Missteps, U.S. Tightens Rules for National Security Cases

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(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —-    WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has issued new rules that give prosecutors in Washington greater oversight and control over national security cases after the collapse of several high-profile prosecutions led to allegations that Chinese-Americans were being singled out as spies.

The new rules are intended to prevent such missteps, but without undermining a counterespionage mission that is a top priority for the Obama administration.

In December 2014, the Justice Department dropped charges against two former Eli Lilly scientists, Guoqing Cao and Shuyu Li, who had been accused of leaking proprietary information to a Chinese drugmaker. Three months later, prosecutors dropped a case against Sherry Chen, a government hydrologist in Ohio who had been charged with secretly downloading information about dams.

Then in September, the Justice Department dismissed all charges against a Temple University professor, Xiaoxing Xi, after leading physicists testified that prosecutors had entirely misunderstood the science underpinning their case.

“We cannot tolerate another case of Asian-Americans being wrongfully suspected of espionage,” Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, said last fall. “The profiling must end.”

While those cases raised the specter of Chinese espionage, none explicitly charged the scientists as spies. The cases involved routine criminal laws such as wire fraud, so national security prosecutors in Washington did not oversee the cases.

Sherry Chen, a government hydrologist in Ohio, was charged with economic espionage in 2014. The case was dropped five months later.© Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times Sherry Chen, a government hydrologist in Ohio, was charged with economic espionage in 2014. The case was dropped five months later.

In a letter last month to federal prosecutors nationwide, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said that would change. All cases affecting national security, even tangentially, now require coordination and oversight in Washington. That had always been the intention of the rule, but Ms. Yates made it explicit.

“The term ‘national security issue’ is meant to be a broad one,” she wrote.

Ms. Yates told federal prosecutors that consulting with experienced national security prosecutors in Washington would help “ensure prompt, consistent and effective responses” to national security cases.

The letter, which was not made public, was provided to The New York Times by a government official.

John P. Carlin, the Justice Department’s top national security prosecutor, reorganized his staff in Washington in recent years to focus more aggressively on preventing theft of America’s trade secrets. The new rules mean that espionage experts will review cases like Dr. Xi’s. Such cases “shall be instituted and conducted under the supervision” of Mr. Carlin or other top officials, the rules say.

Peter R. Zeidenberg, a lawyer for the firm Arent Fox, who represented Dr. Xi and Ms. Chen, called the new rules “a very positive step.”

“It’s welcome, and it’s overdue,” he said. “A bad reaction would be ‘We’re not going to do anything. Everything is fine.’ ”

Several of the cases fell apart when defense lawyers confronted prosecutors with new evidence or previewed the arguments they planned to make in court. In traditional white-collar criminal investigations, those conversations between prosecutors and defense lawyers often happen before charges are filed. In cases involving even a whiff of espionage, however, such conversations rarely happen. Authorities worry that suspects, tipped off to the investigation, will run or destroy evidence.

The absence of those conversations makes it important, then, that such cases receive an extra layer of review, defense lawyers said.

Ms. Yates did not mention the botched cases in her letter. But at the Justice Department, they were regarded as unfortunate — and perhaps preventable — black eyes that detracted from a string of successful espionage prosecutions. The United States faces an onslaught of economic espionage and other spying from China. Last year, Chinese hackers stole a trove of government data — including Social Security numbers and fingerprints — on more than 21 million people.

Last month, Su Bin, a Chinese businessman, pleaded guilty to trying to hack into American defense contractors to steal information on the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets and Boeing’s C-17 military cargo plane. In January, a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to trying to steal corn seeds from American companies and ship them to China to replicate their genetic properties.

In the Obama administration’s most direct confrontation with China, the Justice Department in 2014 charged five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army with hacking into prominent American companies.

Mr. Zeidenberg and others have argued that rushed cases create suspicion and unfairly tarnish reputations. In the case against the Eli Lilly scientists, prosecutors were unsparing in their description.

“If the superseding indictment in this case could be wrapped up in one word, that word would be ‘traitor,’” Cynthia Ridgeway, an assistant United States attorney, told a federal court in Indiana last year, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal.

The Justice Department gave no explanation for later dropping the case, saying only that it was done “in the interests of justice.”

Prosecutors made a similar statement last year when dropping charges against Dr. Xi. The dismissal suggested investigators did not understand and did not do enough to learn the science before they brought charges. Prosecutors had accused Dr. Xi, chairman of Temple’s physics department, with sharing schematics for a piece of American-made laboratory equipment, a pocket heater, with China. After leading scientists — including the inventor of the pocket heater — testified that the schematics showed an entirely different type of heater, the Justice Department dropped the case.

Though prosecutors dropped charges against Ms. Chen, the government has said it intends to fire her. She is fighting that decision.

_________

Follow The New York Times’s politics and Washington coverage on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the First Draft politics newsletter. © Mark Makela for The New York Times The Justice Department last year dropped all charges against Xiaoxing Xi, head of Temple University’s physics department; he had been accused of sharing sensitive American-made technology with China.

Politics: Trump, Clinton press closer to general election showdown

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WASHINGTON (AP) — With five convincing victories in hand, Donald Trump strengthened his grip on the Republican primary race and pushed tantalizingly close to a general election showdown with Hillary Clinton. The Democratic front-runner is now 90 percent of the way to her party’s nomination after four solid victories of her own Tuesday.

The Republican race now turns to Indiana, where next week’s primary marks one of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s last chances to slow Trump and push the race toward a contested convention. While Trump does need to keep winning in order to stay on his narrow path to the GOP nomination, he declared himself the party’s “presumptive nominee” after Tuesday’s results rolled in.

“It’s over. As far as I’m concerned it’s over,” he declared. The real estate mogul now has 77 percent of the delegates he needs.

Trump was headed to Indiana Wednesday after delivering a foreign policy speech in Washington. The address at a downtown hotel is the first in a series of speeches the Republican front-runner is expected to give in the coming weeks, all with the goal of easing Americans’ concerns about his readiness for the presidency.

Likewise, Clinton was eager to turn her attention to Trump. While Clinton advisers say they won’t underestimate Trump, as many of his vanquished Republican rivals did, her campaign sees opportunities to not only energize Democrats in an effort to keep him out of the White House but also appeal to Republicans turned off by the brash billionaire.

“If you are a Democrat, an independent or a thoughtful Republican, you know that their approach is not going to build an America where we increase opportunity or decrease inequality,” Clinton said of the GOP candidates.

Trump’s victories came in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Clinton ceded only Rhode Island to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, in an interview with The Associated Press, conceded he has a “very narrow path and we’re going to have to win some big victories.”

In the Republican race, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are desperately trying to force a convention fight. The challengers have even taken the rare step of announcing plans to coordinate in upcoming contests to try to minimize Trump’s delegate totals.

But that effort did little to stop Trump from a big showing in the Northeast, where he picked up at least 105 of the 118 delegates up for grabs. He now has 950 of the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination.

Cruz spent Tuesday in Indiana, where Kasich’s campaign has withdrawn in an attempt to give the Texas senator a clear path.

“Tonight this campaign moves back to more favorable terrain,” Cruz said during an evening rally in Knightstown, Indiana. His event was held at the “Hoosier gym,” where some scenes were filmed for the 1986 movie “Hoosiers,” about a small-town Indiana basketball team that wins the state championship.

Trump has railed against his rivals’ coordination, panning it as a “faulty deal,” and has also cast efforts to push the nomination fight to the convention as evidence of a rigged process that favors political insiders.

Yet there’s no doubt the GOP is deeply divided by his candidacy. In Pennsylvania, exit polls showed nearly 4 in 10 GOP voters said they would be excited by Trump becoming president, but the prospect of the real estate mogul in the White House scared a quarter of those who cast ballots in the state’s Republican primary.

In another potential general election warning sign for Republicans, 6 in 10 GOP voters in Pennsylvania said the Republican campaign has divided the party — a sharp contrast to the 7 in 10 Democratic voters in the state who said the race between Clinton and Sanders has energized their party.

The exit polls were conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and television networks.

Democrats award delegates proportionally, which allowed Clinton to maintain her lead over Sanders even as he rattled off a string of wins in recent contests. According to the AP count, Clinton now has 2,141 delegates while Sanders has 1,321.

That count includes delegates won in primaries and caucuses, as well as superdelegates — party insiders who can back the candidate of their choice, regardless of how their state votes.

Sanders has vowed to stay in the race until voting wraps up in June. He continues to raise millions of dollars and attract big crowds, including Tuesday night in West Virginia, where he urged his supporters to recognize that they are “powerful people if you choose to exercise that power.”

Clinton’s advisers are eager for the Vermont senator to tone down his attacks on the former secretary of state. She’s been reminding voters of the 2008 Democratic primary, when she endorsed Barack Obama after a tough campaign and urged her supporters to rally around her former rival.

___

Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey in Philadelphia, Michael Rubinkam in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, and Ken Thomas, Laurie Kellman, Chad Day, Stephen Ohlemacher and Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.

___

Follow Julie Pace and Catherine Lucey on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

French prosecutor: Paris attacks suspect moved to France

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PARIS (AP) — Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted fugitive until his capture last month, was transferred to France Wednesday morning and was to go before investigating judges for eventual charges, the French prosecutor’s office said that key.

Abdeslam, who was arrested in Belgium last month after four months on the run, was wanted in France for his role in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 victims, He is considered to have been instrumental in the logistics for the attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State group.

The quick transfer of Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin, surprised even his lawyer in France who rushed from Lille to join his client at the Justice Palace.

Frank Berton, who announced Wednesday before the transfer was disclosed, described Abdeslam as a young man “falling apart” and ready to cooperate.

French Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said Abdeslam would be placed in isolation in a prison in the Paris region, watched by guards specially adapted “for people reputed to be dangerous.” He did not name the prison where Abdeslam would be housed.

Abdeslam was the only survivor of the attacks and his testimony would likely prove significant to definitively linking events of the night of carnage when three teams of attackers blew themselves up or sprayed gunfire at Paris night clubs, a noted music hall and the sports stadium outside Paris.

He was Europe’s most wanted fugitive until his capture four days before the March 22 double Brussels bombings — at the airport and a metro station — that killed 32 people.

The transfer of the suspected extremist who had been Europe’s most wanted fugitive was carried out without advance notice and in secrecy. Abdeslam had been held in a high-security cell at a jail in Beveren near Antwerp.

Berton had met Abdeslam in the Belgian prison and told the iTele TV channel that his client wants to talk, telling him “he has things to say, that he wants to explain his route to radicalization” as well as his role in the attacks — but not take responsibility for others.

“That means be judged for facts and acts that he committed but not for what he did not commit simply because he is the only survivor of the attacks,” Berton said.

Abdeslam, whose brother blew himself up in the attacks, is charged with attempted murder over a March 15 shootout with police in Brussels. He was arrested three days later.

Belgian police questioned Abdeslam about potential links to the three suicide bombers who attacked the Brussels Airport and subway on March 22, killing 32 — just days after Abdeslam’s arrest.

Mystery continues to hang over Abdeslam’s role in the Paris attacks. He returned from France to Belgium after his brother blew himself up, calling cohorts in Brussels to fetch him. However, a suicide belt bearing his fingerprints was found south of Paris and a car he had been driving was found in a northern Paris district.

Berton, who has taken on tough cases in the past, said in the iTele interview that Abdeslam “has the right to be defended.”

“We’re in a democracy … we’re not in a totalitarian state,” Berton said.

_______

This is a an undated handout image made available by Belgium Federal Police of Salah Abdeslam who is wanted in connection to the November 13 attacks in Paris. Belgian prosecutors confirmed Wednesday April 27, 2016 that Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam was handed over to French authorities. (Belgium Federal Police via AP)

IS advances against rebels in north Syria

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BEIRUT (AP) — Militants from the Islamic State group seized five villages from Syrian rebels close to the Turkish border Wednesday, further weakening the rebels’ foothold in the Aleppo area.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a network of activists monitoring the Syria conflict, said the extremist group took five villages in Azaz district, north of Aleppo, where rebels hold an enclave host to tens of thousands of internally displaced civilians.

The IS group’s news agency also reported the advance.

Syrian rebels are anticipating a major government offensive against their position in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once the commercial capital. Aleppo is now divided between government and rebel control. Dozens of civilians have been killed in shelling and airstrikes on the city over the past week.

A government offensive backed by Russian air power and regional militias earlier this year dislodged rebels from parts of Azaz and severed their corridor between the Turkish border and Aleppo. The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are fighting for their autonomy in the multilayered conflict, also made ground against the rebels.

That left the rebels in Aleppo with just one narrow corridor to the outside world, through Idlib province. Those in Azaz are now squeezed between IS to the east and the SDF to the west and south, while Turkey tightly restricts the flow of goods and people through the border.

Doctors Without Borders and other aid organizations warned earlier this month that the humanitarian situation for over 100,000 people trapped in the Azaz rebel-held pocket was critical.

Wednesday’s advance puts IS in a better position to strike the towns of Marea and Azaz.

Syria’s conflict began with mostly peaceful protests in 2011, but a brutal government crackdown and the rise of an armed insurgency eventually plunged the country into a full-blown civil war. The fighting has killed more than 250,000 people, according to the United Nations, which stopped tracking casualties several months ago.

_______

(Photo File: Syrian government soldiers celebrate after taking control of Ratian, north of Aleppo, from rebel / AP/  PhatzNewsRoom)

Amid outside pressure, N. Korea sets date for key convention

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Facing mounting international pressure over its nuclear and missile ambitions, North Korea has set a date for its biggest political convention in decades next week that is expected to bolster young dictator Kim Jong Un’s grip on power.

The ruling Workers’ Party, led by Kim, will open its 7th congress in Pyongyang on May 6, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

It will be the first time the congress, the highest-level decision-making party organ, will be held since 1980, when Kim’s late father Kim Jong Il was awarded a slew of top jobs in a confirmation that he was in line to succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.

Since taking power upon the death of his father in late 2011, Kim Jong Un has been struggling to revive his country’s troubled economy and grapple with an international standoff over its nuclear and missile programs.

The crisis deepened earlier this year when North Korea conducted a fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch, which led to the U.N. slapping its toughest sanctions on Pyongyang in 20 years. South Korea and the United States also made their ongoing springtime military drills the largest ever.

In response, Kim last month ordered tests of a nuclear warhead and ballistic missiles capable of carrying warheads. That sparked outside speculation that North Korea could perform a fifth nuclear test ahead of the political convention to burnish his image as a stronger leader fighting hard against foreign aggressions.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday that the North was believed to have completed preparations for a new atomic bomb test. Park warned that such a move would result in stronger sanctions and pressure that would speed up North Korea’s collapse.

The North’s state media did not say what would be discussed and decided on during the congress. A previous KCNA report said the North decided to hold the convention as the country was faced with “the heavy yet sacred task” of building a “thriving” nation.

South Korea’s spy service said Wednesday it expects Kim to use the congress to try to strengthen and prolong his authoritarian leadership. The National Intelligence Service said the convention would handle personnel reshuffles, review state projects and revise party regulations, according to lawmaker Lee Cheol Woo, who attended the private NIS briefing.

Kim has orchestrated a series of high-profile executions, purgings and demotions in what outside analysts say was an attempt to remove potential rivals or show he’s an absolute ruler.

Among the executed were his powerful uncle, the No. 2 in North Korea before his death, and his defense chief. Some experts said repeated bloody power shifts may indicate the young leader has not established the same absolute power that his father and grandfather enjoyed.

The North’s state media did not say how long the congress would last. The 1980 convention lasted five days. The NIS said this year’s convention is expected to last three to four days.

_______

FILE – In this Oct. 10, 2015, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers remarks at a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea’s biggest political convention in decades opens in Pyongyang on May 6, 2016. The announcement comes amid outside speculation that North Korea will soon conduct a fifth nuclear bomb test to burnish leader Kim Jong Un’s military credentials amid tough international sanctions. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

Economic watchdog warns on UK leaving European Union

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LONDON (AP) — The head of the global economic forum OECD warned Britain that leaving the European Union would be tantamount to taxing its citizens — another in a growing cavalcade of cautionary advice ahead of a June 23 referendum on membership in the 28-nation bloc.

The warning by Angel Gurria, the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, came just days after expressions of concern by President Barack Obama, the U.K. Treasury and the International Monetary Fund. He described the notion that Britain might gain a better trade deal outside the union as somewhat fanciful.

“Brexit is like a tax,” he told the BBC ahead of publishing a full analysis of the implications of the vote. “It is the equivalent to roughly missing out on about one month’s income within four years but then it carries on to 2030.”

Gurria’s assessment follows that made by the U.K. Treasury last week, which determined that leaving the European Union would cost Britain the equivalent of $6,100 per household. The estimate was based on an analysis of the long-term costs and benefits of EU membership and its alternatives.

The ever-more dire OECD judgment came the same day that authorities reported Britain’s economy slowed in the first three months of the year amid concerns about the global economy as well as the vote on EU membership.

The U.K. economy grew by a quarter-on-quarter rate of 0.4 percent in January-March, down from 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, the Office for National Statistics said Wednesday. Services, which comprise 78 percent of the British economy, continued to grow, expanding by 0.6 percent. But other sectors declined, including construction, mining and manufacturing.

Chris Williamson, chief economist of Markit, said uncertainty about the economic outlook “appears to have intensified” ahead of a June 23 referendum on EU membership.

“The danger is that this will cause a lull in businesses decision making as the June vote draws closer, which will in turn reduce business spending, investment and hiring in the second quarter,” he said.

One of the leading members of the campaign to leave the EU, Nigel Farage, dismissed the concerns and the people who made them.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah — IMF, OECD, a whole series of international organizations stuffed full of overpaid people who failed in politics mostly,” he told the BBC.

When asked to name organizations that backed the so-called Brexit idea, he said: “They are called markets, they are called consumers, they are called people and they are called the real world.”

Farage said Britain would obtain a “bespoke” deal better than those obtained by “little countries like Norway and Switzerland” where people had been “betrayed by their politicians.”

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Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street for the House of Commons to attend his weekly Prime Ministers Questions in London, Wednesday, April, 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

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