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Polish Foreign Minister Levels Veiled Criticism At Russia

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MALAYSIA AIRLINES
OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) delegation members, background, work at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines jet near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Saturday, July 19, 2014. | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's foreign minister had sharp words on the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet in Ukraine — blaming the crash on Russia-backed "bandits." But throughout most of central and eastern Europe, leaders withheld judgment, expressing shock but refusing to say more until more facts are in.

The caution is not surprising: Several former Soviet satellite states have developed closer economic ties to Russia in recent years, making them unwilling to take a strong stand against Moscow in the Ukraine conflict. Though all have condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea, they are divided over what to do beyond that, differences dictated largely by the depth of those economic ties — and whether they feel at risk themselves from Moscow's might.

With uncertainty surrounding Thursday's plane crash, most have little to gain from pointing fingers, especially since the tragedy, which killed 298 people, is unlikely to blunt Russia's growing clout in the region, experts say.

"No one should expect change in the relations between Russia and any of the central European countries unless clear evidence of Moscow's involvement is presented," said Dariusz Kalan, an analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs. "Even then, a radical turn would be unlikely since the political, economic and energy contacts are so developed."

"A temporary and mostly rhetorical chill of relations with Russia is the heaviest reply that the region can afford," Kalan added.

Other experts argued, however, that confirmation of Russian involvement in the crash would force the region to take a harder stance against Moscow.

In some ways, divisions in the former Soviet bloc mirror tensions further West: France and Germany have continued to cultivate business ties with Russia, while the United States has taken a stronger line. On the plane crash, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there's still "no clarity," showing more caution than the United States, with President Barack Obama linking the crash to "sophisticated equipment ... coming from Russia."

"We have to be careful not to impose Cold War cliches on the region," said Jakub Groszkowski, an analyst with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. "The governments in Prague or Bratislava are acting in a similar way to cabinets in Paris or Vienna."

But Russia's old Soviet bloc neighbors do face uniquely wrenching choices. The region has a history of dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. Economic ties deepened further after the global financial crisis of 2008-09 pushed several countries to forge new economic deals with Russia. When Western markets shrank, export-oriented countries like the Czech Republic turned to Russia, China and elsewhere for new opportunities.

Those who back the toughest stance toward Russia are Poland, the three Baltic states and Romania — all countries that fear for their own safety due to proximity to Russia and which, unlike their neighbors, are trying to limit Russian influence at home. The large numbers of ethnic Russians in Estonia and Latvia — 25 and 30 percent of the populations respectively — add to Baltic anxieties.

After the plane crash, Baltic leaders called for an international investigation and many politicians there quickly blamed Moscow for its role as an alleged weapons supplier to the Ukrainian separatists. The disaster underscores "the need to put an end to the domineering of separatist armed groups backed by Russia," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said Friday.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said he was concerned about reports that the Ukrainians have captured recordings of phone conversations that indicate the pro-Russian separatists might be responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

"This is how things end when you supply bandits with advanced weapons," Sikorski said.

His comments are consistent with Poland's longstanding anxieties of Russia's resurgence. Since the crisis broke out in Ukraine this year, Poland has been seeking more security protections from NATO and the United States, leaving Poles hugely relieved when Obama pledged to do more to protect the region during his visit to Warsaw last month.

But the relief was not universal across the former Soviet bloc. Czech and Slovak leaders made clear they don't see a need for increased security and would not welcome NATO troops. Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia, like Poland a NATO member, even likened "foreign troops" to the Soviet soldiers who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Hungary and Bulgaria have been pursuing new deals that increase their energy dependence on Russia. The most controversial is South Stream, a planned pipeline opposed by the EU that would bring Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Austria. Bulgaria tapped a consortium headed by Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch close to the Kremlin who is on the U.S. sanctions list, to build its part of the pipeline.

Bulgaria is probably the most pro-Russian country in the region, with sympathies born of a Slavic brotherhood rooted in past alliances. The current government and its supporters include former communists, adding to Western worries that some in the ruling circle could be working secretly for Russia's interests from within NATO and the 28-nation European Union.

The shift toward Russia is more surprising in the Czech Republic. Only a few years ago it agreed to host a U.S. missile defense site, a plan that sparked Moscow's anger. Obama has since dropped plans for the Czech site.

The left-wing Social Democrats, who opposed the missile defense plan all along, are now in power. In a change from the Vaclav Havel-era focus on human rights, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka says it makes no sense to halt business with Russia because other countries would just take it over. He warns against creating "a new Iron Curtain between the European Union and Russia."

"The Czechs feel safer than, say, the Baltic states since they are surrounded by NATO members and Austria," Groszkowski said. "But they worry their economy could worsen due to tensions between the EU and Russia."

In Slovakia, Fico, the prime minister, has repeatedly said he wants to remain "a reliable partner" for Russia, though he also vows the nation will meet its obligations as a NATO member.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has radically changed his tone toward Moscow since he entered the political scene as a young revolutionary in 1989 with a fiery speech calling on Soviet troops to leave. Since taking power in 2010, the 51-year-old has deepened his country's energy ties with Russia, Hungary's biggest trading partner outside the EU.

Orban tapped a Russian company, Rosatom, to expand the country's only nuclear facility, a 12 billion-euro ($16.2 billion) deal granted without an open tender — but with the promise of a loan from Russia.

___

Associated Press writers Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia; Karel Janicek in Prague; Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria; Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary; and Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania contributed to this report.

___

Follow Vanessa Gera at https://twitter.com/VanessaGera

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A document shows that EU sanctions ar targeting Russian businesses, the AP reports:

A European Union document shows that among those targeted by the EU-wide asset freeze and travel ban are Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian Federal Security.

Also targeted is Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB service that oversees international operations and intelligence activity.

Read the full story here.

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Associated Press journalists in Ukraine saw a BUK missile system -- the type that the US says downed Flight MH17 -- in rebel hands just hours before the plane was shot down, the news agency says in detailed account of the day's events. AP says that while the rebels officially deny responsibility, "the denials are increasingly challenged by accounts of residents, the observations of journalists on the ground, and the statements of one rebel official." Further, one rebel official told AP that they were behind the plane tragedy.

More from the AP story:

A highly placed rebel, speaking to the AP this week, admitted that rebels were responsible. He said a unit based in the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, made up of both Russians and Ukrainians, was involved in the firing of an SA-11 from near Snizhne. The rebel, who has direct access to the inner circle of the insurgent leadership in Donetsk, said that he could not be named because he was contradicting the rebels' official line.

The rebels believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane, this person said. Instead, they hit the passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard were killed.

Read the full account here.

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In a briefing on Friday, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there has been a "steady flow" of weapons from Russia into Ukraine, and emphasized the position that Russia played a role in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reports.

The Pentagon said on Friday that the transfer of missile systems from Russia to separatists in Ukraine appeared to be imminent. On Thursday, the U.S. claimed that Russia had fired on Ukrainian military positions.

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Ukraine's security service, SBU, on Friday released a recording it said was of a phone call between pro-Russian separatists discussing a plane overhead, minutes before the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over east Ukraine. “I see… Roger... Report it upstairs,” the rebel commander says, according to a translation.

Writing for Mashable, Christopher Miller notes that the recording has not been authenticated and the commander "stops short of giving the order to shoot down Flight 17," however the implication is clearly to build a case that the rebels shot down the plane.

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Responding to U.S. officials assertion that Russia was firing artillery on Ukrainian military positions across the border, Russia on Friday countered by calling the claim a baseless "smear campaign,"AFP reports.

A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said, "Due to the smear campaign against us that the US Administration has begun... we reject the unfounded public insinuations that US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf is spreading on a daily basis," adding that Harf has used "a basketful of these anti-Russian cliches," to influence perceptions of Russia. The statement refuted the U.S. State Departments claim on Russia targeting Ukraine military, saying "There are no facts or specifics about these falsehoods."

More from AFP.

-- Andrew Hart

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Reuters reports:

The Pentagon said on Friday the transfer of heavy caliber multiple launch rocket systems from
Russia to Ukrainian separatists appeared to be imminent, with the arms close enough to the border they could be handed over "potentially today."

"We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple launch rocket systems in the very near future," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that the weapons were in the over-200mm range.

Warren indicated the weapons had been seen getting closer to the border and the Pentagon believed a transfer was imminent and "potentially today."

"We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment," he said.

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Reuters reports:

(Reuters) - Australia will send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by Ukraine's parliament.

"This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective," Abbott told reporters. "I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks."

Read the full story here.

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A leading Russian newspaper has issued an apology on its front page, asking for forgiveness from the people of the Netherlands who lost their loved ones in the Malaysian Airlines plane crash. The front page of Novaya Gazeta on Friday featured the words "Vergeef ons, Nederlands" (Forgive Us, Netherlands) in bold above a heartbreaking image of the line of hearses carrying MH17 victim's bodies.

Read the full story on the Huffington Post here.

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CNN reports that the European Union slapped sanctions on 15 more people and 18 entities due to the Ukraine crisis, according to an announcement Friday. Already 87 people have been subject to EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans, as well as 20 entities, CNN said.

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From the Associated Press:

FIFA rejected calls to move the 2018 World Cup from Russia, saying the tournament "can achieve positive change."

Russia's alleged involvement in shooting down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine last week prompted calls from some lawmakers in Germany to review the country's hosting rights.

On Friday, FIFA issued a statement saying it "deplores any form of violence" and questioning the purpose of relocating the sport's showcase tournament.

"History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems," FIFA said, adding that global attention on the World Cup "can be a powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments."

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New York-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch has accused both Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels of using unguided Grad rockets, which they said had killed 16 civilians and wounded many more. “Grad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas,” HRW researcher Ole Solvang said in a statement. "Ukrainian authorities should order all their forces, including volunteer forces, to immediately stop using Grads in or near populated areas, and insurgent forces should avoid deploying in densely populated areas," he added.

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ukraine
A view of proceedings during a memorial service held for victims of the MH17 disaster at St Mary's Cathedral on July 25, 2014 in Perth, Australia. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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Reuters reports:

Russia said around 40 mortar shells fired by Ukrainian forces fell on Friday in its Rostov province near the border with eastern Ukraine where Kiev is fighting pro-Russian separatists.

"Around 40 mortar shells have fallen from Ukraine ... in Rostov province," Vasily Malayev, a representative of the region's Federal Security Service devoted to border security, was cited by the state Ria Novosti news agency as saying.

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From the Associated Press:

In a statement on Friday, the headquarters of the government's military operation in the east listed at least seven locations where rebels attacked Ukrainian troops. They also claimed that attacks on two locations including a border crossing were supported by artillery fire from Russia.

Late on Thursday, Ukrainian troops entered the town of Lysychansk, which has been in rebel hands for several months, the military press office said. Rebels on Friday morning admitted in comments carried by Interfax that they had to flee the town which is 70 kilometers (45 miles) north-west of the regional capital Luhansk.

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The Associated Press reports the countries of the European Union have reached a preliminary deal to impose more sanctions on Russia.

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union ambassadors have reached a preliminary deal on stepped-up sanctions against Russia, targeting its access to European capital markets and trade in the defense sector, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies.

EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic says the proposals were transmitted Friday to EU officials to codify into regulations, with the ambassadors scheduled to meet again Tuesday to review the results. She said EU member states must decide whether the measures need to be approved by a summit meeting of the trade bloc's 28 member countries to go into effect.

The ambassadors also ordered EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans for an undisclosed number of Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians who are accused of undermining Ukraine's sovereignty. The names of those affected should be made public later Friday.

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The black box flight recorders from the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet suffered slight damage in the attack and crash, Reuters reported.

"During the inspection it was established that the recorders have slight mechanical damage which did not affect the intactness of the recorders," Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee, a supervisory body that oversees the use and management of civil aviation, stated.

FMI: Click here.

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Two more planes arrived in the Netherlands carrying the remains of victims on Thursday, AP reports:

Human remains continue to be found a full week after the plane went down, underlining concerns about the halting and chaotic recovery effort at the sprawling site spread across farmland in eastern Ukraine. Armed separatists control the area and have hindered access by investigators.

Read the full story here.

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President Barack Obama spoke with Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the phone and they agreed that more sanctions need to be imposed on Russia, Reuters reports:

"Instead of de-escalating the situation, they agreed that all evidence indicates Russia is still arming and supplying separatists who continue to engage in deadly acts of aggression against Ukrainian armed forces," the White House said.

Read more here.

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07/24/2014 5:48 PM EDT
Shelling In Donetsk

Foreign correspondents report shelling in the city of Donetsk on Thursday night.



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Reuters reports:

Gunmen chased investigators from the site where the Malaysian airliner crashed and "lunatics" were still making life difficult for those who wanted to find out what downed flight MH17, officials said on Thursday.

As foreign ministers from Australia and the Netherlands met Ukrainian officials to coordinate the investigation, the head of Ukraine's Emergency Situations Service and the chief of a Dutch police mission said their work at the site was being hampered.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, however, said there had been no incidents, and that they had been joined by experts from Malaysia and Australia, which lost 28 citizens in the crash.

The West has called for a thorough investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine to get justice for the 298 people who were killed, but have voiced concern that the rebels were preventing investigators from doing their job.

"They took away our tents, the ones which were at our base camp," Serhiy Bochkovsky, the head of the emergencies service, told a news conference in the eastern city of Kharkiv from where the remains of the victims are starting their journey home.

"We were allowed only our equipment and machinery and we were chased away at gunpoint."

He did not say when this happened.

Read the full story here.

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netherlands
A convoy of hearses carry bodies and remains from those killed on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 24, 2014 in Boxtel, Netherlands. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

netherlands
Dutch military personnel carry coffins containing the remains of the victims of the MH17 plane crash to a waiting hearse at the airbase in Eindhoven on July 24, 2014. (MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty Images)

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The Washington Post has an infographic showing information surrounding each of the aircraft that have been shot in Ukraine since May 2.

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From Reuters:

Investigators looking into the downing of MalaysiaAirlines flight MH17 have found no evidence that either of the aircraft's two black boxes were tampered with, the Dutch Safety Board, which is coordinating the investigation, said.

In a statement on Thursday, the Board said the data from theBoeing 777's flight data recorder had been successfully downloaded by investigators at Britain's Air Accident Investigation Branch. The other voice recorder was successfully read the day before.

World leaders had expressed concern that the black boxes, which could contain data vital to ascertaining the cause of the crash, may have been manipulated by Moscow-backed rebels who control the territory in which the aircraft crashed last week.

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(Reuters) - Russia will cooperate with the investigation into the downing of a Malaysian airliner a week ago and is satisfied that the Netherlands, rather than Ukraine, is leading the effort, the country's ambassador to Malaysia said on Thursday.

Reuters explains:

The norm under rules set down by the United Nation's civil aviation body (ICAO) is that an air investigation is led by the state in whose territory the plane crash, but Russia had said that Ukraine should not take charge because the rebels who control the crash site did not trust the authorities in Kiev.

Read the full story here.

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07/24/2014 9:35 AM EDT
Fixer For CNN Abducted
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