Virginia trooper dies after being shot by gunman at bus station

By Gary Robertson| RICHMOND, Va.

RICHMOND, Va. A Virginia state trooper who was engaged in a training exercise at a Richmond bus station died on Thursday after a man pulled out a gun and opened fire before being fatally shot by two police officers, police said.

The trooper, Chad Dermyer, 37, was shot multiple times and died after being transported to an area hospital, Virginia State Police Colonel Steven Flaherty told a news conference.

The gunman, who police did not identify, died after being transported to the VCU medical Center, Corinne Geller, spokeswoman for Virginia state police, told reporters.

Police did not provide any information on the gunman and did not say why he was at the bus station. Police did say that “the shooter continued to be combative as police took him into custody.”

The suspect’s firearm was recovered, Geller said.

Two women inside the Greyhound bus station were also shot, but their injuries were non-life-threatening, Geller said. Police did not identify them.

Dermyer, who had recently been transferred to an counter-terrorism unit, was among roughly a dozen troopers participating in a training session. Police provided no further details on the training exercise and did not say if it was part of the anti-terrorism unit.

Dermyer was in uniform when he approached the man at around 2:45 p.m. EDT, police said.

Dermyer joined the department in 2014, police said. He had served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is survived by his wife and two young children.

Officials from the Richmond Police Department, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Henrico County Police, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security responded to the scene, Geller said.

Greyhound, owned by FirstGroup PLC (FGP.L), said the station was closed until further notice and the company was actively working with authorities to provide any information needed, including video surveillance that was captured.

Greyhound said in a statement that no employees were injured.

(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Melissa Fares in New York; writing by Scott Malone and Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Diane Craft)

GE Capital asks U.S. government to lift ‘too big to fail’ designation

By Lisa Lambert| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Lender GE Capital asked the U.S. government on Thursday to stop designating it as “too big to fail,” saying it had shrunk to the point where it would not pose a major threat to the nation’s financial stability if it experiences distress.

Chief Executive Officer Keith Sherin said in a statement that the General Electric Co (GE.N) unit no longer met the criteria for a “systemically important financial institution,” a label that can trigger requirements for stricter oversight and more capital.

The application came the day after a federal judge struck down the designation of insurer MetLife Inc (MET.N), but GE Capital said the two events were unrelated. The company had said in October that it hoped to apply to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which includes the Treasury secretary and Federal Reserve chair, for “de-designation” in the first quarter.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law authorized regulators to designate non-bank financial companies as systemically important, largely in response to the near-collapse of insurer American International Group Inc (AIG.N) and the $182 billion U.S. government bailout it received during the 2008 economic meltdown.

Only four non-banks have been deemed too big to fail, and the label has prompted most to consider reorganizing to pre-empt any increased regulation. GE Capital is the first to apply to have the designation removed.

Shares of General Electric were up 0.4 percent at $31.96 in afternoon trading. The industrial conglomerate has been working to reduce GE Capital’s size and said last April that it would focus on technology and manufacturing.

GE Capital, which received the systemically important label in 2013, said it had more than halved its assets to $265 billion from $549 billion at the end of 2012.

The unit said it had ended all consumer lending in the United States, reduced real estate debt by more than 75 percent, eliminated its real estate equity and cut outstanding commercial paper by almost 90 percent.

“Our plan to change our business model, shrink the company and reduce our risk profile has been successful,” Sherin said.

“SIGNIFICANTLY DE-RISKED”

The Financial Stability Oversight Council “welcomes the opportunity to evaluate developments at any designated non-bank financial company and their potential effect on financial stability,” said Treasury spokesman Rob Friedlander. “There is a clear process for de-designation.”

Each year the council reviews its previous designations and decides whether any changes at a company justify a rescission of the label, he said.

“Before the financial crisis, some of the largest, riskiest non-bank financial companies were not subject to adequate oversight,” Friedlander added.

S&P Global Market Intelligence analyst Jim Corridore, who follows General Electric, said in a note on Thursday that he expected GE Capital’s designation to be removed.

“GE Capital’s transformation has significantly de-risked the company,” Corridore said.

MetLife, the largest U.S. life insurer, sued after it was designated systemically important in 2014. Earlier this year, it said the “regulatory environment” and potentially large capital requirements were causing it to consider spinning off its retail business.

Meanwhile, billionaire investor Carl Icahn has pressured AIG to split into smaller companies to shed its designation.

AIG CEO Pete Hancock said on Thursday that the MetLife court decision created an opportunity for the company to seek de-designation, but it was “reserving judgment.”

Prudential Financial Inc (PRU.N), which was designated systemically important in 2013, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump meets with Republican leadership; party unity discussed

By Steve Holland and John Whitesides| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump made a surprise closed-door visit to the Republican National Committee on Thursday after a tumultuous two days on the campaign trail that included a reversal of his pledge to support the party’s nominee.

Trump, who is also struggling to contain the fallout from his Wednesday comment that women who have abortions should be punished if the procedure is outlawed, said afterward he had a “nice meeting” to talk about party unity with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

“Looking forward to bringing the party together,” Trump said on Twitter. “And it will happen!”

Priebus said the meeting was scheduled days ago and included a discussion about the process heading into the party’s July convention in Cleveland. Trump leads the Republican race, but is at risk of falling short of the 1,237 delegates needed to become the party’s nominee in the Nov. 8 election, raising the prospect of a contested convention.

“We did talk about unity and working together and making sure when we go to Cleveland, and come out of Cleveland, that we’re working in the same direction,” Priebus told the Fox News Channel.

Trump’s relationship with the RNC has been contentious at times, and he recently complained the party was not treating him fairly as it prepared for a possible contested convention.

On Tuesday, Trump backed away from the loyalty pledge he signed in September promising to support the party’s eventual nominee and not to run an independent campaign for the White House.

The RNC pledge has unraveled as Trump’s remaining rivals, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich, also indicated they were unlikely to observe the pledge if Trump was the nominee.

Priebus refused to say if the discarded loyalty pledge was discussed at the meeting with Trump, which lasted just under an hour.

The billionaire businessman was in Washington for a morning gathering of his newly established foreign policy team. A source who attended said the group discussed threats from Islamic State militants, nuclear proliferation, homeland security assessments and European security levels.

Trump’s campaign also announced it was setting up a Washington office to run its convention and delegate operations and work with the RNC and Congress.

“SIMPLE MISSPEAK”

The campaign has been busy trying to dig out from under an avalanche of criticism over Trump’s abortion comment, even though he quickly reversed his stance.

Trump pulled back from his initial comments within an hour, first in a statement saying that U.S. states should handle abortion issues and later saying doctors who perform abortions are the ones who should be held responsible.

“You have a presidential candidate that clarified the record not once but twice,” Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told CNN, calling the initial comments a “simple misspeak.” She said Trump was “pro-life with exceptions” and said his statements after the comments in an MSNBC interview were an accurate depiction of his views.

“We shouldn’t make this a 24-hour headline when we have things like terrorism going on in the world.”

Trump’s latest controversy threatened to further erode his standing with women voters, many of whom have been offended by his use of vulgarities and insulting language to describe women during the campaign.

The abortion flap erupted as Trump campaigned in Wisconsin ahead of the state’s primary on Tuesday. The primary will be particularly important because all 42 delegates will be awarded to the winner of the popular vote, rather than distributed proportionate to the vote. Two opinion polls released in the last two days showed Cruz moving ahead of Trump by 10 percentage points in Wisconsin.

Trump’s meetings with his new foreign policy advisers follow several controversial statements on national security issues, prompting critics to question his suitability to be commander in chief.

Trump has declared NATO obsolete, said Saudi Arabia is too dependent on the United States and said Japan and South Korea may need to develop their own nuclear programs because the U.S. security umbrella is too costly to maintain.

In the same MSNBC town hall where he made the abortion comments, Trump refused to rule out the potential use of nuclear weapons in Europe or the Middle East to combat Islamic State militants. “I would never take any of my cards off the table,” he said.

Trump told the Fox News Channel that the nuclear issue was discussed at his foreign policy meeting “and everybody agrees with me. You don’t take it off the table.”

Many establishment Republicans have labored to block Trump from getting the nomination at the July convention, worried that he will lead the party to an overwhelming defeat in November.

Trump’s Republican rivals said his abortion comments were just another example that raises questions about his suitability for the White House.

“It just shows that he’s really not prepared to be president of the United States,” Kasich told reporters at a New York news conference, adding that the president should not be constantly rowing back on a series of “wild-eyed suggestions.”

“I have to tell you that as commander in chief and leader of the free world, you don’t get do-overs. You need to be able to get it right the first time,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Megan Cassella, Mark Hosenball, Julia Harte; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Leslie Adler)

India overpass collapse kills 14; scores feared trapped

By Supriyo Hazra| KOLKATA, India

KOLKATA, India An overpass under construction in the bustling Indian city of Kolkata collapsed on Thursday on to vehicles and street vendors below, killing at least 14 people with more than 100 people feared trapped.

Residents used their bare hands to try to rescue people pinned under a 100-metre (110-yard) length of metal and cement that snapped off at one end and came crashing down in a teeming commercial district near Girish Park.

“The concrete had been laid last night at this part of the bridge,” resident Ramesh Kejriwal told Reuters.

“I am lucky as I was planning to go downstairs to have juice. When I was thinking about it, I saw that the bridge had collapsed.”

Video footage aired on TV channels showed a street scene with two auto rickshaws and a crowd of people suddenly obliterated by a mass of falling concrete that narrowly missed cars crawling in a traffic jam.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, whose center-left party is seeking re-election in the state of West Bengal next month, rushed to the scene.

“We will take every action to save lives of those trapped beneath the collapsed flyover. Rescue is our top priority,” she said.

Banerjee, 61, said those responsible for the disaster would not be spared. Yet she herself faces questions about a construction project that has been plagued by delays and safety fears.

A newspaper reported last November that Banerjee wanted the overpass – already five years overdue – to be completed by February. Project engineers expressed concerns over whether this would be possible, The Telegraph said at the time.

The disaster could play a role in the West Bengal election, one of five being held next month that will give an interim verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nearly two years in power.

Indian company IVRCL (IVRC.NS) was building the 2-km (1.2-mile) Vivekananda Road overpass, according to its web site. Its shares closed down 5 percent after falling by up to 11.8 percent on news of the disaster.

IVRCL’s director of operations, A.G.K. Murthy, said the company was not sure of the cause of the disaster.

“We did not use any inferior quality material and we will cooperate with the investigators,” Murthy told reporters in Hyderabad where the firm is based. “We are in a state of shock.”

NO ACCESS

A coordinated rescue operation was slow to get under way, with access for heavy lifting gear and ambulances restricted by the buildings on either side of the flyover and heavy traffic.

Police said that 78 injured had been taken to Kolkata’s Medical College Hospital after the disaster struck at around noon.

“Most were bleeding profusely. The problem is that nobody is able to drive an ambulance to the spot,” said Akhilesh Chaturvedi, a senior police officer.

Eyewitness Ravindra Kumar Gupta, a grocer, said two buses carrying more than 100 passengers were trapped. Eight taxis and six auto rickshaws were partly visible in the wreckage.

“Every night, hundreds of laborers would build the flyover and they would cook and sleep near the site by day,” said Gupta, who together with friends pulled out six bodies.

“The government wanted to complete the flyover before the elections and the laborers were working on a tight deadline … Maybe the hasty construction led to the collapse.”

(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain, Tommy Wilkes, Neha Dasgupta and Aditya Kalra and Reuters TV in New Delhi; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Where’s the lane? Self-driving cars confused by shabby U.S. roadways

By Alexandria Sage| LOS ANGELES

LOS ANGELES Volvo’s North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers, lost his cool as the automaker’s semi-autonomous prototype sporadically refused to drive itself during a press event at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

“It can’t find the lane markings!” Kerssemakers griped to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the wheel. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!”

Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called the mundane issue of faded lane markings “crazy,” complaining they confused his semi-autonomous cars.

An estimated 65 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, with the transportation infrastructure system rated 12th in the World Economic Forum’s 2014-2015 global competitiveness report.

Tesla, Volvo, Mercedes, Audi (VOWG_p.DE) and others are fielding vehicles that can drive on highways, change lanes and park without human help. But they are easily flummoxed by faded lane markers, damaged or noncompliant signs or lights, and the many quirks of a roadway infrastructure managed by thousands of state and local bureaucracies.

In other developed countries, greater standardization of road signs and markings makes it easier for robot cars to navigate. In the U.S., however, traffic lights can be aligned vertically, horizontally or “dog-house” style in two columns. Pavement markings use paint with different degrees of reflectivity – or don’t exist at all.

“If the lane fades, all hell breaks loose,” said Christoph Mertz, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. “But cars have to handle these weird circumstances and have three different ways of doing things in case one fails.”

MORE SENSORS, MORE COST

To make up for roadway aberrations, carmakers and their suppliers are incorporating multiple sensors, maps and data into their cars, all of which adds cost.

Mercedes says the “drive pilot” system found in its recently unveiled luxury E Class 2017 sedans works even with no lane markings. The system – which incorporates 23 sensors – takes into account guard rails, barriers, and other cars to keep cars in their lanes up to 84 miles (135km) per hour, under “suitable circumstances.”

Boston Consulting Group estimates that initial semi-autonomous features add $4,000 to a car’s price. It estimated carmakers will have to spend more than $1 billion over the next decade in research investment for even more sophisticated autonomous features.

On a good road in daylight, cameras installed around a car are sufficient to distinguish road lines, traffic lights and signs. But without lane markings, the car needs more technology to judge its position.

Enter radar and lidar, which send out radio waves or light pulses to bounce off objects. The data sent back informs the car about objects, their distance and velocity. Triangulating between trees to the right, boulders to the left, and other vehicles ahead, for instance, can give the car its bearings.

A host of companies – including Silicon Valley firms Quanergy and Velodyne and international suppliers like Paris-based Valeo – are vying to reduce the cost and size of lidar from the bulky, $75,000 Velodyne version first seen on the roof of Google’s self-driving car.

In January, Quanergy unveiled a small $250 Lidar with no moving parts. Automakers want the price to drop below $100 for production vehicles, which Quanergy promises to do by 2018.

Sub-par roads are fueling efforts by companies such as Germany’s HERE and Dutch company TomTom to create three dimensional maps that can provide the car’s location on the road within centimeters, said Chris Warrington, CEO of mapping technology company GeoDigital.

Automakers are looking to pay $50-$60 per car for such maps, which may be well below the actual price, said Warrington.

“We know they’re coming, but they don’t exist yet. That’s why lane markings are so important now,” said Gary O’Brien, director of advanced engineering for automotive supplier Delphi Automotive Systems PLC.

O’Brien snaps photos of bad roads when he travels.

“Look at this, there are no lane markings at all!” O’Brien said, showing a picture he took on a desert road in Bluff, Utah where the demarcation between the road and ground is barely visible.

“MAKE UP YOUR MIND!”

Some officials envision traffic signals that communicate with cars at dangerous intersections and vehicles that can signal each other their positions, direction and speed.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge,” a competitive grant program, will offer up to $40 million this summer to help one city integrate new technologies, which could include infrastructure for self-driving cars.

The Transportation Research Board, an independent group that advises the government, plans to issue recommendations for standardized lane markings for machine vision by 2017. By then, several automakers say they plan to offer models with some form of autonomous highway driving.

Paul Carlson, a research engineer focused on infrastructure at Texas A&M University, said he gets calls from transportation officials asking how to accommodate robot cars.

He tells them to aim for consistency: “Make up your mind, people! Do you want your traffic lights vertical or horizontal?”

(Reporting By Alexandria Sage)

Hundreds of thousands protest at French labor reforms

PARIS Hundreds of thousands of workers and high-school students joined protest marches across France on Wednesday to challenge plans to loosen the country’s protective labor laws that unions say favor businesses.

The day of protest — which led to scores of arrests as youths and police clashed in Paris, Lyon and Nantes — marked the fourth such test of strength in a month for President Francois Hollande.

He has been plagued by low popularity and a jobless rate that is stuck stubbornly above 10 percent little more than a year before a presidential election.

Organizers said more than 1.2 million people took part. The interior ministry put the number at just under 400,000, higher numbers — despite persistent rain — than in some other recent protests.

The three protests to date had been relatively low-key, but with rail, air traffic and utility staff among those to stop work, there was significant disruption across the country.

On Thursday, Reuters TV footage showed hooded youths in Paris jumping on cars, taunting police and throwing projectiles, prompting riot police to charge some groups. Reuters reporters also witnessed clashes in France’s second city Lyon and in Nantes.

Police arrested more than 100 people and at least 13 officers were injured, the interior ministry said.

Unions said they planned further rallies on April 5 and 9 with the hardline CGT union saying the protests would not end until the draft labor bill was withdrawn entirely.

“Small employees are treated like dirt, we’ve had enough, (and) it’s Hollande who pretends to represent the left,” said Jean-Luc Gutel, a CGT representative who works in the delivery service in Paris.

“The youth are told to study for years, but what for?”

TRANSPORT DISRUPTED

State railway SNCF said stoppages among its staff had cut some services by 40 to 50 percent on Thursday. About one in five flights were canceled at Orly airport south of Paris, the DGAC air transport authority said.

French utility EDF said power output at several production units was cut after nearly 14 percent of its staff joined rallies.

Under rainy skies, secondary-level school pupils also mobilized in dozens of cities alongside labor unions.

At issue is a proposed overhaul of France’s labor code, a set of regulations bosses claim deters recruitment. Critics say the reforms will lead to worse working conditions and more sackings.

The reforms, due to be debated in parliament next week, would give employers more flexibility to agree in-house deals with employees on working time.

After Communist lawmakers brandished signs in the Senate demanding the withdrawal of the text, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said many had a “distorted” view of the reform.

“We have already lifted a number of concerns,” he said. “The door remains open … to work this out for companies, workers and the youth of this country.”

The protests come a day after Hollande, who has said he will not run for re-election if he fails to make a dent in the jobless rate, abandoned another piece of legislation – plans to strip convicted terrorists of French citizenship.

That climbdown was forced on him by other lawmakers, many of them in his own camp.

Hollande’s government watered down the initial labor reform proposal shortly before it was unveiled this month by ditching a clause that would have capped severance pay awards.

Economists fault the French system for creating a divide between older people with open-ended work contracts and first-timers condemned to move between short-term jobs.

(Additional reporting by Sophie Louet; Writing by John Irish and Brian Love; Editing by Gareth Jones and John Stonestreet)

Kremlin denies report of Russia-U.S. deal on Assad’s future

MOSCOW The Kremlin said on Thursday that a report by the al-Hayat newspaper on an agreement between Russia and the United States on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was not true.

The newspaper reported that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told several Arab countries that Russia and the U.S. reached an understanding on the future of Syria’s peace process, including Assad’s departure to another country at some unspecified stage.

“Al-Hayat published information which does not correspond to reality,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with journalists.

“Russia is advantageously different from other nations because it does not discuss the issue of the self-determination of third countries either through diplomatic or other channels.”

(Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe)

The property manager and Putin’s friends

By Stephen Grey and Jack Stubbs| LONDON/MOSCOW

LONDON/MOSCOW A little-known Russian businessman from St Petersburg has provided properties to multiple women who share one common theme: President Vladimir Putin.

One of the women is Putin’s younger daughter; two are close relatives of a woman Russian media have reported to be Putin’s girlfriend – though the president has strongly denied any relationship. And a fourth is a student who posed for a calendar celebrating the president’s birthday. All of the properties are in upmarket gated complexes in and around Moscow.

Public records show Grigory Baevsky, a 47-year-old business associate of an old friend of Putin, sold or transferred the properties to three of the women. In the other case, Putin’s younger child, Katerina Tikhonova, used the address of a flat owned by Baevsky as her own when registering a new company.

The connections add to the picture of individuals in Putin’s wider circle and the way these people blur the lines between public and private business.

Last year, Reuters reported that Putin’s daughter Tikhonova, who holds a senior position at Moscow State University, is personally advised by some of Putin’s oldest friends. She is also married to Kirill Shamalov, son of billionaire Nikolai Shamalov, an associate of Putin’s.

READ MORE: Comrade Capitalism: How Russia does business in the Putin era

Baevsky has worked as an aide to another close friend of Putin, his judo partner, Arkady Rotenberg.

Public records show that companies co-owned by Baevsky have benefited from state construction contracts worth at least 6 billion rubles ($89 million) in the past two years.

Baevsky has previously attracted little attention. His connection to Putin was uncovered by investigative journalist Roman Anin who was conducting research for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an East European media network.

Baevsky is a former property manager for a state company in St Petersburg. In 2006, he founded a dacha cooperative near the city with Arkady Rotenberg and Rotenberg’s brother Boris, public records show.

Baevsky went into business with the Rotenbergs in 2011, working until 2014 as a director at Arkady Rotenberg’s investment vehicle, the Russian Holding company, according to corporate filings. Public records also show he was declared as an ‘affiliated person’ of SMP Bank, which is majority-owned by the brothers.

Arkady Rotenberg was among the first Russian businessmen to be put under Western visa bans and asset freezes over Moscow’s seizure of Crimea. According to the U.S. Treasury, Rotenberg and his brother Boris have won billions of dollars from projects awarded to them by Putin. The brothers have denied getting help from the Russian leader for their businesses.

Reuters sent questions about the property deals to Baevsky’s last known home address, and to businesses owned by him, but received no response.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters: “We know nothing about who this (Baevsky) is. The President is also not acquainted with him.”

Separately, Peskov told reporters on a conference call that the Kremlin was facing a series of queries from international media about Putin’s relationship with his childhood friends and their receipt of state contracts. He said he would not comment because the Kremlin believes the articles are part of a politically-motivated campaign to discredit Putin.

A spokesman for Rotenberg said the businessman had no information about Baevsky’s property deals. Asked if Baevsky was acting on behalf of Rotenberg in his property dealings, or if they were related to Rotenberg’s friendship with Putin, Rotenberg’s spokesman said: “Of course not. Such declarations are absurd.” The spokesman said Baevsky “does not work” for any Arkady Rotenberg company or holding.

STUPID QUESTIONS?

The role of Baevsky emerged when the OCCRP – which is funded by the Open Society Institute, USAID, and the Swiss government, among others – discovered that a woman called Katerina Tikhonova declared her home to be an apartment owned by the businessman. Tikhonova, as Reuters reported last year, is Putin’s 29-year-old daughter. In November 2012, she used the apartment’s address when she filed papers to register herself as co-founder and owner of a private company called Interdisciplinary Initiatives Foundation in Natural Sciences and Humanities.

Reuters has reviewed the Tikhonova company registration papers, and public documents confirm the flat is owned by Baevsky. It is not known whether Tikhonova lived at the flat or paid any rent there. The flat is around 6.5 km (4 miles) from Putin’s official residence.

Tikhonova did not respond to questions about her use of the address.

RECOMMENDED: When mobsters meet hackers – the new, improved bank heist

In addition to the Tikhonova deal, public records show that in 2013 Baevsky transferred ownership of a home and plot of land in a pine forest at Uspenskoe in the Moscow region to Anna Zatsepilina. The neighborhood is one of the most expensive in Russia.

Zatsepilina is the 81-year-old grandmother of Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic gymnast and public supporter of Putin. In 2008 the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Korrespondent named Kabaeva as Putin’s girlfriend. Putin has rejected the assertion and Reuters could not independently confirm it. The newspaper closed soon after the article appeared.

Zatsepilina could not be reached for comment. The Uspenskoe home sits within a gated community and is protected by security guards, who denied access to Reuters and declined to help contact any of its residents.

In an earlier deal, in 2009, public records show that Baevsky transferred ownership of an apartment in Veresaeva Street in the Moscow suburbs to Leysan Kabaeva. She is the sister of Alina, the former gymnast.

Asked about how she came to acquire the property from Baevsky, a spokeswoman for a company owned and run by Leysan Kabaeva declined to comment.

Asked about Alina Kabaeva’s relationship with Putin and about Baevsky’s dealings with her relatives, a spokeswoman for the former gymnast said: “They are all adults, answer to themselves, and live their own lives. Alina Maratovna Kabaeva is not connected to a single one of these questions.”

Last year Baevsky transferred another apartment in a smart gated complex in Moscow to Alisa Kharcheva, a 23-year-old former international relations student. The sale price was not disclosed.

In 2010, a group of students and would-be students from Moscow State University created a calendar to celebrate Putin’s birthday. The calendar featured pictures of themselves; Kharcheva starred on the month of April. Two years later, Kharcheva posed with a cat and a photograph of the president in a personal blog post entitled “Pussy for Putin,” which extolled the president’s leadership. The blog post also featured her entry from the 2010 calendar.

Asked how she came to buy a flat from Baevsky, Kharcheva said the transaction was a normal one conducted through a real estate agency. She said she did not know the businessman. “We bought this flat with a mortgage. And we pay that mortgage to this day.” Asked if any connection to Putin had helped her obtain the flat from Baevsky, she replied: “No one has ever asked me such stupid questions.”

(This version of the story corrects spelling of Maratovna in second section)

(Additional reporting by Anthony Carter and Winnie Agbonlahor; Edited by Richard Woods and Simon Robinson)

Trump sounds off on abortion; criticism comes from all sides

By Doina Chiacu and Emily Stephenson| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said on Wednesday that women who end pregnancies should face punishment if the United States bans abortion, triggering a torrent of criticism from both sides of the abortion debate, including from his White House rivals.

After MSNBC broadcast a clip of an interview with Trump, the billionaire businessman rowed back his remarks, first saying that the abortion issue should be handled by states and later that doctors who performed abortions should be the ones held responsible.

“The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” Trump said in his last statement. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb.”

Trump’s earlier statements drew heavy fire from abortion rights supporters and opponents alike.

Abortion has long been a divisive issue in American politics, even though the procedure was legalized in a Supreme Court ruling more than 40 years ago. Opposition to abortion has become a central plank in the platform of most conservative politicians.

Trump has won support from Republican voters for selling himself as a Washington outsider. But the New York real estate tycoon, who once supported abortion access, has come under pressure from conservatives to prove he is truly one of them. At the same time, he has drawn criticism for comments that offended women and minority groups.

“Of course, women shouldn’t be punished,” rival Republican candidate John Kasich said on Wednesday, saying he opposed abortion except in specific cases such as rape.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the third candidate for the Republican nomination for the Nov. 8 election, said Trump had not thought through the issue. “What’s far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child, it’s also about the mother,” he said in a statement.

DISCORD AMONG THE REPUBLICANS

Abortion rights supporters were equally incensed.

“What Donald Trump said was outrageous and dangerous. I’m constantly taken aback at the kinds of things that he advocates for,” Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton told MSNBC. “Once again, he has showed us who he is.”

Dawn Laguens of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of the women’s health group, called Trump “flat-out dangerous” in a statement.

Abortion was legalized in the United States in 1973, when the Supreme Court declared that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy protected her decision to end a pregnancy.

In the decades since, there have not been enough votes on the Supreme Court to reverse the ruling, but numerous states have passed laws aimed at restricting abortion.

In the MSNBC interview, which is to air in full later on Wednesday, Trump said if the United States banned abortion, some women would seek to end pregnancies illegally.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” he said. Asked what form he would advocate, Trump said: “That I don’t know.”

Anti-abortion groups said Trump’s comments were at odds with their own stance. “In all the positions the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken around the issue of abortion, they have not called for punishment of women who’ve had abortions,” said Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the group.

After the backlash started, Trump’s campaign sought to moderate his view. “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination,” Trump said in a statement provided to Reuters by email.

Later, Trump walked back his comments further to say doctors, not women, should be responsible.

The dust-up was evidence of further discord among Republicans over Trump’s candidacy. On Tuesday, both Trump and Kasich, the Ohio governor, abandoned pledges to support the party’s eventual nominee. Cruz did not explicitly abandon the pledge but said Trump would not be the nominee.

Trump had already outraged many women after he said Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” when she asked tough questions in a televised debate, which many saw as a reference to menstruation.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March, 66 percent of all likely women voters said they had an “unfavorable” view of Trump. But among the 460 Republican women who responded to the poll, 62 percent had a “favorable” view of him, while 38 percent did not.

In other remarks that have set off furious reactions, Trump has called illegal immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists and has pushed for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

In Wednesday’s MSNBC interview, Trump said he would not rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons to combat Islamic State militants. “I would never take any of my cards off the table,” he said.

(Writing by Emily Stephenson; Additional reporting by Megan Cassella in Washington, Letitia Stein in Tampa, Fla.; Luciana Lopez and Emily Flitter in New York and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

U.S. says it will not recognize South China Sea exclusion zone

By Andrea Shalal| WASHINGTON

WASHINGTON The United States has told China it will not recognize an exclusion zone in the South China Sea and would view such a move as “destabilizing,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said on Wednesday.

U.S. officials have expressed concern that an international court ruling expected in the coming weeks on a case brought by the Philippines against China over its South China Sea claims could prompt Beijing to declare an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, in the region, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013.

Work told an event hosted by the Washington Post that the United States would not recognize such an exclusion zone in the South China Sea, just as it did not recognize the one China established in the East China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.

“We don’t believe they have a basis in international law, and we’ve said over and over (that) we will fly, sail and go wherever international law allows,” Work said.

“We have spoken quite plainly to our Chinese counterparts and said that we think an ADIZ would be destabilizing. We would prefer that all of the claims in the South China Sea be handled through mediation and not force or coercion,” he said.

Work spoke as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepared to visit Washington for a nuclear security summit this week.

The United States has accused China of raising tensions in the South China Sea by its apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island, a move China has neither confirmed nor denied.

China, for its part, has repeatedly accused the United States of militarizing the South China Sea through its freedom of navigation patrols in the region and the expansion of military alliances with countries such as the Philippines.

In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country’s South China Sea military deployments were no different from U.S. deployments on Hawaii.

Tensions between China and its neighbors Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan over sovereignty in the South China Sea have risen after Beijing embarked on significant reclamations on disputed islands and reefs in the area.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alan Crosby)