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NATO Commander Offers Evidence of Russian Troops in Ukraine

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Professional gun handling, well-trained maneuvers, and military-spec arms are among the reasons NATO’s top commander says the uprisings in eastern Ukraine are clearly “being carried out at the direction of Russia.”

In a blog post entitled “Who are the men behind the masks?” the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, offered the most detailed Western evidence to date that, despite Russia’s claims that the unrest there is an organic, local movement, it was instead the work of Russian troops posing as locals that orchestrated the apparently coordinated takeover of government buildings in eastern Ukraine that has plunged the fragile country into chaos.

“The pro-Russian ‘activists’ in eastern Ukraine exhibit tell-tale military training and equipment and work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia,” Breedlove wrote.

He specifically cited how the forces handled their weapons, used tear gas and stun grenades, and even how they man checkpoints as evidence that the troops are well-trained, not a civilian mob.

“The way these forces target government buildings, hit them in coordinated strikes and quickly secure the surrounding area with roadblocks and barricades is similar to what we’ve seen in Crimea. Again, indicative of a professional military force, acting under direction and leadership, not a spontaneous militia,” Breedlove wrote.

His comments confirmed what U.S. officials have privately told ABC News, that a well-oiled team of elite troops appeared to storm the building ahead of the local mob. That team did the heavy lifting, seizing the buildings before melting back into the population and leaving the buildings in control of the pro-Russian crowd.

It’s a textbook example, the officials said, of the military art of deception that Russia calls “maskirovka,” or masking their appearance to blend in with local forces. The Russians have historically been very good at it and are proud of their capabilities. Last year, Russian state-run television news aired a story about the elite teams that train for exactly this kind of cloaked missions abroad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday again vigorously denied Western claims that Russian forces were operating in eastern Ukraine. But he also finally confirmed what had long been suspected and that he had repeatedly denied: that the well-armed forces with no insignia on their uniforms that took control of Crimea last month were in fact Russian troops.

Breedlove suggested that was reason to doubt Putin’s denials about Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine.

In recent days U.S. officials have also circulated unconfirmed photos of forces in Ukraine that appear to show them armed with Russian military-issue weapons. ABC News reporters in Ukraine also spotted similar equipment on the separatist fighters, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers that appeared to be brand new.

Breedlove also cited this as evidence of Russian meddling.

“The weapons and equipment they carry are primarily Russian army issue.  This is not the kind of equipment that civilians would be likely to be able to get their hands on in large numbers,” he wrote on his blog.

Members of the militias have insisted to journalists for days that they are locals and are now instructed or bankrolled by the Kremlin. Many, they say, are former riot police or army veterans.

Still, U.S. officials point to leaked calls, like one released this week by Ukraine’s security services, known as the SBU, that claims to show evidence of Russia guiding the separatists. The SBU also claimed to have captured several Russians it alleges are agents sent to foment unrest in Ukraine. Those claims have been impossible to verify.

“Any one of the points above taken alone would not be enough to come to a conclusion on this issue, but taken in the aggregate, the story is clear,” Breedlove wrote on his blog.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


'Deeply Ashamed' Ferry Captain Among First to Abandon Ship

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- The captain of a ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing, is under investigation as a possible criminal, and was one of the first people to escape the doomed vessel, Coast Guard officials said.

Lee Joon-seok, 69, left the ferry on a lifeboat 32 minutes after reporting an accident, officials said.

The captain appeared on Korean television Thursday, his face covered by a gray hoodie.

“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said, as he was being questioned at the Mokpo Coast Guard Office.

It's unclear which of his actions could be considered criminal.

About 270 people remain missing, with 25 fatalities confirmed and the death toll expected to rise. Hundreds of Navy and Coast Guard divers are battling murky conditions Thursday, searching for survivors. But as the hours pass, relatives of the missing passengers are losing hope.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Security Scare for Prince William and Duchess Kate

Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage(KATOOMBA, Australia) -- The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge‘s otherwise picture-perfect tour Down Under was marred Thursday by two men who were detained for allegedly acting aggressively as the royals paid a visit to the Blue Mountains in Australia.

The two men, ages 21 and 37, were stopped and searched by police after they were allegedly harassing fellow royal-gawkers in the village of Winmalee as they awaited William and Kate’s arrival, according to Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

The men were later released and not charged but moved from the area where William and Kate’s motorcade was set to arrive, the Daily Telegraph reports.

William, 31, and Kate, 32, arrived to the Blue Mountains range by helicopter Thursday, which is day two of their visit to Australia. The range, west of Sydney, is one of the country’s most scenic sites and was nearly destroyed by bushfires a few months ago.

The royal couple met with first-responders and fire survivors, planted a tree and did their own bit of sightseeing, which included William’s giving his wife, and all those watching, a scare.

The prince, a former Royal Air Force helicopter pilot, peered dangerously over the edge of a steep cliff as the couple stood atop the mountains’ Narrow Neck Lookout.

“He took a bit of a lunge and a few people held their breath, gasped and readied their hands to grab him,” Damien Cooper, manager of the Blue Mountains Youth Service, told the Daily Telegraph. “He was fine, of course.  He knew what he was doing. I think his military background prepared him well for it.”

Not on hand for his dad’s perilous glimpse over the cliff was the couple’s son, 8-month-old Prince George.

The young prince, who has been a star of the family’s first official overseas trip together, may make an appearance this weekend at the Sydney Zoo.

His mother, Kate, however, reportedly told one young girl Thursday that Prince George is very cute but very loud and likely to scare the animals at the zoo.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Putin 'Hopes' He Won't Have to Send Troops into Eastern Ukraine

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he hopes Russia will not have to use force in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking during a marathon question and answer show on live television, Putin reminded viewers that Russia’s upper house of parliament had authorized the use of force in Ukraine.

“I very much hope I will not have to use this right,” he said.

Putin denied Western claims that Russian troops are already operating inside Ukraine and that the unrest there has been orchestrated by the Kremlin. He warned that if the situation continues, Russia will not recognize the results of next month’s Ukrainian presidential election.

Putin slammed the new government in Kiev for sending troops to quell the unrest in the east. He blamed them for failing to engage the Russian-speaking population there to calm concerns that the new pro-Western government was not out to get them.

“They are sending tanks, armored personnel carriers and cannons there. Who are they sending these tanks against? Are they out of their minds?” he said.

After the show, journalists asked Putin what might cause Russia to send troops into Ukraine. He declined to say, explaining that it might affect the situation on the ground, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

For the first time, however, Putin acknowledged that the heavily armed troops with no insignia on their uniforms who suddenly appeared on the streets of Crimea ahead of last month’s referendum to join Russia were Russian troops. Those troops, he said, were necessary to prevent exactly the type of chaos that is taking place in eastern Ukraine now.

Western and Ukrainian authorities say Russia fabricated reports of threats to Russian speakers in the region in Crimea to scare the population into voting to leave Ukraine. Putin, however, said Thursday that those threats were “real and palpable.”

He insisted Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not planned in advance, but was rather a response to the overwhelming results of the referendum.

“It was highly important for me to see the results of this expression of the people's will,” he said.

He appeared to dismiss former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who until he was ousted in February, was a Kremlin ally. But said Yanukovich told him that while he thought about ordering the use of force against the protesters who forced him from office, he could not bring himself to do it.

The wide-ranging call-in show lasted nearly four hours as Putin fielded questions from a studio audience of prominent Russians, questions that had been submitted in advance, and questions from Russians appearing live from select cities. In a change from previous years, most of the questions were about Ukraine and Russia’s standing in the world, though some villagers across this vast country inquired about the rising costs of bread and compensation for natural disasters.

A 6-year-old girl wrote in to ask Putin if he thought President Obama would save him if he were drowning. Putin replied that, while he did not have a close relationship with Obama, he considered him a good man and thought that Obama would save him.

Asked if he had plans to annex Alaska next, Putin asked rhetorically “What would you need Alaska for?” Russia, he said, already has enough cold territory.

Earlier in the show, Putin said the U.S.-Russian relationship lacks trust. He blamed the United States, claiming it employs a double standard by intervening in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan while criticizing Russia for, in his words, protecting its own interests.

The head of Russia’s new state-owned media company Russia Today, a man dubbed the Kremlin’s new propaganda chief, told Putin he felt suffocated by NATO expansion into eastern Europe and asked where the red line will be drawn.

Putin said there is no need to be afraid, but said that geopolitics could force Russia to act. He insisted NATO’s plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, which the United States says is aimed at defending against Iran, was instead aimed at Russia. He warned the system’s deployment could spark an arms race.

He seemed to confirm suspicions that his takeover of Crimea was due in part to fears that Ukraine could become part of NATO and would limit Russia’s influence in the Black Sea, where it has a substantial naval presence.

“If NATO troops go there and deploy their assault weapons, then it will have a geopolitical significance for us and Russia will be practically forced out from the Black Sea region,” he said.

The Russian leader brushed aside suggestions that Europe might soon wean itself off its dependence on Russian gas, suggesting it would harm their economies and devalue the U.S. dollar. He warned Ukraine that, unless it repays the billions of dollars it owes for past gas deliveries within a month, Russia will begin demanding payment up front and only ship what has been paid for in advance. That may be an enormous challenge for the fledgling government in Kiev, which is struggling to pay its bills and is begging the international community for a bailout.

In a surprise move, NSA leaker Edward Snowden also submitted a question via video, asking Putin whether Russia employed mass surveillance systems similar to ones used by the U.S. National Security Agency.

The ex-KGB agent (who earlier in the show said that job taught him to be “absolutely loyal”) began his response by telling Snowden he was speaking as one spy to another. Putin denied Russia had a mass surveillance program and said any electronic surveillance was used only for law enforcement purposes. Experts on Russian surveillance, however, said Putin was vastly understating the scope of Russia’s surveillance program.

Snowden has been hiding at an undisclosed location in Russia after receiving asylum last year while on the run after leaking classified information about American spying.

Asked when Russia might have a new first lady, the newly divorced Putin responded wryly that he’ll have to help his ex-wife get re-married first.

The marathon call-in show has become a regular feature in the nearly decade and a half since Putin first became president.

Asked if he planned to remain president for life, Putin briskly responded “No” and moved on.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Captain of Doomed Ferry Under Investigation as Relatives Grieve

Park Young-Chul-Donga Daily via Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- The captain of a ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing, is under investigation as a criminal and was one of the first people to escape the doomed vessel, Coast Guard officials said.

Lee Joon-seok, 69, left the ferry on a lifeboat 32 minutes after reporting an accident, officials said.

The captain appeared on Korean television Thursday, his face covered by a gray hoodie.

“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said, as he was being questioned at the Mokpo Coast Guard Office.

About 290 people remain missing following the accident, with 10 fatalities confirmed and the death toll expected to rise.

Hundreds of Navy and Coast Guard divers are battling murky conditions on Thursday, searching for survivors. But as the hours pass, relatives of the missing passengers are losing hope.

So far, 179 people been rescued.

Text messages sent by passengers to loved ones offer a glimpse into the desperate situation inside the crippled vessel.

“Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on and we’re huddled together,” one student, identified only by her last name, Shin, texted her father, according to MBC News, a Korean news station.

The father replied: “I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can.”

“Dad, I can’t walk out,” she replied. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”

The student was among the missing passengers, many of them high schoolers at Danwon High School in Ansan. The students were on a class trip.

Thursday’s rescue efforts have been marked by rain, strong wind, currents and fog -- as well as a lack of organization. Coast guard crews tried to inject air into the boat, but that endeavor was unsuccessful due to the poor weather conditions.

Additionally, the rescue operation center had difficulty communicating with search crews at the sinking site, which is about an hour’s boat ride from Jindo Island.

Relatives of passengers yelled at authorities, demanding answers and seeking miracles at Jindo Island. Some family members visited the location where the passengers are believed to have been trapped.

Other parents gathered at Danwon High School, holding a candlelight vigil.

The only hope is that maybe, somehow the passengers are alive, saved by a pocket of air.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Oscar Pistorius' Own Expert Witness Contradicts Him

THEMBA HADEBE/AFP/Getty Images(PRETORIA, South Africa) -- Oscar Pistorius' murder trial was adjourned Thursday for two weeks after one of the Blade Runner's own expert witnesses contradicted his testimony.

The expert defense witness, Roger Dixon, told the court under cross examination that after Pistorius shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp through a locked bathroom door, the model fell on to a magazine rack next to the toilet.

Pistorius has claimed that evidence from the police was unreliable because investigators had moved things around, including the magazine rack.

Dixon, who was hired to support the defense's version of events, said his reconstruction of the shooting concluded that the first bullet fired by Pistorius struck her in the hip as she was likely reaching for the door knob, forcing her to fall on the magazine rack.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel quickly noted that Pistorius has claimed the magazine was not in that position when he used a cricket bat to bash a hole in the locked door and get to the mortally wounded Steenkamp.

"Whatever the accused is saying, you say he’s wrong?" Nel asked Dixon. "My lady," Dixon replied, addressing his answer to the female judge. "I'm giving testimony on what I observe and interpret. I'm not saying anyone is right or wrong."

When pressed, Dixon added, "My lady, when the deceased fell, the magazine rack was there. I do not know what happened to it afterwards. It wasn’t there when Mr. Pistorius went in. That is his version of the events."

Pistorius, 27, is charged with the premeditated murder of his model girlfriend before dawn on Valentine's Day 2013. Pistorius, a legless sprinter, insists he heard a noise in the bathroom and mistook Steenkamp for an intruder. He could face at least 25 years in prison if convicted.

During his three days on the stand, Dixon testified that Pistorius' bedroom was so dark during the night with the balcony curtain drawn that he could not see across the room, allowing that Pistorius may not have seen Steenkamp go into the bathroom. He told the court that Steenkamp was leaning forward on her right side as if reaching for the doorknob when she was shot, instead of the prosecution's version that she was standing and facing the door and likely arguing with Pistorius when she was shot.

Nel hammered Dixon so relentlessly on the methods he used and his qualifications to be an expert witness that Dixon took to Facebook on Thursday to complain.

"Third day in court today. Let's see how much of my credibility, integrity and professional reputation is destroyed. It is difficult to get belief in those who will not listen because it is not what they want to hear," Dixon wrote.

Pistorius sat with his head down and hands against his ears barely listening to Thursday's testimony.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Edward Snowden Asks Vladimir Putin About Russian Intelligence

The Guardian via Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Intelligence leaker Edward Snowden surprised the audience of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual question and answer call-in show Thursday by submitting a question via video.

Snowden, who revealed American surveillance secrets by leaking sensitive documents from the National Security Agency, asked Putin if Russia also had a mass surveillance program.

Putin, a former Soviet KGB agent, began his response saying he would speak professionally from one spy to another. He denied that Russia has a mass surveillance program, saying it was against Russian law. He said Russian law enforcement only uses electronic surveillance in specific cases to catch criminals.

Andrei Soldotov, a Russian investigative journalist who has documented Russia’s electronic surveillance system, said there is much more to Russia’s surveillance program than Putin claimed.

“There is no parliamentary oversight of secret services,” he said in response via Twitter. “The FSB is not required to show a warrant to anyone,” he added, referring to Russia’s KGB successor, the Federal Security Services.

Soldotov’s investigations have dug deep into Russia’s sophisticated electronic surveillance program, called SORM. That system, he told ABC News earlier this year, rivals any set up by American intelligence services. The Russian security services are hardwired into the telecommunications infrastructure in Russia, allowing them to tap into raw data whenever they want.

Last year, Snowden fled the United States before leaking the classified information in Hong Kong. He eventually flew to Moscow, where he was trapped in the airport for weeks after the United States canceled his passport and blocked his plans to travel to Latin America.

Eventually, Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum and he has been living in an undisclosed location in Russia ever since.

During Thursday's call-in show, Putin also discussed the unrest in neighboring Ukraine. He said he hopes Russia will not have to send troops into eastern Ukraine, saying he hopes the situation can be resolved diplomatically. Putin denied that Russian troops are already in Ukraine.

And, for the first time, Putin confirmed that the soldiers with unmarked uniforms in Crimea were indeed Russian troops.

When asked if Russia plans to annex Alaska next, he said that Russia already has enough cold territory.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Oil Slick Not Tied to Flight 370, Preliminary Analysis Shows

(PERTH, Australia) -- The oil slick that Australian vessel Ocean Shield detected Sunday evening during its search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is not connected to the missing jetliner.

A preliminary analysis of the sample "has confirmed that it is not aircraft engine oil or hydraulic fluid," Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Center (JACC), which is leading the search for the Boeing 777, said in a statement Thursday.

The search for Flight 370, which disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board, continued on Thursday, with up to a dozen aircraft and 11 ships joining in on the effort.

The underwater search of the Indian Ocean also continued. The JACC said the U.S. Navy's Bluefin-21 completed a full mission overnight and the data the robotic submarine obtained is being analyzed. The sub is being prepped to go back in the water; so far it has searched approximately 90 square kilometers.

The JACC on Thursday also cleared up some misconceptions about the Bluefin-21.

"Some media reports today state that it would take Bluefin-21 anywhere from six weeks to two months to scan the entire underwater search area. This is incorrect," the organization said in its statement.

It continued, "Since the US Navy provided comment some days ago, the underwater search has been significantly narrowed through detailed acoustic analysis conducted on the four signal detections made by the Towed Pinger Locator on ADV Ocean Shield."

"This analysis has allowed the definition of a reduced and more focused underwater search area," the JACC added.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


Three Dead After Military Base Attack in Ukraine

berean/Thinkstock(KIEV, Ukraine) -- Three militants were killed, 13 wounded and over 60 arrested when they attacked a military base in Ukraine overnight, the country's interior minister said. The incident happened in the coastal town of Mariupol in the southeast part of the country.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement Thursday that a crowd of around 300 men, armed with Molotov cocktails, attacked the base late Wednesday but were repelled by the National Guard and police forces.

Soldiers fired warning shots as militants attacked, the minister said, then fired on the attackers. He again accused Russia of being behind the attack.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio


What to Expect from Thursday’s Russia/Ukraine Talks

State Department photo/ Public Domain(GENEVA) -- Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have already spent at least 10 hours together in the past month, not to mention almost daily phone calls, trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Russian incursion in Ukraine.

During that period, the region of Crimea has essentially been lost to Russia and pro-Russian militants have spread throughout the eastern part of the country, with little meaningful resistance from the Ukrainians.

So what good can come from one more set of meetings Thursday in Geneva?

First and foremost, officials say, it’s the first time Russians and Ukrainians will sit together along with the United States and European Union since anti-Russian protests began in Kiev in February.

“The idea here is to try to provide a space where the U.S. and the E.U. can squat with Russia and Ukraine and look first and foremost for ways to de-escalate the security situation which has gotten significantly more perilous over the last ten days,” a senior State Department official told reporters during Kerry’s flight to Geneva.

The Ukrainians have some concrete ideas for de-escalation, the official said, including amnesty to anyone who lays down their weapons and the setup of formal negotiating forums. And the United States will offer additional proposals Thursday, the official said, without elaborating.

But experts inside and outside the government are keeping expectations for the talks low, given that Russia has shown no signs of backing off its claim that it’s getting involved in Ukraine simply to defend a pro-Russian minority.

“We’re going to have these conversations, but I wouldn’t look at this as the end-all, be-all necessarily,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said on Wednesday.

It’s more about the optics of Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andreii Deschytsia’s meeting together along with Kerry and E.U. High Representative Catherine Ashton, said former State Department official Heather Conley, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Europe Program.

“It’s very difficult to move a process forward, even a nascent process that these talks represent, without there being some commonality of what’s going on on the ground,” Conley said.

Even if they can’t agree on facts on the ground, the talks at least present an opportunity for all sides to discuss some of the other upcoming milestones in the region, namely the drafting of a new Ukrainian constitution as well as presidential elections on May 25.

Some of Russia’s demands will be on the table, the senior State Department official said, including the idea of shifting power from the central Ukrainian government to individual regions, as well as protections for Russian speakers and other minorities.

But Deschytsia, the Ukrainian foreign minister, will make the point that these issues are best resolved through the constitutional process, not Russian-style aggression.

Russia should also be prepared for a discussion on European energy independence, the official added -- one of the most significant long-term ways for the west to cut its financial ties with Russia, on whom it now largely depends for oil.

Conley underscored that even the most optimistic forecast for Thursday’s meeting doesn’t go beyond the parties agreeing on what exactly is happening in eastern Ukraine.

But that could -- and should -- lead to additional changes, including tougher U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Russia and, in the long term, a wholesale shift in how Russia is treated on the world stage.

“For 25 years, Europe and the U.S. have worked towards trying to integrate Russia into the international system and the west,” Conley said. “That policy has now come to a dramatic end.”

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio