New details from Niger ambush: when US troops sensed something wrong

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- More than two weeks after four U.S. soldiers were killed during an ambush in Niger, new details about how the events unfolded have emerged.

A senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the event tells ABC News that the U.S. troops saw early warning signs that something was wrong as they went to meet with the village elder in Tongo Tongo, Niger on October 4.

According to the official, suspicions were raised when the unit saw two motorcycles race out of the village.

"Hair on the back of the neck stood up," the official said.

At that moment, the patrol sensed the elder was trying to stall the group from leaving, the official said. When they finally departed, the enemy struck from both sides of a wooded road with fifty or more fighters that had smalls arms, vehicle mounted weapons, and mortars.

"This was sophisticated," the official continued, "Our guys not only got hit hard, but got hit in depth."

It is still unclear how many U.S. soldiers were part of the patrol, but the Pentagon has said it was between eight and twelve Americans.

With four killed and two wounded during the firefight, the official said the American unit has for now been “rendered combat ineffective."

Despite taking multiple casualties, the U.S. and Nigerien forces managed to kill at least twenty-one enemy fighters, who were later buried on the Malian side of the border, the official said.

"So while this was a tragedy, what's gotten lost is how well our people acquitted themselves," the official added, "We lost four but at least 21 from their side died."

The Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed that the ambush was perpetrated by ISIS in the Greater Sahara, an ISIS affiliate in West Africa.

It's still unclear why it took over 36 hours to recover Sgt. La David Johnson's body from the battle space. The official told ABC News that Johnson's locator beacon was giving unclear reports, and he seemed to be moving.

"Johnson's equipment might have been taken," the official said. "From what we now know, it didn't seem like he was kidnapped and killed. He was somehow physically removed from where the combat took place."

On Thursday, Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters that Johnson was "separated" but "no one was left behind." That idea was echoed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis during a meeting with the Israeli Defense Minister.

"The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I'd just ask not question the action of the troops that were put in the firefight and question," he said. "Don't question if they did everything they could in order to bring everyone else out at once and don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this."

It was nightfall when U.S., Nigerien, and French forces searched for Johnson.

The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the U.S. has conducted 29 patrols similar to the fateful one on October 4 without incident.

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Firm behind Trump-Russia dossier fights Republican demand to open its books

Double Exposure: Investigative Film Festival and Symposium(WASHINGTON) -- A powerful Republican is trying to force the identity of the person who first financed the infamous dossier of alleged links between Russians and the Donald Trump campaign into public view.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes quietly approved a subpoena earlier this month that would compel the unidentified bank handling finances for Fusion GPS, the private investigative firm that compiled the document, to open up its books.

“Congress is trying to find out what Fusion GPS is trying to hide,” a congressional official told ABC News.

Lawyers for Fusion GPS went to U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday to ask a judge to block the bank from sharing their confidential records with Congress.

William W. Taylor, the firm’s lawyer, suggested the firm may be willing to reveal the name of the clients who financed the dossier if they were spared having to expose its entire client roster.

“Let’s see if we can’t work this out,” Taylor told U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan.

In a 45-minute telephone hearing, Taylor argued that the demand for bank records was over-broad. He said Congress sought all records showing clients making payment to Fusion over a two year period, including the "wholesale disclosure" of payments from as many as 20 clients who had nothing to do with the congressional investigation.

Taylor implored the judge to, at least, block the House request for documents by Monday morning, and give his firm time to negotiate an agreement with investigators.

General Counsel to House of Representatives Thomas Hungar accused Fusion GPS of using delay tactics, calling their actions Friday a "last ditch effort to continue to block a national investigation." Hungar argued that members of the House Intelligence Committee need to plow ahead with their investigation and cannot continue to wait.

An attorney for the bank, which was not named during the emergency telephone hearing, said he felt stuck “between the proverbial rock and hard place,” not wishing to expose a client’s records, but also not wishing to turn aside a Congressional demand to produce the financial files.

Judge Chutkan said the lawyers should expect a ruling possibly within hours.

Fusion GPS, founded by former Wall Street Journal reporter Glenn Simpson, is at the heart of the mysterious origin story behind the scandal that has dogged President Trump’s administration since his first days in office.

In early 2016, Fusion GPS began investigating Trump at the request of an unnamed Republican client. Around the time Trump secured his party’s nomination, a Democratic-leaning client took over funding the effort.

The company was responsible for hiring a former British spy and Moscow station chief, Christopher Steele, to explore links between Trump and the Russians.

Steele’s work yielded the so-called “dossier,” which is a series of memos that outline raw intelligence, much of it unverified, that alleges collusion between Russian agents and the Trump campaign.

The document also includes unverified and refuted accounts that Russians had “compromised” Trump by secretly filming him in a hotel room during a 2013 visit to Moscow.

Trump has called the document false and the investigation a hoax.

Democrats have criticized Nunes for approving subpoenas after announcing he was stepping back from the committee's Russia investigation in April, when the House Ethics Committee announced it would review accusations that Nunes improperly disclosed classified information.

Nunes, who remains the committee chairman and is required to sign off on all subpoenas issued by the panel, has said he never recused himself and reserves the right to participate in the investigation.

Taylor said Nunes "has no more authority than I do" to issue a subpoena, arguing he had no committee to authorize it given his recusal from leading its investigation on the Russia matters. He also noted that Nunes had laid low on all Russia investigation related matters handled by his committee, but that all of a sudden, amid "White House uproar" over the dossier, "he's back."

Hungar countered that Nunes has not relinquished any of his legislative powers, and that while he has recused himself from leading the House investigation, as the committee's chairman, Nunes is still responsible for the handling of issuing all its subpoenas.

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Confusion sparks Pentagon investigation of Niger ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Confusion over what happened during an ambush of U.S. Special Forces in Niger earlier this month apparently sparked a full Pentagon probe of the incident announced Thursday, which some officials say could have had even worse casualties than four American soldiers killed from the small, "out-matched" team.

Officials have described a harrowing burst of violence in or near a village close to Niger's border with Mali on Oct. 4, which led to the first U.S. combat deaths in the small African nation battling Islamist extremists.

The gunfight may have split the team of a dozen or fewer American commandos in half, according to one counterterrorism official. It was so chaotic that one soldier remained missing for up to 36 hours before his remains were recovered.

"They met an overwhelming force,” the counterterrorism official who was familiar with the mission and its aftermath, told ABC News. “They were out-gunned and out-matched. The enemy had relative superiority in numbers and fully enveloped and out-flanked the team. I think they got cut in half with suppressive fire.”

Four U.S. special operations soldiers were killed in action, along with 1 Nigerien soldier killed and two Americans wounded.

Another U.S. official said that the Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed it "highly likely" that the group of 50 or more attackers behind the ambush in Niger were from ISIS in the Greater Sahara, referred to as ISGS. But the counterterrorism official said the attackers may have included current or former members of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine from neighboring Mali.

Reports that day quickly came back to Fort Bragg, N.C., where the U.S. team of "Bush Hogs" from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group is based, that one soldier was missing and unaccounted for. "Accountability," meaning ascertaining the whereabouts of all soldiers in a team when when they are in contact with an adversary, is a critical matter. The Army's Warrior Ethos includes the pledge to "never leave a fallen comrade."

But multiple sources said Sgt. La David Johnson, a support trooper in 3rd Special Forces Group, was missing for as long as 36 hours before his remains were found. Once he was recovered, it did not appear that he had been captured by the insurgents but it is believed he died in the initial fighting, several officials said.

It is very rare for a Green Beret team to make a "tactical withdrawal" under fire without having full accountability of its teammates -- but the gunfight in Niger was extraordinary.

"They had critical casualties. They had zero air support on station," the counterterrorism official said. "If they had stayed, everyone would have died."

Since Niger is a low-intensity conflict, there are not many U.S. bases nearby with medevac helicopters and combat air support. French forces in the region often partner with the American forces and provide air support.

Leaving a man behind under fire may have been their only choice given three Americans were known to have been killed, as well as one Nigerien soldier, and several other soldiers wounded, said an experienced Special Forces commander.

"In reality, when you're in a firefight, you may not have the luxury of having immediate accountability. When you get ambushed, your forces are trying to get out of the kill zone alive. Three guys may go left and one guy goes right, and the guy who goes right gets killed," said retired Green Beret, Lt. Col. James Gavrilis. "If you're on the losing end of an ambush, it's not realistic to expect those guys to have full accountability of every man on the team right away."

It remains unexplained by the Pentagon what the team's specific approved mission was that day beyond "train, advise and assist" Nigerien partner forces, or even how many were Americans were in the team on the mission that day. Some missions such as tribal engagement may require lighter combat loads while night raids and long vehicle patrols may necessitate bringing heavier weapons and much more ammunition piled in their vehicles.

"'Train and assist' is not a classroom exercise. It's typically out in the field, learning tactics and improving capabilities of indigenous forces like the Nigeriens," said Matthew Olsen, former National Counterterrorism Center director and an ABC News contributor. "Just because it's called 'train and assist' doesn't mean that it's not dangerous."

"It’s Special Forces doing what they're supposed to do -- working alone and unafraid," said the counterterrorism official.

Officials have said between eight and a dozen American troops were involved, a mix of operators and support troopers. Two of those killed were operators who wore the coveted Green Beret and the other two were support soldiers in the unit.

The counterterrorism official said the U.S. team's downfall may have been a combination of not having enough, or not accurate enough, "ISR" -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance scans -- of the patrol area before commencing the mission; that it was a team of special operations soldiers with few prior combat deployments among them; the possibility of a compromised mission plan leaked by Nigerien troops to the enemy; or just simply very bad luck, officials said.

"They were set up for failure," said one 3rd Group veteran, who monitored the incident and its aftermath.

The overarching mission in Africa of 3rd Special Forces Group, known as "The Tribe," is "foreign internal defense" and counterterrorism operations in a low-intensity conflict around the Sahel region in which partnering with indigenous forces in remote areas is intended to build relationships in order to defeat violent extremists in at-risk countries such as Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria.

In one version of events provided by a U.S. official, the Green Beret-led team had driven to a village near the border with Mali and were walking to or from the meeting when they were ambushed by about 50 fighters from an ISIS group. But two different officials said that it appears only some of the American soldiers went into the village to meet with elders and that's when they were attacked, meaning the Americans were separated at the outset of the gunfight.

There was a Nigerien platoon in the general vicinity but they were not part of the mission to the village and they did not participate in the firefight that followed the ambush, one official said.

Once Sgt. Johnson went missing, U.S. Joint Special Operations Command moved vast resources immediately to the area including intelligence assets and "tier one" operators, the most elite commandos, to assist in finding the missing soldier, who many feared at the time could have been taken prisoner. But by late morning (EST) on Oct. 5, the Sgt. Johnson had been found deceased.

Officials have said that the missing remains were found by Nigerien troops in the vicinity of the firefight. It was apparently a fluid battle scene that extended over a large area and wasn’t localized in one area, which may be why he wasn't immediately located.

"There are inevitably going to be questions about this mission and whether or not it was handled appropriately,” Olsen said. “The reality is that it's important for us to have elements like this 'train and assist' mission in these countries to help stem the flow of foreign fighters.”

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Afghan soldiers in US for training are going AWOL

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Facing a tense security situation at home and few apparent repercussions in the U.S., dozens of Afghan soldiers and security personnel who came to the U.S. for training have gone AWOL -- and the number is increasing, according to the latest report from government's oversight group for Afghanistan.

Hundreds of Afghan troops helping to fight the Taliban in their country train in the U.S. each year, and last year 13 percent of them went missing, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR.

That's double the historical average of 6 percent for Afghan troops over the last 12 years, and far higher than the average desertion rate of 0.07 percent for all foreign troops training in the U.S.

U.S. officials expect that the number of Afghan troops going missing to continue to climb.

"Given the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the fact that Afghan trainees who violate the terms of their visas suffer virtually no consequences for going AWOL (except for the possible return to Afghanistan)... the AWOL rate is likely to either remain steady or increase," says the inspector general's report published Friday.

The last few days have been a grim reminder of what Afghan soldiers may be seeking to escape after a series of attacks on Afghan security units in Kabul killed more than 70 people on Monday and Tuesday. On Friday, a suicide bombing in a mosque in the city killed at least 30 people.

Afghans interviewed by the inspector general for the report shared stories of Taliban fighters threatening their families or claimed that their lives were in danger if they returned home.

U.S. immigration officials meanwhile have some concerns about AWOL trainees posing a danger in this country. The Afghan soldiers who have gone missing in the U.S. are considered "high risk" by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) counterterrorism unit because they came into the country with more limited vetting than other visitors and they are military-trained individuals of a fighting age. Moreover, the trainees by going AWOL have demonstrated a "flight risk" and shown little or no concern about possible arrest and detention.

The special inspector general's report notes, though, "We are not aware of any acts of terrorism or similarly serious acts involving Afghan trainees who have gone AWOL."

Finding the missing trainees can be complicated by the fact that they may have been exempted from certain registration requirements when they came to the U.S., and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot work to track them down until the State Department and Pentagon have revoked their official trainee status.

Moreover, if any of the individuals applies for asylum in the U.S., that is done through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services which often doesn't communicate with ICE, according to ICE. Since 2005, 152 Afghan trainees have gone AWOL, and 83 of them either fled the country successfully, often traveling to Canada, or remain missing. Only 27 have been arrested or removed by law enforcement.

Several disappearances of Afghan military personnel have generated major media coverage.

In Washington D.C. in 2014, two Afghan Army officers disappeared during a visit to Washington's Georgetown neighborhood and were found days later.

Later that same month, three officers went missing from a base in Massachusetts only to be found days later as they attempted to cross into Canada. The soldiers had disappeared after a chaperoned visit to a shopping mall.

In December 2015, two Afghan trainee pilots disappeared from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia just days before they were to return to Afghanistan. One of the two airmen was later found in Virginia. Beyond any concerns about dangers the AWOL trainees may pose in the U.S., the desertions have other negative consequences, particularly for the strength of Afghanistan's armed forces and the continuation of training opportunities in the U.S.

"If a student absconds, it affects his unit and the commander will not allow his soldiers to get into future trainings. Scholarship and other training would be restricted for soldiers," one Afghan captain told the special inspector general's office.

More desertions mean a reduction in the number of courses offered to Afghan security personnel, which in turn reduces their operational readiness -- and drags down morale.

"Trainees we spoke with indicated that recent AWOL cases had a negative impact on morale, and the negative publicity that resulted from these incidents was generally seen as bringing shame to Afghanistan," the report said.

Afghan policies could be contributing to the lack of incentive for trainees to return home. Many soldiers are not even guaranteed a job when they go back after training in the U.S. Afghan policy does not require units to return trainees to their previous positions or provide them roles that use the training they just received, according to the inspector general's report.

And, soldiers who have been gone for training more than a year are switched to reserve status, meaning they may have to wait to go back to active duty and have less incentive to stay in the armed forces.

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US-backed Syrian force declares victory over ISIS in its former 'capital,' Raqqa

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- U.S.-backed Syrian forces declared victory over ISIS in the terror group's former de facto capital of Raqqa.

“We proudly announce today from the heart of the city of Raqqa the victory of our forces in the major battle to defeat the ISIS terror organization, which we defeated in the capital of its alleged caliphate," the Syrian Democratic Forces said in a statement in Arabic on Friday.

Raqqa, nestled on the northern bank of the Euphrates River in Syria, fell into the hands of ISIS militants in 2014 and became the heart of their self-declared Islamic caliphate.

Friday's proclaimed victory comes after weeks of fighting between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States, with entire neighborhoods of the backwater city now in ruin.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS also issued a statement Friday that congratulated the Syrian force on its victory in Raqqa. The coalition called the liberation of Raqqa and an earlier victory over ISIS in Mosul, Iraq, in July, "turning points for the terrorist organization whose leaders grow ever more distant from a dwindling number of terrorist adherents."

However, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II, commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, cautioned that "a tough fight still lies ahead."

"The military defeat of Daesh is essential, but not sufficient," Funk said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. "We are still fighting the remnants of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, and will continue to facilitate humanitarian efforts assisting citizens adversely affected by a brutal occupation, who face a long battle to gain their freedom."

The destruction in Raqqa adds to the wider damage from the Syrian civil war that is now in its seventh year. Half of Syria's population is displaced either within the country's borders or abroad. Meanwhile, more than 5 million Syrians lack access to basic supplies and services, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

ABC News' Lena Masri and Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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Drone footage captures aftermath of ISIS in Raqqa

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Though victory has been declared in the battle against ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa, drone footage and photos show a city decimated by a months-long siege and years of civil war.

Syrian Democratic Forces celebrated their hard-won victory around Naim Square, which was where ISIS fighters once carried out public beheadings and executions during their occupation of the city. Also known as "Paradise Square," it had been a symbol of brutality when Raqqa was the "capital" of ISIS's self-declared caliphate.

Now, the once-vibrant metropolis of 200,000 people has been left in ruins following fighting that began during the Syrian uprising and escalated with the arrival of ISIS in late 2013. The battle to retake Raqqa began on June 6, following heavy airstrikes by U.S. forces.

In the past few days, journalists were able to enter the war-torn city. Images show streets piled with debris and nearly every building appears to have suffered heavy damage.

Raqqa will have to be cleared of landmines, explosives and other hazards before the long road to recovery can begin and residents can return.

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Pilots grounded amid investigation into 'fly-around maneuver' in Germany, airline says

mikdam/iStock/Thinkstock(DUSSELDORF, Germany) -- The pilots who were flying the Air Berlin plane that buzzed a control tower in Dusseldorf, Germany, have been suspended, according to the airline.

Air Berlin said the pilots, who have not been identified, were "not working in air service" while an investigation continued into the incident. The airline said the suspensions were standard procedure during a probe.

In a statement, the airline said that before landing the plane, the pilots had engaged in a "fly-around maneuver."

"In aviation, safety comes first. We take the incident very seriously," Air Berlin said in a statement. "Statements from passengers as well as numerous YouTube videos have led to questions and speculations, which must be answered by the pilots and the control tower staff during the ongoing investigations. The incident is jointly examined by Air Berlin and relevant authorities. It is normal procedure that all relevant crew members are exempted from the air service until the conclusion of such an investigation."

The bankrupt European airline flew its last long-haul flight this week from Miami, Florida, to Dusseldorf. The Airbus A330 farewell flight left Miami Sunday around 5 p.m. and arrived to Dusseldorf a little after 8 a.m. local time.

Air Berlin did not confirm how many passengers and crew were onboard the aircraft at the time. However, the Air Berlin A330 seats a maximum of 290 passengers.

Max Siegmayer, a passenger aboard the flight, told ABC News Thursday that the pilot had told passengers about his plan to fly around the control tower about 10 minutes prior to doing so. Siegmayer said that the atmosphere onboard the plane was one of amazement.

"When he did this maneuver, I think nobody was scared because everybody [knew] what happened," Siegmayer said, adding that as a passenger, "I also liked it."

"I think everybody looked out of the window and everybody was excited," he added. "It's not normal that you make such a maneuver at a landing. It feels great that I was on this flight, the last Air Berlin flight."

German's Federal Aviation Office also confirmed to ABC News that the airline had been asked for more information regarding the incident.

"A fly-around maneuver is a normal operating procedure, which must be mastered by the pilots and is applied as required. In this case, the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt [Germany's federal aviation office] asked Air Berlin to comment on the A330's fly-around maneuver in Dusseldorf, since it differs from the usual start-up maneuvers and therefore requires clarification. The result of the internal investigations done by Air Berlin remains to be seen," the agency said.

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Spain prepares to suspend Catalonia's autonomy amid independence disagreement

donfiore/iStock/Thinkstock(MADRID) -- Catalonia's leader Carles Puigdemont has missed the deadline to offer a final answer on whether the region is declaring independence. Now, Spain is deciding whether it will enact a rule that would allow it to directly control the currently autonomous Catalonia.

Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister of Spain, gave Puigdemont until 10 a.m. local time Thursday to clarify whether Catalonia is moving forward with separating from Spain, after the region voted for independence in a referendum this month.

Puigdemont responded to the request with a letter to Mariano Rajoy, warning Madrid he would ask the Parliament to vote on the independence question if Spain chooses to act on article 155 of the 1978 constitution, which allows Spain to take administrative control of any of its 17 autonomous regions. The article has never been invoked in the history of post-dictatorship Spain.

"If the government keeps preventing dialogue and maintaining repression, the Parliament of Catalonia could go further, in due course, and formally vote the declaration of independence that was not voted on October 10th," Puigdemont wrote in the letter.

The Catalan leader is attempting to show the world he is prepared to talk with Spain before moving forward with separation, according to an expert in Catalan history at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs.

"Carles Puigdemont wants to show internationally how pacifist and open to dialogue Catalonia is," Marc Gafarot told ABC News. "Spain refused to meet him in person despite the ongoing conflict."

After Spain arrested independence activists Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart this week, many in Catalonia fear that Spain enacting article 155 will result in new repression and violence in the region.

Around 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Barcelona after the arrests, demanding that Madrid release its "political prisoners," as Puigdemont called them in a tweet last Tuesday.

A special extraordinary cabinet meeting hosted by Rajoy is scheduled for Saturday in Madrid to discuss what measures Spain will take.

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Meet ‘Russia’s Paris Hilton,’ who plans to take on Vladimir Putin

Photo by Gennadiy Gulyaev/Kommersant via Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal TV journalist and the daughter of a political mentor to Russian president Vladimir Putin, has announced she will run against him in the country’s presidential elections next spring. The move has changed a race that was expected to be a perfunctory coronation of Putin and generated controversy among the opposition, some of whom have criticized her candidacy as another Kremlin ploy.

Sobchak is the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, who, as a reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg, helped first bring Putin into politics in the early 1990s and played a key role in paving the ex-KGB spy’s path to the Kremlin. The two men were so close that Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter.

She announced her candidacy in a video posted on Youtube and with an open letter published in a leading business newspaper, Vedomosti.

"I am going into the elections not just as a candidate but as a megaphone for all those who cannot become a candidate. I invite all political forces ready to use my run as a platform to convey their complaints against the present situation and to the authorities," she wrote in Vedomosti.

Russia is due to hold its presidential elections in March. Although he has yet to formally announce his candidacy, Putin is expected to run and to win without difficulty. His list of potential opponents is a familiar cast of authorized opposition, three of whom have run (and lost) against him over the past nearly two decades.

Sobchak’s entry shakes up that scenario, without changing its likely outcome.

One of Russia’s best-known media personalities, she first made her name in reality television, cultivating the role of an on-camera socialite. She has sometimes been described as "Russia’s Paris Hilton," and she previously posed for Playboy and had her own MTV show. Then, half a decade ago, she abruptly remade herself into a leading liberal voice, becoming a top host at Russia’s only opposition TV station, TV Rain.

Sobchak said she was running because she believed her bid could help amplify the voices of Russians who are dissatisfied with Putin's leadership and what she called the country's massive official corruption.

"I think that my participation in the elections really can be a step on the path towards the transformations that are so much needed by our country,” she wrote in Vedomosti.

Sobchak’s run throws a curve ball into the election, but many believe it was thrown by the Kremlin. Her announcement was immediately criticised as a government ploy, intended to divide the anti-Putin opposition that recently had seemed to be gaining steam under another liberal figure, Aleksey Navalny.

Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, has become Russia’s most influential opposition figure, building a grassroots campaign with thousands of young volunteers. Demonstrations in dozens of cities called by Navalny in March and June were the largest in years and have resulted in a backlash from authorities, who have sought to disrupt his rallies and have arrested his supporters.

Despite being barred from running for office by a fraud conviction, Navalny has been organizing what he calls a presidential campaign. He is demanding he be allowed to participate, arguing that the conviction was designed to keep him off the ballot.

Whether the Kremlin would allow Navalny to participate had emerged as the central conflict of the coming election, with his supporters expected to protest if his candidacy is blocked.

But Sobchak’s entry now is seen by some as having the potential to derail that contest. An op-ed written by a political commentator Kirill Rogov on the website of liberal radio station Echo Moskvy declared Sobchak “a spoiler,” adding "Not for Vladimir Putin, but for Aleksey Navalny."

Sergey Uldaltsov, a radical left-wing opposition leader, wrote on Twitter: “The Sobchak thing is too obvious. The Kremlin’s ears stick out for a kilometer.”

Those suspicions may have a basis in reality. Sobchak’s announcement was preceded by a series of leaks that the Kremlin was seeking a female candidate to run against Putin to add spice to a race that was in danger of looking overly controlled. In September, Vedomosti quoted sources in Putin’s presidential administration that the Kremlin considered Sobchak an "ideal candidate."

At the time, Sobchak criticised the reports, calling them an attempt to discredit her. Rumors, however, had continued to circulate that she was planning a campaign.

On Thursday, Andrey Movchan, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in Vedomosti that Sobchak’s announcement was “one of the most expected events of recent times.”

Sobchak’s entrance into politics began in the winter of 2011 and 2012 when mass protests broke out against Putin after parliamentary elections were found to have been widely rigged. She appeared before a crowd in Moscow on Christmas Eve, telling the crowd, “I am Ksenia Sobchak and I have something to lose, but I am here with you.” The crowd booed her, The Guardian reported.

Sobchak has known Putin since she was a child when he served under her father as a deputy mayor. When her father, beset with investigations into alleged corruption, apparently suffered a heart attack, Putin is credited with flying him to Europe for treatment. That act of loyalty was said to have been noticed at a time in the Kremlin and has been credited frequently as a reason for Putin’s eventual anointment as president.

Sobchak has said she had already privately told both Navalny and Putin about her intention to run before making her formal announcement. In an interview on TV Rain, she said believed Putin “had not liked” the idea. A Kremlin spokesman on Wednesday denied that.

Putin himself commented on a possible run by Sobchak at a press conference on Sept. 5, saying everyone, including Sobchak, "had the right to run."

"I regarded and regard her father with respect,” Putin said. “He played a big role in my fate."

But when it comes to a presidential run, "things of a personal nature can’t play any kind of role," Putin said. "It depends on the program she proposes, if she really will run, how she will organise her campaign.”

Many in the opposition are skeptical the Kremlin is displeased, however, arguing that Sobchak’s bid will de-fang Navalny’s run, allowing the Kremlin to block him while allowing it still to argue it has permitted a real contest.

"Sobchak cannot help but understand that they will register her for the elections only if she will play by the Kremlin’s rules,” Zoya Svetova, a well-known political analyst and critic of Putin, wrote in a blog post on the opposition website Open Russia. “Is she not ashamed to say that if they register Navalny, she will withdraw her candidacy, knowing full well that they won’t register Navalny?”

In her letter announcing her bid, Sobchak called for Navalny, who is currently serving a 20-day jail sentence for calling for unauthorized protests, to be allowed onto the ballot and suggested that she could still withdraw her candidacy if he is permitted to run.

Navalny has previously warned Sobchak against running, telling her when the reports emerged that the Kremlin was enthusiastic about a potential candidacy, not to play the “quite disgusting Kremlin game.”

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Tourist reportedly killed in famous Italian church when piece of ceiling falls off

fotonio/iStock/Thinkstock(FLORENCE, Italy) -- A small part of the ceiling inside the famous Basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence, Italy, suddenly broke off Thursday, hitting and killing a tourist who was visiting the church with his wife, Italian media reported.

The stone piece, about 6 inches by 6 inches, fell nearly 60 feet after it broke off near the right nave of the church where it had been supporting a beam, according to reports. The man was 52 years old and was from Spain.

The Basilica of the Holy Cross, also known as the Basilica of Santa Croce, is the burial site of Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo.

The church was immediately closed as police and firefighters fought to save the man’s life, but he died on the scene, according to local media. Italian reports said the tourist’s wife was near him at the time and witnessed the crash.

“Deeply sorry for the incident at the Basilica of the Holy Cross where a Spanish tourist was killed,” Florence’s mayor, Dario Nardella, tweeted. “Engineers from the ministry are already on site."


Tourists continued to line up outside even as the church remained closed and an investigation was taking place, Italian media reported.

A tour guide who was in the church at the time told Italian media that the piece fell near the third chapel on the right side of the transept. He said he did not see the stone hit the man but did see it fall and heard the man’s wife cry out.

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