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International

NATO outlines ‘deterrence’ plan as tensions with Russia soar

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Tensions soared Monday between Russia and the West, with NATO outlining a series of potential troop and ship deployments and Ireland warning that upcoming Russian war games off its coast would not be welcome while concerns abound that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine.

The Western alliance’s statement summed up moves already announced by individual member countries — but restating them under the NATO banner appeared aimed at showing the alliance’s resolve. It was just one of a series of announcements that signaled the West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border and is demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed. Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine, are non-starters for NATO — creating a seemingly intractable standoff that many fear can only end in war.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion, and has said the Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that failed to reach any breakthrough and maneuvering on both sides.

On Monday, NATO said that it is beefing up its “deterrence” in the Baltic Sea area. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 war planes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces; and France stands ready to send troops to Romania. The Netherlands also plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will “take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies.” He said: “We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov charged that it was NATO and the U.S. who were behind “tensions escalating” in Europe, not Russia.

“All this is happening not because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is happening because of what NATO, the U.S. are doing,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. He also cited U.S. media reports suggesting that Russia is evacuating its diplomats from Ukraine, something officials in Moscow denied.

The NATO announcement came as European Union foreign ministers sought to put on a fresh display of unity in support of Ukraine, and paper over concerns about divisions on the best way to confront any Russian aggression.

In a statement, the ministers said the EU has stepped up sanction preparations and they warned that “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs.”

Separately, the EU also committed to increase financial support for embattled Ukraine, vowing to push through a special package of 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in loans and grants as soon as possible.

The West is nervously watching Russian troop movements and war games in Belarus for any signs that a new invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Russia has already invaded Ukraine once, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow has also supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kyiv government in the Donbass region. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed around 14,000 people and still simmers.

Asked whether the EU would follow a U.S. move and order the families of European embassy personnel in Ukraine to leave, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “We are not going to do the same thing.” He said he is keen to hear from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about that decision.

Britain on Monday also announced it is withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its embassy in Kyiv. The Foreign Office said the move was “in response to the growing threat from Russia.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said the U.S. decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution.” He said that Russia is sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners in order to destabilize Ukraine.

Germany has issued no order, but it has announced that the families of embassy staffers may leave if they wish. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that “we must not contribute to unsettling the situation further; we need to continue to support the Ukrainian government very clearly and above all maintain the stability of the country,”

Arriving at the EU meeting, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said he would inform his counterparts that Russia plans to holds war games 240 kilometers (150 miles) off Ireland’s southwest coast — in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.

“This isn’t a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine.” Coveney said. “The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that in our view is simply not welcome.”

Some of the member countries closest to Russia — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have confirmed that they plan to send U.S.-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, a move endorsed by the United States.

But questions have been raised about just how unified the EU is. Diverse political, business and energy interests have long divided the 27-country bloc in its approach to Moscow. Around 40% of the EU’s natural gas imports come from Russia, much of it via pipelines across Ukraine — and many are skittish about being cut off from that supply in winter, with prices already soaring.

The EU’s two major powers appear most cautious. French President Emmanuel Macron has renewed previously rejected calls for an EU summit with Putin.

Late on Saturday, the head of the German navy, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, resigned after coming under fire for saying that Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula, and for suggesting that Putin deserves “respect.”

Still, diplomats and officials said hard-hitting sanctions are being drawn up with the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission. They were reluctant to say what the measures might be or what action by Russia might trigger them, but said they would come within days of any attack.

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This story has been updated to correct that France has said it is ready to send troops to Romania, not Bulgaria. ___

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dasha Litvinova in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Mike Corder in The Hague, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

Lorne Cook, The Associated Press

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Crime

Shooter warning signs get lost in sea of social media posts

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The warning signs were there for anyone to stumble upon, days before the 18-year-old gunman entered a Texas elementary school and slaughtered 19 children and two teachers.

There was the Instagram photo of a hand holding a gun magazine, a TikTok profile that warned, “Kids be scared,” and the image of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles displayed on a rug, pinned to the top of the killer’s Instagram profile.

Shooters are leaving digital trails that hint at what’s to come long before they actually pull the trigger.

“When somebody starts posting pictures of guns they started purchasing, they’re announcing to the world that they’re changing who they are,” said Katherine Schweit, a retired FBI agent who spearheaded the agency’s active shooter program. “It absolutely is a cry for help. It’s a tease: can you catch me?”

The foreboding posts, however, are often lost in an endless grid of Instagram photos that feature semi-automatic rifles, handguns and ammunition. There’s even a popular hashtag devoted to encouraging Instagram users to upload daily photos of guns with more than 2 million posts attached to it.

For law enforcement and social media companies, spotting a gun post from a potential mass shooter is like sifting through quicksand, Schweit said. That’s why she tells people not to ignore those type of posts, especially from children or young adults. Report it, she advises, to a school counselor, the police or even the FBI tip line.

Increasingly, young men have taken to Instagram, which boasts a thriving gun community, to drop small hints of what’s to come with photos of their own weapons just days or weeks before executing a mass killing.

Before shooting 17 students and staff members dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, Nikolas Cruz posted on YouTube that he wanted to be a “professional school shooter” and shared photos of his face covered, posing with guns. The FBI took in a tip about Cruz’s YouTube comment but never followed up with Cruz.

In November, 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley shared a photo of a semi-automatic handgun his dad had purchased with the caption, “Just got my new beauty today,” days before he went on to kill four students and injure seven others at his high school in Oxford Township, Michigan.

And days before entering a school classroom on Tuesday and killing 19 small children and two teachers, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos left similar clues across Instagram.

On May 20, the day that law enforcement officials say Ramos purchased a second rifle, a picture of two AR-style semi-automatic rifles appeared on his Instagram. He tagged another Instagram user with more than 10,000 followers in the photo. In an exchange, later shared by that user, she asks why he tagged her in the photo.

“I barely know you and u tag me in a picture with some guns,” the Instagram user wrote, adding, “It’s just scary.”

The school district in Uvalde had even spent money on software that, using geofencing technology, monitors for potential threats in the area.

Ramos, however, didn’t make a direct threat in posts. Having recently turned 18, he was legally allowed to own the weapons in Texas.

His photos of semi-automatic rifles are one of many on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube where it’s commonplace to post pictures or videos of guns and shooter training videos are prevalent. YouTube prohibits users from posting instructions on how to convert firearms to automatic. But Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, does not limit photos or hashtags around firearms.

That makes it difficult for platforms to separate people posting gun photos as part of a hobby from those with violent intent, said Sara Aniano, a social media and disinformation researcher, most recently at Monmouth University.

“In a perfect world, there would be some magical algorithm that could detect a worrisome photo of a gun on Instagram,” Aniano said. “For a lot of reasons, that’s a slippery slope and impossible to do when there are people like gun collectors and gunsmiths who have no plan to use their weapon with ill intent.”

Meta said it was working with law enforcement officials Wednesday to investigate Ramos’ accounts. The company declined to answer questions about reports it might have received on Ramos’ accounts.

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More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings.

Amanda Seitz, The Associated Press

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Crime

Police: Texas gunman was inside the school for over an hour

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By Jake Bleiberg, Jim Vertuno And Elliot Spagat in Uvalde

Texas authorities say the gunman who massacred 21 people at an elementary school was in the building for over an hour before he was killed by law enforcement officers.

The amount of time that elapsed has stirred anger and questions among family members, who demanded to know why they did not storm the place and put a stop to the rampage more quickly.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson Travis Considine said 18-year-old Salvador Ramos entered Robb Elementary School and began his rampage at 11:40 a.m. Tuesday.

A Border Patrol tactical unit began trying to get inside an hour later, and at 12:58 p.m., radio chatter noted he was dead.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

UVALDE, Texas (AP) — Law enforcement authorities faced mounting questions and criticism Thursday over how much time elapsed before they stormed a Texas elementary school classroom and put a stop to the rampage by a gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers.

Separately, after two days of unclear and contradictory accounts from police, a Texas law enforcement official said that an armed school district officer did not encounter or exchange fire with the attacker, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, before he entered Robb Elementary in the town of Uvalde, as previously reported.

But many other details about the timing of events and the police response remained murky. The motive for the massacre — the nation’s deadliest school shooting since Newtown, Connecticut, a decade ago — remained under investigation, with authorities saying Ramos had no known criminal or mental health history.

During the siege, which ended when a U.S. Border Patrol team burst in and shot the gunman to death, frustrated onlookers urged police officers to charge into the school, according to witnesses.

“Go in there! Go in there!” women shouted at the officers soon after the attack began, said Juan Carranza, 24, who watched the scene from outside a house across the street.

Carranza said the officers should have entered the school sooner: “There were more of them. There was just one of him.”

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said Wednesday that 40 minutes to an hour elapsed from when Ramos opened fire on the school security officer to when the tactical team shot him.

“The bottom line is law enforcement was there,” McCraw said. “They did engage immediately. They did contain (Ramos) in the classroom.”

But a department spokesman said Thursday that authorities were still working to clarify the timeline of the attack, uncertain whether that period of 40 minutes to an hour began when the gunman reached the school, or earlier, when he shot his grandmother at home.

“Right now we do not have an accurate or confident timeline to provide to say the gunman was in the school for this period,” Lt. Christopher Olivarez told CNN.

Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz did not give a timeline but said repeatedly that the tactical officers from his agency who arrived at the school did not hesitate. He said they moved rapidly to enter the building, lining up in a “stack” behind an agent holding up a shield.

“What we wanted to make sure is to act quickly, act swiftly, and that’s exactly what those agents did,” Ortiz told Fox News.

But a law enforcement official said that once in the building, the Border Patrol agents had trouble breaching the classroom door and had to get a staff member to open the room with a key. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the investigation.

Olivarez said investigators were trying to establish whether the classroom was, in fact, locked or barricaded in some way.

Javier Cazares, whose fourth grade daughter, Jacklyn Cazares, was killed in the attack, said he raced to the school as the massacre unfolded. When he arrived, he saw two officers outside the school and about five others escorting students out of the building. But 15 or 20 minutes passed before the arrival of officers with shields, equipped to confront the gunman, he said.

As more parents flocked to the school, he and others pressed police to act, Cazares said. He heard about four gunshots before he and the others were ordered back to a parking lot.

“A lot of us were arguing with the police, ‘You all need to go in there. You all need to do your jobs.’ Their response was, ‘We can’t do our jobs because you guys are interfering,’” Cazares said.

Ramos crashed his truck into a ditch outside the school, grabbed his AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle and shot at two people outside a funeral home, who ran away uninjured, according to authorities and witnesses.

As for the armed school officer, he was driving nearby but was not on campus when Ramos crashed his truck, according to a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke of condition of anonymity. Investigators have concluded that school officer was not positioned between the school and Ramos, leaving him unable to confront the shooter before he entered the building, the law enforcement official said.

As Ramos entered the school, two Uvalde police officers exchanged fire with him, and were wounded, according to Olivarez. Ramos began killing his victims in a classroom.

On Wednesday night, hundreds packed the bleachers at the town’s fairgrounds for a vigil. Some cried. Some closed their eyes tight, mouthing silent prayers. Parents wrapped their arms around their children as the speakers led prayers for healing.

Before attacking the school, Ramos shot and wounded his grandmother at the home they shared. Gilbert Gallegos, 82, who lives across the street and has known the family for decades, said he was puttering in his yard when he heard the shots.

Ramos ran out the front door and across the yard to a truck parked in front of the house and raced away: “He spun out, I mean fast,” spraying gravel in the air, Gallegos said.

Ramos’ grandmother emerged covered in blood: “She says, ‘Berto, this is what he did. He shot me.’” She was hospitalized.

Gallegos said he had heard no arguments before or after the shots, and knew of no history of bullying or abuse of Ramos, whom he rarely saw.

Lorena Auguste was substitute teaching at Uvalde High School when she heard about the shooting and began frantically texting her niece, a fourth grader at Robb Elementary. Eventually she found out the girl was OK.

But that night, her niece had a question.

“Why did they do this to us?” the girl asked. “We’re good kids. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

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Bleiberg reported from Dallas.

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More on the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas: https://apnews.com/hub/school-shootings

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