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Archive for September, 2014

Ukraine, rebels trade 67 prisoners in peace deal

September 12, 2014

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — In the dead of night, Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebel forces on Friday exchanged 67 prisoners who had been captured during fighting in eastern Ukraine, part of a cease-fire deal that has struggled to succeed.

The transfer took place in the dark outside of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk under the watch of international observers. Thirty-six Ukrainian servicemen were released after negotiations, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said. Ukrainian forces handed over 31 pro-Russian rebels detained over the five-month conflict, some of them Russian citizens.

The cease-fire took effect a week ago but has been routinely violated. Shortly after the prisoner exchange, a volley of rocket fire was heard in Donetsk. The Ukrainian servicemen were driven away from local rebel headquarters around 1:30 a.m. and taken several miles north of Donetsk, where they were met by Ukrainian military officials.

The two sets of captives were brought out wearing handcuffs, which were removed as they were handed over. One representative from each side checked each prisoner against a list and crossed out their name as they were freed.

“There is an ongoing process of talks. We are meeting each other’s demands and fulfilling our promises,” said Yuriy Tandit, a negotiator for the government. Darya Morozova, who is overseeing the prisoner exchange for the separatists, said she estimates around 1,200 rebels and their supporters are being detained by Ukrainian authorities. She said the rebels were holding several hundred Ukrainian troops, but when asked for an exact figure, she would only say it was “up to 1,000” people.

Morozova claimed the rebel prisoners had been poorly treated and some had not been fed for around two weeks. Another transfer of prisoners is expected in the next three days, she said. Some of the separatists freed Friday were Russian citizens.

One of them, Simon Veridya from Moscow, said he was captured in the town of Kramatorsk, which was retaken by government forces in July. “They shot at our ambulance. There were five of us, including two women. We were taken to custody in Kramatorsk” at the airport, Veridya said. “I was beaten and have two broken ribs.”

The conflict between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian government has been raging since mid-April, claiming more than 3,000 lives, according to the UN. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee the fighting.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of propping up the insurgency in eastern Ukraine with recruits and heavy weapons. Moscow has admitted that Russian volunteers were fighting across the border but denied sending the rebels weapons or troops.

In Brussels, the European Union toughened financial penalties on Russian banks, arms manufacturers and its biggest oil company, Rosneft, to punish Moscow for what the West sees as efforts to destabilize Ukraine.

The EU measures, which took effect Friday, broaden the scope of penalties imposed in July. They increase restrictions to Europe’s capital markets, which further limits the targeted Russian companies’ ability to raise money. They now also apply to major oil and defense companies, not only banks.

The EU sanctions forbid EU companies from engaging in new contracts in oil drilling, exploration and related services in Russia’s Arctic, deep sea and shale oil projects. Russia’s Rosneft is majority-owned by the state, but Britain’s BP holds a 19.75 percent stake in it.

The sanctions also ban 24 more officials from traveling to the EU and freeze their assets there — including four deputy Parliament speakers and leaders of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. They also hit Sergei Chemezov, a chairman of a state-owned industrial giant and a former Soviet intelligence officer who served alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Cold War.

Speaking in Kiev on Friday, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the new sanctions signaled to Moscow that there is “no return to business as usual.” The United States is expected to announce a new round of sanctions against Russia later Friday for its actions in Ukraine.

Laura Mills in Kiev, Ukraine, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.

Ukraine’s leader visits embattled city of Mariupol

September 08, 2014

MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president made a surprise trip Monday to a government stronghold in the turbulent southeast, delivering a fiery speech to hundreds of workers in hard hats in a dramatic show of Kiev’s strength in the region.

“This city was, is, and will be Ukrainian!” Poroshenko told metal plant workers in the embattled coastal city of Mariupol. Poroshenko’s trip to the strategic port, just days after it faced sustained rebel fire, underscored that Kiev is unlikely to willingly loosen what remains of its grip on Ukraine’s rebellious east. It also came as a tenuous cease-fire appeared to be holding Monday between the Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine.

The president spoke from a stage decorated with Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow colors after leading the room in singing the national anthem. “Mariupol proved that we won’t let anybody burn our city to the ground. The workers of Mariupol protected peace and calm in the city,” he said, emphasizing that in eastern Ukraine “our most important resource is people.

But despite the symbolic display of strength, Poroshenko was often on the defensive in his speech, insisting that he had not agreed to Friday’s cease-fire out of weakness. He also reiterated that independence for the separatist region was off the table and that there would be no political negotiations to end the crisis other than with “elected leaders” of the region — but exactly who those leaders were was left unclear.

Those comments signaled that, even if the truce holds, eastern Ukraine’s entrenched political problems are far from being resolved. The area around Mariupol had remained relatively untouched by violence until the last two weeks, when rebel forces pushed toward the city, shelling its outskirts as recently as Saturday. The port is strategically located on the Sea of Azov, raising fears that if it fell, the rebels could link up mainland Russia with Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in March. The move would cost Ukraine another huge chunk of its coastline and all the mineral riches believed to be under the Sea of Azov.

As Poroshenko spoke, the shaky truce that was implemented late Friday appeared to be taking root. The city council of Donetsk, the largest rebel-held city, said there had been no casualties overnight, and no shelling or explosions were heard in the city. Later Monday, residents reported hearing sporadic explosions. In Luhansk, another rebel-held city hit hard by shelling, the city council reported no fighting for the third night in a row.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, said no serviceman had been killed in the past day. Rebels had stopped using heavy artillery and were only using mortar and rifle fire, he said.

“That’s a big achievement,” he said. Still, he told reporters the rebels had violated the cease-fire half a dozen times. The cease-fire was thrown into peril over the weekend by the shelling of Mariupol and fighting near the Donetsk airport. A previous 10-day truce in June was riddled by violations.

A successful cease-fire would be a landmark achievement in a conflict that has dragged on for nearly five months and claimed at least 3,000 lives, according to a U.N. estimate issued Monday. It has also forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

In the deal signed Friday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, Ukraine, Russia and the Kremlin-backed separatists agreed to an immediate cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners. But the more entrenched political issues that helped spark the pro-Russian uprising in April — such as a greater degree of autonomy for the separatist regions — were left vague.

While Poroshenko told journalists in Mariupol that Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” was not a negotiating point, rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko told the Russian radio station Kommersant FM that he would like to see “an acknowledgment of (our) independence” added to the Minsk protocol.

Poroshenko also emphasized that he would only negotiate with “elected leaders” of the region — but who exactly that meant was left unclear. While parliamentary elections are slated for October 26, the rebels could easily derail and thereby delegitimize any future vote in the region.

The cease-fire has left Poroshenko on the defensive with the rest of the country, as many politicians rushed to criticize it as treachery. The country’s former prime minister and the leader of one of Ukraine’s largest political parties, Yulia Tymoshenko, was quoted by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Monday as saying the Minsk agreement was “extremely dangerous” because it did not demand that Russian forces leave Ukrainian territory.

During his visit to Mariupol, Poroshenko acknowledged that “some people do not like” the cease-fire deal. “Yes, we have enough strength to defend both the city and the country,” he said. “But everyone wants peace, and that’s why I started talks with President (Vladimir) Putin.”

Poroshenko emphasized that thousands of prisoners would be released by the rebels — reason enough for the cease-fire. He later announced that 20 Ukrainian soldiers had just been freed.

Mills reported from Kiev, Ukraine.

Ukraine signs cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels

September 05, 2014

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The Ukrainian president declared a cease-fire Friday to end nearly five months of fighting in the nation’s east after his representatives reached a deal with the Russian-backed rebels at peace talks in Minsk.

President Petro Poroshenko said he ordered government forces to stop hostilities at 1500 GMT (11 a.m. EDT) following a protocol signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“Human life is of the highest value. And we need to do everything that is possible and impossible to stop bloodshed and end people’s suffering,” Poroshenko said in a statement. Heidi Tagliavini of the OSCE told reporters the deal in the Belorussian capital focused on 12 separate points but she did not immediately spell them out before heading back into the talks. Poroshenko said a prisoner exchange would begin Saturday and international monitors would keep watch over the cease-fire.

With the cease-fire deal, Putin may hope to avert a new round of sanctions, which the European Union leaders ordered Friday to be prepared. Since mid-April, Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine in a conflict the U.N. estimates has killed nearly 2,600 people.

“The cease-fire will allow us to save not only civilians lives, but also the lives of the people who took up arms in order to defend their land and ideals,” said Alexander Zakharchenko, the rebel leader from the Donetsk region.

But Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the separatist Luhansk region, told reporters “this doesn’t mean that our course for secession is over” — a statement that reflected the deep divisions which threaten to derail peace efforts.

Details of the peace plan are yet to be released. Putin has suggested earlier this week that rebels halt their offensive and Ukrainian government forces stop using combat aircraft and pull back so they can’t shell residential areas with artillery and rockets. Poroshenko, in his turn, has emphasized that Russia must withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Moscow has denied reports by Ukraine, NATO and Western nations that it was backing the mutiny with weapons, supplies, and even with thousands of regular troops. But a NATO military officer told The Associated Press on Thursday that the ranks of Russian soldiers directly involved in the conflict have grown even past NATO’s earlier estimate of at least 1,000.

At a summit in Wales, NATO leaders approved plans Friday to create a rapid response force with a headquarters in Eastern Europe that could quickly mobilize if an alliance country in the region were to come under attack. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but the entire alliance has been alarmed by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and Russia is under both U.S. and EU sanctions for its backing of the rebels.

In his statement, Poroshenko said he ordered the cease-fire following Putin’s call on the insurgents to halt fighting. He said he expects the OSCE to efficiently monitor the cease-fire. “I count on this agreement, including the ceasing of fire and the freeing of hostages, to be precisely observed,” Poroshenko said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday in Wales, where she was attending a NATO summit, that “if certain processes get under way, we are prepared to suspend sanctions.” “We have to see whether this cease-fire is being applied. Do Russian troops withdraw, so far as they’re there? Are there buffer zones and things like that — a lot of things will have to be sorted out,” she said. “These sanctions certainly could be put into force — this is all in flux — but with the proviso that they can be suspended again if we see that this process really yields results.”

The rebel offensive in the southeast follows two weeks of gains that have turned the tide of the war against Ukrainian forces, who until recently had appeared close to crushing the five-month rebellion.

As late as Friday morning, Associated Press reporters heard heavy shelling north and east of the key southeastern port of Mariupol. The city of 500,000 lies on the Sea of Azov, between Russia to the east and the Crimean Peninsula to the west, which Russia annexed in March. The shelling appeared to indicate that rebels had partially surrounded the area.

The seizure of Mariupol would give the rebels a strong foothold on the Sea of Azov and raise the threat that they could carve out a land corridor between Russia and Crimea. If that happens, Ukraine would lose another huge chunk of its coast and access to the rich hydrocarbon resources the Sea of Azov is believed to hold. Ukraine ready lost about half its coastline, several major ports and untold billions in Black Sea mineral rights with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“Mariupol is a strategic point. If we lose it then we could lose the entire coastline, the whole south of Ukraine,” said Tatyana Chronovil, a Ukrainian activist at a mustering point for the volunteer Azov Battalion on the eastern edge of the city.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council in Kiev, said seven servicemen had been killed over the past day, bringing the Ukrainian forces’ death toll to 846.

Leonard reported from Mariupol, Ukraine. John-Thor Dahlburg in Newport, Wales, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jim Heintz from Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

Ukrainian troops routed as Russia talks tough

September 02, 2014

NOVOKATERYNIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — The ferocity of the attack on the fleeing Ukrainian troops was clear, days after the ambush by Russian-backed separatist forces.

More than 30 military vehicles lay in charred piles Tuesday. Villagers said dozens were killed, and some remained unburied. One soldier was blown out of his armored vehicle — apparently by a shell — his body left dangling from power lines high above.

The rout early Sunday near the village of Novokaterynivka marked a major intensification in the rebel offensive, one that the Ukrainian government, NATO and the United States say has been sustained by Russia’s direct military support.

Moscow has stepped up its harsh rhetoric as well. A leaked report said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said President Vladimir Putin told him that Russia could take over Kiev “in two weeks” if it wished.

Following a month of setbacks in which government troops regained territory, the separatists have been successful in the last 10 days just as columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles have been seen crossing the border. President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders will be attending a summit Thursday in Wales to create a rapid-response military team to counter the Russian threat.

Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, said the Russian leader’s statement on Kiev was “taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning.” Yet the results of much deadlier weapons of war could not be denied.

The smashed tanks, APCs and trucks were part of a massive column fleeing after being encircled in the town of Ilovaisk, which the Ukrainian government was compelled to concede after weeks of battles. Judging by how close together the stricken vehicles were, the incoming fire was precise and intense.

“They were going to surrender, and they began to bomb them,” said Novokaterynivka resident Anatoly Tyrn, who had the turret of a tank land beside his home. Ukrainian army personnel have been allowed to travel to Novokaterynivka, about 36 kilometers (23 miles) southeast of Donetsk, and surrounding rebel-held areas to retrieve their soldiers’ bodies.

Villagers and the separatists say the number of Ukrainian military dead was huge, although the government has maintained a tight lid on the precise figure. Tyrn said he believed more than 100 had died. Various rebel fighters separately gave estimates, all ranging into the dozens. Associated Press reporters saw at least 11 bodies in the last two days, although it was clear that was only a portion of the overall toll. Most of the dead were removed Monday, the rebels said, although one was buried so shallowly that the decaying remains were still visible.

“Only a few homes in the village have been left untouched,” he said. As Tyrn spoke, the silence was broken by a controlled explosion of abandoned Ukrainian army equipment a couple of miles away. “That’s far away,” he said, without flinching.

It’s uncertain about whether the Ukrainian troops had been offered a safe exit corridor by the rebels. The leader of the pro-government Donbas Battalion, Semyon Semenchenko, wrote on his Facebook page Saturday that there was an agreement. But rebel fighters told the AP a day later that the government convoy included too many military vehicles and weapons to be allowed through.

A group of surviving Ukrainian soldiers outside the town of Starobesheve told the AP that they were fired upon from all sides. Rank-and-file troops increasingly have voiced exasperation at what they say is government mismanagement of the war. Anatoly Babchenko, a soldier captured Sunday by the rebels, was unsparing in his criticism.

“First they drove people to hunger, and now they’ve driven them to war,” Babchenko said from a basement cell at the Starobesheve police station. “They call this an anti-terrorist operation, but this is a civil war. Brother killing brother.”

The separatists began fighting Ukrainian troops in April, a month after Russia annexed Crimea. The war has left more than 2,500 people dead and forced at least 340,000 to flee. It also has left Ukraine’s economy in tatters. Ukraine might need billions in additional support if the fighting persists through next year, the International Monetary Fund said Tuesday. Just covering the shortfall in the central bank’s reserves would require an additional $19 billion by the end of 2015, it said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said on his Facebook page that the counterinsurgency operation was over and the military was now facing the Russian army in a war that could cost “tens of thousands” of lives.

“This is our Great Patriotic War,” he wrote, using the local terminology for World War II. Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed Heletey’s remarks as “shocking,” accusing him of trying to shift blame and keep his post amid a series of military defeats.

Ukrainian and several Western countries say Russia has sharply escalated the conflict by sending regular army units across the border. NATO estimates at least 1,000 Russian soldiers have entered Ukraine, helping turn the tide in the last week in favor of the rebels. The alliance also says 20,000 other Russian soldiers have been positioned along the frontier.

On a ridge overlooking a road running past Novokaterynivka, rebels stood watch in their tanks. Four trucks packed with grime-caked fighters swept by, along with two APCs and a couple of ambulances, apparently straight from more battles.

Villagers who have not fled appeared almost unfazed by the chaos around them. Children played in a meter-deep (3-foot) crater, collecting fragments of shrapnel. Delivery trucks wove gingerly around charred military vehicles even while unexploded ordinance lay scattered about. One man let his chickens out to feed.

Militiamen searched house-to-house for any stragglers from the destroyed convoy. One man who identified himself as Ivan was detained by rebels who said he had no papers and feared he might be a fugitive Ukrainian soldier. He was left lying on a pile of sand with a T-shirt over his bloodied face, his hands and legs bound with tape.

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Jim Heintz in Kiev contributed to this report.

Pro-Russian rebels lower demands in peace talks

September 01, 2014

MOSCOW (AP) — Pro-Russian rebels softened their demand for full independence Monday, saying they would respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for autonomy — a shift that reflects Moscow’s desire to strike a deal at a new round of peace talks.

The insurgents’ platform, released at the start of Monday’s negotiations in Minsk, the Belorussian capital, represented a significant change in their vision for the future of Ukraine’s eastern, mainly Russian-speaking region.

It remains unclear, however, whether the talks can reach a compromise amid the brutal fighting that has continued in eastern Ukraine. On Monday, the rebels pushed Ukrainian government forces from an airport near Luhansk, the second-largest rebel-held city, the latest in a series of military gains.

The peace talks in Minsk follow last week’s meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko. The negotiations involve former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma; Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine; an envoy from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and representatives of the rebels.

Yet similar talks earlier this summer produced no visible results. Unlike the previous rounds, this time rebels said in a statement carried by Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency that they are willing to discuss “the preservation of the united economic, cultural and political space of Ukraine.” In return, they demanded a comprehensive amnesty and broad local powers that would include being able to appoint their own local law enforcement officials.

This deal is only for eastern Ukraine. There are no negotiations on handing back Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed in March, a move that cost Ukraine several major ports, half its coastline and untold billions in Black Sea oil and mineral rights.

The talks lasted for several hours Monday and were adjourned until Friday, when the parties are to discuss a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners, rebel negotiator Andrei Purgin said, according to RIA Novosti.

The rebels’ more moderate negotiating platform appeared to reflect Putin’s desire to make a deal that would allow Russia to avoid more punitive Western sanctions while preserving a significant degree of leverage over its neighbor.

Over the weekend, the European Union leaders agreed to prepare a new round of sanctions that could be enacted in a week, after NATO accused Russia of sending tanks and troops into southeastern Ukraine. A NATO summit in Wales on Thursday is also expected to approve measures designed to counter Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said participants in Monday’s talks needed to push for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire. He rejected claims by the Ukrainian government, NATO and Western nations that Russia has already sent troops, artillery and tanks across Ukraine’s southeast border to reinforce the separatists.

“There will be no military intervention,” Lavrov told students at Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Monday, the first day of classes for schools and universities across Russia. “We call for an exclusively peaceful settlement of this severe crisis, this tragedy.”

Despite the Russian denials, Ukrainian National Security Council spokesman Col. Andriy Lysenko said Monday that “not less than four battalions and tactical groups of the Russian armed forces are active in Ukraine.” A battalion consists of about 400 soldiers.

In the past week, after losing ground to Ukrainian troops for nearly a month, the rebels opened a new front along Ukraine’s southeastern Sea of Azov coast and are pushing back elsewhere. The coastal assault has raised concerns the rebels are aiming to establish a land corridor from Russia all the way to Crimea.

Lysenko said Monday that Ukrainian forces had been ordered to retreat from the airport in Luhansk in the face of an intensifying assault that he blamed on “professional artillery gunmen of the Russian armed forces.”

On Sunday, missiles fired from the shore sunk one of two Ukrainian coast guard cutters 3 miles (5 kilometers) out to sea, Lysenko said. He said eight crewmen were rescued, but the Interfax news agency cited a spokesman for the border guards’ service as saying two crewmen were missing and seven were rescued.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and the government in Kiev began in mid-April, a month after the annexation of Crimea. The fighting has killed nearly 2,600 people and forced over 340,000 to flee their homes, according to the U.N.

President Barack Obama and the leaders of NATO’s other member countries will attend a summit in Wales that is expected to approve the creation of a high-readiness force to help protect member nations against potential Russian aggression.

“(This) ensures that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place at the right time,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday. “Not because NATO wants to attack anyone. But because the dangers and the threats are more present and more visible. And we will do what it takes to defend our allies.”

The plan envisages creating a force of several thousand troops contributed on a rotating basis by the 28 NATO countries. Equipment and supplies for the force are to be stockpiled in Eastern Europe “so this force can travel light, but strike hard if needed,” Rasmussen said.

An influential U.S. senator told reporters in Kiev that he would urge Obama to give Ukraine defensive weapons. Decrying what he called “an invasion by Russia into Ukraine with thousands of soldiers, columns of tanks, missiles and other artillery,” Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “Ukraine has to be given defensive weapons so that it can defend itself from the aggression it is facing.”

He declined to elaborate on what weapons he envisioned Ukraine receiving. Menendez also characterized the conflict in broader terms. “This is a Russian fight against Europe being fought on Ukrainian territory. Everything that Putin doesn’t like, he sees in the Ukrainian people’s desire to turn to the West,” he said.

Heintz reported from Kiev, Ukraine. Lynn Berry in Moscow and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels this report.

Russian-backed rebels aim to push west along coast

August 29, 2014

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Their tanks bearing the flag of their would-be state, Russian-backed separatists held control Friday over this coastal town on the new front in the Ukraine conflict and announced their intention to keep pushing west toward a major port city.

None of the half-dozen tanks seen by Associated Press reporters in the town of about 12,000 people bore Russian markings, but the packaging on their field rations said they were issued by the Russian army.

The Ukrainian government the day before accused Russia of sending tanks, artillery and troops across the border, and NATO estimated at least 1,000 Russian troops were in Ukraine. As tensions rose, European Union foreign ministers called for heavier sanctions against Moscow ahead of Saturday’s summit of EU leaders in Brussels. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was invited to address the summit.

The rebels denied they are getting Russian military vehicles. “We are fighting with the machinery the (Ukrainian forces) abandon. They just dump it and flee,” said a rebel commander who identified himself by the nom de guerre Frantsuz, or the Frenchman.

Although such claims of using only confiscated Ukrainian equipment are common, top rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko himself has said Russia was supplying equipment and fighters — something Moscow has steadfastly denied doing.

“Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday. “This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution.”

A spokesman for the rebels in Novoazovsk, who identified himself only as Alexander, said their plan was to push westward to the major port city of Mariupol, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) away. There was no sign of imminent movement on Friday, but Alexander’s statement underlined fears that the rebels’ eventual aim is to establish a land bridge between the Russian mainland and the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia earlier this year.

Speaking at a Kremlin-organized youth camp on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin likened the Ukrainian government’s efforts to put down the separatist uprising to the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1941-44.

The Leningrad comparison is a powerful one for Russians and clearly aimed at portraying the Ukraine conflict in stark, good-versus-evil terms. The 872-day siege, in which at least 670,000 civilians died, is seen by many Russians as one of the most heroic chapters in the country’s history.

To stop the bloodshed, the Kiev government should open talks with the rebels, Putin said. The death toll in the fighting reached nearly 2,600 as of Wednesday, said Ivan Simonovic, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights. He described the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine as “alarming,” with people unable to leave cities caught up in the fighting.

The U.N. human rights office on Friday accused both sides of deliberately targeting civilians. The separatists have carried out murders, torture and abductions along with other serious human rights abuses, while Ukraine’s military is guilty of such acts as arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture, the organization said in a report.

At a meeting in Milan, several EU foreign ministers accused Russia of invading eastern Ukraine and said Moscow should be punished with additional sanctions. The diplomats were expected to draw up measures that could put before the EU heads of state on Saturday.

The head of the EU’s executive Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, warned Putin that further destabilization of Ukraine “will carry high costs.” Putin called on the separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. He appeared to be referring to soldiers trapped outside the town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week.

Zakharchenko, the rebel leader, said the Ukrainian troops would have to lay down their arms before they would be allowed to go “so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in future.”

A spokesman for Ukraine’s national security council, Col. Andriy Lysenko, rejected the demand: “Ukraine is not ready to surrender arms and kneel in front of the aggressor.” Ukraine, meanwhile, got a boost from the International Monetary Fund, which said Friday it had approved payment of a $1.39 billion aid installment as part of a financial support package. The sum brings the total that has been paid out to $4.51 billion, out of $16.67 billion due over two years.

For the second day, Russian markets reacted nervously to the escalation of the conflict, with the Russian ruble sliding to the all-time low of 37.10 rubles against the dollar in early morning trading. It recovered later to 36.90 rubles.

Juergen Baetz reported from Milan. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Jim Heintz in Kiev, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed reporting.

Pro-Russia separatists in control of coastal town

August 29, 2014

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russia separatists, relaxed and well-equipped, held firm control on Friday of the strategic coastal town of Novoazovsk, a day after Ukraine claimed tanks and armored vehicles had invaded from Russia.

Associated Press reporters saw at least a half-dozen tanks in the town of about 12,000 people, bearing the flags of Novorossiya, the would-be state proclaimed by rebels in two eastern Ukraine regions. None of the tanks bore Russian markings, but ready-made meals seen near one of the tanks carried markings that they were issued by the Russian army.

“There is no Russian equipment coming through here. We are fighting with the machinery the (Ukrainian forces) abandon. They just dump it and flee,” said a rebel commander who identified himself only by the nom-de-guerre Frantsuz (The Frenchman).

Although such claims of using only confiscated Ukrainian equipment are common, top rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko himself has said Russia was supplying equipment and fighters. And Russia’s consistent rejection of the allegations is hotly dismissed by the West.

“Despite Moscow’s hollow denials, it is now clear that Russian troops and equipment have illegally crossed the border,” NATO Secretary-General Ander Fogh Rasmussen said Friday. “This is a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It defies all diplomatic efforts for a peaceful solution.”

On Thursday, NATO said at least 1,000 Russian troops are in Ukraine and later released what it said were satellite photos of Russian self-propelled artillery units moving last week. A spokesman for the rebels in Novoazovsk, who identified himself only as Alexander, said their plan was to try to eventually push westward to the major port city of Mariupol, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) away. There was no sign of imminent movement on Friday, but Alexander’s statement underlined fears that the rebels’ eventual aim is to establish a land bridge between Russia and the Russia-annexed Crimea peninsula further to the west.

The rebels also showed four Ukrainian soldiers and a wounded fighter from the pro-government Azov Battalion who were being held captive. The wounded fighter, Maxim, said he was taken when his vehicle was ambushed and two comrades killed. “Now I am here and there are negotiations taking place for me to be exchanged,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers who have been surrounded by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s statement came several hours after Ukraine accused Russia of entering its territory with tanks, artillery and troops, and Western powers accused Moscow of lying about its role and dangerously escalating the conflict.

“I’m calling on insurgents to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who were surrounded in order to avoid senseless deaths,” Putin said in the statement published on the Kremlin’s web-site in the early hours on Friday.

Putin didn’t address the claims about Russia’s military presence in Ukraine. Instead, he lauded the pro-Russian separatists for “undermining Kiev’s military operation which threatened lives of the residents of Donbass and has already led to a colossal death toll among civilians.”

Putin’s statement could be referring to Ukrainian troops who have been trapped outside the strategic town of Ilovaysk, east of Donetsk, for nearly a week now. Protesters rallied outside the Ukrainian General Staff on Thursday, demanding reinforcements and heavy weaponry for the troops outside Ilovaysk, most of whom are volunteers.

Zakharchenko, the rebel leader, said the Ukrainian troops would have to lay down the arms before they were allowed to go. “With all our respect to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of a country which gives us moral support, we are ready to open humanitarian corridors to the Ukrainian troops who were surrounded with the condition that they surrender heavy weaponry and ammunition so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in future,” he said on Russia’s state Rossiya 24 television.

The U.N. human rights office on Friday accused both sides of deliberately targeting civilians. Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine have carried out murders, torture and abductions along with other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, according to the mission’s field work between July 16 and Aug. 17. The report also said Ukraine’s military is guilty of human rights violations such as arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic, who visited Kiev on Friday, said the death toll had reached nearly 2,600 by Aug. 27, and described the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine as “alarming.”

Simonovic condemned rebels for preventing people from leaving cities caught up in the fighting. He also pointed to reports of violations by volunteer battalions under government control. Putin compared Ukrainian troops firing at civilians and surrounding cities in eastern Ukraine to the Nazi siege of Leningrad. He said residents of Ukraine’s east were “suppressed with force” because they disagreed with what he called a coup in Kiev in February.

The Leningrad Siege comparison is a powerful one for Russians and clearly aimed at portraying the Ukraine conflict in stark and tendentious good-versus-evil terms. The 872-day siege, in which at least 670,000 civilians died, is a major touchstone for Russia’s exalted sense of heroism amid suffering.

To stop the bloodshed, the Kiev government should open talks with the rebels who took up arms in defense, he said. European Union foreign ministers met in Milan Friday to weigh the 28-nation bloc’s stance amid increasing calls to beef up economic sanctions against Russia. Their discussion was expected to prepare possible further steps to be announced at a summit of the bloc’s leaders Saturday in Brussels.

President Barack Obama spoke Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a key broker between the West and Russia, and they agreed Russia must face consequences for its actions. For the second day, Russian markets reacted nervously to the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine with the Russian ruble diving to the all-time low of 37.10 rubles against the U.S. dollar in early morning trading, but recovered later to 36.90 rubles.

In Donetsk, the largest city under rebel control, the mayor’s office reported sustained shelling across town on Friday morning. No casualties were immediately reported.

Nataliya Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Jim Heintz in Kiev, and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed reporting.

5 free things to see and do in Edinburgh

September 25, 2014

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Scotland has made headlines lately with voters rejecting independence and choosing instead to remain part of the United Kingdom. Visitors will naturally be curious about the centuries of history that led to Scotland’s distinct culture. And a visit to the country’s capital, Edinburgh, with its historic 16th century tenements and grandiose 19th century town houses, is a tale of two cities in one.

More than 600 years of history seep from every pore of Edinburgh’s volcanic foundations. Tales of genius and enlightenment are mingled with those of body-snatchers, witches and revolutionaries. The Old Town, dominated by the imposing medieval battlements of Edinburgh Castle, runs downhill along the Royal Mile stretching from the castle to the Queen’s official Scottish residence of Holyrood Palace.

Exploring the narrow lanes and footpaths between some of the world’s tallest 16th- and 17th-century merchants’ houses feels like a return to the days of Daniel Defoe, the 18th-century author of Robinson Crusoe and English spy, or the 19th-century murderers Burke and Hare.

In contrast, the neoclassical New Town area built between 1767 and 1890 is a masterpiece of city planning, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a monument to the Age of Enlightenment which put Edinburgh at the heart of intellectual and scientific accomplishments

MUSEUMS Edinburgh is full of free museums within a short walk of each other, including the National Museum of Scotland and its vast array of artifacts from across the world. Nearby the Edinburgh Writers Museum celebrates the lives of famous Scots writers such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson while the Museum of Childhood, Museum of Edinburgh and The People’s Story provide an informative and entertaining history of the city and its people.

For those with a slightly more macabre interest, the Police Information Center and its museum of crime contains a business-card holder made from skin of infamous body-snatcher William Burke.

ART GALLERIES

In addition to numerous museums, Edinburgh is also home to several free art galleries, including the Scottish National Gallery in the middle of the city; the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art.

Old Masters sit alongside the work of some of the world’s leading Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in addition to temporary exhibitions, which create a smorgasbord of culture for art lovers.

GO FOR A WALK

Edinburgh is ideal to explore independently but for those who prefer a guide there are a couple of operators, such as Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour and Edinburgh Free Walking Tours, which take visitors along the Royal Mile.

Typical routes take in the views of Edinburgh Castle and St. Giles Cathedral, which has over 200 memorials to notable Scots, and the historic Grassmarket and Cowgate areas. No walk would be complete without a visit to Greyfriars Kirkyard and the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby at the corner of Candlemaker’s Row, celebrating one of Edinburgh’s most famous tales about the tiny 19th-century skye terrier who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner.

ARTHUR’S SEAT For the more energetic, Arthur’s Seat, a dormant volcano which sits 251 meters (825 feet) above sea level, offers a unique vantage point. No other city in the world has an extinct volcano in its limits and as the highest point in the 640-acre (260-hectare) Royal Park adjacent to Holyrood Palace, it also offers a chance to explore the remains of a 2,000-year-old hill fort.

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT At the foot of the Royal Mile, in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, is the award-winning building of the Scottish Parliament. Designed by Catalonian architect Enric Miralles, it has been hailed as both a modern architectural marvel and an over-priced blot on the landscape. You can make up your own mind with a free guided tour and access to a permanent exhibition about the Parliament or even sit in on the debates and watch democracy in action.

Scottish teens proud, passionate about voting

September 20, 2014

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — They arrived before polling stations even opened, dressed for the school day in striped ties and blazers, dress slacks and tartan skirts, book bags over their shoulders — and for the first time in British history, ballot cards in hand.

Scotland’s experiment of allowing more than 100,000 teens aged 16 to 17 to take part in this week’s independence referendum has demonstrated how the youngest voters can be some of the most enthusiastic in a mature democracy. More than 90 percent of the previously disenfranchised teens registered to vote — and, to the surprise of many analysts, proved not so ready to rebel against their parents as might be expected.

Many say the Scottish success showed that the voting age ought to be lowered to 16 across Britain and Europe. It happened, in part, because the Scottish National Party expected the youngest voters to back independence heavily. Surveys and anecdotal evidence, however, suggested that wasn’t decisively the case.

“We talked a lot about it at school the next day, how we voted versus our parents or our older brothers and sisters,” said Sinead McLoughlin, 17, standing with her family outside the Edinburgh Zoo. “A lot of my friends say they voted just like the rest of their family. There seemed to be more disagreement between the older ones, really. I think more younger people did vote yes. But we weren’t quite the revolutionaries the SNP thought we’d be!”

McLoughlin voted Yes and was crestfallen at the result. “I’m not too, too sad,” she said. “I’m hoping the pandas will cheer me up!” That would be the zoo’s most famous residents, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, aka Sweetie and Sunshine.

On social media, news that independence was rejected by a clear 55 percent triggered much grief and some nastiness in teen chat. Some denounced Edinburgh, which recorded the strongest anti-independence vote, as anti-Scottish. Many teens said, because pro-independence activists were so much more vocal and visible, the result felt like a shock.

“I kind of felt like I was the only boy in Scotland voting No,” said Iain McLeod, 17. “Then the next day at school, there was this big ‘coming out.’ Suddenly it seemed like everybody was standing up to say they’d voted No too.

“But you could tell the real believers for independence just by eyeballing them,” he added. “You didn’t have to ask. They looked shattered.” Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot whose impassioned defense of the anti-independence side dominated the final days, said Saturday that he found the sight of students lining up to vote at dawn among the most inspiring moments of the campaign.

On the day of the vote, Brown said, his eldest son John asked him a question. “Why is it the case that some of the pupils in this school can have the vote and I’m 10 years old and I’m denied it?” Brown told supporters to a gale of laughter.

Brown said the passion of Scottish youth for voting mirrored that of democracy’s founding fathers “when they demanded that decisions … be made not by royal instructions, and not by elites ruling over us, but by people exercising their power through the ballot box.”

He declined to say whether he’d like to lower the voting age across the United Kingdom for the British parliamentary election next year and for the Scottish Parliament vote in 2016. Thursday’s voting rules showed that, wherever the line is drawn, those too young to vote feel left out.

“Every morning I’d walk to school with one of my friends, and literally all we would talk about was the referendum,” said Holly Foxwell, 15, who is in a high school class with mostly 16-year-olds. She’d have voted No if given the opportunity, like her mom and dad.

She said teens should be allowed to vote “because it’s our generation really that’s going to be affected, more than older people.” “I find politics quite interesting, but I know a lot of my friends didn’t. But suddenly everyone knew everything about politics. Everyone researched it, because they wanted to know what was going on,” she said.

Data on how Scotland voted Thursday is incomplete because of the lack of rigorous exit polling, but partial surveys by pollsters in the hours before and after the vote concluded that the biggest backers of independence were people aged 25 to 34, not the youngest group of 16- to 24-year-olds. Only one survey specifically asked voters aged 16 and 17, finding 14 of them; 10 had voted Yes, four No.

Sarah Buchan, a 17-year-old already studying at Edinburgh University, said she hadn’t taken an interest in politics before but now was hooked. She credited social media campaigns tailored to mobilizing younger voters with making her think, defend her views and eventually change them.

“I think it’s engaged so many young people that to not be so interested in how it’s going to go from here would be weird,” she said of the independence debate. “I wasn’t really that into politics, but since it blew up so big, especially on social media — you can’t not get involved, because it’s everywhere. And now I’m interested to see where it goes next.”

Buchan said she shifted her support to independence after talking with other young activists. “I’ve seen a lot of good stuff that made me rethink a lot of things,” Buchan said as she tucked into lunch at McDonald’s.

McLoughlin felt certain that today’s teen voters would get another chance to back independence one day. “And next time Scotland will say yes. I might be in my 30s! But I’ll see the day that Scotland is its own proper nation,” she said. “I just hope they’ll be letting people my age vote for everything by then, because we’ve shown that we’re just as good at voting as anybody else. And it’s our future as much as anyone’s.”

Associated Press reporter Jill Lawless in Edinburgh contributed to this report.

Scots reject independence in historic vote

September 19, 2014

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Scottish voters have resoundingly rejected independence, deciding to remain part of the United Kingdom after a historic referendum that shook the country to its core.

The decision prevented a rupture of a 307-year union with England, bringing a huge sigh of relief to Britain’s economic and political establishment, including Prime Minister David Cameron, who faced calls for his resignation if Scotland had broken away.

The vote on Thursday — 55 percent against independence to 45 percent in favor — saw an unprecedented turnout of just under 85 percent. “We have chosen unity over division,” Alistair Darling, head of the No campaign, said early Friday in Glasgow. “Today is a momentous day for Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.”

Independence leader Alex Salmond’s impassioned plea to launch a new nation fell short, with Scots choosing instead the security of remaining in union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Still, the result establishes a whole new political dynamic in the United Kingdom, with Cameron appearing outside No. 10 Downing Street to pledge more powers for regional governments.

Even in conceding, Salmond struck an upbeat tone. “This has been a triumph for the democratic process and for participation in politics,” he said to cheering supporters. The pound hit a two-year high against the euro and a two-week high against the U.S. dollar as markets shrugged off recent anxiety about a possible vote for independence. In early Asian trading, the pound jumped nearly 0.8 percent to $1.6525 against the U.S. dollar before falling back slightly. Britain’s main stock index opened higher.

A much-relieved Cameron promised to live up to earlier promises to give Scotland new powers on taxes, spending and welfare. He said the new plans will be agreed upon by November, with draft legislation by January.

But he also said change was coming to other parts of the country amid the watershed vote. “Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs,” Cameron said. “The rights of these voters need to be respected, preserved and enhanced as well.”

The No campaign won the capital city, Edinburgh, by a margin of 61 percent to 38 percent and triumphed by 59 percent to 41 percent in Aberdeen, the country’s oil center. The Yes campaign won Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, but it was not enough.

As dawn broke to lead-gray skies over Scotland’s largest city, the dream of independence that had seemed so tantalizingly close evaporated in the soft drizzle. George Square, the rallying point for thousands of Yes supporters in the final days of the campaign, was littered with placards and debris of a campaign in which many had invested more than two years of their lives.

“I had never voted before or got involved with politics in any way but this time I thought my vote would count for something,” said truck driver Calum Noble, 25, as his voice cracked with emotion. “I wanted a better country but it’s all been for nothing. I don’t believe we will get any of the things the London politicians promised.”

But popular opinion on a leafy residential street in Edinburgh’s west end told a different tale. Young and old sat by their televisions waiting for news in a half dozen homes. Nearly all said they had voted No.

“Just because I’m not out in the street in a kilt screaming how Scottish I am, that doesn’t mean I’m not a proud Scot. I am. And a proud Brit. That’s the point the Yes side doesn’t respect,” said Ger Robertson, 47, who chose instead to celebrate Scotland’s verdict in his living room with a dram of his favorite single-malt whisky.

Salmond had argued that Scots could go it alone because of its extensive oil reserves and high levels of ingenuity and education. He said Scotland would flourish alone, free of interference from any London-based government.

Many saw it as a “heads versus hearts” campaign, with cautious older Scots concluding that independence would be too risky financially, while younger ones were enamored with the idea of building their own country.

The result saved Cameron from a historic defeat and also helped opposition chief Ed Miliband by keeping his many Labor Party lawmakers in Scotland in place. Labor would have found it much harder to win a national election in 2015 without that support from Scotland.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Scot, returned to prominence with a dramatic barnstorming campaign in support of the union in the final days before the referendum vote. Brown argued passionately that Scots could be devoted to Scotland but still proud of their place in the U.K., rejecting the argument that independence was the patriotic choice.

“There is not a cemetery in Europe that does not have Scots, English, Welsh and Irish lined side by side,” Brown said before the vote. “We not only won these wars together, we built the peace together. What we have built together by sacrificing and sharing, let no narrow nationalism split asunder.”

For his part, Cameron — aware that his Conservative Party is widely loathed in Scotland — begged voters not to use a vote for independence as a way to bash the Tories. The vote against independence keeps the United Kingdom from losing a substantial part of its territory and oil reserves and prevents it from having to find a new base for its nuclear arsenal, now housed in Scotland. It had also faced a possible loss of influence within international institutions including the 28-nation European Union, NATO and the United Nations.

The decision also means Britain can avoid a prolonged period of financial insecurity that had been predicted by some if Scotland broke away. “This has been a long, hard fight and both sides have campaigned fiercely,” said Norma Austin Hart, a Labor Party member of Edinburgh City Council. “This has not been like a normal election campaign. There have been debates in town halls and school halls and church halls.

“It’s been so intense,” she said. “But the people of Scotland have decided.”

Danica Kirka reported from London; Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this report from Edinburgh; Paul Kelbie contributed from Glasgow; Gregory Katz contributed from London.

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