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Archive for May, 2016

Freed Ukrainian pilot gets hero’s welcome on return to Kiev

May 25, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — During the nearly two years that she was imprisoned in Russia, Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko became a national hero in absentia, lauded for her flinty defiance. On Wednesday she made a celebrated return to the country still embroiled in a fight against Moscow-backed separatists.

Savchenko, who was captured by rebels in June 2014 and then resurfaced in Russian custody, was convicted in March and sentenced to 22 years in prison for complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists. Prosecutors alleged she was acting as a spotter for mortar fire that killed them.

Savchenko was released after a pardon from President Vladimir Putin, which he said he made on humanitarian grounds at the urging of the journalists’ relatives. In turn, Ukraine on Wednesday released two Russians who had been convicted of waging war in eastern Ukraine, where separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since April 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 9,300 people.

Savchenko’s case became a celebrated cause at home. Ukrainians admired her unwavering antagonism toward Russian authorities, whom she denounced in court and insulted by raising her middle finger, and they worried about her health as she called several hunger strikes.

Her case also attracted wide international attention, with Western leaders including President Barack Obama calling for her release. But if the release of Savchenko warmed Ukrainians’ hearts, it could also serve as a reminder of how intractable the eastern conflict may seem. Cease-fire violations have been reported almost daily in recent months and negotiations on implementing other elements of the Minsk cease-fire agreement show only fitful progress.

Savchenko was elected to Ukraine’s Parliament while locked up in Russia and a poster with her picture has adorned the rostrum there for months. That could give her substantial symbolic power if she enters politics full-time. Dissatisfaction with President Petro Poroshenko and the government is strong as the eastern fighting persists and the country wallows in endemic corruption.

If she would stand up and challenge Poroshenko and the government, that could serve Russia’s interests by making Ukraine’s political stresses even more fraught. Keeping Savchenko in custody clearly had become a liability for the Kremlin, drawing continued international attention to the conflict which has corroded Russia’s image. Although Russia persistently denies military involvement, Western sanctions over the conflict have dealt a blow to Russia’s economy.

Putin, however, would have looked weak if he had backtracked on her case and could only release her in a swap once she had been convicted. Once her trial and that of the captured Russians had run their course, Putin and Poroshenko made a deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday expressed satisfaction with the release of Savchenko and Ukraine’s decision to release the two Russians. Savchenko’s release “after a long ordeal that included solitary confinement, is an important part of fulfilling Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements” on calling a cease-fire in the conflict, he said in a statement.

Putin, at a meeting with the journalists’ relatives, expressed “hope that such decisions, driven by humanity, will help to alleviate the stand-off in the conflict zone and help to avoid such terrible and pointless losses.”

The two Russians, Alexander Alexandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev, were also freed on Wednesday, and Russian state television showed them being greeted at a Moscow airport by their wives. The two were captured last year. They acknowledged being Russian officers, but the Russian Defense Ministry, which has denied sending troops to Ukraine, claimed they had resigned from active duty. They were tried in a Kiev court, which sentenced them to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko sent his plane to pick up Savchenko in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia and bring her home to Kiev, where she received a hero’s welcome. “Thank you everyone for fighting for me!” she told a scrum of journalists at Kiev’s Boryspil Airport. “You fought for everyone behind bars. Politicians would have kept silent if people had been silent. I would like to say thank you to everyone who wished me well: I have survived because of you.”

Savchenko, a professional air force officer, was fighting with a Ukrainian volunteer battalion against Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine when she was captured in the summer of 2014. After she surfaced on the other side of the border, Moscow claimed she had escaped from the separatists and was caught in Russia, while she claimed she was abducted and smuggled into Russia.

In giving her a state award on Wednesday, Poroshenko said she had become “a symbol of pride and steadfastness.” Savchenko has skirted questions about her political ambitions and didn’t mention it upon arrival on Wednesday, but Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who leads Savchenko’s party told reporters Savchenko wants to start working right now.

“She asked me: ‘Where do I need to be, where do I go to start working,'” Tymoshenko said. “A strong leader has come back home, that’s for sure.” But Savchenko hinted Wednesday that physical fighting may be more important to her than political battles.

“I would like to apologize that I am still alive. But I’m ready to go and fight for Ukraine today,” she said, standing next to Poroshenko.

Nataliya Vasilyeva, Lynn Berry and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

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Ukrainian pilot returns home as unrivalled national hero

May 25, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — When war broke out in eastern Ukraine, pilot Nadezhda Savchenko left her hometown to join the fight against Russia-backed separatists. Nearly two years after she was captured, then tried and convicted in Russia, she returned home to a rapturous welcome in Kiev.

Over the past two years, Savchenko became both Ukraine’s national hero and Russia’s best-known prisoner. Western leaders and diplomats including President Barack Obama called for her release, graffiti supporting her sprouted up and children made drawings romanticizing her image.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke about her case on nearly every trip abroad. When she arrived at a Kiev airport on Wednesday after being swapped for two Russian servicemen who had been imprisoned in Ukraine, a throng of journalists and well-wishers converged on her.

“Step back if you want me to say anything. I have spent two years in a small cell,” snapped Savchenko, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Ukraine’s national trident. Savchenko, 35, had an illustrious career in the armed forces including a stint as Ukraine’s only female soldier in the peacekeeping forces in Iraq. She graduated from a prestigious air force school in 2009, which until then had been open only to men. But when the war started in April 2014 Savchenko, retired and went to the east to join the Aidar volunteer battalion.

She was captured by rebels in June 2014 amid intense fighting in the Luhansk region. After her capture, which the rebels documented and filmed, she disappeared and then resurfaced in Russian custody. Russian authorities said Savchenko crossed into Russia voluntarily and illegally, disguised as a refugee. But Savchenko says the rebels who captured her spirited her across the border and handed her over.

Russian state media used Savchenko as a poster child for alleged Ukrainian atrocities in the east. Even though there didn’t seem to be any solid evidence to prove her involvement in any civilian deaths in the east, prosecutors launched a case charging that she had been a spotter who called in coordinates for a mortar attack that killed two Russian journalists.

At her first public appearance in Russia, Savchenko defiantly said she didn’t recognize the authority of the Russian court and prosecutors. She went on several hunger strikes before and during her trial.

Savchenko often appeared in court in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt or in blouses with the Ukrainian coat of arms or other national symbols. Despite the long incarceration, Savchenko has never complained about bad health or prison conditions, unlike her lawyers, but instead focused on using her public appearances as a chance to condemn Russian interference in Ukraine.

The defiance with which the pilot carried herself throughout the detention and the nine-month trial, calling prosecutors names and singing the Ukrainian anthem, turned her in an unrivalled national hero. A poster with her picture and a call for her release has adorned the rostrum at the Ukrainian parliament for months.

In the autumn after her capture, Savchenko was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament and appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Ukrainian government insisted from the start that Savchenko was a prisoner of war and should be immediately released. That didn’t happen because Moscow argued that Savchenko was a dangerous criminal.

While approval ratings plummeted for many Ukrainian politicians who rose to prominence in the 2013-2014 protest movement which ultimately forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country, Savchenko’s imprisonment became a universal cause for Ukrainians to rally around. The party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko enlisted Savchenko to top their ballot at the 2014 parliamentary election with analysts saying Savchenko’s name was a big draw for voters.

“For the whole world and Ukraine, Nadiya embodies the might of Ukraine, strength, a resistance to occupying forces and the immorality which has unfortunately flooded politics,” Tymoshenko said Wednesday.

Savchenko has skirted questions about her political ambitions and didn’t mention it upon arrival on Wednesday, but Tymoshenko told reporters Savchenko wants to start working right now. “She asked me: ‘Where do I need to be, where do I go to start working,'” Tymoshenko told reporters. “A strong leader has come back home, that’s for sure.”

Orbita, a ghost of Chernobyl in the heart of Ukraine

By Yulia Silina

Orbita, Ukraine (AFP)

May 20, 2016

Missing from maps, a ghost town hides in the pine forests of central Ukraine, abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster but now filling with families fleeing the pro-Russian eastern separatist war.

Orbita, a town whose existence was never registered by the Soviet authorities, was meant to house 20,000 workers at a nuclear power plant whose construction was abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986.

The road through the woods that leads to the site is dilapidated, the sign marking the town’s entrance covered with rust, but two small playgrounds next to the abandoned buildings are clean and tidy.

Alina, a blonde 10-year-old with a grin and few worries on her mind, is playing next to her grandfather Vladimir Limarchenko, a man who has lived through many hard times.

Her family left their home in the former Soviet republic’s industrial heartland almost as soon as the fighting erupted two years ago, in a conflict which has since killed more than 9,300 people and forced 1.7 million from their homes.

“We did not know where to go. We just took a train to central Ukraine, where our relatives live. And by chance our fellow traveler at the station told us about Orbita,” said Limarchenko, who worked as a mechanic before retiring.

His new neighbor Vasiliy came to Orbita from the pro-Russian separatist city of Lugansk a few months ago and is now renovating a damp apartment in a five-storey building that stood empty for many years.

“My home was seized by the rebels so I have nowhere to return to. Life is very expensive everywhere, but here I took an apartment on credit for a very low price,” said the 36-year-old, who lives on a disability pension.

“It is better to live in the forest than under fire,” he added.

– Abandoned lives –

Eight families from various parts of the war-scarred east have relocated to Orbita, attracted by its cheap prices and calm.

It costs less than $1,500 (1,300 euros) to buy one of the Soviet-era apartments, a pittance compared to the average $40,000 that people pay in the capital Kiev.

Orbita’s tale is tightly intertwined with that of Chernobyl, whose explosion spewed radiation across nearly three-quarters of Europe and left several thousand people dead or dying.

Plans for the town were initially drafted in 1970, the year ground was broken for the Chygyryn nuclear power plant, whose construction was never completed.

Authorities of then-Soviet Ukraine planned to make Orbita the home of engineers from the plant — in what was intended to be the equivalent of Pripyat, a city of 48,000 built three kilometers (two miles) from Chernobyl.

In the 1980s, two nine-storey and two five-storey apartment buildings, a department store and all the necessary infrastructure were built.

But the disaster at Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident, meant plans to complete the Chygyryn plant were quickly abandoned and because the Communist party had not yet opened an outpost in the town, it was not considered to exist officially and was not included on maps of the region.

Residents of Orbita employed to make preparations for the opening of the power plant lost their jobs and the town was quickly deserted, becoming a silent monument to the shock and terror caused by Chernobyl that reverberated through corridors of power in the Kremlin and around the world.

“There has been no heating or drinkable water here for a very long time,” Alina’s grandfather said.

“We are similar to Chernobyl, except that there is no radiation. On the contrary — we have clean forest air,” he added.

– ‘A post-apocalyptic movie’ –

The town, which is proving a draw for the poor from other parts of Ukraine, is currently home to about 50 families who are living in the two five-storey apartment blocks.

Most are elderly, live without heating and gas and have to trek to a nearby village for water. They survive, for the most part, on meager pensions and vegetables grown in their gardens.

But their hardscrabble existence is not made any easier by another nuisance — curious tourists who come to snap pictures of the peculiar town and who have decided to make it their home.

Kristina, a 19-year-old student from Uzhgorod, a city near Ukraine’s western border with Slovakia, came with a group of friends looking for a thrill.

“We wanted to visit Chernobyl, but it is very expensive. You can get here for free and there is no radiation,” she said.

“I was intrigued by the atmosphere of this ghost town,” she admits.

“It is like being in a post-apocalyptic movie.”

But Limarchenko is hardly impressed.

“Do we look like ghosts?” he asks glumly.

“The real ghost towns are now in the separatist east, in the places we came from.”

Source: Terra Daily.

Link: http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Orbita_a_ghost_of_Chernobyl_in_the_heart_of_Ukraine_999.html.

Fate of primeval forest in balance as Poland plans logging

May 21, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It is the last remaining relic of an ancient forest that stretched for millennia across the lowlands of Europe and Russia, a shadowy, mossy woodland where bison and lynx roam beneath towering oak trees up to 600 years old.

Conservationists believe the fate of the Bialowieza Forest, which straddles Poland and Belarus, is more threatened that at any time since the communist era due to a new Polish government plan for extensive logging in parts of the forest. The plan has pitted the government against environmentalists and many scientists, who are fighting to save the UNESCO world heritage site.

Seven environmental groups, including Greenpeace and WWF, have lodged a complaint with the European Commission hoping to prevent the largescale felling of trees, which is due to begin within days. Bialowieza has been declared a Natura 2000 site, meaning it is a protected area under European law. EU officials say they are working with the Polish authorities to ensure that any new interventions in the forest are in line with their regulations, but it’s not yet clear what the result will be.

The preservation of Bialowieza is such a sensitive matter that IKEA, which relies on Polish timber for 25 percent of its global furniture production, vowed years ago not to buy any wood from Bialowieza.

“This forest is a Polish treasure but it is also the world’s treasure, and we could lose it,” said Katarzyna Kosciesza from ClientEarth, one of the groups that filed the complaint. “The logging would really threaten it.”

The forest plan is one of many controversial changes that have come with the election last year of a conservative populist party, Law and Justice. The new authorities have been accused by the European Union and human rights groups of eroding democracy and the rule of law.

The party’s powerful leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, says he’s on a mission to remake the country from top to bottom in line with the party’s conservative Catholic and patriotic ideology. Since taking power in November, Poland’s government has moved quickly to push broad changes in everything from cultural institutions to horse breeding farms and forestry management.

The government argues they are fixing the country by removing the corrupt influences of former communists and pro-Europeans who have held power in recent years. In the case of Bialowieza, government officials are blaming their predecessors for financial losses from the strict limits on logging. The environment minister, Jan Szyszko, also faulted them for getting the UNESCO world heritage designation, which brings some international oversight.

About 35 percent of the forest on the Polish side includes a national park and reserves, strictly protected zones that the government does not plan to touch. Officials argue the planned logging is not harmful because it will take part only in “managed” parts of the forest that have already been subject to logging in the past. But environmentalists say the logging plan is so extensive it would inevitably lead to the destruction of old-growth areas.

About half of the forest is still considered pristine, meaning those areas have never faced significant intervention since the forest’s formation some 8,000 to 9,000 years ago after the end of the last ice age. That has left it with a complex diversity of species unknown in the second-growth forests elsewhere in Europe’s lowlands.

That so much has survived is thanks to past Polish and Lithuanian monarchs and Russian czars, who kept it as a royal hunting preserve. Only in the last 100 years has it begun to face logging and human encroachment.

Szyszko last week dismissed 32 of 39 scientific experts on the State Council for Nature Conservation after they criticized the logging plan. They have since been replaced by people who mainly come from the forestry and hunting sectors that favor greater wood extraction. They council’s new leader, Wanda Olech-Piasecka, also supports limited commercial hunting of bison, an endangered species.

Szyszko said the new council “will work effectively for the use of natural resources for the benefit of man, which is consistent with the concept of sustainable development.” The Environment Ministry argues the logging is needed to stop the spread of bark beetle, which has killed off 10 percent of the spruce trees in the park — 3 percent of the trees overall — in an outbreak that began in 2013.

However, scientists believe that is merely a pretext, and that what officials really want are the profits from felling such old-growth wood. Scientists and environmentalists who oppose the logging plan say removing the dead wood upsets the ecosystem. The dead spruces host thousands of other species, worms and insects and fungi, which then become food for birds, while hollow dying trunks create nesting spaces. Among those who rely on the dead spruces are the pygmy owl, the smallest owl species in Europe, and the three-toed woodpecker, which has a precarious existence in Bialowieza.

Thanks to the bark beetle outbreak, the numbers of the three-toed woodpecker have doubled or possibly tripled, said Rafal Kowalczyk, director of the Mammal Research Institute with the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Scientists fighting the logging say the death of some spruce trees is making way for an increase of other species like hornbeam and lime and is part of the forest’s natural adaptation to climate change, as conditions grow warmer and drier. They also say that it would be necessary to kill 80 percent of infected trees simply to slow the outbreak, which is not logistically possible.

Kowalczyk says the bark beetle outbreaks, which have long been a part of the forest cycle, have never threatened its existence before and won’t now. “This forest has been shaped for thousands of years by nature,” Kowalczyk added. “It is really unique and we should not turn it into a managed forest. There are many other managed forests but this relic of an ancient forest, with its high diversity, shows us what forests looked like hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.”

Greek authorities begin evacuation of Idomeni refugee camp

May 24, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities began an operation at dawn Tuesday to gradually evacuate the country’s largest informal refugee camp of Idomeni on Macedonian border, blocking access to the area and sending in more than 400 riot police.

The government’s spokesman for the refugee crisis, Giorgos Kyritsis, said Monday that police would not use force, and that the operation was expected to last about a week to 10 days. The camp, which sprung up on what began as an informal pedestrian border crossing for refugees and migrants heading north to Europe, is home to an estimated 8,400 people. Greek police and government authorities have said the residents will be moved gradually to newly completed, organized camps.

Journalists were barred from the camp, stopped at a police roadblock a few kilometers (miles) away on a highway junction leading to the nearby village of Idomeni. Twenty buses carrying various riot police units were seen heading to the area while a police helicopter observed from above.

More than 54,000 refugees and migrants have been trapped in financially struggling Greece since Balkan and European countries shut their land borders to a massive flow of people escaping war and poverty at home. The vast majority are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly a million people have passed through Greece, the vast majority arriving on islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

In March, the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey meant to stem the flow and reduce the number of people undertaking the short but perilous sea crossing to Greece, where many have died after their overcrowded, unseaworthy boats sank. Under the deal, anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands from the Turkish coast after March 18 faces deportation back to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.

But few want to request asylum in the country, which has been struggling with a six-year deep financial crisis that has left unemployment hovering at around 24 percent. The government has been trying to persuade people staying in Idomeni, who include hundreds of families with young children, to leave the area and head to organized camps. This week it said its campaign of voluntary evacuations was already working, with police reporting that eight buses carrying about 400 people left Idomeni Sunday. Others took taxis heading to the country’s main northern city of Thessaloniki or a nearby town of Polycastro.

On the eve of the evacuation operation, few at the camp appeared to welcome the news. “It’s much better here than in the camps. That’s what everybody who’s been there said,” Hind Al Mkawi, a 38-year-old refugee from Damascus, told the AP on Monday evening.

“I’ve heard (of the pending evacuation) too. It’s not good … because we’ve already been here for three months and we’ll have to spend at least another six in the camps before relocation. It’s a long time. We don’t have money or work — what will we do?”

Abdo Rajab, a 22-year-old refugee from Raqqa in Syria, has spent the past three months in Idomeni, and is now considering paying smugglers to be taken to Germany clandestinely. “We hear that tomorrow we will all go to camps,” he said. “I don’t mind, but my aim is not reach the camps but to go Germany.”

Cyprus election: Disillusioned public vote on new parliament

May 22, 2016

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cypriots are electing a new parliament Sunday amid public disillusionment with what many see as a discredited political establishment. Some 543,000 voters are eligible to cast ballots for 56 lawmakers, but opinion polls have shown a large undecided vote. Surveys have also indicated that a significant number of voters may turn to smaller parties instead of larger ones that have long dominated the domestic political scene.

As in previous elections, ongoing efforts to heal the country’s ethnic division have been pronounced on the campaign trail. However, an economic crisis that saw many lose their jobs, coupled with a sense that corruption is widespread in politics amid recent revelations involving kickbacks on public works projects, have also figured prominently.

“That people are disillusioned is a given,” voter Athena Georgiou told The Associated Press. “But my hope is that there will be a greater range of voices in the new parliament.” Georgiou also said a move by the larger parties to double the electoral threshold to 3.6 percent — the percentage of votes needed for parties to gain a foothold in parliament — just a few months before the poll may have been perceived by voters as a bid to hoard votes and keep smaller parties out.

“People should vote to give those parties a slap,” she said. The vote won’t result in a change of government under Cyprus’ presidential system. While parliament votes on legislation, ministers are chosen by the president after the presidential election. The next presidential election is set for February 2018.

Cyprus was split in 1974 into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south when Turkey invaded following a coup aiming at union with Greece. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and breakaway Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have made significant headway after one year of talks, but difficulties remain…

Brussels police chief injured during anti-austerity clashes

May 24, 2016

BRUSSELS (AP) — The Brussels police chief was injured Tuesday during clashes at the end of a major anti-austerity demonstration attended by around 50,000 people in the center of the Belgian capital. Police chief Pierre Vandersmissen was treated for a head injury after he was hit with a stone in the back by a red-clad man and fell to the ground during rock throwing by a few dozen protesters after most of the marchers had already disbanded.

With a pepper spray canister, Vandersmissen had been chasing people who had attacked police even though he was not wearing extensive protective gear. He was taken to hospital and is expected to be released on Wednesday.

The demonstration was called to protest the center-right government’s social and economic policies, which trade unions say cut deep into the foundations of Belgium’s welfare state. In all, two police officials and eight protesters were injured in the clashes, during which police fired water cannons. About a dozen people were detained. It was a repeat of previous anti-austerity protests when the violence of dozens overshadowed the march of tens of thousands.

The government said in a statement “it condemns the violence committed by a minority” but added it took note of the large size of the demonstration demanding changes. Under the slogan “Our cup runs over” the main unions joined in the march, united in their opposition against moves to increase workers’ flexibility at work, longer careers before pensions kick in and less pay under tougher conditions.

The trade unions say the center-right free market policies of Liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel over the past two years are costing an average family about 100 euros ($112) a month, while the promise of many extra jobs remains elusive. Instead the trade unions want the government to tackle tax evasion.

Socialist union leader Rudy De Leeuw denounced the attack on Vandersmissen and said that if the unidentified attacker turns out to be a member of the union, he will be expelled. “It is the most cowardly thing to do,” he said.

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