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Mourning turned to politics

The tipping point for Chris Hurst came last fall while reporting on a shooting at a rail car factory. When the camera turned off, he wept.

Just more than a year earlier, the 29-year-old's reporter girlfriend was gunned down while conducting an interview on live TV. Now, Hurst was using the same truck that Alison Parker had used the last day of her life to report live from the scene of another shooting.

Hurst realized he needed a drastic life change.

The former TV anchor is now running for political office, challenging a National Rifle Association-backed candidate for a competitive Virginia state House seat in a firearm friendly part of the state. Hurst sees it as a way to honour the memory of the woman he thought he'd marry and to give back to the community that helped him through his darkest days.

"When we understand that life is fragile, does that mean we give up and say life ain't worth it? No," Hurst said at a local Democratic committee meeting in March. "That's when we say it is worth it, and we do what we can when we're here to try to help another person."

Hurst was living with Parker when she and cameraman Adam Ward were fatally shot while reporting for WDBJ-TV in August 2015. The gunman, Vester Flanagan, posted video of the attack online and killed himself hours later.

After the shooting, Hurst became the public face of the grieving Roanoke station, bringing him national attention and a large social media following. That helped him become one of the top House candidate fundraisers last reporting period.

The Pennsylvania native, who quit his TV job and moved from Roanoke to Blacksburg to run in the 12th District, has been labeled a carpetbagger by Republicans looking to protect Del. Joseph Yost, a well-liked moderate. The district is among the few competitive House seats in southwest Virginia, a rural Republican stronghold.

Hurst is one of several young Democrats new to politics running for a Virginia House seat this year. President Donald Trump's election has fuelled a new interest in state and local politics, party leaders say, and Democrats hope they can put a dent in Republicans' sizeable House majority.

Hurst is no fan of Trump but says his reasons for running are more personal.

While at the station, he faced constant reminders of Parker. He struggled with walking past the place where he was told she was dead, and with covering stories about violence and death, he said.

"I knew that I could get myself up and pull myself together and do it, but I think it was at the price of my humanity," Hurst said.



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Marine Corps hazing

Officials at the Marine Corps' training base in South Carolina say half of 24 hazing complaints investigated since 2014 have been confirmed.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported Saturday that documents obtained through a public records request show the complaints involve all four of Parris Island's training battalions.

The newspapers have so far received heavily redacted documents from 15 investigations. Depot officials did not specify which 12 of them were substantiated.

One investigation found a "staggering level of misconduct" and recommended three Marines for courts-martial after trainees reported being choked, hit in the face, kicked in the stomach, and slammed into walls by their drill instructors in February 2015.

That case was among five involving the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion. That's the same unit scrutinized following the March 2016 death of Raheel Siddiqui, 20, of Taylor, Michigan, a recruit who fell several stories from a barracks stairwell after an altercation with a drill instructor.

Other allegations of drill instructors hazing recruits ranged from bathroom breaks denied to serious physical assaults. One recruit said a drill instructor vomited on him.

The names of the accused drill instructors, recruits and interviewed witnesses were blacked out in the 15 files supplied to the newspapers. Parris Island officials did not say whether any drill instructors have been disciplined.

But the Marine Corps has previously said that a probe following Siddiqui's death had identified up to 20 officers, drill instructors and other leaders who face administrative or potential criminal charges for taking part in misconduct or turning a blind eye to it.

The base's spokesman, Capt. Greg Carroll, said hazing is not widespread among the 60,000 recruits trained at Parris Island over the last three years.

He said steps the base has taken include adding assistant commanders to supervise drill instructors and recruits, and regularly evaluating Marines on their knowledge of the "Recruit Training Order." It defines hazing as "any activity which is cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning or harmful," whether physical or psychological.

The order also says training activities must accomplish a specific goal and can't be used solely to confuse, disorient or anger recruits.

"Everything we do has to have intent," said Maj. Steven Allshouse, director of Parris Island's drill instructor school.

 

Information from: The Island Packet, http://www.islandpacket.com



Tornado destruction

Severe storms including tornadoes have swept through several small towns in East Texas, leaving a trail of overturned vehicles, mangled trees and damaged homes.

Authorities believe as many as five people were killed and dozens injured, though they were still assessing the damage from the storms that swept through an area about 50 miles (80 kilometres) east of Dallas on Saturday evening.

"We're talking about I think maybe five casualties," Canton Fire Department Capt. Brian Horton said. "That number may go up ... once we can get into these areas."

Video from local television stations showed uprooted trees and overturned cars along rural, wet roadways, along with at least two flattened homes. The tornado flipped pickup trucks at a Dodge dealership in Canton and tore through the business.

Fifty-six people were treated at three hospitals and six remained hospitalized Sunday morning, two of them in critical condition, ETMC Regional Health Care Systems spokeswoman Rebecca Berkley said.

The National Weather Service confirmed at least three tornadoes swept through parts of three counties Saturday evening.

Horton asked that people who didn't need to be in the area to stay out, "so that our teams can do what they need to do to take care of these people who are in need." He noted that a triage centre was set up at the local high school.

One resident, Ernestine Cook, told Dallas television station WFAA she rushed to a storm centre just in time.

"It hit so hard, so fast. It just kept moving," she said. "I've never seen anything like it after 22 years of living here."



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On 'wrong side' of NAFTA

President Donald Trump has again raised the spectre of the U.S. pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying America has been on the "wrong side" of the trade pact for "many, many years."

Trump told a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., on Saturday night that he'll try to renegotiate the agreement with Canada and Mexico, but will terminate NAFTA if a "fair deal" for the U.S. can't be reached.

Trump also noted that his administration has ordered the collection of "billions and billions of dollars" in duties on imports from countries he says "break the rules."

The U.S. has already imposed tariffs of up to 24 per cent on Canadian softwood timber and is investigating whether steel and aluminum imports pose a threat to national security.

Trump told the crowd he was prepared to announce a few days ago that the U.S. was leaving NAFTA until he got calls from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto asking to negotiate.

The Financial Times reported Friday it received a leaked draft executive order that Trump had originally planned to sign on Saturday that would have given five days notice of the U.S. intention to leave NAFTA.

The document blames NAFTA for a "massive transfer of wealth" from the United States, the loss of 700,000 jobs and a more than $1-trillion trade deficit with Mexico since the agreement was enacted in 1993.

"We have been on the wrong side of the NAFTA deal with Canada and with Mexico for many, many years, many decades — we can't allow it to happen," Trump told Saturday's rally. "If we can't make a fair deal for our companies and our workers, we will terminate NAFTA."



Pressure on North Korea

President Donald Trump said in a television interview to be aired Sunday that he believes China's president has been putting pressure on North Korea as it pursues its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

In an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation," Trump said he won't be happy if North Korea conducts a nuclear test and that he believes Chinese President Xi Jinping won't be happy, either.

Asked if that means military action, Trump responded: "I don't know. I mean, we'll see."

On Saturday, a North Korean mid-range ballistic missile apparently failed shortly after launch, South Korea and the United States said, the third test-fire flop just this month but a clear message of defiance as a U.S. supercarrier conducts drills in nearby waters.

North Korean ballistic missile tests are banned by the United Nations because they're seen as part of the North's push for a nuclear-tipped missile that can hit the U.S. mainland. The latest test came as U.S. officials pivoted from a hard line to diplomacy at the U.N. in an effort to address what may be Washington's most pressing foreign policy challenge.

North Korea didn't immediately comment on the launch, though its state media on Saturday reiterated the country's goal of being able to strike the continental U.S.

The timing of the North's test was striking: Only hours earlier the U.N. Security Council held a ministerial meeting on Pyongyang's escalating weapons program. North Korean officials boycotted the meeting, which was chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the missile flew for several minutes and reached a maximum height of 71 kilometres (44 miles) before it apparently failed.

It didn't immediately provide an estimate on how far the missile flew, but a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said it was likely a medium-range KN-17 ballistic missile. It broke up a few minutes after the launch.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking after a meeting of Japan's National Security Council, said the missile is believed to have travelled about 50 kilometres (30 miles) and fallen on an inland part of North Korea.

Analysts say the KN-17 is a new Scud-type missile developed by North Korea. The North fired the same type of missile April 16, just a day after a massive military parade where it showed off its expanding missile arsenal, but U.S. officials called that launch a failure.

Some analysts say a missile the North test fired April 5, which U.S. officials identified as a Scud variant, also might have been a KN-17. U.S. officials said that missile spun out of control and crashed into the sea.

Moon Seong Mook, a South Korean analyst and former military official, says that the North would gain valuable knowledge even from failed launches as it continues to improve its technologies for missiles. The South Korean and Japanese assessments about Saturday's launch indicate that the North fired the missile from a higher-than-normal angle to prevent it from flying too far, he said.

"They could be testing a variety of things, such as the thrust of the rocket engine or the separation of stages," Moon said. "A failure is a failure, but that doesn't mean the launch was meaningless."

The two earlier launches were conducted from an eastern coastal area, but Saturday's missile was fired in the west, from an area near Pukchang, just north of the capital, Pyongyang.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry denounced the launch as an "obvious" violation of United Nations resolutions and the latest display of North Korea's "belligerence and recklessness."

"We sternly warn that the North Korean government will continue to face a variety of strong punitive measures issued by the U.N. Security Council and others if it continues to reject denuclearization and play with fire in front of the world," the ministry said.

Pope Francis warned that "a good part of humanity" will be destroyed if tensions with North Korea escalate, and he called for diplomacy and a revived United Nations to take the lead in negotiating a resolution.

Francis was asked as he travelled back to Rome from Egypt on Saturday local time (early Sunday morning Seoul time) about North Korean ballistic missile tests and U.S. warnings of "catastrophic" consequences if the world fails to stop them.

"Today, a wider war will destroy not a small part of humanity, but a good part of humanity and culture. Everything. Everything, no? It would be terrible. I don't think humanity today could bear it," he told reporters

The North routinely test-fires a variety of ballistic missiles, despite U.N. prohibitions, as part of its weapons development. While shorter-range missiles are somewhat routine, there is strong outside worry about each longer-range North Korean ballistic test.

Saturday's launch comes at a point of particularly high tension. Trump has sent a nuclear-powered submarine and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft supercarrier to Korean waters, and North Korea this week conducted large-scale, live-fire exercises on its eastern coast. The U.S. and South Korea also started installing a missile defence system that is supposed to be partially operational within days, while their two navies began joint military drills later Saturday.

The South Korean navy said the drills are aimed at "deterring North Korea's provocations and displaying the firm alliance between the United States and South Korea."

On Friday, the United States and China offered starkly different strategies for addressing North Korea's escalating nuclear threat as Tillerson demanded full enforcement of economic sanctions on Pyongyang and urged new penalties. Stepping back from suggestions of U.S. military action, he even offered aid to North Korea if it ends its nuclear weapons program.

The range of Tillerson's suggestions, which over a span of 24 hours also included restarting negotiations, reflected America's failure to halt North Korea's nuclear advances despite decades of U.S.-led sanctions, military threats and stop-and-go rounds of diplomatic engagement. As the North approaches the capability to hit the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, the Trump administration feels it is running out of time.

Chairing a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Tillerson declared that "failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences."

His ideas included a ban on North Korean coal imports and preventing its overseas guest labourers, a critical source of government revenue, from sending money home. And he warned of unilateral U.S. moves against international firms conducting banned business with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, which could ensnare banks in China, the North's primary trade partner.

Yet illustrating the international gulf over how best to tackle North Korea, several foreign ministers on the 15-member council expressed fears of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which was divided between the American-backed South and communist North even before the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended with no formal peace treaty. And while danger always has lurked, tensions have escalated dramatically as the North's young leader, Kim Jong Un, has expanded a nuclear arsenal his government says is needed to avert a U.S. invasion.

No voice at Friday's session was more important than that of China, a conduit for 90 per cent of North Korea's commerce and a country Trump is pinning hopes on for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis. Trump, who recently hosted President Xi Jinping for a Florida summit, has sometimes praised the Chinese leader for a newfound co-operation to crack down on North Korea and sometimes threatened a go-it-alone U.S. approach if Xi fails to deliver.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would adhere to past U.N. resolutions and wants a denuclearized peninsula. But he spelled out no further punitive steps his government might consider, despite Tillerson's assertions in an interview hours ahead of the council meeting that Beijing would impose sanctions of its own if North Korea conducts another nuclear test.

Wang put forward a familiar Chinese idea to ease tensions: North Korea suspending its nuclear and missile activities if the U.S. and South Korea stop military exercises in the region. Washington and Seoul reject the idea.

Tillerson said the U.S. does not seek regime change in North Korea, and he signalled American openness to holding direct negotiations with Pyongyang. The U.S. also could resume aid to North Korea once it "begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs," he said. Since 1995, he added, Washington has provided more than $1.3 billion to the impoverished country.

But the prospects for any more U.S. money going there appeared bleak. Even negotiations don't seem likely.

Tillerson said the North must take "concrete steps" to reduce its weapons threat before talks could occur. Six-nation nuclear negotiations with North Korea stalled in 2009. The Obama administration sought to resurrect them in 2012, but a deal to provide food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze soon collapsed.

"In a nutshell, (North Korea) has already declared not to attend any type of talks which would discuss its nuclear abandonment, nuclear disbandment," Kim In Ryong, North Korea's deputy U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press. His government declined to attend Friday's council meeting.

 



Hacker makes threat

A hacker claims to have followed through on a threat to release several episodes from the upcoming season of Netflix's hit series "Orange Is The New Black."

The hacker, who goes by the name The Dark Overlord, announced the move on Twitter early Saturday. The post included a link to an illegal file-sharing service where purportedly 10 episodes from the series' upcoming fifth season were available for download. The Associated Press could not legally confirm the authenticity of the uploaded files.

New episodes of "Orange" are scheduled for official release on June 9. Pirated copies of the series' episodes could dent Netflix's subscriber growth and the company's stock price. A spokeswoman for the video streaming service declined to comment on the release of the episodes Saturday.

Earlier, Netflix said that a small production vendor that works with several major TV studios suffered a breach. The Los Gatos, California, company described it as an "active situation" that's being investigated by the FBI and other authorities.

The Dark Overlord had been demanding that Netflix pay an unspecified ransom in exchange for not releasing the episodes prematurely online. In a statement online Saturday, the hacker noted that Netflix had remained "unresponsive" to the ransom request.

"It didn't have to be this way, Netflix," the hacker wrote. "You're going to lose a lot more money in all of this than what our modest offer was."

The hacker claims to have stolen other series from Netflix and other studios, including ABC, National Geographic and Fox. The Dark Overlord promised to also release titles from those other networks unless "modest" ransoms are paid.

Rumours of a massive leak of Hollywood films and TV episodes have been circulating online for months, fed by purported screenshots of the footage and a copy of a proposed deal to delete the stolen material in return for tens of thousands of dollars in electronic currency.

When the AP contacted The Dark Overlord in February, the hacker said the purloined video wouldn't be made publicly available after all, making the far-fetched claim that "no one really (cares) about unreleased movies and TV show episodes."

It's not clear what triggered The Dark Overload's renewed ransom demands.

Netflix is counting on "Orange" to help it add 3.2 million subscribers from April through June. That's substantially higher than the company's average gain of 1.8 million subscribers in the same period over the past five years.

Whenever Netflix's quarterly subscriber gains fall short of management's projections, the company's stock usually plunges.

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Tornado hits Texas

Nearly 50 people were taken to hospitals after a tornado hit a small city in East Texas on Saturday, including one with critical injuries.

Powerful storms swept through Canton and nearby areas about 50 miles (80 kilometres) east of Dallas, leaving behind a trail of overturned vehicles, mangled trees and damaged homes.

ETMC Regional Heathcare Systems hospitals in the area received 47 patients following the storm, including one person in critical condition, spokeswoman Rebecca Berkley said. She said a handful of other patients were en route Saturday night, though none with life-threatening injuries.

Several tornadoes were reported in the area, but only one tornado has been confirmed so far as having touched down in Canton, National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Fox said.

The extent of the damage in the area wasn't immediately clear. But video from local television stations showed uprooted trees and overturned cars along rural, wet roadways, along with at least two flattened homes. A Dodge car dealership also was hit.

A dispatcher at the Van Zandt County Sheriff's Office said officers were chasing numerous injury reports and declined further comment.



Press dinner without Trump

Prominent Washington journalists, if not Hollywood stars, celebrated the First Amendment during the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, an event that lacked the glitter of past years because of the absence of the president of the United States.

With President Donald Trump sending his regrets, the attention was no longer focused on an in-person roasting of the commander in chief and his humorous remarks about politics and the press. The red carpet that once featured Oscar winners, TV stars and a few major-league athletes barely turned heads.

Instead, speakers at the dinner promoted press freedom and responsibility and challenged Trump's accusations of dishonest reporting.

The stars of the night were Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who recounted what they learned about journalism from their reporting for The Washington Post that helped lead to President Richard Nixon's resignation more than 40 years ago.

"Like politicians and presidents sometimes, perhaps too frequently, we make mistakes and go too far," Woodward said. "When that happens we should own up to it. But the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Mr. President, the media is not 'fake news.'"

The evening was not without humour aimed at the press and Trump.

"We've got to address the elephant that's not in the room," cracked the entertainment headliner, Hasan Minhaj of "The Daily Show" on TV's Comedy Central. "The leader of our country is not here. And that's because he lives in Moscow. It's a very long flight. As for the other guy, I think he's in Pennsylvania because he can't take a joke."

Trump was indeed in Pennsylvania, having scheduled a rally in Harrisburg to mark his 100th day in office. He began his remarks with a lengthy if familiar attack on the news media while dismissing the dinner and its participants.

"A large group of Hollywood actors and Washington media are consoling each other in a hotel ballroom in our nation's capital right now," Trump said. He added: "And I could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington's swamp, spending my evening with all of you and with a much, much larger crowd and much better people, right?"

Trump became the first president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to skip the event — and Reagan was recovering from an assassination attempt.

The official WHCA dinner began in 1921. In recent decades, the event offered Washington's press corps an opportunity to wear black tie and stunning gowns while mixing with celebrity guests. Most people trace that development to 1987, when Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Kelly brought Fawn Hall, the secretary at the centre of the Iran-Contra affair.

Jeff Mason, the WHCA president, said before the event that this year's dinner would have been different even if Trump had attended, "based on the tension that has existed in the relationship and some of the things he has said about the press. We were preparing for a different dinner, either way."

The correspondents' dinner was briefly upstaged Saturday afternoon when late-night TV star Samantha Bee of "Full Frontal" pulled in celebrities for the first "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner," among them Alysia Reiner of "Orange Is the New Black," Retta of "Parks and Recreation" and Matt Walsh of "Veep."

Bee's taped show, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to American news organizations, featured actor Will Ferrell and other guests roasting Trump and his allies. It singled out the Committee to Protect Journalists, the non-profit group that will receive proceeds from the broadcast.

The WHCA awards and this year's recipients:

—Aldo Beckman Memorial Award winner: Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post for stories on President Barack Obama's speeches and policies that contrasted the realities of 2016 with the hopes of 2008.

—Merriman Smith Award winner for outstanding White House coverage under deadline: Edward-Isaac Dovere of Politico for his coverage of the historic meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

—Edgar A. Poe Award winner: David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for stories on Donald Trump's philanthropic claims.

 



Eight rescuers killed

Airstrikes struck a centre of Syria's rescuers known as the White Helmets in a rebel-held area in the country's centre, killing eight volunteers, opposition activists said Saturday.

The airstrike was one of the deadliest against the rescuers who operate in opposition-held areas and who have garnered world attention for operating in extreme conditions, pulling survivors out of recently struck areas. The volunteers have often been targeted by government airstrikes, in what are known as 'double tap' attacks, as they work to rescue others.

The local White Helmets in the central Hama province said an air raid on one of their centres in Kfar Zeita killed eight members of the team. The group said five bodies were lifted from the rubble and the rescuers continued to look for the others.

The Britain-based opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the number of those killed is likely to rise as the search mission continues.



U.S.-Turkey tensions rise

Tensions rose Saturday along the Turkish-Syrian border as both Turkey and the U.S. moved armoured vehicles to the region and Turkey's leader once again demanded that the United States stop supporting the Syrian Kurdish militants there.

The relocation of Turkish troops to an area near the border with Syria comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. Those patrols followed a Turkish airstrike against bases of Syrian Kurdish militia, Washington's main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria.

More U.S. troops were seen Saturday in armoured vehicles in Syria in Kurdish areas. Kurdish officials describe U.S. troop movement as "buffer" between them and Turkey.

But Turkey views Syria's Kurdish People's Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

"The YPG, and you know who's supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Syria's Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey's cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants "if needed."

Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores. The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat its attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia.

Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

On Saturday, more U.S. troops in armoured vehicles arrived in Kurdish areas, passing through Qamishli town, close to the border with Turkey. The town is mostly controlled by Kurdish forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport.

The convoy was followed by another of YPG militia. Some footage posted online showed Kurdish residents cheering American-flagged vehicles as they drove by.

U.S. officials say the troop movement is part of its operations with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group's expansion along its borders.

The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.



Fed up with Putin

Under the slogan "I'm fed up," demonstrators urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term rallied in cities across Russia on Saturday. Dozens were arrested in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

The centerpiece rally in Moscow went peacefully, despite being unsanctioned by authorities. Several hundred people rallied in a park then moved to the nearby presidential administration building to present letters telling Putin to stand down from running in 2018.

But in St. Petersburg, Associated Press journalists saw dozens arrested. The OVD-Info group that monitors political repression relayed reports of more arrests in several cities, including 20 in Tula and 14 in Kemerovo.

Putin has not announced whether he plans to run for president again next year.

He has dominated Russian politics since becoming president on New Year's Eve 1999 when Boris Yeltsin resigned. Even when he stepped away from the Kremlin to become prime minister in 2008-2012 because of term limits, he remained effectively Russia's leader.

Nationwide protests on March 26 appeared to rattle the Kremlin because of the demonstrations' unusual size and reach. The predominance of young people in those protests challenges the belief that the generation that grew up under Putin's heavy hand had become apolitical or disheartened.

Saturday's demonstrations were much smaller, but indicated that marginalized opposition forces will continue to push.

The demonstrations were called for by Open Russia, an organization started by Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

As an oil tycoon, Khodorkovsky was once listed as Russia's richest man, but his political ambitions put him at odds with the Kremlin. He was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison on tax-evasion and fraud convictions that supporters say were political persecution. He was pardoned in 2013, left the country and revived Open Russia as a British-based organization.

On Wednesday, Russia's Prosecutor-General banned Open Russia as an undesirable foreign organization. But the group's Moscow branch says it is administratively separate and not subject to the ban



Syrian gov. repels IS attack

Syria's military says its troops and allied fighters have repelled an attack by the Islamic State group on a government-held area south of Aleppo province.

The Saturday attack took place in Khanaser, southeast Aleppo — a strategic region that links Aleppo with central and western Syria.

The military media arm says the IS attack was repelled.

The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says IS fighters launched the attack on military posts in the area, triggering intense clashes and leaving many casualties.

IS-affiliated Aamaq news agency claimed IS fighters killed 30 government soldiers in the attack on Um Mayal village east of Khanaser.

The government wrested control of the strategically-located Khanaser from IS last year. Since, IS has lost most of the areas it had controlled in Aleppo province.



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