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Update March 2018

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Update March 22, 2018

Facebook's Zuckerberg apologizes for 'major breach of trust'

The offices of Cambridge Analytica (CA) are shown in central London, Tuesday March 20. (Kirsty O'Connor/PA via AP)

Barbara Ortutay, Danica Kirka and Gregory Katz

New York (AP) — Breaking five days of silence, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for a "major breach of trust," admitted mistakes and outlined steps to protect user data in light of a privacy scandal involving a Trump-connected data-mining firm.

"I am really sorry that happened," Zuckerberg said of the scandal involving data mining firm Cambridge Analytica. Facebook has a "responsibility" to protect its users' data, he said in a Wednesday interview on CNN. If it fails, he said, "we don't deserve to have the opportunity serve people."

His mea culpa on cable television came a few hours after he acknowledged his company's mistakes in a Facebook post , but without saying he was sorry.

Zuckerberg and Facebook's No. 2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, had been quiet since news broke Friday that Cambridge may have used data improperly obtained from roughly 50 million Facebook users to try to sway elections. Cambridge's clients included Donald Trump's general-election campaign.

Facebook shares have dropped some 8 percent, lopping about $46 billion off the company's market value, since the revelations were first published.

Even before the scandal broke, Facebook has already taken the most important steps to prevent a recurrence, Zuckerberg said. For example, in 2014, it reduced access outside apps had to user data. However, some of the measures didn't take effect until a year later, allowing Cambridge to access the data in the intervening months.

Zuckerberg acknowledged that there is more to do.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Zuckerberg said it will ban developers who don't agree to an audit. An app's developer will no longer have access to data from people who haven't used that app in three months. Data will also be generally limited to user names, profile photos and email, unless the developer signs a contract with Facebook and gets user approval.

In a separate post, Facebook said it will inform people whose data was misused by apps. Facebook first learned of this breach of privacy more than two years ago, but hadn't mentioned it publicly until Friday.

The company said it was "building a way" for people to know if their data was accessed by "This Is Your Digital Life," the psychological-profiling quiz app that researcher Aleksandr Kogan created and paid about 270,000 people to take part in. Cambridge Analytica later obtained information from the app for about 50 million Facebook users, as the app also vacuumed up data on people's friends — including those who never downloaded the app or gave explicit consent.

Chris Wylie, a Cambridge co-founder who left in 2014, has said one of the firm's goals was to influence people's perceptions by injecting content, some misleading or false, all around them. It's not clear whether Facebook would be able to tell users whether they had seen such content.

Cambridge has shifted the blame to Kogan, which the firm described as a contractor. Kogan described himself as a scapegoat.

Kogan, a psychology researcher at Cambridge University, told the BBC that both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have tried to place the blame on him, even though the firm ensured him that everything he did was legal.

"One of the great mistakes I did here was I just didn't ask enough questions," he said. "I had never done a commercial project. I didn't really have any reason to doubt their sincerity. That's certainly something I strongly regret now."

He said the firm paid some $800,000 for the work, but it went to participants in the survey.

"My motivation was to get a dataset I could do research on," he said. "I have never profited from this in any way personally."

Authorities in Britain and the United States are investigating.

David Carroll, a professor at Parsons School of Design in New York who sued Cambridge Analytica in the U.K., said he was not satisfied with Zuckerberg's response, but acknowledged that "this is just the beginning."

He said it was "insane" that Facebook had yet to take legal action against Cambridge parent SCL Group over the inappropriate data use. Carroll himself sued Cambridge Friday to recover data on him that the firm had obtained.

Sandy Parakilas, who worked in data protection for Facebook in 2011 and 2012, told a U.K. parliamentary committee Wednesday that the company was vigilant about its network security but lax when it came to protecting users' data.

He said personal data including email addresses and in some cases private messages was allowed to leave Facebook servers with no real controls on how the data was used after that.

"The real challenge here is that Facebook was allowing developers to access the data of people who hadn't explicitly authorized that," he said, adding that the company had "lost sight" of what developers did with the data.

Suspect in Austin bombing attacks blows himself up

Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, right, stands with other members of law enforcement as he briefs the media, Wednesday, March 21, in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Jim Vertuno

Round Rock, Texas (AP) — The suspect in a spate of bombing attacks that have terrorized Austin over the past month blew himself up with an explosive device as authorities closed in, the police said early Wednesday.

Authorities had zeroed in on the suspect in the last 24 to 36 hours and located his vehicle at a hotel on Interstate 35 in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said at a news conference. They were waiting for ballistic vehicles to arrive to move in for an arrest when his vehicle began to drive away, Manley said. Authorities followed the vehicle, which ran into a ditch on the side of the road, the police chief said.

When members of the SWAT team approached, the suspect detonated an explosive device inside the vehicle, the police chief said. The blast knocked back one officer, while a second officer fired his weapon, Manley said.

The suspect, who suffered significant injuries from the blast, was killed. Authorities identified him only as a 24-year-old white man and wouldn't say if he was from Austin.

Austin has been targeted by four package bombings since March 2 that killed two people and wounded four others. A fifth parcel bomb detonated at a FedEx distribution center near San Antonio early Tuesday.

Manley said the suspect is believed to be responsible for all the major Austin bombings, but authorities acknowledged it was too soon to say if the suspect had worked alone. Authorities also said they didn't know his motive.

FBI agent Chris Combs, head of the agency's San Antonio office, said, "We are concerned that there may be other packages that are still out there."

Isaac Figueroa, 26, said he and his brother heard sirens and helicopters early Wednesday and drove toward them, then cut through nearby woods on foot after they hit a police roadblock.

Figueroa said they saw a silver or gray Jeep Cherokee that was pinned between black and white vehicles and "looked like it had been rammed off the road." He said he saw police deploy a robot to go examine the Jeep.

The suspect's death followed a day of rapid-fire developments in the case.

On Tuesday, a bomb inside a package exploded around 1 a.m. as it passed along a conveyer belt at a FedEx shipping center in Schertz, northeast of San Antonio and about 60 miles (95 kilometers) southwest of Austin. One worker reported ringing in her ears and was treated at the scene.

Later in the morning, police sent a bomb squad to a FedEx facility outside the Austin airport to check on a suspicious package. Federal agencies and police later said that package had indeed contained an explosive that was successfully intercepted and that it, too, was tied to the other bombings.

Authorities also closed off an Austin-area FedEx store where they believe the bomb that exploded in Schertz was shipped. They roped off a large area around the shopping center in the enclave of Sunset Valley and were collecting evidence.

The Schertz blast came two days after a bombing wounded two men Sunday night in a quiet Austin neighborhood about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the FedEx store. It was triggered by a nearly invisible tripwire, suggesting a "higher level of sophistication" than agents saw in three package bombs previously left on doorsteps, according to Fred Milanowski, the agent in charge of the Houston division of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Authorities have not identified the two men who were hurt Sunday, saying only that they are in their 20s. But William Grote told The Associated Press that his grandson was one of them and that he had what appeared to be nails embedded in his knees.

During an Oval Office meeting Tuesday, President Donald Trump said whoever is responsible for the bombings "is obviously a very sick individual or individuals" and that authorities are "working to get to the bottom of it."

Philippine bus careens into ravine, killing 19, injuring 21

In this Tuesday, March 20, photo rescuers and volunteers try to help trapped passengers escape from the wreckage of the passenger bus after it careened off a road and fell into a ravine at Sablayan township, Mindoro Occidental province in central Philippines. (PDRRMO, Mindoro Occidental via AP)

Manila, Philippines (AP) — A passenger bus careened off a winding dirt road and hurtled down a ravine south of the Philippine capital, killing 19 people, police said Wednesday.

The crash Tuesday night in a mountainous area of Sablayan town in Occidental Mindoro province injured 21 other passengers, including an infant, police investigator Alexis Go said.

He said the bus apparently went out of control and swerved wildly on a downhill stretch of the road, which was under repair. As it approached a bridge in the dark, "a surviving passenger recalled the driver yelling at them to hold on because the bus had lost its brakes," Go said by telephone.

"Then the passenger remembered everything tumbling around inside the bus, he heard a loud crash and he passed out," Go said.

The bus slammed into some stone barricades on the roadside ahead of the bridge and then flew off the road down a ravine, which was 15 to 20 meters (50 to 65 feet) deep. The impact killed the driver and most passengers in the front rows of seats, he said.

An infant near the front survived after a relative embraced the baby and the seat cushion prevented him from being pinned to death, said Go, who inspected the accident site.

Photographs showed the green and white Dimple Star Transport bus lying precariously on the edge of a dry canal at the bottom of the ravine. Rescuers peered into the bus cabin with flashlights attached to their foreheads.

Investigators will try to determine if a brake failure or other mechanical problem caused the accident, Go said, adding there were no skid marks on the road where the bus plunged off the cliff.

Highway fatalities are alarmingly high in the Philippines due to poor law enforcement, dilapidated vehicles and a lack of safety features such as signs and railings, especially in far-flung provinces.

Sen. Grace Poe called for support for a Senate bill that would create a National Transportation Safety Board and other steps such as inspections of public transport vehicles and strict licensing of drivers.

She said the crash was a reminder of how dangerous public transportation is in the Philippines.

"Sadly, the list of tragic road accidents and their casualties continue to increase because vehicles that are not roadworthy or even those we label as rolling coffins are still allowed to ply the roads with near impunity," she said in a statement.

Israeli military confirms it hit Syrian nuclear site in 2007

This photo released by the Israel Defense Forces shows what was believed to be a nuclear reactor site that was destroyed by Israel, in the Deir el-Zour region, 450 kilometers (about 300 miles) northwest of Damascus, Syria. (IDF via AP)

Aron Heller

Tel Aviv, Israel (AP) — The Israeli military confirmed Wednesday it carried out the 2007 airstrike in Syria that destroyed what was believed to be a nuclear reactor, lifting the veil of secrecy over one of its most daring and mysterious operations in recent memory.

Although Israel was widely believed to have been behind the Sept. 6, 2007, airstrike, it has never before commented publicly on it.

In a lengthy release, the military revealed that eight F-15 fighter jets carried out the top-secret airstrikes against the facility in the Deir el-Zour region, 450 kilometers (about 300 miles) northeast of Damascus, destroying a site that had been in development for years and was scheduled to go into operation at the end of that year.

Israel's involvement has been one of its most closely held secrets, and it was not immediately clear why Israel decided to go public now. The military would not comment on its reasoning, but the move could be related to the upcoming memoir of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered the strike and has hinted about it for years, or it could be meant as a warning to archenemy Iran, which is active in Syria.

"The motivation of our enemies has grown in recent years, but so too the might of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces)," Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday. "Everyone in the Middle East would do well to internalize this equation."

Israel and Syria have always been bitter enemies. Throughout Syria's seven-year civil war, Israel has carried out well over 100 airstrikes, most believed to have been aimed at suspected weapons shipments destined for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group. Both Iran and Hezbollah are allied with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

At the time of the 2007 strike, Syria accused Israel of invading its airspace, but gave no further details about the target.

The pre-mission briefing, made public Wednesday, stated that the operation should not be attributed to Israel so as to minimize the potential for an all-out war.

The strike was reminiscent of an Israeli attack in 1981 against a reactor being built in Iraq. The strike was later credited with preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction that could have been used in the Gulf War a decade later.

"The message from the 2007 attack on the reactor is that Israel will not tolerate construction that can pose an existential threat," military chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said in Wednesday's statement. "This was the message in 1981, this is the message in 2007 and this is the future message to our enemies."

Eisenkot, who at the time commanded Israel's northern front along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, said it marked Israel's most comprehensive attack in Syria since the 1973 Mideast war, and that everyone involved knew it could spark a new one. He said only a handful of top commanders were aware of the plans for Operation "Outside The Box."

The military said the F-15s took off from two bases in southern Israel at 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 and returned four hours later. Wednesday's announcement also indicated the Syrian reactor was much closer to completion than previously reported.

From Israel's perspective, the strike was an astounding success since it not only destroyed the site, but prevented further escalation and strengthened its deterrence in the region.

Air force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said the current turmoil in Syria has further vindicated the strike, particularly since the reactor was in an area later captured by Islamic State militants.

"Imagine what situation we would be in today if there was a nuclear reactor in Syria," Norkin said. "Israel's decision to destroy the reactor is one of the most important decisions taken here in the last 70 years."

Uzi Rabi, an expert on Iran at Tel Aviv University, said Israel's surprising confirmation might be meant as a "warning sign" to Iran as it expands its military footprint in Syria. Israel has warned against the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, particularly in areas close to Israel.

Last month, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that entered its airspace, triggering a clash in which an Israeli warplane crashed after being struck by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Israel responded by bombing Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.

The military said it began obtaining information regarding foreign experts helping Syria develop the Deir el-Zour site in late 2004. Later it discovered that North Korea was helping Syria build a reactor to manufacture plutonium.

In his memoir, "Decision Points," former President George W. Bush said Israel first asked the U.S. to bomb the site and then carried out an attack itself when Washington declined.

The strike came about a year after Israel's inconclusive war against Hezbollah, in which the Lebanese guerrillas battled Israel's army to a stalemate. The poor performance raised questions about Israel's deterrent capabilities.

"Prime Minister Olmert's execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war," Bush wrote, adding that the Israeli leader rejected a suggestion to go public with the operation.

"Olmert told me he wanted total secrecy. He wanted to avoid anything that might back Syria into a corner and force Assad to retaliate. This was his operation, and I felt an obligation to respect his wishes," Bush wrote.

Olmert has skirted around the issue, and military censors, for years, repeatedly saying that according to foreign sources Israel had been involved. After Bush's account was published in 2010, Olmert said: "I don't want (to), and I can't deny it."

Olmert, who was prime minister from 2006 until 2009 and was recently released from prison after serving time for corruption, is expected to delve more deeply into the issue in his upcoming book. The disclosure looks to help rehabilitate at least part of Olmert's tarnished image while damaging the legacy of his longtime rival, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was reportedly hesitant to strike in Syria.

Myanmar's president, a close friend of Suu Kyi, retires


In this Dec. 14, 2017, file photo, Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw looks down as he leaves a joint press conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Prime Minister's official residence in Tokyo. (Franck Robichon/Pool Photo via AP)

Yangon, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president, a close friend of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, said Wednesday that he was retiring, a move that puts a representative of the country's already powerful military at least temporarily in a position of executive power.

An announcement posted on the Facebook page of the Myanmar President Office said 71-year-old Htin Kyaw would step down because he wished to take a rest. It follows reports that he suffered ill health that forced him to travel abroad for medical care at least twice in the past year.

The statement said his post would be filled within seven working days, in line with the constitution.

Htin Kyaw, who became president in 2016, was Myanmar's first elected civilian president and head of its first government to be elected in free and fair polls since a 1962 military coup.

After he became president, Suu Kyi became Myanmar's de facto leader when she was named state counsellor, a position created for the country's once-leading voice for democracy because she's constitutionally banned from the presidency. A clause in the charter bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the job. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband.

By mutual agreement, Htin Kyaw acted as a proxy for Suu Kyi, who is also foreign minister. Suu Kyi had explained publicly — and to public approval — that she would be "above the president."

Htin Kyaw was "a constitutional president whose role and powers were reduced to that of a figurehead," said analyst Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute, a policy advocacy group.

"The new president, whoever he is, needs to take a firmer stand and not let the (state counsellor) do everything," he said in an email.

He added that Htin Kyaw's stepping down was widely expected because of his health, but that "there won't be much of an impact unless his successor provides some unexpected surprises, good or bad."

Myanmar has two vice presidents, and according to its constitution, 66-year-old First Vice President Myint Swe will serve as acting president. He was nominated for vice president by the military, which retains great influence even in the elected civilian government because it is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament as well as the three key security portfolios in the Cabinet.

Myint Swe, a former lieutenant general, was chief of military affairs security under the former military government, a position important enough to put him on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist in 2007 with restrictions on travel and financial transactions, imposed because of the junta's anti-democratic activities.

He and others were taken off the list in late 2016 as a gesture of support from Washington to Suu Kyi's government, installed earlier that year. Myint Swe was also regarded as being close to Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who headed the last military government.

When a vote is taken for a new president by both houses of parliament, the choice will be among Myint Swe, Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, who was nominated by the upper house of parliament, and a third candidate to be put forward by the lower house, which had nominated Htin Kyaw. Van Thio is a member of Myanmar's Chin ethnic minority.

The strong majority held by Suu Kyi's party allowed it to name Htin Kyaw president in 2016 and should put its new choice, whoever it may be, back in the job again

However, there is the possibility of disruption, said Khin Zaw Win.

"The military was opposed to the creation of the (state counsellor) post right from the beginning. It has been a festering resentment all along," he said. "And also keep in mind that the new president might have to take over totally from Aung San Suu Kyi. Her future is neither rosy nor assured."

Htin Kyaw was known more as a personal loyalist to Suu Kyi rather than an active political member of her National League for Democracy party, though his wife is a daughter of one of the party's founding members. He spent time in jail for helping Suu Kyi try to make an unsanctioned trip out of Yangon under the previous military government, and served as a director of a charitable foundation named after Suu Kyi's mother.

Update March 21, 2018

Ex-French president Sarkozy held on Gadhafi claims

In this Dec. 10 2007 file photo, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, greets Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace, in Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Samuel Petrequin

Paris (AP) — Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed in custody on Tuesday as part of an investigation that he received millions of euros in illegal financing from the regime of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

A judicial source with direct knowledge of the case told The Associated Press that Sarkozy was being held at the Nanterre police station, west of Paris. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Sarkozy and his former chief of staff have denied wrongdoing in the case, which involves funding for his winning 2007 presidential campaign.

Though an investigation has been underway since 2013, the case gained traction some three years later when French-Lebanese businessman Ziad Takieddine told the online investigative site, Mediapart, that he delivered suitcases from Libya containing 5 million euros ($6.2 million) in cash to Sarkozy and his former chief of staff Claude Gueant.

A lawyer for Sarkozy did not immediately respond to a message from the AP seeking comments.

Investigators are examining claims that Gadhafi's regime secretly gave Sarkozy 50 million euros overall for the 2007 campaign. Such a sum would be more than double the legal campaign funding limit at the time of 21 million euros. In addition, the alleged payments would violate French rules against foreign financing and declaring the source of campaign funds.

In the Mediapart interview published in November 2016, Takieddine said he was given 5 million euros in Tripoli by Gadhafi's intelligence chief on trips in late 2006 and 2007 and that he gave the money in suitcases full of cash to Sarkozy and Gueant on three occasions. He said the handovers took place in the Interior Ministry, while Sarkozy was interior minister.

Takieddine has for years been embroiled in his own problems with French justice, centering mainly on allegations he provided illegal funds to the campaign of conservative politician Edouard Balladur for his 1995 presidential election campaign — via commissions from the sale of French submarines to Pakistan.

According to Le Monde newspaper, investigators have recently handed to magistrates a report in which they detailed how cash circulated within Sarkozy's campaign team.

In January, a French businessman suspected of playing a role in the financing scheme, Alexandre Djouhri, was arrested in London on a warrant issued by France "for offenses of fraud and money laundering." Le Monde said French investigators are also in possession of several documents seized at his home in Switzerland.

Sarkozy had a complex relationship with Gadhafi. Soon after becoming the French president, Sarkozy invited the Libyan leader to France for a state visit and welcomed him with high honors. But Sarkozy then put France in the forefront of NATO-led airstrikes against Gadhafi's troops that helped rebel fighters topple his regime in 2011.

It is not the first time that Sarkozy faces legal troubles. In February 2016, he was handed preliminary charges by French magistrates for suspected illegal overspending on his failed 2012 re-election campaign and ordered to stand trial.

Briton in Cambodian wild party case given suspended sentence

British citizen Daniel Jones, center, is escorted by prison guards to the Siem Reap court room in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Tuesday, March 20. (AP Photo)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (AP) — A British man received a suspended one-year sentence Tuesday from a Cambodian court that found him guilty of producing pornography by posting photos on social media of sexually suggestive dancing at a party with other foreigners.

Daniel Jones, 31, could be freed Wednesday after serving one month and 22 days in prison, with the rest of his sentence term suspended, said Yin Srang, the Siem Reap provincial court spokesman. He said Jones may stay in custody if the prosecutor files an appeal within one day.

Ten foreigners — five from the United Kingdom, two from Canada, and one each from Norway, the Netherlands and New Zealand — were detained in late January when police raided the commercially organized party at a rented villa in Siem Reap and found people dancing by a swimming pool. The town in northwestern Cambodia is near the Angkor Wat temple complex that draws millions of tourists.

Police said those detained in the raid had been "dancing pornographically" and offended Cambodian standards of morality. The nine other foreigners were released on bail and deported last month, after which the charges against them were dropped.

In the trial's one day of testimony last Thursday, Jones told the court he did not know the pictures he posted on Facebook would offend Cambodian culture.

"I don't understand about Cambodian law and I am very sorry," he said. He denied that anyone had sex or used drugs at the Jan. 25 party.

Aum cult members face execution for Tokyo subway gas attack

Shizue Takahashi, the wife of a subway worker killed in the March 20, 1995 sarin gas attack, prays after laying flowers on the stand set up at Kasumigaseki subway station in Tokyo Tuesday, March 20. (Yoshitaka Sugawara/Kyodo News via AP)

Mari Yamaguchi

Tokyo (AP) — Thirteen Japanese cult members may be sent to the gallows any day now for a deadly 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and other crimes. But when is uncertain. Such is the secrecy that surrounds Japan's death penalty system.

Tuesday marked 23 years since members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult punctured plastic bags to release sarin nerve gas inside subway cars, sickening thousands and killing 13. Cult leader Shoko Asahara and a dozen followers have been sentenced to death for that and other crimes that killed 27 in all.

At 8 a.m. Tuesday, around the time of the attack, uniformed subway employees lowered their heads in silence at Kasumigaseki station, a main target of the cult. Shizue Takahashi, the 71-year-old widow of an assistant stationmaster who died in the attack, and the current station master, placed flowers on a temporary altar set up for offerings.

"It seems the (legal) process has entered a next stage," Takahashi told reporters. "I hope (executions) are carried out in accordance with the law."

The relocation of seven of them to five detention centers outside of Tokyo last week has sparked speculation that executions could be imminent. In Japan, accomplices in a crime are customarily hanged on the same day. Ten of those on death row were convicted for the subway attack, a number beyond the Tokyo detention center's daily capacity.

As with all executions in Japan, when and where they will be killed isn't being released, even to family members and lawyers. The executions won't be announced until they have already happened.

Takahashi recently asked the Justice Ministry for a chance to meet the convicts and witness their executions. "I want to follow through to the very end," Takahashi said at a recent news conference.

Her wish is unlikely to be granted.

Even prisoners sent to the gallows are not notified until guards come to their cells in the morning. After a chat with a chaplain, a last bite or smoke, the prisoner is taken to the gallows.

If all 10 subway attack convicts are hanged, it would be the second-largest number executed on a single day in Japan's modern history. Japan on Jan. 24, 1911, hanged 11 political prisoners who allegedly plotted to assassinate the emperor.

Some survivors of the cult's crimes oppose the executions because that would eliminate hopes for a fuller explanation of the crimes.

Asahara talked incoherently, occasionally babbling in broken English, during his eight-year trial and never acknowledged his responsibility or offered meaningful explanations.

Born Chizuo Matsumoto, he has been on death row for nearly 14 years. His family says he is a broken man, constantly wetting and soiling the floor in his cell and not communicating with his family or lawyers.

His 34-year-old daughter, Rika Matsumoto, said he doesn't understand his punishment and needs treatment so he can recover and talk. "I just want to hear my father explain in his own words," she tweeted recently.

Some of the condemned have expressed regret and contributed to anti-terrorism measures. Shoko Egawa, a journalist who has covered the cult's crimes from early on, has proposed keeping them alive so they can provide lessons to a world facing the growing threat of extremism.

Experts on the cult also warn that if they are executed, the members would be glorified as martyrs by cult remnants, likely bolstering their worship of Asahara.

Founded in 1984, the group attracted many young people, even graduates of top universities, whom Asahara hand-picked as close aides.

The cult amassed an arsenal of chemical, biological and conventional weapons to carry out Asahara's escalating criminal orders in anticipation of an apocalyptic showdown with the government.

The cult claimed 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. It has disbanded, though nearly 2,000 people follow its rituals in three splinter groups, monitored by authorities.

World's last male northern white rhino, Sudan, dies

In this photo taken Wednesday, May 3, 2017, Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhino grazes at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county in Kenya. (AP Photo)

Tom Odula

Nairobi, Kenya (AP) — The world's last male northern white rhino, Sudan, has died after "age-related complications," researchers announced Tuesday, saying he "stole the heart of many with his dignity and strength."

A statement from the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya said the 45-year-old rhino was euthanized on Monday after his condition "worsened significantly" and he was no longer able to stand. His muscles and bones had degenerated and his skin had extensive wounds, with a deep infection on his back right leg.

The rhino had been part of an ambitious effort to save the subspecies from extinction after decades of decimation by poachers, with the help of the two surviving females. One is his daughter, Najin, and the other is her daughter, Fatu.

His death won't have an impact on the efforts to save the subspecies, as the focus turns to in vitro fertilization techniques using stored semen from other dead rhinos and eggs extracted from the two remaining females.

"He was a great ambassador for his species and will be remembered for the work he did to raise awareness globally of the plight facing not only rhinos, but also the many thousands of other species facing extinction as a result of unsustainable human activity," said the conservancy's CEO, Richard Vigne.

Sudan was something of a celebrity, attracting thousands of visitors. Last year he was listed as "The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World" on the Tinder dating app in a fundraising effort.

The last male northern white rhino had been born in Sudan, the last of his kind to be born in the wild.

He was taken to a Czech zoo and then transferred to Kenya in 2009 with the three other remaining fertile northern white rhinos at the time. They were placed under 24-hour armed guard and fed a special diet. "However, despite the fact that they were seen mating, there were no successful pregnancies," the conservancy said.

Rangers caring for Sudan described him as gentle and, as his condition worsened in recent weeks, expressed sadness over his imminent death.

The rhino "significantly contributed to survival of his species as he sired two females," the conservancy said. "Additionally, his genetic material was collected yesterday and provides a hope for future attempts at reproduction of northern white rhinos through advanced cellular technologies."

The only hope for preserving the subspecies "now lies in developing in vitro fertilization techniques using eggs from the two remaining females, stored northern white rhino semen from males and surrogate southern white rhino females," the statement said.

Sudan's death "is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him. But we should not give up," said Jan Stejskal, director of international projects at Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. "It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring."

Northern white rhinos once roamed parts of Chad, Sudan, Uganda, Congo and Central African Republic, and were particularly vulnerable because of the armed conflicts that have swept the region over decades.

Other rhinos, the southern white rhino and another species, the black rhino, are under heavy pressure from poachers who kill them for their horns to supply illegal markets in parts of Asia.

Roughly 20,000 southern white rhinos remain in Africa. Their numbers dipped below 100 around a century ago, but an intense effort initiated by South African conservationist Ian Player in the mid-20th century turned things around.

Update March 20, 2018

Fear mounts in Austin as serial bomber uses tripwire

Investigators on Monday March 19, work at the scene of a bomb explosion on Dawn Song Drive in Austin, Texas, that seriously injured two men Sunday. ( Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

Paul J. Weber and Will Weissert

Austin, Texas (AP) — The hunt for the serial bomber who has been leaving deadly explosives in packages on Austin doorsteps took a new, more sinister turn Monday when investigators said the fourth and latest blast was triggered along a street by a nearly invisible tripwire.

Police and federal agents said that suggests a "higher level of sophistication" than they have seen before, and means the carnage is now random, rather than targeted at someone in particular. Underscoring that point, a relative says the most-recent explosion left what appeared to be nails stuck in his grandson's knees.

"The game went up a little bit — well, it went up a lot yesterday with the tripwire," Christopher Combs, FBI agent in charge of the bureau's San Antonio division, said in an interview.

Two people have now been killed and four wounded in bombings over a span of less than three weeks.

The latest happened Sunday night in southwest Austin's quiet Travis Country neighborhood, wounding two men in their 20s who were walking in the dark. They suffered what police said were significant injuries and remained hospitalized in stable condition.

Police haven't identified the victims, but William Grote told The Associated Press that his grandson was one of them, saying he is cognizant but still in a lot of pain. Grote said one of them was riding a bike in the street and the other was on a sidewalk when they crossed a tripwire that he said knocked "them both off their feet."

"It was so dark they couldn't tell and they tripped," Grote said. "They didn't see it. It was a wire. And it blew up."

Grote said his son, who lives about 100 yards (91 meters) away from the blast, heard the explosion and raced outside.

"Both of them were kind of bleeding profusely," Grote said.

That was a departure from the three earlier bombings, which involved parcels left on doorsteps that detonated when moved or opened.

The tripwire twist heightened the fear around Austin, a town famous for its cool, hipster attitude.

"It's creepy," said Erin Mays, 33. "I'm not a scared person, but this feels very next-door-neighbor kind of stuff."

Authorities repeated prior warnings about not touching unexpected packages and also issued new ones to be wary of any stray object left in public, especially one with wires protruding.

"We're very concerned that with tripwires, a child could be walking down a sidewalk and hit something," Combs said.

Investigators are looking at a variety of possible motives, including domestic terrorism or a hate crime. Local and state police and hundreds of federal agents are investigating, and the reward for information leading to an arrest has climbed to $115,000.

"We are clearly dealing with what we believe to be a serial bomber at this point," Austin police Chief Brian Manley said, citing similarities among the four bombs. He would not elaborate, though, saying he didn't want to undermine the investigation.

While the first three bombings all occurred east of Interstate 35, a section of town that tends to be more heavily minority and less affluent, Sunday's was west of the highway. Also, both victims this time are white, while those killed or wounded in the earlier attacks were black or Hispanic.

Those differences made it harder to draw conclusions about a possible pattern, further unnerving a city on edge.

Thad Holt, 76, said he is now watching his steps as he makes his way through a section of town near the latest attack. "I think everybody can now say, 'Oh, that's like my neighborhood,'" he said.

Fred Milanowski, agent in charge of the Houston division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the latest bomb was anchored to a metal yard sign near the head of a hiking trail.

"It was a thin wire or filament, kind of like fishing line," he said. "It would have been very difficult for someone to see."

Milanowski said authorities have checked over 500 leads. Police asked anyone with surveillance cameras at their homes to come forward with the footage on the chance it captured suspicious vehicles or people.

Noel Holmes, whose house is about a mile away, was stunned by how loud Sunday's explosion was.

"It sounded like a very nearby cannon," Holmes said. "We went out and heard all the sirens, but it was eerie. You didn't feel like you should be outside at all."

Spring break ended Monday for the University of Texas and many area school districts. University police warned returning students to be alert and to tell their classmates about the danger, saying, "We must look out for one another." None of the four attacks happened close to the campus near the heart of Austin.

The PGA's Dell Technologies Match Play tournament is scheduled to begin in Austin on Wednesday, and dozens of the world's top golfers were to begin arriving.

"I'm pretty sure the tour has enough security to keep things safe in here. But this is scary what's happening," said golfer Jhonattan Vegas, already in town.

Andrew Zimmerman, a 44-year-old coffee shop worker, said the use of a tripwire adds a new level of suspected professionalism and makes it harder to guard against such attacks.

"This makes me sick," he said.

Snow, high winds hit Europe; Croatia faces swollen river

Wind and white frost form an ice sculpture on Brocken mountain in the Harz region, Germany, Sunday, March 18. (Matthias Bein/dpa via AP)

Bucharest, Romania (AP) — Emergency crews in Croatia struggled to contain a swollen river that reached record levels southeast of Zagreb Monday, while soldiers distributed food and drinking water to a section of Albania that has been flooded for two weeks.

Croatian authorities said the Sava River by the town of Jasenovac exceeded the highest level previously recorded by some 10 centimeters (4 inches.) About a dozen houses in a nearby village were cut off.

Residents have refused to evacuate so emergency crews are delivering food and water by boat, Croatian state TV channel HRT said. The Sava is expected to rise more in the coming days, experts said.

To the east, snow and freezing rain delayed dozens of flights and some trains in Romania amid a late cold snap. Snow also hit Germany, Hungary and Britain, among other European nations.

Valentin Iordache, the spokesman for airports in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, reported 30 flight delays Monday morning due to the wintry weather.

Temperatures were around minus 5 Celsius (23 Fahrenheit.) Trains running from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta and the southern city of Craiova were also delayed.

In Albania, the defense ministry and local authorities reported that about 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of land in the country's northwest were flooded and 225 houses in the countryside were surrounded by water.

Continuous rain and the release of excess water from hydropower stations have inundated the area for two weeks.

The defense ministry said soldiers were evacuating cattle in endangered areas. They also delivered food and drinking water for residents and livestock.

Firefighters rescued students at an elementary school where the water inside had reached one meter high.

Myanmar's Suu Kyi welcomed to Australia amid protests


Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, is welcomed to Parliament House by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during her state visit in Canberra Monday, March 19. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

Rod McGuirk

Canberra, Australia (AP) — Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi was feted in Australia with a military honor guard and 19-gun salute Monday as part of a state visit that has provoked protests over her response to her country's violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims.

Suu Kyi arrived in Sydney over the weekend for a summit of Southeast Asian leaders and her state visit officially began Monday, when she was welcomed to Parliament House in Canberra. Her visit comes as she faces international criticism over what has become Asia's worst refugee crisis in decades.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh since August, when the military responded to insurgent attacks on police with a clearance operation that the United Nations has described as ethnic cleansing. The campaign has included the burning of Rohingya villages, systematic rape, shootings and other rights violations.

There was no press conference with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or any public comment from Suu Kyi during her brief visit to the capital on Monday. She had meetings with the prime minister and opposition leader.

Turnbull said Sunday that Suu Kyi had used the weekend summit to seek humanitarian help from her fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Australia to deal with the crisis.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told the summit that the refugee crisis was no longer solely a domestic issue for Myanmar, as fleeing Rohingya could be prime targets for terrorist radicalization.

Myanmar staunchly denies that its security forces have targeted Rohingya civilians and Suu Kyi has bristled at the international criticism.

But Myanmar's denials have appeared increasingly tenuous as horrific accounts from refugees have accumulated and satellite imagery and other evidence of destroyed Rohingya villages have been assembled.

The Associated Press last month documented through video and witness accounts at least five mass graves of Rohingya civilians. Witnesses said the military used acid to erase the identity of victims. The government denied it, maintaining that only "terrorists" were killed and then "carefully buried."

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, was a longtime political prisoner of Myanmar's former junta and frequently called for international intervention in her country during her almost 15 years under house arrest. She was released in 2010 and last visited Canberra in 2013 on an Australian tour, before she was allowed to stand for an election that her party eventually won in a landslide.

Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott described her as an "icon of democracy" as he stood by her side at a joint press conference. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Suu Kyi had inspired her to enter politics.

Suu Kyi's global image has since taken a battering. She has seen several international honors she was given in the past revoked. Several fellow Peace Prize winners have publicly condemned her.

Though Suu Kyi has been the de facto head of Myanmar's civilian government since her party took power, she is limited in her control of the country by a constitution written by the outgoing junta. The military has effective veto power over all legislation and controls key ministries including those overseeing security and defense.

The military is in charge of operations involving the Rohingya and ending them is not up to Suu Kyi.

Yet even when Suu Kyi has spoken on the issue, she has drawn criticism. In a September speech, her first public comments on the crisis, she asked for patience from the international community and suggested the refugees were partly responsible.

Suu Kyi faces a potential domestic backlash if she speaks on behalf of the Rohingya, who have been the target of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Many people agree with the official government stance that there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya and that those in the country have illegally migrated from Bangladesh.

Myanmar's backers globally have also had to tread carefully, not wanting to undermine Suu Kyi's weak civilian government at a time when the country is just emerging from decades of authoritarian rule.

Unlike the United Nations, United States and Britain, Australia has not accused Myanmar of "ethnic cleansing" or "crimes against humanity."

But Australia did support a U.N. resolution in December condemning the "very likely commission of crimes against humanity" by Myanmar security forces against Rohingya.

Human rights groups have criticized Australia for maintaining its limited military engagement with Myanmar. Australia provides English-language lessons and training courses to Myanmar officers to "promote professionalism and adherence to international laws," according to the defense department.

But Australia maintains a long-standing arms embargo with Myanmar.

Pope Francis condemns prostitution as torture

Pope Francis delivers his speech during the opening session of the pre-synod of the youths meeting, at the the Mater Ecclesiae college in Rome, Monday, March 19. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Nicole Winfield

Rome (AP) — Pope Francis asked forgiveness Monday for all Christians who buy sex from women, saying men who frequent prostitutes are criminals with a "sick mentality" who think that women exist to be exploited.

"This isn't making love. This is torturing a woman. Let's not confuse the terms," Francis insisted.

The pope made the comments during an intimate, four-hour-long listening session with 300 young people who were invited by the Vatican to Rome this week to help church leaders learn what kids these days think about the Catholic Church.

It's a preparatory meeting for a big synod of bishops in October on helping young people find their vocations in life. Francis has insisted that young adults — Catholic and not — be integral in the process informing the otherwise all-male, celibate and rather old church hierarchy about the future of the church.

"Young people must be taken seriously," he said.

He got an earful when he opened the meeting by urging the young people to speak with courage, without shame or "anesthesia" to dull the truth.

Nicholas Lopez, a college campus minister from Texas, told Francis that young people today face racism, poverty and gang violence, as well as "unjust immigration laws that threaten to split children from families."

Angela Markas from Australia told Francis young people want debate in the church about sexuality, same-sex attraction and the role of women.

And Blessing Okoedion, from Nigeria, asked Francis how the church could allow Catholics to be clients for the many Nigerian women in Italy like her, who are forced to be sex slaves by the traffickers who got them here.

"I ask myself, and I ask you: Is the male chauvinistic church able to truthfully ask itself about this high demand by clients?" she asked.

Francis, who has made the fight against human trafficking and modern-day sex slaves a priority of his pontificate, urged young people to take up the fight against trafficking and forced prostitution.

"This is one of the battles that I ask you young people to do, for the dignity of women," he said. He said forced prostitution was born of a "sick mentality" that no form of feminism has managed to rid from society, one that thinks that "women are to be exploited."

Speaking to Okoedion, who was forced into prostitution but escaped, Francis concluded: "I want to take advantage of this moment, because you talked about baptized and Christians, to ask your forgiveness, from society and all the Catholics who do this criminal act."

Update March 19, 2018

Putin overwhelmingly wins another 6 years as Russian leader

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a news conference after meeting with his staff at the campaign headquarters in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, March 18. (Sergei Chirikov/Pool photo via AP)

Jim Heintz and Vladimir Isachenkov

Moscow (AP) — Vladimir Putin rolled to a crushing re-election victory Sunday for six more years as Russia's president, and he told cheering supporters in a triumphant but brief speech that "we are bound for success."

There had been no doubt that Putin would win in his fourth electoral contest; he faced seven minor candidates and his most prominent foe was blocked from the ballot.

His only real challenge was to run up the tally so high that he could claim an indisputable mandate.

With ballots from 80 percent of Russia's precincts counted by early Monday, Putin had amassed 76 percent of the vote. Observers and individual voters reported widespread violations including ballot-box stuffing and forced voting, but the claims are unlikely to dilute the power of Russia's longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.

As the embodiment of Russia's resurgent power on the world stage, Putin commands immense loyalty among Russians. More than 30,000 crowded into Manezh Square adjacent to the Kremlin in temperatures of minus-10 degrees (15-degrees F) for a victory concert and to await his words.

Putin extolled them for their support — "I am a member of your team" — and he promised them that "we are bound for success."

Then he left the stage after speaking for less than two minutes, a seemingly perfunctory appearance that encapsulated the election's predictability.

Since he took the helm in Russia on New Year's Eve 1999 after Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation, Putin's electoral power has centered on stability, a quality cherished by Russians after the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union and the "wild capitalism" of the Yeltsin years.

But that stability has been bolstered by a suppression of dissent, the withering of independent media and the top-down control of politics called "managed democracy."

There were widespread reports of forced voting Sunday, efforts to make Russia appear to be a robust democracy.

Among them were two election observers in Gorny Shchit, a rural district of Yekaterinburg, who told The Associated Press they saw an unusually high influx of people going to the polls between noon and 2 p.m. A doctor at a hospital in the Ural mountains city told the AP that 2 p.m. was the deadline for health officials to report to their superiors that they had voted.

"People were coming in all at once, (they) were entering in groups as if a tram has arrived at a stop," said one of the observers, Sergei Krivonogov . The voters were taking pictures of the pocket calendars or leaflets that poll workers distributed, seemingly as proof of voting, he said.

Other examples from observers and social media included ballot boxes being stuffed with extra ballots in multiple regions; an election official assaulting an observer; CCTV cameras obscured by flags or nets from watching ballot boxes; discrepancies in ballot numbers; last-minute voter registration changes likely designed to boost turnout; and a huge pro-Putin sign in one polling station.

Election officials moved quickly to respond to some of the violations. They suspended the chief of a polling station near Moscow where a ballot-stuffing incident was reported and sealed the ballot box. A man accused of tossing multiple ballots into a box in the far eastern town of Artyom was arrested.

Overall national turnout was expected to be a little more than 60 percent, which would be several points below turnout in Putin's electoral wins in 2000, 2004 and 2012. He did not run in 2008 because of term limits, but was appointed prime minister, a role in which he was widely seen as leader.

Putin's most vehement foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running Sunday because he was convicted of fraud in a case widely regarded as politically motivated. Navalny and his supporters had called for an election boycott but the extent of its success could not immediately be gauged.

The election came amid escalating tensions with the West, with reports that Moscow was behind the nerve-agent poisoning this month of a former Russian double agent in Britain and that its internet trolls had waged an extensive campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Britain and Russia last week announced expulsions of diplomats over the spy case and the U.S. issued new sanctions.

In his first public comments on the poisoning, Putin on Sunday referred to the allegations against Russia as "nonsense."

Moscow has denounced both cases as efforts to interfere in the Russian election. But the disputes likely worked in Putin's favor, reinforcing the official stance that the West is infected with "Russophobia" and determined to undermine both Putin and traditional Russian values.

The election took place on the fourth anniversary of the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, one of the most dramatic manifestations of Putin's drive to reassert Russia's power.

Crimea and Russia's subsequent support of separatists in eastern Ukraine led to an array of U.S. and European sanctions that, along with falling oil prices, damaged the Russian economy and slashed the ruble's value by half. But Putin's popularity remained strong, apparently buttressed by nationalist pride.

In his next six years, Putin is likely to assert Russia's power abroad even more strongly. Just weeks ago, he announced that Russia has developed advanced nuclear weapons capable of evading missile defenses. The Russian military campaign that bolsters the Syrian government is clearly aimed at strengthening Moscow's foothold in the Middle East, and Russia eagerly eyes any reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula as an economic opportunity.

At home, Putin must face how to groom a successor or devise a strategy to circumvent term limits, how to diversify an economy still dependent on oil and gas, and how to improve medical care and social services in regions far removed from the cosmopolitan glitter of Moscow.

Authorities struggled against voter apathy, putting many of Russia's nearly 111 million voters under intense pressure to cast ballots.

Yevgeny, a 43-year-old mechanic voting in central Moscow, said he briefly wondered whether it was worth voting.

"But the answer was easy ... if I want to keep working, I vote," he said, speaking on condition that his last name not be used out of fear his employer — the Moscow city government — would find out.

First-time voters in Moscow were given free tickets for pop concerts and health authorities were offering free cancer screenings.

Voters appeared to be turning in out in larger numbers Sunday than in the last presidential election in 2012, when Putin faced a serious opposition movement and there were instances of multiple voting, ballot stuffing and coercion.

Navalny, whose group also monitored the vote, dismissed Putin's challengers on Sunday's ballot as "puppets." He urged a boycott of the vote and vowed to continue defying the Kremlin with street protests.

Ukraine, insulted by the decision to hold the election on the anniversary of Crimea's annexation, refused to let ordinary Russians vote. Ukraine security forces blocked the Russian Embassy in Kiev and consulates elsewhere as the government protested the voting in Crimea, whose annexation is still not internationally recognized.

Ukrainian leaders are also angry over Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014.

Polls show that most Russians view the takeover of the Black Sea peninsula as a major achievement despite subsequent Western sanctions.

"Who am I voting for? Who else?" said Putin supporter Andrei Borisov, 70, a retired engineer in Moscow. "The others, it's a circus."

The Central Election Commission also claimed it had been the target of a hacking attempt from 15 unidentified nations that was deterred by authorities.

Fire at Manila hotel and casino kills at least 3 workers


A fire engulfs the Manila Pavilion Hotel and Casino Sunday, March 18, in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Manila, Philippines (AP) — A fire engulfed a hotel and casino in the Philippine capital on Sunday, killing at least three employees, trapping two others and forcing the evacuation of more than 300 guests, some by helicopter, officials said.

Police said it was unclear if the fire at the Manila Pavilion Hotel and Casino, which raged for hours, started in the casino on the lower floors or in an area of the hotel that was under renovation.

TV footage showed dark gray smoke billowing from the first and second floors of the hotel as rescuers brought people out of the building.

Johnny Yu, who heads Manila's disaster-response agency, told reporters that at least six other people were overwhelmed by heavy smoke and brought to a hospital. Among the dead were two hotel security guards and a treasury officer, he said.

Yu initially said at least four people died in the fire, but other officials later said that one of those who was feared to have died was revived by doctors at a hospital and was in critical condition.

"The smoke is very heavy and, second, there's the wind that we're trying to overcome," Yu said. "Our firefighters are having a lot of difficulty."

At least 19 people were unaccounted for, but Yu said that only two, both of them security camera operators, were confirmed to have been trapped in the hotel and rescuers were trying to reach them.

Police and firefighters blocked off the areas around the hotel, which lies in the heart of Manila's tourist district, to allow dozens of firetrucks to approach and help fight the blaze.

Syrian President Assad visits troops on Ghouta's front line

Syrian President Bashar Assad, center, speaks with Syrian troops during his visit to the front line in the newly captured areas of eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, Syria, Sunday, March 18. (Syrian Presidency Facebook Page via AP)

Damascus, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad visited troops Sunday on the front line in the newly captured areas of eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, hailing their recent advances as a part of a larger battle against global terrorism.

Standing in a neighborhood street, Assad congratulated his troops during the visit broadcast on state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV. "We are proud of you," he said.

He told the soldiers that they are not only fighting for the region but also to rid the world of terrorism.

"With every bullet you fire at a terrorist, you change the balance in the world," Assad said.

Syria's government views all its opposition as terrorists. Assad's visit comes on the week the war enters its eighth year, a war that has devastated large parts of Syria, and displaced nearly half of the population. What started as peaceful protests against his family's long rule turned into a civil war after a heavy crackdown. The government fought the opposition for years, using its air force and artillery and solicited help from its Russian and Iranian allies, who threw their weight behind Assad.

Recapturing eastern Ghouta, a short drive away from the Syrian capital, would mark the biggest victory yet for President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war. The area has been under rebel control since 2012. It would also be the worst setback for rebels since the opposition was ousted from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar siege and bombing campaign.

Assad stood near a tank and was surrounded by soldiers on a street in eastern Ghouta, the region near Damascus where a government offensive has been underway over the past month. The soldiers cheered and pumped fists in the air. Assad, who wore a suit with no tie, flashed smiles and stopped for chats with soldiers. Some Soldiers posed with him, taking selfies. It was not clear where in eastern Ghouta Assad was.

Assad then climbed on top of a tank and looked around, before stepping down, also surrounded by soldiers. He told them the residents of the capital, who have come under repeated fire and shelling from the rebel-held areas, appreciate the soldiers' advances.

He later went on to meet with a group of newly evacuated residents from eastern Ghouta

The images were also posted on the official Presidency social media sites. "On the front lines in eastern Ghouta, President Assad with the heroes of the Arab Syrian Army," the Presidency page said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian government is now in control of over 80 percent of the area.

Earlier Sunday, state media said Syrian troops had entered Saqba, a town in a southern pocket of eastern Ghouta.

It was the latest town to be captured by the Syrian troops and allied militia in a swift advance over the last few days. Al-Ikhbariya TV hailed it as a "major victory."

Over the past week, Syrian troops and allied fighters divided the sprawling eastern Ghouta region into three parts, isolating residential areas and facilitating the military advance. Tens of thousands of residents have fled the southern pocket of eastern Ghouta.

On Sunday, and after days of relative calm in the northern pocket, the Observatory reported new intense shelling on Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta.

Southeast Asia leaders urge tough stance on North Korea

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hold a joint press conference at the end of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) special summit, in Sydney, Sunday, March 18. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Trevor Marshallsea

Sydney (AP) — Southeast Asian leaders and Australia's prime minister on Sunday called on North Korea to end its nuclear program and urged U.N. countries to fully implement sanctions against the country.

Leaders at the first summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be held in Australia issued a joint statement with the host country that also called for non-militarization and a code of conduct in the contested waters of the South China Sea, where China has become increasingly assertive.

ASEAN leaders also said they were working to provide humanitarian assistance for the continuing crisis involving Muslim Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, addressed the matter "comprehensively" in meetings Sunday.

On North Korea, the ASEAN-Australia joint statement urged North Korea to "immediately and fully comply with its obligations under all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions," and called on all countries to implement sanctions.

Turnbull went further at a closing news conference, saying ASEAN and Australia had affirmed their commitment to respond strongly over the "grave concerns we share about North Korea's reckless and illegal nuclear missile programs."

President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who are both planning to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this spring, pledged last week to maintain "maximum pressure" on Kim's authoritarian regime and seek action to force him to give up his nuclear weapons.

Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, the current chair of ASEAN, said the bloc had been encouraged by negotiations for the summits and had "noted reports of North Korea's commitment to denuclearization and its pledge to refrain from further nuclear missile tests during this period."

On territorial conflicts with China, which like Australia is not a member of ASEAN, the statement said, "We emphasize the importance of non-militarization and the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may complicate the situation."

China and the five countries that have conflicting territorial claims over the South China Sea — which include four ASEAN members — plan to negotiate a code of conduct for the busy waterway aimed at reducing the risks of armed confrontations in the contested areas.

Lee said this was an issue for all ASEAN countries as it was "a security and stability question" that would "affect all ASEAN countries if it goes wrong."

He also said ASEAN policy meant it was "not able to intervene and to force an outcome" over the Rohingya crisis, in which more than 700,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh amid a Myanmar military campaign that the U.N. has called "ethnic cleansing."

But Lee said the matter was a cause of concern for all of ASEAN, whose members would be anxious "if there is any instability or any trouble" in fellow member countries.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that the crisis was no longer solely a domestic issue for Myanmar, with fleeing Rohingya potential targets for terrorist radicalization.

Turnbull said the Rohingya issue was discussed by the leaders "very constructively" Sunday. "Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the matter comprehensively at some considerable length herself," he said.

The ASEAN nations are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Update March 17-18, 2018

At least 6 crushed to death in Florida bridge collapse

A Florida Highway Patrol vehicle is parked next to a crushed car under a section of a new pedestrian bridge, Friday, March 16, after it collapsed Thursday onto a highway at a Miami-area college. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Adriana Gomez Licon

Miami (AP) — Authorities said Friday that the cables suspending a pedestrian bridge were being tightened after a "stress test" when the 950-ton concrete span collapsed over traffic, killing at least six people only days after its installation was celebrated as a technological innovation.

As state and federal investigators worked to determine why the five-day-old span failed, Florida politicians pointed to the stress test and loosened cables as possible factors, and a police chief asked everyone not to jump to conclusions.

"This is a tragedy that we don't want to re-occur anywhere in the United States," said Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade police. "We just want to find out what caused this collapse to occur and people to die."

A Florida International University student was among the fatalities, and several construction workers were among the 10 people injured. One person died at a hospital, and Perez said five bodies were located with the help of cameras but not yet retrieved from vehicles crushed under the immense slab. No identities have been released.

"We're not even going to talk numbers anymore because we expect to find other individuals down there," Perez said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said crews had conducted a "stress test" on the span earlier in the day, and Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that the engineering firm involved had ordered the tightening of cables that had become loosened. "They were being tightened when it collapsed," Rubio said on Twitter Thursday night.

Experts from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration joined police in taking over command of the scene Friday from first responders, who had spent hours racing to find survivors in the rubble of the 175-foot span using high-tech listening devices, trained sniffing dogs and search cameras.

The $14.2 million pedestrian bridge was supposed to open in 2019 as a safe way to cross six lanes of traffic between the FIU campus and the community of Sweetwater, where many students live.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday that investigators will get to the bottom of "why this happened and what happened," and if anyone did anything wrong, "we will hold them accountable."

Rubio, who is an adjunct professor at the school, noted the pedestrian bridge was intended to be an innovative and "one-of-a-kind engineering design."

When finished, the bridge would have been supported from above, with a tall, off-center tower and cables attached to the walkway. That tower had not yet been installed, and it was unclear what builders were using as temporary supports.

An accelerated construction method was supposed to reduce risks to workers and pedestrians and minimize traffic disruption, the university said. The school has long been interested in this kind of bridge design; in 2010, it opened an Accelerated Bridge Construction Center to "provide the transportation industry with the tools needed to effectively and economically utilize the principles of ABC to enhance mobility and safety, and produce safe, environmentally friendly, long-lasting bridges."

Robert Bea, a professor of engineering and construction management at the University of California, Berkeley, said it was too early to know exactly what happened, but he called it a risky move to use what the bridge builders called an "innovative installation" over a heavily traveled thoroughfare.

"Innovations take a design firm into an area where they don't have applicable experience, and then we have another unexpected failure on our hands," Bea said after reviewing the bridge's design and photos of the collapse.

The project was a collaboration between MCM Construction, a Miami-based contractor, and Figg Bridge Design, based in Tallahassee. Figg is responsible for the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay.

Both companies have been involved in bridge collapses before.

FIGG was fined in 2012 after a section of a bridge it was building in Virginia crashed onto railroad tracks and injured several workers, according to a story in The Virginian-Pilot.

MCM, meanwhile, was accused of substandard work in a lawsuit filed this month by a worker injured when a makeshift bridge MCM built at Fort Lauderdale International Airport collapsed under his weight. Another dispute resulted in a $143,000 judgment against MCM over an "arguable collapse" at a Miami-Dade bridge project.

A review of OSHA records, meanwhile, shows MCM has been fined for 11 safety violations in the past five years totaling more than $50,000 after complaints involving its Florida work sites.

Both companies expressed condolences for the victims and promised cooperation with investigators.

Local The FIU community, along with Sweetwater and county officials, held a "bridge watch party" on March 10 when the span was lifted from its temporary supports, rotated 90 degrees and lowered into what was supposed to be its permanent position.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg in a video shared on Twitter Friday that the "tragic accident of the bridge collapse stuns us, saddens us."

"The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing," he said. "But today we are sad and all we can do is promise a very thorough investigation in getting to the bottom of this and mourn those who we have lost."

2 killed during land mine clearance training in Cambodia

In this March 15, 2018 photo, men help carry an unidentified individual on a gurney at the local provincial hospital of Kampong Speu province, about 50 kilometers west of the capital Phnom Penh. (Cambodia National Police via AP)

Siem Reap, Cambodia (AP) — A land mine exploded accidently during clearance training at a military base in western Cambodia, killing two people, including an Australian, and injuring three others, police said.

National police said the explosion occurred Thursday in Kampong Speu province when a soldier who was being trained mishandled a decades-old land mine that had been removed from the ground. They said a 45-year-old Australian was killed and another 41-year-old Australian was wounded.

Police said one Cambodian soldier was killed and two others were injured.

Police initially said the Australians were training the soldiers, but the Defense Ministry said that was not the case.

Ministry spokesman General Chhum Socheat said Friday that the Australians went to the military base after being invited by Cambodian soldiers who were their friends. He said the mine exploded after one of the Australians "played with it."

"We did not invite them to train our soldiers but they just visited their friends. But once they saw the mine, they picked it up and played with it before it exploded," he said.

Some 60,000 Cambodians have been killed or wounded by mines since they were first deployed in large numbers in 1979, when the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime was ousted from power and began 18 years of guerrilla warfare.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said last year that land mines continue to kill or maim nearly 100 people per year, and the country needs more than $400 million in aid to remove all of them by 2025.

Cambodia has cleared about 1,500 square kilometers (580 square miles) of mines, but nearly 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of land remains littered with the munitions, Hun Sen said.

Jury finds Iraqi teen guilty of planting London subway bomb

In this Monday, Sept. 18, 2017 file photo, a train pulls in to the platform at Parsons Green tube station in London. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Jill Lawless

London (AP) — A teenage Iraqi asylum-seeker who told police he had been trained by the Islamic State group was convicted of attempted murder on Friday for planting a home-made bomb on a London subway train.

Ahmed Hassan, 18, showed no emotion as he was found guilty at London's Central Criminal Court.

The bomb partially exploded on a London Underground train at Parsons Green station on Sept. 15, sending a fireball down the packed carriage that left 23 people with burn injuries. Police say 28 more were hurt in a panicked rush to leave the train.

Prosecutors said there would have been many more injuries and probably deaths if the device had operated properly. Prosecutor Alison Morgan told jurors it was just "a matter of luck" that the bomb didn't fully detonate.

Hassan admitted building the bomb but denied attempted murder, saying he had not meant for it to explode. On the witness stand he said he only wanted to cause a fire because he was "bored and stressed" and had developed a fantasy about becoming a fugitive.

Prosecutors said Hassan built the device from everyday ingredients, following instructions he found online. He ordered hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals to make the explosive TATP, and bought nuts, bolts and knives for shrapnel at supermarkets.

He set a timer and left the bomb, inside a white bucket wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag, aboard a London Underground train during the morning rush hour. Hassan got off the train one stop before it exploded.

The teenager left northern Iraq and arrived in Britain in 2015 after traveling across Turkey and Europe and stowing away on a truck through the Channel Tunnel. He claimed asylum and was living with a foster family near London and attending a college before the attack.

British authorities have been criticized for failing to foresee that Hassan, who had shown signs of depression and trauma, might act violently. During a January 2016 immigration interview, he told officials that he was recruited by IS in Iraq and forced to train with them.

"They trained us how to kill. It was all religious based," he said.

In court, Hassan claimed he had made up the claim about IS to increase his chances of getting asylum in Britain.

He told a teacher at his college that he had a "duty to hate Britain," because he blamed it for a bomb that killed his father in Iraq more than a decade before. The teacher referred him to Prevent, a government-run de-radicalization program.

Commander Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police Counterterrorism Command, said Hassan was "devious and cunning."

Haydon said Hassan appeared to engage with the de-radicalization program, "but he kept secret what he was planning and plotting."

Hassan will be sentenced next week. He faces a maximum of life in prison.

Former South Africa president Jacob Zuma to be prosecuted

Former South African President Jacob Zuma is shown in this Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, file photo. (AP Photo/Themba Hadeb)

Christopher Torchia

Johannesburg (AP) — Former South African president Jacob Zuma will face old charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering, prosecutors announced Friday, deepening the legal woes of a leader whose tenure was marked by scandals.

Shaun Abrahams, head of the National Prosecuting Authority, noted the "long history" of the reinstated charges against Zuma, which were thrown out by prosecutors nearly a decade ago in a contentious decision that opened the way for him to become president. The charges relate to an arms deal in the 1990s, when Zuma was deputy president.

"After consideration of the matter, I am of the view that there are reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution of Mr. Zuma on the charges listed in the indictment," Abrahams said.

The chief prosecutor said there were 16 counts against Zuma, and that the former president had said he was a victim of misconduct by prosecutors as well as leaks to the media.

"Mr. Zuma in addition disputes all the allegations against him and records that he lacked the requisite intention to commit any of the crimes listed in the indictment," said Abrahams, who himself faced calls to resign for allegedly declining to move against Zuma when he was in office.

Zuma, 75, resigned as president last month after he was ordered to do so by his party, the African National Congress. He was replaced by his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has promised a robust campaign against corruption and also faces the tough task of rebuilding the popularity of a ruling party whose moral stature has diminished since it took power at the end of white minority rule in 1994.

The ANC responded to the reinstated charges against Zuma, saying it has confidence in the South African criminal justice system and is committed to the idea of "equality of all before the law."

The ruling party urged South Africans to allow prosecutors to do their work and cautioned that Zuma has the right to be "presumed innocent until and if proven guilty."

In a separate case, South African authorities are seeking to arrest members of the Gupta business family, which allegedly used its connections to Zuma to influence Cabinet appointments and win state contracts. Additionally, a judicial panel is preparing to view allegations of corruption at high levels of the South African government during Zuma's years in office.

In another scandal, South Africa's top court ruled in 2016 that Zuma violated the constitution following an investigation of multi-million-dollar upgrades to his private home using state funds. He paid back some of the money.

South Africa's main opposition party, which fought for years in court to get charges reinstated against Zuma, welcomed Abrahams' decision.

"Now there must be no further delay in starting the trial," said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance. "The witnesses are ready, the evidence is strong, and Jacob Zuma must finally have his day in court."

Update March 16, 2018

50 years ago, the My Lai massacre shamed the US military

In this Wednesday, March 14, 2018, photo, massacre survivor Pham Thanh Cong points at a scar caused by grenade fragments during the My Lai massacre in Son My, Vietnam. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)

Foot prints of villagers and U.S soldiers' combat boots are reconstructed in My Lai memorial site in Son My, Vietnam. (AP Photo/Hau Dinh)

In this April 2, 1971, file photo, Lt. William L. Calley Jr. stands beside an anti-war poster in his quarters at Fort Benning, Ga. (AP Photo)

Tran Van Minh and Grant Peck

My Lai, Vietnam (AP) — The shudder of artillery fire woke the boy at 5:30 a.m. Three American soldiers appeared at his family's home a couple of hours later and forced the mother and five children into their bomb shelter, a structure almost every rural Vietnamese home had during the war, to keep residents safe.

One soldier set fire to the family's thatched house while the others tossed grenades into the shelter. Protected under the torn bodies of his mother and his four siblings, 10-year-old Pham Thanh Cong was the only survivor.

It was March 16, 1968. The American soldiers of Charlie Company, sent on what they were told was a mission to confront a crack outfit of their Vietcong enemies, met no resistance, but over three to four hours killed 504 unarmed civilians, mostly women, children and elderly men, in My Lai and a neighboring community. Vietnamese refer to the greater village where the killings occurred as Son My.

"We started hearing the screaming and moaning from our neighbors, which were followed by gunfire and grenade explosions, then the screaming and moaning stopped, and my mother knew that the American soldiers had killed people," Cong recalled this week. "I was covered with the flesh and hair of my mother and sisters and brother."

Knocked unconscious with injuries to his head and wounds on his torso from grenade fragments, Cong was saved that afternoon when his father came to retrieve the bodies.

The My Lai massacre was the most notorious episode in modern U.S. military history, but not an aberration in America's war in Vietnam.

The U.S. military's own records, filed discreetly away for three decades, described 300 other cases of what could fairly be described as war crimes. My Lai was distinguished by the shocking one-day death toll, the stomach-churning photographs and the gruesome details exposed by a high-level U.S. Army inquiry.

An official policy of free-fire zones — from which civilians were supposed to leave upon being warned — and an unofficial code of "kill anything that moves" meant Vietnamese were constantly at risk.

Estimates of civilians killed during the U.S. ground war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 are generally 1 million to 2 million.

The average U.S. soldier could not be sure who the enemy was, rarely encountering one directly. They were targeted by land mines, booby traps, snipers. They were told to help, but the Vietnamese were rarely welcoming. Quang Ngai province, where My Lai is located, was a hive of communist military activity.

Two days before the massacre, a booby trap killed a sergeant, blinded a GI and wounded several others on a Charlie Company patrol.

Soldiers later testified to the U.S. Army investigating commission that the bloodletting began quickly when Lt. William L. Calley Jr. led Charlie Company's first platoon into My Lai that morning. One elderly man was bayoneted to death; another man was thrown alive into a well and killed with a hand grenade. Women and children were herded into a drainage ditch and slaughtered. Women and girls were gang-raped.

"They went in with blood in their eyes and shot everything that moved," recalled Hugh Thompson Jr., an army helicopter pilot who flew support for the mission in My Lai and — along with his two-man flight crew — are the only servicemen known to have actively intervened to try to stop the killing. They evacuated a handful of Vietnamese civilians on the point of being killed by his countrymen. Thompson also was one of several soldiers who became whistleblowers and eventually brought the outrage to public attention.

Calley was convicted in 1971 for the murders of 22 people during the rampage. He was sentenced to life in prison but served only three days because President Nixon ordered his sentence reduced. He served three years of house arrest.

Calley has avoided speaking about the matter with apparently just one exception. In 2009, at the urging of a friend, he spoke to the Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning, where he had been court-martialed.

"There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai," Calley said, according to an account of the meeting reported by the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry." He said his mistake was following orders, which had been his defense when he was tried.

Fifty years after the massacre, and almost 43 years after the communist victory reunified Vietnam, most of the rancor is gone, at least publicly, between the nations. They normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, and the United States is now one of Vietnam's top trading partners and investors. Cooperation on security and military matters has grown to the point where this month a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier made the first visit to a Vietnamese port since the war.

Cong, the young massacre survivor, went on to study and work in local government, and from 1992 until his retirement last year, he headed the My Lai museum, which sits in part of the area where the massacre occurred.

He said he cannot forget the atrocities but he's willing to forgive the soldiers to build better relations between the two countries.

"We have had enough losses and suffering of war, and we just wish our children and grandchildren would not have to go through those experiences. We desire for peace, we want eternal peace," he said.

Indonesia's Aceh considers beheading as penalty for murder

In this Tuesday, May 23, 2017 file photo, a Shariah law official whips a man during a public caning outside a mosque in Banda Aceh, Aceh province Indonesia. (AP Photo/Heri Juanda)

Banda Aceh, Indonesia (AP) — The conservative Indonesian province of Aceh known for publicly caning gays, adulterers and gamblers is considering the introduction of beheading as a punishment for murder, a top Islamic law official said Wednesday.

Syukri M. Yusuf, the head of Aceh's Shariah Law and Human Rights Office, said the provincial government has asked his office to research beheading as a method of execution under Islamic law and to consult public opinion.

"Beheading is more in line with Islamic law and will cause a deterrent effect. A strict punishment is made to save human beings," Yusuf told reporters. "We will begin to draft the law when our academic research is completed."

Aceh is the only province in Muslim-majority Indonesia to practice Shariah law, a concession made by the central government in 2001 as part of efforts to end a decades-long war for independence.

Its implementation has become increasingly harsh and now also applies to non-Muslims. Last year, the province for the first time caned two men for gay sex after vigilantes broke into their home and handed them over to religious police.

Yusuf said if Shariah law is consistently applied, then crime, particularly murder, will decrease significantly or disappear.

He said punishment for murderers has in practice been "relatively mild" and they could reoffend after release from prison. He pointed to Saudi Arabia as an example to follow in practicing severe punishment for murder.

Indonesia has the death penalty for crimes such as murder and drug trafficking, which it carries out by firing squad. Its last executions were in July 2016 when three Nigerians and one Indonesian convicted of drug offenses were shot on the Nusa Kambangan prison island.

Nepal authorities struggle to identify plane crash survivors

Bodies of victims of a passenger plane crash lie at the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Monday, March 12. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shreshta)

Kathmandu, Nepal (AP) — Officials in Nepal say they are struggling to identify many of the 22 survivors of a deadly plane crash, with many badly burned, in critical condition and unable to speak.

Police spokesman Manoj Neupane says extensive burns, in both the living and the dead, have made identifications far more difficult. The flight from Bangladesh, carrying 67 passengers and four crew members, slammed into a field beside the Kathmandu airport runway on Monday, bursting into flames. He says at least 11 of the survivors have been identified, but did not have an exact total. The crash left 49 people dead.

Neupane says 19 survivors are still being treated in Kathmandu hospitals, and another has been flown to Singapore for more medical care. Two surviving passengers, both Nepalese, have been discharged.

Hungary's Orban: Western Europe is under migrant invasion

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks outside the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, March 15, (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Pablo Gorondi

Budapest, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's prime minister painted an apocalyptic view of Western Europe on Thursday, saying it was under a migrant invasion that will soon make a minority of native-born Europeans.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, speaking at a massive rally three weeks ahead of Hungary's parliamentary election, said Western Europe has surrendered with "its hands up" to a mass migration of people from Africa and the Middle East.

"The situation is that those who don't block migration at their borders will be lost. They will be digested slowly but surely," said Orban, one of the nationalist politicians who has risen to power in Europe and been openly hostile to refugees and asylum-seekers.

"The youth of Western Europe will still live to see when they become a minority in their own country and lose the only place in the world to call home," he added.

Orban has often said that mass migration of Muslims into Europe will lead to the loss of the continent's Christian culture and lifestyle. His comments last month that Hungarians don't want their "own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed by others" led Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, to brand Orban a racist, xenophobe and bully whose "racial rhetoric is increasingly delusional."

Orban has made his policies to block immigration the near-exclusive focus of his campaign for a third consecutive term. His relatively short speech to the crowd in front of the Hungarian Parliament building seemed crafted mostly to further increase fear of migration among his supporters.

"They want us to voluntarily give (our country) to others, to foreigners from other continents who don't speak our language, don't respect our culture, laws or lifestyle," Orban said. "They want to exchange ours for their own. There is no exaggeration in this."

Orban also claimed that foreign powers were working with his domestic opposition to remove the fences he had built on Hungary's southern borders in 2015 to keep out migrants.

Orban also made another of his attacks on George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist. He alleged Soros was seeking to impose his "open society" ideals on Europe and supports critics of the ruling party's government, and listed Soros among Hungary's historical foes — the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburgs and the Soviet Union.

The rally marked the 170th anniversary of the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule. Orban's speech was preceded by what organizers called a "Peace March."

Many tens of thousands of Orban supporters took part in the anniversary event nominally organized by a pro-Orban civic group and held with the full support of Orban's Fidesz party.

Several opposition groups — including a coalition of left-wing parties, the far-right Jobbik party, the satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party and a student movement — held smaller rallies and remembrances in Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

"Fidesz is a minority and the people wanting change are the majority — and the majority cannot be in opposition," said Gergely Karacsony, prime ministerial candidate of the Socialist Party and the Dialogue party.

Update March 15, 2018

Stephen Hawking, tourist of the universe, dead at 76

In this Feb. 25, 2012 photo, Professor Stephen Hawking poses beside a lamp titled 'black hole light' by inventor Mark Champkins, presented to him during his visit to the Science Museum in London. (Anthony Devlin/PA via AP)

Raphael Satter

Paris (AP) — In his final years, the only thing connecting the brilliant physicist to the outside world was a couple of inches of frayed nerve in his cheek.

As slowly as a word per minute, Stephen Hawking used the twitching of the muscle under his right eye to grind out his thoughts on a custom-built computer, painstakingly outlining his vision of time, the universe, and humanity's place within it.

What he produced was a masterwork of popular science, one that guided a generation of enthusiasts through the esoteric world of anti-particles, quarks, and quantum theory. His success in turn transformed him into a massively popular scientist, one as familiar to the wider world through his appearances on "The Simpsons" and "Star Trek" as his work on cosmology and black holes.

Hawking owed one part of his fame to his triumph over amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative disease that eats away at the nervous system. When he was diagnosed aged only 21, he was given only a few years to live.

But Hawking defied the normally fatal illness for more than 50 years, pursuing a brilliant career that stunned doctors and thrilled his fans. Even though a severe attack of pneumonia left him breathing through a tube, an electronic voice synthesizer allowed him to continue speaking, albeit in a robotic monotone that became one of his trademarks.

He carried on working into his 70s, spinning theories, teaching students, and writing "A Brief History of Time," an accessible exploration of the mechanics of the universe that sold millions of copies.

By the time he died Wednesday at 76, Hawking was among the most recognizable faces in science, on par with Albert Einstein.

As one of Isaac Newton's successors as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Hawking was involved in the search for the great goal of physics — a "unified theory."

Such a theory would resolve the contradictions between Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, which describes the laws of gravity that govern the motion of large objects like planets, and the Theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the world of subatomic particles.

For Hawking, the search was almost a religious quest — he said finding a "theory of everything" would allow mankind to "know the mind of God."

"A complete, consistent unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence," he wrote in "A Brief History of Time."

In later years, though, he suggested a unified theory might not exist.

He followed up "A Brief History of Time" in 2001 with the sequel, "The Universe in a Nutshell," which updated readers on concepts like supergravity, naked singularities and the possibility of an 11-dimensional universe.

Hawking said belief in a God who intervenes in the universe "to make sure the good guys win or get rewarded in the next life" was wishful thinking.

"But one can't help asking the question: Why does the universe exist?" he said in 1991. "I don't know an operational way to give the question or the answer, if there is one, a meaning. But it bothers me."

Hawking often credited humor with helping him deal with his disability, and it was his sense of mischief that made him game for a series of stunts.

He made cameo television appearances in "The Simpsons," ''Star Trek," and the "Big Bang Theory" and counted among his fans U2 guitarist The Edge, who attended a January 2002 celebration of Hawking's 60th birthday.

His early life was chronicled in the 2014 film "The Theory of Everything," with Eddie Redmayne winning the best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Hawking. The film focused still more attention on Hawking's remarkable life.

Some colleagues credited that celebrity with generating new enthusiasm for science.

His achievements, and his longevity, also helped prove to many that even the most severe disabilities need not stop patients from achieving.

Richard Green, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association — the British name for ALS — said Hawking met the classic definition of the disease, as "the perfect mind trapped in an imperfect body." He said Hawking had been an inspiration to people with the disease for many years.

Hawking's disability did slow the pace of conversation, especially in later years as even the muscles in his face started to weaken. Minutes could pass as he composed answers to even simple questions. Hawking said that didn't impair his work, even telling one interviewer it gave his mind time to drift as the conversation ebbed and flowed around him.

His near-total paralysis certainly did little to dampen his ambition to physically experience space: Hawking savored small bursts of weightlessness in 2007 when he was flown aboard a jet that made repeated dives to simulate zero-gravity.

Hawking had hoped to leave Earth's atmosphere altogether someday, a trip he often recommended to the rest of the planet's inhabitants.

"In the long run the human race should not have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet," Hawking said in 2008. "I just hope we can avoid dropping the basket until then."

Hawking first earned prominence for his theoretical work on black holes. Disproving the belief that black holes are so dense that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, he showed that black holes leak a tiny bit of light and other types of radiation, now known as "Hawking radiation."

"It came as a complete surprise," said Gary Horowitz, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It really was quite revolutionary."

Horowitz said the find helped move scientists one step closer to cracking the unified theory.

Hawking's other major scientific contribution was to cosmology, the study of the universe's origin and evolution. Working with Jim Hartle of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Hawking proposed in 1983 that space and time might have no beginning and no end. "Asking what happens before the Big Bang is like asking for a point one mile north of the North Pole," he said.

In 2004, he announced that he had revised his previous view that objects sucked into black holes simply disappeared, perhaps to enter an alternate universe. Instead, he said he believed objects could be spit out of black holes in a mangled form.

That new theory capped his three-decade struggle to explain a paradox in scientific thinking: How can objects really "disappear" inside a black hole and leave no trace when subatomic theory says matter can be transformed but never fully destroyed?

Hawking was born Jan. 8, 1942, in Oxford, and grew up in London and St. Albans, northwest of the capital. In 1959, he entered Oxford University and then went on to graduate work at Cambridge.

Signs of illness appeared in his first year of graduate school, and he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease after the New York Yankee star who died of it. The disease usually kills within three to five years.

According to John Boslough, author of "Stephen Hawking's Universe," Hawking became deeply depressed. But as it became apparent that he was not going to die soon, his spirits recovered and he bore down on his work. Brian Dickie, director of research at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said only 5 percent of those diagnosed with ALS survive for 10 years or longer. Hawking, he added, "really is at the extreme end of the scale when it comes to survival."

Hawking married Jane Wilde in 1965 and they had three children, Robert, Lucy and Timothy.

Jane cared for Hawking for 20 years, until a grant from the United States paid for the 24-hour care he required.

He was inducted into the Royal Society in 1974 and received the Albert Einstein Award in 1978. In 1989, Queen Elizabeth II made him a Companion of Honor, one of the highest distinctions she can bestow.

He whizzed about Cambridge at surprising speed — usually with nurses or teaching assistants in his wake — traveled and lectured widely, and appeared to enjoy his fame. He retired from his chair as Lucasian Professor in 2009 and took up a research position with the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

Hawking divorced Jane in 1991, an acrimonious split that strained his relationship with their children. Writing in her autobiographical "Music to Move the Stars," she said the strain of caring for Hawking for nearly three decades had left her feeling like "a brittle, empty shell." Hawking married his one-time nurse Elaine Mason four years later, but the relationship was dogged by rumors of abuse.

Police investigated in 2004 after newspapers reported that he'd been beaten, suffering injuries including a broken wrist, gashes to the face and a cut lip, and was left stranded in his garden on the hottest day of the year.

Hawking called the charges "completely false." Police found no evidence of any abuse. Hawking and Mason separated in 2006.

Lucy Hawking said her father had an exasperating "inability to accept that there is anything he cannot do."

"I accept that there are some things I can't do," he told The Associated Press in 1997. "But they are mostly things I don't particularly want to do anyway."

Then, grinning widely, he added, "I seem to manage to do anything that I really want."

Britain boots 23 Russian diplomats over spy poisoning

A man works to untangle the national flag flown from the Russian Embassy, after it became entangled on its staff at the embassy in London, Wednesday, March 14. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka

London (AP) — Relations between Britain and Russia plunged Wednesday to a chilly level not seen since the Cold War as Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 diplomats, severed high-level contacts and vowed both open and covert action against Kremlin meddling after the poisoning of a former spy.

Russia said it would respond soon to what it called Britain's "crude" and "hostile" actions.

While May pledged to disrupt Russian espionage and "hostile state activity," she gave few details about how hard Britain would hit Russian politicians and oligarchs where it really hurts — in their wallets.

"Expelling diplomats is a kind of a standard response," said Natasha Kuhrt, a Russia expert at King's College London. "I'm not sure it's going to make Moscow stand up and think."

May told the House of Commons that 23 Russians diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers have a week to leave Britain.

"This will be the single biggest expulsion for over 30 years," May said, adding that it would "fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the U.K. for years to come."

May spoke after Moscow ignored a midnight deadline to explain how the nerve agent Novichok, developed by the Soviet Union, was used against Sergei Skripal, an ex-Russian agent convicted of spying for Britain, and his daughter Yulia. They remain in critical condition in a hospital in Salisbury, southwestern England, after being found unconscious March 4.

May said "there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr. Skripal and his daughter."

She announced a range of economic and diplomatic measures, including the suspension of high-level contacts with Russia. An invitation for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to visit Britain has been canceled, and British ministers and royals won't attend the soccer World Cup in Russia this summer.

May also said Britain would clamp down on murky Russian money and strengthen its powers to impose sanctions on abusers of human rights, though she gave few details.

"We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents," May said, promising to use all legal powers against criminals and corrupt elites, and to "increase checks on private flights, customs and freight."

"There is no place for these people — or their money — in our country," she said.

May said some of the measures "cannot be shared publicly for reasons of national security."

The Russian Embassy in London said the expulsion of diplomats was "totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted." Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko called Britain's actions were "a provocation."

Russia did not immediately announce retaliatory measures, but its Foreign Ministry said "our response will not be long in coming."

It said Britain's "hostile measures" were "an unprecedentedly crude provocation."

Britain called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York at which U.K. and Russian diplomats traded accusations, with Britain blaming the Russian state for the attack and Russia vehemently denying responsibility.

Some Russia experts said the measures announced by May were unlikely to make Russian President Vladimir Putin's government change its behavior. She didn't expel Russia's ambassador or announce sanctions against any individuals or companies.

Critics of the British government have long claimed that the U.K. is reluctant to act against Russia because London's property market and financial sector are magnets for billions in Russian money.

"There does not seem to be any real appetite so far to investigate the ill-gotten gains of the Russian elite that have been laundered through London," said John Lough, an associate fellow in the Eurasia program at the Chatham House think-tank. "It is not clear to me that London's response will hit the Kremlin where it hurts."

Moscow has denied responsibility for Skripal's poisoning. It refused to comply with Britain's demand for an explanation, saying the U.K. must first provide samples of the poison collected by investigators.

Some in Russia have suggested that the nerve agent could have come from another former Soviet country.

Lawmaker Vladimir Gutenev, a member of Russia's state commission for chemical disarmament, said Russia had scrapped its stockpile of Novichok.

"It is hard to say what may be happening in neighboring countries," he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Britain is seeking support from allies in the European Union and NATO in response to the use of an illegal chemical weapon on British soil. May's office said President Donald Trump told the prime minister the U.S. was "with the U.K. all the way."

But Britain faces an uphill battle in rallying international backing for any new measures against Moscow.

European Council President Donald Tusk said he would put the attack on the agenda at an EU summit meeting next week.

The U.N. Security Council — of which Russia is a veto-wielding member — was due to meet later Wednesday at Britain's request to discuss the investigation.

At U.N. headquarters, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was not in a position to attribute responsibility for the attack, but "he strongly condemns the use of any nerve agent or chemical weapons and hopes that the incident will be thoroughly investigated."

NATO promised to help investigate what it called "the first offensive use of a nerve agent" in Europe or North America since the military alliance was founded in 1949.

But it's unclear what, if anything, NATO can do to put more pressure on Russia. Relations between the old Cold War foes are already poor and short of military action the alliance has little leverage.

May said Russia's use of a chemical weapon was "an affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. And it is an affront to the rules-based system on which we and our international partners depend."

"We will work with our allies and partners to confront such actions wherever they threaten our security, at home and abroad," she said.

Myanmar says it's ready for UN help with Rohingya return

Myanmar's Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Ministry Myint Thu speaks to journalists during a press conference about the situation of Rakhine State at Information Ministry in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Wednesday, March 14. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)

Naypyitaw, Myanmar (AP) — Senior officials in Myanmar announced Wednesday that they have begun talks with U.N. agencies to see how they could assist with the repatriation of Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh to escape violence against them.

Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary Myint Thu said the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N. Development Program responded last week with a proposal and concept paper to the government's invitation for U.N. involvement, which the government is now studying.

"We considered that the time is now appropriate to invite UNHCR and UNDP to be involved in the repatriation and resettlement process, as well as in carrying out activities supporting the livelihoods and development for all communities in Rakhine state," Myint Thu said.

Human rights experts believe safety cannot yet be guaranteed for about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled the western state of Rakhine to Bangladesh after security forces carried out brutal crackdowns in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents last August.

Antagonism between Rakhine's Buddhist community and Rohingya Muslims led to communal violence in 2012, forcing at least 140,000 Rohingya from their homes into squalid camps for internally displaced people. Most Rohingya are treated as stateless persons with limited rights, and the insurgents drew support from the discontented as prejudice against their community grew in overwhelming Buddhist Myanmar.

Stanislav Saling, a U.N. spokesman in Myanmar, confirmed that in response to Myanmar's initiative, the U.N. agencies submitted a note proposing how they could help create conditions "for the safe, dignified and voluntary return for refugees, in line with international principles."

Neither the U.N. nor the government made public details of the proposal.

The international community has accused Myanmar's military of atrocities against the Rohingya that could amount to ethnic cleansing, but the government and military deny any organized human rights violations.

Myanmar's civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to start the gradual repatriation of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.

Myanmar's government says 374 refugees out of more than 8,000 whom Bangladesh has verified as qualified to return are free to return at their convenience.

"We have handed the list of 374 people to the Bangladesh Embassy so that they can immediately start their repatriation," Myint Thu said. "These 374 people can be the first repatriation batch."

Finland tops 2018 global happiness index

In this Saturday, July 29, 2017 file photo, Finland's flag flies aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it arrives into Nuuk, Greenland. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Jari Tanner

Helsinki (AP) — Fans of skiing, saunas and Santa Claus won't be surprised to hear Finland is the happiest place to live.

The World Happiness Report published Wednesday ranked 156 countries by happiness levels, based on factors such as life expectancy, social support and corruption.

Unlike past years, the annual report published by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network also evaluated 117 countries by the happiness and well-being of their immigrants.

Europe's Nordic nations, none particularly diverse, have dominated the index since it first was produced in 2012. In reaching No. 1, Finland nudged neighboring Norway into second place.

Rounding out the Top 10 are Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia. The United States fell to 18th place from 14th last year.

Relatively homogenous Finland has about 300,000 foreigners and residents with foreign roots, out of its 5.5 million people.

Its largest immigrant groups come from other European nations, but there also are communities from Afghanistan, China, Iraq and Somalia.

John Helliwell, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report and professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia, noted all the top-10 nations scored highest in overall happiness and the happiness of immigrants. He said a society's happiness seems contagious.

"The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born," Helliwell said. "Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose."

Meik Wiking, CEO of the Copenhagen-based Happiness Research Institute, said the five Nordic countries that reliably rank high in the index "are doing something right in terms of creating good conditions for good lives," something newcomers have noticed.

He said the happiness revealed in the survey derives from healthy amounts of both personal freedom and social security that outweigh residents having to pay "some of the highest taxes in the world."

"Briefly put, (Nordic countries) are good at converting wealth into well-being," Wiking said. The finding on the happiness of immigrants "shows the conditions that we live under matter greatly to our quality of life, that happiness is not only a matter of choice."

The United States was 11th in the first index and has never been in the Top 10. To explain its fall to 18th, the report's authors cited several factors.

"The U.S. is in the midst of a complex and worsening public health crisis, involving epidemics of obesity, opioid addiction, and major depressive disorder that are all remarkable by global standards," the report said.

It added that the "sociopolitical system" in the United States produces more income inequality — a major contributing factor to unhappiness — than other countries with comparatively high incomes.

The United States also has seen declining "trust, generosity and social support, and those are some of the factors that explain why some countries are happier than others," Wiking said.

Update March 14, 2018

Bali to shush social media for Day of Silence

In this March 16, 2010 file photo, a Balinese traditional security guard called "pecalang" patrols the empty Kuta beach, a famous tourist spot on the island, during "Nyepi" or the Day of Silence in Bali, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)

Bali, Indonesia (AP) — Bali's annual Day of Silence is so sacred that even reaching for a smartphone to send a tweet or upload a selfie to social media could cause offense. This year it will be nearly impossible to do that anyway.

The head of the Bali office of Indonesia's Ministry of Communications, Nyoman Sujaya, said Tuesday that all phone companies have agreed to shut down the mobile internet for 24 hours during "Nyepi," a day marking New Year on the predominantly Hindu island.

That means smartphones won't connect to the internet, shutting off access to social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram and instant messaging apps.

"Let's rest a day, free from the internet to feel the calm of the mind," said Gusti Ngurah Sudiana, head of the Indonesian Hinduism Society. "Many Hindu people are addicted to gadgets," he said. "I hope during Nyepi they can be introspective."

On the day meant for reflection, Balinese stay home and stop using electricity. The airport and shops close and guests at resorts are asked to keep noise to a minimum. Beaches and streets on the usually bustling island are deserted except for patrols to make sure silence is observed.

Bali's religious and civilian leaders including police and military chiefs made the request to the central government earlier this month.

It will be the first time the Internet is shut down for Nyepi, which this year begins early Saturday. The same request was made to the government last year but was not implemented.

Sujaya said shushing social media will become the norm for the Day of Silence in the future. Television and radio broadcasts will also be silenced as usual.

"Wi-Fi at hotels, public services and vital objects such as airports, hospitals, security forces and banking still can run normally but with minimal use such as emails," he said.

Nepal plane crash came after confused pilot-airport chatter

Nepalese rescuers work after a passenger plane from Bangladesh crashed at the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Monday, March 12. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shreshta)

Binaj Gurubacharya

Kathmandu, Nepal (AP) — "I say again, turn!" the air traffic controller called over the radio, his voice rising, as the flight from Bangladesh swerved low over the runway at Kathmandu's small airport.

Seconds later, the plane crashed into a field beside the runway, erupting in flames and leaving 49 of the 71 people on board dead.

That moment Monday appeared to result from minutes of confused chatter between the control tower and the pilot of the US-Bangla passenger plane, as they discussed which direction the pilot should use to land on the airport's single runway.

A separate radio conversation between the tower and at least one Nepali pilot reflected the sense of miscommunication.

"They appear to be extremely disoriented," a man said in Nepali, watching as Flight BS211 made its approach, though it was not clear if the voice belonged to a pilot or the tower. "Looks like they are really confused," said another man.

In the recording, posted by air traffic monitoring website, the pilot and the tower shifted back and forth about whether the pilot should approach the runway from the north or the south.

Just before landing, the pilot asked, "Are we cleared to land?"

Moments later, the controller came back on the air, his voice clearly anxious, and told the pilot, "I say again, turn!" Seconds after that, the controller ordered firetrucks onto the runway.

The plane, which was heading from Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, to Kathmandu, was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members.

Kathmandu officials and the airline laid the blame for the accident on each other.

The airport's general manager told reporters Monday that the pilot did not follow the control tower's instructions and approached the runway from the wrong direction.

"The airplane was not properly aligned with the runway. The tower repeatedly asked if the pilot was OK and the reply was 'Yes,'" said the general manager, Raj Kumar Chetri.

But Imran Asif, CEO of US-Bangla Airlines, told reporters in Dhaka that "we cannot claim this definitely at the moment, but we are suspecting that the Kathmandu air traffic control tower might have misled our pilots to land on the wrong runway."

After hearing the recording between the tower and the pilots, "we assumed that there was no negligence by our pilots," he said.

He said the pilot, Capt. Abid Sultan, was a former air force officer and had flown the Bombardier Q400 series aircraft for more than 1,700 hours and was also a flying instructor with the airline. While officials in Bangladesh said the pilot had died from his injuries Tuesday, raising the death toll to 50 people, Nepal police spokesman Manoj Neupane later said that was wrong, and the death toll remained at 49.

The injured were being treated in various hospitals in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital.

Autopsies on the dead were being performed at the Kathmandu Medical College and Teaching Hospital morgue, where some 200 relatives waited to hear about their loved ones.

Dr. M.A. Ansari of the hospital's forensic department said identifying all the dead could take as long as a week because many of the bodies were badly burned. By late Tuesday morning, four bodies had been identified.

Anita Bajacharya waited at the hospital with her parents and other relatives for details on her 23-year-old sister, a medical student who had just finished school in Bangladesh and was returning home on the flight. The sister, Asma Shakya, had called her mother from the airport, excited about returning home. Now her family sat outside a hospital waiting for her body to be identified.

Relatives of the passengers from Bangladesh arrived in Kathmandu late Tuesday afternoon and were escorted to the hospital by airline officials.

Nepal's government has ordered an investigation into the crash. However, Mohammed Kamrul Islam, a spokesman for US-Bangla Airlines, said the governments of both Nepal and Bangladesh need to "launch a fair investigation and find the reason behind the accident."

According to the airline, the plane was carrying 32 passengers from Bangladesh, 33 from Nepal and one each from China and the Maldives. It did not provide the nationalities of the four crew members.

US-Bangla operates Boeing 737-800 and smaller Bombardier Dash 8 planes, including the Q400, the model that crashed.

The airline is based in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, and flies domestically and internationally. The parent company, part of US-Bangla Group, is also involved in real estate, education and agriculture.

Kathmandu's airport has been the site of several deadly crashes. In September 2012, a Sita Air turboprop plane carrying trekkers to Mount Everest hit a bird and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 19 people on board.

Russia calls poisoning accusations by Britain 'nonsense'

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gestures during a meeting at the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow, Tuesday March 13. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

Gregory Katz and Nataliya Vasilyeva

London (AP) — Russia on Tuesday dismissed accusations of any involvement in the poisoning of an ex-spy and his daughter as "nonsense," saying it will only cooperate with a British investigation if it receives samples of the nerve agent believed to have been used.

Police, meanwhile, said the investigation of who poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, will last many weeks and that they are not ready to identify any persons of interest in the inquiry. The father and daughter remain in critical condition in a Salisbury hospital.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia's involvement is "highly likely," and she gave the country a deadline of midnight Tuesday to explain its actions in the case. She is reviewing a range of economic and diplomatic measures in retaliation for the assault with what she identified as the military-grade nerve agent Novichok.

U.S. and European officials were quick to offer words of support for Britain, which will need the backing of its allies if any new sanctions are to have any impact.

Her Downing Street office said she discussed the Salisbury incident with U.S. President Donald Trump, and that the U.S. was "with the U.K. all the way" in agreeing that Russia "must provide unambiguous answers as to how this nerve agent came to be used."

They also agreed on the need for "consequences" for those who use "heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms," the White House said.

Earlier, Trump had said: "It sounds to me that they believe it was Russia and I would certainly take that finding as fact."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that his country's requests to see samples of the nerve agent have been turned down. He insisted that Russia is "not to blame" for the poisoning.

"We have already made a statement to say this is nonsense," he said. "We have nothing to do with this."

The Russian Embassy in London tweeted that it will not respond to the ultimatum without the samples.

Russian officials and media have responded with a variety of accusations against Britain in recent days, including suggestions that it was seeking to influence Sunday's election, which President Vladimir Putin is expected to win easily.

James Nixey, head of the Russia program at the Chatham House think-tank, said May's response must be more than symbolic.

"Will actions meet with responses which have real-world effects?" he said. "Or are we going to have more fudge?"

Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said financial sanctions would be keys to a strong response.

"Given that the regime is built on money — it's effectively a flow of money from the Russian people to Putin and from Putin to his acolytes — money matters," he said.

"We have enormous amounts of control of a lot of people's assets through various means, and I think it's important we exercise that," Tugendhat said. "If you get the right people and you freeze their assets, it can make a lot of difference."

The cases of other Russians who have died under mysterious circumstances also are being raised. British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said police and the domestic security service will look into 14 deaths in Britain that might be linked to Russia.

"In the weeks to come, I will want to satisfy myself that the allegations are nothing more than that," Rudd said. "The police and MI5 agree and will assist in that endeavor."

BuzzFeed News reported in 2017 that 14 deaths in Britain and the U.S. dating to 2006 may have been linked to Russia. Among them are prominent Putin critics, including oligarch Boris Berezovsky and whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny.

The chief of the world's chemical weapons watchdog also said that those responsible "must be held accountable."

In a speech Tuesday to the Executive Council of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called him Monday evening to inform him of the results of investigations.

"It is extremely worrying that chemical agents are still being used to harm people. Those found responsible for this use must be held accountable for their actions," he said.

Johnson also spoke with his French and German counterparts and to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as Britain sought Tuesday to rally international support. A statement from his office said British officials would brief NATO's political decision-making arm, the North Atlantic Council, on Wednesday.

Stoltenberg and Johnson "agreed that Russian actions repeatedly threaten the security of NATO partners — from the Baltics, Balkans, Ukraine and Georgia — and NATO must stand as an alliance to call out Putin's behavior," the statement said.

Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, was convicted of spying for Britain and then released in a spy swap. He had been living under his own name in Salisbury for eight years before the attack without attracting any public attention.

Police are appealing to the public to come forward if they saw Skripal and his daughter driving in his red BMW in the early afternoon of March 4 in the city located 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of London.

New counterterrorism chief Neil Basu, who referred to Skripal as a British subject and his daughter as a Russian national, also said Salisbury residents would see much police activity in the coming days and that they should not be alarmed.

Some 38 people have been seen by medics in connection with the case.

Britain could be paying into EU coffers until 2064

Britain's Chancellor Philip Hammond leaves 11 Downing Street to deliver his Spring Statement in Parliament, in London, Tuesday, March 13. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Pan Pylas

London (AP) — Britain could be paying into the European Union's coffers for nearly another half century even though Brexit day is little more than a year away, according to independent forecasts compiled for the government.

In documents released Tuesday, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that Britain's Brexit divorce bill would amount to 37.1 billion pounds ($52 billion), in the middle of most projections.

Most of that sum is due in the next couple of years as Britain honors short-term budget commitments it had already made to the EU. But payments will continue until 2064 to meet liabilities such as pensions that Britain has incurred through its 45-year membership of the bloc.

"These liabilities will fall due over a very long period, so there is clearly uncertainty over how and when this or future governments would decide to meet the estimated cost," the OBR said.

In December, the British government and the EU made some progress on Brexit issues, including citizens' rights, the border between EU member Ireland and Britain's Northern Ireland and the divorce bill. The talks have now been broadened to include future relations, notably trade.

In a budget update Tuesday, Treasury chief Philip Hammond said very little about the Brexit impact on the economy but said he hoped for a "step forward" at next week's meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.

Britain wants the remaining 27 EU nations to grant a transition period after Brexit, which the EU says should last until the end of 2020. During the transition, Britain would remain in the tariff-free single market and customs union even though it will be outside the EU and have little, or no, say over policy changes.

The main point of the budget update was to provide the OBR's new forecasts, which Hammond sought to paint in as rosy a light as possible.

He said the British economy is set to grow 1.5 percent this year, up modestly on the previous 1.4 percent forecast but markedly below the country's long-run average. Growth is predicted to remain paltry, 1.5 percent or lower in every year through to 2022.

"Forecasts are there to be beaten," Hammond said. "As a nation, we did it in 2017 and we should make it our business to do so again."

In spite of the modest upgrade, the economy is set to be one of the slowest-growing in the Group of Seven industrialized nations, as it was last year.

"Against a long term trend of at least 2 percent a year growth, after poor growth since 2008, and compared with growth across rest of the OECD, these are not encouraging forecasts," said Paul Johnson, director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

The British economy has slowed sharply since the country voted to leave the EU in June 2016 as businesses reined in investment and consumer spending eased after inflation spiked following the pound's fall, a development that raised the cost of imported goods such as energy and food.

Brexit is the biggest cloud hanging over the outlook. Britain is due to leave the EU, its biggest export market, on March 29, 2019, but there is uncertainty as to what the future trading relationship will be.

In making its forecasts, the OBR sought more clarity on what the government anticipates from Brexit. The agency factored in a "smooth" Brexit process but said it will update its analysis as it is furnished details of the withdrawal agreement, which is due to be hammered out by autumn.

Hammond made a point of lauding an improvement in public finances. He said there is "light at the end of the tunnel," with public debt due to peak this financial year at 85.6 percent of GDP.

John McDonnell, the Treasury spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said Hammond's statement showed "just how cut off from the real world that he is."

Southeast Asian ride-hailing app Grab expands into lending

An Indonesian woman pays a GrabBike taxi driver in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, March 13. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Jakarta, Indonesia (AP) — Southeast Asian ride hailing app Grab is expanding into financial services in partnership with a Japanese credit card company, hoping to offer credit to millions of people without bank accounts.

Grab, founded by Malaysian businessman Anthony Tan, said Tuesday it will use its "huge cache" of customer data from the app to provide ways to measure creditworthiness of people outside the formal banking system.

The ride-hailing app says it has over a billion transactions a year including food deliveries and other services.

It said the joint venture with Japan's Credit Saison will begin by focusing on providing loans to Grab drivers and merchants for purchasing smartphones or working capital.

The World Bank estimates that more than 260 million people in Southeast Asia lack bank accounts, which restricts their access to credit.

"Many in our region have no access to loans that they can use to purchase a new home or grow their small business," Grab said in a statement. It said its lending business would "accelerate financial inclusion."

Grab dominates car and motorbike-hailing in much of Southeast Asia. The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, reported last week that Uber has agreed in principle to sell its Southeast Asian operations to Grab, which would end the U.S. company's costly fight for market share in the region.

In Indonesia, Southeast Asia's biggest economy and most populous nation, Grab is in a fierce battle for customers with local operator Go-Jek.

Update March 13, 2018

Plane carrying 71 people crashes, catches fire in Kathmandu

Nepalese rescuers stand near a passenger plane from Bangladesh that crashed at the airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, Monday, March 12. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shreshta)

Binaj Gurubacharya

Kathmandu, Nepal (AP) — A plane carrying 71 people from Bangladesh swerved erratically and flew dangerously low before crashing and erupting in flames as it landed Monday in Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, killing at least 50 people, officials and witnesses said.

The exact number of dead and injured remained unclear amid the chaos of the crash and the rush of badly injured people to nearby hospitals, but Brig. Gen. Gokul Bhandari, the Nepal army spokesman, said it was clear that at least 50 people had died. Officials at Kathmandu Medical College, the closest hospital to the airport, said they were treating 16 survivors.

US-Bangla Airlines flight BS211 from Dhaka to Kathmandu was carrying 67 passengers and four crew members, according to an airline spokesman.

An AP journalist who arrived at the scene soon after the crash saw the twin-propeller plane broken into several large pieces, with dozens of firefighters and rescue workers clustered around the wreckage in a grassy field near the runway. Hundreds of people stood on a nearby hill, staring down at what remained of the Bombardier Dash 8.

The plane swerved repeatedly as it prepared to land in Kathmandu, said Amanda Summers, an American working in Nepal. The crowded city sits in a valley in the Himalayan foothills.

"It was flying so low I thought it was going to run into the mountains," said Summers, who watched the crash from the terrace of her home office, not far from the airport. "All of a sudden there was a blast and then another blast."

Fire crews put out the flames quickly, perhaps within a minute, she said, though for a time clouds of thick, dark smoke rose into the sky above the city.

The plane had circled Tribhuvan International Airport twice as it waited for clearance to land, Mohammed Selim, the airline's manager in Kathmandu, told Dhaka-based Somoy TV by telephone. The plane was 17 years old, company officials said.

Airport officials said the pilot had been told to approach the airport's one runway from the south, but he instead landed from the north.

"The airplane was not properly aligned with the runway. The tower repeatedly asked if the pilot was OK and the reply was 'yes,'" said Raj Kumar Chetri, the airport's general manager.

The runway, however, can be approached from both directions.

Nitin Keyal was about to board a domestic flight when he saw the plane coming in.

"It was flying very low," said Keyal, a medical student. "Everyone just froze looking at it. You could tell it wasn't a normal landing."

He said it landed just off the runway, broke apart and burst into flames. "For a few minutes no one could believe what was happening. It was just terrible," he said.

Most of the injured were brought to Kathmandu Medical College, where relatives wept as they awaited news.

Haran Saran was at the hospital hoping for news about his nephew, a medical student.

"He's not on the list of injured people," said Saran, who did not want to give his nephew's name. "We still have hope that there has been some mistake on the list, or he is in some other hospital."

US-Bangla spokesman Kamrul Islam said the plane was carrying 32 passengers from Bangladesh, 33 from Nepal and one each from China and the Maldives. He did not provide the nationalities of the four crewmembers.

US-Bangla operates Boeing 737-800 and smaller Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 planes.

The full-service airline is based in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, and flies to several domestic and international destinations. The parent company, part of US-Bangla Group, is involved in a number of industries, including real estate, education and agriculture.

Kathmandu's airport has been the site of several deadly crashes. In September 2012, a Sita Air turboprop plane carrying trekkers to Mount Everest hit a bird and crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 19 on board.

Central banks warned to weigh risks of virtual currencies

This April 3, 2013 file photo shows bitcoin tokens at a shop in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

David McHugh

Frankfurt, Germany (AP) — A global financial body warns central banks should carefully weigh the risks before introducing their own virtual currencies, saying such innovations could risk destabilizing banking systems and unleash disruption across borders.

But it said some forms of digital innovation could help by making trading in stocks and currencies more efficient.

Monday's report from the Bank for International Settlements, an international organization for central banks in Basel, Switzerland, says virtual currencies issued broadly by central banks could worsen bank runs. A virtual currency could do that by making it easy to move money entirely out of the commercial banking system with a mouse click during a panic.

The report said virtual money issued by a country's central bank could, if widely used in cross-border transactions, lead to disruptive international capital flows and exchange rate fluctuations.

The report noted that any virtual currency would have to comply with requirements aimed at stopping money laundering and financing of terrorism. That could limit how anonymous holding it could be.

The report doesn't dismiss the idea. It said virtual currencies issued for wholesale use only — that is, by banks and financial institutions to settle payments rather than by consumers for purchases — could help make trading securities and foreign currencies more efficient.

That would not be so far from how central banks operate today. They already use money in an electronic form in the reserve accounts at the central bank that can be held only by banks and other designated financial institutions. Everyone else can access money issued by the central bank in the form of cold hard cash.

Benoit Coeure, chair of the BIS' committee on payments and market infrastructures, said that that virtual currencies issued by central banks showed promise in wholesale payments.

"Central bank digital currencies could help make settling trades of securities and foreign exchange more efficient in the future. But more work and experimentation would be needed to explore these benefits," he said. Coeure is also a member of the executive board at the European Central Bank, the central bank for the 19-country eurozone and the issuer of the euro currency.

Coeure said that no central bank has so far decided to issue a virtual currency.

But the question has arisen in places such as Sweden, where the use of cash for everyday transactions is dwindling. Sweden's central bank, the Rijksbank, is studying the possibility of issuing an e-krona.  A decision is expected later this year or early next year. Sweden isn't a member of the euro.

Central bankers in Europe have recently cast doubt on the usefulness of private virtual currencies such as bitcoin due to their volatility and lack of security.  "At this time, the general judgment is that their volatile valuations, and inadequate investor and consumer protection, make them unsafe to rely on as a common means of payment, a stable store of value or a unit of account," the report said.

Fearing trade war, EU warns of protectionism 'dead end'

Spanish Economy, Industry and Competitiveness Minister Roman Escolano, center, speaks with European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pierre Moscovici, center, and Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, right, during a meeting of the eurogroup at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, March 12. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Lorne Cook

Brussels (AP) — The European Union on Monday urged U.S. President Donald Trump not to head down "a dead end" road of protectionism and warned of a damaging trade war over his new steel and aluminum tariffs.

At talks in Brussels, economy ministers underlined that the EU — the world's biggest trading bloc — supports free and open trade but that its 28 countries will respond if they are targeted by the U.S. tariffs, which are set to enter force next week.

"We are worried (about) the possibility of having a trade war between the United States and the EU because we believe that there will be only losers. We believe that protectionism is a dead end," French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters.

Spanish Economy Minister Roman Escolano Olivares said, "protectionism is always a political, a historical error."

Trump said last Thursday that he was slapping tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum. He temporarily exempted big steel producers Canada and Mexico — provided they agree to renegotiate a North American trade deal to his satisfaction.

He said other countries could be spared the tariffs if they can convince the U.S. government that their steel and aluminum exports don't threaten American industry.

The EU rejects Trump's argument that the tariffs are required for national security reasons. It has threatened to slap retaliatory duties on around 2.8 billion euros ($3.4 billion) worth of U.S. steel, agricultural and other products like peanut butter and orange juice if it is not excluded from the tariff regime.

Amid uncertainty over who might be exempted, German Finance Minister Peter Altmaier appealed to reason, saying it is the "responsibility of everybody to keep international trade as fair and open as possible."

Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said the tariffs are "a bad idea. It is bad for European citizens, for Dutch citizens and it will turn out bad for U.S. citizens as well."

The EU's executive body, the European Commission, handles trade talks on behalf of member countries. Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem held talks on Saturday with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in an effort to understand Trump's exemptions, but she said she got "no immediate clarity on the exact U.S. procedure."

Malmstroem said she told Lighthizer that "the European Union must be excluded" from tariffs because it is a close U.S. ally. Indeed, most EU countries are in NATO, the world's biggest security alliance, together with the U.S.

Phone conversations are continuing, but no new meeting was planned as of Monday.

Trump tweeted Monday that U.S. "Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will be speaking with representatives of the European Union about eliminating the large Tariffs and Barriers they use against the U.S.A." It was not clear when or where the meeting would take place.

The Commission refuses to negotiate over the issue, believing that Trump's tariffs are an attack on global trade rules and principles. Brussels insists that the real problem is a glut of steel on international markets. Experts largely blame overproduction by China for that.

Russian military tests nuclear-capable hypersonic missile

In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Sunday, March 11, a Russia's Kinzhal hypersonic missile flies during a test in southern Russia. ((AP Photo/ Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Moscow (AP) — The Russian military said it has conducted a successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile capable of sneaking through enemy defenses.

A video posted by the Defense Ministry Sunday showed a MiG-31 fighter jet launching a Kinzhal (Dagger) missile during a training flight. The ministry said the missile, which carried a conventional warhead, hit a practice target at a firing range in southern Russia.

President Vladimir Putin named Kinzhal this month among the new nuclear weapons he said would bolster Russia's military capability and render the U.S. missile defense useless.

Putin said Kinzhal flies 10 times faster than the speed of sound, has a range of more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) and can carry a nuclear or a conventional warhead. The military said it's capable of hitting both land targets and navy ships.

Putin said the missile already had been put on combat duty with a unit of Russia's Southern Military District.

The Defense Ministry said in Sunday's statement that the test launch proved the missile's capability. It added that the new weapon has no equal thanks to its superior maneuverability and ability to dodge enemy radars.

Japan govt altered documents in scandal linked to Abe's wife

In this Jan. 14, 2018, file photo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and his wife Akie Abe take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Antakalnis Memorial Cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania. (AP Photo/Liusjenas Kulbis)

Mari Yamaguchi

Tokyo (AP) — Japan's Finance Ministry acknowledged Monday that it doctored documents in a widening scandal linked to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's wife that has rattled his government and caused its support ratings to slide.

Abe quickly apologized Monday on behalf of ministry officials but did not mention his wife or her suspected role in the scandal.

"People are looking critically at the developments, and I take it seriously," he said, promising to pursue a thorough investigation into what caused the problem.

The altered documents relate to the 2016 sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen in Osaka at one-seventh of the appraised value with the alleged involvement of first lady Akie Abe, who supported the school's ultra-nationalistic education policy.

An investigation by the ministry showed that the school operator told officials that Akie Abe encouraged him to proceed with the land deal, and several conservative lawmakers had contacted the ministry about the school plan, but it was not clear whether they violated any law. It said one document originally noted that the school operator was involved with a powerful pro-Abe political lobby, Nippon Kaigi, of which Abe was vice chairman, but that comment had later been deleted.

The scandal, which surfaced a year ago, has smoldered despite a major election victory by Abe in July as opposition lawmakers continued to scrutinize the case. It erupted again in recent weeks after a major newspaper reported that it found evidence the ministry had altered records after the scandal broke.

Finance Minister Taro Aso said the investigation found 14 altered documents. The changes were made from February to April last year at the instruction of the Financial Bureau, the ministry department in charge of state property transactions, mostly at its regional unit in Osaka, Aso said.

He said the documents were falsified to match explanations that an official in charge of the land deal, Nobuhisa Sagawa, provided to parliament in response to opposition lawmakers' questions.

Sagawa later was promoted to National Tax Agency chief in what critics alleged was a reward for stonewalling the questioning. He resigned last Friday to take responsibility for his replies, and another official linked to the scandal reportedly killed himself. Sagawa also acknowledged destroying documents.

Aso denied there had been any political pressure, but declined to disclose where the instructions came from and who was responsible.

Abe said Aso will not step down.

In a parliamentary hearing Monday, Finance Ministry officials confirmed that a reference to Akie Abe having recommended the land deal was deleted from a document after the scandal surfaced. Yasunori Kagoike, then head of Moritomo Gakuen, purchased the land to build an elementary school where Abe's wife briefly served as honorary principal. The Abes are known to have supported the school's nationalistic philosophy of education.

A phrase calling the land deal "exceptional," as well as the names of several other influential lawmakers who were implicated but have denied involvement, were also deleted, the ministry said.

Opposition lawmakers allege political pressure was involved in the land sale, but Abe has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Opposition leaders demanded that Abe's wife and Sagawa testify and threatened to boycott parliamentary sessions if they did not. Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the document doctoring by the ministry "shakes the foundation of Japan's democracy."

The conservative Yomiuri newspaper and public broadcaster NHK both reported declines in support ratings for Abe's Cabinet in polls released Monday. Outside parliament Monday, dozens of protesters demanded the Cabinet's resignation.

Update March 12, 2018

Japan marks 7th anniversary of tsunami that killed 18,000

A man lights a candle to mourn for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami prior to a special memorial event in Tokyo Sunday, March 11. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Tokyo (AP) — They bowed their heads, hands clasped or palms firmly pressed together. They stood in grassy areas or roadsides overlooking the choppy sea. In Japan's capital, they lit candles and offered flowers. Some dabbed at tears.

Japanese marked the seventh anniversary Sunday of a tsunami that took more than 18,000 lives on the northeast coast and triggered a nuclear disaster that turned nearby communities into ghost towns.

Residents along the coast gathered outdoors to remember the tragedy as sirens wailed at 2:46 p.m., the moment the magnitude 9.0 offshore earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, setting off a massive tsunami.

The tsunami overwhelmed sea walls and washed away buildings, cars and entire neighborhoods as it swept inland. It knocked out power at the seaside Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, causing partial meltdowns in three reactors.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Sunday at an official ceremony in Tokyo that reconstruction is making steady progress, but more than 70,000 people are still displaced and many have no prospect of returning to their homes.

Prince Akishino, the second son of Japanese Emperor Akihito, expressed hope that the tsunami would raise awareness and help prevent or mitigate damage from future natural disasters.

"It is my earnest hope ... that we hand down the knowledge to future generations in order to protect many people from the dangers of disasters," he said.

Separately, several hundred people observed a moment of silence and made offerings at an altar set up in Hibiya Park in central Tokyo.

Cleaning up the still-radioactive Fukushima nuclear plant site remains a daunting challenge that is expected to take 30 to 40 years.

China makes historic move to allow Xi to rule indefinitely


Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with National People's Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang during a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sunday, March 11. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Christopher Bodeen

Beijing (AP) — China's rubber-stamp lawmakers on Sunday passed a historic constitutional amendment abolishing a presidential two-term limit that will enable Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.

The amendment upends a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong's chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

"This marks the biggest regression in China's legal system since the reform and opening-up era of the 1980s," said Zhang Lifan, an independent Beijing-based political commentator.

"I'm afraid that this will all be written into our history in the future," Zhang said.

Voting among the National People's Congress' nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates began in the mid-afternoon, with Xi leading members of the Communist Party's seven-member all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in casting their votes. He placed his orange ballot paper in a red box bearing the official seal of state placed front and center on the stage inside the cavernous hall.

Rank-and-file deputies then rose to vote on the floor of the hall as jaunty instrumental music played. Ten minutes later, the process had ended and delegates were asked to return to their seats while the votes were counted.

Shortly after 3:50 p.m., the results were read out over the public address system and flashed briefly on a screen in the hall. The delegates voted 2,958 in favor, with two opposed, three abstaining and one vote invalidated.

"The constitutional amendment item has passed," the announcer declared to polite applause.

The 64-year-old Xi appeared to show little emotion, remaining in his seat with other deputies to listen to a report on the work of the congress delivered by its outgoing chairman.

The slide toward one-man rule under Xi has fueled concern that Beijing is eroding efforts to guard against the excesses of autocratic leadership and make economic regulation more stable and predictable.

The head of the legislature's legal affairs committee, Shen Chunyao, dismissed such concerns as "speculation that is ungrounded and without basis."

Shen told reporters the party has accumulated extensive experience over its 90-year history that has led to a system of orderly succession to "maintain the vitality and long-term stability of the party and the people."

"We believe in the future that we will continue with this path and discover an even brighter future," Shen said.

The amendment also inserted Xi's personal political philosophy into the preamble of the constitution and phrasing that emphasizes the leadership of the ruling Communist Party.

"It is rare nowadays to see a country with a constitution that emphasizes the constitutional position of any one political party," said Zhang, the political commentator.

In a sign of the issue's sensitivity, government censors have aggressively scrubbed social media of expressions ranging from "I disagree" to "Xi Zedong." A number of prominent Chinese figures have publicly protested the move, despite the risk of official retaliation.

Officials have said the abolishing of the presidential term limits is aimed only at bringing the office of the president in line with Xi's other positions atop the Communist Party and the Central Military Commission, which do not impose term limits.

While some scholars questioned the wisdom of the move, others said they saw value in sending the message that Xi would be setting policy for many years to come.

"In fact, the more Xi Jinping's position is consolidated and the longer his governing time is to last, the more secure it is for the continuity of the policies," said Liu Jiangyong, a professor at Renmin University's School of International Relations.

The move is widely seen as the culmination of Xi's efforts since being appointed leader of the party in 2012 to concentrate power in his own hands and defy norms of collective leadership established over the past two decades. Xi has appointed himself to head bodies that oversee national security, finance, economic reform and other major initiatives, effectively sidelining the party's No. 2 figure, Premier Li Keqiang.

It has crushed faint hopes for political reforms among China's embattled liberal scholars and activists, who now fear even greater repression. China allows no political opposition in any form and has relentlessly persecuted independent groups seeking greater civic participation. Leading Chinese officials have meanwhile repeatedly rejected any chance of adopting Western-style separation of powers or multiparty democracy.

To be sure, Xi's confident, populist leadership style and tough attitude toward official corruption have won him a significant degree of popular support.

Zhao Minglin, 32, a vice president of an investment firm in Beijing, said it was easier for Xi to carry out his ambitious vision of raising living standards in China if more power were concentrated in his hands.

"I will definitely support this constitutional amendment and this government. This is a powerful and strong government," Zhao said. He added, however, that he was concerned that the public discourse lacked a space for dissenting voices.

UK official: Small traces of contamination found in spy case


Investigators in protective clothing are shown in Harnham, near Salisbury, England, Saturday March 10. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)

Gregory Katz and Frank Griffiths

London (AP) — British health authorities said Sunday that small traces of contamination have been found in a restaurant and a pub in the English city of Salisbury, after a Russian ex-spy and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent.

The risk to public health remains low but there are concerns that the risk could build if people are repeatedly exposed to tiny trace quantities of the nerve agent, Dr. Jenny Harries of Public Health England told a news conference.

She said that people who were in the restaurant and pub on March 4 and March 5 should take "simple" precautions by washing their clothes and taking other measures to protect their skin from repeated exposure.

"This is just very practical advice" that should affect only a few hundred people, she said, adding that there is no proof people actually have trace elements of the nerve agent on their clothes.

Harries said the announcement of these precautions doesn't mean the risk level to the public has been raised.

She was speaking shortly after Public Health England issued a statement with advice and precautions that should be taken.  It was the first time British officials have urged the public to take specific actions as a result of the attack.

She deflected questions about why it took a week for health authorities to come out with the precautionary advice.

"It's really important to understand the general public should not be concerned," she said. "There is, on the evidence currently, a very low risk."

Hospital officials in Salisbury also said there is no evidence of a wider risk beyond the three people hospitalized since the March 4 attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Ex-spy Skripal and his daughter Yulia reportedly ate at a Zizzi restaurant before falling critically ill. A British police detective is also hospitalized in serious condition.

Health authorities also said contamination traces were found at The Mill pub.

"While there is no immediate health risk to anyone who may have been in either of these locations, it is possible, but unlikely, that any of the substance which has come into contact with clothing or belongings could still be present in minute amounts and therefore contaminate your skin," the statement from Public Health England said. "Over time, repeated skin contact with contaminated items may pose a small risk to health."

The health agency added that any clothing should be washed in "an ordinary washing machine using your regular detergent at the temperature recommended for the clothing."

It also said to "wipe personal items such as phones, handbags and other electronic items with cleansing or baby wipes and dispose of the wipes in the bin."

The government, meanwhile, hasn't revealed what nerve agent was used in the attack.

A large-scale police investigation is underway in Salisbury as forensics experts wearing protective gear search for clues. Among the sites they are searching are the Zizzi restaurant, which is closed to the public, and the gravesites where Skripal's wife and son are buried. Skripal's house has also been extensively searched for clues and traces of the nerve agent.

Authorities haven't revealed how or where the Skripals were exposed to the nerve agent. It's not known if it happened in a restaurant, a pub, Skripal's house or elsewhere.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said Saturday evening it is still "too early" to determine who is to blame for the attack. Senior government officials have vowed to respond robustly if the Russian government is found to be responsible.

Rudd said more than 250 counterterrorism officers are on the scene evaluating more than 240 pieces of evidence and interviewing about 200 witnesses.

They are backed by roughly 180 military personnel providing logistical support, including the removal of ambulances feared to possibly be contaminated by the nerve agent.

Police are looking for precise clues to what sickened Skripal, 66, a Russian ex-military intelligence specialist who in 2006 was convicted in Russia of spying for Britain, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia.

Investigators hope they can pinpoint where the nerve agent was made, which could help determine who was behind the attack.

Skripal was imprisoned inside Russia until he was freed in a 2010 spy swap and settled in England. He had stayed out of the public eye since then.

The father and daughter were found unconscious March 4 on a bench in Salisbury. Skripal lived in the town, located 90 miles (140 kilometers) southwest of London.

Authorities haven't said whether they expect the pair to recover.

Some British lawmakers have asked for a high-level investigation of a string of serious mishaps involving former Russia spies and foes of Russian President Vladimir Putin who have taken up residence in Britain.

French far-right party severs all ties with elder Le Pen

French far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen casts her vote, in Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 10. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Paris (AP) — France's far-right National Front definitively severed its ties to firebrand founder Jean-Marie Le Pen on Sunday, part of a makeover designed to revive the nationalist party's fortunes after the ousted founder's daughter failed to win the presidency last year.

Despite her troubles, Marine Le Pen was re-elected to a new term as party president at a congress where she was the only candidate for the post. National Front members also approved a new leadership structure and a 100-member governing council was named.

A new to be announced during a speech by Marine Le Pen will cap what the party calls its "re-foundation" and close the two-day congress. She has already said that she dislikes the word "front" because it evokes the past she is trying to move away from.

The new moniker must be approved by members during a mail-in vote. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who co-founded the National Front in 1972, has called a name change a betrayal.

Marine Le Pen made it to last year's French presidential runoff, riding a global populist wave — but suffered a crushing defeat to independent, pro-globalization candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The anti-immigrant party won a boost from a guest star appearance at the congress Saturday by former White House strategist Steve Bannon. He told National Front members that "history is on our side." He also said: "Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor."

Party members approved new bylaws aimed at restructuring after internal divisions — and that include abolishing Jean-Marie Le Pen's position of party president for life. The party tweeted Sunday that more than 79 percent of participants approved the new statutes.

The political mainstream was skeptical about any real change coming out of the congress.

"You can change the name, the logo, the wallpaper, but in the end it is a little family enterprise which serves the interests of the family Le Pen for 50 years now," government spokesman Benjamin Grivaux on CNews said. "Basically, nothing changes."

Removing the final ties of Jean-Marie Le Pen was a major move. He didn't attend the congress.

The party expelled him in 2015 over anti-Semitic remarks, but he kept the honorary position. Sunday's vote is a crushing blow for the 89-year-old Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972 and was the surprise runner-up in the 2002 French presidential election.

Father and daughter Le Pen have waged a bitter power struggle since he named her to succeed him in 2011. The elder Le Pen has been convicted multiple times for racism and anti-Semitism, and his positions complicated his daughter's efforts to clean up the party's image and expand its base into disillusioned mainstream French voters.

Abolishing the honorary position is an effort to bypass court rulings that he should be able to maintain his status as honorary party president for life..



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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Facebook's Zuckerberg apologizes for 'major breach of trust'

Suspect in Austin bombing attacks blows himself up

Philippine bus careens into ravine, killing 19, injuring 21

Israeli military confirms it hit Syrian nuclear site in 2007

Myanmar's president, a close friend of Suu Kyi, retires

Ex-French president Sarkozy held on Gadhafi claims

Briton in Cambodian wild party case given suspended sentence

Aum cult members face execution for Tokyo subway gas attack

World's last male northern white rhino, Sudan, dies

Fear mounts in Austin as serial bomber uses tripwire

Snow, high winds hit Europe; Croatia faces swollen river

Myanmar's Suu Kyi welcomed to Australia amid protests

Pope Francis condemns prostitution as torture

Putin overwhelmingly wins another 6 years as Russian leader

Fire at Manila hotel and casino kills at least 3 workers

Syrian President Assad visits troops on Ghouta's front line

Southeast Asia leaders urge tough stance on North Korea

At least 6 crushed to death in Florida bridge collapse

2 killed during land mine clearance training in Cambodia

Jury finds Iraqi teen guilty of planting London subway bomb

Former South Africa president Jacob Zuma to be prosecuted

50 years ago, the My Lai massacre shamed the US military

Indonesia's Aceh considers beheading as penalty for murder

Nepal authorities struggle to identify plane crash survivors

Hungary's Orban: Western Europe is under migrant invasion

Stephen Hawking, tourist of the universe, dead at 76

Britain boots 23 Russian diplomats over spy poisoning

Myanmar says it's ready for UN help with Rohingya return

Finland tops 2018 global happiness index

Bali to shush social media for Day of Silence

Nepal plane crash came after confused pilot-airport chatter

Russia calls poisoning accusations by Britain 'nonsense'

Britain could be paying into EU coffers until 2064

Southeast Asian ride-hailing app Grab expands into lending

Plane carrying 71 people crashes, catches fire in Kathmandu

Central banks warned to weigh risks of virtual currencies

Fearing trade war, EU warns of protectionism 'dead end'

Russian military tests nuclear-capable hypersonic missile

Japan govt altered documents in scandal linked to Abe's wife

Japan marks 7th anniversary of tsunami that killed 18,000

China makes historic move to allow Xi to rule indefinitely

UK official: Small traces of contamination found in spy case

French far-right party severs all ties with elder Le Pen



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