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US orders 8,500 troops on heightened alert amid Russia worry

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert Monday to potentially deploy to Europe as part of a NATO “response force” amid growing concern that Russia could soon make a military move on Ukraine. President Joe Biden consulted with key European leaders, underscoring U.S. solidarity with allies there.

Putting the U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for Europe suggested diminishing hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will back away from what Biden himself has said looks like a threat to invade neighboring Ukraine.

At stake, beyond the future of Ukraine, is the credibility of a NATO alliance that is central to U.S. defense strategy but that Putin views as a Cold War relic and a threat to Russian security. For Biden, the crisis represents a major test of his ability to forge a united allied stance against Putin.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said about 8,500 U.S.-based troops are being put on alert for possible deployment — not to Ukraine but to NATO territory in Eastern Europe as part of an alliance force meant to signal a unified commitment to deter any wider Putin aggression.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion. It says Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that has failed to reach any breakthrough, and key players in the drama are making moves that suggest fear of imminent war. Biden has sought to strike a balance between actions meant to deter Putin and those that might provide the Russian leader with an opening to use the huge force he has assembled at Ukraine’s border.

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Hope seen once the omicron wave increases global immunity

World health officials are offering hope that the ebbing of the omicron wave could give way to a new, more manageable phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as they warn of difficult weeks ahead and the possibility of another, more dangerous variant arising.

In the U.S., cases have crested and are dropping rapidly, following a pattern seen in Britain and South Africa, with researchers projecting a period of low spread in many countries by the end of March. Though U.S. deaths — now at 2,000 each day — are still rising, new hospital admissions have started to fall, and a drop in deaths is expected to follow.

The encouraging trends after two years of coronavirus misery have brought a noticeably hopeful tone from health experts. Rosy predictions have crumbled before, but this time they are backed by what could be called omicron’s silver lining: The highly contagious variant will leave behind extremely high levels of immunity.

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci talked on ABC “This Week” about a “best-case scenario” where COVID-19 would fall to manageable levels so the United States could get “back to a degree of normality.”

And on Monday, the World Health Organization issued a statement anticipating an end to the “emergency phase” of the pandemic this year and saying that the omicron variant “offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization.”

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Judges approve special grand jury in Georgia election probe

ATLANTA (AP) — Judges have approved a request for a special grand jury by the Georgia prosecutor who’s investigating whether former President Donald Trump and others broke the law by trying to pressure Georgia officials to throw out Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis last week sent a letter to county superior court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher asking him to impanel a special grand jury. Brasher issued an order Monday saying the request was considered and approved by a majority of the superior court judges.

The special grand jury is to be seated May 2 for a period of up to a year, Brasher’s order says. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney is assigned to supervise and assist the special grand jury.

Willis wrote in her letter to Brasher that her office “has received information indicating a reasonable probability that the State of Georgia’s administration of elections in 2020, including the State’s election of the President of the United States, was subject to possible criminal disruptions.” She said her office has “opened an investigation into any coordinated attempts to unlawfully alter the outcome of the 2020 elections in this state.”

The special grand jury “shall be authorized to investigate any and all facts and circumstances relating directly or indirectly to alleged violations of the laws of the State of Georgia, as set forth in the request of the District Attorney,” the order says.

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Defense: Chauvin called ‘all of the shots’ when Floyd killed

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Prosecutors in the trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights accused the men Monday of standing by as fellow Officer Derek Chauvin “slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them.”

But one defense attorney countered during opening statements of the former officers’ trial that Chauvin called “all of the shots” as the senior officer at the scene and criticized the Minneapolis Police Department for doing too little to train officers to intervene when a colleague should be stopped. Another officer’s attorney focused on Floyd’s struggle with police before they restrained him. And an attorney for the third officer said his client raised concerns about the restraint of Floyd, but was rebuffed.

Former Officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority. Floyd died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pressed him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes while the 46-year-old Black man was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back, Lane held his legs and Thao kept bystanders from intervening.

Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter last year in state court in the videotaped killing that triggered worldwide protests and a reexamination of racism and policing. Chauvin also pleaded guilty to a federal count of violating Floyd’s civil rights.

“For second after second, minute after minute, these three CPR-trained defendants stood or knelt next to Officer Chauvin as he slowly killed George Floyd right in front of them,” prosecutor Samantha Trepel, who works for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told the jury during opening statements. “They chose not to protect George Floyd, the man they had handcuffed and placed in their custody.”

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Ethics office says Reps. Newman, Lamborn may have broken law

WASHINGTON (AP) — A congressional ethics watchdog has concluded that U.S. Reps. Marie Newman of Illinois and Doug Lamborn of Colorado may have violated federal law, prompting reviews from the House Ethics Committee.

Separate investigative reports from the Office of Congressional Ethics released Monday detailed a “substantial reason to believe” that Newman, a Democrat, promised federal employment to a political opponent and that Lamborn, a Republican, misused official resources for personal purposes.

Though the ethics office conducts the initial review and makes recommendations, only the House Ethics Committee has the power to punish a lawmaker for wrongdoing. The committee said in a statement Monday that it would review the reports and investigate further.

REP. MARIE NEWMAN, DEMOCRAT OF ILLINOIS

The allegations against Newman surfaced out of a legal dispute involving an employment contract between the Illinois Democrat and Iymen Chehade, a former foreign policy advisor during her successful House campaign in 2020. Newman a progressive lawmaker, unseated Chicago-area Rep. Dan Lipinski, a staunch abortion opponent and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress at the time.

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At least 6 reported dead in crush at African Cup soccer game

YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — At least six people died in a crush outside a stadium hosting a game at Africa’s top soccer tournament in Cameroon on Monday, a local government official said, realizing fears over the capacity of the country to stage the continent’s biggest sports event.

Naseri Paul Biya, the governor of the central region of Cameroon, said there could be more deaths.

“We are not in position to give you the total number of casualties,” he said.

The crush happened as crowds struggled to get access to Olembe Stadium in the capital city of Yaounde to watch the host country play Comoros in a last 16 knockout game in the African Cup of Nations.

Officials at the nearby Messassi hospital said they received at least 40 injured people, who were rushed to the hospital by police and civilians. The officials said the hospital wasn’t capable of treating all of them.

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New space telescope reaches final stop million miles out

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The world’s biggest, most powerful space telescope arrived at its observation post 1 million miles from Earth on Monday, a month after it lifted off on a quest to behold the dawn of the universe.

On command, the James Webb Space Telescope fired its rocket thrusters for nearly five minutes to go into orbit around the sun at its designated location, and NASA confirmed the operation went as planned.

The mirrors on the $10 billion observatory still must be meticulously aligned, the infrared detectors sufficiently chilled and the scientific instruments calibrated before observations can begin in June.

But flight controllers in Baltimore were euphoric after chalking up another success.

“We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

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Asian shares decline amid omicron, Fed, Ukraine jitters

TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares skidded Tuesday following a volatile day on Wall Street. Inflation-fighting measures from the Federal Reserve and the possibility of conflict between Russia and Ukraine are overhanging markets.

Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 slipped 2.0% in morning trading to 27,027.23. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 dropped 2.3% to 6,972.10. South Korea’s Kospi lost 2.1% to 2,734.03. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shed 1.7% to 24,242.91, while the Shanghai Composite dipped 1.0% to 3,487.46.

“The surprise turnaround in U.S. market overnight does not seem to provide any relief into Asia’s session today,” said Yeap Jun Rong, market strategist at IG.

A late-day buying spree pushed the benchmark S&P 500 index to a 0.3% gain after pulling it out of so-called correction territory — a drop of 10% or more from its most recent high. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had declined more than 1,000 points before rallying and ending higher.

“We’re in this wait-and-see mode, which is almost the most uncomfortable place to be, so I think the market is really grappling with that,” said Lindsey Bell, chief markets and money strategist at Ally Invest.

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Soldiers declare military junta in control in Burkina Faso

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — More than a dozen mutinous soldiers declared Monday on state television that a military junta had seized control of Burkina Faso after detaining the democratically elected president following a day of gunbattles in the capital of the West African country.

The military coup in a nation that was once a bastion of stability was the third of its kind in the region in the last 18 months, creating upheaval in some of the countries hardest hit by Islamic extremist attacks.

Capt. Sidsore Kaber Ouedraogo said the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration “has decided to assume its responsibilities before history.” The soldiers put an end to President Roch Marc Christian Kabore’s presidency because of the deteriorating security situation and the president’s inability to manage the crisis, he said.

It was not immediately known where Kabore was, and the junta spokesman said only that the coup had taken place “without any physical violence against those arrested, who are being held in a safe place, with respect for their dignity.”

A soldier in the mutiny, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of situation, told The Associated Press that Kabore had submitted his resignation.

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Sheldon Silver, NY power broker sent to prison, dead at 77

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful figures in state government for two decades before his conviction on corruption charges, has died in federal custody. He was 77.

Silver died Monday, the federal Bureau of Prisons said, adding that the official cause of death would be determined by the medical examiner.

Silver’s supporters had said he was in failing health from multiple medical conditions. He had been serving his sentence at the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts, but was in a hospital in nearby Ayer, Massachusetts, at the time of his death, the bureau said.

The Manhattan Democrat, who told a judge he prayed he would not die in prison, was serving a more than six-year sentence for using his clout in state government to benefit real estate developers, who rewarded Silver by referring lucrative business to his law firm.

Silver’s conviction ended a nearly four-decade career in the Assembly. He first won a seat representing Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1976. Although he cut a low-key figure in the halls of the state Capitol, carefully parsing out comments in a baritone mumble, he was a consummate practitioner of Albany’s inside game.