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Obama leads condemnation as West rounds on Russia

Posted by pakin On August - 29 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

KIEV – Ukraine and the West said that Russian troops were actively involved in the fighting tearing apart the east of the country, raising fears of a direct military confrontation between Kiev and its former Soviet master.

US President Barack Obama led a chorus of growing international condemnation over the escalating crisis, saying it was “plain for the world to see” that Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine, despite more repeated denials by Moscow.

Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Russia’s actions “cannot remain without consequences” as the US and Europe raised the prospect of fresh sanctions against Russia.

“Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see,” Obama said on Thursday, ratcheting up the pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“This ongoing Russian incursion into Ukraine will only bring more costs and consequences for Russia.”

NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops were on the ground supporting pro-Kremlin separatists who have been fighting against Kiev’s rule since April.

The United States and the European Union have already imposed a series of punishing sanctions on Moscow over the crisis, the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Merkel said European leaders would discuss possible new measures against Moscow at a summit in Brussels on Saturday.

On a day of fast-moving developments, US envoy Samantha Power, at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, demanded in blunt terms that Russia “stop lying”.

“The mask is coming off,” she thundered.

“We see Russia’s actions for what they are: a deliberate effort to support and now fight alongside illegal separatists in another sovereign country.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the situation as “extremely difficult” but “manageable for us not to panic”, as security chiefs announced that mandatory army conscription would resume in the autumn.

US officials have accused Russian troops of being behind a lightning counter-offensive that has seen pro-Moscow rebels seize swathes of territory from Ukrainian government forces, dramatically turning the tide in the four-month conflict.

Kiev said Russian soldiers had seized control of a key southeastern border town and a string of villages in an area where fighting had been raging for days.

– Russians ‘directly involved’ –

The US ambassador to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, wrote on Twitter that Moscow’s troops were now “directly involved in the fighting” in Ukraine.

A NATO official said the supply of weapons to the rebels had also increased in both “volume and quantity,” with a diplomatic source later adding that ambassadors to the alliance would hold an emergency meeting Friday.

Fears that the flare-up in the conflict could lead to all-out war pushed stocks down in Europe and the United States, and Asia looked set to follow suit.

Russia’s ruble sunk to a five-month low as stock markets in the country plummeted over the possibility of new sanctions.

Kiev had called on the West for urgent help after a counter-offensive from the southeast border smashed through an army blockade around the separatist stronghold of Donetsk and threatened the government-held port city of Mariupol.

The gains by the separatist fighters come after weeks of government offensives that had seen troops push deep into the last holdout rebel bastions in Ukraine’s industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk blasted Putin for having “deliberately unleashed a war in Europe” and pleaded for urgent action.

A top rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, has admitted that Russian troops were fighting alongside his insurgents, but said they were on “holiday” after volunteering to join the battle.

The spiralling tensions come only days after Poroshenko and Putin held their first meeting in three months, but they failed to achieve any concrete breakthrough despite talk of a peace roadmap.

– No Ukraine guarantee –

The latest claims of Russian manoeuvres are sparking fears that Moscow is seeking more than Crimea, which it annexed in March in the face of Western outrage.

“The latest newsflow from eastern Ukraine suggests an increased risk that Russian President Putin may go well beyond snatching Crimea and destabilising the pro-Western government in Kiev. Instead, he is edging closer to an almost-invasion to occupy parts of southeastern Ukraine,” said Berenberg bank analyst Christian Schulz.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists the Kremlin is “not interested in breaking up” Ukraine.

The United Nations estimates the conflict has killed over 2,200 people and forced more than 400,000 to flee since April.

Russia vehemently opposes closer ties between Ukraine and NATO.

Concerns that Kiev could be drawn closer into the Western security alliance — and towards Europe — are seen as a key motivation behind Russia’s actions in recent months.

Obama, who will host Poroshenko at the White House on September 18, said while ex-Soviet states now in the alliance could expect a US military defense, such guarantees did not apply to non-member Kiev.

US, EU launch new Russia sanctions

Posted by pakin On July - 30 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

WASHINGTON – The United States and Europe targeted Russia’s key financial, arms and energy sectors with tough new sanctions in response to Moscow’s intervention in the Ukraine crisis.

Announcing the measures, US President Barack Obama denied that the West had begun a new Cold War against its former Soviet foe, but urged his counterpart Vladimir Putin to reverse course.

He warned the new sanctions would hurt a Russian economy already stumbling towards zero growth, and said Washington had proof that Russian artillery had fired on Ukrainian forces.

And, he said, the allies are now more determined to act together in the wake of the shooting down over Ukraine this month of a Malaysia Airlines jet by Russian-armed separatists.

“Even before our actions today, nearly $100 billion in capital was expected to flee Russia,” Obama warned.

“Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors are feeling the pain. Projections for Russian economic growth are down to near zero.”

While the sanctions are designed to hit key sectors of Moscow’s economy hardest, and the circle off oligarchs in Putin’s inner circle, there were warnings that Europe’s own economy would suffer too.

The euro fell to its lowest level against the dollar on Tuesday as markets realized that Brussels was on a collision course with Europe’s biggest source of energy and a major trading partner.

The US Treasury singled out VTB Bank, its subsidiary Bank of Moscow and Russian Agricultural Bank as three institutions joining the existing sanctions regime against Russia.

Sanctions will also target Russia’s state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation, which builds attack submarines and surface warships, some of them for export to Moscow’s overseas military partners.

Europe’s sanctions will notably make it tougher for Russian state-owned banks to access European financial markets, forcing their costs higher and hobbling an already struggling economy.

Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, dubbed the measures “a strong warning” and condemned Russia’s “illegal annexation” of Crimea and deliberate destabilization of Ukraine.

If Russia does not change direction, Van Rompuy said, “it will find itself increasingly isolated by its own actions.”

“The European Union will fulfill its obligations to protect and ensure the security of its citizens. And the European Union will stand by its neighbors and partners,” the statement added.

The EU however “remains ready to reverse its decisions and re-engage with Russia when it starts contributing actively and without ambiguities to finding a solution,” he added.

For months since the crisis erupted in November, the EU has restricted its response to so-called ‘Phase 2’ asset freezes and visa bans on those implicated in or profiting from the Ukraine crisis.

– Sanctions ‘inevitable’ –

Washington and Kiev complained such measures were not enough, suggesting EU states were reluctant to hurt their extensive economic ties with Russia, which supplies a third of the bloc’s gas.

The loss of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, however, dramatically changed thinking, even among holdouts such as Germany and Italy, and put broader ‘Phase 3’ sanctions on the agenda.

“The decision today was inevitable,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, urging the Russian leadership to “pursue the path of de-escalation and cooperation.”

EU ambassadors also agreed to impose asset freezes and visa bans on four close Putin business associates, the first time the bloc has targeted such figures.

Details of their names will be made available in the EU’s Official Journal, probably on Wednesday, with the new sanctions likely to come into force on Friday or Saturday.

Moscow has consistently derided the US and EU sanctions, condemning them as ineffective and counterproductive to shared interests in such key areas as the fight against terrorism.

“We will overcome any difficulties that develop in various sectors of the economy and maybe we will become more independent and confident,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday.

British energy giant BP, which owns almost 20 percent of Russian state oil giant Rosneft, complained that the new sanctions could seriously damage its interests.

– Fighting by MH17 crash site –

Some EU diplomats also expressed concern that the sanctions would convince Putin that he no longer has anything to lose by further escalating the conflict.

But another envoy played down this possibility, and warned: “Putin is going to try and divide the Europeans and his response will be a test of the EU’s unity.”

Heavy shelling in eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, forced international experts to again scrap plans to reach the MH17 crash site.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Belarus to host talks between Russian and Ukrainian envoys to discuss access to the MH17 crash site. There was no immediate response from Moscow.

The remains of some of the 298 victims, who included nearly 200 Dutch nationals, still lie there 12 days after the disaster.

The Ukrainian military said they were not involved in hostilities in the area, claiming instead that insurgents were firing on their positions from nearby towns in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.

In Donetsk — the biggest rebel stronghold of a million people just 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from the crash site — AFP journalists heard several explosions and saw several damaged buildings.

Heavy fighting was also ongoing in another rebel stronghold, Lugansk, where local authorities reported five killed and eight wounded in the past 24 hours.

More than 1,100 people have been killed in the fighting in the past three months, the United Nations said.

Russia accuses US of hindering OSCE in Ukraine

Posted by pakin On July - 28 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

GRABOVE (UKRAINE) – Russia accused the United States of hindering the OSCE’s work in Ukraine, as fighting raged around the crash site of flight MH17 and the Netherlands scrapped plans for an armed international mission to secure the area.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a telephone conversation, asked US Secretary of State John Kerry “to order his subordinates to stop hindering the OSCE from doing its current work”, the foreign ministry in Moscow said in a statement Sunday.

Kerry, during the conversation, urged Russia to “begin to contribute to deescalating the conflict”, a senior US State Department official said.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been unable to access the site where the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed less than two weeks ago, killing 298 people, because of heavy shelling in the area.

Moscow has accused the US of supporting Kiev against the separatist rebels in the restive east of the former Soviet Republic, and of “sharing the responsibility of spilt blood” in the conflict.

The United States and Europe, meanwhile, accuse Moscow of supporting the insurgents, and claim a Russian-made missile was used to shoot down flight MH17.

“Secretary Kerry urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to stop the flow of heavy weapons and rocket and artillery fire from Russia into Ukraine,” said the State Department official.

“He did not accept Foreign Minister Lavrov’s denial that heavy weapons from Russia were contributing to the conflict.”

The two ministers agreed that a ceasefire in east Ukraine was needed, and that negotiations should start under the terms of an agreement signed in April, the Russian ministry said.

According to the State Department official, Kerry underlined Washington’s “support for a mutual ceasefire verified by the OSCE and reaffirmed our strong support for the international investigation to show the facts of MH17.”

– Armed mission ‘not realistic’ –

The Netherlands, meanwhile, scrapped plans to send an international armed mission to secure the crash site amid fears of being dragged into the conflict.

Dutch authorities leading the probe into the downing of the jetliner had along with Australia planned to send armed officers, but Prime Minister Mark Rutte said this was no longer viable.

“Getting the military upper hand for an international mission in this area is according to our conclusion not realistic,” Rutte told journalists.

Even an unarmed team of Dutch and Australian officers was forced to drop their plans to visit the site Sunday as heavy bombardments rocked towns close to the site, where remains of the victims still lie decomposing under the summer sun.

A small reconnaissance team “stopped out of security concern” after seeing heavy weapons, said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE’s special mission in Ukraine.

A senior Australian official on Monday said the chances of Dutch and Australian police reaching the crash site were not good, and that the effort could take days.

“If it is a genuine offensive to take back ground we may be some days before we can feel safe and secure to go back in there,” Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Andrew Colvin told Australian media.

So far, investigators have visited the site only sporadically because of security concerns, even though a truce had earlier been called in the immediate area around the site by both Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Fierce fighting on Sunday claimed 13 lives, including those of two children.

An AFP photographer heard artillery bombardments just a kilometre (half a mile) from the rebel-held town of Grabove, next to the crash site, and saw black smoke billowing into the sky.

Terrified local residents were fleeing and checkpoints controlled by separatist fighters were abandoned.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin insisted on Twitter Kiev was “committed to its unilateral cease-fire within 40km zone of MH17 site”, and “terrorists (are) destroying evidence of the crime”.

Amid the fighting, Washington released satellite images to bolster its claim that Russian artillery has fired across the border into Ukraine, targeting government forces in support of separatists.

– Alleged Grad rocket fire –

Fighting was also raging elsewhere as the Ukrainian army pushed on to retake the industrial east.

Ukraine’s military accused insurgent fighters of firing unguided Grad rockets at residential blocks in the city of Gorlivka, to the north of Donetsk, “aiming to bring discredit to the Ukrainian army and frighten the non-combatants”.

A rebel commander from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic told a press conference that the situation in Gorlivka was “fine for the moment”.

The outskirts of mining hub Donetsk itself were also subject to intense bombardment, some of it apparently Grad rocket fire.

The city of one million has been serving as a base for international monitors and journalists who are travelling regularly to the crash site.

Ukraine’s anti-terrorism office said a female Polish journalist working for pro-Kiev Espreso TV was seriously wounded in clashes in the Lugansk region and evacuated.

In Brussels, the European Union is drafting tougher sanctions against Russia — which it accuses of abetting the insurgency by arming the rebels who allegedly shot down the aircraft.

Sanctions targeting economic sectors including an arms embargo are being considered, while on Tuesday the bloc is expected to unveil more names of individuals and entities sanctioned.

Moscow has blasted the move as “irresponsible”, and warned that it jeopardised cooperation on security issues.

Malaysian jet crash in Ukraine: Live Report

Posted by pakin On July - 18 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

02:45 GMT – Immediate ceasefire – The White House calls for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine

02:39 GMT – Abbott says Australia will push for a binding resolution at the United Nations Security Council calling for a full and impartial investigation.

This will require full access to the site, the debris, the black box and “all individuals who might be in a position to shed light on this terrible event.”

“The minister for foreign affairs will shortly summon the Russian ambassador to seek a categoric assurance from the ambassador that the Russian government will fully cooperate in this investigation.”

02:36 GMT – A firefighter stands next to wreckage of the Malaysian airliner

02:33 GMT – “Tragic death” – Obama expressed condolences for the “tragic death” of Dutch citizens during a call with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

He told Rutte: “the United States was prepared to contribute immediate assistance to support a prompt, full, credible and unimpeded international investigation,” according to a White House statement.

“The president and prime minister agreed on the need to assure immediate access to the site of the incident to international investigators in order to facilitate the recovery of remains and to carry out a thorough investigation.”

02:27 GMT – “Brought to justice” – Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott urges Russia to cooperate with an investigation.

“As things stand, this looks less like an accident than a crime,” Abbott tells parliament.

“And if so, the perpetrators must be brought to justice,” he adds to cries of “hear, hear”.

Obama offers help

02:24 GMT – “Thoughts and prayers” – US President Barack Obama has assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that US experts will “offer all possible assistance immediately.”

The statement raised the possibility that US officials are concerned pro-Russian forces could try to tamper with the evidence of the wrecked aircraft to cover up who is to blame.

“And as a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families of the passengers, wherever they call home,” said Obama.

02:23 GMT – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says pro-Russian insurgents shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet in a “terrorist act” Duration:00:37

02:21 GMT – White House warning – The White House warns against tampering with debris from the crash in rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

“The president emphasized that all evidence from the crash site must remain in place on the territory of Ukraine until international investigators are able to examine all aspects of the tragedy,” the White House said.

02:18 GMT – Safe path – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak tells reporters in Kuala Lumpur that flight MH17 was on a flight path that had been deemed safe.

“The aircraft’s flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation,” Najib says.

“And International Air Transportation Association has stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions,” he adds.

02:17 GMT – Shares hit – The crash is having a financial impact with shares in Malaysia Airlines tumbling almost 18 percent in morning trade on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange.

02:12 GMT – FAA warning – The FAA is urging US commercial planes to avoid flying over Ukrainian airspace

02:06 GMT – “If it should disappear” – In a chilling post just before he boarded the flight, young Dutch traveller Cor Pan posted an image of the doomed flight with the comment: “If it should disappear, this is what it looks like.”

Pan, who appeared to be going on a beach holiday to Malaysia, posted the photo as a joking reference to missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Cor had earlier posted pictures of idyllic tropical beaches on his Facebook page, saying: “A few more days to wait yet…”

Comments by Pan’s friends on Facebook suggest that he was on MH17. Late on Thursday his picture had been shared more than 10,000 times on the social media site.

Petra Bleeker posted a picture of Cor and his girlfriend Neeltje Tol on which she superimposed a white rose, signifying death. It was unclear whether Tol was also on the flight.

“Such a beautiful couple who have been taken from life. I wish you the best wherever you are,” said Peter Bootsman.

01:59 GMT – A nation reels – AFP’s Jan Hennop reports from Schiphol airport that distraught and sobbing relatives were taken to a restaurant on the upper floor to shield them from the media massed below.

They then boarded buses headed for an unknown destination.

Around the country national flags have been lowered to half-mast and at embassies around the world.

“I am deeply saddened by this horrible news,” King Willem-Alexander said in a statement.

“Our thoughts go to the families, friends and colleagues of the victims, and to those who do not know yet if one of their loved ones was on board the plane.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he was “deeply shocked” by the catastrophe, while Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten added that “the images I saw were terrible.”

Malaysian Airlines vice president Huib Gorter told a press briefing at Schiphol that a plane would take victims’ relatives to Ukraine to visit the crash site if they wished to make the trip.

01:59 GMT – Map locating Saktarsk in Ukraine where a Malaysia Airlines jet crashed

Audio recording

01:57 GMT – Russian expletive – The strongly pro-Kiev Ukrainska Pravda news site later posted an audio recording of what it claimed were the intercepted field communications between rebels and a Russian agent discussing the downing.

“We just downed a plane,” a rebel the recording identifies as Bes (Demon) tells an alleged Russian military intelligency officer.

Another recording shows one alleged fighter reporting from the site of the plane’s remains that it was “100 percent certain this is a civilian aircraft.”

He spits out a Russian expletive when asked whether there were a lot of passengers on board.

01:56 GMT – A ‘bird fell’ – The rebels first claimed to have downed at least one Ukrainian army plane over the strife-torn eastern rustbelt.

The VK social networking page of Igor Strelkov — “defence minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — first announced: “We just downed an An-26 near (the town of) Torez.”

“And here is a video confirming that a ‘bird fell’,” said the post.

“Credible” investigation

01:50 GMT – US “horrified” – US Secretary of State John Kerry expresses horror and calls for a “credible” international investigation.

“We are horrified by the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17,” Kerry says in a statement.

“The United States government remains prepared to assist with a credible, international investigation any way we can, and we will continue to be in touch with all relevant partners as we seek the facts of what happened today.”

01:47 GMT – Relatives arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport

01:44 GMT – Tributes to top AIDS researcher – Australia’s National AIDS Trust is paying tribute to leading AIDS researcher and former International AIDS Society president Joep Lange.

“Reports Joep Lange died in Malaysian plane crash today, with other scientists on way to @AIDS_conference. Desperately sad news,” it says on Twitter.

American academic and AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves is tweeting that “lots of AIDS researchers, activists, officials on downed Malaysia Airlines flight to Melbourne for Intl AIDS Conference”, naming Lange.

“Joep Lange was a leading AIDS researcher and clinician and an activist at heart. Lost today too soon on Malaysian flight 019 (sic). RIP,” says Gonsalves.

Assigning blame

01:41 GMT – Complications – If it is confirmed that separatist fighters shot down the plane, it would further complicate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to paint their uprising as a fight for self-determination.

Russia’s state media has avoided any mention of the controversial posts and instead reported militia leaders’ later charges that the Ukrainian air force had shot down the Boeing 777 liner instead.

01:38 GMT – A man looks at flight information screens at Kuala Lumpur International Airport

01:35 GMT – Possible Mistake – My colleague Dmitry Zaks reports from Kiev that social media posts by pro-Russian insurgents — most of them hastily removed — suggest the rebels thought they had shot down a Ukrainian army plane before realising in horror that it was in fact a packed Malaysian airliner.

The Twitter and blog messages were immediately publicised by top Kiev officials in their furious information war with the Kremlin for global opinion and the hearts and minds of ethnic Russians caught in the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Tears and Shock

01:32 GMT – Malaysian shock – Malaysians have expressed shock and sadness on the country’s active social media sites.

“Deepest condolences, this is horrendous… Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members,” one user tweeted while and Ukraine were among top trending topics on Twitter in Malaysia.

An “MH17 Community” page on Facebook has attracted thousands of clicks of support.

01:31 GMT – Tearful families at KL – My colleague Julia Zappei is at Kuala Lumpur International Airport departure hall and reports dozens of journalists waiting outside a cordoned off area where families of those aboard are registering with Malaysia Airlines officials.

Tearful relatives arrived earlier, as well as several diplomats who wanted to check if their nationals are on the plane. Several policemen are on standby.

01:26 GMT – Self-proclaimed prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai (C) at the crash site

01:20 GMT – Many heading to AIDS conference – UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe has tweeted: “My thoughts & prayers to families of those tragically lost on flight . Many passengers were enroute to here in .”

The 20th International AIDS Conference is being held in Melbourne.

International call for investigation

01:16 GMT – Russian President Vladimir Putin says Kiev bears responsibility for the crash, which comes as Ukrainian forces battle pro-Moscow insurgents in the east of the country.

As Malaysian investigators head to the scene, the UN Security Council has called an emergency session on Friday to discuss the disaster — the second to strike the airline in just four months.

Shocked world leaders have called for an international inquiry to determine the causes of the disaster with potentially far-reaching political implications, with Britain demanding a UN-led probe.

01:15 GMT – There also were 43 Malaysians, including the crew and two infants, and 27 Australians, it said, updating earlier figures as the airline works to verify passenger nationalities.

Twelve were Indonesians including an infant, nine were British, four were German, three were from the Philippines and one was Canadian.

The airline said four were Belgian but the Belgian foreign minister said five Belgians were on board.

Malaysia Airlines said the nationalities of 41 passengers remained unconfirmed.

01:14 GMT – Passenger nationalities – The carrier says there were 298 people, including 154 Dutch nationals, on board the Malaysia Airlines flight.

In an e-mailed statement it says the flight “was carrying a total number of 298 people — comprising 283 passengers including three infants of various nationalities and 15 crew of Malaysian nationality.”

01:09 GMT – First-aid workers gather on the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner

01:07 GMT – WELCOME TO AFP’S LIVE REPORT after a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed in strife-torn east Ukraine, with US officials saying it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

Ukraine’s government said the jet was shot down in a “terrorist act”, while comments attributed to a pro-Russia rebel chief suggested his men may have downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by mistake, believing it was a Ukrainian army transport plane.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meanwhile said Kiev bore responsibility for the crash, which came as Ukrainian forces battle pro-Moscow insurgents in the east of the country.