Nation and World Briefs
Ukraine launches offensive in east
Ukraine launched an offensive against separatist forces for control of a besieged eastern city Friday, while clashes between pro- and anti-government activists in the previously calm southern port of Odessa led to a fire that police said killed 31 people.
The first serious offensive by the government in Kiev and the dozens of deaths in Odessa sharply escalated the crisis that has led to the worst tensions between Russia and the West since the Cold war. The Kremlin said the battle for the separatist-held city of Slovyansk effectively destroyed the Geneva pact aimed at cooling the unrest in the deeply divided country.
Landslide in Afghanistan kills 350
A landslide triggered by heavy rain buried large sections of a remote northeastern Afghan village on Friday, killing at least 350 people and leaving more than 2,000 missing. Villagers looked on helplessly and the governor appealed for shovels to help dig through the mass of mud that flattened every home in its path.
The mountainous area in Badakhshan province has experienced days of heavy rain and flooding, and the side of a cliff collapsed onto the village of Hobo Barik around midday. Landslides and avalanches are frequent in Afghanistan, but Friday’s was one of the deadliest.
Gov. Shah Waliullah Adeeb said more than 2,000 people were missing after the landslide buried some 300 homes — about a third of all the houses in the area.
At least 350 people were confirmed dead, according to Ari Gaitanis, a spokesman from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
AG to probe death penalty issues
President Barack Obama on Friday called the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate “deeply troubling” and announced that he’s going to ask the attorney general to analyze problems surrounding the application of the death penalty in the United States.
Obama said the death penalty is warranted in some cases, specifically mentioning mass murder and child murder, and said Lockett’s crimes were “heinous.” But he said the death penalty’s application in the United States is problematic, with evidence of racial bias and eventual exoneration of some death row inmates.
“All these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied,” said Obama said, who was asked about the case at a White House news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “And this situation in Oklahoma I think just highlights some of the significant problems there.”
The state of Oklahoma attempted to carry out convicted murderer Clayton Lockett’s death sentence Tuesday by lethal injection, using a drug combination that had not been previously used in the state. Lockett convulsed violently during the execution and tried to lift his head after a doctor declared him unconscious, then died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.
Putin warned on Ukraine election
President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened tough sanctions Friday on broad swaths of Russia’s economy if Moscow disrupts Ukraine’s May 25 presidential elections, putting President Vladimir Putin on notice for harsher penalties even if he stops short of a full invasion.
Standing side by side in the White House Rose Garden, Obama and Merkel sought to bat down the notion of any discord between the U.S and European approaches to dissuading Putin from interfering in Ukraine. Obama said the U.S. and Europe have shown “remarkable unity” in their response so far, though he acknowledged that some European countries are vulnerable to Russian retaliation for sanctions and said those concerns must be taken into account.
“The next step is going to be a broader-based sectoral sanctions regime,” Obama declared, referring to entire segments of Russia’s economy, such as energy or arms.
“If in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25th, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions,” the president said.
American hospitalized with rare virus
Health officials on Friday confirmed the first case of an American infected with a mysterious Middle East virus. The man fell ill after arriving in the U.S. last week from Saudi Arabia where he was a health care worker.
The man is hospitalized in stable condition in northwest Indiana with Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the case along with Indiana health officials.
The virus is not highly contagious and this case “represents a very low risk to the broader, general public,” Dr. Anne Schuchat told reporters during a CDC briefing.
The federal agency plans to track down passengers he may have been in close contact with during his travels; it was not clear how many people may have been exposed to the virus.
Officials didn’t provide any details about the man’s job in Saudi Arabia or whether he was treating MERS patients there. Saudi Arabia has been the center of a MERS outbreak that began two years ago, and infections have been reported in health care workers.
Tentative cease-fire in Syrian city
Isolated and battered after months of bombardment and blockades, Syrian rebels agreed Friday to a cease-fire that would allow hundreds of fighters to evacuate their last bastions in Homs, handing over to President Bashar Assad’s forces a strategic but largely destroyed city once hailed as the capital of the revolution.
The deal reached on Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, follows a series of military gains by the regime around the capital, Damascus, and in the country’s vital center.
“It will certainly mark a new chapter for the regime, a chapter where it’s regaining control of the country,” said Ayham Kamel, an analyst with the Eurasia group in London.
A government seizure of Homs would be “the icing on the cake for Assad,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center.
Although the agreement, if it holds, represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs’ collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government can save manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without blood.
Officer patrols city’s homeless camps
Officer Tom Gentner works a police beat few Savannah residents ever see, patrolling 20 rustic camps populated by hundreds of homeless people tucked away in the woods and under highway overpasses.
Savannah-Chatham County police assigned Gentner as the department’s homeless liason last year. He gets no partner and no extra budget. Just a patrol car he drives down dirt roads to camps with names like Bamboo Forest and Hob-Knob Hill. He keeps a milk crate in the trunk containing files he’s compiled on many of the 360 homeless residents.
“He keeps the riffraff out of here,” said Larry Lewis, who lives at one of the camps.
When a couple wanted for jumping bail in Florida moved into one of the Savannah camps, residents tipped off Gentner. Besides investigating crimes, he also mediates disputes between camp residents and helps charities organize food and blanket donations.
The following images show Gentner on the job working the homeless beat.
California Chrome leads Derby field
The owners of California Chrome are putting all their hopes into the chestnut colt to win the Kentucky Derby.
After all, he’s the only horse they own.
California Chrome, based at lesser-known Los Alamitos racetrack in suburban Los Angeles, is the early 5-2 favorite for Saturday’s 140th Derby with good reason. He has won four straight races by a combined 24 ¼ lengths under Victor Espinoza, who won the Derby in 2002 with War Emblem.
“He’s so light on his feet,” Espinoza said. “He just does things so easy and makes my job easy.”
California Chrome’s owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, are no Kentucky blue bloods. They’re a couple of working stiffs who live near Reno, Nevada.
– The Associated Press