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AP Top News at 1:52 a.m. EDT

Nevada rancher defends remarks, loses supporters
LAS VEGAS (AP) - A Nevada rancher who became a conservative folk hero for standing up to the government in a fight over grazing rights lost some of his staunch defenders Thursday after wondering aloud whether blacks might have had it better under slavery. Republican politicians from around the country who have rallied to Cliven Bundy's defense in recent weeks denounced the comments and distanced themselves from the rancher, including potential 2016 presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul and Nevada Sen. Dean Heller. Democrats were quick to pounce on the comments and label Bundy a racist.


South Korea ferry disaster may cloud Obama visit
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - President Barack Obama stepped into the familiar role of chief consoler Friday as he arrived for meetings in South Korea, a key U.S. ally that is reeling from a deadly ferry disaster. More than 300 people are dead or missing after the April 16 disaster, with the vast majority of the victims students from a high school near Seoul. The tragedy has consumed South Korean President Park Geun-hye in the lead-up to Obama's visit and could distract from the security and economic agenda she had been expected to highlight during her meetings with the U.S. president.


Seabed search for missing Malaysian jet to widen
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) - The seabed search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is set to widen as a sonar scan of the most likely crash site deep beneath the Indian Ocean nears completion without yielding a single clue, authorities said Friday. Meanwhile in Beijing, about 50 relatives of Chinese passengers on the plane continued a sit-in protest outside the Malaysian Embassy after officials failed to show up to update them on the search.


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APNewsBreak: Ecuador expels US military group
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) - Ecuador has ordered all 20 Defense Department employees in the U.S. Embassy's military group to leave the country by month's end, The Associated Press has learned. The group was ordered to halt operations in Ecuador in a letter dated April 7, said embassy spokesman Jeffrey Weinshenker.


Study: US manufacturers gaining competitiveness
WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. manufacturers have grown more competitive over the past decade compared with factories in China, Brazil and most of the world's other major economies. So says a new private study, which found that rising wages and higher energy costs have diminished China's long-standing edge over the United States. So has a boom in U.S. shale gas production. It's reduced U.S. natural gas prices and slowed the cost of electricity.


Ukraine moves against insurgents in the east
SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) - Russia announced new military exercises Thursday involving ground and air forces near its border with Ukraine, swiftly responding to a Ukrainian operation to drive pro-Russia insurgents out of occupied buildings in the country's tumultuous east. The Ukrainian move, which killed at least two people, brought new threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denounced it as a "punitive operation."


Gunman kills 3 Americans at Kabul hospital
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Three Americans - a pediatrician and a father and son - were killed by an Afghan government security officer at a hospital Thursday, the latest in a series of attacks on foreign civilians that has rattled aid workers, contractors and journalists. Another American, a female medical worker, was wounded in the attack at Cure International Hospital of Kabul, run by a U.S.-based Christian charity, and the gunman also was wounded, officials said.


Israel halts peace talks with Palestinians
JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel broke off Mideast peace talks and brought the U.S.-brokered process to the brink of collapse Thursday, protesting a reconciliation agreement between the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and the militant group Hamas, the Jewish state's sworn enemy. Israel's Security Cabinet made the decision during a marathon emergency meeting convened to discuss the new Palestinian deal. The rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah announced the reconciliation plan Wednesday, meant to end a seven-year rift.


Fury, cargo questions surround sunken SKorea ferry
JINDO, South Korea (AP) - Frustrated relatives of the scores of people still missing from the sinking of the ferry Sewol held the fisheries minister and the coast guard chief overnight, angry about the pace of divers who have recovered 183 bodies so far but may have nearly 120 left to find in the dark rooms of the submerged vessel. Scrutiny about the wreck's cause, meanwhile, has turned to what the ferry was carrying: more than 3,600 tons of cargo, according to the company that loaded it. An inspector that examined the vessel during a redesign said it could safely handle only about 1,000 tons of cargo and passengers, and needed more than 2,000 tons of water as ballast to ensure it remained balanced.


Buffalo Bills cheerleaders suspend operations
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - Pack up the pom-poms in Buffalo, because the Bills will be playing without the support of their official cheerleaders this year. Stephanie Mateczun, whose company manages the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad, said Thursday she has suspended operations through at least the end of the season. The decision was made two days after five former Jills filed a lawsuit complaining they worked hundreds of hours for free, and were subjected to groping and sexual comments.

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