Russian FM: US spares al-Qaida’s branch to topple Assad

 

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russia’s foreign minister said Thursday that he believes the U.S. may hope to use al-Qaida’s branch in Syria to unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

Addressing an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Sergey Lavrov argued that the reluctance of U.S.-backed Syrian opposition groups to distance themselves from al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, has been a major reason behind continuing fighting.

He said the U.S. could be “playing some kind of game here, and they may want to keep Nusra in some form and use it to topple the regime.”

Lavrov added that he raised the issue in a recent phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who he said denied any such plans. “But why then the Americans with all their potential can’t force the units they have been working with to leave the territories controlled by bandits and terrorists,” he said.

Lavrov was commenting on Kerry’s warning that Washington is losing its patience with Russia, as the U.S.- and Russia-brokered cease-fire in Syria was at risk mainly due to violations by Assad’s forces with Russian air support.

The truce, which went into effect on Feb. 27, has helped reduce hostilities in certain areas of the country, but fierce fighting has continued around Aleppo and in some other provinces. Nusra and the Islamic State group have been exempt from the truce.

Russia at some point issued an ultimatum for opposition units to leave Nusra-controlled areas or face air strikes, but later agreed to give more time for them to pull out. Spared the Russian strikes, Nusra has used the moment to replenish its supplies and receive reinforcements, Lavrov said.

A senior U.S. defense official said Thursday that Russian aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes near al-Tanf against U.S.-backed Syrian forces. No U.S. forces were involved and there were no details on the number of casualties, the official said.

The official said that Russian aircraft haven’t been active in that area of southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity.

The official said the strikes raise serious concerns about Russian intentions and that the U.S. has asked Moscow for an explanation and assurances it won’t happen again. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

AP Interview: New Ukraine PM vows reform, blames Russia

MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ukraine’s new prime minister vowed Thursday to root out corruption and urged Russia to abide by a peace agreement meant to end a two-year conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Volodymyr Groysman spoke to The Associated Press in an interview one day after meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials. Biden announced that the Obama administration, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, was pledging $220 million in assistance this year to help the former Soviet nation implement reforms.

Change has been slow in the two years since the previous Ukrainian government fell amid pro-Western protests. Ukraine has been shaken by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and lost more than 9,300 people in fighting with the separatists in the eastern part of the country. But critics say domestic changes also have stalled amid political infighting and say corruption remains a major problem.

In the interview, Groysman dismissed the criticism and blamed Russia for most of Ukraine’s ills.

“Ukraine is a victim of aggression from the Russian Federation,” said the 38-year-old Groysman, whose past experience includes serving as mayor of a provincial city and being parliament speaker.

Groysman said he was working to deregulate the economy, make the judicial branch more independent, increase good governance and transparency, and privatize state enterprises. “We must target not only those who are corrupt, but also the system so that new corruption does not replace old corruption,” he said.

Groysman said he was hopeful that in the near term, Ukraine would receive the next $1.7 billion loan installment from the International Monetary Fund as part of a $17 billion bailout package.

Groysman accused Russia of violating a shaky cease-fire under a peace accord negotiated in 2015 by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. Groysman said Russia must ensure that all the weapons in eastern Ukraine are pulled back and that fighting stops completely before Ukraine passes the necessary legislation to hold an election in the separatist-held areas, as stipulated by the accord.

“Normalization of the Donbass now fully depends on decisions made by the Russian Federation,” Groysman said, referring to the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow denies it is backing the rebels in Ukraine and says Kiev must first hold the vote in order to advance the peace process.

Walt Disney World closes beaches after gator snatches boy

JAY REEVES, Associated Press

 

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Walt Disney World closed beaches at its Florida resorts Wednesday while dozens of rescuers searched a lagoon for the body of 2-year-old boy who was snatched off the shore and dragged underwater by an alligator as his father tried to fight off the reptile.

Authorities said Wednesday that the child was presumed dead.

Wildlife officials removed four alligators from the water and cut them open, authorities said, but they didn’t find any sign of the boy.

A Disney representative, speaking on condition of anonymity because the company had yet to prepare a formal statement, said the entertainment giant was closing beaches “out of an abundance of caution.”

After 15 hours of searching, officials said they planned to continue looking for the child’s body.

“We’re going to be here throughout,” Sheriff Jerry Demings said.

Wildlife officials said the attack was a rarity in a state with a gator population estimated at around 1 million. But it still spooked visitors in a city built on tourism.

“We have been to Yellowstone and encountered grizzly bears, but this is just freaky. A lizard?” said Minnesota tourist John Aho, staying at the park with his wife, Kim, and their 12-year-old son Johnny.

Kim Aho said their son was leery after hearing what had happened.

“He’s a little freaked out about the gator,” she said.

The family of five from Nebraska was on vacation at the Seven Seas Lagoon outside a resort around nightfall Tuesday when the child waded no more than 1 or 2 feet into the water and was taken from a small beach, sheriff’s and state wildlife officials said.

The boy’s father desperately tried to save him, suffering lacerations on a hand. Neither could a lifeguard who was nearby, officials said.

“No swimming” signs were posted at the beach, Williamson said, but the child was wading, not swimming.

Demings said there had been no other similar alligator attacks on the lake.

Nick Wiley with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said witnesses estimated the alligator at between 4 feet and 7 feet in length. He said none of the four alligators removed from the water showed any signs of having been in contact with the boy.

The beach area where the animal grabbed the child is part of the luxury Grand Floridian resort, across the lake from Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park. The man-made lake stretches about 200 acres and reaches a depth of 14 feet. The lake feeds into a series of canals that wind through the entire Disney property.

More than 50 law enforcement personnel searched the well-tended lagoon along with an alligator tracker and marine units equipped with sonar to search the lake’s sandy, mostly flat bottom. Divers were available if needed.

Though Florida has grown to the third-most populous state, fatal alligator attacks remain rare. There have been 23 fatalities caused by wild alligators in Florida since 1973, according to data compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Those fatalities were among 383 unprovoked bites not caused by someone handling or intentionally harassing an alligator.

Eight children, ages 2 to 16, are among the fatalities. Five died while swimming in lakes, rivers and canals. The youngest victims were killed near lakes, including a 2-year-old girl who wandered 700 feet from her fenced backyard and a 3-year-old boy who left a roped-off swimming area in a county park to pick lily pads.

 

Authorities try to piece together Orlando killer’s movements

JAY REEVES, Associated Press
ERIC TUCKER, Associated Press

 

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Omar Mateen drove around the Orlando area the night before the nightclub massacre, visiting several places, the mayor said Wednesday as investigators tried to piece together the killer’s movements and zeroed in on how much his wife may have known about the plot.

An official who was briefed on the case but insisted on anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation said authorities believe the wife, Noor Salman, knew ahead of time about the attack that left 49 victims dead, but they are reluctant to charge her on that basis alone.

Investigators have spoken extensively with her and are working to establish whether she recently accompanied Mateen to the Pulse club, said a second official who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. The official said investigators have not ruled out charging others, including Salman.

The FBI has recovered Mateen’s phone and will use location data to verify whether he previously visited the club, the official said. Orlando is nearly a two-hour drive from Mateen’s home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said Mateen drove around on Saturday night before he opened fire at the gay nightclub about 2 a.m. Sunday in an attack that ended with the 29-year-old American-born Muslim being killed by a SWAT team.

“What I know concretely is that he was driving around that evening and visited several locations,” Dyer said.

When asked exactly where Mateen visited, and whether the locations included theme parks as reported in news accounts, the mayor said: “I think it’s been pretty accurately depicted on the news.” He gave no further details.

In other developments, Florida documents obtained by The Associated Press under open-records laws show that Mateen passed a psychological evaluation in 2007 as part of his application to be a private security guard.

Mateen was determined to be mentally and emotionally stable so that he could work for Wackenhut Corp., later renamed G4S Secure Solutions. The records say he took a written psychological test or was evaluated by a psychologist or psychiatrist.

He also stated in his 2007 firearm application that he had not been diagnosed a mental illness and had no history of alcohol or substance abuse.

On Tuesday, a survivor of the massacre, 20-year-old Patience Carter, shed more light on Mateen’s thinking, saying he talked about wanting America to “stop bombing my country” — a possible reference to his father’s native Afghanistan.

A number of possible motives and explanations have emerged, with Mateen calling 911 to profess allegiance to the Islamic State group, his ex-wife saying he was mentally ill and his father suggesting he hated gays.

The picture grew more complex Tuesday when a U.S. official said the FBI was looking into a flurry of news reports quoting people as saying Mateen frequented the nightspot and reached out to men on gay dating apps. The official was not authorized to discuss the investigation and also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some psychologists raised the possibility that Mateen was sexually conflicted and lashed out, or else was casing the nightclub and trying to find potential victims online.

Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, denied his son was gay and said that if he had been in the nightclub before, he may have been “scouting the place.”

Mateen’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, said earlier in the week that he was mentally ill and abusive. Amid the latest reports about his club-going, she told CNN: “Well, when we had gotten married, he confessed to me about his past that was recent at that time and that he very much enjoyed going to clubs and the nightlife and there was a lot of pictures of him.”

“I feel like it’s a side of him or a part of him that he lived but probably didn’t want everybody to know about,” she said.

 

Bill calls for new rules for duck boats after fatal crash

 

BOSTON (AP) — The parents of a woman who was struck and killed by a duck boat in Massachusetts are calling on the state to approve new safety rules for the amphibious sightseeing vessels.

Ivan and Martha Warmuth joined several lawmakers Wednesday to announce the filing of legislation that would prohibit duck boat drivers from also serving as narrator and tour guide. The measure would mandate blind-spot cameras and proximity sensors on the vehicles.

Ivan Warmuth says he believes his 28-year-old daughter, Allison Warmuth, would be alive today if those rules had been in place. She was struck by a duck boat while riding a scooter near Boston Common on April 30.

Boston Duck Tours says it’s already begun installing cameras and is awaiting results of a city investigation before deciding additional steps.

 

16-year-old shot to death on Oakland, California, street

 

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Gunfire erupted in downtown Oakland near a vigil for two drowning victims, leaving a 16-year-old girl dead and sending people running for cover in the days after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Three other people ranging from their mid-teens to early 20s were wounded and in stable condition after the shooting Tuesday evening, police said. The girl died at a hospital.

Mourners had gathered to remember two teenage boys who drowned over Memorial Day weekend at a reservoir in Stanislaus County, media outlets reported. It’s not clear what led to the shooting about two blocks away or if it was connected to the memorial.

Witnesses reported that two gunmen on foot opened fire along half a city block, Lt. Carlos Gonzalez told The San Francisco Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1UUrMaj ).

Mason Stone, 39, said he was walking about a block away when he heard gunshots in rapid succession just after 5:40 p.m.

“And then basically there were people running every which way,” he told the newspaper, saying he ducked behind a car until the gunfire ended.

The shooting comes after an attack early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 people dead.

“The really scary thing, coming on the heels of the shooting in Orlando, you wonder is it gang-related or is it a crazy gunman,” Stone said. “I guess you figure sooner or later if you live in a city like that you … realize anything can happen at any time.”

Another witness, a security guard at a nearby entertainment facility, said he was surprised because downtown Oakland has changed.

“This is very strange,” Oscar Edwards told the Chronicle. “Downtown is one of the safest places now.”

 

$50,000 reward in California serial killer cold case

DON THOMPSON, Associated Press

 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Authorities announced a $50,000 reward Wednesday as they renewed their search for an elusive serial killer they say committed at least 12 homicides, 45 rapes and dozens of burglaries across California in the 1970s and 1980s.

The case has grown cold for the killer known by at least four nicknames over the decades.

He was dubbed the East Area Rapist after his start in Northern California. The Original Night Stalker after a series of Southern California slayings. The Diamond Knot Killer for using the elaborate knot to bind two of his victims. And most recently the Golden State Killer.

He’s linked through DNA and other evidence to more than 175 crimes between 1976 and 1986, officials said.

Aside from the reward for his arrest and conviction, the FBI also has a new website with maps locating the murders and rapes, sketches created by three witnesses, video interviews with investigators and audio interviews with two survivors. It also made him the number one option on its major crimes tip line, 800-CALL-FBI.

The FBI is launching a nationwide social media campaign and releasing an online mini-documentary and podcast at https://www.fbi.gov/sacramento .

It’s the latest of numerous attempts to identify the man who started in 1976 and 1977 by terrorizing suburban bedroom communities east of Sacramento and as far south as Stockton and Modesto in the Central Valley.

The masked rapist, armed with a gun, would break into homes while single women or couples were sleeping. He would tie up the man and pile dishes on his back. He would then rape the woman while threatening to kill them if the dishes tumbled.

Investigators believe the rapes, and dozens of burglaries often used to case neighborhoods, escalated in 1978 when he fatally shot U.S. Air Force Sgt. Brian Maggiore and his wife Katie as they walked their dog.

They believe he soon moved on to commit several rapes in the San Francisco Bay Area before heading to Southern California.

It wasn’t until 2001 that new DNA testing linked him to at least six Southern California homicides between 1979 and 1986. In each case, the killer broke into a house at night and raped the female victim first.

Investigators believe he also committed another four unsolved Southern California homicides because of similarities in evidence or his methods.

The Southern California killer had been called the Original Night Stalker, to distinguish him from the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, who died of cancer in 2013 before he could be executed for committing 13 mutilation murders in 1984 and 1985.

The elaborate diamond knot was used to tie up a Ventura couple before they were beaten to death with a fireplace log in 1980. That killer was later also discovered to be the same man that authorities in recent years have taken to calling the Golden State Killer to reflect his crimes across California.

The unsolved crimes prompted lawmakers to consider changing state law in 2002 to let jailers use force to take DNA samples from inmates. Investigators wanted to take a sample from Paul “Cornfed” Schneider to see if he was the Original Night Stalker.

Schneider gained notoriety that year as the adopted son of two San Francisco attorneys convicted in a high-profile dog-mauling case who were raising Schneider’s dogs while he was in custody. But there was no DNA match between Schneider and the Southern California slayings.

The crimes also helped spur a 2004 ballot initiative expanding California’s law requiring felons to provide DNA samples for a state database.

If he’s still alive, the killer would likely be in his 60s. He was described at the time as white, between 5 foot-8 inches and 5 foot-11 inches tall and weighing 150 to 175 pounds — a description so broad that it hasn’t helped solve the crimes.

 

Warriors still confident of winning second straight title

JANIE McCAULEY, AP Sports Writer

 

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry sat on the bench and buried his head in his hand. Fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson wrapped a towel around his face.

This was misery to watch for the Warriors and their fired-up fans, who made for the exits early during Monday’s 112-97 NBA Finals loss to the Cavaliers that sent the series back to Cleveland for a Game 6 on Thursday night.

They wanted so badly to do it for Draymond Green, do it for each other, and for their home crowd this time.

Instead, Golden State is going to Ohio again. One flight the Warriors surely would have preferred not to take at this road-weary stage of another extra-long season, but it will be well worth it if they hoist a second straight trophy when these NBA Finals finally end.

Their “Strength in Numbers” mantra was tested once more in a game that mattered so much. The Warriors lost at home for only the second time this postseason and fourth overall.

Yet there’s no panic now for the defending champions after LeBron James and the Cavs forced at least one more game in what has become quite the testy rematch. The Warriors lead the series 3-2.

“We’re all disappointed. We want to win,” guard Shaun Livingston said. “With the stakes being what they are right now, obviously it’s a gut punch. But it’s the finals. It’s not going to be easy. They’re not going to lay down. It doesn’t matter who’s on the court. We’ve got to play.”

Golden State will get a boost having emotional leader and All-Star forward Green back after he sat out Game 5 serving a suspension for a Game 4 swipe at James’ groin. Fans chanted “Free Dray-mond! Free Dray-mond!” and large cutouts of his face waved from all corners of Oracle Arena as he watched from a baseball suite next door in the Oakland Coliseum.

“You want to win here more than anything for your fans. They deserve to see us win,” Thompson said.

While Green returns for Game 6, the Warriors might be down big man Andrew Bogut. The 7-foot center sprained his left knee early in the third quarter Monday and traveled with the team to Cleveland after undergoing further tests. An update on his status was planned for Wednesday, team spokesman Raymond Ridder said.

Bogut has been an imposing presence with his shot-blocking ability, but the Warriors have some depth at the position and often use a center-by-committee approach with Festus Ezeli and Marreese Speights among others such as Anderson Varejao getting regular opportunities to contribute.

“If there’s a chance he’s out Thursday, our bigs are just going to have to step up. Been doing it all year,” Thompson said.

Defensively, the Warriors must find a way to keep James and Kyrie Irving from going off the way they did Monday, with each scoring 41 points.

Not that the always-confident Warriors are overly concerned. They are a group that bounced back from every rare loss during a record-setting, 73-win regular season. Golden State is 14-1 following a defeat.

“We’re in the same place we were last year, up 3-2 heading back to Cleveland. If you told me this before the series, I would have taken it,” coach Steve Kerr said.

“So we’re in a good spot. We’re disappointed we didn’t win tonight, but, like I said, they outplayed us. They deserved the win. And we’ll go back to Cleveland and we’ll play a better game for sure.”

Golden State doesn’t have much further to fall after shooting a postseason-low 36.4 percent — its first game below a 40 percent clip — despite getting 37 points from Thompson with six 3-pointers and Curry’s 25 with five 3s.

“You tip your hat to them. They had a great night,” Curry said.

The Warriors are trying to close out the fifth championship in franchise history and third since moving out West from Philadelphia in 1962-63.

Each of the past two since coming to the Bay Area have been clinched on the road — the first title in 40 years last June and also in 1975, when the Warriors won at Washington with a four-game sweep of the Bullets.

“It (stinks) that it happened tonight with the opportunity we had in front of us to close out a series at home in front of our home fans, and it’s a tough feeling,” Thompson said. “But you work hard in the series early to put ourselves in this position again on Thursday, and we’ll be ready.”

 

Gordie Howe funeral begins in the Motor City

LARRY LAGE, AP Hockey Writer

 

DETROIT (AP) — Gordie Howe drew some of the biggest names in hockey, including Wayne Gretzky and Gary Bettman, to celebrate his life and legacy at a funeral service that was open to the public.

Murray Howe, one of Mr. Hockey’s four children, began the service for Mr. Hockey service with a eulogy that emphasized his father’s toughness and generosity.

“How do I do justice to the life of a living legend — my own hero? I still pinch myself at the realization that he was my father,” he said at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, about six miles from the home of Howe’s longtime team, the Detroit Red Wings.

Dozens of fans stood in line a couple hours before the funeral, which was streamed online by the Red Wings. The cathedral, which hosted Pope John Paul II in 1987, has a capacity of about 900.

“He was a man of few words, but everything he said was worth hearing,” Murray Howe said. “Such as: ‘A good bodycheck will be remembered.'”

The service came a day after thousands of people came to Joe Louis Arena for a public visitation scheduled from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., a nod to Howe’s famous No. 9, though it stretched beyond that. The rugged Canadian Hall of Famer died Friday at the age of 88.

Howe set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points — mostly with the Red Wings — that stood until Gretzky came along. Howe also won four Stanley Cups with Detroit and those banners flanked his casket during the visitation on Tuesday on the floor of the arena.

Gretzky wore No. 99 as a player in a tribute to Howe, a man he got to know when he was a kid. The Great One said he was “embarrassed” to break Howe’s records because he played in an incomparable era.

“Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol,” Gretzky said Thursday. “And sometimes when you meet them, it wasn’t as good as you thought it would be. I got so lucky that the guy I chose happened to be so special.”

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock met Howe in Edmonton, Alberta, about six decades ago when he was a kid. Like a lot of people in western Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, Hitchcock grew up rooting for the Red Wings because of Howe. Hitchcock became one of Howe’s many friends in the early 1990s when he was an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers and Howe’s son, Mark, was playing for them toward the end of his Hall of Fame career.

“Gordie would spend all day and night at the rink because he just loved the game and the people in it,” Hitchcock said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “And if you got an autograph from him back then or at any time in his life, he would look you in the eye and you could read every letter of his name because that’s what kind of great guy he was.”

 

Thousands greet Pittsburgh Penguins at Stanley Cup parade

 

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Throngs of fans were cheering and trying to draw players’ attention with their shouts as the Pittsburgh Penguins begin their victory lap around downtown, celebrating their 2016 Stanley Cup championship.

Some fans began lining up 12 hours ahead of time for the 11:30 a.m. parade, despite overnight drizzle.

The skies largely cleared, though, as the parade began seven years to the day that the team held a parade following its 2009 championship. That parade drew nearly 400,000 people and a similar throng was expected Wednesday.

Players and coaches are being driven along a triangular route to a temporary stage, where other dignitaries will join them for remarks and festivities.

The Penguins clinched the franchise’s fourth championship 3-1 over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday night, winning the series 4-2.