Tag Archives: the Guardian

Couple returning from Syria ‘were plotting assault on EU Brussels office’ #ISIS #EuropeanCommission

Ian Traynor in Brussels.
The Berlaymont building, which houses the European commission.The Berlaymont building, which houses the European commission. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

Belgium has been put on edge over potential Islamist terrorist attacks for the second time in four months amid reports that a man and woman who had returned from the war in Syria via Turkey were plotting an assault on the European Union’s main offices in Brussels.

According to the Dutch public broadcaster, NOS, the couple were detained in Belgium where investigators were said to have proof of a planned attack on the Berlaymont building, the offices housing the European commission.

A commission spokeswoman said she was aware of the reports, but that the organisation, the EU executive and civil service, had received no warnings of any specific threats.

With governments across Europe increasingly preoccupied by the risks arising from the return of nationals who have joined gone to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State (Isis), concern is particularly high in Belgium.

Four-hundred Belgians are said to have travelled to Syria to join the extremists, usually via Turkey and its long, porous border into the war zone. While that figure is much lower than the estimates for Britain, France or Germany, proportionately and in per capita terms Belgium is believed to have the highest number in Europe of would-be jihadists travelling to Syria.

The Dutch and Belgian security services have carried out coordinated raids on suspected returning fighters and sympathisers over the past month. The couple, believed to be resident in The Hague in the Netherlands and of Turkish origin, were said to have been arrested at Brussels airport after returning from Syria via a flight from Turkey.

The Guardian’s Brussels office is adjacent to the European commission building and there was no evidence of beefed up security measure in place in the district on Sunday.

According to the Belgian newspaper L’Echo, almost a quarter of the suspected Belgian jihadists have returned home from the Middle East. It quoted national counter-terrorism investigators as saying that at least 10 of those who had returned were plotting attacks on their home territory.

In June, 46 suspected members of Sharia4Belgium, a radical Islamist group believed to be involved in sending young fighters to Syria, were ordered to face trial on charges that include belonging to a terrorist organisation.

A French-Moroccan man is under arrest in Belgium awaiting trial after allegedly spraying the Jewish Museum in central Brussels with automatic gunfire in May, killing four people.

Mehdi Nemmouche is awaiting trial on “terrorist murder” charges. He had spent more than a year fighting with Islamist extremists in Syria, according to authorities in Belgium and France where he was arrested.

A fire at a synagogue in the Brussels district of Anderlecht last week is believed to have been the work of arsonists.

According to the Dutch broadcaster, citing Belgian investigators, the couple may be charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation, of breaking laws on possession of weapons, and of funding terrorism.

The Guardian.

Shaun Walker: Armoured Russian vehicle seen inside #Ukraine

Personnel carrier bearing blue circle and yellow writing of peacekeepers was seen after Ukrainian convoy was destroyed last week.

Shaun Walker in Lutuhyne.
A pro-Russia soldier seen near an APC with the mark of peacekeeping troops in Lutuhyne, near Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova/GuardianA pro-Russia soldier seen near an APC with the mark of peacekeeping troops in Lutuhyne, near Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova/Guardian

The Guardian has found more evidence of Russian military hardware operating inside Ukraine, spotting an armoured vehicle marked with the symbol of the Russian army’s “peacekeeping forces”.

The armoured personnel carrier was well inside Ukraine, in Lutuhyne, a town near Luhansk, where a Ukrainian military convoy was destroyed by artillery and Grad missiles last week.

Amid the remains of the destroyed Ukrainian column, three soldiers stood by an intact armoured personnel carrier on Tuesday afternoon. The men, who refused to be photographed, said they were from Russia and were not regular soldiers, saying they were paid mercenaries. They did not say who was paying them.

Their vehicle was marked in three places with a blue circle and the yellow Cyrillic letters MC – the Russian abbreviation for “peacekeeping forces”. Many of these have been seen moving on the other side of the border in recent weeks, and the vehicle’s presence was yet more evidence of what Moscow has continually denied – that its soldiers are active in east Ukraine.

In many cases, separatists have claimed that columns are not Russian military vehicles but trophies stolen from the Ukrainian army. However, the distinctive MC peacekeeping signs are only featured on Russian vehicles, used on peacekeeping missions in the Caucasus and Transnistria.

“Ukraine’s only peacekeeping missions are with the UN, and those vehicles are painted white. If it has the blue and yellow symbol, it has to be Russian,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a Ukrainian military analyst at Kiev’s Razumkov Centre.

Half an hour after the APC was first spotted, one of the soldiers could be seen painting over the MC signs with black paint. When the Guardian returned to the scene on Wednesday, the vehicle was gone.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said 70% of Russian forces had already left Ukraine after taking part in a surge against the Ukrainian army that pushed Kiev into signing a ceasefire agreement.

Driving on the road from Donetsk to Luhansk, several small convoys of trucks and armoured vehicles were visible that looked very different to the irregular rebel forces, and appeared to be manned by regular Russian troops. The men by the armoured vehicle in Lutuhyne did not look as well equipped as other Russians seen in Ukraine in recent weeks; one of them was even wearing trainers, but it appeared clear that at least the vehicle came from official Russian military stock.

Last month, the Guardian witnessed a Russian armoured column cross the border near the Izvaryne border post. Russia denied it had happened, claiming the convoy was a border patrol that stayed on the border. Later, when Russian paratroopers were captured inside Ukraine, Moscow also said it was a border patrol, claiming they had got lost and crossed the border “by accident”.

The Guardian.

#Ukraine: #Despair in #Luhansk as residents count the dead #PriceofWar

The worst-hit city in eastern Ukraine is struggling with the aftermath of violence as a semblance of normality returns.

Shaun Walker in Luhansk.
Coffins prepared for burial outside the morgue in LuhanskCoffins prepared for burial outside the morgue in Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova.

Each time a body arrives, Anatoly Turevich opens a file on his computer and adds to his list. Often the only detail he is able to add is “man” or “woman”. There are 511 entries. Turevich, the 62-year-old director of Luhansk’s main morgue, has seen a lot in his three decades of work, but the past few months have been more grisly even than the mining accidents he was used to.

Luhansk, a town of more than 400,000 inhabitants, has been the worst-hit city in east Ukraine during the recent conflict. Capital of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, the city spent more than a month encircled by Ukrainian forces. As battles raged between local rebels, with Russian support, and the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions, more than half the city fled, to relatives in other cities or refugee camps in Russia. Those who stayed were generally those too frail to move or those with absolutely nowhere to go.

Turevich picks a number at random, launching a series of photographs of blackened remains that bear only a passing resemblance to the human form. Relatives of the missing can flick through the gruesome catalogue and see if they recognise their loved ones. If a body is too disfigured for photographic identification, the morgue has taken DNA samples, though it has no ability to analyse them. At some point in the future, they will be sent somewhere that does, Turevich hopes.

Of the seven specialists at the morgue, five left when the fighting started, while the sixth drove over a mine on his way to work, and is now in hospital. That left Turevich to handle the influx of corpses on his own.

“I could have left, but then who would do this work?” he asks, before cutting the interview short. A van carrying 15 decaying bodies has just arrived. They have been dead for weeks, but the roads were far too dangerous for their relatives to transport them. The list will now total 526. Turevich says the vast majority are civilians, and almost all have died from shrapnel wounds.

After a fragile ceasefire between Ukrainian and rebel forces agreed last week, people are finally able to bring out their dead. Turevich expects many more busy days in the near future.

In the courtyard, more than 50 wooden coffins are neatly stacked under a cloud of flies. All are full; sometimes a chunk of yellowed torso or bloodied clothing is visible through the gap between lid and casket. A generator now works intermittently, keeping the bodies inside the morgue partially refrigerated. For much of August there was no power at all. “People think we must get used to the smell,” says Turevich, whose office is also infested with flies. “You never get used to the smell.”


The ceasefire agreed a week ago has meant the shelling has ceased for the first time in two months. A semblance of normality is returning to the city. At its vast locomotive factory, closed after shells landed inside its territory, there is hope that work might start up again as early as Monday. In the basement training room, which has served as a makeshift bomb shelter for more than 100 people, only five were left on Wednesday, the rest having returned home as the explosions finally stopped.

But there is a long way to go. Luhansk has a post-apocalyptic feel, as people stumble into the brightness from the bomb shelters, and thousands of those who left arrive back on buses, their possessions bundled into large bags. There are few cars, as petrol is scarce, so many people are on bicycles or trudging long distances on foot.

Lyubov Zheleznyak near a house cellar where a brother and sister, Vitaly and Marina Yushko, burned to death in early AugustLyubov Zheleznyak near a house cellar where a brother and sister, Vitaly and Marina Yushko, burned to death in early August. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova

There has been no water or electricity in the city for more than a month. Almost every cafe and restaurant has been shuttered for weeks. At the few open stalls, people wait in snaking bread queues for the first time in two decades. They draw water from wells; on street corners generators are hooked up to a spaghetti of wires from which mobile phones can be charged. To actually make a call, they have to find one of the few isolated spots on the city outskirts where one bar of reception is available. There, dozens of people gather waving their phones in the air as if in a bizarre ritual, hoping to get a signal and finally make contact with relatives who worry they may be dead.

In the suburb of Yubileynoe, 90 residential apartment blocks suffered some kind of damage in recent months, while 16 took direct hits. It is unclear who will pay for the huge structural repair work required. The residents certainly cannot afford it, the local rebel government has not offered, and Kiev has no control over the territory. Their best hope for now appears to be a volunteer group using equipment from the local coal mine.

“The aim of the Ukrainian army was to destroy everything, so that people would be on their knees and beg to be allowed to return to the fascist Ukrainian state,” says 47-year-old Vyacheslav Pleskach, a rights activist who is now volunteering to help those whose houses were damaged in Yubileynoe. “There was nothing of military value here at all, nothing. They were just shelling the most vulnerable people, day and night.”

Others note that the rebels would often wheel artillery to positions in residential areas, fire at Ukrainian positions outside the town, and speed off. By the time the return fire came, the rebels were long gone and civilian homes suffered. Viktor, who sent his wife to Kiev but refused to leave the flat in central Luhansk he had worked so hard to buy, claims often the rebels themselves would fire at residential areas.

“Once there was just a few seconds between the outgoing sound of mortar fire and the explosion,” he says, from the small candlelit apartment he could not bear to leave. “It came from very close. It had to come from within the city, which means the rebels.”

Amid the passions, rumours and disinformation, understanding who shot where and when is extremely difficult. But there seems little doubt that both sides are responsible for civilian casualties, and by firing on civilian areas, Ukrainian forces have made any eventual process of reintegration even harder, as anger grows.

Viktor in the apartment in Luhansk he refused to leave. Photograph: Maria TurchenkovaViktor in the apartment in Luhansk he refused to leave. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova.

In the suburb of Bolshaya Verkhunka, the devastation is absolute. After a battle in early August, the Ukrainian National Guard took up a position on one side of the suburb; the rebels were on the other. Each side relentlessly attacked the other, over the heads of the residents. Almost every house on the main street is destroyed.

In the house 65-year-old Nikolai Zapasny built with his own hands between 1975 and 1981, some of the walls are missing, much of the roof has gone, and all the windows broken. The interiors, painstakingly decorated in a chintzy manner unthinkably luxurious for such a locale, have been destroyed by shrapnel; the walls turned into Swiss cheese. “I always wanted these sofas. Look how nice they were, and now look at them,” says his wife, tearfully. “We hadn’t even paid off the loan.”

His beloved car, a sky-blue Volga 21, kept in mint condition for three decades, is now a tangle of gnarled metal; even his bicycle is destroyed. For two months, he and his wife have been cowering in a dank basement as the house above them was slowly pulverised. “Both sides were shooting, all the time. Nobody from either side ever came in to ask us who was living here. They would have found no bandits, just old people.” Zapasny’s wife sobs uncontrollably, while he simply stares into the middle distance, unable to comprehend how his entire life’s work has been shot to pieces.

“We don’t care what country we live in. We just want them to stop killing us,” says their 58-year-old neighbour Lyubov Zheleznyak, a widow. Her house was relatively unscathed, but is still riddled with bullets and all her windows are blown out. Pensions have not been paid for months; she has no money for food, let alone repair works.

Further down the road, Vitaly and Marina Yushko, a brother and sister both in their early 30s, were hiding from the shelling in their cellar in early August when the house took a direct hit. Rubble fell over the entrance to the cellar, jamming it shut, while flames engulfed the remains of the house. Unable to escape, the pair burned to death.

It was not possible to move the bodies because of the constant fire, so the neighbours buried the charred remains of Vitaly and Marina in a shallow grave in their back garden. Nobody informed the authorities, as there was no way to make contact with them, a sign that the real death toll could be much higher than the numbers given at the morgue.

After a sustained battle a week ago, the National Guard fled the area, part of a broad and bloody Ukrainian retreat Kiev says was spurred by the rebels gaining an injection of Russian firepower. Evidence of the retreat is visible on the roads out of Luhansk. Burnt-out armoured personnel carriers and tanks stand at regular intervals on the road. At Lutuhyne, more than 20 vehicles were incinerated by artillery and Grad rockets, their twisted and blackened remains now picked over by children scavenging for scrap metal.

Nikita, 10, plays with a burned rifle at a site where a Ukrainian military convoy was destroyed. Photograph: Maria TurchenkovaNikita, 10, plays with a burned rifle at a site where a Ukrainian military convoy was destroyed. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova

‘Our hearts ache with despair’

Nobody in Luhansk knows what the future holds. Many people do not want to talk about politics. Nobody knows whether in six months’ time they will be part of Ukraine or part of a breakaway state, and there could be recriminations for calling it the wrong way and backing one side. Meanwhile, people try as hard as possible to pretend that everything is fine.

“Parents see the schools opening, and it gives them the impression that everything is all right; it helps them,” says Valentina Kiyashko, the city’s director of education, an imposing yet kindly matriarch with a shock of peroxide hair and an implacable manner. “I behave as if everything is normal because people know me and they like to see that everything is fine. But of course inside it’s hard. Everything feels constantly shaken up.”

She herself has been sleeping on the floor of the bathroom or in the entrance hall to her flat; as has her 86-year-old mother. Several times shells landed in the courtyard of her apartment block.

Of more than 60 schools in Luhansk, only six have opened. Some have been severely damaged, in others there are simply no children as they have all been evacuated. All the teachers who were asked to report for the new school year have done so, despite the fact that none have received a salary for the past three months.

At an annual competition for singing, dancing and painting among the city’s different schools, the turnout is less than a quarter of last year’s, but everyone is determined to put on a show despite the circumstances. A dance ensemble is decked out in matching blue uniforms; a young girl with her hair tied in ribbons valiantly battles her way through a violin sonata.

Pupils from different schools at a singing and dancing competition in Luhansk. Photograph: Maria TurchenkovaPupils from different schools at a singing and dancing competition in Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova

The festivities are interrupted by a poem written and performed by the adult son of the headmistress, stanzas of shrieked anguish and raw emotion about hearing a Grad rocket attack, the imprecise launchers that hail down up to 40 rockets in one salvo.

“Our hearts ache with despair … There is no earth, there is no sky … Grad! Grad! Grad!”

The children look on in shock while most of the teachers are choked with tears.

In Luhansk, emotions are never far beneath the surface. A teacher begins sobbing at the question of whether the region should stay part of Ukraine or separate; another cannot bear to talk about one of her students, whose parents drove over a mine in their car. His mother died instantly; the child’s legs were blown off and he later died in hospital.

In a scruffy field not far from the morgue, there are mounds of freshly dug black earth, dozens of simple wooden crosses with plyboard signs; names and dates of birth scrawled in black marker. Protective gloves and masks, worn by the gravediggers, are discarded in the grass. The lonely silence is broken periodically by low booms from the airport; rebels exploding ordnance left behind by the Ukrainian army when they fled.

There are men, women, pensioners, children. Many simply have “unknown” and a number; some day perhaps relatives will recognise a body on Turevich’s list and match it with the number on the grave. A huge, open trench is partially filled with coffins; a dozen of them arranged in a neat line. There is space for many more.

The Guardian.

Russian soldier: ‘You’re better clueless because the truth is horrible’ #RussiaInvadesUkraine

Despite Moscow denials, Ukrainian troops give accounts of fighting Russian army in Ilovaysk outside Donetsk. 

 and  in Komsomolske in Moscow.Ukrainian servicemen rest in a school building in the devastated eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaysk near Donetsk. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERSUkrainian servicemen rest in a school building in the devastated eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaysk near Donetsk. Photograph: Stringer/REUTERS

Bloodied, dirty and stinking, the Ukrainian soldiers who passed through the town of Komsomolske on Saturday morning made for a sorry sight. But they were the lucky ones, who had managed to escape alive from an assault they say involved regular units of the Russian army.

Having fled from encirclement in the town of Ilovaysk, their column of 70 armoured vehicles and hundreds of soldiers was ambushed and shelled, according to one soldier. “Our vehicles were colliding with one another and our tracks were running over our own fighters,” said Taras Samchuk, 28, whose 51st brigade was one of the units surrounded.

Many died, some were captured, and about 100 soldiers survived, often “with legs broken or smashed, with shrapnel in our hands, legs, bodies, with smashed teeth and broken noses”, he said.

Two weeks ago, Ukraine looked as if it was winning its battle against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, but the tide has turned in recent days, with the encirclement at Ilovaysk a key moment. Samchuk, like many Ukrainian fighters, said there is only one reason for this. Instead of fighting a ragtag group of rebels, the Ukrainians have suddenly found themselves fighting the regular Russian army.

Samchuk, who worked as a barman in the western Ukrainian city of Lutsk before being recruited to the army, said he and his comrades rescued a Russian in an armoured vehicle they destroyed near the town. “He told us he served in 8th Chechen brigade [possibly the 8th mountain motor-rifle brigade, based in Chechnya and he claimed he thought they were sent here for exercises,” Samchuk said, adding that the soldier was now being treated in a Kiev hospital.

Nobody knows how many Ukrainians died in Ilovaysk, but the battle for the small town outside Donetsk is likely to go down as one of the defining moments of the conflict. Some were killed in the intense exchanges of shelling in a battle for the town that lasted a week, while others were picked off as they fled, and many more were taken prisoner – more than 500, according to the Ukrainian official in charge of prisoner swaps. In one video released by rebels, a group of captive Ukrainians from volunteer battalions are forced to jump up and down at gunpoint by rebel commanders, reciting derogatory rhymes.

Russia has flatly denied any of its troops are operating in Ukraine, claiming a group of paratroopers captured by Ukrainians deep inside their territory were on a border patrol mission and crossed “accidentally”. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Russia is not party to the “internal Ukrainian conflict”. But the evidence is mounting that an impending rebel defeat pushed Moscow to intervene more overtly in the past two weeks. There have been repeated sightings of Russian army ration packaging and of “green men” without insignia similar to those who took part in the annexation of Crimea, as well as satellite images which, Nato claims, show Russian armour inside Ukraine.

A video posted on YouTube this week showed a huge armoured column that appeared to be Russian moving well inside Ukrainian territory. Inside Russia, a regional newspaper has published a long transcript of what it alleges to be recorded conversations with two servicemen of the 76th Pskov airborne division who returned from Ukraine. In their answers, the soldiers relate the story of a company that was almost completely annihilated by Ukrainian artillery. The men say only 10 out of between 80 and 100 from the company survived the shelling.

Lev Schlossberg, a local Pskov politician who obtained the tapes, told the Guardian the soldiers were Russian servicemen but said he could not reveal the identities of the three men or explain how he got hold of the recordings. Schlossberg is recovering from a beating he links to his inquiries about the fate of Pskov soldiers. He said military authorities are coercing relatives of soldiers believed to be in Ukraine into silence, and only a handful are willing to talk.

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a rights organisation, claims up to 15,000 soldiers have been sent over the border in recent weeks. The newspaper Novoya Gazeta published an interview with the mother of 20-year-old sapper Vadim Tumanov, alongside a photograph of an official notice informing the local military commissar of his death.

The last time she heard from her son, he told her he was near the Ukrainian border and “going to war”.

The Guardian has found the social network account of a soldier who appears to be fighting in Ukraine. In a post on the Russian Vkontakte network, dated 31 August, Kirill Zdrok from Nizhny Novgorod said he was determined to fight on out of a sense of duty to his fallen comrades. “You know, I will stay here. I cannot sit idly and watch our guys being taken home as Cargo-200s [a Soviet codeword for coffins] … One day you say hello, talk to them, laugh with them, then the next day you find out it’s all over – they are no longer alive, heading home in a metal box.” He appears frustrated by the secrecy surrounding his mission and his close friends have no idea what is going on.

“You won’t see it on TV, hear it on radio or read it in newspapers. You won’t find anything on the internet that explains what is really happening where we are now. Honestly, you’re better clueless, because the truth is horrible”, Zdrok wrote in a post dated 26 August. He had earlier posted a newspaper article about Russian casualties on the border with Ukraine, remarking that they were reconnaissance soldiers from his 9th motor-rifle brigade, based in Nizhny Novgorod.

Semyon Semenchenko, commander of the Ukrainian Donbass volunteer battalion, earlier claimed the 9th brigade was one of the two Russian units that encircled his men at Ilovaysk. The leader of the Donetsk rebels has admitted there are Russian soldiers in the region but says they are not there on orders of the Russian army but “on holiday”.

Having routed the Ukrainians at Ilovaysk and taken back other strategic sites such as Luhansk airport and the coastal town of Novoazovsk, regular Russian soldiers have evaporated from view. Days after the surrender of Ilovaysk, the territory between Donetsk and the port of Mariupol is now an eerie no man’s land, dotted with burned-out vehicles and the remains of Ukrainian army checkpoints.

The rebels have slowly advanced down the road, though only in small groups. In the town of Telmanove on Tuesday afternoon, a group of seven rebels, dressed in T-shirts and camouflage trousers, were busy using a digger to move concrete blocks into place to form a checkpoint. There was no other sign of the rebels, and certainly no sign of any Russian soldiers, although further up the road two armoured vehicles were spotted driving along dirt tracks, apparently under rebel control.

It is unclear whether the rebels will heed Putin’s appeal to stop their advance. In Mariupol, the presumed next rebel target, the Kiev-appointed regional governor, Serhiy Taruta, promised that the city would be defended if the rebels attempted to take it, and said the Russian regular invasion had completely changed the game in eastern Ukraine.

“Without the troops and armour sent over the border, we would have taken back Donetsk by the end of August,” he said.

The Guardian.

#Russia Denies #Kiev Attacked #Russian #Army Column, Says No Troops Crossed #Border

An armoured personnel carrier drives on a road near the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the Rostov region, some 30 km from the Russian-Ukrainian border, on August 15, 2014.An armoured personnel carrier drives on a road near the town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the Rostov region, some 30 km from the Russian-Ukrainian border, on August 15, 2014. © AFP

MOSCOW — Russia’s Defence Ministry on Friday denied that Ukrainian forces had destroyed a Russian military column overnight on its territory, saying no such military force had crossed the border into eastern Ukraine, Russian state news agency RIA reported.

“There was no Russian military column that crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border either at night or during the day,” the defense ministry was cited as saying in a statement, dismissing the Ukrainian report as “some kind of fantasy.” 1

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Christian Lowe).

The New York Times.

  1. A ‘fantasy’ that was witnessed by reporters from the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph as well as russian journalists!