AP Top News at 12:33 p.m. EDT

Russia draws senators' focus in hearing on election meddling
WASHINGTON (AP) - Lawmakers heading the Senate intelligence committee focused squarely on Russia as they opened a hearing Thursday on attempts at undermining the 2016 U.S. presidential election. "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election," Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said. Earlier Thursday, Putin again dismissed what he called "endless and groundless" accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, describing them as part of the U.S. domestic political struggle. He also said he is ready to meet with President Donald Trump at an upcoming arctic summit. The hearing Thursday is to address how the Kremlin allegedly uses technology to spread disinformation in the U.S.

Compromise to undo 'bathroom law' passes key hurdle
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A compromise that would repeal North Carolina's contentious "bathroom law" cleared a key hurdle Thursday when senators approved the measure, which is intended to help stem the financial backlash from the law limiting LGBT protections. Not everyone is pleased with the deal between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic governor. Social conservatives would prefer to have House Bill 2 stay on the books. Gay rights groups believe the replacement bill allows discrimination. Sen. Dan Bishop, a primary sponsor of HB2, denounced the new deal on the Senate floor. "This bill is at best a punt, at worst a betrayal of principle," said the Republican from the Charlotte area.

Malaysia says Kim Jong Nam's body released to North Korea
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - The body of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half brother of North Korea's leader, was released to the North on Thursday, more than a month after his murder at Kuala Lumpur's airport unleashed a fierce diplomatic battle between the two countries. Following negotiations that he described as "very sensitive," Prime Minister Najib Razak said Malaysia agreed to release the body in exchange for the return of nine Malaysians held in North Korea's capital. There were no details on what led to the breakthrough, but North Korea appeared to win some important concessions: custody of the body and the release of at least two suspects who had been holed up in its embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

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Crews to investigate head-on crash that killed 13 in Texas
CONCAN, Texas (AP) - Federal officials on Thursday began an investigation into a head-on collision between a pickup truck and small church bus in southwest Texas that crumpled the front of the bus and killed 13 senior adults returning from a church retreat. The Texas Department of Public Safety refused to speculate on the cause of the Wednesday afternoon crash outside Garner State Park, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of San Antonio, although one spokesman said the truck driver appeared to have crossed the center line. The fronts of both vehicles were heavily damaged in the collision and the bus was backed up onto a guardrail, with glass and debris scattered around.

Mosul shows difficulty of removing militants from urban area
BAGHDAD (AP) - As the fight for the Iraqi city of Mosul drags on, many might ask: Why has it taken the combined militaries of the United States and Iraq backed by an international coalition more than two years to dislodge a relatively small force of militants lacking heavy weaponry? Donald Trump raised the question during his campaign, promising to turn up the heat against the Islamic State group if he became president. Now the growing controversy over the high number of civilian casualties believed caused by recent U.S. airstrikes has touched on a major part of the answer: The militants are mingled among tens of thousands of civilians in Mosul and are willing to take the population down with them.

First on the Martian menu: spuds
LIMA, Peru (AP) - Could potatoes one day support human life on Mars? Scientists in Peru have used a simulator that mimics the harsh conditions on the Red Planet to successfully grow a small potato plant. It's an experiment straight out of the 2015 Hollywood movie "The Martian" that scientists say may also benefit arid regions already feeling the impact of climate change. "It's not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth," said Julio Valdivia, an astrobiologist with Peru's University of Engineering and Technology who is working with NASA on the project.

Negotiator denies UK is blackmailing EU on security
LONDON (AP) - Britain's chief negotiator in the country's divorce from the European Union on Thursday rejected suggestions that the U.K. has threatened to end security cooperation unless it gets a good trade deal with the bloc's remaining member countries. The British government, meanwhile, announced plans for the huge task of converting thousands of EU laws and regulations - covering everything from the safety of airplanes to the curve of bananas - into domestic statutes. Brexit Secretary David Davis said Prime Minister Theresa May's letter Wednesday triggering talks on Britain's departure made clear Britain wants to continue to work with the EU on a range of issues, including security.

Something completely different at McDonald's: Fresh beef
NEW YORK (AP) - Coming soon to McDonald's: Fresh beef. The fast food giant said Thursday that it will swap frozen beef patties for fresh ones in its Quarter Pounder burgers by sometime next year at most of its U.S. locations. It's a major change for McDonald's, which has relied on frozen beef for more than 40 years. Employees will cook up the never-frozen beef on a grill when burgers are ordered. "It's a really hot, juicy burger," said McDonald's USA President Chris Kempczinski. Fresh beef has been the biggest selling point at rival Wendy's. Yet there are larger forces at work that have prompted other menu changes at McDonald's, known for decades more for the billions of people that it has served, rather than its culinary choices.

First Afghan women's orchestra tries to change attitudes
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Afghanistan's first - and only - all-female symphony is trying to change attitudes in a deeply conservative country where many see music as immoral, especially for women. The symphony's two conductors show how difficult that can be, but also how satisfying success is. One of them, Negin Khpolwak, was supported by her father when she joined the Afghanistan National Institute of Music and then became part of its girls' orchestra, called Zohra. But the rest of her family was deeply against it. Her uncles cut off ties with her father. "They told him he is not their brother anymore," said Khpolwak, now 20.

With all the 100 mph pitchers, how long will the arms last?
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) - Even Jose Canseco is uncertain he could take the heat. With all those 100 mph fastballs flying through the strike zone these days from Aroldis Chapman, Noah Syndergaard and others, flame-throwers are the norm rather than the exception - in rotations and bullpens alike. "We had big, strong, powerful characters. We had entertainers, really. I think today they're throwing harder, too. The pitching is amazing," said Canseco, an ex-slugger 16 years removed from his last big league game. "You see every other starter throwing 100 mph. Back then, we didn't have that. Back then, a good quality fastball was 92-93 mph.