Volnovakha (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine's presidential candidates will hold their final rallies Friday as pre-election clouds darkened after the army lost 17 soldiers in attacks by pro-Russian separatists in the country's east. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of trying to "escalate the conflict" and disrupt Sunday's presidential vote, calling on the UN Security Council to hold an urgent meeting on the crisis. He said the Kremlin's announcement of a troop withdrawal from the border was merely a "bluff" and that even if soldiers were redeploying, Ukraine was still being infiltrated by "armed terrorists". Western governments have pressured Russia not to meddle in the snap election, seen as crucial to preventing all-out civil war erupting on Europe's eastern flank.
President Barack Obama on Thursday urged Democrats to vote in November elections, saying the chance to pass immigration reform is at risk if Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress. "We have a congenital defect to not vote in midterm elections," he said at a fundraising reception for Democratic Senate candidates. "The midterm comes and we fall asleep." Democrats hold a 55-45 seat majority in the Senate, but many analysts give the Republicans an even chance of picking up the six seats they would need to seize control of the chamber. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives is not considered to be in play.
The United States is alone in helping Nigeria locate more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamists, Secretary of State John Kerry said, despite help on the ground from Britain, France and Israel. With 80 military personnel sent to neighboring Chad for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, the United States is the biggest foreign participant in the effort against the militant group Boko Haram. Washington has also deployed surveillance drones, spy planes and about 30 civilian and military specialists to support Nigeria's security forces.
Mali was in crisis after losing two northern towns including the rebel bastion of Kidal to Tuareg separatists in a humiliating defeat forcing the government to call for an "immediate ceasefire". Around 20 Malian soldiers were killed and 30 wounded in the fighting that saw insurgents led by Tuareg rebels recapture the key northern town of Kidal, the defence minister said. "There were dead and wounded on both sides," Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga told public television. But a leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said 40 Malian soldiers had been killed and 70 taken prisoner since hostilities began on Saturday while 50 "brand new" 4x4s and 12 armoured vehicles had been seized along with several tonnes of weapons and ammunition.
By David Alexander WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Congress headed toward a showdown over Pentagon spending on Thursday after the House and Senate advanced competing versions of the annual defense policy bill that differ on everything from spending priorities to closing Guantanamo. The House of Representatives voted 325-98 to pass a 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that rejected the Pentagon's bid to cut long-term costs by reducing military pay raises and eliminating planes, ships and bases. Hours later the Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled its version of the same legislation, approving a Pentagon proposal to offer smaller military pay hikes, lay up 11 Navy cruisers for long-term maintenance and reorganize the Army helicopter fleet. The Senate and House plans differed on how to pay for proposed changes to the Pentagon budget, with the House reducing funds for keeping the military combat-ready while the Senate panel sought to avoid that.
MADISON, Miss. (AP) — Investigators say a Mississippi tea party official and two other men arrested Thursday conspired with a conservative blogger to use photographs of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran's ill wife to push allegations that the longtime Republican senator was involved in an inappropriate relationship with another woman.
A Senate panel set aside $100 million Thursday to develop a US rocket engine as an alternative to Russian equipment currently used to launch military satellites into orbit. Amid broader disputes with President Vladimir Putin over Kremlin aggression in neighboring Ukraine, US lawmakers have considered ways to break from Russian rocket dependence, including blocking US firms from purchasing Russian-made engines and developing a new American-made engine. "Mr Putin's Russia is giving us some problems," said Senator Bill Nelson, who flew aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986. "So we put $100 million in the defense bill to develop a state-of-the-art rocket engine to make sure that we have assured access to space for our astronauts as well as our military space payloads."
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republicans claimed victory on Thursday after the Internal Revenue Service said it will delay and rewrite proposed rules for tax-exempt, social welfare groups that were at the heart of the agency's a political controversy last year. "This proposed rule was wrong from the start," said Republican Representative Dave Camp, chairman of the tax-writing committee in the House of Representatives. "Hopefully the IRS and the Obama Administration will think twice before ever trying to go down this path again," he said in a statement. ...
United Nations (United States) (AFP) - UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that humanitarian access in Syria was worsening, blaming the government in particular but also armed rebels in a third report on the matter. Ban said Damascus was still stopping aid convoys from crossing into Syria from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in violation of Security Council Resolution 2139 adopted in February. The Council is due to debate the report on May 29. For now, the 15 members have failed to reach an agreement with Russia providing diplomatic cover to Damascus.
Five months of fighting in South Sudan has cut the country's economically vital oil production by nearly 50 percent, the United States special envoy to the country said Thursday. "The conflict at this point has resulted in a reduction by almost half of oil output from South Sudan," Ambassador Donald Booth, special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, told African-based journalists in a conference call from Washington. Oil once generated hundreds of millions of dollars and provided 98 percent of revenue for the government of the impoverished South, which became independent from Sudan three years ago. South Sudan's oil is still exported through Sudanese pipelines.
Brasilia (Brazil) (AFP) - One of Brazil's top Catholic bishops has spoken out in favor of legal unions for homosexual couples, an apparent shift in the Church's stance on the country's existing gay-marriage policy. They need legal support from society," Leonardo Steiner, the secretary general of the National Confederation of Brazilian Bishops, said in an interview with O Globo newspaper published on its website Thursday. Brazil, home to the world's largest Catholic population, has allowed gay marriage since May 2013, when a court ruled clerks could not reject marriage applications from same-sex couples. At the time Brazil's bishops opposed the decision, but Steiner said the Church was constantly evolving.