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Plus, Moscow presses for a probe into the snipers who fired into Kyiv crowds and Bulgaria makes a DNA identification of one of the Burgas attackers.by Piers Lawson, Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Annabel Lau, Karlo Marinovic, and Lily Sieradzki 10 March 2014
Russian forces are laying landmines meant to cordon off Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, according to various sources.
Alexei Mazepa, the regional spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, told the Los Angeles Times that Russian forces are “setting up minefields across the narrow strip of land that connects Ukraine with Crimea” in what appears to be an attempt to prevent Ukrainian troops from entering the region.
Citing reports from the region’s media, TOL contributor Halya Coynash writes that troops have planted mines in the Kherson region on Ukraine’s mainland just north of Crimea.
Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms were seen planting land mines near the town of Chongar, which has a population of about 1,500 people. Journalists there report that while no soldiers have entered the town, they have established military camps close by, Coynash writes.
A school located close to the Russian outposts told parents to keep children at home last week.
Military equipment has been in place near the town since 27 February, according to Coynash.
Ukraine is a member of the UN convention banning anti-personnel landmines, while Russia is not.
Russia has also established checkpoints along the border between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine in order to strengthen its claim to the region, Bloomberg reports.
The de facto new border, along with control over the Kerch strait, could effectively allow Russia to maintain direct supply routes with Crimea while isolating Ukraine.
Tensions also rose within Crimea over the weekend. On 8 March, warning shots were fired at international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, preventing them from entering Crimea for the third time.
There have also been reports of a Russian takeover at a border patrol base in Schelkino in eastern Ukraine near Kerch and a Russian takeover at an anti-aircraft base in Yevpatoria in Crimea, Haaretz reports.
On 7 March, three protesters were arrested for trying to block traffic in Sarajevo, an official with the city’s government told Balkan Insight.
The day before, about 100 demonstrators had protested poor living conditions by blocking traffic in the city, according to the news agency. They are frustrated with the country’s endemic poverty, high unemployment, and fractured, corrupt, and inefficient governance.
After being prevented from blocking the main intersection, protesters walked to the U.S. Embassy to meet with an official from USAID who has been supporting them.
After the first round of violent protests in February, citizens’ assemblies were formed in some cities and some top municipal officials resigned. In a statement, the Sarajevo assembly said last week those former officials were "trying to discredit the protests and undermine civic will power,” by saying the protests endangered freedom of movement and basic rights.
The assemblies are demanding more resignations and the formation of new local governments made up of experts to address unemployment and corruption.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is calling for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to investigate who was responsible for the sniping that killed dozens of protesters and about 15 police officers during protests in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, last month, AFP reports.
The Estonian Foreign Ministry has confirmed that the 26 February call, in which Paet told Ashton that a doctor and activist helping the wounded said “the same snipers” were shooting people from “both sides," is authentic, according to AFP.
The 11-minute conversation has been posted on YouTube.
In the call, Paet says, “there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.”
Paet says, “It’s really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don’t want to investigate what exactly happened.” To which Ashton replies, “I think they do want to investigate. I didn’t pick that up.”
This is the second diplomatic conversation over the Ukraine crisis that has been leaked. Last month a conversation between U.S. State Department official Victoria Nuland was released in which she could be heard expressing frustration over Europe’s “hesitant policy” toward the pro-democracy protests, the Guardian notes.
Lavrov said Russia has proposed that the OSCE “take up an objective investigation of this and we will ensure there is justice.”
"There have been too many lies, and this lie has been used too long to push European public opinion in the wrong direction, contrary to the objective facts," he told reporters, according to AFP.
Western states have blamed police under the Yanukovych government for much of the bloodshed, but Russia is allegedly using the leaked phone call to pin the new post-Yanukovych government as “dangerous extremists,” AFP writes.
The call was allegedly leaked by the pro-Yanukovych Security Service of Ukraine, which hacked the phones of both parties, Russian-government-owned RT reports.
Police in Bulgaria have found DNA evidence of one of the Hezbollah members who carried out a bus bombing in July 2012 that killed six people including five Israeli tourists in the Black Sea resort of Burgas, the Bulgarian Novinite news agency reports.
Citing reports from a Bulgarian newspaper, Novinite says the DNA is that of Lebanese-born Canadian Hassan El Hajj Hassan, who handled logistics for the attack.
Novinite says Hassan arrived in Bulgaria in June 2012 and was responsible for remotely detonating the suicide bomber’s backpack – containing 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of explosives and two small gas cylinders – the following month. The bomber died at the scene.
Hassan’s DNA was discovered on two baseball caps and a towel he left behind in a hotel room close to the scene of the attack in the resort city of Nesebar, where he stayed prior to the bombing, according to Novinite.
In February 2013, Bulgarian officials said they had found evidence of Hezbollah involvement in the attack, but U.S. and Israeli officials had already suspected the Shiite militant group.
“Israel has always blamed Hezbollah – and Iran – for the bombing,” the BBC noted in February 2013. “Iran has steadfastly denied any involvement, while Hezbollah has made no comment.”
Investigators immediately focused on the possibility of a suicide bombing based on evidence that included the presumed bomber’s head being found at the scene. They later came to suspect the explosive was detonated remotely or accidentally, the BBC reported.
Bulgarian authorities quoted by The Jerusalem Post in February said a third suspect has been identified in the crime.
Sotir Tsatsarov, Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor, said the identification meant the investigation into the bombing would need to be extended and “there will be new requests for legal help from abroad,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
The tourists had just arrived in Bulgaria on a flight from Israel and were in the airport parking lot when the bomb tore through their bus.
Ukraine’s energy minister has warned of a possible increase in the price of gas imported from Russia after Gazprom threatened to halt supplies because of unpaid bills.
Fuel and Energy Minister Yuri Prodan expects Russia to raise the price of its gas supplies to $368.50 per 1,000 cubic meters in the second quarter of this year, canceling the discounted price of $268.50 agreed with former president Viktor Yanukovych in December, Reuters reports.
Prodan's warning comes two days after Alexei Miller, the chief executive of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy giant, threatened to halt gas supplies to Ukraine because of unpaid bills worth about $1.9 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.
“Either Ukraine redeems its debt and pays for the current deliveries, or we risk returning to the situation we had at the beginning of 2009,” Miller said of the year when unpaid bills prompted the company to switch off the supplies to Ukraine and by extension reduce supplies to Europe, the newspaper reports.
Ukraine gets 70 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia, importing 30 billion to 40 billion cubic meters per day, according to The Wall Street Journal. The supply serves as a link between Russia to other European countries, including the so-called Visegrad Group – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic.
Following the energy issue in Ukraine, the four countries have appealed to U.S. officials to speed up the process of licensing gas exports to Europe and offset a possible reduction of Russian gas supplies, Fox news reports.
The appeal, however, is not expected immediately to solve the crisis, as it would take until the end of 2015 for the American gas to be delivered even if the licenses are granted.
Should Russia cuts supplies to Ukraine, European officials announced plans to reverse the flow of gas from downstream customers back to Ukraine, which could supply the country with 5 billion cubic meters a day, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Gazprom's threat comes as the parliament of Crimea – the Ukrainian peninsula recently occupied by Russian troops – voted to secede from Ukraine in favor of Russia and announced a referendum on the issue for 16 March.