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US Assists in South Korean Ferry Search and Rescue Efforts

Shannon Jensen/Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- The United States Navy is assisting in search and rescue efforts related to the sunken South Korean ferry, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki announced Friday.

The Seventh Fleet will aid in the mission, with the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard assigned to a search area 15 nautical miles from the shipwreck site. The capsized vessel, Sewol, plunged into the waters off South Korea's coast on Wednesday, with more than 400 people on board.

Rescue teams are on the lookout for more than 250 people who are still missing, many of whom were high school students headed on a class trip. In addition to the Navy ship, two MH-60 Seahawk helicopters are conducting operations within the search area.

"We're ready to provide further assistance as needed," Psaki said.

Capt. Joey 'JT' Tynch, commanding officer of the Bonhomme Richard, said South Korean responders have been efficient with their efforts. Psaki also noted the U.S. and South Korea will exchange liaison officers to facilitate communications during the mission.

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with the passengers and crew of Sewol and their families," Tynch said.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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After Secret Conviction, Marine Vet Sends Letter from Iranian Prison

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A former U.S. Marine accused by Iran of being a CIA spy pleaded his case to the Iranian leadership in a letter written from detention, a few days after he was sentenced in a secret court to 10 years in prison.

Arizona-born Amir Hekmati, who holds dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship, wrote directly to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, asking that his “judicial file not to be entangled with the historic diplomatic problems between two countries,” according to a translation by IranWire. “What I ask of you as an Iranian citizen, a compatriot, as someone who has been separated from his family for 30 months, is freedom from prison.”

In the letter Hekmati rejected all the charges against him and swore he did not collaborate with the U.S. government against Iran. A representative for the Hekmati family authenticated the letter and confirmed IranWire’s translation.

Hekmati disappeared in Iran in August 2011 while he was on a trip to visit his grandmother, his family said. Weeks later, Hekmati, then 28 years old, appeared on Iranian state television in December where he seemed to calmly “confess” to being a spy sent by the CIA to infiltrate Iranian intelligence.

Days after the Iranian broadcast, Amir Hekmati’s father, Ali, told ABC News that the accusations against his son were a “bunch of lies.”

“My son is no spy. He is innocent. He’s a good fellow, a good citizen, a good man,” the elder Hekmati said.

Service records provided to ABC News in December 2011 show Hekmati enlisted in the Marines after graduating high school in Flint, Mich., in 2001 and joined the infantry, completing basic training at Camp Pendleton in California. He briefly attended the Defense Language Institute for the Marines in Monterey, Calif., and his father told ABC News he worked as a translator, but records show Hekmati was officially a rifleman only. A Marine spokesperson said it was possible he could have served as a translator for his Marine unit in a more informal capacity.

Hekmati said in his letter to Zarif that he worked as an Arabic translator with the U.S. military and it had nothing to do with Iran. He never had any military intelligence training, records show.

In his letter, Hekmati said he had then planned to pursue a graduate degree in economics in the U.S. – plans interrupted by his arrest.

In early January 2012, the Iranian government sentenced Hekmati to death. At the time, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it ‘strongly condemn[ed] this verdict” and said allegations the Hekmati worked for the CIA or was sent to Iran by the agency were “simply untrue.”

“The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said then.

Iran later overturned the sentence. The case was then in limbo for months until last week when Hekmati’s lawyer said his client had been convicted again after deliberations in a secret court and given 10 years in prison.

The Hekmati family said they took the news with a “very heavy heart” and said the conviction is “unsettling specifically because Amir was born and raised in the United States and committed no crime, choosing only to visit Iran to spend time with his ailing grandmother.”

“The Hekmati family respectfully asks senior Iranian officials to review Amir’s conviction, and to resolve this grave misunderstanding by granting Amir his freedom and a safe return home,” a family statement posted online says. “Despite these afflictions, Amir’s family continues to show faith in God that after this hardship will come ease… Our family’s love and resolve is emboldened by a diverse and growing global community of support that believes in justice, freedom and humanity.”

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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WorldÂ’s Tallest Building Set for Construction in Saudi Arabia

iStock/Thinkstock(JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia) -- Construction for the world’s tallest skyscraper is set to start next week in Saudi Arabia, according to local media.

The Kingdom tower will measure 3,280 feet when completed, which stretches 568 feet taller than the current Guinness World Record holder for tallest man-made construction, the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, The Saudi Gazette reported.

The finished structure will reportedly be 200 floors high and requires around 5.7 million square feet of concrete and 80,000 tonnes of steel to build, at a cost of roughly $1.23 billion.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Powerful Earthquake Shakes Central Mexico

iStock/Thinkstock(MEXICO CITY) -- A 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck central Mexico on Friday morning, sending people streaming out of high-rise buildings and into the streets for safety.

The earthquake was felt strongly in the resort city of Acapulco where many Mexicans are on Easter vacation.

It was also felt in the capital, Mexico City, but local reports indicated there was no major damage.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Prosecutors Seek Arrest Warrant for Ferry Captain

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- Divers entered the doomed Sewol ferry in waters off South Korea’s coast Friday, hoping to find additional survivors as prosecutors seek an arrest warrant for the ship’s captain and two crew members.

West Maritime Police told ABC News that the captain -- identified as Lee Joon-seok, 68 -- left the bridge before the vessel sank on Wednesday, leaving the steering and command to the ship’s third mate, someone with just over a year’s worth of experience.

Transcripts of a ship-to-shore exchange and crew member accounts show that the captain delayed the evacuation for half an hour after a South Korean transportation official told the ship it might have to evacuate.

As the ferry tilted before its watery descent, the passengers were told to put on life jackets and stay where they were. Some of them huddled together. That’s how search crews found several bodies on Friday, some of the 28 confirmed dead. The death toll is expected to rise much higher.

Coast Guard officials say 268 of the ferry’s 475 passengers remain missing. Most of the missing -- 239 -- were students on a class trip from Danwon High School.

The school, located in Ansan, near Seoul, has become a place of grieving. Relatives waited inside the school’s gym as authorities arrived, sharing dreadful updates -- another body discovered, another young life cut short.

A vice principal at the school was found dead on Friday, hanging from a pine tree near the gym, authorities told ABC News. He was a passenger on the ship, one of the survivors.

Strong currents and rain hampered Friday’s rescue efforts. Rescue crews pumped compressed oxygen into the ship Friday, in the desperate hope that someone needs it.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Avalanche Strikes Mount Everest, Killing 12 Sherpa Guides

Vividus/Thinkstock(KATMANDU, Nepal) -- At least 12 Sherpa guides were killed after an avalanche struck Mount Everest Friday morning. The incident is being billed as the deadliest day ever on the world's highest mountain.

Australian climber Gavin Turner, who witnessed the avalanche, said the snowslide "came out of nowhere," comparing the fallout to a war zone.

“Without warning, a large chunk of ice broke loose,” Turner told ABC News. “There were a few seconds of panic where I thought this is going to collect us.”

Turner was on his first climb through the Khumbu Icefall, southwest of the summit in the Himalayas in Nepal, when the avalanche occurred. A cloud of snow and dust enveloped the area, followed by a huge thud, he said.

He was OK, but people located higher -- identified as Nepalese Sherpa guides -- were covered by mounds of ice and snow. Four of the guides remain missing.

“These expeditions wouldn’t happen without them. They’re the backbone of all the organizations up here,” he said. “Without the Sherpas, it just wouldn’t happen.”

Search and rescue efforts are currently underway and three helicopters have been dispatched to the area, Mohan Krishna Sapkota, a spokesman for Nepal's tourism ministry, told the BBC.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Huge Orangutan Mellows Out in Surgery

SUTANTA ADITYA/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- They might need a bigger operating table.

An Indonesian vet removed gun pellet shrapnel from a 14-year-old male orangutan reportedly rescued in Sumatra this week after it was shot by poachers.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry works with orangutan rescue groups in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, the only two locations where the endangered primates still live in the wild.

The species’ biggest threats are habitat loss and the illegal pet trade, according to the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

Indonesia is rapidly losing forest space as palm oil plantations expand, and illegal trade of orangutans, particularly babies, continues to thrive, according to the group.

Orangutans are also hunted for their meat or to prevent damage to crops.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez Dies at 87

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images(MEXICO CITY) -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a pioneering author who popularized the genre "magical realism" through such novels as 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, has died. He was 87.

The Nobel Prize winner, known affectionately to fans and admirers as "Gabo," died Thursday in his Mexico City home, after recently being hospitalized for lung and urinary tract infections.

A Colombia native, Marquez gained worldwide fame and recognition for his work that blended elements of the fantastical and real to create works of literature that sold millions of copies in numerous languages across the globe.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Earth Meet Earth II?

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Earth, welcome to your sort of doppelganger.

Kepler-186f is the latest discovery to excite astronomers since it seems to have the same characteristics of our world. And it's only 500 light years away with each light year being the equivalent of six trillion miles.

Spotted by the Kepler space telescope, scientists are calling Kepler-186f a "Goldilocks" planet, that is, it's neither too hot nor too cold and thus might actually be able to sustain life.

Lead researcher Elisa Quintana of NASA’s Ames Research Center said at a news conference Thursday that Kepler-186f "is special because we already know that a planet of this size and in the habitable zone is capable of supporting life as we know it."

About 10 percent larger than Earth, Quintana says it's more like a cousin than twin because it revolves around a smaller star, meaning a year lasts only 130 days.

Also, there's probably a lot more carbon dioxide than Earth so breathing without a helmet might pose a bit of a problem should we ever wind up there.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Anti-Semitic Leaflets in Ukraine Raise Suspicions

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The reports circulated like wildfire: fliers surfacing in the eastern Ukrainian town of Donetsk ordering Jews there to register with the local government or face deportation.

U.S. officials quickly condemned the leaflets, with Secretary of State John Kerry mentioning it at the beginning of his remarks in Geneva, Switzerland, after emerging from an eight-hour meeting on the situation in Ukraine.

There is a concerted disinformation campaign going on, with all sides of the conflict trying to paint the other as extreme. But it’s not clear where the leaflets came from and how many were distributed. Still, the reports raised an outcry.

“This is not just intolerable, it’s grotesque. It’s beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engaged in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or ideology or whatever place they crawled out of, there is no place for that,” Kerry said.

The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, added on CNN, “It’s chilling. I was disgusted by these leaflets.”

“Reports of Jews being forced to register by pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine are chilling, outrageous and must be universally condemned,” Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, tweeted.

The Russian government has previously floated the specter of anti-Semitism in eastern Ukraine and Crimea as one of the reasons why its intervention in the region was necessary. And there have also been isolated incidents of various types of religious intolerance throughout Ukraine.

“I don’t have more details on where the leaflets are coming from, but I know we’re looking into it,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said shortly after Kerry spoke, adding that the United States would take any instance of anti-Semitism in Ukraine seriously even if, as one reporter put it, “it turned out that it’s just some dude running around with a mimeograph machine throwing these leaflets around.”

Representatives of three separate Jewish organizations in Donetsk told ABC News that they didn’t even know whether the flyers existed beyond images that appeared on news sites.

"Just let us live normally, we live normally, we have a normal life," an exasperated member of one of the Jewish groups said.

Reporters from the Daily Beast visited the room in the government building where Jews were told by the pamphlet to go to register, and found it empty.

Even still, rumors of the leaflets were enough to elicit responses from members of Congress, like Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

“I urge you to do everything possible to ensure that Jewish and other minority communities throughout the country are protected from any form of prejudice,” Lowey wrote in a letter to Kerry.

And the word “Jews” quickly became a trending topic on Twitter.

But even if the flyers do not represent the official policy of what pro-Russian activists now call the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” U.S. government officials and Jewish groups remained vocal in their condemnation of anti-Semitism in any form, organized or otherwise.

“The ADL today condemned the appearance of anti-Semitic fliers in Donetsk, Ukraine, and called on all parties involved in the political conflicts in Ukraine to refrain from ‘cynical and politically manipulative’ exploitation of anti-Semitism,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director, in a statement to Mashable.

“We are skeptical about the flier’s authenticity, but the instructions clearly recall the Nazi era and have the effect of intimidating the local Jewish community,” he said.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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NATO Commander Offers Evidence of Russian Troops in Ukraine

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Professional gun handling, well-trained maneuvers, and military-spec arms are among the reasons NATO’s top commander says the uprisings in eastern Ukraine are clearly “being carried out at the direction of Russia.”

In a blog post entitled “Who are the men behind the masks?” the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, offered the most detailed Western evidence to date that, despite Russia’s claims that the unrest there is an organic, local movement, it was instead the work of Russian troops posing as locals that orchestrated the apparently coordinated takeover of government buildings in eastern Ukraine that has plunged the fragile country into chaos.

“The pro-Russian ‘activists’ in eastern Ukraine exhibit tell-tale military training and equipment and work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia,” Breedlove wrote.

He specifically cited how the forces handled their weapons, used tear gas and stun grenades, and even how they man checkpoints as evidence that the troops are well-trained, not a civilian mob.

“The way these forces target government buildings, hit them in coordinated strikes and quickly secure the surrounding area with roadblocks and barricades is similar to what we’ve seen in Crimea. Again, indicative of a professional military force, acting under direction and leadership, not a spontaneous militia,” Breedlove wrote.

His comments confirmed what U.S. officials have privately told ABC News, that a well-oiled team of elite troops appeared to storm the building ahead of the local mob. That team did the heavy lifting, seizing the buildings before melting back into the population and leaving the buildings in control of the pro-Russian crowd.

It’s a textbook example, the officials said, of the military art of deception that Russia calls “maskirovka,” or masking their appearance to blend in with local forces. The Russians have historically been very good at it and are proud of their capabilities. Last year, Russian state-run television news aired a story about the elite teams that train for exactly this kind of cloaked missions abroad.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday again vigorously denied Western claims that Russian forces were operating in eastern Ukraine. But he also finally confirmed what had long been suspected and that he had repeatedly denied: that the well-armed forces with no insignia on their uniforms that took control of Crimea last month were in fact Russian troops.

Breedlove suggested that was reason to doubt Putin’s denials about Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine.

In recent days U.S. officials have also circulated unconfirmed photos of forces in Ukraine that appear to show them armed with Russian military-issue weapons. ABC News reporters in Ukraine also spotted similar equipment on the separatist fighters, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers that appeared to be brand new.

Breedlove also cited this as evidence of Russian meddling.

“The weapons and equipment they carry are primarily Russian army issue.  This is not the kind of equipment that civilians would be likely to be able to get their hands on in large numbers,” he wrote on his blog.

Members of the militias have insisted to journalists for days that they are locals and are now instructed or bankrolled by the Kremlin. Many, they say, are former riot police or army veterans.

Still, U.S. officials point to leaked calls, like one released this week by Ukraine’s security services, known as the SBU, that claims to show evidence of Russia guiding the separatists. The SBU also claimed to have captured several Russians it alleges are agents sent to foment unrest in Ukraine. Those claims have been impossible to verify.

“Any one of the points above taken alone would not be enough to come to a conclusion on this issue, but taken in the aggregate, the story is clear,” Breedlove wrote on his blog.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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'Deeply Ashamed' Ferry Captain Among First to Abandon Ship

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- With the death toll climbing after a ferry with 475 people on board sunk Wednesday off the coast of South Korea, investigators allege that the boat's captain was one of the first people to escape about half-an-hour after reporting the accident.

Lee Joon-seok, 69, appeared on Korean television Thursday, saying, "I am really sorry and deeply ashamed" as he was questioned at the Mokpo Coast Guard Office.

Meanwhile, there are questions about whether an evacuation order was ever given when the ferry began to tilt. Survivors say they were told to stay put while a crew member says attempts were made to right the ship.

The crew member claims an evacuation order was given 30 minutes later but wasn't sure it was relayed to the passengers.

As of Friday, 28 people have been confirmed dead while 268 remain missing, most of them high school students who were on a field trip. Authorities say that 179 people were rescued before the Sewol sank.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Security Scare for Prince William and Duchess Kate

Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage(KATOOMBA, Australia) -- The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge‘s otherwise picture-perfect tour Down Under was marred Thursday by two men who were detained for allegedly acting aggressively as the royals paid a visit to the Blue Mountains in Australia.

The two men, ages 21 and 37, were stopped and searched by police after they were allegedly harassing fellow royal-gawkers in the village of Winmalee as they awaited William and Kate’s arrival, according to Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

The men were later released and not charged but moved from the area where William and Kate’s motorcade was set to arrive, the Daily Telegraph reports.

William, 31, and Kate, 32, arrived to the Blue Mountains range by helicopter Thursday, which is day two of their visit to Australia. The range, west of Sydney, is one of the country’s most scenic sites and was nearly destroyed by bushfires a few months ago.

The royal couple met with first-responders and fire survivors, planted a tree and did their own bit of sightseeing, which included William’s giving his wife, and all those watching, a scare.

The prince, a former Royal Air Force helicopter pilot, peered dangerously over the edge of a steep cliff as the couple stood atop the mountains’ Narrow Neck Lookout.

“He took a bit of a lunge and a few people held their breath, gasped and readied their hands to grab him,” Damien Cooper, manager of the Blue Mountains Youth Service, told the Daily Telegraph. “He was fine, of course.  He knew what he was doing. I think his military background prepared him well for it.”

Not on hand for his dad’s perilous glimpse over the cliff was the couple’s son, 8-month-old Prince George.

The young prince, who has been a star of the family’s first official overseas trip together, may make an appearance this weekend at the Sydney Zoo.

His mother, Kate, however, reportedly told one young girl Thursday that Prince George is very cute but very loud and likely to scare the animals at the zoo.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Putin 'Hopes' He Won't Have to Send Troops into Eastern Ukraine

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he hopes Russia will not have to use force in eastern Ukraine.

Speaking during a marathon question and answer show on live television, Putin reminded viewers that Russia’s upper house of parliament had authorized the use of force in Ukraine.

“I very much hope I will not have to use this right,” he said.

Putin denied Western claims that Russian troops are already operating inside Ukraine and that the unrest there has been orchestrated by the Kremlin. He warned that if the situation continues, Russia will not recognize the results of next month’s Ukrainian presidential election.

Putin slammed the new government in Kiev for sending troops to quell the unrest in the east. He blamed them for failing to engage the Russian-speaking population there to calm concerns that the new pro-Western government was not out to get them.

“They are sending tanks, armored personnel carriers and cannons there. Who are they sending these tanks against? Are they out of their minds?” he said.

After the show, journalists asked Putin what might cause Russia to send troops into Ukraine. He declined to say, explaining that it might affect the situation on the ground, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

For the first time, however, Putin acknowledged that the heavily armed troops with no insignia on their uniforms who suddenly appeared on the streets of Crimea ahead of last month’s referendum to join Russia were Russian troops. Those troops, he said, were necessary to prevent exactly the type of chaos that is taking place in eastern Ukraine now.

Western and Ukrainian authorities say Russia fabricated reports of threats to Russian speakers in the region in Crimea to scare the population into voting to leave Ukraine. Putin, however, said Thursday that those threats were “real and palpable.”

He insisted Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not planned in advance, but was rather a response to the overwhelming results of the referendum.

“It was highly important for me to see the results of this expression of the people's will,” he said.

He appeared to dismiss former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who until he was ousted in February, was a Kremlin ally. But said Yanukovich told him that while he thought about ordering the use of force against the protesters who forced him from office, he could not bring himself to do it.

The wide-ranging call-in show lasted nearly four hours as Putin fielded questions from a studio audience of prominent Russians, questions that had been submitted in advance, and questions from Russians appearing live from select cities. In a change from previous years, most of the questions were about Ukraine and Russia’s standing in the world, though some villagers across this vast country inquired about the rising costs of bread and compensation for natural disasters.

A 6-year-old girl wrote in to ask Putin if he thought President Obama would save him if he were drowning. Putin replied that, while he did not have a close relationship with Obama, he considered him a good man and thought that Obama would save him.

Asked if he had plans to annex Alaska next, Putin asked rhetorically “What would you need Alaska for?” Russia, he said, already has enough cold territory.

Earlier in the show, Putin said the U.S.-Russian relationship lacks trust. He blamed the United States, claiming it employs a double standard by intervening in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan while criticizing Russia for, in his words, protecting its own interests.

The head of Russia’s new state-owned media company Russia Today, a man dubbed the Kremlin’s new propaganda chief, told Putin he felt suffocated by NATO expansion into eastern Europe and asked where the red line will be drawn.

Putin said there is no need to be afraid, but said that geopolitics could force Russia to act. He insisted NATO’s plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, which the United States says is aimed at defending against Iran, was instead aimed at Russia. He warned the system’s deployment could spark an arms race.

He seemed to confirm suspicions that his takeover of Crimea was due in part to fears that Ukraine could become part of NATO and would limit Russia’s influence in the Black Sea, where it has a substantial naval presence.

“If NATO troops go there and deploy their assault weapons, then it will have a geopolitical significance for us and Russia will be practically forced out from the Black Sea region,” he said.

The Russian leader brushed aside suggestions that Europe might soon wean itself off its dependence on Russian gas, suggesting it would harm their economies and devalue the U.S. dollar. He warned Ukraine that, unless it repays the billions of dollars it owes for past gas deliveries within a month, Russia will begin demanding payment up front and only ship what has been paid for in advance. That may be an enormous challenge for the fledgling government in Kiev, which is struggling to pay its bills and is begging the international community for a bailout.

In a surprise move, NSA leaker Edward Snowden also submitted a question via video, asking Putin whether Russia employed mass surveillance systems similar to ones used by the U.S. National Security Agency.

The ex-KGB agent (who earlier in the show said that job taught him to be “absolutely loyal”) began his response by telling Snowden he was speaking as one spy to another. Putin denied Russia had a mass surveillance program and said any electronic surveillance was used only for law enforcement purposes. Experts on Russian surveillance, however, said Putin was vastly understating the scope of Russia’s surveillance program.

Snowden has been hiding at an undisclosed location in Russia after receiving asylum last year while on the run after leaking classified information about American spying.

Asked when Russia might have a new first lady, the newly divorced Putin responded wryly that he’ll have to help his ex-wife get re-married first.

The marathon call-in show has become a regular feature in the nearly decade and a half since Putin first became president.

Asked if he planned to remain president for life, Putin briskly responded “No” and moved on.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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Captain of Doomed Ferry Under Investigation as Relatives Grieve

Park Young-Chul-Donga Daily via Getty Images(SEOUL, South Korea) -- The captain of a ferry that sank off the coast of South Korea Wednesday, leaving nearly 300 people missing, is under investigation as a criminal and was one of the first people to escape the doomed vessel, Coast Guard officials said.

Lee Joon-seok, 69, left the ferry on a lifeboat 32 minutes after reporting an accident, officials said.

The captain appeared on Korean television Thursday, his face covered by a gray hoodie.

“I am really sorry and deeply ashamed,” he said, as he was being questioned at the Mokpo Coast Guard Office.

About 290 people remain missing following the accident, with 10 fatalities confirmed and the death toll expected to rise.

Hundreds of Navy and Coast Guard divers are battling murky conditions on Thursday, searching for survivors. But as the hours pass, relatives of the missing passengers are losing hope.

So far, 179 people been rescued.

Text messages sent by passengers to loved ones offer a glimpse into the desperate situation inside the crippled vessel.

“Dad, don’t worry. I’ve got a life vest on and we’re huddled together,” one student, identified only by her last name, Shin, texted her father, according to MBC News, a Korean news station.

The father replied: “I know the rescue is underway but make your way out if you can.”

“Dad, I can’t walk out,” she replied. “The corridor is full of kids, and it’s too tilted.”

The student was among the missing passengers, many of them high schoolers at Danwon High School in Ansan. The students were on a class trip.

Thursday’s rescue efforts have been marked by rain, strong wind, currents and fog -- as well as a lack of organization. Coast guard crews tried to inject air into the boat, but that endeavor was unsuccessful due to the poor weather conditions.

Additionally, the rescue operation center had difficulty communicating with search crews at the sinking site, which is about an hour’s boat ride from Jindo Island.

Relatives of passengers yelled at authorities, demanding answers and seeking miracles at Jindo Island. Some family members visited the location where the passengers are believed to have been trapped.

Other parents gathered at Danwon High School, holding a candlelight vigil.

The only hope is that maybe, somehow the passengers are alive, saved by a pocket of air.

Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio

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