Russia reinstated into Olympic movement after doping scandal

By ROB HARRIS and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s ban from the Olympic movement was lifted on Wednesday despite two failed doping tests by its athletes at the Pyeongchang winter games.
President Vladimir Putin hailed the move during a Kremlin award ceremony for Olympic athletes, saying “we must turn this page.”
“We must draw relevant conclusions for ourselves, but I hope that international organizations also will eventually understand that sports must be kept away from problems unrelated to it,” he added.
The decision by the International Olympic Committee appears to be an attempt to draw a line under the state-concocted doping scandal that tarnished the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
The IOC allowed more than 160 athletes it determined were clean to compete in Sochi as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” in Pyeongchang earlier this month with a prohibition on the national anthem or flag in venues.
“You can take away any attributes, but you can’t take away our character, and you have proven it with your performance,” Putin said after giving state awards to Olympic athletes in the Kremlin. “It has filled us all a sense of pride.”
He referred to members of the Russian ice hockey team performing the national anthem after receiving the Olympic gold, saying he would like to thank them for their patriotism.
“Millions of people are happy for your victories along with you!” he said.
Russia’s hopes of marching under its flag at Sunday’s closing ceremony in South Korea were stymied by the two positive tests for banned substances, including a curler who had to forfeit his bronze medal. But the IOC said Wednesday that all remaining test results were negative, clearing the path for Russia’s return to the Olympic fold.
“Therefore, as stated in the executive board decision of 25th February, the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee is automatically lifted with immediate effect,” the IOC said in a statement.
Russian athletes won two gold medals in Pyeongchang, in figure skating and ice hockey, along with six silver medals and nine bronze.
“We put all our souls into that, we won those medals for our Mortheland,” figure skater Yevgenia Medvedeva who won Olympic silver, said at the Kremlin award ceremony.
“We defended the country’s honor thanks to the Russian character,” echoed Pavel Datsyuk, the captain of the Russian ice hockey team. “Thank you for your support and a chance to prove that the Russian character will never be broken.”
“I would like to thank our athletes who were able to perform well even despite the provocations,” Russian Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov said in televised remarks. “I thank the fans who did not cross the line and what could result in sanctions. Today’s IOC’s decision is very important for us. The ROC is an absolutely full-fledged member of the Olympic family.”
Russia also complied with financial sanctions by paying $15 million for the IOC’s two investigations into the scheme and toward future anti-doping work.
Vitaly Smirnov, the head of an anti-doping commission set up by Russian President Vladimir Putin, did acknowledge on Wednesday that “we have a long way to go to get rid of the mistakes, which we made in the past.”
But Russia continues to deny there was state involvement in the plot, which included urine samples in supposedly tamper-proof bottles at the 2014 Olympics being swapped out for clean samples through a “mouse hole” in the wall at a laboratory in Sochi.
The IOC decision to reinstate Russia has no bearing on the International Paralympic Committee’s earlier ruling to maintain the country’s ban. The only Russians at the March 8-18 Pyeongchang Games will be known as “Neutral Paralympic Athletes,” mirroring the IOC’s compromise.
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Harris reported from Sochi, Russia.

Draft diary: Clemson’s Cain welcomes combine questions

By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer
Note: The first in a series of stories with Clemson receiver Deon Cain as the AP follows his journey to the NFL draft.
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Deon Cain knows the questions are coming and he is looking forward to answering them this week at the NFL scouting combine.
Cain played three seasons at Clemson and was productive receiver for a team that made three playoff appearances and played in two national championship games. Cain played in only one of those national championship games. After the regular season of his freshman year, he was suspended for the College Football Playoff by Tigers coach Dabo Swinney for failing a drug test for marijuana.
For the last six weeks, Cain has been training at the Exos performance center in Phoenix. He has added about 10 pounds of lean muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame, thanks to a high protein diet. He believes he could run a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash after all the speed work he did at Exos. But none of that will likely be as important as how he answers questions from NFL executives and coaches in Indianapolis about that suspension.
Cain has a simple plan: “Just to be honest. Just got to face the facts. I know I did it.”
Cain is projected to be a second-day selection during the NFL’s three-day draft, which starts April 26. Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller said Cain currently has a solid round-two grade. Dane Brugler from NFL Draft Scout.com said he had Cain going in round three. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com gives Cain a second-round projection and compares him to former Atlanta Falcons receiver Roddy White, who made the Pro Bowl four times in an 11-year career.
A five-star prospect out of Tampa Bay Technical High School in Florida when he came to Clemson, Cain enrolled early with an eye toward graduating in three years. He had 34 catches for 582 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games as a freshman, helping the Tigers overcome the loss of star receiver Mike Williams to injury in the season opener.
Two days before Clemson played Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl, he was sent home for violating team rules. He had failed a drug test.
“Came in as a freshman and had a lot going on on the personal side,” Cain said. “I just had to figure out and mature myself. I’m actually glad that did happen because I could have run away from the situation and let it hunt me down if I’d went to another school.”
Cain stewed watching Clemson lose the national championship game in Arizona to Alabama. He fumed over Swinney’s decision to suspend him. He considered transferring.
Cain’s mother, Celia Thompson, was not having that. Cain stuck it out. The suspension went through the spring and he had to take part in a three-month treatment program.
“I got tested multiple times in there to make sure I was clean,” Cain said. “That really set my head straight on, really focused on what I wanted to do. At the end of the day I felt great about myself and my family was very proud of me of how I did it. Nobody really expected me to do that. I had to change myself and change my environment.”
Cain was reinstated May 2016. That season he caught 38 passes for 724 yards (19.1 per catch) and nine touchdowns. The Tigers went back the national championship game for a rematch against Alabama, this time in Cain’s hometown of Tampa at Raymond James Stadium.
“Just walking in that stadium, it was like a dream come true,” he said.
And the Tigers won the national championship.
Cain put in one more solid season, with 58 catches for 734 yards and six touchdowns while Clemson broke in new starting quarterback Kelly Bryant. Having earned a degree in communications, Cain left his last year of eligibility behind.
At Exos, Cain upped his weight to between 205 and 208 pounds. And he thinks he can blow up the 40 on Saturday, when the receivers do on-field drills at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“I definitely want to run a good 40, low 4.3s, 4.2s,” Cain said. That kind of speed is rare and could make Cain a first-rounder — as long as he can convince teams his troubles are in the past. He is as confident he could do that as he is in his speed.
“I still just want to thank God that he put me through those trials to get me where I am right,” he said.
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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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Buckeyes’ Bates-Diop, Holtmann are AP’s Big Ten top honorees

By ERIC OLSON, AP Sports Writer
Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop is The Associated Press player of the year in the Big Ten Conference and the Buckeyes’ Chris Holtmann is its coach of the year.
Bates-Diop and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards were unanimous picks to the AP All-Big Ten team also announced Wednesday, the first day of the conference tournament in New York. Michigan State freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. was picked as newcomer of the year and defensive player of the year in voting by 12 journalists who cover the league.
Joining Bates-Diop and Edwards on the all-conference first team are Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Penn State’s Tony Carr. Happ is a repeat first-team pick. Bridges was on the second team last year.
Bates-Diop is second in the conference in scoring (19.2 points per game) and tied for second in rebounding (8.9 per game). The 6-foot-7, 235-pound junior’s 12 double-doubles are tied for second in the Big Ten. Edwards averages a team-leading 18.2 points for Purdue, has scored 10 or more points in 14 straight games and is averaging 23.1 points per game in February.
The second team is made up of Purdue’s Vincent Edwards and Isaac Haas, Michigan’s Moritz Wagner, Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr., and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston.
Jackson is the second straight Michigan State player to be named newcomer of the year, following Bridges. Jackson averages 11.4 points per game, and his 3.29 blocked shots per game ranks fourth nationally. His 102 blocks are a school record.
Holtmann, hired in June after spending the previous three years at Butler, took over a team that finished 11th in the Big Ten and returned just five players. The Buckeyes finished the regular season 24-7 and second in the conference at 15-3, more than double the number of Big Ten wins of a year ago.
The 24 wins are the most by a first-year coach in program history, and the 15 league wins are the Buckeyes’ most since 2011.
The 2018 AP All-Big Ten team, with players listed with school, class, height, weight and hometown (“u” denotes unanimous selections):
FIRST TEAM
u-Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State, Jr., 6-7, 235, Normal, Illinois.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State, So., 6-7, 225, Flint, Michigan.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin, Jr., 6-10, 235, Milan, Illinois.
u-Carsen Edwards, Purdue, So., 6-1, 200, Atascocita, Texas.
Tony Carr, Penn State, So., 6-5, 204, Philadelphia.
SECOND TEAM
Vincent Edwards, Purdue, Sr., 6-8, 225, Middletown, Ohio.
Isaac Haas, Purdue, Sr., 7-2, 290, Hokes Bluff, Alabama.
Moritz Wagner, Michigan, Jr., 6’11, 245, Berlin, Germany.
James Palmer, Nebraska, Jr., 6-6, 210, Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Cassius Winston, Michigan State, So., 6-0, 185, Detroit.
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Coach of the year — Chris Holtmann, Ohio State.
Player of the year — Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State.
Newcomer of the year — Jaren Jackson, Michigan State, Fr., 6-11, 242, Carmel, Indiana.
Defensive player of the year — Jaren Jackson, Michigan State.
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AP All-Big Ten Voting Panel: Kyle Austin, MLive.com (Lansing, Michigan); Nathan Baird, Lafayette (Indiana) Journal and Courier; Lee Barfknecht, Omaha (Nebraska) World-Herald; Marcus Fuller, Minneapolis Star Tribune; Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune; Adam Jardy, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch; Chad Leistikow, Des Moines (Iowa) Register; Don Markus, Baltimore Sun; Zach Osterman, Indianapolis Star; Jim Polzin, Madison.com (Madison, Wisconsin); Scott Richey, Champaign (Illinois) News-Gazette; Keith Sargeant, New Jersey Advance Media.
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Newton’s buzzer beater helps Miami stun No. 9 UNC 91-88

By AARON BEARD, AP Basketball Writer
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Miami had just seen the last of its 16-point lead vanish with only a few seconds left when Ja’Quan Newton took an inbounds pass and sprinted upcourt.
Time for one more shot, he thought.
And what a remarkable shot it was.
Newton hit a running 3-pointer from a few steps across midcourt at the horn, lifting Miami to a 91-88 upset of No. 9 North Carolina in a wild finish Tuesday night.
“I’ve made a buzzer-beater before but not at this type of level,” Newton said. “This is one thing I’ve always dreamed about. … For me to actually do it right now at this moment, out there against North Carolina, that’s something I will remember forever.”
It’s unlikely anyone in the Smith Center will forget this one anytime soon, either.
UNC’s Joel Berry II had just hit a tough 3 of his own with 4.1 seconds left, tying the game to complete the Tar Heels’ big second-half comeback. But Newton cut across the lane to take the inbounds pass in stride from Anthony Lawrence II, then launched the shot off his left foot over Berry from beyond 30 feet.
The ball banged in from the inside the back rim.
“When it just went in,” Berry said, “I couldn’t believe it.”
Within seconds, freshman Lonnie Walker IV was tackling Newton followed by a celebratory mob in front of a stunned blue-clad crowd.
“When I was guarding Joel, he came down and hit a great shot,” Newton said. “Soon as he hit the shot, I came around and I wanted the ball. … I got it. I looked at the clock when I was dribbling upcourt and it said 3 seconds left.
“I was just like: ‘I’ve got to shoot it.'”
Officials quickly determined the shot came in time after looking at a replay, though UNC coach Roy Williams was already shaking hands with Newton and the Hurricanes before the call was official.
“On the court, you always know whether it’s late or whether it’s early,” UNC junior Kenny Williams said. “I knew there wasn’t any point in them checking.”
It capped a game that saw Miami (21-8, 10-7 Atlantic Coast Conference) squander a 59-43 lead with about 16 minutes left, only to come up with a huge win with the ACC Tournament just a week away.
Chris Lykes scored 18 points to lead Miami, which shot 55 percent. Newton finished with 15 points and made 4 of 4 free throws in the final 25 seconds to help Miami stave off UNC’s frantic comeback until Berry’s shot.
Berry matched his career high with 31 points for the Tar Heels (22-8, 11-6), who lost their final home game to snap a six-game winning streak.
“I really thought we were going to win the game,” said Roy Williams, his voice cracking with emotion due to it being the final home game for seniors Berry and Theo Pinson. “He made a big-time shot. The clock ran out on us.”
BIG PICTURE
Miami: The Hurricanes had won their past two games by a combined four points, including a comeback from 14 down to beat Boston College on Walker’s 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left Saturday. This one fit right in — and truthfully topped it.
UNC: The Tar Heels entered this one trying to close out a perfect February, which included emotional rivalry wins against Duke and North Carolina State as well as road wins at Louisville and Syracuse. But they struggled for stops on a night when they shot 54 percent, and they also went just 13 for 20 at the line — including two to tie it in the final minutes before Berry’s final basket.
TO TIMEOUT OR NOT TO TIMEOUT
Miami coach Jim Larranaga said he considered calling a timeout before the Hurricanes inbounded the ball to Newton.
“I saw Ja’Quan go on the run, which I felt like that was our best chance before they set their defense,” Larranaga said. “Anthony Lawrence is a very good inbounder and he got it to Jaquan in rhythm, in stride, so he had a lot of speed going forward.”
As Larranaga gave his postgame comments, Newton stared at a nearby wall-mounted TV replaying his remarkable shot.
Larranaga said the final play ended up being simply: “Ja’Quan, score so we can win this game.”
TIP-INS
Newton was 4 of 24 from 3-point range (.167) this season entering the game. … Miami made 11 of 22 3-pointers while UNC made 13 of 27. … Cameron Johnson scored 20 points for the Tar Heels. … The Hurricanes had six players in double figures and made 12 of 13 foul shots.
UP NEXT
Miami: The Hurricanes host Virginia Tech in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
UNC: The Tar Heels close with a trip to fifth-ranked rival Duke on Saturday night.
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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Plenty of opinions, but few solutions to fix college hoops

By RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Sports Writer
The cracked facade of NCAA hoops appears to be crumbling and while LeBron James, John Calipari and many agree that college basketball should be overhauled, there’s no consensus on how to repair the system.
A federal investigation has alleged hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks being funneled to influence recruits, an FBI probe that many fans believe reveals just a tiny slice of potential corruption in college sports.
In September, the Justice Department arrested 10 people, including four assistant coaches from Arizona, Southern California, Auburn and Oklahoma State. Payments of up to $150,000, supplied by Adidas, were promised to at least three top high school recruits to attend two schools sponsored by the shoe company, according to federal prosecutors.
A report last week by Yahoo! Sports revealed documents showing dozens of prominent players, coaches and schools could be involved in — while likely not criminal behavior — breaking NCAA rules. All this looms over college basketball as March begins, the month when championship tournaments and brackets take center stage across America. The cash cow of college sports that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to the NCAA annually.
The NCAA has already announced the formation of the commission on college basketball , headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to recommend changes.
“I don’t know if there’s any fixing the NCAA. I don’t think there is,” said James, who never played in college, jumping from high school to the NBA at a time when that had not yet been prohibited by the league.
“The NCAA is corrupt — we know that,” the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar said.
Fingers point in several directions about the reasons for the problems, including the NCAA itself, the age limit to enter the NBA, paying college athletes. Here is a more in depth look at some of them:
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THE NCAA IS THE SCHOOLS
CURRENTLY: The most common misconception about college sports’ governing body is that it is an independent organization that governors the schools. The NCAA is a voluntary association of the schools and that membership ultimately determines the rules — like what payments to an athlete or his family members are allowable. NCAA President Mark Emmert is the face and voice of the association, but — unlike a commissioner of a professional league — he has very limited power beyond being a potential catalyst for change. Or protector of the status quo.
THE TALK: There are 351 schools that play Division I basketball from powerhouse Kentucky to tiny St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York. Priorities range far and wide and what an Atlantic Coast Conference school sees as a potential fix to the system, an Atlantic Sun school could see as a threat to what little competitive balance exists in D-I. The result is: Many of the potential remedies floated for corruption in college sports don’t actually involve NCAA changes.
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ONE-AND-DONE
CURRENTLY: The NBA instituted a rule 12 years ago that prohibited players from entering the draft before they were at least 19 and a year removed from high school. The NCAA has no control over this rule. The NFL rule — which requires players be three years removed from high school — is also problematic, but high school aged football players are not generally as close as basketball players to being pro-ready.
THE TALK: There is much buzz about change. One option would be to let pro-ready high school seniors enter the NBA draft and make players who chose to attend college stay at least two years. The rule only impacts the top players. Since 2006, 66 one-and-done players have been NBA draft lottery picks — and that’s after a record 11 in last year’s draft.
And while age is a hot-button issue, several players who played two or more college seasons were listed in probe documents as potentially accepting impermissible payments, according to Yahoo.
When Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy slammed the NCAA recently as “maybe the worst organization in sports,” he pivoted to point blame at the league where he works, even suggesting the one-and-done rule was racist in how it limits black athletes.
“I don’t get it. You can get out of high school, you can turn 18, let’s say, and go to work anywhere else,” Van Gundy said.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during the recent All-Star break his league is “conflicted” about one-and-done. The players’ union and teams both benefit from players using a year of college to develop skills, mature and grow name recognition before they enter the NBA and start pressuring veteran players.
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FARM SYSTEMS
CURRENTLY: The NBA and NFL essentially set up college sports to be a de facto farm system for professional teams and the people who defend college sports want no part of that.
THE TALK: James said the NBA should explore expanding its developmental G League to make it more like major league baseball’s farm systems. He also wondered why the United States does not have an athlete development model more like what exists in Europe, where elite soccer players, for example, can get professional development outside of higher education.
“We have to figure out a way that we can shore up our farm league and if kids feel like they don’t want to be a part of that NCAA program, then we have something here for them to be able to jump back on and not have to worry about going overseas,” said James, who said he wants to meet with Silver to discuss his ideas.
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PAYING ALL COLLEGE PLAYERS
CURRENTLY: Nixing the one-and-done rule would still leave some college players with value to agents, coaches and shoe companies. And the NCAA has no means to compensate players at full value. But facing pressure from antitrust lawsuits, NCAA schools changed rules in 2015 to allow athletic scholarships to include a cost-of-attendance stipend. Those payments range from about $2,000 to $5,000 per year.
THE TALK: Paying athletes akin to a salary is nonstarter for those in college sports, problematic because of tax issues and federal Title IX requirements. More importantly, schools could never pay an elite athlete enough to eliminate the potential for corruption.
“Whatever you pay them, there’s somebody who can pay them more, the guys that they think will be pro prospects, because when they leave, they become a very hot commodity,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
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COMPENSATION FOR THE BEST
CURRENTLY: The NCAA not only doesn’t allow schools to pay players beyond the value of a scholarship, but also prohibits others from paying athletes for being athletes. This could be where a realistic solution lies. A federal judge ruled in 2014 the NCAA used the names, images and likenesses for athletes for years without proper compensation for things such as video games and merchandise.
THE TALK: “There may be something similar to the Olympic model,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It used to be the Olympians couldn’t make a dime. Now you see Michael Phelps or Lindsay Vonn in commercials. They’re still in the Olympics. Still doing great. People loved the Olympics. So, there’s a way.”
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AGENTS
CURRENTLY: The NCAA’s five wealthiest conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference — recently passed legislation allowing college hockey players to be represented by an agent before entering school. Similar allowances were already available to baseball players. In both those sports, major professional leagues draft high schoolers.
THE TALK: If the NCAA allowed athletes to have financial agreements and business dealings with agents and companies that wanted to capitalize on their fame and long-term earning potential, the current scandal might not be a scandal at all.
Calipari, whose Kentucky program has embraced and thrived with a foundation of NBA-bound players, said the NCAA needs to consider some way to provide advisers to basketball players. And as for providing money, the coach suggested the NBA Players’ Association as a possible solution.
“Let their family get a loan from the Players Association,” Calipari said. “What’s the problem? For travel to the games in the NCAA Tournament and everything.”
It would require a seismic shift in how the NCAA has long defined amateurism.
What used to be cheating would no longer be cheating.
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AP sports writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Janie McCauley in Oakland, California, Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, Gary B. Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, and Associated Press freelance writer Jodie Valade in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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No civilians leave Syria’s Ghouta; Putin blames rebels

By SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press
BEIRUT (AP) — The Russia-ordered brief humanitarian pause was in effect for a second day Wednesday in rebel-held Damascus suburbs but no civilians used the corridor manned by Syrian and Russian forces to leave the enclave. Government forces, meanwhile, tried to push their way into the area, setting off ground battles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the rebels, saying they were preventing civilians from leaving the area known as eastern Ghouta, and suggested Russia would not “endlessly tolerate” the situation there.
Russia has ordered a five-hour daily humanitarian pause to allow civilians to exit the region that started Tuesday. But no humanitarian aid has gone in and no civilians have left. Residents said they do not trust the truce and the U.N. and aid agencies criticized the unilateral arrangement, saying it gave no guarantees of safety for residents wishing to leave.
The limited pause came after a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for a nationwide 30-day cease-fire that failed to take hold. While the relentless bombing has somewhat subsided in the region, home to around 400,000 civilians, the Syrian government’s push to squeeze the insurgents out of the region continued.
On Wednesday, the European Union demanded that Russia, Iran and Turkey take responsibility for ensuring that the fighting stops in Syria and that a real 30-day halt in fighting be respected.
Opposition activists said Wednesday’s five-hour pause in eastern Ghouta was preceded by a barrage of airstrikes in the towns of Harasta and Douma, where Syrian troops and allied militia trying to push ahead with a ground offensive on a number of fronts from the east and west clashed with local insurgent groups.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government shelling and limited clashes were reported on three fronts since the pause began: near Douma, in Harasta Farms, and near Shifouniyah.
Commentators on pro-Syrian government TV cheered the Syrian troops, saying there can be no going back on bringing the region under control.
The U.N. resolution came as more than 500 civilians were killed over the course of a week in eastern Ghouta and the region’s medical facilities were targeted, overwhelming rescuers. On the first day of the pause, activists reported around 20 civilians were killed, including several pulled from under the rubble from previous bombings.
Bassam Abu Bashir, an anaesthetist in a hospital in eastern Ghouta, said the shelling continued Tuesday and Wednesday but has largely spared his central hometown of Saqba and he had to deal with fewer injuries than in the past week. He said the violence was now closer to the ground offensive areas. Abu Bashir said the shelling still struck civilians living in villages near the clashes.
“Even in areas that are calmer, there is still no truce. There are still jets flying over our heads and areas where there are gatherings that get targeted,” Abu Bashir said. “There are still injured coming in but not as many as before.”
He said rescuers are also finding time to pull dead bodies from under the rubble of destroyed buildings. The rescuers known as the Syrian Civil Defense or the White Helmets, said one of their own was killed Wednesday in an airstrike on Ottaya, which hit as a team of rescuers was evacuating injured from a building.
Putin said many militants in eastern Ghouta belong to groups listed by the U.N. as terrorist organizations. Speaking after the Kremlin talks with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Putin noted that the militants have regularly shelled Damascus and many rounds landed near the Russian Embassy.
“Shells keep regularly coming from there, there are 50-80 rocket and mortar strikes on some days. As we know well here in Russia, mortar rounds even hit the territory of the Russian Embassy and the trade mission. Shall we endlessly tolerate that? No, of course not,” he said.
Eastern Ghouta, adjacent to the Syrian capital, came under opposition control in the early days of the revolt against the Syrian government, threatening President Bashar Assad’s seat of power. Under a siege since 2013, the region relied on tunnels and smuggling for supplies and movement. But these tunnels have been controlled by the government in the past months, tightening the siege on the region amid an escalating government offensive.
State-run al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast Wednesday from the deserted corridor as ambulance workers milled around near parked vans. State media said the rebels inside Ghouta are preventing civilians from leaving, a charge they deny. The State news agency SANA said shells fell near the corridor, but no injuries were reported.
The TV presenter said government fliers have been dropped in eastern Ghouta indicating to civilians the route to the corridor and how to proceed if they want to leave the area.
“A message from the Syrian army: because of the terrorists, thousands have died and live in shelters. We hope that you don’t cooperate with the terrorists,” the presenter reading from the flier said.
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Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed reporting.

Israel group mints Trump coin to honor Jerusalem recognition

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli organization said Wednesday it has minted a coin bearing President Donald Trump’s image to honor his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Mikdash Educational Center said the “Temple Coin” features Trump alongside King Cyrus, who 2,500 years ago allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon.
Rabbi Mordechai Persoff said that Trump, like Cyrus, made a “big declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of the holy people.”
His organization minted 1,000 biblical half-shekel coins that can be purchased with a minimum donation of $50. The coin cannot be used as currency.
Mikdash bills itself as a non-profit educational and religious organization. The donations will “help spread the light of Jerusalem and the spirit of the Holy Temple throughout the world,” it said.
Israel has warmly welcomed Trump’s move, which angered Palestinians.
The Trump coin is likely to rile Iranians, who uniformly respect King Cyrus as an ancient Persian hero.

Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre reopens after spat

By NEBI QENA, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem reopened early on Wednesday after Israeli officials suspended a plan to impose taxes on church properties in the holy city.
The iconic church, revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, had been closed for three days to protest the Israeli tax plan.
Father Sinisa, a Franciscan cleric, said that clergymen from various Christian denominations had continued their prayer routines inside the church throughout the closure. But he said the public must also be able to visit.
“It’s important to reopen the doors of the Church, to let the people who sometimes come once in their life to visit this holy place,” he said. “Because a holy place without people is nothing … only the stones.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said his decision had affected only commercial properties, such as hotels, restaurants and offices, and not houses of worship. He said other cities follow similar practices worldwide.
But angry religious leaders say their non-church properties provide valuable services for pilgrims and their local flocks, and fund important services like schools and health clinics.
They also accused Barkat of surprising them with the order and violating longstanding understandings with the churches. Barkat’s office claimed the churches have debts of roughly $185 million.
The closure of the church raised tensions with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, as well as smaller denominations, weeks ahead of the busy Easter season.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said a professional team, including representatives from the Jerusalem municipality as well as government ministries, was being established to negotiate with church officials to “formulate a solution.”
Israel also suspended legislation in parliament that would govern sales of church sales to private developers.

Judge sides with Trump on challenge to Mexico border wall

By ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A judge who was taunted by Donald Trump during the presidential campaign sided with the president Tuesday on a challenge to building a border wall with Mexico, removing what could have been a major obstacle to the signature campaign pledge.
U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel rejected arguments by the state of California and advocacy groups that the administration overreached by waiving laws requiring environmental and other reviews before construction can begin. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit said a 2005 a law that gave the Homeland Security secretary broad authority to waive the reviews had expired.
“Big legal win today,” Trump tweeted in response to the ruling. He didn’t mention his prior remarks about the judge.
Trump berated Curiel during the campaign for his handling of fraud allegations against now-defunct Trump University, suggesting the Indiana-born judge’s Mexican heritage reflected a bias.
Curiel mentioned his roots in his 101-page ruling Tuesday when he cited another native of the state, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote in another case that courts should not make policy judgments.
“The court cannot and does not consider whether the underlying decisions to construct border barriers are politically wise or prudent,” Curiel wrote.
The lawsuit was the first major legal challenge to the wall under Trump and the latest legal challenge to fail over the years.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which sued along with the state of California and three advocacy groups, said it would appeal.
“They’re giving unprecedented, sweeping power to an unelected agency chief to ignore dozens of laws and crash through hundreds of miles of spectacular borderlands,” attorney Brian Segee said, referring to the head of Homeland Security. “This is unconstitutional and shouldn’t be allowed to stand.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said, “We will evaluate all of our options and are prepared to do what is necessary to protect our people, our values, and our economy from federal overreach.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund said it may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. The Sierra Club said the environmental and other reviews are critical to protecting border communities, but the group didn’t discuss its next step.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley welcomed the decision, saying Congress granted authority to build a wall without delay and that the administration is pleased it can continue “this important work vital to our nation’s interests.”
Homeland Security spokesman Tyler Houlton added, “Simply put, walls work.”
The decision came days after construction began on a 30-foot (9.1-meter) high barrier in Calexico, California, the administration’s first wall project outside of eight prototypes in San Diego that were completed in October.
The administration has issued three waivers since August, two to build in parts of California and one in part of New Mexico. President George W. Bush’s administration issued the previous five waivers, allowing the government to quickly extend barriers to about one-third of the border.
The Center for Biological Diversity said in its lawsuit that the waiver authority cannot be interpreted to last forever. California argued that it expired in 2008, when Homeland Security satisfied congressional requirements at the time on how much wall to build.
Curiel wrote that the law certainly “is not a model of legislative precision” and that both sides made plausible arguments.
The judge declined to second-guess the administration’s findings that waivers were issued in areas of “high illegal entry,” a requirement set by Congress. The advocates argued that dramatic declines in border arrests undermined those findings.
During 2½ hours of arguments this month, the judge peppered both sides with questions about the law’s meaning. He showed strong interest in a requirement tacked on in late 2007 for Homeland Security to consult other federal agencies, state and local governments, Indian tribes and property owners to minimize the impact of construction, which challengers said the administration failed to do.
Curiel said in his ruling that the law’s lack of specifics prevented him for concluding that the administration failed to properly consult others.
Trump is seeking $18 billion to extend the wall as the White House and Congress are at an impasse. Earlier this month, the Senate rejected an administration-backed plan to link funding and sharp cuts to legal immigration to allowing young immigrants to stay in the country after they were temporarily shielded from deportation under an Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The wall prototypes in San Diego that were built to guide future designs and the wall replacement in Calexico were previously funded.
Curiel was pilloried by Trump over the Trump University lawsuits. The then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee called him a “hater” of Trump who should be ashamed, calling attention to the judge’s Mexican ancestry and Trump’s support for a border wall.
Trump settled the lawsuits for $25 million after winning the election, without admitting wrongdoing.

North Korea sent banned items to Syria, Myanmar, UN finds

By EDITH M. LEDERER, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — North Korea sent items used in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs to Syria along with missile technicians in violation of U.N. sanctions — and banned ballistic missiles systems to Myanmar, U.N. experts said.
The panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea said its investigations into Pyongyang’s transfer of prohibited ballistic missile, conventional arms and dual use goods found more than 40 previously unreported shipments to Syria between 2012 and 2017.
It said an unnamed U.N. member state also reported evidence of Myanmar’s receipt of a range of conventional weapons from North Korea including multiple rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles in addition to ballistic missile systems.
The Associated Press reported on Feb. 2 that according to the experts’ report, North Korea was flouting U.N. sanctions on oil and gas, engaging in prohibited ballistic missile cooperation with Syria and Myanmar, and illegally exporting commodities that brought in nearly $200 million in just nine months last year.
AP obtained details from the more than 200-page report late Tuesday, including the panel’s findings related to chemical weapons in Syria. The U.S. and other Western nations have accused Syria of using chemical weapons against rebel-controlled areas including recently in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, which President Bashar Assad’s government denies.
The report to the U.N. Security Council, which diplomats expect to be made public in mid-March, details “substantial new evidence” about North Korea’s dealings with Syria, dating back to 2008.
According to an unidentified member state, the North’s Ryonhap-2 Corporation was involved that year in a Syrian ballistic missile program, the “maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MARV) Scud D (MD) project,” the report said.
More recently, it said the August 2016 visit by a technical delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — the country’s official name — “involved the transfer to Syria of special resistance valves and thermometers known for use in chemical weapons programs.”
That information came from another member state which also reported that North Korean technicians “continue to operate at chemical weapons and missile facilities at Barzeh, Adra and Hama,” the report said.
It quoted Syria’s reply to the panel about the reports: “There are no DPRK technical companies in Syria and the only presence of some DPRK individuals are confined in the field of sports under private individual contracts for training athletics and gymnastics.”
The experts added that they have not yet received a reply for documents supporting this claim and a list of all North Koreans who have traveled to Syria.
The panel said it also examined shipments interdicted by member states that were sent by the Chinese company Cheng Tong Trading Co. Ltd. to Damascus-based companies in 2016 and 2017.
The experts said 13 shipping containers were filled with “acid resistant tiles” which would cover 5,000 square meters, enough for a large-scale industrial project.
One country’s analysis concluded that the tiles “were to be used for activities conducted at high temperatures,” the panel said, while another country said the material “can be used to build bricks for the interior walls of (a) chemical factory.”
The panel also said it continued its investigations into activities of Ryu Jin, a senior official in Syria for the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation known as KOMID, who is on the U.N. sanctions blacklist. He listed his rank as a major general in a letter with an official proposal to Syrian Major General Ali Salim of the Army Supply Bureau for “an air defense command and control system,” it said.
KOMID is the DPRK’s primary arms dealer and main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.
The report said among other activities Ryu Jin shipped ball-bearings and fiber-optic cables to Syria and earned 56,000 Euros and 48,000 Euros respectively, which was transferred through Tanchon Commercial Bank.
The panel said its investigations into several cases of previously unreported arms shipments and cooperation with front companies for those under U.N. sanctions between 2010 and 2017 “showed further evidence of arms embargo and other violations, including through the transfer of items with utility in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs.”
For many years, the panel said the DPRK Corst Company acted on behalf of the Second Economic Committee, which is under sanctions, to ship goods to Syria for use in prohibited programs.
The panel said it received documents in July 2017 showing Corst shipped banned goods to a researcher at Syria’s Scientific Studies Research Council, which the U.S. says is the government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.
As for Myanmar, the panel said an unnamed member state reported that its Directorate of Defense Industries “maintains a sophisticated global procurement network” and “is seeking equipment from overseas suppliers for its DPRK-linked missile program.”
The panel said it previously concluded that Myanmar’s So Min Htike Co. Ltd, “was the consignee in the attempted transfer of prohibited nuclear-related items in 2012.”
While Myanmar told the panel in 2015 that it only had “normal diplomatic ties” with the DPRK, it reported on July 26, 2017 that it expelled Kim Chol Nam, a DPRK diplomat “for acting on behalf or at the direction of KOMID.” And on Jan. 24, 2018, the panel said “Myanmar added that it was investigating the panel’s latest request for information.”