Militants Say IS-linked Group Carried Out Russian Market Attack

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a bomb attack earlier this week in a Russian supermarket in St. Petersburg. 

The militants said the explosion was carried out by an Islamic State-linked group, according to a statement made Friday by its Amaq news agency. 

The group did not provide any evidence for its claim. 

At least 13 people were injured when a homemade bomb detonated in a branch of the Perekrestok supermarket chain on Wednesday. 

Health officials said none of the victims suffered life-threatening injuries.

Russian investigators initially said they were treating the case as an act of attempted murder.

However, on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the explosion was an act of terrorism. He made the assertion at the Kremlin during an awards ceremony for Russian servicemen who had served in Syria.

Russia Reports Virulent H5N2 Bird Flu at 660,000-bird Farm

Russia has reported an outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 bird flu on a farm in the central region of Kostromskaya Oblast that led to the deaths of more than 660,000 birds, the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said Friday.

The virus killed more than 44,000 birds in an outbreak first detected on December 17, the OIE said, citing a report from the Russian Ministry of Agriculture.

The rest of the 663,500 birds on the farm were slaughtered, it said in the report. It did not specify the type of birds that were infected.

It is the first outbreak of the H5N2 strain in Russia this year, but the country has been facing regular outbreaks of H5N8 since early December last year, with the last one reported to the OIE detected late November.

Bird flu has led to the deaths or culling of more than 2.6 million birds on farms between December last year and November this year, a report posted on the OIE website showed.

Neither the H5N2 or H5N8 strains has been found in humans.

The virulence of highly pathogenic bird flu viruses has prompted countries to bar poultry imports from infected countries in earlier outbreaks.

Ukraine Kidnappers Free Bitcoin Analyst After $1 Million Ransom Paid

Kidnappers in Ukraine have released an employee at a United Kingdom-registered cryptocurrency exchange after getting more than $1 million in bitcoins as ransom, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister told Reuters on Friday.

Pavel Lerner, a leading analyst and expert in blockchains, or decentralized public ledgers, was abducted by unknown masked people on December 26, according to a statement by his company, EXMO Finance, on its website.

“This is the first such case in Ukraine linked to bitcoins,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, said in a phone text message.

It was unclear who paid the ransom. Lerner’s work at EXMO did not involve access to the financial assets of its users, the company said, adding that the platform was operating normally.

“At the moment, he is safe, and there was no physical harm inflicted on him,” the statement said.  “Nevertheless, Pavel is currently in a state of major stress. Therefore, he will not provide any official comments in the coming days.”

News of the release came as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies rebounded after two days of losses partly related to regulators toughening rules on digital currencies in an effort to curb excessive speculation. Many digital currencies surged in value this year.

Balaclavas

Strana.ua, a local news website, had earlier reported that six gun-toting men in dark clothing and balaclavas had snatched Lerner and pushed him into a minibus with stolen number plates.

Police have begun a criminal investigation after a man was kidnapped in the Obolon district of Kyiv, Oksana Blyshchyk, the Kyiv police spokeswoman, said by phone without revealing the name of the victim.

EXMO has 900,000 users as of December 2017, according to its website.

“We would like to note that the story of Pavel’s abduction has overgrown with rumors that might tamper with the official investigation,” EXMO said in its statement. “That said, EXMO currently refrains from any comments or suggestions of own versions of the possible scenario, in the nearest future.”

Separately, the company announced Thursday that it had been hit by a denial-of-service attack.

Putin Signs Law Allowing Expansion of Russian Naval Facility in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law ratifying an agreement enabling Russia to expand operations at its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus.

The document was posted on the official website for Russian legislation after Putin signed it Friday. 

It could help cement what Putin has said would be a “permanent” Russian presence at the Tartus facility and the Hmeimim air base, key platforms for Russia’s campaign backing Syria’s government in the nearly seven-year war in the Middle Eastern country.

The agreement, signed in Damascus in January 2017, allows for the Russian navy to expand the technical support and logistics facility at Tartus, which is Moscow’s only naval foothold in the Mediterranean.

It allows Russia to keep up to 11 warships, including nuclear-powered vessels, at Tartus at any time for the next 49 years. The deal is to be prolonged automatically for 25-year periods upon its expiration.

It also allows Russian ships to enter Syria’s territorial waters, internal waters and ports, to use the Tartus facility free of charge.

The agreement also provides Russian military personnel at the facility with immunity and regulates the status of the military personnel and members of their families there.

Critical Russian support

Russia has given President Bashar al-Assad’s government crucial support throughout the war, which began with a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011 and has resulted in hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions driven from their homes.

Moscow helped Assad avoid possible defeat by starting a campaign of airstrikes in September 2015, in many cases using Hmeimim as a base. It has also launched strikes from warships in the Mediterranean.

During a visit to the air base on December 11, Putin declared victory over “the most combat-capable international terrorist group” — a reference to the extremist group Islamic State — and announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops.

Western officials say that the Russian campaign, particularly in its earlier stages, has focused heavily on targeting rebels seeking Assad’s ouster rather than IS militants.

Putin said on Thursday that more than 48,000 Russian military personnel have served in the operation in Syria, and that the facilities at Hmeimim and Tartus would continue to operate “on a permanent basis.”

With IS in retreat and diplomats pressing ahead with efforts to forge a political solution, analysts say Russia is eager to make its position in Syria as strong as possible in order to wield influence on future developments.

Venezuelan Protesters Demand Promised Pork

Fed up with food shortages and exorbitant prices, Juana Medina joined hands Thursday with dozens of strangers on this capital city’s west side to register her fury.

“This political and economic system is killing us with hunger,” Medina complained to VOA as she and others formed a human chain to demand that the federal government deliver the pork they’d expected for the holiday season.

Similar anti-hunger demonstrations have surfaced in different regions of Venezuela since Saturday.

“Give us what we were promised. If President [Nicolas] Maduro promised, give it to us!” shouted Patricia, a young protester who identified herself only by her first name.

She was referring to a “Christmas combo,” including ham, that the Socialist leader in November had said would be provided to Venezuelans. As of Thursday, the promised food packages had reached few of the most vulnerable of Venezuela’s 30 million people.

The president blamed Portugal for the missing meat.

“What happened to the ham? They sabotaged us,” Maduro said of the Portuguese on Wednesday. He said he ordered the pork imports and authorized payment, but the Venezuelan government’s bank accounts were challenged.

Portugal’s foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, denied any attempt at sabotage. Reuters news agency said he told Portuguese radio station TSF, “The Portuguese certainly has no power to sabotage pork [deliveries]. We live in a market economy. Companies are in charge of exports.”   

The Portuguese agribusiness Raporal S.A. released a statement saying it denied the sale because Venezuela’s government still owes millions for hams sent by the company in 2016, according to Portugal’s Diario de Noticias.

Maduro’s excuses failed to appease hundreds of demonstrating Venezuelans, who saw the promised hams as a rare protein source in the country’s protracted economic crisis.

“My protest is simply because every time we go to the supermarket, the prices are very high and the salary does not stretch,” said Caracas protester Mireya Santos. She said of Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves but also many malnourished people, “I have a rich but poor country.”

According to the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers’ Center for Social Analysis, a month’s worth of basic food for a family of five cost more than 13 million bolivars – or roughly $130 on the black market – in November. But with the bolivar’s plunging value, Venezuela’s minimum-wage workers earned less than $4 a month.

Facebook, Twitter Threatened With Sanctions in Britain

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter could face sanctions in Britain if they fail to be more forthcoming in providing details about Russian disinformation campaigns that used their platforms in the run-up to last year’s Brexit referendum, the chairman of a British parliamentary inquiry committee warned.

The companies have been given until January 18 to hand over information.

Damian Collins, chairman of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport committee in the British parliament, which is looking into Russian fake news’ efforts, criticized both companies earlier this month, accusing them of stonewalling the parliamentary investigation. But he has now warned they risk being punished and he says his committee is exploring what sanctions could be imposed on Facebook and Twitter.

“What there has to be then is some mechanism of saying: if you fail to do that, if you ignore requests to act, if you fail to police the site effectively and deal with highly problematic content, then there has to be some sort of sanction against you,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

He dubbed the lack of cooperation by the social media firms as “extraordinary.”

“They don’t believe that they have any obligation at all to initiate their own investigation into what may or may not have been happening, he said. “They’ve not done any of that work at all.”

Parliamentary committees do not have the power in their own right to impose sanctions on erring companies. But British officials have expressed interest in punishing social media companies for failing to take action to stop their platforms from being exploited by agitators, whether they are working for foreign powers or non-state actors such as the Islamic State terror group.

In September in New York at the annual general assembly meeting of the United Nations, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed frustration with social media companies, saying they must go “further and faster” in removing extremist content and should aim to do so within two hours of it appearing on their sites.

“This is a major step in reclaiming the internet from those who would use it to do us harm,” she said.

The prime minister has repeatedly called for an end to “safe spaces” on social media for terrorists. And British ministers have called for limits to end-to-end encryption, which prevents messages from being read by third parties if they are intercepted.

British lawmakers and ministers aren’t the only ones considering ways to sanction social media firms that fail to police their sites to avoid them from being used to spread fake news or being exploited by militants. This month, Germany’s competition authority accused Facebook of violating European data protection regulations by merging information collected through WhatsApp and Instagram with Facebook user accounts.

Collins has written twice to the social media firms requesting information about suspected Russian fake news campaigns in the weeks and months before Britons voted in June 2016 on whether to retain membership in the European Union, Britain’s largest trading partner.

In a letter to Twitter, he wrote: “The information you have now shared with us is completely inadequate. … It seems odd that so far we have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you.”

In response to parliamentary requests for information about Russian interference in the EU referendum, including details of accounts operated by Russian misinformation actors, the social media firms passed on copies of the details they provided to Britain’s Electoral Commission, which is probing advertising originating from Russian actors during the lead up to the Brexit vote.

Facebook said only $0.97 had been spent on Brexit-related ads seen by British viewers. Twitter claimed the only Russian spending it received was $1,000 from the Russian state-owned broadcaster RT.

Russia has been accused of meddling in recent elections in America, France and elsewhere and of running disinformation campaigns aimed at poisoning political discourse in the West and sowing discord with fake news.

In November, Prime Minister May accused Vladimir Putin’s government of trying to “undermine free societies” and “planting fake stories” to “sow discord in the West. “Russia has denied the allegations.

Three days before Christmas, Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, sparred with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, over the issue of alleged Russian meddling in the Brexit referendum.

During his trip to Moscow, the first visit by a British foreign secretary to the Russian capital for five years, Lavrov denied at a joint press conference that the Kremlin had sought to meddle, saying Johnson himself had previously said there was “no evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.” Johnson corrected Lavrov, saying: “Not successfully, is what I said.”

So far the evidence of a major Russian social media effort during the Brexit referendum remains thin, and at least not on the alleged scale seen, according to investigators, during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

An investigation by the New York Times found that “Russian agents … disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service” ahead of the U.S. presidential vote.

In January 2017, the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence concluded: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

In October 2017, researchers at the City University of London found a “13,500-strong [Russian] Twitter bot army,” was present on the social media site around the time of the referendum.

Bot accounts post content automatically. Those accounts in the month prior to the Brexit vote posted a total of 65,000 tweets about the referendum with a slant towards the leave campaign, according to City University researchers.

But a subsequent study by the University of California, Berkeley, and Swansea University in Wales unearthed more pro-Brexit Russian bot accounts, tracking over 150,000 of them.

Bodies Emerge From Guatemala’s War-era ‘Model Villages’

It wasn’t only bullets and violence that killed thousands of indigenous people during Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war.

The government forced farmers into so-called model villages under strict army control to isolate them from the guerrillas. They were promised health care and other services, but instead were left to die from malnutrition and treatable illnesses. They weren’t included in the casualty count in the brutal conflict.

Now, in the hamlet of Santa Avelina, their bodies are being unearthed, identified and reburied. Among the bodies are scores of indigenous children who died from measles in the former model village, where residents lived in small, dirt-floor houses and sermons and Christian hymns were played from loudspeakers.

 

Miguel Torres, a 67-year-old farmer, recalled how the army occupied his community and, under the threat of accusing locals of being guerrillas and then killing them, made them live in the model village.

 

“We were afraid every day. They said if we weren’t there in a week they would burn the house. `We will leave it in ashes,”’ Torres recalled soldiers saying.

The strategy unfolded during the hardest years of the decades-long war. In 1979 the army began relocating people who had been displaced from the western mountains by fighting. The army had identified the Ixil indigenous region as the support base of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of Guatemala’s four guerrilla groups. Thus the Ixil region became a testing ground for the kind of `strategic hamlet’ program used by the United States in Vietnam.

 

In 1980 the army formed one of the first model villages in Santa Avelina, located in the heart of Ixil territory in Quiche department. But without access to doctors, a healthy diet and freedom, people began to die.

Exhumations in Santa Avelina started in 2014 and in late November forensic anthropologists handed over the remains of 172 people who perished during the years of military control. Their bones and tattered bits of clothing were re-buried individually by surviving family members after over more than three decades in anonymous mass graves.

Torres recovered the remains of his daughter Magdalena, who died at about age 1.

“The children were frightened because the soldiers came. The people ran up the mountain to hide. They thought they were going to die, that they had had come to kill them. When they get scared they die. Sometimes they got diarrhea, fever, and they died.” That’s how Torres explains the death of his daughter.

 

There is no official figure of how many people died of hunger and untreated diseases in the model villages, but there were more than 45 such villages, according to a report titled Recovery of Historic Memory prepared by the Roman Catholic Church, and Santa Avelina was just one of them.

 

Yeni De Leon of the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology, which was in charge of the exhumations, said about 45 percent of the 172 bodies exhumed in Santa Avelina correspond to children age 12 and under. Many died from a measles outbreak in the early 1980s.

Of the 7,000 bodies from the war the foundation has exhumed, about 1,000 are of displaced people who died in or as consequence of the model villages, said its executive director, Jose Suasnavar.

 

The Catholic report explains that besides a lack of medical care, hunger may have played a role in what happened in Santa Avelina and other model villages, which were under control of the army, whose responsibility it was to provide food for the inhabitants.

 

“The basic diet consisted of three tortillas and some beans for all three daily meals, on occasion a bit of rice,” the report reads. About 60,000 people likely lived in the model villages.

 

An estimated 250,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war, overwhelmingly by violence at the hands of soldiers, according to the United Nations. But in Santa Avelina the vast majority of the bodies presented no sign of violent injuries, indicating the victims perished from illness, malnutrition and other causes, said foundation anthropologist Danny Guzman.

The army was trying to regain control over northern Quiche from the guerrillas and prevent locals from joining their ranks.

 

“Putting them in the model villages was a perverse strategy” to attain these goals, said activist Mario Polanco of the Gam Mutual Support Group, which works to locate people who disappeared during the war.

 

“The villages were like an urban colony with streets, small, simple homes [of wood and sheet metal with dirt floors], highlighting symbols of national unity, values of Western culture. The way of life was like in a barracks,” said Edgar Gutierrez, former coordinator of the Catholic report. Gutierrez recalled that the villages had schedules for inhabitants to sing the national anthem in the morning as well as the hymn of the quasi-military civilian patrols.

 

“All manner of freedom was restricted and you could leave the community only with special permission,” Polanco said.

 

The villages were created with government funds and support from U.S. evangelical churches, which maintained close relations with then-dictator Efrain Rios Montt.

 

With the signing of peace accords in 1996, the model villages were gradually dismantled.

 

Today little has changed in Santa Avelina and poverty here is extreme. There are still homes of wood, sheet metal and wood floors built on the hillsides, though others have been upgraded with block construction. There are three paved roads while the rest are dirt.

 

Even less has been done to bring justice for the dead.

 

Edgar Perez, lawyer for the families of 1,771 Ixils killed by soldiers and who accuse Rios Montt of genocide, said the cases of the displaced have not been tried in Guatemala and that “these victims have been forgotten by justice.” He is not ruling out legal action over the deaths.

 

Rios Montt was convicted in 2013 and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide, but Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overruled the decision on procedural grounds and ordered a new trial. Currently the 91-year-old retired general is being prosecuted in absentia in a “special trial” due to his advanced age and precarious health. Even if found guilty he would not face any prison time.

 

Since the exhumations in Santa Avelina began, experts have identified 108 of the victims through DNA testing or through personal objects recognized by family members. The return of the bodies has given relatives a place to bring flowers and light candles as is tradition.

The historic event took a poignant turn with Josse Ceto Cobo, a local indigenous leader who was one of the principal promoters of the exhumations.

 

The 70-year-old was finally able to see his former neighbors properly interred — but died of unknown causes the day after their burials.

Reports: Turkey, Russia Sign Deal on Supply of S-400 Missiles

Turkey and Russia have signed an accord for Moscow to supply Ankara with S-400 surface-to-air missiles, CNN Turk and other media reported on Friday, finalizing a deal the two countries have been working on for more than a year.

The S-400 deal, reportedly worth about $2.5 billion, has caused concern in the West because Turkey is a member of NATO and the system cannot be integrated into NATO’s military architecture.

It is the latest in a series of moves by Ankara to boost its defense capabilities as it faces threats from Kurdish and Islamist militants at home and conflicts across its borders in Syria and Iraq.

No details of the accord were available and officials were not immediately available to comment. But Sergei Chemezov, head of the Russian state conglomerate Rostec, told the Kommersant daily on Wednesday Russia would supply Turkey with four batteries of S-400s under the deal.

He said Moscow was expected to begin the first deliveries in March 2020 and that Turkey was the first NATO member state to acquire the advanced S-400 missile system.

Borrowing ‘in rubles’

Earlier on Friday, Turkish newspapers cited President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying Turkey would borrow in the Russian currency in a loan deal under the accord.

“We will not borrow in dollars in this loan, we will borrow in rubles,” Hurriyet newspaper quoted Erdogan as telling reporters on his plane, returning from a trip to Africa.

According to Chemezov, Turkey would pay 45 percent of the cost of the agreement up front, with Russia providing loans to cover the remaining 55 percent.

The Russian Finance Ministry will finance a deal from the state treasury, while Russian banks will take part solely in the transfer of funds in the deal, a Russian banking source said.

Relations between Moscow and Ankara deteriorated sharply in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian air force jet that it said had crossed into Turkish airspace, but they have since repaired ties despite having backed different sides in the Syrian war. They are now cooperating on Syrian peace efforts as well as projects in the defense industry and energy sectors.

While pushing ahead with the S-400 project, Ankara has sought to secure defense deals with other countries as well.

In November, Turkey signed a letter of intent with France and Italy to strengthen cooperation on joint defense projects.

As a first step, the Franco-Italian EUROSAM consortium and Turkish companies will look into a system based on the SAMP-T missile systems.

Turkey has also invested heavily in the development of its domestic defense industry, with projects encompassing areas including combat helicopters, tanks, drones and warships.

 

Unknown Assailants Brutally Beat Russian Environmentalist

Members of a Russian environmental group say masked men attacked their leader in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar late Thursday.

Andrei Rudomakha, head of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, was hospitalized with multiple injuries including a fractured skull and broken nose.

Rudomakha and several other activists were returning from a trip to Russia’s Black Sea region, where they had documented the illegal construction of a luxury mansion.

Local authorities said they are investigating the incident.

For more than 20 years, Environmental Watch has exposed illegal landfills, the destruction of landscapes and the contamination of waterways in Russia’s south –  the Krasnodar, Stavropol, Rostov, Adygea, Karachayevo-Cherkesia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Some of the group’s investigations have exposed land grabs by Russian local officials.