TIME press freedom

Western Journalist Shot Dead in Afghanistan

Swedish journalist Nils Horner.
Swedish journalist Nils Horner. Mattias Ahlm—Sveriges Radio/EPA

Nils Horner, the South Asia correspondent for Swedish Radio, was reportedly shot dead by gunmen in broad daylight—a rare, brazen attack on a foreigner near the city's diplomatic district

A British-Swedish journalist was shot dead in Kabul on Tuesday, in a brazen attack in a busy section of the city that many worry is a harbinger of future security issues in Afghanistan’s capital.

Nils Horner, 52, the South Asia correspondent for Swedish Radio, was killed assassination-style by a pair of gunmen in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of Kabul, an area populated with embassies, western nongovernmental organizations and journalists, the Washington Post reports. Afghan police said Horner, who was identified by the Swedish embassy, was on his way to visit a Lebanese restaurant Taverna du Liban that was bombed in January, killing 21 people, mostly foreigners.

Horner had spoken to the news desk earlier in the morning, Anne Lagercrantz, head of news at Swedish Radio, told the AP. Upon seeing the news that a foreign journalist had been shot, staffers aimed to contact their colleague by email but received no response. When they called his cell phone, Lagercrantz added, a doctor answered to say Horner was the victim.

Cilla Benkö, the chief executive of Swedish Radio, confirmed initial reports that gunmen shot Horner in the back of the head and fled the scene. Horner was taken to the hospital where he died from his injuries, the Post reports. Afghan police said two suspects had been arrested.

Benkö said Horner always took the appropriate safety precautions in these types of reporting situations. “This was his life,” he said. “He didn’t want to do anything else.”

During an interview in 2011, Horner, who was known for coverage from Afghanistan in 2001, Baghdad in 2003 and Thailand following the tsunami in 2004, elaborated about the risks of radio field reporting: “We don’t feel the same pressure to always be in the middle of a firefight, or something like that, but of course we want to be as close as possible,” he said. “You almost have to sort of, everyday, ask yourself is this worth doing—taking the risk—or is it not?”

Although Kabul has often been the scene of bomb attacks on government buildings, the city has rarely seen such an attack on a civilian in broad daylight, on the edges of an area the Guardian describes as “the heavily fortified diplomatic district.” A Taliban spokesman said the group was not claiming responsibility, but that they would speak with insurgent groups who may have been responsible for Horner’s killing.

[Washington Post]

TIME Tibet

No Self-Immolations by Locals in Tibet, Says Senior Chinese Government Official

Padma Choling, head of China's Tibet Autonomous Region Congress gestures during their open session in the Great Hall of the people at the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 8, 2013 Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

Claim stretches truth as described by human rights groups, independent journalists and pretty much everyone else

Don’t be fooled by all those foreign news reports and incendiary images leaked at the risk of imprisonment. At the National People’s Congress (NPC) annual confab currently underway in Beijing, Padma Choling, one of the highest-ranking Tibetan officials in China, said that no self-immolations by locals have taken place under his watch. Exile groups and human-rights watchdogs say at least 125 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese state repression.

Most self-immolators have using their final moments of life to call for the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has lived in exile for more than five decades after a failed uprising back home. The Chinese government blames the Dalai Lama for orchestrating the fiery protests, a charge the 78-year-old monk denies.

“None of the 46,000 monks and nuns in Tibet’s 1,700-plus monasteries, nor any local residents, have self-immolated,” said Padma Choling, a former soldier who is the chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This is not the highest-ranking political position in Tibet; that top post has never gone to a Tibetan, one of the many power gaps felt keenly by some locals.

Technically, Padma Choling is close to right on the self-immolations. Nearly all of the incendiary acts have taken place not in the TAR that he helps command but in ethnically Tibetan areas of three other Chinese provinces: Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. And the Tibetan official was careful to stress that no TAR locals were involved, leaving open the possibility of other Tibetans coming to the TAR to self-immolate. At another high-level meeting in Beijing in 2012, Che Dalha, the Communist Party Secretary of the TAR’s capital Lhasa, noted that “only a few cases have happened in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.” Overall, Padma Choling seemed determined to gloss over the situation across the Tibetan high plateau. Locals complain of state-imposed religious restrictions and an influx of migrants from China’s Han ethnic majority, who tend to secure the best jobs.

Padma Choling’s cheery estimation of his homeland isn’t unusual among party officials. At the 2012 Chinese Communist Party Congress, another senior Tibetan official claimed that a nationwide poll had deemed Lhasa the happiest city in China for four years. Since 2008 race riots claimed at least 100 Tibetan and Han lives, Lhasa has turned into perhaps the most militarized city in all of the People’s Republic, with constant checkpoints and security personnel patrolling the streets. Riot gear, armored vehicles, paramilitary forces—is this really what such a happy metropolis should feel like? In its latest human-rights report, the U.S. government said that nearly 90 people had been jailed in connection with the self-immolations. Some were locked up simply for having been related to the protesters.

In recent weeks, the Chinese government’s pr campaign has intensified against the Dalai Lama and other people it occasionally calls “splittists.” The Dalai Lama has for decades advocated a “middle way” that forswears outright Tibetan independence in exchange for meaningful autonomy. On March 10 at the NPC, China’s top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng said that “efforts should be made to help local officials and people get a clear understanding of the nature and danger of the Dalai Lama’s preaching of the ‘middle way’ and ‘high-degree autonomy,’” according to state news agency Xinhua.

Yu’s criticism felt rather feeble compared to other broadsides unleashed by Chinese government representatives. Commenting on the Tibetan spiritual leader’s U.S. tour — during which he met last month with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House — Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said the encounter “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.” Qin went on to assail the Dalai Lama. “Facts have fully proved that the Dalai Lama is by no means a pure religions figure,” he said, “but a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion.” At least that was a tad more polite than when Chinese officials referred to the Tibetan cleric as a “wolf in monk’s robes.”

On March 4, the Dalai Lama led a prayer session at the U.S. Senate. China, again, expressed displeasure. Yet there’s no question that the Dalai Lama’s long decades of exile have not dulled Tibetan reverence for him. His image, technically illegal, often resides in the photos kept on Tibetan cellphones. This month, a memoir by the former guerilla commando who founded Tibet’s Communist Party was published in Hong Kong. The book is entitled A Long Way to Equality and Unity and in it, Bapa Phuntso Wangye (also known as Phunwang), 92, makes an extraordinary plea: He wants the Chinese government to allow the Dalai Lama to return home.

TIME Aviation

Officials ‘Clueless’ On Missing Jet As Terror Suspicion Fades

The mystery involving Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 deepens as officials widen the massive search and signal that fears of terrorism were likely off-mark

As the sun set here on the fourth day since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished, the case of the ill-fated jetliner was as muddied as Kuala Lumpur’s skies, steeped in a dense haze that seasonally blankets the Malaysian capital.

“We’ve made no progress, we don’t have a clue,” Izhar Bahari, air traffic controller at Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, tells TIME. He went on to deny an earlier report that the search has now shifted focus to the Strait of Malacca. “We focus our search both on the east and the west coast, and we will expand the areas for tomorrow.”

Authorities said Tuesday that despite suspicions raised by the fact that two of the passengers held stolen passports, one was a 19-year-old Iranian asylum seeker with no terrorist ties. The revelation seemed to deflate fears that the disappearance was an act of terrorism.

“The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said, according to Reuters.

Scouring a radius of over 100 nautical miles, dozens of aircrafts and ships from 10 countries explored both the area where communications were lost with the Boeing 777, between Malaysia and Vietnam, and a swath to the southwest. Based on radar information suggesting that the Beijing-bound aircraft may have attempted to turn back to Kuala Lumpur, the search was increasingly focused off the coast of Malaysia.

Officials have pleaded to media and the public to refrain from spreading unverified information. But with 239 lives presumed lost, rumors abound. In lieu of hard evidence, journalists had latched on to the fact that two passengers traveled on stolen passports, but that lead seemed to lose weight on Tuesday, as one of the two men’s identities was revealed.

Traveling on an Austrian passport, Iranian Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, is not suspected of having any links to terrorist organizations. “We’ve been in contact with his mother, who was expecting him in Frankfurt,” said Malaysian Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar. She knew he was using a false passport.”

Traveling with stolen documents is a fairly common phenomenon that is rarely detected. According to data collected by the Wall Street Journal, passengers boarded flights without having their passports checked against Interpol’s database of stolen documents 1 billion times last year. Meanwhile, 40 million passports are reported missing.

Increasingly, more than 90 hours since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, the investigation is characterized by erroneous clues discounted than hard evidence established. An object spotted in the Gulf of Thailand, which Vietnamese officials initially thought could have been a life-raft, turned out to be the lid of a large box.

A 15 km oil slick in Malaysian waters was found following following laboratory tests not to contain any aviation fuel. And supposed tail debris seen floating in the water was actually “logs tied together,” reports Malaysian officials.

The lack of a distress call remains puzzling for investigators. At cruising altitude in good weather, even total loss of power would allow pilots enough time to register an emergency.

Commercial airliners also have transponders that automatically report their location, altitude, speed and other data by radio. But where the Malaysian plane was flying was thought to be patchy, and the signals are picked up only once a minute and only at a plane’s cruising height above 29,000 feet.

In addition, Malaysian Airlines has confirmed the plane also had a system called the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, which automatically alerts technical staff of any mechanical failure. The system was deemed vital for finding the downed Air France Flight 447 that disappeared over the Atlantic in 2009.

The last two readings from the devices on MH370 were recorded some 40 minutes after takeoff, and they did not include altitude, Mikael Robertsson of Flightradar24, tells the New York Times.

Police still haven’t ruled out foul play as the reason for the incident. Abu Bakar said that they are looking into four areas: hijacking, sabotage, psychological and personal problems of passengers and crew. “We’re going through the profiles of all passengers, and have communicated with counterparts in at least 14 countries,” he said.

The Chinese delegation in Malaysia has also supplied the police team with photos of all 153 Chinese passengers on board. “We’re looking at all video footage from March 7 and 8,” Abu Bakar added.


14 Caribbean Nations Sue Former Colonizers for Slave Trade

The bronze sculpture "Redemption Song", depicting a man and woman emerging from a pool of water, meant to wash away the pain of slavery is seen in Kingston on June 29, 2012. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images) Mladen Antonov — AFP / Getty Images

The lawsuit will demand reparations from the governments of Britain, France and the Netherlands

Fourteen Caribbean nations have resolved to sue their former colonizers — Britain, France and the Netherlands — for lingering harms that they attribute to the slave trade.

The AP reports that the leaders of the Caribbean Community, a regional consortium, adopted a 10-point plan that would seek an official apology, a cancelation of debts and assistance for cultural and educational institutions.

The regional consortium has hired British human rights firm Leigh Day to pursue the case. Leigh Day previously secured $21.5 million for Kenyans who were tortured under Britain’s colonial era government.


TIME Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Crowd-Sourcing Campaign Launched to Find Missing Jet


U.S. satellite company calls on Internet users to assist in poring over images of Gulf of Thailand in search for lost flight

As an international swarm of boats and aircraft canvass the Gulf of Thailand and west coast of the Malay Peninsula looking for any sign of Flight MH370, an American satellite imaging firm is calling on netizens to help assist in their crowd-sourced search for the missing plane.

According to a press release published by DigitalGlobe on Monday, volunteers can aid the mission by signing up at the group’s Tomnod platform, where they can begin “combing through satellite imagery for clues that may help locate the missing aircraft.”

A representative from the Colorado-based firm said cameras from five of its orbiting satellites had been set on the Gulf of Thailand where the lost plane is believed to have crashed, according to ABC.

The company has already published an estimated 3,200 sq-kms of imagery online that volunteers can begin poring over immediately, and have promised to update their cache of images as more become available.

“[On Monday], the Malaysian government updated the search area to reflect new information, and DigitalGlobe revised its tasking plan to collect imagery further north in the Gulf of Thailand,” read a statement published by the company online. Additional images are set to be released on Tuesday morning.

DigitalGlobe launched a similar campaign in the wake of deadly Typhoon Haiyan, which swept across the Philippines last November, during which time thousands of volunteers flagged over 60,000 objects.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on Saturday morning with 239 people aboard. There was no distress call and no trace of the aircraft has been spotted. Investigators have not so far ruled out any possibilities for what may have cause its disappearance.

TIME Australia

Australian Child Protection Accused of Repeating Sins of ‘Stolen Generations’

Members of Grandmothers Against Removals protesting against the overrepresentation of indigenous children in the child-protection system on the steps of the Parliament House of New South Wales in Sydney on Feb. 13, 2014
Members of Grandmothers Against Removals protesting against the overrepresentation of indigenous children in the child-protection system on the steps of the parliament house of New South Wales in Sydney on Feb. 13, 2014 Ian Lloyd Neubauer

While social services deny targeting Aboriginal families, the statistics of children in out-of-home care paint a disturbing picture

In 2008, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made history when he issued a formal apology to the “stolen generations” — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children forcefully removed from their families for placement in institutions and homes where they were put to work as laborers, farmhands and servants.

“The injustices of the past must never, never happen again,” Rudd said of the 19th century policy born out of the eugenics-based view that blacks were morally inferior and couldn’t properly care for their offspring. Once removed, children could be brought up “white” and assimilated into broad society so that in time there would be no more indigenous people left in Australia.

On that account, it failed. However, by the time forced removals were stamped out in the 1970s, the policy had extinguished the kinship connections, land titles, language, customs, spirituality and identity of an estimated 50,000 Aborigines and islanders. Trapped between two cultures but fitting into neither, members of the stolen generations suffer poorer health, worse housing, shorter life spans, higher unemployment and higher incarceration rates than other indigenous Australians.

But now, child-protection systems that err on the side of caution, coupled with the legacies of the stolen generations, are allegedly replicating the cruel dynamics of Australia’s colonial past. The situation is far from clear-cut, however, and many of those involved in child protection — both nonindigenous and indigenous staff — strenuously deny any such heavy-handedness exists today. Nevertheless, in the state of New South Wales (NSW) nearly 6,300, or 10% of indigenous children, are wards of the state. In comparison, only 1.6% of nonindigenous children in NSW live in out-of-home care.

“I cried on the day of the apology because my grandmother, who was taken to a Catholic mission when she was 5, didn’t get to hear it and because my grandson was taken that same year,” says Mary, an Aboriginal woman from the central coast of NSW, whose real name cannot be revealed because of laws banning the identification of wards of state. Adds her daughter: “They said sorry to Aboriginals for the stolen generations, but they are still doing it today.”

The court order authorizing the removal of the boy cited lack of hygiene, the threat of domestic violence, based on the father’s protracted criminal record, and neglect. Defined by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services (FaCS) as a failure to provide things needed for proper growth — a nutritious diet, dental care and supervision — accusations of neglect are present in 40% of indigenous-child removals, whereas sexual abuse and physical abuse are present in only 5% and 10% of cases respectively.

“Depending on the degree, neglect certainly is a cause for removal as it impacts on a child’s ability to attend school, to make friends, their health and general well-being,” says Raeleen McKenzie, a psychologist working in child protection in the state of Victoria for more than 25 years. “In NSW there have been several cases in the past where children who needed intervention weren’t removed and died. So when a child is severely at risk, something has to be done.”

Yet critics argue FaCS assessments of neglect are often made on spurious grounds that fail to take Aboriginal culture into consideration. “The classic example is the way Aboriginal children are raised not just by a nuclear family but collectively by grandparents, uncles and neighbors,” says Paddy Gibson, senior researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney. “Just because Aboriginal kids are on the streets at night doesn’t mean they aren’t being watched.”

Gibson says a lot of FaCS decisions are opinions based on hearsay or the assumption of neglect. “And once those decisions are made,” he adds, “FaCS is under no obligation to prove it in court because the standards of evidence that apply in criminal court do not apply in children’s court.” A severe lack of resources for families trying to get their children returned only compounds the issue. “Either they don’t have a lawyer or they get a public defender who doesn’t have time to properly prepare their case,” says Gibson.

Frank Hytten, CEO of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, says the “decision to remove indigenous children is often made in the context of beliefs rather than facts.” Officials stick fast to rules rather than applying them in the context of the needs of particular children, he adds, citing, “an ideological context where the general population still believes they’re lazy bastards who don’t deserve any better.” The bottom line is “colonization is still having an effect on Aboriginals and disintegrating their families,” says Hytten.

There are also widespread allegations that FaCS is removing indigenous children without first explicitly warning parents that loss of custody is imminent unless conditions improved — allegations that contradict the department’s own charter and regulations.

Mary says her grandson was removed “without warning” and “out of the blue” six years previously by a group of 15 to 20 policemen. Earlier this month, a member of the stolen generations from northern NSW contacted TIME claiming a tactical-response squad raided his home at night and removed all eight of his grandchildren using excess force after his youngest grandchild succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. “To see all of this reoccur, it really breaks your heart,” he said. Detective inspector Gavin Rattenbury confirms police assisted FaCS caseworkers removing the eight children, but denies excess force was employed.

“If children are removed without waning, you have to assume we found very alarming abuse that might actually endanger the life of a child,” Pru Goward, the NSW minister for family and community services, tells TIME. Of course, “It’s a terrible trauma for a parent to lose a child, even they have been neglectful,” she adds.

According to Wal Browne, a solicitor from Walgett in northwest NSW who works closely with the local Aboriginal community, speaking about a new stolen generation is an exaggeration. “Three or four years ago some pretty horrendous things happened. But the FaCS office here in Walgett have changed their processes a lot,” he says. “They’re not nearly as likely to disrupt families as they were before. I have also heard some good stories from [the town of] Mudgee where FaCS have been very easy to deal with, very switched on and handled some very difficult cases.”

Sally King, an indigenous FaCS caseworker based in Kempsey on the Mid North Coast region of NSW, is better placed than most to judge current trends. “My father was part of the stolen generation, and my grandmother’s brothers were taken away,” she says, “simply because they were Aboriginal.” Today, by contrast, she says her organization aims to protect children no matter their color, race or religion. “We as frontline staff are doing this by engaging families, putting in support services and doing everything we can to ensure families remain together,” adds King. “When that’s not possible, we take action to keep their children safe from harm.”

Goward agrees there are too many indigenous children being removed in the state, but “that does not mean we are wrongly removing children; there are people who say we do not remove enough Aboriginal children,” she says. “It means the conditions in which many Aboriginal families live are unacceptable,” referring to the tin shanties on the outskirts of towns like Lightning Ridge and Wilcannia. There, Aborigines live in Third World conditions without electricity or sanitation — hotbeds for alcoholism, petrol sniffing, depression and domestic violence.

“We don’t remove children lightly. We only remove them when they are living in homes where there is extreme violence, where there is drug and alcohol abuse,” says Goward, who is also the NSW minister for women. “If someone is drunk or stoned, what do you think are the chances of them getting up in the morning, washing their children, feeding them and getting them to school? I met a little boy in Wilcannia who could not form sentences — not because he had suffered a cognitive loss, but because no one had ever spoken to him in sentences. All he had ever heard was abuse and shouting.”

Goward highlights that in the three years preceding her center-right Liberal-National coalition win at the polls in 2011, the number of indigenous children in out-of-home care in NSW increased by an average of 495 annually. But in Goward’s first year in office, only 217 indigenous children were removed — half of whom have been placed in either kinship care or with other indigenous families. “We have the highest rate of conformance to Aboriginal placement principles in Australia,” she says. “That tells you we are trying very hard to make sure Aboriginal children stay in touch with their country, their background, their culture and history.”

Crucially, Australia has failed to alleviate the grinding poverty that is the root cause of the indigenous overrepresentation in child protection — not just in NSW but across every single state and territory in the country. Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted that much while delivering this year’s Closing the Gap report on indigenous disadvantage to Parliament on Feb. 12. “We are not on track to achieve the more important and the more meaningful targets,” he said, pointing to statistics that show little to no improvements in indigenous health, education and unemployment.

To its credit, the current NSW government has made significant progress in reining in FaCS heavy-handedness. But that comes as small solace to successive generations of First Australians robbed of the company of their children. “My son needs to be with me,” says Mary’s daughter, who is now raising a healthy and happy 1-year-old girl and hopes her firstborn will be returned soon. “I am his mom. Only I know how to give him the love that he needs.”

TIME Syria

Syria Is One of the Most Dangerous Places on Earth for Children

Men hold up a baby saved from what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on January 7, 2014.
Men hold up a baby saved from what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on January 7, 2014. Bassam Khabieh—Reuters

A new UNICEF report estimates that 5.5 million children have been affected by the nation’s on-going conflict

A United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report published Monday calls Syria one of the most dangerous places in the world for children, 5.5 million of whom have been affected by the country’s three-year war.

At least 10,000 children are estimated to have been killed during the war in Syria, a number the “Under Siege” report calls the highest recorded in any of the region’s recent conflicts.“For Syria’s children, the past three years have been the longest of their lives. Must they endure another year of suffering?” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a press release.

An estimated 1.2 million Syrian children are refugees in neighboring countries, over 3 million are displaced within the country and 323,000 are living in areas that are difficult for relief workers to access. The war has also forced children to grow up fast: a reported 1 in 10 refugee children is working and 1 in 5 Syrian girls living in Jordan are forced into marriage. An estimated 2.8 million children are out of school.

One such child is Ahmed, a 14 year-old Syrian working 13-hours a day in north Iraq. A quote from his unnamed father reads, “My children used to go to school and now I’m seeing them killing themselves working, and coming home exhausted.” He adds, “How do you think I feel?”

TIME Ukraine

Putin’s Man in Crimea Is Ukraine’s Worst Nightmare

Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov attends a public ceremony in Simferopol, Crimea on March 8, 2014.
Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov attends a public ceremony in Simferopol, Crimea on March 8, 2014. Daniel van Moll——NurPhoto/SIPA USA

Little is known about Sergei Aksyonov, the pro-Russia Crimean leader who is driving the region toward secession. What is obvious, however, is that he poses a big problem for the Ukrainian government

A month ago, when Ukraine’s old regime was just starting to crack under the pressure of a revolution, few people in the country had ever heard of Sergei Aksyonov. He was then a marginal figure even in the local politics of the region of Crimea. His Russian Unity party had only three seats in the regional legislature and no representation anywhere else. But that has not stopped him from taking charge. In late January, as the protesters in Kiev began seizing government buildings, Aksyonov started to form an army on the Crimean peninsula. Now he is the de facto leader of the entire region, a post that has thrust him into the center of the most dire political crisis Europe has confronted in years.

From the beginning, the stated aim of his paramilitary force was to defend against the revolutionary wave that was sweeping across Ukraine and, ultimately, to break away from the country entirely. Its first battalion of 700 men came from the youth group of Aksyonov’s political party, and as he continued calling in the proceeding weeks for a “full scale mobilization,” hundreds of others joined his Crimean self-defense brigades. By Feb. 21, the day the Kiev uprising toppled the Ukrainian government, Aksyonov was in command of several thousand troops. “All of them,” he says, “answer to me.”

His rise to power has made him a valuable ally to Moscow and a serious threat to Ukraine and its Western partners. His written appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin is what opened the door for the Russian occupation of Crimea at the beginning of this month, and on March 4, Putin recognized Aksyonov as the legitimate leader of Crimea, apparently without ever having met the man. Since then the Crimean government has asked Russia to annex the peninsula, a move that is likely to redraw the map of Ukraine and cause a historic rift between Russia and the West. The 41-year-old Aksyonov, a lumbering former cigarette trader with Russian separatism in his genes, now finds himself at the center of the world’s attention.

So far, the most revealing aspect of his time in power has been the way he came to possess it. Before dawn on Feb. 27, at least two dozen heavily armed men stormed the Crimean parliament building and the nearby headquarters of the regional government, bringing with them a cache of assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades. A few hours later, Aksyonov walked into the parliament and, after a brief round of talks with the gunmen, began to gather a quorum of the chamber’s lawmakers.

It is not clear whether the parliament was seized that day on his orders. On the one hand, the masked gunmen identified themselves as members of Crimea’s “self-defense forces,” all of which are, according to Aksyonov, directly under his control. On the other, he claims the seizure of the buildings was done “spontaneously” by a mysterious group of fighters. “We only knew that these were Russian nationalist forces,” he tells TIME in an interview Sunday. “These were people who share our Russian ideology. So if they wanted to kill someone, they would have killed the nightwatchmen who were inside.”

Instead, they let the guards go, sealed the doors and only allowed the lawmakers whom Aksyonov invited to enter the building. Various media accounts have disputed whether he was able to gather a quorum of 50 of his peers before the session convened that day, and some Crimean legislators who were registered as present have said they did not come near the building. In any case, those who did arrive could hardly have voted their conscience while pro-Russian gunmen stood in the wings with rocket launchers. Both of the votes held that day were unanimous. The first appointed Aksyonov, a rookie statesman with less than four years experience as a local parliamentarian, as the new Prime Minister of Crimea. The second vote called for a referendum on the peninsula’s secession from Ukraine.

Since then, Aksyonov has been holding court on the second floor of the Crimean government headquarters, whose entrance is flanked by two masked commandos with bullet proof vests, fatigues and Kalashnikovs. On the day of the interview, their commander wore a purple shirt with no tie, his suit hanging loosely over his tall and bulky frame, which resembles that of a linebacker. His manner, he admits, does not fit the mold of a politician. “I was chosen as a crisis manager,” he says. “Everybody else ran away. Nobody wanted to take one iota of responsibility on themselves. So I was forced to take it on myself.”

What urged him to start gathering an army in January was the threat he sees from the revolution. Its leaders, he says, are part of a fascist force intent on disenfranchising the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, and without the armed intervention of his “self-defense forces,” they would have sent their troops to bring the peninsula to heel. When questioned about his methods, he always gave a version of the same response – if the Kiev revolutionaries did it, why can’t he? If the revolution used force to seize government buildings in Kiev, why can’t his supporters do the same in Crimea? If the revolution sought support from their allies in the West, why shouldn’t he ask Russia to come to his defense?

Given the fact that he has never actually lived in Russia, Aksyonov’s affection for the country is remarkable. It has a lot to do with the line of Red Army officers in his family. His grandfather was stationed in the Germany city of Potsdam after the Soviet victory in World War II. But Aksyonov’s take on Russian patriotism seems to derive mostly from his father, whose political struggle for the rights of ethnic Russians closely parallels that of his son.

In the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, nationalist movements for independence began to spring up in nearly all of its satellite states, from the Baltics to Central Asia. Aksyonov’s father, an officer in the Red Army, was then stationed in the Eastern European state of Moldova, where a new generation of leaders was demanding their rights to form an independent state.

That left the ethnic minorities in that country, including the Aksyonov family and other Russians, in a precarious position – they suddenly had to fend for themselves on the fraying edges of the Soviet empire. As that empire was pushed out of Eastern Europe, Aksyonov’s father, Valery, became the leader of a group called the Russian Community of Northern Moldova, which campaigned for the rights of ethnic Russians in a country ruled by the Moldovan majority. In 1990, the ethnic tensions in that country erupted into war, and the Russian army came to the rescue of paramilitary groups fighting the forces of the Moldovan government. Two years later, the conflict ended with the de facto secession of a breakaway state called Transnistria, a sliver of land that runs along the Dniestr River.

Today, Transnistria is still a frozen conflict zone on the map of Europe – and a state that Aksyonov reveres. Its independence is not recognized by any member of the United Nations, including Russia. It is the only part of Europe that still uses the insignia of the Soviet Union, and its economy imposes Soviet-style subsistence living on the masses while the politically-connected elite benefit from its unique black market. As an unrecognized state unbound by international law, its customs points are a clearinghouse for contraband, including tobacco, guns and counterfeit liquor. But Aksyonov sees it as a place to be emulated. “Transnistria is a bastion of Russian culture inside Moldova,” he says. “They wanted to preserve their identity. And I fully support them, because I know what kind of pressures they faced.”

In 1989, just before the war in Moldova broke out, those pressures convinced the 17-year-old Aksyonov to move from his homeland to Crimea, where he enrolled in a college for Soviet military engineers. But before he could graduate from the academy to become a Red Army officer like his father and grandfather, the Soviet Union collapsed. “All of us, my entire class, we were all told, ‘That’s it, you have no country left to serve. Now pledge an oath to independent Ukraine,’” he recalls. “It’s just like what’s happening now.”

Then, as now, Aksyonov refused to serve Ukraine, which he considers an unjustly severed appendage of Russia. So he decided instead to go into business. At the time, the Crimean economy was much like the one in Transnistria – dominated by black marketeers and smugglers. Its geographic position in the Black Sea, right between Turkey, Russia and southeastern Europe, made it a perfect hub for traffickers of every sort. Anatoly Los, who is now 70, was one of the most prominent Crimean businessmen at the time. “I had so much money I couldn’t even fit my hand in my pocket,” he says. When he met with TIME on Saturday for an interview on the central square in the Crimean city of Yalta, he came dressed in a blue trench coat and a black fedora, which he used to shoo away the admirers who came over to shake his hand.

He remembers Aksyonov in the 1990s as a member of a criminal syndicate called Salem, which was named for the brand of contraband cigarettes they imported and dealt in bulk. (Other accounts claim the group was named for the cafe where they hung out.) “Aksyonov was a capo for them, an enforcer,” says Los. “He had a group of ten guys that would go around collecting money.” Aksyonov’s nickname in the local underworld, says Los, was the Goblin. “Every gangster had a nickname. I was called Horns because of my surname.” (Translated from Russian, the word los means moose or elk.)

Asked about these allegations, Aksyonov leans back in his chair with a smile and says that Los “is insane, with real psychological problems.” He admits that they have known each other since the 1990s, but all claims of his links to the mafia, Aksyonov says, are part of a slander campaign initiated by his political opponents when he first became active in the pro-Russian movement in 2008. “All of a sudden these stories about me began appearing online,” he says.

He insists he never had any links to the Salem gang or other criminal groups in Crimea, but he admits that his business in the 1990s did involve the import of tobacco products. For the most part, however, he says he started out selling umbrellas from Moldova. “The market was chaotic, so we survived however we could,” says Aksyonov. “In my father’s factory they were making automatic umbrellas. So we were the first to set up imports to Crimea. We had 18 spots selling them around the bazaars.”

With the help of bank loans, Aksyonov went on to participate in the privatization of state assets in Crimea, primarily real estate deals. He now owns large stakes in two local factories, including one producing automotive parts in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. “That’s registered under my wife and my mother-in-law,” he says. “We bought those factories out with plans to fix them, but then the crisis hit.”

In 2008, as the global financial crisis squeezed businesses across Ukraine and made profits harder to come by, Aksyonov got involved in a political activist group called the Russian Community of Crimea, which has long campaigned for the peninsula to split from Ukraine and become a part of Russia. (In the early 1990s, Los was one of the founders of that group.) Its relations with the local government were fraught, and it often faced investigation for training separatist militias, which is illegal in Ukraine. No charges were ever filed against its leaders, not even after the party’s activists, under the direction of Aksyonov, pelted the mayor of Simferopol with eggs. “Those guys were involved in tons of corrupt schemes,” he says of the peninsula’s former leaders. “So we took a lot of drastic actions.”

In 2010, Aksyonov formed the Russian Unity party and went on to win 4% of the vote in that year’s Crimean parliamentary elections, securing three out of the chamber’s 100 seats, one for himself. When the revolution broke out in Ukraine late last year, his party was one of the main organizers of pro-Russian rallies in Crimea, hyping the threat from the Ukrainian nationalist parties that were helping overthrow the government. But even then, he never imagined the political vistas their revolt would open up for him.

On Monday, he accepted the oath of loyalty from the first batch of Crimean military officers, for whom he is now the commander-in-chief. In the past two weeks, he has sent emissaries for talks with officials in Moscow and has received senior Russian lawmakers in his breakaway capital. Based on their assessments of his character, Aksyonov says, Putin decided to recognize him as the leader of the peninsula last week. “Of course he is legitimate,” Putin noted on March 4, although according to Aksyonov the two have never spoken. “We had no contact at all,” he insists. “Though I’m sure we will be in touch as the process moves forward.”

This weekend, Crimea will hold a referendum on its secession from Ukraine, a ballot that Kiev has condemned as an illegal act of separatism. But Aksyonov is certain the vote will pass, and after that, the peninsula will either become a part of Russia or an quasi-independent state under Moscow’s protection, sort of like Transnistria has been for most of the last quarter century. The fact that the West is unlikely to recognize his region’s independence doesn’t seem to bother Aksyonov at all. “On what grounds should America tell us what to do?” he demands. “Independence is what we want. It is what Crimeans want.” And whatever the legality of his methods, Aksyonov is now the man steering them toward Russia’s embrace.


As Search Area Expands, Mystery of Missing Malaysian Jet Deepens

A Sea Hawk helicopter departs from USS Pinckney to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight on March 9, 2014.
A Sea Hawk helicopter departs from the U.S.S. Pinckney to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft on March 9, 2014 U.S. Navy/ZUMA Press

Officials are expanding the search area to a 100-mile radius for a Malaysia Airlines 777 that went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing

Officials announced Monday that the search area for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has expanded to a 100-nautical-mile radius after three days of scouring the waters of the Gulf of Thailand have failed to offer any clues. The widened search area includes waters over 100 miles away from the plane’s last known location between Malaysia and Vietnam, the New York Times reports.

On Saturday, the plane carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members vanished — so far without a trace — without sending a distress signal to air-traffic controllers. Since the plane’s disappearance, about 34 aircraft and 40 ships have searched the waters for any signs of the missing Boeing 777 plane to no avail. Several false alarms, however, have been reported. An oil slick, presumed to be from the missing aircraft, was discovered to be fuel from cargo ships. Reports that pieces of the plane had been found floating in water also turned out to be untrue.

“Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we have not found anything that appear to be objects from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the director general of the Malaysian Civil Aviation Department, said at a briefing, according to CNN.

The mystery surrounding the missing plane continued to grow on Monday as reports that two passengers who possessed stolen passports had their tickets bought by an Iranian middleman. Their one-way tickets were reportedly purchased using cash from a travel agency at the Thai beach-resort town of Pattaya. According to the Associated Press, the owner of the agency said a man named “Mr. Ali” made the purchase, though she did not believe he was connected to terrorism. It is unclear, however, whether or not the two men have anything to do with the flight’s disappearance. In fact, stolen passports are a common occurrence across the globe.

Meanwhile, China sent 13 officials to Malaysia on Monday to help investigate the crash. Most of Flight MH370’s passengers — 153 out of 227 — held Chinese passports.

Authorities have yet to rule out any possible reason for the missing plane.


6 Mysterious Airplane Disappearances in Aviation History

Malaysia Airlines MH370 is only the latest in a long line of planes that flew off the radar

The shocking disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has captured the attention of millions around the world as the search for the airplane and its passengers and crew continues. What happened to the flight’s 239 passengers and crew after the plane left Kuala Lumpur on Saturday? It is becoming an increasingly desperate question as the days pass.

But it’s hardly the first mystery of its kind. While it’s extremely rare that a flight simply vanishes with barely a trace, aviation history has seen its fair share of enigmatic disappearances and unfortunate flights that literally flew off the radar. Here are six of the half-solved and unsolved airline mysteries that kept investigators clueless for years.

Air France Flight 447: An Airbus A330 flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, killing all 228 passengers and crew on board. But it took a full five days for search and rescue teams to find the wreck and another three years for investigators to report that ice crystals had caused the autopilot to disconnect. The bodies of 74 passengers remain unrecovered.

Brazilian Air Force Finds More Debris From Air France Flight 447
Brazilian Air Force crew members prepare to tow a part of the wreckage of Air France flight 447 in this image released on June 7, 2009. Forca Aerea Brasileira—LatinContent/Getty Images

Amelia Earhart: One of the most storied and enduring legends of aviation history, ace pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared in her twin-engine monoplane Electra over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. No trace of her plane was ever found even after a multi-million dollar search effort, and Earhart was officially declared dead in 1939.

Amelia Earhart is pictured with her Flying Laboratory in which she attempted to fly around the world from Oakland, Ca. Popperfoto—Getty Images

Flying Tiger Line Flight 739: A U.S. military flight left Guam in 1962 with more 90 personnel headed for the Philippines, but it never arrived. The pilots never issued a distress call, and 1,300 people involved in the U.S. military search never found any trace of wreckage. A Liberian tanker ship’s crew claim to have seen an “intensely luminous” light in the sky at the approximate time of the flight, but the U.S. Civil Aeronautics board ruled it was “unable to determine the probable cause of the incident.”

Lockheed Super Constellation
An example of a Lockheed Super Constellation, the same type of plane as Flying Tiger Line Flight 739. Lockheed Corp—AP

British South American Airways: It took more than 50 years to find any trace of the 11 people aboard a 1947 flight that disappeared in the Andes Mountains. A pair of Argentinian rock climbers discovered engine wreckage in the Andes in 1998, and an army expedition later found human remains as well. Some say the plane caused an avalanche when it crashed into Mount Tupangato and was buried in the snow.

British South American Airways
Argentine Air Force Maj. Luis Estrella holds up a piece of a British plane which crashed 52 years ago on the side of the Tupungato Volcano, some 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) west of Buenos Aires, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2000. Argentine Air Force—AP

Bermuda Triangle: A series of disappearances over the so-called “Devil’s Triangle,” the vast expanse of ocean between Florida, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda has given the region an unshakeable notoriety. Two British South American Airways passenger jets disappeared in the region in 1948 and 1949, and more than 51 people were lost on the two flights and never found. In 1945, five American bombers ran a training mission over the area and were never recovered; the aircraft charged with finding the men deployed with a 13-man crew, and also vanished.

American Navy Avenger planes, the same kind of planes which disappeared in the Bermuda triangle. Hulton Archive—Getty Images

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571: A flight headed to Santiago, Chile carrying 45 passengers and crew crashed into the Andes mountains in poor weather in 1972, killing 12 people. Authorities were unaware of any survivors for 72 days. In the meantime, eight were killed in an avalanche that hit the plane’s wreckage where they were taking shelter, and the remaining 16 resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, eating the corpses of the dead before they were finally found more than two months after disappearing out of the sky.

Chilean Air Crash 1972
Part of the wreckage of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, seen Dec. 23, 1972. AP


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