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#MH17: Stronger western sanctions on Russia likely within 48 hours

Memorial outside Schiphol airport to the 289 dead of flight MH17, apparently shot down by fighters endorsed by Vladimir Putin's regime. Photograph: Sipa USA/REXMemorial outside Schiphol airport to the 289 dead of flight MH17, apparently shot down by fighters endorsed by Vladimir Putin’s regime. Photograph: Sipa USA/REX

Russia is expected to be hit with further sanctions on Tuesday after the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy called for tougher action against the regime they believe is still shipping weapons into Ukraine despite the MH17 airliner disaster.

The western nations called on the European Union to impose new restrictions on trade with Russia’s defence, banking and hi-tech energy sectors, adding to existing asset freezes and travel bans on a list of people linked to the Kremlin.

New penalties are likely to be agreed at a meeting of ambassadors from all the EU’s 28 member states and could come into force within 24 to 48 hours. The US has already imposed similar trade sanctions and will now strengthen them, amid concerns among western nations that Moscow could still launch a full-scale cross-border intervention in Ukraine.

The joint call for Brussels to stand up to Vladimir Putin was agreed during a video conference between Barack Obama, David Cameron, President François Hollande of France, Italy’s prime minster, Matteo Renzi, and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel.

In a further warning to Russia, some Nato countries are sending troops to Poland in October to take part in a military display called Exercise Black Eagle. Britain is contributing more than 1,300 soldiers to the exercise, which Michael Fallon, the new defence secretary, said was a sign of support for the country’s allies in eastern Europe.

On Tuesday, Cameron will also meet families of some of the British victims of the disaster to express his condolences at a time when rebels are still blocking international experts from reaching the crash site.

There has been a significant toughening in the rhetoric against Russia in recent days over its suspected role in arming pro-Putin separatists in eastern Ukraine. Putin’s government denies any responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysian airliner MH17, killing 295 people. However, the UK, US and Ukraine have all said they suspect it was downed accidentally by rebels using a Soviet-era Buk missile.

Following the leaders’ video call, No 10 said the discussion had focused on “Russia’s ongoing efforts to destabilise Ukraine” and agreed that the immediate priority must be to secure unrestricted access to the MH17 crash site.

Downing Street said it agreed that Russia had “failed to take the steps necessary to de-escalate the crisis, such as ceasing support for the separatists; stopping the flow of weapons across the border; and using its influence to ensure the release of hostages.

“Indeed the latest information from the region suggests that even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists.”

Tony Blinken, a national security adviser to Obama, also said European leaders had made clear their determination to act. He added: “We expect the European Union to take significant additional steps this week, including in key sectors of the Russian economy. In turn, and in full coordination with Europe, the United States will implement additional measures itself.”

The US indicated that the EU was also looking at broadening its criteria for sanctioning individuals in order, Blinken said, to “bring in some of the cronies of President Putin”. Blinken argued that the existing sanctions regime had already produced major strategic gains in Ukraine, leading to a new government and the signing of the EU association agreement.

However, he said US intelligence assessments indicated that Moscow continued to transfer heavy weaponry and fighters across the border and to aid pro-Russian separatists, and had stationed Russian troops near the border. He described Putin’s strategy as one of “doubling down” on support for separatist fighters.

Before the meeting, Russia said it would not retaliate with sanctions of its own or “fall into hysterics”. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, said the penalties could even make the country “more independent and more confident in our own strength”.

“I assure you, we will overcome any difficulties that may arise in certain areas of the economy,” he said. “We can’t ignore it. But to fall into hysterics and respond to a blow with a blow is not worthy of a major country.”

He also denied Russian involvement in the Ukraine conflict and called for “honest, open participation of all those who have access to information about the crash”.

“Anything else we will consider as deceitful attempts to influence the investigation, putting presumption of innocence in doubt,” he said.

“I don’t want to throw accusations in advance, but I expect that no one will try to cover up evidence.”

The Guardian.

#MH17: Dutch and Australian police stranded due to fighting near crash site

Police and forensic teams forced to stop in Shakhtarsk, around 20 miles from the fields where the aircraft was downed.

Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans talks to his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in Kiev. They are seeking help from the Ukrainian parliament for the investigation. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/EPADutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans talks to his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in Kiev. They are seeking help from the Ukrainian parliament for the investigation. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/EPA

Dutch and Australian police have failed to reach the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 for a second day as clashes rage in a town on the road to the area.

The international delegation of police and forensic experts were forced to stop in Shakhtarsk, a town around 20 miles (30km) from the fields where the aircraft came down.

Sounds of regular shelling could be heard from Shakhtarsk, with roads filled with cars carrying fleeing residents. Associated Press reported seeing a high-rise apartment block in the town being hit by at least two rounds of artillery.

The mandate of the police team is to secure the rebel-controlled area so that comprehensive investigations can begin and any remaining bodies be recovered.

Analysis of the black box flight recorders from the plane showed it was brought down by “massive explosive decompression” caused by shrapnel from a rocket blast, a Ukrainian official said on Monday. Andriy Lysenko told a news conference in Kiev that the information came from experts who have analysed the recorders.

Amid international recriminations over the chaos on the ground blocking access to the site, both sides in Ukraine’s war blamed each other, with Kiev accusing the rebels of destroying evidence and the insurgents saying Ukraine’s army was targeting civilians.

Authorities in Luhansk said on Monday that five people were killed and 15 injured in overnight artillery strikes. Three were killed in Donetsk as a result of clashes, the city’s government said.

Washington released new photographs to bolster its claim that Russia – blamed by the west for stoking the insurgency by supplying arms including the missile that allegedly shot down MH17 – was taking a direct role in the conflict by firing into Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia demanded that the US “stop hindering” the work of monitors trying to check the situation on the ground.

The only point both sides appeared to agree on was the need for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, according to the Russian foreign ministry.

After days of preparing a joint armed force with Australia to secure the crash site, the Netherlands on Sunday dropped plans to deploy the officers over fears of being dragged into the conflict.

“Getting the military upper hand for an international mission in this area is … not realistic,” said the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte. The country lost 193 citizens in the disaster.

“We concluded with our international partners that there’s a real risk of such an international military mission becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” Rutte said.

An unarmed team of Dutch and Australian officers was forced to drop its plans to visit the site on Sunday as heavy bombardments rocked towns close to the site, where the remains of some of the victims still lie.

The Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, and his Australian counterpart, Julie Bishop, arrived in Kiev on Sunday to secure the agreement of the Ukrainian parliament over the police deployment.

So far, investigators have visited the site only sporadically because of security concerns, even though both Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists had earlier called a truce in the immediate area around the site.

“Both sides have made assurances for the past 24 hours. There’s been very intensive planning,” said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission in Ukraine, before the team was due to set off for the crash site.

“We’re aware that our time on the ground may be limited,” he added.

Fighting continued overnight close to the crash site, with shelling heard in separatist bastion Donetsk, a city of 1 million people 40 miles (60km) away, which has been serving as a base for international monitors and journalists who are travelling regularly to the crash site.

An AFP reporter said bursts of gunfire also rang out in the centre of the city on Monday morning.

In Brussels, the EU is drafting tougher measures against Russia. Sanctions targeting economic sectors including an arms embargo are being considered. On Tuesday, the EU is expected to unveil more names of individuals and entities sanctioned.

Moscow has blasted the move as “irresponsible”, and warned that it jeopardised cooperation on security issues.

About 1,000 people have been killed during the conflict, and the United Nations estimates that 230,000 have fled their homes.

The Red Cross said the country was in a state of civil war – a classification that would make parties in the conflict liable to prosecution for war crimes.

The Guardian.

Enmity and Civilian Toll Rise in Ukraine as World’s Attention Is Diverted

A woman walks by an apartment complex in Snizhne, Ukraine, that was hit by a rocket attack on July 15. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York TimesA woman walks by an apartment complex in Snizhne, Ukraine, that was hit by a rocket attack on July 15. Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

DONETSK, Ukraine — One was a retired cook. Another installed alarms in cars. Another was a cleaner in a grocery store who had gone out to buy ground beef to make her son meatball soup.

With international attention focused on the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the deaths of these three civilians — some of the roughly 800 who have been killed in the battle over eastern Ukraine — have gone virtually unnoticed by the outside world.

As the Ukrainian military has pressed its offensive against the pro-Russian rebels who have taken over its eastern edge, an operation now in its fourth month, it has diminished the territory the rebels control. But those advances have come at a steep human cost. According to a United Nations count released on Monday, 799 civilians have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine began to battle insurgents here, and at least 2,155 have been wounded.

The killings have left the population in eastern Ukraine embittered toward Ukraine’s pro-Western government, and are helping to spur recruitment for the pro-Russian militias. In time, even if the Ukrainian military routs the rebels and retakes the east, the civilian deaths are likely to leave deep resentments here, and could complicate reconciliation efforts for decades to come.

The rising toll of the conflict in eastern Ukraine — the first open hostilities in Europe in 15 years — is a direct consequence of the nature of the war here. A significant portion of the fighting takes the form of low-tech airstrikes and artillery fired at a distance from aging weaponry, tactics that can inflict significant harm on civilians. (In comparison, 330 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, the United Nations said. There are no estimates for rebels.)

In a report released on July 24, Human Rights Watch documented four instances of the use of unguided Grad rockets, which killed at least 16 civilians in and around Donetsk in nine days. While both rebels and Ukrainian forces use the rockets — descendants of World War II-era weapons — the investigation “strongly indicates that Ukrainian government forces were responsible” for the four attacks.

“Using these kinds of weapons in populated areas is a violation of the laws of war,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “International allies of the Ukrainian government — the United States, the European Union — should condemn this use and urge the government to stop.”

Ukraine’s military strongly denies responsibility for any attacks that have caused civilian deaths. Vladislav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, did not comment on the report itself, but he said that soldiers were under orders not to harm civilians.

“We are prohibited from using artillery in residential areas,” he said. “Yes we have these weapons,” he said, referring to Grads, “but we never use them in civilian areas. No way.”

But the military’s campaign against the rebels has increased the likelihood of civilian casualties given how deeply the rebels have embedded into the civilian population.

As Ukrainian troops inched toward Donetsk and Luhansk, two regional capitals with a combined population of 1.5 million, residents feared the worst, looking to what happened in Slovyansk, a small city to the north that the military took by pounding rebel positions and flattening the neighborhoods where the rebels were.

Those fears were soon realized. One of the main rebel bases in Luhansk is in a military recruitment office next to the main bus station, and it drew intense shelling, leaving power lines scattered like string over the shrapnel-torn pavement.

And in Donetsk, where Ukrainian troops have pressed forward from the north and west for weeks, the Marinka, Petrovsky and Kuibyshevsky neighborhoods have come under heavy rocket fire. The barrages against all three areas, according to Human Rights Watch, originated from positions held by the Ukrainian military. Mr. Seleznyov said he could not comment on specific events.

On July 21 in Kuibyshevsky, in a leafy area near a dental office and a library, Sergei Yakshin, 41, the man with the alarm business, was walking to his car. He never made it. A rocket exploded nearby, killing him and another man instantly. A short walk away, a different rocket hit Valentina A. Surmai, a 72-year-old pensioner who worked at a local grocery store to support her blind husband. The cook, Alla A. Vasyutina, 60, bled to death in her kitchen after a piece of shrapnel penetrated the wall of her house.

“She wanted to make us soup,” said Ms. Surmai’s son, Sergei, standing in his underwear, his eyes red. “I told her, ‘Mom, don’t go out,’” he said. He barely recognized her body in the morgue. Half her face and her left side were gone.

Her death enraged Mr. Surmai. “If they give me a gun, I’m ready to go fight,” he said. “After this, it’s either us, or them. There’s no choice now. We have to go to the end.”

A friend of Ms. Surmai, Alexandra Rud, 74, said she, like her friend, hated the rebels, but she blamed the government for Ms. Surmai’s death.

“I want to shout to the whole world,” she said, her voice shrill, as artillery boomed in the distance. “Stop it! Get out! Leave us alone!”

The violence has rearranged habits and daily routines. Konstantin, a morgue worker in Luhansk who refused to give his full name for fear of exposing himself and his family to attention, said he and his wife now sleep on a mattress stuffed into a small underground space in a garage used for repairing cars. Teatime chatter was about what survival supplies to put in their cellars, which now double as bomb shelters.

Anatoly Leonidovich, the head doctor at the Luhansk morgue, said that after a particularly vicious battle two weeks ago, he received 15 bodies, all but one twisted and torn, consistent with artillery wounds. The next day, he was still getting calls.

“Who are you looking for?” he said, speaking into a Soviet-era phone. “Is he civilian or a rebel,” he asked. (Rebels collect the bodies of their comrades and do their own paperwork, he said.) “Ah yes, I have him. Sklyarov, Vladimir, year of birth, 1973.”

Establishing responsibility for civilian deaths has been difficult. The shelling in Luhansk, for example, touched off ferocious arguments: Supporters of the government in Kiev accuse the rebels, while those who favor Russia blame the Ukrainian forces.

“Idiot!” shouted a stout woman with fiery red lipstick. She was glaring at Boris Besarab, a bespectacled security guard in a Luhansk neighborhood called Peaceful that was hit on July 14. He had been explaining why he believed that the angle of impact meant that rebels had fired the shell. “Take your glasses off,” she fumed, stalking away. “This is why Ukraine is going to hell!”

The local disputes mirror those on a larger scale, with Russia and Ukraine blaming one another for attacks that kill civilians. Civilian deaths have been at the heart of Russia’s narrative against Kiev, though rarely mentioned is the fact that that rebels cause them too.

In one case, Ukraine claimed that Russia carried out an airstrike on an apartment block in the city of Snizhne, suggesting that a plane traveled from across the border, more than 12 miles to the south. But the angle of the 10 holes punched by the bombs and the direction of the damage indicated that the bomber was flying from west to east. Some residents suggested that the target might have been a rebel base just a quarter of a mile away.

War is as much about perception as reality, and in some ways truth is powerless against what people want to believe. Most people interviewed at attack sites accused the Ukrainian forces, a pattern that bodes ill for Ukraine’s government as it tries to put the country back together again.

“Look, there’s your Poroshenko!” yelled Viktoria Y. Iotova, referring to Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and pointing to 14 Lenin Street in Snizhne, where at least 11 civilians were killed.

“Who will answer for these human lives?” she added as she began to cry.

Piles of personal items were strewn through the streets around her. A sewing machine lay between a teacup and an old Samsung laptop. One wall of a corner apartment remained intact, shielded from the blast wave. It told of life before the bombs: potted plants on a shelf, a red teakettle atop the cupboard and a neatly ordered spice rack with two rows of six jars apiece.

There, amid the debris, a 4-year-old boy, Bogdan Yasterbov, was trapped. As a yellow crane lifted concrete blocks from the wreckage, local residents sat in shock, and the blue-eyed Bogdan screamed. It took hours before anyone heard him.

Then, as a cellphone video shows, red-faced rescue workers noticed him and yelled: “Children! Be quiet!” Men began digging. Bogdan came into view, face down in a pocket of space under the rubble.

He was carried out and laid on a stretcher, limbs limp. His bright blond hair was darkened by the dust.

Bogdan survived, but his mother, Daria, did not.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.

The New York Times.

‘Massive Explosive Decompression’ brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight #MH17

One of the two black boxes recovered from the crash site of the MH17 jet in Donetsk on July 22, 2014.  © AFPOne of the two black boxes recovered from the crash site of the MH17 jet in Donetsk on July 22, 2014. © AFP

(Reuters) – Analysis of the black box flight recorders from a downed Malaysian airliner show it was destroyed by shrapnel coming from a rocket blast and went down because of “massive explosive decompression”, a Ukrainian security official said on Monday.

The spokesman for Ukraine’s Security Council, Andriy Lysenko, told a news conference in Kiev the information came from experts analysing the recorders from the plane that came down in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17.

Britain was tasked with downloading the data from two black boxes recovered from the crash site and handing that information over to international investigators for analysis.

Kiev and the West accuse pro-Russian rebels of shooting down the plane. Moscow says the Ukrainian government is responsible for the crash, which killed all 298 people on board.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)


Hague court orders Russia to pay $50 billion in Yukos case

By Megan Davies and Vladimir Soldatkin.Derricks at Yuganskneftegaz oil processing facility at Mamontovskoye oilfield outside the Siberian town of Nefteyugansk.  CREDIT: REUTERS/SERGEI KARPUKHINDerricks at Yuganskneftegaz oil processing facility at Mamontovskoye oilfield outside the Siberian town of Nefteyugansk. Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

(Reuters) – The Hague’s arbitration court ruled on Monday that Russia must pay a group of shareholders in defunct oil giant Yukos around $50 billion (29.45 billion pounds) for expropriating its assets, a big hit for a country teetering on the brink of recession.

The Hague court said it had awarded shareholders in the GML group just under half of their $114 billion claim, going some way to covering the money they lost when the Kremlin seized Yukos, once controlled by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Tim Osborne, director of GML, welcomed the award, which he said was the largest ever, as “very favourable”.

But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would most likely appeal the decision, underlining that the shareholders, who have battled through the courts for a decade, will have to fight further to receive the compensation.

“The Russian side, those agencies which represent Russia in this process, will no doubt use all available legal possibilities to defend its position,” he said when news of the award leaked ahead of the official announcement.

The ruling hits Russia at a time when it faces international sanctions about its role in Ukraine and anger over the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed rebels are fighting a separatist campaign. The country is also grappling with slowing economic growth.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague announced that Russia must pay the compensation to subsidiaries of Gibraltar-based Group Menatep, a company through which Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, controlled Yukos.

Group Menatep now exists as holding company GML, and Khodorkovsky is no longer a shareholder in GML or Yukos.

Khodorkovsky, who is not a party to the action, was arrested at gunpoint in 2003 and convicted of theft and tax evasion in 2005. His company, once worth $40 billion, was broken up and nationalised, with most assets handed to Rosneft, a company run by Igor Sechin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Rosneft was not immediately available for comment.

Its shares were down 0.6 percent at 0830 GMT (9.30 a.m. BST), while the RTS index of Russian shares was down 1.8 percent.

Separately, The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is expected on Thursday to announce a decision on Yukos’s multi-billion-dollar claim against Russia, ruling on ‘just satisfaction’ or compensation, a Yukos spokeswoman said.

Yukos’s application in the ECHR, which is on behalf of all Yukos shareholders, argued that Yukos was unlawfully deprived of its possessions by the imposition of bogus taxes and a sham auction of its main asset.


In a case that Kremlin critics said offered a stark example of Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule, Khodorkovsky was arrested at gunpoint in 2003 and convicted of theft and tax evasion in 2005. Putin justified the move by saying: “A thief must be in jail,” quoting a popular Soviet blockbuster.

Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky in December after he had spent 10 years in jail. He now lives in Switzerland.

The newspaper Kommersant, which earlier reported the Hague ruling, said the court ruled that Russia had infringed an international energy charter, adopted in 1991, that envisaged legal issues for investments in energy sectors.

The court also ruled, according to the newspaper, that Russia had to start paying the compensation by Jan. 2 next year, or face growing interest on the fine.

It cited GML director Osborne as saying GML will force Russia to pay out the compensation “if it wouldn’t make payments within the court-defined timeframe”.

Any funds won will be shared amongst the shareholders. The biggest ultimate beneficial owner is Russian-born Leonid Nevzlin, a business partner who had fled to Israel to avoid prosecution. He has a stake of around 70 percent.

A spokesperson for Nevzlin declined to comment.

The other four ultimate beneficial owners, each of whom owns an equal stake, are Platon Lebedev, Mikhail Brudno, Vladimir Dubov and Vasilly Shaknovski.

After he was jailed, Khodorkovsky ceded his controlling interest in Menatep, which owned 60 to 70 percent of Yukos, to Nevzlin.

GML shareholders are not expecting to claim twice, so if they receive monies pursuant to one case it would reduce their claim under the other, Osborne has previously told Reuters.

(Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Vladimir Soldatkin and Megan Davies in Moscow, Tova Cohen in Tel Aviv, reporting by Thomas Escritt and Anthony Deutsche in Amsterdam, Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Will Waterman)