AP News in Brief at 8:58 p.m. EDT

The Associated PressJuly 16, 2014 

Ukraine accuses pro-Russia rebels of downing Malaysian plane with 298 aboard

HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down a Malaysian jetliner with 298 people aboard Thursday, sharply escalating the crisis and threatening to draw both East and West deeper into the conflict. The rebels denied downing the aircraft.

American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the plane down but were still working on who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border, a U.S. official said.

Bodies, debris and burning wreckage of the Boeing 777 were strewn over a field near the rebel-held village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, where fighting has raged for months.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden described the plane as having been "blown out of the sky."

The aircraft appeared to have broken up before impact, and there were large pieces of the plane that bore the red, white and blue markings of Malaysia Airlines — now familiar worldwide because of the carrier's still-missing jetliner from earlier this year.

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Israel invades Gaza Strip, escalating military operation against Hamas

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Israeli soldiers backed by tanks invaded the Gaza Strip, escalating a 10-day campaign of heavy air bombardments to try to destroy Hamas' arsenal, rocket-firing abilities and the tunnels militants use to infiltrate Israel.

The heavy thud of tank shells, often just seconds apart, echoed across Gaza City before dawn Friday as flares lit up the night sky. Sirens from ambulances mixed with the Muslim call to prayer from mosque loudspeakers as thick smoke rose into the air from sites where shells and missiles struck.

"There is a tank shell every minute," said an official in the Gaza security operations room, who said all of Gaza's border areas were being shelled and that Hamas fighters were exchanging fire with Israeli troops near northern Gaza town.

"There is also fire from the sea toward police checkpoints," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations.

Israel launched the offensive late Thursday after becoming increasingly exasperated with unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza on its cities, especially following Hamas' rejection of an Egyptian cease-fire plan earlier in the week.

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AP source: Missile took down passenger jet in Ukraine but unclear who launched the strike

WASHINGTON (AP) — American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile took down a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, a U.S. official said, but the Obama administration was still scrambling to confirm who launched the strike and whether there were American citizens killed in the crash.

Vice President Joe Biden said the incident was "not an accident" and described the Malaysia Airlines plane as having been "blown out of the sky."

Among the unanswered questions was whether the missile was launched from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border they share, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name and insisted on anonymity. But the official said U.S. intelligence assessments suggest it is more likely pro-Russian separatists or the Russians rather than Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane.

The U.S. has sophisticated technologies that can detect missile launches, including the identification of heat from a rocket engine.

President Barack Obama, speaking during a trip to Delaware, made no mention of who might be responsible for the crash of the plane carrying 298 people, and called the incident a "terrible tragedy."

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Malaysia's prime minister says downed jetliner did not make any distress call .

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The Malaysia Airlines jetliner that went down in war-torn Ukraine did not make any distress call, Malaysia's prime minister said Friday, adding that its flight route also had been declared safe by the global civil aviation body.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who addressed a news conference after speaking with leaders of Ukraine, the Netherlands, and President Barack Obama, said "no stone will be left unturned" in finding out what happened to Flight 17.

This is the second tragedy to hit Malaysia Airlines this year. Its Flight 370 disappeared on March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

"This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia," Najib said.

In both tragedies, the planes were the wide-bodied Boeing 777-200.

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Afghan commission starts audit of election ballots as gunmen attack Kabul airport

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan's election commission began auditing ballots Thursday following a U.S.-brokered deal between the two presidential contenders while a brazen attack on the Kabul airport underscored the dangers the country still faces in its troubled democracy.

The pre-dawn rocket attack on Kabul International Airport temporarily shut down the facility and set off a gunbattle with security forces in which four attackers were killed, officials said.

The militants occupied two buildings that were under construction some 700 meters (yards) north of the facility and used them to direct rockets and gunfire toward the airport and international jet fighters flying over Kabul, said Afghan army Gen. Afzal Aman. Several rockets hit the airport but no planes were damaged, he added.

Kabul Police Chief Mohammed Zahir Zahir said four of the attackers were killed and that the attack was halted without any civilian or police casualties. The airport later reopened and operations returned to normal, Zahir said.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the pre-dawn assault in a call to The Associated Press.

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Microsoft to cut 18,000 jobs, largest layoff in company history, in pivot away from hardware

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Microsoft announced the biggest layoffs in its 39-year history Thursday, outlining plans to cut 18,000 jobs in a move that marked the CEO's sharpest pivot yet away from his predecessor's drive for the company to make its own devices.

Although some cuts had been expected ever since Microsoft acquired Nokia's mobile-device unit, the number amounted to 14 percent of the Microsoft workforce — about twice what analysts had estimated.

The cuts will include some 12,500 jobs associated with the Nokia unit — nearly half of the 28,000 employees Microsoft brought on board in April through the acquisition.

When the cuts are complete, the company will still have about 10,000 more employees than before the Nokia acquisition, with an overall headcount of 109,000.

In a public email to employees, CEO Satya Nadella said the changes were needed for the company to "become more agile and move faster." The move also pushes Nokia to focus solely on the Windows Phone operating system.

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Prosecutor says California bank robbers intended to take hostages

STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — Misty Holt-Singh had just popped into the bank, leaving her 12-year-old daughter in the car, when the horror began. An hour later, the mother of two lay dead after a bank robbery and planned hostage-taking spun into a chaotic police chase and furious gunbattle during which two holdup men were killed, authorities said.

Holt-Singh was found dead at the end of a shootout in which one of the robbers who took her hostage used her as a human shield, according to police.

"In my over two decades of law enforcement, I have never seen or experienced this type of total disregard for human life nor the intensity of the situation that our officers were faced with," Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said.

"It is very rare for bank robbers to take hostages. It is very rare for them to so heavily arm themselves and prepare to kill and then to actively and continually to try to kill our police officers."

Whose bullets killed Holt-Singh remained unclear Thursday, a day after the burst of violence in this Northern California city, but police said the responsibility rests with the three bank robbers.

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Some defend founder of Mexican group home where residents suffered filth, abuse

ZAMORA, Mexico (AP) — About 500 people marched through this western Mexico city Thursday in support of the embattled but highly regarded founder of a shelter raided amid allegations of sexual and physical abuse and filthy living conditions.

Shelter founder Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, known as "Mama Rosa," had been taking in children for about 65 years and drew support from the government, philanthropists and intellectuals for her "Gran Familia" group home.

But after a police raid on the refuse-strewn group home Tuesday, residents of the shelter told authorities that some employees beat and raped residents, fed them rotting food or locked them in a tiny "punishment" room.

Verduzco remains hospitalized under police guard as she is treated for diabetes and blood pressure problems. Eight of her employees also were detained.

"Mama Rosa, we are with you!" read signs carried by the marchers, most of who wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "I, too, am a child of Mama Rosa."

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Several passengers on downed Malaysian plane were heading to AIDS conference in Australia

SYDNEY (AP) — Several passengers on board a Malaysian jetliner shot down over Ukraine were heading to an international AIDS conference in Australia, officials said Friday.

"A number of people" on board the Boeing 777 were en route to the southern Australian city of Melbourne to attend the 20th International AIDS conference, which starts Sunday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Brisbane.

The plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, crashed Thursday with 298 people on board. American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the aircraft down but it was not yet clear who fired the missile.

The International AIDS Society issued a statement expressing its grief over the news that several of its colleagues and friends were on board.

"At this incredibly sad and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy," the group said.

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Malaysia Airlines says 298 on board doomed flight, including 3 infants

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia Airlines has increased the death toll from Flight 17 that was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine on Thursday to 298 from 295, saying that three infants had not been included in the original list.

The airline also said in a statement Friday on its website that all of its European flights "will be taking alternative routes avoiding the usual route."

Of the known nationalities of the victims, the majority — 154 — were from the Netherlands, while 43, including 15 crew, were from Malaysia.

It said that the nationalities of 41 passengers had not been verified yet.

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