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Minsk Summit Opens as Ukraine Fighting Escalates, More Ferghana Valley Border Clashes

Plus, Albanian police launch another weed-killing campaign, and divers seek buried treasure under Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk Kul.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu and Anders Ryehauge 26 August 2014

1. Poroshenko, Putin in Minsk as Ukraine fighting spreads


Poroshenko_100Petro Poroshenko
Kyiv’s claim to have captured Russian troops on Ukrainian territory and reports of an artillery battle on a new front threatened to cast a pall over today’s EU-Russia summit in Minsk.


At press time it was not clear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet separately with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko. The two leaders have not encountered each other since June’s commemoration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, RIA-Novosti reports.


Both presidents were present at today’s meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.


There were hopes a peace deal or cease-fire could emerge from the event, which was originally meant to be a summit of leaders from the EU and the Eurasian Customs Union countries. Those hopes could be dimmed by what Ukraine calls Russia’s heightened presence on its eastern border, where separatist groups are engaged in a struggle against government forces.


Earlier today Ukraine released a video of what it said were captured Russian soldiers. On 25 August Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko rejected Moscow’s explanation that the 10 paratroopers had surrendered after crossing the border by accident, Reuters reports, saying they were carrying out a “special operation.”


Residents of a border town in the Donetsk region reported a “heavy artillery barrage” today. A report by the AP with a photo of heavy smoke rising from Novoazovsk on the Sea of Azov says it was the second day of attacks in the area, which so far has seen little fighting in the months-long war.


Ukrainian officials claimed a small column of Russian tanks and armored vehicles entered its territory north of the town 25 Monday. Lysenko accused Russia of trying to open a new front, according to the AP.


The government has enough personnel and equipment in the nearby city of Mariupol to defend it, Lysenko said. An AP reporter “saw excavators digging deep trenches Tuesday on the eastern edge of the city,” the side facing Novoazovsk.


2. Five civilians said hurt in latest Ferghana Valley border clash


Each side blames the other for the latest confrontation between border guards from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a disputed area in the Ferghana Valley, just weeks after the two governments agreed on measures to calm the situation.


The 25 August incident occurred on the border between the provinces of Batken, in Kyrgyzstan, and Soghd in Tajikistan. According to the Kyrgyzstani border service, their Tajikistani counterparts “tried to place a border checkpoint at state border section not agreed upon beforehand.” A group of Tajikistani civilians also attempted to destroy a bridge used by Kyrgyzstanis to cross the Gulkandoz River, Itar-TASS reports.


Tajikistan meanwhile blames the other side for resuming construction of the bridge, the news service reports in a later story. Five residents of the Tajikistani village of Ovcha-Kalacha were wounded, the Tajik National Security State Committee claimed. Tajikistan’s border guards said they did not return fire, although the Kyrgyzstani guards claimed mortar rounds were fired at them.


Kyrgyzstani forces opened fire when the villagers tried to prevent work on the bridge, the Tajikistan-based Asia-Plus news agency reports, citing a source in the Soghd provincial administration.


Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambaev today asked State Border Service head Raimberdi Duishenbiev to strengthen border protection, AKIPress reports.


After a series of recent incidents along the ill-defined borders in the Ferghana Valley, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan agreed in late July to carry out joint patrols and implement measures meant to avoid similar conflicts in the future.


3. Albanian police claim victory in major marijuana cull


Albanian police had destroyed more than 86,000 cannabis plants as of 25 August in a four-day operation as a marijuana extermination campaign moved into the north of the country, Balkan Insight reports. About 300 police and Interior Ministry special forces combed the rugged Dukagjin region, destroying hundreds of cannabis plots. Suspected drug traffickers reportedly fired on police in army helicopters 22 August on the first day of the operation.


This summer’s stepped-up drive against marijuana growers and traffickers is part of government policy to crack down on crime after winning EU candidate status in June. The European Commission has repeatedly warned Tirana it needs to deal with the issues of organized crime and lack of judicial independence.


In June, hundreds of police took control of Lazarat, in southern Albania. The large village became infamous as a police-free zone and the cannabis capital of the small country of 3 million. Domestic production and trafficking made Albania the main European marijuana supplier, according to international experts last year.


Police have destroyed more than 344,000 cannabis plants since the beginning of June, Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri wrote on his Facebook page 24 August, Balkan Insight writes. The previous day he promised to continue the operation in the north until all cannabis plants are destroyed, Albeu reports.


National police chief Artan Didi said last week police had made no arrests during the Dukagjin operation but had begun proceedings against some suspects, Xinhua reported.


Dukagjin_350A helicopter taking part in the operation is seen in this screen shot from an Albanian State Police video. Image from a video by Ministria Brendshme / YouTube


4. Fugitive Lithuanian banker granted asylum in Russia


Russia has granted asylum to Lithuanian banker Vladimir Romanov and will not extradite him to face embezzlement charges, AFP reports.


Vladimir Romanov
Romanov, the majority shareholder in Ukio bank, fled Lithuania last year after the central bank placed Ukio in administration. According to EurActiv, he is suspected of embezzling about 25 million euros ($33 million) from the bank. Russian authorities detained Romanov in Moscow in April but he was later released. He claims to be receiving treatment in Russia for a heart condition, the Baltic Times reports.


The bank and his investment company, Ukio Banko Investiciju Grupe, are in bankruptcy proceedings. Lithuania ended up paying out 230 million euros to Ukio depositors, EurActiv reports.


Romanov has invested in several high-profile sports teams, including the Scottish soccer team Hearts, which was sold by administrators in May.


“He has been a controversial figure in both Scotland and Lithuania, where he won the local version of the Dancing with the Stars TV show in 2007 and set up a political party that suffered a stinging defeat in 2012's general election,” AFP writes.


5. A Silk Road treasure site under water, not buried in sand


A team of Russian and Kyrgyzstani underwater archeologists has renewed the search for ancient cities and buried treasure on the bottom of Lake Issyk Kul in northeastern Kyrgyzstan.


The scholar-divers will conduct more research into a flooded settlement that they think existed for more than 3,000 years, team member Nikolay Lukashov told RIA Novosti. They will also search for a drowned monastery where some believe the Apostle Matthew was buried.


A previous expedition uncovered “sensational finds, including the discovery of major settlements, presently buried underwater,” Lukashov wrote for RIA Novosti in 2007. Divers found traces of a large city at depths of five to 10 meters (16 to 33 feet) near the north side of the lake, as well as Scythian burial mounds and other artifacts.


Issyk Kul, the second-largest mountain lake in the world and one of the deepest, “was renowned in historical documents as a strategic point along the Silk Road,” underwater archeologist Kristin Romey blogged from the base camp of a National Geographic expedition in 2012.


Traders, nomadic tribes, and armies left many traces behind them as they traversed the large east-west valley in which the 113-mile long lake lies, Romey notes. The valley was an important trade route between China and the Middle East.


“It’s an endorheic lake (meaning that it has no outlet) with abundant underwater springs, and the water level has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries, submerging settlements, buildings, and even entire cities that had been established on earlier shorelines,” Romey wrote.


Russian scholars began searching the lake floor in the 19th century, even sending divers down in primitive gear.


Some accounts say the Mongol leader Tamerlane built a palace on the north shore of the lake in the early 15th century, and while Russian and Soviet archeologists have found tantalizing artifacts of the right age, the search goes on for a fabulous Taj-Mahal-style palace beneath the lake’s waters, Romey wrote.


Lake Issyk KulLake Issyk Kul. Photo by Vmenkov / Wikimedia Commons

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern. 
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