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News Wrap: Germany’s Merkel warns neighbor Russia about potential damage from Ukraine crisis

March 13, 2014 at 6:02 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The war of words on Ukraine escalated today, as did Russian military movements. It all came as a crucial vote in Crimea draws closer.

In the dead of night, about 8,500 Russian troops began new military exercises just across the border from Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry wouldn’t say how long the war games will last, but it did say they involve firing at a potential enemy up to nine miles away.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Sochi for the Paralympics, deflected any blame for the tense situation.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): I would like to assure you that Russia didn’t initiate. It wasn’t an instigator of these difficult circumstances, which you know about and which we are talking about here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Putin’s protestations did little to mollify German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Addressing Parliament, she issued her sternest warning yet.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, Germany (through interpreter): If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine. We wouldn’t only see it, also as neighbors of Russia, as a threat. And it wouldn’t only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia economically and politically.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, D-Vt., Judiciary Committee Chairman: Obviously, today, we’re focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said the damage could be triggered Sunday if Crimea votes to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: The hope, Mr. Chairman, is that reason will prevail, but there’s no guarantee of that whatsoever. The European community is strongly united. They will meet on Monday. The president of the United States has made it clear that he’s prepared to move.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, at the U.N. Security Council, Ukraine’s interim prime minister made a direct plea to the Russian ambassador.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Interim Prime Minister, Ukraine (through interpreter): We are looking for an answer to the question whether the Russians want war. Now, I’m sure, as the prime minister of Ukraine, which for decades had warm and friendly relations with Russia, I am convinced Russians do not want war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, across Crimea, anti-fascist and pro-Russia billboards lined the highways. And inside polling stations, workers put the finishing touches on voting booths for Sunday’s referendum.

At the same time, pro-Russian self-defense units beefed up checkpoints in Crimea. And more recruits to the pro-Russian Crimean army were sworn in to their positions in Simferopol.

The Ukraine-related developments, coupled with weak economic news from China, rattled Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial dropped 231 points to close below 16,109. The Nasdaq fell almost 63 points to close at 4,260, and the Standard & Poor’s 500 nearly 22 points to 1,846.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators say they have reached an elusive compromise to extend government benefits for the long-term unemployed for another five months. Leaders on both sides said today the deal would be retroactive to the end of last year. Roughly two million people have run out of jobless benefits since then.

The death toll rose to at least seven today in New York City, after an explosion that leveled two apartment buildings. Yesterday morning’s blast was triggered by a natural gas leak. More than 60 people were injured, with five more still missing. Mayor Bill de Blasio visited the still-smoldering wreckage today. He praised fire and rescue crews who endured a wet, freezing night to keep searching.

BILL DE BLASIO, D, Mayor of New York: Everyone involved in the rescue effort has given their all. I was up today meeting with some of the first-responders. They have been fighting through the cold. They have been fighting through the wind, exceedingly difficult circumstances, and they have stuck with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Residents reported smelling gas at the site the night before the explosion, but fire and utility officials say they received no complaints of gas leaks in recent weeks.

The same winter storm that swept through New York State pummeled northern New England today with more than two feet of snow. But the storm’s worst effects were in the Midwest, where a 50-vehicle pile-up killed three people yesterday on a turnpike near Sandusky, Ohio. Officials said it will take days to clean up the wreckage.

The international search for a Malaysian jetliner has expanded again toward India. A U.S. Navy destroyer, the Kidd, moved today to join the effort. That word came as U.S. investigators told The Wall Street Journal and others the plane may have flown for hours after its last known contact based on engine readings. Malaysian officials, meanwhile, dismissed Chinese reports of possible debris sightings.

We get more on that angle from Rageh Omaar of Independent Television News.

RAGEH OMAAR: These grainy satellite images released by the Chinese authorities were set to show debris from the Malaysia Airlines plane, some measuring 60 feet in size. Hopes were raised, only to be crushed hours later, another day, another false lead in this extraordinary and mysterious search for Flight MH370.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, Transport Ministry, Malaysia: We have contacted the Chinese Embassy, who have notified us this afternoon that the images were released by mistake and didn’t show any debris from MH370.

RAGEH OMAAR: Six days gone, and not a shred of credible information. Little wonder that speculation about what happened is now rife, ranging from hijacking to the accidental shooting down of the plane. The Malaysian authorities find themselves caught in the middle, defending themselves against the mounting questions and frustrations.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN: There is no real precedent for a situation like this. The plane vanished. We have extended the search area because it is our duty to follow every lead. And we owe it to the families. And trust me when I say we will not give up.

RAGEH OMAAR: All the while, the size of the search operation grows, now covering thousands of square miles in the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman Sea.

It also involves over 80 planes and ships from over nine countries, from the United States to Brunei, all of them unable to find any clues or any answers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Washington, the chief U.S. law enforcement officer has endorsed a proposal to cut federal prison sentences for many nonviolent drug traffickers. Attorney General Eric Holder said today the current policy is not justifiable financially or morally.

ERIC HOLDER, Attorney General: I understand that people feel a certain tension in this notion that we’re going to spend less, we’re going to put people in jail for smaller amounts of time, and yet you’re going to tell me that we’re going to be more safe.

And, yet, the — the empirical studies that I have seen, and which I have faith in, indicate that, if done appropriately, those are in fact the results that you can get.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Holder spoke to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is considering the proposal.

Pope Francis today marked the first anniversary of his papacy. There were no formal celebrations, in keeping with the pontiff’s simpler style. Instead, he took part in a spiritual retreat near Rome, where he sent out a message to 12 million followers on Twitter. It said, simply, “Pray for me.”