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Monthly Archives: March 2018

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Source: Mueller pushed for Gates’ help on collusion

(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN)   —-   Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team last year made clear it wanted former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates’ help, not so much against his former business partner Paul Manafort, but with its central mission: investigating the Trump campaign’s contact with the Russians. New information disclosed in court filings and to CNN this week begin to show how they’re getting it.

In a court filing earlier this week, the public saw the first signs of how the Mueller team plans to use information from Gates to tie Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, directly to a Russian intelligence agency. Mueller’s team alleges that Gates was in contact with a close colleague of Manafort’s who worked for a Russian intelligence agency — and that Gates knew of the spy service ties in September and October 2016, while he worked on the Trump campaign. Gates would have to talk about the communication with the man if prosecutors wanted, according to his plea deal.

That’s in line with what prosecutors told Gates months ago during high-stakes negotiations, CNN has learned. They told him they didn’t need his cooperation against Manafort, according to a person familiar with the investigation, and instead wanted to hear what he knew about contact between the Trump campaign and Russians.

The extent of Gates’ knowledge about any such contact or what he told prosecutors hasn’t been made public.

As part of Gates’ agreement to cooperate with the special counsel a month ago, he earned a vastly reduced potential sentence and had several charges dropped in two criminal cases against him.

Gates’ plea also adds to mounting pressure on his co-defendant Manafort — who so far the government is making a central player in the investigation — to change his plea and potentially help investigators. Under his plea agreement, Gates still could be called to testify against Manafort.

Mueller’s court filing Tuesday night, in a separate case for a lawyer whose firm did legal work for Gates and Manafort, made public the most direct effort yet by Mueller’s team to draw a line between Manafort and the Trump campaign to Russian operatives. Prosecutors called the details of Gates’ contact with the Russian intelligence officer during the campaign “pertinent to the investigation.”

Robert Mueller wearing a suit and tie © Getty Images

Russian contact

The alleged Russian intelligence agent, referred to as “Person A” in the court filing, appears to be Konstantin Kilimnik, a former employee who worked with Manafort’s firm and lived in Kiev and Moscow, according to sources familiar with the investigation. In December, the Mueller prosecutors made a similar unnamed reference to Kilimnik, saying he is “assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service.” That was related to a Kiev newspaper op-ed that Kilimnik helped edit in consultation with Manafort late last year, which prosecutors said could violate a court-imposed gag order on Manafort.

The criminal allegations facing Gates and Manafort encompass work they did in the years prior to the 2016 election. Manafort has pleaded not guilty in two federal criminal cases stemming from Mueller’s prosecution, one in Washington, DC, and another one in Virginia.

A chief criticism from President Donald Trump and his defenders has been that the charges brought so far by the special counsel don’t relate directly to Mueller’s central mission investigating possible illegal coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which the President and others often shorthand using the term collusion. The accusation related to Kilimnik and ties to Russian intelligence, made in Mueller’s Tuesday filing, begins to answer that criticism, but so far without actually making the charge in Manafort’s case.

A lawyer for Manafort declined to comment. Kilimnik didn’t comment. Last year, Kilimnik told The Washington Post he has “no relation to the Russian or any other intelligence service.”

Gates’ current lawyer also declined to comment for this story.

What Gates knows

Gates may have information of value to prosecutors beyond his business dealings with Manafort, according to sources familiar with his role. He never grew close to Trump, but he had ties with other members of Trump’s inner circle, including Manafort and Tom Barrack, a fundraiser and close friend of Trump’s. He also developed a reputation for keeping tabs on what others were up to, one source said.

Gates worked alongside Manafort during the critical summer of 2016 when senior campaign officials, including Manafort, met at Trump Tower in New York with a group of Russians who had promised damaging information on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“Was he in the strategy meetings? No. But he was an implementer,” one person said of Gates. So while he may not have participated in the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians, he may still have knowledge of the meeting or whether those Russians were ever introduced to Trump himself.

“He would be the kind of person who would probably know that,” this person said.

Even after Manafort was fired from the campaign, Gates stuck around. He then went on to work with Barrack, while Barrack ran the presidential inaugural committee following the election.

Legal team troubles

Before the indictment, prosecutors had told Gates he faced the risk of criminal charges — the beginning of a strategy to pressure him, according to two sources.

Gates’ various legal teams — and there have been many — kept in touch with Mueller’s office throughout the investigation.

Once prosecutors made a plea offer following Gates’ indictment, that offer never changed: He could plead guilty to a conspiracy count if he helped the investigation.

In all, Gates held out for almost four months. He initially pleaded not guilty with the help of a public defender after he split with his previous attorney.

He then hired three lawyers, who each worked in their own small firms, to take him to trial.

But the financial stress on Gates mounted. He failed to pay some of his legal bills.

“The reality of how long this legal process will likely take, the cost, and the circus-like atmosphere of an anticipated trial are too much,” Gates told friends and family in an email the morning he pleaded guilty.

Despite the risk for Manafort and the cost, Gates engaged a third set of private attorneys, led by Thomas Green of the large law firm Sidley Austin, to negotiate his plea deal with Mueller in January and February.

Even as Green finalized Gates’ plea throughout February, Gates wavered on his willingness to cooperate with the prosecutors. For months, he held on-and-off conversations with a fourth option for a private defense attorney to take him to trial: Barry Pollack. Pollack had previously worked closely with Manafort’s attorneys.

At least three other well-known criminal defense law firms tried to help Gates over the past several months, according to multiple sources. One law partner made calls to find him lawyers, another two lawyers reviewed the financial allegations, and a third firm offered to get involved. Manafort’s attorneys were engaged in some of the efforts but not all.

More recently, the Republican National Committee promised it would help defendants in the Mueller investigation fight their charges by establishing a legal defense fund.

Yet it wasn’t enough. Gates never hired Pollack nor any other attorney to take him to trial after he was released from house arrest in early January.

Prosecutors revealed after one of his interviews with the Mueller team, on February 1, that they believed he had lied to them about a detail of Manafort’s lobbying efforts. The lie resulted in a second charge added to his possible plea. Gates chose to cooperate and plead guilty eight days later.

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CNN’s Sara Murray contributed to this story.

6 Palestinians killed by Israel fire on Gaza border

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Large crowds of flag-waving Palestinian protesters marched toward the Gaza border fence with Israel on Friday, some of them throwing stones and drawing Israeli fire that officials said killed at least five people.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least 500 Palestinians were hurt by live fire, rubber-coated steel pellets or tear gas fired by Israeli forces at several locations along the fence, but did not provide the breakdown.

Earlier Friday, in a separate incident, a Palestinian farmer was killed by an Israeli tank shell while he was working in his field before dawn, the ministry said.

The protests had begun as mass sit-ins organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, but quickly spun out of control.

Israel’s military said thousands of Palestinians rolled burning tires and threw stones at forces stationed on the border, and that troops opened fire at the “main instigators.”

Palestinian witnesses said hundreds of Palestinians participated in clashes, while thousands more gathered in tent encampments set up in five sites several at a distance of several hundred meters from the border.

Such mass gatherings near the border signal a new tactic by Hamas — and one that might prove more challenging to Israel’s military than previous smaller protests.

Military officials have said they will respond harshly to any breaches of the border fence. At the same time, a rising number of casualties will likely stoke more border tensions, a scenario Israel hopes to avoid.

The sit-ins are seen as a new attempt by Hamas to break a crippling, decade-old Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt that has made it increasingly difficult for the Islamic militant group to govern.

Other tactics over the years, including Hamas’ cross-border wars with Israel and attempts to reconcile with political rival Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank-based Palestinian president, have failed to end Gaza’s isolation.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised the turnout.

“The large crowds … reflect the Palestinian people’s determination to achieve the right of return and break the siege and no force can stop this right,” he said.

Friday’s actions are to be the first in a series of protests planned in Gaza in coming weeks. The protests are to culminate on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation, with a march through the border fence.

Palestinians commemorate the date as the anniversary of their mass displacement and uprooting during the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation. The vast majority of Gaza residents are descendants of Palestinians who fled or were driven from communities in what is now Israel.

Israel’s military said ahead of Friday’s protests that it doubled its standard troop level along the border, deploying snipers, special forces and paramilitary border police units, which specialize in riot control.

Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, commander of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, which includes the border, said Friday that “we are identifying attempts to carry out terror attacks under the camouflage of riots.”

He urged Gaza residents to stay away from the border, and held Hamas responsible for any violence there.

Previous protests near the border fence in recent months have turned deadly, with Israeli soldiers firing live bullets at Palestinians burning tires, throwing stones or hurling firebombs.

On Friday, mosques across Gaza called on Palestinians to join the protests. Buses took protesters to the border area, including five tent encampments set up from north to south, several hundred meters from the border fence. By noon, thousands had arrived at the encampments.

Ghanem Abdelal, 50, distributed water bottles to family members sitting on a map near one of the tents east of Gaza City. He said he hopes the protest “will bring a breakthrough, an improvement, to our life in Gaza.”

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ supreme leader, visited the tents, along with Gaza leader Yehiyeh Sinwar.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said five people were killed by Israeli fire in subsequent clashes, including a 16-year-old boy and a 33-year-old man.

Several hours before the confrontations, a Palestinian farmer identified as 27-year-old Amr Samour was killed by an Israeli tank shell in southern Gaza, the Health Ministry said.

Israel said troops had directed tank fire at suspicious figures near the border fence in the area.

Yasser Samour, a relative and fellow farmer, said Amr Samour was harvesting parsley before dawn, in hopes of selling it fresh in the market later in the day.

“I was working on the next field,” Yasser Samour said. “We heard shelling landing on the field where Amr works. We ran there and found him hit directly with a shell. We were more than a kilometer away from the border.”

Another farmer was wounded in the leg by shrapnel, Samour said.

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Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

US consulate staff in St. Petersburg prepare to leave

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — U.S. consulate staff in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, were preparing on Friday to wind up operations after the Russian government ordered the consulate’s closure.

Russia on Thursday announced the expulsion of more than 150 diplomats, including 60 Americans, in response to mass expulsions of Russian diplomats by Western countries over the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that “Russia didn’t start any diplomatic wars” and had to respond. Peskov said Russia was open to improving ties with all countries including the U.S.

Russia also ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg in response to the U.S. announcement to shut the Russian consulate in Seattle.

An Associated Press reporter on Friday saw consulate staff carrying boxes from the building and loading them into a van. Several mini-vans drove out of the consulate while security also detained a man who threw a Starbucks cup at the building.

Some of the passers-by near the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg cheered the expulsions.

“Let them get out of here,” said 61-year-old pensioner Viktor Fedin. “You won’t put Russia on its knees.”

Others were more cautious, worried that the closures would affect visa processing for Russians.

“The Russian government has to respond to the hostile actions against Russia,” said 32-year-old researcher Yelena Bogomazova.

“But the escalation is bad. The closure of the consulate will make it difficult for people to get U.S. visas, they will have to go to Moscow.”

After Russia expelled several dozens of U.S. diplomats, the waiting list for U.S. visa applications in Russia has increased to weeks if not months. The U.S. embassy said it was unable to process visa applications faster because of the staff shortage.

US military: Syria bomb kills 2 coalition troops, wounds 5

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KOBANI, Syria (AP) — The U.S. military said Friday that two coalition personnel were killed and five others wounded by a roadside bomb in Syria in a rare such attack since the U.S-led coalition sent troops into the war-torn country.

The military did not say where the incident occurred of the nationalities of the casualties but it came hours after a local Syrian official said that a roadside bomb exploded in the tense, mixed Arab-Kurdish town of Manbij that is not far from the border with Turkey.

Manbij is under threat of a Turkish military operation. Ankara says Syrian Kurdish militiamen it views as “terrorists” and an extension of Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey is in control of the town.

The U.S. military statement said the attack happened Thursday night and that the wounded were being evacuated for further medical treatment. The statement said details were being withheld pending further investigation.

It did not identify the casualties as U.S. soldiers, only coalition personnel members.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon couldn’t immediately say who was behind the attack.

“There is an investigation under way to identify who they could possibly be. We have our initial assessment and thoughts on that but we won’t provide until the investigation is complete,” he said.

Dillon refused to give the nationalities of the dead and wounded as well as the location of the attack until next of kin notification.

Dillon said the coalition has had fatalities in Syria before. “Perhaps by different means but there have been coalition deaths in Syria over the course of three years.”

Mohammed Abu Adel, head of the Manbij Military Council, an Arab-Kurdish group in the town backed by the U.S., said the bomb went off hundreds of meters (yards) from a security headquarters that houses the council just before midnight on Thursday.

Earlier on Friday, Dillon said an incident involving coalition forces was reported in Manbij but said no more information was available.

The town has seen a number of small explosions, protests and an assassination attempt on a member of the Manbij military council in recent weeks. Local officials blame Turkey and other adversaries for seeking to sow chaos in the town that was controlled by Islamic State group militants until the summer of 2016.

The military council has since been in control and U.S. troops patrol the town and area with troops based nearby.

Meanwhile, near the capital Damascus, there were conflicting reports on whether a main rebel group will evacuate the largest and last rebel-held town in the area, known as eastern Ghouta.

Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military’s General Staff said at a Friday briefing that the agreement envisages Army of Islam rebels and their families leaving the Syrian town of Douma, just outside of Damascus.

The announcement came after the Syrian government on Wednesday issued a three-day ultimatum to the Army of Islam group to leave Douma or face an all-out offensive.

Syrian state TV said an agreement is about to be reached for an Army of Islam evacuation but the group denied the reports.

Army of Islam military spokesman Hamza Bayraqdar told The Associated Press that the reports are false, adding that his group’s stance is to reject displacement and demographic change in eastern Ghouta.

The Syrian government and the Russian military backing it have demanded that Army of Islam members leave the area for northern Syria, following other rebels who left eastern Ghouta.

Rudskoi said over 143,000 people, including 13,793 rebels and 23,544 members of their families have left eastern Ghouta. He also said some 40,000 residents have returned to their homes in eastern Ghouta as there has been no fighting over the last seven days

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Brother of unarmed man killed by police redirects protests

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Hours after an emotional interruption at his brother’s funeral, Stevante Clark helped defuse tension in California’s capital city by asking protesters not to block thousands of fans from entering a downtown NBA arena for a third night.

Police in riot gear stood waiting outside the Golden 1 Center as fans wove through barricades and fencing Thursday to enter for a Sacramento Kings-Indiana Pacers game. But protesters never came, heeding calls from Stevante Clark and Black Lives Matter organizers to avoid the arena. Instead, they blocked rush hour traffic on nearby downtown streets.

The March 18 shooting of Stephon Clark, 22, by Sacramento police officers has sparked near daily protests downtown, with his name becoming a rallying cry for police reform in California and beyond.

Two officers responding to a call of someone breaking car windows shouted that Clark had a gun before firing 20 bullets at him, but he had only a cellphone. The family’s attorney, Ben Crump, will on Friday release results of an independent autopsy.

Delivering Stephon Clark’s eulogy Thursday, the Rev. Al Sharpton praised demonstrators for their restraint and urged them to follow the lead of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his advocacy of nonviolent protest.

Community members around california gathered to show support towards the family of Stephon Clark who was shot by police in Sacramento. (March 29)

“I want the folks in California to know that there’s nothing wrong with how these young people are standing up,” he thundered. “They’re not being violent, they’re asking for you to stop being violent to them.”

More than 500 people packed into the church to celebrate Stephon Clark’s life, remembering his dance moves, smarts and love for his two young sons.

Stevante Clark interrupted the musical and scriptural celebration by hugging and kissing the casket, leading the crowd in chanting his brother’s name, pounding his chest and shouting. Others on the stage attempted to calm him, with limited success.

Sharpton hugged and consoled him and told the crowd not to judge how families grieve.

“This brother could be any one of us, so let them express and grieve,” Sharpton said. “We are proud of them for standing up for justice.”

The Kings and their owner have been supportive of the Clark family.

The team announced plans to set up an education fund for Stephon Clark’s children and a partnership with Black Lives Matter Sacramento to bring “transformational change” to the city’s black communities. Former Kings player Matt Barnes attended the funeral, as did Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who promised to work with Stevante Clark days after he disrupted a City Council meeting.

The protests have caused disruption, though largely peaceful, around the arena, a focal point of the city’s revitalization efforts in a downtown that’s struggled economically and has a heavy homeless population. Some businesses have been shutting down early while commuters have been snarled in rush hour traffic due to closed streets during the protests.

West Sacramento resident Onyeabo Aduba, 33, said he canceled reservations Thursday at a restaurant near the arena for his girlfriend’s birthday because of the protests. But Aduba said he’s supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and frustrated that efforts such as requiring police to wear body cameras haven’t made real change.

He said the community’s level of support for the demonstrators has been surprising.

“Sacramento is more liberal than conservative but I think it’s a pretty neutral city,” he said. “I’ve been surprised by the amount of compassion from people.”

Turning the focus nationally, Sharpton and others chastised President Donald Trump for failing to comment on police shootings of young black men. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about the Clark shooting and demurred, referring to it as a local issue.

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Associated Press reporters Kathleen Ronayne and Haven Daley in Sacramento, John Antczak and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed.

Could enemies sabotage undersea cables linking the world?

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Russian ships are skulking around underwater communications cables, causing the U.S. and its allies to worry the Kremlin might be taking information warfare to new depths.

Is Moscow interested in cutting or tapping the cables? Does it want the West to worry it might? Is there a more innocent explanation? Unsurprisingly, Russia isn’t saying.

But whatever Moscow’s intentions, U.S. and Western officials are increasingly troubled by their rival’s interest in the 400 fiber-optic cables that carry most of world’s calls, emails and texts, as well as $10 trillion worth of daily financial transactions.

“We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the U.S. European Command, told Congress this month.

Without undersea cables, a bank in Asian countries couldn’t send money to Saudi Arabia to pay for oil. U.S. military leaders would struggle to communicate with troops fighting extremists in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A student in Europe wouldn’t be able to Skype his parents in the United States.

All this information is transmitted along tiny glass fibers encased in undersea cables that, in some cases, are little bigger than a garden hose. All told, there are 620,000 miles of fiber-optic cable running under the sea, enough to loop around the earth nearly 25 times.

Most lines are owned by private telecommunications companies, including giants like Google and Microsoft. Their locations are easily identified on public maps, with swirling lines that look like spaghetti. While cutting one cable might have limited impact, severing several simultaneously or at choke points could cause a major outage.

The Russians “are doing their homework and, in the event of a crisis or conflict with them, they might do rotten things to us,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at nonprofit research group CNA Corp.

It’s not Moscow’s warfighting ships and submarines that are making NATO and U.S. officials uneasy. It’s Russia’s Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research, whose specialized surface ships, submarines, underwater drones and mini subs conduct reconnaissance, underwater salvage and other work.

One ship run by the directorate is the Yantar. It’s a modest, 354-foot oceanographic vessel that holds a crew of about 60. It most recently was off South America’s coast helping Argentina search for a lost submarine.

Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the Russian parliament’s publication, last October said the Yantar has equipment “designed for deep-sea tracking” and “connecting to top-secret communication cables.” The publication said that in September 2015, the Yantar was near Kings Bay, Georgia, home to a U.S. submarine base, “collecting information about the equipment on American submarines, including underwater sensors and the unified (U.S. military) information network.” Rossiya, a Russian state TV network, has said the Yantar can not only connect to top-secret cables, but could cut them and “jam underwater sensors with a special system.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

There is no hard evidence that the ship is engaged in nefarious activity, said Steffan Watkins, an information technology security consultant in Canada tracking the ship. But he wonders what the ship is doing when it’s stopped over critical cables or when its Automatic Identification System tracking transponder isn’t on.

Of the Yantar’s crew, he said: “I don’t think these are the actual guys who are doing any sabotage. I think they’re laying the groundwork for future operations.”

Members of Congress are wondering, too.

Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat on a House subcommittee on sea power, said of the Russians, “The mere fact that they are clearly tracking the cables and prowling around the cables shows that they are doing something.”

Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, an Armed Services Committee member, said Moscow’s goal appears to be to “disrupt the normal channels of communication and create an environment of misinformation and distrust.”

The Yantar’s movements have previously raised eyebrows.

On Oct. 18, 2016, a Syrian telecom company ordered emergency maintenance to repair a cable in the Mediterranean that provides internet connectivity to several countries, including Syria, Libya and Lebanon. The Yantar arrived in the area the day before the four-day maintenance began. It left two days before the maintenance ended. It’s unknown what work it did while there.

Watkins described another episode on Nov. 5, 2016, when a submarine cable linking Persian Gulf nations experienced outages in Iran. Hours later, the Yantar left Oman and headed to an area about 60 miles west of the Iranian port city of Bushehr, where the cable runs ashore. Connectivity was restored just hours before the Yantar arrived on Nov. 9. The boat stayed stationary over the site for several more days.

Undersea cables have been targets before.

At the beginning of World War I, Britain cut a handful of German underwater communications cables and tapped the rerouted traffic for intelligence. In the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sent American divers deep into the Sea of Okhotsk off the Russian coast to install a device to record Soviet communications, hoping to learn more about the USSR’s submarine-launched nuclear capability.

More recently, British and American intelligence agencies have eavesdropped on fiber optic cables, according to documents released by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor.

In 2007, Vietnamese authorities confiscated ships carrying miles of fiber optic cable that thieves salvaged from the sea for profit. The heist disrupted service for several months. And in 2013, Egyptian officials arrested three scuba divers off Alexandria for attempting to cut a cable stretching from France to Singapore. Five years on, questions remain about the attack on a cable responsible for about a third of all internet traffic between Egypt and Europe.

Despite the relatively few publicly known incidents of sabotage, most outages are due to accidents.

Two hundred or so cable-related outages take place each year. Most occur when ship anchors snap cables or commercial fishing equipment snags the lines. Others break during tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

But even accidental cuts can harm U.S. military operations.

In 2008 in Iraq, unmanned U.S. surveillance flights nearly screeched to a halt one day at Balad Air Base not because of enemy mortar attacks or dusty winds. An anchor had snagged a cable hundreds of miles away from the base, situated in the “Sunni Triangle” northwest of Baghdad.

The severed cable had linked controllers based in the United States with unmanned aircraft flying intelligence, surveillance and recognizance missions for coalition forces in the skies over Iraq, explained Ret. Air Force Col. Dave Lujan of Hampton, Virginia.

“Say you’re operating a remote-controlled car and all of a sudden you can’t control it,” said Lujan, who was deputy commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group at the base when the little-publicized outage lasted for two to three days. “That’s a big impact,” he said, describing how U.S. pilots had to fly the missions instead.

Business: Asian shares track tech, consumer stocks’ rally on Wall St

(PhatzNewsRoom / AP)   —   Shares rose in Asia on Friday after technology and consumer-focused stocks led an overnight rally on Wall Street, marking a dramatic end to the market’s most volatile quarter in more than two years. Most world markets were closed for Good Friday.

KEEPING SCORE: Japan’s Nikkei 225 index added 1.4 percent to 21,454.30 and the Kospi in South Korea climbed 0.4 percent to 2,445.85. The Shanghai Composite index edged 0.3 percent higher to 3,168.90. Shares rose in Taiwan and Thailand.

WALL STREET’S SURGE: Banks and industrial stocks also lifted the market and recent laggards such as Facebook and Boeing rose. Even so, the solid gains didn’t prevent the stock market’s first quarterly loss since the third quarter of 2015. The S&P 500 rose 1.4 percent to 2,640.87. The Dow gained 1.1 percent to 24,103.11 and the Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks also picked up 1.1 percent, to 1,529.43. The Nasdaq added 1.6 percent to 7,063.44, closing the quarter with a gain of 2.3 percent. U.S. stock markets will be closed for the Good Friday holiday.

TECH FACTOR: Thursday’s run-up in technology stocks signaled that investors believe the sector was oversold in recent weeks, said Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. “Volatility has ramped up, inflationary pressures are more prevalent, interest rates are on the cusp of change, so that presents a higher level of uncertainty and higher investor angst,” he said.

JAPAN DATA: Data released Friday showed industrial production rebounded in February, gaining 4.1 in February from the month before, after a 6.8 drop in January. “The rebound in industrial production in February wasn’t strong enough to prevent a slump in output last quarter and we reiterate our forecast that GDP shrank in Q1,” Marcel Thieliant of Capital Economics said in a commentary.

ENERGY: Trading stopped for the long Easter weekend. On Thursday, benchmark U.S. crude rose 56 cents to $64.94 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, used to price international oils, added 74 cents to $70.27 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar fell to 106.23 yen from 106.43 yen on Thursday. The euro strengthened to $1.2329 from $1.2301.

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– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Friday, March 30:

1. Major Markets Closed

Major European and U.S. markets were closed on Friday for the Easter holiday weekend.

In Europe, the Frankfurt, London, and Paris markets were closed. Markets in Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo, Chile, Australian, and Canada were also closed.

Some markets will also be closed on Monday in celebration of Easter, including London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Australia, Paris and Milan.

Stocks ended Thursday higher, with the Dow up 1.07%, the S&P 500 rising 1.40% and technology heavy Nasdaq rallying 1.64%. U.S. markets had been on edge all week following concerns over a potential global trade war and fears over increased technology regulation after a Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) user data scandal.

2. Asian Markets Cap Worst Quarter in Two Years

Asian markets rose on Friday, as major stocks in China ended their worst quarter in nearly two years.

China stocks were higher after the close on Friday, as gains in the technology sectors led shares higher.

At the close in Shanghai, the Shanghai Composite gained 0.27%, while the SZSE Component index climbed 1.05%.

Meanwhile the China A50 Index of China’s biggest companies was down 4.2%, the most in nearly two years, compared to a rally of 32% last year.

In Japan, the TOPIX rose 0.72% while the Nikkei 225 was flat on Friday.

3. Cryptos Fall to Lowest Level Since November 2017

The cryptocurrency market cap was at its lowest level since November 23, 2017, falling to $251.8 billion overnight. The market cap was at $269.9 billion as of 5:13 AM ET (9:13 GMT), according to data from Coinmarketcap.

Bitcoin fell 5.60% to 7,131 as talk of a “death cross” lead to an investor sell-off. The “death cross” is a term used to describe a crossover of the 50-day moving average and the longer-term 200-day moving average. Technicians often look at this pattern as a bearish sign of what’s to come.

4. Singapore Watchdog Halts Uber-Grab Deal

In a rare move, a Singapore watchdog has halted the integration of Uber and Grab as it investigates whether or not the deal infringes on competition.

The Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) is investigating the deal and proposed interim measures that will require Uber and Grab to maintain their pre-transaction independent pricing.

The deal was announced on Monday, as the U.S. share driving giant retreats from Asia.

Under the deal, Uber will take a 27.5 percent stake in Grab, which is valued at around $6 billion.

5. Trump May Hold Up South Korea Trade Deal Until North Korea Denuclearization Reached

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that he may hold back on a South Korea trade deal reached this week until North Korea is denuclearized.

“I may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea,” Trump said in a speech. “You know why? Because it’s a very strong card. And I want to make sure everyone is treated fairly,” he added.

Trump accepted a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is expected to take place at the end of May.

South Korea and the U.S. agreed earlier this week to revise their six-year old free trade agreement, in an attempt to deter currency devaluation and open up the South Korean automobile and drug markets to U.S. companies. The deal would also exempt South Korea from the steep steel and aluminum tariffs introduced by Trump earlier this month.

Mueller just drew his most direct line to date between the Trump campaign and Russia

(PhatzNewsRoom / WAPO)    —    Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation just drew what appears to be its most direct line to date between President Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.

That line is drawn in a new court filing related to the upcoming sentencing of London attorney Alex van der Zwaan. Van der Zwaan has pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with deputy Trump campaign manager Rick Gates and a person identified in the document only as “Person A.” Person A appears to be a former Ukraine-based aide to Gates and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort named Konstantin Kilimnik.

Here’s the paragraph:

Fourth, the lies and withholding of documents were material to the Special Counsel’s Office’s investigation. That Gates and Person A were directly communicating in September and October 2016 was pertinent to the investigation. Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents assisting the Special Counsel’s Office assess that Person A has ties to Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016. During his first interview with the Special Counsel’s Office, van der Zwaan admitted that he knew of that connection, stating that Gates told him Person A was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with GRU.

That Person A has had ties to Russian intelligence is not terribly surprising. Kilimnik’s personal history has been examined extensively by the media, including The Washington Post. He has denied being involved in Russian intelligence, but he served in the Russian military and attended a Russian military foreign language university that is seen as a breeding ground for intelligence agents.

What’s particularly significant in the Mueller filing, though, are six words: “and had such ties in 2016.” Prosecutors have said previously that a longtime Manafort and Gates associate had ties to Russian intelligence, but they have never said those ties remained during the 2016 campaign. In December, they said this associate was “a longtime Russian colleague . . . who is currently based in Russia and assessed to have ties to a Russian intelligence service.” Why those six words were added in this filing when they didn’t appear in the previous filing is the $64,000 question.

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As Philip Bump details here, this is hardly the first public indication of a link between the Trump campaign and Russia, but it is the closest connection Mueller has made in a filing to this point. Mueller hasn’t weighed in on the alleged Kremlin ties of the Russian lawyer Donald Trump Jr. met with, for instance, nor has he filed anything involving Roger Stone’s contacts with hackers who have been linked to Russia.

The other new piece here is that Mueller’s team says Gates described Person A (again, apparently Kilimnik) as “a former Russian Intelligence Officer with GRU.” (GRU is Russia’s military intelligence organization.) So according to van der Zwaan, Gates talked openly about Person A’s ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik told The Post in June that he has “no relation to the Russian or any other intelligence service.” Mueller is now apparently directly disputing that using Gates’s own words, via van der Zwaan.

Ever since his guilty plea last month, van der Zwaan’s relation to the case has been unclear. We know he is the son-in-law of a prominent Russian Ukrainian banker, but as with other figures in this case, we have no idea why he lied to investigators. Was it an honest mistake, or was he covering something up?

The new van der Zwaan filing doesn’t shed a whole bunch of new light on that, but it does suggest that Mueller views Kilimnik as a possible link between the Trump campaign and Russia, and that he believes Kilimnik hasn’t been forthcoming about his ties to Russian intelligence. We also know that Manafort had been in contact with Kilimnik during the 2016 campaign, meeting him at least twice and asking him to provide private briefings about the 2016 election to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who is closely tied to Vladimir Putin.

Whether that’s pertinent to the broader collusion investigation is something we’ll have to wait to find out. There is so much Mueller knows that we simply don’t; this could be the tip of an iceberg or an extraneous fact. But those six words do seem at least a little conspicuous.

Rival Korean leaders to meet April 27 in historic summit

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PAJU, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a border village on April 27, the South announced Thursday, for a rare summit that could prove significant in global efforts to resolve the decades-long standoff over the North’s nuclear program.

The announcement was made after officials of the two countries met at the border village of Panmunjom. The Koreas plan to hold another preparatory meeting on April 4 to discuss security, protocol and media coverage issues, according to a statement released by the countries.

Leaders of the two Koreas have held talks only twice since the 1950-53 Korean War, in 2000 and 2007, under previous liberal governments in South Korea. The Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945 into a U.S.-dominated south and Soviet-backed north, which became sovereign nations three years later.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, one of three South Korean participants in Thursday’s talks, told reporters beforehand that setting up discussions between the leaders on the North’s nuclear disarmament would be a critical point.

After the meeting, Cho told South Korean reporters there was a “sufficient exchange of opinions” on the agenda for the summit, but didn’t provide a clear answer on whether discussions of the nuclear issue will be included.

“Both sides agreed to prepare for (the summit) in a way that would allow sincere and heartfelt discussions (between the leaders). If there’s a need, we decided to continue discussions on the summit agenda through follow-up high-level meetings in April,” Cho said.

“Both sides will continue working-level discussions (on the agenda) while focusing on the issues surrounding the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the stabilization of peace and the development of relations between the South and North.”

When asked whether such issues would shape the discussions between Kim and Moon, Cho said “Yes.”

The North’s three delegates were led by Ri Son Gwon, chairman of a state agency that deals with inter-Korean affairs. The countries earlier this month agreed to hold a leaders’ summit on the southern side of the border village. Thursday’s meeting was held to determine the date and other issues.

After the meeting, Ri hailed the agreement on the summit, which he said provides “immense expectations and new hope for the entire nation that desires peace on the Korean Peninsula.” He called for officials from both countries to do their best to “perfectly secure the historic meeting between the leaders.”

The countries also agreed to hold a separate meeting to discuss communication issues, such as setting up a telephone hotline between Moon and Kim, and maintain working-level discussions, according to the statement.

The South’s delegation arrived in Panmunjom after their vehicles crossed the heavily guarded border near the southern city of Paju.

Greeting the South Korean officials at the North Korean-controlled Tongilgak building, Ri said the past 80 days have been filled with “unprecedented historic events” between the rivals, referring to the resumption of dialogue between the Koreas before the Winter Olympics in the South and the agreement to hold a summit.

Cho, in response, said officials should do their best to arrange a successful summit as the “current situation was created by decisions by the highest leaders of the North and South.”

The talks follow a surprise meeting this week between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping which appeared to be aimed at improving both countries’ positions ahead of Kim’s planned summits with Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump.

In setting up separate talks with Beijing, Seoul, Washington, and potentially Moscow and Tokyo, North Korea may be moving to disrupt any united front among its negotiating counterparts. By reintroducing China, which is North Korea’s only major ally, as a major player, the North also gains leverage against South Korea and the United States, analysts say.

In his talks with Xi, Kim may have discussed economic cooperation or requested a softening of the enforcement of sanctions over the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles. North Korea also wants Beijing to resist tougher sanctions if the talks with Washington and Seoul fall apart and the North resumes testing missiles.

Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi is spending two days in Seoul briefing South Korean officials on the results of the talks between Kim and Xi. Yang met with presidential national security director Chung Eui-yong on Thursday and is to meet President Moon on Friday. Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, said in a statement that Seoul welcomes the meeting between Kim and Trump and called it an encouraging sign that Kim expressed a firm willingness to engage in dialogue with South Korea and the United States during his visit to Beijing.

“President Xi exchanged opinions with Kim Jong Un over a long period of time,” Yang said through a translator in his meeting with Chung. “We believe this meeting will prove helpful in solving the problems surrounding the Korean Peninsula through political discussions and agreements on the peninsula’s denuclearization and establishment of peace and security.”

Cho said there was no specific discussion of the Kim-Xi meeting during the talks at the border village.

North Korea has yet to officially confirm its interest in a summit between Kim and Trump. In its coverage of the Kim-Xi meeting, the North’s state media didn’t mention Kim’s reported comments about opening a dialogue with the United States that were carried in Chinese state media.

It’s unclear whether the leaders’ meetings will lead to any meaningful breakthrough.

The North’s diplomatic outreach comes after an unusually provocative year in which it conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date and test-launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to target the U.S. mainland. The change in tactics could be an attempt to ease pressure from heavy sanctions and improve its economy.

Washington and Seoul have said Kim previously told South Korean envoys that he was willing to put his nuclear weapons up for negotiation in his talks with Trump. However, the North has yet to officially confirm its interest in a summit between Kim and Trump.

There’s deep skepticism among some analysts that the North, after years of dogged weapons development, will commit to real denuclearization and agree to a robust verification regime. North Korea over the past two decades has been repeatedly accused of using disarmament talks as a way to ease outside pressure and win badly needed aid, while continuing to secretly push ahead with weapons development.

The Koreas agreed to a summit when Moon’s envoys visited Kim in Pyongyang earlier this month. The meeting followed a sudden period of inter-Korean warmth over February’s Winter Olympics in the South, to which the North sent hundreds of officials, including Kim’s sister who met with Moon to convey her brother’s desire for a summit.

On a subsequent visit to the United States, Moon’s envoys brokered a potential meeting between Kim and Trump, who said he would meet the North Korean leader “by May.”

The planned summit between Moon and Kim will be preceded by performances by South Korean pop singers in North Korea this Sunday and Tuesday.

About 70 South Korean officials and technicians flew to Pyongyang on Thursday to set up the performance equipment. The South Korean artists performing in the North include some of the country’s most popular pop singers, including Cho Yong-pil, who performed in Pyongyang during a previous era of detente, and girl band Red Velvet.

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Kim reported from Seoul.

Stormy Daniels’ media-savvy lawyer is Trump’s newest nemesis

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Avenatti wants to be clear: He does not bluff.

A year ago, the attorney was in the closing days of a jury trial, facing off against a company he had accused of making faulty surgical gowns. When the other side questioned his plans to bring a plant manager in from Honduras to testify, Avenatti hopped on a plane to Central America to persuade the man to come to Los Angeles and take the stand.

“We did our homework. We did what we needed to do. We put him on on a Friday afternoon. And it was devastating to the defense,” said Avenatti, who went on to win a $454 million jury judgment.

A take-no-prisoners litigator armed with sharp suits and a seemingly endless supply of trash talk, Avenatti is now using his signature mix of force and flash to go after President Donald Trump on behalf of porn actress Stormy Daniels. With a Trump-style media blitz, Avenatti has pursued the president relentlessly, taunting him in interviews, baiting him with tweets and putting him on notice with a motion to place him under oath and depose him.

Daring Trump to underestimate him, Avenatti, 47, says this case is a natural fit for a “dragon slayer” who has spent his career trying to help Davids fight Goliaths.

So far, the say-anything president has been conspicuously quiet on Daniels, though the White House says he denies her claims. Daniels made her case in a widely viewed interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, saying that she had sex with the married Trump once in 2006 and that a man threatened her with physical harm in 2011 if she went public with her story. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen paid her $130,000 days before the 2016 presidential election as part of a nondisclosure agreement she is seeking to invalidate.

Avenatti said on NBC that there was “no question” Trump knew about the agreement. On Daniels’ behalf, he offered to return the $130,000. He teased that Daniels had been “physically threatened.” He tweeted a 2011 photo of her strapped to a chair taking a polygraph test about Trump.

He has appeared more than once on CNN alongside Cohen’s lawyer, David Schwartz. The two got into a heated spat this week in which Avenatti bombarded his sparring partner with chants of “Thug! Thug! Thug!”

Avenatti will not detail exactly how he first connected with Daniels, but he insists there are no secret financial interests paying him or Daniels.

“There are no angel backers, there are no political backers, there are no PAC backers, there are no political operative backers, there are no politician backers, there are no special interest backers,” said Avenatti, adding that the only support for the case is coming from a crowdsourcing website that has raised about $300,000.

Those who know Avenatti are not surprised to see him taking on this fight.

“Michael was chomping at the bit to get involved in litigation from the first day he walked into law school,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who taught Avenatti. “He thrives on the pressures that come with litigation.”

Past cases have pitted Avenatti against Hollywood stars, corporations, even the National Football League.

William Cornwell, an attorney in Boca Raton, Florida, called him “one of the most talented trial attorneys I’ve ever had the experience of trying a case against.”

Outside the courtroom, Avenatti has boundless energy for any number of high-stakes interests. In his free time, he turns to fast cars, participating in more than 30 professional sports car races in the United States and Europe since 2010. Several years ago, he bought a Seattle coffee shop chain in a deal that saw him partnering with — and then sparring with — actor Patrick Dempsey. Avenatti said he sold his own share of the troubled chain and now just offers legal assistance.

He survives on four or five hours of sleep a night, throws around phrases like “Life is not a dress rehearsal” and often ends his tweets with “#basta” — enough.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania — which also counts Trump as an alumnus — and GWU law school, Avenatti said his drive to take on the powerful dates to his teenage years when he saw his father unexpectedly lose his job, something he said was “devastating” to his family.

As Avenatti’s profile has grown, Trump’s followers on Twitter have taken notice and tried to establish that Avenatti is a Democratic operative. His own website mentions that he worked for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel before Emanuel worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations. Avenatti says he was an investigator of political campaigns and corporations around the mid-1990s and hasn’t communicated with Emanuel since 2007.

An Associated Press review of federal records shows that Avenatti has not made individual political donations since 2007. From 2003 to 2007, he gave $5,750 to an assortment of California and national Democratic Party candidates, including the presidential campaigns of John Kerry, John Edwards and Dick Gephardt.

Avenatti denies that the Daniels case has anything to do with politics and says he even supports some things Trump has done as president, including deregulation and tax cuts.

Still, he says he and Trump are not the same kind of guy.

“I’m not a guy that was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and a real estate portfolio in Manhattan,” he said. “I’m a street fighter with an Ivy League degree.”

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Associated Press writers Stephen Braun in Washington, Mike Balsamo in Los Angeles and Jake Pearson in New York, as well as researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York, contributed to this report.

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Follow Lucey on Twitter at http://twitter.com/@catherine_lucey and Kellman at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman

Militant leader, ex-bin Laden ally roams freely in Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — He is crisscrossing Pakistan championing a fatwa, or Islamic religious decree, forbidding militant violence inside the country. But the mere fact that Fazlur Rehman Khalil, veteran leader of an organization designated as a terror group by the U.S., is free has experts questioning Pakistan’s willingness to fight extremism.

Khalil, once a close friend of the late al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, co-founded Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, a group accused by India of attacking its forces in the Kashmir region and by the U.S. of training militants and carrying out attacks in Afghanistan. The group has undergone several name changes over time and is now known as Ansar-ul Ummah.

But authorities have left him alone. At his home on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad, the gates are protected by a burly, bushy bearded guard whose automatic rifle is always at his side. Khalil’s madrassa, or religious school, named for Khalid bin Al-Waleed, one of the most prominent early Muslim commanders leading the conquest of Iraq and Syria in the 7th century, occupies a sprawling compound next door in the middle of a crowded market.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Khalil denied the accusations against his group and he applauded the fatwa, which he joined other Sunni and Shiite religious scholars in writing, denouncing militant violence in Pakistan as against Islam. The fatwa, issued in January, is the first such decree issued by such a broad range of scholars in Pakistan.

“Terrorism, suicide attacks, blasts, and killing of innocent people are forbidden in Pakistan, in accordance with Sharia (Islamic law),” Khalil said, dressed in a starched white traditional shalwar kameez and looking relaxed on the manicured lush green lawn of his compound.

“Religious scholars belonging to different schools of thought are unanimous on the issue and are against terrorism.”

Afghanistan has criticized the fatwa because it is specific to Pakistan. Khalil said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani should call Islamic scholars in his country together to issue a fatwa of their own. He offered to go to Kabul to help craft the fatwa.

“If Ghani does this we will support his initiative. We wish he would do it. If Afghans sit with us we will support them,” he said.

Since the beginning of the year Pakistan has come under relentless pressure from the United States to crack down on militants, particularly the Haqqani network, it says has found safe havens in Pakistan. While Islamabad denies organized havens, it says insurgents move around among the 1.5 million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan.

U.S. President Donald Trump in a blistering New Year’s day tweet accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and later suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid.

The 55-year-old Khalil’s stature in the militant hierarchy has waned since the late 1990s, when he signed on to bin Laden’s fatwa ordering the faithful to attack U.S. interests wherever they found them.

Still, his organization’s publications are used to raise money and have exhorted the faithful to fight in Afghanistan, where the Afghan National Army, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, is struggling against a resurgent Taliban.

That sort of fundraising has contributed to the likelihood that Pakistan will be placed on a so called ’gray list” of countries doing too little to stop terrorism when the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-government group trying to stem terror financing, meets in June.

The U.S. State Department in 2014 said Khalil’s group still runs training camps in eastern Afghanistan. In 2016, Indian security forces said they arrested five Harakat members on its side of the disputed Kashmir region, allegedly planning attacks on Indian dignitaries.

“This is someone who had close and direct ties to Osama Bin Laden, and is very plugged in to the militant networks of South Asia,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center. “Even if he’s not making much noise, he shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Khalil dismissed U.S. criticism of Pakistan for allowing militant leaders to roam free.

“Whether America likes it or doesn’t like it makes no difference to me. I am Pakistani. We have courts. We are not U.S. slaves,” he said.

“If Pakistan has any charges of terrorism they can summon us. I am ready to go to court. The U.S. is not interested in courts, it is pressing for extra-judicial actions,” he said.

Khalil called U.S. policy confused and contradictory. He dismissed suggestions that the Haqqani network, which the U.S. has declared a terrorist group, is separate from the Taliban, which has not been declared a terrorist group to leave open the possibility of future negotiations.

“You can’t separate the two. … Taliban and Haqqanis are the same,” he said. “Sirajuddin Haqqani is the Number 2 in the Taliban. How can you separate the two?”

Khalil, like many militants in south and southeast Asia, traces his career back to Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s occupation in the 1980s. Then he fought on the side of the United States, which backed the mujahedeen — or, as President Ronald Reagan called them, “freedom fighters.” Today, many have joined the Afghan Taliban.

Khalil said U.S. intelligence trained him on the sophisticated U.S. Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that historians say turned the tide of the war. The Soviets withdrew in 1989.

“I have fought with the Americans in Afghanistan,” he said. “But I haven’t gone to Kashmir for a single day.”

Analysts say Pakistan’s policy of allowing militants their freedom is mostly motivated by its concerns about India, against whom it has fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir.

Pakistan also repeatedly reminds the United States and its critics that it has lost thousands of soldiers — more than the U.S. and NATO combined in Afghanistan __ fighting militants on its territory. It says U.S. criticism is unfair and an attempt to put its own failures in Afghanistan on the shoulders of Pakistan.

“Pakistan has certainly taken aggressive action against some militant groups” said Seth Jones, director of Transnational threats Project at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But its intelligence agencies “continue to use some militants as a tool of foreign policy in countries like Afghanistan and India.”

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Follow Gannon at HYPERLINK “http://www.twitter.com/kathygannon”

VA pick impressed Trump when he gave glowing health report

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Ronny Jackson passed his screen test with President Donald Trump before casting even began.

Jackson, the president’s personal physician and surprise choice to lead the massive Department of Veterans Affairs, stood before the White House press corps in January to announce the results of the president’s first physical in a performance that showed he was quick-witted, hard to throw off-kilter and unfailingly complimentary of Trump.

Marveling at the 71-year-old president’s good health, Jackson opined, “It’s just the way God made him.”

Now, the Navy doctor who has been entrusted with the health of the past three presidents is poised for a promotion, tapped to replace David Shulkin at an agency that has been badly bruised by scandal. Trump’s unexpected pick is the latest example of the president’s reliance on familiar faces. And it shows Jackson has succeeded at arguably the most important measure in the Trump administration: winning the president’s trust.

Trump, in a statement, called Jackson “highly trained and qualified” and said that, as a service member himself, Jackson “has seen firsthand the tremendous sacrifice our veterans make and has a deep appreciation for the debt our great country owes them.”

Jackson’s name was not among the roughly half-dozen candidates the White House was said to be actively reviewing in recent weeks. But Trump has formed a close bond with his doctor in the hours they’ve spent together at the White House and traveling on Air Force One.

Dr. Richard Tubb, the longest-serving White House physician and the person who trained Jackson, said in a letter read at Jackson’s star-turning briefing that members of the White House medical team have been “figuratively Velcro-ed” to Trump since the day after his election and that “on January 20, 2017, Dr. Jackson became that Velcro.”

Tubb explained that Jackson’s office is “one of only a very few in the White House Residence proper,” located directly across the hall from the president’s private elevator.

Trump has told aides and outside advisers that he is fond of Jackson personally, according to a person familiar with the president’s thinking but not authorized to discuss private conversations.

The president was also impressed with Jackson’s performance at the podium in January, telling aides that he liked Jackson’s smooth turn before the cameras and ability to field reporters’ questions as he offered a glowing report on the president’s physical and mental well-being.

During the briefing, Jackson spent nearly an hour exhausting reporters’ questions, extoling the president’s “incredible genes” and joking that if only Trump had eaten a healthier diet over the last 20 years, “he might live to be 200 years old.”

And he achieved a more consequential, if less noticed, goal: effectively stamping out questions that had been brewing about the president’s mental fitness.

A White House official said Shulkin himself had recommended Jackson for an undersecretary position at the VA last fall, and Trump ultimately decided he was more comfortable with Jackson than with other top candidates. The official was not authorized to discuss personnel matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

A native of Levelland, Texas, Jackson graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in marine biology and went on to attend medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch, graduating in 1995.

From there, he headed to the Navy, where he attended the Navy’s Undersea Medical Officer Program and served in a number of roles, including diving safety officer at the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Virginia. In 2005, he joined the 2nd Marines, Combat Logistics Regiment 25, and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as the emergency medicine physician in charge of resuscitative medicine for a Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon, according to the White House.

Ned Price, a National Security Council spokesman under President Barack Obama who was served by Jackson, described the doctor as “the guy you always want to be around” because he’s affable and funny. But Price added that it was difficult to believe the nomination was unrelated to the “glowing assessment” of Trump’s health that the doctor had provided.

On Capitol Hill, Jackson’s selection was praised by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“If there ever was a home run pick, Adm. Jackson fits the bill – combat surgeon, career military officer who loves his country and will provide the highest quality health care and services to our wonderful veterans,” he said.

But a major veterans’ organization worried about whether Jackson had the experience to run the huge department.

“The administration needs to be ready to prove that he’s qualified to run such a massive agency, a $200 billion bureaucracy,” said Joe Chenelly, the national executive director of AMVETS.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Hope Yen, Darlene Superville and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj

City on edge for funeral of man killed by Sacramento police

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California’s capital city is on edge for the funeral of a 22-year-old unarmed black man killed by Sacramento police in his grandparents’ backyard.

The Rev. Al Sharpton plans to give the eulogy for Stephon Clark at Thursday’s funeral at Bayside of South Sacramento church.

He previously called it “an atrocity” that shows the urgent need for intervention against police misconduct and a thorough investigation into Clark’s death.

Some mourners at Wednesday’s wake for Clark predicted increased unrest beyond the unruly but mostly nonviolent protests that have disrupted traffic and two professional basketball games since the March 18 shooting.

The Rev. Ray Morsheth of Sacramento Revival Center said he plans to stay away from the funeral for fear things could turn ugly, while the Rev. Phillip Goudeaux of Calvary Christian Center said it should be a time for peace and forgiveness.

“I am very concerned about the climate and what’s going on right now,” Goudeaux said of the high emotions since Clark’s death.

Two Sacramento police officers who were responding to a report of someone breaking car windows fatally shot Clark in his grandparents’ backyard. Police say they thought he was holding a gun, but he was found only with a cellphone.

Some mourners attending Wednesday’s wake called for police to face criminal charges or donned black shirts calling for justice.

The family’s raw grief was on display when Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, had to be physically restrained while confronting members of the media gathered outside the wake. The outburst came a day after he disrupted a Sacramento City Council meeting and chanted his brother’s name at Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

Some of Clark’s relatives were more conciliatory.

“We’re not mad at all the law enforcement. We’re not trying to start a riot,” said Shernita Crosby, Stephon Clark’s aunt. “What we want the world to know is that we got to stop this because black lives matter.”

Cousin Suzette Clark said the family wants Stephon Clark remembered as an outgoing, funny, handsome, loving father of two young sons, as “more than just a hashtag.”

“I just hope it can bring people together,” she said of the two-hour funeral set to begin at 11 a.m. “Emotions are heightened, but I just hope everyone comes and shows compassion.”

Authorities are working to avoid a repeat of the protests that have twice blocked fans from entering the NBA arena downtown for Sacramento Kings games. The police, the Kings and Steinberg’s office met Wednesday to discuss security ahead of Thursday night’s game. Sgt. Vince Chandler said officers would be ready to respond in protective gear, according to The Sacramento Bee.

On Wednesday, about 50 protesters took over the intersection near the Sacramento district attorney’s office as part of a protest organized by the local Black Lives Matter chapter to urge the district attorney to file charges against the officers who shot Clark. In New York City, hundreds of people marched to protest the shooting and at least 11 people were detained as tensions flared.

Meanwhile, Steinberg said disruptions like Stevante Clark’s at Tuesday’s council meeting won’t happen again. “But in that moment, that was a brother grieving for the loss of his brother,” he said.

The California attorney general’s office on Tuesday joined the investigation, a move Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn said he hopes will bring “faith and transparency” to a case that he said has sparked “extremely high emotions, anger and hurt in our city.”

The Rev. Shane Harris of the National Action Network, a civil rights group founded by Sharpton, said this week that Clark’s funeral “will be a national day of mourning for this family and for Stephon Clark. But it will also be a national day of justice.”

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Associated Press writer Sophia Bollag and videographer Haven Daley contributed to this story.

Business: World stock markets higher as geopolitical tension eases

HONG KONG (AP) — World stock markets rose Thursday as geopolitical fears in Asia eased, helping investors get over a sell-off earlier in the week in U.S. tech shares. Trading in some markets was muted ahead of the Easter long weekend.

KEEPING SCORE: European indexes rose in early trading. Germany’s DAX added 0.4 percent to 11,983.50 and France’s CAC 40 gained 0.3 percent to 5,143.21. Britain’s FTSE 100 climbed 0.2 percent to 7,060.43. Wall Street was poised to open higher. Dow futures edged up 0.1 percent to 23,874.00 and broader S&P 500 futures crept 0.1 percent higher to 2,609.80.

ASIAN SCORECARD: The Shanghai Composite in mainland China led Asian gains, jumping 1.2 percent to close at 3,160.53. Japan’s Nikkei 225 rose 0.6 percent to 21,159.08 after a sharp drop in the yen made shares cheaper for foreign buyers. South Korea’s Kospi added 0.7 percent to 2,436.37 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index rose 0.2 percent to 30,093.38. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 lost 0.5 percent to 5,759.40. Shares rose in Singapore and Indonesia but fell in Taiwan and Thailand.

TRADE TENSIONS: Beijing again sought to head off a trade war with the U.S., urging Washington to abandon plans to impose tariffs that it warned could trigger a chain reaction disrupting global trade. Commerce Ministry spokesman Gao Feng vowed that China will “fight to the end” to defend its interests, in response to President Donald Trump’s plans to hike tariffs on $60 billion in Chinese goods in a dispute over technology policy. Gao repeated earlier statements that China is open to talks, but wouldn’t confirm reports they’ve already started.

MARKET TAKE: “Our view remains that China and the U.S. will reach a negotiated solution both in terms of trade and investment restrictions such that the tariffs and restrictions will ultimately be very modest, if at all,” said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital. “But this could take a month or more to resolve and so market nervousness around this issue will linger for a while.

KOREAS SUMMIT: Officials said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet on April 27, a sign of progress to calm investor worries about the standoff over the North’s nuclear program. The announcement follows a meeting earlier this week between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. A summit between Kim and President Donald Trump is also anticipated by the end of May though nothing has been confirmed.

ENERGY: Oil futures were mixed. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 18 cents to $64.56 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract lost 87 cents, or 1.3 percent, to settle at $64.38 per barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, slipped 5 cents to $68.71 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar eased after making a big jump against the yen to its highest level in three weeks. It was trading at 106.61 yen from 106.84 yen late Wednesday. The euro rose to $1.2315 from $1.2308.

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– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Thursday, March 29:

1. Global Stocks Rebound After Tech Sell-Off

Global equities were mostly higher on the final day of trading for the week, the month, and the first quarter, as investors attempted to shake off a tech-led sell-off which had spread across global markets.

Volumes were subdued, with many traders wrapping up ahead of the Easter holiday.

In Asia, most of the bourses in the region finished in positive territory, as hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea supported appetite for riskier assets.

Japan’s Nikkei closed up around 0.6%, while stocks in China and Korea also scored gains.

Elsewhere, in Europe, the continent’s major bourses edged higher in mid-morning trade, as a recovery among cyclical sectors and a raft of M&A news helped support sentiment.

The pan-European Stoxx 600 index, the region’s broadest measure of share prices, was up nearly 0.5%, with most sectors trading in the green. In Germany, the DAX tacked on around 0.8%, while London’s FTSE100 ticked up 0.4%.

Meanwhile, on Wall Street, U.S. stock futures pointed to modest gains at the open, indicating that the major averages were set to rebound from a tech-led sell-off.

The blue-chip Dow futures gained 62 points, or around 0.3%, the S&P 500 futures advanced 9 points, or about 0.4%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 futures rose 43 points, or roughly 0.6%.

All three major U.S. indexes ended the day in negative territory on Wednesday, as a sharp drop in Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) shares and a continuing slide in technology stocks weighed.

2. Dollar Dips After Strong Gains

The dollar dipped against the yen, pausing for breath one day after posting its largest daily percentage gain in around six months.

USD/JPY was down nearly 0.3% to 106.55, after ending Wednesday’s session with gains of 1.4%, the largest increase since September 11.

The greenback was boosted by data highlighting faster U.S. economic growth and hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

Against the euro, the dollar was a shade lower as investors looked ahead to a reading on German consumer prices for March, due at 1200GMT (8AM ET).

In the bond market, the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield inched down to 2.766%.

3. Fed’s Preferred Inflation Metric in Focus

Thursday’s calendar features a closely-watched report on personal income and spending for February, which includes the personal consumption expenditures inflation data – the Federal Reserve’s preferred metric for inflation – at 8:30AM ET (1230GMT).

The consensus forecast is that the report will show that the core PCE price index inched up 0.2% last month, after rising 0.3% a month earlier. On an annualized basis, core PCE prices are expected to rise 1.6%, compared to a 1.5%-increase in the preceding month.

The Fed uses core PCE as a tool to help determine whether to raise or lower interest rates, with the aim of keeping inflation at a rate of 2% or below.

Rising inflation would be a catalyst to push the Fed toward raising interest rates at a faster pace than currently expected.

Investors will also get the weekly reading on initial jobless claims, the March reading on manufacturing activity in the Midwest, and the University of Michigan’s final check on consumer sentiment in March.

The Fed hiked rates last week and stuck to its projection for three rate hikes this year.

4. Oil Prices Edge Up On OPEC Hopes

Oil prices edged higher, as the prospect of an extension to OPEC-led production cuts into next year provided support.

U.S. WTI crude futures added 21 cents, or 0.3%, to $64.58 per barrel, while Brent futures held steady at $68.72 per barrel.

Gains were limited by rising crude inventories and production in the United States.

5. Bitcoin Sinks As “Death Cross”‘ Looms

Bitcoin prices sank back towards the $7,000-level, as investors hit the panic button after chart patterns revealed that the cryptocurrency is nearing a “death cross.”

The term is used to describe a crossover of the 50-day moving average and the longer-term 200-day moving average. Technicians often look at this pattern as a bearish sign of what’s to come.

The world’s biggest virtual currency by market cap fell around 5% to $7,567, marking a decline of more than $300 (BTC/USD). It hit an intraday low of $7,323.

Prices of other popular digital coins also fell, with Ethereum, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency by market cap, tumbling about 9% to $418.39.

The third largest cryptocurrency Ripple lost roughly 5% to trade at $0.54514.

Analysis: Putin Finally Went Too Far

(PhatzNewsRoom / The Atlantic)   —   When Britain threw out 23 Russian diplomats in response to an assassination attempt on Russian agent Sergei Skripal, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia and current bad boy of modern geopolitics, shrugged it off. With relations between London and Moscow so strained, the embassy didn’t have all that much to do, anyway. The cost, Putin no doubt felt, was predictable and bearable. Then on Monday, 20 additional countries, from Albania to Ukraine, joined in a coordinated expulsion campaign, with the United States accounting for 60 of the Russians sent packing. Suddenly, the Kremlin isn’t looking quite so comfortable. With the Skripal hit, it looks as if Putin may have finally overreached.

For years now, Putin’s calculation has been that the West is strong but lacking in unity and will, allowing a scrappy Russia willing to bend and break the rules of the international order to assert its place as a global player. But the success of this gambit hinged on his capacity to assess what the West would tolerate. By exceeding those limits, he may have delivered a triple blow to himself.

The expulsions are certain to deliver a serious, if not mortal blow to Russia’s intelligence networks. Putin has lavished resources and political capital on his covert foreign operations, which are now as pervasive and aggressive as they were at the height of the Cold War. His spook army is also a multi-headed hydra, featuring three main agencies: the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), military intelligence (GRU), and the newcomers, the political policemen-turned-spooks of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The more than 120 expelled individuals, all presumed to be intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover, represent only a fraction of Russia’s intelligence apparatus. In the Czech Republic, for example, the security service has claimed that as many as 50 Russians working in the embassy in Prague are actually spies. But, mindful that their much smaller embassy in Moscow can only sustain a few retaliatory expulsions, the Czechs expelled just three Russians.

Nonetheless, as the remaining Russian agents scramble to absorb their departing colleagues’ sources and workloads, the wave of expulsions will inevitably disrupt both intelligence-gathering networks as well as “active measures,” or political subversion operations. These activities range from encouraging anti-government paramilitary groups in Bulgaria to supporting populist far-right fringe groups in Europe.

The expulsions also shift the geopolitical landscape. In previous incidents of Russian mischief, Moscow has only had to deal with one country at a time. When its agents poisoned defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, for example, Britain received little real support from its allies when it pushed back against Russia. When assassins killed Chechen activists in Istanbul in 2009, no one rushed to help the Turks. When Russian commandos kidnapped Estonian security officer Eston Kohver in 2014, Tallinn had to cut its own deal with Moscow to get him back. Each time, allies offered little more than sympathy, and Putin presumably assumed this would again be the case with Skripal.

This time, despite the Trump administration’s often-tense relations with Europe and the fraught negotiations over Britain’s divorce from the European Union, the West has delivered an unprecedented collective message. Even the horrific shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over southeast Ukraine by Russian proxies using a Russian missile failed to generate a similar reaction. While outright invasions such as the seizure of Crimea have led to sanctions, this is the first time ever there has been such an extensive and international response to a covert operation.

This new determination from the West to take Putin to task is the product of a cumulative process. As the tally of Russian provocations has grown, from the annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Ukraine in 2014, to election interference in the United States and elsewhere, to the heedless use of airpower against civilian targets in Syria, the sense that something had to be done had been building. This latest affair, an especially brazen incident which saw not only Skripal, but his daughter and a police officer who came to their aid poisoned with a Soviet-designed military nerve agent, simply provided the catalyst.

Perhaps most importantly, these expulsions challenge any easy assumptions in Moscow that Russian officials have the measure of the West. I was in Moscow in the immediate aftermath of the Skripal attack. Britain’s initial response, while decried by the Russian authorities as an act of “Russophobia,” did not seem to faze people I spoke to connected with the foreign ministry. They all seemed certain that that initial expulsion would be the end of it. The idea that 17 EU countries, as well as Albania, Australia, Canada, Macedonia, Norway, and Ukraine, would end up expelling suspected agents seemed implausible. That America would also kick out another 60? Unthinkable.

One of Putin’s greatest assets has been his capacity to break the rules of international behavior, as Western countries try and preserve them. As a result, he has been able to game out likely responses, staying clear of red lines and exploiting opportunities that arise. That does not mean he and his advisors don’t get things wrong (like the time Russia moved into the Donbas in Ukraine and expected Kiev to  quickly capitulate). But they believed they understood the West, and that ultimately Western countries would not act decisively in support of each other. This time, he miscalculated.

In the near term, the Kremlin will respond with its usual mix of malice and bluster. There will be aggrieved denunciations, reciprocal expulsions, maybe even escalation, in the form of sanctions against Western media and cultural organizations (Moscow has already closed down the British Council’s operation in Russia), the suspension of cooperation agreements, and perhaps even pressure on other fronts such as Syria, Libya and the Balkans. Ultimately, though, Russia needs the West more than the West needs Russia. There are likely to be some hurried and anxious recalculations in Moscow as Putin and company realize how badly they blundered.

The Kremlin has relied on its own will and the West’s divisions to play a weak hand well. But maybe it played one card too many.

Facebook revamps privacy tools as tighter EU rules draw near

NEW YORK (AP) — Facebook is giving its privacy tools a makeover as it reels from criticisms over its data practices and faces tighter European regulations in the coming months.

The changes won’t affect Facebook’s privacy policies or the types of data it gathers on users. But the company hopes its 2.2 billion users will have an easier time navigating its complex and often confusing privacy and security settings. Facebook says it also wants to give users a simpler way to access and download the data it collects on them.

Wednesday’s announcement follows revelations that a Trump-affiliated consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, got data on millions of Facebook users. That included information on friends of people who had downloaded a psychological quiz app, even though those friends hadn’t given explicit consent to sharing. In addition, Facebook is also facing widespread criticism for collecting years of contact names, telephone numbers and call and text histories from Android users. The company has not said exactly what it used such data for or why it needed it. On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission said it is investigating Facebook over its privacy practices.

Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, said in a blog post that most of the privacy updates have been in the works for “some time, but the events of the past several days underscore their importance.”

Facebook also said it plans to update its privacy policy and terms of service in the coming weeks, but gave no further details.

The company has tried over the years to simplify its privacy settings, yet the controls remain hard to find and use for many people. For example, Facebook announced in 2009 that it was consolidating six privacy pages and more than 30 settings on to a single privacy page.

Yet mobile users still had to go to nearly 20 different places to access all of their privacy controls. Now, Facebook says they will be accessible from a single place. Facebook says it is also adding “clearer explanations” about how its privacy controls work.

Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, called the new settings “the first of many steps” the company is taking to address privacy concerns.

Facebook has been working on the changes in preparation for the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which were approved two years ago and take effect May 25. The rules are designed to make it easier for consumers to give and withdraw consent for the use of their data. They apply to any company that collects data on EU residents, no matter where it is based.

To comply with this, Facebook is adding a section called “access your information,” a secure way for users to manage data they’ve shared with the company, including status updates, comments and things they have searched for. That’s where people can go to delete information or download a copy. While this download was already possible, it took some time to figure out how to do it. Cox said the changes let people browse through their information in detail, without having to download it. For example, users will now be able to look up a post from a specific date in the past.

Cox said that while the changes are “in line with the principle of GDPR,” there’s also a “bunch of stuff that goes above and beyond that.”

Facebook also said it will propose updates to its terms of service in the coming weeks and update its privacy policy, but gave no further details.

No good options for Syria’s vanquished rebels in Ghouta

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BEIRUT (AP) — Three years ago, the Army of Islam, one of Syria’s most powerful armed opposition groups, held a massive military parade that included thousands of opposition fighters marching in formation and a striking display of tanks and armored vehicles at the doors of the Syrian capital.

The parade, held in the town of Douma in the spring of 2015, demonstrated the Saudi-backed group’s growing clout in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, which for years were seen as a potential launch pad for a ground attack on Damascus, seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.

The Army of Islam now stands alone in eastern Ghouta, its fighters facing a stark choice: Surrender or die.

Haitham Bakkar, a Douma-based opposition activist, said the situation in Douma is very tense because it is unclear what will happen next. He said it was a question of existence for the Army of Islam fighters, most of whom are from Douma.

“If the Army of Islam goes to northern Syria it will be its end,” he said.

Douma, on the northeastern edge of Damascus, is the last rebel holdout in the eastern Ghouta region after thousands of fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman groups ceded their towns to government control under a deal brokered by Russia, a key ally of Assad.

For days, their fighters have been exiting from the southernmost pockets of eastern Ghouta, leaving in a fleet of buses, including the lime-green municipal buses that have come to symbolize defeat for the Syrian opposition as the government takes back control of cities around the country.

The Ghouta fighters join tens of thousands of rebels from other areas of Syria, including Aleppo and Homs, who were driven out in the past few years following similar deals with the government that granted them safe passage to the north in return for abandoning the rebellion.

With the help of Russian airstrikes, the army has waged a crushing air and ground offensive to recapture eastern Ghouta, killing more than 1,600 people since Feb. 18, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Five weeks later, the eastern Ghouta region, once a cluster of around 15 rebel-held towns spread east of Damascus, has been overtaken by government forces, except for Douma, where the Army of Islam is headquartered.

Rebels who have left eastern Ghouta so far have all gone to Idlib, an insurgent-held region dominated by al-Qaida-affiliated fighters near the Turkish border, where they either have a presence or good relations with Turkey.

By contrast, the Army of Islam, called Jaysh al-Islam in Arabic, is home-grown and has no other strongholds in the country.

“Jaysh al-Islam is a very local phenomenon, emerging from the specific social fabric and Salafi school of thought of the Damascus countryside,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.

“More precisely, Jaysh al-Islam is a creature of Douma, and I don’t know how it would survive outside it,” especially in Idlib, where there is rebel rivalry, he said.

It is a resounding defeat for the powerful group that once briefly overran parts of Damascus and showered the capital with mortar shells. It is also a reflection of the diminished role of Saudi Arabia, once a major supporter of Syrian rebels.

Thousands of Army of Islam fighters — some estimates say around 10,000 — are now encircled in Douma, a densely populated town with a huge number of civilians who are terrified of what they see as a looming army offensive if the rebels don’t exit. One resident said there are currently about 150,000 civilians in Douma, many of them internally displaced from other towns in eastern Ghouta, some of them staying out in the open or in destroyed buildings.

This civilian pressure is weighing on the group as it negotiates with the government and its Russian backers. Several opposition activists have said that the Russians have given the Army of Islam 48 hours as of early Tuesday to leave Douma for northern Syria or face an all-out offensive.

But the group’s military spokesman, Hamza Bayraqdar, denied the reports and said Army of Islam fighters would never leave, describing the evacuations to the north as forced displacement.

“We are negotiating to stay, not to depart,” he told Al-Arabiya TV on Tuesday. “The people who will leave eastern Ghouta will never dream of returning to their homes.”

The group has no good choices. Going to Idlib would put its fighters in an area dominated by al-Qaida, against whom it has fought pitched battles in the past. The Britain-based Observatory reported this week that the Russians rejected a request by some Army of Islam members to head to the southern province of Daraa. Such a move would bring the militants close to the Jordanian border, from where they would likely get assistance from Saudi Arabia.

The rebels, meanwhile, are bitterly blaming each other for their defeat in Ghouta.

After Faylaq al-Rahman began withdrawing from eastern Ghouta, Army of Islam members blasted their former allies, accusing them of helping government forces by drying out artificial swamps set up by insurgents to slow down the army’s offensive.

“We had defensive plans prepared, but regrettably Faylaq al-Rahman cut the water that was brought from Barada River,” Bayraqdar said. “This sped up the regime’s advance.”

Asked about the charges, Faylaq al-Rahman spokesman Wael Olwan said: “I don’t want to respond because we are trying to avoid their irresponsible statements.”

Olwan told The Associated Press that it is still not clear whether Faylaq al-Rahman’s members will end up in Idlib or in areas controlled by Turkish troops. “I still don’t know what our role will be,” he said.

Maryland redistricting case comes before Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is taking up its second big partisan redistricting case of the term amid signs the justices could place limits on drawing maps for political gain.

The justices are hearing arguments Wednesday in an appeal filed by Republicans in Maryland. They complain that Democrats who controlled the state government in 2011 drew a congressional district for the express purpose of ousting the Republican incumbent and replacing him with a Democrat.

In Wisconsin, Democrats are challenging legislative districts drawn by Republicans statewide. Those districts gave Republicans a huge majority in a state that otherwise is closely divided between the parties.

The Supreme Court has never struck down districts for being too partisan.

A decision in favor of opponents of partisan gerrymandering could cut into the political power of the dominant party in states in which one party controls the state government.

The court is expected to issue decisions in both cases by late June.

Maryland’s 6th Congressional District had been centered in rural, Republican-leaning northwestern Maryland and had elected a Republican to Congress for 20 years. Incumbent Rep. Roscoe Bartlett won re-election in 2010 by 28 percentage points.

But in the 2011 redistricting, Democrats altered the district to take in some Democratic suburbs of Washington, D.C. The new district had 62,000 fewer Republicans and 33,000 more Democrats. Bartlett lost the 2012 election by 21 percentage points.

Republican voters who sued over the changes said the state violated their First Amendment rights.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, is defending the district as competitive for both parties. Frosh said the district has elected a moderate Democrat, and in 2014, a friendlier year for Republican candidates, the victory margin of Democratic Rep. John Delaney dropped to less than 2 percentage points, though it rose again in 2016.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is siding with the voters who sued, saying partisan gerrymandering results “in real and concrete harms to our democratic republic.” Hogan has proposed a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

Over the past 16 months, courts struck down political districting plans drawn by Republicans in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Federal judges threw out a state legislative map in Wisconsin and a congressional plan in North Carolina. In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court invalidated the state’s congressional districts and replaced them with a court-drawn plan.

The Supreme Court has put the drawing of new maps on hold in North Carolina and Wisconsin, but refused to block the Pennsylvania court’s adoption of revised congressional districts for this year’s elections.

Kim, Xi portray strong ties after NKorea leader’s China trip

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BEIJING (AP) — With smiles and firm handshakes, North Korea and China used a surprise summit this week to show that despite recent tensions, Pyongyang still has a powerful backer and Beijing will not be sidelined in discussions about the fate of its unpredictable neighbor.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s secretive talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing appear aimed at improving both countries’ positions ahead of Kim’s anticipated meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump in the coming weeks.

A key objective for Beijing is to reassert its relevance to the talks, from which it has been excluded. China has appeared increasingly shut out as its relations with the North deteriorated and Pyongyang reached out to Seoul and Washington.

“Kim Jong Un’s visit shows that China is not marginalized, but playing a leading role. This saves China a lot of face,” said Pang Zhongying, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing.

“North Korea once again is taking advantage of China,” Pang said. “It plays the China card, showing South Korea and the U.S.: China is still my ally.”

Official reports from both countries on Wednesday depicted in effusive terms warm ties between the leaders in an effort to downplay recent tensions over Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

The Chinese government confirmed Wednesday that North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong Un went to Beijing and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is Kim’s first known trip to a foreign country since he took power in 2011. (March 28)

In the reports, “Kim reaffirms the traditional friendship between the two countries as if nothing had ever happened, when the relationship had plummeted to unprecedented lows,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ties in recent months have frayed as China supported tougher U.N. sanctions on North Korea and suspended coal and iron ore imports. Pyongyang last year seemingly sought to humiliate Beijing by timing some of its missile tests for major global summits in China.

Kim made the visit to China at Xi’s invitation, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, in his first trip to a foreign country since he took power in 2011. Xinhua said the trip ran from Sunday to Wednesday but appeared to include travel time from Pyongyang on the special armored train that Kim traveled on, which secretly arrived in Beijing on Monday and left Tuesday afternoon.

Rumors of Kim’s presence began circulating on Monday night, with the spotting of his special train, Chinese security teams and official delegations at the border city of Dandong and various points in Beijing.

Although China sought to keep Kim’s visit secret, and described it Wednesday as “unofficial,” it accorded him full honors due to a head of state, including a formal welcoming ceremony and troop review at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.

Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, also hosted a banquet for Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and they watched an art performance together, Xinhua said.

“We speak highly of this visit,” Xi told Kim, according to Xinhua.

For China, the visit also projects to its public that Xi is firmly in charge of steering Beijing’s relations with North Korea in a way that favors China’s interests.

“Here is Xi Jinping saying, ‘Don’t worry, everything is going to be great,’” Glaser said.

Trump tweeted Wednesday that he had received a message from Xi saying that his meeting with Kim “went very well” and that Kim “looks forward to his meeting with me.”

“For years and through many administrations, everyone said that peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was not even a small possibility,” he tweeted. “Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting!”

Analysts say Kim would have felt a need to consult with China ahead of summits with Moon and Trump. His famously reclusive father, Kim Jong Il, made his first visit to China as North Korean leader in May 2000, reportedly to consult with the Chinese leadership ahead of his summit with South Korea’s then-leader, Kim Dae-jung.

China would also not want Kim’s first foreign meeting to be with someone other than Xi.

“This is China asserting its regional hegemony and influence, saying, ‘Hey, you talk to me first,’” said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group.

In video aired by China’s state broadcaster China Central Television, Kim appeared reserved and collected as he sat at a long table across from Xi. Kim wore horn-rimmed glasses and was shown jotting down notes and speaking in a calm manner. In contrast, while meeting with South Korean envoys earlier this month, Kim was shown by his state media frequently smiling, bursting into laughter, proposing toasts and waving at departing limousines.

Kim was described by Xinhua as saying that his country wants “reconciliation and cooperation” with South Korea, with which it is technically still at war. He also said North Korea is willing to hold a summit with the United States, according to Xinhua.

North Korean state media, however, didn’t carry Kim’s comment about his plans to talk with the United States. The North has yet to officially confirm its interest in a summit between Kim and Trump.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency published Kim’s personal letter to Xi, dated Wednesday, in which he said he was satisfied that the leaders confirmed their “unified opinions” on mutual issues.

Kim also called for more meetings with Xi and other Chinese officials and asked Xi to visit North Korea at a time convenient for him, to which Xi “gladly accepted,” KCNA said.

“For the North Koreans, it is in their best interests to enter any meetings with Moon or Trump having shored up and repaired to a certain extent their relations with Beijing,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

The North’s diplomatic outreach this year follows a tense 2017 when it conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date and tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to target the U.S. mainland.

The developments are being interpreted as the North being desperate to break out of isolation and improve its economy after being squeezed by heavy sanctions. Analysts think Kim may have been seeking promises from Beijing that it wouldn’t hit the North too hard with sanctions if the talks with Washington and Seoul fall apart and the North starts testing nuclear weapons and missiles again.

“At least one of the things that Kim would want out of these meetings is a way forward to begin to ease those sanctions and support from China in that effort,” said Glaser, the Asia expert.

China remains North Korea’s only major ally and chief provider of energy, aid and trade that keep the country’s broken economy afloat.

In addition to the trip being his first abroad as leader, Kim’s talk with Xi was his first meeting with a foreign head of state. Kim’s father had visited China several times during his rule, lastly in May 2011, months before his death that December.

“It’s most proper that my first overseas trip would be the capital of the People’s Republic of China,” Kim Jong Un said, according to the North’s KCNA. “It’s also one of my noble duties to value the North Korea-China friendship as I do my own life.”

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Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Seoul, and Christopher Bodeen and researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

Bright light on family of Sacramento police shooting victim

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A blinding national spotlight is shining on the family of Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old unarmed black man killed by Sacramento police last week.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you experience it,” Clark’s uncle, Curtis Gordon, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. “You can see it on TV, it’s totally OK to deal with those realities when it’s just through a television and they’re not in your home. It’s different now.”

Television cameras and national media were there Monday for a news conference where Gordon supported Clark’s grandmother, who sobbed uncontrollably as she recounted the shooting and asked why something significantly less lethal than a barrage of 20 bullets could not have been used by police.

They were there Tuesday morning when the city’s first black police chief pleaded for calm after more than a week of unrest and later in the day when Clark’s brother and supporters disrupted a City Council meeting and then demonstrators for a second time blocked thousands of NBA fans from entering the arena for the hometown Kings game.

They will be there Wednesday for Clark’s wake and on Thursday when the Rev. Al Sharpton plans to give the eulogy at Clark’s funeral.

A national spotlight is shining on the family of Stephon Clark, the 22-year-old unarmed black man killed by Sacramento police last week. Clark’s family is leaning on their faith as they face a public wake Wednesday and a funeral Thursday. (March 28)

For all the angst and raw emotions, grieving and weary family members are skeptical that any substantive change will result before the next young black man dies from police gunfire and siphons away the national media and banner headlines.

“So we appreciate the conversation, but conversation without implementation of some true reformation means nothing,” Gordon said. “It brought us to this moment, but what about tomorrow? What about next week?

“You know, sadly, I have no confidence in America and the fact that I will probably hear another story sometime this year of an innocent life lost over excessive police force. It’s so common, you’re numb to it.”

Clark was killed March 18 when two Sacramento police officers responding to a report of someone breaking car windows fatally shot him in his grandparents’ backyard. Police say they believe Clark was the suspect and he ran when a police helicopter responded, then did not obey officers’ orders.

Police say they thought Clark was holding a gun when he moved toward them, but he was found only with a cellphone.

The California attorney general’s office on Tuesday joined the investigation, a move Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn said he hopes will bring “faith and transparency” to a case that he said has as sparked “extremely high emotions, anger and hurt in our city.”

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office will provide oversight of the investigation and conduct a review of the police department’s policies and use-of-force training. The decision of whether to bring criminal charges against the officers involved remains with District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, although Becerra said his office could also bring charges.

Clark’s family is skeptical that the investigation will provide appropriate results, Gordon said.

“It’s all talk at this point,” he said. “Show me.”

African-Americans have been dealing with implicit and explicit bias for centuries, Gordon said. Many factors play a role but he said one necessity is for police forces to do a better job weeding out those who should not be officers.

Clark’s family is leaning on their faith as they face a public wake Wednesday and a two-hour funeral Thursday, both at Bayside of South Sacramento Church. Clark leaves behind a fiancee and two children, ages 1 and 3.

“We trust in a spiritual realm, in our Creator, to give us undiscovered strength,” Gordon said.

“We will make it through this. And that’s the thing, ’cause it’s bigger than us and we have to accept that. We carry that torch for Stephon.”

Business: Global stock markets sink, slammed by tech losses

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shares fell in Europe and Asia on Wednesday as tech stocks extended losses following sell-offs of their U.S. peers overnight. Investors are selling technology-related shares on concern governments might tighten scrutiny over Facebook after it was revealed that users’ data was shared with a consulting firm affiliated with President Donald Trump.

KEEPING SCORE: Britain’s FTSE 100 dropped 1 percent to 6,930.51. France’s CAC 40 slid 1.4 percent to 5,043.96 and Germany’s DAX lost 1.6 percent to 11,784.17. Futures augured weak starts on Wall Street. Dow futures fell 0.3 percent while S&P futures also retreated 0.3 percent.

ASIA’S DAY: Japan’s Nikkei 225 sank 1.3 percent to 21,031.31 and South Korea’s Kospi slid 1.3 percent to 2,419.29. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index sank 2.5 percent to 30,022.53 while China’s Shanghai Composite Index dropped 1.4 percent to 3,122.29. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 retreated 0.7 percent to 5,789.50. Stocks in Taiwan, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries also fell.

BAD DAY FOR TECH: Investors cut their holdings of Asian tech stocks after a series of incidents sent their U.S. peers lower again. One of those cases is a report that authorities will investigate a fatal crash that involved a Tesla electric SUV equipped with a semi-autonomous control system. In Asia, Samsung Electronics Co. fell 2.6 percent and Sony Corp. lost 1.1 percent. Softbank Group Corp. slumped 4 percent. Tencent Holdings Ltd. was down 4.6 percent.

ANALYST VIEWPOINT: “So what spooked markets? Well, it looks like the rearing of the (ugly) Facebook privacy infringement was a convenient excuse to sell-off ahead of the long weekend,” Mizuho Bank said in a commentary.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude lost 68 cents to $64.57 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract declined 30 cents to settle at $65.25 a barrel on Tuesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, fell 52 cents to $68.94 per barrel in London.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 105.64 yen from 105.34 yen. The euro fell to $1.2386 from $1.2404.

___

– Here are the top five things you need to know in financial markets on Wednesday, March 28:

1. Global stocks switch back to trade war jitters

Global stocks fell on Wednesday after Wall Street was knocked hard by concerns about tighter controls on the tech industry, denting a brief global equities recovery driven by hopes that the risk of a U.S.-China trade war was easing.

The tech sector was hit as market participants speculated with increased regulation over Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) debacle with protecting users’ privacy

Equities extended losses further after China’s state-run Global Times reported the world’s second largest economy will soon announce a list of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports to China.

The news dashed traders’ hopes that trade tensions between the world’s two largest economies was easing. After the Dow skid more than 300 points a day earlier, U.S. futures pointed to a continuation of the selloff. At 5:54AM ET (9:54GMT), the blue-chip Dow futures fell 45 points, or 0.19%, S&P 500 futures lost 6 points, or 0.22%, while the Nasdaq 100 futures traded down 39 points, or 0.60%.

Elsewhere, Asian shares were infected by the tech selloff and rekindling of trade worries. Japan’s Nikkei 225 ended down 1.2%, while China’s Shanghai Composite skid 1.4%.

Tech firms also led European stocks lower in midday trading as persistent concerns over a regulatory crackdown on big tech and a string of negative headlines overnight hit sentiment towards the sector that drove a long bull market.

2. China preps retaliatory tariffs against U.S. imports

Just last Monday it had appeared that trade tensions between China and the U.S. had been simmering down and global stocks rallied.

However, concerns returned full force as the Chinese state run Global Times reported that Beijing would soon announce a full list of tariffs on U.S. imports to retaliate to planned U.S. levies.

Alarm over a possible trade war between the world’s two largest economies has dampened risk sentiment as financial markets anticipated dire consequences should trade barriers go up due to Trump’s bid to cut the U.S. deficit with China.

Markets are now waiting for the U.S. to publish a list of Chinese products that could be targeted with additional tariffs after a U.S. inquiry found China guilty of intellectual property theft and unfair trade.

3. GDP to focus attention on economic front

In a light day for economic references, the U.S. is to release final figures on fourth-quarter economic growth at 8:30AM ET (12:30GMT) Wednesday.

The data is expected to show that the economy expanded at a healthy 2.7% annual rate in the final three months of 2017, upwardly revised from a preliminary estimate of 2.5%. It grew by 3.2% in the third quarter.

Of note, this third reading is from the October to December 2017 period and is not expected to include the impact of Trump’s tax cuts.

Investors will also focus on housing market data on Wednesday as the National Association of Realtors publishes its pending home sales for the month of February at 10:00AM ET (14:00GMT).

4. Oil heads lower on bets for U.S. inventory build

Crude prices continued to track lower on Wednesday, amid speculation weekly supply data due later in the day will show a big buildup in U.S. oil supplies.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration will release its official weekly oil supplies report for the week ended March 23 at 10:30AM ET (14:30GMT), amid expectations for a draw of 287,000 barrels.

However, after markets closed Tuesday, the American Petroleum Institute said that U.S. oil inventories rose by 5.3 million barrels last week.

U.S. crude oil futures rose 1.03% to $64.38 at 5:55AM ET (9:55GMT), while Brent oil traded down 0.82% to $68.89.

Despite Wednesday’s pullback, oil prices were still on track for monthly gains of around 5% as investors continue to keep an eye on geopolitical developments, evaluate escalating U.S. shale production and contemplate OPEC’s push to extend the production curb agreement into 2019.

Elsewhere, in Asia, Shanghai crude oil futures saw their third day of trading continuing with high volume and volatile trading. Spot Shanghai crude futures sank almost 4%.

5. North Korea reportedly pledges denuclearization

China said Wednesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had pledged to denuclearize the Korean peninsula during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in exchange for a promise that the world’s second largest economy would uphold its friendship with its isolated neighbor.

Kim expressed an openness to U.S. talks during meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday, in what was his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011.

Two days into the surprise visit which wasn’t confirmed by the North Korean and Chinese governments until Wednesday, Kim returned to Pyongyang, according to North Korean press which did not mention either the prospect of denuclearization or the potential Trump summit.

2 officers in black man’s fatal shooting won’t be charged

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s attorney general ruled out criminal charges Tuesday against two white Baton Rouge police officers in the fatal shooting of a black man outside a convenience store.

Attorney General Jeff Landry’s decision came nearly 11 months after the Justice Department ruled out federal criminal charges in Alton Sterling’s July 2016 death.

Landry made the announcement at a news conference after meeting with family members of Sterling.

Veda Washington-Abusaleh, Sterling’s aunt, was in tears after meeting with Landry.

“They said they didn’t find anything,” she said. “They said it was justifiable, what happened to Alton was justifiable.”

Landry said his office reviewed all of the evidence compiled by the Justice Department, including opinions issued by independent experts, and also conducted its own interviews of eyewitnesses to the shooting. He said he is “always mindful of the human element” in the case beyond his review of the facts and applicable laws.

“I know the Sterling family is hurting,” Landry said. “I know that they may not agree with the decision.”

Landry did not take any questions from reporters after his statement. His spokeswoman, Ruth Wisher, would not say if they planned to release the body camera footage and surveillance video that hasn’t been made public.

Officer Blane Salamoni shot and killed Sterling during a struggle outside a convenience store where the 37-year-old black man was selling homemade CDs. Officer Howie Lake II helped wrestle Sterling to the ground, but Lake didn’t fire his gun.

The shooting came amid increased scrutiny of fatal encounters between police and black men. Two cellphone videos of the shooting quickly spread on social media, leading to protests during which nearly 200 people were arrested. The officers’ body cameras and a store surveillance camera also recorded the encounter, but those videos have not been released.

Federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation immediately after the shooting and released their findings in May 2017. They said Salamoni yelled that Sterling was reaching for a gun in his pocket before shooting him three times, and then fired three more shots into Sterling’s back when he began to sit up and move.

The officers recovered a loaded revolver from Sterling’s pocket. As a convicted felon, Sterling could not legally carry a gun. Sterling had pleaded guilty in 2011 to being a felon in possession of a firearm and illegally carrying a weapon and was arrested in May 2009 after an officer confronted him outside another store where he was selling CDs, court records show.

Federal authorities concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Salamoni or Lake willfully deprived Sterling of his civil rights, or that the officers’ use of force was objectively unreasonable.

The officers encountered Sterling after responding to a report of a man with a gun outside the Triple S Food Mart. The officers told Sterling to put his hands on the hood of a car and struggled with him when he didn’t comply, the Justice Department said. Lake shocked Sterling with a stun gun before the officers wrestled him to the ground, according to federal investigators.

Attorneys for Sterling’s relatives have said federal authorities told them that Salamoni pointed a gun at Sterling’s head and threatened to kill him before the struggle began. In a summary of its findings, the Justice Department said Salamoni pointed his gun at Sterling’s head but didn’t mention any verbal threats by the officer.

Salamoni and Lake have remained on paid administrative leave since the July 5, 2016, shooting.

Racial tensions were still simmering in Louisiana’s capital when Gavin Long, a 29-year-old black military veteran from Kansas City, Missouri, ambushed police officers near a car wash on July 17, 2016. Long killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers and wounded three others before being shot dead.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore recused himself from any state criminal investigation into Sterling’s death, citing his professional relationship with Salamoni’s parents, who have served as police officers in Baton Rouge. Moore’s recusal left Landry’s office to review evidence and decide whether any state charges were warranted.

In June 2017, lawyers for Sterling’s five children filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Baton Rouge, its police department and former police chief, and the two officers involved. Their suit alleges the shooting fit a pattern of racist behavior and excessive force by the Baton Rouge police. It also claims poor training and inadequate police procedures led to Sterling’s death.

The mass arrests of protesters after Sterling’s death spawned lawsuits that accused police of using excessive force and advancing against peaceful protesters while wearing military gear and gas masks and brandishing assault weapons. In October, a federal judge approved a class-action settlement that awards up to $1,000 in cash to dozens of protesters who claim police violated their civil rights.

Police prepared for another round of protests before the Justice Department announced its decision last year, but the response was far more subdued. After learning neither officer would be charged with federal crimes, dozens of people held a peaceful vigil outside the convenience store where Sterling was shot.

Suburban voters angry with Trump threaten GOP’s grip on House

(PhatzNewsRoom / NYT)   —-   In a suburb outside of Chicago, Sullivan is determined to replace her congressman, six-term Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R), whom she has supported in the past. His sin, she said, was his affiliation with President Trump.

“Just the lack of respect for women, the authoritarianism, it’s too much,” said Sullivan, 47, a digital consultant. “As a professional woman, it’s very difficult for me to reconcile.”

She is not alone. In Illinois’ 6th Congressional District, 62,990 people voted Democratic last week for seven candidates, up from just 8,615 in the 2014 primary. In a district that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, a warning is being sent in letters as big and bold as any that have hung on a Trump building.

If Republicans want to hold onto the House, they will have to compete in communities that had little to do with the working-class regions that sent Trump to the White House in 2016: affluent, white-collar suburbs of Democratic cities. Many of the most competitive House seats this year are in the tony bedroom communities of Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington.

The balancing act for these Republicans is appealing to moderate voters enraged by Trump while trying to avoid alienating a party base enamored with the president. Democrats had targeted Roskam early on — a GOP incumbent in a Clinton seat. Beyond those races, the Democrats’ House win this month in a suburban-and-rural Pennsylvania district Trump won handily, as well as last year’s wins in Alabama and Virginia, underscore that dozens more districts are competitive.

Suburban voters tend to be richer and better-educated than the country as a whole. That is bad news for Republicans, who are struggling with a massive divide among white voters. Those with college degrees disapprove of the president by a margin of about 20 points. Those without college degrees approve of him by nearly the same margin.

Residents of the 21 Republican seats recently rated by the Cook Political Report to be the most vulnerable to Democratic takeover have a median household income 33 percent higher than the country as a whole, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Thirty percent of the voters in those districts are college-educated whites, well higher than the 23 percent average for the country.

Roskam’s Illinois district has the 15th-highest median income in the country, and in an interview he made clear that he is aware of the challenge facing him.

“I don’t underestimate it,” Roskam said when asked about the challenge brought about by increased Democratic enthusiasm. “Both campaigns are going to be influenced and have to navigate through large national figures — Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi — neither of whom are particularly popular in my district.”

Republicans like Roskam, who has chaired the Ways and Means Tax Policy subcommittee, also face the challenge of explaining the new limits Republicans have passed on state and local tax deductions, an issue that particularly affects wealthier areas with high property values.

The deduction is heavily used in other vulnerable GOP districts, including the northern New Jersey seats held by Rep. Leonard Lance (R) and retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R). The deduction is also claimed on about 52 percent of tax returns in the vulnerable Northern Virginia district of Rep. Barbara Comstock (R), according to the Tax Policy Center.

a couple of men standing next to a man in a suit and tie© Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

Roskam signaled that explaining the complicated effects of the tax bill on higher-income residents will be a central message of his campaign. “That’s not the whole picture,” he said of the limits on the state and local tax deductions, arguing the average family in his district, making $135,000 a year, will enjoy a net tax cut of about $4,600.

Such details are likely to compete with the enormous upswing of enthusiasm that has many local Democrats encouraged. On the eastern edge of the district, Ruth Scifio, 58, decided to start volunteering with the Democratic Party after attending the Women’s March in Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. An office manager with grown children, she has been knocking on doors for the first time in her life in the relatively conservative Algonquin Township.

“It’s never been something I have been comfortable doing. But I am doing it now, and I have been finding people,” she said. “So many people in my precinct thought they were the only Democrats. We are like an underground club.”

That is a spirit the Democratic winner of last Tuesday’s primary is counting on in November. “There’s a massive upsurge in interest in the Democratic Party right now,” said Sean Casten, a clean-energy entrepreneur. “Trump has not done much that’s good for the party, but he’s certainly raised civic engagement.”

This month’s Democratic win in a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, a place Trump had won by nearly 20 points in 2016, showed the danger ahead for the GOP. Although the district was drawn for a Republican victory, including a broad rural expanse in the southwest part of the state, the success of former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb was driven by a dramatic shift in wealthier Pittsburgh suburbs like Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair.

It is a pattern that follows big turnouts last year in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and the better-educated pockets around Birmingham, Ala., which were crucial to Democratic statewide victories in those states.

“This is shaping up to be the year of the angry, white, female college graduate,” said David Wasserman, a congressional handicapper for the Cook Political Report.

This year’s focus on wealthy voters is, in large part, an unexpected byproduct of Republican successes in carving up the nation’s congressional seats to their advantage. Although Republicans won more than 55 percent of House seats in 2016, they received only 49 percent of the popular vote in House races. Democratic voters have been corralled into urban districts, while Republicans have claimed rural areas, leaving suburban districts that bridge the two as more likely battlegrounds.

That worked fine for Republicans in the past, when the party was able to compete better among white college-educated voters, a group that tends to vote in higher rates in off-year contests. Trump has scrambled that math. Although exit polling showed Trump won college-educated whites by three points in 2016, only 38 percent of the group approved of Trump’s performance in the mid-March Quinnipiac poll. By contrast, 55 percent of whites without a college degree approved of the president.

“In this Trump era, in a very pronounced way, educational attainment is a better predictor of white voters,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster who worked on the recent U.S. Senate race in Alabama and the special House election in the Atlanta suburbs last year. “It tells you more than gender. It tells you more than age.”

At a Republican retreat at Camp David in January, Republican House leaders briefed Trump on the danger and emphasized the need to focus much of the coming election on persuading moderates, not just turning out the GOP base. That means focusing on issues in specific races that are not often to be found in Trump’s Twitter feed, like environmental protection.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) has been focusing his message on his work to combat opioid addiction and sex trafficking in the wealthy Twin Cities suburbs. Door-hangers for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) in his district outside Philadelphia focus on his efforts to clean up contaminated drinking water and support the interests of children.

GOP strategists see a glimmer of hope in focus groups that have shown moderate women who are turned off by Trump don’t always connect the president to the party brand or their local representatives. “They say no morals, he has no ethics, he is a narcissist,” said one Republican consultant who has reviewed the data. “But they are adamant he is not a Republican.”

Strategists from both parties agree that while the 2018 elections will be fought in wealthier parts of the country, Democrats will also have to win some less-prosperous districts as well. Rural parts of California, Maine and New York, as well as urban areas of Republican-leaning states, like Omaha; Lexington, Ky.; and Cincinnati are also home to Republicans who are at risk of losing reelection. Once Lamb is sworn in, Democrats will need a net gain of 23 seats to win control of the House.

“The data is very consistent, and it suggests real opportunities even in those blue-collar districts,” said Charlie Kelly, the executive director of House Majority PAC, a group that has already reserved $43 million in television ads to support Democratic candidates. “I don’t think it’s an either-or, I think it’s an all of the above.”

At odds with Bolton on North Korea, Mattis appears isolated

WASHINGTON (AP) — Of the issues that divide Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and President Donald Trump’s incoming national security adviser, John Bolton, one stands out: North Korea.

Bolton, who will replace Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on April 9, has publicly advocated for overthrowing the North Korean government. Mattis, a retired Marine general who knows intimately the costs of war, favors diplomacy to rid the North of its nuclear weapons and has said war on the Korean peninsula would be “catastrophic.” On Iran, too, Mattis would seem at odds with Bolton, who has argued for abandoning the Obama-era nuclear deal.

These and other matters of war and peace will test Mattis’ influence with Trump as his national security team is overhauled.

Mattis was sometimes at odds with McMaster, but the arrival of the hawkish Bolton, combined with the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the uncertain status of John Kelly as White House chief of staff, appears to leave Mattis more isolated than at any time since he took over the Pentagon 15 months ago. Often described as a steadying or moderating influence on the impulsive Trump, Mattis has little previous relationship with Bolton.

The North Korea issue is front-and-center: Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean President Kim Jong Un by May to discuss the North’s nuclear disarmament. The unprecedented summit could be a turning point in a decades-old U.S.-North Korean standoff that Trump himself has said could end in “fire and fury” – an American nuclear attack __ to stop the North from gaining the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear missile.

“This is buckle-up time,” retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said last week on MSNBC. “For the military I have three words: Sharpen your swords. He (Bolton) is someone who is going to reach for the military instrument.”

The changes in the White House and at the State Department, while significant for Mattis, are hardly heart-stopping. People close to him sense no change in his commitment to the job; some suggest that Trump’s decision to move former Republican congressman and current CIA director Mike Pompeo to State, replacing Tillerson, could benefit Mattis in the sense that he’ll have a partner at State who is better aligned with Trump.

Publicly, Mattis has said little about the shakeup. He was in Afghanistan when Tillerson got the ax. When reporters asked his reaction a couple of days later, Mattis said he preferred not to comment on the details, although he went on to suggest that its importance was being exaggerated. He said that in all of his discussions abroad with foreign government officials and American troops, the matter was not brought up once.

“I understand why you’re asking, but I’m just pointing out that in most parts of the world this is a Washington, D.C. story,” he said.

Another Washington story is Mattis and his ability to forge a workable relationship with Trump despite differences on some issues like the Iran nuclear deal, which Mattis says is flawed but worth honoring as long as the Iranians do. Mattis also has differed with the president over Trump’s wish to bar all transgender people from serving in the military, and he helped sway Trump from his inclination last year to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

The Mattis formula seems to be simple. Out of the spotlight, out of trouble. The less he says publicly, the less he risks losing influence with Trump.

“Part of his success … is absolutely the fact that you don’t see him in the limelight terribly much,” says Loren Dejonge Schulman, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security who served in key national security positions in the White House and Pentagon under President Barack Obama. “That may be keeping him out of trouble with the White House but I think it’s setting an incredibly bad precedent in terms of Pentagon transparency.”

If Mattis, who spent more than 40 years in uniform and is the first career military officer to lead the Pentagon since George C. Marshall in the early 1950s, isn’t the most experienced politician to run the military’s vast bureaucracy, he has shown a knack for staying out of trouble with his thin-skinned boss.

Mattis has even broken Trump of his habit of calling the retired general “Mad Dog,” which Mattis insists was a media invention to begin with.

Trump frequently has lunch and dinners with the defense secretary and speaks glowingly of him to outside advisers. White House officials have said that Trump sometimes repeats military historical anecdotes he heard from Mattis.

Even Mattis’ few known stumbles have not dogged him. In August, for example, Mattis told sailors at a submarine base in his home state of Washington that the Navy would give them the worst and the best days of their lives, and then added, “That means you’re not some (expletive) sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “You know what I mean, kind of sitting there saying, ‘Well, I should have done something with my life.’”

His language was quickly forgotten.

The episode pointed to a man who has shaped the job and not let it shape him. So much so that perhaps the most poignant criticism of his tenure has been the secrecy with which the military has handled everything from troop deployment numbers to the details of its military strategies — things that often were made public under previous secretaries.

___

Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

Mysterious train sparks speculation of Kim visit to Beijing

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BEIJING (AP) — A mysterious armored train traveled from North Korea to Beijing and then headed back without revealing its key secret: Was Kim Jong Un on board?

Speculation about a visit to Beijing by North Korea’s reclusive leader or another high-level Pyongyang official ran high Tuesday amid talk of preparations for a future meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The visit by the special train to Beijing and unusually heavy security at a guesthouse where prominent North Koreans have stayed seemed to point to the possibility that Kim was making his first visit to China as the North’s leader.

Such a trip would be seen as a potential precursor to Kim’s planned summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April and his anticipated meeting with Trump by May. Analysts, however, questioned whether Kim would make the visit to Beijing himself rather than send an envoy.

Whoever was on the train, their visit to Beijing appeared to be short. On Tuesday afternoon, a vehicle convoy led by a motorcycle escort headed in the direction of Beijing’s main railway station. The train was seen leaving shortly afterward, less than a day after it arrived.

There’s speculation in Beijing that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be visiting. A heavily guarded motorcade was spotted and a state guesthouse has tight security. A Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman said she was not aware of the situation. (March 27)

While there has been no word of a meeting with Chinese leaders, China has been one of North Korea’s most important allies even though relations have chilled recently because of Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

On Monday, heavy security was reported at the Friendship Bridge on the Yalu River marking the border between China and North Korea before a train passed through the Chinese city of Dandong. There were reports of it transiting several stations on the way from North Korea to Beijing.

Japanese broadcaster NTV reported that the green and yellow train appeared very similar to the one that Kim’s father and predecessor as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, took to Beijing in 2011.

Video that aired on NTV also showed a motorcade of black limousines waiting at the train station and rows of Chinese soldiers marching on what appeared to be a train platform. The video did not show anyone getting off the train.

At around 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, a convoy of about a dozen cars, including a large black limousine, was seen heading in the direction of the railway station.

The limousine was seen about 10 minutes later entering the station under a heavy security presence. The station itself was closed to the public in an unusual security measure.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked whether Kim or another North Korean official was visiting Beijing, said, “I know you’re all very curious but I have no information on that.”

Past visits by Kim Jong Il to China were surrounded in secrecy, with Beijing only confirming his presence after he had crossed the border by train back into North Korea.

North Korea’s state-run media had no immediate reports of a delegation traveling to China.

The speculation had been fueled further on Monday evening when a vehicle convoy entered the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing and a military honor guard and heavy security were seen later. The guesthouse had been the favored residence of Kim Jong Il during his visits to Beijing.

On Tuesday, a convoy of official Chinese cars was seen leaving the guesthouse’s east gate.

City police and the paramilitary People’s Armed Police stood guard in the area and unidentified men in plainclothes attempted to prevent photographers from taking pictures.

Cars in the convoy were identified by yellow stickers but carried no diplomatic license plates.

South Korea’s presidential office said it could not confirm reports that the train carried Kim nor a separate report that Kim’s sister was onboard.

South Korean analysts were doubtful the visitor is Kim. Since succeeding his father as leader in 2011, Kim has touted an image of his country as diplomatic equal to China and it’s unlikely he would sneak into Beijing for his first face-to-face meetings with the Chinese leadership, the analysts said.

They said it’s more likely that Kim sent a special envoy, possibly his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to appease a traditional ally ahead of his planned meetings with the presidents of South Korea and the United States. The envoy could potentially seek Chinese commitment for future support should North Korea’s talks with rivals fall through, said Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“North Korea doesn’t want to send a message that China has been pushed to the back as it makes diplomatic approaches to the United States and South Korea,” said Cha, adding that the visit could be part of the North’s effort to gain leverage in the talks with South Korea and the United States.

“If the talks with South Korea and the United States fall through, North Korea will surely try to demonstrate its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities again. The special envoy could discuss this possibility with Chinese officials, asking China not to press too hard with sanctions if that happens,” Cha said.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said Monday that the U.S. could not confirm reports that Kim was visiting China.

Shah reiterated Trump’s plans to meet with Kim, saying the U.S.-led international pressure campaign against Pyongyang “has paid dividends and has brought the North Koreans to the table.”

___

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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