Nation/world briefs

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened 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 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions," the president said.

As Merkel arrived at the White House, Ukraine's interim government launched its first major offensive against a pro-Russian insurgency that has seized government buildings across the eastern part of the country. The insurgents shot down two Ukrainian helicopters Friday, though Ukrainian officials said many insurgents had been killed or wounded. The Kremlin said the Ukrainian government's actions had destroyed all chances for a two-week-old diplomatic deal to de-escalate the crisis.

Will defend gay marriage ban: Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said Saturday he supports allowing same-sex couples to wed, but will continue defending his state's 2004 ban on gay marriage in court. McDaniel, a Democrat serving his final year as the state's top attorney, became the first statewide official in Arkansas to back same-sex marriage. "I want to tell you I do support marriage equality and I do believe Arkansans should have the right to be equal in the eyes of the law," McDaniel said, speaking at the Associated Press Managing Editors Convention. Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but that ban and others nationwide are facing legal challenges.

To create Benghazi committee: House Speaker John Boehner declared Friday he would create a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack, providing Republicans with a high-profile forum to target the Obama administration's credibility ahead of crucial midterm elections. Boehner said U.S. officials misled the American people after the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. He said emails released this week showed the White House has withheld documents from congressional investigators and asked, "What else about Benghazi is the Obama administration still hiding from the American people?"

Dems challenge redistricting: Virginia is one of several states where Democrats have gone to court to challenge redistricting plans drawn by Republicans seeking to keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Marc Elias, an attorney for the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, represents two Virginia voters in a lawsuit that accuses the General Assembly of "racial gerrymandering" by improperly packing African-Americans into the state's only black-majority congressional district to make adjacent districts safer for GOP incumbents. A trial is set for this month. "We're trying to remedy what we believe is an unconstitutional map drawn by the legislature," Elias said. Democrats have also challenged GOP-drawn redistricting plans in other states -- including Texas, Florida, Nevada and Missouri -- but they are not alone in employing the tactic. Republicans also have asked courts to invalidate Democrat-produced remapping in a few states.

GM SUVS subject to recall: General Motors is recalling 51,640 SUVs because the fuel gauges may show inaccurate readings. The recall involves the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia from the 2014 model year. All of the affected SUVs were built between March 26 and Aug. 15 of 2013. GM says the engine control module software may cause the fuel gauge to read inaccurately. If that happens, the vehicle might run out of fuel and stall without warning. The company doesn't know of any crashes or injuries related to the problem. GM says dealers will reprogram the software for free, starting immediately. The company will also notify owners by mail.

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