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Secretary of state Rex Tillerson is in Germany for a meeting with G20 leaders on his first foreign trip since he took office.

Rex Tillerson is expected to confirm that the US remains committed to NATO, at the gathering of ministers in Bonn.

The secretary of state will also meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a time when US relations with Russia are under the spotlight.

According to officials, Rex Tillerson’s main intention was to listen to his G20 counterparts.

While in Germany, he will participate in a series of sessions on global issues ranging from conflict prevention to developing cooperation with Africa.

However, it is his meeting on February 16 with Sergei Lavrov that will be watched most closely.

Image source Flickr

Rex Tillerson is expected to seek “pragmatic and constructive cooperation in areas where our interests overlap,” a US official told Reuters.

Counterterrorism is one area that the secretary of state is hoping to “develop some possible avenues for cooperation,” the official said.

Sergei Lavrov is likely to use his time with Rex Tillerson to explore the significance of President Donald Trump’s repeated calls for improved relations with Russia.

However, senior state department officials said that Rex Tillerson would not soften Washington’s position on Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, a crisis which remains unresolved.

They added that he would use the talks to urge the Kremlin to abide by its commitments in the Minsk peace agreement.

Rex Tillerson will also meet the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, with US officials saying he would support a pragmatic Brexit that resulted in a strong Britain, and a strong EU.


The G20 is made up of developed economies and emerging nations including Russia, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Brazil.

The first task for ministers at the gathering in Germany will be to get Rex Tillerson to spell out exactly what Donald Trump’s “America First” means in practice.

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World powers gathered in Munich, Germany, have agreed to seek a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin in a week’s time.

The halt will not apply to the battle against jihadist groups ISIS and al-Nusra Front.

The 17-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG) also agreed to accelerate and expand aid deliveries.

The announcement comes as the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, advances in Aleppo province.

The move threatens to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in rebel-held parts of the major city of Aleppo.

The Syrian government has not yet responded, though a key rebel coalition welcomed the announcement.

More than 250,000 people have been killed and 13.5 million displaced in almost five years of fighting in Syria.Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry Munich talks on Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry admitted the ceasefire plan was “ambitious” and said the real test would be whether the various parties honored the commitments.

“What we have here are words on paper, what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground,” he said.

A task force chaired by the US and Russia will work to implement the truce through consultations with Syria’s rival groups.

Aid deliveries for besieged Syrian communities are due to begin as early as February 12.

Hohn Kerry made the announcement alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and the UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

Sergei Lavrov said there were “reasons to hope we have done a great job today”. An earlier proposal from Russia envisaged a truce starting on March 1.

At the news conference John Kerry again suggested that Russian strikes were targeting what the West sees as moderate opposition forces, rather than terrorists, as Moscow says.

The ISSG also agreed that peace talks involving the Syrian government and rebels should resume as soon as possible.

Initial talks were suspended just days after they began earlier this month in Geneva, in the wake of the Aleppo offensive.

Thousands of people displaced by the fighting have been stranded at the border with Turkey and aid agencies have warned of a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since he accused Russia of lying about its role in Ukraine’s war.

The talks in Geneva coincide with a UN report on human rights violations and the humanitarian crisis in east Ukraine.

The UN says the conflict has claimed at least 6,000 lives, with hundreds killed in the past few weeks alone.

A fragile ceasefire is holding despite some fighting in recent days.

At his meeting in Geneva, John Kerry is also expected to raise the brutal murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow on February 27.

Boris Nemtsov, who was shot on a bridge near the Kremlin, had been planning an anti-war rally and was said to be working on a report to expose the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine.

His allies accused the Kremlin of involvement but Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the murder as “vile” and vowed to find the killers.John Kerry to meet Sergei Lavrov in Geneva

John Kerry will press for an investigation that he said should examine not only who pulled the trigger, but who ordered, funded and co-ordinated Boris Nemtsov’s murder.

Separately, John Kerry is also expected to renew negotiations with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Tehran’s nuclear program.

There is an end of March deadline to reach agreement on limiting the program, in return for an easing of economic sanctions on Iran.

The talks on Ukraine are expected to be tense after John Kerry last week accused Russian officials of lying to him about Moscow’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During a visit to London on February 21, John Kerry accused the Kremlin of “craven behavior” in its support for the rebels in east Ukraine, undermining a ceasefire.

Fighting began in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April, a month after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula.

The UN estimates that at least 1.25 million have fled their homes, and believes that the real number of fatalities could be considerably higher than the 6,000 it has given.

In its latest report, released on March 2, it refers to credible accounts of heavy weapons and foreign fighters continuing to flow into eastern Ukraine from Russia.

The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels with heavy weapons and soldiers.

Independent experts echo that accusation but Moscow denies it, insisting that any Russians serving with the rebels are “volunteers”.

Both sides in the conflict have been pulling back some heavy weaponry from the front line – one of the conditions of the ceasefire agreement signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk last month.

Monitors from the OSCE security group have reported weapons movements on both sides but say it is too early to confirm a full withdrawal. Meanwhile violence continued over the weekend.

Russia is planning to send a second humanitarian convoy into eastern Ukraine “in the next few days”, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

Sergei Lavrov said the humanitarian situation there was “deteriorating”.

Ukraine did not authorize the first convoy, which returned to Russia at the weekend, fearing it carried military equipment for pro-Russia separatists.

According to the Ukrainian officials, a column of armored vehicles crossed from Russia on Monday, sparking heavy clashes.

The crossing was reported close to the south-eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

“The Ukrainian border has been breached by a convoy of several dozen tanks and armoured vehicles,” security spokesman Leonid Matyukhin told AFP.

“The convoy has been stopped by border guards… The battle is ongoing.”

More than 2,000 people have died in recent months in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists. Some 330,000 people have been displaced.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced a second humanitarian convoy for eastern Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced a second humanitarian convoy for eastern Ukraine (photo RIA Novosti)

The Russian and Ukrainian presidents are scheduled to meet in Minsk, Belarus, on Tuesday for talks on the crisis.

Sergei Lavrov said he had sent a note to the Ukrainian foreign ministry on Sunday informing it of the new convoy.

He told a news conference on Monday: “The humanitarian situation is not improving but deteriorating.

“We want to reach an agreement on all conditions for delivering a second convoy by the same route… in the coming days.”

Russia said the first convoy had delivered generators, food and drink.

Ukrainian sources said a column of about 30 armored vehicles had entered from Russia close to the port city of Mariupol on Monday, bearing symbols of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.

Mariupol is in the hands of Ukrainian government forces, who ousted rebels in May.

When asked about a possible Russian incursion, Sergei Lavrov said that “there is enough disinformation”.

Ukraine and Western powers have accused Russia of arming the rebels, charges Moscow has denied.

There have been several previous reports of armored vehicles crossing the Ukrainian border.

Asked about Tuesday’s presidential meeting, Sergei Lavrov said: “We are ready… for any format as long as there is a result.”

He added that Russia wanted “to help Ukrainians agree among themselves”.

Sergei Lavrov also commented on the parading of captured Ukrainian government soldiers by rebels through the centre of Donetsk on Sunday.

Crowds lined the streets chanting “fascists” as the disheveled-looking prisoners walked by.

Sergei Lavrov said this was “nowhere near mistreatment” and that Ukrainian fighters’ actions often amounted to “war crimes”.

“I saw images of that parade and I didn’t see anything close to what could be considered as humiliating,” he said.

The violence in east Ukraine erupted in April when pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared independence from Kiev. This followed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in March.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has ruled out holding fresh talks in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis, unless pro-Russian opposition groups are involved.

Sergei Lavrov added there was no point as an April accord between the US, EU and Russia had not been implemented.

He spoke after a Council of Europe meeting which was expected to support Ukraine’s plans for a May 25 election.

But Sergei Lavrov called an election “unusual” at a time when the army was being used against the population.

Ukrainian acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said Ukraine was ready to back a new round of talks in Geneva as long as Moscow supported presidential elections.

“If Russia is ready to commit itself to support these elections and to eliminate this threat and eliminate its support for the extremist elements in Ukraine, we are ready to have such a round of meetings,” he said at a news conference.

Andriy Deshchytsia later appealed for international observers to be sent to Ukraine to monitor the elections on May 25.

“[We] also asked the partners to make everything possible to eliminate the external threats and provocations supported by Russia in Ukraine to allow these elections to take place in a free and democratic way,” he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has ruled out holding fresh talks in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has ruled out holding fresh talks in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis

OSCE Chairman Didier Burkhalter said there should be a ceasefire in Ukraine ahead of the May presidential election – as holding it is very difficult in the current situation, the AFP news agency reports.

In recent days, security forces have launched a crackdown on pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, triggering clashes outside the town of Sloviansk.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Tuesday that four soldiers and an estimated 30 separatists had been killed in the “anti-terrorism operation”.

He said that up to 800 well-trained militants armed with large-calibre weapons and mortars were hiding among civilians in the town, where government buildings have been seized and checkpoints set up.

A Russia Today reporter in Sloviansk said residents were stockpiling food and there were barricades on almost every road.

In the southern port of Mariupol, where the city council building was seized a week ago by pro-Russia militants, there were reports of gunfire near a military base close to the city’s airport, local media reported.

Tyres were also set on fire in the city centre, giving off thick smoke, they said.

Meanwhile, many flights in and out of Donetsk were suspended. The Ukrainian aviation authorities gave no reason for the move.

New checkpoints were earlier set up around Kiev. The interior ministry said it wanted to prevent the movement of weapons and explosives.

The authorities also attempted to re-establish control over Odessa, with Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov dismissing the acting head of the regional administration, Volodymyr Nemyrovskyy.

Forty-six people died in the Black Sea city on Friday in a fire at an official building and fighting between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters.

At a news conference in Vienna on Tuesday, Sergei Lavrov said holding further international talks on Ukraine as some have suggested would be like “going round in circles”.

Instead, he explained, the government in Kiev and their Western backers needed to implement the series of steps to resolve the crisis that they had agreed in Geneva on April 17.

Under the agreement, all parties, including the separatists in eastern Ukraine, were to “refrain from violence, intimidation and provocative acts”. It also said those occupying buildings would have to leave them and be disarmed in return for an amnesty.

They also agreed to an inclusive constitutional process that would include the establishment of a broad national dialogue and consideration of proposed amendments.

Sergei Lavrov said he was not against a follow-up meeting to discuss the accord, but that it would not “have any added value” unless representatives of the separatists were invited.

The May 25 presidential election was called after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by pro-Western protesters in February.

“Scheduling an election during a time when the army is being used against a part of the population is not conventional – it’s not Afghanistan,” Sergei Lavrov noted.

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The US is concerned about heightened tension in eastern Ukraine after pro-Russia demonstrators seized government buildings in three eastern cities, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call that any Russian efforts at destabilization “would incur costs”.

They discussed the possibility of direct talks within the next 10 days.

Ukraine is sending security officials to Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, after buildings there were stormed.

Rebels occupying Donetsk’s regional government building declared a “people’s republic” on Monday and called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine to be held by May 11.

Russia recently annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where the majority of people are Russian speakers, following a referendum that Kiev and the West say was illegal.

Moscow now has thousands of troops massed along its border with eastern Ukraine. Although it insists it has no intention of invading Ukraine, it says it reserves the right to defend ethnic Russians in the country.

The US has warned Russia against stirring separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine

The US has warned Russia against stirring separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine

Russia is refusing to recognize the new authorities in Kiev who took power after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February.

US state department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said that in the telephone call, John Kerry “called on Russia to publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs” in Ukraine.

She said John Kerry noted that the actions in eastern Ukraine “do not appear to be a spontaneous set of events”.

“He made clear that any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” Jennifer Psaki said.

The US and the EU have already imposed targeted sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian individuals over the annexation of Crimea.

Sergei Lavrov, in an article on the website of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, denied Russia was destabilizing Ukraine and accused the West of “groundless whipping-up of tension”.

He also warned authorities in Kiev against any use of force against pro-Russian demonstrators.

Russia’s foreign ministry said it was “closely watching” events in eastern Ukraine, “particularly in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions”.

It reiterated Moscow’s demands for the creation of a federal Ukraine with broader powers for provinces.

“Stop pointing to Russia, blaming it for all of the troubles of today’s Ukraine,” the statement said.

Pro-Russian protesters seized official buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk on Sunday night. Police said they cleared protesters from the building in Kharkiv but in Luhansk demonstrators had seized weapons.

Ukraine’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called the unrest an attempt by Russia to “dismember” Ukraine.

Speaking on national TV, he said it was “the second wave” of a Russian operation to destabilize Ukraine, overthrow the government and disrupt planned elections.

Also on Monday, NATO said it was limiting Russian diplomats’ access to its headquarters in Brussels.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have arrived in Paris for crisis talks on Ukraine.

The meeting was hastily arranged after President Vladimir Putin phoned President Barack Obama on Friday.

Russia has annexed Crimea and there are reports of thousands of Russian troops massed close to Ukraine’s borders.

Earlier Sergei Lavrov set out demands for a neutral and federal Ukraine, an idea Kiev called “full capitulation”.

However, Sergei Lavrov has categorically denied any plans for an invasion.

However, the Russian foreign minister has stressed Moscow will protect the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, after pro-EU protests in Kiev led to the ousting of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have arrived in Paris for crisis talks on Ukraine

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have arrived in Paris for crisis talks on Ukraine

On Sunday, the US ordered its top general in Europe to return early from a trip to Washington.

NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, General Philip Breedlove, had been due to testify to Congress, but a Pentagon spokesman told Reuters his return was prudent “given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border”.

Hours before the Paris talks were due to take place at the Russian ambassador’s residence, Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV that Ukraine should come up with a new constitution “providing for a federal structure” and neutrality.

The Russian foreign minister said Moscow, the US and EU should act as a support group for Kiev to begin a nationwide dialogue that did not involve the “armed radicals”. Moscow claims that fascists have taken power in Ukraine, jeopardizing the safety of Russian speakers.

In an interview on Saturday, Sergei Lavrov said Russia had been deceived after being promised “there would be no movement of NATO military infrastructure closer to our borders”.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry said it deeply regretted Sergei Lavrov’s “patronizing” remarks.

“At the point of its automatic rifles, this aggressor demands only one thing – Ukraine’s full capitulation, its split and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood,” said a statement carried by Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

NATO’s outgoing Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned on Sunday that Russia’s government was “[flouting] the principle that every state is sovereign and free to choose its own fate”.

Vladimir Putin is also thought to be demanding that Washington accepts Crimea’s independence from Ukraine.

Separately, Moscow is keen to tackle the issue of Trans-Dniester, a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova on the south-western border of Ukraine. It accuses Ukraine and Moldova of “blockading” the area while the EU and the US stay silent.

US officials are divided over whether Vladimir Putin is seeking to ease tensions or is still planning further military action.

The Pentagon believes Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops close to Ukraine’s eastern border.

Food, medicines and a field hospital are said to be among the supplies moved into position, officials say, which would not be necessary for any spring military exercise.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Moscow has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine.

Sergei Lavrov’s comments came after Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama discussed a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The US-backed plan calls for Russia to halt to its military build-up on the border with Ukraine and withdraw its troops in Crimea to their bases.

Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Sunday.

Reports say John Kerry was flying home from the Middle East on Saturday when he abruptly changed travel plans and instructed his plane to fly to Paris.

Tensions over Ukraine rose following the overthrow of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, following months of street protests.

Sergei Lavrov has said that Moscow has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine

Sergei Lavrov has said that Moscow has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine (photo Interfax)

Moscow later intervened in Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region of Ukraine where its troops are stationed, saying the takeover in Kiev was a pro-fascist coup.

Russia then annexed Crimea after the region held a referendum which backed joining the Russian Federation.

Western countries condemned the vote as illegal and imposed sanctions on members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Meanwhile Ukraine’s interim authorities have been pressing ahead with elections due in May.

On Saturday boxer and opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko pulled out of the race for president.

He announced he was supporting billionaire Petro Poroshenko saying: “The only chance of winning is to nominate one candidate from the democratic forces.”

Former Ukraine’s PM Yulia Tymoshenko has also said she will stand.

In an interview with state TV channel Rossiya 1 on Saturday, Sergei Lavrov said: “We have absolutely no intention of – or interest in – crossing Ukraine’s borders.”

Sergei Lavrov added that Russia was ready to protect “the rights of Russians and Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, using all available political, diplomatic and legal means”.

After the interview was broadcast, it emerged Sergei Lavrov had spoken by phone to John Kerry, in a conversation that Russian officials said was initiated by the US.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced that Russia and the US have “no common vision” on the crisis in Ukraine after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in London.

However, Sergei Lavrov called his London meeting with John Kerry “constructive”.

John Kerry said the US was “deeply concerned” about Russia sending troops to the Ukraine border and in Crimea.

Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would respect the result of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on whether to join Russia but John Kerry said the US would not recognize it.

After six hours of talks, Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Russia had no plans to invade south-eastern Ukraine.

Russia would “respect the will of the people of Crimea”, he said.

Crimeans are to vote on Sunday, March 16, on whether to leave Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation.

John Kerry, who described the talks as “direct and candid”, said the US acknowledged Russia’s “legitimate interests” in Ukraine.

Russia and the US have no common vision on the Ukraine crisis

Russia and the US have no common vision on the Ukraine crisis

He said that the US had not changed its position on the “illegitimate” referendum in Crimea and would not recognize its outcome.

However, John Kerry said his Russian counterpart had made it clear that President Vladimir Putin was not prepared to make any decision until after the vote.

The secretary of state said that he had told Sergei Lavrov that there would be consequences if Russia “does not find a way to change course”.

Russia’s military intervention in the Crimean peninsula – part of Russia until 1954 and host to its Black Sea fleet – followed the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22.

Moscow has not recognized the interim government that took over in Kiev following Viktor Yanukovych’s departure.

Sergei Lavrov said that Russia had “deep concern” that there were “no measures” to provide security and order in Ukraine or to prevent the actions of “radicals”.

Thursday night saw clashes in Ukraine’s eastern city of Donetsk between a pro-Russian crowd and supporters of the new Kiev government, which left at least one person dead.

The US and the EU have said that Sunday’s vote in Crimea violates international law and the Ukrainian constitution, and are planning to impose sanctions against Russian officials if the crisis does not ease.

President Barack Obama also reiterated on Friday that there would be “consequences” if Ukraine’s “sovereignty continues to be violated”.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing for key talks on Ukraine in London, as a disputed referendum in Crimea looms on Sunday.

John Kerry is expected to warn Sergei Lavrov that the referendum and Russia’s military intervention in Crimea could trigger concerted US and EU sanctions.

He has warned of “very serious steps” if Russia annexes the region.

Russia insisted at the UN on Thursday it did “not want war” with Ukraine.

During an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Moscow’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin defended the right of Crimea, which is predominantly ethnic Russian, to decide whether or not to join the Russian Federation.

Russia’s military intervention followed the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov will meet at the US ambassador’s residence in central London.

It appears John Kerry will try to persuade Russia that it risks paying a heavy price in political and economic damage from American and European measures which could be triggered by Sunday’s referendum.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing for key talks on Ukraine in London

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing for key talks on Ukraine in London (photo Reuters)

“If there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here [in Washington] with respect to the options that are available to us,” he said before arriving in London on Friday.

While John Kerry seems to think the referendum itself may be all but unstoppable, he insists that it is what Russia does after that vote which counts – and Ukraine’s territorial integrity must not be permanently violated.

The talks are the last opportunity for face-to-face dialogue at such a senior level before the likely vote in Crimea, our correspondent says, which could determine whether what happens next edges Ukraine away from, or deeper into, a dangerous crisis.

John Kerry told lawmakers before his departure to London that the US was not eager to impose further sanctions on Russia.

“Our choice is not to be put in the position of having to do that. Our choice is to have a respect for the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.

The secretary of state said that he had spoken again by telephone with Sergei Lavrov on Thursday ahead of their Friday meeting, and that he and his Russian counterpart had been in almost daily contact over the past two weeks.

John Kerry has hinted at a possible compromise to the crisis by which the Ukrainian parliament would allow Crimea to hold a referendum on self-determination.

“The constitution of Ukraine requires that any effort by any entity within Ukraine to secede be done through the constitutional process,” John Kerry said.

He said that at the moment Russia did not “have the assets… necessary to be able to march in and take over Ukraine”, although he conceded that could change in future.

But correspondents say that the signs are not good for Friday’s talks, as both men have clashed in recent weeks and failed to agree on a number of US proposals.

Russia has refused to recognize the interim leadership that took over in Kiev with Viktor Yanukovych’s departure or participate in a contact group aimed at bringing the two countries together for talks.

In his appearance before the UN on Thursday, Vitaly Churkin said that it was Kiev that was “splitting its country into two parts”, not Moscow.

The referendum in Crimea, he said, had come about because of a “legal vacuum” in the country, and questioned why Crimeans should not be “afforded the opportunity” to decide on their future.

Ukraine’s interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the UN Security Council that his country was a victim of Russian aggression, producing a copy of the UN Charter to make his point that Moscow was violating it and several other international treaties.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia that any moves to annex Crimea would close the door to diplomacy.

John Kerry told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Crimea is part of Ukraine and Moscow should avoid military escalation.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has been discussing the deepening crisis with world leaders.

It comes as warning shots were fired as a team of international observers was turned back from entering Crimea.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that no-one was hurt in the incident at Armyansk.

John Kerry told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Crimea is part of Ukraine and Moscow should avoid military escalation

John Kerry told Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Crimea is part of Ukraine and Moscow should avoid military escalation (photo Reuters)

It was the third time the OSCE has been prevented from entering Crimea, now in the control of pro-Russian forces.

Moscow has been tightening its military grip on the Crimean peninsula, and the pro-Russian authorities there have called a March 16 referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

The exchange between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov came in a telephone conversation on Saturday, a US State Department official said.

“He [John Kerry] made clear that continued military escalation and provocation in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine, along with steps to annex Crimea to Russia would close any available space for diplomacy, and he urged utmost restraint,” the official said.

President Vladimir Putin has insisted he has the right to protect Russian interests and the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.

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Ukraine crisis was “created artificially for purely geopolitical reasons”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

Sergei Lavrov confirmed Russia had contacts with Ukraine’s interim government but said Kiev was beholden to the radical right.

Russia, he said, was open to further dialogue with the West if it was “honest and partner-like”.

Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said he saw hopeful signs Russia might engage in talks.

Sergei Lavrov confirmed Russia had contacts with Ukraine's interim government but said Kiev was beholden to the radical right

Sergei Lavrov confirmed Russia had contacts with Ukraine’s interim government but said Kiev was beholden to the radical right

“We have not sat and talked with Russians but we managed to send our message through intermediaries,” he said in Kiev.

“Russia’s position is not categorical, they are accepting this proposal and are considering it, so, there is some hope.”

He said it was too early to give more details of the proposal.

Ukraine’s Crimea region remains tense ahead of a self-declared referendum to be held on March 16 on whether to join the Russian Federation.

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Russia has warned the US not to take “hasty and reckless steps” in response to the crisis in Ukraine’s Crimea region.

In a phone call with Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said imposing sanctions on Moscow would harm the US.

Pro-Russian troops have been in control of Crimea for the last week.

Earlier, a stand-off involving pro-Russian soldiers at a Ukrainian military base outside Sevastopol reportedly ended without incident.

Crimea’s parliament announced on Thursday it would hold a referendum on March 16 on whether to join Russia or remain part of Ukraine.

In a phone call with John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov said imposing sanctions on Moscow would harm the US

In a phone call with John Kerry, Sergei Lavrov said imposing sanctions on Moscow would harm the US (photo Reuters)

Russia’s parliament has promised to support Crimea if it chooses to become part of Russia.

The vote has been denounced as “illegitimate” by the interim government in Kiev, which took power after President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia last month in the wake of mass protests against his government and deadly clashes with security forces.

In their telephone conversation on Friday, Sergei Lavrov warned John Kerry against taking “hasty and unthought-through steps capable of causing harm to Russian-US relations”, Russia’s foreign ministry reports.

Sergei Lavrov said imposing sanctions on Russia in response to its involvement in Ukraine “will inevitably have a boomerang effect against the US itself”.

The US State Department said John Kerry had “underscored the importance of finding a constructive way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which would address the interests of the people of Ukraine, Russia and the international community”.

“Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed to continue to consult in the days ahead on the way forward,” said the US statement.

The Pentagon estimates that 20,000 Russian troops may now be in Crimea, while the Ukrainian border guards’ commander puts the figure at 30,000.

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The foreign ministers from Russia, the US and key EU states are holding talks in Paris to try to resolve Ukraine crisis.

The US wants independent observers in the flashpoint region of Crimea and direct talks between Kiev and Moscow.

Russia was expected to call for greater representation for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking areas in the Kiev government.

The EU earlier offered 11 billionn euros ($15 billion) of aid to Ukraine and froze the assets of 18 Ukrainians.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the package of loans and grants over the next couple of years was “designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented government” in Kiev.

Russian soldiers at Sevastopol naval base in Ukraine

Russian soldiers at Sevastopol naval base in Ukraine (photo Itar-Tass)

Ukraine’s finance ministry has predicted it needs $35 billion to rescue the economy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met US Secretary of State John Kerry and counterparts from France, Germany and the UK on the sidelines of a long-planned conference on Lebanon in Paris.

NATO and Russia have been holding parallel talks in Brussels.

The Paris gathering is being seen above all as a chance to test the waters for a dialogue about Ukraine.

In the US, Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel announced plans to expand US military co-operation with Poland and Baltic states.

Chuck Hagel said the US would step up joint aviation training with Poland, and increase its participation in NATO’s mission to police the air space of Baltic countries.

The announcement was a direct response to concerns raised last week by Poland, he said.

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Russia and the US are due to hold crucial talks to try to ease tensions over the Ukraine crisis.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to meet on the sidelines of a long-planned conference on Lebanon in Paris.

The US accuses Moscow of deploying troops in Ukraine’s Crimea region, describing it as an “act of aggression” – a claim denied by the Kremlin.

Despite the sharp differences, both sides have hinted they would prefer to start a dialogue.

Moscow remains in de facto control of Ukraine’s southern autonomous region.

The tense stand-off continued overnight in Crimea, with reports that Russian forces have seized part of a Ukrainian missile defense unit.

In Donetsk, east of Ukraine, the regional government building has been evacuated and the area cordoned off amid unconfirmed reports of a bomb scare.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to meet on the sidelines of a long-planned conference on Lebanon in Paris

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are expected to meet on the sidelines of a long-planned conference on Lebanon in Paris

Earlier this week tensions escalated over Russia’s warnings that it could move beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine to protect Russians and Russian-speakers there.

The move has triggered wide condemnation across the globe.

Meanwhile, NATO and Russia will hold talks in Brussels.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier said Russia continued to “violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss his plan to de-escalate the crisis, White House officials said.

They said Barack Obama’s offer to Moscow envisaged the return of the Russian troops in Crimea back to the bases of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the peninsula.

The plan – which Barack Obama discussed with President Vladimir Putin on Saturday – also calls for sending a group of international monitors to Ukraine to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians are protected.

And it encourages a direct dialogue between the government in Kiev and Moscow.

The Kremlin has so far not publicly commented on the offer.

Both President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov have said they want to see a government of national unity in Ukraine, with more representation for the Russian-speaking population in the east of the country.

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The UN has unanimously voted to adopt a binding resolution on ridding Syria of chemical weapons.

At a session in New York, the 15-member Security Council backed the draft document agreed earlier by Russia and the US.

The deal breaks a two-and-a-half year deadlock in the UN over Syria, where fighting between government forces and rebels rages on.

The vote came after the international chemical watchdog agreed on a plan to destroy Syria’s stockpile by mid-2014.

Speaking after the vote in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the decision as “historic”.

“Tonight the international community has delivered.”

Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government to implement the resolution “faithfully and without delay”, and also announced a tentative date of mid-November for a new peace conference in Geneva.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the UN demonstrated that “diplomacy can be so powerful that it can peacefully defuse the worst weapons of war”.

John Kerry said the resolution would for the first time seek to eliminate entirely a nation’s chemical weapons capability.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also hailed the move, saying Moscow “war ready to take part in all operations” in Syria.

The UN has unanimously voted to adopt a binding resolution on ridding Syria of chemical weapons

The UN has unanimously voted to adopt a binding resolution on ridding Syria of chemical weapons

However, he stressed that the success of international efforts was “not only on Damascus’ shoulders” and that Syrian opposition must co-operate.

The UN resolution condemns the use of chemical weapons but does not attribute blame.

The text has two legally binding demands: that Syria abandons its weapons stockpile and that the chemical weapons experts be given unfettered access.

Although the draft refers to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the use of military force, a second resolution authorizing such a move would be needed.

President Barack Obama earlier said agreement on the issue by council members would be a “potentially huge victory for the international community”.

Previous attempts at a resolution stumbled amid disagreements between Russia and the US on how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

The US – backed by France and the UK – had pushed for a resolution carrying the threat of military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces. Russia had opposed this.

Reacting to the vote, Syria’s UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said the resolution covered most of Damascus’ concerns.

But he stressed that countries supporting Syrian rebels should also abide by the adopted document.

The UN vote came just hours after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) adopted what it called “a historic decision on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons”.

In a statement after a late-night meeting in The Hague, the watchdog said its executive council “agreed on an accelerated programme for achieving the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid-2014. The decision requires inspections in Syria to commence from 1 October 2013”.

“The decision also calls for ambitious milestones for destruction which will be set by the (executive) council by 15 November.”

OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said the move “sends an unmistakable message that the international community is coming together to work for peace in Syria”.

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A Syrian minister hails the US-Russia agreement on destroying the country’s chemical weapons as a “victory” that averts war.

The framework document says Syria must provide full details of its stockpile within a week – with the chemical arsenal eliminated by mid-2014.

If Syria fails to comply, the deal could be enforced by a UN resolution with the use of force as a last resort.

The US had threatened to attack Syria which it blames for a chemical attack in August which killed hundreds.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government denies the allegations and has accused the rebels of carrying out the attack.

Syria hails the US-Russia agreement on destroying the country's chemical weapons as a "victory" that averts war

Syria hails the US-Russia agreement on destroying the country’s chemical weapons as a “victory” that averts war

Syria recently agreed to join the global Chemical Weapons Convention, and the UN said it would come under the treaty from October 14.

The framework deal was announced on Saturday after three days of talks in Geneva by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“We welcome the agreement,” Syrian Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar told Russian news agency Ria Novosti, giving his country’s first reaction.

“On the one hand, it helps Syria come out of the crisis and, on the other, it helps avoid the war against Syria depriving those who wanted to launch it of arguments to do so,” Ali Haidar said.

“It’s a victory for Syria achieved thanks to our Russian friends.”

China, France, the UK, the UN, the Arab League and NATO have all expressed satisfaction at the agreement.

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Russia and the US have agreed in Geneva that Syria’s chemical weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014.

US Secretary of State John Kerry outlined a six-point framework under which Syria must hand over a full list of its stockpile within a week.

If Syria fails to comply, the deal could be enforced by a UN resolution backed by the threat of sanctions or military force.

The US says the Syrian regime killed hundreds in a gas attack last month.

Russia and the US have agreed in Geneva that Syria's chemical weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014

Russia and the US have agreed in Geneva that Syria’s chemical weapons must be destroyed or removed by mid-2014

The government of Bashar al-Assad denies the allegations and has accused the rebels of carrying out the attack.

In a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, John Kerry called on the Assad government to live up to its public commitments.

“There can be no room for games. Or anything less than full compliance by the Assad regime,” he said.

John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov said if Syria failed to comply, then a UN resolution would be sought under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which allows for the use of force.

The US Secretary of State said inspectors must be on the ground by November, and that the stockpiles should be removed or destroyed by mid-2014.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011. Millions of Syrians have been displaced.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has appeared on Russian TV to confirm that his country’s chemical weapons will be placed under international control.

Bashar al-Assad’s comments, to Rossiya 24, came as US and Russian foreign ministers prepared to meet in Geneva to discuss the plan, proposed by Russia earlier this week.

He insisted that the move was a result of the Russian initiative and not the threat of US military action.

The US accuses the Syrian regime of killing hundreds in a chemical attack.

Syrian government denies the allegation, blaming rebels for the attack in the Ghouta area of the capital, Damascus, on August 21.

Russia announced its proposal for dealing with the escalating chemical weapons crisis on Monday, as the US Congress was preparing to vote on whether to back President Barack Obama’s moves towards military action against Syria.

Bashar al-Assad has appeared on Russian TV to confirm that Syria's chemical weapons will be placed under international control

Bashar al-Assad has appeared on Russian TV to confirm that Syria’s chemical weapons will be placed under international control

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov outlined three main phases of the proposal:

  • Syria joins the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production and use of the weapons
  • Syria reveals where its chemical weapons are stored and gives details of its programme
  • Experts decide on the specific measures to be taken

In his interview, which has not yet been broadcast in full, Bashar al-Assad told state-run Rossiya 24: “Syria is placing its chemical weapons under international control because of Russia. The US threats did not influence the decision.”

He confirmed that Syria would send relevant documents to the UN “in the next few days” as part of the process of signing the chemical weapons convention.

Bashar al-Assad said Syria would then submit information on its chemical weapons one month after signing.

He also said that Russia’s proposal was “not unilateral”, adding: “Syria will accept it if America stops military threats and if other countries supplying the rebels with chemical weapons also abide by the agreement.”

Bashar al-Assad said only Russia could make the agreement happen as “Syria has neither contacts with, nor trust in, America”.

Sergei Lavrov – who is scheduled to meet US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the plan – said during a visit to Kazakhstan: “I am sure that there is a chance for peace in Syria. We cannot let it slip away.”

He did not mention the destruction of the weapons, which was part of Moscow’s original proposal but is thought to be a sticking point in negotiations with Damascus.

Before meeting Sergei Lavrov, John Kerry is holding talks with UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.

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Russia has handed over to the US its plans for making Syria’s chemical weapons safe, Russian media say.

Russia announced its plans for placing Syria’s stockpile under international control on Monday and Syria said it welcomed the initiative.

The proposal led US President Barack Obama to put military action against Syria on hold in favor of diplomacy.

Tense negotiations will now follow at the United Nations on the nature of any Security Council resolution.

The UN envoys of the permanent council members – the UK, US, France, China and Russia – will meet in New York later on Wednesday, diplomats say.

More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

Russia has handed over to the US its plans for making Syria's chemical weapons safe

Russia has handed over to the US its plans for making Syria’s chemical weapons safe

Russian news agencies quoted one Russian source as saying: “We handed over to the Americans a plan to place chemical weapons in Syria under international control. We expect to discuss it in Geneva.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are scheduled to meet in the Swiss city on Thursday to discuss the proposal.

One Russian source told the Itar-Tass news agency the meeting would be bilateral and not involve the UN.

The source added: “It appears that the meeting should start on Thursday and end on Friday, although it is not ruled out that it may last until Saturday.”

No further details of the proposal have been made public.

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Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed, in an attempt to avoid US military strikes.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the offer was made during talks with his Syrian counterpart, Walid Muallem.

Walid Muallem said he welcomed the initiative.

The US is threatening strikes accusing the Syrian regime of war crimes, though Damascus denies the claims.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Europe to garner support for the military action, has once again warned that taking no action is riskier than launching strikes.

When asked at a news conference whether there was anything Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid military action, John Kerry replied that he could hand over his entire stockpile of chemical weapons within the next week.

US officials subsequently clarified that John Kerry was making a “rhetorical argument” rather than a serious offer.

Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed

Russia has urged Syria to put its chemical weapons stockpiles under international control and then have them destroyed

However, Sergei Lavrov later said he had urged Walid Muallem during talks in Moscow to “not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on their subsequent destruction”.

Sergei Lavrov said he had also told Walid Muallem that Syria should then fully join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Walid Muallem told reporters through an interpreter that Syria welcomed the Russian initiative.

He praised Russia for “attempting to prevent American aggression against our people”.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the destruction of the weapons would be a “huge step forward”, but warned that it should not be used as a “distraction tactic”.

The Russians have been the main international ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout Syria’s two-and-a-half-year civil war.

Russia has blocked three resolutions against Syria in the UN Security Council, and has dismissed evidence linking Bashar al-Assad’s forces to a chemical attack in Damascus on August 21.

The US says Syrian government forces used poison gas to kill 1,429 people in the attack.

Bashar al-Assad’s government blames the attack on rebels fighting to overthrow him, in a conflict that the UN says has claimed some 100,000 lives.

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Vice-President Joe Biden has said the US has “no doubt” that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and that it must be held accountable.

The US has said its military is ready to launch strikes if President Barack Obama order an attack, and allies say they too are ready to act.

The Syrian government has strongly denied claims it used chemical weapons.

UN weapons inspectors are set to return to the site of last week’s suspected attack near Damascus on Wednesday.

Their evidence-gathering visit was delayed by a day after they were fired on.

The US says it will release its own intelligence report into the incident at Ghouta, a suburb of the capital, in the coming days.

More than 300 people reportedly died there.

President Barack Obama is said to have made at least 88 calls to foreign leaders since Wednesday’s suspected attack.

Vice-President Joe Biden has said the US has "no doubt" that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and that it must be held accountable

Vice-President Joe Biden has said the US has “no doubt” that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and that it must be held accountable

British PM David Cameron said the world could “not stand idly by”, and French President Francois Hollande said France was “ready to punish” whoever was behind the attack.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that “attempts at a military solution will lead only to the further destabilization” in Syria and the region.

Sergei Lavrov emphasised the need for a political solution in a phone call to the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, the foreign ministry in Moscow said.

Russia, China and Iran have previously warned against launching an attack on the war-ravaged country, where more than 100,000 people are thought to have died in two years of fighting.

Stocks have fallen on global markets and oil prices have shot up amid growing concern about an impending attack.

The US has not yet released its intelligence report into the alleged chemical attack, but US officials now say they are certain the Syrian government was behind the incident.

Joe Biden is the most senior member of the Obama administration to blame the Syrian government for the attack.

In a speech to a veterans’ group in Houston, he said there was “no doubt who was responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime”.

He said that “those who use chemical weapons against defenceless men, women, and children… must be held accountable”.

White House spokesman Jay Carney earlier said it would be “fanciful” to think anyone else could be responsible – saying the Syrian regime remained in control of the country’s chemical arsenal and used the type of rocket that carried the payload used last Wednesday.

But he insisted there were no plans for “regime change”. Any military campaign is likely to be limited in scope, with missile strikes targeting military sites and no ground troops.

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Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russia has had no involvement in the travel plans of fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden’s whereabouts are unclear after he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday. His US passport has been revoked.

Sergei Lavrov insisted Edward Snowden had not crossed the border and rejected what he termed US attempts to blame Russia for his disappearance.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the US did not seek “confrontation” but Russia should hand over Edward Snowden.

Correspondents say Sergei Lavrov’s comments suggest that Edward Snowden remained air-side after landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, and so has technically never entered Russian territory.

“We are in no way involved with either Mr. Snowden, his relations with US justice, nor to his movements around the world,” Sergei Lavrov said.

“He chose his itinerary on his own. We learnt about it… from the media. He has not crossed the Russian border.

“We consider the attempts to accuse the Russian side of violating US laws, and practically of involvement in a plot, to be absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”

Edward Snowden, 30, is wanted by the US for revealing to the media details of a secret government surveillance programme, which he obtained while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA).

Speaking during a visit to Saudi Arabia, John Kerry said the transfer of Edward Snowden was a matter of rule of law, and that Russia should remain “calm”.

Edward Snowden’s whereabouts are unclear after he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow

Edward Snowden’s whereabouts are unclear after he flew from Hong Kong to Moscow

Edward Snowden is charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence.

He has applied for asylum in Ecuador. The US has revoked his passport.

Reuters news agency quotes a Moscow airport source as saying that Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on Sunday afternoon and was due to depart for the Cuban capital, Havana, the following day, but did not use the ticket.

The source said he was travelling with Sarah Harrison, a British legal researcher working for the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

Meanwhile, China has also described US accusations that it facilitated the departure of fugitive Edward Snowden from Hong Kong as “groundless and unacceptable”.

A foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Hong Kong government had handled the former US intelligence officer’s case in accordance with the law.

The White House had criticized what it termed “a deliberate choice to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant”.

The Chinese government has expressed deep concern about Edward Snowden’s allegations that the US had hacked into networks in China.

Tuesday saw the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party praise Edward Snowden for “tearing off Washington’s sanctimonious mask”.

In a strongly worded front-page commentary, the overseas edition of the People’s Daily said: “Not only did the US authorities not give us an explanation and apology, it instead expressed dissatisfaction at the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region for handling things in accordance with law.

“In a sense, the United States has gone from a <<model of human rights>> to <<an eavesdropper on personal privacy>>, the <<manipulator>> of the centralized power over the international internet, and the mad <<invader>> of other countries’ networks.”

Speaking during a visit to India, US Secretary of State John Kerry said it would be “deeply troubling” if it became clear that China had “willfully” allowed him to fly out of Hong Kong.

“There would be without any question some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences,” he said.

He also called on Russia to “live by the standards of the law because that’s in the interests of everybody”.

Edward Snowden was in hiding in Hong Kong when his leaks were first published.

He is being supported by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, which said on Sunday that he was heading to Ecuador accompanied by some of its diplomats and legal advisers.

Ecuador is already giving political asylum at its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Edward Snowden’s leaks have led to revelations that the US is systematically seizing vast amounts of phone and web data under an NSA programme known as PRISM.

US officials have defended the practice of gathering telephone and internet data from private users around the world.

They say PRISM cannot be used to target intentionally any Americans or anyone in the US, and stress that it is supervised by judges.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called Azerbaijan’s failure to award any points to Russia’s entry in this year’s Eurovision song contest as “outrageous”.

Sergei Lavrov said the points had been “stolen” from Russia’s Dina Garipova and “this outrageous action will not remain without a response”.

Azerbaijan says it cannot explain how it awarded no points to Russia, when Dina Garipova came second in its phone poll.

Russian voters awarded the maximum 12 points to Azerbaijan’s Farid Mammadov.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has ordered an inquiry into how its votes for Russia apparently went missing.

And the country’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, sitting next to Sergei Lavrov at a press conference in Moscow, called it a “detective story”.

Elmar Mammadyarov said records from all three of Azerbaijan’s mobile phone operators show that Azeris awarded Ukraine’s entry the most votes, followed by Russia’s.

Azerbaijan says it cannot explain how it awarded no points to Russia, when Dina Garipova came second in its phone poll

Azerbaijan says it cannot explain how it awarded no points to Russia, when Dina Garipova came second in its phone poll

“Where did the votes go? How did they disappear? This, of course, is a question for our public television,” he said.

Sergei Lavrov said he and his counterpart had agreed they should take a “unified course of action” once the reasons for the discrepancy became clear.

A spokesman for the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the Eurovision Song Contest, said the phone vote was not definitive. A national jury in each country also contributes 50% of the final decision, the Associated Press reports.

Despite the high-level political interest, 10 points for second place from Azerbaijan would not have made any difference to Dina Garipova’s fifth place, since she finished 17 points behind Norway.

Azerbaijan, which hosted last year’s contest, has traditionally tried to maintain good relations with Moscow though there have been tensions over energy in the past.

Meanwhile, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, has weighed in with his own accusations. Suspicious that the Belarusian singer did not receive a single point from Russia, he has claimed that the final was falsified.

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Russia and the United States have agreed to work towards holding an international conference to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry announced it would follow on from an Action Group for Syria meeting in Geneva last June.

John Kerry said they would try to “bring both sides to the table”.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in the last two years by differences over Syria.

John Kerry held lengthy talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during his first visit to Moscow since becoming secretary of state.

John Kerry held lengthy talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during his first visit to Moscow since becoming secretary of state

John Kerry held lengthy talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during his first visit to Moscow since becoming secretary of state

He told Vladimir Putin that their two countries shared “some very significant common interests with respect to Syria”, including “stability in the region” and “not letting extremists create problems”.

“It is my hope that today we will be able to dig into that a little bit, and see if we can find common ground,” he added.

John Kerry then held further discussions with Sergei Lavrov, after which they jointly announced that they would try to organize an international conference on ending the conflict in Syria, if possible before the end of May.

It will try to convince both the Syrian government and opposition to accept a solution based on the core elements of the final communiqué issued on 30 June 2012, after the UN-backed Action Group for Syria meeting in Geneva.

The communiqué called for an immediate cessation of violence and the establishment of a transitional government that could include officials serving under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and members of the opposition.

“We believe that the Geneva communiqué is the important track to end the bloodshed in Syria,” John Kerry told a news conference.

He added that a negotiated settlement would help avert the danger of Syria breaking up and might influence Washington’s decision on whether or not to arm rebel groups.

Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow’s belief that the departure of President Bashar al-Assad should not be a condition for peace talks, but insisted he was not trying to keep him in power.

“We are not concerned by the fate of any individual. We are concerned by the fate of the Syrian people,” Sergei Lavrov said.

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