Syrian army declares Damascus area secure after clearing out ISIS-controlled pocket

By ethan / May 21, 2018

The Syrian army has declared Damascus and its surrounds fully secure after regaining control of a former Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) stronghold in the southern part of the city.

The army made the announcement in a televised statement after establishing control of the Damascus neighborhood of al-Hajar al-Aswad on Monday, according to local media.

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FILE PHOTO US officer aims a TOW missile launcher towards a Taliban position at Outpost Bari Alai in Kunar, Afghanistan, 2011 ©Erik De Castro

The military capture came after the Syrian Air Force raided terrorist sites and fortified points in the neighborhood, according to SANA. Infantry units reportedly stormed buildings where fighters were positioned and chased them down the streets.

It comes after a temporary humanitarian ceasefire was implemented in al-Hajar al-Aswad on Sunday night, to evacuate children, women, and the elderly.

The Monday success is a major breakthrough for the Syrian army which had, alongside its allies, been battling for weeks to recapture the tiny IS enclave in al-Hajar al-Aswad and the neighboring Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. It was the last area outside government control in or around Damascus. The army also found an extensive network of tunnels in recently-liberated areas of the neighborhood.

It comes two days after a military source spoke to SANA and denied reports that an agreement had been reached between the Syrian army and IS in al-Hajar al-Aswad.

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St. Petersburg International Economic Forum expects 15,000 participants from over 100 countries

By ethan / May 21, 2018

Russia is ready to host the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2018) on Thursday, with thousands of participants expected at the event.

“The interest is high and official delegations from over 100 countries will come, which is about 15,000 potential participants,” St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko told reporters. “Among high-ranking guests, we are expecting French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.”

According to Poltavchenko, representatives of major companies from over 70 countries, including the UK, are also expected at Russia’s premier economic forum.

“Great Britain will be also represented,” he said. “I am not ready to say who will be heading the delegation, but it will consist of representatives of major British businesses.”

Poltavchenko stressed that “despite the recent rhetoric the interest of business as well as among world politicians is still high in regard to the forum.”

The three-day St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which will officially open on May 24, is one of the world’s key economic discussion platforms. It is held under the patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Traditionally the event gathers foreign heads of state and government, key public figures, heads of international organizations and major companies, leading world experts, analysts and the media.

Last year, SPIEF brought together more than 14,000 participants. Among the attendees were the heads of 700 Russian and 400 international companies, including from the US, Germany, China, Italy, and Japan.

The forum was also attended by high-ranking foreign politicians. Some 475 investment agreements, memorandums, and statements of intent were signed.

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Russians say Putin, military power & unique spirit make them glorious nation

By ethan / May 21, 2018

Almost half of all Russians consider their country a great world power, naming the president, the military forces and the spirit of the people as the main sources of their greatness, according to a recent poll.

The survey, conducted by the state-run public opinion research agency VTSIOM in late April this year, showed that the share of Russians who think that their country can be considered a great world power is now at 49 percent, down from 57 percent a year ago.

However, about a third of respondents told researchers that they expect Russia to become a leading world nation over the next 10 to 15 years. In contrast, 11 percent think that their country will never reach the level of leading developed countries.

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Participants of the May1 demonstration in the Russian city of Simferopol © Aleksey Malgavko

When researchers asked Russian citizens what in their opinion made their country strong and respected, 26 percent cited the nation’s capable and well-armed military forces, 22 percent said it was “the strong spirit and will of the Russian people,” and 17 percent attributed the success to the “good and powerful president,” Vladimir Putin.

When answering the question about their own take on the major successes achieved by the nation over the past decade, 18 percent of Russians said it was the development and reform of the military forces, 12 percent named the reunification of the Crimean Republic and the Russian Federation, and 8 percent  recalled the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. However, as much as 37 percent of Russians said they cannot give any examples of their country’s successes in recent years.

A different poll conducted by the VTSIOM center in April showed that 83 percent of Russians currently describe themselves as happy. When researchers asked ‘happy’ respondents what made them so content, 30 percent said their families, 16 percent said it was good health, 14 percent cited a good job, and 13 percent their children. Just 7 percent of Russians who were unhappy with their lives blamed this on material problems.

A separate poll conducted by the independent sociological service Levada showed that 86 percent of Russians are reluctant to take part in street protests, and 75 percent of respondents said they did not expect others to demonstrate their discontent. Only 8 percent of Russians told researchers that they were ready to protest – down from 13 percent in 2017.

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'Pop-up' brothels report argues for Nordic model to curb trade

By ethan / May 21, 2018

A report has hit out at internet firms that are fueling a boom in the number of ‘pop-up brothels’ across the UK. Following the findings, a Labour MP warned of the scandal of “organized sexual exploitation” in Britain.

The cross-party report titled ‘Behind Closed Doors’ found that classified sites such as Vivastreet and AdultWork were being used by traffickers to control the profiles of sex workers, while also fueling a new wave of short-let brothels allowing women to be trafficked around the country for sex by criminal gangs.

It follows a six-month inquiry into gangs establishing brothels at temporary residential addresses.

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Car washing was one of the 17 sectors investigated for the report © Sam Gangwers/Global Look Press

Gavin Shuker, Labour MP for Luton South and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution and the global sex trade, which produced the report, told the Sunday Times: “The scale on which organized sexual exploitation is taking place in this country is a national scandal. It can – and must – be stopped.”

According to the inquiry, one man being investigated for sex trafficking spent over £20,000 ($ 26,830) placing adverts for women on one commercial website.

The report found that the majority of the women found to have been exploited were from eastern Europe. Figures were provided by Leicestershire Police, who visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women in the two years to December 2017 – 86 percent of whom were Romanian.

Northumbria Police visited 81 brothels containing 259 women in the two years to April 2018, three quarters of whom were from Romania; while Greater Manchester Police identified 324 potential new brothel addresses since March 2015.

The sites in questions have hit back at the claims. AdultWork said it took every possible precaution to “ensure our advertisers are both who they say they are and are doing so willingly and without intimidation.”

Vivastreet, meanwhile, said it was in contact with the Home Office to develop an industry-wide approach to identify and prevent online trafficking, urging all similar sites to “engage with this process.”

The study found that one website alone has posted more than 18,000 escort profiles in the last three months, while in the last month alone, there were at least 212 ongoing police operations into sex slavery, and last year there were 1,185 referrals for potential victims.

READ MORE:Oops! Sex workers not found: New Zealand removes prostitution from skills list for visa hopefuls

However, authorities fear that these numbers are just a fraction of the actual number.

The National Crime Agency, whose national strategic assessment was published earlier this month, told MPs that adult services websites “represent the most significant enabler of sexual exploitation in the UK.”

The all-parliamentary group has suggested criminalizing paying for sex and decriminalizing selling sex in order to tackle prostitution. Such laws are already in place in Norway, Sweden, France, Iceland, and both Northern and the Republic of Ireland, and is often referred to as the ‘Nordic Model.’

Other measures aimed at curbing the trade include establishing a national register of landlords and issuing guidance for the short-term letting sector on preventing sexual exploitation, as well as removing the criminal offence of soliciting in a street or public space for the purpose of “selling” sex.

READ MORE: ‘Let us dance in peace’: Israeli strippers outraged by new bill equating them to prostitutes

Not everyone is behind the measures proposed by the committee, however, as some argue that imposing the Nordic model does more to stigmatize those working in the sex trade.

The English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for the decriminalization of prostitution and greater safety for sex workers, said the investigation failed to speak to sex workers or reflect “our evidence in their report” because it wanted to skew findings in order to propose the model.

Speaking to Sky News, Cari Mitchell of the ECP said that it’s “not true that most sex workers are dependent on these gangs,” adding that the commotion over pop-up brothels is not only “due to an increase in prostitution in general because of austerity cuts but it’s due to the police raiding and closing regular premises and women being forced to move on.”

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US anti-tank missiles found at former Al-Nusra facility in Syria – Russian MoD (VIDEO)

By ethan / May 21, 2018

US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, along with other weapons, have been found in facilities once controlled by Al-Nusra militants in Syria’s Homs province, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The trove was located in a former observation point of the Al-Nusra Front terrorist group in the liberated Zaafaran settlement in Homs province, the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria said on Monday. “[We] can see here a large number of gas masks, weapons produced abroad, for example, TOW-2 anti-tank guided missiles. The facilities are very well-equipped,” Andrey Nekipelov, an official at the center, stated.

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А Syrian soldier surveys weapons surrendered by rebels from Eastern Qalamoun, Syria April 22, 2018. © Omar Sanadiki

The BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) is one of the most widely used anti-tank missiles, which has been produced in the US since the 1970s. The missile has an operational range of more than 3,000 meters and an armor penetration of up to 800 millimeters, depending on the model. The TOW-2 referred to by the Russian MoD is an advanced and upgraded version of the missile.  

Hundreds of the missiles have fallen into the hands of various rebel factions during the Syrian conflict. The US-made TOW was reportedly used in an attack on an RT crew in Syria back in 2015. 

In 2016, another video published by a Syrian rebel group showed what appeared to be a direct hit by a US-made BGM-71 TOW on the turret of a Russian-supplied T-90 tank of the Syrian Army. A TOW usually devastates its target after a direct hit, causing ammo to explode and killing the crew. The alleged T-90, however, seemed to have been saved by its reactive armor.

READ MORE: 105 hits in Syria? Not likely, says Russia & shows fragments of missiles downed in US-led strikes

TOW was reportedly deployed in the Vietnam War in 1970s, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a number of other conflict zones where Washington has been engaged in recent decades. Syria has become one of the recent locations where anti-tank missiles were spotted.

Speaking to RT back in 2016, German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer suggested that the US knows that the weapons it delivers to rebels end up with terrorists. “Everybody knows that they are using allies and they are allowing allies… It doesn’t matter if a TOW rocket or a TOW missile, which is an American missile, comes [to terrorists] from another group,” he said at the time. 

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Full stream ahead: Bulgaria wants direct natural gas pipeline from Russia

By ethan / May 21, 2018

Amid talk of European energy security and diversification of gas supplies, Bulgaria has proposed building another pipeline to get gas directly from Russia, according to President Rumen Radev.

The Balkan nation currently gets Russian natural gas by transit through Ukraine and other Gazprom customers in Europe. Last year, sales of the blue fuel to Bulgaria reached 3.3 billion cubic meters, 4.7 percent more than in 2016.

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© Comstock

“As for the supplies from Russia, Bulgaria needs drop shipment of the gas through the Black Sea. Let’s call it ‘Bulgarian Stream’,” Radev said in an interview with Russian business daily Kommersant.

“The approach is motivated by common sense, as well as by energy efficiency and security demand not only for Bulgaria, but for the entire European Union,” Radev told the media. “Such ambitions do not differ from Germany’s intention to implement the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project”.

At the moment, the Bulgarian authorities are wagering on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which is currently under construction. The country is supposed to get first shipments of Russian gas via the route after 2019. Turkish Stream is set to stretch across the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey and further to Turkey’s border with European neighbors.

The Bulgarian President is currently paying a two-day visit to Russia. Radev is scheduled to meet Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on Monday. On Tuesday, he will have his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

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Russian ‘dirty money’ report sparks rift between Tory MPs

By ethan / May 21, 2018

Security Minister Ben Wallace has criticized Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat, a Tory, after he “failed” to ask him to give evidence on the influence of Russia’s alleged ‘dirty money’ in the UK.

Tugendhat wrote, in a tweet which accompanied an article he penned in the Times: “If we’re going to confront the growing spread of instability and corruption coming from the Kremlin we’re going to have to look closer to home.”

In response, Wallace tweeted: “Interesting trail on your report Tom but you failed to ask the Minister for economic crime and lead on money laundering to give evidence. Also remember until we leave the EU we can’t impose “unilateral” sanctions in the same way the US can.”

In his Times article, Tugendhat discloses that “in evidence to the committee we heard from experts in the region who pointed to the link between oligarchs’ wealth and the power of the Kremlin.” So while ‘experts’ have given evidence, the committee obviously didn’t feel the need to ascertain the government’s current observations and strategy to counter the effect of Russian ‘dirty money’ in the UK, much to Wallace’s apparent annoyance.

READ MORE: Dirty money or dirty politics? UK hypocrisy over ‘Russian oligarchs’ 

In a BBC Radio 4 interview this morning, Tugendhat tried to defend the committee’s decision not to call a relevant minister, such as Wallace to give evidence, insisting that he had been in contact with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who had approved such an omission.

This latest public display of discontent on social media between Tory MPs follows Brexit conflict coming to the fore between pro-remain Conservatives and hardline Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg. A party normally so disciplined when it comes to not openly attacking colleagues, appears to be loosening its comradely belt.

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US 'has bigger stick' to hold EU hostage over Iran sanctions – ex-EU Commissioner to RT

By ethan / May 21, 2018

As Brussels aims to circumnavigate US sanctions against EU companies doing business with Iran, former European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen told RT that America still “has the bigger stick.”

Verheugen told RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze on the SophieCo show that European companies are essentially backed into a corner when they consider the economic benefits they receive by doing business with the US, versus Iran.

“I’m afraid that the Americans have the bigger stick here,” said Verheugen. “If you were a European company or a German carmaker, for instance, and if you look at the figures, what kind of business you do in Iran, what kind of business you do in the United States, you have not much choice, and you will decide not to invest in Iran, you will continue to invest and make business in the US.”

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Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif © Yves Herman

And when it comes to the idea that Europe could compensate any firms hit by US sanctions – a notion floated by French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire on Sunday – Verheugen says that’s just talk. “If the European Union really promises to compensate for all the losses, I can promise you, that goes far beyond the financial capacities of the European Union,” he insisted. 

“So I’m really afraid that the American policy of taking hostage other nations and companies can be successful in the end,” he said. And, as tensions rise between the US and the EU, Verheugen says the situation could end badly.

“…We need to tell our American friends that until now, the EU-US axis was a guarantor for peace and stability, not only in Europe but in other regions as well,” he said. “If that axis disappears, we will have more tensions and conflicts, the world will come closer to the final conflict and nobody, even Mr. [US President Donald] Trump, can really want it.”

The relationship between the two powers, according to the former European Commission vice president, needs to be redefined. “I wouldn’t use the term enemy, but it’s obvious that the partnership between the United States and the European Union is entering a new age,” he said.

It’s absolutely necessary, according to Verheugen, to prevent the US and Europe from being in “different camps,” though he admits “it’s going to be difficult.”

Verheugen’s comments come after Trump pulled out of the landmark Iran nuclear deal earlier this month, despite Washington’s biggest allies – the UK, Germany, and France – urging him not to do so. The US has said it could impose sanctions on European companies doing business in Iran, which prompted the EU to announce it would use a blocking statute to protect its companies against such sanctions. 

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Russia to explore Crimean shelf for large gas deposits

By ethan / May 21, 2018

A comprehensive study will be conducted off the Crimean coast where large gas fields could be located, the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Aleksandr Sergeyev has said.

“We want to raise the issue of developing the Crimean shelf. The studies that were conducted earlier and those that are currently underway show there could be quite significant gas reserves,” he told RIA Novosti.

Sergeyev, who’s currently on a three-day working visit to the peninsula, plans to meet with representatives of the Crimean oil and gas producing company Chernomorneftegaz.

“We are offering to conduct a comprehensive study that includes seismic testing and diagnostics using advanced technology in order to determine the most probable gas-bearing areas on the shelf,” he added.

According to the official, specialists from the Russian Academy of Sciences who have arrived in Crimea have no doubts that there are gas fields on the shelf.

Sergeyev explained that at the moment the scientists and Chernomorneftegaz are discussing how to conduct the work in a proper way. He added the project has the full support of the Crimean authorities.

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Navalny’s allies found another political party, choose “Russia of the Future” for name

By ethan / May 21, 2018

Supporters of the anti-corruption blogger turned opposition figure, Alekesey Navalny, have made another attempt to register their own political party – only revealing its name at the founding convention to prevent a hijack.

The convention was held at the weekend in one of Moscow’s business centers. It was attended by 124 deputies from 60 Russian regions, well over the law-required minimum. However, Navalny himself was not present – in mid-May the activist was sentenced to 30 days of civil arrest for repeated violations of the law on rallies and refusal to comply with police orders.

The head of the legal department of Navalny’s NGO Foundation for Countering Corruption, Ivan Zhdanov, told convention participants that the founding team was expecting representatives of the Justice Ministry (which registers new political parties) but they did not attend the event. It is not clear if this statement was meant as a joke, but Navalny’s supporters laughed when it was made.

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Alexei Navalny during an interview to the Echo of Moscow radio © Maksim Blinov

Zhdanov went on to say that the Navalny’s political party is already over five years old and this is more than the age some of the officially registered political projects. He concluded that because of this fact the authorities “simply must” register the new party.

The weekend convention voted for “Russia of the Future” to be the name of the party.

Before the convention Navalny’s allies and reporters referred to the new party as “Working Title” as this was the actual name written in registration papers which had been filed in the Justice Ministry. The founders explained such choice as an attempt to prevent a hijack of the party name, an unfortunate accident that has already happened to Navalny’s team twice.

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Democratic Party of Russia chairman Andrei Bogdanov at a State Duma meeting.(RIA Novosti / Vladimir Fedorenko)

In December 2013, Russian political consultant and Grand Master of Russia’s Great Masonic Lodge, Andrey Bogdanov, successfully re-registered his Rodnaya Strana (Native Country) party under the name “People’s Alliance.” This ended Navalny’s efforts to found a political party, as he wanted the name for his own project. Russian law prohibits public organizations from having the same or very similar names.

Navalny tried to sue his opponents but failed and announced that his party would be called “Party of Progress.” The registration of the party under the new title lingered until March 2018 when it stopped because the Justice Ministry gave the very same name to the group earlier known as the Civil Initiative Party, whose representatives filed in a renaming request two days before Navalny’s allies.

Navalny addressed the European Court of Human Rights with a complaint, but no decision has been made on it so far.

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