Ukraine

Ukraine PM: Putin Wants To Rebuild Soviet Union

Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk tells NBC that the Russian president wants nothing less than the restoration of the USSR, as pro-Russia separatists continue to occupy government buildings in Ukraine's eastern regions

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk claimed Saturday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to restore the Soviet Union, as pro-Kremlin separatists occupying government buildings in several eastern Ukrainian cities continued to defy an agreement to deescalate the crisis.

“President Putin has a dream to restore the Soviet Union,” said Yatsenyuk. “And every day, he goes further and further. And God knows where is the final destination.”

In an interview to be aired Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, Yatsenyuk pointed to President Putin’s influence in Ukraine, where Russia’s geopolitical interests appear to have contributed to mass unrest. Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, after Ukraine deposed its pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. Tens of thousands of Russian troops remain amassed on the border, emboldening separatist groups who have taken over government buildings in the eastern cities of Ukraine.

Yatsenyuk highlighted Putin’s supposed nostalgia for the Soviet Union, citing Putin’s proclamation in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

“And I believe that you do remember his famous Munich speech saying that the biggest disaster of the former century is the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Yatsenyuk said. “I consider that the biggest disaster of this century would be the restoring of the Soviet Union under the auspices of President Putin.”

Ukraine has launched operations against pro-Kremlin separatists occupying buildings in eastern Ukraine, but has called a truce for Easter.

The Ukrainian Prime Minister also had some harsh words for what he called the “bastards” apparently seeking to impose a tax on Jews in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. (The alleged author of the fliers has told Russian media that they are fakes, and other Ukrainian separatists told TIME they are a “sophisticated trick.”)

“We got information that these so-called peaceful protesters with light ammunition in their hands, that they sent a number of bulletins saying that everyone who is a Jew to be indicated as a Jew,” said Yatsenyuk. “And today in the morning, I made a clear statement urged Ukrainian military and security forces and Ukrainian Department of Homeland Security urgently to find these bastards and to bring them to justice.”

[NBC]

Nigeria

Islamic Militants Claim This Week’s Nigerian Blast

Soldiers inspect the remains of a car following an explosion at a bus park in Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, April. 14, 2014.
Soldiers inspect the remains of a car following an explosion at a bus park in Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, April. 14, 2014. Gbemiga Olamikan—AP

In the wake of a massive explosion that killed 75 people at a bus station in Abuja this week, the leader of the Boko Haram network threatens more attacks, saying "We are in your city, but you don't know where we are"

(LAGOS, Nigeria) — Nigeria’s Islamic extremists are claiming responsibility for the massive explosion at a busy bus station that killed at least 75 people in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, this week.

It comes in a new video received Saturday. The leader of the Boko Haram network threatens more attacks saying “We are in your city, but you don’t know where we are.”

Abubakar Shekau makes no mention of the abductions of more than 100 girls and young women from a remote northeastern school. Officials say dozens of the girls have managed to escape but 85 remain unaccounted for.

Parents and townspeople have joined security forces and vigilantes searching the dangerous Sambisa Forest for the kidnapped girls.

Boko Haram says Western education and influence have corrupted Africans and only Islamic law can save Nigeria.

Syria

4 French Journalists Held Hostage in Syria Freed

French President Hollande's office said in a statement that he felt "immense relief" over the release of journalists Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres. They were held hostage in the war-torn country for 10 months

(PARIS) — Four French journalists held hostage in Syria for 10 months have been released, officials said Saturday, the latest batch of reporters to be freed in what has become the world’s deadliest conflict for the media.

President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement that he felt “immense relief” over the release of Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres — all said to be in good health in neighboring Turkey despite the “very trying conditions” of their captivity.

“We are very happy to be free … and it’s very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk, to be able to … speak freely,” said Francois, who works for Europe 1 radio, in footage recorded by the private Turkish news agency DHA as the journalists left a police station.

Elias, a freelance photographer, also was working for Europe 1 radio. Henin and Torres are freelance journalists.

A DHA report said soldiers on patrol found the four blindfolded and handcuffed in Turkey’s southeast Sanliurfa province late Friday.

Turkish television also aired images of the four at the police station and then a local hospital.

It wasn’t clear whether a ransom had been paid for their release, nor which group in Syria’s chaotic 3-year-old conflict held the men. In his statement, Hollande thanked “all those” who contributed to the journalists’ release without elaborating. Longstanding French practice is to name a specific country that contributed to hostage releases. France denies it pays ransom to free its hostages.

Hollande’s office said the four would return soon to France. It did not provide details about the conditions of their release.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement that freedom for the hostages “was the result of long, difficult, precise, and necessarily discrete work.”

Journalists around France rejoiced at the news of their colleagues’ liberation.

The four went missing in June 2013 in two incidents. Press freedom advocate Reporters Without Borders has called Syria “the most dangerous country in the world” for journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in April that 61 journalists were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, while more than 60 have been killed since the conflict began.

The widespread abductions of journalists is unprecedented, and has been largely unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the kidnappings out of public view may help to negotiate the captives’ release. Jihadi groups are believed to be behind most kidnappings in Syria since 2013.

At least two of the French journalists were taken after being interrogated by extremist fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the eastern province of Raqqa, said a Syrian activist who said he accompanied the journalists as translator and guide.

Hussam al-Ahmad, 23, told The Associated Press that Henin and Torres aroused the fighters’ suspicion after he and the two journalists entered a school and asked to take photographs of them as they played football. Al-Ahmad said the fighters held them for about six hours.

During his interrogation, al-Ahmad said he was asked: “How do you let these infidels enter Syria after they killed our people in Mali?” France launched a military intervention in January 2013 in Mali that scattered Islamic extremists who had taken over the country’s north.

“I said, ‘These brothers are reporters. They have a humanitarian message,’ and then he got angry because I referred to the Frenchmen as my brothers,” al-Ahmad said.

Al-Ahmad said Henin and Torres were seized four days after the interrogation, likely by the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway group.

Al-Ahmad, who fled to Turkey months ago after being threatened by jihadis, said he burst into tears when he heard of the journalists’ release.

“It’s a day of celebration for me,” he said.

Violence continued Saturday in Syria, as rebel car bombings killed at least 10 people, officials and activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one car bomb killed at least four people in the city of Homs, in an area dominated by Alawites — the same sect as President Bashar Assad. State-run television also reported the bombing but did not immediately have a death toll.

Earlier in the day, another car bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint near the government-controlled town of Salamiya, killing at least six soldiers, activists said. A Syrian government official confirmed the bombing but said four people were killed and nine were wounded. Conflicting death tolls are routine after such attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

Iran

Report: Iran Vice President Says Row Over Reactor Resolved

(TEHRAN, Iran) — Iranian state television is reporting that the Islamic Republic’s vice president is saying a dispute between world powers and the country over its heavy water reactor at Arak has been “virtually resolved.”

A state television report Saturday quoted Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi as saying the country proposed to redesign the Arak reactor to produce one-fifth of the plutonium initially planned for it. The report quoted Salehi as saying that will end concerns the West has that Iran could use the plutonium produced at Arak to build a nuclear weapon.

Iran and world powers are negotiating the terms of a permanent deal over its contested nuclear program. Under a temporary deal, Iran agreed to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit its nuclear facilities, including Arak.

Ukraine

Donetsk Greets The Ukraine Crisis With a Shrug

Pro-Russian protesters play soccer in front of a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine April 19, 2014.
Pro-Russian protesters play soccer in front of a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine April 19, 2014. Marko Djurica—Reuters

The fate of eastern Ukraine is being decided at gunpoint in this city, as pro-Russian separatists seize control with political cover from Moscow. But many of the locals are sticking their heads in the sand, having never grappled with the questions of identity this crisis raises

Apart from a small barricade of tires blocking the backdoor, there was no outward sign that the city hall in Ukraine’s fifth largest city, Donetsk, had been taken over by armed separatists on Wednesday morning. They hadn’t even replaced the building’s Ukrainian flag with the Russian one yet. If a local resident like Anastasia Marova, a student at the city’s technical college, had wanted to see them, she would have had to walk through the sliding glass doors of the main entrance, where a handful of nervous men with shotguns and assault rifles were guarding the turnstiles. Instead, Marova walked past the entrance that afternoon toward the picturesque sculpture garden at the rear of the building, and sat down on a bench to munch sunflower seeds and talk to her friend Alina.

All around them couples were strolling and children playing on the playground next to city hall, within easy range of the gunmen peering through its windows. There were no policemen in sight, and even the people who had heard about the siege that day, either on the news or through the grapevine, didn’t seem to care very much about it. “Whatever,” Marova told this reporter when informed that she was, technically, in the line of fire. “They’re not there to shoot me,” she said, and popped another sunflower seed into her mouth.

For a city whose government buildings have been taken over by masked gunmen, whose police force has essentially stopped functioning, and whose streets could soon be overrun by the Russian tanks poised to invade from across the nearby border, Donetsk is incredibly calm. The terraces of its cafes are full of leisure-seekers smoking water pipes and drinking beer. Its parks are full of people going for bike rides and taking walks. Even city hall is functioning, despite the armed men camped out in its corridors. Almost everywhere, city residents are near indifferent to the fact that this city’s future is being decided at gunpoint right now, with or without their input.

Ever since Russia began threatening to take all of eastern Ukraine under its military “protection” several weeks ago, the city’s passivity has come through starkly in various opinion polls. The most recent one, conducted on March 25-28 by the Donetsk-based Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis, found that 46% of respondents believe the locals should take a “neutral, patient position” in case of a Russian invasion. Only one fifth said they would support a Ukrainian effort to resist the Russian forces, according to an advanced copy of the poll results obtained by TIME on Friday. Another fifth said they would welcome the Russian tanks. But perhaps most surprising was the data on how many locals were even paying attention. Nearly a quarter of them did not express “stable or high” interest in what was going on in their city.

“That is part of what makes Donetsk special,” says Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of a think tank called the Institute of World Policy, which is based in Kiev, the capital. The city of Donetsk, whose emblem is a clenched fist holding a hammer, has always been known as a bulwark of the proletariat, particularly coal miners and factory workers whose income these days comes out to a few hundred dollars a month if they’re lucky. “This is a society where both pragmatism and paternalism are very strong,” says Getmanchuk. “They are very disciplined, very hard working, which is the positive side of their Soviet mentality. But on the flipside, they tend to expect a strong leader to decide everything for them, to determine what to do, what to think, where to go and so on.”

Up until this winter, that leader was Viktor Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine and a native of Donetsk whose political party held an effective monopoly on power across the region. For years he lavished Donetsk with pork barrel spending and placed its native sons in senior posts across the country. But when the revolution chased Yanukovych from power in February, he and his allies were completely discredited, particularly after his decision to flee to Russia rather than return to his hometown. The vacuum of authority he left behind became fertile ground for the region’s pro-Russian separatists. But the locals don’t seem to be playing along. Instead of coming out en masse to support an alliance with Russia, they have mainly chosen to tune out, turn inward, and hope that the situation somehow resolves itself without affecting them too much.

On April 16, Getmanchuk, whose think tank broadly supports the new government in Kiev, visited Donetsk to hold a focus group with what she calls “opinion makers” in the city – prominent businessmen, university officials, activists and community leaders. She spent much of the time trying to get a rise out of them. “This was the intellectual elite, and they kept asking why Kiev doesn’t come to save and protect them,” she says. “We explained that no one is coming, that this is your land and you have to formulate your own identity. Who are you? What kind of country do you want? You must find a social consciousness.”

Never in its history has Donetsk really faced those kinds of questions. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, its role as a blue collar buffer between Russia and Ukraine has left it dangling between two worlds, neither invested in the Ukrainian mission to define itself as an independent nation, nor wholly subsumed into Russia’s cultural matrix. According to the survey conducted in late March, the identity of Donetsk residents is deeply fragmented. Only 36% consider themselves citizens of Ukraine. About a fifth say they are “Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine,” while 29% call themselves part of a unique entity – “people of the Donbass,” the gritty mining region that surrounds them.

“Honestly, before these last few months, we never much bothered to consider who we were,” says Tatyana Deduk, a middle-aged lawyer and native of Donetsk. “Life is hard here, and people don’t have time to think about these things. They’re too busy trying feed their families.” What finally forced the question of identity for some of them was the uprising that broke out in late November. Its aim was to make a lasting break from Russia and set Ukraine on a path toward Europe, and it kept Deduk glued to the news for months, watching the protesters battling police in the streets of Kiev, seizing government buildings, singing the national anthem every hour on the Maidan square, and waving the flag of Ukraine and the European Union. “I never had the chance or the nerve to go there myself, but my heart ached so bad with the desire to go.”

Only in March did she get her chance to protest. The victory of the revolution, which brought a new pro-Western government to power, had infuriated many of the region’s Russians, and some of them started calling for Donetsk to break away from Ukraine. To counter that movement, a small group of activists started holding rallies for the unity of Ukraine and its ambition to ally with Europe. It proved a dangerous campaign.

Several of their rallies clashed with pro-Russian counter protests, or were attacked by separatist thugs wielding bats and clubs. “The neurological trauma ward was filled with our guys who’d been knocked on the head,” says Dmitro Tkachenko, the activist who helped organize all of the rallies for Ukrainian unity in Donetsk. “Some people lost eyes, some are still in rehabilitation.” One activist from the nationalist Svoboda party, Dmitro Chernyavskiy, was killed on the square on March 13, leading the organizers to put a moratorium on any further demonstrations.

Only on April 17 was that moratorium lifted. Tkachenko and his fellow activists staged a rally that evening to oppose the armed separatists who have taken over city hall and the headquarters of the regional government. Police warned residents to stay away, fearing another attack by the separatists. Several thousand people showed up anyway, a sizable showing by local standards but thin considering the gravity of the issues they are facing. At the microphone, Tkachenko started things off with a rendition of the national anthem of Ukraine, and many of the Russian-speakers in the crowd didn’t seem to know the lyrics, which are in Ukrainian. After the first chorus, about half the crowd began cheering as if the song was over, drowning out demonstrators who continued to sing the rest.

One of the star speakers that evening was Nikolai Volynko, the ruddy, potbellied chairman of the local miners’ union. “A lot of people told me not to get mixed up in all this,” he told the crowd from the rickety stage set up on a square near the edge of town. “They said, ‘Listen, maybe things will shake out on their own. You’ve got three grandkids to worry about.’ But I told them, ‘No, it’s because of my grandkids that I have to lead this thing.’”

But not too many of his fellow miners had followed Volynko to the demonstration. Asked about this afterward, he said he was was sure that eventually his men would “rise up” and take a position on whether they are, in fact, Ukrainians or not. “It’s like a snowball,” he says. “It starts small but it builds into an avalanche.”

Deduk, the local lawyer, wasn’t so sure. Sitting on a bench with her son Stepan at the edge of the demonstration, she said most of the people she knows are content to stay on the sidelines, and if Russia comes in and conquers the region like it did with Crimea last month, they’ll most likely shrug and accept it as their fate. “People forget all the horrors we faced under Moscow during the Soviet Union,” she says. “All they remember is that wages were paid and the medical care was free.”

As the sun set, Tkachenko announced from the stage that the demonstration was over, and the people went on their way, some lingering on park benches to talk politics. Across town at city hall, the separatists had already taken down the Ukrainian flag and reinforced their barricades around the building. But the sculpture garden next to it was as tranquil as ever, full of people seeming to live, or pretending to live, in a world immune to politics.

South Korea

Rescuers Battle Elements in Search for Ferry Missing

With over 270 people still missing, rescuers contend with bad weather and strong tides to find anyone still alive inside the sunken ship

+ READ ARTICLE

A massive search effort is under way to locate over 270 people still missing in the sunken ferry in South Korea’s Yellow Sea. Now, bad weather and strong currents are slowing down the rescue effort.

Ukraine

Ukraine Calls ‘Easter Truce’ in East

A pro-Russia woman holds a Russian flag outside a regional government building in Donetsk
A pro-Russia woman holds a Russian flag outside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, April 19, 2014. Baz Ratner—Reuters

Kiev said it was suspending operations in eastern Ukraine cities over Easter, as separatists continued their occupation of government buildings. The White House has ramped up pressure on Russia to use its influence over the separatists and order them to disband

Ukraine announced Saturday it would suspend operations against separatists in its volatile eastern cities over Easter, where pro-Russia militants have occupied government buildings in defiance of the interim government in Kiev.

Kiev has said it will resume military operations if the separatists do not withdraw, but would hold its forces back for the meantime. “The anti-terrorist operation was put on hold for the Easter time and we will be not using force against them at this moment,” foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia said, the BBC reports.

Pro-Kremlin forces currently occupy government offices in 10 cities in eastern Ukraine, the Independent reports, who refuse to leave until the government in Kiev resigns.

The militants remain despite an agreement reached Thursday to defuse the crisis in which Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US said illegal military groups in Ukraine should be disbanded and those occupying government buildings must leave.

Separatists in the city of Donetsk said the Kiev government is “illegal”, and have vowed not to disarm until the government resigns.

The White House has ramped up pressure on Russia to use its influence over Ukrainian separatists and order them to disband, threatening further economic sanctions against Moscow if the crisis is not defused. Thousands of Russian troops have amassed at the border, as hostilities have escalated following the revolution that overturned a pro-Russia government earlier this year.

Kiev launched “anti-terrorist” operations against the militants in the East last week in an effort to dislodge separatist fighters.

[BBC]

South Korea

Korean Ferry Death Toll Rises To 32 as Prosecutors Investigate Crew

Over 270 are still missing in the cold waters off the South Korean coast as prosecutors seek answers from the capsized ferry's crew

The death toll on the South Korean ferry that capsized Wednesday has risen to 32, but officials said the number of dead will almost certainly rise as rescue teams struggle to find hundreds of missing passengers amidst strong currents and rain.

Three more bodies were recovered Saturday, the Associated Press reports, but around 270 passengers are still missing from the ferry, a large number of them high school students who were on a school trip to the holiday island of Jeju.

The ferry’s captain, Lee Joon-seok, was arrested Saturday on charges of negligence of duty and violation of maritime law. Prosecutors bringing charges said Lee escaped the ship before the passengers, CBS reports. Two crew members were also arrested, including a rookie third mate who prosecutors said was unfamiliar with the strong current off the South Korean coast.

Lee had four decades of experience at sea, but he was not the ferry’s main captain and told reporters he was not on the bridge when the ferry began tilting. He also said that he told children on board to stay on the sinking ship for fear they would be swept out to sea in the strong, cold current, Reuters reports.

Lee waited 30 minutes before finally issuing an evacuation order, by which time the ship had already sloped too far on its side for people to escape the tight hallways and stairs inside the sinking vessel. Several survivors said they never heard the order to evacuate.

Investigators said the accident occurred at a point along the route where the ship had to make a turn through islands with strong currents. Prosecutors are examining whether the inexperienced third mate ordered a turn too sharp, causing the vessel to list.

With the chances of survival among any of the missing passengers increasingly slim, the accident is shaping up to be the deadliest Korean maritime accident in 21 years. The 323 students on board were from Danwon High School in Ansan and were aged 16 and 17.

The school’s vice president, who was rescued as the children stayed aboard, hanged himself Friday outside a gym in Jindo where relatives of survivors were put up.

[AP]

 

Iran

Iran Slams U.S. Ruling to Sell Iranian Property

(TEHRAN, Iran) — Iran has condemned a ruling issued by a U.S. federal judge approving plans to sell a 36-story Manhattan office building and other properties owned by Iran nationwide in what will be the largest terrorism-related forfeiture ever.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham is quoted by the official IRNA news agency as saying late Friday as calling the verdict “illegal” and a politically-motivated decision that violates U.S. obligations on freedom of religions.

The judge ruled last September that the Manhattan office tower, belonging to the Iran-linked Alavi Foundation, was subject to forfeiture because revenue from it was secretly funneled to a state-owned Iranian bank in violation of a U.S. trade embargo.

everest avalanche

13th Body Pulled From Snow in Everest Avalanche

(KATMANDU, Nepal) — Search teams recovered a 13th body Saturday from the snow and ice covering a dangerous climbing pass on Mount Everest, where an avalanche a day earlier swept over a group of Sherpa guides in the deadliest disaster on the world’s highest peak.

Another three guides remained missing, and searchers were working quickly to find them in case weather conditions deteriorated, said Maddhu Sunan Burlakoti, head of the Nepalese government’s mountaineering department. But the painstaking effort involved testing the strength of newly fallen snow and using extra ropes, clamps and aluminum ladders to navigate the unstable field.

The avalanche barreled down a narrow climbing pass known as the “popcorn field” for its bulging chunks of ice at about 6:30 a.m. Friday. The group of about 25 Sherpa guides were the first people making their way up this climbing season to dig paths and fix ropes for their foreign clients to use in attempting to reach the summit next month.

One of the survivors told his relatives that the path had been unstable just before the snow slide hit at an elevation near 5,800 meters (19,000 feet). The area is considered particularly dangerous due to its steep slope and deep crevasses that cut through the snow and ice covering the pass year round.

As soon as the avalanche occurred, rescuers, guides and climbers rushed to help, and all other climbing was suspended.

Seven of the 12 bodies pulled out and brought down Friday were handed over to their families in the Everestregion, while the other five were taken to Katmandu, Nepal’s capital.

Four survivors were conscious and being treated in the intensive care units of several Katmandu hospitals for broken ribs, fractured limbs, punctured lungs and skin abrasions, according to Dr. C.R. Pandey from Grande Hospital. Others were treated for less serious injuries at the Everest base camp.

Hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews had been at Everest’s base camp preparing to climb the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak when weather conditions are most favorable next month. As with each year, the Sherpa guides from each of the expedition teams had been working together to prepare the path by carving routes through the ice, fixing ropes on the slopes and setting up camps at higher altitudes.

One of the injured guides, Dawa Tashi, said the Sherpas were delayed on their way up the slope because the path was unsteady. With little warning, a wall of snow crashed down on the group and buried many of them, according to Tashi’s sister-in-law, Dawa Yanju. Doctors said Tashi, who was partially buried in the snowfall, suffered several broken ribs.

The Sherpa people are one of the main ethnic groups in Nepal’s alpine region, and many make their living as climbing guides on Everest and other Himalayan peaks.

More than 4,000 climbers have summited Everest since 1953, when it was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Hundreds have died trying.

The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, including famed mountaineer Rob Hall, and was later memorialized in a book, “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer. Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.

Earlier this year, Nepal announced several steps to better manage the heavy flow of climbers and speed up rescue operations. The steps included the dispatch of officials and security personnel to the base camp at (5,300 meters) 17,380 feet, where they will stay throughout the spring climbing season, which ends in May.

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