A look into life in the quaint British city at the center of a Russian spy scandal, England) -- Salisbury is a quiet, historic English provincial city. In fact, the Salisbury Cathedral is about 800 years old and boasts the tallest spire in England. Additionally, the wonderous prehistoric ring of massive stones at nearby Stonehenge make Salisbury a big tourist destination.

However, two weeks ago the ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent in the center of town and now lie critically ill in the hospital. Now, Salisbury has become the focus of the world's attention.

"The world’s media descended on Salisbury and it took awhile to get used to that," local radio presenter Martin Starke told ABC News.

”People rely on us for trusted news," Martin, the host of a breakfast show on local radio station SpireFM, said. ”We report the things that the people of Salisbury need to know, we’ve not been sensationalist at all, our job is not to scare people.”

So are the people of Salisbury scared? Martin said that contrary to some national newspaper reports, Salisbury is not a city living in fear. People are being very British about things, he added and trying to carry on normally.

“Salisbury is very much open for business,” he said.

But there have been inconveniences, as the area around the city center is cordoned off and what was a 30-second walk in the area has now become a five-minute walk via numerous detours.

Businesses behind the cordons have suffered, too. Recently, it was Mother’s Day, a busy time for the card shop and flower sellers. Both businesses in the city center were on the wrong side of the cordon, according to Martin, and the card shop was forced to close with the flower seller forced to move his stall where no one could find him.

After the attack, groups of people in hazmat suits suddenly became a common sight in Salisbury, according to Martin. To which, Martin said, people’s reaction to this occurrence hasn’t been completely one of fear, but more one of curiosity. While the rest of the world sees people in hazmat suits, the locals recognize their friends and neighbours zipped into the protective shells.

Everything becomes very personal for the people of Salisbury, including Nick Bailey, a first responder policeman who's recovering in the hospital after coming into contact with the nerve agent.

Sooner or later Salisbury will return to being the “quintessentially English city” as Martin described it. He said he believes there will be no negative effect on the tourism which the city needs to survive. If anything, it will put Salisbury on the map a bit more he suggested before adding, once again the city will be “the best place to get a cream tea.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Missing Philadelphia student found dead in Bermuda: Police

iStock/Thinkstock(PHILADELPHIA) -- A missing Pennsylvania student has been found dead in Bermuda, local police said in a press conference Monday.

Mark Dombroski, 19, was last seen early Sunday morning at a bar, a representative from Bermuda Police Services said.

Dombroski’s body was found “in a moat” at Fort Prospect in Devonshire, Bermuda, acting Assistant Commissioner of Police James Howard said.

“Foul play is not ruled out right now,” Howard, said. “The forensic officers are there. They’re assessing the scene, assessing the body.”

Howard would not confirm who found Dombroski’s body, but did say officers were on the scene. He also said the body was found close to police headquarters but not on police property.

Dombroski was on the island to compete with Saint Joseph’s University’s rugby team in a competition, the university confirmed to ABC News.

Prior to his disappearance, Dombroski was at the Dog House, a bar on Front Street in Devonshire, Howard said.

Officials used CCTV footage to track his movements after leaving the bar.

When asked if Dombroski got into an argument at the bar and refused taxi money from friends, Superintendent Sean Field-Lament said it was too early in the investigation to comment.

Dombroski's mother, Lisa Dombroski, said at the press conference Monday that she had reviewed the security footage and it looked like her son “was not feeling well” from a shoulder injury he sustained in the rugby competition. She added that it looked like “he wanted to get going” and go back to the hotel.

Officials said the incident is still under investigation.

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Chemical weapons inspectors arrive in UK for tests on nerve agent

ABC News(LONDON) -- Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are arriving in the U.K. to assess samples of the nerve agent used in the attack against former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter earlier this month.

The OPCW team will study the substance at the military research facility Porton Down, which is located just outside the city of Salisbury, where the attack took place.

The team will also meet with detectives leading the investigation into the poisoning attack.

The British government invited the delegation from the Hague, where the monitoring body is based, to carry out an independent study to identify the substance used in the attack.

U.K. officials believe the Skripals were exposed to a military-grade, Soviet-era nerve agent developed by the Russians.

On Sunday ABC News revealed that intelligence officials believe the substance is a “dusty” organophosphate akin to the Novichok chemicals, and may have been administered through the car’s ventilation system.

The intelligence officials told ABC News up to 38 individuals in Salisbury were affected by the nerve agent but the full impact is still being assessed and more victims sickened by the agent are expected to be identified.

It will be weeks before the OPCW announces the results of its tests.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has accused Russia of stockpiling the nerve agent over the last decade. Johnson also dismissed a suggestion from Russia's ambassador to the E.U. that the agent may have come from a U.K. laboratory in Porton Down.

The British government announced sanctions against Russia last week, expelling 23 diplomats they have identified as undercover spies, as well as announcing new measures to sanction individuals, bolster counterterrorism efforts and increase funding to Porton Down.

The Kremlin, which has condemned the British accusations as “nonsense,” retaliated by expelling the same number of British officials based in Russia.

E.U. foreign ministers in Brussels asserted their solidarity with the U.K. over the incident. A statement from the bloc called on Russia to "address urgently the questions raised by the UK and the international community and to provide immediate, full and complete disclosure of its Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons."

The statement did not explicitly accuse Russia of responsibility, dampening British hopes of a more muscular E.U. response to the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who on Sunday was re-elected to another term, said "it's complete nonsense to imagine that anyone in Russia could resort to such tricks ahead of the presidential elections and World Cup."

 Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


College student goes missing on school trip to Bermuda: Police

Google Maps(PHILADELPHIA) -- Bermuda police are searching for a 19-year-old American college student who went missing on a trip to the country over the weekend.

Mark Dombroski, who is a freshman student at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, was traveling to Bermuda as part of the college's rugby team.

According to police, he was last seen at The Dog House bar on Front Street in Hamilton on midnight Sunday, and was supposed to leave with the team that day.

Dombroski is a native of Delaware, according to Philadelphia ABC station WPVI.

He is described as 6 feet tall with short blonde hair, and was last seen wearing a green T-shirt, khaki pants and black shoes.

Dombroski was part of the St. Joe's rugby team competing in the Ariel Re Bermuda International 7’s Tournament the past week. U.S. colleges, including Notre Dame, Kutztown University, Ohio State and Ithaca College, took part in the tournament.

Bermuda Rugby is offering $1,000 for information on Dombroski's whereabouts, WPVI reported.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Putin, facing little opposition, wins Russian presidency again

Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Vladimir Putin was re-elected president of Russia on Sunday in a vote that was heavily managed and facing virtually no opposition.

Putin -- who won a fourth term, which will keep him in power until 2024 -- declared victory after Russia’s central election commission said he had won 75 percent with 50 percent of the vote counted.

His nearest opponent, the Communist party candidate Pavel Grudinin, had 12.7 percent. After declaring victory, Putin appeared at a rally held at Moscow’s Manezh square in front of the walls of the Kremlin.

“Thank you," he told the crowd. "That we have such a powerful, many-million strong team. It’s very important that you preserve this unity.”

Putin’s win had never been in doubt. After 18 years in power, he has near total dominance of Russia’s media and his grip over the country’s political scene is complete, with almost no substantial opponents permitted and approval ratings kept at over 80 percent.

Even Putin's seven opponents never suggested they could win. His most troublesome opponent, Alexey Navalny, was kept off the ballot by a fraud conviction he said is trumped up.

Instead, authorities had worried about turnout. They launched an unprecedented campaign to ensure a maximum display of support for Putin. Prior to the vote, the Kremlin had indicated it wanted a 70 percent turnout; it had told authorities to make the election like a “holiday.”

By all appearances, officials heeded that call. As in Soviet times, officials put on attractions around polling stations.

Outside polling station 1869 in Nagatinskii in Moscow’s southern suburbs, a woman led an aerobics class to energetic techno music. Some voters danced in a circle; at many others, stalls sold pies and tea.

“It reminds me a little of when I was young,” said Mikhail Goranin, an entrepreneur who had voted for Grudinin. “For people, it’s a holiday.”

Authorities had also turned to other methods to boost voter numbers; across the country, there were reports of ballot stuffing.

Russia has installed a video camera system covering polling stations, and Russia’s internet was full of clips showing fraud. In some, local election officials could be seen stuffing in wads of ballots; some tried to move balloons, put up to decorate polling stations and to block the cameras.

In one video, from Yakutia in Russia’s far east, a man was so busy stuffing ballots that a queue of voters formed behind him.

Navalny, the barred opposition leader, had called a boycott of the election. It was unclear late Sunday how effective that had been.

Navalny and other opposition leaders, though, mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers as election monitors. At his headquarters in Moscow, about 30 volunteers fielded calls in from monitors, while an election live-broadcast ran on Navalny’s popular YouTube channel.

Navalny’s staff said they had approximately 33,000 registered monitors spread across Russia.

Even before counting finished, it was clear that amid the voting push, Putin’s tally was the largest he has ever received. His highest previous victory was 71.31 percent, when he was re-elected in 2004.

The election was heavily crafted by the Kremlin, which allowed novel candidates to run. It moved Election Day to the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an event that hugely boosted Putin’s popularity. With the outcome preordained and with so much orchestration, the election often felt less like a race than a giant show that was planned and executed by the Kremlin.

The overwhelming numbers were, therefore, accompanied by a certain perfunctoriness. At the victory rally in Moscow, there was no euphoria. Although the crowd was large, the atmosphere was somewhat limp.

Putin spoke for less than three minutes. While those at the front cheered, many in the middle of the crowd hardly looked up, talking amongst themselves.

At one point, Putin shouted, “We are destined for successes, right?” Those in the middle, half-amused, cheered, "Yes!”

Many people appeared to arrive in organized groups. At Putin’s last victory rally in 2012, large numbers of attendees were seen being corralled and some were paid.

Maria, an 18-year-old student, told ABC News that her college strongly urged her to come.

“They forced us to come,” said Maria, who declined to give her surname for fear of reprisals.

Perhaps the most dramatic contest of the day occurred on the sidelines of the vote, between two opposition figures.

Ksenia Sobchak, a millionaire celebrity journalist and former reality TV star, whose father was Putin’s political mentor, had run on a Western-orientated liberal platform.

She had been accused of coordinating her run with the Kremlin and was heavily criticized by Navalny as a “spoiler,” intended to split the opposition vote while lending legitimacy to the election.

As polls closed, Sobchak appeared on Navalny’s election live-stream show to ask him to unite with her newly founded party. Navalny refused, saying she had been used by Putin.

“I will judge you by your actions,” he told Sobchak on air. “And your actions are disgusting.”

“You are his instrument -- nothing more,” he said.

The short campaign, in some ways, has been a sideshow for Putin, who campaigned little, appearing before large election crowds only twice.

In any case, with state TV most days showing Putin solving problems in the country, Russia, in some ways, lives in permanent campaign mode.

With so much effort put into producing such a decisive win ahead of the election, some in Moscow have spoken of it as a declaration of Putin as president for life.

After his win, he was asked whether he would still be in power in 2030.

“Let’s count. It’s ridiculous. What, am I going to sit here until I’m 100? No,” Putin said.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Russian ex-spy's poisoning in UK believed from nerve agent in car vents; at least 38 others sickened: Sources

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- The Russian ex-spy who along with his daughter was poisoned by a nerve agent in the U.K. may have been exposed to the nerve agent through his car's ventilation system, sources told ABC News.

Former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were found slumped over, unconscious on a park bench earlier this month in the southern English town of Salisbury. The U.K. has accused Russia of bearing responsibility for the March 4 attack, which British officials say involved a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed secretly by Russia.

U.K. officials now have a clearer picture of just how the attack was conducted, sources said. They believe the toxin was used in a dust-like powdered form and that it circulated through the vents of Skripal's BMW.

Three intelligence officials told ABC News that the Russian military origin and the nature of the substance, a “dusty” organophosphate neurotoxin, are clear to them.

“It is a Cold War substance, something they claimed never to have,” one senior intelligence official said of Russia to ABC News.

The intelligence officials told ABC News up to 38 individuals in Salisbury have been identified as having been affected by the nerve agent but the full impact is still being assessed and more victims sickened by the agent are expected to be identified

U.S. government chemical warfare experts are also working closely with their British counterparts on what is a major investigation.

“It's seen here as an attempted murder and premeditated,” rather than an attempt just to sicken Skripal with a non-lethal toxin or scare other Russian ex-spies, an intelligence official told ABC News.

Among the more than three dozen sickened by exposure to the agent, most are believed to be suffering minimal symptoms in contrast to the hospitalized Skripal, his daughter Yulia and a responding police officer.

Another possible clue to the poisoning is that sources told ABC News Skripal was shouting and acting incoherently in a restaurant just before he and his daughter collapsed. Such incoherent behavior could be consistent with the early stages of exposure to a nerve agent.

Scotland Yard has released surveillance video of Skripal's car and is asking anyone who saw the vehicle that day to come forward. The police agency declined to comment on new details about the nerve agent attack until it releases information publicly.

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Son of US detainee in North Korea stays hopeful amid anticipation of Trump-Kim talk

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Amid anticipation of an unprecedented meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the son of a U.S. citizen detained in North Korea is trying to stay positive.

“I feel hopeful. I feel good. Perhaps progress can be made. At the same time, I was hoping that [the issue of] my dad and other detainees would have come up quicker. ... Maybe that could be a top priority [now]. Nonetheless, it’s good news,” Sol Kim told ABC News about his father Sangduck "Tony" Kim.

Tony Kim is one of three U.S. citizens still being detained in North Korea. Meanwhile, Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are both planning to meet their counterparts in the North in an as-yet-unscheduled meeting.

Though it is unclear whether the summit will hasten Kim's release, former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton utilized their visits to the reclusive nation to help secure the release of previous American detainees.

Tony Kim was arrested in April 2017 at an airport in Pyongyang as he was leaving the country after finishing his month-long teaching trip at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only privately run university in North Korea.

Kim, a 59-year-old accountant-turned-professor at Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, had previously gone on at least seven short-term teaching trips to its sister school, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, his son recalled.

Sol Kim said that when he had the opportunity to go on one of the trips as a teacher’s assistant several years ago, his father seemed to be enjoying his job, taking time outside of class to play soccer and volleyball with the students.

“He had a heart for the North Korean people,” said Sol Kim.

Sol Kim said he was expecting to hear from his father on the day he was supposed to fly out of North Korea but did not get any calls. Instead, the son learned from the family's church pastor, who knew someone teaching at the school, that Tony Kim had actually been detained.

The family has not directly heard from Tony Kim since.

Haksong Kim, also affiliated with Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was arrested the next month also as he was leaving the country. The school said in an official statement that he “was at PUST to do agricultural development work with PUST’s experimental farm.”

The statement also added that his “detention is related to an investigation into matters that are not connected in any way with the work of PUST.”

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology was founded by an evangelical Christian and was built entirely with funds from outside North Korea, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit organization. The school has more than 60 foreign faculty from China, the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other parts of Europe, according to its website.

“It is slightly unusual that somebody who was teaching at PUST would be arrested," said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I don’t know of any other specific cases where somebody who was seen helping the regime was, or helping with humanitarian aid was arrested.”

The two faculty members got arrested when the U.S.-North Korea relations were particularly tense as North Korea continued to test ballistic missiles and the Trump administration weighed more sanctions against North Korea.

“We miss him. We think about him often. We want him to come home, sooner the better. We love him. We want him to be around when [my brother’s] baby is born,” said Sol Kim in a message to his father.

Another U.S. citizen, Dong Chul Kim, was arrested in October 2015 -- before American college student Otto Warmbier was imprisoned for 17 months for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster. Warmbier, then 22, had severe brain damage and ultimately died shortly after returning home following his release from North Korea in June 2017.

Dong Chul Kim was allowed to reveal himself to the outside world through an interview with CNN in January 2016. Although it is unclear as to whether he was forced, Kim confessed to spying for South Korea. That country's government denied the claim.

At the time, Dong Chul Kim reported being in good health.

Sol Kim checks in with the State Department every week for any updates on his father’s detention and the government’s effort to release him.

However, he feels that information is limited.

“It’s hard because there’s not a lot of information related to what the strategy is,” Randall Brandt, the family's legal representative told ABC News. Brandt added that what is being done regarding the issue has not been shared with the family.

Ambassador Joseph Yun, then the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, met with the three Americans currently detained in North Korea in June 2017 during his mission to negotiate the release of Warmbier.

At that time, Sol Kim and his family were told his father was well. However, they haven't received any new updates on his condition.

The State Department declined to comment on the detainees' cases, but confirmed that three Americans are being held and they are working to bring them home as soon as possible.

CIA Director and nominee-to-be Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday on CBS that "the State Department is handling those negotiations. And America does have as a priority getting the return of those three American citizens just as quickly as we can."

Further complicating matters is the fact that, because the U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, the Swedish Embassy in North Korea has been acting as “the United States’ Protecting Power in North Korea,” with consular access to U.S. citizens in North Korea.

However, this access has not been granted to the Swedish Embassy by the North Korean government lately.

“North Korea routinely delays or denies requests by the Swedish Embassy for consular access to U.S. citizens,” an official with the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs told ABC News in a statement.

Anticipation of the Trump-Kim Jong Un talk, a summit that could bring the issue to the table, heightened as North Korea’s foreign minister met with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom in Stockholm on Thursday.

Tony Kim's family is now hoping to give a more public voice to the plight of their loved one.

A few weeks before the opening of the Pyeongchang Olympics, Sol Kim started a social media campaign to raise awareness of the three detainees with the tag #USA3.

High-level officials from both the U.S. and North Korea were present at the Olympic events. Warmbier’s father accompanied Vice President Mike Pence to the opening ceremony.

Shortly after Warmbier's death, Trump condemned the regime in an official statement, saying that it “deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.”

His death resulted in a travel ban of U.S. citizens to North Korea.

North Korea has been known to detain U.S. citizens as political leverage to gain an opportunity for negotiations, Collins said.

“We’re not aware that [Tony Kim] has been formally charged,” said Brandt.

North Korea has detained, pardoned or deported 12 U.S. citizens since 2010, according to information collected by CSIS.

“There have been previous hostages or detainees that have been used in trying to get the U.S. government leaders to visit," Collins said. "It’s not unthinkable that North Korea would be trying to do the same thing now.”

In the meantime, Tony Kim's family say they are hoping for his safe return.

"My mom, my brother and I miss our dad so much. We're so worried about him and his health. I do want to say thank you to my friends, family and others who have supported us over these past nine months. These are hard days for our family," said Sol Kim in his social media campaign video asking the U.S. government and the people to remember the three detainees.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.


Russia prepares for election and another Putin victory

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Alexey Navalny thought he'd be in jail by now.

Russia’s presidential election is Sunday and the opposition leader, along with many other observers, expected he'd spend it behind bars.

But the Kremlin’s most troublesome opponent, known for his investigations exposing officials’ alleged corrupt wealth and who is backed by a grassroots movement he has brought onto the streets against President Vladimir Putin in unusually large numbers in the past year, will likely be free -- and apparently out of the way when Russian voters go to the polls.

In February, he was charged—- as often happens —- for holding an unauthorized protest. Surprisingly, though, he was not immediately given the standard 30-day sentence, leaving him free but uncertain about when he may be jailed again.

Not that being locked up would be new for Navalny, who says he has spent 60 days incarcerated in the past year. A volunteer at his headquarters checks the websites of Moscow’s courts every day to make sure authorities have not scheduled a surprise hearing.

“It’s useless to analyze it,” Navalny said in an interview with ABC News at the Moscow office of his organization, the Anti-Corruption Fund. “Everyone thought I was going to be arrested last week, but I was not. No one understands why. Maybe I will be arrested tomorrow. Maybe the police will be waiting for me after this interview.”

As of Saturday afternoon, Navalny had not been arrested again.

Navalny may be a free man, but he has been removed from the presidential race. For a year he ran what he called a presidential campaign, touring Russia’s regions and building up a movement of tens of thousands of volunteers around calls for free elections and condemning corruption.

But in January he was barred from the ballot over a fraud conviction from 2013, a charge he says is trumped up. The European Court of Human Rights ruled, too, that the judgment was arbitrary.

Navalny’s exclusion reflects a broader feature of the controls being applied to Sunday's election. Russia’s election is a strange beast: If you were to watch only on television, it would seem to have the usual trappings of any campaign season -- candidates, campaign ads, rallies and television debates.

In reality, though, the election activity all occurs around a strange void -— an absence of actual competition.

In most elections, journalists closely watch the polls, looking for last-minute swings, tightenings in the race. In Russia, there is little point. The day before the vote, the polls would look the same as they did during the first week -- with Putin dominating with a looming 60-point lead.

After 18 years in power and accumulating control of Russia’s media, institutions and political scene, Putin has effectively cleared the field of serious opponents. There are seven other candidates, but none believe they are running to win.

Putin is also genuinely popular among Russians, undergirded by a media that unstintingly backs his line. Two December polls by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national pollster, found that 81 percent of adults approve of Putin, and 60 percent would would vote for him.

His nearest competitors were around 7 percent. There is virtually no doubt he will be elected on Sunday -- and serve a new term that runs through 2024.

A much more concerning number for authorities, however, is how many of those supporters will bother to vote on Sunday. With the vote effectively a referendum on Putin’s popularity, officials have become focused on ensuring a maximum show of support.

“The Kremlin has identified its main opponent in the 2018 presidential elections —- a low turnout,” Andrey Pertsev, a political commentator wrote in an article for the Carnegie Center.

The figure being circulated by officials in Russian media is a 70 percent turnout. The problem is, the certainty of Putin’s win is suppressing the number of Russians, even his supporters, who feel they need to vote for him.

The Levada Center’s independent poll in December showed only 28 percent of people definitely intended to vote. By contrast, a poll conducted in March by the state pollster, VTsIOM, showed that number at a healthy 74 percent.

The Levada Center has been banned from polling closer to the election and dubbed a "foreign agent." That means there are no non-government polls voters can rely on.

To make sure that 70 percent is realized, authorities have therefore mounted an unprecedented effort to make the voting itself more entertaining. Authorities have been told to make election day like a “holiday,” the independent RBC newspaper reported.

The result is, as in Soviet times when free food was offered around polling stations, there will be concerts and competitions for Sunday's vote: voters can win iPhones by taking selfies at voting stations; and the airline Utair has dropped its ticket prices to $8 for the election weekend so people can fly home to vote.

Putin himself has shown little interest in campaigning, appearing mostly only in brief made-for-TV events. At a triumphal closing rally in Crimea, Putin spoke for just two minutes.

The president has staged one large public meeting in Moscow before a crowd of 100,000. But many of those in attendance had been ordered to attend by their employers, or were paid. The event was a good example of the paradox of this election -— many of those forced to attend still supported Putin, but saw little reason to rally for him.

The attempt to inject novelty into the election has also been applied to the candidates. Ksenia Sobchak, a celebrity journalist, former reality TV star, and daughter of Putin’s political mentor, is running on a Western-orientated protest platform.

The Communist Party put forward a new candidate for the first time since 1996, Pavel Grudinin, a billionaire owner of a former Soviet collective strawberry farm.

Most observers -- often even their supporters -- believe the Kremlin has allowed these candidates onto the ballot. Critics refer to them as “spoilers,” meant to give the illusion of competition while making all alternatives to Putin look hopeless.

That was the effect most spectators took from the pre-election debates hosted by state TV, which Putin avoided. Sobchak, the celebrity journalist, tossed a glass of water over Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist candidate, after he called her a "whore."

“I am horrified to think what the viewers watching at home must think of the level of political culture here,” said the moderator, Vladimir Solovyov, one of Putin's favored interviewers, known for his slavish portraits of the Russian leader.

Even while seeking to boost turnout, though, the Kremlin has kept a close hand on things. Grudinin, the Communist candidate, proved to be surprisingly popular, at one point reaching 15 percent.

Stories then appeared in pro-Kremlin media that he had foreign bank accounts, grounds for barring a candidate. Grudinin denied the reports but it appeared to dent him and the possibility of disqualification now also hangs over him.

In this context, Navalny, barred from the vote, has called for people to boycott the election.

“It’s not an election,” Navalny said.

The aim is to target the turnout and highlight what Navalny argues is a “myth” of Putin’s popularity. Navalny argues that, in reality, Putin's support is brittle and largely passive, protected by creating the impression there is no alternative.

“It is the classic situation of an authoritarian country,” he said. "Where an authoritarian leader gets 85 percent of the vote by using propaganda and scaring people. People do not see other politicians. Putin chooses dummy candidates, about which people say: ‘Of course, we have a load of clowns and there is great Putin who has been sitting for 18 years, let him stay on.’”

There are suspicions that authorities may turn to cruder measures to boost turnout. In previous elections, including last year’s parliamentary, Putin and his party’s numbers were allegedly padded by vote rigging -- carousel voting where supporters are bussed around to vote several times, or hundreds of votes are simply added to final tallies at polling stations.

Navalny’s organization and other liberal parties, including Sobchak’s, have been mobilizing volunteers as election monitors. His group claims they will have 40,000 monitors across Russia.

Large-scale fraud in 2011 parliamentary elections prompted mass demonstrations against Putin. The situation is very different this time: observers say any fraud will focus on turnout figures, rather than suppressing that of other candidates.

Navalny told ABC News his group currently had no plan to hold streets protests.

Other opposition figures have criticized Navalny’s boycott, saying in the final accounting it will be impossible to know who stayed away from conviction and not apathy. Supporters of Sobchak, who is polling around 2 percent according to VTsIOM, argue that a strong showing for opposition candidates in the election could help push the Kremlin into selecting more liberal voices down the line, including perhaps her.

The election is "like a very big focus group" for the Kremlin, Leonid Preobrazhensky, 25, a media producer, at a Sobchak rally this week. "The only people who will have real data about this election is the Kremlin. Maybe they will look at the data and realize they have to change something."

Navalny rejects the idea Sobchak is influencing the Kremlin, calling her "Putin's marionette" in this election. He said he does not believe government polls showing voters are unaware of the boycott.

"If no one knew about the boycott, they wouldn’t fight that much with us," Navalny said.

Police have raided Navalny’s organization’s offices in some cities ahead of the rally; some of Navalny's monitors have been detained in the days before the election.

The mobilization of election monitors is unusual, reflecting Navalny’s appeal in a certain section of young, well-educated Russians.

But in reality, Russia’s youth are actually Putin’s strongest supporters. A Levada Center poll in December found 86 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds approved of Putin, higher than among the general population.

“Contrary to Western fantasies, Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society,” Ivan Kravtsev and Gleb Pavlovsky, two political scientists, wrote for the European Council of Foreign Relations last month.

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Russia expels 23 UK diplomats in tit-for-tat response over spy's poisoning

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Russia expelled 23 British diplomats on Saturday in a tit-for-tat response to the U.K.’s expulsion of 23 Russian embassy staff over the nerve-agent attack in England last week.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it had summoned U.K. ambassador Laurie Bristow to inform him that the 23 diplomats were now "persona non grata" and had a week to leave. The ministry said it was also closing the British consulate in Saint Petersburg and withdrawing the right of the British Council, a body that promotes British culture and language, to operate in Russia.

The Russian foreign ministry said it was taking the measures in response to what it called the U.K.’s “provocative actions and unfounded accusations” over the poisoning case.

The expulsion marks the latest turn in a confrontation between Russia and the U.K. following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English town of Salisbury. The U.K. has accused Russia of bearing responsibility for the attack, which British officials say involved a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed secretly by Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May has also cut off high-level contacts with Russia and has been trying to build support among the U.K.’s allies for potential fresh sanctions to punish Russia.

Russia has denied the U.K.'s allegations, accusing Britain of using the incident in a campaign to smear Moscow. Russian officials have increasingly begun suggesting the attack could have been staged by Britain itself. On Saturday, Russia’s envoy to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Alexander Shigulin alleged to the news agency Interfax the "most likely" source of the nerve agent was Britain or the United States. He did not offer evidence for that assertion.

U.K. officials have said a nerve agent from Russia’s so-called Novichok program was used to target Skripal. First revealed by a Russian whistleblower in the early 1990s, the Novichoks were part of a secret Russian effort to develop a new generation of more powerful and harder to detect nerve agents.

Russia has now denied that any program under the name Novichok ever existed, despite the evidence presented two decades ago by the Russian scientist Vil Mirzayanov, who revealed its existence after becoming concerned it violated Russia’s commitments to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russian officials had previously said that Russia had destroyed the Novichok weapons when it had dismantled its chemical arsenal, which was completed last year.

The chairman of the U.K. parliament’s foreign affairs committee said that Russia’s decision to expel the U.K. diplomats was “hardly surprising.”

“This is really absolutely symbolic and typical of a Russian Federation that has used lying and propaganda as a means of warfare and is now repeating its style,” Conservative party Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat said on BBC Radio 4.

“It’s a great shame for the Russian people that they’re closing the British Council, which has done an awful lot to educate Russian people in English language and help them get jobs and opportunities around the world,” he added.

On Friday, the U.K.’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin personally for the attack, telling an audience, “We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the U.K., on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the second World War.”

The Skripals remain in a critical condition following the attack that also poisoned a British police officer. The officer is reportedly now in stable condition.

Sergey Skripal worked as a spy for Britain’s MI6 agency while serving in Russian military intelligence in the late 1990s. He was arrested and convicted of treason by Russia, but was pardoned and exchanged in a spy swap in 2010, after which he lived the U.K. The case has drawn obvious parallels with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a dissident former Russian intelligence officer who was killed with a radioactive poison in London in 2006. A British public inquiry found Putin had “probably” ordered that assassination.

Meanwhile, U.K. police have also opened a murder investigation in the death of another Russian exile living in Britain. Nikolai Glushkov was found dead at his home this week. Police said Glushkov died as a result of a “compression of the neck,” suggesting he may have been strangled.

Glushkov was an associate of oligarch and Putin foe Boris Berezovsky, who was also found dead in 2013, apparently having hung himself, though a coroner recorded an open verdict. Glushkov was granted political asylum in London after he was released from prison in Russia in 2004, where he had been jailed over fraud charges.

London’s Metropolitan police counter-terrorism command has said there is no suggestion that Glushkov’s death is connected to the poisoning attack, but that they are investigating because “of associations Mr Glushkov is believed to have had.” Detectives are keeping an "open mind" about the death, police said.

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Several people hurt after ski lift malfunction at Georgia ski resort, Georgia) -- A malfunctioning ski lift in the country of Georgia has left at least 11 people injured.

The terrifying video of the incident at the Gudauri resort showed the lift rapidly moving backward while people seated in the lift's chairs were loudly urged to jump off to safety. As a result, a pile of broken and twisted chairs was created at the bottom, with new chairs adding to the destruction when they crashed into it at an alarming speed.

“Three of us were on a ski lift when it stopped. Two minutes later, the ski lift began hurtling us backwards toward the bottom at a high speed, double the normal,” Yuri Leontiev, a snowboarder from the Belorussian capital Minsk, told ABC News. “We had to jump from the ski lift onto the mountain as our chair sped backwards toward the meat grinder at the bottom of the ski lift. It was like a nightmare.”

The 32-year-old, who was there with friends, said they jumped and, once on the ground, took video of other people jumping to safety. He added that the lift chairs crashed at the bottom of the hill, tossing the people still in them into the air.

Nino Mamaladze, a health official, said 11 people were injured, with an estimated eight people being taken to the hospital. All are in a stable condition, with none having suffered critical or life-threatening injuries.

The Mountain Resorts Development Co., a part of the Georgian Ministry of Economy, posted on its Facebook page Friday that the malfunction was a result of a problem with the rope. They said they immediately contacted the rope manufacturer in order to discover the specific cause of the incident.

The Gudauri ski resort is 7,200 feet above sea level on the southern face of the Greater Caucus Mountain Range in Georgia.

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