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Ukraine conflict death toll nears 8,000: UN

Almost 8,000 people, including civilians, soldiers and pro-Russia separatists, have been killed since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, the United Nations has said. Watchdogs condemned a rise in civilian casualties. The UN human rights office (OHCHR) on Tuesday reported at least 7,962 people had been killed and at least 17,811 have been injured since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in mid-April 2014. The conflict monitor warned those were conservative estimates and the actual numbers of dead and wounded could be much higher. "The shelling of residential areas on both sides of the contact line has led to a disturbing increase in the number of civilian casualties over the past three months," said UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. At least 105 civilians were killed between mid-May and mid-August in near-daily clashes between forces loyal to the government in Kyiv and the pro-Russia separatists. In the previous three months, 60 civilians died in the fighting, said the OHCHR report. A statement accompanying the UN monitoring mission's 11th report on Ukraine, which covered the timeframe between May 16 and August 15, noted that an agreement made between all sides to pull their heavy weapons from the so-called "contact line" had only been partially applied. Kyiv and its Western allies accuse Russia of sending weapons and soldiers to the separatists, something Russia has denied. 'Contact group' meets The contact group on Ukraine, comprising representatives of the Ukrainian government, Russia, the separatists and mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was expected to meet in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on Tuesday to discuss steps toward resolving the conflict. Earlier on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said fighting had died down in eastern Ukraine since a new truce agreement came into force earlier this month. "A relative stabilization has indeed taken place from September 1 and there is practically no shelling by the Ukrainian armed forces on civilian populated areas in Donbass," Peskov told reporters, referring to the rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine. However, he said there wasn't much progress being made on other aspects of the Minsk agreements, which include provisions of autonomy for the separatist-held regions and amnesty for fighters.

Almost 8,000 people, including civilians, soldiers and pro-Russia separatists, have been killed since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, the United Nations has said. Watchdogs condemned a rise in civilian casualties. The UN human rights office (OHCHR) on Tuesday reported at least 7,962 people had been killed and at least 17,811 have been injured since fighting broke out in eastern ... Read More »

US warns Russia over Syria involvement

Amid reports of a Russian military build-up in Syria, Washington has warned the Kremlin against escalating the conflict. Fears are rising that Moscow could be preparing a combative backing of the Assad regime. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Russian counterpart over unconfirmed reports of Moscow's plans to directly intervene in the Syrian conflict, in a phone call on Saturday. Kerry told Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that if a report in "The New York Times" on Saturday was accurate, Russia's actions could further intensify the four-year-old conflict, according to a statement by the US State Department. Russia's involvement could "lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-'Islamic State' (IS) coalition operating in Syria," it added. According to "The New York Times," Russia has delivered a portable air traffic control system and prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people at a Syrian airfield. Citing unnamed administration officials, the paper said the Russians have filed military overflight requests across bordering countries throughout September. Last week, Israeli media reported that Russia planned to send warplanes to Syria to fight the "Islamic State." Raising the stakes But on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was premature to speak of deploying Russian soldiers against the jihadist group. He did confirm the provision of training and logistical support to the Syrian army. Russia remains a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has been providing weapons and other military equipment to Damascus since Soviet times. Moscow also maintains a small naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartous on the Mediterranean Sea. Moscow has used its United Nations veto to block several attempts by Western diplomats to oust Assad. On Friday, Putin once again backed the Syrian leader, adding that Assad was ready to share power with a "healthy" opposition.

Amid reports of a Russian military build-up in Syria, Washington has warned the Kremlin against escalating the conflict. Fears are rising that Moscow could be preparing a combative backing of the Assad regime. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Russian counterpart over unconfirmed reports of Moscow’s plans to directly intervene in the Syrian conflict, in a phone call ... Read More »

China puts on military display to mark Japan’s defeat in World War II

Beijing is hosting a spectacular military show marking 70 years since the end of the Second World War. The parade comes amid tensions in the region over China's military assertiveness. President Xi Jinping's armed forces put on a show of force on Thursday, with marching troops and nuclear-capable missiles on display at Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Speaking ahead of the parade, Xi announced his country would "not seek hegemony" in the world and that Beijing was planning to reduce its army by 300,000 troops to make it more efficient. The People's Liberation Army currently has 2.3 million soldiers. "The experience of war makes people value peace even more," Xi said, adding that "China will never seek to expand and will never inflict the tragedies it suffered in the past upon others." Victory over Japan Thursday's parade marked 70 years after Japan formally surrendered on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Beijing remembers the day as the end of the "Chinese People's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War." Addressing the gathering, Xi said China's "total victory" over Tokyo in World War II reestablished it as a "major country." The Chinese president described the conflict as "a decisive battle between justice and evil, between light and darkness" and said his people fought gallantly against "Japanese militarist aggressors, thus preserving China's 5,000-year-old civilization and upholding the cause of peace." More than 12,000 soldiers marched past President Xi. Almost 1,000 foreign soldiers, including Russian troops, also participated in the ceremony. The parade showcased the range of ballistic missiles, tanks and armored vehicles - many never in public before - in China's possession, while advanced fighter jets and bombers flew overhead. Xi's most eminent guest was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who invited his Chinese counterpart for the victory day parade in Moscow earlier this year. Xi's South Korean counterpart Park Geun-Hye, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were also in attendance. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, also joined. Major Western countries, including the USA and members of the European Union were represented by their embassies in Beijing. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was also present at the ceremony. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not at the event and did not comment on the parade itself. A display of power China's show of force comes as it tries to increase its influence in the South China Sea, where it is building artificial islands and military facilities. Beijing's growing military assertiveness in the area has caused major disputes with countries such as Japan. "A military parade is an important test of training levels, and also a sign showing the military's ability to wage war and shows the modernization level of the armed forces," Qu Rui, a senior officer overseeing the parade told journalists. However, those viewing the event as an aggressive gesture were representing "a mentality that is not so bright," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a press briefing. "The Chinese troops are troops for peace... The stronger this kind of force grows, the more guarantees it will be able to provide for world peace," she added. Public not allowed Normal citizens in China were unable to watch the parade except on television because of heavy security measures in the event area on Thursday. A curfew was imposed on neighborhoods around Tiananmen Square, while 850,000 "helpers" were to keep watch and report anything that was amiss. Residents living near the parade area were forbidden to go to their balconies or invite guests. They were also warned to not look out of their windows and told to watch the parade's live broadcast on television instead. Authorities also closed city roads close to the square, suspended public bus services and sealed subway stops.

Beijing is hosting a spectacular military show marking 70 years since the end of the Second World War. The parade comes amid tensions in the region over China’s military assertiveness. President Xi Jinping’s armed forces put on a show of force on Thursday, with marching troops and nuclear-capable missiles on display at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Speaking ahead of the parade, ... Read More »

Ukraine and rebels to implement Minsk deal by September 1

Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists in its east have agreed to end all violations to the peace deal that was signed in Minsk earlier this year. Both sides blame each other for the ongoing violence. The two sides agreed to establish peace in Ukraine's eastern region and "jointly verify the fulfilment of this [the Minsk deal] initiative," the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) official Martin Sajdik told reporters. The organization was monitoring meetings between Ukraine, Russia and separatist leaders - the so-called "contact group." "The three sided 'contact group' considers it important to reach a solid ceasefire from the beginning of the next school year," Sajdik told reporters in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. "There was a proposal to end shelling from September 1. Today there is a hope that from September 2 we will succeed fully in ending the firing. At the moment all sides have expressed the intention of abiding by this idea," rebel negotiator Vladislav Deinego said. Hours before the announcement, Kyiv said two of its soldiers had been killed in separatist attacks in the last 24 hours. The Minsk deal More than 6,400 people have been killed in the conflict that erupted in April last year after Russia annexed Crimea following former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's removal from office. When they signed the deal in Minsk this year, Ukraine and the rebels, in the presence of French and German leaders and OSCE observers, agreed to withdraw heavy weapons and implement plans for establishing a special self-management status for the region. However, the measures have not been carried out satisfactorily, OSCE monitors say, and deaths are being reported almost on a daily basis in Donbass, the rebel territory. Western countries have been blaming Russia for supporting eastern fighters in the conflict - a charge that Moscow denies. On Wednesday, US President Barack Obama once again stressed the importance of Russia doing its bit to implement its obligations under the Minsk deal. Recent violence in eastern Ukraine had resulted from increased attacks by Russian and separatist forces across the line of contact established under the accord signed in the Belarusian capital, the White House said in a statement.

Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists in its east have agreed to end all violations to the peace deal that was signed in Minsk earlier this year. Both sides blame each other for the ongoing violence. The two sides agreed to establish peace in Ukraine’s eastern region and “jointly verify the fulfilment of this [the Minsk deal] initiative,” the Organization for Security ... Read More »

Russia’s week: no food, cheap alcohol and ‘bling-bling’ watches

As the price of staples rises in Russia, the government has started destroying tons of imported food which critics say should be given to those in need. Fiona Clark in Moscow looks on in dismay. Earlier this week Russia started destroying the 552 tons of illegally imported food products smuggled into the country in the first six months of this year. These are meat, dairy and fresh produce from the EU, US, Australia and Norway that Russia has declared illegal imports in retaliation to sanctions placed on it over the situation in Ukraine and Crimea. In order to destroy the products it's buying mobile crematoriums at a cost of 100,000 rubles each so that it can burn the food - that's about $1,600 depending on how bad the ruble is each time you open a currency converter. ($1 buys around 62 roubles these days - a year ago it bought 30.) The decision comes at a time when the price of staple foods like buckwheat 'kasha,' usually eaten for breakfast, has gone up another 15 percent this month. The brand I'd usually buy has gone up from 60 rubles for 200g about a year ago to 239 rubles a packet now. That's a big jump. Salaries, however, haven't gone up by a similar amount and people are feeling the pinch. Meanwhile, figures from the government's official statistics center, Rosstat, show the number of deaths in 2014 rose from 961,000 to 988,000, and according to the health minister, Veronika Skvortsova, old age is not the reason. She told the news agency Interfax, that "the mortality rate is rising among young people - aged from 30 to 45. … The horror of the situation is that in 70 percent of the cases, autopsies have found alcohol in the dead patients' blood." When there's no light at the end of the tunnel and you're faced with a choice of 239 rubles for a packet of kasha and 120 for 500 mls of vodka, it's not hard to see the connection. Let them eat cake But at the other end of the spectrum some elements of the Moscow elite are clearly not worried about the cost of vodka or kasha. In what can only be described as an ostentatious display of wealth, President Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has copped a beating by what's left of the independent media this week for wearing a watch that is allegedly worth around $620,000 to his third wedding, a lavish event in a Sochi hotel charging $500 per room per night. The civil servant earns around $147,000 a year, leading the press to ask how he could afford such a fine time piece. First he said his wife gave it to him - she's a former Olympic figure skater who tried to set up a skating school in the US with her former husband before returning to Moscow to marry the press secretary. He said she could afford it because she'd had some TV endorsements in Russia. Then his friend said he had borrowed the watch - a Richard Mille, one of only 30 in the world with a distinctive gold skull on the face, - for the wedding and had deliberately worn it to see what the press reaction would be. But opposition figure Alexei Navalny, who noticed the watch in the wedding photos, called him out a second time by finding a photo of him wearing the same piece in April this year. How could a civil servant afford a watch worth four times his salary, he asked, and was quickly followed by a chorus of others asking for an explanation. Such a flagrant display of wealth, at a time of hardship and when food that could be given to low-income earners is being destroyed, has left a bad taste in the Russian population's mouth. Even the world's best spin doctor would have trouble talking his way out of this one, especially when patience is wearing thin. Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV news reporter in the mid-1980’s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow, having worked there from 1990-92. What was to be a two-year posting is still continuing.

As the price of staples rises in Russia, the government has started destroying tons of imported food which critics say should be given to those in need. Fiona Clark in Moscow looks on in dismay. Earlier this week Russia started destroying the 552 tons of illegally imported food products smuggled into the country in the first six months of this ... Read More »

Ukraine blacklists Depardieu and 13 other Russian artists

Kyiv has blacklisted more than a dozen Russian actors and singers, meaning their work can no longer be seen or heard in Ukraine. Among those whose work is barred is French-born actor Gerard Depardieu. Kyiv's ministry of culture released a statement on Saturday saying that Depardieu (pictured above left) and the 13 others on the list had been declared "a threat to national security" for supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea. Ministry spokesperson Daryna Glushchenko said that the bans would be implemented in the near future. Among the other names on the list is Iosif Kobzon, a 77-year-old Russian member of parliament and crooner, who has been dubbed "the Soviet (Frank) Sinatra." Kobzon, who was born in eastern Ukraine, was already on a list of individuals targeted by European Union sanctions for their alleged support of the pro-Russian separatists. Another is Mikhail Boyarsky, a movie star from the Soviet era, accused by Kyiv of signing an open letter in support of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Naturalized Russian The French-born Depardieu, whose name appears last on the list of banned artists, was granted Russian citizenship two years ago, after he sought to avoid a tax on the super-rich proposed by France's Socialist government. The 66-year-old Depardieu was personally presented with his Russian passport by President Putin, with whom he appears to have struck up a close friendship. Last month, Ukraine banned Depardieu from entering the country for five years. Depardieu, who now resides in Belgium, has appreared in a number of popular films, including "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Green Card," and "Le dernier Metro."

Kyiv has blacklisted more than a dozen Russian actors and singers, meaning their work can no longer be seen or heard in Ukraine. Among those whose work is barred is French-born actor Gerard Depardieu. Kyiv’s ministry of culture released a statement on Saturday saying that Depardieu (pictured above left) and the 13 others on the list had been declared “a ... Read More »

US, Russia agree UN resolution on Syria chemical attack

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he has agreed with Russia on a draft UN resolution to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria. An attack in August 2013 killed hundreds of civilians. Speaking a day after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a regional forum in Malaysia, Kerry said Thursday they “talked about the UN resolution and indeed I believe reached an agreement that should try to see that resolution voted shortly, which would create a process of accountability which has been missing.” "What we are trying to do is to get beyond the mere finding of the fact that it may have been used and actually find out who used it and designated accountability for its use," he added. Diplomats say the United Nations Security Council is likely to vote on Friday on a US proposal to ask UN chief Ban Ki-moon and the global chemical weapons watchdog to assemble a team of investigators to lay blame for toxic gas attacks in Syria. Attributing responsibility for chemical weapons attacks would pave the way for action by the 15-member Security Council. The body has already threatened consequences for such attacks, which could include sanctions. Britain, France and the United States have repeatedly accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of carrying out the chlorine attacks by using barrel bombs thrown from helicopters. Russia - which has veto power on the UN council - is a Syrian ally and has protected Assad's government from any UN action during the four-year civil war. While Russia and the United States have failed to agree on a way to end the Syrian conflict, they did agree on eliminating its declared chemical weapons stockpile following the chemical weapon attack on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds of civilians on August 21, 2013. Syria's declared stockpile of 1,300 metric tons of chemicals has been destroyed, but the is still investigating outstanding questions about possible undeclared chemical weapons. Russia criticizes Turkey over Iraq airstrikes The agreement comes as Russia criticized Turkey for launching airstrikes in northern Iraq, saying they contravene international law. Commenting on attacks on positions belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev likened Turkey's actions to the attacks in Syria. “The US-led coalition is circumventing the UN Security Council and is acting without the consent of the government in Damascus," he said Thursday in an interview with Egyptian media. First US airstrike from Turkish base on IS Syria target The US launched its first airstrike Wednesday from Turkey on an Islamic State target in Syria. A US drone carried out the airstrike near the Syrian town of Raqa that the IS group sees as its capital, a Turkish official confirmed. The drone had taken off from Turkey's southern Incirlik air base, which Ankara has now opened to the US military for armed attacks on IS targets in Syria. The Pentagon announced this week that US armed drones had taken off from Incirlik to conduct missions over northern Syria, but this was the first time an air strike had been carried out. IS seizes key town in central Syria In the ongoing struggle against the Islamic State group in Syria, the terrorist organization seized a key town in the centre of the country following heavy clashes with Assad's forces, in the militants' biggest advance since capturing the historic town of Palmyra in May, Syrian activists said. The heavily populated town of Qaryatain lies southwest of Palmyra, which is home to towering Roman ruins, and some 85 kilometers from Homs city. Its capture allows the IS group to link up areas under its control in and around Palmyra with areas in the eastern countryside of Qalamoun in Damascus province.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he has agreed with Russia on a draft UN resolution to identify those behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria. An attack in August 2013 killed hundreds of civilians. Speaking a day after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a regional forum in Malaysia, Kerry said Thursday they “talked about ... Read More »

Russia and US ministers agree on “common threat” from ‘Islamic State’

Meeting in Malaysia the foreign ministers of Russia and the US have agreed on the "common threat" posed by IS. But Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was no "joint approach" on how to fight the group. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met with US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Malaysia to discuss a possible joint approach to fighting IS. It is the second meeting between the ministers within days. "We all agree that Islamic State is the common threat, common evil," Lavrov said in comments to Russian state television on Wednesday. "We agree that we need to join efforts to fight this phenomenon as soon and as effectively as possible." But Lavrov added: "For now we don't have a joint approach on how specifically we can do it given the stand-off between various players on the ground, including armed units of the Syrian opposition." Lavrov said officials from Russia and the US would continue to work to find a common strategy for fighting IS. Wednesday's meeting in Kuala Lumpur came as part of the Kremlin's current diplomatic push to mediate in the Syrian conflict. A delegation of members of the Syrian National Coalition has been invited to visit Moscow next week. Both Russia and Iran have stood by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, providing military and financial support during more than four years of conflict. US and Turkey Also on Wednesday, Kerry met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Turkey has recently agreed to open its bases to US air operations against IS. Kerry acknowledged Turkey's support for Syrian refugees. Ahead of the meeting, Cavusoglu said "Now we are training and equipping the moderate opposition together with the United States, and we will also start our fight against Daesh very effectively soon," he said, referring to IS. Cavusoglu added: "Then the ground will be safer for the moderate opposition that are fighting Daesh on the ground."

Meeting in Malaysia the foreign ministers of Russia and the US have agreed on the “common threat” posed by IS. But Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was no “joint approach” on how to fight the group. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met with US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting in Malaysia ... Read More »

NATO to cut Baltic air patrols by half

NATO said on Tuesday that beginning in September it would be reducing the amount of air patrols in its Baltic mission, used to deter Russian aggression against NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. "As of the 1st of September NATO will have eight aircraft assigned to the Baltic air policing mission," said NATO spokesperson Carmen Romero, reported DPA news agency. NATO member states have increased the number of aircraft patrolling the Baltic area following escalating tensions between Russia and the West over the conflict in Ukraine. "This is still double the number we had before the start of the Russia-Ukraine crisis," Romero said. "Prior to the crisis, the mission normally had four aircraft for each rotation, all based at Siauliai air base in Lithuania," Romero noted. 'Avoided violations' Meanwhile, Lithuanian Defense Minister Jouzas Olekas said the move would not affect Baltic security in a bid to downplay the cutback. "Recently there were no airspace violations. Russian aircraft were escorted many times, but we avoided violations," Olekas told AFP news agency. "Taking that into account, the decision was made based on a rational use of resources," Olekas said. 'Provocative' Increased NATO presence on Russia's border has been criticized by the Kremlin, with the Russian Foreign Ministry describing July's war games in Ukraine as "provocative." In June, NATO's Central and Eastern Europe Commander Hans-Lothar Domröse told "Die Welt" newspaper that NATO needed to provide more arms to Baltic states. "We need to furnish our allies with modern and effective weapons like helicopters, howitzers, tanks, anti-aircraft rocket systems and heavy machines and train them to use the equipment," Domröse said. According to NATO, jets were scrambled 524 times in 2014, of which 442 times were in response to Russian air activity.

NATO said on Tuesday that beginning in September it would be reducing the amount of air patrols in its Baltic mission, used to deter Russian aggression against NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. “As of the 1st of September NATO will have eight aircraft assigned to the Baltic air policing mission,” said NATO spokesperson Carmen Romero, reported DPA news agency. ... Read More »

Sjöström breaks world record twice in 24 hours

Most swimmers would happy with one world record in their career, but Sweden's Sarah Sjöström managed two in a day. Elsewhere on Monday, there was also a gold for a young Briton at the World Swimming Championships. Sweden's Sarah Sjöström broke the women's 100m butterfly world record for the second time in 24 hours to win gold in the final at the world swimming championships on Monday. The 21-year-old clocked 55.64 seconds in the final to shave 0.15secs off the record she set in Sunday's semifinal. Denmark's Jeanette Ottesen took silver in 57.05 with China's Lu Ying claiming bronze with 57.48. Also a winner in Kazan, Russia, was Britain's Adam Peaty. The 20-year-old won the men's 100m breaststroke gold on his world championship debut, swimming 58.52 seconds to beat Olympic champion Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa by 0.07secs on the wall. Britain's Ross Murdoch took bronze at 0.57secs back. Earlier, American teenager Katie Ledecky set a new world record in the final heat of the 1500m freestyle with a time of 15:27.71. "I think breaking that record is just a testament to the work I've put in and the shape that I'm in right now ... that I was able to do that, I'm in quite a bit of shock right now." Ledecky, who has already won the 400m free, is the odds-on favorite to retain her title in the Tuesday final having qualified more than 26 seconds ahead of Denmark's Lotte Friis, the second fastest women in the world. France's Florent Manaudou won the men's 50m fly world title with a time of 22.97, with Nicholas Santos of Brazil winning silver at 0.12 seconds back. Hungary's Laszlo Cseh took bronze.

Most swimmers would happy with one world record in their career, but Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström managed two in a day. Elsewhere on Monday, there was also a gold for a young Briton at the World Swimming Championships. Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström broke the women’s 100m butterfly world record for the second time in 24 hours to win gold in the final ... Read More »

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