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Separatists from the Chechen “Death” battalion stand in a line during a training exercise in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine, on Dec. 8, 2014. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters.
Chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), dozens of armed men in camouflage uniforms from Russia’s republic of Chechnya train in snow in a camp in the rebel-held east Ukraine.
They say their “Death” unit fighting Ukrainian forces has 300 people, mostly former state security troops in the mainly Muslim region where Moscow waged two wars against Islamic insurgents and which is now run by a Kremlin-backed strongman.
Seasoned Chechen fighters, whose combat experience often dates back to the 1994-96 and 1999-2000 wars, fight on both sides in east Ukraine, adding to the complexity of a conflict in which the West says Russian troops are involved.
“This is volunteer battalion Death,” a deputy commander of the group who only gave his nickname “Stinger” said at a former tourist camp the unit turned into their base outside of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in east Ukraine.
“There are about three hundred of us in the Donetsk region. We have battlefield experience ranging from 10 to 20 years starting from 1995,” said the man in his 40s, a pistol fixed to his thigh.
He had a little Chechen flag in green, white and red stitched to his cap and spoke Russian with a strong Caucasus accent. Several cars with Chechen registration plates were parked in the camp.
Russia sides with the rebels in east Ukraine but denies sending serving troops to reinforce them. Some fighters on the ground admit to being former Russian servicemen, or “on leave.” Moscow has said any Russians fighting there are volunteers.
In Chechnya, two brutal wars quashed the separatist insurgents but unrest is still simmering.
Gunmen attacked a police post and captured a building in the regional capital of Grozny last week and at least 20 people, including 10 police and 10 suspected militants, were killed in gunbattles that ensued.
Violence erupted just hours before President Vladimir Putin was due to give a major speech in Moscow, a symbolic challenge to the man credited for the Russian army victory in the second Chechen war.
Reestablishing Moscow’s control over Chechnya and then introducing an uneasy peace under Ramzan Kadyrov, whom critics and rights campaigners accuse of heavy-handed tactics and massive rights violations, is seen by Putin’s supporters as a key achievement.
In Ukraine, Stinger’s men are sworn enemies with another group of Chechens who fight on the opposite side of the conflict and support the Kiev government troops.
Some of them have Western passports after fleeing Russia following the two wars. They say Moscow is theirs and Kiev’s joint enemy and that Chechnya is occupied by Russia.
Stinger, however, said Chechnya was being destroyed in the wars of the 1990s and became peaceful again only when some local leaders allied with the Kremlin.
Some of those in the Death unit said they had initially fought against Russia in Chechnya but later switched sides and were amnestied by a former Kremlin-allied head of the region, Ramzan’s father, Akhmed Kadyrov.
“Now we are [former] soldiers and officers of the Russian army, of Russian special forces, mostly veterans of war campaigns,” Stinger said.
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#MH17 Wreckage Arrives In Netherlands: Kremlin accused of role in Malaysia Airlines crash (Video Only)
Trucks carrying MH17 wreckage arrive in the Netherlands.
European aviation chiefs warned Ukraine of the threat posed by Russian-backed militants prior to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July.
That’s according to British newspaper the Sunday Times, which reports that the aviation body – known as Eurocontrol – also advised Ukraine to close off its airspace near the Russian border.
A Ukrainian serviceman jumps off a tank after a ceremony with the Ukrainian president for the delivery of more than 100 pieces military equipment, including armoured vehicles, to the Ukrainian armed forces, near north-eastern Ukrainian city of Chuguiv, Kharkiv region, on December 6, 2014. Photographer: Sergey Bobok/AFP Photos/Getty Images
Aliaksandr Kudrytski, BloombergBusinessweek.
Ukraine accused separatists of stepping up their attacks in the eastern part of the country, while the two sides neared an agreement to resume peace talks as soon as this week.
Pro-Russia rebels shelled Ukrainian positions 15 times today, the Defense Ministry said on its Facebook page, while government troops returned fire 10 times. Earlier the ministry said the number of insurgent attacks had almost doubled in the previous 24 hours.
“The rebels are regularly receiving supplies of ammunition,” Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev today, saying that the separatists have been using multiple rocket systems more actively. “Our troops return fire effectively, using artillery to suppress the enemy’s firing positions.”
The months-long unrest has prompted the worst standoff between Russia and the U.S. and the European Union since the Cold War. Ukraine’s allies blame Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government for instigating the crisis by giving rebels weapons, cash and fighters. Putin, who denies any involvement, met with French President Francois Hollande in Moscow yesterday and said a cease-fire will hopefully be reached soon.
Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and eight wounded in the last 24 hours, Lysenko said, while shelling continues near the southern city of Mariupol along the Sea of Azov.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said there is a “preliminary” agreement to resume peace talks in Minsk, Belarus, on Dec. 9. This is also planned as a day of artillery silence in a deal reached Dec. 5 with representatives from Russia, rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Denis Pushilin, permanent representative for truce talks from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told Russia’s Interfax news service: “We insist on holding talks no earlier than Dec. 12.” He said a “multitude of questions” still needs to be worked out before negotiations can start, according to IFX.
Three civilians were killed and 10 wounded by shelling last night, the separatist-controlled Donetsk city administration said on its website. Two civilians were killed by rebel shelling of the village Kryakivka in Luhansk region, Luhansk regional Governor Hennadiy Moskal said on his website.
Monitors from the OSCE reported seeing more than 100 unmarked green military vehicles traveling westward toward Donetsk. The OSCE said on its website the report was based on information received as of the evening of Dec. 5. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported yesterday that about 120 military vehicles had crossed from Russia into rebel-held territories of Ukriane.
More than 4,300 people have died in the Ukraine conflict, according to a “conservative” United Nations estimate.
The new Ukrainian government of Premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk needs to adopt a 2015 budget and tax laws complying with International Monetary Fund requirements to qualify for the next $2.8 billion disbursement of its bailout package. Ukraine needs the cash, part of a $17 billion loan program, to repay debt, buy heating fuel for winter and stem the hryvnia’s slump of about 46 percent this year. An IMF mission will visit Ukraine Dec. 9-18 to discuss economic reforms.
Ukraine’s bonds have lost the most this quarter after Venezuela among 58 nations in the Bloomberg USD Emerging Market Sovereign Bond Index. (BEMS) The benchmark note due July 2017 fell yesterday, sending the yield to an all-time high. The hryvnia depreciated 0.7 percent against the dollar.
Ukraine’s foreign reserves shrank to $10 billion, the central bank said this week after it dipped into its cash to pay off Russian energy debt. Inflation in November quickened to 21.8 percent from a year earlier, the fastest since January 2009, compared with 19.8 percent in October.
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Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop announce the successful recovery, identification and repatriation of the 38 bodies.
A coffin of a person who died on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is moved at Eindhoven airbase, the Netherlands. Photograph: Rex
Australian Associated Press.
All 38 Australians who died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was downed in eastern Ukraine have been formally identified, the federal government says.
Operation Bring Them Home will conclude in the coming weeks when the final remains of the victims are reunited with their families, after Dutch authorities confirmed the identities of the victims.
The prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said in a joint statement on Saturday the victims of the tragedy had finally been accorded the dignity and respect they deserved.
“The successful recovery, identification and repatriation of the victims has been a painstaking and meticulous process,” the statement said. “It has been a tremendously difficult period for the families and for all Australians.
“After such a long wait, we can now be assured that the Australian victims have been accorded the dignity and respect they deserve.”
The Australian and Dutch governments continue to press for full implementation of United Nations security council resolution 2166, which was adopted in July and supports an independent investigation into the disaster.
The Dutch Safety Board and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service are also investigating.
MH17 went down in July in rebellion-torn eastern Ukraine killing all 298 aboard, including 38 Australians. It was believed to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile.
In November the international investigation into the downing of MH17 was extended by nine months, after the Dutch-led efforts to find out who shot down the passenger plane were hampered by the ongoing civil war and Russian intransigence.
Investigators will now have until August 2015 under a deal struck between Australia, the Netherlands, Ukraine and other nations.