Six more years for Putin

Russia's presidential election was tainted Sunday by unprecedented pressure on voters to turn out and incidents of suspected ballot box stuffing — a barely democratic exercise that will grant Vladimir Putin another six years of power.

His critics have called the election a farce and urged voters to boycott, but millions of Russians hail the 65-year-old former KGB officer for defending their proud nation from a hostile outside world.

Putin is facing seven challengers on the ballot but the outcome of the vote is pre-ordained, given his high popularity ratings. The major goal for Russian authorities is producing a big turnout that will hand Putin the legitimacy he craves and provide a convincing mandate for his fourth term.

Sunday's election is expected to further embolden the Russian president both at home and in world affairs. It could also strengthen his hand if he decides to extend his rule beyond 2024 by abolishing term limits — like neighbouring China has just done — or by shifting into another position of power.

Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin was confident of victory, saying he would consider any percentage of votes a success.

"The program that I propose for the country is the right one," he declared.

Given the lack of real competition, authorities are struggling against voter apathy — and have put many of Russia's nearly 111 million voters under intense pressure to cast ballots.

Yevgeny, a 43-year-old mechanic voting in central Moscow, said he briefly wondered whether it was worth voting.

"But the answer was easy ... if I want to keep working, I vote," he said. He said his bosses haven't asked for proof of voting but he fears they will. He spoke on condition that his last name not be used out of concern that his employer — the Moscow city government — would find out.

Across the country in the city of Yekaterinburg, a doctor also said she was being coerced to vote.

When she hadn't voted by midday, "The chief of my unit called me and said I was the only one who hadn't voted," said the doctor, Yekaterina, who spoke on condition her last name not be used because she fears repercussions.

Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, told The Associated Press that local officials and state employees have all received orders "from higher up" to make sure the presidential vote turnout is over 60 per cent.

In Moscow, first-time voters were being given free tickets for pop concerts, and health authorities were offering free cancer screenings at selected polling stations.

Voters cast ballots from the Pacific coast to Siberia and Moscow. Voting concludes at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT; 2 p.m. EDT) in Kaliningrad, the Baltic exclave that is Russia's westernmost region and initial results are expected shortly afterward.

Voters appeared to be turning in out in larger numbers Sunday than in Russia's last presidential election in 2012, when Putin faced a serious opposition movement and violations like multiple voting, ballot stuffing and coercion marred the voting. Voting fraud was widespread in Russia's 2011 parliamentary vote, triggering massive protests in Moscow against Putin's rule.

Election authorities said turnout nationwide Sunday was about 52 per cent at 5 p.m. Moscow time.

Some 145,000 observers were monitoring the voting in the world's largest country, including 1,500 foreigners and representatives from opposition leader Alexei Navalny's movement, and they and ordinary Russians reported hundreds of voting problems.

Some examples: ballot boxes being stuffed with extra ballots in multiple regions; an election official assaulting an observer; CCTV cameras obscured by flags or nets from watching ballot boxes; discrepancies in ballot numbers; last-minute voter registration changes likely designed to boost turnout and a huge pro-Putin board inside one polling station.

Russian election officials moved quickly to respond to some of the violations. They suspended the chief of a polling station near Moscow where a ballot stuffing incident was reported and sealed the ballot box. A man accused of tossing multiple ballots into a box in the far eastern town of Artyom was arrested.

Speaking from his Moscow headquarters, Navalny dismissed Putin's challengers on the ballot as "puppets," urged Russian voters to boycott the presidential election as he was doing and vowed to continue defying the Kremlin with street protests.

Russian authorities had appealed to patriotic feelings by holding Sunday's election on the anniversary of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

That insulted the Ukrainian government, which refused to let ordinary Russians vote, drawing angry protests from Russian officials. Ukraine security forces blocked the Russian Embassy in Kyiv and consulates elsewhere Sunday as the government protested the voting in Crimea, whose annexation is still not internationally recognized.

Ukrainian leaders are also angry over Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014.

Polls show that most Russians view the takeover of the Black Sea peninsula as a major achievement despite subsequent Western sanctions. Putin also revved up his popularity by taking on Islamic State extremists in Syria.

"Who am I voting for? Who else?" asked Putin supporter Andrei Borisov, 70, a retired engineer in Moscow. "The others, it's a circus."

He expressed hope that Putin will continue to stand up to the United States and the West and will improve living standards at home.

During the campaign, Putin travelled across Russia pledging to raise wages, spend more on the country's crumbling health care and education and modernize Russia's dilapidated infrastructure.


Mall gunman kills ex-wife

UPDATE: 8:35 p.m.

A man argued with his former wife at a Southern California mall before shooting her to death and turning the gun on himself, authorities said, leading shoppers to run into stores and out the exits Saturday.

The 33-year-old Los Angeles-area gunman was wounded and taken to a hospital, officials said. He was in critical condition, the Ventura County Star newspaper reported .

The man went to a store at The Oaks mall in the city of Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles (64 kilometres) west of Los Angeles, and had an argument with the 30-year-old victim before shooting her, Ventura County sheriff's Sgt. Eric Buschow said.

The divorced couple have children, who have been found safe, said Buschow, adding that initial indications show the shooting was a murder and attempted suicide.

UPDATE: 4:35 p.m.

Shoppers at a Southern California mall ran into stores and out the exits Saturday after authorities said a gunman shot and killed one person and then turned the gun on himself.

The shooter was wounded and taken to a hospital, according to Ventura County fire Capt. Steve Swindle. He said there was no threat to the public. Shoppers had been locked down at The Oaks mall in the city of Thousand Oaks, about 40 miles west of Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Simpson, 17, was shopping with his mother at a department store when an announcement came over the intercom about a threat outside the mall.

"I went to Nordstrom to get pants, and the next thing I know, the doors are being sealed," Simpson said.

He said he and his mom were "a little shaken" but OK. They were in the store for more than an hour but shoppers were free to move around and employees were helping people stay comfortable and calm, Simpson said.

Firefighters opened up a nearby fire station as a safety zone for shoppers.

A message left for the Ventura County sheriff's department wasn't immediately returned.

ORIGINAL: 3:45 p.m.

Authorities say one person was killed and one injured after a shooting at a Southern California mall.

The Ventura County sheriff's department says on Twitter that Saturday's incident has been contained and there's no threat to the public.

The county fire department says the victim who was injured at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks, California, was being taken to a hospital.

Authorities are setting up a safety zone across the street. A message left for the sheriff's department wasn't immediately returned.

Chicago River dyed green

The Chicago River has been dyed a bright shade of green, kicking off the city's St. Patrick's Day festivities.

Thousands of people lined the riverfront downtown Chicago on Saturday to see the dyeing, a tradition for the holiday that dates to 1962.

A parade was also held. Among those marching in the parade were Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and many candidates running in Tuesday's primary election.

The grand marshal was Alderman Patrick O'Connor. He says it's a chance to celebrate "the hard working Irish men and women" of Chicago.

The Chicago Plumbers Union started the tradition of dyeing the river green, with a material once used to locate leaks in buildings. Organizers say the powder used is a secret recipe and is environmentally safe.


Teacher fires gun in class

A teacher at a Northern California high school has apologized for accidentally firing a gun inside his classroom, causing minor injuries to three students.

Dennis Alexander, who is also an elected member of the Seaside City Council and a reserve officer for a nearby police department, apologized and thanked community members for their support at a council meeting Thursday night, the Monterey Herald newspaper reported .

"I can't find the words to say how sorry I am for the incident," he said at the packed meeting attended by about 100 students who supported Alexander.

Students also have organized a petition to keep him on as a teacher. Alexander has been placed on administrative leave from his job at the school and his role at the Sand City Police Department.

Police have said Alexander was pointing the gun at the ceiling Tuesday to make sure it was not loaded when it discharged inside his classroom at Seaside High School. He was not authorized to have a gun on the campus, in the coastal community about 115 miles south of San Francisco.

Police say no one sustained serious injuries in the incident a day before a national walkout by students to protest gun violence in schools.

The accidental shooting came amid a national debate over whether to arm teachers in the aftermath of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.

Russia retaliates against U.K.

Russia announced Saturday it is expelling 23 British diplomats and threatened further retaliatory measures in a growing diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

Britain's government said the move was expected, and that it doesn't change their conviction that Russia was behind the poisoning of ex-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain will consider further retaliatory steps in the coming days alongside its allies.

The Russian Foreign Ministry ordered the 23 diplomats to leave within a week. It also said it is ordering the closure in Russia of the British Council, a government-backed organization for cultural and scientific co-operation, and is ending an agreement to reopen the British consulate in St. Petersburg.

The announcement followed Britain's order this week for 23 Russian diplomats to leave the U.K. because Russia was not co-operating in the case of the Skripals, who were found March 4 poisoned by a nerve agent that British officials say was developed in Russia. They remain in critical condition and a policeman who visited their home is in serious condition.

Britain's foreign secretary accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering the poisoning of the Skripals. Putin's spokesman denounced the claim.

Britain's Foreign Office said Saturday that "Russia's response doesn't change the facts of the matter — the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable."

The British Council said it was "profoundly disappointed" at its pending closure. The organization has been operating in Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

"It is our view that when political or diplomatic relations become difficult, cultural relations and educational opportunities are vital to maintain on-going dialogue between people and institutions," it said.

The Russian statement said the government could take further measures if Britain makes any more "unfriendly" moves.

Britain's National Security Council will meet early next week to consider the next steps, May said.

Western powers see the nerve-agent attack as the latest sign of alleged Russian meddling abroad. The tensions threaten to overshadow Putin's expected re-election Sunday for another six-year presidential term.

The poisoning has plunged Britain and Russia into a war of recrimination and blame.

British Ambassador Laurie Bristow, who was summoned the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on Saturday to be informed of the moves, said the poisoning was an attack on "the international rules-based system on which all countries, including Russia, depend for their safety and security."

"This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack in the United Kingdom, the attempted murder of two people, using a chemical weapon developed in Russia and not declared by Russia at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as Russia was and is obliged to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention," he added.

But Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev blamed Britain for the escalating tensions.

"We have not raised any tensions in our relations, it was the decision by the British side without evidence."

Guards watch prisoner die

Jailhouse video reveals California sheriff's deputies watching and sometimes laughing as a schizophrenic man who had been strapped naked to a chair for 46 hours writhes on the floor of his cell, loses consciousness and eventually dies.

The Tribune of San Luis Obispo on Friday posted a nearly eight-minute video of Andrew Holland's death on Jan. 22, 2017. The newspaper said it reviewed more than 100 hours of jailhouse surveillance video in all.

San Luis Obispo County Administrative Officer Wade Horton called the footage "extremely painful to watch."

"What happened to Andrew Holland was a tragedy that impacts our entire community," Horton told The Tribune in an email. "Although we can't bring Andrew back, our county has made and continues to make changes in response to this terrible event."

Last year, the county awarded Holland's family $5 million for his death, which a medical examiner determined was caused by a pulmonary embolism.

The Tribune reported that authorities have since stopped using the restraint chair, but Sheriff Ian Parkinson would not say whether anyone had been disciplined.

Holland, 36, had schizophrenia since his early 20s and was incarcerated on and off over the years, usually for minor offences. He was taken into custody in 2015 on charges of battery, resisting an officer and probation violations. He was strapped into the chair after repeatedly hitting himself.

The video posted on The Tribune's website shows sheriff's deputies periodically entering his cell to rotate his arms and legs and offer him food and water. Strapped to the chair, he is unable to use a nearby toilet.

County policy requires rotating a restrained inmate's extremities every 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours to prevent blood clots that can lead to a fatal embolism.

The newspaper reported that Holland was released from the chair and moved to another cell so human waste that collected under his chair, and is visible in the video, could be cleaned up.

Video of him in the other cell shows him lying on a tile floor with just a blanket.

At one point, he stands up briefly, appears to be stricken by tremors and lies down again, covering himself with the blanket. Soon after, he appears to have trouble breathing, then loses consciousness.

Several deputies and paramedics enter the cell and attempt to revive him, while one deputy stands smiling and talking to another.

Russia expels diplomats

Russia on Saturday announced it is expelling 23 British diplomats and threatened further measures in retaliation in a growing diplomatic dispute over a nerve agent attack on a former spy in Britain.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also said in a statement that it is ordering the closure of the British Council, a government organization for cultural and scientific co-operation, and that it is ending an agreement to reopen the British consulate in St. Petersburg.

It ordered the diplomats to leave within a week.

The announcement followed on the heels of Britain's order this week for 23 Russian diplomats to leave the U.K. because Russia was not co-operating in the case of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, both found March 4 poisoned by a nerve agent that British officials say was developed in Russia. The Skripals remain in critical condition.

Britain's foreign secretary accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of personally ordering the poisoning of the Skripals. Putin's spokesman denounced the claim.

The Russian statement said the government could take further measures if Britain takes any more "unfriendly" moves toward Russia. British Ambassador Laurie Bristow was called to the Foreign Ministry Saturday morning to be informed of the moves.

"We will always do what is necessary to defend ourselves, our allies and our values against an attack of this sort, which is an attack not only on the United Kingdom, but upon the international rules-based system on which all countries, including Russia, depend for their safety and security," Bristow told reporters after being informed of the expulsions.

"This crisis has arisen as a result of an appalling attack in the United Kingdom, the attempted murder of two people, using a chemical weapon developed in Russia and not declared by Russia at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as Russia was and is obliged to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention," he added.

A Russian lawmaker warned Britain against escalating the crisis.

"It is possible that (Britain) will continue to respond; we are ready for this. But London must understand that this will not do anything, it is useless to talk with Russia with such methods," Dzhabarov was quoted as saying by the state news agency RIA Novosti.

While Russia has vigorously denied involvement in the attack, Western powers see it as the latest sign of alleged Russian meddling abroad. The tensions threaten to overshadow Putin's expected re-election Sunday for another six-year presidential term.

Kia/Hyundai airbag probe

Air bags in some Hyundai and Kia cars failed to inflate in crashes and four people are dead. Now the U.S. government's road safety agency wants to know why.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it's investigating problems that affect an estimated 425,000 cars made by the Korean automakers. The agency also is looking into whether the same problem could happen in vehicles made by other companies.

In documents posted on its website Saturday , the safety agency says the probe covers 2011 Hyundai Sonata midsize cars and 2012 and 2013 Kia Forte compacts. The agency says it has reports of six front-end crashes with significant damage to the cars. Four people died and six were injured.

The problem has been traced to electrical circuit shorts in air bag control computers made by parts supplier ZF-TRW. NHTSA now wants to know if other automakers used the same computer.

On Feb. 27, Hyundai recalled nearly 155,000 Sonatas due to air bag failures, which the company has traced to a short circuit in the air bag control computers. Hyundai's sister automaker Kia, which sells similar vehicles, has yet to issue a recall. No deaths or injuries were disclosed in Hyundai's recall documents, which were posted by NHTSA in early March.

Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor says the problem occurred in rare head-on collisions that were offset from the centre of the vehicles. "It's very unusual to have that kind of collision," he said Saturday.

Dealers will consider offering loaner cars to owners until the problem can be repaired, he said. "We certainly would do everything we can to help our customers," Trainor said.

Messages were left Saturday with spokesmen for Kia and ZF-TRW.

According to NHTSA, Hyundai investigated and found the problem was "electrical overstress" in the computers. The company didn't have a fix developed at the time but said it was investigating the problem with ZF-TRW. Hyundai does not yet have a fix for the problem but said it expects the Sonata recall to start April 20. The problem also can stop the seat belts from tightening before a crash.

In the documents, NHTSA said it understands that the Kia Fortes under investigation use similar air bag control computers made by ZF-TRW. The agency says it also is looking into a 2016 recall involving Fiat Chrysler vehicles that had a similar problem causing the air bags not to deploy.

The agency says it will evaluate the scope of Hyundai's recall, confirm Kia's use of the same or similar air bag control computers and look into the cause. It also will investigate whether "any other vehicle manufacturers used the same or similar" ZF-TRW computers and whether there have been any similar air bag failures.

NHTSA says four crashes occurred in Sonatas and two happened in Fortes. One Forte crash happened in Canada.

Ski lift crash injures eight

An out of control chairlift at a Georgian ski lift recently injured eight people after it malfunctioned, sending dozens of people careening backwards down the hill. 

Video posted online shows dozens of people jumping off the lift before reaching the bottom, as chairs pile up and people scream. 

Several people were caught in the pile up and injured. 

The Guardian reports that Davit Sergeenko, the Georgian Minister of Health, Labor and Social Affairs, said two of the injured tourists, including a pregnant woman from Sweden, were airlifted to hospital, but no one suffered serious injuries. 

The incident was reportedly caused by an "electricity outage," according to Georgian economy minister, Dimitry Kumsishvili.

Oops: dog flown to Japan

A dog who was mistakenly flown to Japan is back with his family in Kansas.

The German Shepherd, named Irgo, arrived at a Wichita airport Thursday night after a flight on a private plane from Japan.

Kara Swindle and her two children were flying on United Airlines from Oregon to Kansas City, Missouri, on Tuesday during a move to Wichita, Kansas.

When they went to pick up Irgo, they instead were given a Great Dane.

United said in a statement that the dogs were somehow put on the wrong flights during a connecting flight in Denver.

Irgo's misadventure began a day after a French bulldog puppy died aboard a United flight after a flight attendant required a passenger to put her pet carrier in the overhead bin.

Taxi to and from robbery

Police say a 19-year-old Indiana man took a cab to and from a bank robbery and that he paid the driver with some of his stolen cash.

Derrick Faria was arrested less than an hour after Thursday's robbery of a Fifth Third Bank branch in Evansville. The Evansville Courier & Press reports that Faria reportedly passed a teller a note demanding money, but that he didn't show a weapon.

Faria is being held at the Vanderburgh County Jail on preliminary charges of robbery and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Court records show that Faria hadn't been formally charged as of Friday morning. They didn't list an attorney for him.

Guilty on subway bomb

A teenage Iraqi asylum-seeker who told police he had been trained by the Islamic State group was convicted of attempted murder on Friday for planting a home-made bomb on a London subway train.

Ahmed Hassan, 18, showed no emotion as he was found guilty at London's Central Criminal Court.

The bomb partially exploded on a London Underground train at Parsons Green station on Sept. 15, sending a fireball down the packed carriage that left 23 people with burn injuries. Police say 28 more were hurt in a panicked rush to leave the train.

Prosecutors said there would have been many more injuries and probably deaths if the device had operated properly. Prosecutor Alison Morgan told jurors it was just "a matter of luck" that the bomb didn't fully detonate.

Hassan admitted building the bomb but denied attempted murder, saying he had not meant for it to explode. On the witness stand he said he only wanted to cause a fire because he was "bored and stressed" and had developed a fantasy about becoming a fugitive.

Prosecutors said Hassan built the device from everyday ingredients, following instructions he found online. He ordered hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals to make the explosive TATP, and bought nuts, bolts and knives for shrapnel at supermarkets.

He set a timer and left the bomb, inside a white bucket wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag, aboard a London Underground train during the morning rush hour. Hassan got off the train one stop before it exploded.

The teenager left northern Iraq and arrived in Britain in 2015 after travelling across Turkey and Europe and stowing away on a truck through the Channel Tunnel. He claimed asylum and was living with a foster family near London and attending a college before the attack.

British authorities have been criticized for failing to foresee that Hassan, who had shown signs of depression and trauma, might act violently. During a January 2016 immigration interview, he told officials that he was recruited by IS in Iraq and forced to train with them.

"They trained us how to kill. It was all religious based," he said.

In court, Hassan claimed he had made up the claim about IS to increase his chances of getting asylum in Britain.

He told a teacher at his college that he has a "duty to hate Britain," because he blamed it for a bomb that killed his father in Iraq more than a decade before. The teacher referred him to Prevent, a government-run de-radicalization program.

Commander Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police Counterterrorism Command, said Hassan was "devious and cunning."

Haydon said Hassan appeared to engage with the de-radicalization program, "but he kept secret what he was planning and plotting."

Hassan will be sentenced next week. He faces a maximum of life in prison.

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