Daily Archives: March 9, 2014

Putin defends Crimean referendum legitimacy to EU leaders as Ukraine’s southeast rallies

Pro-Russian demonstrators attend a rally in Donetsk March 9, 2014.

Crimea’s upcoming referendum will reflect the legitimate interests of its people, Russian President Vladimir Putin told two EU leaders over the phone. Inspired by Crimea’s actions, eastern Ukraine is also protesting the coup-imposed government in Kiev.

Putin on Sunday had a top-level conversation on the situation in Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, according to a statement issued by the Kremlin press service.

The Russian president “underlined in particular that the steps taken by Crimea’s legitimate authorities are based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population,” the statement said.

The “lack of any action” on part of the current Kiev authorities with regard to ultra-nationalists and radical forces acting in Ukraine has particularly been noted by Putin.

While Putin reminded that the power in Kiev was seized in an unconstitutional armed coup, Merkel stressed that, according to Europe’s view, the Crimean referendum violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (L-R) sit to watch a fragment of the ballet “Ruslan and Lyudmila” during the G20 Summit in Peterhof near St. Petersburg September 6, 2013.

The German Chancellor also “pointed out the urgency of finally coming to a substantial result” on the issue of forming the “international contact group” on Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Despite the difference of opinions, the sides have agreed that the de-escalation of tension in Ukraine is in everyone’s interest, the Kremlin statement notes.

Meanwhile, the coup-imposed Kiev government has stepped up pressure on Crimea, blocking the electronic system of the region’s treasury, freezing the autonomy’s accounts, and ramping up the presence of border police on the autonomy’s borders.

According to Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev, Kiev’s recent moves will not affect state payments, including pensions, and Crimean authorities are now opening accounts in Russian banks instead of relying on the frozen ones.

Temirgaliev also told Interfax that authorities are expecting that some additional railway traffic to and from Russia will be ferried over the Kerch Strait. A bridge connecting Kerch and Russia’s Krasnodar Region is also being built “at a rapid pace,” he said.

The future status of the region has yet to be decided by its people; the All-Crimean referendum will take place on March 16.

According to the speaker of the Supreme Council of Crimea, Vladimir Konstantinov, Crimea would prefer to keep its status of autonomous parliamentary republic in the case of a favorable outcome of the referendum.

Southeastern Ukraine rallies against govt

On Sunday, thousands of anti-Maidan demonstrators rallying in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk blocked and occupied the regional administration building, hoisting a Russian flag on top. The protesters have demanded that Mikhail Bolotskikh, the region’s head, step down. Bolotskikh was appointed by the self-proclaimed Kiev authorities.

Some 3,000 people took part in the rally and about 1,000 broke inside the building, according to Itar-Tass and local media reports. Twitter users claimed that Bolotskikh has already signed his resignation and escaped the city center in a car through a “disgrace corridor” formed by the protesters.

Later on Sunday, the fugitive official declared that he signed the document under pressure and that he is still carrying out his duties.

Before the takeover, pro-Russian demonstrators reportedly clashed with Euromaidan activists demonstrating near a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, whose 200th birthday was celebrated on Sunday.

Shevchenko’s anniversary attracted rallies in support of Ukraine’s unity all across the country. One of the largest demonstrations took place in Kharkov, where some 10,000 people marched with a huge 100-meter Ukrainian flag and chanted, “No to war!”

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Malaysia launches terror probe over missing plane, debris may be spotted

Passengers queue up for customs checks at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang March 9, 2014

Malaysia has launched a terror attack probe into the disappearance of the passenger plane carrying 239 people, which vanished from radars en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday.

Malaysian authorities are checking CCTV footage at the airport and investigating the identities of four passengers, at least two of whom got on the flight using stolen passports.

At this point, no further developments regarding MH370 has been confirmed. We are waiting for new updates from DCA on the SAR efforts.

Malaysia Airlines (@MAS) March 9, 2014

The country’s Prime Minister Najib Razak said airport security procedures were being reviewed.

“We will enhance them if necessary, because we still do not know the cause of the incident,” he told reporters, Reuters cited.

Meanwhile, Interpol is “examining additional suspect passports.”

The agency confirmed on Sunday that at least two passports – an Austrian and Italian – recorded in its database were used by passengers on board the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Both passports were stolen in Thailand in 2012 and 2013 respectively, the agency said in a statement.

No checks of the stolen passports were made by any country between the time they were entered into Interpol’s database and the departure of flight MH 370, according to Interpol. Therefore, Interpol said, it is currently unable to determine on how many other occasions these passports were used to board flights or cross borders.

“Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol’s databases,” said Secretary General Ronald K. Noble, the agency’s press service reports.

As the search for the missing Boeing 777 continues – with a total of 40 ships and 22 aircraft from an array of countries including China and the US involved – Interpol criticized loose security measures at international airports.

“For years Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates,” said Noble. “Now, we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists,” the agency said, adding that it would like to know why“only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.”

Hunt for debris, ‘mid-air disintegration’ suspicions

Almost two days after the flight MH370 lost touch with Subang Air Traffic Control, no wreckage has been found.

On Sunday, a floating object was spotted 100km south-southwest of Vietnam’s Tho Chu island. However, Vietnamese vessels sent to the site discovered it was not wreckage from the missing flight.

#MH370 Vietnam search and rescue aircraft spotted new floating object. Authorities are not sure what it is. pic.twitter.com/m0peec6DVm

— Vu Trong Khanh (@TrongKhanhVu) March 9, 2014

Soon after, Vietnam’s Civil Aviation Authority said a navy plane found parts suspected of belonging to the missing jet. But it was too dark to be certain so officials are waiting until daylight in Vietnam to send more aircraft.

“The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,” a source involved in the investigations in Malaysia, told Reuters.

Meanwhile, China has sent two more navy ships to join the search, reported China Central Television. Earlier, the US was also reported to have dispatched additional aircraft.

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UAE labeled Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization

EGYPT-POLITICS-UNREST-TRIAL

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has labeled Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization– following the example of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The United Arab Emirates has thrown its support behind neighboring Saudi Arabia’s decision to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, increasing Gulf Arab pressure on the Islamist group.

Saudi Arabia  on Friday listed the 86-year-old Brotherhood along with several other groups, including Al Qaeda affiliates, as terrorist organizations on Friday. Those who join or support the groups could face five to 30 years in prison under the new Saudi policy.

The Gulf moves against the Brotherhood follow an Egyptian decision to label it a terrorist organization in December.

Cairo based its accusation mainly on a series of deadly bomb attacks that it says the Brotherhood orchestrated. The Brotherhood denies the accusations. Egyptian authorities have produced little evidence showing a direct Brotherhood link that is open to public scrutiny, and most of the attacks have been claimed by a Sinai-based militant group.

The Western-allied UAE, a seven-state federation that includes the cosmopolitan business hub of Dubai, said it will cooperate with Saudi Arabia to tackle “those terrorist groups through liquidating all forms of material and moral support.”

“The significant step taken by (Saudi Arabia) in this critical moment requires concerted efforts and joint collective work to address the security and stability challenges that threaten the destiny of the Arab and Muslim nation,” the UAE said in a statement carried by official news agency WAM late Saturday.

The Saudi terrorist designation also blacklisted Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and its former affiliate in Iraq, the Syrian al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah within the kingdom and Yemen’s Shiite Hawthis.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two largest Arab economies, have increasingly clamped down on the Brotherhood in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

They along with the tiny kingdom of Bahrain last week withdrew their ambassadors from nearby Qatar to protest what they saw as its failure to uphold a deal to stop interfering in other nations’ politics and supporting organizations that threaten the Gulf’s stability. Analysts say the move in large part reflects Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood and its supporters.

The Emirates has jailed dozens of people allegedly linked to Brotherhood-affiliated groups on state security charges over the past year. It accuses Islamist groups of trying to topple its Western-backed ruling system.

The nation’s top court last week sentenced a Qatari doctor to seven years and two Emiratis to five years in prison for collaborating with an illegal Islamist group. The same court in January convicted 30 men, most of them Egyptian, of setting up an illegal Brotherhood branch in the UAE. They received prison terms ranging from three months to five years.

Another 69 people were last year sentenced to up to 15 years behind bars after being convicted of links to Al-Islah, an Islamist group suspected of ideological ties to the Brotherhood.

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​Why referendum? Crimeans speak out on Ukraine

Pro-Russian supporters attend a rally in Simferopol, March 9, 2014

Pro-Russian supporters attend a rally in Simferopol, March 9, 2014

A referendum in Crimea will say in a week if the region wants more autonomy from Kiev, or if it sees itself a part of Russia. RT’s Paula Slier asked residents of Crimea’s capital whether they want to have the region’s status changed and, if so, why.

Many in the Black Sea peninsula are refusing to recognize the self-proclaimed authorities in Kiev, RT found out. Violent seizure of government buildings and bloodshed on the streets – that’s how Crimeans see recent events in Kiev.

“The government in power is not democratic because they had a revolution in an armed way so that everything it orders is not legal,” Aleksandr Mukharev, a writer told Paula Slier.

As the country remains bitterly divided between the EU-supporting west and pro-Russia east, Crimeans have doubts that people, who have come to power, will represent the interests of both the sides.

One of the first decisions by the new government – to revoke the law on minority languages, which includes Russian, – only contributed to Crimeans’ worries.

“Their mission is not to promote the Ukrainian language as much as suppress the Russian language and everything that is not Ukrainian,” believes Aleksey Vakulenko, a citizen journalist.

97 percent of Crimeans speak Russian. They weren’t happy, when Russian disappeared from government websites and fear that Russian TV channels might soon be banned. There have also been cases of Russian journalists being denied access to the country, something Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed on Saturday.

The news of far right political forces gaining prominence in Kiev is another source of concern for Crimeans. The interim Kiev government has six ministers – including the deputy prime minister, Aleksandr Sych, – from the nationalist Svoboda party.

Reasons for Crimea joining Russia are far from ideological for Lianu Stepanova, a flower seller.

“The prices will be lower and the salaries will be higher,” she believes.

The east and southeast of Ukraine have never quite embraced the partnership deal with the EU, bearing in mind austerity cuts weaker economies there have to implement. Now the West is promising economic aid through the International Monetary Fund. The prospect of Ukrainians having to tighten their belts is ever more real, as the assistance comes under the strictest of conditions.

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Over 30 killed, 140 wounded in Iraq suicide bombing

A general view of the site of a car bomb attack in the neighbourhood of al-Qahera is seen in northern Baghdad, March 9, 2014

At least 35 people have been killed and 147 wounded when a suicide bomber driving a minibus detonated the vehicle filled with explosives in the southern Iraqi city of Hilla.

The bomb exploded arriving at a main checkpoint at a northern entrance to the city, according to Reuters.

Over 50 cars were set no fire after the blast, with passengers trapped inside.

“Some of the victims were burned inside their cars,” a police officer said.

Of all the victims, at least six were security personnel and three civilians, according to two police officers at the scene, as cited by Al Jazeera.

Part of the checkpoint was destroyed.

Hilla is a largely Shiite Muslim city and is located 95 kilometers to the south of Baghdad.

Iraq has been torn by violent attacks since last April, with the numbers of dead jumping to its highest levels since the worst of the country’s sectarian bloodshed in 2006-2008.

8,868 people were killed in 2013, and over 1,400 people have died in January and February of 2014, according to UN statistics.

People look at the site of a car bomb attack in the neighbourhood of al-Qahera in northern Baghdad, March 9, 2014

A picture taken on March 9, 2014 shows burnt out vehicles at the site of a suicide bombing that killed at least 21 people at a checkpoint near Baghdad, northern entrance to Hilla

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Russia may ban American START inspections – sources

A Topol missile launcher (R)

Sources in Russia’s Defense Ministry say officials are considering discontinuing US inspections of national strategic nuclear missile forces, citing “lack of trust” as reason for the move. Inspections have been permitted by the latest START treaty.

Inspections of nuclear forces are the major instrument of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) signed by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama in 2010, and in force since 2011.

In particular, the inspectors should confirm the declared quantity of strategic nuclear weapons, which according to START should be no more than 1,550 nuclear warheads on each side deployed, on no more than 700 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles.

“Because such inspections are a measure of credibility, in terms of the declared ‘sanctions’ on the part of the US, there cannot be any normal regular bilateral contacts in regard of the [START] treaty,” an unnamed source in the Defense Ministry told several Russian news agencies.

The Pentagon and America’s NATO allies announced discontinuing military cooperation with Russia earlier this week over incongruity of positions on political developments in Ukraine.

Last Tuesday Pentagon’s representative, John Kirby, officially declared that the US had discontinued any military cooperation with Russia.

“We have, in light of recent events in Ukraine, put on hold all military-to-military engagements between the United States and Russia,” spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement on March 4.

The suspension includes “exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits and planning conferences,” said Kirby.

The Russian Ministry regards the proclaimed US sanctions as an ‘unfriendly act’ compelling it to counteract, the source said.

“We consider the unreasonable threat to Russia from the US and NATO in its Ukrainian policy as an unfriendly gesture allowing us to declare force-majeure circumstances,” the unnamed official cited by Interfax news agency also stressed.

Other NATO member countries also closed ranks.

Canada distinguished itself most of all NATO member states by expelling, within 24-hours, nine Russian soldiers participating in military training.

Besides that, the US also imposed visa restrictions for some Russian state officials who they accuse of “threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity,” the White House stated.

On Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kirby told his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that “continued military escalation and provocation in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine, along with steps to annex Crimea to Russia would close any available space for diplomacy, and he urged utmost restraint,” Reuters quoted a source in the White House.

EU leaders also threatened Russia with sanctions, which could include visa bans, asset freezes and various economic restrictions – unless Russia engages in direct talks with the coup-appointed Ukrainian government. The EU also stopped the already stalled visa-free talks with Russia.

Both the EU and the US halted preparations for a G8 summit in Russia’s city of Sochi set for June.

On March 8, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin declared that after “blatant threats from the US and NATO,” the “soonest possible” rearmament t of the Russian army and revival of the defense industry is an uncontroversial necessity.

Russia’s NATO envoy, Aleksandr Grushko, told reporters that “sanctions are not our weapon of choice.”

“Quite obviously, sanctions always stall any kind of situation. We are too interdependent, we are mutually dependent not only on our European partners, but even more interdependence exists between Russia and Ukraine. Therefore, all those who brandish bogey sanctions should, above all, think about how these sanctions would boomerang back to them,” Grushko said.

RT News.

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Russian forces tighten grip on Crimea despite U.S. warning

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, march outside an Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye

(Reuters) – Russian forces tightened their grip on Crimea on Sunday despite a U.S. warning to Moscow that annexing the southern Ukrainian region would close the door to diplomacy in a tense East-West standoff.

Russian forces’ seizure of the Black Sea peninsula has been bloodless but tensions are mounting following the decision by pro-Russian groups that have taken over the regional parliament to make Crimea part of Russia.

The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich‘s flight from the country last month. Yanukovich was toppled after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.

In the latest armed action, Russians took over a Ukrainian border post on the western edge of Crimea at around 6 a.m. (0400) GMT, trapping about 30 personnel inside, a border guard spokesman said.

The spokesman, Oleh Slobodyan, said Russian forces now controlled 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian territory that is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority.

SOVIET SONGS

Around 2,000 Russian supporters gathered in Lenin Square, where there is a statue of the Soviet state founder, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs being sung from the stage.

Pro-Russia supporters attend a rally in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol

Pro-Russia supporters attend a rally in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol

Alexander Liganov, 25 and jobless, said: “We have always been Russian, not Ukrainian. We support Putin.”

President Vladimir Putin declared a week ago that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory inhabited by Russian speakers.

The worst face-off with Moscow since the Cold War has left the West scrambling for a response, especially since the region’s pro-Russia leadership declared Crimea part of Russia last week and announced a March 16 referendum to confirm it.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to Russia’s foreign minister for the fourth day in a row, told Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that Russia should exercise restraint.

“He made clear that continued military escalation and provocation in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine, along with steps to annex Crimea to Russia, would close any available space for diplomacy, and he urged utmost restraint,” a U.S. official said.

President Barack Obama spoke by phone on Saturday to the leaders of France, Britain and Italy and three ex-Soviet Baltic states that have joined NATO. He assured Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which have their own ethnic Russian populations, that the Western military alliance would protect them if necessary.

SHOTS FIRED

A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said military monitors from the pan-Europe watchdog had on Saturday been prevented for the third time in as many days from entering Crimea.

Shots were fired on Saturday to turn back the mission of more than 40 unarmed observers, who have been invited by Kiev but lack permission from Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities to cross the isthmus to the peninsula. No on was hurt.

Crimea’s pro-Moscow authorities have ordered all remaining Ukrainian troop detachments in the province to disarm and surrender, but at several locations they have refused to yield.

Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as “Putin’s fiction”. Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive vehicles with Russian military plates.

A Reuters reporting team filmed a convoy of hundreds of Russian troops in about 50 trucks, accompanied by armored vehicles and ambulances, which pulled into a military base north of Simferopol in broad daylight on Saturday.

The military standoff has remained bloodless, but troops on both sides spoke of increased agitation.

“The situation is changed. Tensions are much higher now. You have to go. You can’t film here,” said a Russian soldier carrying a heavy machine gun, his face covered except for his eyes, at a Ukrainian navy base in Novoozernoye.

A source in Ukraine’s defense ministry said it was mobilizing some of its military hardware for a planned exercise, Interfax news agency reported. Ukraine’s military, with barely 130,000 troops, would be no match for Russia’s. So far Kiev has held back from any action that might provoke a response.

SANCTIONS

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Saturday Poland had evacuated its consulate in Sevastopol due to “continuing disturbances by Russian forces”.

The United States has announced sanctions against individuals it accuses of interfering with Ukrainian territorial integrity, although it has yet to publish the list. Washington has threatened wider action to isolate the Russian economy.

The European Union is also considering sanctions, but has so far been more cautious. Any action would be much harder to organize for a 28-nation bloc that takes decisions unanimously and many of whose members depend on Russian natural gas.

Pro-Moscow Crimea leader Sergei Aksyonov said the referendum on union with Russia – due in a week – would not be stopped. It had been called so quickly to avert “provocation”, he said.

Western countries dismiss the planned referendum as illegal and likely to be falsified.

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Crimea hopeful of referendum, ready to join Russia ‘by end March’

Children wave Russian flags during a mass pro-Russian rally in the center of Sevastopol, on March 8, 2014.

Children wave Russian flags during a mass pro-Russian rally in the center of Sevastopol, on March 8, 2014.

Crimea has fast-tracked preparations for the republic’s referendum and for its possible joining with Russia, statements from the autonomy’s leaders reveal. Though no decision has been made by Moscow, they say Crimea may be part of Russia by late March.

Amid the ongoing media hysteria on the alleged Russian “invasion” of Crimea, the region’s pro-Russian leaders are staying calm, if not jubilant. Following claims that the Ukrainian hryvna may soon be swapped for the Russian ruble, and that the result of the March 16 referendum on the future of the Autonomous Republic is “easily predictable” by the mood of the majority of Crimea’s population, they are now saying that joining Russia could take place this month.

“The transition from one jurisdiction to the other is a complicated process, but I think in the case of favorable outcome of the referendum, the Crimeans will be able to feel as citizens of another country within one month – within March,” the speaker of the region’s Supreme Council, Vladimir Konstantinov, said, as quoted by RIA Novosti.

Konstantinov then announced that if Crimea becomes Russian, the autonomy’s budget will become larger than under the Ukrainian standards. According to the speaker, the Crimean authorities “did not count on that” but the Russian side gave “guarantees” of budget enlargement.

Pro-Russian demonstrators raise their hands as they shout slogans during a rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 8, 2014.(AFP Photo

There was no immediate reaction from Moscow on statements coming from Simferopol, but earlier the State Duma – Russia’s parliament – said it would debate the issue of Crimea joining Russia only after the referendum takes place.

Earlier on Friday, Grigory Ioffe, first deputy chair of the region’s parliament, said that Crimea is not looking for any “privileges” from Russia if it joins the country, and that the Crimean authorities are certain the regional economy will prosper after getting rid of Ukrainian corruption.

Ioffe stressed that the “historic” referendum will be “very democratic and open” and will be held “in full compliance” with both the Ukrainian constitution and the international treaties that Ukraine had adopted. International observers, including those from the OSCE, as well as media and NGO representatives are “most welcome” to observe the referendum, he told journalists.

Crimea’s Central Election Committee is indeed expecting that some international observers will come to inspect the March 16 referendum, the committee’s head, Mikhail Malyshev, told Interfax on Saturday. About 1,250 voting stations will be set up for the event and over 2.2 million ballot papers printed. The autonomy’s population was just under two million people as of 2013, with Russians making up 58.5 percent of it, Ukrainians comprising 24.3 percent, and Crimean Tatars constituting an important minority of 12.1 percent.

While the Russian-speaking majority has for years been in favor of separating from Ukraine – at least by obtaining a broader autonomy and returning to the 1992 constitution – the Tatars have been divided on the issue. Many Tatars strongly reject the idea of Crimea joining Russia, as they have themselves been pushing for the creation of a national autonomy within the Ukrainian state.

Self-defense squads swear in

Thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators rallied in Sevastopol on Saturday, calling on everyone to cast their votes at the March 16 All-Crimean referendum. The city has a special status, and is officially not part of Crimean Autonomous Republic, but will nevertheless join the referendum and vote whether they want to become part of the Russian Federation.

Pro-Russia supporters attend a rally in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol March 8, 2014.

Organizers of the event displayed a huge banner with the words of famous Russian Admiral Pavel Nakhimov, who was killed in the Crimean War:

“Protect Sevastopol to the last!” Speaking at the rally, city administration officials promised that new, larger social security benefits are being readied for the residents of Sevastopol.

Pro-Russian activists have also announced a flashmob in support of the peninsular region joining Russia. They plan to gather at least 5,000 people to form a “living flag” of Russia on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the first batch of the so-called self-defense squads swore allegiance to Crimean authorities in Simferopol on Saturday.

Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov called the swearing-in ceremony a “historic event,” stating that Crimea’s own Armed Forces are being formed.

Speaking to journalists, Aksyonov said the forces will ensure that the referendum is held in a peaceful manner. He stressed that “the Armed Forces of the Republic of Crimea have been created for defense, not for offense.”

So far, the self-defense squads keeping peace and order across the peninsula have been mostly quiet when asked about their origins and command, but many maintained that they are Crimean citizens who joined the improvised militia as vigilantes to prevent the violent events of Kiev’s Maidan from engulfing Crimea. Others said they are from Russia, sparking media speculations that all these forces are in fact Russian military in disguise – something Russian President Vladimir Putin has categorically denied.

In eastern Ukraine, the weekend also started with mass pro-Russian demonstrations. A crowd of anti-Maidan demonstrators gathered to rally in the city of Donetsk, where the “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev was arrested along with dozens of pro-Russian protesters earlier on Thursday. Thick police presence was reported from the scene of the rally, which took place in front of the regional administration building, with at least 500 law enforcers, some unidentified armed men, and police vehicles maintaining order, according to Interfax.

In Kharkov, about 6,000 people rallied in protest of the coup-imposed Kiev authorities on the central Freedom Square. Some of the demonstrators later formed an anti-fascist march, in which some 1,500 people with Russian flags marched to the city’s Constitution Square.

The Kharkov, protesters demanded that coup-imposed regional heads show up and speak with them, but none of the authorities came out. The police did not attempt to block the rally. The demonstrators gave officers white tulips and tied St. George’s ribbons on riot shields.

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Assange: NSA, GCHQ’s ability to surveil everyone on planet ‘almost here’

The NSA and GCHQ will soon have the ability to spy on the entire planet, as their capabilities double every 18 months, Julian Assange told the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference on Saturday.

The Wikileaks founder made a Skype appearance at the interactive technology festival, which is taking place in the city of Austin.

“The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there, and arguably will be there in a few years,” said Assange. “And that’s led to a huge transfer of power from the people who are surveilled upon to those who control the surveillance complex. It’s an interesting postmodern version of power.”

Assange also posed the question, “How is it that the internet that everyone looked upon as perhaps the greatest tool of human creation that had ever been has, in fact, been co-opted and [is] now involved in the most aggressive form of state surveillance the world has ever seen?”

He added that the world is “moving into a new totalitarian world — not in the sense of Stalin or Pol Pot, but totalitarian in the sense that the surveillance is total.”

#Assange: Totalitarian dystopia in the sense that the surveillance is total, so that no one can exist outside the state….

WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) March 8, 2014

Prior to the Edward Snowden leaks, the NSA’s public relations campaign was non-existent, Assange told the large audience while speaking from the Ecuadorian embassy in London. In fact, reporters used to joke that NSA stood for “no such agency.”

Snowden, a former contractor for the agency, last year exposed mass global surveillance programs led by the NSA and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), its British counterpart. The leaks exposed the agencies’ practices of tapping the internet networks, emails, and phone calls of millions of ordinary citizens and political leaders.

Assange criticized the current power balance as “totalitarian dystopia,” by which he meant that “surveillance is total, so that no one exists outside the state.”

Whereas only four years ago the internet was largely an apolitical space, it is has now – through movements such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement – become a tool to motivate and organize political change. This means that those in power will seek to control and surveil such a tool, the Australian activist said.

‘Courage is seeing fear’

To showcase the claim, Assange pointed at Snowden and various other whistleblowers, including those from Wikileaks.

British journalist and legal researcher Sarah Harrison, US filmmaker Laura Poitrasa, and US computer security researcher Jacob Applebaum are now all living in effective exile in Berlin, while Glenn Greenwald – who used to be a freelance writer for the Guardian and wrote many of the reports from Edward Snowden on the NSA – is in Brazil. Edward Snowden himself was forced to seek asylum in Russia.

#Assange: Harrison (UK), Poitras (US), Appelbaum (US) are now all in effective exile in Berlin. NatSec reporters are a new type of refugee.

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) March 8, 2014

Partly as a result of the NSA leaks scandal, Brazil has become a powerful advocate of trying to limitmass global surveillance. In April, the country will try to introduce changes to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) regulations. ICANN is responsible for the coordination of the global internet’s systems.

But Assange warned that it will be very difficult to turn back the tide of mass global surveillance, as the surveillance agencies hold all the cards and all the power. Specifically, it would be practically impossible for anyone within the government to meaningfully reduce the powers of the surveillance agencies.

“We know what happens when a government gets serious: someone gets fired, prosecuted, etc. These have not happened to the NSA,” he said.

#Assange: You’ve got no choice. You can no longer hide from the state or keep your head down. Arbitrary justice is arbitrary. #sxsw

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) March 8, 2014

He gave as an example the case of General David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, who was squeezed out over an extramarital affair scandal in 2012 – although the official version of events is that he resigned after an extramarital affair was discovered by the FBI, Assange said.

“There has been a military occupation of internet space – a very serious phenomenon,” Assange told the attendees.

Before Wikileaks exposures, “we weren’t actually living in the world, we were living in some fictitious representation of the world,” Assange noted. The surveillance of the internet is “the penetration of our civilian society. It means that there has been a militarization of our civilian space. A military occupation of the Internet, our civilian space, is a very serious one.”

“Only a fool has no fear. Courage is seeing fear,” he said.

When asked if he would have done anything differently over the past few years, Assange was adamant that he would not have stayed in the UK, adding that it has a distasteful class system, unlike his native Australia. He said he listened to bad advice from his lawyers, who have profited vastly from the publicity of representing him, while Assange himself has been stuck in the Ecuadorian Embassy for over a year and a half.

Assange said there will be more leaks to come, without specifying the timeframe. “Yes, there is important upcoming material,” he remarked. “I don’t like to give time frames because it tends to give the opponents of that material more time to prepare their spin lines.”

Assange is wanted in Sweden to face questioning for an alleged sexual offense, which he claims has been fabricated in order to get him to face trial in the US for the activity of Wikileaks.

He applied to Ecuador for political asylum in June 2012 and has been inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 19, 2012. Assange was formally granted asylum by Ecuador on August 16, 2012.

A team of police are on constant duty outside the embassy in case Assange tries to escape. The cost of keeping them there is estimated to have already reached US$4.5 million.

 

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