- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

International monitors try to secure sprawling Ukraine plane crash site for investigation

HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) - International monitors moved gingerly Saturday through fields reeking of the decomposing corpses that fell from a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, trying to secure the sprawling site in hopes that a credible investigation can be conducted.

But before inspectors ever reach the scene, doubts arose about whether evidence was being compromised.

The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile at the Boeing 777 with almost 300 people aboard. Many see the hand of Russia, either for its suspected support of the insurgents or perhaps for firing the missile itself.

The government in Kiev said militiamen had removed 38 bodies from the crash site near the Russian border and taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It said the remains were transported with help from specialists with distinct Russian accents.

The rebels are also “seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia,” the Ukrainian government said Saturday.

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Dutch forensic experts begin gathering material from next of kin to identify crash victims

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - Forensic teams fanned out across the Netherlands on Saturday to collect material that will help positively identify the remains of victims killed in the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine. Families and friends of the dead huddled to console one another at churches, schools and sports clubs across the nation.

Altius, a small soccer club on the edge of the central city of Hilversum, was typical of scenes that played out across the Netherlands.

A couple of dozen members held a small ceremony at Altius’ clubhouse to remember a family of four killed in the crash, as the team’s flag fluttered at half-staff in the warm afternoon breeze.

Charles Smallenburg was a long-time volunteer at the club, his young son Werther a promising striker in the D1 youth team, club chairman Tom Verdam told The Associated Press after the brief get-together. Charles’ wife Therese and daughter Carlijn also died, the club said.

As Hilversum’s mayor walked away and families unlocked their bicycles behind him and cycled homeward, Verdam said the commemoration was simple, but emotional.

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Lack of radar could have prevented missile operators from realizing target was a jetliner

LONDON (AP) - If Ukrainian rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, killing 298 people, it may have been because they didn’t have the right systems in place to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft, experts said Saturday.

American officials said Friday that they believe the Boeing 777 was brought down by an SA-11 missile fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power said the Russians might have provided technical help to the rebels to operate the systems.

But to function correctly, an SA-11 launcher, also known as a Buk, is supposed to be connected to a central radar command - as opposed to acting alone - to be certain of exactly what kind of aircraft it is shooting at.

From the information that has come to light so far, the rebels don’t appear to have such systems, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected defense columnist for Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow-based newspaper known for its critical coverage of Russian affairs.

“They could easily make a tragic mistake and shoot down a passenger plane when indeed they wanted to shoot down a Ukrainian transport plane,” he said.

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The love affair between countrymen and their airline is often marred by a crash

NEW YORK (AP) - The jetliner is much more than a machine used to get from one spot to another. It often carries deep symbolism, especially when flying for a national airline.

It can represent hope, modernity and a country’s power. And when things go wrong, that once mighty plane can bring about deep national disgrace.

Malaysia now finds itself grappling with the horrific - and extremely unusual - loss of two of its airplanes, just four months apart. It’s a sad coincidence that also stings.

“It is unbelievable misfortune that struck (Malaysia Airlines) in such a short span of time. It will not affect Malaysia’s name, but it will damage the airline’s reputation,” said James Chin, political analyst at Monash University in Malaysia. He said it would be tough for the already-struggling airline to survive the twin catastrophes.

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday over Ukraine comes just 131 days after the disappearance of Flight 370. That Boeing 777 is presumed to be on the floor of the Indian Ocean but, without any scrap of wreckage found, it remains the key to one of the biggest aviation mysteries.

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Israeli military seek and destroy Hamas tunnels in Gaza as Palestinian death toll tops 300

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Israeli bulldozers demolished more than a dozen tunnels Saturday in the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian authorities reported intensified airstrikes and shelling as the death toll from Israel’s ground offensive rose to at least 342 Palestinians. Diplomats struggled to revive a cease-fire.

Israeli soldiers uncovered 34 shafts leading into about a dozen underground tunnels, some as deep as 30 meters (yards), that could be used to carry out attacks, the military said.

Still, Palestinian gunmen disguised in Israeli uniforms managed to infiltrate Israel from Gaza using another tunnel and on Saturday killed two Israeli soldiers and injured several others, the military said. At least one Palestinian was killed in the clash.

Hamas said 12 of its fighters participated in the attack and that the group took some of the soldiers’ weapons back to their hideouts.

In two other confrontations, Palestinian gunmen jumped out of tunnels and shot at soldiers who returned fire. Two of the gunmen were killed. Another militant died when the explosive vest he was wearing went off, the military said.

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Split between Egypt and Hamas plagues efforts to bring cease-fire in Gaza

CAIRO (AP) - Even as the death toll mounts in the Gaza Strip, attempts to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel have so far run aground - in part because they have become mired in the deep divisions between Mideast countries.

At the center of the problems is the bitter enmity between Egypt and its Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia on one side and Gaza’s Hamas rulers and its allies, Turkey and Qatar, on the other.

An Egyptian cease-fire proposal quickly fell apart the past week when Israel accepted it but Hamas rejected it. Hamas demanded greater guarantees for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza, enforced by Israel and Egypt. The Egyptian proposal called for both sides to halt hostilities unconditionally - dangling only a promise of further talks that could address the closure.

Qatar-based Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran described Cairo’s cease-fire proposal as “all but dead,” calling it a “surrender” to Israel.

He and other Hamas officials said they were instead turning to Qatar, which they said had an initiative that would address their demands, including release of prisoners and giving unfettered access to the densely populated strip. That quickly sparked accusations by Egypt that Hamas’ allies were undermining it.

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Florida jury slams tobacco company with $23.6B in punitive damages in widow’s lawsuit

MIAMI (AP) - A Florida jury has slammed the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with $23.6 billion in punitive damages in a lawsuit filed by the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996.

The case is one of thousands filed in Florida after the state Supreme Court in 2006 tossed out a $145 billion class action verdict. That ruling also said smokers and their families need only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.

Last year, Florida’s highest court re-approved that decision, which made it easier for sick smokers or their survivors to pursue lawsuits against tobacco companies without having to prove to the court again that Big Tobacco knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the hazards of cigarette smoking.

The damages a Pensacola jury awarded Friday to Cynthia Robinson after a four-week trial come in addition to $16.8 million in compensatory damages.

Robinson individually sued Reynolds, the country’s No. 2 cigarette maker, in 2008 on behalf of her late husband, Michael Johnson Sr. Her attorneys said the punitive damages are the largest of any individual case stemming from the original class action lawsuit.

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Plane crash in Ukraine unlikely to halt deepening divisions in old Soviet bloc on Russia

WARSAW, Poland (AP) - Poland’s foreign minister had sharp words on the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet in Ukraine - blaming the crash on Russia-backed “bandits.” But throughout most of central and eastern Europe, leaders withheld judgment, expressing shock but refusing to say more until more facts are in.

The caution is not surprising: Several former Soviet satellite states have developed closer economic ties to Russia in recent years, making them unwilling to take a strong stand against Moscow in the Ukraine conflict. Though all have condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they are divided over what to do beyond that, differences dictated largely by the depth of those economic ties - and whether they feel at risk themselves from Moscow’s might.

With uncertainty surrounding Thursday’s plane crash, most have little to gain from pointing fingers, especially since the tragedy, which killed 298 people, is unlikely to blunt Russia’s growing clout in the region, experts say.

“No one should expect change in the relations between Russia and any of the central European countries unless clear evidence of Moscow’s involvement is presented,” said Dariusz Kalan, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. “Even then, a radical turn would be unlikely since the political, economic and energy contacts are so developed.”

“A temporary and mostly rhetorical chill of relations with Russia is the heaviest reply that the region can afford,” Kalan added.

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Sudden death of Ohio teen highlights popularity, dangers of unregulated caffeine powder

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A few weeks before their prom king’s death, students at an Ohio high school had attended an assembly on narcotics that warned about the dangers of heroin and prescription painkillers.

But it was one of the world’s most widely accepted drugs that killed Logan Stiner - a powdered form of caffeine so potent that as little as a single teaspoon can be fatal.

The teen’s sudden death in May has focused attention on the unregulated powder and drawn a warning from federal health authorities urging consumers to avoid it.

“I don’t think any of us really knew that this stuff was out there,” said Jay Arbaugh, superintendent of the Keystone Local Schools.

The federal Food and Drug Administration said Friday that it’s investigating caffeine powder and will consider taking regulatory action. The agency cautioned parents that young people could be drawn to it.

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Lawmakers, US allies thinking Obama should rethink military withdrawal plan in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (AP) - Afghanistan’s disputed election and Iraq’s unraveling are giving members of Congress and U.S. allies in the region reason to think President Barack Obama should rethink his decision to withdraw virtually all Americans troops from Afghanistan by the close of 2016.

The White House says Afghanistan is different from Iraq, mired in sectarian violence since shortly after U.S. troops left, and that the drawdown decision is a done deal.

Some lawmakers, however, are uncomfortable with Obama’s plan, which responds to the American public’s war fatigue and his desire to be credited with pulling the U.S. from two conflicts. Ten senators, Republicans and Democrats, raised the drawdown issue at a congressional hearing Thursday.

They argued that it’s too risky to withdraw American troops out so quickly, especially with the Afghan presidential election in the balance. They don’t want to see Afghanistan go the way of Iraq, and they fear that the Afghan security force, while making substantial gains, won’t be ready for solo duty by the end of 2016.

Under Obama’s plan, announced in May before Sunni militants seized control of much of Iraq, some 20,200 American troops will leave Afghanistan during the next five months, dropping the U.S. force to 9,800 by year’s end. That number would be cut in half by the end of 2015, with only about 1,000 remaining in Kabul after the end of 2016.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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