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SUB SCOURS OCEAN FOR MISSING MALAYSIAN JET

Friday, 18 April 2014 06:45 Published in National News

PERTH, Australia (AP) — A robotic submarine headed back down into the depths of the Indian Ocean on Friday to scour the seafloor for any trace of the missing Malaysian jet one month after the search began off Australia's west coast, as data from the sub's previous missions turned up no evidence of the plane.

It was the fifth attempt by the Bluefin-21 unmanned sub to find wreckage or the black boxes from Flight 370 in a distant patch of seabed. The sub, which can create sonar maps of the ocean bottom, has now covered 110 square kilometers (42 square miles) of the silt-covered seabed, but has thus far found nothing, the search coordination center said. The sub's last mission hit a record depth beyond its recommended diving parameters, which can potentially cause risk to the equipment, the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in a statement. However, it is being closely monitored.

Officials are desperate to find some physical evidence that they are searching in the right spot for the Boeing 777, which vanished March 8 with 239 on board on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. A weeks-long search of the ocean surface hasn't turned up a single piece of debris, and officials on Thursday determined that an oil slick found in the search zone did not come from the plane.

The Bluefin is searching a remote stretch of ocean floor about 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) deep in an area where sound-locating equipment picked up a series of underwater sounds consistent with an airplane's black box, but it went down to 4,695 meters (15,404 feet) during mission four. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said officials are "very confident" the sounds came from the Malaysian jet's cockpit voice and flight data recorders, but finding the devices in such deep water is an incredibly difficult task.

Radar and satellite data show the plane flew far off-course and would have run out of fuel in a remote section of the Indian Ocean. Planes and ships have been scouring the ocean surface for a month, to no avail.

On Friday, 11 planes and 12 ships were continuing the surface search across about 52,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) of ocean. The U.S. alone has flown 35 missions, racking up 319 hours of flight time over nearly 450,000 nautical miles of ocean, according to the Seventh Fleet.

Angus Houston, who is heading up the search effort, said earlier this week that the hunt for floating debris would be ending within days, because it is unlikely that anything will be found. But the search coordination center said the effort would continue into next week, more than six weeks after the plane vanished.

Malaysia's defense minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, confirmed that the search would continue through the Easter weekend, but acknowledged that officials would have to rethink their strategy at some point if nothing is found.

"There will come a time when we need to regroup and reconsider, but in any event, the search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach," he said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

The U.S. Navy's unmanned sub cut short its first mission on Monday because it exceeded its maximum operating depth of 4,500 meters (15,000 feet). Searchers moved it away from the deepest waters before redeploying the sub to scan the seabed with sonar to map a potential debris field.

But the search coordination center said Thursday that officials are now confident the sub can safely go deeper than was thought, allowing it to cover the entire search area, which has been narrowed based on further analysis of the four underwater signals previously detected.

___

Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

___

Follow Margie Mason on Twitter at twitter.com/MargieMasonAP

GENEVA (AP) — In a surprise accord, Ukraine and Russia agreed Thursday on tentative steps to halt violence and calm tensions along their shared border after more than a month of Cold War-style military posturing triggered by Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Russia's pledge to refrain from further provocative actions drew support but also a measure of skepticism from President Barack Obama, who said at a news conference at the White House that the United States and its allies were prepared to ratchet up sanctions if Moscow doesn't fulfill its commitments.

"I don't think we can be sure of anything at this point," Obama said after Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and diplomats from Ukraine and Europe sealed their agreement after hours of talks in Geneva.

The abruptly announced agreement, brokered by the West, provides no long-term guide for Ukraine's future nor any guarantee that the crisis in eastern Ukraine will abate. But it eases international pressure both on Moscow and nervous European Union nations that depend on Russia for their energy.

Reached after seven hours of negotiations, the deal requires all sides to refrain from violence, intimidation or provocative actions. It calls for disarming all illegally armed groups and returning to Ukrainian authorities control of buildings seized by pro-Russian separatists during protests.

Notably, though, it does not require Russia to withdraw an estimated 40,000 troops massed near the Ukrainian border. Nor does it call for direct talks between Russia and Ukraine.

The agreement says Kiev's plans to reform its constitution and transfer more power from the central government to regional authorities must be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It gives amnesty to protesters who comply with the demands, except those found guilty of committing capital crimes.

The negotiations came against the backdrop of the bloodiest episode to date in the clashes that pit the new government in Kiev against an eastern insurgency the West believes is backed by Moscow.

In the eastern Ukraine Black Sea port of Mariupol, authorities said three pro-Russian protesters were killed and 13 injured overnight Wednesday during an attempted raid on a Ukrainian National Guard base.

As for the agreement reached in Geneva, monitors with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe will be tasked with helping Ukraine authorities and local communities comply with the requirements. Lavrov said the OSCE mission "should play a leading role" moving forward.

Kerry called the one-page agreement "a good day's work." But, anticipating Obama's remarks a few hours later, he stressed that if Russia does not abide by a pledge to de-escalate the crisis by the end of the upcoming Easter weekend, the West would have no choice but to impose new sanctions as initially planned.

In a further sign of impatience on the part of the Obama administration, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. would send non-lethal assistance to Ukraine's military in light of what he called Russia's ongoing destabilizing actions in the country. The aid will include medical supplies, helmets, water purification units and power generators.

In remarks at his own news conference in Geneva, Kerry said, "It is important that these words are translated immediately into actions. None of us leaves here with a sense that the job is done because of words on a paper."

Lavrov said the agreement was the product of compromise by the two sides that as recently as a several weeks ago refused to speak, intensifying the crisis and ratcheting up East-West tensions to levels not seen since the Cold War.

"Most important is that all participants recognize the fact that Ukrainians should assume leadership and ownership of settlement of the crisis in all aspects, be that resolving the issue in all aspects," Lavrov said.

He repeated Moscow's statement that it does not intend to intervene militarily in Ukraine.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered slightly less assuring words. He reserved the right to act to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, but said he hoped it wouldn't be necessary to send in troops to do so.

Ukraine Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia called the agreement "a test for Russia to show that it is really willing to have stability in this region."

The U.S. and EU were prepared to broaden their list of Russian and Ukrainian officials and oligarchs whose assets and Western travel have been frozen if Thursday's talks hadn't shown movement.

Even more punishing sanctions against Moscow's energy and banking sectors have been threatened. The EU is Russia's biggest trading partner and oil and gas client, and it has been reluctant to push ahead with penalties that would undercut its own citizens.

The EU instead has chastised Russia for threatening to cut off gas deliveries to Ukraine — a route for pipelines to Europe.

In a letter Thursday, EU President Jose Manuel Barroso told Putin that Russia would risk its reputation as a reliable supplier should Ukraine's gas supplies be cut off. Moscow had threatened to end the deliveries to force Kiev to pay debts.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, the interior ministry described a mob in Mariupol of about 300 people armed with stun grenades and firebombs — following the pattern of battle-ready militia bearing sophisticated weapons that have been involved in seizing government offices in the country's eastern regions.

Ukraine also began stringent checks for Russian citizens seeking to enter the country, and Russian airline Aeroflot reported a ban on Russian men between the ages of 16 and 60 visiting except when traveling with family or to funerals of relatives.

In a four-hour nationally televised call-in show in Moscow, Putin insisted that Russian special forces were not fomenting unrest in Ukraine, as Kiev and the U.S. claim.

But Putin also seemed to keep the door open for Russia to recognize Ukraine's presidential election set for May 25, softening his previous demand that it must be postponed until the fall and preceded by a referendum on broader powers for the regions.

Ukraine has asked for military assistance from the U.S., a request that was believed to include lethal aid such as weapons and ammunition. Obama administration officials have said they were not actively considering lethal assistance for fear it could escalate an already tense situation.

The U.S. has already sent Ukraine other assistance, such as pre-packaged meals for its military.

In Brussels, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the military alliance would increase its presence in Eastern Europe, including flying more sorties over the Baltic region west of Ukraine and deploying allied warships to the Baltic Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. NATO's supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, told reporters that ground forces also could be involved at some point, but he gave no details.

___

AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee, National Security Writer Robert Burns and Special Correspondent David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.

___

Follow Lara Jakes at https://twitter.com/larajakesAP

ANSAN, South Korea (AP) — The most poignant reminders of what's been lost here are the most ordinary.

Desks in the classrooms of Danwon High School in Ansan, where dozens of students were missing and feared dead Thursday after a ferry disaster, are cluttered with textbooks, gym clothes, empty water bottles — small bits of ordinary school life now infused with heartbreak.

There is fury as parents and students lash out at the swarming news media. Horror, too, as they picture loved ones trapped in the cold and dark of a flipped, submerged ferry. Most refuse to believe that, even after dozens of attempts, a friend, a child, a sibling won't answer their cellphone. They keep calling.

They try to nourish any link, no matter how small, to the missing: Parents and school workers have locked up the missing students' belongings because their schoolmates were taking them home as keepsakes, mementos of friends they believe are dead.

One message on a blackboard reads: "Please, everyone return safely!" Another: "Jin-yong! Please come home alive."

More than 320 Danwon High School second-year students — mostly 16- and 17-year-olds — left Tuesday night for what was supposed to be one of the highlights of the year, a 14-hour overnight ferry trip to the southern resort island of Jeju for four days of fun. Now, as the hours stretch on since the ferry sank Wednesday with no word about more than 270 missing passengers among the 475 people on board, Ansan fears the worst.

"Do you believe they're still alive?" Lee Mi-shim, a 48-year-old mother of a missing student, asked a reporter as tears streamed down her face. "I know the chances aren't good. ... No one in his class has been rescued."

Lee, whose husband died about 10 years ago, had heart surgery a few years ago. Her son, Kim Ki-su, always told her that he'd eventually become a Korean traditional doctor to help her. "I feel like collapsing. At least then I'd die earlier than him," Lee said.

The 25 people confirmed dead Thursday include at least four students and two teachers, and there's fear that number will go much higher because so many of the passengers were from the school. More than a dozen teachers were on board.

"My baby is trapped in cold waters now. How can I sleep comfortably?" said a 63-year-old grandmother of a missing student who gave only her surname, Kim, tears welling in her eyes as she explained why she stayed overnight at the school's auditorium waiting for news about the search. "I cannot live without him."

There were huge swings in emotions Thursday at the school's auditorium, where hundreds of family members, students, residents and aid workers gathered, desperate for news. Volunteers, wearing green or yellow vests, cleaned the school and provided coffee, fruit, rice, kimchi and instant noodles.

In the morning, people sat and stared vacantly at a giant TV screen broadcasting news of the sinking. Some women wiped away tears. One middle-aged woman wept as she talked on her phone. Tired-looking students sat on chairs, repeatedly checking their phones.

Later in the day, fury erupted over the pace of the rescue operation.

Angry parents and students cursed and shoved reporters, photographers and TV cameramen, while about 10 female students wailed loudly and hugged each other. An unidentified middle-aged man shouted, "Let's smash their cameras the next time we see another flash."

The school, nestled in a quiet, clean residential area, was founded in 2005 and has more than 1,200 students and 85 teachers. The area is a half hour's drive from an industrial complex where many parents of students work at factories, according to residents. Ansan has a population of about 770,000, about 40,000 of whom are foreign workers from China, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries, according to city officials.

Many South Korean high schools organize trips for first- or second-year students, and Jeju is a popular destination. Students and parents in Ansan spoke of the excitement of the annual trip. The students have taken ferries to the southern island in recent years because they can spend more time with each other. They take pictures of the stars, of the ocean and islands, of each other. They gossip. They bond in a way not possible on shorter plane or train trips. Then, after the four-day trip is over, they fly back home.

Kim Eun-taek, an 18-year-old third-year student, knows more than 10 of the missing students, including one of his best friends.

"He lives next door. We used to play at my house together. He cooked food for me, fried sweet potatoes ... fried vegetables," said Kim, putting up his sweatshirt hood and lowering his head.

Ko Jae Hyoung, who sells fried chicken near the school, said the neighborhood is close-knit. Students grow up together, graduating from the same elementary and middle schools.

Ko closed his restaurant Wednesday to volunteer at the school. That night, he and about 30 others held a candlelight vigil to pray for the safe return of the students. Dozens of residents held vigils again on Thursday night.

Ko, whose daughter is a first-year student at the school, remembers some of the missing students visiting his restaurant to eat chicken and joke around with him.

"Now, the neighborhood is like a funeral home," he said.

___

Klug contributed from Seoul.

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