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Russia fires missiles from Mediterranean at IS in Syria

June 23, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on positions of the Islamic State group in Syria, the Defense Ministry said on Friday, Moscow’s latest show of strength in the conflict wracking the Mideast country.

The ministry said in a statement that two frigates and a submarine launched six cruise missiles on IS installations in Syria’s Hama province, destroying command centers and ammunition depots. It did not say when the missiles were launched.

Moscow has fired missiles from the Mediterranean at militants’ positions in Syria before, including launches from a submarine and a frigate in May at the targets in the area of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Russia is one of the strongest backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and has been carrying airstrikes in the country since September 2015. Separately on Friday, a senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow is “nearly 100 percent” sure that the IS top leader was killed in a Russian airstrike last month.

The Defense Ministry first made the claim last week, saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in the May 28 strike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa was still “being verified through various channels.”

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Friday that Russia’s intelligence about al-Baghdadi’s death is “nearly 100 percent” certain.

“Russia would not want to be on the list of the countries that have said before that he was killed and then al-Baghdadi would resurrect,” Ozerov added. The whereabouts of the shadowy al-Baghdadi, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, have not been known. His last public appearance was almost three years ago in the Iraqi city of Mosul, at the 12th century al-Nuri Mosque from where he declared a “caliphate” in the territory that IS had seized in Iraq and Syria in July 2014.

That mosque, along with its famous leaning minaret, was destroyed on Wednesday night, blown up by IS militants as their control of Mosul increasingly is slipping away. The mosque would have been a symbolic prize for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city.

Key moments in Russia’s campaign, involvement in Syrian war

June 16, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s announcement that the Islamic State group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a Russian airstrike in Syria in late May — if confirmed — would be a huge military coup for Moscow as a key player in Syria’s civil war and strengthen its hand in future peace talks.

It would also mark a climax in Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, in which it has sided with President Bashar Assad’s government, from the first days of the air campaign two years ago to boots on the ground in the city of Aleppo.

The airstrike would also highlight the capabilities of Russia’s modernized military, which has tested new precision weapons in Syria. Here are some key moments in Russia’s military campaign in Syria.

QUICK DEPLOYMENT

A series of major battlefield defeats suffered by Assad’s army in 2015 prompted Moscow to intervene to protect its long-time ally. On August 26, 2015, Russia signed a deal with the Syrian government on deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite religious minority.

In a matter of weeks, Russia’s military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the “Syrian Express.” On Sept. 30, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria — Russia’s first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse.

TENSIONS WITH TURKEY

The Russian intervention angered Turkey, which has pushed for Assad’s ouster and backed Syrian opposition forces since the start of the conflict in 2011. On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the border with Syria. The pilot was killed by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters as he parachuted from the plane, and a Russian marine was also killed during an operation to rescue the second pilot. Turkey said the Russian plane violated its airspace but Moscow denied that.

Putin described the downing as a “stab in the back” and responded with an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sales of tour packages to Turkey and imports of Turkish fruit and vegetables. The Russian military also beefed up its air defenses in Syria with the long-range S-400 missiles to force Turkey to back off.

FIGHTING FOR PALMYRA

In April 2016, Assad’s forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a major symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. Russia deployed field engineers to clear mines from the world-famous archaeological site and then celebrated the victory with a concert by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky orchestra, led by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

In December 2016, however, the Syrian army again lost Palmyra to IS. Assad’s forces recaptured it in March, again under the Russian air cover and following fierce fighting. BOOTS ON THE GROUND Though most attention was focused on Russian airstrikes, Russia also became actively involved in ground operations. Senior Russian military officers were deployed alongside Syrian government troops to provide training, plan offensive operations and direct them in combat. Russia also dispatched special forces to conduct intelligence and coordinate air strikes. There were also some indications that Russian artillery units were deployed in key battlefield areas.

Russia’s Defense Ministry never said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated that Russian military personnel in the Arab nation at the time likely exceeded 4,300.

Russia has lost 38 servicemen in Syria so far, according to official data.

BATTLEFIELD TESTS

The Syrian war provided an arena for Russia’s military to test its latest weapons in combat — including state-of-the art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines. The long-range precision-strike cruise capability has given a major boost to the Russian military.

In another first, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean last fall to launch the first carrier-borne combat missions in Russia’s navy history, during the months-long battles between Syrian government forces and the rebels for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial hub.

Other weapons for the first time tested in combat included the Su-34 and the Su-35 warplanes, and the Mi-28 and the Ka-52 helicopter gunships. President Vladimir Putin said in a national call-in show on Thursday that the Syrian campaign provided a “priceless” experience for the Russian military.

BATTLE FOR ALEPPO

In December 2016 the Syrian army won full control of Aleppo, Assad’s greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year. The fall of the city, which was divided into government- and rebel-controlled parts since 2012, demoralized the rebels, depriving them of the largest urban area under their control. Russian air support helped cut rebels’ communications and supply lines.

Assad’s victory followed ferocious battles, in which thousands died, and left the rebel enclave in ruins. Russia now has deployed hundreds of military police to patrol the city’s former rebel-held eastern part.

RUSSIA-TURKEY RAPPROCHEMENT

Faced with massive damage from Russia’s economic sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to mend ties, offering apologies for downing the Russian warplane in June 2016. Putin responded by strongly backing Erdogan during a failed military coup in Turkey.

Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings and frequent phone talks to narrow their differences on Syria. Turkey is also credited with playing a key role in negotiating the withdrawal of the opposition forces from Aleppo.

Also, earlier this year, Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered several rounds of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Those meetings — though separate from the U.N. backed Syria peace talks in Geneva — brought together the Syrian government and its foes. In May, the three powers, which back opposing sides in the war, negotiated in Astana a deal on so-called “safe zones” in Syria, which was welcomed by the U.N. But the parties are still to finalize the boundaries of the zones and work out monitoring details in talks expected to be held in the coming weeks.

In Ukraine, feeling grows that the east is lost to Russia

May 05, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Leonid Androv, an electrician from Kiev, was drafted into the Ukrainian army and spent a year fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after the conflict broke out in 2014. Now, like many other Ukrainians, he is ready to accept that those lands are lost.

“The Russians are in charge there and they are methodically erasing everything Ukrainian. So why should I and impoverished Ukraine pay for the occupation?” said Androv, 43. Long unthinkable after years of fighting and about 10,000 deaths, Ukrainians increasingly are coming around to the idea of at least temporarily abandoning the region known as the Donbass, considering it to be de facto occupied by Russia.

This would effectively kill the Minsk peace agreement brokered by Germany and France, which aims to preserve a united Ukraine. The Minsk agreement is still firmly supported both by the West and Russia, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed at their meeting this week.

The 2015 agreement, which Ukraine signed as its troops were being driven back, has greatly reduced but not stopped the fighting, while attempts to fulfill its provisions for a political settlement have failed.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko still stands by Minsk. In recent months, however, his government has moved to isolate the east by blocking trade and shutting off supplies of electricity and gas, demonstrating that it now considers the industrial region to be Moscow’s problem.

Several factions in the Ukrainian parliament have introduced legislation that would designate those territories outside of Kiev’s control as “occupied.” “We should call a spade a spade and recognize the Russian occupation of Donbass,” said Yuriy Bereza, a co-author of the legislation. Bereza, who commanded one of the volunteer battalions that fought in the east, called it necessary to preserve the state.

The likelihood of the legislation coming up for a vote is low, given the government’s reluctance to formally acknowledge the loss of these territories. Almost half of Ukrainians, however, favor declaring the separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to be occupied, according to a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center.

Under Minsk, the two regions are to remain part of Ukraine but with “special status.” They would have the right to hold their own elections. Those who fought against the Ukrainian army would receive amnesty.

These provisions have little popular support. The poll found that only 22 percent of Ukrainians were ready to grant the Donbass this “special status,” while 31 percent of respondents said they found it difficult to answer. The poll, conducted in January among 2,018 people across Ukraine, had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.

“It is obvious that Ukrainian society supports the isolation and blockade of the Donbass. And this is exactly what is dictating President Poroshenko’s behavior,” said Razumkov Center sociologist Andrei Bychenko. “If Poroshenko plans to seek a second term, he has to think about the mood of society, not about the expectations of the West.”

Poroshenko was elected after mass protests led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president in early 2014 and put the country on a path toward closer integration with the West. While still speaking about a united Ukraine, Poroshenko’s government last month shut off electricity supplies to Luhansk over unpaid debts. Kiev already had stopped supplying gas to both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and in March, Poroshenko imposed a trade blockade on the regions beyond Kiev’s control.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters this was “one more step by Ukraine to rid itself of these territories.” Although Russia quickly annexed the Crimean Peninsula at the start of the conflict, Putin has made clear he has no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine.

“The Kremlin has tried to push this cancerous tumor back into Ukraine, using Donetsk and Lugansk as a Trojan horse to manipulate Kiev,” said Russian political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky. “But the Ukrainian government has had enough sense not to let it happen.”

Putin, speaking to journalists Tuesday after talks with Merkel, responded angrily to a suggestion that perhaps it was time for a new peace agreement since the Donbass already had de facto separated from Ukraine.

“No one has severed these territories. They were severed by the Ukrainian government itself through all sorts of blockades,” Putin said. Russia was forced to support Donbass, he added, noting that it was “still supplying a significant amount of goods, including power, and providing coke for Ukrainian metallurgical plants.”

Putin and Merkel both said that despite the problems they saw no alternative to the Minsk agreement. Sergei Garmash is among the 2 million people who have left their homes in eastern Ukraine. He said there is almost nothing Ukrainian left in Donetsk, which now uses Russian rubles, receives only Russian television and survives thanks to Russian subsidies.

“Ukrainian politicians need to be brave and legally recognize this territory as occupied by Russia. This will force Moscow to pick up the bill. And the more expensive this adventure will be for the Kremlin, the sooner it will walk away,” said Garmash, 45, who now lives in Kiev.

Moscow sends humanitarian convoys to the Donbass every month and pays the salaries and pensions of people who live there. Russia also supports the separatist military operations, although the Kremlin continues to deny that it sends arms and troops.

Russia has been hurt economically by sanctions imposed by the West over the annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists. “Public opinion has swung sharply toward the isolation of Donbass, and for the Kiev government it is an opportune time to shift all the expenses of the ‘frozen conflict’ to Moscow,” said Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Center of Political Studies in Ukraine.

“Of course the war in Donbass was incited by Russia to slow Ukraine’s move toward Europe,” Fesenko said. “But no Ukrainian politician can publicly give up on Crimea and Donbass and recognize them as part of Russia.”

Androv, the Kiev electrician, said the problem is that no one knows what to do with Donbass. Likening it to a suitcase with no handle, he said: “It’s too heavy to carry, but it’s a shame to throw it away.”

Russia’s Victory Day parade marred by thick clouds

May 09, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Thick clouds have forced the cancellation of the traditional dramatic conclusion to Russia’s annual Victory Day parade on Red Square — the roaring flyover by scores of military aircraft.

The parade marking the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender is a highly ritualized display and marked changes in its order are unusual. The Defense Ministry had said cloud-seeding planes would be deployed to disperse the overcast skies Tuesday above Moscow. That has been done previously when poor weather threatened. It wasn’t immediately clear if the planes had been deployed.

Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday, commemorating the Red Army’s determination and losses in World War II. President Vladimir Putin said in his parade address that “we feel a piercing blood relationship with a generation of heroes and winners.”

Russian rallies urge Putin not to run again; dozens arrested

April 29, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Under the slogan “I’m fed up,” demonstrators urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term rallied in cities across Russia on Saturday. Dozens were arrested in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

The centerpiece rally in Moscow went peacefully, despite being unsanctioned by authorities. Several hundred people rallied in a park then moved to the nearby presidential administration building to present letters telling Putin to stand down from running in 2018.

But in St. Petersburg, Associated Press journalists saw dozens arrested. The OVD-Info group that monitors political repression relayed reports of more arrests in several cities, including 20 in Tula and 14 in Kemerovo.

Putin has not announced whether he plans to run for president again next year. He has dominated Russian politics since becoming president on New Year’s Eve 1999 when Boris Yeltsin resigned. Even when he stepped away from the Kremlin to become prime minister in 2008-2012 because of term limits, he remained effectively Russia’s leader.

Nationwide protests on March 26 appeared to rattle the Kremlin because of the demonstrations’ unusual size and reach. The predominance of young people in those protests challenges the belief that the generation that grew up under Putin’s heavy hand had become apolitical or disheartened.

Saturday’s demonstrations were much smaller, but indicated that marginalized opposition forces will continue to push. The demonstrations were called for by Open Russia, an organization started by Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

As an oil tycoon, Khodorkovsky was once listed as Russia’s richest man, but his political ambitions put him at odds with the Kremlin. He was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison on tax-evasion and fraud convictions that supporters say were political persecution. He was pardoned in 2013, left the country and revived Open Russia as a British-based organization.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Prosecutor-General banned Open Russia as an undesirable foreign organization. But the group’s Moscow branch says it is administratively separate and not subject to the ban.

Irina Titova in St. Petersburg contributed to this story.

Supreme Court bans Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

April 20, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating anywhere in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group.

The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property. The Interfax news agency on Thursday quoted Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova in court as saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses pose a threat to Russians.

“They pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security,” she told the court. Borisova also said Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions violates Russian health care laws.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said in a statement they are “greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses said they would appeal the ruling. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 adherents in Russia. The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, including a ban on distributing literature deemed to violate Russia’s anti-extremism laws.

Human Rights Watch criticized Thursday’s decision as an impediment to religious freedom in Russia. “The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The rights group also expressed concern that if the ruling takes effect, Jehovah’s Witnesses could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from fines to prison time.

European court rules against Russia over 2004 school siege

April 13, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that Russia failed to adequately protect victims of a 2004 school siege in the city of Beslan that left more than 330 people dead, a verdict that Moscow said it would appeal.

The France-based court said authorities did not take necessary preventive measures to save lives. It said the security forces’ use of tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers contributed to casualties among the hostages. It also noted failures to increase security before the attack despite imminent threats against schools in the area.

A group of 32 heavily armed radical Islamic militants seized the school on the first day of class on Sept. 1, 2004, herding more than 1,000 people into the gymnasium and holding them hostage for nearly three days. The siege ended in gunfire and explosions, leaving 334 dead, more than half of them children. Over 800 people were wounded.

The court ordered that Russia pay nearly 3 million euros ($3.2 million) in total compensation to the 409 Russians who brought the case to the ECHR; they include people who were taken hostage, or injured or are relatives of the hostages or those killed and injured.

The Russian Justice Ministry, announcing its intention to appeal, contended that the judges failed to grasp the gravity of the situation during the siege and specifics of efforts taken to free the hostages.

The ministry said the court’s assessment of indiscriminate use of weapons by Russian special forces was groundless, citing results of an official Russian probe into the siege. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, also rejected the court’s view of disproportionate use of force by the government, saying that “such hypothetical assessment is hardly acceptable.”

He told reporters in a conference call that Russia, as a country that came under numerous terror attacks, can’t accept the ruling. “Such wording is absolutely unacceptable for a country that came under attack,” Peskov said.

“All the necessary legal action regarding this ruling will be taken,” he added. The head of the Mothers of Beslan group, Aneta Gadieva, said the payment ordered was meager. “Somebody will get 5,000 euro, somebody will get 20,000 euro. That’s a small sum in compensation for moral damages,” she was quoted as telling state news agency Tass.

Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for organizing the school siege. It came amid a particularly violent period in the Islamist insurgency that was connected with the fight between Russian forces and Chechen separatists. A week before the seizure, suicide bombers downed two Russian airliners on the same night, killing a total of 90 people, and another suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a Moscow subway station.

Jim Heintz in Moscow and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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