Ebola Gains Momentum, Airstrikes Being Considered in Syria and the Ukraine Crisis Escalates Once Again

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The World Health organization estimates that the West African Ebola outbreak could exceed 20,000 cases, more than 6 times as many as doctors know about, while a new plan outlined by the U.N. health agency takes into account that the in hardest hit areas the actual number of cases is two to four times higher than reported, John Heilprin and Krista Larson report, UN: Ebola cases could eventually reach 20,000. The agency on Thursday published new figures reporting 1,552 people have died from among 3,069 cases reported so far in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. The U.N. health agency said at least 40 percent of the cases are from the last three weeks alone adding that “the outbreak continues to accelerate.” Nigerian authorities said a man who contracted the virus following contact with a traveler from Liberia evaded surveillance and infected a doctor in southern Nigeria who died, making it the first of 6 deaths reported in Nigeria to occur outside the commercial capital of Lagos where American man Patrick Sawyer arrived in late July and later died of Ebola. On Wednesday, Nigeria authorities said they have not eliminated but contained the virus. Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu told reporters: “After four days, following a manhunt for him, he returned to Lagos by which time he was found to be without symptoms. This case would have been of no further interest since he had completed the 21 days of surveillance without any other issue but for the fact that the doctor who treated him died.” The doctor’s wife along with the morticians who embalmed the doctor are part of a group of 70 people under surveillance in Port Harcourt. Carolyn Thompson reports, Ebola in mind, US colleges screen some students, college students from West Africa may be subjected to extra health checks when they arrive to study in the United States as administrators try to insulate campuses from the worst Ebola outbreak in history. Several thousands students are arriving from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria putting U.S. authorities on alert but cautioning against alarm. While the Center of Disease Control and Prevention has no specific recommendations fro colleges, some state health departments are spelling out what to look for and how to react. In addition universities are drafting their own precautionary plans against the disease. The American College Health Association recommends their members update emergency plans, find out where patients have traveled and use isolation rooms when available. The federal government says U.S. universities count 9,728 active students from Nigeria, 204 from Liberia, 169 from Sierra Leone and 95 students from Guinea. The roughly 30 Nigerian students at University of Illinois will be pulled aside for temperature checks and private Ebola discussions when they arrive at the health center for mandatory immunization paperwork and tuberculosis screenings, according to the center’s director, Dr. Robert Palinkas. Similar screening will also take place at the University at Buffalo, Mercer University in Georgia, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the University of Akron in Ohio. Universities in the United Kingdom will also be on alert as thousands of Nigerian students arrive there and Universities UK has circulated guidance from Public Health England advising administrators on how to recognize and react to possible cases.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Islamic group killed more than 150 troops captured in recent fighting for military bases in northeastern Syria in the past 24 hours by shooting some and slashing others with knives in the latest mass killing, while in southern Syria, gunmen detained 43 U.N. peacekeepers fighting on the Syrian side of Golan Heights early Thursday, Ryan Lucas and Zeina Karam reports, Islamic state group kills captured Syrian soldiers. In addition, the Britain based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 81 peacekeepers were trapped in the area due to heavy fighting between rebels and Syrian troops. Many of the soldiers that were killed were rounded up Wednesday in the arid countryside near Tabqa airfield three days after fighters seized the base. In Iraq, the group killed nearly 200 men in late June near the northern city of Tikrit and like the recent slaughter posted videos and photos online of the men before and after the killings. Earlier in the month, Islamic State fighters shot and beheaded hundreds of tribesmen in eastern Syria who had risen up against the group. A U.N. commission has accused the Islamic State group Wednesday of committing crimes against humanity in Syria same as in Iraq. So far, the bloody conflict in Syria has cost more than 190,000 loves and destabilized the region. In a statement by the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the government holds “the terrorist groups and those who support them fully responsible for the safety of the U.N. peacekeepers, and calls for their immediate release.” A statement from Ban’s office said the U.N. “is making every effort to secure the release of the detained peacekeepers.” As of July, UNODF had 1,223 troops from six countries including Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands and the Philippines. A rebel spokesman said the opposition is fighting President Bashar Assad and poses no threat to Israel. The Associate Press reports, 44 Fijian soldiers held captive by rebels in Syria, that 44 soldiers working as U.N. peacekeepers remain captive in Syria Friday while 75 Philippine soldiers were in tense standoffs with militants, the two nations reported. Fijian Commander Brig. Gen. Mosese Tikoitoga said he’s been informed his soldiers are alive and unharmed, while Philippines President Benigno Aquino III said that his troops are not in immediate danger. The events began Thursday morning o the Syrian side of Golan Heights, an area divided between Israel and Syria. Tikoitoga said three vehicles filled with 150 armed rebels converged on the Fijian camp at 7:30 a.m. demanding the soldiers leave within 10 minutes and insisted they board the rebel vehicles. The Fijians were taken to an unknown location then returned to their original post. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday condemned the detention of the Fijians: “I call for their immediate and unconditional release as well as action for the scores of peacekeepers from the Philippines who are also affected.” Tikoitoga said: “We will not shy away from that responsibility under these circumstances. We will continue to work very hard for the release of our men and at the same time we will put all our men on alert to ensure that no further incidents of this sort happen to them.”

In the United States, President Barack Obama on Thursday said “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the violent militant group seeking to establish a caliphate in the Middle East, Julie Pace reported, Obama tamps down prospect of strikes in Syria. The president spoke shortly before a meeting with his national security advisers on a range of Pentagon options for confronting the group and said his strategy will require not only military action but regional strategy that include political support from other countries in the region. Obama said, hinting to the group’s announcement last week it had killed American journalist James Foley and threatened to kill other U.S. hostages: “They have no ideology beyond violence and chaos and the slaughter of innocent people.” The U.S. already is striking Islamic State targets in Iraq and the president is considering similar action in Syria in the wake of Foley’s death as militants move between the two countries with ease. The main focus, however for now, the president said Thursday was to roll back militant gains in Iraq where they pose a threat to U.S. personnel in Ebril and Baghdad. Obama said any military action will be discussed with members of Congress when they return to Washington in early September. “The suggestion has been that we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow Congress, still out of town, will be left in the dark. That’s not what’s going to happen,” Obama said. Ryan Gorman reports, Britain raises terror threat level, will begin revoking passports of those who travel to Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Friday at a press conference that U.K. authorities will soon revoke passports of citizens traveling to Syria. Cameron declared: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous extremist ideology.” British authorities raised the terror threat level Friday to one below critical, the highest alert, as it felt an attack is likely. Cameron explained: “What we’re facing in Iraq and Syria now with ISIL is a deeper and greater threat to our security than we have ever known before. Islam is a religion observed peacefully by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a poisonous ideology observed by a minority. [ISIL is] a terror threat seeking to establish and then violently expand its own terror state. We could face a terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO state.” Cameron emphasized that Britain will not send in ground troops, but will provide intelligence to the U.S. while they conduct airstrikes in the region and provide humanitarian air drops as well as help arm Kurdish forces in their fight against the terror state. He said: “We support the U.S. airstrikes aginst ISIL in Iraq. Even if you solve the problems, of ISIL, Iraq and Syria – you still have the problem of poisonous Islamist extremism.”

Meanwhile in eastern Europe, Ukraine’s president called an emergency meeting of the nation’s security council Thursday to declare that “Russian forces have entered Ukraine” as concerns grow of a new front in the conflict, the Associated Press reports, Strategic Ukraine town under rebel control. President Petro Poroshenko convened the meeting as the southeastern Ukraine town of Novoazovsk appeared firmly under the control of Russia backed separatists. Russian markets took a dive as fears grew that the country has escalated its role in the conflict which could provoke U.S. and European Union to impose more sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals. Poroshenko said: “I have decided to cancel my visit to Turkey because of the sharp escalation of the situation in the Donetsk region… as Russian forces have entered Ukraine.” The Associated Press explains what such a move could mean and why Novoazovsk is a strategic move: “The new southeastern front raised fears that the separatists are seeking to create a land link between Russia and Crimea. If successful, it could give them or Russia control over the entire Sea of Azov and the gas and mineral riches that energy experts believe it contains. Ukraine already has lost roughly half its coastline, several major ports and significant Black Sea mineral rights in March when Russia annexed Crimea.” In a statement, Donetsk city administration said 11 people were killed by shelling during the night. The U.S. government accused Russia of the new military campaign in Ukraine that is helping rebel forces expand their fighting and sending in tanks, rocket launchers and armored vehicles. “These incursions indicate a Russian-directed counteroffensive is likely underway in Donetsk and Luhansk,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. She cited reports of burials in Russia for those who died in Ukraine and wounded Russian soldiers being treated in St. Petersburg hospital. The same day, the U.N. Security Council met in an emergency meeting to discuss the Ukraine crisis, according to the Associated Press, U.N. Security Council meets on Ukraine crisis. U.N. undersecretary-General of Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told the members that the latest developments mark a “dangerous escalation in the conflict,” but the international body had no way of verifying the latest “deeply alarming reports.” Statements from NATO, Poroshenko ,the separatists, the United States and the president of the Security Council left no doubt that Russia had invaded Ukraine. A NATO officials said 1,000 Russian troops have entered Ukraine with sophisticated equipment and have been in direct contact with Ukrainian soldiers resulting in casualties. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power tld the council: “Every single one has sent a straightforward, unified message: `Russia, stop this conflict. Russia is not listening.’ Russia has come before the council to say everything but the truth. We will continue working with G-7 partners to rachet up consequences on Russia.” UK Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters: “Russia will be asked to explain why Russia has its troops inside Ukraine. It’s very clear that Russian regular troops are now in Ukraine.”

President Barack Obama on Thursday said the U.S. night impose new economic sanctions on Russia blaming the warfare in eastern Ukraine solely on them and ruled out military options or proposed no shift in American led strategy to convince Moscow to halt its operation, Bradley Klapper, Obama puts Ukraine violence squarely on Russia. Obama spoke via phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led diplomatic efforts to end the fighting between Ukraine and Russian backed rebels: “We agree, if there was ever any doubt, that Russia is responsible for the violence in eastern Ukraine. The violence is encouraged by Russia. The separatists are trained by Russia, they are armed by Russia, they are funded by Russia. Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the new images of Russian forces inside Ukraine make that plain for the world to see.” Russia continued to deny allegation saying there is no proof its troops are operating in Ukraine. Obama said regarding his strategy: “What we’re doing is to mobilize the international community to apply pressure on Russia. But I think it is very important to recognize that a military solution to this problem is not going to be forthcoming.” On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on pro-Russian separatists to release Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, according to Nataliya Vasilyeva, Russia’s Putin urges release of Ukrainian soldiers. Putin’s statement came hours after Ukraine accused Russia of entering the territory with tanks, artillery and troops, and Western powers accused Moscow of lying about its role and dangerously escalating the conflict. In his state released early Friday published on the Kremlin’s website, Putin said: “I’m calling on insurgents to open a humanitarian corridor for Ukrainian troops who were surrounded in order to avoid senseless deaths.” Putin did praise the efforts by what he called “insurgents” against the Kiev government, but did not address the accusations. A top rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko said on Russia’s state Rossiya 24 televisions: “With all our respect to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the president of a country which gives us moral support, we are ready to open humanitarian corridors to the Ukrainian troops who were surrounded with the condition that they surrender heavy weaponry and ammunition so that this weaponry and ammunition will not be used against us in future.” The U.N. human rights office said Friday the death toll stands at 2,220 in eastern Ukraine with a rate of three dozen a day and accused both sides of deliberately targeting civilians. Vasilyeva reports: “Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine have carried out murders, torture and abductions along with other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, according to the mission’s field work between July 16 and Aug. 17. The report also said Ukraine’s military is guilty of human rights violations such as arbitrary detentions, disappearances and torture.” U.N. Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic who visited Kiev Friday said the death toll reached 2,600 by Aug. 27 and described the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine as alarming. European Union foreign ministers met in Milan Friday to weigh the 8 nation bloc’s stance on beefing up economic sanction against Russia in order to prepare for further steps to be announced at the summit of the bloc’s leaders Saturday in Brussels.

Russia Receives New Sanctions While Embattled Rebels Continue to Fight in Eastern Ukraine

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courtesy of ABC7

On Wednesday, the United States imposed comprehensive sanctions on Russia’s economy including Gazprombank and the Rosneft Oil Co and other major banks, energy and defense companies. As Anna Yukhananov, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason report, US imposes toughest sanctions yet on Russia over Ukraine, Washington has increased its financial sanctions on Russia due to Moscow’s alleged interference in its neighbor Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Other targeted companies include Russia’s second-largest gas producer, Novatek, Vnesheconombank, or VEB, a state-owned bank that acts as payment agent for the Russian government, and eight arms firms. The U.S. Treasury Department said the measures close medium and long term dollar funding to the two banks and energy companies, however, the sanctions did not freeze these four companies’ assets. The sanctions do not target Russia’s Gazprom, which owns 36 percent of Gazprombank, the world’s largest natural gas producer and provider of most of Europe’s energy supplies. On the same day, the European Union leaders met in Brussels to expand their own sanctions on Russia. The U.S. sanctions now include Feodosiva Enterprises, a shipping facility in Crimea, and senior Russian officials including the deputy head of the State Duma, or parliament, the minister of the Crimea, a commander of the Russian intelligence agency FSB, and a Ukrainian separatist leader. On Wesdnesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, “There are some clear steps that we’ve asked Russia to take that they haven’t taken. And that is what has elevated the risk that Russia faces right now as it relates to additional economic costs that could be imposed by the international community.” In addition, Washington said that 12,000 Russian forces were back on the border with Ukraine and weapons were crossing over to pro-Russian separatists.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin on Thursday stated that the recent addition to U.S. sanctions against Russia will stalemate bilateral relations and hurt Russian and American businesses, Nataliya Vasilyeva reports, Putin Speaks Out Against New U.S. Sanctions. According to Vasilyeva: “Russia’s benchmark MICEX was down 2.9 percent in late afternoon trading Thursday upon news of the sanctions while Russia’s biggest oil company, Rosneft, was nearly 5 percent down and second-largest oil producer was trading 9 percent lower.” Putin’s comments came hours after President Barack Obama announced border sanctions against Russia. The POTUS hopes that the increased pressure will end the insurgency in eastern Ukraine which is believed to be backed by the Kremlin. The U.S. penalties stop short of the most stringent action threatened which is to cut off key sectors of Russia’s oil dependent economy, however, those steps are on the table if Russia fails to agree to the West demands to stop supporting insurgents who have destabilized eastern Ukraine. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has gone on for four months in a conflict the U.N. says has killed over 400 people and displaced tens of thousands. The conflict began shortly after Russia annexed Crimea. Putin warned Washington that the sanctions will backlash against American companies working in Russia including Rosneft and Novatek which are both barred from getting long term loans from U.S. entities. Moscow based investment bank Sberbank-CIB said in a note to investors that Russian companies cannot replace long term loans from the U.S. immediately, while Rosneft’s multimillion dollar deal with ExxonMobil may be in jeopardy. Russia’s foreign minitry dismissed the sanctions as bullying and said it will push back. In addition, Prime Minister Dimtry Medvedev in televised remarks said the sanctions are throwing Russia’s relations with the west back to the 1980s adding that Russia “will have to pay more attention to military and security spending.” Putin did not mention the additional sanctions from the European Union which urge the European Investment Bank to sign no new financing agreements with Moscow and was suspending operations in Russia financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, according to Vasilyeva. The foreign ministry did lash out at the EU’s new sanctions by accusing Europe of “giving in to the bullying of the U.S. administration.”

While Russia got hit with sanctions from more than one governmental entity, pro-Moscow separatists battle to break through government forces near the border with Russia in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday as steps toward a ceasefire failed. Fighting has intensified since Ukrainian forces pushed rebels out of their stronghold in the town of Slaviansk 10 days ago, Richard Balmforth and Anton Zverev report (As Fighting In East Ukraine Intensifies, Hundreds Of Bodies Of Rebels Found In Shallow Graves). The Ukrainian military said 11 more troops were killed in 24 hours near the frontier. Ukraine has tried to put down a revolt of heavily armed fighters since April, many of them Russian who want independence for two eastern provinces. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March after pro-Russian president was ousted in Kiev. Moscow has denied supporting the separatist fighters, but Kiev says many of them and their leaders came from Russia and brought heavy weapons with them. Ukrainian troops are concentrating their efforts on securing the frontier to prevent more fighters and weapons from coming in.

The escalation in recent days raised the prospect that Moscow could intervene in Ukraine directly, as Kiev reports, the numbers of Russian troops have risen at the border area again. In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy,  Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko provided evidence of fighters crossing into Ukraine from Russia with heavy military equipment. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk in a speech on his website said: “Everything which is happening in Ukraine has been planned by Russia since 2004. Putin has a clear plan and that is to destroy Ukraine and establish his influence over post-Soviet space.” Around 270 Ukrainian servicemen and hundreds of civilians and rebels have been killed since operations began in April to crush the rebels. Lysenko, a Ukrainian military spokesman, said that in Slaviansk, the former rebel stronghold, “hundreds of bodies of…(rebel) fighters” had been found in shallow graves. Some of these graves have been mined by the terrorists. Efforts to forge a truce have failed after a planned video link up with separatists on Tuesday never materialized. Since losing Slaviansk, hundreds of rebel fighters moved to Donetsk vowing to make a stand. The city itself has seen a drop in its pre-conflict population of 1 million as many flee the city fearing a government offensive.

While fighting continued on the ground, a Malyasian Airlines passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, and both the government and pro-Russia separatists deny any responsibility. As Peter Leonard reports, Ukraine: Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 passengers shot down, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the wreckage site near rebel held Hrabove 40 kilometers from the Russian border. The village has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days. A Russian news reports said pro-Russian rebels intend to call a three day ceasefire in order to allow for investigation of the crash site and recovery efforts. The Boeing 777-200ER was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and appears to have broken up before impact spreading the wreckage over a wide area. Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters that Malaysia was unable to verify “the cause of this tragedy but we must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight” and added that the plane didn’t make any distress call before it went down. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and wants an international investigation into the crash insisting that his forces did not shoot it down. According to Huib Gorter, Malaysian Airlines senior vice president in Europe, at least 154 people on the flight were Dutch citizens, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians including 15 crew and 11 Indonesians. In addition, other nationalities included six from the United Kingdom, four from Germany, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian. Unfortunately, 47 dead passengers are still unidentified. Ukraine’s security services said they intercepted two telephone conversations that showed rebels were responsible. Earlier in the week, rebels claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military plans. In a Kremlin statement issued early Friday, Putin said, “This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.” Britain has asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine. Within hours of Thursday’s crash, several airlines including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace. Poroshenko stated: “We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets. We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.” The White confirmed the call made by Putin to inform “the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory.” Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the Associate Press he was certain that Ukrainian troops shot down the plane and that rebels forces if they owned Buk missile launchers were not capable of operating them. Around the time of the crash, Russian media quoted witnesses saying they saw what they thought was a rocket hit the plane. This is the second time a Malaysian Airlines plane was lost in less than six months.  In another article, Ukraine: Pro-Russia rebels downed Malaysian plane, Peter Leonard reports that American intelligence authorities allege a surface to air missile brought down the plane but still don’t know if Russia or Ukraine had fired it. The U.S. has the technology to detect missile launches including the identification of heat from rocket engines.