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Ukrainian Troops Close in on Rebel Stronghold, Armenian Villager Dies in Azerbaijan Custody

Plus, Russia is suspected in a Ukraine cyber attack and a Romanian media mogul is headed to prison. 

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Anders Ryehauge 11 August 2014

1. Kyiv says military tightening stranglehold on Donetsk 


Ukrainian military officials say government forces are closing in on Donetsk and have cut if off from Luhansk, the other remaining rebel-held city in the country’s east, the Guardian reports.


“We are working for liberating both towns but it’s better to liberate Donetsk first – it is more important," military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said today.


That confident appraisal comes two days after Ukrainian troops surrounded Donetsk and separatist leaders called for a truce to avoid what they called a “humanitarian catastrophe,” citing shortages of water, electricity, food, and medicine, the Los Angeles Times reports.


Government forces mounted their most intense bombardment of the rebel capital, using artillery and “ground-to-ground” rockets, according to The New York Times, which reports that the civilian death toll is rising after inadvertent strikes on a hospital and at least one residential area.


Also hit was a maximum-security prison, where one inmate died as a result and about 100 others escaped, the Associated Press writes. Among those who fled were convicted murderers, robbers, and rapists, the news agency reports.


Before the fighting Donetsk had a population of 1 million, many of whom have fled. Over the weekend residents reported seeing separatist fighters changing into civilian clothes and leaving the city as government forces pressed the attack.


Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials said they had turned back to Russia a “military-escorted convoy said to be carrying humanitarian assistance for the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk,” according to the Los Angeles Times.


An aide to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the convoy had attempted to get through late on 8 August and had “intimated that the relief was being organized through the International Committee of the Red Cross.” The aide said that the Red Cross “denied involvement when contacted by Kyiv officials,” according to the newspaper.


Western leaders have warned Russia that sending in such convoys without the approval of Ukraine’s government would be considered an invasion. The Kremlin denied the mission was military in nature.


2. Armenia questions Baku’s account of villager’s death 


An Armenian man who was taken into custody by the Azerbaijani military on 7 August died the following day under disputed circumstances, Radio Free Europe’s Armenian service reports.


According to Baku, Karen Petrosian had been the only survivor of a five-person commando squad “that tried unsuccessfully to conduct a cross-border sabotage attack.” Azerbaijan’s military claims to have killed the other four members but says Petrosian died the following day of “acute heart and lung failure.”


Armenian officials say Petrosian, a resident of the border village of Chinari in the country’s northeast, inadvertently wandered into Azerbaijan. A government commission said Petrosian, whom Armenian media reported was 31 years old, did not suffer from heart disease and demanded that an international autopsy be conducted, RFE reports.


“He went into the forest to collect firewood but lost his way,” Chinari Mayor Samvel Saghoyan told RFE last week. “We searched that area. His donkey was found but he wasn’t.” A spokesman for Armenia’s military said Petrosian might have been drinking before he crossed the border.


Earlier reports from Baku had said Petrosian was captured by civilians in an Azerbaijani border town and handed over to the military, but the military later denied that account.


Armenia and Azerbaijan are at war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijan. A ceasefire has been in place since 1994, but it is frequently broken and hostilities have flared this summer. The two countries’ presidents were in Sochi this weekend meeting under the auspices of Russian President Vladimir Putin.


An elderly Armenian man who was captured in Azerbaijan earlier this year died in May, two month after his release. As with Petrosian, Azerbaijani officials said 77-year-old Mamikon Khojoyan, who was caught after crossing the border in late January, was part of an Armenian commando group. His family said he died after receiving treatment for serious injuries suffered while in captivity.


3. Security experts see Moscow’s hand in massive ‘Snake’ cyber attack 


Earlier this year, when some employees of the Ukrainian government and the diplomatic missions of other countries updated their Shockwave players, they were apparently opening the door to a large and sophisticated cyber attack that security analysts believe has been orchestrated by the Russian government, The Financial Times reported last week.


“[Sixty] computers in ‘the office of the prime minister of a former Soviet Union member country’ were infected with Snake in a campaign that began in May 2012. It is still ongoing,” the FT writes, citing a report by online security firm Symantec and referring to malware that analysts had told the newspaper was likely used by hackers linked to the Russian government.


“Analysis then indicated that Ukraine was the likely primary target of Snake – an operation of a sophistication and dexterity that experts believed could only be executed by an extremely well-resourced, state-backed group controlled by a military or intelligence authority,” the newspaper reports.


Hackers first gained access to the computers by infecting some prominent websites visited by the targeted group of people, who were prompted at those sites to upgrade their Shockwave players. Afterward, their details were collected and the most valuable victims were chosen according to their IP addresses.


“This then allowed for a specific and targeted deployment of the full Snake malware package solely to those whose computer systems contained the most sensitive and valuable information,” according to the FT.


The hackers have also gained access to “sensitive diplomatic information” by targeting computers in at least nine embassies in Eastern Europe, including those of Germany, China, Poland, and Belgium, the newspaper reports.


Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but a UK parliamentary committee warned late last month that NATO was unprepared for an attack by Russia on a member state – an attack it said was more likely to involve cyber warfare or the arming of irregular militias, the BBC reported.


In 2007, business and government computers in Estonia were hit by a cyber attack after the government transported a World War II memorial to a Red Army soldier to a less prominent spot in Tallinn. The move spurred riots by members of Estonia’s Russian minority and protests from the Kremlin. Estonian officials blamed Moscow for the cyber attack but NATO and EU investigators “were unable to find credible evidence” to support those claims, according to a 2011 Journal of Strategic Studies (pdf).


4. Property case yields jail term for Romanian mogul and politician 


An influential Romanian media mogul was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement in the privatization of the government’s Food Research Institute (ICA).


Dan Voiculescu
In addition to time behind bars, Dan Voiculescu will have several of his properties seized, reports, and the government will confiscate 5.8 million lei ($1.7 million) from his daughters, who have been running the family’s businesses since 2001.


Voiculescu’s conviction on charges of influence peddling and money laundering stem from a case first brought in 2008 after his purchase of residential land in Bucharest belonging to the ICA for a fraction of its value, Romanian news channel Digi24 reports. Prosecutors estimated the loss to the government at 60 million euros ($80 million).


Voiculescu made his fortune, estimated at around $350 million, as owner of Romania’s second-largest media group, Intact. He also led the small Conservative Party. His nomination for the post of deputy prime minister in 2006 was nixed after his past as a collaborator with Romania’s communist-era intelligence service came to light.


The 10-year term handed down by the Bucharest Appeals Court comes after a lengthy court battle, during which Voiculescu was given five years in prison by the same court but appealed the sentence.


Voiculescu is a candidate in November’s presidential election. Several lawmakers from the opposition National Liberal Party have urged parliament to reject a pending amnesty bill that would apply to him if he wins, Digi24 reports.


5. Russian activists take a beating while ‘daching’ 

About 15 Russian anti-corruption campaigners say they were beaten on public land last week after they walked near a mansion linked to Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin, The Moscow Times reports.


The incident, which took place in Akulinino outside Moscow, is part of a campaign to draw attention to lavish second homes of officials that should be unaffordable on a public-sector salary and are often built on public land, according to the newspaper.


The Black Sea palace allegedly being built for Vladimir Putin. Photo from the Facebook page of Environment Watch on North Caucasus.


The activists offer tours of the public lands where the properties sit, a tactic they call “daching,” after the Russian word for cottage. They are often met with beatings by hired security guards or arrests.


Members of the White Ribbon anti-corruption group began daching in 2010 in Ozero, a community near St. Petersburg that hosts the second homes of members of the top echelons of Russian government and business, including President Vladimir Putin. Those protests elicited little official reaction.


It was a different story when environmentalists began daching in early 2011 on the Black Sea coast. One activist fled Russia and another was imprisoned for three years earlier this year after trying to bring to light what they said was the illegal construction of mansions on protected land, The Moscow Times notes.


In addition, four people were convicted last year of fraud after they attempted to expose mansions built on protected land, allegedly for Putin and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Activists vow to press on. Georgy Alburov, a daching devotee, is planning another expedition in late August.


Russia’s leaders have repeatedly cited the fight against corruption as a priority but opted out of a provision in the UN Convention Against Corruption that requires officials to be able to demonstrate that they came by their property legally when it ratified the convention in 2006, according to The Moscow Times.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern. 
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