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Wednesday
Sep122018

Putin has a message for the UK spy poisoning suspects he calls 'civilians' with no military ties: 'I hope they will come forward'

Metropolitan Police(LONDON) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said the two men whom British authorities charged in the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy and his daughter have been identified as “civilians” who do not work for the military, according to Russian media.

"We have found them just to figure out who they are. There is nothing special and criminal about them, believe me," Putin said according to Russian state media.

After Putin’s comments, Russian state television reported that one of the suspects, Alexander Petrov, may break his silence sometime next week.

British authorities announced last week that Russian nationals Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov allegedly carried out the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, England, earlier this year using a deadly nerve agent.

The men traveled on Russian passports and probably used fake names, the authorities said.

The British government has not responded to Putin’s most recent comments.

British Prime Minister Theresa May last week said the attack was “almost certainly” approved “at a senior level of the Russian state."

The British government also released detailed surveillance footage tracking the pair’s apparent movements and an image of the perfume bottle purportedly used to administer the nerve agent on the Skripals’ front door.

Putin asked the men to go public. "I would like to call on them so that they can hear us today,” he said Wednesday. "They should go to some media outlet. I hope they will come forward and tell about themselves."

Rossyiya-24, a state-owned news channel, reported that it has spoken to Petrov, according to Reuters. Petrov is a pharmaceutical company worker in Tomsk, Siberia, who, when asked for comment, reportedly told Rossyiya-24, “No comment for the moment. Maybe later. Next week, I think.”

If he does so, it would not be the first time an accused Russian assassin has answered international allegations through the Russian media. Andrei Lugovoi, the Russian man accused by the U.K. government of killing ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, used a news conference in 2007 to deny the charge and accuse U.K. special services of conducting the assassination, according to BBC News.

An Interpol Red Notice and European arrest warrant have been issued, though the Russian Constitution forbids them from being extradited.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Sep112018

Widow remembers husband who saved her life during Westminster attack inquest

Metropolitan Police(LONDON) -- The widow of the American man who died saving her in the Westminster terror attack gave evidence at an inquest in London Tuesday.

Melissa and Kurt Cochran were in London March 22, 2017, as part of a trip to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

"We were just being touristy and we had just planned on spending pretty much the entire day walking and seeing everything that we could see," Melissa Cochran told the court about the day of the attack. "We had one day in London so we were going to cram everything in that we could. We were only, I guess, about two and a half hours in London before this all happened."

Melissa Cochran told the court that she had been talking to her husband on the south side of Westminster Bridge when she "heard a car revving." The next thing said she remembered was seeing the front of a car and then being "on the ground with someone's hand on my head."

Kurt Cochran, 54, pushed his wife to safety just seconds before he was allegedly run over and killed by Khalid Masood, 52, who police say intentionally hit pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before fatally stabbing a police officer outside the Houses of Parliament.

The leader of the inquest, Chief Coroner Mark Lucraft, praised Kurt Cochran's "instinctive bravery" in acting so quickly to save his wife, adding "the lives of many were torn apart by 82 seconds of high and terrible drama."

In England, inquests allow a court to hear evidence so that a jury or coroner can come to a determination about a death, and do not decide civil or criminal liability. The inquest into the Westminster attack is expected to last about six weeks.

On Tuesday, Melissa Cochran told the court Tuesday she had no recollection of being pushed out of the way of the oncoming vehicle by her husband, but when asked if this act was typical of Kurt, she replied, "very much so."

Aysha Frayde, Leslie Rhodes, Andreea Cristea and police officer Keith Palmer were also killed in the attack, which ended when Masood was shot and killed by armed police.

Eyewitnesses also gave testimony during the second day of the inquest.

Kylie Smith, a bystander who saw the attack unfold from start to finish, broke down in tears on multiple occasions while giving evidence.

Smith described the attack, which took place over less than two minutes, as "chaos."

"There was people trying to get out of the way but nobody really had a chance," Smith told the court.

Smith said that the way Masood drove into pedestrians was "very clearly a deliberate act."

Smith said she specifically remembers seeing the Cochrans walking hand in hand on the bridge.

Moments later, she said she saw Kurt try to pull Melissa "behind him to try to save her from the impact."

The impact threw Kurt Cochran over the parapet of the bridge onto the concrete, and he died shortly after paramedics arrived on the scene.

Melissa Cochran's evidence came after family members paid tribute to Kurt Cochran on the first day of the hearing.

On Monday, Melissa's sister, Angela Stoll, read out a heartfelt statement on the widow's behalf.

"I am forever grateful for our time together, allowing me to be a mother to his children and especially for his heroic actions that fateful day that saved my life," Melissa Cochran said in the statement.

Kurt Cochran's older sister, Sandy Cochran Murphy, also told the court that the father of two had been "taken from our family in this horrific, senseless act."

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Sep112018

Russia holding largest war games in its history

iStock/Thinkstock(MOSCOW) -- Russia on Tuesday announced the start of the largest war games in its history, mobilizing tens of thousands of troops for the drills that will also see Chinese troops take part, and that has prompted complaints from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that it's "a rehearsal for a major conflict."

Russia's Ministry of Defense said that 300,000 troops will participate in the exercise called Vostok ("East") 2018, that is taking place in the country's far east, close to Mongolia and China. Thirty-six thousand tanks, 80 ships, and almost 1,000 aircraft are also taking part, according to the ministry.

The weeklong exercises reprise massive Soviet war games that took place at the height of the Cold War. They have been held every four years since Russian President Vladimir Putin revived them in the mid-2000s, but, this year, Russia's military said they are on an unprecedented scale, passing the previous largest that was held by the Soviet Union in 1981.

Besides their size, the drills have attracted attention because of the participation of Chinese troops, the first time they have been invited by Russia to take part in an exercise of this scale. China's military said it has sent 3,200 soldiers, as well as 900 tanks and armor vehicles.

China's presence is being seen as a signal from both countries emphasizing their cooperation at a moment when Moscow and Beijing find themselves in a confrontation with the United States.

The drills began as Putin hosted China's leader Xi Jinping at an economic forum in Vladivostok. Putin is expected to visit the war games later this week. Speaking of the forum, Jinping said the two countries "friendship is getting stronger all the time."

Experts said in reality neither China or Russia believe the two are close to a full-fledged military alliance, but the joint drills nonetheless reflected how much more cooperative the two countries' relationship has become, after decades of suspicion during the Soviet period.

"This is a milestone for Sino-Russian military ties," Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter.

The Vostock exercise itself was originally established by the Soviet Union to prepare for a major war with China. The exercise is being held in areas that evened skirmishes in 1969 when the border disputes between the two countries threatened to scale into a full-scale conflict.

Now, though, experts say the target audience of the drills is unambiguously not China, but the U.S. and Europe instead. As with the large-scale exercises Russia held last year on its western border, Vostock is viewed as intended to simulate a major conflict with NATO forces.

Russia has substantially increased the size and frequency of its military exercises in recent years, particularly following its invasion of Crimea in 2014.

That has alarmed NATO, which has responded by increasing its own presence in Eastern Europe.

"It fits into a pattern we have seen over some time -- a more assertive Russia significantly increasing its defense budget and its military presence," Dylan White, a NATO spokesman, told reporters in late August.

The Kremlin has insisted the exercises are routine and purely defensive.

"These are very important drills and they are part of routine annual work to develop the armed forces," Dimitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, told reporters Tuesday.

Whereas during the drills on its western borders last year, known as Zapad 2017, Russia was accused of downplaying the number of troops involved, this year's war games are the opposite, with Moscow apparently eager to flaunt their scale.

"Imagine 36,000 military vehicles moving all at the same time; tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles -- and all of these in conditions as close to a combat situation as possible," Sergey Shoigu, Russia's defense minister, said this month.

Most experts say the figure of 300,000 is likely an exaggeration with not all of those actually taking part in the field exercises. Vostock includes many smaller scale exercises that happen every year and obsolete equipment has also been put into use, apparently to inflate the war games size, Jack Watling, an expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), wrote in an article this month.

"It is important not to exaggerate the significance of the Vostock 2018 drills," Watling wrote. "There is also an element of theatre in this exercise."

The drills, however, allow Russia to practice mobilizing and effectively transporting a large number of forces.

While simulating a great power conflict, experts say the drills do not mean Russia is preparing to fight with NATO rather, some say, Moscow is using the war games as a form of aggressive diplomacy, meant to impress and intimidate western countries and to persuade them to be more accommodating of Russia's interest.

Watling, an expert at RUSI, said the drills also help Russia and China develop their capacity to make small-scale interventions in hotspots overseas, as Russia already appears to be doing in the Central African Republic, as a means to have more heft on the world's stage.

"The key question is not whether Russia will launch a war against NATO," Watling wrote, "but where Russia -- and China for that matter -- aim to use their burgeoning capacity for expeditionary logistics and combined operations to project power."

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Sep112018

India to unveil world's largest statue

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW DELHI, India) -- The prime minister of India is set to unveil the world’s largest statue, dedicated to Sardar Patel, a nationalist who helped unite modern India after its independence from Britain, next month.

The Statue of Unity will stand at nearly 600 feet, according to Michael Graves Architecture and Design, part of the multi-firm group constructing the monument. That is almost 200 feet higher than the world’s next largest monument, the Spring Temple Buddha in China, which stands at about 420 feet, and nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, which is 305 feet tall, according to The Telegraph.

The Statue of Unity is expected to attract tens of thousands of tourists per day. The Smithsonian estimates it has cost a staggering $460 million to build.

Patel -- the first deputy prime minister of India -- is a favorite of Prime Minister Narenda Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), according to Dr. Elizabeth Chatterjee, a professor of political science at Queen Mary University of London.

Although Patel was a major figure in the BJP’s rival party, the Indian National Congress (INC), Modi “celebrate[s] Patel as the great uniter of India and a defender of the country's Hindu majority,” Chatterjee told ABC News.

Chaterjee said Modi's "own image is modeled on Patel's: a man of action, a forceful administrator, and a close friend of big business."

Daniel Haines, a historian of colonial India at the University of Bristol, told ABC News the choice to commemorate Patel was unsurprising.

"The freedom movement leaders who are best known in the West, 'Mahatma' Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, have lost popularity among many Indians since at least the 1990s, partly due to the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalist philosophy and politics," he explained.

The giant statue will overlook the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, a centerpiece of government economic policy. It will be unveiled on Oct. 31, Patel’s birthday, according to The Indian Express.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Sep102018

Trump admin preparing for second summit with Kim Jong Un: White House

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Trump administration is coordinating a second meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un after the president received a "very warm, very positive" letter from the North Korean dictator that requested another face-to-face sit-down, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

While Sanders said the note is "further indication of the progress that we hope to continue to make," there is still great doubt about the regime's willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, with Trump's top national security aide saying Monday the U.S. was "still waiting" for progress on that front.

"President Trump can't make the North Koreans walk through the door he's holding open. They're the ones that have to take the steps to denuclearize, and that's what we're waiting for," National Security Adviser John Bolton said Monday.

It's unclear when or where a second meeting between the two leaders would take place, but Bolton said the administration does not expect Kim to attend the United Nations General Assembly later this month in New York when world leaders descend on the city for a week of annual meetings.

Bolton would only say that a second meeting was a "possibility," but to critics, the merits of one are dubious when North Korea has yet to make public progress on denuclearizing.

"It is premature to hold another summit meeting without any evidence of North Korean commitment to abandon its nuclear arsenal," said Bruce Klinger, the CIA's former Korea deputy division chief who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, adding that Kim is seeking "additional concessions from the president" and "sees [Trump] as more eager to maintain the proclaimed success of the summit."

Sanders pushed back on that notion, telling reporters at the first White House briefing in nearly three weeks, "The president has achieved tremendous success with his policies so far."

She cited the return of U.S. hostages detained by North Korea and of American service members' remains from the Korean War, even though neither is directly related to the nuclear threat the country still poses to the U.S. and its allies.

She also referenced North Korea not testing a nuclear weapon or an intercontinental ballistic missile in months, even though such tests are not necessarily needed for updating or expanding its arsenal and North Korea claims it no longer needs them because it has "perfected" its nuclear missile capability.

And she noted that North Korea did not include any of those weapons in a major parade to celebrate its 70th anniversary on Sunday, even though it hasn't taken steps to get rid of any of them -- or even allowed international inspectors in the country to determine how many it has.

President Trump also praised North Korea for its parade on Twitter Sunday, calling it "a big and very positive statement."

"Thank you To Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other!" he added.

It was just two and a half weeks ago that Trump canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang, citing a lack of "sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Trump tweeted.

The rare admission from the president was meant to send a signal to North Korea that it had to take action -- but critics say it has been undermined by the president's praise. Those kinds of warm words for Kim actually hurt the U.S. effort, experts say, because it provides little incentive for North Korea to take steps, instead of coasting on the president's goodwill for Kim.

The cancellation came after a very different letter from North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator and former spy chief Kim Yong Chol, warning the Americans not to get on a plane if they would not give up their "gangster-like" demands.

Talks between the two sides have been at a standstill since the Singapore summit in June, deadlocked over the sequencing. North Korea demands that the U.S. sign a joint declaration to end the Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. But the U.S. has said North Korea must first take steps to denuclearize before the U.S. would make any concessions.

In a statement over the weekend, Kim reaffirmed that his regime was committed "to a process that ... was dependent on simultaneous, or at least 'synchronous,' action on Washington's part to address Pyongyang's concerns," according to Robert Carlin, a fellow at the Stimson Center and long-time interlocutor with North Korea.

But to Washington, especially skeptics like Bolton, synchronous actions have resulted in North Korea back-sliding on its promises in the past. It's unclear whether they can find a compromise that satisfies both sides.

The State Department's new Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun arrived in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday to kick off his first trip to the region. He will also stop in China and Japan to "continue diplomatic efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Chairman Kim in Singapore," according to the State Department.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Sep102018

Knife-wielding man goes on stabbing spree in Paris, injuring 7 

iStock/Thinkstock(PARIS) -- A man wielding a knife and an iron bar went on a stabbing spree on Sunday night in Paris, injuring seven -- four of them critically -- before being captured by Good Samaritans and arrested by French police, a spokesperson for the French interior minister told ABC News.

The attacks took place in northeastern Paris in an area dotted with cafes, cinemas and other cultural venues.

Two British tourists were among the victims, Paris police officials said. Victims were rushed to nearby hospitals in the French capital.

No terror investigation has been launched in regard to the attacks, a Paris prosecutor's office spokesperson said, but an attempted murder probe is underway.

French authorities have not released the assailant’s name, but local media are describing him based on witness accounts as an Afghan citizen in his thirties.

Among witnesses at the scene of Sunday night's attacks were a group playing petanque, a French game with heavy metallic balls, who sprung into action when they saw the attacks unfolding.

One of the petanque players told a French commercial radio station, "I managed to jump on him and throw him to the ground and get his weapon off him."

The man, identified only as Smain, said that the attacker sustained several blows from petanque balls, iron bars and sticks.

“They threw their petanque balls as he was trying to stab people in the street,” he told the radio station, adding that the assailant was overpowered and pushed to the ground until police arrived and arrested him.

On Twitter, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb praised the "courage and reactivity" of those who intervened.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Sep102018

Alleged Russian agent Maria Butina was paid to pursue access to Vladimir Putin for TV show

Facebook/Maria Butina(NEW YORK) -- Maria Butina, the alleged Russian agent who stands accused of developing a covert influence operation in the United States, boasted of connections to high-ranking Kremlin officials and was even paid to pursue access to Russian President Vladimir Putin for a television show, ABC News has learned.

Dozens of pages of email correspondence between August 2015 and November 2016, obtained exclusively by ABC News, reveal Butina’s hand in a pair of potentially explosive projects: appearing to arrange a meeting for a delegation of high-ranking members of the National Rifle Association with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and working with the Outdoor Channel to develop a television show highlighting Putin’s “love of the outdoors” that would feature the Russian President himself.

In one exchange, a pair of NRA insiders discuss their upcoming trip to Russia and appear to copy and paste a previous note from the trip’s organizer Butina — describing the note as “In Maria’s own words” — that makes explicit reference to Lavrov, one of Putin’s closest advisers.

“Almost all your schedule is done,” Butina wrote. “We are waiting [sic] a response from The Ministry Of Foreign Affairs — Mr. Lavrov wants to meet you and we are working to make it real.”

And in another exchange between Butina and a senior executive at the Outdoor Channel, Butina claimed her “contacts directly within the President’s office” were “VERY happy (and excited)” about the proposed program and its political potential.

“I have also just arranged for an official delegation of Russian Kremlin cabinet ministers to travel the U.S. to observe your presidential election in the fall,” Butina wrote in June 2016. “This matters to your project because THEY have already lobbied President Putin to do this show as an example of the kind of relationship Russia could have with America … and with President Trump.”

It is unclear whether that “official delegation” of Kremlin-connected election observers was actually dispatched. But while Butina appears to have succeeded in arranging the meeting with Lavrov, raising the prospect of a discussion between conservative political operatives and a powerful member of Putin’s inner circle in the midst of a presidential campaign, her amateur effort to engineer a television show starring Putin never gained significant traction, raising questions about the extent and authenticity of her Kremlin connections.

Butina, a 29-year-old Russian gun-rights activist, is scheduled to appear in court on Monday as she awaits trial on charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent. Federal prosecutors have alleged that under the direction of a unnamed “Russian official,” Butina gained access to powerful conservative political institutions and even ensnared an American political operative in a “duplicitous relationship,” using him for cover and connections as she sought to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Her defense attorney, Robert Driscoll, has called the accusations against her “overblown” and sought to recast his client as nothing more than an ambitious graduate student in a “legitimate” relationship with a likeminded political operative.

In a brief interview on Friday, Driscoll confirmed the authenticity of the emails, telling ABC News they show Butina merely “taking her opportunities where she finds them.”

An NRA spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ABC News.

In response to questions from ABC News, the Outdoor Channel provided a statement saying that following their president and CEO Jim Liberatore’s trip to Moscow, Butina was “retained later based on personal representations she made that she could be helpful as an in-country consultant” and received $20,000 over four months.

“In 2015, at the time of the NRA trip, one country of interest for both potential foreign content and audience market was Russia, as President Putin was outspoken on wildlife conservation and outdoor pursuits, and Russia has a sizable outdoor lifestyle culture,” the statement reads. “To explore the feasibility of expanding [its mobile streaming app] into the Russian market and developing Russia-origin content that included Mr. Putin, Mr. Liberatore joined the NRA trip to Russia. His involvement was purely commercial.”

The emails obtained by ABC News detail Butina’s efforts to organize the summit that brought high-ranking NRA members and powerful Russian nationals together in Moscow in December 2015, a trip seemingly sponsored by Butina’s gun-rights group “Right to Bear Arms.”

The delegation included NRA board member Pete Brownell, Trump campaign surrogate Sheriff David Clarke, major NRA benefactor Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter Hilary, NRA fundraiser Joe Gregory, former NRA president David Keene and Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore. They reportedly met with Butina, her alleged handler Alexander Torshin, the Deputy Governor of the Russian Central Bank who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018, and Dmitry Rogozin, then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2014.

Emails suggest Butina was eager to add Lavrov, the powerful Russian foreign minister, to their schedule, and according to one of the members of the delegation, the meeting took place.

On Dec. 10, former Milwaukee County Sheriff Clarke tweeted a photo of him standing next to a Russian soldier with the description: “Red Square near the Kremlin with a Russian officer. Met earlier with Russian Foreign Minister who spoke on Mid East.”

Butina’s defense attorney Driscoll acknowledged that the delegation met with “some hitters” in Moscow, including Lavrov, but told ABC News it was Torshin, not Butina, who had the political connections that made it possible.

But it was in her work on behalf of the Outdoor Channel that Butina appears to have fully advertised her own political prowess.

Jim Liberatore, the president and chief executive officer of the Outdoor Channel, sought her help in developing a show about President Putin’s outdoorsmanship as early as August 2015, when former NRA president Keene wrote an email to Butina introducing Liberatore as a potential addition to their Moscow trip.

“[Liberatore] wants to do a non-political short series of shows,” Keene wrote, “that he would tentatively call “Putin’s Russia” featuring the Russian outdoors, hunting, fishing and conservation efforts such as the effort to save the Siberian Tiger.”

Butina replied to Keene’s wife Donna the following month.

“We think it is a good idea,” Butina wrote. “Let’s plan it.”

According to the Outdoor Channel, Liberatore “does not recall being at any meeting with Mr. Lavrov,” but days after their return from Moscow, Liberatore followed up with Butina. He expressed his eagerness to “keep the momentum from our trip going” and sent her a full pitch letter, a copy of which can be read below, for a show that would “document Mr. Putin’s personal efforts of conservation by producing several one hour programs that would be told through his eyes.”

“There is a strong tie between the people of Russia and those of the United States that is not often seen or discussed in the public eye,” Liberatore wrote. “It is a love of the natural resources both countries have and strive to protect. Conservation is a bedrock for both of these nations, and there is no bigger champion for this in Eastern Europe than Vladimir Putin.”

In January, Butina sent another senior Outdoor Channel executive a proposed consulting agreement — drafted for her by Paul Erickson, the political operative with whom she was romantically involved — that would pay her $5,000 per month to help the network “secure the cooperation of President Putin and his staff in seeing him featured on one or more episodes of the tentatively titled ‘Unknown Russia’ outdoor adventure series.”

Emails suggest the network began paying her in February with Butina “eager to use the political channels available to [her]” on the network’s behalf. But rather than reach out to some high-ranking Kremlin powerbroker, Butina appears to have merely contacted the low-level press officer who handles media requests, from whom she received polite responses showing little interest in the project.

By May, Outdoor Channel appears to have lost its faith in Butina. The senior executive suggested cancelling their agreement and halting payments due to budget constraints, but Butina pushed back and urged them to continue paying her through August.

“No western media company (or even news organization) has EVER had this much access to President Putin,” she boasted in a June 8, 2016 email. “That my contacts are seriously considering this is groundbreaking.”

Perhaps the most notable detail in this exchange is buried in the email signature — Butina suddenly lists herself as the “President” of Bridges LLC, the mysterious South Dakota shell company she established with Erickson, who told McClatchy DC it was used to defray her educational expenses.

Butina’s continued entreaties to the Kremlin press office over the ensuing months appear to have borne little fruit, with perhaps the most hopeful reply coming shortly after Trump’s election.

“We will keep your request in mind in the event of a visit by the Russian head of state to the U.S.,” wrote a Kremlin press officer to Butina.

According to the Outdoor Channel, however, Butina’s arrangement with the network had already ended.

“The company terminated Ms. Butina’s contract after four months because she failed to make progress,” the company said in a statement. “The network has not pursued Russia-origin content since June 2016 and has instead focused on other countries and regions.”

For Driscoll, her failure to deliver Putin is another indication that Butina is not the person that the government has accused her of being.

“It demonstrates that she’s not particularly connected and not working for an intelligence agency,” Driscoll told ABC News. “One would think if she were, there would be a lot better contacts she could call on.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Sep102018

Hundreds of gold coins dating to Rome's Imperial era found in Italy

Italian Ministry of Culture(ROME) -- It was an amphora, not a pot, but archaeologists found a literal jackpot in a dig in northern Italy last week. No word on if there was a rainbow.

Hundreds of gold coins dating from Rome's late Imperial era, the 4th or 5th century, were found Friday at a dig in Como, Italy, according to the Italian Ministry of Culture.

The ministry shared photos of the shiny coins, which were spilling out of an amphora -- a Roman jar with two handles -- buried in the dirt.

Minister Alberto Bonisoli said the discovery "fills me with pride."

"We do not yet know in detail the historical and cultural significance of the finding," Bonisoli said in Italian on Facebook, "but that area is proving to be a true treasure for our #archaeology."

The discovery was made at a dig taking place at Teatro Cressoni, a theater in Como that shut down in 1997 and has since been demolished. The Ministry of Culture said the excavation was being carried out within the "restructuring" of the theater.

It's unclear how much the hundreds of coins could be worth.

Como is in northern Italy, on the border with Switzerland, and about an hour north of Milan and a four-hour train ride from Rome.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Sunday
Sep092018

Plenty of military might on display at North Korea parade, but no nukes

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, battalions of tanks, rocket launchers and fighter jets were on display in and above Pyongyang's Kim II Sung Square on Sunday to mark the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding, but noticeably missing from the massive show of military might was the country's arsenal of nukes.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched the procession, a mix of military and civilian pageantry, from a balcony overlooking the square named after his grandfather, who was the founding leader of the country.

"Their nuclear program has achieved what they wanted it to achieve: They wanted to pose a significant threat with these nuclear weapons," Grace Liu, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, told ABC News, explaining the likelihood of why Sunday's parade didn't include nukes.

"They wanted leverage to get South Korea and the U.S. to the table," Liu said.

The parade came just four months after Kim and President Donald Trump met in Singapore and signed a joint statement committing to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Since the summit, the first between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, negotiations to denuclearize the peninsula have devolved into an impasse. In August, Trump canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to North Korea, citing the lack of sufficient progress.

Sunday's parade might have signaled that Kim wants to jumpstart the negotiation by not showcasing his country's intercontinental ballistic missiles, believed capable of reaching the United States, experts said.

It also indicates, according to experts, that Kim may be attempting to taper down tensions as he prepares for a three-day summit later this month in Pyongyang with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation and a scholar at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said North Korea's decision not to show off its nuclear weapons is following the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" strategy of other nuclear-armed countries.

"North Korea is not looking to give up its nuclear weapons. What they are looking to do is get sort of the Israel deal, where they don't talk about them anymore," Lewis told ABC News. "They exist and they can have as many as they want, but they won't parade them."

There was no immediate explanation from North Korea as to why the country chose not to showcase its greatest weapons.

On the eve of the opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in neighboring South Korea, a military parade in Kim II Sung Square not only featured ICBMs wheeled out on trailers, but also a speech in which Kim declared North Korea a "world-class military power" and warned aggressors against infringing on his country's sovereignty "even by 0.001 millimeter."

Kim did not speak at Sunday's parade. He capped off the procession by standing on the balcony overlooking the square with Li Zhanshu, special envoy sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two men locked hand and smiled as the crowd below cheered.

There was also a large contingent of civilians that participated in the parade, holding colorful plastic bouquets as they marched through the square.

Kim Yong Nam, the head of North Korea's parliament, opened the parade with a speech emphasizing the country's economic ambitions over its military goals, a message that seemed to appease Trump.

"North Korea has just staged their parade, celebrating 70th anniversary of founding, without the customary display of nuclear missiles. Theme was peace and economics. Experts believe that North Korea cut out the nuclear missiles to show President Trump its commitment to denuclearize," Trump tweeted Sunday.

The president added, "This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea. Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will both prove everybody wrong! There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that lie each other! Much better than before I took office."

As has been the case in previous North Korean parades, U.S. intelligence analysts were expected to pore over every image available of the procession, in which ABC News and other Western media organizations attended.

North Korea's ability to launch long-range missiles from mobile launchers has drawn the most concern from U.S. military analysts because they can escape satellite detection and be fired on short notice.

North Korea had telegraphed as far back as 2012 that it is intent on attaining a missile capable of reaching the United States.

It was during a military parade in April 2012 that North Korea showed off a new large missile that U.S. intelligence called the KN-08, which were much larger than North Korea's previous mobile launched missiles.

Some analysts believed that the missiles displayed were mock-ups, others suspect they might be capable of reaching the United States, but North Korea never carried out a test flight of the missiles.

In July 2017 when North Korea launched its first ICBM, it was with another type of mobile-launched missile that had been paraded earlier that year.

During the military parade held on April 14, 2017, North Korea displayed a new type of missile that U.S. intelligence named the KN-17.

Identified as a mobile-launched, single-stage missile powered by liquid fuel, it was initially believed to be a new type of anti-ship missile.

But it soon became apparent that North Korea was placing a priority on the new missile that it called the Hwasong-12. North Korea conducted several unsuccessful launches of the missile before it achieved a successful launch in May 2017.

And its significance grew as North Korea launched its first ICBM a few months later in July.

According to U.S. officials, U.S. intelligence determined that the two ICBM's launched by North Korea that month were actually "hybrid" KN-17's," meaning that a second stage had been placed atop the single-stage KN-17.

Last November, North Korea carried out a third ICBM launch that demonstrated it had a built a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. Video imagery, of what U.S. intelligence dubbed the KN-22, indicated that the new missile was of a more advanced and larger design than the KN-17's tested as ICBMs.

At its pre-Olympic military parade in February, North Korea offered the world its first close-up look at what it called the Hwasong-15 missile. Four of the missiles, each transported on nine-axle transporters, were paraded through the square.

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Sunday
Sep092018

Feds back away from ‘Red Sparrow’ sex claims in Maria Butina case

Alexandria Sheriff's Office/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Federal prosecutors have backed away from a salacious claim that Maria Butina, a Washington woman arrested for allegedly acting as a covert agent of the Russian government, had used sex to gain access to politically connected Americans.

That explosive allegation, prosecutors now say, was based on a misreading of a series of text messages between Butina and an unnamed man. Prosecutors accept that “the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken,” according to a court filing prosecutors submitted late Friday night in Butina’s case.

The unusual concession came in a request prosecutors submitted to the U.S. District Court that otherwise maintained the position that Butina’s conduct was unlawful and that she should continue to be held behind bars without bail because of the government’s belief she remains a flight risk.

The filing came as Butina is scheduled to return to court for a status hearing on Monday.

The government’s allegation that she used sex as part of an alleged effort to infiltrate powerful conservative groups and build relationships with prominent Americans attracted headlines and drew comparisons to the recent Hollywood film, Red Sparrow, which focused on the seductive aspects of spycraft.

The allegation drew a sustained and vocal response from Butina’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll.

“I’m glad the government walked back its false allegation that Maria traded sex for a job, but it's hard to overcome the avalanche of stories that repeated a lie. More importantly, the government's case to detain her is weak, and I'm grateful the court will have a hearing on releasing her tomorrow," he said.

Prosecutors have not backed off efforts, however, to question the nature of the relationship between Butina and veteran conservative operative Paul Erickson, who is identified in court filings as U.S. Person 1.

They say Butina, 29, ensnared Erickson, 56, in a “duplicitous relationship,” using him for cover and connections as she developed an influence operation designed to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.”

Driscoll has argued the relationship was a genuine romance, and pointed to a homemade video obtained by ABC News of the two in a Moscow music studio gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes as they sang the title track from Beauty and the Beast.

“I think in some ways it’s a classic love story,” Driscoll said, adding that he thinks reporters are "filling in a lot of the gaps with a lot of spy novels.”

Erickson did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and it remains unclear if he could face any charges in connection to Butina’s alleged conspiracy.

Several messages left at the office of the attorney said to be representing Erickson were not returned.

In Friday’s court filing, prosecutors continued to try and cast doubt on the relationship. While Driscoll has said Erickson has been visiting Butina in jail, prosecutors suggested she may have turned on him.

“Although the defense contends that the defendant is in a committed relationship with U.S. Person 1,” the government attorneys wrote, “she recently offered to provide information to the government about his illegal activities.”

Prosecutors continue to argue Butina is a flight risk and should be held in jail before her trial. They argue that the Russian response to her arrest is itself an indication of her importance to their government.

The Russian government has conducted six consular visits with Butina and passed four diplomatic notes to the U.S. Department of State. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken to the U.S. secretary of state twice to complain about her prosecution, the court filing notes.

“Put simply, the Russian government has given this case much more attention than other cases,” it says. “If the defendant is released, and she goes to the Russian embassy or consulate, she will be beyond the reach of this court, and it will have no redress.”

Driscoll, by contrast, has maintained that Butina wishes to clear her name and that Butina and Erickson, despite the government’s claims to the contrary, are engaged in a mutual and genuine romance.

And she is not, he said, someone using sex as a tool.

“I think she was very upset,” Driscoll told ABC News recently. “Because it really was a shot -- I considered it a smear against her reputation -- that they really did imply that she was sleeping with people in the U.S. for access to these organizations. And that's simply not true.”

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