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Saturday
Sep142019

Pompeo blames Iran for major attack on Saudi oil facility amid high regional tensions

MicroStockHub/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday blamed Iran for a massive attack on a critical Saudi oil facility that has put the region on high alert.

Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen claimed responsibility for the assault, which was conducted using drones and hit the world's largest oil processing facility hundreds of miles from the Saudi-Yemen border.

Saudi Aramco, the massive state-run firm, said oil production, at least temporarily, would be reduced to about 50% capacity, a difference of approximately 5.7 million barrels per day.

A senior official told ABC News more than 20 drones were used in the strike and that Iran definitely was behind it.

"It was Iran," the senior official said. "Houthis are claiming credit for something they did not do."

President Donald Trump called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Saturday "to offer his support for Saudi Arabia's self-defense," the White House said in a statement, which didn't specifically blame anyone, including Iran.

A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting against the Houthis in Yemen for over four years now after the group captured the capital Sanaa in the chaos of the country's civil war. The Houthis are backed by Iran, the Saudis' chief rival, which the Trump administration accuses of destabilizing the region and attacking oil supply chains to counter U.S. sanctions on its own oil industry.

"Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen," Pompeo tweeted.

In a video statement, Houthi spokesman Yahya Saree claimed that the rebel group carried out the drone bombings and threatened more attacks unless Saudi Arabia halted its military campaign against them: "We promise the Saudi regime that our upcoming operations will expand more and more and will be more painful than ever, so long as it continues in its assault and siege."

The Saudi-led coalition said it was still conducting an investigation into who was responsible, which could have dramatic implications for what comes next, especially if the kingdom blames Iran.

Trump's friend and ally in Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for the president to consider a U.S. "attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment."

But critics said the administration and its allies are distorting the reality of the conflict.

"This is such irresponsible simplification, and it's how we get into dumb wars of choice," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said about Pompeo's tweet. "The Saudis and Houthis are at war. The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back. Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it's just not as simple as Houthis [equal] Iran."

The Houthis have shown increasingly sophisticated capabilities to attack in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. partner in the Middle East that the Trump administration has drawn particularly close to. Over the last few months, there have been a swarm of drone attacks and ballistic missile launches by the group, prompting more Saudi airstrikes in Yemen.

A State Department official told ABC News recently that the group was "gaining capability by the day" with new ranges, types of equipment and increased frequency and complexity of their attacks, which the official blamed on Iran's Quds Force, an elite unit in its Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran denies supplying the Houthis with weapons, although the United Nations, other Western countries and Gulf Arab nations join the U.S. in saying Tehran does.

But the U.S. has engaged the Houthis in occasional talks in an effort to bring the brutal war, which has killed at least 91,000 and brought the country to the brink of famine, to a negotiated settlement. The State Department official said the administration is pursuing talks in hopes of peeling the Houthis away from Iran and back to a U.N.-led peace process that secured a preliminary agreement last December, but that hasn't been implemented.

"I don't know what the level of ideological affinity is among the Houthis for Iran, other than they both share a mutual antipathy toward the United States and Israel," the official said. "But I think it's important to explore it."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Saturday
Sep142019

Asteroid size of Empire State Building to pass Earth Saturday night

dottedhippo/iStock(NEW YORK) -- After an asteroid safely flew past Earth on Friday, another that's possibly larger than the Empire State building is expected to pass by Saturday night.

2000 QW7, the skyscraper-sized asteroid, should whiz past Early at 7:54 p.m. EST. NASA estimates the object to be 950 feet to 2,100 feet in size. For comparison, the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai is 2,717 feet tall, the Shanghai Tower is 2,073 feet tall and the Empire State Building stretches 1,454 feet into the the Manhattan skyline.

Friday's asteroid, about 400 feet to 850 feet in size, safely passed Earth at 11:42 p.m. EST.

"These asteroids have been well observed — one since 2000 and the other since 2010 — and their orbits are very well known," Lindley Johnson, planetary defense officer and program executive for the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA, said in a statement. "Both of these asteroids are passing at about 14 lunar distances from the Earth, or about 3.5 million miles away, but small asteroids pass by Earth this close all the time."

NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program is monitoring 2000 QW7, but it's not expected to pose any threat to the planet.

"Large asteroids pass by Earth several times a year and only pose a threat if they are actually expected to make direct contact with our planet," Johnson previously told ABC News.

"We have objects, asteroids of this size, that pass within 5 million miles of the earth six, seven times out of the year," Johnson told ABC News in August, as 2006 QQ23 came within 5 million miles.

NASA said it's tracking more than 20,000 near-Earth objects -- a figure likely to grow. An average of 30 new objects are identified by NASA each week.

Earlier this week, new research showed that the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was as powerful as 10 billion atomic bombs.

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Saturday
Sep142019

Venice's 1,000-year-old tradition of glass-making sees an artistic revival

Sarah Hucal/ABC News(VENICE, Italy) -- Nicola Causin was 17 years old when he started working with glass.

"It was like falling in love," he said.

That love hasn't faded after 34 years of honing his craft on Murano, a short boat ride from Venice – and the epicenter of the Venetian glass-making industry.

"It's always a challenge; you have to be very humble in front of this material. It's the glass that commands you" and not the other way around, he told ABC while cleaning up after a day's work in the furnace where he'd spent his day making intricate glass artworks.

Observing him blow, fold and cut red-hot glass extracted from the heart of the flames is nothing short of mesmerizing. Glass maestros -- or "glass masters" -- like Causin trained in the artisan craft still use nearly the same tools and techniques they did 1,000 years ago when the lagoon city became a glass-making hub.

These time-tested techniques are also increasingly being applied to contemporary art and design in an effort to keep the trade alive and move beyond the simple souvenir pieces found in Venice storefronts.

In September, Nomad, a traveling showcase for collectible art and design in a 15th-century Venetian palazzo the first weekend of September, and Venice Glass Week brought design-enthusiasts to Venice for a glimpse at the latest and greatest in contemporary glass arranged in in historic locations around the city.

Venetian glass-making began during the Roman Empire and became the region's major industry. By the late 1200s, a glass-makers' guild was established to safeguard the secrets of the craft, and in 1291, furnaces were moved to the nearby islands of Murano as to avoid starting fires in overcrowded Venice.

The techniques were unparalleled, and Murano products -- especially elegant chandeliers and glassware -- were in high demand all over Europe.

Although the Venetian glass-making industry has shrunk since it peaked in the 16th century, today glass maestros still hone their craft in family-run furnaces on Murano.

To become a master is no easy feat -- those who choose a life of fire typically begin an apprenticeship in their teens and train for at least 15 years until they are allowed to work as a humble laborer in a furnace. To become a master glass-blower, they must demonstrate special talent -- and not everyone has what it takes.

"You will never find a maestro easily. Nobody can teach you how to be an artist" Fanny Campagno, manager at Berengo furnace, told ABC.

Yet despite the pool of talent, the artisanal craft may need a revival.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago there were around 700 furnaces and now [there] are 110," points out Maurizio Mussati, founder of design company WonderGlass.

His company merges the traditional craftsmanship of Murano glass-making with contemporary lighting and furniture designs and presented pieces by designer India Mahdavi at Nomad.

"I think Murano definitely adds value to every design because if you have a chandelier and specify it is Murano glass, it brings a seal of quality to the project" said Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte, Nomad's co-founder.

Many of the works on display, from table lamps to mirrors, were made in the glass-making epicenter. Nomad took place alongside the third annual Venice Glass Week, which put on over 180 events around the city to put the long tradition of Murano glass-making back in the spotlight.

Designer India Mahdavi's debuted her whimsical chandelier "Clover," which put a decidedly modern twist on traditional 17th-century Murano chandeliers associated with opulence.

For Mahdavi, working with artisans to help keep their craft alive is key -- and not only around Venice, but around the world. Japanese basket weavers must also train for decades until they are at the top of their field, she points out.

"I think that it's important to put these artisanal 'know-hows' back into the whole context about what we might be losing" she told ABC. "We know how long it takes to become a maestro."

The furnace of Berengo Studio is also shaking up the industry. In the 30 years since it opened on Murano, its founder Adriano Berengo has made it his mission to convince some of the world's best-known artists to start working with glass.

He's already collaborated with superstars such as Ai Wei Wei and shows his work in "Glassstress," an exhibition in an abandoned glass furnace put on with the Venice Biennale art festival.

"I'm not coming from the past -- I don't make chandeliers or drinking glasses" explains Berengo of his mission to bring glass to the contemporary art world. "It's medium we have everywhere in Venice, but the ability to use it for contemporary art is something which is relatively recent."

For many of Berengo's artist collaborators, it's the first time they've worked in glass, which presents a unique set of challenges.

"The artist has to give up his narcissism since he is using the hand of another person," Berengo said. "The glass maestro essentially represents the extension of the hand of the artist, and when these two are together, you can achieve great results."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Friday
Sep132019

UK climate-change activists arrested over plan to fly drones around Heathrow Airport

iStock(LONDON) -- Police in the UK have arrested twelve environmental activists over plans to fly drones around the UK’s busiest airport to bring attention to climate change.

The plans had no impact on flight schedules on Friday.

“Heathrow’s runways and taxiways remain open and fully operational despite attempts to disrupt the airport through the illegal use of drones in protest nearby," Heathrow Airport said in a statement.

The activists’ group, called Heathrow Pause, had planned to fly toy drones in the so-called exclusion zone around Heathrow Airport to protest the planned expansion of London's Heathrow Airport and to draw attention to the environmental cost of air travel.

Arrests began on Thursday -- the day before the planned protests -- when police arrested seven people. An additional five people were arrested on Friday -- four on public land outside the perimeter of Heathrow Airport, and one in the airport itself.

"Our policing plan is aimed at preventing criminal activity which poses a significant safety and security risk to the airport, and the thousands of passengers that will be using it,” said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor in a statement. "In these circumstances, we believe these arrests to be a proportionate response to preventing criminal activity that could significantly impact on a major piece of national infrastructure.”

All arrests were made “on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance,” according to the police statement.

Among those arrested were former Paralympian James Brown and Roger Hallam, a co-founder of the group Extinction Rebellion, a radical protest group that employs non-violent acts of civil disobedience to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis.

The activists made their plans public weeks ago informing the public, the police, and Heathrow of the details of their activities on their website and in meetings.

They said that they would “adhere scrupulously to our total commitment to non-violence and passenger safety” by using lightweight drones, flying them only 6ft above the ground, and flying them far from Heathrow’s flight paths. They said that they would “pose no risk to aircraft.” They hoped, however, to prompt Heathrow to ground planes according to their by-laws around drones in the exclusion zone.

Police say that protesters who fly drones within the exclusion zone could face a life sentence in jail. But were also confident that the protesters wouldn’t disrupt flights, telling passengers that they should come to the airport for scheduled flights as per usual.

Despite the early arrests, the remaining activists began attempting to fly the drones at 3 am on Friday morning, but couldn’t get the drones to fly. They claimed that Heathrow had jammed the signal to prevent them from operating.

Unlike other protest movements, an arrest is a part of the Extinction Rebellion protest strategy and activists often aim to get themselves arrested, or at least know that it is a distinct possibility.

They call it “an opportunity to tell the truth - to the courts, the media and the public, and to raise the alarm on the climate emergency we face.”

Heathrow Airport released its own statement saying, “We agree with the need for climate change action but illegal protest activity designated with the intention of disrupting thousands of people, is not the answer.”

Heathrow is the seventh busiest airport in the world and the UK’s busiest airport with over 80 million passengers passing through in 2018.

In 2016, there were 3.8 billion air travelers. That number is expected to almost double to 7.2 billion passengers in 2015 according to the International Air Transport Association. The aviation industry is responsible for 2% of all CO2 emissions, and 12% of transport-sector CO2 emissions, according to industry non-profit The Air Transport Action Group.

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Friday
Sep132019

Newly discovered comet likely an 'interstellar visitor,' NASA says

FILE photo. (brightstars/iStock)(PASADENA, Calif.) -- The discovery of a new comet scientists believe to be an "interstellar object" has set the astronomy community abuzz.

If officially confirmed, the object would be only the second of its kind detected, according to a statement from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

The newly found comet, dubbed C/2019 Q4, was discovered by Gennady Borisov, a Crimean astronomer working out of an observatory in Nauchnij, Crimea.

Scientists believe the comet to be interstellar after studying its trajectory and velocity.

"The comet's current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph [150,000 kph], which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the Sun at that distance," Davide Farnocchia, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

"The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space," he added.

The comet -- consisting of an icy body surrounded by a cloud of dust and particles -- is currently approaching the sun, but the closest it is projected to come towards Earth is about 190 million miles, according to the NASA statement.

It will be visible with professional telescopes in the coming months and "will peak in brightness in mid-December and continue to be observable with moderate-size telescopes until April 2020," according to Farnocchia.

The first known interstellar object to visit our solar system, the history-making asteroid named the 'Oumuamua, was discovered by astronomers in October 2017 and puzzled the scientific community at the time, even setting off since-debunked rumors of extraterrestrial activity.

'Oumuamua is a Hawaiian name for "a messenger from afar arriving first" and has been described by astronomer Paul Chodas of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as "a strange visitor from a faraway star system, shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighborhood."

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Friday
Sep132019

Italian police officer stabbed with 'much violence,' autopsy report says

piola666/iStock(ROME) -- An Italian police officer who was allegedly killed during a confrontation with two American teenagers was stabbed with "much violence," some wounds so deep that the base of the 7-inch blade left marks on his skin, according to the autopsy report obtained by ABC News.

Mario Cerciello Rega, a 35-year-old deputy brigadier in Italy's Carabinieri paramilitary police force, bled to death after being stabbed 11 times on the streets of Rome in the early morning hours of July 26. The wounds penetrated major organs, including both lungs. He was declared dead minutes after being taken to a local hospital, with his clothes drenched in blood, according to the autopsy report conducted by an Italian court-appointed coroner.

Cerciello Rega had just returned to duty from his honeymoon. He had married his wife, Rosa Maria Esilio, in his hometown of Somma Vesuviana six weeks before. His funeral was held in the same church as his wedding.

"The widow is devastated and in deep sorrow," Esilio's attorney, Massimo Ferrandino, told ABC News in a statement late Thursday.

Finnegan Lee Elder, 19, and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, 18, remain jailed in Italy's capital on suspicion of attempted extortion and aggravated murder in connection to the fatal stabbing as well as a botched drug deal.

Investigators have alleged that Elder and Natale-Hjorth, who are both U.S. citizens and live in California, were trying to buy drugs in Rome but were sold a fake substance, an Italian police spokesman told ABC News.

The pair are accused of then robbing a man who had directed them to the drug dealer in the first place, stealing his backpack and demanding he pay them 100 euros and a gram of cocaine to get it back. The man agreed but, unbeknownst to Elder and Natale-Hjorth, he also contacted authorities, according to the police spokesman.

Cerciello Rega responded to the call with his partner at around 3 a.m. local time on July 26. Both officers were in plainclothes when they confronted the suspects on a street corner near an upscale hotel in Rome where the teens were staying.

A scuffle ensued and Elder allegedly stabbed Cerciello Rega, while Natale-Hjorth allegedly punched the officer's partner repeatedly, according to police reports that were made public. Elder allegedly used a 7-inch fix-blade combat knife during the four-minute encounter, according to a court document leaked to media outlets and obtained by ABC News.

Police say Elder and Natale-Hjorth were captured on surveillance video fleeing the scene with the stolen backpack. The duo were tracked down at their hotel, a block away from the scene and near Rome's Tiber River, police said.

Investigators also claim that they discovered a knife believed to be the murder weapon and blood-soaked clothes hidden in the ceiling of the teens' hotel room, police said.

Elder and Natale-Hjorth were questioned by police for hours and, when "faced with overwhelming evidence, they confessed," according to the Provincial Command of Rome.

Italian newspapers later published a leaked photo of what appears to be Natale-Hjorth blindfolded and handcuffed while in custody, prompting questions about the pair's confessions. It is illegal to blindfold a suspect in Italy, and police and prosecutors are carrying out separate investigations into the blindfolding.

Elder claimed he allegedly stabbed Ceriello Rega in self-defense, telling police he "feared for his life," according to the court document obtained by ABC News.

Gen. Francesco Gargaro, the commander of the Carabinieri in Italy's capital, told reporters that Cerciello Rega had "forgotten his gun" that fateful night, but there was still "no time" for the policemen to react and the suspects then took off.

Prosecutors say Cerciello Rega's partner, Andrea Varriale, is now under investigation for failing to bring his service weapon when responding to the incident. Varriale initially told his supervisors that he did have his gun.

Cerciello Rega's stab wounds were compatible with those that would come from the blade seized by police during the investigation, according to the autopsy report.

Since there were no frontal injuries on the officer's thorax and abdomen, the coroner concluded Cerciello Rega was standing very close to the knife-wielding individual, who likely stabbed him by moving his arm from outside toward the officer. Nearly all of the stab wounds were oblique, some slightly more horizontal and none were vertical, according to the autopsy report.

There were also no grabbing injuries on Cerciello Rega's body and only one wound which could be classified as a defense wound, caused by opposing an upper arm or stopping a blow, according to the report.

Elder's defense attorney, Craig Peters, told San Francisco ABC station KGO-TV that the autopsy contradicts police's allegation that the teens attacked the officers first.

"The autopsy stab wounds don't support an immediate attack," Peters said. "There's no stab wounds on the front of Ciercello's body."

The lawyer alleges the teens had agreed to meet up with the man whose backpack they stole so they could exchange it for the money they lost in the botched deal. They were worried about getting "jumped" by the man's friends during the meetup, which was why Elder was carrying a knife, Peters said.

"They thought that the person they were going to be meeting up with was part of a gang or mobs or a mafia guy," Peters told KGO-TV.

The lawyer also questioned the way Cerciello Rega and his partner responded to the incident, with no backup and no weapons, and whether it was in violation of departmental policy. Peters, citing footage from an ATM surveillance camera, also alleges the officers came up behind the teens and "jumped them" without ever showing their badges.

"I do know this," Peters told KGO-TV, "if they had done it properly, Cerciello Rega would be alive today. Cerciello Rega would absolutely be alive today had they done this sting operation properly."

When asked for comment, the attorney for Cerciello Rega's wife said in a statement, “We will make our final evaluation when the investigation is over, we cannot rely on the press to acquire information that may not even correspond to the investigators' findings. I read these details only from the newspapers, we have no access to investigative acts like the defense lawyers."

"I only know that there is a person who was savagely killed with 11 stab wounds, we will see how this trial will end," the attorney added. "We hope that it will start soon and, above all, will be speedy."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Thursday
Sep122019

Water vapor and temperatures that could support life found on exoplanet, NASA says

jamesbenet/iStock(LONDON) -- Astronomers have located the first planet outside our solar system containing water vapor and temperatures that could support life, according to NASA.

Data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope allowed astronomers from the Center for Space Exochemistry Data at the University College London to determine that the molecular signature of water vapor exists in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet about 110 light years away in the constellation of Leo, called K2-18b.

The results from the data also suggest the presence of hydrogen and helium, and scientists believe that other molecules, including methane and nitrogen, may be present but are currently undetectable from the existing observations.

The findings were published in two independent studies, one published in Nature Astronomy and another submitted to the the Astronomical Journal.

K2-18b, which is located around a small red dwarf star, is the only known exoplanet to have both water and temperatures that could support liquid water on a rocky surface, according to NASA.

However, the exoplanet may be more hostile to life than Earth due to the high level of activity to the nearby red dwarf star, which exposes it to more high-energy radiation.

K2-18b was discovered by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope in 2015. It is one of hundreds of "super-Earths," or exoplanets with masses between those of Earth and Neptune, found by the Kepler telescope.

It has a mass is eight times greater than Earth's, meaning its surface gravity would be significantly higher as well.

The next generation of space telescopes will be able to characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets in more detail, according to NASA.

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Thursday
Sep122019

Duchess Meghan returns from maternity leave, launches capsule collection for Smart Works charity

NataliaCatalina/iStock(LONDON) -- Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, has debuted her latest project, a capsule fashion collection for charity.

The Smart Set capsule collection of "workwear essentials" is on sale in stores and online for at least two weeks starting Thursday. It benefits Smart Works, a U.K. charity for women of which Meghan is patron.

Meghan launched the capsule collection at an event Thursday in London. She wore two of the pieces from the collection, a white shirt by Misha Nonoo and dark pants by Jigsaw.

“Since moving to the UK, it has been deeply important to me to meet with communities and organisations on the ground doing meaningful work and to try to do whatever I can to help them amplify their impact," Meghan, 38, said in a statement. "It was just last September that we launched the ‘Together’ cookbook with the women of the Hubb Kitchen in Grenfell."

"Now, one year later, I am excited to celebrate the launch of another initiative of women supporting women, and communities working together for the greater good," she said in an Instagram post showing the behind-the-scenes of a photo shoot for the collection.

Meghan partnered on the collection with her friend and designer Misha Nonoo, as well as Jigsaw, a British fashion line, and U.K.-based retailers John Lewis & Partners and Marks & Spencer.

The collection's blazer and trousers were designed and are available at Jigsaw; the tote bag "which fits all the essentials needed for an interview" is from John Lewis & Partners; a "classic dress, flattering to all sizes" is from Marks & Spencer; and the "perfect crisp white shirt" is by Misha Nonoo, according to Buckingham Palace. Each item is available in stores and on the web.

For each item purchased from the collection, one item will be shared with a woman at Smart Works. Meghan described the five-piece collection as one that will "equip the Smart Works clients with the classic wardrobe pieces to help them feel confident as they mobilize back into the work space."

Meghan chose Smart Works as the first charity she visited after announcing her first four royal patronages in January. The London-based charity helps unemployed women get back on their feet and into the workforce through dressing and coaching services.

When Meghan visited the charity in January, she personally helped a woman style an outfit for her new job. The duchess saw during visits prior to her appointment as patron that the right choices or sizes were not always available for women helped by Smart Works, prompting her idea for the capsule collection, according to Buckingham Palace.

Meghan's newest initiative to help the women's charity comes just days after she flew from London to New York to help cheer on her good friend Serena Williams in the U.S. Open women's final.

It also comes as she appears to be ending her maternity leave with her 4-month-old son Archie and stepping back full-time into royal duties.

Meghan has technically been on maternity leave since Archie's birth in May but has continued to work behind the scenes on initiatives, including the British Vogue issue and thecapsule collection.

Meghan, Harry and Archie will travel to South Africa later this month for their first official overseas tour as a family of three.

The family will visit South Africa on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, according to Buckingham Palace.

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Thursday
Sep122019

Russia launches wave of raids against opposition activists 

Rus32/iStock(MOSCOW) -- Russia’s security services on Thursday launched a sweeping wave of raids targeting the anti-Kremlin opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his supporters, searching dozens of homes and offices in cities across Russia and detaining several people.

The scale of the raids was unprecedented. By midday local time, police had raided around 150 addresses in 41 cities, according to Navalny’s group, the Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK). The group’s 45 regional offices were hit and police also searched the homes of dozens of the group's activists, FBK said.

Videos posted online by some activists showed masked officers in body armor carrying out the raids in some cities. In other places, activists posted videos and photos of plain-clothed officers carrying out the searches. Navalny's group posted videos showing police going through their offices and said police had seized phones and computers.

At least several Navalny volunteers in various cities were detained, some taken away by masked police. They later posted they had been taken in for questioning.

The wave of searches comes days after local elections in which President Vladimir Putin’s ruling political party, United Russia, suffered significant losses in Moscow and struggled in some regions, an unusual blow to the Kremlin and which followed weeks of protests in the Russian capital.

Navalny and his allies have taken credit for those losses, attributing them to their campaign of tactical voting which saw them call on people to vote for any candidate with the best chance of beating the Kremlin. On Thursday, Navalny said the raids were clearly a response to the elections and were designed to intimidate his group and those opposed to Putin.

“Vladimir Putin is very upset and stamping his feet,” Navalny said in a video posted to his followers. “Tell me, do you remember an operation of this scale happening in our country against corruption? Or against terrorists? Or against drug traffickers? But against our offices, against FBK, it’s just happening,” Navalny said using the acronym for his organization.

The city council itself has little power, but the opposition targeted it in an attempt to underline the unpopularity of Putin's party, which has sunk in the polls, particularly in Moscow.

Because Navalny and other anti-Kremlin opposition leaders were barred from running, in practice the tactical voting meant backing the Communist Party.

Although hard to measure, in Moscow the tactical voting campaign appeared to have an impact: in the elections Sunday, United Russia’s majority in the 45-seat city parliament collapsed from 40 to 24. All but one of the candidates backed by Navalny's tactical voting campaign won, with the Communists taking 13 seats. The liberal party, Yabloko, that is allied with Navalny, won all four districts where it ran.

That result and weak performances in some other regions were seen as signaling bigger problems for the Kremlin. Although Putin himself remains generally popular, the weakening support for his party undermines his legitimacy. It is particularly worrying for the Kremlin with parliamentary elections due in 2021. United Russia polled so badly in Moscow ahead of these elections that it ran all of its candidates as nominal "independents."
 
“We completely understand why Putin is having these hysterics," Navalny said Thursday. "How will he now prove that he has a majority behind him?”

The raids are the latest fallout in what has been a summer of protest and a resulting police crackdown, that was sparked by the local elections. Thousands of people protested most weekends in Moscow since mid-July to demand fair elections, after elections officials barred most anti-Kremlin opposition candidates from taking part.
 
Authorities responded with the harshest crackdown in decades. Hundreds were arrested at the protests, where riot police dispersed the peaceful crowds and courts have now handed several demonstrators tough prison sentences. Virtually all of Russia’s opposition leaders, including Navalny, spent weeks in jail, convicted of illegal protest organizing.

At the height of the protests, police opened a criminal fraud investigation into the financing of Navalny’s group. Activists on Thursday said police had told them they were carrying out the searches in connection with this case.

Navalny has called the fraud investigation politically motivated, saying police have simply labeled legitimate donations to his group as criminally obtained.

The 43-year-old former lawyer has become the Kremlin’s most troublesome opponent, building a national following with his investigations into alleged official corruption, which he presents in viral videos on his YouTube channel. Over recent years, Navalny has constructed a national network of so-called "campaign offices," using them to organize protest rallies and conduct election monitoring.

A key lieutenant of Navalny, Leonid Volkov on Thursday wrote that protesters had prepared for such raids and promised the group would keep functioning.

“We of course were ready for this, we have all the necessary reserve infrastructure for continuing activity and the quickest restoration of the normal work,” Volkov wrote on the social media messenger Telegram.

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Thursday
Sep122019

Tourists in Cyprus run from explosions at nearby Turkish military base

200mm/iStock(NEW YORK) -- Terrified tourists were evacuated from a northern Cyprus hotel early Thursday morning following explosions at a nearby Turkish military base.

Blasts at an ammunition depot showered the surrounding area with debris and unexploded ordnance after a fire broke out on the base in Catalkoy, west of the town of Kyrenia.

Posting to his Facebook page, Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Kudret Ozersay said only a few minor injuries were reported.

The nearby Acapulco Hotel was damaged in the explosions, which began on Wednesday night and continued into the morning.

It was not immediately clear what triggered the blasts. Turkish defense officials said they had launched an investigation.

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