TIME ebola

No, The UK Isn’t About To Be Hit By an Ebola Epidemic

GUINEA-HEALTH-EBOLA
Doctors Without Borders staff carry the body of a person killed by viral haemorrhagic fever, at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Guekedou, on April 1, 2014. Seyllou—AFP/Getty Images

Though an infected person could technically arrive in the UK, the risk of onward transmission is exceedingly low

A Liberian asylum-seeker was tested for Ebola-like symptoms at a British immigration center earlier this week, The Telegraph reported Thursday. The day before, media outlets said another man had been similarly examined in Birmingham, England. Both tested negative for the often-fatal virus.

The United Kingdom’s Department of Health said that Ebola “is not an issue that affects the UK directly.” It added that should an infected person arrive in the UK., there are “experienced people who are ready to deal with [Ebola] if it were to arrive here.” Two agencies under the Department of Health, the National Health Service and Public Health England further pointed out that the threat Ebola poses to the UK is “very low.”

Strangely, this advice has been largely ignored by a number of national media outlets. The Daily Mail, a right-leaning tabloid, questioned whether “the world’s deadliest disease” — which Ebola certainly isn’t — was heading for Britain. For eight paragraphs, the paper told a terrifying tale: A man had arrived in Britain from Lagos, Nigeria with Ebola. According to the Daily Mail, “[Ebola] would soon be spreading across the country, killing almost everyone it touched.”

Then, in paragraph nine, came relief: “Fortunately this is an imaginary situation.”

This clear scare-mongering might be expected of a tabloid, but The Telegraph, a national broadsheet, has also opted for alarmism. In a seemingly impartial report on the Liberian asylum seeker — whose symptoms had been spotted by immigration officials — the newspaper added, with no explanation: “The incident shows how easy it would be for the deadly disease to enter Britain through illegal channels.”

There is no denying that Ebola is a terrifying illness. Approximately 728 of the 1,322 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the West African countries hardest-hit by the virus, have died of it, according to the World Health Organization. Ebola has no vaccine, no cure and its most terrifying symptom — external hemorrhaging — makes it perfect media fodder.

Though the image of a patient weeping blood is the very stuff of horror films, Ebola isn’t that easy to catch. The virus is spread through contact with the blood and bodily fluids of an infected person, and a person is only contagious when they’re symptomatic.

“It’s not like flu or the SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] virus,” says David Lalloo, Professor of Tropical Medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine adds. “You can’t catch Ebola through the air.”

Sitting next to someone with the early flu-like symptoms of Ebola wouldn’t lead to infection. A victim with the later symptoms — hemorrhaging, vomiting and diarrhea would likely be too sick to board a plane.

“The reality is the risk to the UK’s public health is really quite small,” says Lalloo. Though it is possible that an infected person may make it undetected to the UK — Ebola has an incubation period of up to 21 days — they would most likely be prevented from infecting all of Britain. “All [UK health workers] have been alerted to the possibility that people traveling from the region might be infected with Ebola if they’re displaying a fever,” Lalloo adds.

Public Health England, a government health agency, told TIME that comprehensive measures are in place to deal with the potential arrival of an Ebola patient. They have created a detailed algorithm for healthcare workers to assess and treat people suspected of suffering from a viral hemorrhagic fever that may be caused by Ebola. “If there is a symptomatic person on board the flight, the aircraft contacts air traffic control, who makes contact with primary responders and the health control unit at Heathrow [Airport], a Public Health England spokesperson said. “Other airports would send the person to [the] hospital for assessment if that was appropriate.”

Anyone found to have Ebola would be immediately quarantined, and anyone they had contact with would be tested.

“There have been odd cases of viral hemorrhagic fever that have come into the UK,” says Lalloo. However, fast and effective treatment has meant “there hasn’t been onward transmission.”

It’s likely that the media hysteria was sparked by the arrival of an infected Liberian official in Nigeria on July 20. The man later died, and news outlets were frantic that a similar traveler could reach the UK. What wasn’t as widely reported was that the Lagos hospital was evacuated and quarantined, and Nigeria’s current number of confirmed Ebola cases remains at one. As Lalloo points out, the current epidemic “has been going on for three to four months now … the only difference is someone arrived in Nigeria with Ebola.”

The West isn’t about to be hit by an Ebola epidemic soon. Well-resourced and prepared for such diseases, any case will most likely be rapidly contained and dealt with. Ebola is tearing through West Africa because the three impoverished nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone lack the facilities and staff to manage Ebola — Western media would do well to focus on that.

 

TIME Infectious Disease

The Psychological Toll of Ebola in Sierra Leone

A nurse from Liberia sprays preventives to disinfect the waiting area for visitors at the ELWA Hospital where a US doctor Kent Bradley is being quarantined in the hospitals isolation unit having contracted the Ebola virus, Monrovia, Liberia, 28 July 2014.
A nurse from Liberia sprays preventives to disinfect the waiting area for visitors at the ELWA Hospital where a US doctor Kent Bradley is being quarantined in the hospitals isolation unit having contracted the Ebola virus, Monrovia, Liberia, 28 July 2014. Ahmed Jallanzo—EPA

Ane Bjoru Fjeldsaeter has been counselling staff, patients and their families at the Doctors Without Borders' Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone

In West Africa, the deadly Ebola outbreak is worsening daily. The U.N. announced Thursday that 1,323 people have been infected in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Of those afflicted, 729 have died.

The tiny country of Sierra Leone has been hit hardest, with 533 reported cases. The President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma,
has announced a public health emergency, some schools and banks have closed, and doctors are scrambling to treat people for a virus they can’t cure—or contain. As patients worsen, their bodies—and their minds—take a toll.

Amid that chaos and fear was Ane Bjoru Fjeldsaeter, a psychologist who was working at a Doctors Without Borders’ treatment center in Kailahun until recently, when she returned home to Norway. The only mental health professional in the 64-bed center, she was tasked with providing emotional support and counseling to victims, their families and those treating them.

“The fear is widespread,” she says. “When we first started working in the region there was a lot of denial. It’s a common psychological response when faced with a horrible situation.”

For those inside the treatment center, the grim reality of Ebola was impossible to ignore. “They see people around them with a rapidly progressing and ugly disease,” Fjeldsaeter says. “It’s a scary situation to be in.”

Doctors Without Borders has been operating in Kailahun since June 25 and the mortality rate within the center has dropped from 90% to 60%, according to Fjeldsaeter. She counseled patients at a distance of 1.5 meters, separated by two orange fences that came up to waist height. “If someone is so sick they can’t come to the fence, I’ll wear protective equipment and go to the isolation ward,” she says.

“Most of the patients were more concerned about their relatives than their own lives,” she explains. For others, the isolation can be extremely trying, and as their health worsens and their own mortality looms, many turn to God. “Sometimes they asked me to pray with them or for them,” she says.

In such an emotionally charged environment, staff are often affected. “It’s a workplace where it’s common at times to become overwhelmed with emotion,” Fjeldsaeter says. “Staff told me they didn’t feel professional. I had to tell them, ‘Nobody’s made of stone, we’re all affected by this. It’s a national tragedy and it’s okay to cry.'”

She also offered some group counseling for staff. “They have shared concerns. There’s a fear of contamination and the feeling of helplessness because there’s no cure. They’re up against the disease and they don’t know what to do. There’s clear sadness.”

Despite the horrors that she witnessed during her month in Sierra Leone, Fjeldsaeter remains stoic. She admits to being scared but adds: “If you’re not scared then you’re not careful. You have to embrace your fear a bit, but you can’t let it paralyze you.”

 

 

TIME Crime

Detroit 8-Year-Old Shot Dead in His Sleep

Jakari Pearson was killed in the early hours of Wednesday morning

An eight-year-old boy was fatally shot Wednesday whilst sleeping in his Detroit home, the Detroit News reports. Police are interviewing a man identified as a “person of interest.”

Jakari Pearson was killed in the early hours of the morning in his bed in Detroit’s near east side. The Detroit Police Department said shots were fired around 1.15am into the home.

Pearson was hit once in the upper body and taken to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. His mother was also wounded, though her condition is unknown. Family at the site of the shooting said the gunman may have been a former partner of the boy’s mother.

“The person we are talking to has not been arrested or been identified as a suspect in the shooting,” a Detroit Police spokesperson said. “He’s nothing more than a person of interest in this case and is being interviewed.”

The spokesperson, Sgt. Michael Woody added: “We have a pretty good idea of who it is that we are looking for… We hope the community continues to talk to us and feeds us information so we can track this individual down and get him into custody very quickly.”

[The Detroit News]

 

TIME Middle East

15 Killed in Gaza Market Airstrike As Temporary Cease-Fire Passes

As at least 15 were killed in the shelling of a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza

Updated 1:22 pm ET

An Israeli airstrike on a busy market in Gaza has killed at least 15 and wounded 150 others, the Associated Press reports.

The strike occurred during a four-hour humanitarian cease-fire,which occurred between 3pm and 7pm local time, in the Gaza Strip. The market is situated within Shejaiya, an area which Israel said wasn’t protected by the parameters of its cease-fire.

A Gaza healthy ministry official, Ashraf al-Kidra, told the AP the Gazans shopping in the market believed they were protected.

In a statement released before the cease-fire, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that the humanitarian window would “not apply to the areas in which IDF soldiers are currently operating” — among which is Shejaiya.

The IDF told residents not to return to areas which they were asked to evacuate, and warned “the IDF will respond to any attempt to exploit this window to harm Israeli citizens and Israeli soldiers.” During the cease-fire, the AP reports, Palestinian militants did fire rockets into Israel.

The IDF scheduled the cease-fire earlier Wednesday, after another night of heavy fighting between it and Hamas saw 15 people killed in the Israeli shelling of a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said that Tuesday’s attack was the sixth time the IDF had struck a U.N. school during the current conflict. In a statement on their website they called the incident “an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”

A spokesperson for the IDF told TIME: “The initial IDF investigation suggests that [Palestinian] militants fired mortar shells from the vicinity of the school,” to which the IDF responded. The spokesperson added that the investigation is ongoing.

The White House condemned the UN school shelling Wednesday afternoon, the Associated Press reports, but did blame any party for it.

The shelling of the school happened during the 23rd day of operations in the Gaza strip which has so far seen over 1,258 Palestinians killed, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Israel has lost 56 in the fighting.

[AP]

TIME India

John Kerry Hopes for Warmer Welcome in India After Israel Fiasco

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about terms of a cease-fire in fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas on July 25, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about terms of a cease-fire in fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas on July 25, 2014. Charles Dharapak—AP

New Delhi has suggested that it's committed to an improved economic relationship with the U.S.

Correction: Appended, July 31.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to New Delhi on Wednesday in a bid to improve Washington’s relationship with India. He is undoubtedly hoping the visit will go well. Kerry, after all, has not had the best week.

On Friday, the Secretary of State left Egypt with his tail between his legs having failed to broker a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Things got worse for him Monday after the cease-fire framework he helped draft was leaked to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which called it a “prize for terror.” Haaretz, which is normally considered left-leaning, claimed the former Democratic senator was like “an alien, who just disembarked his spaceship in the Mideast.”

This was hardly the reaction Kerry and his team expected from one of the U.S.’s staunchest allies. On Monday, spokesperson Jen Psaki said: “We sent them a clearly labeled confidential draft of ideas… This draft… of ideas was based on the Egyptian proposal that they had supported from just weeks … just a couple of weeks before that.”

Luckily for Kerry, experts say he’s likely to receive a friendlier welcome when he arrives in India this week. “The Indians would like a good relationship with the U.S.,” says Ronald Granieri, executive director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center for the Study of America and the West. “The U.S.-India relationship is fundamentally a very important one,”adds Xenia Wickett, project director of Chatham House’s U.S. Program. “There’s a recognition on both sides that this could be a very positive and strategic relationship.”

That’s not to say the ground is completely smooth ahead of Kerry’s India trip. In recent days, the Indian media has highlighted the December arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was accused of falsifying her housekeeper’s papers and underpaying her. Media outlets have claimed that this has soured relations with India, impeding Kerry’s visit.

Then there’s India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was denied a U.S. visa in 2005 for failing to halt the 2002 Hindu-led riots which occurred when he was chief minister of Gujarat. The mobs killed 1,000 people, the majority of which were Muslims.

Wickett, who has just returned from India, is unconvinced that either of these events will hurt Kerry’s visit. “Within the new government… there is a much more rational sense of what’s important. This will not affect bilateral relations.” Modi, after all, was first denied a visa by the Bush administration. Khobragade was arrested during the former Indian administration.

But what about trade relations? The waters of U.S.-India relations were muddied at the ongoing World Trade Organization talks in Geneva, when member states had agreed to a reform of custom rules but India demanded that a deal on stockpiling, scheduled for 2017, be reached now.

That demand threatens to derail the anticipated reform, and has been met with criticism from the U.S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Michael Punke, who said he was “extremely discouraged” by Indian negotiators’ intransigence.

These tensions can easily be put aside in favor of pursuing mutually beneficial relations, says Milan Vaishnav, associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The new government in India recognizes that if they were elected on a platform of getting the economy back on track, they need the U.S,” he says. “This is a relationship that has been gathering speed for the past decade.”

“If the Indian economy grows, the U.S. will do well and [any future] trade disputes will fade into the background,” he adds.

Strategically too, both sides need each other. If the U.S. and India can forge greater economic ties, it reduces the reliance that both countries have on the Chinese economy. “The U.S. would like a better relationship with India as they start to see China as a strategic rival,” comments Granieri.

All of that said, Kerry’s visit to New Delhi is unlikely to make great waves. Modi is due to visit the U.S. in September to meet with President Barack Obama and it is then, according to Granieri that any new initiatives would be announced. “Modi wouldn’t want to devalue the importance of his September visit,” he says.

Nevertheless Kerry is likely to be greeted with open arms when he disembarks from his spaceship on Wednesday. His job too, will be far easier than it was in Egypt. “It’s not a heavy lift [this time],” notes Vaishnav. “I think that it’s going to go pretty well, the trip is largely symbolic rather than substantive.” Surely that’s a welcome alternative to brokering peace in the Middle East.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Narendra Modi and Michael Punke. Modi, now Prime Minister of India, was the chief minister of Gujarat from October, 2001, to May, 2014, and Punke is the U.S. Ambassador to the World Trade Organization.

TIME Middle East

Hamas Still Has Some Friends Left

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament in Ankara, Turkey, July 22, 2014.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters at parliament wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh, in Ankara, July 22, 2014. Burhan Ozbilici—AP

Though Egypt has turned its back on Hamas, other countries are coming in from the cold

With the fighting in Gaza intensifying daily, the ruling militant group Hamas is finding itself pushed to the limit. Trying to match Israel’s vast military might is an impossible task, and even finding the resources to launch rocket attacks against Israeli targets could only be achieved by heavy foreign investment.

But which country wants to invest in Hamas? The West certainly doesn’t. The militant Palestinian organization has been a firm fixture on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organizations list since 1997. Hamas’ only hope is its neighbors in the Arab world.

Hamas has two clear allies, according to Middle East experts: Qatar and Turkey. Both have given Hamas their public support and financial assistance estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Qatar also hosts Hamas’ political bureau which includes Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal,” says Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “Qatar has a long history of providing shelter to Islamist groups, amongst them the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban.”

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, supports what Joshi calls “other neo-Islamist allies.” Though the Turkish government explicitly rejects the label “Islamist”, their social conservatism is inspired by an Islamic ideology that Hamas shares. Last year, Meshaal visited Turkey and met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for several hours.

Both Qatar — one of the world’s richest states — and Turkey are powerful allies to have, but Hamas might wish for more support given the breadth of the Arab world. It once had it, too. Hamas used to be strongly allied with both Iran and Syria, with the former giving Hamas an estimated $13-15 million a month as recently as 2011, as well as long-range missiles. Hamas’ political bureau used to be based in the Syrian capital of Damascus before its move to Qatar in 2012.

But relations cooled dramatically with Iran and Syria amid sectarian divisions following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Iran, a Shia-majority country, backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whose Alawite faith is a branch of Shia Islam. Hezbollah, a powerful Shia Islamist group based in Lebanon, also took Assad’s side.

However Hamas, a Sunni-led faction, sided, as most of the Arab world did, with the rebels. Cue Tehran cutting their allowance, Hezbollah allegedly ordering Hamas members out of Lebanon, and Hamas packing their bags for Qatar.

“Iran’s relationship with Hamas was always problematic,” says Chris Doyle, director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. “Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni group and Iran is Shia. Nevertheless, Hamas was their entry into the issue of Palestine.”

Seeking to regain its influence over this issue, Iran has attempted to foster a reconciliation with Hamas over the last 18 months. Farwaz Gerges, professor on the Middle East at the London School of Economics says the conflict in Gaza is the reason. “The current crisis has brought a kind of rapprochement between Iranian leaders and Hamas.”

Hezbollah too, Gerges notes, has invited Hamas back into the fold. On Monday, the Hezbollah-owned television channel Al Manar reported that Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, praised Meshaal for “the persistence of the Hamas resistance.” The TV station added he “strongly supported their rightful demands to end the current battle.”

Gerges is quick to point out that this doesn’t signal “a return to the warm days of the Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas leaders.” However he adds: “Out of this particular crisis, a new realignment might happen.” That may sound like good news for Hamas, but there’s another Arab country that is of late vehemently opposed to it. That would be Egypt, the largest and most influential country in the Arab world and the one responsible for drafting a potential cease-fire.

From 2012 to 2013, Hamas enjoyed Egypt’s munificence under the leadership of former President Mohamed Morsi, a longtime member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot. When Morsi was ousted last year and replaced with Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Hamas knew the good times were over.

“The most devastating thing that has happened to Hamas is the ousting of Mohamed Morsi,” comments Gerges. Sisi, whose government has orchestrated a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, destroyed Hamas’ tunnel network into Egypt and closed the border crossing at Rafah, devastating Hamas’ finances. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two of Egypt’s financial backers, are also hostile to Hamas. Like Egypt, they view the Muslim Brotherhood as a clear domestic threat — and Hamas is guilty by association.

But perhaps Hamas doesn’t need Egypt. As the death toll continues to rise in Gaza, there is a groundswell of public sympathy across the Arab world for the group.

“Hamas in terms of people on the street is at the height of its political power in every single Arab country with the exception of Egypt,” says Gerges. “The longer the conflict continues, the more they gain in popularity. And for Hamas, what really matters is the public pulse.”

TIME Israel-Gaza conflict

As Israel Fights Hamas in Gaza, Egypt Plays the Peacemaker Once Again

APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians
Smoke from an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City on July 24, 2014. Adel Hana—AP

Egypt craves Western and Arab approval but fears strengthening Hamas

John Kerry, the beleaguered U.S. Secretary of State, arrived in Cairo Monday to try and broker another cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian militant group which controls the Gaza Strip. But it’s not the U.S. that’s most likely to get a deal done – it’s Egypt.

Egypt has often played the role of negotiator when conflicts between Israel and Hamas have bubbled up in the past. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak brokered a cease-fire between them in 2009. After Mubarak was given the boot in 2011, it was left to Mohamed Morsi to negotiate the next truce.

Cairo, though, has a rough road ahead. Israel and Hamas aren’t likely to seek a cease-fire just yet, as both are claiming successes in their latest bout of violence. Israel says it’s destroying Hamas’ tunnel network. Hamas, meanwhile managed to scare several international airlines away from flying to Israel for a few days for fear of rocket attacks. It also claimed to have captured an Israeli soldier.

Egypt’s position as peacemaker dates back to 1979, when then-president Anwar Sadat, exhausted by Egypt’s 30 years of war with Israel, signed a peace agreement between the two countries. It was a deeply controversial decision — Israel is not, and was not, considered a traditional ally by other Arab countries. Sadat was assassinated two years later.

“In the intervening 35 years [since 1979], Egypt has always played an important role, both because of its geography and the peace treaty,” says Robert Danin, Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. “It is the largest Arab country and still has a leadership role.”

Yet for Egypt’s current president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who took control after playing a key role in ousting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi, the peace treaty and its accompanying accord agreeing to Palestinian autonomy no longer carry much weight.

“The view in the west is Egypt has traditionally played [the role of peacemaker] and this is a role they should play now,” says Eric Trager, Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But Sisi is in an existential conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Hamas is the Palestinian equivalent. Egypt views Hamas as the same as the enemy they’re fighting at home … It’s not going to offer cease-fire terms that are at all favorable to Hamas.”

International diplomacy isn’t exactly at the top of Sisi’s agenda, either. Facing upheavals in Egypt’s Western Desert and the Sinai, plus the ever-present threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s president has his own domestic conflicts to sort out.

It’s easy to assume that a prolonged war between Israel and Hamas would benefit Egypt, who wants to see Hamas weakened. But Danin thinks otherwise, as Egypt’s Arab partners put pressure on it to act.

‘”At a certain point [conflict] isn’t [beneficial],” says Danin. “When things get out of hand, the perception in the Arab world is that Israel is slaughtering Palestinians … it puts Egypt in a difficult position.”

Egypt’s acting as a negotiator not only appeases the Arab world — its financial backers in the Gulf States particularly — but the U.S. as well.

“Sisi needs to establish his credibility in the West,” says Dr. Claire Spencer, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House. Brokering a cease-fire presents “Egypt as a power to be reckoned with,” she adds.

If Egypt can help put an end to Israel’s current invasion in Gaza, it will be lauded as a peacemaker and a key player in international diplomacy. Yet Sisi may have darker motives for getting involved with negotiations. Cairo’s current record on rule of law, democracy and human rights is dubious, to say the least. The recent sentencing of three Al-Jazeera journalists to seven years in jail is only one example of this. “When people are focusing on Israel this is good,” says Danin. “It means people aren’t focusing on Egypt.”

Sisi, then, is torn. Arranging a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas will paint him as a hero to the West and the Arab world, both sick of the bloodshed in Gaza. Yet any cease-fire that benefits Hamas will cost him support amongst his party and strengthen an enemy. Caught in this deadlock, a truce looks unlikely. Whatever Sisi suggests, Hamas is almost sure to refuse.

TIME eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian Pilots Missing After 2 Jets Shot Down in East

Two Ukrainian military jets shot down
A file picture dated September 17, 2007 shows Ukrainian Su-25 attack planes during manoeuvres at the landfill in Rovno, Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists have shot down two Ukrainian military jets in the east of the country, Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskiy said on July 23, 2014. Sergey Popsuevich—EPA

Both pilots ejected safely but their whereabouts are unknown

Pro-Russia separatist rebels shot down two Ukrainian military planes over eastern Ukraine Wednesday, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council told TIME. Both pilots ejected from their aircraft but remain missing.

An aide to separatist leader Alexander Borodai, told CNN that the two jets had been shot down by rebel fighters using a shoulder-fired missile system. However, Yarema Dukh, the Council’s press secretary, says that the jets were shot down from an altitude of 17,000 feet, an altitude she says is too high for those systems to reach. The aircrafts’ altitude, Dukh says, is instead a sign that “the planes may have been shot down by another plane.”

On top of that, though, it’s widely believed that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 which crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, which most likely originated from rebel-controlled territory. Flight 17 was traveling at 33,000 feet at the time of the suspected shoot-down — much higher than the Ukrainian jets.

The two jets shot down Wednesday, both Soviet-built Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft, were among four fighter planes returning to base after supporting Ukrainian government forces along the Russia-Ukraine border, the Council said in a press conference Wednesday. They were hit over the Savur Mogila area close to the border around 1:30 p.m. local time.

The Ukrainian aircraft were flying in the same area as where Flight 17 crashed, killing all 298 people on board. On Wednesday, 40 of the 200 MH17 passengers’ bodies thus far recovered arrived in the Netherlands for identification. The flight’s two black boxes also safely reached investigators in Britain Wednesday.

In the days before the MH17 disaster, a Ukrainian An-26 transport plane and another Su-25 jet were also shot down. A second Su-25 was fired upon, but the pilot managed to land his plane with minimal damage.

TIME Flight MH17

Ukraine Says 2 Military Jets Shot Down Over East

As UK investigators began analysis of MH17 black boxes, and the bodies of Dutch victims were flown home

Ukraine said that two of its fighter jets were shot down Wednesday over eastern Ukraine, the Associated Press reports, less than a week after a passenger jet was downed in the same region. The news came as the two black boxes from the downed MH17 jet arrived in Britain and 40 of the recovered 200 bodies were being flown to the Netherlands.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that two of its military fighter jets were downed over eastern Ukraine. The two jets, both Sukhoi-25 planes, were shot down at 1:30pm local time over the Savur Mogila area. It is not yet known whether those on board have survived. A spokesperson for the ministry said the planes could have been carrying up to two people each.

Whilst the Ukrainian government tries to ascertain what has happened, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch has begun to investigate the two flight recorders from flight MH17, the BBC reports, which were handed over to Malaysian experts by Ukrainian rebels late Monday.

Aviation experts from the organization will try to download data from the black boxes in accordance with a request from Dutch authorities heading up the investigation. The data should be downloaded within the next two days and will then be sent to the Dutch investigators. It is hoped that the flight recorders will be able to confirm whether a missile hit flight MH17.

The black boxes’ arrival comes as the first 40 bodies of the 298 victims were being flown to Eindhoven in the Netherlands. It is expected that they will arrive at 4pm local time.

They will be met by members of the Dutch royal family and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as part of a national day of mourning for the deceased. 193 of the 298 passengers onboard flight MH17 were Dutch nationals.

All 200 of the recovered bodies arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine in a refrigerated train carriage Tuesday, following repeated international demands for their safe return.

Following a solemn ceremony attended by ambassadors, soldiers and officials, 40 coffins were loaded onto two military planes bound directly for Eindhoven. They will then be taken to barracks south of Hilversum for identification. Rutte has warned, however, that this could take months.

Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. All 298 people on board were killed. Washington said Wednesday that they had clear evidence the plane was downed by an SA-11 missile “fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped create.”

[BBC]

TIME Ukraine

Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17’s Crash Site?

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The men behind the "Donetsk People's Republic" and other separatist groups

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, on July 19, 2014.
Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, July 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.

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