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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The well-armed, Moscow-backed insurgency sowing chaos in eastern Ukraine scored a new victory Wednesday, seizing armored vehicles and weapons from underequipped government forces, then rolling through two cities to a hero's welcome.

Responding to what it sees as Russia's aggression, NATO announced it was increasing its military presence along its eastern border, closest to Russia and Ukraine. And the Obama administration moved to ratchet up its response, preparing new sanctions on Russia and boosted assistance for the struggling Ukrainian military.

Wednesday's setbacks came just 24 hours after a much-touted Ukrainian army operation to retake control of Solvyansk and other cities in the restive east, and appeared to reflect growing indecisiveness by the new Kiev leadership, which has vowed for days to re-establish its authority there.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops deployed along the border with Ukraine, there are fears the Kremlin might use the instability in the predominantly Russian-speaking region as a pretext for seizing more territory beyond its annexation of Crimea last month.

The day began with throngs of residents in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, some 10 miles (15 kilometers) south of Slovyansk, encircling a column of Ukrainian armored vehicles carrying several dozen troops. Soon after, masked gunmen in combat gear, wearing the black-and-orange St. George ribbons distinguishing them as pro-Russian militia, reached the site.

Without offering resistance, the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered the vehicles to the militiamen, who sat atop them as they drove them into Slovyansk, Russian flags fluttering in the breeze.

They were greeted by a cheering crowd of some 1,000 people that, although numerous, did not necessarily represent the views of the entire city of 130,000.

One Ukrainian soldier said they had defected to the pro-Russian side, but another suggested they were forced at gunpoint to hand over the vehicles.

"How was I supposed to behave if I had guns pointed at me?" the soldier, who did not identify himself, asked a resident.

Hours later, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry broke its silence, acknowledging the seizure of the military hardware and saying the whereabouts of the Ukrainian soldiers was not known. The Interfax news agency quoted an insurgent leader in Slovyansk, Miroslav Rudenko, as saying the soldiers would be offered the chance to join a local militia or leave the region.

Insurgents in Slovyansk have seized the police headquarters and the administration building, demanding broader autonomy for eastern Ukraine and closer ties with Russia.

Similar seizures have occurred in at least 10 other cities in eastern Ukraine — and the central government says Moscow is fomenting the unrest in a region that was once the support base for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after months of protests over his rejection of closer relations with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Despite the frenzied welcome given the pro-Russian militiamen in Slovyansk, opinions were divided. Some residents were happy with the pro-Russian forces that have now taken effective control over the city.

"We will never allow the fascist Kiev authorities to come here," said Andrei Bondar, 32, a Slovyansk resident.

But others, like Tetyana Kustova, a 35-year-old sales clerk, were appalled by the unrest.

"They are pushing us toward Russia," she said. "They are tearing Ukraine into pieces."

Later Wednesday, in Pchyolkino, a town south of Slovyansk, several hundred residents surrounded 14 Ukrainian armored vehicles. Fearing the troops were sent to quell them, the crowd refused to let the vehicles leave despite the pleas of a Ukrainian officer.

They were soon joined by masked pro-Russian gunmen whose sophisticated firearms and battle-readiness have ignited suspicions they, and other militiamen like them, may be troops under direct Russian command.

To end the standoff, leaders in the crowd told their Ukrainian commander, Lt. Colonel Oleksandr Shvets, they would let his 100-strong troops go if they handed over the magazines from their assault rifles. The soldiers removed the magazines, put them in plastic bags and gave them to the pro-Russian militia.

"We are really tired of all of this confusion," said Sgt. Dmytro Mokletsov. "It's really scary giving away the magazines. We have no weapons now. But we were told to, it was an order."

Reflecting the West's concern over the turmoil in Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation and preparations for diplomatic talks Thursday in Geneva on Ukraine.

The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel that "the sharp escalation of the conflict places the country in effect on the verge of a civil war." Merkel's office said she and Putin had "different assessments" of the events in Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, meanwhile, said NATO will respond to what he called Russian aggression in Ukraine. NATO aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region and allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere if needed, he said.

"We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land," Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels.

Ukraine is not a NATO member but several NATO members — Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland — all border Russia. NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey also border the Black Sea, along with Russia and Ukraine.

In Washington, officials said they had no plans to levy new sanctions ahead of Thursday's talks in Geneva between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. But with low expectations for a breakthrough in those meetings, officials already have prepared targets for sanctions that include wealthy individuals close to Putin and the entities they run.

The administration also was working on a package of non-lethal assistance for Ukraine's military. The assistance, which was expected to be finalized this week, could include medical supplies and clothing for Ukraine's military, but was expected to stop short of providing body armor and other military-style equipment.

At the United Nations, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic warned the Security Council that the violence risks "seriously destabilizing the country as a whole." Western countries on the Security Council said the new report undermines Russia's claims about the events that led to its recent annexation of Crimea, and they warned of a similar situation unfolding now.

Late on Wednesday, pro-Russian gangs launched an assault of a military base on the Black Sea port of Mariupol. The National Guard said in a statement that a mob responded to official refusal to admit them into the base by trying to smash down the gates and firebombing the checkpoint. Local news website 0629.com.ua reported that at least one person in the attacking party died in the ensuing clash.

No official confirmation on casualties was available overnight Wednesday.

In Kiev, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest.

"Russia has got a new export now, apart from oil and gas: Russia is now exporting terrorism to Ukraine," Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting. "Russia must withdraw its sabotage groups, condemn terrorists and liberate all administrative buildings."

___

Associated Press writers Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Maria Danilova and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Kiev, Laura Mills in Moscow and Juergen Baetz and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.

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MOKPO, South Korea (AP) — Strong currents, rain and bad visibility hampered an increasingly anxious search Thursday for 287 passengers still missing a day after their ferry flipped onto its side and sank in cold waters off the southern coast of South Korea.

Nine people, including five students and two teachers, were confirmed dead, but many expect a sharp jump in that number because of the long period of time the missing have now spent either trapped in the ferry or in the cold seawater. There was also fury among families waiting for word of passengers who were mostly high school students.

There were 475 people aboard, and some of the frantic parents of the 325 student passengers who had been heading to Jeju island for a four-day trip gathered at Danwon High School in Ansan, which is near Seoul, and on Jindo, an island near where the ferry slipped beneath the surface until only the blue-tipped, forward edge of the keel was visible.

Relatives of the three dead students wailed and sobbed as ambulances at a hospital in Mokpo, a city close to the accident site, took the bodies to Ansan. The families, who spent a mostly sleepless night at the hospital, followed the ambulances in their own cars.

The family of one of the victims, 24-year-old teacher Choi Hye-jung, spoke about a young woman who loved to boast of how her students would come to her office and give her hugs.

"She was very active and wanted to be a good leader," her father, Choi Jae-kyu, 53, said at Mokpo Jung-Ang Hospital while waiting for the arrival of his daughter's body. Choi's mother, sitting on a bench at the hospital, sobbed quietly with her head bent down on her knee.

Meanwhile, more than 400 rescuers searched nearby waters overnight and into Thursday morning. Coast guard spokesman Kim Jae-in said that in the next two days, three vessels with cranes onboard would arrive to help with the rescue and salvage the ship. Divers worked round the clock in shifts in an attempt to get inside the vessel, he said. But the current wouldn't allow them to enter.

Kim said coast guard officials were questioning the captain, but declined to provide details or speculate on the cause of sinking. Kim denied earlier reports by Yonhap news agency that the ferry had turned too swiftly when it was supposed to make a slow turn. He also declined to say whether the ferry had wandered from its usual route.

"I am really sorry and deeply ashamed," a man identified by broadcaster YTN and Yonhap news agency as the captain, 60-year-old Lee Joon-seok, said in brief comments shown on TV, his face covered with a gray hoodie. "I don't know what to say."

Coast guard officers, experts on marine science and other experts and officers planned to gather Thursday in Mokpo to start discussions on how the ship sank.

The coast guard said it found two more bodies in the sea Thursday morning, pushing the death toll to nine. The dead have so far been identified as a female crew member in her 20s, three male high school students; an 18-year-old woman and 18-year-old man, who authorities aren't yet sure are linked to the high school; Choi, the female high school teacher; Nam Yoon-chul, a male high school teacher; and a man named Kim Ki-woong.

Dozens were injured. Coast guard officials put the number of survivors early Thursday at 179.

The Sewol, a 146-meter (480-foot) vessel that can reportedly hold more than 900 people, set sail Tuesday from Incheon, in northwestern South Korea, on an overnight, 14-hour journey to the tourist island of Jeju.

The ferry was three hours from its destination when it sent a distress call after it began listing to one side, according to the Ministry of Security and Public Administration.

Koo Bon-hee, 36, told The Associated Press that many people were trapped inside by windows that were too hard to break.

"The rescue wasn't done well. We were wearing life jackets. We had time," Koo, who was on a business trip to Jeju with a co-worker, said from a hospital bed in Mokpo where he was treated for minor injuries. "If people had jumped into the water ... they could have been rescued. But we were told not to go out."

Oh Yong-seok, a 58-year-old crew member who escaped with about a dozen others, including the captain, told AP that rescue efforts were hampered by the ferry's severe tilt. "We couldn't even move one step. The slope was too big," Oh said.

The Sewol's wreckage is in waters a little north of Byeongpung Island, which is not far from the mainland and about 470 kilometers (290 miles) from Seoul.

The last major ferry disaster in South Korea was in 1993, when 292 people were killed.

The water temperature in the area was about 12 degrees Celsius (54 Fahrenheit), cold enough to cause signs of hypothermia after about 90 minutes of exposure, according to an emergency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because department rules did not allow talking to the media. Officials said the ocean was 37 meters (121 feet) deep in the area.

The survivors — wet, stunned and many without shoes — were brought to Jindo, where medical teams wrapped them in pink blankets and checked for injuries before taking them to a cavernous gymnasium.

As the search dragged on, families of the missing gathered at a nearby dock, some crying and holding each other.

Angry shouts could be heard when Prime Minister Chung Hong-won visited a shelter where relatives of the missing passengers waited for news. Some yelled that the government should have sent more divers to search the wreckage.

Many South Korean high schools organize trips for first- or second-year students, and Jeju is a popular destination. The students on the ferry were in their second year, which would make most of them 16 or 17.

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NEW YORK (AP) -- Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by New York Police Department officials to disband a controversial unit that tracked the daily lives of Muslims as part of efforts to detect terrorism threats, but they said there were concerns about whether other problematic practices remained in place.

The Demographics Unit, conceived with the help of a CIA agent working with the NYPD, assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Plainclothes officers infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued Muslims in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames. NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis confirmed Tuesday that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the department's Intelligence Division.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said she was among a group of advocates at a private meeting last week with police at which the department's new intelligence chief, John Miller, first indicated the unit - renamed the Zone Assessment Unit - wasn't viable. She applauded the decision but said there's still concern about the police use of informants to infiltrate mosques without specific evidence of crime.

"This was definitely a part of the big puzzle that we're trying to get dismantled," Sarsour said. But, she added, "This doesn't necessarily prove to us yet that these very problematic practices are going to end."

Another person at the meeting, Fahd Ahmed, legal and policy director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, called the decision "a small step." He questioned what had happened to the information gathered by the unit.

"The concern wasn't just about the fact that this data was being collected secretly - it was about the fact that this data was being collected at all," he said.

The NYPD's decision to disband the unit was first reported by The New York Times.

An ongoing review of the division by new Police Commissioner William Bratton found that the same information collected by the unit could be better collected through direct contact with community groups, officials said.

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, called the move "a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys."

Since taking office, de Blasio has taken other steps toward changing how the police department operates, like ending the city's appeal of a judge's ruling ordering major reforms to the department's implementation of a controversial street stop policy including the implementation of the first-ever inspector general for the NYPD.

After a series of stories by The Associated Press detailing the extent of the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims, two civil rights lawsuits were filed challenging the activities as unconstitutional because they focused on people's religion, national origin and race.

Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had defended the surveillance tactics, saying officers observed legal guidelines while attempting to create an early warning system for terrorism. But in a deposition made public in 2012, an NYPD chief testified that the unit's work had never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation in the previous six years.

In Washington, 34 members of Congress had demanded a federal investigation into the NYPD's actions. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was disturbed by reports about the operations, and the Department of Justice said it was reviewing complaints received from Muslims and their supporters.

The AP's reporting also prompted an investigation by the CIA's inspector general. That internal inquiry concluded that the CIA, which is prohibited from domestic spying, hadn't broken any laws, but it criticized the agency for allowing an officer assigned to the NYPD to operate without sufficient supervision.

The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the California-based Muslim Advocates, which represented eight Muslims in a 2012 lawsuit challenging the spying program, welcomed the unit's dismantling but expressed concern it wouldn't stop the surveillance in Muslim communities.

"But nothing in the City's announcement definitively suggests they will put an end to broad surveillance practices, which would continue to be illegal regardless of which department within the NYPD might be engaged in it," they said in a statement.

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said police-community relations took a blow from the NYPD unit's broad surveillance of all Muslims, not just people suspected of wrongdoing.

"We hope this means an end to the dragnet approach to policing that has been so harmful to police-community relations and a commitment to going after criminal suspicion, rather than innocent New Yorkers," said Lieberman, whose organization is involved in lawsuits over the practice.

---

Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about ourPRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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